For a decade: 33 theses, reflections, quotes

In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:

  1. “The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
  2. Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
  3. Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
  4. “Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
  5. Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
  6. “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
  7. Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
  8. Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
  9. “If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
  10. There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
  11. There are also good and bad readers
  12. “I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
  13. Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
  14. Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
  15. “Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
  16. The Death of the Author is a delusion
  17. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
  18. We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
  19. “As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
  20. Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
  21. Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
  22. Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
  23. Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
  24. The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
  25. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
  26. Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
  27. More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
  28. All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
  29. Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
  30. “My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
  31. “How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
  32. I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
  33. ” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector

To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.

 

My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

Ceridwen Dovey on J. M. Coetzee

The works of J. M. Coetzee, whom Ceridwen Dovey would discover through her mother’s references to a “mysterious man whom she referred to only as ‘J.M.'”, are fully literature, but could without error be placed in many other sections of the library. He therefore presents a complex task for a critic. For Coetzee’s works are also replete with quasi-religious  and national myths, quasi-rhetorical speeches, fictionalised autobiography, ethics, metaphysics and psychology. The ideal critic must try to equal his breadth of concerns as well as his psychological depths. It isn’t surprising that most critics fail to write intelligently about Coetzee’s work. However many times you read his books, there is always more to question, more to try to understand.

For Ceridwen Dovey, in her beautifully presented book, part of a Writers on Writers series, interpretation is not her challenge. She does not ask us to believe anything. Her mother, who is truly the book’s subject, a Coetzee scholar, stops trying to unpick his work: “She now thinks that applying theory to his novels, using reasoned critical discourse to dismantle and decode them, may have been fundamentally against the grain of what the novels themselves ask for.” It is a perfect conclusion to a book Dovey has clearly enjoyed writing, in which readers are not bullied into taking a writer’s line and are instead encouraged to think for themselves.

A Dialogue of Sorts

“Living reading . . . strikes me as a mysterious affair. It involves finding one’s way into the voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself (your self) from outside yourself. The process is thus a dialogue of sorts, though an interior one.”

–J. M. Coetzee, Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy

It is strange and satisfying when one comes across a passage in support of an earlier conversation, in this case with my daughter over breakfast this morning. She referred to an idea I once expressed that fiction is the only way to inhabit momentarily the filter of the Other, something I no longer believe. An act of deep empathy perhaps but still merely a dialogue with oneself.

Recent Arrivals: Poets, Essays, Letters

Carcanet is one of my favourite publishers, with the recent wonderful Carcanet Classics series, and these recent additions to my library.

With a taste for H.D.’s work sharpened by the first twenty pages of Bid Me to Live, her lightly fictional autobiography, these three books will form part of an immersive reading, probably in the early part of next year. H.D.’s engagement with mythology and Hellenic literature is extra compelling.

C.H. Sisson wrote a brilliant essay in the 4th edition of what was Poetry Nation (1975) magazine (now PN Review) on H.D.’s work. I am interested to read more of his literary essays.

W.S. Graham’s collection of letters was irresistibly reviewed on the Carcanet blog recently.

Ceridwen Dovey writing about one of my favourite writers, J.M. Coetzee, was equally compelling, despite having to have it shipped from Australia.

The Thomas Jesus

There was a strong sense while reading J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus that there was much going on that was eluding me, to the degree that I wanted to dig a little deeper. The piece below references the apocryphal infancy gospels that are not permitted to be part of the biblical canon. While I was vaguely aware of their existence, it is quite clear this is a rabbit hole I must follow, not only to do justice to the concentration of thought and feeling in Coetzee’s novel and to prepare to read its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus, but also for curiosity’s sake.

Coetzee’s novel is quite different to what came before, to which he eludes in his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011:

“One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.”

It is I think a very fine novel, one to which I intend to devote time thinking, but it also prompts me to reread some of Coetzee’s earlier work (I’ve read everything) to see how they foreshadow The Childhood of Jesus. In some cases, they seem very directly to do so. One of the reviews I read posed this question: ‘what might happen if characters from previous work were reborn in a new one, with only shadow memories of their prior selves.’ I find this idea very intriguing and, at very least, wish to re-read Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Costello, The Master of Petersburg and Foe, all of which are echoed, to some degree, in The Childhood of Jesus.

“In the canonical New Testament gospels, there is only one reference to Jesus as a boy before the age of twelve and his famous visit to the temple. That is in Luke (2.40), where it is simply said that Jesus ‘grew and became strong’. But there were infancy gospels that did not make the cut, or make it into the canon. (They might be said to be like David’s lost letter.) The infancy gospel called pseudo-Matthew resolves the issue [was he fully human as well as fully divine throughout his life] just raised by having Jesus calm Mary and Joseph about it: ‘Do not be afraid nor consider me a child; I always have been a perfect man and am so now.’ But in the earliest infancy gospel, that of Thomas, the bearing of that narrative on Coetzee’s novel is very clear. In that gospel Jesus is most definitely a child, or perhaps a vindictive and petulant and very childish small adult. A boy bumps into the child Jesus at one point, and Jesus strikes him dead. Another boy displeases him and is said to be ‘withered’. And, again very directly mirroring particular elements of David’s story, the young Jesus is taken by Joseph to Zacchaeus to learn to read, and Jesus outwits and humiliates him to the point where Zacchaeus begs Joseph to take him away. (Jesus, it is clear, does not need to learn to read.) He is later taken to learn Greek and Hebrew (which again he clearly already knows) and in a fit of anger he kills the teacher, although he brings him back to life. (In the novel, David has kept secret that he taught himself to read, and he torments his teacher, señor Léon, until the teacher insists the boy be removed.) Moreover the Thomas Jesus performs miracles that are much more like feats of magic than benevolent displays, and David says several times that he is and will be a great magician. These cannot be accidental and they go beyond irony, or at least that first sort of exasperated irony. If David is not merely an ironic ‘Jesus,’ then in this sense – and perhaps in another irony – he is more ‘realistically’ ‘divine’ and ‘human’ (‘age-appropriate human’) than the ‘official’ biblical Jesus, and is much more like the Thomas Jesus.”

J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas & Things, edited by Jennifer Rutherford & Anthony Uhlmann