Thoughts on Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Book of Communities

So I’ll have to reread The Book of Communities. That was a clear thought within the first twenty pages of reading the first book of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy The Geography of Rebels. My state of mind at that thought: excitement and sorrow. However much I read, watch and listen to, there are always going to be vast chasms of stuff that I don’t know. That’s the sorrow. Excitement to discover a writer that has the capability to upend my world to the point I spent two sleepless nights thinking about the book. That such a thing is even possible beyond the heady days of youth is exciting.

There are comparisons to Clarice Lispector. Both writers quickly move beyond conventional narrative and push what is capable within the form of what we call fiction. But so do Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett and if comparisons must be made those are more apt. Llansol’s voices are closer to the metaphorical presences of Beckett, what she calls figures, “It is in exile, in the outside of the outside, that the network of figures, like Ana de Peñalosa, Nietzsche, Saint John of the Cross, Eckhart, Müntzer, Hadewijch, and others, takes root in order to receive the myth of the remaining life, and wonders whether there will be a place in the human body, among their bodies, where fantastic cosmogonic changes correspond to incredibly slow social mutations.” (From this excellent review of Llansol’s trilogy.)

Her use of figures allows Llansol to elude the clichés of literary characterisation and attempt to produce a feeling that is sensed rather than portrayed directly. Somewhere online I read an odd post drawing an analogy between Llansol’s trilogy and Finnegans Wake. Such an analogy is only useful in contrasting the differences. I’ve not read Finnegans Wake cover to cover and suspect I may never do so, but my impression is that Joyce moves almost entirely towards abstraction, reducing his narrative to a purely verbal code. The danger is that pushed to the extreme, abstraction is rendered so richly that it becomes unintelligible mishmash. It is quite possible I am doing Joyce a disservice  (and for once agreeing with Nabokov who called the book “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore.”) As they say on Twitter, don’t @ me.

Llansol is difficult in its own way, but never unintelligible. Her figures are subjected to deformations and subject to a series of precise sensations. It is the precision of thought that gives her story clarity and makes it a container for speculative questions about the nature of writing and close reading. I found reading The Book of Communities an intensely felt experience, nervous as much as cerebral. It is a lived experience of Merleau-Ponty’s essay on language not residing purely in the brain, but being something we do with our bodies, words are “a certain use made of my phonatory equipment, a certain modulation of my body as a being in the world.” In that sense, like poetry, it is a book that benefits by being read aloud, playing with the elisions and sound structures. Its translator, Audrey Young, from what I can tell from comparing its original online, has done an outstanding job of retaining its rich tone and rhythm.

It is the sort of book to be read with a pencil and access to good reference books or a browser. Llansol wrote the first two books several years apart, so rather than rush into the second book in the trilogy, I plan to follow the rabbit-hole leading through medieval mystics, philosophers and social history, so that when I reread The Book of Communities and its sequels I do so with a little less sorrow about all the stuff there is still to know.

The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

JM Coetzee’s Slow Man

In Slow Man Coetzee almost fails, or rather he makes the reader expect him to fail, by braving deep metanarrative but drawing back from any of the expected or even easy narrative threads.

Late Coetzee is playful, Nabokovian; in Slow Man’s case bringing back Elizabeth Costello, a narrator from earlier work to explore again issues of language and sexuality through a prism of weary old age. Coetzee has a finer touch than Nabokov though; his metadiegetic game playing, in this case, succeeds precisely because he knows when to pull back from self-absorbed, self-referential fiction that devours itself.

This Slow Man, like its successor Diary of a Bad Year, which I’m reading, is literature to admire not love. There is satisfaction in narrative as an act of construction but it is less easy to enter the kind of fictional space that leads to total immersion. And perhaps that too is deliberate, a game with the reader, deploying language in a way that is slippery, that eludes truth and falsity, that renders the project more tentatively and, in its way, is more accessible to self-reflection.

I’ve spent a few hundred hours thinking about and reading Coetzee’s work. After Diary of a Bad Year I’ll read The Childhood of Jesus. Of the novels that’ll be the end for me of what exists to date. I’ve read the fictionalised autobiography and consider that trilogy Coetzee’s finest work to date, though Life and Times of Michael K holds a special place in his oeuvre. I also plan to read soon The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, his dialogue with psychologist Arabella Kurtz.

Interpretative Revelation

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Nabokov, Pale Fire (62-63)

Brian Dillon’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”

Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room is the first in Cabinet’s 24-Hour  Book series.

Dillon’s book explores the scenography and architecture of writing itself. Inspired in part by Georges Perec’s short fragment in Species of Spaces on Antonello da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his study, Dillon’s text is both a personal reflection on the theatrics of the study, the library, and the office, and a historical consideration of such writerly paraphernalia as Proust’s bed, Nabokov’s index cards, and Philip Roth’s moustache.

Cabinet is now my only magazine subscription. Apart from Cabinet my media consumption is entirely online, in one form or another. You never know what you will be reading about when Cabinet shows up. (With a subscription you also get access to the archives.) I’m not on commission here, just pushing you toward the good stuff. I used to have a dozen subscriptions to publications, not only literary journals, but found that they were sitting unread while I caught up with Twitter and my RSS feed. I get more reliable literary criticism from Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters and Michelle Bailat Jones than I got once from more mainstream publications.

Striking red cover and bold title apart, the production quality of I Am Sitting in a Room is crap. I’m not easy on my books; I scribble on them and bend their spines. In this case, the pages started to fall out before I got ten pages in.

That aside, the book is short, seventy-odd pages, and comprises Brian Dillon, who I’ve intended to read for ages, writing about writer’s routines and the places where writers go to write. Autobiographical in part, also a study of writers including  Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Joan Didion, accompanied with photographs of writer’s studies. That’s my summary, though you may prefer Cabinet’s version above.

Dillon’s keeps a blog, mostly used to cross-post pieces that have appeared in other places, and is on Twitter. I also came across this absorbing piece, drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, that Dillon wrote for Frieze, as much about the state of criticism as about taste. I’m very interested at the moment in Bourdieu for his ideas on taste, the nature of patriarchy and, intrigued by a conversation with Rim, his views on the origin and death and decadence of philosophy. Here’s a taster of Dillon’s article:

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.