Literary Couplings

The sun is calm and bright, but it isn’t yet quite warm enough to idle outside with Denton Welch’s I Left My Grandfather’s House. So observant Welch’s eye for details of character and architecture, his voice so tender after the cool elegance of Ágota Kristóf’s prose, though the latter’s autobiographical The Illiterate inevitably presents a warmer, more personal note than the novels.

It’s pleasing to tack between Welch and Kristóf, a shot of elegant, slightly oily brandy to accompany a bittersweet, zippy espresso. Now, perhaps back to Kristóf, having tracked down a copy of Yesterday.

Last week, I also read Simon Critchley’s experimental Memory Theatre, a somewhat curious yet thought provoking work. Critchley  as mystic recalls Yeats’ essay on magic, in which he writes, “whatever the passions of men have gathered about becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils.”

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.’

The Highest Laugh

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) - Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) – Johannes Vermeer

Laughter evolved not for its health benefits but because of its impact on others, and therefore positive benefits should most reliably occur within interpersonal contexts. Evolutionary accounts of laughter exists because of the generally accepted view that laughter is a homologue of the primate relaxed open-mouth display, known less formally as the play face.

For at least two hours in the London Library I was absorbed in Psychophysiological Approaches to the Study of Laughter in the Oxford Handbook on positive psychology. (I’m ambivalent about the positive psychology movement, sympathetic to its Stoic roots, but repelled by its corporate manifestation.) There was much of interest in the chapter, but mostly it brought to mind Beckett, Critchley and Bergson.

In Simon Critchley’s essay superb  On Humour he writes,

For me, it is this smile – deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation – that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.

I’ve always viewed with a mixture of envy and unease those with hearty, big belly laughs. From time to time I try them out for size, but they don’t fit. I laugh often but my laughs are quieter, sounds, whether major or minor, from the interior. Bataille identified “major laughter” which requires “two conditions: (1) that it’s sudden; and (2) that no inhibition is involved.”

Critchley’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is developed from Plato’s theory (in Philebus, Socrates explains his suspicion of laughter) that humour comes from a place of superiority, that laughter has its roots in disparaging others. Not Bataille’s unpredictable laughter of release, but one of mockery, closer to what Beckett calls the intellectual or dianoetic laugh.

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

This theory of a superiority of humour  fits with Bergson’s idea that laughter is a corrective to foolish behaviour, what he calls, “a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation, ” concluding, “We may therefore admit, as a general rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh by reason of their unsociability rather than of their immorality.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Simon Critchley’s Impossible Objects

As I wrote in my last post, Simon Critchley is a philosopher eager to communicate his ideas to people outside the academy. He considers philosophy ‘a way of relearning to look at the world’. I read Critchley’s books because they offer insight and  a way to read philosophers I find more opaque (for example Derrida, Blanchot, Levinas). He encourages me to explore more deeply the recurrent themes that have exorcised thinkers since Plato.

This book, Impossible Objects, if you haven’t read Critchley, is a primer to his dominant themes (to date): mortality and nihilism, the ethics of deconstruction, neo-anarchism, humour and tragedy and secular faith. During the course of the nine interviews that make up the book, Critchley riffs on Wallace Stevens, Beckett, Kafka and the epiphanic discovery of Can’s song ‘Halleluhwah‘. If you have read Critchley I imagine you need no encouragement to obtain this book by whatever means are your habit.

The Education of Grown-ups

Impossible Objects is a collection of interviews with philosopher Simon Critchley, whose work has appealed to me for several years. His approach to philosophy is pragmatic and mostly comprehensible to those outside the academy. In the interview entitled Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not, Critchley states,

I want to state that, at the level of method, I don’t want to make a huge distinction between philosophers and human beings. I think philosophy is the theoretical elaboration or elucidation of intuitions that are common to human beings. Philosophy just makes that manifest through a certain discipline of reflection. So philosophy, for me, is a way of relearning to look at the world, a world that is familiar to us, that we know, that is shared by all human beings. I think that when people are at their best, when they are thinking, reflecting, cogitating, then they are doing philosophy. So I don’t see philosophy as an academic exercise. If I did, I think I’d slit my wrists and go sit in a bath and die like a good Roman. For me, philosophy is an activity of thought that is common to human beings. Human beings at their best. Or, to use the phrase of Stanley Cavell, “Philosophy is the education of grown-ups.”

Socrates would have applauded the idea that philosophy should be approachable. I’ve been fascinated by philosophy since I was a Kierkegaard-obsessed teenager, but there are texts that are inaccessible to a lay reader. I recall being thrilled by Sartre’s Being and Nothingness though there was much in that wonderful book that was beyond me. That didn’t stop its formative influence. I’ve been less successful with Kant and Heidegger and long given up on Hegel.

I keep looking for a way into Derrida’s work, of whom Critchley says,

I think Derrida is simply the most intelligent philosopher that I have ever read or heard; his capacity to develop thinking, improvise thinking, assimilate concepts, and generate new ideas is absolutely extraordinary. I think he is exemplary as a philosopher. He’s a bit like Miles Davis in the 1960’s.

Nicholas Royle’s Jacques Derrida comes highly recommended, and will be my next step towards Derrida’s writings.

The first interview in Impossible Objects is a discussion that focusses on Critchley’s first published book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, which opens up an ethical reading of Derrida through the work of Levinas. Fascinating as it is, without prior reading of Levinas (and Habermas), much of the discussion meant little to me.

Malone Dies by Beckett

'Renaissance' by Rafael Israelyan

In Malone Dies Beckett distorts fiction beyond the boundaries of Molloy. There is less humour to take the edge off that pervasive darkness. Or there is more humour but the gloom is more overwhelmingly. Once again, the impeccably constructed, pared-back sentences are breathtaking.

The story is about nothing, that particular nothingness that lies at either end of our transitory lives. In brief, what Beckett refers to as “the futility and meaningless of the bits in between life and death. Or a slightly longer explication:

I was speaking then was I not of my little pastimes and I think about to say that I ought to content myself with them, instead of launching forth on all this ballsaching poppycock about life and death, if that is what it is all about, and I suppose it is, for nothing was ever about anything else to the best of my recollection.

“Ballsaching poppycock:” almost Joycean, though despite superficial similarities, the two writers could not be more different. Where Joyce layers his construction with allusion and symbolism, Beckett pares back, concealing his intimations to greater effect. Though the sense of motion is strong, the necessity is to slow down, to question and to attempt to understand.

Malone, awaiting death, says, “While waiting, I shall tell myself stories.” With his pencil stub and battered exercise books, fetishistic objects, the narrator writes of his alter-ego Saposcat, the religiously conflicted Macmann  of Molloy and Moll, his attendant at the asylum, before he ceases to exist (I think). When the narrator, the writer, ceases to exist, who continues to narrate or write? A good place to move on to the finale part of the Trilogy, The Unnamable

Aside: though customarily referred to as the Trilogy, Simon Critchley qualifies this classification:

It is, at the very least, unclear whether the Trilogy can and should be viewed as a traditional trilogy, a trinitarian, unified – and consequently both theological and dialectical – work, in three discrete but interdependent parts (one-in-three and three-in-one). Such a view helps sustain the questionable belief that the titles of the novels that make up the Trilogy refer simply to the narrative voices in the various books or that the Trilogy can be read teleologically as a narrative of progressive disintegration and purification, a sort of phenomenological reduction to a pure authorial voice.

Autumn Books

It is my favourite time of the year for book buying, when publishers release the highest volume of compelling books. Most of the books I buy during the year are older releases, filling gaps in my collection of the thirty or so writers I return to repeatedly (the ‘I Prefer’ list in my side-bar). Occasionally I am drawn in by a new writer on the scene (Teju Cole) or by newly translated writers. Here are some of the books I have pre-ordered and look forward to reading in the colder, darker months:

  1. The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters covering the war years and the period when he wrote The Trilogy.
  2. Impossible Objects – Interviews with the inspiring Simon Critchley, covering tragedy, poetry, humour and music.
  3. 1Q84 – The long-awaited Murakami which I won’t be reading until the noise has passed.
  4. Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror and The Roving Shadowsa writer endorsed by two great readers.
  5. All the Roads are Open and Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. A new writer to me but both books sound deeply fascinating.
  6. Professor Andersen’s Night – Dag Solstad. I enjoyed Shyness and Dignity and the brilliant Novel 11, Book 18.
  7. Dukla – Andrzej Stasiuk (review).
  8. The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq’s latest provocation, his books draw me in like a rubbernecker at an accident scene.
  9. Parallel Stories – Péter Nádas. Though I must read A Book of Memories (“The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” Susan Sontag) first.

Molloy by Beckett

Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres 1983 - Francis Bacon

A significant departure from earlier Beckett’s stories, Molloy resists summary. It is a strange loop of a novel that winds up where it started out. A dying narrator writes words onto paper, pages that are paid for and collected each week. A journal, a diary, a report perhaps?  Though both parts are written in the first person, the identity of the narrator is unclear, though the author appears to reveal himself.

What a rabble in my head, what a gallery of moribunds. Murphy, Watt, Yerk, Mercier and all the others. I would never have believed that-yes, I believe it willingly. Stories, stories. I have not been able to tell them. I shall not be able to tell this one.

The nature of the narrative is uncertain, yet somehow a story is told.

It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence.

Molloy begins his act of remembrance bedridden in his mother’s room. He has “taken her place,” though is unable to remember whether she died before his quest to find her was fulfilled. Through his constrained articulacy Molloy struggles to deliver his narrative, writing “I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.” The narrative unfolds as Molloy recalls his own unwanted birth:

My mother, I don’t think too harshly of her. I know she did all she could not to have me, except of course the one thing, and if she never succeeded in getting me unstuck, it was that fate had earmarked me for less compassionate sewers.

His mother, Ma, Mag, Countess Caca, “who brought [him] into the world, through the hole in her arse if memory is correct. First taste of shit.” This besmirched beginning sets up a central theme, the intermingling of birth and shit, the narrator’s disgust of birth/mother/women, ending in the pilgrimage to the Turdy Madonna, the holy mother of pregnant women.

Before going too far in pursuit of this theme, it is worth mentioning Simon Critchley’s injunction not “to employ a psychoanalytic register, which much in the novel seems to encourage and which, I think, must be refused because it is so encouraged.” A writer of Beckett’s subtlety, and possessing such dark humour, is more than capable of several psychoanalytic red herrings.

A quest is also at heart of the second part of the novel, this time in search of Molloy. A messenger orders Moran, a detective, to take his son on this quest. The relationship between Moran and his spectral son (of indeterminate age?) is equally appalling and fascinating.

But from time to time. From time to time. What tenderness in these little words, what savagery.

While reading Molloy I scribbled furiously, sentences like my favourite above, trying to make some sense of what I read. My thoughts on Molloy are contingent on subsequent reading of this and secondary material (Hugh Kenner’s suggestion of work “to help you think about it.”) A single reading is insufficient to do justice to this staggering novel-several readings are not enough; Critchley quotes a rare direct reference that Derrida makes to Beckett:

When I found myself, with students, reading some of Beckett’s texts, I would take three lines, I would spend two hours on them, then I would give up because it would not have been possible, or honest, or even interesting, to extract a few ‘significant’ lines from a Beckett text. The composition, the rhetoric, the construction and the rhythm of his works, even the ones that seem the most ‘decomposed’, that’s what ‘remains’ finally the most ‘interesting’, that’s the work, that’s the signature, this remainder which remains when the thematics are exhausted.

Any attempt to give a coherent interpretation of Molloy (and presumably the later work) is contingent, hence the sheer weight of scholarship that exists around Beckett. My bibliography of secondary literature is an attempt to distil just what is worthwhile.

My urge is to turn straight back to page one and start again but I will save that for another time. Though slightly delayed, my Trilogy companion Emily will also be posting her undoubtedly more astute thoughts on Molloy.

Beckett: A Bibliography of Secondary Literature (edited 16/04/13)

My starting point for Beckett is the four-volume Grove Press Centenary edition, containing seven novels, thirty-two dramatic works, thirty poems, fifty-four stories, texts and novellas, three pieces of criticism. Though not a true Collected Works, the set forms the essential part of the Beckett canon. I’m now reading Beckett’s Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (sharing the reading with Emily).

Of the thirty or so writers that constitute the core of my literary exploration, I like to go beyond the primary works. Looking past the Grove Press collection I intend to read an enlightening biography, the letters and Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. But which biography, and what other ‘divine analysis’ is worth reading?

Beckett distrusted biography as a form of knowledge but curiosity is irrepressible and Knowle’s biography the most illuminating. Beckett critical scholarship is vast and frequently dull, but what are the works that, to quote Hugh Kenner are not intended “to explain Samuel Beckett’s work but to help the reader think about it.” Which works are worth exploring? Starter list below, please help me to add any worthy titles (or to remove discredited or dull works):

  1. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett – James Knowlson
  2. The Irish Beckett – John P Harrington
  3. Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett: Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him  – James Knowlson
  4. Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Magicians – Hugh Kenner
  5. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study – Hugh Kenner
  6. The Beckett Canon – Ruby Cohn
  7. Beckett’s Dying Words – Christopher Ricks
  8. “Where now? Who now?” (The Book to Come) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Know happiness – on Beckett (Very Little…Almost Nothing) – Simon Critchley
  10. Beckett’s Fiction – Leslie Hill
  11. Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Genealogy of Love (Love’s Knowledge) – Martha Nussbaum
  12. Saying “I” No More – Daniel Katz
  13. Samuel Beckett: Photographs – John Minihan
  14. Samuel Beckett (Overlook Illustrated Lives) – Gerry Dukes
  15.  Beckett chapter (Theatre of the Absurd) – Martin Esslin
  16. Beckett: “En Attendant Godot” and “Fin de Partie” (Critical Guides to French Texts) – J.P. Little
  17. The Beckett Country – Eoin O’Brien
  18. Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being – Lance St. John Butler
  19. How it Was – Anne Atik
  20. No Author Better Served – edited by Maurice Harmon
  21. Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives edited by Morris Beja
  22. Review of Contemporary Fiction, volume 7, #2, Samuel Beckett issue
  23. The Mechanic Muse – Hugh Kenner
  24. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater – Ruby Cohn
  25. Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction – Rubin Rabinovitz
  26. The Drama in the Text – Enoch Brater
  27. Bram van Velde (Grove Press)
  28. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett – Stanley E. Gontarski
  29. On Beckett – Alain Badiou
  30. Samuel Beckett’s self-referential drama – Shimon Levy
  31. Samuel Beckett – Andrew Gibson
  32. Samuel Beckett and the end of modernity – Richard Begam
  33. Beckett and Poststructuralism – Anthony Uhlmann
  34. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text – Steven Connor
  35. Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed – Jonathan Boulter
  36. Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett – Adam Piette
  37. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett – Hugh Kenner

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens, a poet admired by Josipovici, is described by Simon Critchley, in Things Merely Are, as the philosophically most interesting poet to have written in English in the twentieth century.

Critchley’s book quotes Stevens’ description of T. S. Eliot as ‘an upright ascetic in an exceedingly floppy world,’ one of finest depictions of Eliot that I have read. Critchley goes on to describe Stevens as ‘somewhat floppier, gaudier.’

All of which tells me that I need to dip deeper into Steven’s oeuvre; Critchley particularly rates his later work.

Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy, like other VSIs that I have read, combines compactness, knowledge and, in this case, insight. Critchley explains how philosophy came to be divided into analytical (or Anglo-American) and Continental philosophy, establishes the critical differences and suggests a way forward for philosophical reflection. Philosophical history aside, all fascinating, Critchley afforded me a candlelight (dim but present) of comprehension into Kant’s work (a Scruton VSI to Kant sits forbiddingly, unread on my shelves), and illuminated my token understanding of Heidegger’s work on being and time. As a successful introduction should, Critchley also whetted my appetite to try some key texts of Continental Philosophy: specifically Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interests and Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?

A Path for Moderns

Reading philosopher Simon Critchley is always stimulating, so I was unable to resist buying his contribution to the OUP Short Introductions series: Continental Philosophy. In reading the introductory chapter I was immediately struck by the parallels with Gabriel Josipovici’s central thesis is What Ever Happened to Modernism?

[…] the problem for us moderns is clear: in the face of the disenchantment of nature brought about by the scientific revolution, we experience a gap between knowledge and wisdom that has the consequence of divesting our lives of meaning. The question is: can nature or indeed human selves become re-enchanted in such a way that reduces or even eliminates the meaning gap and produces some plausible conception of a good life? The dilemma seems to be intractable: on the one hand, the philosophical cost of scientific truth seems to be scientism, in which case we become beasts. On the other hand, the rejection of scientism through a new humanization of the cosmos seems to lead to obscurantism, in which case we become lunatics. Neither side of this alternative is particularly attractive. Towards the end of this book, I will try and suggest a middle path.