Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

JM Coetzee’s Slow Man

In Slow Man Coetzee almost fails, or rather he makes the reader expect him to fail, by braving deep metanarrative but drawing back from any of the expected or even easy narrative threads.

Late Coetzee is playful, Nabokovian; in Slow Man’s case bringing back Elizabeth Costello, a narrator from earlier work to explore again issues of language and sexuality through a prism of weary old age. Coetzee has a finer touch than Nabokov though; his metadiegetic game playing, in this case, succeeds precisely because he knows when to pull back from self-absorbed, self-referential fiction that devours itself.

This Slow Man, like its successor Diary of a Bad Year, which I’m reading, is literature to admire not love. There is satisfaction in narrative as an act of construction but it is less easy to enter the kind of fictional space that leads to total immersion. And perhaps that too is deliberate, a game with the reader, deploying language in a way that is slippery, that eludes truth and falsity, that renders the project more tentatively and, in its way, is more accessible to self-reflection.

I’ve spent a few hundred hours thinking about and reading Coetzee’s work. After Diary of a Bad Year I’ll read The Childhood of Jesus. Of the novels that’ll be the end for me of what exists to date. I’ve read the fictionalised autobiography and consider that trilogy Coetzee’s finest work to date, though Life and Times of Michael K holds a special place in his oeuvre. I also plan to read soon The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, his dialogue with psychologist Arabella Kurtz.

WG Sebald: Bibliography of Secondary Literature

In the next few days I’ll draw to a close my present immersion into Sebald’s work, leaving The Natural History of Destruction, Campo Santo, Across the Land and the Water, Unrecounted and For Years Now for another day.It’ll prolong the moment when I can only reread Sebald, and also give me the chance to take a breather from his unique atmosphere of mourning and ghosts.  Sebald’s work induces in me a particular sensation of vulnerability and melancholy; splashing about in the deep end is luxurious in its own peculiar way, but immersion can become overwhelming. (Though I’m considering reading some Woolf next so simply substituting another flavour of haunting and reflecting on the work of memory.)

Previously I’ve compiled bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature of writers whose work I hold in affection, Beckett and Kafka in particular. In Sebald’s case, Terry Pitt’s Vertigo should be the first stop for English-speaking Sebald obsessives, followed by Christian Wirth’s Sebald site for German speakers.

I’m sure the list below isn’t definitive. It represents those publications that caught my attention, which I plan to get around to reading sometime. If you think I’ve missed any that are worthwhile please let me know in comments.

  1. Saturn’s Moons: WG Sebald – A Handbook. Legenda, 2001. If you only buy a single piece of secondary material, this is the one to get. Jo Catling and Richard Hibbit have compiled an extraordinarily rich resource, including a huge secondary bibliography. The chapter on WG Sebald’s library alone makes this book worthwhile.
  2. Searching for Sebald: Photography After WG Sebald. Institute of Cultural Enquiry, 2007. There are some fancy editions of this book, but I have a softcover version. I have barely dipped into this beautifully produced book. Photographs in Sebald’s books constitute a parallel narrative, so I’m looking forward to studying this closely at some point.
  3. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald. Seven Stories Press, 2007. I’ve read and enjoyed the Tim Parks essay, and will finish the other essays and interviews before moving on from Sebald.
  4. WG Sebald: History – Memory – Trauma. Walter de Gruyter, 2006. Looks like an interesting collection of essays, including Sebald’s Amateurs by Ruth Franklin.
  5. Reading WG Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience – Deane Blackler. Camden House, 2007. In his thoughts on the book, Terry Pitts said, “I will say that I found myself feeling that Blackler was often articulating how I feel as I struggle to understand why reading Sebald is unlike reading just about anyone else.”
  6. WG Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity – JJ Long. Columbia University Press, 2007. Sebald’s work in context with the ‘problem of modernity’ looks right up my street.
  7. WG Sebald: A Critical Companion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Essays and poems include those by JJ Long and Anne Whitehead and George Szirtes.
  8. The Undiscover’d Country: WG Sebald and the Poetics of Travel. Camden House, 2010. Terry Pitt’s posts on this publication.
  9. After Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. Full Circle Editions, 2014. I picked this book up at its London Review Bookshop launch. Intriguing collection of essays by artists and writers as diverse as Coetzee, Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane and Ali Smith.
  10. Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life – Helen Finch. Legends, 2013. I enjoy Helen Finch’s blog and Twitter account, and am very interested to read a book that Terry Pitts calls, “one of the most important books on Sebald to date”.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Language and Style

Ideas are certainly important-who would deny that?-but the fact is, the ideas that operate in novels and poems, once they are unpicked from their context and laid out on the laboratory table, usually turn out to be uncomplicated, even banal, Whereas a style, an attitude to the world, as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self.

Coetzee
Homage

Beckett’s Secret

Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964

Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964

Coetzee on Beckett (1992):

Beckett has meant a great deal to me in my own writing – that must be obvious. He is a clear influence on my prose. […] The essays I wrote on Beckett’s style aren’t only academic exercises, in the colloquial sense of that word. They are also attempts to get closer to a secret, a secret of Beckett’s that I wanted to make my own. And discard, eventually, as it is with influences.

It is In the Heart of the Country that Beckett’s influence seems most clear in Coetzee’s work, but also apparent in Waiting for Barbarians and  Life and Times of Michael K.  In the latter Coetzee writes memorably of, “a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand,”  paying quiet homage to Molloy’s famous sequence.

[November 2013: The link originally in this post, to a NYRB Coetzee review of Beckett’s letters is now subscribers only, so I’ve changed the original post.]

Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Such darkness in Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, ostensibly the tale of a haunted, fictionalised Dostoevsky returning to nineteenth century St Petersburg to mourn and collect the papers of a dead stepson, who has apparently become the political tool of local nihilists.

Although Coetzee’s Russian backdrop is superficially different from his earlier works, his theme of a tortured protagonist that must humble himself to learn to love, against an undercurrent of violence and death, is familiar territory. The tension in The Master of Petersburg is created from a confrontation of moralities and questions around authorship.

This Wikipedia post on the book suggests a confessional aspect to The Master of Petersburg, which I’ll investigate further when time permits. The intertextual relationship with Dostoevsky’s Demons is clear and fascinating. I love when a writer of Coetzee’s ability continues a literary conversation started a century earlier.

Reading Coetzee’s Age of Iron

In the late eighties, the professor in charge of our research group invited us regularly to his Muswell Hill house for debates that would often extend, over dope and Rioja, into the next morning. Let’s call him Richard, it is as good a name as any. Richard had the most extensive library of dog-eared paperbacks I’d ever seen, a mixture of non-fiction that betrayed his earlier Communist party affiliation and obscure novels, many in French and Spanish.

It was Richard that lead me to the novels of JM Coetzee, for which I am indebted. Coetzee is for me the touchstone of all novelists. Richard is my reference point for that generation of dejected former Communists that sold out, first to impotent liberal-humanist posturing, then eventually to free-market economics. That generation are accountable for much of the nastiness of Western government and its pernicious influence on the rest of the world. They opened Pandora’s box, and I am not at all certain that it can be resealed.

Coetzee’s Age of Iron condemns the impotence of liberal-humanist posturing in South Africa’s apartheid era, a form of champagne cowardice that was equally clear within the Moroccan blue walls of Muswell Hill. Using the first person point of view, Coetzee makes the reader a co-protagonist in this unmasking. No other perspective would have served his narrative model so powerfully in this truly heartbreaking story. It ends with the faintest hint of release but nothing that could be considered absolution.

The Stupor of Power

It is hard, perhaps impossible, not to be cynical about politicians. Our institutions have singularly failed us, repeatedly. As the man credited with the title of first anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, wrote:

To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonised, listed and checked-off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about, by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is, at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. It is, on the pretext of public utility and in the name of the common good, to be put under contribution, exercised, held to ransom, exploited, monopolised, concussed, pressured, mystified,
robbed; then, at the least resistance and at the first hint of complaint, repressed, fined, vilified, vexed, hunted, exasperated, knocked-down, disarmed, garroted, imprisoned, shot, grape-shot, judged, condemned, deported, sacrificed, sold, tricked; and to finish off with, hoaxed, calumniated, dishonoured. Such is government! And to think that there are democrats among us who claim there’s some good in government!

Such a statement must have seemed overly dramatic in 19th-century France, but is there anybody now that would not recognise much that is familiar in the governments of the 21st-century?

This isn’t a political blog (though everything is political). Reading JM Coetzee sent me flicking through my anarchist notebooks for context. In Age of Iron, Coetzee’s narrator writes of the South African administration but it applies to any:

The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school-desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their mothers and fathers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives. Why, in a spirit of horror and loathing, do I watch them? [..] Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power.

Circumnavigation and Coetzee’s Foe.

One mild summer in the late eighties, with limited resources and no compelling responsibilities, I set out to circumnavigate the 11,073 miles or about 17,820 kilometres that make up the coastline of Great Britain.

At the time my only foray outside of London and the south of the country had been on an aeroplane diverted to Birmingham airport due to fog at Heathrow. The single thrill of this inconvenience took place on the return train to London, en-route to boarding school, when my train passed through the small town of Leighton Buzzard. One of my favourite songs from a few years earlier had been Saturday Night (Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees)  sung by The Leyton Buzzards, who went on to greater renown as the pop group Modern Romance.

Provoked by a desire to see the country of my birth I walked a little, but mostly hitchhiked, following the coastal roads. This odyssey became the prototype of similar journeys from north to south, then east to west in Ireland, and across the top of North Africa.

On this trip around Great Britain I slept mostly in small harbour side inns, always with a sea view of sorts, but occasionally in bus stops, or sheltered by seaside groynes and, on one occasion, on a park bench. A touch clichéd, but I felt a wanderer’s imperative.

I discovered many things about the country and myself: Gregg’s bakeries sell different delicacies country-wide, discovering these regional specialities became a mission; people who picked me up from the side of the road for both long and short runs were mostly staggeringly kind and generous; it was rare to even see a car (and very, very windy), let alone hitch a lift on the eastern and northern coastal roads of Scotland. What I found in eastern Scotland, perhaps the highlight of a trip that was terrific and terrible in equal part, was the wind lashed village of Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Lower Largo.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Lower Largo.

This afternoon I finished reading JM Coetzee’s Foe, which uses Defoe’s book as the metatextual framework to explore the ontological status of fictional characters, the nature of authority and language, all themes that Coetzee goes on to question in later novels. As always with Coetzee, as with Beckett, it is as though the writer published fully formed mature novels from the first instance. There is no sense of the writer having to develop their craft in full gaze of readers, as Zadie Smith has described.