Most Anticipated New Books for 2018

In the first few months of last year I sampled rather more contemporary fiction than is usual for me. Frankly much of it wasn’t to my taste and ended up abandoned. Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre, so it wasn’t too surprising.

This year, my new book purchasing will be much more restrained. These are those I am most looking forward to.

It isn’t any surprise that Seagull Books dominates the list as they have impeccable taste in bringing forth newly translated treasures. I also expect to make some new discoveries through my subscription to the always intriguing Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children (trans. Kevin Attell)
Giorgio Agamben, The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)
Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jandl (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)
Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words (trans. Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey)
Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia (trans. Chris Turner)
Rachel Cusk, Kudos
Claudio Magris, Journeying (trans. Anne Milano Appel)
Dag Solstad, Armand V (trans. Steven T. Murray)
Dag Solstad, T Singer (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Peter Handke, The Great Fall (trans. Krishna Winston)
Jon Fosse, Scenes from a Childhood
Esther Kinsky, River (trans. Iain Galbraith)
Clarice Lispector, The Chandelier (trans. Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards)
Cesare Pavese, The Beautiful Summer
Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions
Joanna Walsh, Break.up
Kate Zambreno, Drifts (since confirmed for early 2019)
Ismail Kadare, Essays on World Literature Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Dante

Seagull Books / My Sense of Soul

Regular readers of Time’s Flow Stemmed will know of my profound admiration of Seagull Books. In a time of sweeping intellectual nihilism, Seagull publish books that change the possibilities of art, perpetuating the work of serious publishers like Adelphi and Suhrkamp.

Seagull Books’s annual catalogue combines enticing prose and elegant production. The beautiful 2016-2017 edition includes contributions from some favourite lit bloggers, and also my brief response which follows Naveen Kishore’s “provocation”:

“Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.”

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Wax and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

In my imagination I venture deep into the caves of Lascaux where humans, sometime between 15,000 and 10,000 BC painted falling horses into the cracks in the rocks. If I imagine carefully I can catch obliquely a shimmering of half-recalled moving images that was perhaps in the mind of a human in this time before language. It seems to me that we retain a sense of this inner life during our dreams, when sound, smells, gestures have primacy over the spoken or written word. Language seems a less direct, less rich way of interrelating with the world around us.

Chimpanzees are thought to have the ability to understand other’s behaviour by inferring from unobservable signs, such as desires, feelings, beliefs and thoughts. If this is true it casts powerful light on fundamental aspects of human nature, of what life might of been like for languageless humans.

Pascal Quignard, indebted to Lacan, likens the acquisition of verbal language to loss, a second death, when an infant’s worldview is transfigured into a system of commonplace signs. Quignard insists that ears are the earliest organs to develop in our prenatal state, that our time in the womb is a long maternal symphony. We lie around, increasingly cramped in non-verbal life until we are torn from our self-contained kingdom into a place of language and identity. Everything we gain is haunted by our loss. Celan captured fully the nature of this tragedy when he wrote, “Whichever word you speak—/you owe/to destruction.”

“Perception,” wrote Bergson, “is completely impregnated by memory-images which, in interpreting it, complete it.” I was only eighteen months old when my mother died. My memory-image of her is of a shadowy nature, based wholly on a small selection of photographs and anecdotes. In memory, my mother is without voice, of which I have no recollection, though she was musical and must have sung to me often. Depersonalisation, characterised by an inescapable sense of strangeness and unreality, is a not uncommon response to sudden loss. My earliest memories are of retreating into a fantasy world where books and drawings soon became more real than the estranged, not-right world around me.

Identity, in the way that Quignard appears to use the term, is a slippery concept. In the case of depersonalisation, identity is extraordinarily elusive. Our unique selves, for the sake of stability, rely on a sense of continuity. The most useful definition for me, is that of William James, who identified the hallmark of personal identity as the “consciousness of personal sameness.” A secure sense of identity is undermined when our concept of self is variable. A state of depersonalisation is often characterised by the appearance of images and sensations from the preconscious, not unlike our non-verbal dream worlds.

Though words are the tools of literature, I think, in some sense, we take for granted the way our identities are transformed by all that literature embodies. While reading, our mind is forming image concepts in the same way it does when using other sensory systems, such as hearing, touch and gesture. The mediation of memory through the vivid images that literature provides, in all their vicarious delicacy, can be redemptive. Didn’t Orwell exhort us to use invigoratingly fresh metaphors to evoke a powerful visual imagery?

Space for Quignard, Archilochus, Sappho

Pleasure and action make the time seem short. Like our valiant Moor though with barely the determination. Indebted in an odd way to some dreadfully ponderous journeys that opened space for reading, of course more of Pascal Quignard’s brooding.

The most ravishing of Seagull Books’ Quignard publications to date must surely be The Sexual Night, whose lavish production makes up almost for my inability to track down an original copy of Quignard’s Sex and Terror, by all accounts equally striking. Quignard’s probing of being, sexuality and our origins is constructed around depictions of sexual imagery from across the ages. He questions how art is used as metaphor and artifice for the sexual night, that darkness that precedes our birth.

Quignard writes, ‘Desire is a much “blacker” thing, a much more “atrocious” thing than modern societies present it as being. The inner meaning of desire is a “ray of darkness”.’ He turns once again to myth to trace out the nature of this blackness and its essential nature. Sex, reading in its broadest sense, nature and death: the quintessence of being.

His On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia, a less necessary, odder publication from Burning Deck, not without charm; like scrabbling to brush the dust off some fragments in order to piece together the narrative of a life from shopping lists, to-do lists and diary jottings.

Otherwise this week, thinking on flowerville’s a song for staying in, and continuing to explore Jaeger’s Paideia Volume 1, this week’s chapter on Archilochus who took Homeric epic and turned it inward to express both personal and mass sentiment, and Sappho, tenth among Muses, who went further inward to describe innermost sensation with a simplicity and sensuousness that is rarely matched,

Jaeger’s Paideia

Poetry, novels, short stories are remarkable antiquities which no longer fool anyone, or hardly anyone. Poems, narratives—what’s the use of them? There is nothing but writing left.

JMG Le Clézio, Foreword to La Fièvre

This week spent chiefly with the company of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, published in Germany in 1931. Jaeger’s modern study of the cultural and educational value of ancient Greece through its literature seems a good direction after immersion in Pascal Quignard’s work.

Though both writers would agree that ancient Greek and Roman culture is part of a continuum, Quignard would rightly sneer at Jaeger’s dismissal of Chinese, Indian, Babylonian and Egyptian culture’s formative influence on the Greek literary conception of mind. Paideia, translated by Gilbert Highet, is a culturally conservative engagement but brilliantly erudite and beautifully translated, so will continue to be my companion for several weeks. I sit with crossed hands during Jaeger’s flights of elitism but little is more interesting than to persist with a brilliant but flawed exploration.

Quignard’s The Silent Crossing – thoughts on society

One of the recurrent themes of Pascal Quignard’s Lost Kingdom series, at least across the three volumes I’ve read, is the denial of community. In The Silent Crossing Quignard writes:

To turn one’s back on society, to break off from believing, to turn away from anything to do with looking and to prefer reading to surveillance, to protect those who have passed on from the survivors who denigrate them, to give succour to what is not visible—these are the virtues. The rare ones who have the matchless courage to escape spring up out in the wilds.

Quignard’s turning away from the world is centred on the idea of detachment from given identity. He writes “Do not become the slave of your people in the patronym they gave you within the collective language they taught you. Otherwise, the name they gave you will take the place of your flesh.”

Like an echo before a mirror, this idea has played on my mind for days until, this morning at 4.00am I dug out an old book and found the reference I was seeking. Before this blog, there were times when I was preoccupied with the work of Bourdieu and Badiou (at different periods). In this case I was trying to ferret out references from the work of the wrong ENS philosopher. What I was looking for I found in Badiou, mostly from one of the best introductions to Badiou’s  philosophy, Peter Hallward’s Badou: A Subject to Truth.

I have no competence in philosophy so forgive any misinterpretation. Badiou, like Quignard, rejects concepts of the Other. Hallward writes:

The whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned. For the real question—and it is an extraordinarily difficult one—is much more that of recognising the Same.

Badiou holds that assertions of any group identity are pernicious, writing in his Ethics, “Rimbaud was certainly not wrong when he said ‘I am another.’ There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself.” Assertions of difference, whether social, biological, cultural or other, are not incorrect (or lacking powerful effects) but simply banal. It is not of course that there are no differences between us. There are only differences and each of us is not a self-identity but a self-difference.

Where Quignard and Badiou might differ is that denying community entails a turning away from the world. Badiou is after all Marxist to his core. In response to the Do Not Become What You Are quotation I posted recently, a reader linked to this conversation between Gilles Delueze and Antonio Negri which ends like this:

One might equally well speak of new kinds of event, rather than processes of subjectification: events that can’t be explained by the situations that give rise to them, or into which they lead. They appear for a moment, and it’s that moment that matters, it’s the chance we must seize. Or we can simply talk about the brain: the brain’s precisely this boundary of a continuous two-way movement between an Inside and Outside, this membrane between them. New cerebral pathways, new ways of thinking, aren’t explicable in terms of microsurgery; it’s for science, rather, to try and discover what might have happened in the brain for one to start thinking this way or that. I think subjectification, events, and brains are more or less the same thing. What we most lack is a belief in the world, we’ve quite lost the world, it’s been taken from us. If you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control, you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume. It’s what you call pietas. Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people.

This is one consequence I like about Quignard’s work, that it compels so much more thinking and reading. It is like a hunt chasing down allusions and memories that range across Badiou, Lacan, Melanie Klein, Freud and numerous ancient Franks, Greeks and Romans.

Pascal Quignard’s The Silent Crossing

Comparisons of writers call attention to common aspects of their work and in this sense Pascal Quignard and Roberto Calasso are both powerfully expressive writers that gather together tangles of old tales and myths. But the comparison quickly becomes facile. There are polar differences between the two writers despite both being intensely conscious, even philosophical.

I’ve just finished Quignard’s The Silent Crossing, another from Seagull Books, translated by Chris Turner. In French the book was titled La Barque silencieuse signifying the bark or boat in which Charon ferries damned souls across the Styx. This book is volume six in the Dernier royaume or Lost Kingdom series, which Quignard envisages as a set of reflections that will end only with his death. It is mildly irritating that these works are appearing in English translation out of order, having read The Roving Shadows and Abysses, which are volumes one and three of the series. Although each work appears to stand alone, by skipping ahead to the sixth, you get a sense of an essential core, which is perhaps no more than an immersion into the extraordinary mind of Quignard.

Common across all three books that I’ve read in this series is a preoccupation  with our first life, the one we forget on the instant of birth, the life that precedes language, precedes our being named, when we live immersed in water, darkness and isolation. Quignard also reflects on the negative aspects of society and the social, arguing Freud’s case that “the opposite of society is maturity.” Common also to all Quignard’s books is his paean to the ecstasy of reading, quoting in The Silent Crossing the sentence I have framed in my library from Kafka’s letter to a friend, “We need books that affect us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves.”

I’ll be reading and rereading Quignard’s work for years to come. Somewhere in the  collaboration that takes place between reader and writer—perhaps I’d even call it a dialogic struggle in Quignard’s case as there is always the sense that if I read more attentively I might miss less of the assertive power of his work—I’ve fallen in love with the work of Pascal Quignard. It is work that deserves the sort of scrupulous reading I enjoy most.