Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Duras: Rhetoric of Women

Women must find their own answer. That’s the important thing. I’m no longer interested in books about women written by men. Even if I could believe in their objectivity, I just can’t find their opinions relevant. Now I will only believe what a woman has to say about women, because even if it’s not entirely true, it’s her struggle and she’s on the way to the answer.

Many of you seek masculine approval. Even though you have inside you your way of talking and writing, you have mountains of it inside you, and even though it is enough to begin expressing yourselves so long as it is with your vocabulary, your abstractions, and your own conceptualization, I think you are still afraid of the master: men. Of their judgment. As long as you have this fear, you will not progress. I think the future belongs to women. Men have been completely dethroned. Their rhetoric is stale, used up. We must move on the rhetoric of women, one that is anchored in the organism, in the body.

Marguerite Duras

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

A Bibliography of Boredom

This afternoon I reread the passage in The Magic Mountain in which Thomas Mann expounds on the nature of boredom.  Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom asks, “What is the difference between profound boredom and depression?” concluding that there is considerable overlap.

Thinking about how various thinkers have dealt with boredom led me to scribbling a bibliography for a study on the subject, which I thought I’d share here. All of these works deal to a greater or lesser extent with the concept of boredom:

  1. Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind – Patricia Meyer Spacks
  2. In Praise of Boredom (from On Grief and Reason) – Joseph Brodsky
  3. Boredom is a major preoccupation in much of Herman Melville’s work
  4. Being and Time – Martin Heidegger (on the theme of profound boredom)
  5. The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell
  6. The themes of boredom and  waiting are dominant in the novels of Marguerite Duras, notably Moderato Cantabile (which is brilliant and you should read anyway.)
  7. The Voyage Out – Virgina Woolf (fascinating exploration of the textual use of boredom)
  8. Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity – Elizabeth Goodstein
  9. Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  10. A Philosophy of Boredom – Lars Svendsen
  11. Boredom: A Lively History – Peter Toohey
  12. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

I realise there is an extensive literature of the phenomenon of boredom, many of which I have not included. I came cross Lee Rourke’s top 10 books about boredom. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section.

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.