Rachel Cusk: Thoughts on Outline and Transit

What amused most of Thomas Bernhard’s I’m Not Going to Badmouth Anybody At All (Douglas Robertson’s translation) is his assertion, “I’m basically just not a clubbable person”. I’d thought the social status of being clubbable a uniquely British concept, embracing that very English commingling of raced, gendered, and class-specific assumptions that grant visibility in this country.

Raised overseas, a solitary child, unsympathetic to the sophistries of the English cultural establishment, it nevertheless surprised me to be told in my twenties that I wasn’t clubbable. Despite a desire to be inconspicuous, I was hopelessly different from my peers, and bounced back and forth, at one moment defiantly assertive, and at the next hiding in the pages of a book. Little wonder I was considered a dark horse.

For a long while I was fascinated by Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which offers a series of elegant theories that explain the tenuous identities we construct to help us confront the world. This seems to me the province of Rachel Cusk’s writing.

It is more persuasive in Outline than in Transit because Cusk relies less on the creation of plausible characters. In neither book are you left with the sense that Cusk’s characters existed before her novel began, a quality I suggest of many truly great novels, but what makes these novels, and her debut Saving Agnes so compelling, is Cusk’s acuity in reading how people interact and construct their identities. Her writing embodies Wittgenstein’s claim: “If one sees the behaviour of a living thing, one sees its soul”.

In Outline and Transit, Cusk finds a form that places the reader in the mind of another. By externalising normally unspoken soliloquies, there is a sense that the inner/outer conception of self is friable. It is easier to get lost in the mirror. But Cusk’s perspective is more that of baffled observer caught in the act of looking, than participant in the fabric of everyday life. While we watch, through Cusk’s penetrating eyes, we are relentlessly reminded of the voyeuristic nature of our watching.

Jaeger’s Paideia

Poetry, novels, short stories are remarkable antiquities which no longer fool anyone, or hardly anyone. Poems, narratives—what’s the use of them? There is nothing but writing left.

JMG Le Clézio, Foreword to La Fièvre

This week spent chiefly with the company of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, published in Germany in 1931. Jaeger’s modern study of the cultural and educational value of ancient Greece through its literature seems a good direction after immersion in Pascal Quignard’s work.

Though both writers would agree that ancient Greek and Roman culture is part of a continuum, Quignard would rightly sneer at Jaeger’s dismissal of Chinese, Indian, Babylonian and Egyptian culture’s formative influence on the Greek literary conception of mind. Paideia, translated by Gilbert Highet, is a culturally conservative engagement but brilliantly erudite and beautifully translated, so will continue to be my companion for several weeks. I sit with crossed hands during Jaeger’s flights of elitism but little is more interesting than to persist with a brilliant but flawed exploration.

Beautiful Books, Bibliophilia and Vladislavić’s Loss Library

If I were asked which publisher I admire most, I should say Seagull Books. In truth, possibly because I never request and very rarely accept review copies, I give individual publishers little thought (though I do also have fondness for Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series). It is of course individual writers and their work that interests me.

I am especially fond of Seagull Books for two reasons: their commitment to making printed books that aspire to the highest aesthetic standards, and the specific writers and translators they publish. As this excellent essay on Seagull Book states, “Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just likes but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art.”

At the moment I am slowly reading Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, slowly because the essays inside are light, bright, and sparkling. David Winters captures their essence well in this review. Essays aside, the book itself is a joy, including the 12 collages by Sunandini Banerjee that accompany each essay. You can tell that this is a publisher that cares deeply about the books they produce.

Seagull Books has the depth and quality of backlist that feels like you can pluck off their shelves any one of the editions and be almost assured of a singularly rewarding experience. This afternoon I rummaged through my library and collected all my Seagull titles together, which includes old chestnuts like Sartre, Bernhard, Handke, Quignard and Schwarzenbach, but also new discoveries await like Nooteboom, Clément and Hilbig.

It is the sort of backlist that ignites my inner bibliophile urge to collect everything, but thankfully the scale of Seagull’s backlist outstrips the funds at my disposal.

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.’

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.

Feminine Writing

Like all those who read constantly, there is a thread running between each book. Sometimes these threads are part of a conscious intention, other times they are undetectable. Sometimes they are discovered retrospectively. Such a thread has lead me to my current idée fixe: Hélène Cixous, variously described as a professor, feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician.

Often we are lead to authors grudgingly as I was in the case of Angela Carter. Her reworked fairy tales, exposing their patriarchal roots, stayed in my thoughts. Questions flew across my field of vision like the murmuration of a flock of starlings. Reading is my way of deciphering life; wanting to understand more about deconstructing patriarchal language lead me initially to bell hooks and circuitously to Cixous.

Twice I’ve read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, one of the exceptional books of the year. Another book that sends my thoughts spinning and wakes me up at night with unresolved questions. In the book and on her blog Kate Zambreno unhitches the notion of feminine writing from gender – as does Cixous – and asks whether writers like Bernhard, Artaud and Rilke are feminine writers.

An exploration into the idea of “feminine”- as contrasted with “masculine” – writing is likely to be the thread that links my reading over the next few months. Cixous emphasises that these terms are not to be equated with “man” and “woman”; part of her intention is to find terms less bound up in emotion and prejudgment. I’ll be reading more Cixous, and constructing a reading list of writers that Kate Zambreno and Cixous discuss. I’ve identified other textually political writers that attempt to dislocate the idea of masculinity and femininity in literary and cultural discourse: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan.

Reading along these lines, daunting as some of these writers may be, serves a secondary purpose, that of attempting to breathe life into theory, a core intention of Cixous’ writing. For Cixous, theory is not just intellectual masturbation, but a way of seeing and interpreting the world (and word).

In her perceptive Cixous essay, Verena Andermatt Conley writes,

What if, Cixous likes to ask, there were an asymmetry, not a hierarchy, between the sexes, “manifested” at the level of drives and in the relation to the living. The question is vague and perhaps should remain so. But the key question for women is to ask themselves what they want and not just what men want or want them to be. Stories in popular film and literature are told from the man’s point of view. Women tend to write as oppressed men. Relations between the sexes are vitiated by power and self-interest. Rarely do we see or read about a desire for pleasure and joy with and through the other.

The whole topic is ripe with ethical and moral dilemmas, but one I intend to think about a whole lot more. Please make any suggestions of other writers, fiction or non-fiction that might enable me to ask or address any of these questions.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Dorothea Tanning: Birthday (1942)

Dorothea Tanner (1910-2012)

*****

Mahmoud Darwish
Memory for Forgetfulness
August, Beirut, 1982

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise. Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of the blog coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don’t let it sink. Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure and into a little white cup; dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the coffee. Observe the paths of steam and the tent of rising aroma. Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee, the cigarette with the flavour of existence itself, unequaled by the tastes of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

Memory of Forgetfulness (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi) is extraordinary, a staggeringly powerful  memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. To leave the description there would be reductive; Darwish interrogates the nature of exile and discourses widely, from the importance of coffee, to the relationship between memory and history. I’ve begun my second reading, unable to put the book aside.

*****

William Butler Yeats
A Coat

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But he fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

*****

*****

flowerville
[Thomas Bernhard:] An Attempt by Ingeborg Bachmann

I am convinced that the last prose of Thomas Bernhard goes far beyond than that of Beckett and is infinitely superior compared to it [Beckett], because of its compulsion, its inescapability and its hardness. In all those years people asked themselves, how would it look like, the new.

*****

Donald Weber – Interrogation (2011)

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

Old Masters is flawless.

I’ll attempt to distil my impressions of Thomas Bernhard’s book without using the word rant. It is almost impossible to write about Thomas Bernhard’s prose without using that word. (Around 1645 there was an English antinomian sect called the Ranters, though the etymology of the word is German.) In its place I will use a word I relish: tirade, from the French tirer “draw out, endure, suffer.”

Every other day, musicologist, Reger, sits on a sofa in the Kunthistorisches Museum  facing Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Sometimes he reads, other times he contemplates the painting. Uncharacteristically he visits the museum on two successive days, inviting his friend, Atzbacher, to join him for a second day. The reason is, until the final pages, a mystery.

Thereafter, either directly or through his mouthpiece Atzbacher, Reger’s tirade makes up the rest of the book, interrupted occasionally. Reger’s tirade unfolds, repeats, loops relentlessly, sometimes it risks folding in upon itself. It wearies and requires a degree of endurance, but it is also occasionally very funny. The targets of Reger’s Nietzschean tirade are multifarious and include art historians,  Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, Viennese public lavatories and philosopher Martin Heidegger. The latter, in particular, creased me up. Of the Heideggerian criticism I have come across, Reger’s calling him out for a kitschy brain and as a mediocre rustic was hilarious:

Heidegger is the petit bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcap, that kitschy nightcap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.

The interruptions to Reger’s tirade are rare but necessary, and often droll and moving. On one occasion, Reger’s sofa, facing  White-Bearded Man, is invaded by an Englishman, world-weary to the same degree as Reger, who has come to Vienna to verify that there is another White-Bearded Man, a duplicate or forgery of the one given to him by a Glaswegian aunt. On another occasion, Reger movingly expounds his despair since his wife’s death.

In the final pages we learn why Reger has broken a routine of thirty years to invite Atzbacher to the museum on two successive days. The deliverance, and the last line of the book, had me grinning from ear to ear. For once, in Old Masters, the ending does not disappoint.

I read the novel as part of German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

My Plans for German Literature Month II

Somehow during German literature month, in addition to my plans to read Effi Briest, The Silent Angel, Visitation, The Judge and his Hangman and Old Masters, I have challenged Nicole to a shared reading of Elective Affinities, which seems proper to post about as part of German lit-month. I am also going to read at least one of Kleist’s brilliant short stories again to respond to the call for a worldwide reading on 21 November.

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the German Heinrich von Kleist Society are calling for cultural institutions, schools, radio stations and anyone who is interested to organise a worldwide reading of the works of the German author Heinrich von Kleist on 21 November 2011, the 200th anniversary of his death.

The 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death on 21 November 2011 is an occasion to discuss the relationship between crisis, critique and reform ideas then and today. However, the 21st of November is also the day on which tribute should be paid to Kleist’s life, how he died and his works. In his honour, excerpts from the letters and works of Heinrich von Kleist should be read on the anniversary of his death.

Fortunately I have a few days off and a business trip down under, so should have reading time to spare.

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.

UPDATE

Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.

My Plans for German Literature Month

My literary explorations are serendipitous and subject to whim, so I am cautious about joining shared reading events. I was unable to resist German Literature Month, co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, partly because I am drawn to literature from the region but also because I’ve intended to read Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and Heinrich Böll for some time.

Those authors aside I plan to read some Kleist for the penultimate week and the following:

Week 1 – German Literature

Jenny Erpenbeck – Visitation

Week 2 – Crime Fiction

Friedrich Durrenmatt – The Judge and His Hangman

Week 3 – From Austria and Switzerland

Thomas Bernhard – Old Masters

Notes On Translation

My reading of Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, a thought provoking book, offered up this question:

Is [a] text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

When reading a translated text, currently Walter Benjamin’s collection of essays Illuminations, and specifically his essay The Task of the Translator, this question is unavoidable.

Richard of The Existence Machine raised the same question recently to reply to an argument that, “… if you can’t read Handke in German don’t bother since Handke’s main interest is the language.” Thomas Bernhard made an analogous point:, “[Translation] doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.”

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator requires time to unpick. The essential substance of a work of literature is not its words or sentences, it is what is contained in addition to this information: the unfathomable, the ‘poetic’. The role of a (good) translator is to render this mysterious quality in a new translation. Rendering the unfathomable ‘perfectly’ in a new language is impossible, but the translator aspires towards  a ‘language of truth’, transcending the original and the translated language: “If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is – the true language’.

The task of the translator is finding and communicating the artist’s intention, a successful translation produces an echo of the original: “The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter’.

To strive for linguistic fidelity is almost always an error, truer the further away a translator is from the origin of a work: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully”.

Benjamin, like Pound, sees a translator as extending the life of a literary work, as each generation translates a static original: “For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a translation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change”.

As Alberto Manguel has said, “Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today”. Yet what are we to do while Borges awaits the translator who is able to unlock his intention. Not reading Borges, even in a flawed translation is an unsatisfactory but acceptable compromise. To end with another quotation from Grossman.

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable.

Fondling Detail

Like gratin dauphinoise or silky foie gras Don Quixote has left me stuffed, unable to do more than graze. It is rare I start a second book while committed to a first, but I have begun the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, David Crystal’s The Stories of English and am still rereading Borge’s Ficciones. Each captures my attention for an hour or two but I soon am distracted by another voice.

To add anchovies to the dauphinoise (as you really must), I started leafing through Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Nabby is just the professor to call attention to one’s inadequacies as a reader. His minute examination of Madame Bovary accentuate texture and detail I am barely aware of after rereading twice. I must surely reread again soon with the help of Nabokov’s gimlet eyes. “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” Here, he elucidates the difference between master artists and minor authors:

Time and space, the colours of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the interpretation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognise their own ideas in a pleasing disguise.

Detect that wonderfully icy disdain, rolling down from that ivory tower? When reading, Nabokov let no detail pass unquestioned. In works of genius, every detail had a purpose and was worthy of minute examination. “Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy’s art the good reader must wish to visualise, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago.”

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other brands of knowledge.