Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

My Year in Reading: 2017

Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)

Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.

My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.

Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.

My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).

It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.

Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.

Hunger for Wordlessness

The Ten Oxherding Pictures, No. 1. Shūbun, after Kakuan

Lyric thought is a direct response to the fact that the particular capacity for language-use possessed by our species cuts us off from the world in a way, or to a degree, that is painful.

 We experience the burden of our capacity for language as loss – though we rarely recognise that this is the burden, that what we have lost is silence.

 Lyric art is the fullest expression of the hunger for wordlessness

 Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy

The Impersonal Within Us (Lyric Thought)

Scene from Orson Welles’s “Don Quixote”

There is still much I wish to share of Jan Zwicky’s reflections in Lyric Philosophy. Her highly compacted approach to questions of subjectivity and language are developed  with an acute elegance that owes much to Wittgenstein’s style. Her arguments and thoughts, presented through fragments and crystalline prose have none of the patient, and frankly dull linear narrative of claim and counter-claim that characterises much philosophy.

As Wittgenstein, there is little sense that Zwicky’s reflections add up to a philosophical system but they throw an illuminating light on the “I speak” of Foucault’s simple sentence, “It it therefore true, undeniably true, that I speak when I say that I am speaking. But things may not be so simple.”

In Book 1 of Lyric Philosophy Zwicky argues that emotions are an integral part of human nature and unjustly set in opposition to reason and logical thought. Emotions shape how we see our world, a necessary factor in how we acquire knowledge. Although emotions are profoundly interior they also reach outwards. On that note, let me share two of Zwicky’s propositions:

“It is in this way, then, that philosophy might assume lyric form: when thought whose eros is clarity is driven also by profound intuitions of coherence – when it is also an attempt to arrive at an integrated perception, a picture or understanding of how something might affect us as beings with bodies and emotions as well as the ability to think logically. Or when it is an investigation informed by or moving towards an appreciation of such a picture or understanding.

When philosophy attempts to give voice to an ecology of experience.” – § 68

“This is not lyric in a sense that emphasises the role of the individual ego: the ‘outpouring of subjective emotion’ connected with the rise of Romantic poetry. That sense is corrupt and is based on a subversion of the desire that fundamentally underlies lyric expression – relinquishment of the individual ego rather than celebration of it.

Lyric thought springs from love, love that attends to the most minutes details of difference; and in this attention experiences connection rather than isolation.” § 69

This seems important to the place of subjective emotion in written thought, whether expressed as fiction or non-fiction – to what extent these terms remain useful today – that it is rooted in emotion but directed outward towards things in the world, or as Zwicky writes, “It bespeaks an awareness that is vulnerable to the world.”

An Instrument’s Sound

From Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy:

“Dealers in fine musical instruments almost never play the instruments they appraise. Their assessments are based on externally measurable proportions, antique value, the visual appearance of the varnish, the reputation of the luthier, and so on. An understanding of the Tractatus’s arguments might be compared to a violin’s market value; an understanding of its thought, to a musician’s appreciation of the instrument’s sound.

Simone Weil [The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills]

Infinite difference between three hours spent at a machine on piece-work, and three hours spent in front of a fresco of Giotto’s. The relationship between time and me is the stuff of which my life is woven, and it is possible to establish an infinite difference therein. A Bach fugue is a model.”

Giotto’s Legend of St Francis – Renunciation of Wordly Goods

Schumann’s glorious sonata played on Isserlis’ Stradivarius, accompanied by pianist Dénes Várjon, for no other reason but that it accompanies the Giotto so exquisitely. This is the stuff of which my life is woven.

A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

Sometimes, one’s reading coalesces into silent flood . . .


‘Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.’ – Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig with a Memoir

‘Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.’ Beckett, Watt

‘I wanted to take a snapshot from the book but it feels that it demands such a private form of reading.’ Daniela Cascella, (my italics) ‘I feel like that with most books, this is why I hardly ever blog anymore’ flowerville_ii

‘Making yourself understood is impossible, there’s no such thing as doing that.’ Thomas Bernhard, Three Days (Douglas Robertson’s translation)

‘I cannot help these words as he can: / mute radiance, the empty shining valley. / I cannot keep them clean, they suffocate, / fall stillborn from my mouth. / Prod them for signs of life like poisoned mice.’ Jan Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies