Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

Dyer on Academic Lit Crit

In Anglo-English Attitudes Geoff Dyer writes of his repulsion for academic literary criticism, particularly of Theory and its advocates. Terry Eagleton is singled out as an odious example. It is harsh, but I agree with the distrust of literary critics that are incapable of producing art of their own.

Dyer argues that:

If you want to see how literature lives then you turn to writers, and see what they’ve said about each other, either in essays, reviews, in letters or journals – and in the works themselves. ‘The best readings of art are art,’ said George Steiner (an academic!); the great books add up to a tacit ‘syllabus of enacted criticism.’ This becomes explicit when poets write a poem about some great work of art – Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ – or about another poet: Auden’s elegy for Yeats, Brodsky’s elegy for Auden, Heaney’s elegy for Brodsky (the cleverly titled ‘Audenesque’). In such instances the distinction between imaginative and critical writing disappears.


London’s Best Bookshop

It’s a close-run competition but London’s finest bookshop is John Sandoe in Chelsea. Tucked away on a side street to the ghastly blandness that is the Kings Road, this is literary heaven. The stock is impeccable, featuring a fine and serious selection including a spread imported books from the US. The staff are erudite and immensely helpful. The ethos is to recommend and suggest books based upon an acquired knowledge of your literary taste.

The spoils of today’s raid on Sandoes:

Michael Foucault – The Order of Things
Cyril Connolly – Enemies of Promise
Terry Eagleton – Literary Theory
J.M.G. Le Clézio – The Flood
Fernando Pessoa – A Centenary Pessoa
Thomas Pynchon – Against The Day