A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

First We Write, Then We Fail

Plato Watching Socrates Read. From Prognostica Socratis Basilei by Matthew Parris

  1. “Any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of men’s ill-will by committing it to writing.” Plato, Seventh Letter
  2. “Until writing, most kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought”. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology
  3. “Writing is in no way an instrument for communication, it is not an open route through which there passes only the intention to speak.” Barthes, Writing Degree Zero
  4. “Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in.” Richard Young and Patricia Sullivan, Why Write?
  5. “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.” Foucault, Interview with Claude Bonnefoy
  6. “Every bit of writing is imagined as mass which occupies space. It is the duty of writing, therefore, to admit no other, to keep all other writing out.” Edward Said, Beginnings
  7. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” Derrida, Writing and Difference
  8. “Endings then, are faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” Frank Kermode, “Sensing Endings
  9. “. . . I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence, I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fail.” Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.