Decompression Zone

After several days living in the dappled shade of a forest comprised mostly of ancient giant redwoods, I’m unable, or unwilling, to return to London. I find myself in need of a decompression zone, so have elected to stay for a few days a flat in a small cathedral city. Once a bishop’s wardrobe, this small and moderately cosy flat is in a peaceful close next to the cathedral. These unusually sultry days are spent reading, writing and walking by the river at the end of the large garden. In the still evenings I listen to the choir’s evensong and am accompanied by regular tolling of church bells.

I’m under the spell of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight, which I finished late last night, and so unable to settle with another book at the moment. While staying at his sister’s farm, Kafka wrote fragmentary notes that have become known to Kafka readers as the Zürau octavo notebooks. Stach writes that these fragments “consist mainly of compactly formulated notes that focus on religious and philosophical questions on good and evil, truth and falsehood, and alienation and redemption.” Stach also writes that “there a few comparable examples of this form in world literature: Valéry’s notebooks (a mother lode of this type of writing, which, however became accessible only after 1945 [and therefore not to Kafka] and, of course, Pascal’s Pensees.”

Serendipitously this sends me back to Valéry’s Notebooks. I bought the first volume with me, together with Calvino’s letters, though I am finding the latter inaccessible, perhaps because such a passage of time has passed since my Calvino obsession.

Rustling Leaves

The Hand (2011) - Ellen Altfest

The Hand (2011) – Ellen Altfest

Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks cannot be hurried. His meticulously worded thoughts are often original and unsettling. Every few pages I go to my shelves (or the internet) to track down a reference or to follow an astonishing reflection that cannot be simply read in passing. I read with Pelikan M200 in hand and Moleskine on the desk beside me, scribbling furiously. Though I often annotate my books, these editions resist such behaviour.

This morning’s reading of the Cahiers is over. This following fragment is enough for hours of post-breakfast rumination. (I don’t know if I have characteristic thoughts or if I am anybody all the time.)

Certain ways of looking at things seem to be my hallmark. Sometimes I recognise my own mind. Not all thoughts seem to me to be characteristic or fundamental, but certain ones which, if they were lacking, I’d be different. But there aren’t many of them. So I’m particularly myself at certain times; and anybody the rest of the time. Alongside these characteristic thoughts, we should put the sorrows and intense feelings. Everything else is rustling leaves, vague ‘noises off’, superficiality

A Work of Translation

A five-volume edition of Paul Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks have awaited my attention for a while now. Beyond inattentively flicking through some random entries, I have waited for some curious alignment of the planets to begin a reading adventure I’ve anticipated with excitement. I’ve allowed the books to rest, like an aged Bordeaux, after their separate journeys from Germany, but this morning I shall start.

Valéry writes, “In these pages I’m not out to enchant anyone.”

Paul Valéry in 1935 by Charles Leirens

Paul Valéry in 1935 by Charles Leirens

To write anything whatsoever, once this act of writing demands thought, and is not a mechanical, uninterrupted transcription of spontaneous speech, is a work of translation which can be precisely compared to one involving the transmutation of a text from one language to another.

Paul Valéry

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.

Literary Value

The ‘value’ of a written work is purely potential – what a reader might make of it, according to his voice, his intelligence, his current state etc.
A ground to be cultivated. –
For potential is the work […] value of the reader.
The most powerful work would be the one that could provoke the most intense developments in the least adequate reader. But that would prove nothing as to the quality of the author – which can only be measured by the resistance of the reader. And then, the specific properties of the said reader and those of the author come into it too.

– Paul Valéry – Cahiers/Notebooks 2

The Purpose of Literature

From Olivier Rolin’s essay, The Subtle Genius of the Novel, in Dalkey Archive’s recent anthology New Writing on Writing

“[I]f each man were not able to live a number of lives beside his own,” observes Paul Valéry in Variété, “he would not be able to live his own.” The novel helps us to live our life by allowing us to live many lives in addition to our own. To really live our life, to not just put up with it but to create it, think it, direct it. I am able to live my life because I am also, as Flaubert was, Madame Bovary, and Prince Myshkin, and Lord Jim, and even Baron Charlus – even if this last is harder to imagine.


I am man and woman, dead and resurrected many times. ‘[O]ne thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death,” writes Borges in a story called El Testigo-The Witness-“unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested.” This universal memory, without which humanity would return to childhood with each generation, is most closely approximated by literature, which offers us the treasure of past experiences. It doesn’t offer us the facts, or the supposed laws of History, but the thousands of ways that humanity has had of being human.