A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Lars Norén, Diaries and Stories

When you love the work of a great writer, chances are high that you’ll be moved by his or her notebooks and journals. How about when a writer is described as “Sweden’s greatest living writer”, which you read on the same day that his death is announced? You then read an article about said writer, watch an interview on YouTube, and arrive at the thought that this writer may very likely join the small pantheon of writers of particular importance to you.

Something tells me though that Lars Norén’s diaries are unlikely candidates for translation into English. The last published recently is a breeze-block of an edition with 1500 unnumbered pages. There are, I think, two previous diaries published in Sweden of similar length. How whimsical a reader I must be to dream about reading four to five thousand pages of a writer’s diary when, to date, I’ve read nothing of his work. I am however assured by a reader of impeccable taste that Norén’s plays are ‘delicious punches to the heart and [his] intellect carried by sharp, sharp language.’

Virginia Woolf’s diaries are rare and perfect blooms, equally—but differently—divine, whether savoured in extracted form, or in all five volumes. As much as I love each of her novels, the minor and the major, it is the diaries, both funny and ravishingly sad, that I would preserve given one of those difficult and thankfully hypothetical choices.

Nor could I part with Ricardo Piglia’s trilogy of diaries that follow his alter ego, Emilio Renzi, a recent discovery that precedes my reading of any of his novels. Kafka’s diaries and notebooks are every part as essential as his stories, and we owe a debt to his friend for not consigning them to flames as Kafka purportedly wished. Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year experiments are beautiful, sad, and taciturn, as are, but with little else in common, Denton Welch’s exuberant Journals. How much richer their oeuvre if we had Beckett’s, Lispector’s or Murnane’s diaries?

With Lars Norén, it was this comment that provided the fiendish spark:

“I hate stories. I can’t even read stories any more. Whenever I see a story is developing, I stop and go back. What fascinates me is the material, and stories get in the way of that. I want to look at this point, like in music, when you can feel the material coming alive so that it brings with it a way of seeing. I’m interested in individual moments, pictures or fragments, which suddenly bring something into view.”

To Norén’s manifest of interests I would add atmosphere, though I suppose his comment is at least partly mischievous and more, as it is for me, a question of form, and an attraction toward forms of narrative that somehow destabilise the reader. My patience for the dominant narrative discourse, changed only a little since the nineteenth century, is mostly exhausted and only to be indulged when exploring works from that specific time. Maria Gabriela Llansol, in her Geography of Rebels trilogy shows just how far a writer can stretch the form, with no narrative structure, no psychology, just figures and glimpses into what she describes as “inner earthquakes”. Although Llansol’s work is singular, her ambition is not new, in fact rather old.

Dickinson’s ‘Enigmatic Presence’ (Maria Gabriela Llansol)

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‘I can only sense that Emily Dickinson has just arrived, without being an intruder (. . .). I turned to Emily Dickinson, then — to speak is not inevitable; she worked without talking, and, by the end of the day, they had almost forgotten she existed; there could only be seen, rootless, the result of her work.’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, from Um Falcão no Punho, (1985)

‘Llansol also links Emily Dickinson to the Brontë sisters: the American poet appears in her room after Anne, Emily and Charlotte have sent her an invitation letter to confirm their common interest in menageries.’

From The International Reception of Emily Dickinson, (2009)

‘It is no wonder that you are there, half-naked, leaning over what I write. You make a triangle with your legs, you stand on your foot, but not as a ballerina. (. . .) But if you lay down a foot on my breast and raise your arms, letting your hair fall down, I think it is a writing foot split into fingers, searching for my emotion. Provoking me. In the end, I bit it. This is my retribution as a living writer.’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, from Onde Vais, Drama-Poesia, (2000)

The Embrace of a Poet

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“Four months earlier to the day, on August 14, I had had the unforeseen good luck to meet Pascoaes in Oporto, for the first time and also the last. The impression of his emaciated, at times twitching, but always kind old face is fading away. The lively eyes and the humorous corners of the wide, thin-lipped mouth were strikingly framed, though, by the severe dark hat and suit which plain people wear in Southern countries. I may forget the fireworks of his conversation, with which he easily kept the younger men hanging at his lips. (In those days a Pascoaes cult existed in Portugal; perhaps it still does.) But his embrace I am still able to feel, the most Portuguese of all Portuguese embraces I have been accorded. When we took leave from him, my friend and I, to return to the city, he singled me, the stranger, out and hugged me with a particular warmth and fondness. Did he want to enthral me forever, by putting into that farewell gesture all the human solidarity of a Portuguese? It was the gesture of one who was clinging to life with his last strength. Perhaps it was magic “America,” from whence I came and to which I was soon to return, that he wishes to draw into his immaterial universe of living trees and mountains, in my person, one of the few, perhaps the last who had come to him from the young continent of hope? It meant no love or friendship or goodwill—we had hardly met!—but it sent out a stream of sympathy that will not cease.”

From Gerald M. Moser’s The Embrace of a Poet, Books Abroad, Vol.28, No. 4

‘We have no models, we have only precursors’

It would be easy for this blog to become a whirlpool, rotating obsessively around a small handful of writers that, to my mind at least, carve out a highly individual niche; perhaps a series of whirlpools that interconnect only at the periphery, and in doing so twirl off creating other eddies and vortexes. That sounds like a description of my reading mind. Two writers I keep returning to over the last few weeks, at night particularly, trying to understand why these two have captured so much of my waking and dreaming attention.

What is it that draws close the writing of Mircea Cărtărescu and Maria Gabriela Llansol? They are both European writers in the broad sense that they call upon a common pool of themes, myths and visions. Their writing appears, from what is translated heroically into English, to be marked by a transgression of genre, seeking instead to dance in the spaces between realism, magical realism, poetry, essay and analysis. Both writers summon strange figures to an oneiric imaginary geography, slipping in and out of the dramatis personae that is above all a way of constructing a form of hermitic autobiography. One could argue that their novels’ narrative fabric exists primarily as a device for reflection. There is also the space in which their stories function, bound not by a common conception of time but spatially, an amazing world where time sags and slows, dissolving into seemingly bottomless holes.

Both write in dialogue with ancient sources (the Bible and Ovid came quickest to mind) and also a strange world of literature that explores metafiction and intertextuality, inevitably hearkening back to old touchstones like Borges, Kafka, the Woolf of Orlando, even Nietzsche, and to writers I tasted and disregarded like Pynchon and García Márquez.

[The title of this post is from Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text.]