Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.


The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.

Growing by Leonard Woolf

 

My Don Quixote inspired inability to settle and complete a book is over. I am nostalgic for my own far eastern childhood and for a Ceylon that no longer exists, in ways for which we can be thankful and saddened. This absorption is inspired by completing Leonard Woolf’s rather wonderful Growing, a memoir of his seven years as a Civil Servant in Ceylon.

Woolf’s style is unsentimental, except when talking of his love for animals, and probing. Over the seven years of the memoir Woolf developed in maturity and responsibility; he leaves Ceylon profoundly disquieted about imperialism. It is in describing the local culture and people that the richness of the writing becomes strongest; Woolf was clearly a curious observer.

I shall resist the urge to pick up the first or next volume of Woolf’s memoirs. Calling to me is Nabokov’s Despair.

Don Quixote by Cervantes

The final thirty-eight pages of Don Quixote sustained me, deliberately, over a whole day. I did not want to leave the sadness and humour of this incredible world behind me. “Don Quixote is the only book that Dr. Johnson desired to be even longer than it already was.”

With the book read I turned to the introduction. Mostly I ignore introductions, or read them after the book is read. This time I wanted further excuse to inhabit the world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Besides, the introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is written by Harold Bloom. I have a soft spot for Bloom. His theme is familiar, drawing comparisons between Shakespeare and Cervantes, Don Quixote/Hamlet and Sancho Panza/Falstaff.

We are inside the vast book, privileged to hear the super conversations between the Knight and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sometimes we are fused with Cervantes, but more often we are invisible wanderers who accompany the sublime pair in their adventures and debacles.

Finishing this book is the end of a long but intensely worthwhile journey. I feel that I have been somewhere and met some delightful people that will stay with me for a long while. Like poor, sweet Don Quixote we are all driven more than a little mad by the stories we read.

Don Quixote’s Midpoint

Approaching the end of “The First Part” of Don Quixote; the reading of the two interpolated novels and real-time accumulation of characters at the inn has been more laboured than the preceding chapters. How many ever-more-beautiful-than-the last noble women are to show up, in mysterious circumstances? It is salutary to read The Modern Word’s review and know that in the “The Second Part” the book gets back to Don Quixote and Sancha Panza.

Grossman: Why Translation Matters

All art, literary or otherwise, undergoes a process of translation between thought and language. I found in my notebook an old quotation from Daniel Herwitz:

Art becomes philosophy proper when the philosopher brings out its inner voice (which is the voice of the thinker) through a process of clarification/translation.

In her penetrating book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman, writes:

If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers who speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors. Is their text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

Grossman argues that the act of translating a book from one language to a second is comparable to the original process of creation. Translators are the unrecognised heroes of the literary world. Why Translation Matters is Grossman’s passionate polemic against publishers and critics disdain for translators.

I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves-forgive me, I mean ourselves-as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.

. . . .

And as Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German, so famously said, translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English. . . Whatever else it may be, transaltion in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as an actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition.

I like that analogy.

Chapters one and two present the core of Grossman’s proposition, including a fascinating account of her experience of translating Don Quixote. The final chapter looks at the decisions which must be made when translating poetry.

Grossman makes her case convincingly. As Thomas Bernhard has said about literary translation:

Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

Ultimately, this position is indefensible, as Grossman argues:

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending on your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers s practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it. Then try to imagine never experiencing any literature written in the countless other languages you  may not know: in my case, these would include Polish, Czech, German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Russian, and all the myriad languages of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak.

So, in preparing to read Don Quixote, am I to read Grossman or Cervantes?

[Thanks to Francis for the discovery of this book.]

Reality Hunger by David Shields

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revives the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is great fun to read, and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.

Bloom on Castorp

Harold Bloom writing of one of my favourite novels Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

When I was a boy, first reading fiercely, some sixty years ago, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain was widely received as a work of modern fiction almost comparable to Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Bloom’s comparison recalls Nabokov’s disdain for central European modernism in an argument with Edmund Wilson, “How could you name that quack Mann in one breath with P. and J.?” Nabokov considered Mann one of those “puffed-up writers” that traded in “great ideas,” risking, of course, the criticism often made against Nabokov that in avoiding great ideas he was “all style and no substance. [Paragraph added November 2014.]

Bloom continues:

. . . I urge the reader not to refuse the pleasures of identification with favourite characters, any more than authors have been able to resist such pleasures. There are limits to my urging: Cervantes is not Don Quixote, Tolstoy (who loved her) is not Anna Karenina, and Philip Roth is not “Philip Roth (either of them!) in Operation Shylock.

And:

Why read? Because you can know, intimately, only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.

What Bolaño Read

Via Sponge! I hear compelling news and discover Mobylives:

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be hosting “What Bolaño Read,” a series of posts by Tom McCartan charting the reading habits of Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean novelist, poet, and short story writer.

It is a great post and includes details of “five books that marked his life”:

“In reality the five books are more like 5,000. I’ll mention these only as the tip of the spear: Don Quixote by Cervantes, Moby Dick by Melville. The complete works of Borges, Hopscotch by Cortázar, A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole. I should also cite Nadja by Breton, the letters of Jacques Vaché. Anything Ubu by Jarry, Life: A User’s Manual by Perec. The Castle and The Trial by Kafka. Aphorisms by Lichtenberg. The Tractatus by Wittgenstein. The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. The Satyricon by Petronius. The History of Rome by Tito Livio. Pensées by Pascal.”

A Library of Imaginary Books

In The Library at Night Alberto Manguel writes:

I keep a list of books that I feel are missing from my library and that I hope one day to buy, and another, more wishful than useful, of books I’d like to have but I don’t even know exist. In the second list are A Universal History of Ghosts, A Description of Life in the Libraries of Greece and Rome, a third Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel completed by Jill Paton Walsh, Chesterton on Shakespeare, a Summary of Averroes on Aristotle, a literary cookbook that draws its recipes from fictional dictionaries of food, a translation of Caldéron’s Life is a Dream by Anne Michaels (whose style, I feel, would suit Caldéron’s admirably, a History of Gossip, the True and Uncensored Memoirs of a Publishing Life by Louise Dennys, a well-researched, well-written biography of Borges, an account of what exactly happened during Cervante’s captivity in Algiers, an as-yet-unpublished novel by Joseph Conrad, the diary of Kafka’s Milena.