Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees

What are we to make of a fiction in which the main subject fails to appear? “For now,” writes Alejandro Zambra, “Verónica is someone who hasn’t arrived, who still hasn’t returned from her drawing class.” In The Private Lives of Trees the drama is turned inside out, dismantling the expected protagonist-antagonist tension. When Zambra writes, “When [Veronica] returns, the novel will end,” we know that the protagonist, like Godot, will never appear.

If the self-deception inherent in fiction relies on the portrayal of a representative character we can emulate, or with whom we can sympathise, how stable is a story based on the absence of a central subject? Though Verónica is only tangible through anticipation, she is also strangely present – to recall Berger’s critique of oil paintings of the nude – as the spectator in front of the scene. Everything is addressed to Verónica, yet she is, by definition, a stranger.

Thomas Nagel, in The View from Nowhere writes, “how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included”. By dismantling a traditional conception of character in fiction, Zambra asks how we equate characters with people, and how we come to believe in characters that are nothing more than verbal abstractions or constructs.

Pascal Quignard’s Work

Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.

I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.

I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.

Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.

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.’

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

A Woman Divided

Elaine Showalter makes a link in The Female Malady between the diagnosis of schizophrenia and the idea of a woman dividing herself in two by being both the surveyor and the surveyed, quoting from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” Berger goes on to use the example that at her father’s funeral the woman sees herself weeping.

Kate Zambreno
Heroines

How I Became a Nun by César Aira

There may be hyperbole around the fiction of César Aira, or perhaps How I Became a Nun didn’t stand a chance of meeting my high expectations. Aira is sometimes mentioned alongside writers like Dyer, Berger, Krasznahorkai, Murnane and Coetzee as writing vital, forward-looking fiction. How I Became a Nun is darkly funny and surreal, and quite evidently an accomplished work of fiction, but it didn’t knock me sideways.

The story begins, “My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in life; I had just turned six.” Aira places “how I became a nun” in quotation marks in that sentence, in direct allusion to the title of his novel. Thereafter there is no further mention of nuns. The narrator, who dies before the end of the novel, narrates her death, is named as César Aira, though for most of the novel portrayed as a six-year old girl. I say ‘most’ as on at least two instances she is referred to as a boy.

The autobiographical narrator uses the children in the class to build elaborate stories, and thus obliquely narrates her/his fictional beginning.

As I had no dolls,I had to make do with make-believe children. And as I didn’t have any already made up, I used real ones, reimagining them as I pleased. They were my classmates, the only children I knew, and they were ideal for my purposes, because I had no idea of their lives outside school. For me they were absolute schoolchildren. To make the game more fun, I gave them twisted, difficult, baroque personalities.

The ending is absurdly brilliant. Aira is a writer I shall be returning to, but I’d appreciate any suggestions of what Aira books to read. My edition advertises An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

From A to X by John Berger

Reading John Berger’s attentive stories of friendship, oppression and love induces in me a languor, comparable to that of sitting on a beach late at night, food eaten and wine drunk, raging fire ablaze, listening to a storyteller. Something in his depiction of inanimate objects, with so clearly an artist’s eye, slows the pace, evokes that staring into timeless night that comes with sitting on a beach past midnight.

They [blackcurrants] stain your fingers red, the blackcurrants, and their taste, not their colour, is black, black and marine, like the taste of something living on the seabed. A sea urchin or some other echinoderms might have the same taste, though it would be less strong, less pungent.

Like Nabokov, I am no enthusiast for epistolary novels. In From A to X we are offered up ‘some letters recuperated by John Berger’. Writing of the ‘easy epistolary form’ in Mansfield Park, Nabokov wrote, “This is a sure sign of a certain weariness on the part of the author when she takes recourse in such an easy form”. But this is John Berger, an author whose shopping list I would read if offered. The typical challenges of the epistolary novel are present in Berger’s book: a lack of narrative propulsion, and the unreal nature of many elements of the letters, reminding the recipient of his personal history.

Berger chooses to keep ambiguous the identity of the oppressor, or the crime(s) that earned two life sentences for Xavier, the recipient of A’ida’s letters. The setting, hinted at in Xavier’s notes – a device to allow Berger to be present in the narrative – is non-specific, a fictional Middle Eastern/Central American setting. It is possible to drift through, drowsily admiring the beauty of much of the prose, without truly engaging in the story.

If From A to X interests you, there are very many proper reviews, from the enthusiastic to the uncomplimentary. Take your choice.

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

In Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting (Tratatto) he advises a neophyte artist to ‘quicken the spirit of invention’ by observing walls stained by damp, or the coloration of rocks, and in them to see magnificent landscapes or scenes of battle. Commissioned to paint a mural in S. Maria del Grazie, Leonardo astonished the prior by spending three days contemplating the wall he was to paint.

[…] standing for days on end in front of the wall he was to paint, without touching it with his brush- an incident Croce quotes as evidence of this “inner” process of expression-we may suppose that the thoughts that occupied his mind were of painted surface, were perhaps images of ever-developing articulation of what he was to set down. Thus a work of art was created that was both in an artist’s mind and in a medium. (Art and its Objects – R. Wollheim)

Wollheim writes much of expression in his seminal 1968 book. The etymology of ‘expression’ is early fifteenth century, originally the ‘action of pressing or squeezing out.’ It is a word that came to mind frequently last night at a reading John Berger gave of his remarkable Bento’s Sketchbook. Interviewed by Sally Potter, Berger often struggled to unearth the precise words to respond to Potter’s questions. When, however, he disinterred a satisfactory articulation, Berger expressed himself with remarkable concision and ‘tender attention’.

Asked my a member of the audience to ‘sum up Spinoza in three minutes’, Berger took less time, explaining that Spinoza’s accomplishment was to pull down the Cartesian notion of a duality of body and spirit, yet retain space for the sacred.

Bento’s Sketchbook begins with plums, ‘the quetsch blue is like a vivid but vanishing blue smoke’. It ends with a broadside against economic fascism: ‘ Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories when heard stop the unilinear flow of time and render the adjective inconsequential meaningless.’ In this beautifully produced Verso edition, Berger juxtaposes Spinoza’s words with his drawings, and his deeply attentive stories.

Distant Cousins

Boring or beguiling, Berger’s writing invites reaction. Like his protege, Geoff Dyer, Berger is always discursive, roaming where inspiration takes him. Bento’s Sketchbook is a delightful indulgence (a folly in the original sense of the word), inspired by Spinoza’s sketchbook, an imaginary object, Berger uses it as a vehicle to meditate on art, people and politics.

I am struck with how succinctly the following excerpt captures the ‘why’ of book blogging (for me, at least), not that this is Berger’s intention. A little context: the narrator is unable to borrow The Brothers Karamazov from the municipal library as both copies are out.

I wonder who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they both reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it?

Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognising it, recognise one another?

When we are impressed and moved by a story, it engenders something that becomes, or may become, an essential part of us, and this part, whether it be small or extensive, is, as it were, the story’s descendant or offspring.

What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become.

Without any of the complications and conflicts of family ties, these stories that shape us are our coincidental, as distinct from biological, ancestors.

Somebody in this Paris suburb, perhaps sitting tonight in a chair and reading The Brothers Karamazov, may already, in this sense, be a distant cousin.

We Are Eternal

On this day of Rapture:

Jacques-André Boiffard – Bouche

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in the memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them as proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration.

Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, proposition XXIII

Reading Fugitive Pieces

Writer Anne Michaels would agree that, “The ideal reader reads all literature as if it were anonymous.” Michaels has deliberately kept a low profile, saying “I really believe we read differently when we know even the most banal facts of an author’s life.”

Her long awaited second novel, published last year, attracted mixed assessments. Fugitive Pieces, her acclaimed debut is my next book to read. Of Michaels:

John Berger, her friend, collaborator, and admirer, praises “the great care and attention she gives to words, which corresponds to the care and attention she gives to the lives she’s describing. There is a great physicality in her writing, which usually goes with the personal and the intimate, but she has distance. And that combination of very precise physicality and distance is what you get in ancient song.”

Genre-Busting Geoff Dyer

[Geoff] Dyer’s main subject is the discovery of aesthetic affiliations—a kind of organized synesthesia. So while his work may appear “unprecedented,” this appearance could not be further from the truth. Precedents, and predecessors, abound.

An excerpt from an exceptional article about Geoff Dyer, which digresses effortlessly into John Berger and back to Dyer. “All art is also criticism,” Dyer says in the afterword to But Beautiful:

This is most clearly so when a writer or composer quotes or reworks material from another writer or composer. All literature, music, and art [says George Steiner] ‘embody an expository reflection on, a value judgment of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.’ In other words it is not only in their letters, essays, or conversation that writers like Henry James reveal themselves also to be the best critics; rather, The Portrait of a Lady is itself, among other things, a commentary on and a critique of Middlemarch. ‘The best readings of art are art.’

Some of Dyer’s genre-defying books—if not the defiance itself—seem to come straight out of, or down to, this final dictum. But Beautiful views the history of jazz as cumulative, like that of mathematics: “Every time [a saxophonist] picks up his horn he cannot avoid commenting, automatically and implicitly, even if only through his own inadequacy, on the tradition that has laid this music at his feet.”

Shield’s Manifesto

Five Dials magazine number 9 is available; the highlight for me is some advance text from David Shields. (I am looking forward to reading Shield’s manifesto Reality Hunger when my copy arrives from the US.)

It is rousing material, reminiscent of Marinetti’s manifesto.

Shields: I and like-minded writers and other artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanci- ful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don’t interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice.

Like any dogmatic position, there is enjoyment in arguing about Shield’s thesis. As a reader who derives deep pleasure from reading writers like W. G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, John Berger or de Maistre and Beckett before I look forward to the debate.

2009: Some Favourite Books

 

This is the first year I maintained a list of the books that I read (more on that in a 10 days time). Keeping a record of what I have read has been fascinating. It is an exercise I shall certainly continue. Of my reading this year the following stand out as a top 10 of those I enjoyed most and will certainly reread:

  1. Thomas Mann – The Magic Mountain
  2. Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory
  3. Jane Austen – Emma
  4. Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts
  5. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
  6. Roberto Bolaño – The Savage Detectives
  7. Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
  8. Sara Maitland – A Book of Silence
  9. John Berger – Here is Where We Meet
  10. Gabriel Josipovici – After & Making Mistakes