There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.

The Voice of the Book

Quote

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

We have gained reality and lost dreams . . .

There was a moment while reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities when, like in the careful balance of piano and strings in a late Brahms’ piece, the immense breadth of Musil’s conception became briefly visible.

It is a book that merits slow reading, inevitable as one writes entire passages into one’s notebook. Often I wish there was as little to read as must have been the case in Montaigne’s day, when it was still possible to read everything. In 1571, when Montaigne retired to his tower to study, the printing press was still a novelty. How he must have treasured his Rabelais, Chaucer and Calvin. This extended fragment of The Man Without Qualities captured my attention.

“If it is the fulfilment of man’s primordial dreams to be able to fly, travel with the fish, drill our way beneath the bodies of towering mountains, send messages with godlike speed, see the invisible and hear the distant speak, hear the voices of the dead, be miraculously cured while asleep, see with our own eyes how we will look twenty years after our death, learn in flickering nights thousands of things above and below this earth no one ever knew before; of light, warmth, power, pleasure, comforts, are man’s primordial dreams, then present-day research is not only science but sorcery, spells woven from the highest powers of heart and brain, forcing God to open one fold after another of his cloak; a religion whose dogma is permeated and sustained by the hard, courageous, flexible, razor-cold, razor-keen logic of mathematics.
Of course there is no denying that all these primordial dreams appear, in the opinion of nonmathematicians, to have been suddenly realised in a form quite different from the original fantasy. Baron Munchausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than a car, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a railway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethological study of a bird’s vocalising. We have gained reality and lost dreams. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it move frantically ever since, unable to shake off that rotten feeling of antlike industry.”

Pascal Quignard’s Work

Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.

I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.

I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.

Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.