Sunday Notes

This week I wrote into my current notebook something that Samuel Beckett is purported to have said in a 1961 interview with Tom Driver: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, each exemplified the search for a form that gestures to a reality that exists beyonds the limits of language. Are there contemporary writers that have an interest in questioning and transcending these boundaries?

Where is the fiction with something serious to say, that reveals what cannot be spoken, in a world of omnipresent data and the incessant chattering of ill-informed charlatans? I find assurance in some of the happy melancholy of Jon Fosse, Peter Handke, Gabriel Josipovici, Friederike Mayröcker, and Gerald Murnane, but I cannot help but think that finding new forms to accommodate the mess may no longer be taking place in books.

I’ve been immersed in Beckett, directly and through Andy Wimbush’s Still: Samuel Beckett’s Quietism. At these times I wonder why I stray too far away from my old chestnuts. I could happily spend the time I have available with my tutelary spirits, but for the old rogue of curiosity.

More time than worthwhile was spent reading multiple news sources to comprehend the situation in Ukraine. It serves merely to emphasise the death of investigative reporting and intelligent analysis. I read, with bored compulsion, half of John Calder’s The Garden of Eros, about the goings-on in the post-war Paris literary scene.

In the post this week: Wittgenstein’s Secret Diaries: Semiotic Writing in Cryptography by Dinda L. Gorlée, preparation perhaps for the publication of the first translation into English of Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks: 1914-1916 later in the year.

Sunday Notes

This week I returned to Samuel Beckett, to Company, in which he changed his habit of writing firstly in French. I thought I’d read it before, but I am not so sure. Company alludes frequently to earlier work, and it may be that, instead of rereading, I am hearing echoes of The Unnamable, How It Is, and Murphy.

When reading Beckett’s later work, I often think of Lydia Davis’s comment that, “[Beckett and Joyce] evolved to a point where they seemed to . . . write more and more for their own pleasure and interest.” It is, I think, a lazy judgement in Beckett’s case, whose prose is never less than lucid, though it is sometimes difficult, that struggle between (reference T. S. Eliot)  words and their meanings.  If a writer like Beckett is hard it is because the problems he is trying to resolve are difficult. (In the case of Joyce and Finnegans Wake, I’m with Davis, though it must have been amusing to compose).

Both books I finished this week were slim, yet will repay rereading several times. The other, Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion. Her forensic examinations of her narrators’ lives, in this case of a two-year lover affair with a married man, are always compelling. I’m reading them all, at least those available in English translation, chronologically.

I ordered  four books this week from Alma Books, home of what was once Calder Publications. Each book is written by John Calder: The Garden of Eros, Pursuit, The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, and The Theology of Samuel Beckett. I’m enjoying immersion in the post-war Paris literary scene via The Garden of Eros. I also dipped into Valerie Dodd’s George Eliot: An Intellectual Life, which arrived after a two-month wait.

Sunday Notes

One of the lessons learned late in my reading life is to think in terms of not writers but books. By instinct a collector, repeatedly have I read a fine book and immediately set about acquiring multiple earlier books by the same writer. With some, my fervour is rewarded, watching a writer’s work become more concentrated over time. Clarice Lispector or Samuel Beckett are both writers that are improved by being read chronologically. With others, Iris Murdoch comes to mind, the early works serve to emphasise recurring foibles that detract, for this reader, from the body of work. Would that I had stopped at The Italian Girl. This lesson applies doubly for poets and poems.

My urge for collection building is balanced by a mid-life desire to travel more lightly, so I continue to thin out my library, discarding old books I will not reread, or whimsical purchases for which a momentary fascination has diminished. This week, laid low by a mild edition of coronavirus, my first, I took the opportunity of self-isolation to gather up a few bags for delivery, when I may once again do so, to my local book dealer.

Between sleeping, working and reading, I did, of course, order a few books while confined to my quarters: Philip Mann’s The Dandy at Dusk, Maria Michela Sassi’s The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something, and Clare Mac Cumhaill’s Metaphysical Animals. The latter two about Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch who all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s, follows a review in the LRB; the other two inspired by being mentioned on Twitter.

I finished two books this week: rereading Albert Camus’s The Outsider in Sandra Smith’s translation, and Marguerite Duras’s The Garden Square, an older translation, showing its age, by Sonia Pitt-Rivers and Irina Morduch. Both sustained earlier readings, unlike Coetzee’s Age of Iron, which I reread in part. The latter reads well as a study of South Africa’s apartheid ideology and how such power structures shape identity. Though there is much fine writing, there are no shortage of weary metaphors: have our two hearts, our organs of love, been tied for this brief while by a cord of sound? Or make of this what you will: Huge bull-testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them.

Dublinesque (Enrique Vila-Matas)

In the same interview, Vila-Matas says, ‘I do not demand that the reader suspend their disbelief, because the attraction of reading the book comes not from the story that is told, but from the encounter with the world of its author.’ There is no more concise way to explain   why I read, what Maria Gabriella Llansol described as ‘a living writing she could take for an encounter.’ As Beckett wrote of Joyce’s writing, ‘is not about something; it is something itself.’

Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque is that peak of imaginative writing when one can suspend oneself into the mind of another’s sensibility. Reading this interview and his recent book, Mac & His Problem, confirms the metafictional nature of his project. It is intertextual writing, following an ancient tradition of writing and interpreting a text in parallel. The screens between reading, writing and interpreting are removed, only to reveal their illusory nature. I like very much the quote in my last post, also from the interview. Was it Pessoa who said something like: the best kept secret of self-knowledge may be that there is no self?

Xanthippe in Fiction

“Another solution for those suspicious of abstractions and metaphysics is to concentrate on other characters in Socrates’ story, setting rational male philosophy against feminine intuition. Xanthippe by the Viennese writer Fritz Mauthner (1884; translated as Mrs Socrates by Jacob Hartmann, 1926), is a surprisingly successful novelistic account of the effect of Socrates’ life and death of his wife. Mauthner’s Xanthippe is an honest, intelligent but uneducated lame peasant woman who suspects, quite rightly, that her husband’s philosophy will get him into trouble. Socrates cannot restrain himself from delivering a lecture in which he acknowledges his doubts about the mythological gods of the city, and his fate is sealed. Socrates himself does not seem particularly upset about dying; his last words, according to Mauthner, are, ‘Recovery at last! If the gods exist, I should like to thanks them for my recovery!’

But for Xanthippe, things do not look so rosy. Left a single parent with a young child (Lamprocles), she settles as a country village farmer and makes a life for herself and her son. But she refuses to allow her boy to learn to read or to daydream. She retained her husband’s philosophical works, but eventually burns then after Plato and Xenophon try to buy them from her. Pure metaphysics, ‘pure sunlight’, is fatal, she believes. Socrates chose perfection of the work, not perfection of the life. His calm, philosophical death condemn Xanthippe and her child to a life of poverty and struggle. Whereas Socrates dies for his own belief in reason, she dies trying to rescue her fellow peasants from an accidental fire in a granary. Xanthippe’s death is the more admirable of the two.”

—Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates.

I’d like to find a copy of Mauthner’s novel one day. Xanthippe is more often presented as the caricature of the scolding wife, mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew: “Be she . . . as curst and shrewd/ As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse / She moves me not.” I like that Mauthner gives a glimpse, albeit fictional, of a more substantial person.

In Phaedo, her sole appearance in Plato’s dialogues (the only ‘live’ appearance by a woman in the Platonic corpus), I’ve aways thought her reaction to Socrates’ death sentence sympathetic and sensitive. Socrates’ dismissal of Xanthippe is brutally cold, at least from a modern perspective.

I wrote previously on the influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache in Samuel Beckett’s early work.