A Year in Reading: 2015

Denton Welch’s last work stands at the head of a list that marks a fine year’s reading with the discovery of three writers whose work has changed me: Brigid Brophy, Tomas Espedal and Welch

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud is alive throughout though left incomplete by his death. Welch’s characteristic eye for detail and ear for dialogue is clear in all his work but in A Voice Through a Cloud he maintains an unstable tension that keeps his light touch so very serious. The smiles of acknowledgement and tears become impossible to separate. It’s hard to imagine a finer book in any year and his other two novels are small but magnificent.

If pressed I’d name Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball as the finer of her novels that I read this year, an elegant tale of female eroticism that splices together Brophy’s twin fixations of Mozart and Freud.

What Welch, Brophy and Tomas Espedal share is the sense that they are all writing their lives in fiction, fulfilling an attempt to smuggle reality into their art and doing so with force of intellect, originality and passion. Any of Espedal’s three translated works would serve as a book of the year but Tramp will be one I return to again and again. That all three are published by Seagull Books simply underlines my deep-seated affection for their vision.

Those writers aside, this was also the year I read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, novels that led by precise description and a fierce power that lay in what was left out. Little was left out of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, a brilliant conception of the demonic, also explored in Wolfgang Hilbig’s disturbing but equally singular “I”.

Two works of literary criticism stood out this year: Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature and David Winters’s Infinite Fictions; both offered profound insight, refined by doubts and perplexities and in both cases suffused with a love of literature.

Espedal’s Tramp was a good companion novel to Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project which beautifully navigated the indeterminate space between memoir, biography and travel narrative.

Like Beckett’s Murphy, this year the macrocosm intruded into the freedom of the microcosm, i.e. the job-path became all consuming, leaving less time to read and write here. That said I expect to read seventy or so books by year end, respectable enough given other commitments which include discovering a zest for public speaking.

How Literature Moves Us and Why

How do literary works move us and why? In Uses of Literature, Rita Felski proposed a taxonomy to describe this engagement and how certain texts may trigger recognition, absorption or disorientation. Any attempt to classify our affective response to particular literary works is hugely difficult and beyond the reach of objective observation. However, what Uses of Literature opens up is a way of seeing and reading that intensifies the wonder not only of literature but of how it transforms the world around a reader.

What I particularly like about Uses of Literature is that Felski takes Jane Bennett’s idea that secularism does not mean an end to enchantment, and gives a convincing argument about how literary theory should develop as a result.

Felski’s latest book The Limits of Critique is addressed to an academic audience, developing her argument that it is about time that the teaching of interpretive modes address similar concerns, without throwing away entirely the depth hermeneutics that is at the heart of contemporary scholarship. Despite its audience, The Limits of Critique, is clear, lucid and makes a perfect companion to Uses of Literature. Both are invaluable catalysts to thinking what affinities are shared by the works of literature you value as transformative, and what that says about your society, culture and you.

I can make out many shared characteristics in the literature that generates the strongest affective response in me: an enigmatic quality usually captured in depthless, allusive prose and linguistic intricacy; a tautness of style that distrusts metaphor and simile over concrete nouns and adjectives; a voice whose doubt and indecision allows me to feel included in the thought process; a recognition that fiction and non-fiction are, at the level of narrative, just fictive constructs and both products of human perception; and resistance to notions of completeness, finality and absolute truth.

Privileges of Fiction (Rita Felski, Theory Without a Capital T)

Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, like her Uses of Literature, is admirably clear and accessible but the former is aimed primarily at an academic audience. I don’t have, nor wish to acquire an insider’s perspective of recent debates in American academic cliques about the use of theory (as in poststructuralist theories – no longer given the capital T).

I do however subscribe to the importance of theory in its most general sense as offering a way of interpreting the social world, particularly its shaping around gender and class, and theory as critique, that is, as an analytical framework to understand how sociopolitical divisions are constructed and maintained in literature, visual arts, language, culture and our psychic processes.

I’m strictly a dilettante theorist unpicking what I can from reading theoretical work, and resist a fair amount because it is often difficult or deliberately obscure. Although The Limits of Critique is written for the academy, it is neither exclusive nor forbidding, and offers riches aplenty for rigorous readers of serious literature (even within the first 50 pages). I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about the book as I read on.

The following fragment interested me with its implication, if I understood correctly, that theory is informed and fashioned by literature to the same degree that Kundera contends that philosophy is shaped by literary works.

Rather than being innocent victims of suspicion, literary works are active instigators and perpetrators of it. That we have learned to read between the lines has everything to do with the devices deployed in modern works of art: unreliable narrators, conflicting viewpoints, fragmented narratives, and metafictional devices that alert readers to the ways in which words conceal rather than reveal. Reading Kafka is more than enough to make one paranoid; the texts of Beckett anticipate many of the tenets of poststructuralism. Suspicious readers are preceded and often schooled by suspicious writers. Indeed, much of what has counted as theory in recent decades riffs off, revises, and extends the classic themes of literary and artistic modernism.


We shortchange the significance of art by focusing on the “de” prefix (its power to demystify, destabilise, denaturalise) at the expense of the “re” prefix: its ability to recontexualise, reconfigure, or recharge perception. Works of art do not only subvert but also convert; that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but one of affective realignment as well (a shift of mood, a sharpened sensation, an unexpected surge of affinity or disorientation).

Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique, The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

Voice of Mourning

Christ's Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) - Andrea Mantegna

Christ’s Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) – Andrea Mantegna

Like King Charles’ head, Friedrich Nietzsche is always intruding in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus, a deeply Romantic novel suffused with parodic twists. A talisman acts as a battery for some type of force or energy, or what David Winters  describes as ‘a charm that we clasp to our hearts’. At risk of overextending the metaphor, that’s not a bad description of how I feel about Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which has rarely left my side for the last month.

‘Recognition,’ writes Rita Felski, ‘comes without guarantees; it takes place in the messy and mundane world of human action, not divine revelation.’ Doctor Faustus is by no means a perfect novel (whatever that might resemble). Its narrative frequently drags, sometimes almost intolerably. But there is also a deep intoxication at being absorbed in a novel that reveals, or at least tries to reveal, the rhythm of life.

As I read the last few highly charged chapters, set aside the finished book, and spent an hour gazing into the woods, I sense almost imperceptibly that my perspective is altered. The very best of fiction has this talismanic effect. Doctor Faustus, like Mann’s The Magic Mountain is one of the most intense, powerful reading experiences of my life. I am thrilled that it is over. I am mourning that it is over.

Disturbing Fiction

It must have been at thirteen, fourteen at most that I found a piece of fiction both repugnant and riveting in equal measure. I remember the fiction. It was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Perhaps I was too young to read Kafka, or maybe already too old. The word repugnance is fitting with its late Middle English sense of offering resistance, from the Latin repugnant opposing.

After the horror of Gregor Samsa’s transformation and death in The Metamorphosis comes the chillingly cold final pages when the mood lightens and the family head out for a stroll, equally transformed and full of joy. I still recall the terrible loneliness and vague anxiety that came over me as I read those pages and threw the book aside, resisting to the end its abominable conclusion. Then, the same day I picked it up and read from the beginning again. And again; each time the same feeling of terrible anxiousness.

It fascinates me, how these twenty-six squiggles on a page can induce such sensation. Thomas Bernhard’s fiction does the same thing, and, more recently Jens Bjørneboe’s Moment of Freedom, which I set aside six days ago, more repelled than compelled. But it has been on my mind all week, and last night I submitted, allowing its moments of acute brilliance to overcome my opposition.

In Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, she writes of being transfixed by Sartre’s Nausea, a text I read annually for its intellectual and visceral force, like an assault. Felski writes, “Here, indisputably, was the literature of extremity, of what Foucault and others call “the limit experience,” a bracing blend of solipsism, paranoia, brutality, and despair, where the standard supports and consolation of everyday life are ruthlessly ripped away.”