Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

Leopardi’s Pessimism

Gilbert Highet’s elegant account of Count Giacomo Leopardi urges me to make time for those notebooks awaiting my time and attention. Beckett also found Leopardi simpatico, describing himself in a letter to MacGreevy as “one who is interested in Leopardi and Proust rather than in Carducci and Barrès”, adding many years later that Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism not his patriotism)”. Highet’s sentence rests on his phrase: “if properly understood and managed”.

“His closest links in classical literature are with Lucretius the Epicurean, who believed that creation and the life of man were a pure accident, having no significance beyond itself; that nature was neither kindly nor hostile to us, but indifferent; and that the only sensible purpose of living was to attain, through well-spaced and well-chosen pleasures and an intelligent understanding of the universe, a calm and reassured happiness. Like Lucretius, Leopardi is a materialist; like him he admires the charm of the Greek deities, although he knows that they have really no effective connexion with our world; like him he looks at human excitements and efforts with astonished pity, as we do at an ant-hill struck by a falling apple. But–here is the fundamental difference not only between Leopardi and Lucretius, but many modern poets and nearly all Greco-Roman poets–the conclusion that Leopardi draws is that life, because of its futility, is a cruel agent where death is welcome; and the conclusion of Lucretius is that life, if properly understood and managed, is still liveable. Even Greek tragedy does not mean that life is hopeless; but that, at its most terrible, it still contains nobility and beauty. Perhaps because of the sickness which afflicted both Leopardi’s body and his soul, he was never able to fight through to this truth. At least, not consciously. Yet, as an artist, he grasped it. His chief debt to classical poetry and his truest claim to equal the great lyric poets is that he sees his tragic subjects with sculptural clarity, and describes them with that combination of deep passion and perfect aesthetic control which e recognise as Greek.”

Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage

I resolved to read Denton Welch this year, enthused by Des’s advocacy, though the timing was determined by catching sight of a rather distinctive edition of Maiden Voyage, his first novel, in one of the Cecil Court bookshops: an American first with dust wrappers and end papers drawn by Welch.

With measured and precise description, Welch applies a loupe to people and objects. Although my copy is an American edition, I wonder whether an American reader would get the same pleasure from Welch’s empathetic observation of the nuances of that colossal curse of the English, its class system. Welch’s way of noticing the small things of life ends up creating a fictional (lightly autobiographical) world of epic proportion, one that is singularly alluring.

An extraordinary tension is set up in Maiden Voyage. As Michael Schmidt writes in his study, The Novel: “Welch’s prose is full of paradoxes, his stories of themes that are more telling for being undeclared.” The novel’s narrator often appears reserved, almost priggish, though there is a homoeroticism that almost but never quite breaks surface. It is similar to the sexual tension that suffuses Patricia Highsmith’s writing.

Maiden Voyage tells the story of a boy brought up in east Asia, after his mother’s death he is sent off to an absurd English public school, which he loathes, and from which he briefly absconds. As this storyline so exactly matches my own, I’m the ideal reader for Welch’s story. But beyond that, I am utterly compelled by his attention for small things. Elemental truths lie behind the sights, smells and sounds of apparently banal objects. Writers like Woolf, Proust and Welch sharpen our sights for things that would otherwise remain invisible to us.

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

Maturing into Childhood

I’ve been thinking about maturity as a process of returning to childhood. Picasso famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” For many of us, childhood is a time before anxiety, when we have yet to learn about cruelty and indifference, when we are fearless.

Bruno Schulz considered childhood an ‘”age of genius,” a time when no barrier existed between an inner psyche and the outer world, between dreams and reality, between desire and fulfilment, between the intellectual and the sensual – the time of the origins of poetry.”‘ In 1936 Schulz wrote to a friend:

What you say about our artificially prolonged childhood – about immaturity – bewilders me somewhat. Rather, it seems to me that this kind of art, the kind which is so dear to my heart, is precisely a regression, a return to childhood. Were it possible to turn back development, achieve a second childhood by some circuitous road, once again to have its fullness and immensity – that would be the incarnation of an “age of genius,” “messianic times” which are promised and pledged to us by all mythologies. My goal is to “mature” into a childhood. This really would be a true maturity.

The idea that in childhood we find the key to self-knowledge is not just a Freudian conceit that exorcised writers like Joyce and Proust. Heraclitus echoed the idea, but instead thought that humans are only children during the entire period of their lifetime, that even into adulthood we are nothing more than children playing games. Heraclitus frees us to consider childhood as not just a stage (the first of Solon’s ten stages of a human lifetime, each of seven years duration) but as a potentiality of human experience, an essential force.

The Banality of Brilliance

To speculate about whether Proust was a snob is as superfluous as debating the degree of Joyce’s egotism, though we could construct an argument that Proust would have been unfitted to dissect the society of Recherche without a social climber’s desire. And Joyce writing in A Portrait  that the “artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” feels more like his defence of a narcissistic narrator than a personal attitude. Neither quality detracts from the brilliance of either writer, and arguably both characteristics are disproportionally present among writers of the time (or perhaps any time).

Both qualities are in the foreground of the story Joyce told Frank Budgen (Further Recollections of James Joyce, 1955) of being introduced to Proust at a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev. “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess [although observers claim this question came from Joyce] asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No,’ And so on.”

Though the two men apparently sat beside each other and later shared a cab home, no written record exists of their encounter, though there is no shortage of biographical speculation about conversations about health and truffles.

Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?