A Snowbound Weekend’s Reading

‘ – a love can sometimes cease / in the extinguishing of an eye / and what we come to see / is love’s extinguished eye.’ These lines from Ingeborg Bachmann (t. Peter Filkins), who I must read this year. Poetry, prose, more. Love ceases of writers’ work I once thought indispensable. This hazard of re-reading. A one-time companion now seems over-sentimental, another so riddled with cliché that the work is unreadable.

And yet a new discovery still has the capacity to rob me of sleep, lines rolling around and over, even hissed in the middle of a dream. Anna Kamieńska: there is little in translation of her fifteen books of poetry and two books of notebooks. (These edited and translated by by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon.)

‘So it’s necessary to keep on shedding skin . . .
We live among question marks’

‘Yes
even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, last year’s discovery. Something shifted after reading her Book of Communities (t. Audrey Young), and my reading keeps circling the same question marks, the unbeliefs. I’m not in any hurry to read the last two books of Llansol’s trilogy. There is little of her small body of work in translation but I’m told more is forthcoming.

This snowbound weekend afforded time to read. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginning of Spring confirmed I’m not the reader for her elegant comedies of manners. I also read Kate Zambreno’s latest, Appendix Project, essays and talks based on sections excised from her remarkable Book of Mutter. I may have more to say on these. Zambreno’s writing gets richer with each book.

Bachmann and Wolf

The German Library’s Bachmann and Wolf caught me unawares; words spilling out, some stirring, others stinging, but the whole thing a treasure outright. How does one adequately explain why one loves this story or that particular book? The more I write here about books, the less I think I am even capable of objectivity. I don’t care for reviews, but only understanding why readers love the objects of their attention, which inevitably amounts to explaining themselves.

My affection for Christa Wolf’s stories is long standing. I expect to read everything of hers that makes it into English translation. If my memory serves me right, Wolf’s Cassandra landed first in my collection, imposing itself with its graceful interpretation of dismal aspects of the human condition. Wolf never coerces you into her stories, but invites you in gently, making you feel almost at home, before shaking you up, but gradually like a long ride over cobble-stones. Bachman and Wolf includes her short novel No Place on Earth, which quietly turned me over and over, leaving me washed ashore, and with little choice but to turn back to its first pages and read again, slower, carving notches with my pencil.

I suppose flowerville lead me to Wolf, as to Bachmann, first encountered in this collection, but quickly become indispensable, especially for the fiery lovers’ script of The Good God of Manhattan, translated by Valerie Tekavec, a flight into language every bit as inspired as Orpheus and Eurydice, or Romeo and Juliet. I expect to read as much Bachmann as I can find in translation.

Ingeborg Bachmann (German Library)

With its eye-popping red panel, bold black and white frame, the bravura display of Continuum’s German Library is blandishment to my book collector’s compulsion. Its finite 100 volumes, of many writers I wish to explore, goad me on to further temptation.

This afternoon with the Ingeborg Bachmann half of this edition, part of my calling this year to read her short stories and novels. Four Bachmann selections: Sightseeing in an Old City, a passage written for, but not incorporated into her novel Malina; the gelid Among Murderers and Madmen, which I read three times, more aghast each time; the hypnotic Word for Word, and ending with The Good God of Manhattan, a beguiling and evasive drama, given magnificence by its passages of moving  and beautiful language.

“Then there’s just so little time in the world. Because even when everything else has been discovered and formulated, the glaze of your mellow eyes and the blond steppe of hair on your skin will remain incomprehensible. When everything is known, done, and destroyed again, I’ll still be seduced in the labyrinth of our eyes. And the sob in your breath will affect me as never before.”

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Hélène Cixous: a Sort of Family

In those days I sought, with genuine anxiety, “women’s texts”: I told myself I couldn’t go through life without the company of female peers; even if I adored Kafka I felt myself without an echo of reply, all the more so as on the politico-social-institutional scene, there were men (only), and so masculine, save Derrida, that the world could not imagine a feminine sensibility or states of mind – except Shakespeare and Kleist – but that didn’t suffice (see Proust, whom I read a great deal now, there was no innerness save masculine, not one woman is lit up from within), and I was scared. So I began to roam the world of libraries to see if there mightn’t be on the other side a door I had failed to try. That’s when the work of Clarice Lispector happened to me. And not long after, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Ingeborg Bachmann. So I was reassured, as if I had a sort of family to visit and depart from. I felt myself read and understood by friends I hadn’t met, whom I would never meet.

Hélène Cixous
Encounters.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Dorothea Tanning: Birthday (1942)

Dorothea Tanner (1910-2012)

*****

Mahmoud Darwish
Memory for Forgetfulness
August, Beirut, 1982

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise. Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of the blog coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don’t let it sink. Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure and into a little white cup; dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the coffee. Observe the paths of steam and the tent of rising aroma. Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee, the cigarette with the flavour of existence itself, unequaled by the tastes of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

Memory of Forgetfulness (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi) is extraordinary, a staggeringly powerful  memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. To leave the description there would be reductive; Darwish interrogates the nature of exile and discourses widely, from the importance of coffee, to the relationship between memory and history. I’ve begun my second reading, unable to put the book aside.

*****

William Butler Yeats
A Coat

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But he fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

*****

*****

flowerville
[Thomas Bernhard:] An Attempt by Ingeborg Bachmann

I am convinced that the last prose of Thomas Bernhard goes far beyond than that of Beckett and is infinitely superior compared to it [Beckett], because of its compulsion, its inescapability and its hardness. In all those years people asked themselves, how would it look like, the new.

*****

Donald Weber – Interrogation (2011)