Idées Fixes of the Week

St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroes (1445-50), Giovanni di Paolo

“Any number of autonomous intelligences traced their fate on the books she made and which were secondary, primal was the documentation of a thinking vibration reflected in a perfectly unknown place and material. Her effectiveness did not depend on memory, but on knowledge. Looking at the writers sitting around the table, she found that this term was empty, and that their images were defined, more than anything, by the position of their gaze, and their abandonment of the old way of reading and writing. Meditating on their fates she saw that nothingness was approaching, but it was powerless. The long narrative that was going to take place did not come from the interpreted description of the lives, but from the evolution of their interior transitions, which might converge, at some points, with the universal adventure, their experimentation and flight.”

—Maria Gabriela Llansol, In the House of July and August

(My impressions of Llansol—to date—mostly posted here and here.)

”                    Again is the sacred
word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by
coming back. More & more as we go deeper
I realise this aspect of hope, in the sense of
the future cashed in, the letter returned to sender.
How can I straighten the sure fact that
we do not do it, as we regret, trust, look
forward to etc? Since each time what
we have is increasingly the recall, not
the subject to which we have come. […]

I know I will go back
down & that it will not be the same though
I shall be sure it is so. and I shall be even
deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held
to what isn’t mine. […] [W]e
trifle with rhyme and again is the
sound of immortality.”

—J.H. Prynne

The Wonder of Reading

Maria Gabriela Llansol

Transitory mental representations recorded on off-white paper in black printing ink convey a sequence of ideas from one self to another. Though we can describe the pattern recognition that makes this complex act possible, it is no less extraordinary that our species evolved cortical space surely wired originally for an entirely different process. How much is lost in the translation between one self and another we can only speculate as so much of reading is shaped by associative memories, environmental encoding and personal experience. However eloquently we can describe the science of reading, the improbability of reading and its transformative potential never fails to fill me with something close to spiritual awe.

Despite modernist literature’s attempt to stimulate a less socially conservative form, prose fiction remains locked into realist, figurative linear narrative, a form perfected in the nineteenth-century novel. Although other art forms, with different degrees of success, have shaped and stimulated their audience’s curiosity, literature seems unable to move substantially away from books that are easy to understand and consume, works that function to confirm preexisting assumptions.

There won’t be a large audience for Maria Gabriela Llansol’s fiction. It belongs to an earlier attempt to find a more authentic way than linear narrative to represent those transitory mental impressions. It is structured more like the way our minds swerve this way and that, pursuing different recollections and allusions, blending together voices from what we’ve read and lived. The absence of a subjective ‘I’ is as unsettling as when we first appreciate how illusory is our own experience of self as an integrated, cohesive character. Oscar Wilde is aware of the challenge of art, writing, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” This propensity is asserted powerfully in the contemporary popularity of auto-fiction, embodying the narcissism that may be the hallmark of our age.

After a second reading, I’m reluctant to stop reading Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy, an exhilarating mental and sensual experience that compels the reader to use their own imaginative resource.

Bits of Pipe

“To say exactly what one means, even to one’s own private satisfaction , is difficult.” Not for Virginia Woolf, “the Chinese Wall of a private language”. “There is no a single sentence in The Waves that you would be likely to overhear on the street.” Yet the language is intelligible. “The experience of reading The Waves can be like listening to a piece of classical music that seems at first to have neither narrative nor structure.” This is good, what I am so often drawn to in fiction. “There is not a single unfocused shot in the entire book. Every passage, every sentence, every word is hard and bright. Where Woolf wants to shade or fade for the sake of effect, she does so as a painter does so, by taking a strong line and manipulating it. This is quite different from a line unfixed or ill-drawn.”

It is the finest part of Jeanette Winterson’s zealous encomium to art and her literary passions, this chapter on The Waves. Hugh Kenner often makes a similar argument for the clarity of Beckett’s prose: “Beckett has never written an obscure sentence. He is the clearest, most limpid, most disciplined joiner of words in the English language today.” Aside, arguably from Woolf. Both wrote literature that is not possible to read quickly. In both writer’s novels there are literary allusions, though in Beckett these appear to become less literary after Watt; some rely on the memory and knowledge of the reader, some more demanding, almost rarified and private. In a letter of 1972, Beckett wrote, “They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me. I suppose all is reminiscence from womb to tomb.”

Winterson compels a reader back to the subtlest of Woolf’s novels, as Kenner does to Beckett’s fiction. These in turn remind me to return soon to Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels trilogy. There is in Llansol’s compression of thought a perpetuation of the attempt to evolve prose beyond the nineteenth century novel, which as Winterson acknowledges, still provides the form and style of at least ninety-five percent of contemporary fiction.

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.