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.

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.

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.

 

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.