Jean Echenoz’s Ravel


There is to me a distinct hierarchy in what falls under the category of life-writing. (I don’t particularly like the term life-writing.) After all, there is life-writing to various degrees in every instance of fiction. Can we still agree with Proust’s biographer George Painter who wrote: “The artist has creative imagination, the biographer recreative”? For me, the most exhilarating trend in modern fiction is the blurring of the boundaries. Fictionality is an inevitable part of autobiography. There is no less artistry in de Beauvoir’s memoirs than her novels, though I’d argue the latter are considerably more successful than the former.

I like novels that exist in the interstices between fiction and autobiography, writers like Tomas Espedal, W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Kate Zambreno and John Berger who bring the techniques of fiction to explore autobiography in rewarding ways. Techniques of narratology, such as perspective, temporal structure, and motifs are being used creatively to alleviate the tedium of conventional linear (auto)biography.

In truth, it isn’t a new trend, but something writers to some extent have always done. The threshold between fiction and autobiography in the books of Anna Kavan, Dorothy Richardson, Proust and Virginia Woolf is reasonably thin.

Fiction aside, I prefer memoir to autobiography, autobiography to biography; have a great fascination with writer’s and scholar’s letters and diaries, and like least of all fictional biographies. These designations are simplified without getting into all the other terms used to describe experimental life-writing: autotopography, autofiction, heterobiography etc.

This week I read Jean Echenoz’s Ravel. It’s a short book. I read it twice on a long return train journey, and have spent more time thinking about it since. Why I think many fictional biographies make me queasy is that they use fictional techniques to explore interiority or the subjective essence of a real historical individual. They maintain the freedom of a third-person narrator and yet privilege that narrator with absolute knowledge. To be honest, I struggle with fiction that does the same thing.

Echenoz avoids this trap, and in doing so, can be trusted that the broad story of the last ten years of Maurice Ravel’s life is accurate at a factual level. Ravel then becomes a fascinating exploration into how fame distances its subject from those closest to them. The dramatic reconstruction of Ravel’s unraveling (excuse the pun) and death is disturbing, but Echenoz preserves the emotional distancing to defer a reader’s sympathy. It’s cleverly done and very rewarding.

Knausgaard’s Summer

I found my way back to Knausgaard. Summer is the fourth volume of his Seasons quartet. Perhaps I should have begun with the first but as it is summer it seemed churlish not to begin with this aesthetically pleasing edition with its Anselm Kiefer watercolours.

At first I dipped as into a stream of solipsistic consciousness, unsure whether I wanted to read Knausgaard, but I was drawn into this highly self-conscious work. It is labelled as memoir/essays and I assume it exists in the same world as his autobiographical novels. In his terrific essay on Handke, Knausgaard reveals, I think, a little of his own project: “[Handke’s novels] seek out the gaps, the perimeters, there where something can be seen for the first time, and they insist on the details, on the small incidents, the seemingly insignificant, precisely because they change everything about that which is already seen, and reveal a world that is forever in the making.” In Summer, it is the digressions into the fear of authority, the nature of art, the existence of God, which erupt with apparent spontaneity, triggered by associative memories, that propel the force and charm of his narrative.

The more that Knausgaard interferes with what is apparently his primary narrative, a series of short essays about the small events of family life, the more this work suggests that the primary arc of significance comprises the digressions and their interactive effects. Woven into his narrative is another story that Knausgaard engages to write obliquely on the topic of shame. These are above all digressions on topics dear to Knausgaard.

“The shame I feel so strongly occurs only on the surface of the soul, it is a bit like the flame over charcoal, it is fuelled by lighter fluid and dances above the blackness, lightly and almost non-comittally, whereas the glow within the charcoal is something quite other and deeper.”

There is something more to Summer than A Death in the Family, but it might be I need to re-read that novel with more care. There seems to be less linguistic excess in Summer, less what felt like an absence of re-writing and editing in A Death in the Family. When I finished A Death in the Family I dismissed Knausgaard’s project as a provocative and cynical gesture, silly posturing. Summer restores my interest in what Knausgaard appears to be doing, raising questions about what we know and how we can know what we know. It brings to mind a line of Akhmatova writing of Lot’s wife: “A single glance: a sudden art of pain / stitching her eyes before she made a sound.” A sudden art of pain is the cumulative effect of Knausgaard’s rhetorical movements.

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

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

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

The Only Reading That Deserves the Name

Part of this interview, on reading, resonated deeply, though the entire interview is extraordinary, as is Handke’s To Duration.

“PH: One’s manner of reading changes throughout life. I believe that I’ve only now reached a point where I’ve really learned to read. Or at least that I’ve realized how I used to read. Not even when I was reading Stifter could I really read. It was often … for example, Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Hölderlin’s Hyperion: I read them at the wrong time, I didn’t understand anything of them, and I also didn’t understand, as Ludwig Hohl says, that different authors have different reading speeds. The reading speed I had earlier was much different than the one I have now, which I think is really the one that suits me best. I now only want to be able to, to be allowed to read slowly.

HG: And you write this way as well. That brings to mind: one student found this slow tempo an imposition: how at the beginning of Slow Homecoming, with these long sentences, you force this slowness onto the reader, like in a Wagner opera.

PH: I can understand that very well. At twenty I probably would have stopped reading after two sentences.

HG: Yes, one can only either stop reading or fully give oneself over to it. But to superficially take it in, ‘informative reading’, as it’s called, that doesn’t work.

PH: Nor in the evening before going to sleep, reading in bed, that doesn’t work at all.

HG: Carefully reading a few sentences, that works. But so quickly…

PH: You also can’t force anyone to do anything. You can’t say: you must read at this precise speed.

HG: But otherwise it doesn’t work; one has to read at that tempo.

PH: But I really can assure anyone, if they give it a try, if they want to and are able to read so slowly, they’ll get something out of it.

HG: Yes, then and only then. And that shouldn’t be a reproach!

PH: I have a great need: not simply to read slowly, but rather to slow myself down through reading. But it’s more than that. If it doesn’t work that way, then I lose all pleasure in reading. When I start scanning again, devouring the pages like I used to, then I start to feel my limbs and extremities becoming cold – which is for me a physical sign, when I get cold – only the cheeks remain hot. Then I know that I’m not reading correctly, or that the book’s not the right one for me. But then when everything becomes warm: the heart, the mind, the senses, out to the smallest fingertips; when I also stall – not falter: when I’m able to stall, to pause, then my reading is an all-embracing perception, then it’s … then out of this self-immersion there arises a vision, a completely natural, logical vision of the outermost world (not just the outer world). For me that’s just … it’s completely organic … for me that’s the only way it works with certain things – so that I can ponder them, pore over them. Although there are moments of longing for the old speedy ‘page-turner’ reading – not ‘longing’: rather nostalgia for the page-turner era. Then one puts away the Hölderlin poem, or whatever ancient text, and one picks up something by an author like Simenon, and for a while it’s like being in a speedboat. But for the duration (and I say that expressly: for the duration), the other kind of reading – the reading I have now learned, have now acquired – is the only kind that deserves the name.”

With thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for pointing towards this superb interview: The Sun of Words, excerpts from Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, an interview between Herbert Gamper and Peter Handke.

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!