Things Happen

The Family, 1988 by Paula Rego

This weekend, finally, Paula Rego’s retrospective at the Tate Britain, the first time I’ve seen most of these extraordinary paintings outside of books. Spanning seven decades from the surreal to the austere, the experience was as powerful as seeing Goya’s black paintings in Madrid for the first time, the same feverish intensity. The same day, the first visit in almost two years to the Royal Opera House for Leos Janácek’s Jenůfa, also the first time I’ve seen and heard a live performance of the first opera I bought on CD when still a teenager (for reasons I no longer recall).

Asmik Grigorian as Jenůfa and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Claus Guth’s staging of Janáček’s opera at the Royal Opera House

Reading this weekend took the form of drifting between Virginia Woolf’s essays, Geoffrey Hill’s Now and Collected Poems, 1952-1992, Jacques Roubaud’s essays on poetry, and slowly rereading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I’m also continuing to languidly thin my library, aiming for a collection that is both smaller and more concentrated.

Ovid in the Third Reich

By Geoffrey Hill

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

Amores, III, xiv

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

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.