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.’

Heraclitus at the Edge of Language

“The truth is that Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jam pot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Jonathan Barnes, from The Presocratic Philosophers. He goes on to say, “The existence of such diverse interpretations of Heraclitus’ philosophy will sow seeds of despair in the mind of any honest scholar …”

I posted a few excerpts of Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, and thought it a lucid exposition, but with a strong personal flavour, portraying Heraclitus as a mystic, likely influenced by the Vedics and a forerunner of Marcilio Ficino, the Gnostics, up to and including the American Transcendentalists. With Barnes’ caution in mind I’ll admit to seeds of despair (as much as I’d like to follow Geldard wholeheartedly with his arguments), preferring to side with Nietzsche that Heraclitus was neither mystic nor materialist. Geldard’s parallels in the epilogue between Heraclitus, Roger Penrose, and the quantum consciousness hypothesis probably whistled way over my head but didn’t strengthen Geldard’s broader contentions.

Next I’m reading Charles Kahn’s drier (more sober) interpretation of Heraclitus’ fragments that interest me by treating Heraclitus not only as a first-rate philosophical thinker but also as a brilliant literary artist. This is the Heraclitus of George Steiner, who wrote so beautifully:

It is the most “stylish’ of philosophers, those most alert to the expressive constraints and resources of stated thought, to its implicit cadence, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who look to Heraclitus. It is Novalis, practitioner of the Orphic fragment, and Heidegger the neologist, the craftsman of tautology. Rhapsodic and oracular intellects recognise in Heraclitus the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. To listen closely-Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”-is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.

Recent reading: Angel, Nehamas

Banksy

Banksy

There are several reviews around of Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell ranging from bizarre to intriguing. Each offers an idiosyncratic reading that reveals as much about the reviewer as about the book. As Rumi said, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it.” The Unmastered effect is insidious. What begins as an energetically explicit sexual autobiography subverts itself to become tragic, though this may just be its curious mirror-like effect. The aphoristic style and generosity of white-space in the UK edition invites projection, so perhaps it says more about me than Angel’s beautiful and thought-provoking book that I saw more tragedy than sex.

I’ve written before of my interest in philosophy in its Greek context as a way to live life, rather than as empty discourse. Though I found much that was insightful in Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, I took less from it than from Hadot’s Philosophy as a way of life. Nehamas writes highly perceptively about Plato, Nietzsche, less convincingly about Kierkegaard and Foucault, but gets bogged down occasionally in nuances of definition. Nevertheless it is an engaging and lucid work that complements Hadot superbly.

On to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers if I can get beyond dispiriting blurbage from bloody Franzen and Colm Tóibín (“American novel”).

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

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein

Alex Stein, essayist and aphorist, is the author of Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. In The Artist as Mystic, Stein interviews Yahia Lababidi, essayist, aphorist and poet. Does Lababidi exist? Is the interviewer imaginary? In these post-postmodern (or neo-modern) times, do such distinctions matter? As David Shields wrote in his manifesto, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.”

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #565: On three walls, continuous forms with alternating… (1988)

As Sol Lewitt said, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Or as Alex Stein puts it, they “hold something more dear than one’s own happiness.” With one exception, the artists chosen as subjects for these literary interviews are those that have accompanied me from early on: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kierkegaard.

Beyond Stein’s introductory essay the book is structured, as the title suggests, as a series of interviews with Yahia Lababidi. Stein fades away, as Lababidi discourses about literature. Lababidi wears his erudition lightly during these interviews with a discursive style that is undemanding but whose allusions circle a fraternity of Modernist thinkers. Of Kafka, Lababidi says:

Kafka is us, without lying.

Shouldn’t that change the way I read him? It should. And it does. It ups the volume on everything. Even if he only clears his throat, it rings like thunder. Because the fact of the matter is he has something thunderous in him to say, and the fact of the matter is we know that he does. That is the point. Some of this stuff, sure, it can be more navel gazing, more convolutions, but what we cannot fail to recognise in Kafka is that this is a guy who is wrestling with his angel, and that commands our attention. What he is up against, so are we up against.

The passion that Lababidi brings to his reflections on what he terms The Exquisites revitalizes and never fails to offer some fresh perspective. This is a short text, that I read in a single sitting, which I hope generates a sequel.

Vilhelm Ekelund

I left hanging above the exception, Vilhelm Ekelund, of whom Lababidi says:

He practised a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.

Another essayist and aphorist? Having verified that Ekelund is not imaginary I shall seek out his work.

My Life by Chekhov

How to live? Is enlightenment  found in hard labour and austerity, or through acquiring knowledge? What is it to live a meaningful existence? These perpetual concerns are Chekhov’s theme in My Life.

Rejecting a professional career, Misail Poloznev, a young nobleman, turns to a life of manual labour and poverty. Censured by his father and derided by small-minded townsfolk, only ‘plump, fair beauty,’ Masha Dolzhikov encourages Misail’s alternative lifestyle. Masha and Misail fall in love, marry, and move to her family’s derelict country home. Though Misail finds a degree of contentment, Masha grows to despise the unruly peasantry and abandons the life that was for her a temporary adventure. Embittered, Misail remains committed to his austere life as a manual labourer.

Chekhov’s response to the questions that underpin this story seem to be that disillusion is at the end of either path. What matters is the choice. Is it possible that Chekhov had access to Kierkegaard?

One must work for a living in order to live – that’s just the way life is – it’s the shabby side of existence. We sleep seven hours out of twenty-four; its wasted time, but it has to be that way. We work five hours our of the twenty-four; it is wasted time, but it has to be that way. By working five hours, a person has his livelihood, and when he has that he begins to live. Now, a person’s work should preferably be as boring and meaningless as possible, just so he has his livelihood from it.

Longer than many of his stories, in My Life Chekhov also demonstrates his tendency to write strong women characters. Both Masha and Misail’s sister, Kleopatra, are every bit as developed as the main protagonist.

This story was new to me, though I have read very many of Chekhov’s shorter stories, and immediately establishes itself as one of my favourites.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.

The Singer on the Shore by Gabriel Josipovici

… a book of this kind must inevitably be personal, but that does not mean that it should be merely subjective: I wish to persuade my reader, not simply air my opinions. Yet it is difficult to walk the thin line between didacticism and rant, and between giving too much information and too little.

This prefatory paragraph from Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? could apply equally to his collection of essays The Singer on the Shore. The latter contains nineteen delightful literary essays on the Bible, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Borges, Tristram Shandy and the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld.

What sets these essays apart is Josipovici’s authorial tone; authoritative but never sanctimonious. This Guardian review is spot on, “It is a distinguishing, and a distinguished, mark of Josipovici’s sensitivity to his subject and his audience that – and I can’t stress this too much – that you don’t have to be that familiar with his subjects to get something out of what he says about them.” But like all good literary essays, Josipovici’s will compel you to reread a favourite novel and dip into a new writer’s work.

Across the nineteen essays are coherent themes, of rootlessness, the nature of art and literature and Josipovici’s love of Proust, Eliot and Kafka. That Josipovici writes of writers I already read, and identifies nuances that are personally meaningful makes this collection important to me. That he writes beautifully, with humility and playfulness makes this book highly recommended for any reader.

A Meme About Influential Books

I am an irregular meme participant but like the idea of this one passed on from A Momentary Taste of Being:

Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”

  1. Sartre’s Nausea scared me witless. I was nineteen and understood that God was either dead or had turned his face from man. It took three years to begin to recover from Nausea and I consider that recovery  a work in progress. The only book that I have reread annually.
  2. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was the book that brought home Kafka’s truism that “literature is an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
  3. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land lead to a fifteen year engagement with science fiction and fantasy. How many books did Heinlein publish? I must have read most of them. I’m not proud of Heinlein and you’ll find no evidence of my passion on my bookshelves today.
  4. Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid was published in 1980. Can you believe that this novel is thirty years old? This book still has more pointers for the future than science fiction written in the last ten years.
  5. Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or provided guidance and sustenance during an unfortunate first marriage.
  6. Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God adheres thirty five years later. I don’t know why and feel no need to explore or revisit the memories.
  7. J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Donleavy, in my twenties, was a writer that I read exhaustively. It began with this book. None of his books have survived my regular culls but I occasionally have an urge to reread this book.
  8. The influence of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is inestimable. This is possibly the source of my passion for rambling, digressive literature,
  9. Roger Deakin’s Wildwood kicked off a continuing appetite for poetic prose about the natural sciences. Deakin lead to Robert MacFarlane, Sara Maitland, Roger Mabey: all writers with a notable influence on how I live.
  10. Although I considered myself a collector of books before reading Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, Manguel helped me to appreciate the value in a carefully selected, well-culled and organised library.

Categories That Amuse

Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:

  • Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
  • Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
  • Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
  • Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
  • Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
  • A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
  • Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
  • Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  • Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl

This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.

Existential Hammer Blow

A couple of weeks past I indulged in a “parlour game” of naming 15 books that somehow influenced my life. I thought it might be fun to explore what impact these texts made. It seems logical to begin with the book that had most influence.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938). At 17, a phase of dabbling with religion left me unconvinced. I was vaguely aware of existentialism. Nausea was the book that erased four years of mysticism and occultism. After reading the book twice in succession I came to the conclusion of my search for meaning.

Two years of disquietude followed as the discovery reshaped how I was to live in life. During that period I  read Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I attempted Heidegger. Indirectly Nausea lead to Kafka and Dostoyevsky, both whom became important influences. Twenty-five years on I still strive to define myself and to live an authentic existence. I frequently fail, taking little reassurance from the knowledge that Sartre was frequently lead to inauthenticity. Each year I examine my personal commitment to bring meaning to my existence.

My recent reading of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge brought strong memories of Nausea. It is said that The Notebooks were a source of Sartre’s inspiration.

15 in 15

Via Anecdotal Evidence, I enjoyed a 15 minute indulgence in a tweaked literary parlour game: “name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.” No apologies for for an odd mix:

  1. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
  2. Gustave Flaubert – Sentimental Education
  3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
  4. Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
  5. Richard Powers – The Time of Our Singing
  6. Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea
  7. Alberto Manguel – The Library at Night
  8. Søren Kierkegaard – Either/Or
  9. Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time
  10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Idiot
  11. Christopher Alexander – A Pattern Language
  12. Roger Deakin – Wildwood
  13. Alan Flusser – Dressing The Man
  14. Julian Barnes –  Nothing to Be Frightened Of
  15. J. P. Donleavy – The Ginger Man

These are the first that came to mind. Sixteenth would have been Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. Where is Philip Roth, William Gibson, Robert Heinlein? Of course, ten years ago the list would be different, as it will ten years hence. On reflection I am bemused that Nabokov and Beckett did not make the cut. In a couple more weeks, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain may prove an omission.

The Book of Disquiet

I have been intrigued for a while with Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet. The title has drawn me in each time I have seen it on the shelf at the London Review Bookshop. Today I began reading it whilst commuting but have concluded that it is not a book to be read in hour long chunks.

The themes change frequently and, it seems to me, that is is a book to be read every now and again, almost at random. It appears a wonderful, challenging book that merits a slow, discursive approach. I shall use it as my bedside book capturing my final twenty minutes before sleep. It has a dreamlike quality that seems appropriate.There are scents, so far, of Kierkegaard, particularly Either/Or and the beginnings of the theme of existential angst that Sartre was to develop.