A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.



Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

Dostoevsky, Dreams, Joanna Walsh (My Week)

“These obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was overflowing . . . you accepted all at once, almost without the slightest surprise, at the very time when, on the other side, your reason was at its highest tension and showed extraordinary power, cunning, sagacity, and logic. And why, too, on waking and fully returning to reality, do you feel almost every time, and sometimes with extraordinary intensity, that you have left something unexplained behind with the dream, and at the same time you feel that interwoven with these absurdities some thought lies hiddden, and a thought that is real, something belonging to your actual life, something that exists and always existed in your heart. It’s as though something new, prophetic, that you were awaiting, has been told you in your dream.”

This passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot played on my mind during this week of fever and dreams (and Joanna Walsh’s fevered dream of a book).

The Power of Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Sometimes I think I ought abstain from fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to destabilise. Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of Dead is dangerous for its fiction is a thin disguise, its unfolding of oppression and monotony carries none of the nonsense of fiction. Sometimes I think I ought to read more fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to disrupt and superimpose itself onto reality.

Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, translated by Jessie Coulson, is coldly objective. Its coolness and monotony saturated the ten days it has taken to slowly marinate in its journalistic spirit. ‘Freedom, a new life, resurrection from the dead . . . What a glorious moment!’ I feel the glorification, the lifting of a period of dull despondency.

In Memoirs from the House of the Dead are the bones of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Without the raw life of the zone—the house of the dead—neither of those glorious later novels are possible, both represent the poetic form of Dostoyevsky’s four years of existential hell as a convict.

I want to see a Tarkovsky interpretation of Memoirs from the House of the Deadonly that director could fully capture Dostoyevsky’s intense self-disgust but also the brutal honesty of the meaninglessness of life.

Dostoyevsky’s Chaos and Form

Reading Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and some relevant parts of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59 brings into focus what I think I find most interesting in Dostoevsky’s novels. The narrative texture of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is very different from his other novels in that Dostoevsky avoids didacticism and narrates using what is almost a direct reportage style. Nowadays we’d classify it as fictionalised autobiography.

The flat narrative texture is far less forgiving and shows up the imperfections in Dostoevsky’s form to a greater degree than the other novels. It recalls the Beckett quote that I wrote about once before:

…there will be new form…and this new form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else…That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

In a sense, Dostoevsky steals a march on Beckett’s 1961 comments by finding a form that accommodates his chaotic themes, characters, all the stuff he chucks into his narrative. Style and artistry are secondary to his psychological intuition. The insight that lies within Dostoevsky’s ideas and thoughts are what makes his novels so interesting, and so worthwhile to read and ponder.

Riddle of Life and Dostoyevsky Translation

Translators are modern day alchemists, trying to generate gold from gold without introducing impurity. Translate with absolute fidelity and lose the rhythm or retain the emotional power by using some versatility and inventiveness? One needs to be a writer of some talent, yet have bags of humility.

Before reading Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, also known as House of the Dead or Notes from a Dead House, I compared three translations side by side. The three sentences below are quite instructive, but, to be honest, the translated titles were almost sufficient to make the case. Jessie Coulson’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead is unquestionably the most aesthetically pleasing title; Constance Garnett’s House of the Dead is straightforward; Pevear and Volokhonsky choice of Notes from a Dead House seems pretty wretched to me: what is a ‘dead house’?

In the sentences below, P&V and Coulson chose ‘riddle of life’ versus Garnett’s more dour ‘problem of existence.’ I’m sure both work but answers in comments please if you know what Dostoyevsky meant, or maybe it becomes clear later in the book. I’ve only just started. Do I need to go to Siberia to solve the riddle of life? Or the problem of existence?

It’s the third sentence that stands out for me, where Coulson’s translation is the one with just the right amount of rhythm and pace. I’ll take ‘frivolous’ over ‘light-minded’ and ‘more levity.’ The P&V sentences sound clunkier in comparison.

I could draw out other examples but the decisive one for me was Coulson’s ‘The people were simple, untouched by liberal ideas …” compared to Garnett’s stiffer but fine ‘The inhabitants are simple folk and not of liberal views…” compared to P&V’s ‘People live simply, unprogressively.’ So I chose the Coulson, and I am inclined to reread The Brothers Karamazov in the Ignat Avsey translation sometime soon to balance the P&V interpretation I finished this week.

Jessie Coulson:

Those among them who are capable of solving the riddle of life almost all remain in Siberia and gladly take root there. The fruits they subsequently bear are sweet and abundant. The others, the frivolous ones, who cannot guess the answer to life’s riddle, soon grow weary of Siberia, and disheartened, ask themselves why they ever came there.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

Those who are able to solve the riddle of life almost always stay in Siberia and delight in taking root there. Later on they bear sweet and and abundant fruit. But others, light-minded folk, unable to solve the riddle of life, soon weary of Siberia and ask themselves in anguish why on earth they ended up there.

Constance Garnett:

Those of them who are clever at solving the problem of existence almost always remain in Siberia, and eagerly take root there. Later on they bring forth sweet and abundant fruit. But others of more levity and no capacity for solving problems of existence soon weary of Siberia, and wonder regretfully why they came.