What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami

Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.

“Trapped in a dialogic relationship with the world”

This excerpt is from the opening paragraph of Som Raj Gupta’s The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man. I’ve been contemplating this book for years, since reading A Review of Roberto Calasso and Som Raj Gupta.

There are men who read a lot but do not turn into scholars because they do not read for the sake of systematic research and within the parameters of a methodology but in the hope, ultimately vain and futile, of finding some meaning and purpose in life. Their reading is often extensive, almost always profound and concentrated, but not systematic and objective enough to satisfy the norms set up by the great seats of learning and research. Such men think long and deeply but do not turn into thinkers because they think in pain and in anguish, think as much with their blood, their breath, their pulse as with their brains. Their thinking tells visibly upon their health and the working of their minds; its effect can be seen in their nervousness, in their indecisiveness, in their embarrassing clumsiness. They do not turn into thinkers because they do not think in what are called precise and rigorous terms and do not, cannot, look at every aspect of their thought as a systematic thinker would do. They are more anxious to see truth, to feel it and live it than to talk about it in coherent and precisely communicative terms. Such men also fail to be pious people because they find it difficult to observe the accepted laws of piety, or to be civilised because they do not always live up to the norms of civilisation. Nor can they pray with fervent devotion as men of faith do because their souls often remain amassed and frozen within themselves. They are, in one word, unhappy souls that can never come to be successful in life, in thought, in cultural pursuits. To fail in every sphere is their destiny—and the promise of their redemption.

Pascal Quignard’s The Silent Crossing

Comparisons of writers call attention to common aspects of their work and in this sense Pascal Quignard and Roberto Calasso are both powerfully expressive writers that gather together tangles of old tales and myths. But the comparison quickly becomes facile. There are polar differences between the two writers despite both being intensely conscious, even philosophical.

I’ve just finished Quignard’s The Silent Crossing, another from Seagull Books, translated by Chris Turner. In French the book was titled La Barque silencieuse signifying the bark or boat in which Charon ferries damned souls across the Styx. This book is volume six in the Dernier royaume or Lost Kingdom series, which Quignard envisages as a set of reflections that will end only with his death. It is mildly irritating that these works are appearing in English translation out of order, having read The Roving Shadows and Abysses, which are volumes one and three of the series. Although each work appears to stand alone, by skipping ahead to the sixth, you get a sense of an essential core, which is perhaps no more than an immersion into the extraordinary mind of Quignard.

Common across all three books that I’ve read in this series is a preoccupation  with our first life, the one we forget on the instant of birth, the life that precedes language, precedes our being named, when we live immersed in water, darkness and isolation. Quignard also reflects on the negative aspects of society and the social, arguing Freud’s case that “the opposite of society is maturity.” Common also to all Quignard’s books is his paean to the ecstasy of reading, quoting in The Silent Crossing the sentence I have framed in my library from Kafka’s letter to a friend, “We need books that affect us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves.”

I’ll be reading and rereading Quignard’s work for years to come. Somewhere in the  collaboration that takes place between reader and writer—perhaps I’d even call it a dialogic struggle in Quignard’s case as there is always the sense that if I read more attentively I might miss less of the assertive power of his work—I’ve fallen in love with the work of Pascal Quignard. It is work that deserves the sort of scrupulous reading I enjoy most.

Pascal Quignard’s Work

Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.

I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.

I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.

Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.

Blue-bottle in a Jar

Last week, I took Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul to the city that is its subject, but read very little. Istanbul, whose siren’s call I’ve heard since watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s crazy films, left little time for reading. It is a hypomanic city, caught between projection and reality, between time and space. I found it almost impossible to reach beyond the city marketed to consuming tourists.

Visiting Sufi lodges was the highpoint of the trip. Away from the tourist trail I found some essence of Istanbul, a city that resists cognition. Discussing breath-control and visualisation with a patient scholar reminded me also to return to reading Roberto Calasso’s Ardor as soon as practicable.

Pamuk’s Istanbul returned with me to London mostly unread. The insipidity I found in Snow is, if anything, more glaring in Istanbul, but it has enough charm (aided by Ara Güler’s photographs) that I shall attempt to finish it this weekend.

What is now Orhan Kemal Public library, once the Istanbul Public Library, is pictured above, clearly before restoration was completed in 1976. Its collection of rare books includes Arabic and Persian translations of the four Vedas, the subject of Calasso’s Ardor, but a holidaying curator made it impossible to inspect the works, though I saw many other manuscripts in exquisite calligraphy.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been an unfaithful reader, distracted by non-literary forms of communication and trying to flit between too many books. Like Murphy, I’m bouncing ‘off the walls like a blue-bottle in a jar’. I concentrate better on a single book at a time.

The Dispute Between Mind and Speech

Relations between Mind and Speech were always difficult and fraught. They sometimes clashed like two warriors-or two lovers. Each wished to do better than the other. Mind said: ‘I am surely better than you, for you say nothing that I don’t understand; and since you imitate what I have done and follow in my wake, I am surely better than you.’

Speech said: ‘ I am surely  better than you, for I communicate what you know, I make it understood.’

They decided to appeal to Prajāpati for him to decide. He decided in favour of Mind and said [to Speech]: ‘Mind is indeed better than you, for you imitate what Mind has done and you follow in his wake’; and in truth he who imitates what his better has done and follows in his wake is inferior.’

Roberto Calasso, Ardor, trans. Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 (2010)

The Flayed Man

The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew bible, instructs the priesthood on the sacrifice that must precede the slaughter of animals for food. Roberto Calasso writes in Ardor of Yājñavalkya’s comparable philosophy in the Vedic Shatapatha Brahmana, but argues further that sacrifice was a way of dealing with the ancients’ guilt about killing and destroying the living for food and clothing. The chapter from which the following passage is taken,  Animals, is wonderful. Not only does it deal elegantly with the transition from gatherer-hunted to hunter-gatherer, but also with the source of our embarrassment at being naked, particularly in front of another species.

As for the Vedic ritualists, they gave it [using cows for clothing] credence through a story the others would one day have called a myth, but which in their words sounded like a dry, anonymous account of how things began. Everything started when the gods, watching events of earth, realised that the whole of life was supported by the cow. Men were its parasites. One of the gods-we don’t know which-urged humans to allow their skin to be used to cover cows. So the gods flayed man. If we try to go back to the very beginning, this is therefore the natural human state: the Flayed Man, as sixteenth-century anatomical drawings. Unlike the naive positivists, who presented primordial man in natural history museum display cabinets with a monkey-like covering of hair, the Vedic ritualises saw him not as the mighty lord of creation, but as a being who was most exposed, most easily vulnerable from the world outside. For them, man didn’t just conceal a wound, but was a single wound. They wanted to add an eloquent detail: man is hemophiliac by vocation, as even a blade of grass can make his blood gush forth

Roberto Calasso, Ardor, trans. Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 (2010)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.

Hourglass Sand of Rub’ al Khali

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

There is but one word in Arabic for sand رمل (raml). The sand in the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter could be defined with greater precision as raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah or hourglass sand. I have spent the last week photographing sand.

There is a secret in every grain of sand. This sand is not an inert substance. It is so rich in nutrients and calcium that anything could grow, despite the high salt content, but growth is limited by the density of the sand and, of course, the availability of water. A metre or so below the surface of this sand-sea is another sea, a thin mantle of salt-water, hence the frequent olive-green blazes of nasi (or desert grass) and calligonum shrub. Fresh water is deeper, making another sea, perhaps ten metres below the sand-sea I walked over.

How many colours does sand wear? I counted fourteen, most commonly the dusky camel-tan of blazing midday, to the glorious reddish-orange colour that indicates the presence of feldspar, but also, less commonly flights of blues, purples, and greens.

Each night I climbed the highest dune to await sunset. As the day ended, the sun’s nebulous glow faded to become a golden glowing wafer that dropped quickly behind the highest dune on the horizon. You appreciate why the sun was one of the main deities in most polytheistic cultures.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

In camp I read Martin Ling’s Muhammad, an account of his life based on the earliest sources. Lings’ magnificent book holds and hides memories of the desert throughout its pages. He writes of the custom of all great families of Arab towns to send their sons into the desert to be suckled and weaned among the Bedouin tribes: so the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation-fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul.

It is impossible not to be humble when standing, sleeping, walking on a surface that, in Pleistocene times, was an ancient sea-bed. It is also impossible not to be drawn into the realm of the ineffable. There is a longing in the desert, for enchantment, for a beginning. Longing as defined by Mahmoud Darwish: longing is not memory, but rather what is selected from memory’s museum. Longing is selective, like an adept gardener. It is the replaying of a memory after its blemishes have been removed.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

Why do I come to Rub’ al Khali? This is my second crossing and I am planning a third, longer trek. Of course I question my reasons for coming here, obsessing that it is misplaced Orientalism, a pursuit of what is exotic and inscrutable. The desert speaks to that longing inside my heart. Rub’ al Khali is contagious, an invitation to what was before. Final word to Wilfred Thesiger: No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will carry within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

A Garland of Plagiarism.

The entire history of literature-a secret history that no one will ever be able to write except in part, because authors are too skilful at obscuring themselves-can be seen as a sinuous garland of plagiarism. By this I do not mean functional plagiarism, due to haste and laziness, such as Stendhal’s plundering of Lanzi; but the other kind, based on admiration and as a process of physiological assimilation that is one of the best protected mysteries of literature.

Roberto Calasso
La Folie Baudelaire

Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:

Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.

Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.

I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. – Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. Kafka and the Work’s Demand  (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel’s biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin’s two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]