The Only Reading That Deserves the Name

Part of this interview, on reading, resonated deeply, though the entire interview is extraordinary, as is Handke’s To Duration.

“PH: One’s manner of reading changes throughout life. I believe that I’ve only now reached a point where I’ve really learned to read. Or at least that I’ve realized how I used to read. Not even when I was reading Stifter could I really read. It was often … for example, Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Hölderlin’s Hyperion: I read them at the wrong time, I didn’t understand anything of them, and I also didn’t understand, as Ludwig Hohl says, that different authors have different reading speeds. The reading speed I had earlier was much different than the one I have now, which I think is really the one that suits me best. I now only want to be able to, to be allowed to read slowly.

HG: And you write this way as well. That brings to mind: one student found this slow tempo an imposition: how at the beginning of Slow Homecoming, with these long sentences, you force this slowness onto the reader, like in a Wagner opera.

PH: I can understand that very well. At twenty I probably would have stopped reading after two sentences.

HG: Yes, one can only either stop reading or fully give oneself over to it. But to superficially take it in, ‘informative reading’, as it’s called, that doesn’t work.

PH: Nor in the evening before going to sleep, reading in bed, that doesn’t work at all.

HG: Carefully reading a few sentences, that works. But so quickly…

PH: You also can’t force anyone to do anything. You can’t say: you must read at this precise speed.

HG: But otherwise it doesn’t work; one has to read at that tempo.

PH: But I really can assure anyone, if they give it a try, if they want to and are able to read so slowly, they’ll get something out of it.

HG: Yes, then and only then. And that shouldn’t be a reproach!

PH: I have a great need: not simply to read slowly, but rather to slow myself down through reading. But it’s more than that. If it doesn’t work that way, then I lose all pleasure in reading. When I start scanning again, devouring the pages like I used to, then I start to feel my limbs and extremities becoming cold – which is for me a physical sign, when I get cold – only the cheeks remain hot. Then I know that I’m not reading correctly, or that the book’s not the right one for me. But then when everything becomes warm: the heart, the mind, the senses, out to the smallest fingertips; when I also stall – not falter: when I’m able to stall, to pause, then my reading is an all-embracing perception, then it’s … then out of this self-immersion there arises a vision, a completely natural, logical vision of the outermost world (not just the outer world). For me that’s just … it’s completely organic … for me that’s the only way it works with certain things – so that I can ponder them, pore over them. Although there are moments of longing for the old speedy ‘page-turner’ reading – not ‘longing’: rather nostalgia for the page-turner era. Then one puts away the Hölderlin poem, or whatever ancient text, and one picks up something by an author like Simenon, and for a while it’s like being in a speedboat. But for the duration (and I say that expressly: for the duration), the other kind of reading – the reading I have now learned, have now acquired – is the only kind that deserves the name.”

With thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for pointing towards this superb interview: The Sun of Words, excerpts from Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, an interview between Herbert Gamper and Peter Handke.

The Erotic Dimension of Pedagogy

As Bertram has shown in some splendid pages, we encounter the tradition of Socratic Eros and the educative daimon in Nietzsche. According to Bertram, the sayings sum up perfectly this erotic dimension of pedagogy. One is Nietzsche himself: “The deepest insights spring from love alone.” Another is by Goethe: “We learn only from those we love.” Finally, there is Hölderlin’s dictum: “Mortal man gives his best when he loves.” These three maxims go to show that it is only through reciprocal love that we can accede to genuine consciousness.

Pierre Hadot
The Figure of Socrates
Philosophy as a way of life

Elective Affinities by Goethe

Goethe generates a lot of noise, an iconic artist adored by Kafka and Brod, yet I sense not widely read outside of Germany today. Elective Affinities is my first Goethe, read as part of the bibliographing Reading Challenge; Nicole is posting all week about her reading of Elective Affinities. German Literature Month, co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, influenced my intention to finally get around to Goethe. With a return journey to Australia this last week, I hoped to devote considerable time to reading, but the lure of films and a decent wine list got the better of me. Finishing Elective Affinities is about all I managed.

[…] what we call limestone is a more or less pure oxide of calcium tightly combined with a weak acid known to us in gaseous form. If a piece of that rock is placed in dilute sulphuric acid this combines with the calcium to form gypsum; the gaseous weak acid, on the other hand, escapes. A separation and a new combination have come about and one even feels justified in using the term “elective affinity”, because it really does seem as though one relationship were preferred to another and a choice made for one over the other.

This is how Goethe introduces the chemical theory of elective affinities and foreshadows the relationships that will come about between the noble Eduard and Charlotte, and their counterparts Ottilie and the Captain.

Ostensibly an archetypal nineteenth-century Romantic tragedy, there are elements that are surprisingly and prototypically postmodern. The opening fragment: “Eduard-let that be the name we give to a wealthy baron in the best years of his life-,” introduce us to a tendentious and questionable third-person narrative, which, with differing degrees of distance, presents the frames of mind of the four leading characters.

Tragic though the ending is, there is little attempt at the sort of plot resolution found in a Jane Austen story. The futility at the novel’s conclusion is another aspect of Goethe’s remarkably modern take on the Romantic tragedy. Aridity or death awaits each protagonist.

Don’t think though that Elective Affinities is a dull morality tale, like Jane Austen Goethe uses irony and satire to potent effect. Mittler (in English, mediator or go-between) is one such tool for Goethe’s humour:

Those with superstitious conviction that names are meaningful assert that it was his being called Mittler which obliged him to follow this strangest of vocations.

Goethe makes Mittler a “peculiar man,” a cleric who changed “career” after winning the lottery and appears to spend his time resolving (interfering) in people’s disputes. His role is as defender of tradition and marriage.

Elective Affinities provides no end of opportunity for rereading and interpretation. There are recurring themes. There are disputes that polarise the different characters (contrast Mittler’s view of marriage with the Count’s). There is the oddly detached practice of naming characters by their profession: the Captain (who becomes the Major in the second half), the Architect, the Count, and so on.

Part way through I was unsure whether I was enjoying Elective Affinities. By the end I am convinced of its artistry and that I will reread it and read more Goethe. Thanks, Nicole, for reading along and now I’ve posted my thoughts I can turn to yours.

My Plans for German Literature Month II

Somehow during German literature month, in addition to my plans to read Effi Briest, The Silent Angel, Visitation, The Judge and his Hangman and Old Masters, I have challenged Nicole to a shared reading of Elective Affinities, which seems proper to post about as part of German lit-month. I am also going to read at least one of Kleist’s brilliant short stories again to respond to the call for a worldwide reading on 21 November.

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the German Heinrich von Kleist Society are calling for cultural institutions, schools, radio stations and anyone who is interested to organise a worldwide reading of the works of the German author Heinrich von Kleist on 21 November 2011, the 200th anniversary of his death.

The 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death on 21 November 2011 is an occasion to discuss the relationship between crisis, critique and reform ideas then and today. However, the 21st of November is also the day on which tribute should be paid to Kleist’s life, how he died and his works. In his honour, excerpts from the letters and works of Heinrich von Kleist should be read on the anniversary of his death.

Fortunately I have a few days off and a business trip down under, so should have reading time to spare.

Checking Out Kafka’s Bookshelves

These bookshelves are metaphorical as Kafka lived a Spartan existence. Somehow I don’t picture a book-lined study, more a monastic cell, but Kafka’s library card was in heavy use.

A secondary pleasure of reading Franz Kafka: A Biography is that tMax Brod records the authors and, in some cases, particular books that Kafka enjoyed. Kafka read widely, citing influences from Dickens to Mann; his love of Goethe and Flaubert was unwavering during the twenty-odd years that Brod was a close friend.

This list comprises those writers that Brod mentions Kafka reading deeply at different periods of his life. Several of Kafka’s favourite writers are unfortunately not commonly available in English translation: Rudolf Kassner, Emil Strauss, Wilhelm Schäfer, Hans Carossa, Franz Seraphicus Grillparzer, Stefan Anton George.

  1. Heinrich von Kleist – Selected Prose and An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist (out of print but sometimes available)
  2. Hugo von Hofmannsthal – The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal
  3. Thomas Mann – Tonio Kröger (available in an Everyman Death in Venice and Other Stories)
  4. Hamsun
  5. Hesse
  6. Flaubert
  7. Johann Peter Hebel – Little Treasury and Diaries
  8. Theodor Fontane – Letters
  9. Gogol
  10. Adalbert Stifter – Indian Summer
  11. Goethe
  12. Robert Walser
  13. Kierkegaard
  14. Ernst Weiss
  15. Johan August Strindberg
  16. Dostoyevsky
  17. Blaise Pascal
  18. Aleksandr Ivanovich HerzenLondon Fog
  19. Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin
  20. Božena Němcová – The Grandmother

Grossman: Why Translation Matters

All art, literary or otherwise, undergoes a process of translation between thought and language. I found in my notebook an old quotation from Daniel Herwitz:

Art becomes philosophy proper when the philosopher brings out its inner voice (which is the voice of the thinker) through a process of clarification/translation.

In her penetrating book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman, writes:

If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers who speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors. Is their text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

Grossman argues that the act of translating a book from one language to a second is comparable to the original process of creation. Translators are the unrecognised heroes of the literary world. Why Translation Matters is Grossman’s passionate polemic against publishers and critics disdain for translators.

I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves-forgive me, I mean ourselves-as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.

. . . .

And as Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German, so famously said, translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English. . . Whatever else it may be, transaltion in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as an actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition.

I like that analogy.

Chapters one and two present the core of Grossman’s proposition, including a fascinating account of her experience of translating Don Quixote. The final chapter looks at the decisions which must be made when translating poetry.

Grossman makes her case convincingly. As Thomas Bernhard has said about literary translation:

Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

Ultimately, this position is indefensible, as Grossman argues:

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending on your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers s practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it. Then try to imagine never experiencing any literature written in the countless other languages you  may not know: in my case, these would include Polish, Czech, German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Russian, and all the myriad languages of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak.

So, in preparing to read Don Quixote, am I to read Grossman or Cervantes?

[Thanks to Francis for the discovery of this book.]