Jean Echenoz’s Ravel


There is to me a distinct hierarchy in what falls under the category of life-writing. (I don’t particularly like the term life-writing.) After all, there is life-writing to various degrees in every instance of fiction. Can we still agree with Proust’s biographer George Painter who wrote: “The artist has creative imagination, the biographer recreative”? For me, the most exhilarating trend in modern fiction is the blurring of the boundaries. Fictionality is an inevitable part of autobiography. There is no less artistry in de Beauvoir’s memoirs than her novels, though I’d argue the latter are considerably more successful than the former.

I like novels that exist in the interstices between fiction and autobiography, writers like Tomas Espedal, W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Kate Zambreno and John Berger who bring the techniques of fiction to explore autobiography in rewarding ways. Techniques of narratology, such as perspective, temporal structure, and motifs are being used creatively to alleviate the tedium of conventional linear (auto)biography.

In truth, it isn’t a new trend, but something writers to some extent have always done. The threshold between fiction and autobiography in the books of Anna Kavan, Dorothy Richardson, Proust and Virginia Woolf is reasonably thin.

Fiction aside, I prefer memoir to autobiography, autobiography to biography; have a great fascination with writer’s and scholar’s letters and diaries, and like least of all fictional biographies. These designations are simplified without getting into all the other terms used to describe experimental life-writing: autotopography, autofiction, heterobiography etc.

This week I read Jean Echenoz’s Ravel. It’s a short book. I read it twice on a long return train journey, and have spent more time thinking about it since. Why I think many fictional biographies make me queasy is that they use fictional techniques to explore interiority or the subjective essence of a real historical individual. They maintain the freedom of a third-person narrator and yet privilege that narrator with absolute knowledge. To be honest, I struggle with fiction that does the same thing.

Echenoz avoids this trap, and in doing so, can be trusted that the broad story of the last ten years of Maurice Ravel’s life is accurate at a factual level. Ravel then becomes a fascinating exploration into how fame distances its subject from those closest to them. The dramatic reconstruction of Ravel’s unraveling (excuse the pun) and death is disturbing, but Echenoz preserves the emotional distancing to defer a reader’s sympathy. It’s cleverly done and very rewarding.

Most Anticipated New Books for 2018

In the first few months of last year I sampled rather more contemporary fiction than is usual for me. Frankly much of it wasn’t to my taste and ended up abandoned. Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre, so it wasn’t too surprising.

This year, my new book purchasing will be much more restrained. These are those I am most looking forward to.

It isn’t any surprise that Seagull Books dominates the list as they have impeccable taste in bringing forth newly translated treasures. I also expect to make some new discoveries through my subscription to the always intriguing Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children (trans. Kevin Attell)
Giorgio Agamben, The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)
Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jandl (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)
Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words (trans. Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey)
Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia (trans. Chris Turner)
Rachel Cusk, Kudos
Claudio Magris, Journeying (trans. Anne Milano Appel)
Dag Solstad, Armand V (trans. Steven T. Murray)
Dag Solstad, T Singer (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Peter Handke, The Great Fall (trans. Krishna Winston)
Jon Fosse, Scenes from a Childhood
Esther Kinsky, River (trans. Iain Galbraith)
Clarice Lispector, The Chandelier (trans. Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards)
Cesare Pavese, The Beautiful Summer
Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions
Joanna Walsh, Break.up
Kate Zambreno, Drifts (since confirmed for early 2019)
Ismail Kadare, Essays on World Literature Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Dante

My Year in Reading: 2017

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.

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Kate Zambreno: Book of Mutter

The first time I remember seeing my mother was in 1976, when I was eleven years old. It isn’t a firsthand memory, more of what Barthes might call a memory container. I can date the photograph due to a calendar on the wall, one of those cheap calendars a company would once issue to its customers. The calendar is displaying November 1956. Neither of the photograph’s subjects, my mother and father, know that in eight years time I will born in a country five thousand miles away. Maybe I should say my mother is a photograph. I have no memory of her beyond a dozen or so such photographs.

In Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter she quotes from Henry Darger’s biography, “The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young.” This statement troubles me, gets under my skin. A few weeks ago the woman who sometimes substituted as my mother died, so I’ve been looking back. I love this book about Zambreno’s mother in the same way I watched with fascination the mothers of my childhood friends.

Zambreno writes, “To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. or if not to forget, to attempt to leave behind.” How do we find a form to confess our guilt, to express our grief and anguish? Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s attempt to address that question, a desire to question her memories of her mother, to make reparation and, in an her attempt to forget, an act of creative restoration.

What is fascinating is the shades that Zambreno choses, and rejects, for her confrontation with her memories. Bristling with epigrams from Barthes, Book of Mutter is also animated by a broad range of spirit guides from Henry Darger to Louise Bourgeois to Peter Handke and Theresa Hak.

As with William Maxwell’s book, as with any book, I read Book of Mutter with all sorts of personal and idiosyncratic reflections. There are no ideal readers for a book about a mother’s life and death. Objectivity is an illusion. Whether this book has allowed Zambreno to leave behind her memories only she can answer, but her mother is recognised by being forever captured inside this graceful and haunting book.

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison’s final essay in The Empathy Exams is its strongest piece. “I’m tired of female pain, and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. In many ways Jamison’s response to the female body and pain opposes Kate Zambreno’s project, but I prefer to see it as complementary, viewing the same issues though other prisms.

The Empathy Exams is a series of unrelated essays, memoirs, and ‘pain tours’ that focuses primarily on American culture. It is framed at by the fascinating The Empathy Exams, an exploration of Jamison’s job as a medical actor, paid to convincingly fake illness as part of medical students’ training, and concludes with Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

Jamison writes beautifully, though often without the punch of a storyteller like Joan Didion, but the collection shows tremendous power as an essayist with a journalist’s eye.

David Shields’ How literature saved my life

It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation  I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.

From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.

How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)