Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.

Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea

the-dreamer-1840-jpglargeOne morning as I was riding my bicycle–I must have been around five or six years of age–I was struck by the sensation of being ‘me’. It hadn’t occurred to me before but the feeling persisted for several minutes. I saw myself for the first time as distinct from the people around me. In Sartre’s essay on Baudelaire, he writes that “Everyone in his childhood has been able to observe the accidental and shattering apparition of the consciousness of self.” When I was able, much later, to think coherently about that sensation of personal identity, I understood it to be composed of a person’s past and present.

Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea is a narrative about a protagonist seeking non-being, an experiment with living each moment fully, without desire or projection. His sense of self is fashioned by “Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer – also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.” Magris raises important questions that many of us struggle with about personal autonomy, authenticity and identity–how to make the transition from an aesthetic to ethical selfhood? His protagonist, Enrico Mreule, choses an austere, solitary life that leads not only to his own progressive mental deterioration but that of the people he choses to have around him.

Man is not a particularly dignified species but it is compelling to read an account of a character with a heroic, fate haunted conception of self. Enrico, like Philoctetes who he admires, tries to establish a life solely dependent on himself but of course, like all of us, is enmeshed in a web of complex forces. Past relationships and emotions are a crucial part of our consciousness of self. To disregard such forces is to put our sense of identity at risk. Magris’s novel is all too brief, but remarkable to follow Enrico’s life journey from nobility to pity, and use the space to reflect on human nature and the values that ought govern a human life.

Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.

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Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

I Yawn, I Wait For Night to Fall.

Swan age circa 1936 Paul Nash 1889-1946 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01771

Swan age circa 1936 Paul Nash 1889-1946 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01771

It’s time for my annual reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. Each time I read Nausea I’m transported to the salt marshes of Brittany where one summer, with credit to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue for the metaphor, I kissed the sea on the lips with my first oyster and was dazzled by the thought-experiment that is Nausea. I have sentences and whole passages of Robert Baldrick’s translation imperfectly memorised.

A perfect day to turn in upon oneself: these cold rays which the sun projects like a pitiless judgement on all creatures enter into me through my eyes; I am illuminated within by an impoverishing light. A quarter of an hour would be enough, I feel sure, for me to attain a feeling of supreme self-contempt. No, thank you very much, I can do without that. Nor shall I reread what I wrote yesterday about Rollebon’s stay in St Petersburg. I remain seated, my arms dangling, or else I write a few words, rather dispiritedly; I yawn, I wait for night to fall. When it is dark, the objects and I will come out of limbo.

As Camus wrote of Nausea, each of the book’s chapters, taken by itself, “reaches a kind of perfection in bitterness and truth.”

Beautiful Books, Bibliophilia and Vladislavić’s Loss Library

If I were asked which publisher I admire most, I should say Seagull Books. In truth, possibly because I never request and very rarely accept review copies, I give individual publishers little thought (though I do also have fondness for Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series). It is of course individual writers and their work that interests me.

I am especially fond of Seagull Books for two reasons: their commitment to making printed books that aspire to the highest aesthetic standards, and the specific writers and translators they publish. As this excellent essay on Seagull Book states, “Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just likes but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art.”

At the moment I am slowly reading Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, slowly because the essays inside are light, bright, and sparkling. David Winters captures their essence well in this review. Essays aside, the book itself is a joy, including the 12 collages by Sunandini Banerjee that accompany each essay. You can tell that this is a publisher that cares deeply about the books they produce.

Seagull Books has the depth and quality of backlist that feels like you can pluck off their shelves any one of the editions and be almost assured of a singularly rewarding experience. This afternoon I rummaged through my library and collected all my Seagull titles together, which includes old chestnuts like Sartre, Bernhard, Handke, Quignard and Schwarzenbach, but also new discoveries await like Nooteboom, Clément and Hilbig.

It is the sort of backlist that ignites my inner bibliophile urge to collect everything, but thankfully the scale of Seagull’s backlist outstrips the funds at my disposal.

Admitting Light: Not Entirely

In Ancient Greece they used the lovely word diaphanes. You can repeat it for its pleasure alone, not knowing what it means, but feeling how it fills the mouth with clear air and opens it to the sun with its double a. It has survived in English as diaphanous and is found in the Romance languages, as diafan in Romanian, and in French diaphane. In Romanian it refers to something light and delicate, like a feather or a spring dress; the French usage puts greater emphasis on admitting light: not entirely, but noticeably. Porcelain can be diaphane, or an autumn leaf, or parchment, the old or aristocratic skin on one’s hands. Broadening this meaning one can also use diaphane to describe a silhouette (“it was beautiful, elegant, and diaphane“) or even sunlight seen in a particular way (“The sun was clear and diaphane, like white wine.”) (Despite their delicacy, both quotes are drawn from Sartre.

Marek Bieńczyk, Transparency. trans. Benjamin Paloff. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 (2007)

The Summer I Really Started Reading

I’d been given the task of clearing out Mr. Lace’s garage. For ten pounds. Mr. Lace lived in Finchley, a two hour journey involving trains and buses. A long way but ten pounds was a lot of money.

In 1980, LPs cost £2.99. With that ten pounds I bought Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and saved the rest to buy a knock-off Perfecto leather biker jacket from Portobello Road. I wish I still had that jacket but I left it in the Lewisham Wimpey after an Adam and the Ants’ gig.

Rearranging Mr. Lace’s garage changed everything. I’d always been a reader, at that stage mostly science fiction, or my father’s books. My father read American detective stories and Wilbur Smiths. Mr. Lace was American, another reason, apart from the ten pounds, I accepted the task of cleaning his garage, curious to see what an American would store. Americans were still exotic in London then, what little I knew of Americans, to me the land of Marvel comics and The Fonz.

Among bicycles of various sizes, empty jars, old copies of the Washington Post, boxes of mysterious machine parts, pallets of tinned goods, and spiders the size of my hand, I discovered two boxes of decomposing books. They were in such an awful state that the books on the top layer fell apart in my hands like ancient fragments of bone at a dig. But the next layer were slightly better preserved.

Entranced by my discovery I began taking the books from the boxes, they seemed to call to me, poor unloved books. They deserved some attention before they crumbled to dust. And so my reading acquired a new depth and voraciousness. I took all those books from the boxes, laying them out in the sun. Mr. Lace didn’t seem to mind. Every so often he’d look in on me, on my perch of an upturned tea chest, and throw me an encouraging wink. A task that should have taken three days took a week.

I’d dip into each book, reading the first two pages. If it caught my attention I’d read on for another ten pages or so. If still hooked, I’d put it aside in a pile that grew over the course of that week. The first book that snagged me so hard I had to finish it was The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren. At the end of that third day, I tucked the book into my jacket, carefully, like a bird with a broken wing, and was grateful of the long train and bus journey home. I finished that story about a heroin junkie in Chicago on the way to Mr. Lace’s garage the next day.

At the end of that week, quite a pile of books had been stacked. After Mr. Lace gave me ten pounds, I asked if I might have the books, if he had no further use for them. Mr. Lace nodded, but prior to allowing me to put them gingerly into the black rubbish bag I had stuffed into my pocket that morning explicitly to bring these books home, he glanced over each title, sometimes with a nostalgic smirk. Over that long summer I read all those books, the start of my adult reading life. Amongst those glorious titles were In Cold Blood by Capote, The Thin Man, Sartre’s Nausea and The Story of O. That summer I went from sporadic reading to never leaving home without a book in the inside pocket of my knock off Perfecto biker jacket. Thanks to The Story of O, that summer also marked my transition from boyhood to horny teenager, but that’s a whole other story.