In the Hood

I’m back from my travels, and circumscribing Pessoa like a terrier trying to find a way into a rathole. I’ve also caught up on some stimulating blog posts in the alt-lit neighbourhood:

Have you read Lampedusa? I’ve owned the Everyman edition of The Leopard for 15 years but never read beyond 100 pages, though I enjoyed each one of them. This post at Anecdotal Evidence links to an excellent essay by Javier Marías, in which he writes:

“The few people who knew him well were astonished at his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history, on both of which subjects he possessed a vast library. He had not only read all the important and essential writers, but also the second-rate and the mediocre, whom, especially as regards the novel, he considered to be as necessary as the greats: `One has to learn how to be bored,’ he used to say, and he read bad literature with interest and patience. Buying books was almost his sole expense and sole luxury.”

Isabella at Magnificent Octopus is documenting her reading of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Of course, I immediately want to reread Lispector’s elusive work that pushes at the extreme possibilities of language.

Pykk is unpacking Arno Schmidt’s Collected Stories, 1996, and his longer School for Atheists: a Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, 1972.

Joe at roughghosts is discovering the wonder that is Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, which a dear friend introduced to me some years ago.

Scott W. at seraillon writes compellingly about Emilio’s Carnival and makes it likely I’ll get to Svevo’s work sooner than later.

Hourglass Sand of Rub’ al Khali

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

There is but one word in Arabic for sand رمل (raml). The sand in the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter could be defined with greater precision as raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah or hourglass sand. I have spent the last week photographing sand.

There is a secret in every grain of sand. This sand is not an inert substance. It is so rich in nutrients and calcium that anything could grow, despite the high salt content, but growth is limited by the density of the sand and, of course, the availability of water. A metre or so below the surface of this sand-sea is another sea, a thin mantle of salt-water, hence the frequent olive-green blazes of nasi (or desert grass) and calligonum shrub. Fresh water is deeper, making another sea, perhaps ten metres below the sand-sea I walked over.

How many colours does sand wear? I counted fourteen, most commonly the dusky camel-tan of blazing midday, to the glorious reddish-orange colour that indicates the presence of feldspar, but also, less commonly flights of blues, purples, and greens.

Each night I climbed the highest dune to await sunset. As the day ended, the sun’s nebulous glow faded to become a golden glowing wafer that dropped quickly behind the highest dune on the horizon. You appreciate why the sun was one of the main deities in most polytheistic cultures.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

In camp I read Martin Ling’s Muhammad, an account of his life based on the earliest sources. Lings’ magnificent book holds and hides memories of the desert throughout its pages. He writes of the custom of all great families of Arab towns to send their sons into the desert to be suckled and weaned among the Bedouin tribes: so the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation-fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul.

It is impossible not to be humble when standing, sleeping, walking on a surface that, in Pleistocene times, was an ancient sea-bed. It is also impossible not to be drawn into the realm of the ineffable. There is a longing in the desert, for enchantment, for a beginning. Longing as defined by Mahmoud Darwish: longing is not memory, but rather what is selected from memory’s museum. Longing is selective, like an adept gardener. It is the replaying of a memory after its blemishes have been removed.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

Why do I come to Rub’ al Khali? This is my second crossing and I am planning a third, longer trek. Of course I question my reasons for coming here, obsessing that it is misplaced Orientalism, a pursuit of what is exotic and inscrutable. The desert speaks to that longing inside my heart. Rub’ al Khali is contagious, an invitation to what was before. Final word to Wilfred Thesiger: No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will carry within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

A Year of Reading: 2012

When I posted last year’s edition of this post, I had no idea I was a few weeks away from being selected as 3:AM Magazine’s Blog of the Year 2011. A thrilling way to end the year; the charge continued into 2012 with the genuine, anxiety-inducing, kick of being asked to contribute to a 3:AM conversation about modernism with David Winters, one of this country’s brightest literary critics.

In fiction reading, the year began brilliantly with László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War. The latter has stayed in mind all year, one of the best books I’ve read in memory. I’ve never read such a successful send-up of corporate life as Helen DeWitt’s intelligent Lightning Rods. My slow journey through JM Coetzee’s oeuvre continues; In the Heart of the Country is powerful enough to take skin off.

In non-fiction, the highlight of the year was Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Much of it whooshed over my head, but with such beauty and insight that I’ve dipped in and out all year.  Kate Zambreno’s Heroines  came out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt, to awaken a passion for the modernist wives, and her idiosyncratic, personal writing style that flowed so naturally into Hélène Cixous, my current idée fixe.

My two major discoveries of the year were Clarice Lispector’s Água Vida and Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, both authors I will be reading and thinking about for a long time.

Geeky Statistics

  1. A third of the sixty-five books I read are in translation, down from forty percent.
  2. More than a third of the books I read are written by women; almost double the eighteen percent of 2011.
  3. Thirty percent of the books I read are fiction, way down on the almost sixty percent of last year.
  4. Over half of the books I read are written by European writers, a third by American writers, the rest split between African, Middle Eastern and South American.

There were no resolutions behind these statistics. As ever, serendipity led my reading. I failed so badly on the few reading resolutions I made last year that I shan’t even repeat the pretence. Reading much less fiction feels in some way connected to this year’s tussle with depression and anxiety. (Fuck, that was hard to write.) The year’s been a grind and make-believe lost some of its allure. I’m pleased that I read more women’s writing, a trend that I expect to continue naturally next year.

I read fewer books and blogged a bit less, both factors I place squarely at the door of my Twitter timeline. Twitter is a huge time-sink but often I find myself having the conversations that I wanted to have on this blog. That is also something that I’ll be considering over the coming year.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva

Benjamin Moser, in his introductory essay to Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, writes “Clarice pushed her language as far as it could go without risking incoherence. The book was written in fragments, and Olga Borelli’s editorial method, she wrote, was ‘breathing together, it’s breathing together.'” In Água Viva Lispector eschews traditional narrative structure and adopts a fragmentary form more familiar to readers of Beckett. Though Lispector evinces a Beckettian influence her style is less bleak, and takes less risk of a total collapse of meaning.

In the first fragment, Lispector writes,”Hallelujah, I shout, hallelujah merging with the darkest howl of the pain of separation but a shout of diabolic joy.” Aside from its expression of worship, hallelujah is musical composition based on the word. The shape and essence of Água Viva is atonal music, describing an arc through repetition and difference. She goes on to write,”You don’t understand music: you hear it. So hear me with your whole body.”

I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music-I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of the reality’s realm, and the whole world trembles inside my hands.

Though the fragments are not arranged by logic or driven by plot or circumstance, they are joined by their adjacency. An intimation begun in one fragment may be driven into the next or never reprised. The coherence of the work is the quivering tension between joy and pain, and the perception of endurance.

Água Viva’s narrator is a painter, turned to writing, using language to pin down time, that moment of an instant-didn’t someone define an instant, a ‘now’ as of three second’s duration? Lispector writes, “I want to put into words but without description the existence of the cave that some time ago I painted-and I don’t know how.” Without description, with plain prose, Lispector’s imagery creates a depth of mood evocative of a richly painted canvas. Its brilliance, like that of a fine painting, is that you could quite happily lose yourself for hours in its artistry. As Bergson wrote, “No image can replace the intuition [of being], but many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.”

This New Directions edition of Água Viva is translated by Stefan Tobler. My first Clarice Lispector book has disarmed me utterly with no less a thrill than my discovery, a long time ago, of Duras, Beckett and, more recently, Darwish.

Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief

Journal of an Ordinary Grief is more polemical than Memory For Forgetfulness, but Mahmoud Darwish’s lyrical text elicits the same visceral response. To read these books is to share, in some small way, the anguish of exile and loss of homeland. It is a beautiful piece of literature that also serves as a primer to the fate of Palestine and its people.

It is not true that the world has lost its memory. And it is also not true that we can make the world remember by pleasing it. The world wants to relax. It wants to gamble and sip whiskey.

In 1948 Darwish’s family left their village in Palestine, in the expectation of returning after a decisive Arab victory. After a period in exile, on their return they found their village obliterated and their identity revoked (designated present-absentees). Comprised of a series of essays and dialogues, it is the first, The Moon Did Not Fall into the Well, that is most moving, as the narrator as a child questions his older self.

Their waiting was negative, for to them the land meant the specifics of the earth, orchards, and ownership that protected their dignity and livelihood. But for my generation it means – in addition to these – a field of struggle and a future. Longing is a human energy that stays passive. It’s a negative weapon. The struggle has gradually  been taking different forms. First came rejection of the status quo and faith in the individual’s ability to bring about change. Then came collective resistance against the forces and conditions that made us citizens without a country, a resistance that does not put itself under siege in memories but sets them free for building a better future in the things that we do every day. Belonging to the land, and the homeland, brings no result unless it means becoming part of the forces joined in the struggle.

Journal of an Ordinary Grief succeeds not only as history and autobiography, but also as a poetic and metaphysical work. Though written in 1973 Darwish’s analysis is no less accurate today.

Such is the world, always: most admiring of collective killing and most critical of individual killing. The state has a right to kill its own people and those belonging to other nations, but the individual does not have a right to fight for the sake of freedom.

Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory For Forgetfulness (August, Beirut, 1982)

An Addition to my Personal Canon (The Ice-Axes)

I have insufficient knowledge of the history of Lebanon or the Palestinians, only what might be gleaned from a sceptical ingestion of western media. With the difficulties of translation and my ignorance much of the symbolism in Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory For Forgetfulness was probably lost during my two back-to-back readings. This didn’t detract in any way from the potency of this extraordinary book, which elicited not only an intellectual reaction but also a visceral one. Beyond that, I am unable (unwilling?) to write with any cogency (in the immediacy of finishing the book). I urge you to read the extended excerpt, and the book, which enters that small number of ice-axes that make up my personal canon.

Hiroshima is tomorrow

Mahmoud Darwish
Memory For Forgetfulness
August, Beirut, 1982

The vacuum bomb. Hiroshima. Manhunt by jet fighter. Vanquished remains of the Nazi army in Berlin. A flaring up of the personal conflict between Begin and Nebuchadnezzar. Headlines that jumble past with present, urging the present to hurry on. A future sold in a lottery. A Greek fat lying in wait for young heroes. A public history with no owners, open to whoever wishes to inherit. On this day, on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, they are trying out the vacuum bomb on our flesh, and the experiment is successful.
What I remember of Hiroshima is the American attempt to make it forget its name. I know Hiroshima. I was there nine years ago. In one of its squares, it spoke of its memory. Who will remind Hiroshima that Hiroshima was here? The Japanese interpreter asked if I’d seen the famous film, Hiroshima mon amour. I answered, “I can love a woman from Sodom, for love or play. I can love a body whose guards may kill me through the window.””I don’t understand,” she said. “It’s just poetic fancy, ” I said. “But where is Hiroshima?””Hiroshima’s here,” she answered. “You’re in Hiroshima.” “I don’t see it,” I said. “Why did you cover the name of its body with flowers? Is it because the American pilot cried later? He pushed a button, and saw nothing but a cloud. But when he saw photographs later, he cried.” “Such is life, she said. “But American didn’t cry,” I said. “She wasn’t angry with herself. She was angered by the power balance.”
Hiroshima tomorrow. Hiroshima is tomorrow.
There’s nothing in the museum of the crime that points to the name of the killer: “The plane came this way, from a base in the Pacific.” Is this collusion, or is it kowtowing? As for the victims, they need no names. Human skeletons bare of leaves. Branches made of bone, just for the shape. Forms, just for the form. A few locks of hair single out a woman over there. Inscriptions on a wall explain degrees of death-from burns, smoke, poison, or radiation. Preliminary exercises for a more comprehensive global killing. Preparing for the end. Nowadays, the Hiroshima bomb’s destructive power makes it seem primitive nuclear weaponry. Yet it has enabled scientific imagination to write the scenario of the end of the world: an enormous explosion, a gigantic explosion that will resemble the initial formation of the globe with its organised chaos of mountains, wadis, plains, deserts, rivers, seas, slopes, lakes, wrinkles, rocks, all the beautiful variety of an earth glorified in poetic praises and religious ceremonies. After the giant explosion, a great fire will blaze, consuming whatever it can eat-human beings, trees, stones, and other things that can burn-and giving rise to a dense smoke that will blot out the sun for many days until the sky weeps a black rain, which they call nuclear rain, that will poison every living thing. The earth will then cool down and return to the Ice Age. And in the period of rapid transition from this age to the Ice Age nothing will remain alive except rats and certain types of insects. One morning the rats will wake up to find they are human beings who rule the earth. Kafka turned upside down. And I ask: Which is more cruel? That a human being should wake up to find he’s a giant insect, or that an insect should wake up to find it is a human being who plays with an atomic bomb thinking it nothing more than a football?

Idées Fixes of the Week

Dorothea Tanning: Birthday (1942)

Dorothea Tanner (1910-2012)

*****

Mahmoud Darwish
Memory for Forgetfulness
August, Beirut, 1982

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise. Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of the blog coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don’t let it sink. Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure and into a little white cup; dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the coffee. Observe the paths of steam and the tent of rising aroma. Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee, the cigarette with the flavour of existence itself, unequaled by the tastes of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

Memory of Forgetfulness (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi) is extraordinary, a staggeringly powerful  memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. To leave the description there would be reductive; Darwish interrogates the nature of exile and discourses widely, from the importance of coffee, to the relationship between memory and history. I’ve begun my second reading, unable to put the book aside.

*****

William Butler Yeats
A Coat

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But he fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

*****

*****

flowerville
[Thomas Bernhard:] An Attempt by Ingeborg Bachmann

I am convinced that the last prose of Thomas Bernhard goes far beyond than that of Beckett and is infinitely superior compared to it [Beckett], because of its compulsion, its inescapability and its hardness. In all those years people asked themselves, how would it look like, the new.

*****

Donald Weber – Interrogation (2011)