Sunday Preoccupations

It isn’t often I’ll decide to buy a book based on a cover, but my purchase of Anthony Rudolf’s European Hours was inspired by Paula Rego’s magnificent 1977 painting. Subsequently I learnt that Rudolf is Rego’s companion and her main male model. His autobiographical Silent Conversations looks also particularly desirable.

The other two I picked up on the basis of TLS reviews, intending to make time for both this summer.

Annie Ernaux’s The Years, though I’m not yet halfway through, seems truly brilliant. The publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions term it a collective autobiography of Ernaux’s generation. I’m not sure that captures her project fully. It seems more an act of memory, not as exercised through one individual, but an exploration of how memories are shared and transmitted within and by the interaction between multiple individuals of different generations. As Paul Ricoeur put it in his Memory, History, Forgetting (trans. Kathleen Blaney and David Pellauer), “no one ever remembers alone”. It is only through collective memory that we are able to remember individually. I will undoubtedly revise these early thoughts as I read slowly through this remarkable book.

Those serendipitous connections that lead me from book to book: the Ernaux is translated by Alison Strayer, a childhood friend and reading companion of an old favourite photographer and writer Moyra Davey.

The Problem of Reading

It was an edition of Cabinet magazine that referred to a book called The Problem of Reading by artist and photographer Moyra Davey. Her book Long Life Cool White was already a much-thumbed book of photographs in my library. Cabinet’s description intrigued further but they were sold out and suggested an email to Moyra Davey. How about this for a compelling description:

What is the most gratifying form of reading? Is it the reading of total absorption we may remember from childhood, done face down on the bed “in the fading light behind closed doors”? Or is it the kind that “imposes a state of loss, discomforts, unsettles, brings to a crisis [the reader’s] relation to language,” the reading done with “pen & notebook,” the more demanding pleasure that implies a connection to writing and to creative work? Davey’s essay mediates the question “How should we read?” through writings on reading by over a dozen authors from Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Roland Barthes, and Virginia Woolf quoted above, to Georges Perec, Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Walter Benjamin, and Stephen King.

Moyra replied to say “I’m sorry. It’s out of print.” A search revealed nothing on any of the book sites and EBay had never sold a copy. Six months later an email from Moyra dropped into my mailbox entitled “Copies Found.”

A New York gallery Murray Guy recently held an exhibition of Moyra’s photography. For the exhibition they are now selling both books, though I am sure stocks of The Problem of Reading are limited.Was it worth the frustration and anticipation? A definite yes; forty seven pages of photographs and writing about books and reading to savour and reread. A slim bedside book.

Virginia Woolf – A Writer’s Diary

When she was 36, Virginia Woolf imagined an older version of herself reading her diaries:

If Virginia Wool at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better.

Reading this extract of her diaries ninety-one years years later, it seems that Woolf wrote her diaries with posterity in view. This edition A Writer’s Diary comprise extracts made by Leonard Woolf to “throw light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer.” He writes:

I have been carefully through the 26 volumes of diary and have extracted and now publish in this volume practically everything which referred to her own writing. I have included also three other kinds of extract. The first consists of a certain number of passages in which she is obviously using the diary as a method of practising or trying out the art of writing. The second consists of a few passages which, though not directly or indirectly concerned with her writings, I have deliberately selected because they give the reader an idea of the direct impact upon her mind of scenes and persons, i.e. of the raw material of her art. Thirdly I have included a certain number of passages in which she comments upon the books she was reading.

The third part is compelling. You could have a wonderful time reading through Woolf’s own reading list. Woolf is an epic reader. As Moyra Davey says in her essay The Problem of Reading

Woolf laid out some of her core ideas about books and reading. A great proponent of voracious, indiscriminate reading, everything from “bad” contemporary novels to the forgotten memoirs and letters one discovers buried in secondhand bookstores. Woolf would concur with Calvino that to really appreciate the classics one must come at them from the vantage point of contemporary literature. It is only then that one can experience “a complete finality about [the classics] . . . a consecration [that]. . . we return to life, feeling it more keenly and understanding it more deeply than before.”

More than anything reading these extracts has given me an appetite to read the full set of diaries. Whilst you get the sense that Woolf has an eye to posterity, there is an intimacy and candour that enables you to see how life may have looked to this unusual woman.

Woolf and her Bloomsbury set were undoubtedly elitist and moved in the typically restricted social circles of 1920’s London. Her thoughts on reading Ulysses, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” The “underbred, not only in the obvious sense” is revealing. Occasionally this restricted, and frequently to Woolf, suffocating view produces moments of laugh-out-loud humour:

Brafani: three people watching the door open and shut. Commenting on visitors like fates-summing up, placing. A woman with a hard aquiline face-red lips-bird like-perfectly self-satisfied. French pendulous men, a rather poor sister. Now they sit nibbling at human nature. We are rescued by the excellence of our luggage.

Given its writer and subject A Writer’s Diarycould not fail to be fascinating. These diaries go further though in placing you right into the emotional roller-coaster of being Virginia Woolf. They are an impeccable preparation for a deeper reading of the novels. For me, even in extracted form, these diaries exceed the insight and sheer enjoyment to be had from the diaries of Robert Musil and André Gide. That is high praise.