Nocturnal Worlds

“A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams the next morning on an empty stomach. In this state, though awake, one remains under the spell of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablutions, the grey penumbra of dream persists and, indeed, in the solitude of the first waking hour, consolidates itself. He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast. He thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds-a precaution justified only by the combustion of dream in a concentrated morning’s work, if not in prayer; otherwise this avoidance can be a source of confusion between vital rhythms. In this condition, the narration of dreams can bring calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and must incur its revenge. To express this in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naivete, and in laying hands on his dream visages without thinking, he surrenders himself. For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be addressed from the superior vantage of memory. This further side of dream is attainable only through a cleansing analogous to washing, yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep.”

Walter Benjamin, Breakfast Room from One-Way Street, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter

Crucified by Lassitude

“Luísa remains motionless, sprawled atop the tangled sheets, her hair spread out on the pillow. An arm here, another there, crucified by lassitude. The heat of the sun and its brightness fill the room. Luísa blinks. She frowns. Purses her lips. Opens her eyes finally, and leaves them fixed on the ceiling. Little by little the day enters her body.”

The word ‘lassitude’ is almost certain following the three opening words, or at least expected by anyone who is somewhat familiar with Clarice Lispector’s grammar and syntax, translated here by Katrina Dodson. A ‘bright stain of sunlight’ ‘takes possession of the room’ in which Luísa stirs.

I adore Lispector’s enigmatic, imperturbable characters and her serpentine prose. This short story, The Triumph, opens the Complete Stories, and begins, like her first novel, with a clock, an object that often features in Lispector’s fiction. Clocks also appear often in Kafka, in both his fiction and the diaries, unforgettably so in the highly-strung opening to The Metamorphosis.

Lispector’s writing is sometimes compared to Virginia Woolf’s, but it is always Kafka that comes closer to my reading experience. “As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realised that it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn’t very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked the way.” The sentence is Kafka’s, but with a few minor changes in syntax could have been borne by Lispector. Both writers bring to the fore both the demonic and the dreamlike in ways that would be difficult to perceive without them.

Earth of Shadows

Yesterday I bought a bottle of Waterman’s Absolute Brown, a richer complement to my J. Herbin Cacao Du Bresil, and favourite KWZ Honey ink. A little research reveals that this is a rebranded version of Waterman’s older, more evocatively-named Havana Brown. It isn’t a perfect brown, but flows well in my Grey-Blue Pelikan M101N and the colour is agreeable enough.

Recently, I read that some former Omas employees have re-emerged as Scribo. I don’t know their pens, but enjoyed a frisson reading of their Classico Sepia ink. Could this satisfy my interminable pursuit of a bottle of Omas sepia? The quest is for something that resembles the deep, muddy brown from this note in Walter Benjamin’s archives, possibly black originally, but faded to a wonderfully earthy riddle of a colour, the shadowy umber from which Rembrandt’s self portraits emerge.

This photograph is taken from an enthralling Verso collection of Benjamin’s personal manuscripts and documents. I enjoy the swirl of Benjamin’s essays, but am equally fascinated by him as a reader and collector. It’s no surprise to me that “high-quality paper, particular pens, ink, and nibs, and, furthermore, specific spatial preconditions were important prerequisites for a non-resistant and smoothly running flow of writing. In a letter to Siegfried Kracauer, for example, Benjamin reports on the acquisition of a new fountain pen, an ‘enchanting creation’.”

The creation in use in the first photograph is a Pelikan 101N, one of a series inspired by vintage Pelikan pens from the 1930s. My picture doesn’t sufficiently capture the appeal of the design or colour, but, if that is of interest, there are better places for that. I generally prefer bold, music, or oblique nibs, unlike Benjamin who had “such a small handwriting that he never found a pen that was fine enough, which forced him to write with the nib upside down”.

Both quotes here are from Verso’s Walter Benjamin’s Archive.

Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

In an essay on Stendhal, Roland Barthes wrote, translated by Adam Thirlwell, of the marked difference between Stendhal’s journals and the richness of his novels: ‘What happened between the Travel Journal and The Charterhouse of Parma, is writing.’ Kate Briggs, in This Little Art asks a similar question about the idea of the art of translation and whether it would be more appropriate to consider the translator as a craftsperson or artisan, rather than an artist. Helen Lowe-Porter, after all, ‘didn’t write [The Magic Mountain], as [she] would no doubt have also been very ready to concede.’ Briggs quotes Lowe-Porter: ‘You see, the job is to some extent an artist job,’ adding ‘she refused to send a translation to the publisher until she felt as though she had written the book herself.’

My first reading of Mann’s The Magic Mountain was twelve years ago. I was late to Mann, overly influenced by Nabokov’s disdain, who considered Mann one of those ‘puffed-up writers’ that traded ‘in great ideas’. I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation over a couple of weeks, too quickly for I was skipping over some of the extended philosophical debates between Settembrini and Naphta. After this somewhat fierce first reading, unable to part company with the author’s voice, I immediately read the book again, taking more time to unpick not only the face offs between the liberal and the Marxist, but also the context for the rival revolutionary forces the two intellectuals represented. After following several rabbit holes, I had spent quarter of the year with Mann’s book and its related reading.

In my secondary reading around The Magic Mountain, I came across Timothy Buck’s virulent article in the TLS, in which he meticulously takes apart Lowe-Porter’s translation as ‘a pseudo-Mann’. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs reviews the debate that followed Buck’s critical evaluation. It’s worth pointing out that Buck does not advocate the later translation by John Woods, considering both debased versions of Mann’s German. Briggs approaches the debate about this, and to a lesser extent around the translation of André Gide’s novels, with less sanguine gloom, exploring the divergent conceptions of what translation should be and can be as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

As a primarily anglophone reader—my limited French will not stretch to Proust— I require a translator to meditate with The Magic Mountain and work in many other languages. Briggs quotes Barthes: ‘Of course I can read the great foreign novels translated into French, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Don Quixote, etc,’ and adds: ‘All those novels? Yes, read them. I’ve read them. I have. Let me insist that I have read them.’

What I enjoyed most of This Little Art is the speculative voice. It gives space for me to pause in my reading and wonder if I could insist that I’ve read those books or just English translations of those books. I won’t truly be able to confidently insist that I’ve read Proust until I can read it in the French, nor The Magic Mountain in German, but if I waited to acquire those languages I’d be more like a friend who refuses to read translations, considering them to be lesser adaptions of the great novels. I am grateful to those that practise this little art for the compromises we must make to read life-changing foreign works of art.

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.