My Year in Reading: 2017

Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)

Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.

My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.

Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.

My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).

It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.

Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.

Michael Hamburger In Conversation

Michael Hamburger 1974 R.B. Kitaj 1932-2007 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975

‘Some of the poems I wrote in the USA are responses to my discoveries of wilderness and wild life, on the walks that were my main compensation for enforced absence from home, others to the civilisation that has become ours, since American monetarist and free market ideology were imported by Margaret Thatcher.’ p.16

‘Paradox has been at the root of my life, as a poet and otherwise. That may be why it’s been as difficult for me to make sense of what I’ve been or done as it’s proved for other people.’ p. 19

‘All I can say now is that I’ve made peace with parts of both Pound’s and Eliot’s works, in the teeth of their opinions and stances, because good poetry is always more and other than the opinions that went into it or can be read out of it.’ p. 20

‘[English literary] snobbery has diminished, replaced by sensationalism about ‘celebrities’ and the cult of publicity for publicity’s sake, measured in figures not quality, and the political prejudice has been replaced either by tolerance or by indifference. Now it’s indifference to all good writing that isn’t sensational my translations are up against; and it makes little difference whether they are from the German or another language, when the same indifference meets even the work of English poets who happen to have won no competitions nor attracted publicity for something other than the merit of their work. The nearest things to general assessments of a writer’s work now appears in obituary columns. If the better newspapers were interested in extending that privilege to writers who have withstood neglect and are still kicking, they would have given that amount of space and care to people who are only candidates for death; not as a boost to those writers but as a service to readers.’ p. 44

‘It’s the disappearance of criticism, not notice, that is fatal to the continuation not of imaginative writing, but of its reception; and the substitution of irrelevances for criticism …’ p. 44

‘No one but Michael Hofmann has ever seriously set up the Aunt Sally he pretends to knock down. It is true that readers of Celan’s last poems have been exasperated by them beyond the bounds of deciding that he went too far, driving his language beyond the bounds of what poetry can do. I have no quarrel with such readers who are free to give up and look elsewhere.’ p. 47 [Hofmann argued in his review of Felstiner’s book on Celan that ‘there is even a case for saying there is no point in translating’ Celan.]

‘I’m sure I’ve been as irascible  as the rest of the tribe [‘literati’], but although I can always be relied upon to moan about something – and my friend Christopher Middleton used to call me ‘Gloomburger’ – I’ve done my best not to squabble in my own interest, but about matters I feel strongly about. I must say, too, that in a world always imperfect I find nothing more boring than an obligatory cheerfulness; or the pretence of it that’s expected of one. It doesn’t make for interchange of any kind.’ p. 64

Michael Hamburger: In Conversation with Peter Dale (1998)

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.

Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings —
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down —
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.