My Year in Reading: 2017

Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)

Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.

My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.

Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.

My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).

It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.

Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.

The Coming Together of Text and Imagination

“Whatever we have read sinks into our memory and is foreshortened. It may later be evoked again and set against a different background with the result that the reader is enabled to develop hitherto unforeseeable connections. The memory evoked, however, can never reassume its original shape, for this would mean that memory and perception were identical, which is manifestly not so. The new background brings to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed their light on the new background, thus arousing more complex anticipations. Thus, the reader, in establishing these interrelations between past, present and future, actually causes the text to reveal its potential multiplicity of connections. These connections are the product of the reader’s mind working on the raw material of the text, though they are not the text itself-for this consists just of sentences, statements, information, etc.

This is why the reader often feels involved in events which, at the time of reading, seem real to him, even though in fact they are very far from his own reality. The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the “reality” of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written.

The literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality. This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.”

Wolfgang Iser, The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach

I’m setting down this passage as sediment to further thought and a reminder to explore Wolfgang Iser’s work more thoroughly. Please let me know if you know his work and are willing and able to suggest further reading .

This particular rabbit hole began with flowerville’s reference in the comments to my last post to Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which led inexorably to this essay, which merits a more comprehensive rereading after I’ve read Woodcutters.

The Philosophical and The Lunatic Wittgenstein

 

“For a century Wittgensteins had produced armaments and machines until finally they produced Ludwig and Paul, the famous epoch-making philosopher and the no less famous – at least in Vienna, and just there, even more famous – lunatic who, basically, was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig just as, the other way about, the philosophical Ludwig was just as crazy as his nephew Paul; the one, Ludwig, had made his philosophy the basis of his fame, the other Paul, his craziness. The one, Ludwig, was possibly more philosophical, while the other, was possibly crazier, but it may also be that we believed the one, the philosophical Wittgenstein, to be a philosopher only because he had put his philosophy down on paper and not his craziness, and the other, Paul, to be a lunatic merely because he had suppressed and not published his philosophy and only displayed his madness. Both were completely and utterly exceptional brains; the one who had published his brain and the other had not. I might even say that the one had published his brain while the other had practised his brain. And where is the difference between a brain published and continually publishing itself and one that is practised and continually being practised? But of course if Paul had published any writings he would have published writings totally different from Ludwig’s, just as Ludwig would of course have practised a totally different madness from Paul’s. In either case the Wittgenstein name is a guarantee of a high, indeed the highest standard. Paul, the lunatic undoubtedly attained the standard of Ludwig the philosopher; the one represents an absolute peak of philosophy and the history of thought, while the other represents a peak in the history of madness if we are to describe philosophy as philosophy, thought as thought and madness as what they are described as: as perverse historical concepts.”

Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (trans. Ewald Osers)

Sometimes, one’s reading coalesces into silent flood . . .

 

‘Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.’ – Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig with a Memoir

‘Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.’ Beckett, Watt

‘I wanted to take a snapshot from the book but it feels that it demands such a private form of reading.’ Daniela Cascella, (my italics) ‘I feel like that with most books, this is why I hardly ever blog anymore’ flowerville_ii

‘Making yourself understood is impossible, there’s no such thing as doing that.’ Thomas Bernhard, Three Days (Douglas Robertson’s translation)

‘I cannot help these words as he can: / mute radiance, the empty shining valley. / I cannot keep them clean, they suffocate, / fall stillborn from my mouth. / Prod them for signs of life like poisoned mice.’ Jan Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies

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.