“It is with rueful longing, sometimes, that the naturalist in us undertakes to describe the life our longing calls “the idyll of the animal.” We ponder the spider as it spins, and end in admiration for its patience, its persistence, the instinctive geometries of its web, even its ruthless indifference – a callousness it cannot be blamed for; or we track the lion to and from its lair, or watch the tiger in the tense alertness of its stalk; and we envy how organised the insects and animals are, how – to us – they seems always to express the essential; they know nothing, we think, of distraction, guilt, excess, anxiety, delusion, pride, shame (Nietzsche’s example is a herd of grazing cows, unmolested by memory or foreboding, the present passing from one ruminating stomach to another as if life, when processed, delivered only milk); and how fortunate these creatures are, we imagine in such moments, because each of them possesses the superior efficiencies of its species; they fit without their measure being taken; whereas we perceive a painful inexactitude in our forms and functions; the fit is the tantrum we throw when we fail to find our station; and so we say that we have these gifts because we need them, because basically we are a handful of opposed thumbs: we don’t know how to live.”
—William H Gass, Finding a Form
i can spend quite a time thinking about passages like this. What is at its heart beyond a stylistic exercise. Articulate vs. Intellectual. I bought a William Gass Reader that was published recently, one of the books I may take with me for the summer; for easy grazing, but with just a little grit.
In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:
“The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
“Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
“This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
“If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
There are also good and bad readers
“I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
“Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
The Death of the Author is a delusion
“In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
“As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
“My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
“How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector
To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.
Through its window my cell glows like a single bulb. It is that speck of life you sometimes see from a plane, starleak in the darkness, or a solitary seabird resting on some moonless ocean, poised (wouldn’t Governali love to put it?) above the abyss, yes-on the last branch of a broken faith. Loneliness enlarges thought till it pushes every shadow from my study. In grander moments I think of this space as my skull, and my consciousness as a dinging bell and warning beacon.
Writing has almost always been difficult for me, something I had to do to remain sane, yet never satisfying in any ordinary sense, certainly never exhilarating, and never an activity that might satisfy Socrates’ admonition to find a logos for my life, as I felt it surely had for the authors I admired: even Malcolm Lowry’s dissolutely drunken sprees, even Hart Crane’s beatings at the hands of sailors, beatings he sought out as he ultimately sought the sea; even Céline’s meanness, a bitterness that ate through his heart before it got to his shoes and ate them, too; even these malcontents, though nothing justified their wasted ways, their anger, their multiplication of pain, might be, by their works, somewhat saved, their sins hidden under sublime blots of printer’s ink.
The recent post at Mindful Pleasures about Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night also mentioned his [Brian’s] own collection of a ‘mere few thousand books’ compared to Manguel’s ‘obsessive 30,000, ten thousand more than even Susan Sontag was able to amass.’ Sontag’s, in turn, is comparable with William Gass’s 20,000 books.
There are some rather wonderful quotations along these lines in this Spring’s edition of The Book Collector:
Augustine Birrell’s delightfully stern remark: ‘To be proud of having two thousand books would be absurd. You might as well be proud of having two top-coats. After your first two thousand difficulty begins, but until you have ten thousand volumes the less you say about your library the better Then you may begin to speak.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Edmund Gosse on the other hand stated, ‘The man that has two or three thousand books can be familiar with them all; he that has thirty thousand can hardly have a speaking acquaintance with more than a few.’
. . . . . . . . . . . .
When the sizes of private libraries are discussed, I am pleasantly reminded of the disgusted exclamation of J. E. B. Mayor, the longest-serving professor of Latin at Cambridge to date, who suspected with horror that some of the football men at St John’s ‘had libraries of fewer than 2000 books.’
You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.
I’m mostly behind Barnes’s opinion but some literary criticism is first-rate writing. When I feel like reading criticism I want erudition, something cultured, digressive and preferably tendentious. This list comprises ten favourite books that stand proudly alongside first-rate fiction:
Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters: An Historical Novel
Maurice Blanchot – The Space of Literature
Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
Guy Davenport – The Geography of the Imagination
Cynthia Ozick – Metaphor & Memory
Denis Donoghue – The Practise of Reading
William H. Gass – A Temple of Texts
D. J. Enright – The Alluring Problem: an Essay on Irony
Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature
The list is in no particular order. It could have easily grown to twenty and included work of Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Joseph Brodsky or Viktor Shlovsky.
It is difficult to admit to a flaw in Flaubert, any lapse in late Cézanne, or to say that Schoenberg had perhaps not found the right way, or that certain magisterial albeit monotonous and soporific works of our Modern Movement were a mistake, a mistake worse than dreadful – merely dreary. It is difficult because the enemy is still out there, growing stronger with every so-called advance in the media, in the scoop-up profit of its enterprise and the passivity of the experience it provides, growing more Philistine, more commercial, more hopelessly “pop” during every advertising break, through every sappy sitcom minute.