Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire

Humanity, Léon Bloy, wrote can be divided into two categories, those who fight the beast, and those who nourish it. In literature, the former is presently in the ascendance. This is why I like so much Stephen Mitchelmore’s remark that the right reader will find “blessed relief in Jen Craig’s fiction”. For such blessed relief is precisely what I found on my three passes through Panthers & the Museum of Fire.

There is little character development, only passing narrative impetus and no plot, yet relief is to be found in the novel’s reticence. Unavoidably, it has a situation: a writer called Jen Craig is given a manuscript written by a friend who has died. She is asked by the dead friend’s sister to return it unread; unable to resist temptation she reads the manuscript and achieves a breakthrough in her own writing, possible the book the reader is now reading. There is suspense in wondering why, after urging the narrator to read the manuscript because of her supposed literary flair, the sister now asks for its return, unread, but this question is unresolved. Mr. Godot never arrives.

Novels like Panthers & the Museum of Fire jettison everything recognisable as a novel, lacking much that Aristotle deemed essential to drama, yet this extraordinary little novel has at its heart a tragic fatality and a concentration of mature and tender feeling.

Black resigns.

“In the early ’80s, I wrote Samuel Beckett a letter. I explained that I was trying to write, adding that he was probably often sought out by strangers, and so rather than asking him to read my work, suggested instead that we play a game of correspondence chess with, at stake, a play I’d written. If I won, he’d read it and give me his opinion. If he won, I’d read over my own play at my leisure. I closed my letter with these words: “Just in case, 1. e4.” By return post, Samuel Beckett replied, “Black resigns. Send the play. Sincerely, Samuel Beckett.” I sent him my play, and one or two weeks later, I got another handwritten note: he had kept his word, read my play, and advised me to trim certain passages.”

Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, Urgency and Patience

A slight text but what is good is very good, especially the parts on Beckett.

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.

Pessimism Transformed (For We Must Go On)

“It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition it is his.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett

“If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention,  but since however we may debar ourselves from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise Life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.” Johnson, Rambler 47

“I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: I do wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett


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.”