Losing Literature

D. J. Enright, literary critic, novelist, poet, with a reticence comparable to Stevie Smith, is not literally insufferable. His reluctantly autobiographical commonplace books have dressed my bedside for some years, and with good temper and a mood for his lightly worn erudition, they offer diversion from insomnious thought-spreading. Mood is all important; on another occasion he’ll bring out my deep-shrouded Ajax, desirous to purge myself of his insufferable pride, his manner of finding yet another oblique way of emphasising his scholarship. Such is the nature of insomnia.

In Injury Time he tells the story of when fellow literary critic Frank Kermode moved house a few years before his death:

“[Kermode] had boxes of books, inscribed first editions and valuable manuscripts, ready for the removal men. The three workmen to whom he showed the boxes were Cambridge dustmen called in to make a special waste clearance. Thirty boxes had been consigned to the dustcart before the mistake was realised. The dustmen declined to climb into the cart, which contained a mechanical crusher.”

James Wood, literary critic, also often insufferable, tells the same story, adding that Kermode “was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory.”

This came to mind recently as I accidentally gave away a book I learnt a few days later was very valuable. As its value was only pecuniary I was able to recover my equanimity remarkably quickly.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

Solace Through Reading

It seems to me that literary critics fall into two groups. There are probably more, but for the sake of this post, two will do.

Most aspire to emulate nineteenth century men of letters, bloviating endlessly, mostly, it seems to me, to force some tendentious idea of fiction down readers’ throats. (Think James Wood, with his obsession for a form of realism.) They write the same review over and over. Read one, you’ve read them all. Why do the exist in their legions? Perhaps for those timorous readers that don’t have an opinion until they’ve been told what to think. When I read their reviews I think of a bad-tempered, constipated man (they are always men) hunched, muttering as they two-fingerly punch the keyboard, before sitting back to bask in applause (and their payment).

Then there are those rare creatures like David Winters and Rita Felski who simply must read, for whom reading, and thinking about literature, and writing about the books they love, is as necessary as breathing. To quote a line from David Winters’s superb introduction to Infinite Fictions, “I’ve tried to rationalise my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” Or as Rita Felski writes in her brilliant Uses of Literature, “Reading may offer a solace and relief not to be found elsewhere, confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think and feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.”

In my last post I wrote about the part literature plays in my life as a project of disburdenment. Of near equal importance is this act of solace. We exist but did not choose existence. Existence transcends reason. It is inexplicable, absurd. What to do but seek the refuge of another mind, in the only way we can attempt to inhabit another mind: through literature.

As David Winters writes, “I’ve never known who I am [..] Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.”

Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.


Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

In those moments when we step out of time, dissolved in a book or piece of music, where are we? First-person fiction is a form of voyeurism, surreptitious participation in a scene in which we have no presence. Reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers I am invisibly present, pressed against protagonist Reno’s back as she weaves her Moto Valera motorcycle through New York traffic, almost able to observe through her eyes, almost able to think her thoughts. Almost because first-person fiction offers up this fantasy of being able to access another’s interior. This is one reason I read fiction. The very best fiction, and The Flamethrowers fits this description, promises this sort of access, with its characters, more real in many ways than those passing me on the train as I read. This is one of those stories, told so well that in years to come its scenes and characters will become part of my pool memories, hazily recollected like those parties where we observed and participated through a haze of alcohol or drugs.

My Moto Valera was vintage, a Benelli 750 Sei, an angular, ugly beast of a motorcycle. I have an urge to find one again, to ride, like Reno, across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Salt Flats

Salt Flats

Saul Bellow’s Hunger for the Universal

At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed on non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.

From Christopher Hitchens’s review (2007) of two Library of America collections of Bellow’s fiction. In Arguably this easy is entitled Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator (pages 62-63).

Though I’d agree with the central premise of McEwan’s position, I’d couple Bellow and Philip Roth as heirs to European classicism.

The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai

‘I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star’. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

A decaying Hungarian town is reluctant host to a visiting circus offering the spectacle of ‘the biggest whale in the world.’ The circus’ arrival, accompanied by a gang of refractory hoodlums, catalyzes the town’s entropy and sparks a single, violent night of vandalism and murder.

The travelling circus is dominated by an enigmatic ‘Prince of darkness’ who foments the night of savagery. In a town characterised by its feckless or drunken civic leaders, emerges the indomitable Mrs. Eszter, who deserves to  be remembered as one of literary history’s most unscrupulous villains, with plans to ‘spring-clean’ and restore pride to the degenerate town. Mrs. Eszter, in her cunning, recalls Stendhal’s brilliant Duchess Sanseverina. Beauvoir said of Stendhal,”[He] never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character”.

Though the Prince and Mrs. Eszter, adversaries only in appearance, accelerate the story’s events, it is the misanthropic Mr. Eszter and his slow-witted disciple that are the main protagonists of Krasznahorkai’s story. Mr. Eszter withdraws to his drawing room, apparently in search of musical purity, but in fact to turn away from the dissolution of the town and its people.

The world, as Eszter established, consisted merely of ‘an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn’; its various concerns were incompatible and it was too full of noises of banging, screeching and crowing, noises that were simply, the discordant and refracted sounds of struggle, and that this was all there was to the world if we but realised it. But his ‘fellow human beings’, who also happened to find themselves in this draughty uninsulated barracks and could on no account bear their exclusion from some notion of a distant state of sweetness and light, were condemned to burn for ever in a fever of anticipation, waiting for something they couldn’t even begin to define, hoping for it despite the fact that all evidence, which every day continued to accumulate, pointed against its very existence, thereby demonstrating the utter pointlessness of their waiting.

Punctuating Mr. Eszter’s solitariness, Valuska, thought of as the town-idiot, delivers his freshly laundered clothes and meals. Valuska becomes embroiled with the gang of hoodlums and their orgy of violence; his subsequent disappearance awakens Mr. Eszter from his self-absorption.

I’ve seen Krasznahorkai’s style (first two sentences here) likened to Thomas Bernhard’s, although I am reading both in translation, but the similarities seem superficial. There is less humour in Krasznahorkai, at least in The Melancholy of Resistance, more ominousness, with the phantasmagorical terrain familiar to Kafka and Walser. Comparison to either of those writers may be puffery on the basis of a single book, but The Melancholy of Resistance is sublime.

James Wood writes, “His demanding novel “The Melancholy of Resistance” is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. The pleasure of the book flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness”. My disagreement with Wood is that the novel is demanding; as László Krasznahorkai explains: “You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too”.

Krasnahorkai has written six novels, only two are in English translation (all translated so far by George Szirtes); I’ll be reading War & War soon, followed in March by Satantango.

Book Shelves #1

Biblioklept intends a series of posts during 2012 about his bookshelves, and has kicked the project off from his nightstand.

As such, a final note on movement: I will move “outward” from this nightstand, photographing any place where books are set. I will photograph every kind of book in this house in its natural habitat; this includes children’s books and cookbooks, but does not include personal photograph albums, instruction manuals, or anything else of that nature. I plan to do 53 total book shelf posts, including this one (there are 53 Sundays in 2012).

My hope is that readers will respond to these posts by sharing their own bookshelving habits.

I love the idea and have decided to take up Biblioklept’s challenge to share my own book shelving habits. Using my iPhone I will photograph all the places in the house where books rest, carrying the project through moving to a new house in the spring.

My first photograph is of the stack that sits on my antique oak desk, beside my left-hand speaker. The size of this stack varies greatly depending on what I am reading at a given time. My photographs will move outward from my desk.

I’m rereading (for a third time) James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a chapter at a time. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and Alice Oswald’s Memorial are recent acquisitions that have yet to be shelved. I’m slowly reading László Krasznahorkai’s intoxicating The Melancholy of Resistance.

Open City by Teju Cole

Open City is narrated by Julius, a part Nigerian, part German psychiatry student. Beginning with a strong Sebaldian influence as Julius aimlessly wanders around the streets and parks of New York, the story develops into a modern inquiry into the foundation of personality, memory, nationhood and dislocation.

Although written in the first person the narrator remains at a distance, a lonely, bookish character, more comfortable discussing literary or musical influences (Mahler, Coetzee, Barthes) than developing a relationship with a childhood friend or dying professor. This distance allows Cole, as James Wood explains below, to make his novel ‘as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.’

In The Western Canon, as Biblioklept mentioned recently, Harold Bloom argues ‘that it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ Both terms are comfortably conferred on Teju Cole’s Open City, a staggeringly good novel of great potency.

Cole’s novel is subject of a strong review from James Wood:

But I hope the prospective reader will turn that first page, because the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it.