Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

Middlemarch Thoughts

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Everyman’s Library, 1991 (1930); Pelikan M800 Blue-striped (Robert Oster Summer Storm ink); Darkstar Collection Notebook

“We learn to read Middlemarch in the probing light of James’ treatment; we then return to The Portrait of a Lady and come to recognise the transformative inflections of its source.”

It is an idea of Steiner’s that I like, his contention that we can think of a reversal in chronology, in that we understand Eliot’s earlier novel better through the reading of the latter. As Christopher J. Knight writes in Uncommon Readers, “James reads Middlemarch, and then writes The Portrait of a Lady. Is the James novel art or criticism? In Real Presences, Steiner contends that it is both.”

In an early review, Edith Simcox described Middlemarch as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’; George Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. So, it seems only natural to finish Balzac’s Père Goriot and then read Middlemarch, followed perhaps by The Portrait of a Lady.

Middlemarch is, of course, fascinating and steeped in Eliot’s profound knowledge of European literature and culture. Her passion of the mind is clear, and I like the book’s intensity and seriousness. You can find in Miriam Henderson, the central character in Richardson’s Pilgrimage much in common with Eliot’s Dorothea, that awareness of the impossibility of knowing what is ‘other’, nor even ourselves completely, subject as we are to the lure of imagined states and compelling metaphors.

Dorothea also suggests Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito and the Imagination (so beautifully translated by Alissa Valles). It is a favourite poem that is never far from my mind.

“he longed to understand fully

-Pascal’s night
-the nature of a diamond
-the prophets’ melancholy
-the wrath of Achilles
-the fury of mass murderers
-the dreams of Mary Stuart
-the fear of Neanderthals
-the last Aztecs’ despair
-Nietzsche’s long dying
-the Lascaux painter’s joy
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome”

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

My Year in Reading: 2017

Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)

Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.

My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.

Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.

My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).

It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.

Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.

Virginia Woolf’s Flâneuse, Street Haunting

Today, Street Haunting from The Death of the Moth and other essays, an essay of Virginia Woolf’s that I hadn’t read before, written in 1927 and published two years after Mrs. Dalloway. This is Woolf’s flâneur, or perhaps flâneuse.

Woolf’s narrator also recalls Dorothy Richardson’s London, the shared freedom of Woolf’s narrator and Richardson’s Miriam Henderson to walk the streets of London and feel their connectedness to other inhabitants of the city.

A fragment, my favourite perhaps, of the essay. The whole text can be found here.

“But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.”

Not Small After All

“Then there could be no doubt that as a novelist [Mary Carmichael] enjoyed some natural advantages of a high order. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free. It responded to an almost imperceptible touch on it. It feasted like a plant newly stood in the air on every sight and sound that came its way. It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all. It brought buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them. Awkward though she was and with the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”

A passage from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I reread as preparation for a first reading of Three Guineas. (The picture above, incidentally, is, sadly, not of my edition. If you have a spare £20,000 a complete set of Virginia Woolf first editions could be yours, which seems a far better use of such a sum than a reasonably smart car, or desert island holiday.)

It doesn’t need me to point out how incisive is Woolf’s dissection of women’s inequity, but in the twenty years since I last read A Room of One’s Own, I had forgotten how elegant and witty her exposition. The passage above sums up so many of the qualities I enjoy in a writer, Dorothy Richardson comes closest to mind. Reading this essay again makes me wish to reread Woolf, and to read, like Three Guineas, some of the work I’ve missed.

The Power of Sentences

Sometimes I think Pilgrimage changed my way of reading. Or maybe my way of thinking. Perhaps both. I’ve always read slowly, meditatively, but this tendency has intensified of late. Maybe it’s age, or the coming of autumn.

This week I’ve been reading Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire and dwelling on its sentences, allowing their meaning to flow, layers of meaning emerging from her sentences on a first reading, and differently on the second, when the drum beat of newness is decreased. Her book already feels like a friend that I don’t wish to leave anytime soon. What strikes me most about Panthers and the Museum of Fire is the way Jen Craig uses sinuous, snakelike sentences to slow down and complicate the reading experience.

I like to think that Dorothy Richardson taught me how to read her prose, and in doing so made me a participant in the creation of prospect and meaning, with a satisfying double awareness, of not only the places her writing can take me, but also of the extraordinary artistry and integrity of the language that takes me there.

That Retiring Figure

It is the richness of character development that is the genius of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I know of no other fictional character than Miriam Henderson where a reader participates so fully in their psychological development. The expansiveness of the narrative allows room for Richardson to enrich her character but it is more than the length of the work that allows this exceptional amount of character development.

It isn’t unusual in modern fiction for a writer to elevate deep character development over plot, nor for narrative complexity to be used to advance development of character, but by constraining a reader’s viewpoint so narrowly through Miriam Henderson’s interior, a reader is compelled to frequently alter one’s narrative expectations as they see her character reflected and shaped by and through her complex social network. As Miriam Henderson’s character arc unfolds slowly before our eyes it is impossible not to think of how the certainties of our twenties become the uncertainties of middle age.

‘The old life and death struggle between conflicting ideas had died down. She could see the self who had lived so long upon that battle ground, far off; annoying, when thought of as suffered by others. But it was not without a pang that she looked back at that retiring figure. It had been, at least, with all its blindness, desperately sincere. She was growing worldly now, capable of concealments in the interest in social joys, worse, capable of assumed cynicism for the sake of advertising her readiness for larks she was not quite sure of wishing to share. And thought was still there, a guilty secret, quiet as a rule. Sometimes inconveniently obtrusive at moments when she wished to approximate to the approved pattern of charming femininity.’

I’ve finished The Trap, after taking a little time to read Gloria G. Fromm’s decent Dorothy Richardson biography, and so begin the final volume in the Dent|Cresset edition of Pilgrimage.

The gradual socialisation of the male

“But the blaze of light [Mrs Stetson] brings is by showing that women were social from the first and that all history has been the gradual socialisation of the male. It is partly complete. But the male world is still savage.”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (Revolving Lights)

“But not until this giant force could ally itself with others and work cooperatively, overcoming the destructive action of male energy in its blind competition, could our human life enter upon its full course of racial evolution. This is what was accomplished through the suppression of the free action of maternal energy in the female and its irresistible expression through the male. The two forces were combined, and he was the active factor in their manifestation. It was one of nature’s calm, unsmiling miracles, no more wonderful than where she makes the guileless, greedy bee, who thinks he is merely getting his dinner, serve as an agent of reproduction to countless flowers. The bee might resent it if he knew what office he performed, and that his dinner was only there that he might fulfil that office. The subjection of woman has involved to an enormous degree the maternalising of man. Under its bonds he has been forced into new functions, impossible to male energy alone. He has had to learn to love and care for some one besides himself. He has had to learn to work, to serve, to be human. Through the sex-passion, mightily overgrown, the human race has been led and driven up the long, steep path of progress, over all obstacles, through all the dangers, carrying its accompanying conditions of disease and sin (and surmounting them), up and up in spite of it all, until at last a degree of evolution is reached in which the extension of human service and human love makes possible a better way.”

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, Women and Economics

Richardson’s In-Between Spaces

It isn’t so easy to find words for a concentrated sort of illumination that comes from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sense as one progresses through the book that one is learning to read her work, and, in turn, understanding something new about others and oneself.

That Kübler-Ross model, much criticised today, the notion of stage theories of grief, superseded by this idea that we live in a state of middle knowledge, not really truly living but unable to acknowledge the reality of death. An absence of certainty: is reality socially constructed, or objective? Richardson teaches us that it is both, that women intuit these in-between spaces more readily than men.

In a fascinating essay Tim Parks writes that novels may “open our eyes to different worlds of feeling from our own”. Richardson, more than any other writer I’ve read, articulates a part of life that escapes and exists unnamed. For obvious reasons, it isn’t always clear but she is writing of in-between spaces, a world where science and language are incomplete. In Pilgrimage, she is mapping a shadowy geography of interstices that defy our certainties and that shelter life left out from a more open and sunlit terrain.