In May 1940, with the fall of France less than a month away, André Gide wrote in his journal, “The events are too serious; I have no further attention but for them.” There was, I think from time to time, a prolonged period when the world seemed less eventful, but that is more a reflection of the state of mind of the commentariat and where they choose to direct their attention.
I finished reading Andy Wimbush’s Still: Samuel Beckett’s Quietism. It is an unusually eloquent academic text, convincing in its reading of Beckett’s fiction, particularly of Murphy and How It Is. It serves equally as a study of the origins of Quietism and how Beckett moved in the direction of an ethical, non-solipsistic quietism in both his writing and thought.
Most of my subsequent reading this week was of Beckett’s early stories and poems. Beckett did not appear fully formed as a writer, and while it may be possible to detect faint intimations of the brilliance of his later writing, it is often buried beneath an affected sententiousness.
There is however a pleasure in tracing the early labours of a writer. This is why I so frequently feel compelled to acquire everything written by a favourite author. I have a tendency to see the complete works of a writer as forming a single body of work, and enjoy following chronologically a particular writer’s journey.
No acquisitions this week, but anticipating with pleasure the publication of Peter Handke’s collected essays, and a new translation (by Shelley Frisch) of Kafka’s aphorisms, edited by Reiner Stach. Both are listed for March publication, although the latter’s publisher page indicates later.
“I read of the world of the Russians and the French, of the English and Americans and Scandinavians, and nothing stopped me feeling at home there. I was akin to Gaugin in Tahiti, to Van Gogh in Arles, to Myshkin in St. Petersburg, to Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forests and to Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma.”
Being exiled is a training ground for a dedicated reader, rootless, inwardly alone and never without the lonely good company of a book. In Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, the twentieth century as the age of alienation finds eloquent expression. Peter Weiss writes: “For me there were no lost home and no thoughts of return, for I had never belonged anywhere.”
Cosmic and social unity is gradually displaced by commodification and selfish individuality, transformations accelerated during the industrial revolution. The wars of the twentieth century and the continuing aftermath: perpetual crisis, wars and persecutions make rootlessness a common experience for countless individuals. But even those fortunate to lead relatively settled lives are, to borrow Camus’s term, irremediable exiles.
Peter Weiss’s two autobiographies are possibly the best I’ve read on the emotional and intellectual manifestation of that feeling of not belonging and its concomitant desire for security, yet fear of loss of freedom. Like many lonely wanderers, Weiss turns to literature, both as reader and a writer. In these two spiritual autobiographies he recollects his tentative beginnings as an artist and reflects on the literature and experiences that provided a formative substratum. Without a home, all literature is foreign, but in what is strange or unfamiliar we can feel alive.
The secluded, the mysterious, this hiding away with myself and my games, that is still with me and stirs within me even to this hour, it makes itself felt every time when I get deep into my work. I was my own master, I created the world for myself. But somewhere lingered the premonition of a calling, of the calling that would at once resound, that would roll across the garden toward me. The expectation of this calling was always present somewhere and even today the calling persists, even today the fear persists that everything could suddenly come to an end.
Peter Weiss, Leavetaking, translated by Christopher Levenson
“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
“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.