Thoughts on Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Book of Communities

So I’ll have to reread The Book of Communities. That was a clear thought within the first twenty pages of reading the first book of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy The Geography of Rebels. My state of mind at that thought: excitement and sorrow. However much I read, watch and listen to, there are always going to be vast chasms of stuff that I don’t know. That’s the sorrow. Excitement to discover a writer that has the capability to upend my world to the point I spent two sleepless nights thinking about the book. That such a thing is even possible beyond the heady days of youth is exciting.

There are comparisons to Clarice Lispector. Both writers quickly move beyond conventional narrative and push what is capable within the form of what we call fiction. But so do Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett and if comparisons must be made those are more apt. Llansol’s voices are closer to the metaphorical presences of Beckett, what she calls figures, “It is in exile, in the outside of the outside, that the network of figures, like Ana de Peñalosa, Nietzsche, Saint John of the Cross, Eckhart, Müntzer, Hadewijch, and others, takes root in order to receive the myth of the remaining life, and wonders whether there will be a place in the human body, among their bodies, where fantastic cosmogonic changes correspond to incredibly slow social mutations.” (From this excellent review of Llansol’s trilogy.)

Her use of figures allows Llansol to elude the clichés of literary characterisation and attempt to produce a feeling that is sensed rather than portrayed directly. Somewhere online I read an odd post drawing an analogy between Llansol’s trilogy and Finnegans Wake. Such an analogy is only useful in contrasting the differences. I’ve not read Finnegans Wake cover to cover and suspect I may never do so, but my impression is that Joyce moves almost entirely towards abstraction, reducing his narrative to a purely verbal code. The danger is that pushed to the extreme, abstraction is rendered so richly that it becomes unintelligible mishmash. It is quite possible I am doing Joyce a disservice  (and for once agreeing with Nabokov who called the book “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore.”) As they say on Twitter, don’t @ me.

Llansol is difficult in its own way, but never unintelligible. Her figures are subjected to deformations and subject to a series of precise sensations. It is the precision of thought that gives her story clarity and makes it a container for speculative questions about the nature of writing and close reading. I found reading The Book of Communities an intensely felt experience, nervous as much as cerebral. It is a lived experience of Merleau-Ponty’s essay on language not residing purely in the brain, but being something we do with our bodies, words are “a certain use made of my phonatory equipment, a certain modulation of my body as a being in the world.” In that sense, like poetry, it is a book that benefits by being read aloud, playing with the elisions and sound structures. Its translator, Audrey Young, from what I can tell from comparing its original online, has done an outstanding job of retaining its rich tone and rhythm.

It is the sort of book to be read with a pencil and access to good reference books or a browser. Llansol wrote the first two books several years apart, so rather than rush into the second book in the trilogy, I plan to follow the rabbit-hole leading through medieval mystics, philosophers and social history, so that when I reread The Book of Communities and its sequels I do so with a little less sorrow about all the stuff there is still to know.

Scepticism of Erudition (Fritz Mauthner)

A reference in George Steiner’s great essay Real Presences sent me in search of references to Fritz Mauthner’s influence on Samuel Beckett, and specifically Beckett’s development of scepticism about erudition.

Samuel Beckett’s student library in Watt is worthwhile and usefully points towards other possibly rewarding texts, especially the Linda Ben-Zvi article.

“Beckett came in contact with Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache during his second collaboration with Joyce. For a long time it was thought that Beckett had read passages from Mauthner out loud to Joyce, helping him with preparations for Finnegans Wake. In reality Beckett was asked by Joyce to read the volumes himself. Beckett ended up engaging even deeper with the Beiträge, as he extracted a number of entries and included them in the “Whoroscope” Notebook. The length of the verbatim notes suggests Beckett did not own a copy at the time. Later, Beckett did acquire a copy of the Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache. However, it can only have come into Beckett’s possession after 1954 when he wrote to the German translator Hans Naumann saying that he would have liked to re-read it after the collaboration with Joyce but that it was difficult to find a copy. Beckett preserved his heavily marked three-volume collection until the end of his life in his personal library.

The influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache is one of the most relevant to Beckett Studies, equally important as Descartes or Geulincx. In her seminal article, Linda Ben-Zvi presents Mauthner’s stance on language in the Beiträge. According to his philosophy, language encompasses many meanings, including knowledge. By “systematically denying [the] basic efficacy” of language, Mauthner indirectly argues for the ultimate failure of knowledge. However, one cannot discuss the limitations of language by avoiding the medium of linguistic communication. To Ben-Zvi this is equivalent to “the possibility of using language to indict itself”.[My bolding].

A similar argument can be made to explain Beckett’s changing perspective on erudition. In his works, he resorts to knowledge in numerous ways, ranging from an encyclopaedic to a deliberately superficial use of allusions. After Murphy, Beckett revised his use of language as shown in the 1937 letter to Axel Kaun, as well as his relation to the knowledge he had acquired until then. Reading Mauthner at this point in his writing career coincided with his turn to not only linguistic scepticism, but also to a scepticism with regard to erudition. In Watt, Beckett’s resort to intertextuality is diminished substantially in comparison to the previous novels. More importantly, when present allusions are treated less explicitly. Beckett deals in this manner with the problematic question of erudition without excluding the use of external sources.

The theme of complexity from the TCD lectures returns in Watt, this time through the filter of Fritz Mauthner’s ideas and Beckett’s creative reworking. From Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, Beckett extracted the idea that the inner world is unknowable because there is no language to express it, since language is a system created only for external experiences. Reading Mauthner must have appealed to Beckett due to a number of aspects discussed in the TCD lectures. More precisely, it resonated with his own interpretation of the mind in Racine’s plays, according to which the mind is a hermetic organ that cannot be accessed or explained.

Beckett’s connection with the treatment of the mind includes the presentation in chapter 6 in Murphy: instead of the true picture of the “apparatus”, the interest lies in “what it felt and pictured itself to be”. Watt in his turn applies the dualism between the inner and the outer world: “For Watt’s concern, deep as it appeared, was not after all with what the figure was, in reality, but with what the figure appeared to be, in reality. For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were in reality?”. Complexity is in this way linked to the fragmentation of mind also in Watt, as it is in Racine.
”

The Poetry of Thought

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)

“When God sings to Himself, he sings algebra, opined Liebniz.” p.18

“Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilises our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulative futurity. Hope is the future tense.” p.21

This dialogue, Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought, a dialogic embrace of metaphysics and literature, thrilling as any novel, a book of life, a book for life, one I have no desire to leave. Pencil in hand, note-taking. Lashings of tea.

A reading list that is ever-swelling, transforming.

“To listen closely–Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”– is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.” p.34

One wants to read everything. To reread everything, better. Did one ever understand anything?

“Does difficulty in the Phenomenology and the Enzyklopadie prepare that in Mallarmé, Joyce or Paul Celan, the displacement of language from the axis of immediate or paraphrasable meaning as we find it in Lacan or Derrida (an annotator of Hegel.)” p.88

“Is it possible to reconcile the hermetic with the didactic?” p.88

“What was, lazily, deemed fixed, eternal in the conceptual–that Platonic legacy–is made actual and fluid by the breaking open of words.” p.89

“The muteness of animals remains vestigial in us.” p.90

Stricto sensu consciousness should revert to silence. Beckett is not far off. Yet only language can reveal being.” p.91

“Philosophy, however, outranks even great literature.” p.91

“Human labour both manual and spiritual defines the realisation of the conceptual. This insight translates into the fabric of a Hegelian treatise. The reader must work his way through it. Only the laborious in the root-sense can activate understanding. Passive reception is futile. Via the hard labour of concentrated intake “disquiet is made order” in our consciousness.” p.93

“Hegel produces ‘anti-texts’ aiming at collision with the inert matter of the commonplace. They are, says Adorno, ‘films of thought’ calling for experience rather than comprehension.” p.96

“There was darkness also in Bergson’s outlook, notably toward its close. But he did not wish to extend such darkness to his readers.” p.127

There’s a lifetime’s reading here just tracing the patterns of Steiner’s thought. More than one lifetime.

Starting Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

For her achievement with the thirteen novels that make up Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson ought to be recognised as one of the world’s great novelists. Though I confess to only having read the first four in the sequence, I enjoyed them more than any other novel I’ve read. I don’t make the statement lightly.

By the end of her first novel, Pointed Roofs, I’d started to understand what Richardson was trying to do; as I concluded the third, Honeycomb, the originality and profundity of these novels left me with that feeling of new life that comes after immersion in an icy, dark, deep winter lake. For sustained immersion is what Richardson achieves, into the consciousness of her protagonist Miriam Henderson. In May Sinclair’s review of Pilgrimage, she applied, for the first time, the term stream-of-consciousness to a novel–though Richardson disliked the term.

Other novelists use similar techniques–Joyce, Woolf, Lispector–with differing degrees of effectiveness, but I’ve never been as convinced as I am with Pilgrimage that I am plunged into another’s consciousness, channeled through the pen of Richardson. This is what literature is for, at least for this reader, an opportunity, however brief, to meet the consciousness of another, momentary respite from our solipsism and isolation.

I’m likely to be reading Pilgrimage for some time, as these are not novels to be rushed. Richardson takes all sorts of liberties with time. You must be on your guard to get most of the essence of Miriam Henderson’s encounters with the world. Making sense of the world through the eyes of another is no less taxing than trying to understand people and situations oneself. But her writing is beautiful and exciting. The way Richardson describes the play of light in a room, the minutiae of everyday life, the fragmentary nature of her brushes with others offers a fresh, bracing perspective.

If you have opportunity and an interest, track down John Cowper Powys’s Dorothy M. Richardson. It is a forty-eight page celebration of depth, a fan’s deep and loving appreciation of Pilgrimage. At one time, I might have dismissed it as hyperbole but no more. To borrow from Constance Garnett’s Karamazov, the experience of reading Pilgrimage, so far, is not a matter of intellect or logic, though these novels have enough of both, it’s more about loving life–and literature–with one’s inside.

Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

Arno Schmidt’s Leviathan

Last weekend I read the second of Arno Schmidt’s stories from the Collected Novellas. Entitled Leviathan or The Best of Worlds, this is a claustrophobic short story set during the Fall of Berlin. Presented as the diary of a dead German officer, the story recounts the attempted escape of a motley crew of soldiers and civilians on a steam train.

This being Schmidt, there is a lot more to the story than the high drama and love story that make up the surface reading. Read after Enthymesis, which I now gather (from poring over a Google-translated version of Arno Schmidt Stiftung) was issued with Leviathan and the following story, Gadir, as part of a triptych, the two stories assume a different texture, which I’m sure to reconsider after I read the last of the triptych.

In both cases what I’ve enjoyed most is trying to understand what Schmidt is attempting to say. Two reasonably short stories have sent me delving through reference books and web sites, and, autodidact that I am, taking some satisfaction from what I am learning and remembering along the way. I quite accept that this type of reading is a marginal taste. As Joyce wrote in The Dubliners: ““He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd, but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.”

In Leviathan, as the train hurtles across Berlin, Schmidt’s narrator debates with an old man whether the universe is infinite or merely boundless. Without a working knowledge of Euclidean geometry, some of the nuances were lost on me, but I enjoyed picking through the philosophical and cosmological argument. If you’d care to recommend a decent layman’s book on the geometry of the universe, I’d be appreciative. Schmidt soon makes me aware of gaping holes in my understanding of cosmology.

Knowing that the two Schmidt stories are of a family makes it easier, to the extent anything is easy with Schmidt’s work, to grasp the references to the Book of Job; the argument that God is the creator of Leviathan and therefore responsible directly and indirectly for all moral evils. Enthymesis is then the projection of some or all of those evil attributes onto some person or thing below on earth, in this case within the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany. This reminds me that I’d like to read a decent translation of the Book of Job. Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” If you can recommend one that stands on its literary merits I’d be appreciative.

First We Write, Then We Fail

Plato Watching Socrates Read. From Prognostica Socratis Basilei by Matthew Parris

  1. “Any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of men’s ill-will by committing it to writing.” Plato, Seventh Letter
  2. “Until writing, most kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought”. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology
  3. “Writing is in no way an instrument for communication, it is not an open route through which there passes only the intention to speak.” Barthes, Writing Degree Zero
  4. “Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in.” Richard Young and Patricia Sullivan, Why Write?
  5. “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.” Foucault, Interview with Claude Bonnefoy
  6. “Every bit of writing is imagined as mass which occupies space. It is the duty of writing, therefore, to admit no other, to keep all other writing out.” Edward Said, Beginnings
  7. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” Derrida, Writing and Difference
  8. “Endings then, are faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” Frank Kermode, “Sensing Endings
  9. “. . . I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence, I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fail.” Joyce, Finnegans Wake