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:
Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
André Gide’s Dostoevsky
Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
T. S. Eliot’s Dante
Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
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.
“We learn to read Middlemarch in the probing light of James’ treatment; we then return to The Portrait of a Lady and come to recognise the transformative inflections of its source.”
It is an idea of Steiner’s that I like, his contention that we can think of a reversal in chronology, in that we understand Eliot’s earlier novel better through the reading of the latter. As Christopher J. Knight writes in Uncommon Readers, “James reads Middlemarch, and then writes The Portrait of a Lady. Is the James novel art or criticism? In Real Presences, Steiner contends that it is both.”
In an early review, Edith Simcox described Middlemarch as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’; George Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. So, it seems only natural to finish Balzac’s Père Goriot and then read Middlemarch, followed perhaps by The Portrait of a Lady.
Middlemarch is, of course, fascinating and steeped in Eliot’s profound knowledge of European literature and culture. Her passion of the mind is clear, and I like the book’s intensity and seriousness. You can find in Miriam Henderson, the central character in Richardson’s Pilgrimage much in common with Eliot’s Dorothea, that awareness of the impossibility of knowing what is ‘other’, nor even ourselves completely, subject as we are to the lure of imagined states and compelling metaphors.
Dorothea also suggests Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito and the Imagination (so beautifully translated by Alissa Valles). It is a favourite poem that is never far from my mind.
“he longed to understand fully
-the nature of a diamond
-the prophets’ melancholy
-the wrath of Achilles
-the fury of mass murderers
-the dreams of Mary Stuart
-the fear of Neanderthals
-the last Aztecs’ despair
-Nietzsche’s long dying
-the Lascaux painter’s joy
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome”
If there is somewhere today where an echo of the ancient mysteries can then be heard, it is not in the liturgical splendour of the Catholic Church but in the extreme life resolutions offered by the novel form. Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion in which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.
Giorgio Agamben, The Unspeakable Girl. Trans. Leland De La Durantaye. Seagull Books, 2014 (2010)
There is a near infinite list of writers that I will never read. There are some few writers who compel me to read everything that I can get my hands on.
A dispiriting, small group of writers are those I would like to read, and have attempted, but somehow their work has failed to engage me. These include Henry James, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Pynchon, John McGahern and Patrick White. With the exception of James, I have read at least one book of the others on the list. Though I appreciate the quality of the writing, the book left me cold.
If you love any of those writers, I would appreciate a suggestion of where to begin.
The attempts that I have made to read Henry James have been unrewarding. I was therefore amused to read Virginia Woolf’s opinion in a letter to Lytton Strachey:
Please tell me what you find in Henry James. I have disabused Leonard of him; but we have his works here, and I read, and can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar. . . Is there really any sense in it? I admit I can’t be bothered to snuff out his meaning when it’s very obscure.
Woolf went on to write numerous essays on the fiction of Henry James. In her later Guardian review of James’ final novel, The Golden Bowl (1905) Woolf wrote,
Mr. James is like an artist who, with sure knowledge of anatomy, paints every bone and muscle in the human frame; the portrait would be greater as a work of art if he were content to say less and suggest more . . . Many overburdened sentences could be quoted as proof of his curious sense of duty.
Better put than I am able, but Woolf’s views accord with my own reading of Henry James.
Reading Gabriel Josipovici’s The Lessons of Modernism, published in 1977, accentuates the palpable frustration of his latest, brilliant book; the title reflects this frustration: the Lessons of becomes What Ever Happened To. In his no less thrilling book of thirty years ago, Josipovici finished the central essay on a note of optimism:
The teacher of English does inevitably feel himself to be in a privileged position: a hander-down of culture and language, a bulwark against chaos and barbarism. Modern art asks him to relinquish this authority, but, like all authoritarians, he fears that if he does chaos will ensue. . . The two lessons of modernism, the lessons of silence and of game, are hard ones for any teacher, in school or university, to learn. But, once learned, and applied, they could lead to a renewed enthusiasm and excitement in the study of English.
In 2010 this hope is all but faded. Josipovici identifies a few contributory factors: an inherent English philistinism, the merger of showbiz and art, and intellectualism being labelled as pretentiousness. Josipovici’s latest book reopens what for him has clearly been a lengthy debate:
Wordsworth, James, Eliot and Virginia Woolf all flourished on these shores. We need to go back and try to understand what they were up to as writers, not dismiss them as reactionaries or misogynists, or adulate them as gay or feminist icons.
After a period of reading criticism, of Josipovici, Woolf, Kiberd and a first attempt at Blanchot, I finally feel able to end my post-Ulysses cessation of reading fiction. I am tackling the latest of a writer, who appears to offer at least a partial answer to the question what ever happened to modernism.