Antonio Tabucchi: Pereira Maintains

To come across Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira in Pereira Maintains is to be visited by an old acquaintance. I’m travelling at the moment, without access to my Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, but on returning home will disinter T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, a piece of drama that, in many ways, shaped the rhythm of Eliot’s writing in The Hollow Men and The Wasteland. In this elegant piece, Tabucchi confirms Eliot’s inspiration: “But there was another reason, literary in origin, which led me to this name: a brief interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What About Pereira?” in which a fragmentary conversation between two friends evokes a mysterious Portuguese man named Pereira, about whom nothing can ever be known.”

In Fragment of a Prologue, part of the Agonistes, Eliot introduces an enigmatic Portuguese gentleman called Pereira, one of the visitors to prostitutes, Dusty and Doris. If I recall correctly, the two women question his trustworthiness, which opens up a fascinating aspect to how Pereira structures Pereira Maintains as a testimony, only revealing what Pereira chooses to reveal in cross-examination.

The energy and direction of Tabucchi’s novel lies in the transition between passivity and action. As such, there are deep resonances with the current political situation in the U.K. and elsewhere. How is one to respond to authoritarianism, from an ethical or political stance? In Pereira Maintains, Tabucchi chooses not to reveal the nature or outcome of the investigation leaving wide open space for a reader to interpret Pereira’s responses and outcome.

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brophy, Levey and Osborne

The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.

I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.

Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:

General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.

I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:

But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.

I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.

Doomed by Egotism

Ugolino Surrounded by his Three Children

Ugolino Surrounded by his Three Children

I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his own prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, ethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.

TS Eliot, The Wasteland

…it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Shored Against My Ruins

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) - Pepijn Sauer

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) – Pepijn Sauer

Susan Sontag’s wrote, “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I don’t know if Sontag was right, but I like to think so. I live as though it is a statement of truth.

This photograph, borrowed from a deeply impressive archive, reminds me of a visit to Nara, a city that brought great aesthetic delight, as much for the woodwork of the temples as the proportions of architecture.

The Womb of World Civilisation

It amuses me greatly when a degree of unconscious direction behind seemingly arbitrary reading choices becomes clear. What is intended to be patternless drifting from one book to the next, loosely following very broad themes, takes on the form of a literary centripetal force pulling towards a single area of study. Even a year ago I felt the pull towards the study of the Vedas, but resisted the tension, mainly because I couldn’t quite grasp where to begin. As Paul Deussen, a friend of Nietzsche’s, wrote in his old (1907) Outlines in Indian Philosophy, “European idleness tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy.” I still feel that inertia, intimidated by the immensity of the task. But, but …

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves one night, I came across Bernard’s monologue:

I am not one person, I am many people. I do not know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville or Louis – or how to distinguish my life from theirs – ‘we are bound not only to our friends but to the long-long history that began in Egypt in the time of the Pharaos when women carried pitchers to the Nile.’

I started going through The Waves and scribbling notes of instances where Woolf uses metaphors to indicate the relation of one to the many, that Nature is ‘one form in diverse mirrors.’ Both currents of thought were heavily present in my recent readings of Clarice Lispector, Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus and various interpretations of Heraclitus’ Fragments.

For instance, there is the following paragraph from Hadot’s superb Plotinus book:

Since we look towards the outside, away from the point at which we are joined together, we are unaware of the facts that we are one. We are like faces turned towards the outside, but attached on the inside to one single head. If we could turn around – either spontaneously or if we were lucky enough to ‘have Athena pull us by the hair’ [Homer], then all at once, we would see God, ourselves, and the All.

(Incidentally, not that I’ll dwell on the topic here, Plotinus’s notion of deification means the destroying of man, not the modern day religious notion of man living and working in God.)

The philosophical and historical worth of the Vedas has been acknowledged from Voltaire onwards, their influence of Greek culture is certain,  also on most of the major mystical and philosophical traditions, and from there to poets and story-tellers. “The Greeks may have been the cradle of Western civilisation, but the Vedas are the womb of world civilisation.” The more I read on the subject the more I see the influence on writers are diverse as Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Vico, Woolf, Eliot (clearly), Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

Please feel free to suggest essential or helpful texts that deal with the influence of the Vedas on Greek culture, or texts that help a curious amateur with the Vedas. This is likely to give some shape to my otherwise arbitrary reading over the next 6-12 months.

The Correct Incantations

In Thom Gunn’s The Occasions of Poetry I came across this paragraph, which expresses that same incoherence that Eliot was grasping toward when he wrote of  ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ in his exquisite East Coker:

For me the act of writing is an exploration, a reaching out, an act of trusting search for the correct incantation that will return me certain feelings whenever I want them. And of course I have never completely succeeded in finding the correct incantations.

‘Incantation’ is very good, literally ‘singing spells.’ It calls to mind those rare occasions while reading when we come across an unerring incantation, a particularly resonant sentence or phrase that enchants us forever. Gunn writes of seeking transparency, of words being the glass to his mind, as though observing an object through that glass.

A Raid on the Inarticulate

There are insufficient words. Is that what I mean to say? Words are insufficient. Language is insufficient. How can language express emotion? I make a declaratory statement, “I love you” or “I hate you”. What can either predicate, love or hate, possibly mean when its usage is so indiscriminate? How can “I love my daughter, or my friend” use the same predicate when its subject is ice-cream or Camembert. I love Camembert. I hate my enemy and football: in one case I wish the subject’s annihilation, the other merely bores me. In East Coker, Eliot uses the language of conflict to depict this battle with inarticulacy:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Eliot uses his shabby equipment exquisitely, but he still fails to articulate the inarticulate. Trying to find the mot juste is to run into failure, flailing like Victor Krap in Beckett’s Eleutheria: [Victor] runs to the footlights, wants to say something but can’t, makes a helpless gesture, exits, gesticulating wildly. Silence.

Anselm Kiefer’s Aschenblume captures how exile has transformed me in a way that my language is inadequate to express. Forsakenness, vastness, loneliness, despondency, curiosity, emptiness; none of these concepts are sufficient.

Aschenblume, 2004 - Anselm Kiefer

Aschenblume, 2004 – Anselm Kiefer

You needn’t speak German to comprehend the pain and cursed exhilaration of Winterreise. The music reaches into the inarticulate beyond the expressive range of language.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo and Biography

Nietzsche, like Jean-Paul Sartre, TS Eliot and the films of Martin Scorsese, is best discovered before you hit your twenties. His writing is accessible to early interpretation and uncorrupted by the language of the academy. I remember so clearly the combustive impact of reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, one after the other as he laid waste to Christian morality. After reading Nietzsche, the world expanded, less mysterious but cleaner, more chaotic. Nietzsche, like Sartre, is best reread every ten years.

When I first read Nietzsche, probably under the baleful influence of TS Eliot, I abjured biography. All that mattered was the text, so I disdained to read Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s autobiography (of sorts). As I learnt from the introduction to Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography, Derrida did not consider philosopher’s lives as extraneous to their philosophical work. On Nietzsche, Derrida wrote:

We no longer consider the biography of a ‘philosopher’ as a corpus of empirical accidents that leaves both a name and a signature outside a system which would itself be offered up to an immanent philosophical reading – the only kind of reading held to be philosophically legitimate […].

In a late interview on “the question of biography”, Derrida insisted:

I am among those few people who have constantly drawn attention to this: you must (and you must do it well) put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names, whether in relation to Heidegger or equally to Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, or Blanchot, and so on.

Taking inspiration from Derrida and Kate Zambreno’s initial FFIMS post I tackled Ecce Homo for the first time. I now suspect it will become my favourite Nietzsche book, though I am long overdue a rereading of his works.

The first thought on reading Ecce Homo is the cavernous confidence of the text, bordering on arrogance, or what Thomas Steinbuch, in his commentary on Ecce Homo calls megalomania:

The chapters of Ecce Homo are composed as answers to the questions posed in their titles: “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I Am a Destiny.” The titles seem to be naked expressions of self-importance, of egotism, from the simple hubris of “I am wise” to the megalomania of “I am destiny,” as if in writing these titles Nietzsche had reared up before the world demanding its acknowledgement, tragically presaging the madness that was soon to engulf him. This is not so. Egotism in the sense of self-importance, as belonging to the psychology of domination, is not part of Nietzsche’s life or work. If an ideology of affirming self-importance has been found here, this is only the projection of an authoritarian society’s own obsessive focus on figures of domination and its need to believe in the monolithic action of authority. Indeed, we shall see below that constructing the other as a “self-of-importance” belongs to the psychology of competition. It is simply true that Nietzsche’s role in the history of life was tremendously important as the dialectical counter to décadence. Sooner of later we need to come to terms with the problem of décadence in ourselves, and at that moment the one we will find is Nietzsche-this is what he meant by declaring himself a destiny.

So, not egotism or megalomania but the Dionysian overcoming of decadence to find the order concealed in the chaos. A bit self-helpy perhaps, or more generously where Nietzsche joins forces with Buddhism to destroy individuality. But this is why Nietzsche has always appealed; he is a philosopher, like Sartre, that changes the prism through which you see life, and therefore changes your life. Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous seem to offer the same opportunity, though need far more effort.

Enough rambling. Can anyone recommend a reliable Nietzsche biography? Thanks to a conversation with flowerville, I’ve been reading up on Thomas Brobjer. I like the look of Thomas Brobjer’s Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography.  Ecce Homo is very fine but suffers the flaw of any autobiography, that it is essentially a fiction. The best Nietzsche “biography” I’ve read is this thrilling chronological list of “not only the books which Nietzsche read throughout his life, but also lectures he attended as well as professorial work he was engaged in, the music he listened to and composed, and, finally, denotes when and where he wrote his philosophical works.”

The Emotional Impotence of Being English

Susan Sontag’s admiration for Elias Canetti (“Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.”) inspired me to read most of Auto-da-Fé, but after some initial enthusiasm I set aside the book three-quarters of the way in, finding it minor, mean-spirited.

From what I’ve read of Canetti’s time in post-war London, minor and mean-spirited might sum up contemporaries’ interpretation of his character. Nevertheless I am reading Party in the Blitz, Canetti’s memoir of his forty years in London. Acerbic opinion flows unceasingly and, like all memoirs, are not to be fully relied on. This doesn’t detract from the eye-opening diversion of seeing untouchables like T. S. Eliot bitterly disembowelled.

A flaccid introduction by Jeremy Adler opens the book. Adler calls attention to the fine phrases that Canetti uses to spice up his memoir, in particular “the new word Gefühlsimpotenz (emotional impotence) he coins, with which to abuse the English. As “a formula for the affective deficits of English life,” Adler concedes,”it could hardly be bettered”. Setting aside Canetti’s sardonic spearing of his contemporaries, it is his analysis of the English that registers most exactly.

Distance is the principal gift of the English. They do not come near. They may not, they cannot come too near. For their own protection, the person sheathes itself in ice. To the outside, everything is patted back. Inside, you’re left to freeze.
Social life consists of futile efforts at proximity. These are as hesitant as the person making them is brave. He really is, because he knows how alone he truly is.
Basically, you shrink back from anyone new: you fear in him the worst, someone who will leap over the distance you set up. He may give the appearance of reserve, but you do not trust him, and keep him off with elaborate politeness: the silent, but searching questions with which you investigate him, “How high? How low? is as existentially important as it is implacable.

Though recognising the effectiveness of Canetti’s dissection, Adler squirms, adding that Canetti appears “unaware of the change in attitude to the emotions that set in around that time. The public grief over the death of Diana, shows that England was moving in directions that Canetti knew nothing about”. Adler identifies this turn with the “continental cult of feeling” owing to the “gradual assimilation of the pre-war immigrants from continental Europe of whom Canetti himself was a prime example”. I wish that were so, but the outpouring of hollow grief that surrounded Diana’s death had more to do with an overindulgence of Friends-like sitcoms.

Calling for Your Desert Island Disc

The rules are strictly applied. A guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs is invited to choose eight discs, a book and a luxury to take with them as they are cast away on a mythical desert island. They are then asked which book they would take with them, after being generously  given the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible (or an alternative religious book). At the end of the programme they choose the one piece of music they regard most highly.

I am asking those of you who read this post to give me your choices, not all eight discs but the one piece of music that would sustain you on the island, and your choice of book. Optionally you may also nominate a luxury (optional because I have never found the luxury part of DID very interesting, particularly since the relaxation of Roy Plomley’s original ruleset).

Without hesitation my choices are the first movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor and my 1963 edition of T. S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962. With Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady and Preludes close to hand I should be almost content on my desert island.

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee

In August I read J. M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings, a book of outstanding literary essays. The earlier collection of essays, Stranger Shores, is also brilliant, worthy to sit on the shelf beside Coetzee’s fiction. It includes superb essays on Joseph Brodsky, Robert Musil, Kafka, Borges and Doris Lessing, as well as a reflection on T. S. Eliot entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ There are twenty-six pieces in total, some less strong but none less than enjoyable.

The Waste Land for iPad App

The Waste Land for iPad app is the first digital, literary edition that enhances its book equivalent. Before Touch Press’s production, the e-book’s advantages offered little to capture my attention.

Fiona Shaw’s performance of the poem is problematic. Personal, and a touch histrionic, but nevertheless it provides an interpretation of the poem that is revealing. A favourite since I first encountered the poem in my teens, The Waste Land is cryptic and can bear multiple interpretations. Those of Seamus Heaney and Jeanette Winterson are refreshing.

The best bit of this edition are the facsimile copies of Pound’s hand-written edits of the manuscript.

The Singer on the Shore by Gabriel Josipovici

… a book of this kind must inevitably be personal, but that does not mean that it should be merely subjective: I wish to persuade my reader, not simply air my opinions. Yet it is difficult to walk the thin line between didacticism and rant, and between giving too much information and too little.

This prefatory paragraph from Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? could apply equally to his collection of essays The Singer on the Shore. The latter contains nineteen delightful literary essays on the Bible, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Borges, Tristram Shandy and the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld.

What sets these essays apart is Josipovici’s authorial tone; authoritative but never sanctimonious. This Guardian review is spot on, “It is a distinguishing, and a distinguished, mark of Josipovici’s sensitivity to his subject and his audience that – and I can’t stress this too much – that you don’t have to be that familiar with his subjects to get something out of what he says about them.” But like all good literary essays, Josipovici’s will compel you to reread a favourite novel and dip into a new writer’s work.

Across the nineteen essays are coherent themes, of rootlessness, the nature of art and literature and Josipovici’s love of Proust, Eliot and Kafka. That Josipovici writes of writers I already read, and identifies nuances that are personally meaningful makes this collection important to me. That he writes beautifully, with humility and playfulness makes this book highly recommended for any reader.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Leonard Woolf’s first impression of his wife’s novel The Waves was, “It is a masterpiece,” “And the best of your books”. He also thought “the first 100 pages extremely difficult.” Virginia Woolf’s own note read “never have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”

Each of those sentiments is immediately recognisable as I read this remarkable prose poem. As is my custom I read the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Waves after completing the novel. Had I read it before I may have felt less inadequate to the task:

Certainly, the reader of The Waves  needs to swim, to trust to the buoyancy of the eye and the suppleness of the understanding. It is no good panicking when sequence seems lost or persons are hard to pick out. The rhythms of the work will sustain us comfortably as long as we do not flounder about trying to catch hold of events. The events are there, sure enough, but they are not sundered from the flow. This is to say that the form of the waves is acted out in the actual reading experience, and the reader must trust the medium. The rhythmic patterns of the book, this ‘play-poem’, provide the clues for the performance.

The feelings of inadequacy that this novel inspired from time to time never subtracted from the thrill of reading something sublime. Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is comparable. The inadequacy comes from the knowledge that there are allusions and a depth that would need a lifetime of study to fully comprehend.

Bernard’s final soliloquy is the only part of the novel where I read more than fifty pages in a single sitting. Prior to the last chapter, twenty page bursts were sufficient at a time. I needed to recap, to drink in the words. The last chapter presented no alternative but to be consumed singly, breathlessly.

The book is brilliant and a logical development, the one I hoped for, from Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. As an exploration of self and perception, the book is profound. To be aware of Woolf’s psychologically precarious existence and her diary entries that these “characters” suggested different aspects of of self, perhaps of that enigmatic “lady writing” whilst the gardeners sweep, is to appreciate more profoundly how difficult this book must have been to write.

Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I write the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

Reading The Waves brings to a close Woolf in Winter, my first shared reading experience. My heartfelt thanks to Sarah, Emily, Clare and Frances for galvanising me finally to tackle Virginia Woolf. Reading Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and The Waves, has been enriching.

Though Mrs. Woolf and I need a little time apart, I will surely read The Years and Between the Acts, Hermoine Lee’s biography and dip frequently into the essays and diaries, all of which now sit on my library shelves. The Waves and To the Lighthouse are also novels to be read again, several times.

In a twelve month period where I have finally read Austen and Woolf, this Harold Bloom excerpt seems apposite and appropriately controversial:

Will we ever again have novelists as original and superb as Austen, George Eliot, and Woolf, or a poet as extraordinary and intelligent as Dickinson? Half a century after Woolf’s death, she has no rivals among women novelists or critics, though they enjoy the liberation she prophesied.

Feel free to provide answers below.

20th Century’s Major English Language Poet

Recently in response to a post about Yeats, I offered a counterclaim that T. S. Eliot deserved the accolade of the twentieth century’s greatest poet.

I came across Harold Bloom’s opinion on the debate, writing of Eliot:

I confess a lifelong hostility to T. S. Eliot, whose literary criticism did real harm, and whose cultural criticism showed, at times, a vicious proto-Fascism. But from 1911 to 1925, Eliot was a great poet, publishing his masterpiece in 1922, The Waste Land, certainly the most influential poem in English in the twentieth century.


And of Yeats:

The Anglo-Irish poet W. B. Yeats probably was the major poet in English of the twentieth century, surpassing even Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Hart Crane. One might have to turn to William Wordsworth to find a more eminent poet.