Literary Language (Maurice Blanchot)

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It seems that literature consists of trying to speak at the moment when speaking becomes most difficult, turning toward those moments when confusion excludes all language and consequently necessities a recourse to a language that is the most precise, the most aware, the furthest removed from vagueness and confusion—to literary language.

—Maurice Blanchot, Kafka and Literature, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Nothing to Talk About

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“Gilles Deleuze
53 rue de Colombier
Lyon 7ème

Dear Francois [Châtelet],

Thanks for your letter. You know that I would be happy to write for La Quinzaine, if the chance arose. Unfortunately, I can’t for Painter*. I am like you, I find the book atrocious and meaningless, and poor in its principle. And I do not want to do an article “against” something or “savaging” it (here again, I think I am like you, since as far as I know you have never done an article solely to say something was bad). To be able to write, you have to have some small amount of esteem. Painter was vaguely detective, vaguely ethnographer, vaguely erudite American shit . . . there is nothing to talk about. I will be in Paris at the end of the month and would be happy to see you if you have time.

Friendship and wishes,

Gilles”

*A reference to Painter’s Marcel Proust: A Biography, a nasty, gossipy, psychoanalytical-type biography, all that I loathe in biographies, as compared to the magnificent Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner, or David Gilmour’s The Last Lepoard, a biography of Lampedusa. For the same reasons as Deleuze, I think I only wrote one post here about a book I found vaguely bad, to which the author, also a vaguely erudite American shit wrote to correct some points. I don’t remember the author or book and think I deleted the post.

Barthes: Ideas Circulate

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“There’s never really any originality. We live in a sort of large-scale exchange, a sort of grand intertext. Ideas circulate and languages too. In the end, the only thing we can do—and claim it as our own—is to combine them. That’s more or less how I see things. But you don’t create an idea—it’s there, it’s like a sort of major transaction in a large-scale economy. Ideas circulate and, at a certain point, you stop them, arrange them and edit them, a little bit the way they do in films, and that produces a work.”

Roland Barthes, ‘Simply a Particular Contemporary’, (trans. Chris Turner)

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

The Passion for Solitude: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London

“The answer is contained in the one feature unifying the four passions [walking, swimming, writing and reading] to which I’ve just dedicated, respectively the last four ‘paragraphs’: namely, a fifth passion, situated as it were behind the four others, like the sign or figure of their kinship: the passion for solitude.”

If writing is cathartic, it is as much about the sharing of pain with others, and a necessity to publicly acknowledge loss, rather than deal with uncomfortable silences, that compel the therapeutic need to express grief in concrete form. Writing provides a way to transcend the ordinary dialogue of mourning with its codes and conventions. In his The Great Fire of London, the death of Jacques Roubaud’s wife and the inevitable ending of his parents’ lives are meditated through his memories of them and their shared and past existence. The book is a prolonged beginning (Roubaud uses the term branch) of a much more extensive project, controlled through an elaborate set of textual devices informed in part by his love of mathematics.

Reading Roubaud’s novel is a vertiginous experience, occasionally feeling that one is making no less an effort than the writer during its creation. Through an unusual deployment of interpolations and bifurcations, Roubaud sits between two mirrors that face each other to explore the nature of memory and writing. As the one who is simultaneously the narrated, the narrator and writer, Roubaud explores similar terrain to Coetzee, who described a similar intention, “finding one’s way into the voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself . . . from outside yourself.” Roubaud carefully layers his elliptical portrait, but like many who are solitary by instinct, reticence is part of his style.

There is mourning and regret in The Great Fire of London, but this is not a melancholic or elegiac book. The short, numbered fragments that make up each of the six chapters can be read in linear fashion, or by drifting back and forth between each relevant interpolation and bifurcation. These elements don’t feel like capricious interruptions, but serve to explore aspects of perception and contemplation. The recondite and difficult fifth chapter begins with the suggestion that it “can be omitted during a first reading”, which, with hindsight, is advice that should be taken if a reader is to arrive at the final chapter with sufficient energy.

I had no intention to write about The Great Fire of London. If any book deserves a second reading, it is this solemnly beautiful book, but, after a haunted night filled with the imagery and atmosphere of this novel, it dawned on me that I am compelled to write about it in order to unburden my first reading experience.

Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London sits on the shelf next to its two sequels. There are six branches to the now completed Project, the last of which in the edition above, branch five of the Project, entitled La Bibliothèque de Warburg, is unlikely to be translated into English anytime soon, so my creaking French must suffice to allow me to explore that remarkable library that I find so fascinating. I will also reread Alix Cleo Roubaud’s Journal, last read seven years ago.

Sometimes it seems daunting just how many books there are yet to read—possible treasures that we may never make time for— one discovers a book like The Great Fire of London, which serves as a reminder of the scarcity of books that can open us up to an edenic and intense quietness, an experience that disrupts our quotidian view of the world. The treasure-trove of such books is small, and the gap between their uncovering seems to widen in proportion to age, which at least makes a reading life less overwhelming.