Loathsome Labours

“For who can doubt that once writers had the chance of writing what they enjoy writing they would write on any other terms; or that readers once they had the chance of reading what writers enjoy writing, would find it so much more nourishing than what is written for money that they would refuse to be palmed off with the stale substitute any longer. Thus the slaves who are now kept hard at work piling words into books, piling words into articles, as the old slaves piled stones into pyramids, would shake the manacles from their wrists and give up their loathsome labour. And now “culture”, that amorphous bundle, swaddled up as she now is in insincerity, emitting half truths from her timid lips, sweetening and diluting her message with whatever sugar or water serves to swell the writer’s fame or his master’s purse, would regain her shape and become, as Milton, Keats and other great writers assure us that she is in reality, muscular, adventurous, free. Whereas now, Madam, at the very mention of culture the head aches, the eyes close, the doors shut, the air thickens; we are in a lecture room, rank with the fumes of stale print, listening to a gentleman who is forced to lecture or to write about Keats, while the lilac shakes its branches in the garden free, and the gulls, swirling and swooping, suggest with wild laughter that such stale fish might with advantage be tossed to them.”

A tremendous rant from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. My immediate thought is how much more impoverished our culture has become in the eighty years since this was published. Is it now even possible to conceive of a culture stripped of money, power, promotional and vanity motives? The only consolation to be found is that it is perhaps once again possible to take in everything genuinely worthwhile in contemporary culture. Assuming one is fortunate enough to find what is worthwhile amid the din.

Not Small After All

“Then there could be no doubt that as a novelist [Mary Carmichael] enjoyed some natural advantages of a high order. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free. It responded to an almost imperceptible touch on it. It feasted like a plant newly stood in the air on every sight and sound that came its way. It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all. It brought buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them. Awkward though she was and with the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”

A passage from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I reread as preparation for a first reading of Three Guineas. (The picture above, incidentally, is, sadly, not of my edition. If you have a spare £20,000 a complete set of Virginia Woolf first editions could be yours, which seems a far better use of such a sum than a reasonably smart car, or desert island holiday.)

It doesn’t need me to point out how incisive is Woolf’s dissection of women’s inequity, but in the twenty years since I last read A Room of One’s Own, I had forgotten how elegant and witty her exposition. The passage above sums up so many of the qualities I enjoy in a writer, Dorothy Richardson comes closest to mind. Reading this essay again makes me wish to reread Woolf, and to read, like Three Guineas, some of the work I’ve missed.

Gaps and Omissions

  1. Henry James (only The Turn of the Screw)
  2. George Eliot
  3. Thomas Hardy
  4. D. H. Lawrence
  5. Lawrence Durrell
  6. Michel de Montaigne
  7. Leo Tolstoy (only The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
  8. Augustine of Hippo
  9. Friedrich Schiller
  10. Anthony Trollope
  11. Charlotte Bronte

Gaps in my reading history. As is obvious from this list of omissions, I’m not particularly well-read. Clearly a list of writers one hasn’t read could extend on and on, but I feel that I ought to have read at least one major work of these writers.

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Christas Wolf’s No Place on Earth

This No Place on Earth is whimsy, a dark artifice stage-managed by Christa Wolf, placing Romantic poet Karoline von Günderrode in a succession of frames with Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist.

There is no evidence that the pair ever met, or engaged in the intoxicating, conversational interplay that Wolf conjures to comment on the patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century Germany and on the anxiety of post-Goethe German writers of the time. It is, I suppose, an essay as much as a novel in so far as it resists conventional categories; an essay in the true sense of trying something out, testing a hypothesis. I read and then reread No Place on Earth, translated by Jan van Heurck, and found not a single note out of place. It is just shy of one hundred and twenty pages, but contains an immense intimacy, a scrutiny of our chances of vanquishing self-alienation.

Günderrode and Kleist wander away from the tea party, which is the stage set for their encounter, frustrated by the empty chatter of the other guests, and discover during their intense conversation the tantalising possibility that they are intellectual equals capable of recognising each other’s autonomy. “Sometimes,” writes Wolf, “I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.”

Early in No Place on Earth, Wolf writes, “She knows the place where she must drive home the dagger, a surgeon whom she jestingly asked about it showed her the spot, pressing it with his finger.” Suicide, that frequent Romantic release overshadows this novel, and though Wolf closes with a note of hope: “Simply go on, they think. We know what is coming,” it is towards nothing: in Günderrode’s case, by a dagger she carried all the time in her handbag; in Kleist’s case by a bullet.

Pessimism Transformed (For We Must Go On)

“It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition it is his.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett

“If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention,  but since however we may debar ourselves from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise Life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.” Johnson, Rambler 47

“I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: I do wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett


Kierkegaard, Like the Interjection

“The life of mankind could very well be conceived as a speech in which different men represented the various parts of speech (that might also be applied to the nations in the relations to one another). How many people are mere adjectives, interjections, conjunctions, adverbs; and how few are substantives, verbs etc.; how many are copula?
In relation to each other men are like irregular verbs in different languages; nearly all verbs are slightly irregular.
There are people whose position in life is like that of the interjection, without influence on the sentence– They are the hermits of life, and at the very most take a case, e.g., O me miserum.
Our politicians are like Greek reciprocals (alleeloin) which are wanting in the nominative singular and all subjective cases. They can only be thought of in the plural and possessive cases.
The sad thing about me is that my life (the condition of my soul) changes according to the declensions where not only the endings change but the whole word is altered.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (trans. A Dru)

Of Accidie

“Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call ἀκηδία, and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. It is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul. And so some of the Fathers declare it to be the demon of noontide which is spoken of in the Ninety-first Psalm.

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. . . . Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep.”

The Desert Fathers (trans. Helen Waddell)

I’m for the Hôtel de la Louisiane

“. . . I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people’s income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they’re intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up… I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.”

Cyril Connolly, Hôtel de la Louisiane

Five Possible Verdicts

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

My Desert Island Bookshelf

Marooned on a desert island, these are the books I would wish to accompany me. I set one simple rule: one book per writer.

Mathias Enard, Compass
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
WG Sebald, After Nature
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Franz Kafka, The Castle
Homer, Iliad
Geoff Dyer, The Colour of Memory
Roger Deakin, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm
Dante, Purgatory
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile
Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma
Peter Handke, Repetition
Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, War & War
Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows
JM Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country
Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness
Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva
Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter
Roberto Calasso, La Folie Baudelaire
Tomas Espedal, Tramp
Christa Wolf, Cassandra
Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges
Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Claudio Magris, A Different Sea
Max Frisch, I’m Not Stiller
Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball
Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud
Nick Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water
JG Ballard, The Kindness of Women
John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook

(Pure whimsy and volatile by nature)

Rachel Cusk Interview with Caille Millner (And Thoughts on Twitter)

What struck me most of this discussion between Rachel Cusk and Caille Millner about Transit is Cusk’s assertion that the ‘only way of knowing someone is watching them’. Regardless of the form Cusk uses for her writing, this way of looking at the world lies at the heart of why I find her books so compelling. It is this sense of always being an observer, a voyeur, the painter looking into their own painting. It is essentially an outsider’s view, jarring and fascinating to find a writer that shares something of one’s way of perceiving the world.

Whereas once I might have shared this link via my @timesflow account on Twitter, that channel has drained of interest as it has come more to resemble Facebook. There has been much talk of the bubble effect on Twitter. That bubble effect when made up of a small, truly global group of people who share a literary sensibility is what has kept me on Twitter for the last six or so years. Bubbles can be good for you.

Recently, for quite understandable reasons, literary discussion has been largely buried beneath people’s anguish and rage about the political situation in America and to a lesser extent the U.K. It became clear last June how the bubble effect is compelling when literary but dangerous when political. I have other channels in which to consume and discuss political information. The endless op-eds and repetition available via Twitter were useless during the period before and after last June’s referendum, and equally pointless in this charged and painful time. I’ve tried limiting those I follow to readers still finding a way to discuss literature (apologies if I’ve upset anyone by unfollowing, it isn’t you, it’s me!), but the noise to information ratio is distracting, painful and not useful in any way. I’ve decided for the time being not to delete my account, but am not present on Twitter except in DMs.

Apologies if these comments seem pompous but I don’t want any of those friends I value on Twitter to think I’ve lost interest in literary discussion. I still follow posts on my favourite blogs via RSS. To avoid using Twitter in purely broadcast-mode, I shan’t be tweeting links to my posts here (after this one) for a while, so please follow by email or RSS if you have any interest in my thoughts on what I’m reading. If you’d like to get in touch please use email, blog comments or Twitter DMs. Thank you.

Kate Zambreno: Book of Mutter

The first time I remember seeing my mother was in 1976, when I was eleven years old. It isn’t a firsthand memory, more of what Barthes might call a memory container. I can date the photograph due to a calendar on the wall, one of those cheap calendars a company would once issue to its customers. The calendar is displaying November 1956. Neither of the photograph’s subjects, my mother and father, know that in eight years time I will born in a country five thousand miles away. Maybe I should say my mother is a photograph. I have no memory of her beyond a dozen or so such photographs.

In Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter she quotes from Henry Darger’s biography, “The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young.” This statement troubles me, gets under my skin. A few weeks ago the woman who sometimes substituted as my mother died, so I’ve been looking back. I love this book about Zambreno’s mother in the same way I watched with fascination the mothers of my childhood friends.

Zambreno writes, “To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. or if not to forget, to attempt to leave behind.” How do we find a form to confess our guilt, to express our grief and anguish? Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s attempt to address that question, a desire to question her memories of her mother, to make reparation and, in an her attempt to forget, an act of creative restoration.

What is fascinating is the shades that Zambreno choses, and rejects, for her confrontation with her memories. Bristling with epigrams from Barthes, Book of Mutter is also animated by a broad range of spirit guides from Henry Darger to Louise Bourgeois to Peter Handke and Theresa Hak.

As with William Maxwell’s book, as with any book, I read Book of Mutter with all sorts of personal and idiosyncratic reflections. There are no ideal readers for a book about a mother’s life and death. Objectivity is an illusion. Whether this book has allowed Zambreno to leave behind her memories only she can answer, but her mother is recognised by being forever captured inside this graceful and haunting book.

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

“. . . it fascinated me as a snake would a bird
– a silly little bird.”
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I’m not at risk of spoiling a reading of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow by summarising this story. A man looks back on the pivotal moment of his life–the death of his mother– his father’s remarriage and the loss of his family home; intertwined into what I understand to be autobiographical fiction, Maxwell tells a parallel story, of another boy, whose father murdered his wife’s lover (also his best friend) before killing himself.

Writing of his mother’s death the narrator says,”Other children could have borne it, have borne it. My older brother did, somehow I couldn’t.” I was perhaps fortunate that I was barely eighteen month’s old when my mother died, as I hadn’t sufficient opportunity to become accustomed to her presence. As such I feel that I have borne it well, though not without my share of what are now a well-documented set of both early and late reactions. My father was less resilient. His emotional response left me with little protection, which I naturally failed to comprehend until many years later. This disastrous double-bill was intensified when we were made exiles from my beloved childhood home.

None of this is written to induce sympathy. These are events that shaped my early years, mostly, I like to think, now integrated. It is to say that I distrust myself when reading writers like Maxwell, who write forms of autobiography close enough to my life to make me, in Nabokov’s understanding, a bad reader. It is all too easy to identify.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph Conrad and William Maxwell, all writers whose mothers died during their childhood, the sense of things passing becomes an obsession that suffuses their fiction with melancholy. The narrator in So Long, See You Tomorrow is also haunted throughout life by an incident, a guilty regret that is the driving impulse behind the story’s creation.

Maxwell writes extraordinarily well from a technical perspective, presenting viewpoints of multiple characters including a dog, which normally falls apart but in this case works fine. His delicate, muted story allows us to see through the eyes of a poignantly wounded child, from the viewpoint of the adult he becomes, one that has not been able to escape his childhood demons, but without ever quite veering into outright nostalgia or mawkishness.

If you should feel inclined to explore William Maxwell’s work, and I shall definitely read much more of his fiction, my introduction came from the excellent Backlisted podcast.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 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!