The Hazards of Rereading

What is that changes when we reread? Not the sentences, though they may convey different meanings on rereading. As readers, we change, our moods or sensibilities are changed by experience, by other things we’ve read. It is also possible to reach back to past versions of ourselves. May it be possible to learn more about ourselves from the changes to how we react to a particular book, or writer’s work?

Geoff Dyer, like me, is a relentless book-culler, making his library, “tighter and tighter, again replicating in a personal way the larger process of canon formation by elimination and erosion over time.” It can be dispiriting to revisit a favourite writer’s work, as I did last year with Geoff Dyer’s books, only to discover that where there was once enchantment, there is  now little more than curiosity about how these sentences, words or stories, once cast such a spell. (With the exception of But Beautiful, which remains one of the finest books I’ve read about music and musicians.)

So it is with Tomas Espedal’s work. Although I still found a measure of pleasure and silence in Against Art, rereading Against Nature, Tramp, and reading for the first time the newly translated Bergeners didn’t disappoint, but there was not that special intimate encounter in which one fully inhabits a world carefully created by its writer. A certain narrative force carried me forward, but left me little desire to continue to engage with his work. For the most part, his literary and aesthetic reflections felt quotidian, in the case of the former: gossipy and trivial.

There is a certain satisfaction in the idea that rereading is an essential part of challenging our past selves and reshaping our personal literary canon, that, as Dyer writes, our library will be distilled to just what is essential: “In a quasi-Borgesian way, I would ideally draw my last breath just as I turned the final page of the only unread book left in my collection. At that moment my library – my life – would be complete.”

A New Thread in a Great Embroidery

“In the mornings we had breakfast together in the kitchen. She spoke of her father who’d worked on the railway, of her mother who’d died, and of Thea who’d moved into their house in Inndalsveien. She spoke of her sister Margit, and of her first meeting with her lover in the hut below Løvstakken, how he’d saved her. We lived together, got married and had a son, your father, she said. She talked away, bringing out the same stories over and over again, but each time a new detail was added, a new story, it wove itself into the others like a new thread in a great embroidery: her family tapestry. It hung there, unseen, on the kitchen wall, a large embroidered tapestry with characters she’d invented, landscapes as she recalled them, small studies of rooms and furniture which were sketched and woven together in her imagination; a tapestry of scenes from working life and family life, with streets and houses, a long, narrow street with blocks of brick buildings and children playing, and in the background, behind all the changing motifs, behind all the narratives, far away, like a miniature in the great, colourful weft: a picture of the harbour. Quayside cranes and shipyards, boats and factories, workers and seamen, small characters stitched in place between the buildings and the sea; I could see the same image from the flat where we were sitting, from the dining-room window; it was as if she’d put me into the tapestry she was weaving, I was being painstakingly woven into her story, the whole of my background and history, and gradually, too, my present, she cut it out and sewed it into this tapestry of motifs that resembled the ones I saw every single day from the dining-room window.”

From Tomas Espedal’s Against Art. His tapestry a revelation of his narrative approach, the interweaving of his life with those who came before, without whom he wouldn’t have existed. Everything interconnected. I wasn’t sure that my initial enchantment of discovering Espedal’s work would hold up, but I needn’t have worried.

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.

Tomas Espedal’s Against Nature, Against Art

Tomas Espedal’s Against Art and Against Nature are exquisite, as good as anything I’ve ever read. Our modern preoccupation with, and anxiety about, intimate interpersonal relationships comes through in the precarious and peevish relationships between the narrator and his wives, girlfriends and children.

I read them both this week, oases of erudition amid a chaotic, exhausting time at work; both invaded my sleeping dreams to the point of wakefulness. Both books continue my love affair with Seagull Books.

Espedal writes perceptively of modern affluent society, where one time concerns of hunger, disease, catastrophe and religion  are replaced with an almost obsessive concern for our personal relationships. His narrator is unable to truly grasp the blind spots or emotional roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving emotional fulfilment through his human relationships.

Art and literature, essentially solitary pursuits, offer Espedal’s narrator a way to, as David Winters writes in Infinite Fictions, “withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it.”

Sparing prose, translated by James Anderson, that drifts close to poetry in its condensed style makes me think that Espedal’s undertaking is similar to what Knausgaard attempted in his study of the impossibility of intimacy, but I only read the first edition of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel so I may have missed something. It amused me to come across this piece in Against Nature:

We lay side by side and read. We read our separate copies of the Knausgaard books, began at the same time and read in tandem, suddenly she’d put down her book and look at me: Did you read that? she’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite extraordinary, he must have a screw loose, she’d say.

Then we’d read on.

Until I put down my book and looked at her; Did you read that? I’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite amazing, he’s destroying himself, I’d say.

Tomas Espedal’s Tramp

Reading Tomas Espedal, Tramp (Or The Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life), always a heartbeat away from stuffing a few items into my worn leather backpack and sneaking silently towards the coast. Feeling the urge to sleep in unfamiliar hotel bedrooms and wander well-trodden footpaths through strange woods.

Tomas Espedal is a fresh discovery, in another beguiling Seagull Books edition. Espedal writes with Denton Welch’s yearning, combined with his acute observation of both people and landscape. But there is also something reminiscent of Robert Walser, perhaps in a narrative stance that avoids emotion and records the episodes of his journeys around Europe and Turkey with little or no commentary. His text only rarely attempts interpretation, a characteristic familiar to any long-distance walker.

Also familiar to the long-distance walker are the meandering digressions. Tramp mirrors the journey that a mind takes when walking fifteen, twenty miles  day, one moment self-reflective, another nostalgic, another moment lost in a train of thought about Giacometti’s mother and the artists’ s nightly visits to Parisian brothels.

I need new stout leather boots. But perhaps it is safer to turn to another of Tomas Espedal’s books than order another pair of boots.

Homesickness. It’s an inevitable part of all journeys, we’re exhausted and wish for home; the homesickness grows, strengthens and permeates every part of the body; the feet want home, the hands, the heart, the thoughts want home. We’ve had enough, seen enough, heard enough, experienced more than we can bear, and the homesickness spreads through our bodies like a lazy indifference, a lethargy that can no longer be bothered to relate to further moves and changes, meetings and places. The journey back has already begun, we think of home and are going home in our thoughts, even though we’ve still got a long journey ahead, we haven’t reached the halfway mark, but it’s as if the road has made a subtle turn, it’s rounded a bend and after that bend the direction is different; it’s treading slowly and imperceptibly back.