There is another world

There is a world in which ages are not equal, the sexes not undifferentiated, roles not equivalent and civilisations not easily confused with one another.

There is a world in which the ignorant are not the equal of the learned, the oral does not have the same ‘voice’ as the written, nor the vulgus as the atomos, nor barbarians as civilised beings.

There is another world.

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There is a world that belongs to the shore of the Lethe.

That shore is memory.

It is the world of novels and sonatas, the world of the pleasure of naked bodies that love the half-closed blind or the world of the dream that loves it even more closed, to the point where it feigns the darkness of night or contrives it.

It is the world of magpies on graves.

It is the world of solitude required for reading books or listening to music.

The world of tepid silence and idle semi-darkness where thought drifts, then suddenly seethes with excitement.

Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows. trans. Chris Turner. Seagull Books, 2011 (2002)

Revisiting an old friend, my first Quignard and one of those coincidences that provides much joy: I had forgotten that The Roving Shadows is, in part, a tribute to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which Des has highly recommended to me. It was awaiting me under the Christmas tree this morning.

We carry with us the turmoil of our conception

We carry with us the turmoil of our conception.
There is no image that shocks us that does not remind us of the acts that made us.
Humanity is endlessly the product of a scene that pits two-male and female-mammals against each other, whose urogenital organs, provided abnormality overtakes them and once they have become distinctly misshapen, fit one inside the other.

Pascal Quignard, Sex and Terror. trans. Chris Turner. Seagull Books, 2011 (1997)

I may never be able to write much about this book, not at least until I’ve read it again and even then it is the sort of book that takes weeks, month, a lifetime, to absorb. These are just the opening lines of the introduction and shorn of context but in three sentences suggest the acuity, subtle wit and boldness of Quignard’s work. I think I could spend next year just reading and thinking about this book. It would be a year well spent.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Beautiful Books, Bibliophilia and Vladislavić’s Loss Library

If I were asked which publisher I admire most, I should say Seagull Books. In truth, possibly because I never request and very rarely accept review copies, I give individual publishers little thought (though I do also have fondness for Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series). It is of course individual writers and their work that interests me.

I am especially fond of Seagull Books for two reasons: their commitment to making printed books that aspire to the highest aesthetic standards, and the specific writers and translators they publish. As this excellent essay on Seagull Book states, “Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just likes but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art.”

At the moment I am slowly reading Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, slowly because the essays inside are light, bright, and sparkling. David Winters captures their essence well in this review. Essays aside, the book itself is a joy, including the 12 collages by Sunandini Banerjee that accompany each essay. You can tell that this is a publisher that cares deeply about the books they produce.

Seagull Books has the depth and quality of backlist that feels like you can pluck off their shelves any one of the editions and be almost assured of a singularly rewarding experience. This afternoon I rummaged through my library and collected all my Seagull titles together, which includes old chestnuts like Sartre, Bernhard, Handke, Quignard and Schwarzenbach, but also new discoveries await like Nooteboom, Clément and Hilbig.

It is the sort of backlist that ignites my inner bibliophile urge to collect everything, but thankfully the scale of Seagull’s backlist outstrips the funds at my disposal.

The Roving Shadows by Pascal Quignard

Enigma. I’ve always loved that word, from the Greek ainos, meaning fable or riddle, also from ainissesthai, to speak obscurely or in riddles. A word raised to prominence by that scoundrel Churchill who depicted Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. It is the word first to mind as I read Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows, and then promptly read it again.

The Roving Shadows is a political text, a paean to literature and language, and work of poetic prose. It meanders through myth and history like an autodidact pulling volumes from a library and bookmarking passages for later consumption.

Writing is not a natural way of being of natural language. It is a parlance that has become language-to-be. In times past, in the first neolithic empires, writing wrested prehistoric humanity from the worlds of dreams and the imagination. Pregeneric humanity was buried in its picture caves, as in its dreams. Beyond oral, admonitory, hypnotic, mythic language, generic humanity caused isolated language to blossom-in the form of letters.

Beginning with the written word, that humanity produced a more lonely parlance, language without context, an inner language, secrecy, an entirely new area of shade.

I’ve struggled to write about Quignard’s book, so I urge you to read Stephen Mitchelmore’s review, and this review is also worthwhile with its comparisons to Nietzsche and Chateaubriand. The Roving Shadows is extraordinary in its originality. It is the first in Quignard’s Last Kingdom trilogy.