Divine Lizards: A Year of Reading

Ambitious readers must, despite carefully acquired insouciance, weigh up their stacks of dusty unread books with the time available before they return to dust themselves. They have surely roughly calculated a number, assuming an average lifespan and being blessed with continued cognitive faculties. It is quite possible that their groaning shelves are already a display of ambition over cold certainty, even without including in the calculation the additional volumes that will surely be acquired, surreptitiously, or with resigned and solemn endurance. Umberto Eco, with a library split over two homes, owned a total of fifty thousands books, necessary he deemed as a research library: “I don’t go to the bookshelves to choose a book to read. I go to the bookshelves to pick up a book I know I need in that moment.”

With non-fiction, deciding what to read is sometimes a reflection of a passing or enduring interest, perhaps in Kabbalah, or human brain evolution, or the Punic wars, often stimulated by something read in a novel or poem, something not quite understood. “Not understanding”, wrote Enrique Vila-Matas, can be “a door swinging open.”Non-fiction is often of the moment, requiring some fresh context and matures less well than poetry or fiction, unless tracing a line of thought through a particular discipline; an exception being theology or philosophy where the peak may well be behind us. Fiction and poetry are usually improved with a patina of age and time.

Poetry is more personal, arising from just the right admixture of form and subject matter, an integrity dedicated to what George Oppen described as “a determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the colour of our lives.” I chose poets as carefully as I decide what to eat each day, certainly for aesthetic bliss, but also for fascination with the language and thoughts of others. Few intellectual exercises can be more invigorating that to watch the working of another human mind. In some senses, poetry and novels are the only way to see another person from within.

Fiction I choose with equal care, discarding occasionally those novels that, as Jenny Erpenbeck described, fail to “open a door for me into my own reflections.” Peter Schwenger wrote, “When narrative works, when a text is felt, it produces that complex metabolic reaction in us that we call a work’s ‘effect'” It might be that after a time, all is left of a novel in our memory is an atmosphere, or story-line, but as Jenny Erpenbeck wrote, “the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.” We readers are minds inspired by the books we choose.

Often the books that make the deepest impression, slipping deeply into us with barely a sound, are not those expected to become, to borrow a term from Nietzsche, our divine lizards. There were other attempts over the years to read Gerald Murnane, at least three, but this year with Tamarisk Row I crossed the threshold to discover what might be the only living English language writer both advancing the form and doing something beautiful. With Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and even more so with A Million Windows I found, against all expectations, a living writer that could slake my thirst for a sustained glance into a mind so very different to my own. Murnane writes as he does from necessity. His inimitable prose does not suffer the superfluous, stylistic postures that tarnish much of twenty-first century English language fiction. His vision is singular and haunts my thinking to the point that I see the world a little bit differently after reading these books. That is all I ask from fiction (and poetry).

This sense  of writing that touches the bases of life is how I emerged from reading Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak. I persisted past the perception that this was the diary of a solitary man living remotely, something like Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, not a form or theme I dislike when I feel like vicarious escape, but something darker and more raw, closer to V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Unlike Murnane’s writing that compels me to read every word he wrote, I feel no urge to find out more about Cooper or his work, merely content to spend time with his book that captures so well the unsettling nature of an arrival coloured by memory. It might not add anything to literature, but it opened up a space for peace and contemplation.

This was a year when I read a lot more poetry: Auden, Larkin, that kind of thing, but it is Natalie Diaz’s collection in Postcolonial Love Poem that I read and kept on my study desk to reread almost daily. Diaz deals in elaborate symbolic imagery, but the writing is both exuberantly beautiful and concrete, reflecting not only her lived experience, but an intelligent portrayal of the human condition. She took me into alien realms and stimulated in no small way a transformed view of reality. I’m looking forward to reading her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec.

The essays in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections are uneven and, as is the nature with a collected edition, repeat themselves a little, but this is nevertheless an insightful series of essays on her early life in East Germany—a place of rich and near endless fascination—and her experience of writing and reading. Erpenbeck comes across in her novels as a deeply serious writer of poetic and ethical integrity. These essays enrich the reading of her novels to the point I intend to reread them all chronologically after another reading of the pertinent essays.

It is unusual that I read more non-fiction and poetry than novels, but no real surprise in this uncommon year when I read nothing for five weeks, listening only to music for artistic sustenance. Peter Schwenger’s At the Borders of Sleep is an unconventional work of literary criticism. It addresses Borges’s statement that “literature is nothing more than a guided dream”. My experience of reading the book was sufficiently intense to trigger a hypnagogic vision during that liminal stage between being awake and falling off to sleep. It was also a reminder of the radical mystery of literature and its affects. It brought to mind a sentence of Gerald Murnane’s, “When he paused from following the text, or even when one or another book was far from his reach, even then he had access not only to narrated scenes and events but also to a far more extensive, fictional space, so to call it.”

However wretched this year has been, to finally have in my possession Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, his encyclopaedic collection of images collected to tell a story of how ideas and rituals persist over time, and how we humans fit into a cosmic context, is genuinely thrilling, a memorable event against a bleak backdrop. Georges Didi-Huberman’s Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science not only provided a brilliant pathway into the Atlas, but gave me space to reflect on the interrelationship between philosophical thought and art history.

Beyond a contemplation of the books I read this year that left the deepest imprint, what is this post that has rambled on far too long? What am I? Am I a blogger again? I’ve no idea. I’ve written more this year than any other, mostly in my notebooks, but felt an need to write into the internet again.If you’ve read this far, please accept my thanks and wishes that the year ahead proves far less interesting than this year.

Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs

It seems from the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs that Gerald Murnane is a writer that writes for his own pleasure and necessity. Murnane describes himself as a technical writer who is compelled to find words to explore the contours of his thoughts, a phrase he finds in Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, explaining that it “is a magical phrase for me. It has helped me in times of trouble in the way that phrases from the Bible or from Karl Marx probably help other people.”

My reading is obsessive by nature, often sending me into what is now a frequent pattern of reading a writer until exhausting all available work, reading some secondary material and, in some cases, reading the books that they acknowledge as influences. An earlier version of my reading self read Barley Patch nine years ago and, though I recall appreciating Murnane’s evident pleasure at playing with language, the book failed to trigger the sort of obsession I’ve experienced with Virginia Woolf, Dante, J. M. Coetzee, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Denton Welch, Christa Wolf, or Clarice Lispector. Triggering such an obsession required, firstly, for me to be the reader I am today, and secondly the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.

What I find in Murnane’s essays is not just a writer that inspires a reader to reflect on existential questions, part of why I read what I read, but also a writer that opens blissful landscapes where I find colossal, quiet spaces. Murnane describes his own discovery of such spaces in discovering Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: “The book was like a blow to the head that wipes out all memory of the recent past. For six months after I first read it I could hardly remember the person I had been beforehand. For six months I believed I had all the space I needed.” It is from experiences like this that my love of literature comes, why I discover ecstatic spaces from human beings that I am never likely to meet, but considers companions in navigating this often ghastly world around me.

 

 

Taedium Vitae

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“. . . he had long since given up on Schopenhauer. He accused him of betraying his own great creation, a philosophy that in its negativity far outstripped Christianity, by lapsing in his later years into pseudo-mysticism and a stuffy, academic doctrine of individual salvation. At the moment, he was in search of a substitute for this German apostate, and had reason to believe he had found one in a dyed-in-the-wool Spanish mystic. He had resolved literally to delve into this new friend, sound out his meaning, and with every deciphered line to cover up the lie he was himself living, to wit: that he lacked the courage to do damage to his pitiful carcass by his own hand, and was thus under sentence of looking forward to a normal demise somewhere on a bed of straw.”

From The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, (translated by Donald O. White)

There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

Tragelaph?

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As far as I am concerned the sun can stay below sea level to all eternity, so long as I can scrape up enough money to stoke my coal stove and put some oil in my lamp. p.12

Inordinately shy and a stay-at-home possessed of Sitzfleisch in quantities enviable even among brothers, enabling me to become the long-distance translator that I am to this very day, I have made virtue out of necessity: whenever I am forced to enter the company of other people, something positive usually happens to me. Never enough, mind you, to suppress my congenital aversion to contact with the external world, but just enough to catch me up, as in a safety net, in my tumble from solitude.p.13

Within this breast of mine, as if by a miracle of Santa Maria del Pilar, my own and my tragelaph* Vigoleis’ heart keeps on pumping constantly and undauntedly . . . p.9

From The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, (translated by Donald O. White)

*Tragelaph stumped me. While I enjoyed the Virgin Mary reference, to the only recorded instance of Mary mystically bilocating while still alive, tragelaph, I suppose draws on a figurative usage as something composed of incongruous elements, rather than a mythical creature which is part goat and part deer.