No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

Taste Follows the Line of Least Resistance

I don’t recall why I ordered David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, which particular reference in a footnote or suggestion on Twitter led to its arrival on my shelves a year or so ago. So far, it comprises fragments of thought, what the narrator terms lucubrations, a word I like a lot for its definition as compositions or studies that smell of the lamp.

Perhaps it is just what I need to pull me out of the reading funk that set in after finishing Doctor Faustus. I’m also reading Woolf’s diaries, intermittently, possibly the finest way to read them, also fragments of course.

I’m taking notes from most pages of Heraclitus in Sacramento. Here follows a lucubration that shall be my evening’s meditation:

When she hears a person say, “I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like,” she can’t help but think that the very courage of this affirmation (the courage of one’s taste rather than one’s convictions) belies its force. For this is not an aesthetic claim but a rather naive assertion of individuality and freedom from ideology which ignores exactly what art is; an attempt to open up perception as an awareness of just how pervasive, invasive, and insidious such ideologies are. Even granted one does know what one likes (ignoring, for the moment, how limited and ultimately irrelevant a standard this is by which to evaluate or judge works of art), has it ever occurred to the bold individual to inquire into the source of these likes (and by extension dislikes)? A genealogy of taste which any artworks of the modern period might serve as excellent starting points, reveals how socialised, how dependent, precisely how unfree such radical claims of individual freedom are. “I know what I like,” may as well be a confession of which fashion magazines one subscribes to, what one watches on TV, and what movies one has been to recently; for the idea of beauty is more often imposed from without than it is sensed from within.

Ten Stories of Beethoven’s Ninth

  1. Adorno thought that Beethoven had gone too far with his Ninth Symphony, that he had made the work all too intelligible.
  2. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is woven into the fabric of life in Japan with the finale available as a karaoke disc.
  3. The demonic composer Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus aspires only to unwrite Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
  4. Speaking about the nature of evil, Anthony Burgess said that evil is tantamount to farting during a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
  5. Twenty-one year old contralto Carolina Unger, who sang the contralto part at the first performance of this first major symphony to use voice, is credited with turning Beethoven to face his applauding audience.
  6. In Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, Mr Alexander plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony repeatedly in the hope of driving Alex De Large to suicide.
  7. In The Lost Steps, Alejo Carpentier replaces a madeleine with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the trigger for a memory of his father that sends the narrator-protagonist on a quest to war-torn Europe.
  8. It is little known today that the source of the ‘Turkish music’ (seventh variation) of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not Turkish drummers, but more likely the ‘African drum corps’, who were highly popular and active in European military and court bands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  9. In Adrienne Rich’s poem The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at last as a Sexual Message, Rich attributes to the symphony the rage of sexual impotence.
  10. On Joseph Goebbel’s initiative, Hitler’s birthday in 1937 was celebrated with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a performance repeated in 1942 when Hitler assumed command of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front.

Sebald, Benjamin – Life-Bio-Mapping

In Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle,  he wrote, “Memories, even when they go into great breadth, do not always represent an autobiography.” Memories may appear as text in Benjamin’s fragmentary reminiscences of Berlin, but his explorations go deeper than memoir, in a form that dissolves genre, and widens its reach to embrace philosophical and political concerns.

Adorno wrote, it “was as if [Benjamin] had paid a horrible price for the metaphysical power of what he saw and what he attempted to express in infallible words; as if he spoke as a dead man in return for his ability to recognise, with sobriety and calm, things which the living are not normally capable of recognising.” The same observation could so easily have been made of Sebald. Both Adorno and Benjamin were important influences on Sebald’s thought and writing, their books filled his library more than any other writers.

Since reading Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz six years ago I’ve been accumulating Sebald’s other published works. I’d mentally categorised the four ‘prose fictions’ (Sebald’s preferred term) as the great works, and fully expected the poems and literary essays to be minor augmentations. After reading After Nature and A Place in the Country, I now see that Sebald defies this sort of canonical classification.

His books, regardless of form, are one vast symbiotic composition; the form changes but the labyrinth assembly of memory, places, personalities, images and recollections is undeviating across all the work. In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote, “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life-bios-graphically on a map.” In his mapping of subjective histories, Sebald completes what Benjamin began.

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”

What We Once Knew As Life

I suspect that Houellebecq and Adorno would’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine together, grumbling together about the invasion of market relations into every corner of human existence.

What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

Theodor Adorno
Minima Moralia

Not Touched By The World

My unique relation with my work – and it is a tenuous one – is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.

This quote, that opens the first volume of Beckett’s letters (1929-1940), brings to mind an incident James Knowlson covers in his superb biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (Read Knowlson’s book if you have any interest in Beckett. It is nectar.)

Adorno met Beckett on several occasions. Despite Beckett’s insistence to Adorno that the character “Hamm” in Endgame contained no allusion to Hamlet, Adorno’s subsequent essay Trying to understand Endgame further developed Adorno’s Hamlet theory. This undoubtedly triggered a reference Beckett made a few years later when questioned about Endgame: “Endgame will be just play. Nothing Less. Don’t worry about enigmas and solutions. For these we have well-equipped universities, churches, cafés du commerce and so on”.

Adorno, incidentally, at the time preceding his death, was working on a series of marginalia to the novel Unnamable, which he considered Beckett’s masterpiece. The motto of Adorno’s marginalia was, “The path of the novel: reduction if the reduced”.

Beckett continues to preoccupy me into the late summer, and, most likely, autumn season. I read Anne Atik’s How it Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a deeply personal, moving memoir of what Beckett meant to Atik and her family as a close family friend.

Last night I reread this Quarterly Conversation interview about the publication of Beckett’s letters. It is excellent on several levels but especially for this summation by artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha about why Beckett meant so much to him:

When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.

Even as a reader of Beckett I recognise this quality as what draws me not only to his prose but to the man, his life, letters and library. Kafka matters in precisely the same way.

Thought Control and Cynicism

It’s one of those glorious early spring days that England enacts so well. I have sat in the garden, drinking black tea, and reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. I’ve been preoccupied with this text for the past three years or so. This is the fourth time I’ve read this chapter of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I’ve yet to read from cover to cover.

This particular chapter performs Morpheus’s red pill in The Matrix. “You take the red pill,” he says to Neo, “and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Jason Barker extends the same metaphor to his film Marx Reloaded, where Leon Trotsky, playing Morpheus, offers the choice of blue or red pill to Karl Marx as Neo.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s text is not without inadequacies. It is important to recall the socioeconomic context. Written in the early 1940s by two ethnically Jewish, German émigrés in the aftermath of the war, the dourness of their moral outrage is to be expected. In short (and I recommend you read the essay), Horkheimer and Adorno’s essay is trying to reawaken people from the mind-dulling consequences of the modern culture industry, an argument even more relevant today than in the 1940s.

Importantly, Adorno and Horkenheimer’s essay is not an attack on consumers but on the producers of banal, repetitive cultural goods – films, books, music, magazines – calibrated to obviate the necessity of mental effort and independent thought. The result is a passive audience caught up in a loop of endless consumption. For what end? Horkheimer and Adorno argue that this “entertainment” distracts us from the dehumanizing nature of most forms of modern work, and engenders a cynicism that deadens our political will to overcome a decadent and exploitative socioeconomic system.

Why do its consumers lap up the banal nonsense offered as art and entertainment? Instead of objecting they fetishize it. Witness the mindlessness of today’s fixation on celebrity. It would come as no surprise to Horkheimer and Adorno that a supposedly enlightened society has returned to the fetish. The brilliant part of their argument is that it is precisely the repeated exposure to forms of entertainment (they pick the American film industry) that repeatedly excite and manipulate the senses to deaden them (Deleuze, if I understand correctly, also writes of the dulling effect of “bare repetition”). Consumers are enrolled in their own pacification.

There is so much more I could ramble on about from this essay. The last point that I wish to extract from Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay is about cynicism, which like many “advanced” moderns is an attitude I once bore with pride, believing it an appropriate ethical choice. Horkheimer and Adorno demystify and denounce this cynicism, itself a manipulated effect of the culture industry:

In this age of universal publicity any invocation of an ideal appears suspect to us. We have learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda. Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing.

Horkheimer and Adorno close their essay, noting that rampant cynicism about popular culture and commodification does not obstruct its consumption. Consumers acknowledge its manipulative intent and yet take part, which is the systematic “beauty” of the cultural model. But the cynicism that is engendered supports complacency, reducing expectations of the state, of media, of business, and diminishes political will to mobilise against injustices. As Horkheimer and Adorno saw only too well in the years leading up to this essay, cynicism-induced complacency plays into the hands of right-wing agendas.

(Images: a fragment from Ingres’s Oedipe et le sphinx, a screen grab from Marx Reloaded and Adorno and Horkheimer.)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2013

So, in my review of this year’s reading I vowed to make no reading resolutions for 2013, not because I don’t have some ideas, but writing about them pretty much guarantees serendipity will lead me in a completely different direction. But I’m going to chuck a few ideas into the void, for no other reason than it helps me think.

Since my post dealing with feminine writing, I’ve started to identify a series of writers that I plan to read more thoroughly, more Cixous obviously. My touchstone book for 2012 was Kate Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. The book  is the sort of polymorphous text that opens up new possibilities for biography, literary criticism and memoir. Read if you must but don’t be mislead by reviews of Heroines that reveal more about the prejudice of the reviewer than the text. Helen’s or Michelle’s reviews offer a more balanced, less blimpish point of view. I’ll be taking inspiration from both Kate Zambreno’s blog (a project now ended) and Heroines and reading writers like Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Olive Moore, obviously more Clarice Lispector and Claude Cahun. I’m also interested in those treading similar ground, writers like Chris Kraus, Vanessa Place, Tamara Faith Berger and Dodie Bellamy. I also plan to read some Julia Kristeva and Kate Zambreno’s earlier Green Girl.

There are some thrilling new books due next year, so I will definitely be reading any new books that appear by László Krasznahorkai, JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus and the collection of letters between Coetzee and Paul Auster, Giorgio Agamben’s Nymphs, Amelie Nothomb’s Life Form, Sonallah C Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison and William Gass’s Middle C. The second (and possibly third) volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography is due and unmissable.

I’ve started reading Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography and plan to read more Derrida. I’ve got plans to read Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Adorno more deeply, and want to explore further what Ray Brassier is doing. Oh, and I seriously intend to get back to Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke.

If I achieve half of these goals I’ll be happy and no doubt serendipity will hijack my intentions along the way.

Thanks for reading Time’s Flow Stemmed. Have a good holiday.

A Year of Reading: 2012

When I posted last year’s edition of this post, I had no idea I was a few weeks away from being selected as 3:AM Magazine’s Blog of the Year 2011. A thrilling way to end the year; the charge continued into 2012 with the genuine, anxiety-inducing, kick of being asked to contribute to a 3:AM conversation about modernism with David Winters, one of this country’s brightest literary critics.

In fiction reading, the year began brilliantly with László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War. The latter has stayed in mind all year, one of the best books I’ve read in memory. I’ve never read such a successful send-up of corporate life as Helen DeWitt’s intelligent Lightning Rods. My slow journey through JM Coetzee’s oeuvre continues; In the Heart of the Country is powerful enough to take skin off.

In non-fiction, the highlight of the year was Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Much of it whooshed over my head, but with such beauty and insight that I’ve dipped in and out all year.  Kate Zambreno’s Heroines  came out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt, to awaken a passion for the modernist wives, and her idiosyncratic, personal writing style that flowed so naturally into Hélène Cixous, my current idée fixe.

My two major discoveries of the year were Clarice Lispector’s Água Vida and Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, both authors I will be reading and thinking about for a long time.

Geeky Statistics

  1. A third of the sixty-five books I read are in translation, down from forty percent.
  2. More than a third of the books I read are written by women; almost double the eighteen percent of 2011.
  3. Thirty percent of the books I read are fiction, way down on the almost sixty percent of last year.
  4. Over half of the books I read are written by European writers, a third by American writers, the rest split between African, Middle Eastern and South American.

There were no resolutions behind these statistics. As ever, serendipity led my reading. I failed so badly on the few reading resolutions I made last year that I shan’t even repeat the pretence. Reading much less fiction feels in some way connected to this year’s tussle with depression and anxiety. (Fuck, that was hard to write.) The year’s been a grind and make-believe lost some of its allure. I’m pleased that I read more women’s writing, a trend that I expect to continue naturally next year.

I read fewer books and blogged a bit less, both factors I place squarely at the door of my Twitter timeline. Twitter is a huge time-sink but often I find myself having the conversations that I wanted to have on this blog. That is also something that I’ll be considering over the coming year.

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

Marina Abramović, Max Richter and Adorno

I went to see Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present at the ICA yesterday. Before watching the film, I associated Abramović with confrontational performance art, often involving nakedness and cutting. A retrospective of her 2010 performance at MoMA, the film briefly traces Abramović’s artistic trajectory but is centred on her remarkable solo performance performed daily over three months. If you made it to MoMA for the exhibition I am envious, but, if not, I urge you to watch this extraordinary film.

On the drive home, about an hour, I listened, at full volume, to Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks, his exquisitely beautiful piano composition, interspersed with ambient sounds and words from Kafka’s journals. With the Abramović film on my mind, together with Adorno’s artlessly wonderful Minima Moralia, which I have been slowly reading, I could have driven all night.

Boy From the Heath by Hebbel

The boy dreams he is being sent away
with thirty dollars to the heath place
he was killed for it on the way
even if he was not slow or inert

He still lies sweating with fear as he’s shaken
by his master who tells him to get dressed
he puts the money on his cover
and asks him why he is afraid

‘Oh master, my master, they are going to kill me
the sun, it is red like blood!’
‘It’s not like that for you alone
therefore hurry, or I’ll make you hurry!’

‘Oh master, my master, you already spoke this way
this is the face, the look, the tone,
now you’ll take’ – the stick, he’s about to say
he doesn’t say it, he already gets beaten

‘Oh master, my master, I’ll go, I’ll go
give to my mother my last goodbye
and if she searches in all the directions
she can find me at the willow tree!’

Out of the city! And there she is,
the heath, foggy, ghostly,
the winds rushing over it
‘Oh, if only one step was like a thousand!’

All is so quiet, all is so muted
in vain one looks around for things alive
only hungry birds shoot
out of clouds to skewer up worms.

He arrives at the old shepherd house
the old shepherd just looks out
the boy’s fear is even greater
at the path he still stays.

‘Oh shepherd, you are a pious man,
I have saved four good pennies
give me your farmhand to my side
to accompany me to the village!

I want to give them to him, he shall
drink a good beer for them on next Sunday,
this money here, I carry it with fear,
in my dream I was killed for it!’

The shepherd signals to the tall farmhand
who just was cutting himself a walking stick
now he comes out – oh! The horror
of the boy as he looks at him!

‘Oh, master shepherd, oh no, oh no,
after all it’s better if I go alone!’
The tall one speaks, grinning, to the old one
‘He wants to keep his four pennies.’

‘Here are the four pennies!’ he throws them down
and runs away with a disturbed mind
already he can see the willow,
when the farmhand taps his back.

‘You won’t endure this, you’re walking too fast,
oh, more haste, less speed, you are still a child,
also, the money must be heavy on you,
who can refuse you a rest!

Come, site under the willow tree
and tell me the ugly dream
I dreamed – God shall damn me,
if it does not coincide with yours!’

He took the boy by the hand,
who didn’t resist any more,
the leaves whisper so eerily,
the water trickles so sadly!

‘Now tell, you were dreaming’ – ‘There was a man’ –
‘Was that me? Have a close look at me,
I think you have already seen me?
Go on, how did it happen?’

‘He pulled a knife!’ – ‘Was it like this one?’
‘Oh yes, oh yes!’ – ‘He pulled it?’ – ‘And pushed’ –
‘He must have slashed your throat like this?
To what end shall I torture you!’

And do you ask what happened next?
Then ask two birds who were sitting nearby,
the raven stayed rather cheerily,
the dove could not go on!

The raven tells what more the bad one did
and also how the henchman smelled it,
the dove tells about how the boy
had cried and prayed.