Confoundedly Well Informed

“I once took an interest in astronomy, I don’t deny it. Then it was geology that killed a few years for me. The next pain in the balls was anthropology and the other disciplines, such as psychiatry, that are connected with it, disconnected, then connected again, according to the latest discoveries. What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God, in terms of what he is not. But my ideas on this subject were always horribly confused, for my knowledge of men was scant and the meaning of being beyond me. Oh I’ve tried everything. In the end it was magic that had the honour of my ruins, and still today, when I walk there, I find its vestiges. But mostly they are a place with neither plan nor bounds and of which I understand nothing, not even of what it is made, still less into what. And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression. It is in any case a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic, because devoid of mystery. And if I do not go there gladly, I go perhaps more gladly there than anywhere else, astonished and at peace. I nearly said a dream, but no, no.”

Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Beckett’s Stirring Still

We seldom see what is staring at us. Think of Stirrings Still while reading Cees Nooteboom, who writes, “The young man knew that too, and later made increasing use of omission as the most essential feature of his art, his last book, only ten pages long, describing his own demise as he lives through it.”

Beckett’s last book, lauded as one of the most beautiful books of the last hundred years, quarter-bound in Parisian parchment, with natural linen and cotton boards, stamped with a motif by Louis le Brocquy in eighteen carat gold. This edition of 226 copies, with nine lithographed illustrations by Brocquy, signed by the illustrator and Beckett.

Part 1, in the opening line of the third paragraph, we encounter the jarring polysyllabic whithersoever. Beckett, though frail and breathing with the help of an oxygenator, expressed dismay that he had not given approval for the final proofs of this special edition, in which his neologism is misspelt as withersoever. In some of his friends’ copies of this edition, he took the opportunity to correct the error by hand, perhaps further enhancing  their future market value.

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Leopardi’s Pessimism

Gilbert Highet’s elegant account of Count Giacomo Leopardi urges me to make time for those notebooks awaiting my time and attention. Beckett also found Leopardi simpatico, describing himself in a letter to MacGreevy as “one who is interested in Leopardi and Proust rather than in Carducci and Barrès”, adding many years later that Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism not his patriotism)”. Highet’s sentence rests on his phrase: “if properly understood and managed”.

“His closest links in classical literature are with Lucretius the Epicurean, who believed that creation and the life of man were a pure accident, having no significance beyond itself; that nature was neither kindly nor hostile to us, but indifferent; and that the only sensible purpose of living was to attain, through well-spaced and well-chosen pleasures and an intelligent understanding of the universe, a calm and reassured happiness. Like Lucretius, Leopardi is a materialist; like him he admires the charm of the Greek deities, although he knows that they have really no effective connexion with our world; like him he looks at human excitements and efforts with astonished pity, as we do at an ant-hill struck by a falling apple. But–here is the fundamental difference not only between Leopardi and Lucretius, but many modern poets and nearly all Greco-Roman poets–the conclusion that Leopardi draws is that life, because of its futility, is a cruel agent where death is welcome; and the conclusion of Lucretius is that life, if properly understood and managed, is still liveable. Even Greek tragedy does not mean that life is hopeless; but that, at its most terrible, it still contains nobility and beauty. Perhaps because of the sickness which afflicted both Leopardi’s body and his soul, he was never able to fight through to this truth. At least, not consciously. Yet, as an artist, he grasped it. His chief debt to classical poetry and his truest claim to equal the great lyric poets is that he sees his tragic subjects with sculptural clarity, and describes them with that combination of deep passion and perfect aesthetic control which e recognise as Greek.”

Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees

What are we to make of a fiction in which the main subject fails to appear? “For now,” writes Alejandro Zambra, “Verónica is someone who hasn’t arrived, who still hasn’t returned from her drawing class.” In The Private Lives of Trees the drama is turned inside out, dismantling the expected protagonist-antagonist tension. When Zambra writes, “When [Veronica] returns, the novel will end,” we know that the protagonist, like Godot, will never appear.

If the self-deception inherent in fiction relies on the portrayal of a representative character we can emulate, or with whom we can sympathise, how stable is a story based on the absence of a central subject? Though Verónica is only tangible through anticipation, she is also strangely present – to recall Berger’s critique of oil paintings of the nude – as the spectator in front of the scene. Everything is addressed to Verónica, yet she is, by definition, a stranger.

Thomas Nagel, in The View from Nowhere writes, “how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included”. By dismantling a traditional conception of character in fiction, Zambra asks how we equate characters with people, and how we come to believe in characters that are nothing more than verbal abstractions or constructs.

Lisa Dwan’s No’s Knife

Lisa Dwan - No's Knife (2016)

Lisa Dwan – No’s Knife (2016)

“Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me? Answer simply, someone answer simply. It’s the same old stranger as ever, for whom alone accusative I exist, in the pit of my inexistence, of his, of ours, there’s a simple answer.”

A kind of troglodyte, amalgamated to the mire, moaning with decrepitude, Lisa Dwan’s subversive prayer in No’s Knife declaimed out loud but felt inwardly reminds me of nothing less than Dante. His muddy bog people in the Stygian marsh, raging, fixed in the slime. Dante’s slothful souls create bubbles on the water’s surface from the hymn gurgling in their throats. Beckett isn’t present in No’s Knife but Lisa Dwan enacts the inferno with Beckett.

Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life

The Greeks called it Avernus, the Birdless Place, the entrance to the underworld, where according to Virgil ‘no winged creatures could ever wing their way’. Virgil sees no birds until he returns above ground, nor does Molloy on his own metaphorical journey to the underworld saying ‘I had not heard a bird for a long time. How was it I had not heard any in the forest? Nor seen any.’

The conspicuous absence of birds is one of Jorge Sepmrún’s recurring memories of his journey through death in Buchenwald, written about in his staggeringly moving and insightful Literature or Life. ‘No birds left. They say the smoke from the crematory drove them away. Never any birds in this forest . . .’ With these words Semprún greets four soldiers about to enter Buchenwald on the first morning of its liberation.

David Morris, writing on the Freudian uncanny, writes that it [unheimlich] ‘derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’. Semprún for many years is unable to write directly of his experience, ‘I start to doubt the possibility of telling the story. Not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely (that won’t be hard to understand), something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density.’

Semprún chooses a ‘long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia’ despite the dangers of suppression, until the suicide of Primo Levi unlocks a need to represent his journey into, and out the other side of death. These memoirs ask the question, how to write of these unimaginable terrors in a way people can hear, can understand? Semprún shows that there needn’t be a disjunction between literature and life, that it is possible to write poetically about barbaric events. Perhaps he demonstrates quite the opposite, that literature (poetry) is precisely the response needed for terrors like Buchenwald.

Not Destined to Dispel the Cloud

This weekend I was fortunate to find, and unable to resist, a two-volume Robert Riviere edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which I once read, but so long ago that all I recall is an atmosphere. I have a suspicion that Johnson is more read about than read, so I intend to take an opportunity to read my tercentenary edition of The Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson introduced and edited by his most recent biographer Peter Martin. 

It’s likely that I’ll read Martin’s Johnson, which presents Johnson as ‘”one of the most advanced liberals of his time”: a harsh critic of imperialism, a lifelong defender of the poor, a protofeminist and a scourge of aristocratic effrontery.’ Some time ago I read Walter Jackson Bate’s great biography of Johnson, so loved by Beckett that he implored Anne Atik to keep her copy. I’ve read a few of Johnson’s primary texts including his novel Rasseslas, and it takes no time at all to be swept up in the embrace of his wit and keen intelligence.

The following passage is extracted from his essay entitled The necessity and danger of looking into futurity, and should be framed and mounted above the desk of aspirant writers:

It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world, so far to suspect his own powers, as to believe that he may possibly deserve neglect; that nature may not have qualified him much to enlarge or embellish knowledge, nor sent him forth entitled by indisputable superiority to regulate the conduct of the rest of mankind; that, though, the world must be granted to be yet in ignorance, he is not destined to dispel the cloud, nor to shine out as one of the luminaries of life. For this suspicion, every catalogue of a library will furnish sufficient reason; as he will find it crowded with names of men who, though now forgotten, were once no less enterprising or confident than himself, equally pleased with their own productions, equally caressed by their patrons, and flattered by their friends.

Dostoyevsky’s Chaos and Form

Reading Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and some relevant parts of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59 brings into focus what I think I find most interesting in Dostoevsky’s novels. The narrative texture of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is very different from his other novels in that Dostoevsky avoids didacticism and narrates using what is almost a direct reportage style. Nowadays we’d classify it as fictionalised autobiography.

The flat narrative texture is far less forgiving and shows up the imperfections in Dostoevsky’s form to a greater degree than the other novels. It recalls the Beckett quote that I wrote about once before:

…there will be new form…and this new form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else…That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

In a sense, Dostoevsky steals a march on Beckett’s 1961 comments by finding a form that accommodates his chaotic themes, characters, all the stuff he chucks into his narrative. Style and artistry are secondary to his psychological intuition. The insight that lies within Dostoevsky’s ideas and thoughts are what makes his novels so interesting, and so worthwhile to read and ponder.

From where she lies …

From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star’s revenge. At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair. It emerges from out the last rays and sinking ever brighter is engulfed in its turn. On. She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. Heading on foot for a particular point often she freezes on the way. Unable till long after to move on not knowing whither or for what purpose. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Hand resting on hand on some convenient support. Such as the foot of her bed. And on them her head. There then she sits as though turned to stone face to the night. Save for the white of her hair and faintly bluish white of face and hands all is black. For an eye having no need of light to see. All this in the present as had she the misfortune to be still of this world.

Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen Ill Said

Max Frisch’s An Answer from the Silence and Sketchbooks

Although I felt there was something unconvincing about Man in the Holocene when I read it last summer, I found myself often thinking about the work since. I will read it again soon but I think my disappointment was in Max Frisch’s failure of pessimism, that he felt it necessary to relieve the bleakness at the end of Herr Geiser’s story, at least on the level of a realistic reading of the work. I wonder now whether I misread the serenity of the closing pages, particularly since exploring Frisch’s other work more closely.

It was An Answer from the Silence that drew me back to Frisch, encouraged also by Beckett’s interest in his work. Beckett didn’t go out of his way to engage with contemporary writers so evidence that he owned and read Frisch impelled me to dive deeply into his work this month.

An Answer from the Silence deals with that crisis that presents itself when we realise with horror our responsibility for the hollowness of our existence. If we have chosen to stay in dreary jobs, disastrous relationships, without love, the failure to do something about our wasted lives is ours alone. As Frisch writes, “Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world.” Frisch’s narrator stares deeply into this abyss as must we all to reach maturity and finds, of course, no answers. Not even love provides that answer.

Translated by Mike Mitchell and published by Seagull Books, An Answer from the Silence is a perfect book to start an immersion into Frisch. Its tender, lonely torments flow warmly over icy depths that further persuade me that a second closer reading of Man in the Holocene might be more revealing.

This week I also read Frisch’s Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, also translated by Mike Mitchell and published by Seagull Books, who have the rights to both his earlier Sketchbooks (Tagebucher) for publication next year. This didn’t stop me tracking down a 1974 edition of the second Sketchbook 1966-1971. I’m nothing if not a completist when obsessing about a particular writer’s work.

Frisch’s Sketchbooks present short form entries in diary format, self-reflective observations  about contemporary events and, in Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, his recounting of the illness and death of his close friend Peter Noll. Although written as a diary or sketchbook, a tight narrative microstructure suggests these meditations were meticulously written and refined. Several themes are woven throughout: the bitter ironies of ageing and the question of how to die. It is clear, at least from the little I’ve read of Frisch’s work so far, that these are the fundamental themes and concerns throughout his writing, no less in his novel Homo Faber, which I am reading at present.

 

Beckett Without Walther’s Rock

Dürer's Melencolia IOne night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. One night or day. For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came then from the one window.

Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still

Such a deep affinity with the way Beckett portrays self. Beckett mentions Walther, “To this end for want of a stone on which to sit like Walther …”

I sat upon a stone,/covered one leg with the other,/and set my elbow on them/I nestled in my hand/my chin and one of my cheeks./In this position I started pondering/How one should live in the world.

Walther von der Vogelweide, Codex Manesse

Marguerite Duras’ The Man Sitting in the Corridor


Marguerite Duras writes short, boundless stories. As in many of her stories, in The Man Sitting in the Corridor she starts tentatively, turning frequently to the future perfect to situate the past of her story in the future. Though disturbing and sexually provocative, there is nothing pornographic in the scenes, robbed of texture and tension by the pace and hollowness of the characters.

Much of the narrative tension in The Man Sitting in the Corridor is created by the third person, the voyeur quietly observing the sadomasochistic events from an unseen distance. The fourth person, another voyeur, is the reader left unsettled by the awful force of the story. This is late Duras at her most terse, destabilising the cold-bloodedness of pornography by stripping it bare of any erotic charge.

This edition of The Man Sitting in the Corridor is published by Foxrock Books, named after Beckett’s birthplace and founded by Barney Rosset, founder also of Grove Press which brought Beckett to Americans’ attention.

A hint to put it aside

It is intriguing why we sometimes persist with reading a novel past the point when we discover a lack of concern for its characters or its way of observing the world. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff, translated by Katy Derbyshire, is written in brisk, elegant prose but around the midpoint, despite its admirable qualities, I decide to put the book aside and move onto something else.

A bookish narrator that reads Beckett and Lowry kept me going longer than expected, together with the odd references to Greek myth, and a curiosity to find out why a supposedly secondary character, the chauffeur Rumen (“Rumen is our Hermes”) Apostoloff is important enough to bear the story’s title.

But on this reading I go no further, with just a moment to drop off a passage from an enjoyable chapter with the narrator’s insomnia.

Tonight there’s no rain and I can’t get to sleep again. Perhaps I’m in too much of a good mood to sleep. Reading doesn’t help this time, certainly not by this dim and dingy bedside lamp. I’ve got Koba the Dread with me, a gruesome but excellent book about Stalin, and I took the sentence The laughter should have stopped around then as a hint to put it aside. It won’t be of any help to me tonight. I normally pick up a Martin Amis book in the evening and don’t close it until I’ve finished it the next morning. Then I read it at a slower pace again later.