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.)

Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl

Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl offers readers an unconventional reading experience, an allusive and multivalent work that plays with form and style to a degree that shouldn’t come off. That is does is a result of her expressive power and the fluency of her writing.

Narrated by an omnipresent narrator through the experiences and emotions of a pretty, young American girl living and working in a series of menial jobs in London, Zambreno’s central themes are youth, beauty, and alienation. But this perceptive study of intensities does double-time as an exploration of character-creation and the creative process. The influence of modern experimentalists such as Jean Rhys is evident, as is the novel’s prefiguration of what Chris Kraus terms lonely-girl phenomenology.

My impression from reading Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and Green Girl is of a writer fully engaged with tackling the event of modernism, who is establishing a powerful and exciting body of work. I am mad keen to read more.

Thoughts on Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick

Chris Kraus reading from "I Love Dick"
Chris Kraus reading from “I Love Dick”

My copy of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick is full of scribbles and underlining, flecked with coloured markers, sections I will now transfer to my notebook. These are mostly in the second part. I enjoyed the first part of the novel but it didn’t feel as remarkable as the second. Soon into the second part my pulse quickened and I read to the end in a frenzy.

Apart from a couple of brief conversations on Twitter I have avoided the pre-text to I Love Dick so read it as fictionalised memoir and essay. Kathy Acker’s influence is palpable, and in turn the influence on Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. I Love Dick is fifteen years old but “men still ruin women’s lives” and the book will stay relevant until that no longer remains the norm.

The second half of this book blew the top of my head off. Its extended pieces of art criticism are simply brilliant. Although informed by theory, it is not a deeply allusive novel, and stands alone as a serious piece of literature, one using the epistolary form, which I normally avoid but in this case is the only form possible for this particular narrative.

I’ll be thinking a lot more about this book, sitting as it does neatly with Heroines but also with my reading of Cixous. Let me leave behind a small number of the shorter pieces I underlined.

  1. I think our story is performative philosophy.
  2. Who gets to speak and why is the only question.
  3. Men still ruin women’s lives.
  4. To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form.
  5. There’s not enough female irrepressibility written down.
  6. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be twenty years too late but epiphanies don’t always synchronise with style.
  7. What happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s least described.

I have the sequel Torpor on order.