A Year, no, Decade of Reading

Yes, yes, it is of course too early for one of my year in reading posts, but I wasn’t going to write one any way. A year is too arbitrary in a lifetime of reading. The phases and disjunctures of my reading life operate more in decades. It’s five on Sunday morning in Beijing and city is quiet. I’m channeling through a Japanese IP address to get access to WordPress.

My decade in reading is charted here on this blog, a strange record of the meandering byways of a life spent reading. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why I read so coherently at the start, and then for a long time I thought reading was about seeing through another’s eyes. This isn’t of course possible nor does it explain with any clarity how essential books and specifically literature are to my life. Jon Fosse gets closer:

‘Some authors know that they don’t know, yet they still have the feeling of knowing something which cannot be known, something which cannot be pronounced as meaning, but which perhaps despite everything can be said through literature.’

It’s not about good books and certainly not exquisitely written stories, or pacy plots, or believable characterisation. A decade ago I would’ve argued against this perspective. It’s that sense that even the writer of an enchanted text doesn’t quite know the depths she or he has scaled. We don’t have the language to really capture the quickening that occurs when a voice has broken through and communicated something below our conscious mind. The ineffable in all its glorious beauty.

The quivering heart of this year’s reading is Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy. Her writing has transformed my way of perceiving writing and the world, which I increasingly think might well be the same thing. These squiggly symbols on a page are a Lascaux of sorts. They shape us as we interpret what we think we perceive.

This is a good year of reading. It is a life-changing decade of reading. It isn’t possible to see who I’d be without all these books, a version of myself that exists somewhere, but I’d rather not meet him.

Literary Yearnings

On shelves in various rooms of my home are over a thousand books I’ve yet to read. I want to read them all of course. I want also to read the catalogues from the art exhibitions I visit, and the programmes from my regular opera attendances. Then there’s the journals I can’t do without: The White Review, PN Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and my weekly TLS, which these days invariably comes late, three or four at the time. I skim the FT daily on my iPad, and the headlines from the Guardian, Daily Mail, New York Times and Washington Post.

In an average year I read around sixty-five books, so in the event of house arrest for unforgivable literary consumerism, I have sufficient reading material for at least fifteen years, slightly less perhaps if I can resist the allure of social media. On the other hand, I’ve decided to spend more time on developing my inept film literacy, so I could possibly stretch existing supplies out for up to twenty years, especially if I make time for those art catalogues and opera programmes.

Surrounded by unread books, unwatched films, with the treasures of London’s galleries within fifteen minutes of my office, why is it that the writers I most want to read are not those on my shelves, but those effectively unattainable because they are not translated into a language I can read?

One of this year’s most thrilling moments was the delivery of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text. I’ve been translating fragments for at least a decade from the Biblioteca Adelphi edition. More recently I’ve been possessed by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s work since reading and rereading the Geography of Rebels trilogy. Translating from Portuguese is enjoyably difficult but glacially slow work.

This week I’ve been reading Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. I am drawn to Zambra’s voice, particularly his essays, translated by Megan McDowell; he writes with precision and extreme generosity. This book gathers essays written for the culture section of a Chilean newspaper. He writes about writing, books he has read, and has fuelled a few more literary yearnings for the difficult to obtain novels of Josefina Vicens and the journals of Paul Léautaud and Raúl Ruiz.

Dublinesque (Enrique Vila-Matas)

In the same interview, Vila-Matas says, ‘I do not demand that the reader suspend their disbelief, because the attraction of reading the book comes not from the story that is told, but from the encounter with the world of its author.’ There is no more concise way to explain   why I read, what Maria Gabriella Llansol described as ‘a living writing she could take for an encounter.’ As Beckett wrote of Joyce’s writing, ‘is not about something; it is something itself.’

Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque is that peak of imaginative writing when one can suspend oneself into the mind of another’s sensibility. Reading this interview and his recent book, Mac & His Problem, confirms the metafictional nature of his project. It is intertextual writing, following an ancient tradition of writing and interpreting a text in parallel. The screens between reading, writing and interpreting are removed, only to reveal their illusory nature. I like very much the quote in my last post, also from the interview. Was it Pessoa who said something like: the best kept secret of self-knowledge may be that there is no self?

Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow

‘I work to earth my heart.’

With some regret I finished Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow. It follows the sudden death of her son, an immense reflection on the loosening of time and her ensuing relearning of the world.

I think about the dead, what Maria Gabriela Llansol called the ‘shadows that will remain living among us’. Where do our encounters with these shadows, the non-existent realities (figures) of stories, true or otherwise, take place? What would we be without them?

Riley’s book isn’t a misery memoir, is quite dispassionate in tone, reflecting on how the mourning process is intertwined with the writing of her text. In the three years after her son’s death, Riley found writing anything beyond sporadic notes impossible: ‘You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.’ Only once she felt time was resumed, well over two and a half years after the death, did narration become possible again. Like Llansol, incorporating her loved one into the narrative is a way to not only accept the reality of their absence but also bring them to life again through the text.

Mouth of Hell

Pessoa (possibly) and Crowley

A few weeks ago my daughter and I were in Portugal, primarily to learn more about Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing and life. We visited Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais. I was amused to learn that Aleister Crowley was there too in 1930. He had been invited by the eccentric poet, Fernando Pessoa, whose work I once liked very much. Crowley, mystic, Satanist, fascinated me for a brief period when I was a teenager when, via Jung, I was drawn to the occult.

We saw in Cascais a chasm below a high, overhanging cliff, known locally as Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell), a favourite place for suicides. It was here, appropriately, that Crowley staged a suicide, leaving a note, weighted down by a cigarette case, recorded in his diary as: ‘I cannot live without you. The other Boca do Inferno will get me—it won’t be as hot as yours.’ In reality he had left Portugal and rejoined his lover, Hanna Jaeger, in Berlin. Pessoa played along, writing about Crowley’s ‘mysterious disappearance’ for local newspapers, even claiming to have seen Crowley’s ghost a day or two later.

Easter Sunday

Yesterday, a superb day, though already unpleasantly warm. For the second time I go to the Bonnard exhibition. This morning I found my notebook entry from 14 February 1998 about the last Bonnard exposition in London. I was more easily satisfied then. I find pleasure in the high-key broken colour palette, but unlike twenty years ago, it is now the gracefully decomposing still-lives I find most mesmerising.

Looking through my photographs of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Lisbon library I spotted Stefan Zweig’s Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book. I’ve read little of Zweig, deterred mostly by the scale of his oeuvre. Being a completist I have an irrational nervousness about being drawn to writers with monstrous bodies of work, also an idea that if he wrote so much, a lot of it must be mediocre. Surely? I read enough of the Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book online to be compelled to reread Le Père Goriot (Dr. Krailsheimer’s ‘generally accurate’ translation) until 4:00 A.M. Devoted to Balzac in my twenties, and on my fourth or fifth reading of Goriot, it fascinates me how my reading of Balzac has changed since my youth; how much more real his creations seem now I’ve met such ambitious, venal people outside of literature.

Sadly a Happy Woman

‘Yes, she felt a perfect animal inside her. The thought of one day setting this animal loose disgusted her. Perhaps for fear of lack of aesthetic. Or dreading a revelation …’ p.10

‘And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?’ p.23

‘The impression that if she could remain in the feeling for a few more instants she’d have a revelation—easily, like seeing the rest of the world just by leaning from the earth towards space. Eternity wasn’t just time, but something like the deeply rooted certainty that she couldn’t contain it in her body because of death; the impossibility of going beyond eternity was eternity; and a feeling in absolute, almost abstract purity was also eternal. What really gave her a sense of eternity was the impossibility of knowing how many human beings would succeed her body, which would one day be so far from the present with the speed of a shooting star.’ p.35

‘Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.’ p.36

‘From that day on, Joana felt voices. She understood them or didn’t understand them. No doubt at the end of her life, for each timbre heard a wave of her own reminiscences would surface to memory, she’d say: how many voices I’ve had …’ p. 66

‘Because the last ice cubes had melted and now she was sadly a happy woman.’ p.101

‘… in that same, strange, deceptive room where the dust had now won out over the shine.’ p.104

‘Sunday is something like Christmas trees …’ p.161

There are comparisons between Clarice Lispector’s and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing that I resisted as too easy. But they share Spinoza’s God and Nietzsche’s joyous, brooding presence. My second reading of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, translated by Alison Entrekin, richer and deeper than the first. Dorothy Richardson, in the early parts of Pilgrimage, is traversing similar plains.