Sunday Notes

In 100 Days, Gabriel Josipovici, approaching his eightieth year, writes of trying to resist his innate sense of immortality, to be able to approach the inevitability of death with equanimity. It is, I suppose, the only way to contemplate the fact of death, our conspiracy to keep it unconscious a first and necessary line of defence.

Today, prompted by reading Karl One Knausgaard’s The Morning Star, I consulted the tables of life expectancy in England. Unless I get seriously ill or die in an accident I will experience roughly twenty-five more birthdays. Time enough maybe for another couple of thousand books though I do sometimes wonder what I miss when huddled in a fortress of literature. The Morning Star is infuriating and compelling in equal part. It ends with an extraordinary essay that gave me a sense that I should read the whole book again after carefully rereading the essay. I looked up some reviews and learnt that it may have been added as an afterthought and that The Morning Star is the first of a series.

In his novel, Knausgaard refers to a three-volume treatise on death, The Realm of the Dead: A World History, by Olav O. Aukrust. If it exists, it is not translated into English. It is a sufficiently compelling area of study for me to turn to online sources to order Philippe Aries’ The Hour of Our Death, recommended by Daniel, Thomas Laquer’s well-reviewed The Work of the Dead, and successfully look for my unread copy of Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead (thanks, Steve).

This week I bought Bruce Kirmmse’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and his earlier translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, both also prompted by The Morning Star. In London I also picked up a copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World (primarily for the poem Museum of Stones, but there are several others of interest), Peter Handke’s newly translated essay collection: Quiet Places, and a second-hand copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Sunday Notes

One of the lessons learned late in my reading life is to think in terms of not writers but books. By instinct a collector, repeatedly have I read a fine book and immediately set about acquiring multiple earlier books by the same writer. With some, my fervour is rewarded, watching a writer’s work become more concentrated over time. Clarice Lispector or Samuel Beckett are both writers that are improved by being read chronologically. With others, Iris Murdoch comes to mind, the early works serve to emphasise recurring foibles that detract, for this reader, from the body of work. Would that I had stopped at The Italian Girl. This lesson applies doubly for poets and poems.

My urge for collection building is balanced by a mid-life desire to travel more lightly, so I continue to thin out my library, discarding old books I will not reread, or whimsical purchases for which a momentary fascination has diminished. This week, laid low by a mild edition of coronavirus, my first, I took the opportunity of self-isolation to gather up a few bags for delivery, when I may once again do so, to my local book dealer.

Between sleeping, working and reading, I did, of course, order a few books while confined to my quarters: Philip Mann’s The Dandy at Dusk, Maria Michela Sassi’s The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something, and Clare Mac Cumhaill’s Metaphysical Animals. The latter two about Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch who all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s, follows a review in the LRB; the other two inspired by being mentioned on Twitter.

I finished two books this week: rereading Albert Camus’s The Outsider in Sandra Smith’s translation, and Marguerite Duras’s The Garden Square, an older translation, showing its age, by Sonia Pitt-Rivers and Irina Morduch. Both sustained earlier readings, unlike Coetzee’s Age of Iron, which I reread in part. The latter reads well as a study of South Africa’s apartheid ideology and how such power structures shape identity. Though there is much fine writing, there are no shortage of weary metaphors: have our two hearts, our organs of love, been tied for this brief while by a cord of sound? Or make of this what you will: Huge bull-testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them.

January: A Start

“The constant, fundamental underlying urge is surely to live more, to live a larger life.”

— Ludwig Hohl, The Notes

It is in the spirit of Montaigne that Ludwig Hohl writes in The Notes. You might call him a philosopher, but, if so, it is in that real sense that one uses philosophy to fashion a way of passing the world through your being. The Notes or On Non-premature Reconciliation will sustain me in the same way as Leopardi’s Zibaldone. Each one of us in our own medium, fearing that we may not be sufficient to our brief lives on the earth, that we might fail to embrace this life with enough joy, enough consciousness, with death closer than the nearest corner. This is Hohls’s project: to recognise the possibility of humanity. This edition is translated by Tess Lewis, razor-sharp imagery and language, reads like it isn’t a translation.

Also in this new year, Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anna Muhlstein. Come not for the bibliophilic fantasy of a weekend spent in Marcel’s well-appointed book-room, but to read Proust through the eyes of someone who knows the text deeply and intricately. Worth the time just to draw attention to the presence of Ruskin in Proust: “I don’t claim to know English. I claim to know Ruskin”.

Reading intentions – 2022

Such that they are. Readers that persist with this blog will detect that though my intentions  are good, my attentiveness to anything resembling a plan is not. There will be Ancient Greek and Roman literature in new translations (Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Seneca). I’ll be sampling Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and rereading Dostoevsky. I’d also like to get to Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Expect me to keep dipping into my favourite authors. The rest, as always, will be serendipitous wild reading.

Playing a Ghostly Part

Nadja, translated by Richard Howard. Such a beginning augurs a pyrotechnic display of style. The sentence is direct yet constrained. I am drawn in by its rhythmic effect, enhanced by the numerous minor vacillations. I will memorise these lines and play with them for a few days. I might even read on.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am. Hardly distorted in this sense the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me.

My Year in Reading: 2021

If any writer could be said to have exerted an influence on my reading this year, it would be Gabriel Josipovici. One influence does not preclude another and the claim might equally apply to Gerald Murnane or Friederike Mayröcker. The latter died, aged 96, this summer, but to share a time with such writers is a flaming beam during an otherwise wretched year. These are writers of subtlety, not stylists, nor meticulous crafters of the perfect sentence, though a very many of their sentences, to quote Nietzsche, turn into a hook, pulling something incomparable from out of the depths.  What can be more exhilarating than to follow the thoughts of such singular human minds?

Of all years, in this I read and abandoned more contemporary fiction than normal, an attempt to read against the grain. It is of no surprise that there are few novels first published today worth reading. That could describe any age. There is simply too much in most fiction: superfluous style, too many adjectives, too little space to open a door to ones own reflections. What is left when we finish a book is the mood or atmosphere, described so lucidly by Jenny Erpenbeck: the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.

Sharing the interior lives of others through their literary creation arguably tells us more about the world than any other medium. Three novels this year offered the sharp light of an autumn afternoon, providing a glimpse of the inner spaces of their creators: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Formally each could not be more different, but what they provide is a serious portrayal of the human condition in its infinite forms.

That description could equally apply to Friederike Mayröcker’s And I Shook Myself a Beloved, translated by Alexander Booth. It is a fiction too in the sense that all journeys into inner worlds are fictions, but it is primarily a recounting, in dark tones, of her relationship with life partner Ernst Jandl. It is a raw meditation, but lifted by its strange and unquestionable beauty.

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities / that’s the function of art, wrote Agnes Martin in Writings. This collection of her letters, lectures and journals is exceptional and was fine company and, like David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, offers insight beyond the specifics of a particular artist or perspective.

This wasn’t particularly a year for poetry, but I discovered Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. These are quiet and conservative poems, with a vivid expression of personality. He has Larkin’s gift for evocative phrase-making and Heaney’s nuanced appreciation of landscape. The poems addressing his canonical artists: Uccello, El Greco, del Sarto, Blake, Van Gogh, and Constable, are particularly  memorable.

Next year I plan to draw in my reading, depth over breadth, thinking through even the minor works of my talismanic writers. There will possibly be more poetry, certainly less contemporary fiction, probably more Ancient Greek and Roman literature, but thankfully I’ve always been hopelessly inadequate at charting the serendipitous direction of my reading life.