Words, Words, Words

“Mr Pickwick belongs to the sacred figures of the world’s history. Do not, please, claim that he has never existed: the same thing happens to most of the world’s sacred figures, and they have been living presences to a vast number of consoled wretches. So, if a mystic can claim a personal acquaintance and clear vision of Christ, a human man can claim personal acquaintance and a clear vision of Mr Pickwick.”

Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dickens

“He would have sacrificed ten years of his life, he once remarked, for the privilege of spending an hour with Sir John Falstaff.”

“He never left his house, recalled Licy, ‘without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag, with which he would console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights.”

David Gilmour, Introduction to Lampedusa’s The Leopard

“Many men with no great claim even to mere wit could have made most of Shakespeare’s jokes, as jokes. It is in the creation of the figures who make those jokes that genius underlies wit; not what Falstaff says but what Falstaff is is great. The genius made the figure; the wit made it speak.”

Fernando Pessoa, ‘Erostratus’

  1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard
  2. David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  3. The Pickwick Papers
  4. Both parts of Henry IV
  5. Pessoa’s poems and prose

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!

Troilus and Cressida and The Iliad

Mark, an occasional but always valued commenter here, exasperated that Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without suggest that Antony and Cleopatra merits greater affection than Hamlet quoted a beautiful line from Troilus and Cressida: “I cannot fight upon this argument;/It is too starved a subject for my sword.” With a free morning available I chose to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, a mature work written towards the end of his run of comedies.

Troilus and Cressida isn’t performed often and though I was vaguely aware it was derived primarily from Homer had little understanding of its power. The opening paragraph from the play’s introduction in my RSC Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, describes it perfectly accurately:

Troilus and Cressida perhaps reveals more of Shakespeare’s mature mind at work than any of the other plays. It is highly intelligent, rich in rhetorical complexity and linguistic invention, mentally rigorous, morally sceptical, sexually charged, full of dangerous intellectual and political energy, markedly unpleasant.

Unpleasant it is, which is why I imagine it is infrequently performed. That Troilus and Cressida was written over four hundred years ago is extraordinary as its grim anti-heroic dramatisation of war, inference of sexual assault and demythologising of Homeric heroes feels very contemporary.

Amongst a cast of vivid characters are two commentators, Trojan Pandarus and Greek Thersites, both vile, voyeuristic and overwhelmingly cynical and I imagine a great deal of fun to perform. Thersites carries the best lines, sewer-mouthed and acting as a sort of Greek chorus, nasty but sharp as he summarises the venalities of the Trojan and Greek heroes.

Although I’ve read a small number of Shakespeare’s tragedies several times, I’ve not spent enough time with his work to realise he was producing plays with this much intellectual depth. This goes deeper and darker than Hamlet or King Lear.

The RSC Complete Works suggest that Shakespeare’s Trojan War is notably derived from George Chapman’s 1598 translation, overlaid of course with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The latter came highly recommended in the comments to a previous post about Homer, so definitely a translation I’ll be reading soon. I also understand that Charles Williams wrote incisively about Troilus and Cressida in his English Poetic Mind, which I intend picking up when next at Cecil Court.

Thanks Mark for the inspiration for these flights. I discovered a great many other beautiful lines in Troilus and Cressida of which today’s favourite is: I have, as when the sun doth light a-scorn/Buries this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.

Are they not monsters?

graphic-gallery-of-shakespeare-heroines-cressida

 

They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one. They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?

Cressida, The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida. The RSC Shakespeare.

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

Music is Feeling

Clerkly Peter Quince, inept playwright of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is (loosely) the narrator of Wallace Steven’s early poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. I enjoy the poem for its “music is feeling, then, not sound.”

Music has expressive power, an ability to articulate that goes beyond language. Musicians and composers that sacrifice expressive meaning for superficial beauty might offer sensuality but can leave you frozen, the source, I suspect, of Beckett’s distaste for Bach, criticised for the ‘inexorable purposefulness’ of his music.

Attempting to describe how music can express a feeling or state of mind leads to inarticulacy, to the limit of language. Roger Scruton (I enjoy his writing on music far more than his politics) argues that concepts of pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm can only be described by recourse to metaphor:

It does not seem strained that Smetana’s music expresses the shining and silken qualities that we hear in it. Smetana’s music is not literally shining or silken. But its expressive power is revealed in its ability to compel these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. Of course, it is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable. Every metaphor both demands an explanation and also refuses it, since an explanation  would change it from a metaphor to a literal truth, and thereby destroys its meaning.

The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.

The Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.

Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).

Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature,  attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.

A Kafka Character

Only a poet could have written Auden’s The I Without a Self. His essay on Kafka displays a mastery of concision.

Yesterday I wrote of the importance of being in the right mood to read Kafka, and Plath. Emily and Michelle suggested that Woolf and Houellebecq need the same cautious approach.

Another of Auden’s notions played on my mind today: the creation of character.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, “This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens,” but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognises as Kafkaesque, while one would never call and experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian.

At a tangent, this also suggests Iris Murdoch’s contention, essentially correct, that she never created a memorable character.

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?

Young Person’s Hamlet

Away for a weekend in Stratford-on-Avon. When H., my ten-year old daughter, asked if she could see a Shakespeare play, where else could I take her but here, and to see nothing less than Hamlet, though an introductory production for young people. It is an outstanding production, H. could barely take her eyes from the action. This is surely the way to inculcate an early love of this finest of Shakespeare’s plays. H. wants to see King Lear next.

Most of my favourite monologues made the production, including:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fell of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes. Let it be.

When H. heard this monologue, she turned and gave me a gentle smile, pleased that she remembered my favourite; a memorable evening.

Woolf and Shakespeare

My current Josipovici book provided a wonderful Woolf quote, that reminds me of firstly how much I want to read more of her diaries, also that I have barely dipped into this wonderful Shakespeare collection. Here’s the excerpt:

I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and when I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less known and worser plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up…. Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out of any train of thought; and, relaxing lest fall a shower of such regarded flowers. Why then should anyone else attempt to write. That is not ‘writing’ at all. Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

Popularity and Artistic Authority

Josipovici develops an argument on the distinction between naivety and simplicity into thoughts on authority:

Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn’t rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture.

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.

Portals of Discovery

-What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.

Part 2, chapter 6 of Ulysses: Nabokov instructs his students thus:

The discussion in this chapter is one of those things that is more amusing for a writer to write than for a reader to read, and so its details need not be examined.

Here, I disagree with the late Professor Nabokov. Yes, it is a dense chapter  of allusion and erudition. Much of it I fail to penetrate on this first reading. But to miss the wit and the satisfaction of unlocking at least some of Joyce’s allusion would be a loss, arguably acceptable for students but not for ardent readers.

During a debate about Shakespeare, Eglinton contends that Shakespeare’s marriage was a mistake:

-The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best as he could.

-Bosh! Stephen [Dedalus] said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.

Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous.