Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings

To read Mathias Enard’s Compass and Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings in the same year is to be blessed. Doubly blessed. The gods of serendipity sometimes endow fortunate readers with such divine favour. Virginia Woolf contemplated reading King Lear, with the question, “Do I want such a strain on the emotions?”, answering, of course, pining reader that she was, “I think I do.” But esurient readers are equally blessed and cursed: the question always of what to read after scaling such peaks. Who can once again place such strain on our emotions?

One senses such diffidence in Michael Hamburger’s memoir, String of Beginnings, written of his early life from the perspective of his late forties. He attempts to subvert the fictional nature of autobiography by relying only on documentary evidence of the time: letters, diaries, fragments of a written life. The purism of eschewing memory and reconstruction from a work of autobiography is revealing, and marks Hamburger’s approach to both poetry and translation. He writes, “Had it not been for a crisis in my personal life that made it necessary for me to discover as much as I could about my formative years, so as to break the pattern they had set up, I was past wishing to write about myself at all.” Not, of course, that Hamburger discloses the nature of this crisis. This is a reluctant memoir.

His memoir captures the essence of an extraordinary time, of lives disrupted by the conflicts of 1939 to 1945; of the suspension of his education at Christ Church, Oxford, to serve in the British Army, and the subsequent return to his education and writing, altered irrevocably by his wartime experience. He writes, “So, in the end, I don’t know what the Army did to my writing. Even the books I glossed in barrack-rooms did something to me, though I’ve forgotten what most of them were about. Everything I saw and heard and felt did something to me, though I’ve forgotten most of the details. That’s one reason why one writes: sooner or later almost everything about a life is forgotten, by the person who lived it and by the others.”

In the end, what penetrates most, despite Hamburger’s self-effacement, is the admirable and lovable nature of the man himself, which is most clear, ironically, or perhaps typically, not in his own self-reflection, but in the way that he perceives and describes the other people he encounters. In an exquisite section on his friendship with half-forgotten Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, he reproduces part of a letter Watkins wrote to him about the German poet, Heinrich Heine; “The nature of his genius is elusive, and so many readers treat the mask as absolute, whereas I think Heine really believed only in love, and rarely found it.” It isn’t surprising for Hamburger to single out such a sentence as it expresses a sentiment I am certain was equally true about himself.

A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

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.

Mathias Enard: Street of Thieves

“I read too, more every time, a pleasant way to trick boredom, death, to trick thought itself by distracting it, by distancing it from the truth, the only truth, which is: we are all caged animals who live for pleasure, in obscurity.” p.13

“Sometimes we sense the situation is escaping us, that things are getting out of hand; we become afraid and instead of calmly looking, trying to understand, we react like a dog caught in barbed wire, thrashing about madly until it slices open its throat.” p.99

“I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have as much Arab in me as Spanish or French, I have been multiplied in those mirrors until I have been lost or rebuilt, fragile image, image in motion.” p.271

Mathias Enard, Street of Thieves (trans. Charlotte Mandell)

Mathias Enard: Zone

All morning spent absorbed in Mathias Enard’s Zone; the same wonder at Charlotte Mandell’s translation as Shelley Frisch’s rendering of Stach’s biography of Kafka. Zone is better read in long immersive binges, punctuated by dreamy Bordeaux or grassy Sencha Fukujyu tea.

Enard’s circumlocutory thoughts, precisely paced over the long Rome-ward train journey, never falter or lose their pace. Sometimes with a book, you get that fortunate feeling that this book has found its ideal reader, or as Enard writes, “sometimes you come across books that resemble you, they open up your chest from chin to navel, stun you . . .” I love that word resemble, so close to reassemble. Both accurate in this case. After Zone I feel in need of reassembly.

” . . . too many things there are too many things everything is too heavy even a train won’t manage to carry those memories to Rome they weigh so much, they weigh more than all the executioners and victims in the briefcase over my seat . . .” That’s what Zone is about, but like Calasso’s books, it is also about everything else.

The Alexander Express

I’ll not get past this passage today, from Mathias Enard’s Zone, translated so elegantly by Charlotte Mandell. Dreams of an endless train journey through old, weary places. If I read a better book than Zone this year I shall be fortunate.

” . . . and the employee (a blonde Venetian, a kind of barrette held in her mouth like a toothpick) had looked at me stunned, to Alexandria but there’s a train, and in that immediate confidence one has in professionals I had pictured, for a second, a train that would go from Venice to Alexandria in Egypt, direct via Trieste Zagreb Belgrade Thessalonica Istanbul Antioch Aleppo Beirut Acre and Port Said, a challenge to geopolitics and to the mind, and even, once I had understood her confusion, Alessandria in Piedmont, I had began to dream of a train that would unite all the Alexandrias, a network connecting Alessandria in Piedmont Alexandria Troas in Turkey Alexandria in Egypt Alexandria in Arachosia, possibly the most mysterious of them all, lost in Afghanistan far from railroads the train would be called The Alexander Express and would go from Alexandria Eschate in Tajikistan to Piedmont through the lips of Africa in thirteen days and as many nights . . .”