Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.


Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

All-Powerful Masters

I read Valéry’s Notebooks very slowly, often just a page a day. I find myself chewing over the fragments in the notebooks. They need time to ferment. Often they serve literature’s most valued function, that of clarifying the way another person understands or observes some aspect of himself or another. Or they offer that icy cold shock that another person shares a way of encountering people or situations, those aspects of self we never voice for fear of exposure or ridicule. This fragment has me stuck in recognition and contemplation:

The strongest of my feelings is the very hatred of my feelings, those absurd, inexplicable, transcendent and all-powerful masters whose elementary force catches you sideways and dismantles the finely-tuned apparatus of precise thinking – or carries it away from its own climate and era, imposing upon it an invasive matter, or a distorting rapidity.

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.