[…] the legacy of copia is two-fold, On the one hand it is a valuable expressive tool; on the other its very richness leads the more thoughtful writers to question its essence: If I can say anything, then what is the status of what I say? If I can tall about bears or beguines or beeswax or birth at the drop of the hat, and then go on to cats, clouds, coprophilia and cucumbers, then what is the point of talking about any of them? And, if I start, where am I to stop?
From Gabriel Josipovici’s Writing and the Body, an exploration into the nature of fiction, reading and writing; in this first essay (lecture) he dissects Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which I set aside on first reading a dozen or more years ago. Of Sterne’s book, Josipovici says:
Yet the book, like Tristram himself, exists only as a series of failures, of negations: it is not a straight line, it does not tell a proper story properly, it is not, perhaps finally, either a novel or not a novel. Yet, like Tristram, it is indubitably there. What then, as the riddles have it, is it?
The thrill of Josipovici’s dissection of the novel aside, as any solicitous criticism should, it sends me back to the text. Flicking through Tristram Shandy again, I look back pitiably at the younger self that was unable to appreciate the inherent joy of the book, and add it to the stack beside my desk.
Mark Thwaite’s (of ReadySteadyBook) cogent commentary on What Ever Happened to Modernism:
Two themes dominate Josipovici’s book, as two themes have dominated most critics’ response to it. In a world that moved from being viewed by the vast majority through a sacramental lens, to one where earthly powers had ever more secular explanations, the problem of authority became a problem for art and artists. Why and in what way did the artist have authority to speak? And how could that question inform the art that the artist produced, so that their work did not exhibit the bad faith of pretending that question away. This leads to our second theme: the disenchantment of the world. Do artists seek to re-enchant the world (and who/what gives them authority to do so) or to respond to its disenchantment? Either way, it’s a serious job, even when you’re laughing as you do it, like Sterne or Spark. For readers who seek through their reading to reach into existenital questions of their own, it is a vital activity. The critics who responded to Josipovici seem disenchanted that he has reminded them how small their current giants are, annoyed that he has asked why so many of the books they have spent a lifetime praising are so thin and insubstantial, and they have responded spitefully to an authoritative critic that they don’t have the nous to read carefully and even to begin to understand.
… a book of this kind must inevitably be personal, but that does not mean that it should be merely subjective: I wish to persuade my reader, not simply air my opinions. Yet it is difficult to walk the thin line between didacticism and rant, and between giving too much information and too little.
This prefatory paragraph from Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? could apply equally to his collection of essays The Singer on the Shore. The latter contains nineteen delightful literary essays on the Bible, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Borges, Tristram Shandy and the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld.
What sets these essays apart is Josipovici’s authorial tone; authoritative but never sanctimonious. This Guardian review is spot on, “It is a distinguishing, and a distinguished, mark of Josipovici’s sensitivity to his subject and his audience that – and I can’t stress this too much – that you don’t have to be that familiar with his subjects to get something out of what he says about them.” But like all good literary essays, Josipovici’s will compel you to reread a favourite novel and dip into a new writer’s work.
Across the nineteen essays are coherent themes, of rootlessness, the nature of art and literature and Josipovici’s love of Proust, Eliot and Kafka. That Josipovici writes of writers I already read, and identifies nuances that are personally meaningful makes this collection important to me. That he writes beautifully, with humility and playfulness makes this book highly recommended for any reader.
An excerpt from a Lapham’s Quarterly piece on Ezra Pound:
Everybody knows the story. Pound launched the Imagist movement, epitomized by that hardy perennial of poetry anthologies, “In a Station of the Metro” (in full: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough”), and then played a decisive role in shaping T. S. Eliot’s epochal masterpiece The Waste Land. He devoted the rest of his life to composing The Cantos, a vast, unreadable epic left unfinished at his death in 1972. The story ends badly: he went off the rails during the war years, embracing fascism and anti-Semitism in broadcasts for Mussolini that got him arrested for treason, and was eventually committed to a mental hospital.
As conventional wisdom goes, the standard skinny on Pound is no worse than most. True to the genre it lacks nuance, emphasizing controversy over substance, but it isn’t actually wrong about anything—except the work. Pound’s Imagist poetry was revolutionary but by no means the best even of his early compositions, and The Cantos are called unreadable by the same people who call Tristram Shandy and Ulysses unreadable, those who haven’t read them. Many of the cantos are as deeply felt and exquisitely rendered as any verse in English. No poet has ever been so influential, so controversial, and so little read.
John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet is poignant and elegant. I had read little of Berger’s work but got drawn in by Geoff Dyer’s enthusiasm. This is Berger’s description of being cultivated by an early mentor:
Sometimes there were several, one on top of the other, so that I might chose George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. Katherine Mansfield. The Garden Party. Lawrence Sterne. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer. Neither of us, for different reasons, believed in literary explanations. I never once asked him about what I failed to understand. He never referred to what, given my age [11 years old] and experience, I might find difficult to grasp in these books. Sir Frederick Treves. The Elephant Man and other Reminisces. James Joyce. Ulysses. (An English edition published in Paris.) There was a tacit understanding between us that we learn – or try to learn – how to live partly from books. The learning begins with looking at our first illustrated alphabet, and goes on until we die. Oscar Wilde. De Profundis. St. John of the Cross.
Here is Where We Meet is a memoir, of sorts, and a good place to begin a wider reading of John Berger’s many books.
In a later passage, Berger describes the basis of a successful, for a time, relationship:
For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.
Style? A certain lightness. A sense of shame excluding certain actions and reactions. A certain proposition of elegance. The supposition that, despite everything, a melody can be looked for and sometimes found. Style is tenuous however. It comes from within. You can’t go out and acquire it. Style and fashion may share a dream, but they are created differently. Style is about an invisible promise. This is why it requires and encourages a talent for endurance and an ease with time. Style is very close to music.