have walnuts in their pockets

A footnote, perhaps the best part of a book that, at least on first reading, like the walnut, yielded little for great effort. This footnote is so beautiful that I may stipulate that I am to be buried with a walnut in the pocket of my favourite Italian cotton trousers.

One day, during the war, I was asked to find an empty strip of land on the plateau de Valensole where Allied planes in difficulty could land. I find a large field that fits the bill but there’s a magnificent three-hundred-year-old walnut tree in the middle of it. The owner of the field was willing to rent it to me, but stubbornly refused to cut down the beautiful tree. I eventually told him why we needed the land, whereupon he agreed. We start clearing the soil around the base of the tree; we follow the taproot . . . . At the end of the root, we find the bones of a knight buried in his armour. The man must have been a medieval knight . . . and he had a walnut in his pocket when he was killed, for the base of the taproot was exactly level with his thigh-bone. The walnut three had sprouted in the grave.

Quoted in Paul Veyne, René Char en see poèmes. Footnote from René Char, Hypnos (Seagull Books, 2014)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

The Insufficiency of Literature

Consciousness as given can never wholly constitute itself in art but must strain to transform its own boundaries and to alter the boundaries of art. Thus, any single “work” has a dual status. It is both a unique and specific and already enacted literary gesture, and a meta-literary declaration (often strident, sometimes ironic) about the insufficiency of literature with respect to an ideal condition of consciousness and art. Consciousness conceived of as a project creates a standard that inevitably condemns the “work” to be incomplete. On the model of heroic consciousness that aims at nothing less than total self-appropriation, literature will aim at the “total book.” Measured against the idea of the total book, all writing, in practise, consists of fragments.The standard of beginnings, middles, and ends no longer applies. Incompleteness becomes the reigning modality of art and thought, giving rise to anti-genres-work that is deliberately fragmentary or self-cancelling, thought that undoes itself. But the successful overthrow of old standards does not require denying the failure of such art. As Cocteau says, “the only work which succeeds is that which fails.”

Susan Sontag – Approaching Artaud (1972)

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.