Reading WH Auden’s Prose

“Throughout life our existence is profoundly influenced by names, names of persons we meet and love, names of characters, whether in history or fiction, who embody for us what we mean by goodness, justice, courage, names of artists and scientists who have helped us form our conception of life and the world. Indeed one might say, ‘Give me a list of the names in your life and I will tell you who you are.’ ”

It so happens that, when I was a schoolboy, the first poets that made up the role-call of my adolescence were Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. It now seems odd that I was attracted to such a heterogeneous collection of poets, but their work surely helped shape my  early conception of life.

Youthful literary passions don’t always bear revisiting. It seems unlikely that I will return to Plath, Dickinson or Cummings though by objective standards they are good poets. They make up a litany of writers I once enjoyed that I haven’t found to sustain rereading.

Eliot and Auden, Tom and Wystan as I somewhat absurdly think of them having read many memoirs and accounts of their contemporaries, are, if not quite constants, writers I dip into annually to refresh my memory of a particular line or poem. Both poets peaked in one of those infrequent intervals when the British decided to almost cherish their intellectuals. They were recognised, frequently on the radio and television, difficult to imagine in these times when our culture is infantilised and debased in precisely the way Auden foretold; last bulwarks as both poets were against a seemingly endless surge of neatly packaged, crude content to be voraciously consumed and forgotten.

Reading Auden’s prose for the first time is to be startled by its originality and by the sharpness of his insights. Michael Wood reviewed a volume of the prose, part of a complete edition of Auden’s works by Princeton University Press, consequently I’m reading volume V and would be content to read little else for quite some time.

His prose inevitably returns you to his poetry. A quite brilliant essay, The Fall of Rome, is a companion piece for his poem of the same name. For any writer of Auden’s acuity, all the writing forms a single body of work. There was a time when all my reading was of poetry, to engage with a gifted poet’s work after a thirty year absence is to discover a lush exquisiteness that only experience and the transformative nature of time can bring about. It also reminds me with some urgency to make much more time for poetry, whether revisiting barely recalled chestnuts or exploring newer work.

Broadcasting Ambiguity

Sir William Empson by Fay Godwin

“Yet only writers (and certain kinds of reader) will believe they can never leave language to the side of any question.”

“Empson wants us to see literature as a kind of continuum, a viaduct from mind to mind …”

“Empson writes (in the poem “Letter I”), “I approve myself, dark spaces between stars,” and [Denis] Donoghue says, “You have to be an Ancient rather than a Modern to put yourself between that verb and that object.”

“But Empson doesn’t state the important corollary, perhaps because he thinks the judgment of a critic’s work needs to be left to that critic’s readers. The corollary is this: “if criticism can’t explain, can’t peg things out in words, it can, often magnificently, show us what there is to be looked at, prove there is a crossroad where we so far have seen only a single well-trodden track.”

“It strikes me that modern critics . . . have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to this basic fact.”

Michael Wood. On Empson (2017)

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

Barthes on Barthes

You sense in Barthes by Barthes the vertiginous pleasure that Roland Barthes found in reading himself like a text. Composed of fragments that dissect belief and the nature of writing, his illusionary autobiography is joyful [playful], often brilliant. Michael Wood quotes Barthes’ description of himself as ‘un sujet uncertain’. (Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’.) A thinker, a writer before his time, Barthes would have taken naturally to the form of the blog.

From the fragment to the journal

With the alibi of a pulverised discourse, a dissertation destroyed, one arrives at the regular practise of the fragment; then from the fragment one slips to the “journal.” At which point, is not the point of all this to entitle oneself to write a “journal”? Am I not justified in considering everything I have written as a clandestine and stubborn effort to bring light again, someday, quite freely, the theme of the Gidean “journal”? At the terminal horizon, perhaps quite simply the initial text (his very first text was concerned with Gide’s journal).