Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

David Shields’ How literature saved my life

It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation  I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.

From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.

How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)

Brian Dillon’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”

Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room is the first in Cabinet’s 24-Hour  Book series.

Dillon’s book explores the scenography and architecture of writing itself. Inspired in part by Georges Perec’s short fragment in Species of Spaces on Antonello da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his study, Dillon’s text is both a personal reflection on the theatrics of the study, the library, and the office, and a historical consideration of such writerly paraphernalia as Proust’s bed, Nabokov’s index cards, and Philip Roth’s moustache.

Cabinet is now my only magazine subscription. Apart from Cabinet my media consumption is entirely online, in one form or another. You never know what you will be reading about when Cabinet shows up. (With a subscription you also get access to the archives.) I’m not on commission here, just pushing you toward the good stuff. I used to have a dozen subscriptions to publications, not only literary journals, but found that they were sitting unread while I caught up with Twitter and my RSS feed. I get more reliable literary criticism from Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters and Michelle Bailat Jones than I got once from more mainstream publications.

Striking red cover and bold title apart, the production quality of I Am Sitting in a Room is crap. I’m not easy on my books; I scribble on them and bend their spines. In this case, the pages started to fall out before I got ten pages in.

That aside, the book is short, seventy-odd pages, and comprises Brian Dillon, who I’ve intended to read for ages, writing about writer’s routines and the places where writers go to write. Autobiographical in part, also a study of writers including  Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Joan Didion, accompanied with photographs of writer’s studies. That’s my summary, though you may prefer Cabinet’s version above.

Dillon’s keeps a blog, mostly used to cross-post pieces that have appeared in other places, and is on Twitter. I also came across this absorbing piece, drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, that Dillon wrote for Frieze, as much about the state of criticism as about taste. I’m very interested at the moment in Bourdieu for his ideas on taste, the nature of patriarchy and, intrigued by a conversation with Rim, his views on the origin and death and decadence of philosophy. Here’s a taster of Dillon’s article:

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.

The Emotional Impotence of Being English

Susan Sontag’s admiration for Elias Canetti (“Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.”) inspired me to read most of Auto-da-Fé, but after some initial enthusiasm I set aside the book three-quarters of the way in, finding it minor, mean-spirited.

From what I’ve read of Canetti’s time in post-war London, minor and mean-spirited might sum up contemporaries’ interpretation of his character. Nevertheless I am reading Party in the Blitz, Canetti’s memoir of his forty years in London. Acerbic opinion flows unceasingly and, like all memoirs, are not to be fully relied on. This doesn’t detract from the eye-opening diversion of seeing untouchables like T. S. Eliot bitterly disembowelled.

A flaccid introduction by Jeremy Adler opens the book. Adler calls attention to the fine phrases that Canetti uses to spice up his memoir, in particular “the new word Gefühlsimpotenz (emotional impotence) he coins, with which to abuse the English. As “a formula for the affective deficits of English life,” Adler concedes,”it could hardly be bettered”. Setting aside Canetti’s sardonic spearing of his contemporaries, it is his analysis of the English that registers most exactly.

Distance is the principal gift of the English. They do not come near. They may not, they cannot come too near. For their own protection, the person sheathes itself in ice. To the outside, everything is patted back. Inside, you’re left to freeze.
Social life consists of futile efforts at proximity. These are as hesitant as the person making them is brave. He really is, because he knows how alone he truly is.
Basically, you shrink back from anyone new: you fear in him the worst, someone who will leap over the distance you set up. He may give the appearance of reserve, but you do not trust him, and keep him off with elaborate politeness: the silent, but searching questions with which you investigate him, “How high? How low? is as existentially important as it is implacable.

Though recognising the effectiveness of Canetti’s dissection, Adler squirms, adding that Canetti appears “unaware of the change in attitude to the emotions that set in around that time. The public grief over the death of Diana, shows that England was moving in directions that Canetti knew nothing about”. Adler identifies this turn with the “continental cult of feeling” owing to the “gradual assimilation of the pre-war immigrants from continental Europe of whom Canetti himself was a prime example”. I wish that were so, but the outpouring of hollow grief that surrounded Diana’s death had more to do with an overindulgence of Friends-like sitcoms.

Sontag’s Diaries 1964-1980

Susan Sontag in 1972

Rain provides the excuse not to go out and be busy, but to drink tea and finish Susan Sontag’s 1964-1980 Diaries: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Like the first volume of diaries, Reborn (2009), these entries show a different Sontag to the assured essayist. The bones of the fierce essays are here, but so also is the unvarnished emotion of Sontag’s quest for intimacy and love.

The diaries reveal tantalising outlines of works, some realised and others abandoned, and lists and opinions like these:

“New” British novelists: B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, David Plante, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Gabriel Josipovici [1976]

The great American novels of the 20th century (that is from 1920 on: post-James): Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Dos Passos’s USA, Faulkner’s Light in August [1976]

Sontag: Influence

I realise, rereading that essay [on Paul Nizan] how important Sartre has been for me. He is the model – that abundance, that lucidity, that knowingness. And the bad taste.

Greatest influence on Barthes: reading Bachelard (Psychoanalysis of Fire – then books on earth, air and water), second Mauss, structural ethnology and of course, Hegel, Husserl. The discovery of the phenomenological p-o-v. Then you can look at anything and it will yield up fresh idea. Anything: a doorknob, Garbo. Imagine having such a mind as Barthes has – that always works … But Blanchot really started it.

Susan Sontag: Diaries 1964-1980: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh

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.