In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”
A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:
Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
André Gide’s Dostoevsky
Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
T. S. Eliot’s Dante
Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante
I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.
Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).
I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.
There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.
So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:
Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .
If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.
Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)
Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.
My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.
Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.
My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).
It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.
Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.
These notes on contemplative silence and hermitism aspired to something more, but failed. Insomnia gives me solitude and reading time, but the longer it persists the more fragmentary my thoughts become.
Gustav Mensching offers a typology of silences: preparatory silence, contemplative silence, worshipful silence, expectant silence and monastic-ascetic silence.
I wonder what lies behind my longing for a hermitic existence, to enact a modern-day Anthony of the Desert (sans sainthood).
“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions)
I return to the desert eager to welcome the dawn, but what I’m seeking is an outer silence to complete my inner silence, my voicelessness. Desert silence is before time, beyond life, a place we have come from and to which we will return.
The word hermit-and, of course, eremite, derives from the Greek eremites, with its roots in eremos, a desert or wilderness.
The Japanese have a term hikikomori, literally pulling inward, reclusiveness as a manifestation of a social illness. Samuel Riba, the protagonist of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque self-diagnoses hikiomori tendencies.
Cixous (Rootprints) writes that “Our dialogues are often mute. / This doesn’t prevent them from taking place,” understanding that keeping silent is a form of communication. Cixous’ writing is filled with silence. It is a silence that runs up against the thresholds of language.
Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resides in that realm between silence and speech, between muteness and articulation. “Silence herself speaks.” (Poem Without a Hero)
“The person who dares to be alone can come to see that the ’emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable)
Egyptian-born St Anthony spent fifteen years living in a cave, communicating with others through a tiny crevice carved into the cave wall. He died in the year 356 at the age of 105.
Brodsky (Conversations) said, “As the body grows older it fills up with silence-with organs and functions which are no longer relevant to its life.”
Neurologists profess that the brain’s cortical mantle evolved primarily from a need to communicate. We are wired to be sociable and live in communities.
“Every human being is alone in the core of the mind. When we are born we cry; and that cry is the cry of loneliness. Thus it is with children. Thus it is with growing youth. And the older we grow the lonelier we grow.” (John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude)