Peculiar, if not Deranged

I have this fascination for fictional libraries, imagining myself absorbed for hours checking out the titles and editions on their shelves. Aside from Borges’s speculations about fictional books, one of my favourites is detailed by Anne Michaels in Fugitive Pieces (I’ve long pondered the ‘philosophy of rain’). In Vertigo Sebald writes of inheriting Mathild’s library of almost a hundred volumes, which are ‘proving ever more important to me’:

Besides various literary works from the last century, accounts of expeditions to the polar regions, textbooks on geometry and structural engineering, and a Turkish dictionary complete with a manual fro the writing of letters, which had probably once belonged to Baptist, there were numerous religious works of a speculative character, and prayer-books dating back two or three hundred years, with illustrations, some of them perfectly gruesome, showing the torments and travails that await us all. In among the devotional works, to my amazement, there were several treatises by Bakunin, Fourier, Bebel, Eisner, and Landauer, and an autobiographical novel by the socialist Lily von Braun. When I enquired about the origins of the books, Lukas was able to tell me only that Mathild had always been a great reader, and because of this, as I might perhaps remember, was thought of by the villagers as peculiar, if not deranged.

Sebald also refers later to a book he has often tried to find, one that “is undoubtedly of the greatest importance for me, it is, alas, not listed in any bibliography, in any catalogue, or indeed anywhere at all”. That title is Mila Stern’s The Seas of Bohemia.

Joyce Forever

This following paragraph is from the Preface that Borges wrote in the first volume of Pleiade series of Œuvres Complètes. Dated Geneva, 19 May 1986, this must be amongst the last texts that Borges wrote. I adore how Borges has discreetly slipped a simple tribute to Joyce into the Keats’ ‘joy for ever’ line. How many readers, I wonder, pass that sentence without spotting the reference.

This book is made up of other books. I am not sure whether a continuous reading is the best solution in this case, it might be more convenient to enter in and out at random as one leafs through the pages of an encyclopedia or of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholia.(…) Eliot wrote that it is less important to know what one wants than what the century wants. He claims this, as if drunk on universal history. Is it necessary for me to say that I am the least historical of men? The circumstances of history touch me like those of geography and politics, but I thing that as an individual I am above these seductions. A thing of beauty is a joyce forever, John Keats wrote in a memorable way. There are nevertheless, moments of happiness that are singular and eternal.

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

To Follow Spinoza

Of Spinoza, Hegel professed boldly, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all” and “It is therefore worthy of note that thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement  of all Philosophy.”

The meticulous Baruch Spinoza has always fascinated me, as much for his modest life as a lens grinder as for his unswerving commitment to philosophy as a transformation of one’s way of living. Like the Stoics, Spinoza believed that philosophy had a curative role by teaching people how to attain happiness, though he differed markedly from the Stoics in rejecting that reason could overcome emotion.

Spinoza’s influence has strayed widely beyond the realms of philosophy and political theory. Borges was deeply influenced by Spinoza’s work. He also wrote the following poem (translated by Richard Howard, César Rennert):

The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
that whitens at the Ghetto edges
do not quite exist for this silent
man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
undisturbed by fame, that reflection
of dreams in the dream of another
mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
a stubborn crystal: the infinite
map of the One who is all His stars.

At the end of the Ethics, Spinoza wrote

If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. It must indeed be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were easy to find, and could without great labour be found, that it should be neglected by almost everybody? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.


Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

On this first reading of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, roughly a third of it whistled straight over my head-the seventh chapter is impenetrable without more grounding than I possess in theoretical discourse-and I don’t intend to write much about it on this occasion. This is partly because I wish to closely reread it section by section, but also because it covers so vast a terrain-encompassing several visual art forms (film and video in some depth), architecture, literature (Ballard, Berger, Brecht, Dick, Faulkner, Kafka, Norris, Robbe-Grillet, Simon), philosophy, theory, sociology and economics-that no single post could capture its depth and insight. Each chapter, and in some cases, individual paragraphs merit separate posts. Though I don’t plan that sort of undertaking I will certainly return to the book in future posts (perhaps I should begin another blog on this book alone).

Incidentally, Jameson explores in some depth the handful of writers detailed above (not a definitive listing) but strangely (to me) fails to mention Borges or Nabokov, both whose approach I consider irrefutably Postmodern. Fokkema argues in Literary History, Modernism and Postmodernism that Borges “contributed more than anyone else to the invention and acceptance” of Postmodernism. Though Jameson touches on literature he emphasises that it is the weakest art form of Postmodernism:

For some seventy years the cleverest prophets have warned us regularly that the dominant art form of the twentieth century was not literature at all-nor even painting or theatre or the symphony-but rather the one new and historically unique art invented in the contemporary period, namely film: that is to say the first distinctly mediatic art form. What is strange about this prognosis-whose unassailable validity has with time become a commonplace-is that it should have had so little practical effect.

As a framework for his treatment of Postmodernism, Jameson adopts Ernest Mandel’s interpretation of late capitalism:

[..] there have been three fundamental moments in capitalism, each one marking a dialectical expansion over the previous stage. These are market capitalism, the monopoly stage or the stage of imperialism, and our own, wrongly called postindustrial, but what might better be termed multinational capital. I have already pointed out that Mandel’s intervention in the postindustrial debate involves the proposition that late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion into hitherto uncommodified areas.

Using Mandel’s thesis, Jameson explores Postmodernism and the logic of its progression from Modernism, its historical apotheosis in the 1960s and 1970s and its implications as a cultural, intellectual and economic phenomenon. Suffice to say, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is a stunning work of intellectual pyrotechnics.

It has brought to light cavernous gaps in my reading that I plan to close in the years ahead. I’ve compiled below some plans for further reading around the themes of Postmodernity and Theory below. If you have suggestions of other titles or directions that might prove rewarding please comment and let me know. (I will write about Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism, which I also read recently).

  • Fredric Jameson – The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act
  • David Harvey – The Condition of Postmodernity
  • Edward Soja – Postmodern Geographies
  • Steven Connor – Postmodernist Culture
  • Ernest Mandel – Late Capitalism
  • Hal Foster – The Anti-Aesthetic
  • Timothy Bewes – Cynicism and Postmodernity
  • Adorno – “The Stars Down to Earth”
  • Raymond Guess – The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School
  • Verso Books’ Radical Thinkers series
  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
  • Giovanni Arrighi – The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times
  • Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida
  • Judith Ryan – The Novel After Theory
  • Nicholas Royle – Jacques Derrida
  • Jane Gallop – The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time
  • Viktor Shklovsky – Theory of Prose
  • Adorno – Aesthetic Theory
  • From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology
  • Samir Amin – A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist
  • Wlad Godzich – The Culture of Literacy

Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard

Perhaps it’s me. Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction is well-crafted. I agreed with her assertions. It is just a little like the fashion for nouvelle cuisine that was all the rage when this book was published. It leaves you hungry for more. Even this Dillard excuses in the introduction explaining that despite her critical training and competence “as a careful textual critic, I have flung this sensible approach aside in favour of enthusiasm, free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe.”

That I was to read Living by Fiction was inevitable after Amateur Reader (Tom) wrote, “Pale Fire and Ficciones, which she, like me [and me], simply assumes are essential and inescapable Tower of Babel-sized landmarks of 20th century literature, terrain-defining books.”

Dillard writes lovingly about Postmodern fiction, which she chooses to label contemporary modernist, meaning writers like Robert Coover, John Barth, Nabokov, Borges, Italo Calvino etc. After some time analysing technique and style, Dillard debates the value of art and worth of literary criticism, before proceeding to her main argument: “Does the World Have Meaning?’ Approaching this question by asking whether fiction has meaning because “it traffics in knowledge,” she concludes with uncertainty. As I do.

There are one or two terms that fail to translate from American English. The word she uses repeatedly is nonce, as in “for the nonce.” In American English this means “for the time being.” I’m glad I looked it up, much the clearer.

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee

In August I read J. M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings, a book of outstanding literary essays. The earlier collection of essays, Stranger Shores, is also brilliant, worthy to sit on the shelf beside Coetzee’s fiction. It includes superb essays on Joseph Brodsky, Robert Musil, Kafka, Borges and Doris Lessing, as well as a reflection on T. S. Eliot entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ There are twenty-six pieces in total, some less strong but none less than enjoyable.

Notes On Translation

My reading of Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, a thought provoking book, offered up this question:

Is [a] 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?

When reading a translated text, currently Walter Benjamin’s collection of essays Illuminations, and specifically his essay The Task of the Translator, this question is unavoidable.

Richard of The Existence Machine raised the same question recently to reply to an argument that, “… if you can’t read Handke in German don’t bother since Handke’s main interest is the language.” Thomas Bernhard made an analogous point:, “[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.”

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator requires time to unpick. The essential substance of a work of literature is not its words or sentences, it is what is contained in addition to this information: the unfathomable, the ‘poetic’. The role of a (good) translator is to render this mysterious quality in a new translation. Rendering the unfathomable ‘perfectly’ in a new language is impossible, but the translator aspires towards  a ‘language of truth’, transcending the original and the translated language: “If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is – the true language’.

The task of the translator is finding and communicating the artist’s intention, a successful translation produces an echo of the original: “The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter’.

To strive for linguistic fidelity is almost always an error, truer the further away a translator is from the origin of a work: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully”.

Benjamin, like Pound, sees a translator as extending the life of a literary work, as each generation translates a static original: “For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a translation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change”.

As Alberto Manguel has said, “Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today”. Yet what are we to do while Borges awaits the translator who is able to unlock his intention. Not reading Borges, even in a flawed translation is an unsatisfactory but acceptable compromise. To end with another quotation from Grossman.

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.

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.

Abominable Borges’ Translations

In Alberto Manguel’s Royal Society of Literature lecture, he comments that:

The English speaking reader has been most unfortunate. Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today. There is one exception, which I will come to in a minute, but all sort of abominations have been practised on the work of Borges.

Manguel criticises publishers’ decisions to divide Borges’ work into separate collections of poetry, non-fiction and fiction. Borges’ main intention, Manguel says, was to destroy the barriers of genre.