A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

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.

Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball

When William James describes consciousness as something that “does not appear to itself chopped up in bits” and uses the metaphor “stream of thought” I assume he refers to multiple parts joined together. Each part is aroused by a situation or event. A simple event arouses a simple feeling. A more complicated event, an 18th century masked ball for instance, arouses abundant feelings. Moments considered in an earlier time can evoke feelings and thoughts in the present.

As we age and move closer to death, events that were stimulating and exciting in youth, grow wearisome. We invest less emotion into them. This is the mood of Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. Deeply influenced by psychology, Brophy’s novel deals with psychological time, which is subjective and measured not only by the emotional intensity of an event or moment, but also by our half-buried associations and interpretations. The multiple parts come together in ways that sometimes surprise us in their emotional response.

Each of Brophy’s novels that I’ve read so far have tiny temporal frames, yet invest all the life of their characters into the duration of that frame. It is no more possible to imagine the lives of Brophy’s characters beyond the frames of her stories than to imagine Vermeer’s figures stepping out of his paintings.  Each character can exist only within themselves and to the other characters and time frame and setting of the story, recalling Kenneth Clark on Vermeer’s “flawless sense of the interval”.

Events in The Snow Ball are mediated partly through dialogue, and Brophy’s dialogue is especially crackling, an intricate role-playing game with perfect balance between what is said openly and what must be implied or hinted. But events are also mediated through the character’s thoughts and feelings, which expand and snowball (!) growing more intense as they roll upon themselves.

Without discounting Brigid Brophy’s originality and brilliance, she would be a very different writer without the influence of Freud and Mozart, both strongly present in The Snow Ball and to a lesser or greater extent the other of her novels that I’ve read. Brophy’s originality is to respond in fiction to the influence of both imaginations and make something uniquely her own.

Josh Cohen’s The Private Life

Josh Cohen introduces The Private Life by explaining the links between psychoanalysis and literature: “I read books obsessively, and eventually chose to teach them, because they hinted at the miraculous possibility of experiencing inner lives other than my own.” Freud borrowed as heavily from Greek myth as Jung did from folklore; stories are at the heart of both literature and psychoanalysis. As I spoke of once before, my avid consumption of literature is rooted in a similar attraction, so I developed early an affinity with Cohen’s description of his relationship with literature.

I was fourteen or maybe fifteen years old when I discovered Freud, initially through the case histories, and then in the very readable The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Somewhere I still have the paperback Penguin Freud that I read avidly at boarding school, but the annotations would embarrass me too much to even think of rereading that edition.

These days I am less convinced by Freud’s conception of the extent of the unconscious or psychoanalysis’s totems and taboos, and Cohen’s book did little to convince me otherwise. There is nevertheless much in The Private Life that is fascinating, particularly the way that Cohen brings his literary influences to bear on his argument that our modern culture is endangering our psychic health by eroding the value of privacy.

The penultimate chapter in particular which begins with a look at babyhood and the inevitability of anxiety, develops into a probing of the nature of torture and its psychological effects, and ends with our compulsion to scare ourselves with horror films, is both brilliant and haunting. Cohen’s deployment of Blanchot, Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Paul Celan’s work to underpin his argument is profound and elegant.

Here’s a brief description, perhaps as Cohen concedes, overly simplistic, of intra-uterine life, that Cohen uses to contrast the shock of birth:

Sentient life began for you in a vessel precisely adapted to your needs, in which food, warm and shelter were provided from the first with unbroken reliability and constancy, ensuring you registered neither the need of them nor the possibility of their loss. If you expanded, space expanded with you. You were God, to all intents and purposes, the centre of an integral, self-sufficient universe without beginning or end. Profoundly attuned to the syncopated flow of the world’s blood and breath, you took the endlessly variegated transmissions of one voice, and even the more tinny and sporadic emanations of other voices, for discrete parts of the music you alone composed, played and conducted.

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

Need Need Need

Below is an extended quotation from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The book is a beautifully written, lovingly researched, fascinating account of why writers drink. It is one of those discursive, genre-busting books that I enjoy so much. Laing succeeds in offering an alternative way of reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cheever. This passage concerns John Berryman, whom I must read sometime soon.I quote without further comment a passage that continues to play on my mind.

A line came into my head then. It was from another Dream Song. What was it? Something about pieces. ‘The pieces sat up and wrote’? Yes.

Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up and wrote.

The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation – for love, for nourishment, for security – with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.

There are the terrors of the infant waiting for the breast, or they are if you read Freud and Melanie Klein; and these are the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world. Hardly any wonder that the Dream Songs are so obsessively interested in the state of being skinless or having one’s pelt ripped off or stripped away. Indeed, Berryman once joshed bleakly to his editor about having them bound ‘blue-black’ in scraps of his own skin.

Kafka’s Modernist Lineage

These excerpts below from Richard T. Gray’s A Franz Kafka Encyclopaedia. I’ve omitted the introductory parts about Freud and Marx’s influence on Kafka’s writings, as they do not require elucidation. I am interested in this idea that Kafka’s work could be located at the interstice of modernism and postmodernism.

[Finally], Kafka’s persistently self-reflexive questioning of the unstable role of the figurative language to metaphysical truth can be understood in light of Nietzsche’s theory of accepted truths as the ideological sedimentation of language whose metaphoric construction has been forgotten. Other modernist features are Kafka’s awareness of linguistic signification, his doubts about the mimetic ability of literary language to adequately reflect external reality, and his concept of art as a mere approximation, rather than a symbolic expression, of truth, essence, and other categories of traditional aesthetics. Kafka’s ironic disfiguration of the canonical icons of classical-humanistic education, such as Greek mythology, biblical parables, and classics of world literature, can also be related to the modernist critique of cultural tradition.

[…]

Others suggest that [Kafka] is a precursor of postmodernism. Among these features are his fascination with simulacra and facades, his preference for the playfulness of linguistic signification and the nonclosure of meaning, his sense of decenteredness and instability of human subjectivity, and his self-reflexive depiction of reality as a construct of language games, power relations, and cultural myths, rather than as a preexisting divine or social world. Thus the seemingly ahistorical nature of Kafka’s writings, often claimed to have a unique status in literary history, can be located at the intersection of classical modernism and the as yet incomplete project of postmodernity.