Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Sontag’s Diaries 1964-1980

Susan Sontag in 1972

Rain provides the excuse not to go out and be busy, but to drink tea and finish Susan Sontag’s 1964-1980 Diaries: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Like the first volume of diaries, Reborn (2009), these entries show a different Sontag to the assured essayist. The bones of the fierce essays are here, but so also is the unvarnished emotion of Sontag’s quest for intimacy and love.

The diaries reveal tantalising outlines of works, some realised and others abandoned, and lists and opinions like these:

“New” British novelists: B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, David Plante, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Gabriel Josipovici [1976]

The great American novels of the 20th century (that is from 1920 on: post-James): Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Dos Passos’s USA, Faulkner’s Light in August [1976]

Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag

Rare are those artists whose incandescence stretches to both writing fiction and literary essays: Coetzee, Woolf, Kundera. Though she preferred to be thought a novelist Susan Sontag’s fiction is grandiloquent, best avoided or as she says of Antonin Artaud “rewarding to … read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.” Sontag’s form was the essay where her mastery of language, erudition and pedagogic skill achieved its apotheosis. Whatever topic, Sontag’s essays are a joy to read, an adroitness she shares with Geoff Dyer and Gabriel Josipovici.

Under the Sign of Saturn includes a diverse selection of topics. My favourite is the essay on cultural extremist Antonin Artaud, of whom I knew little before. His attempt to create “total art,” an environment that was “magical, paroxysmic, purgative, and, finally opaque” was fascinating and sadly foredoomed, but what a noble ambition. I cannot decide whether I wish to go down the Artaud rathole, tempted though I am.

Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the numerous descriptions he gives of his pain that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy.

In other essays, Sontag unforgivingly, but necessarily, refutes the attempt to whitewash Leni Riefenstahl’s history as chief Nazi propagandist film-maker, and unpicks how fascist regalia was adopted for sexual theatre. She writes brilliantly of Walter Benjamin’s attraction to astrology and subjects him to a Saturnine  analysis. There are shorter, but illuminating, pieces on Barthes and Canetti.

The latter essay spurred me to follow these essays with Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé (1946).

Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:

Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.

Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.

I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. – Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. Kafka and the Work’s Demand  (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel’s biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin’s two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]

Disenchantment

I am travelling all week on “planes, trains and automobiles.” Instead of reading novellas, I am distracted by James Wood’s article in the latest New Yorker on ‘Secularism and it’s discontents.’ In the article Wood cites Max Weber’s reference to “disenchantment,” central to Josipovici’s position on modernism.

Since the nineteenth century, the disappearance of God has often been considered elegiacally, as a loss or a lack. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber asserted that the modern, Godless age, was characterised by a sense of “disenchantment.” Weber seems to have meant that without God or religion modern man moves in a rational, scientific world, without appeal to the supernatural and salvific, and is perhaps condemned to search fruitlessly for a meaning that was once vouchsafed for religious believers.

The New Age Archive and Paradoxy of Modernism

Some very lively debates about modernity and aesthetics took place in the pages of The New Age, a weekly magazine devoted to literature, the arts and politics. The magazine ran from 1907 to 1922, offering readers a response to the conditions of modernity.

One of several discoveries of reading Robert Schole’s Paradoxy of Modernism is of a complete online archive of The New Age. Within its pages are contributions from writers like Hilaire Belloc, Havelock Ellis, T. E. Hulme, Holbrook Jackson, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

Scholes book is good, though I am not convinced of his central thesis, that to truly appreciate Modernism we have to read more widely, particularly the minor texts (what Scholes calls “durable fluff,” “iridescent mediocrity” and “formulaic creativity.”) Josipovici and Scholes broadly agree on the origins, and inevitability, of Modernism, but would disagree on its transition to Postmodernism. More on the book on another occasion.

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?

A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.


The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.

Thoughts on 2010 and 2011 Reading

Before this year is over I have a week on business in New York, and a fortnight’s trip to the Far East. That’s almost forty hours of reading time. I’m looking forward to the periods of sustained concentration, and pondering what to read to occupy those long hours on the aeroplane.

This year is already a watershed in my reading life. My Joycean summer and discovery of the sheer brilliance of Ulysses alone would mark 2010 as pivotal. But in the same year I have fallen heavily for the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, and the critical works of Gabriel Josipovici. The thrill of reading Don Quixote is merely the cherry on the trifle.

The transition between years is arbitrary, but a useful juncture for reflection. Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.

I have lost my innate scepticism about the concept of reading groups. This year’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves has been revelatory. The posts and ensuing discussions in comments have, in each case, enhanced my understanding and appreciation of each book. I thank Frances for getting me started and very much look forward to reading, posting and commenting along with some of “The Wolves” selections for 2011. I’ll be posting my thoughts on ‘Vilnius Poker’ later in the week.

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.