Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

A Virtuoso of Disguise

“. . . in each disguise I assumed I looked better and more natural than in the last. I might appear as a Roman flute-player, a wreath of roses twined in my curly locks; as an English page in a snug-fitting satin with lace collar and plumed hat; as a Spanish bullfighter in spangled jacket and broad-brimmed hat; as a youthful abbé at the time of powdered wigs . . . whatever the costume, the mirror assured me that I was born to wear it, and my audience declared that I looked to the life exactly the person whom I aimed to represent.”

A passage from Thomas Mann’s translation of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, translated by Denver Lindley. This reminds me to make time one day to reread Doctor Faustus and Death in Venice. Both versions I read were Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations, now generally seen as not only dubious but in the case of the latter substantively altered  out of puritanism. David Luke’s Death in Venice is considered more faithful, and we are fortunate to have John E Wood’s translations of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

A Year in Reading: 2015

Denton Welch’s last work stands at the head of a list that marks a fine year’s reading with the discovery of three writers whose work has changed me: Brigid Brophy, Tomas Espedal and Welch

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud is alive throughout though left incomplete by his death. Welch’s characteristic eye for detail and ear for dialogue is clear in all his work but in A Voice Through a Cloud he maintains an unstable tension that keeps his light touch so very serious. The smiles of acknowledgement and tears become impossible to separate. It’s hard to imagine a finer book in any year and his other two novels are small but magnificent.

If pressed I’d name Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball as the finer of her novels that I read this year, an elegant tale of female eroticism that splices together Brophy’s twin fixations of Mozart and Freud.

What Welch, Brophy and Tomas Espedal share is the sense that they are all writing their lives in fiction, fulfilling an attempt to smuggle reality into their art and doing so with force of intellect, originality and passion. Any of Espedal’s three translated works would serve as a book of the year but Tramp will be one I return to again and again. That all three are published by Seagull Books simply underlines my deep-seated affection for their vision.

Those writers aside, this was also the year I read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, novels that led by precise description and a fierce power that lay in what was left out. Little was left out of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, a brilliant conception of the demonic, also explored in Wolfgang Hilbig’s disturbing but equally singular “I”.

Two works of literary criticism stood out this year: Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature and David Winters’s Infinite Fictions; both offered profound insight, refined by doubts and perplexities and in both cases suffused with a love of literature.

Espedal’s Tramp was a good companion novel to Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project which beautifully navigated the indeterminate space between memoir, biography and travel narrative.

Like Beckett’s Murphy, this year the macrocosm intruded into the freedom of the microcosm, i.e. the job-path became all consuming, leaving less time to read and write here. That said I expect to read seventy or so books by year end, respectable enough given other commitments which include discovering a zest for public speaking.

Discovering Brigid Brophy

So far, this year’s reading has been remarkable. Not only some extraordinarily good first works, some singular nonfiction, and the discovery of no less than three writers to add to my list of old chestnuts, those favourites I will probably read in their entirety. Tomas Espedal, Denton Welch and Brigid Brophy.

I’ve thought of whether anything unites these often flawed but brilliant writers. What is it about their works that has bowled me over to the extent that I wish to read every word they wrote (or will write in Espedal’s case)? I recognise these are idiosyncratic passions that might not command the wide scale appreciation of Mann or Woolf, but for me their work is no less fascinating.

All three are brilliantly subtle, elegant and bookish writers but what sets them apart for me comes down to a certain tone of voice. In Brophy’s case I wrote recently of a stylish but insubordinate edge to her prose, that I got the feeling that Brophy would  look great in pearls but be the first to storm the palace when we all decide to kick the scoundrels out. That description applies equally to Welch and Espedal, replace tweed with pearls if you feel inclined.

Whatever the subject, the strong individualities of these writers emerge, and I find my way of looking at the world transfused with the colours of their thoughts and feelings.  I’ve only limited immersion in Brigid Brophy’s work, first the full, flowing freshness of The King of a Rainy Country and now the pyrotechnic flare of Hackenfeller’s Ape, but the sui generis nature of her voice is clear.

The Well of the Past

… Thomas Mann brought his very important contribution: [ to these questions: what is an individual and wherein does his identity reside?] we think we act, we think we think, but it is another or others who think and act in us: that is to say, timeless habits, archetypes, which – having become myths passed on from one generation to the next – carry an enormous power and control us (says Mann) from “the well of the past.”

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. trans Linda Asher. Faber and Faber, 1995 (1993).

Mann’s contribution mentioned here by Kundera is from Joseph and his Brothers. I bought a copy today in an edition of just under 1500 pages, daunting and exciting in equal measure. It recalls the idea Mann started to develop through Hans Castorp in Magic Mountain, straying into Jungian, perhaps even Gnostic realms.

You’ll End Up Reading Peter Handke

I read Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer after watching Tomas Espedal’s hauntingly powerful interview. In the interview Espedal says:

Reading has its own logic. No matter where you start you’ll end up reading Thomas Mann sooner or later. You’ll end up reading Marguerite Duras – and you’ll end up reading Peter Handke. If you read a lot … if you spend your whole life reading, you’ll arrive at those writers.

This particular Handke is the last I’ve read of three that I bought a few years ago on the strength of Steve Mitchelmore’s review. The Afternoon of a Writer is a boundless exploration, somewhat like Rilke’s Malte on a writer’s contradictory needs for both solitude and a social existence.

The narrator, also like Malte, is one of those autobiographical scapegoats into which a writer pours their mental and emotional torments. Unlike Rilke’s incoherent prose though, Handke’s language is natural, minutely observed lights and shades, even during a momentarily grotesque dream sequence, an incredible passage that forces the reader to question the reliability of the narrator.

Although I’ve only read the three Handke books, I am drawn to his interior canvas and his haunted seriousness. As The Afternoon of a Writer draws to its end, the nameless narrator’s loneliness reaches a point that one cannot imagine it being broken.

Phil from The Last Books kindly sent me To Duration, a long Peter Handke poem that I am looking forward to reading next. It is translated by Scott Abbott, a writer whose collaboration with Zarko Radakovic has lead to two books I plan to read, Vampires and A Reasonable Dictionary and Repetitions. The latter follows a character in Peter Handke’s Repetition into what is now Slovenia.

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.

Voice of Mourning

Christ's Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) - Andrea Mantegna

Christ’s Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) – Andrea Mantegna

Like King Charles’ head, Friedrich Nietzsche is always intruding in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus, a deeply Romantic novel suffused with parodic twists. A talisman acts as a battery for some type of force or energy, or what David Winters  describes as ‘a charm that we clasp to our hearts’. At risk of overextending the metaphor, that’s not a bad description of how I feel about Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which has rarely left my side for the last month.

‘Recognition,’ writes Rita Felski, ‘comes without guarantees; it takes place in the messy and mundane world of human action, not divine revelation.’ Doctor Faustus is by no means a perfect novel (whatever that might resemble). Its narrative frequently drags, sometimes almost intolerably. But there is also a deep intoxication at being absorbed in a novel that reveals, or at least tries to reveal, the rhythm of life.

As I read the last few highly charged chapters, set aside the finished book, and spent an hour gazing into the woods, I sense almost imperceptibly that my perspective is altered. The very best of fiction has this talismanic effect. Doctor Faustus, like Mann’s The Magic Mountain is one of the most intense, powerful reading experiences of my life. I am thrilled that it is over. I am mourning that it is over.

Doctor Faustus (Still)

This is the end of my third week with Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. The week’s reading included Adrian Leverkühn’s pivotal conversation with Diabolus (or whichever nickname you’d prefer), in which the Devil offers Leverkühn a form of artistic genius, a breakthrough to art beyond parody. It is a terrific scene, contradicting those readers who expect Mann’s writing, via translator Helen Lowe-Porter, to be stuffy. This is a novel of ideas, crammed with German philosophy and musical history, but it is also written with a delicate, polished irony.

Distraction lies all around, and I am fighting the urge to read other things, grabbing snatches here and there of Heaney, Cernuda, Kate Tempest. Powerful though the densely-woven Doctor Faustus is, the dogmatic and bumbling narrator Serenus Zeitblom, Ph.D. is wearing after a few hundred pages. But I persist, drawn along as much by curiosity about the novel’s structural logic as by the need to follow Leverkühn’s fate.