Sunday Notes

Finding a writer and book that you never knew existed is a pleasing serendipity. Steve Mitchelmore listed with his favourite books of 2021, Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days and Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty.

Steve’s description of Sharp’s book was compelling. I have some resistance to the term ‘autofiction’, but Twenty-Twenty sits in that mode of life-writing that acknowledges the impossible sincerity of autobiography, but invokes the genre at the same time as addressing its fictional nature. The constraint of both this and Josipovici’s book is time, to record daily for a year. Both struggle against the compulsion to write, but succeed in reshaping the autobiographical genre to their needs, in Sharp’s case to rail against the treatment of Palestinians, Zionism and the way in which the Labour Party dealt with the largely unproven accusations of anti-Semitism. Framing his polemic is an elusive listing of books read, films and television programmes watched, meals eaten, and daily appearances of his  daughter. Twenty-Twenty is as mesmerising as Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which also addresses the question of how language can be coerced to give an adequate expression of lived experience.

I’ve not returned to Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad. Instead I started reading a collection of Ellis Sharp’s essays: Sharply Critical. I went to the bookshop this week to pick up a copy of Byung-Chul Han’s latest book, Hyperculture, Antonio Scurati’s M : Son of the Century, and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. In the post yesterday was a copy of George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics.

The picture at the top is a pastel by Chantal Joffe, which has been much in my mind this week.

Dumb Animals

Quote

From Petrarch’s Secretum or Secret Book, an autobiographical dialogue between Franciscus, an apparently introspective and self-pitying sinner. and Augustine, who plays the role of confessor, or Socratic counsellor.

Aug:
What limits are there to your avarice?
Fr:
Not to need, nor have too much; not to exceed, nor to fall short of others: those are my limits?
Aug:
You’d need to strip off all your humanity and become a god in order not to have any needs. Don’t you know that man is the neediest of all animals?
Fr:
I’ve heard it many times, but I’d like you to refresh me.
Aug:
Consider how he is born, amid howls and tears, naked and shapeless, needing only a little milk to calm him; he trembles and crawls, needs the help of others, is clothed and fed by dumb animals. His body is weak, his spirit restless; he is assailed by all manner of diseases, prey to innumerable passions; he is incapable of planning, swinging from joy to sorrow; he has no control over his will, and cannot restrain his appetites; he doesn’t know what or how much he needs, nor how to limit his food or drink. He must go to great lengths to obtain the nourishment that other animals find without difficulty; he is swollen with sleep, bloated with food, bowled over by drink, exhausted by wakefulness, huddled up with hunger, shrivelled with thirst. He is greedy and apprehensive, scorning what he has, yet lamenting what he has lost; he is anxious about the present, but at the same time about the past and the future. He is arrogant in his wretchedness, yet aware of his frailty; he is no match for the lowest of worms; he is short-lived, of uncertain age but bound to die, and vulnerable to a thousand kinds of death.
F:
Such an infinite accumulation of wretchedness and needs makes me almost regret having been born a man.

Dorothy Sayers’s Dante Essays (volumes 1 and 2)

For the most part thought-provoking essays (lectures) on Dante’s Comedy, which, relatively late, became a ruling passion of Dorothy Sayers’s life. There are few lay people today with the substrate of theological understanding to offer such a richly specific perspective, particularly of the Paradiso, which, thus far, resists my effort to read beyond the first three cantos. Neglected place-markers in the multiple translations of the Comedy in my library evidence previous distraction.

Sayers’s interest in the Comedy after reading Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice extended, in the ultimate act of literary criticism, to her translation of all three books of the Comedy. Hers is a lively translation, enjoyably readable and lacking the archaisms that earlier translators seem unable to resist, however inappropriate a response to Dante’s Italian.

Across both volumes (there is a third that I haven’t read yet) the essays are inevitably uneven, but those with an interest in the Comedy will find much that is rich and stimulating in both books. They join a small library of books that offer fresh perspectives on this magnificently curious medieval treasure.

‘We have no models, we have only precursors’

It would be easy for this blog to become a whirlpool, rotating obsessively around a small handful of writers that, to my mind at least, carve out a highly individual niche; perhaps a series of whirlpools that interconnect only at the periphery, and in doing so twirl off creating other eddies and vortexes. That sounds like a description of my reading mind. Two writers I keep returning to over the last few weeks, at night particularly, trying to understand why these two have captured so much of my waking and dreaming attention.

What is it that draws close the writing of Mircea Cărtărescu and Maria Gabriela Llansol? They are both European writers in the broad sense that they call upon a common pool of themes, myths and visions. Their writing appears, from what is translated heroically into English, to be marked by a transgression of genre, seeking instead to dance in the spaces between realism, magical realism, poetry, essay and analysis. Both writers summon strange figures to an oneiric imaginary geography, slipping in and out of the dramatis personae that is above all a way of constructing a form of hermitic autobiography. One could argue that their novels’ narrative fabric exists primarily as a device for reflection. There is also the space in which their stories function, bound not by a common conception of time but spatially, an amazing world where time sags and slows, dissolving into seemingly bottomless holes.

Both write in dialogue with ancient sources (the Bible and Ovid came quickest to mind) and also a strange world of literature that explores metafiction and intertextuality, inevitably hearkening back to old touchstones like Borges, Kafka, the Woolf of Orlando, even Nietzsche, and to writers I tasted and disregarded like Pynchon and García Márquez.

[The title of this post is from Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text.]

A Taste for Extravagant Writing

Moi, elle – Man Ray (1934)

In Nostalgia, Mircea Cărtărescu writes of ‘fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant’. It is this oneiric quality that I am drawn to in his and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing. Both engage in ambitious renewals of form that obliterate genre boundaries and build totalising stories that are monstrously beautiful.

Stories that operate at the threshold of reality and dreams are rooted in Dante, Kafka, Borges, surrealism and oddities like Woolf’s Orlando. Myths, dreams and memories are interwoven to lay a collective path between the brains of writer and reader. Proust employs a similar image in Swann’s Way: ‘All these memories . . . I could not discern between them—between my oldest, my instinctive memories, and those others, inspired more recently by a taste or “perfume,” and finally those which were actually the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them at second hand.’

I am reading Robert Alter’s beautiful translation of Job while awaiting a copy of Cărtărescu’s Blinding. There is also the distant prospect of Solenoid, currently being translated. Perhaps my appetite for cryptogrammic writing that affords a way to interrogate my subconscious is a sort of trapdoor from the despair of our political reality, and if that is so I will have great need of it in the years ahead.