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Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite.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.