Lately …

Lately I’ve listened to a lot of music, intensely, for two to three hours a day. My musical taste is shaped by the punk era, though by the time I discovered punk, it was all over. I’m a child of the post-punk period. Those are my formative musical years – about the only time I wish I was ten, even five years older is when I dream of being present for the early years of the Sex Pistols and the Bromley contingent. But it is post-punk that I still turn to: bands like Joy Division, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, it has survived a lot better than most of the earlier punk stuff, which sounds crusty.

I’ve also been playing a fair amount of classical music, Schubert, Sibelius, Pärt, Ligeti and, of course, Beethoven whose late music is rough, abstract, beautiful and I’m kidnapping him as protopunk. The whole 60s-70s musical thing bores me to tears, with the exception of 70s Bowie (and from time to time, Dylan). I’m glad that I’m far too young to not remember the sixties. Jazz, which mostly I don’t get and what I do like is inextricably caught up with context, mostly from reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Colour of Memory, hence Mingus, Monk, Chet Baker, but dominated by Miles Davis, mostly because he so fucking cool.

Lately I’ve been to the cinema at least once a week, mainstream films like American Hustle (intelligently written, captivating), Wolf of Wall Street (usual bloated Scorcese male-ego study), and Gravity (silly but technologically fascinating). Despite twice lapping up all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, my film tastes feel uncultured. I’ll watch Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Yasujirō Ozu films with great pleasure, but also with the sense that I am missing a lot of depth and meaning. Watching Room 237 (after reading Molly Laich’s top 2013 films list) showed me depths to my favourite horror film The Shining that I hadn’t even considered after watching it at least a dozen times.

Lately, surprise, surprise, I’ve also been reading a lot. Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination is one of the most intelligent, sensitive readings of art and literature that I’ve read, ever. Both Carole Maso books were worthwhile but I preferred Defiance to Ava. Defiance succeeded in making a female psychopath multi-layered and sympathetic. It is also deeply upsetting. There were many beautiful moments in Ava but for me its fragmentary form never quite cohered into a sustained narrative, and I’m ambivalent about the literary romanticising of cancer and death. I had a fascinating debate on Twitter with @DeathZen about Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. In a moment of afterglow I compared it to Greek tragedy, a bit silly, but its portrayal of mental collapse and fury is reminiscent of the aftermath of Jason’s desertion of Medea. Ferrante is no Euripides but she can write with great potency, and to borrow a phrase from James Woods, is able to rip ‘the skin off the habitual’. I’m reading Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal, which is quietly devastating, immensely personal, and also the best book I’ve read so far this year.

David Shields’ How literature saved my life

It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation  I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.

From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.

How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)

Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear

Assembling even a small collection of essays is a performance. A single essay may sparkle with brilliance and wit-particularly dangerous if the first in a collection-but a collection risks being abased by its weakest part. A coherent collection that manages to avoid the danger of redundancy is a rare and thrilling performance.

Reading Duncan Fallowell’s essay collection How to Disappear is to play for high stakes. His earlier To Noto: London to Sicily in a Ford is a touchstone book for me, an exemplar of modern travel literature. Like Geoff Dyer, Fallowell writes idiosyncratic non-fiction where he is as present as the subject of his essays.

There are but five essays in How to Disappear connected thematically by the notion of disappearance, whether by reclusion, death or disregard. Fallowell’s fondness for his subjects is evident in his obsessive research and tender portrayals, in particular of social climber Bapsy Pavry and Alastair Graham, Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited.

How to Disappear equals the charm and discursiveness of Fallowell’s To Noto and is enlivened by its chosen subjects. With the exception of the subject of the final essay-Diana, Princess of Wales-each subject had me googling to learn more about their lives. Besides the final, thankfully short essay, the collection is a performance of sustained pleasure.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.