A Snowbound Weekend’s Reading

‘ – a love can sometimes cease / in the extinguishing of an eye / and what we come to see / is love’s extinguished eye.’ These lines from Ingeborg Bachmann (t. Peter Filkins), who I must read this year. Poetry, prose, more. Love ceases of writers’ work I once thought indispensable. This hazard of re-reading. A one-time companion now seems over-sentimental, another so riddled with cliché that the work is unreadable.

And yet a new discovery still has the capacity to rob me of sleep, lines rolling around and over, even hissed in the middle of a dream. Anna Kamieńska: there is little in translation of her fifteen books of poetry and two books of notebooks. (These edited and translated by by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon.)

‘So it’s necessary to keep on shedding skin . . .
We live among question marks’

‘Yes
even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, last year’s discovery. Something shifted after reading her Book of Communities (t. Audrey Young), and my reading keeps circling the same question marks, the unbeliefs. I’m not in any hurry to read the last two books of Llansol’s trilogy. There is little of her small body of work in translation but I’m told more is forthcoming.

This snowbound weekend afforded time to read. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginning of Spring confirmed I’m not the reader for her elegant comedies of manners. I also read Kate Zambreno’s latest, Appendix Project, essays and talks based on sections excised from her remarkable Book of Mutter. I may have more to say on these. Zambreno’s writing gets richer with each book.

My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

Recent Arrivals: Notebooks, Copernicus and Research

My attraction to Simone Weil’s work is deepening the more I read. I couldn’t resist the notebooks. Her reading of Plato is sending me back to his work, which I haven’t revisited much since my twenties. I’ve written a rather dodgy post on Weil and Plato. I may or may not post it here, but am fascinated by her argument that Plato was deeply influential on the medieval Christian mystics.

I am not especially religious (though not an atheist), but alongside Weil I am enjoying an exploration of much earlier Christian mystics (is Weil a mystic?) like St John of the Cross. So much we simply cannot know; as Heidegger said somewhere, it is quite possible that human thought is at only a rudimentary level.

The other two are continuations of my tumbling headlong down a rabbit-hole propelled by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities. Emily Dickinson’s influence on Llansol is clear.

Rabbit-Holes and Mystics

You know that rabbit-hole? At the moment I’m reading Saint John of the Cross’ The Ascent of Mount Carmel, to be followed by these, grounding for continuing to read Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy.

There’s a longer list I’m contemplating that includes social histories by Hartmut Kaelble and Béla Tomka, Henry Suso’s The Exemplar and Thomas Müntzer’s writing.

Indirectly I’ve also become drawn to Simone Weil recently, a strange and astonishing woman who seems to be almost the quintessential twentieth century mystic, comparable with Thomas Merton. If you can recommend a good biography (there are so many) please do so in comments. Or have any recommendations of medieval mystics and/or good social histories that are worth reading.

Thoughts on Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Book of Communities

So I’ll have to reread The Book of Communities. That was a clear thought within the first twenty pages of reading the first book of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy The Geography of Rebels. My state of mind at that thought: excitement and sorrow. However much I read, watch and listen to, there are always going to be vast chasms of stuff that I don’t know. That’s the sorrow. Excitement to discover a writer that has the capability to upend my world to the point I spent two sleepless nights thinking about the book. That such a thing is even possible beyond the heady days of youth is exciting.

There are comparisons to Clarice Lispector. Both writers quickly move beyond conventional narrative and push what is capable within the form of what we call fiction. But so do Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett and if comparisons must be made those are more apt. Llansol’s voices are closer to the metaphorical presences of Beckett, what she calls figures, “It is in exile, in the outside of the outside, that the network of figures, like Ana de Peñalosa, Nietzsche, Saint John of the Cross, Eckhart, Müntzer, Hadewijch, and others, takes root in order to receive the myth of the remaining life, and wonders whether there will be a place in the human body, among their bodies, where fantastic cosmogonic changes correspond to incredibly slow social mutations.” (From this excellent review of Llansol’s trilogy.)

Her use of figures allows Llansol to elude the clichés of literary characterisation and attempt to produce a feeling that is sensed rather than portrayed directly. Somewhere online I read an odd post drawing an analogy between Llansol’s trilogy and Finnegans Wake. Such an analogy is only useful in contrasting the differences. I’ve not read Finnegans Wake cover to cover and suspect I may never do so, but my impression is that Joyce moves almost entirely towards abstraction, reducing his narrative to a purely verbal code. The danger is that pushed to the extreme, abstraction is rendered so richly that it becomes unintelligible mishmash. It is quite possible I am doing Joyce a disservice  (and for once agreeing with Nabokov who called the book “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore.”) As they say on Twitter, don’t @ me.

Llansol is difficult in its own way, but never unintelligible. Her figures are subjected to deformations and subject to a series of precise sensations. It is the precision of thought that gives her story clarity and makes it a container for speculative questions about the nature of writing and close reading. I found reading The Book of Communities an intensely felt experience, nervous as much as cerebral. It is a lived experience of Merleau-Ponty’s essay on language not residing purely in the brain, but being something we do with our bodies, words are “a certain use made of my phonatory equipment, a certain modulation of my body as a being in the world.” In that sense, like poetry, it is a book that benefits by being read aloud, playing with the elisions and sound structures. Its translator, Audrey Young, from what I can tell from comparing its original online, has done an outstanding job of retaining its rich tone and rhythm.

It is the sort of book to be read with a pencil and access to good reference books or a browser. Llansol wrote the first two books several years apart, so rather than rush into the second book in the trilogy, I plan to follow the rabbit-hole leading through medieval mystics, philosophers and social history, so that when I reread The Book of Communities and its sequels I do so with a little less sorrow about all the stuff there is still to know.

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab