‘[…] ‘he could turn into John Vincent Moon, one of Borges’ heroes, for example, or into an accumulation of literary quotations; he could become a mental enclave where several personalities could shelter and coexist, and thus, perhaps without even any real effort, manage to shape a strictly individual voice, the ambitious base for a nomadic heteronymous profile . . .’
Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque (trans. Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean)
It’s a highly literary novel, which I like, excessively ironic but the voice, always the voice.
Tastes in critics and book reviewers, like cities and vegetables, are idiosyncratic. It probably has as much to do with voice as with the acuity of their exegesis, or exquisite taste. As much as we resist, fashion and peer pressure might play a part. Some, like Gabriel Josipovici, earn our trust and admiration for the rigour of his prose, even when our literary tastes differ markedly.
I’ve travelled a lot lately, but am in Hampshire for the autumn, with the low, dense English skies that always bring me home. Looking up some notes on Borges, I came across a poem I recorded in a notebook a few years back, by an American poet called Adelaide Crapsey:
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
The other night I had a strange, striking dream. I rarely remember dreams and I remember little of the narrative context, but I was accompanied throughout the dream by Eileen Battersby, a book reviewer, American by birth, but who lived in Ireland, and died last year. I barely know her work, perhaps read one or two reviews when someone linked to them on Twitter. I still know little but watched on YouTube an interview with Battersby, John Banville and Enrique Vila-Matas. I can see little from her reviews to suggest we would share literary inclinations, but I liked her physical voice and passion for literature.
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.
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.
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.
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.