Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers

‘Literature is always an impatience on the part of knowledge.’ Sontag quotes Broch’s formula, going on to say, ‘Broch’s gifts for patience were rich enough to produce those great, patient novels The Death of Virgil and The Sleepwalkers, and to inform a grandly speculative intelligence.’ Patient in that The Sleepwalkers is a leisurely novel of ideas, preoccupied with the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its cultural legacy, as well as the decay of values and moral bankruptcy that accompanied the shift from a medieval metaphysics rooted in a world as a manifestation of God, to the nihilism of the early twentieth century.

Psychoanalysis is arguably the Austro-Hungarian empire’s enduring legacy, as conceived by Freud and Americanised by exiles who, like Broch, found themselves in America during and beyond the Second World War. In his trilogy The Sleepwalkers, Broch weaves psychoanalytic treatment of the characters into all three novels, interspersed in the third novel with lengthy digressions on the ‘Disintegration of Values’. These are often only loosely connected with the surrounding text and serve to distance a reader.

Broch viewed Christianity as emerging from a diminished paganism and reaching its bankruptcy in the modern day, ‘a five-hundred-year dissolution of values.’ With no successor value system to adopt, contemporary man, he argued, is a sleepwalker suspended between the decline of one system and a system yet to be conceived.

This novel is his way of exploring the consequences of this state on different socio-economic classes and psychologies. It is in some sense a philosophical novel but never gets too bogged down with the abstractions of German philosophy, and in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation, a reader can at least be reassured of the work’s literary merits.

It was an absorbing place to spend a couple of weeks, reflecting on an endlessly intriguing historical period. Is anything in history more fascinating that the last, decadent days of a dying empire? Its exploration of the degradation of values remains highly relevant. Its form and style kept the project from becoming turgid and, unlike the longueurs of The Magic Mountain, I only once felt it necessary to skip the philosophical digressions (and went back to it a day later.)

What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami

Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.

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.’

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

Moving Toward Muteness

  1. Forgive, please, this muddled post, more a dialogue with myself than intended for general readership but ‘published’ as a sort of Foucauldian attempt to overcome internal resistance.
  2. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “…. the ‘meaning’ of my expressions always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify….As soon as I express myself, I can only guess of the meaning of what I express-i.e. the meaning of what I am.”
  3. Lately I binged on Sontag’s essays. Central to her work are themes of alienation, negation, and a term she uses that I particularly embrace, disburdenment, in the sense of intellectual, or cultural disburdenment. How to refine one’s filters, to jar one’s pre-conceived narratives? Can it be done solely using cultural and intellectual expedients?
  4. Foucault in The Use of Pleasure talks of ‘technologies of the self’ as “models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for deciphering the self by oneself, for the transformation one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object”.
  5. Lately I find myself moving toward muteness, different from silence; refraining from personal expression, not due to a failing of language, but out of a fundamental boredom with myself, not entirely rooted in self-absorption, more with what I signify as a heterosexual, white male (the lowest difficulty setting there is). If I am profoundly bored with much of the cultural outpourings of university-educated, middle-class, straight white men, what more should I add to the discourse but muteness?
  6. Remember the arm-wrestling match in The Old Man and the Sea? Mano a mano, in which the compulsion to settle into muteness struggles with a deep rooted urge to (re)create, to narratively recreate oneself.
  7. One of the fundamental claims Foucault makes of confession is that the confessor does not know the truth. “…silence, …. the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, functions alongside the things said …. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.”

The Selfish Individual

Throughout this week I’ve binged on Susan Sontag’s essays and interviews. The last pieces Sontag wrote are collected in At the Same Time, which include two of my favourite Sontag reviews.

Sontag’s A Double Destiny: On Anne Banti’s Artemisia in which she writes of Banti’s “prowling” around her own text is a deeply insightful review of a stunning book, a rare work of historical fiction that is worth reading. The essay sent me dipping back into Artemisia.

I also came across an essay I haven’t read before, an acceptance speech written for the Jerusalem Prize. With great lucidity Sontag deals with the encouragement of personal liberation, the legacy of the 1960’s that far from freeing up human subjects, acted as a precursor to the selfish individualism so prevalent today in America and the UK, and being exported to a society near you year by year.

I prefer to use “individual” as an adjective rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom”-which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandisement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without the standard of altruism, of regard for others, I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other words, other territories of concern.

Shored Against My Ruins

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) - Pepijn Sauer

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) – Pepijn Sauer

Susan Sontag’s wrote, “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I don’t know if Sontag was right, but I like to think so. I live as though it is a statement of truth.

This photograph, borrowed from a deeply impressive archive, reminds me of a visit to Nara, a city that brought great aesthetic delight, as much for the woodwork of the temples as the proportions of architecture.