My Year in Reading: 2021

If any writer could be said to have exerted an influence on my reading this year, it would be Gabriel Josipovici. One influence does not preclude another and the claim might equally apply to Gerald Murnane or Friederike Mayröcker. The latter died, aged 96, this summer, but to share a time with such writers is a flaming beam during an otherwise wretched year. These are writers of subtlety, not stylists, nor meticulous crafters of the perfect sentence, though a very many of their sentences, to quote Nietzsche, turn into a hook, pulling something incomparable from out of the depths.  What can be more exhilarating than to follow the thoughts of such singular human minds?

Of all years, in this I read and abandoned more contemporary fiction than normal, an attempt to read against the grain. It is of no surprise that there are few novels first published today worth reading. That could describe any age. There is simply too much in most fiction: superfluous style, too many adjectives, too little space to open a door to ones own reflections. What is left when we finish a book is the mood or atmosphere, described so lucidly by Jenny Erpenbeck: the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.

Sharing the interior lives of others through their literary creation arguably tells us more about the world than any other medium. Three novels this year offered the sharp light of an autumn afternoon, providing a glimpse of the inner spaces of their creators: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Formally each could not be more different, but what they provide is a serious portrayal of the human condition in its infinite forms.

That description could equally apply to Friederike Mayröcker’s And I Shook Myself a Beloved, translated by Alexander Booth. It is a fiction too in the sense that all journeys into inner worlds are fictions, but it is primarily a recounting, in dark tones, of her relationship with life partner Ernst Jandl. It is a raw meditation, but lifted by its strange and unquestionable beauty.

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities / that’s the function of art, wrote Agnes Martin in Writings. This collection of her letters, lectures and journals is exceptional and was fine company and, like David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, offers insight beyond the specifics of a particular artist or perspective.

This wasn’t particularly a year for poetry, but I discovered Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. These are quiet and conservative poems, with a vivid expression of personality. He has Larkin’s gift for evocative phrase-making and Heaney’s nuanced appreciation of landscape. The poems addressing his canonical artists: Uccello, El Greco, del Sarto, Blake, Van Gogh, and Constable, are particularly  memorable.

Next year I plan to draw in my reading, depth over breadth, thinking through even the minor works of my talismanic writers. There will possibly be more poetry, certainly less contemporary fiction, probably more Ancient Greek and Roman literature, but thankfully I’ve always been hopelessly inadequate at charting the serendipitous direction of my reading life.

That Astonishing Excavation: White Egrets by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott, Portrait of Claudia in Yellow Armchair, 2005

In many of the poems in Derek Walcott’s White Egrets, it is possible to imagine the influence of post-impressionist painters with his intensity of attention for ordinary things: domesticities or the expression on a face:

Irises stipple the hot square in passing showers,
shadows pause in their casework, ornate balconies rust,
the sunlight of olive oil slowly spread in saucers
and loves that are hard to break have a screw crust.
Esperanza, cherished Esperenza!
Your lashes like black moths, like twigs your frail wrists,
your small, cynical mouth with its turned-down answer,
when it laughs, is like a soft stanza

That concentration on the essence of a plain object, without sentimentality, with such clarity, brings to mind painters like Bonnard or Degas, who would be capable of finding ‘the sunlight of olive oil slowly spread in saucers’. No surprise that Walcott is a painter as well as a poet (and a playwright).

White Egrets is his fourteenth collection, the work of mature Walcott, stripped of any complication and obscurity, though that may be a personal reaction after my recent immersion in the recondite poetry of Friederike Mayröcker and Paul Celan. What is immediately evident is the unpretentious lucidity of his verse. It is easy to take this for granted, but all the more necessary with these poems to slow down and reread. What is beneath the surface readability are a range of concerns and passions recorded with such heightened intelligence and objective observation.

Where there is melancholy in Walcott’s poetry, you feel the reverberations of a human struggling with the lived experience of love and ageing, rather than the vulgar professional unhappiness of a lesser writer.

If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.

What is left after reading these poems, something I will do often, is Walcott’s insistence that he cannot escape from himself. There is weight to this work, but an absence of dogmatism:

in March, you blaze in her praise like a sea-almond
the crab scrawls your letters then hides them,
certain that she would never understand.
How boring the love of others is, isn’t it, Reader?
This page, touched by the sun’s declining arc,
sighs with the same whinge, the Sonnets and Petrarch.

Walcott’s poems are best read in the original collections rather than in anthologies or journals. There is a cumulative effect, which gives the sense of bringing us closest to the poet’s intention.