For a decade: 33 theses, reflections, quotes

In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:

  1. “The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
  2. Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
  3. Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
  4. “Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
  5. Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
  6. “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
  7. Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
  8. Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
  9. “If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
  10. There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
  11. There are also good and bad readers
  12. “I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
  13. Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
  14. Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
  15. “Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
  16. The Death of the Author is a delusion
  17. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
  18. We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
  19. “As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
  20. Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
  21. Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
  22. Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
  23. Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
  24. The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
  25. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
  26. Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
  27. More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
  28. All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
  29. Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
  30. “My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
  31. “How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
  32. I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
  33. ” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector

To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.

 

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Pascal Quignard’s Work

Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.

I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.

I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.

Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

Contemplative Silence As Bodily Practice.

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) - After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) – After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

These notes on contemplative silence and hermitism aspired to something more, but failed. Insomnia gives me solitude and reading time, but the longer it persists the more fragmentary my thoughts become.

Gustav Mensching offers a typology of silences: preparatory silence, contemplative silence, worshipful silence, expectant silence and monastic-ascetic silence.

I wonder what lies behind my longing for a hermitic existence, to enact a modern-day Anthony of the Desert (sans sainthood).

“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions)

I return to the desert eager to welcome the dawn, but what I’m seeking is an outer silence to complete my inner silence, my voicelessness. Desert silence is before time, beyond life, a place we have come from and to which we will return.

The word hermit-and, of course, eremite, derives from the Greek eremites, with its roots in eremos, a desert or wilderness.

The Japanese have a term hikikomori, literally pulling inward, reclusiveness as a manifestation of a social illness. Samuel Riba, the protagonist of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque self-diagnoses hikiomori tendencies.

Cixous (Rootprints) writes that “Our dialogues are often mute. / This doesn’t prevent them from taking place,” understanding that keeping silent is a form of communication. Cixous’ writing is filled with silence. It is a silence that runs up against the thresholds of language.

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resides in that realm between silence and speech, between muteness and articulation. “Silence herself speaks.” (Poem Without a Hero)

“The person who dares to be alone can come to see that the ’emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable)

Egyptian-born St Anthony spent fifteen years living in a cave, communicating with others through a tiny crevice carved into the cave wall. He died in the year 356 at the age of 105.

Brodsky (Conversations) said, “As the body grows older it fills up with silence-with organs and functions which are no longer relevant to its life.”

Neurologists profess that the brain’s cortical mantle evolved primarily from a need to communicate. We are wired to be sociable and live in communities.

“Every human being is alone in the core of the mind. When we are born we cry; and that cry is the cry of loneliness. Thus it is with children. Thus it is with growing youth. And the older we grow the lonelier we grow.” (John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude)