Self-knowledge is Impossible (Beauvoir)

Reading through old common-place books, I come across this context-setting from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life. Beauvoir’s memoirs are marvels with so much more immediacy than the novels. I repeat this piece in my latest common-place book and here on my blog as it is necessary to remind oneself often.

“[..] I still believe to this day in the theory of ‘transcendental ego’. The self has only a probable objectivity, and anyone saying ‘I’ only grasps the outer edge of it; an outsider can get a cleaner and more accurate picture. Let me repeat that this personal account is not offered in any sense as an ‘explanation’. Indeed, one of my main reasons for undertaking it is my realisation that self-knowledge is impossible, and that the best one can hope for is self-revelation.”

This week: Middlemarch, Kathleen Ferrier’s Winterreise.

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

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

In the opening pages of  Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life Stephanie Staal outlines a familiar plot: “And then I got married, had a baby, and everything changed”, and though married to a “progressive and supportive man” (though his credentials for that portrayal appear insubstantial) is disheartened when her narrative conforms to the familiar plot. Resolved not to forgo her feminist ideals Staal returns to college to take a Feminist Texts course. By the closing pages it is difficult to see what effect the ‘Fem Texts’ course had on Staal’s original distress and she concludes the memoir:

The storyteller in me wishes I could point to one watershed event, but the truth is that we had change slowly, incrementally, coming closer together through thousands of tiny moments that make up a day, a life. This didn’t have to happen. I knew from experience, both my own and others, that those moments could have just as well pulled us apart, if even one of us had chosen otherwise.

In other words, Staal participated in a relationship through the high and low points and grew. A memoir, engagingly told, not particularly profound, and one that fails to offer any substantive suggestions about how women (or men) can reconcile the broad ideals of feminism with marriage and parenthood. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

There is considerable value though in Reading Women is as a synoptic primer of feminism, at least as it pertains to the middle classes. Staal progresses chronologically through ‘Fem Texts’, with a fascinating summary of Elaine Pagel’s Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, an ‘intellectual history of the first two chapters of Genesis that traces traditional patterns of gender and sexuality’.

From there Staal argues convincingly for the continued relevance of first-generation feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft,  cleverly contrasts the fiction of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and moves on to a half-hearted defence of Beauvoir. The strongest section of the book deals with the feminist writers most familiar to Staal, those of the sixties and seventies.

The section I had been anticipating with interest was the next generation that includes writers like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Staal evidently struggled with these texts and reverts to the comfort blanket of Erica Jong, amusing enough but trite. She recovers towards the end when studying Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, the one text Staal covers that I felt compelled to order immediately.

As a memoir it was a quick, occasionally amusing but ultimately forgettable event. As a whizz through three generations of feminist writers, for those, like me, that frequently know the names but only the basic arguments, it was a useful doorway to deeper exploration.

The Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.

Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).

Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature,  attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Fictional endings disappoint, and the conclusion of The Charterhouse of Parma is perhaps its only true imperfection. Although a highly realist novel, Stendhal manipulates his story lines to a displeasingly tidy conclusion. Nabokov wrote to ask an expert in French literature, ‘Did Stendhal even pen a decent sentence?’ Unlike Flaubert, with whom Stendhal shares the ability to construct a precise world, Stendhal is not a meticulous obsessive, sweating over his sentences. He is a narrator, a phenomenal storyteller.

Stendhal successfully adopts an ‘intelligent tone of conversation’. Though he takes readers through the end of the Napoleonic era, and into the political intrigues of nineteenth century Italian court life, he never bogs the reader down with extraneous historical padding. The omniscient narrator, misleading from the first pages, takes no sides as the reader is told the parallel, deeply intertwined stories of the noble Fabrizio del Dongo and his aunt Gina, Duchess Sanseverina.

Of the two, Sanseverina, is better realised and unforgettable in her passion and percipience. The third protagonist Clelia is more illusive, succeeding more in her relation to Fabrizio. Their love story is one of the most sublime in literature, easily overwhelming that of Jerome and Alissa. After Fabrizio’s killing of the ‘mummer’ (sort of mime artist, reason enough to be killed surely), Giletti, he is imprisoned in a debilitating environment. Though Fabrizio has long dreaded prison, it is here he falls in love, for the first time, with Clelia. Despite the dreadful conditions of his imprisonment and the constant risk of poisoning, he initially resists encouragement to escape:

I would expose myself every day to the prospect of a thousand deaths to have the happiness of speaking to you with the help of our alphabets, which now never defeat us for a moment, and you wish me to be such a fool as to exile myself in Parma, or perhaps at Bologna, or even Florence! Understand that any such effort is impossible for me; it would be useless to give you my word, I could never keep it.

Stendhal’s world lives off the page because of the depth of his characters, fully realised, psychologically complex creations. In a memorable scene, Duchess Sanseverina outclasses the Prince of Parma, using contempt and cunning intelligence to apparently win Fabrizio’s freedom. The Prince turns to Count Mosca, her courtly lover, and says, ‘What a woman!’ It is darkly funny at the time but the reader also senses that Sanseverina’s victory over the Prince will not be without cost.

I wrote previously about Stendhal’s treatment of female characters, quoting Beauvoir, ‘He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.’  Beauvoir lead me to Stendhal, so it is appropriate I end these thoughts with Beauvoir, from The Second Sex, in a sentence that evokes the strength of Sanseverina:

The day when it will be possible for the woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger.

Stendhal’s Women

What stands out most, two-thirds of the way through The Charterhouse of Parma, is the life that Stendhal injects into his characters. The plot will fade, the nuances of Italian court life will cease to matter, but in years to come I will remember, of course, Fabrizio del Dongo and, possibly, the forlorn Count Mosca, but undoubtedly Duchess Sanseverina.

Simone de Beauvoir, an enthusiast for Stendhal’s writing, admired his understanding of women. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes [of Stendhal]:

This tender friend of women – and precisely because he loves them in their truth – does not believe in feminine mystery; there is no essence that defines women once and for all; the idea of an ‘eternal feminine’ seems pedantic and ridiculous to him. ‘Pedants have been repeating for two thousand years that women have quicker minds and men more solidity; that women have more subtlety in ideas and men more attention span. A Parisian passer-by walking around the Versailles gardens once concluded that from everything he saw, the trees are born pruned.’

Beauvoir goes on to say:

Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.

This is the strength of Sanseverina, true also of Clelia, the second of the duo of women that love Fabrizio. It is through them that Fabrizio learns about the world, but they have a destiny of their own. Allow Fabrizio to fade into the background of Charterhouse, and Sanseverina’s story still screams to be told.