Eula Biss: On Immunity

“Just because we have enemies, Sedgwick proposes, does not mean we have to be paranoid. Our cynicism may be justified, but it is also sad. That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would will fully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate wealth for others. And capitalism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.” p.103

“The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole.” p.132

“When I asked a friend how she would feel if her child contracted an infectious disease and did not suffer from it but passed it to someone more vulnerable who would suffer, she looked at me in surprise. she had not, she told me, considered that possibility”. p. 143

“Misinformation that finds a host enjoys a kind of immortality on the Internet, where is becomes undead.” p.147

Fragments from Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. A powerful, well-researched counteragent to selfishness, fear and self-interest. My edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.

Nathalie Léger: Suite for Barbara Loden

Absence is situated centrally in Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. Multiple absences. Multiple objects. Léger is asked to write a brief entry in a film encyclopaedia for Barbara Loden’s obscure film, Wanda, but gets drawn in. With the exception of Mickey Mantle, a legendary baseball player, himself struggling to find a form for his autobiography, few of those with information about Barbara Loden are willing to cooperate with Léger. No one involved will talk about the making of Wanda.

By the end of the book, I feel I’ve seen the film, though I haven’t and hope to do so one day. It isn’t easy to find. If Léger finds Loden difficult to pin down, the woman that inspired Loden’s story, Alma Malone is even more absent. 

Léger’s book feels as improvised as Loden’s film. Achieving that degree of ambiguity and indetermination is a consequence of presence and hard work. My edition, from new publishing venture, Les Fugitives, feels like it has been scrupulously pared and shaped by Léger and its translators, Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. Loden’s absence. Malone’s,  Léger’s, her mother’s absence. Her objects are present, her objects are absent. Legér employs a concentrated language of absence to breathe life into multiple forms: autobiography, film criticism, biography and fiction.

Brookner: Anger of the Underdog

One of several passages from Look at Me that I copied into my notebook:

“I could not, somehow, make contact with any familiar emotion. As I lingered in front of a lighted window, apparently beguiled by a pair of burgundy leather shoes, I could only identify a feeling of exclusion. I felt as if the laws of the universe no longer applied to me, since I was outside the normal frames of reference. A biological nonentity, to be phased out. And somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.”

Anita Brookner, Look at Me

Charlie Fox: This Young Monster

Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster was an entertaining companion for a cold with associated mild fever. The spaciness of my elevated temperature met the dreamlike quality of Fox’s exploration of freaks, monsters, children, outcasts and other ‘unacceptable’ outsiders. Channeling the hero of my teenage years, Rimbaud, Fox is drawn to individuals and art that rejects the adequacy of apparently normal beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.

Nine essays conclude with For Arthur and all the Other Mutts, in which Fox addresses Rimbaud directly. This is followed by Monster Materials: Reading. Watching. Looking. Listening: a loose source list for the works that underpin the essays. Connected only by theme the nine essays form a sort of looking-glass narrative that builds into an ironic subtext, interweaving social and critical commentary into their fabric.

Do you remember the old Waterstones, when it still used an apostrophe? In my twenties, my destination was the section labelled Cult Books. It was there I’d find Bataille, Baudelaire, Kathy Acker and Stewart Home. Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for capturing that section within the glorious pages of This Young Monster.

Brookner Recommendations

“Look at Me (1983)
Not by any means a perfect Brookner, but an essential one. Here we get our first full view of the battle between Brookner’s insiders and outsiders. Just whose side is she on?”

Anita Brookner published her first book at the age of 53, writing 24 novels in total. More by luck than judgement, I’m pleased that I begun with the ‘essential’ Look at Me. I enjoyed it very much and intend to read The Bay of Angels soon, which I’m told is Brookner’s bleakest novel, so quite my sort of thing. This list of recommendations is helpful in guiding further exploration of Brookner’s work.

Rudeness

Rachel Cusk on rudeness. This is characteristically brilliant, especially in its treatment of mock-politeness, worse in its way than outright rudeness.

“My mother and I don’t speak to each other anymore, but I’ve been thinking about her lately. I’ve been thinking about facts, about how they get stronger and clearer, while points of view fade or change. The loss of the parent-child relationship is a fact. It is also a failure. It is regrettable. The last time my parents spoke to me, my father said something very rude. He said I was full of shit. He put the phone down straight away after he said it, and I have not heard from him again. For a long time afterward, I was profoundly disturbed by his words: For my father to speak to me of shit, and claim that I was full of it, seemed to remove my basis for existing. Yet he was half of me: It was, I realized, for that reason that he felt he could speak to me the way he did. I was his child; he forgot that I was as real as he. It could be said that one-half of our country has told the other it is full of shit, deliberately choosing those words because it knows that their object finds rudeness — the desecration of language — especially upsetting.”

Agamemnon

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
       we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
      be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
      many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
      man’s life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
      back
and shade the house against white dogstar
      heat.
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
      grapes
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, (trans. Anne Carson from An Oresteia)

Anita Brookner: Look at Me

Anita Brookner’s Look at Me, my first of her books, rewards persistence, though occasional sentences, very infrequent, just clang: “In any event, he was, as the police say, helping them with their enquiries.” Often such a sentence is enough for me to add a book to the bag I keep by the door, ready to go, when full, to my local charity shop. 

I was in ruthless mood after persisting with a Fleur Jaeggy book that proved unrewarding. Testing my deflated reaction after finishing the Jaeggy, one review described it as “entirely sufferable“, another commented on the tiresomeness of its “vague profundity“. Both reviews seem broadly on target though entirely is an overstatement. I found the last Jaeggy I read equally insipid.

But Brookner is more interesting, capturing the casual cruelty between people exceptionally well. Unlike Rachel Cusk one senses Brookner as participant in her story of loneliness and love rather than voyeur. It is an utterly English story, wrapped in the hesitancy and froideur of its people.

Mathias Enard: Street of Thieves

“I read too, more every time, a pleasant way to trick boredom, death, to trick thought itself by distracting it, by distancing it from the truth, the only truth, which is: we are all caged animals who live for pleasure, in obscurity.” p.13

“Sometimes we sense the situation is escaping us, that things are getting out of hand; we become afraid and instead of calmly looking, trying to understand, we react like a dog caught in barbed wire, thrashing about madly until it slices open its throat.” p.99

“I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have as much Arab in me as Spanish or French, I have been multiplied in those mirrors until I have been lost or rebuilt, fragile image, image in motion.” p.271

Mathias Enard, Street of Thieves (trans. Charlotte Mandell)

Mathias Enard: Zone

All morning spent absorbed in Mathias Enard’s Zone; the same wonder at Charlotte Mandell’s translation as Shelley Frisch’s rendering of Stach’s biography of Kafka. Zone is better read in long immersive binges, punctuated by dreamy Bordeaux or grassy Sencha Fukujyu tea.

Enard’s circumlocutory thoughts, precisely paced over the long Rome-ward train journey, never falter or lose their pace. Sometimes with a book, you get that fortunate feeling that this book has found its ideal reader, or as Enard writes, “sometimes you come across books that resemble you, they open up your chest from chin to navel, stun you . . .” I love that word resemble, so close to reassemble. Both accurate in this case. After Zone I feel in need of reassembly.

” . . . too many things there are too many things everything is too heavy even a train won’t manage to carry those memories to Rome they weigh so much, they weigh more than all the executioners and victims in the briefcase over my seat . . .” That’s what Zone is about, but like Calasso’s books, it is also about everything else.

Rachel Cusk Interview with Caille Millner (And Thoughts on Twitter)

What struck me most of this discussion between Rachel Cusk and Caille Millner about Transit is Cusk’s assertion that the ‘only way of knowing someone is watching them’. Regardless of the form Cusk uses for her writing, this way of looking at the world lies at the heart of why I find her books so compelling. It is this sense of always being an observer, a voyeur, the painter looking into their own painting. It is essentially an outsider’s view, jarring and fascinating to find a writer that shares something of one’s way of perceiving the world.

Whereas once I might have shared this link via my @timesflow account on Twitter, that channel has drained of interest as it has come more to resemble Facebook. There has been much talk of the bubble effect on Twitter. That bubble effect when made up of a small, truly global group of people who share a literary sensibility is what has kept me on Twitter for the last six or so years. Bubbles can be good for you.

Recently, for quite understandable reasons, literary discussion has been largely buried beneath people’s anguish and rage about the political situation in America and to a lesser extent the U.K. It became clear last June how the bubble effect is compelling when literary but dangerous when political. I have other channels in which to consume and discuss political information. The endless op-eds and repetition available via Twitter were useless during the period before and after last June’s referendum, and equally pointless in this charged and painful time. I’ve tried limiting those I follow to readers still finding a way to discuss literature (apologies if I’ve upset anyone by unfollowing, it isn’t you, it’s me!), but the noise to information ratio is distracting, painful and not useful in any way. I’ve decided for the time being not to delete my account, but am not present on Twitter except in DMs.

Apologies if these comments seem pompous but I don’t want any of those friends I value on Twitter to think I’ve lost interest in literary discussion. I still follow posts on my favourite blogs via RSS. To avoid using Twitter in purely broadcast-mode, I shan’t be tweeting links to my posts here (after this one) for a while, so please follow by email or RSS if you have any interest in my thoughts on what I’m reading. If you’d like to get in touch please use email, blog comments or Twitter DMs. Thank you.

The Alexander Express

I’ll not get past this passage today, from Mathias Enard’s Zone, translated so elegantly by Charlotte Mandell. Dreams of an endless train journey through old, weary places. If I read a better book than Zone this year I shall be fortunate.

” . . . and the employee (a blonde Venetian, a kind of barrette held in her mouth like a toothpick) had looked at me stunned, to Alexandria but there’s a train, and in that immediate confidence one has in professionals I had pictured, for a second, a train that would go from Venice to Alexandria in Egypt, direct via Trieste Zagreb Belgrade Thessalonica Istanbul Antioch Aleppo Beirut Acre and Port Said, a challenge to geopolitics and to the mind, and even, once I had understood her confusion, Alessandria in Piedmont, I had began to dream of a train that would unite all the Alexandrias, a network connecting Alessandria in Piedmont Alexandria Troas in Turkey Alexandria in Egypt Alexandria in Arachosia, possibly the most mysterious of them all, lost in Afghanistan far from railroads the train would be called The Alexander Express and would go from Alexandria Eschate in Tajikistan to Piedmont through the lips of Africa in thirteen days and as many nights . . .”

Rachel Cusk: The Temporary

The title lingers. Everything is temporary, eventually. It cannot be uncommon that a short-lived encounter, intentionally transitional, acquires, as a buttress against loneliness, a condition of permanence. At least for a while. Rachel Cusk’s The Temporary brings together two solitary characters, less different than each imagines, who, temporarily, attempt to live up to the expectations of those around them.

We are in Cuskland and come to expect aesthetic detachment, but in The Temporary, though the viewpoint shifts between the central protagonists, our sympathies are expected to remain with Ralph. Amid swirling transience, Ralph is a statue, apparently rooted. Behind masks of insincere politeness, both characters exist to raise questions about social conventions attendant upon class, education and background.

In The Temporary, though an early second novel, one starts to sense Cusk’s tendency to distance herself from her characters’ meaningful encounters by aestheticising them as performance, placing herself into the role of incessant observer. This detachment could be distracting,  but not when the writing is this formidable, and the voyeur’s insight so nuanced and acute.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Nothing we read is in isolation. Everything we read is shaded by our mood, temperament, and by the other books we read before and afterwards. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond made me think of Rachel Cusk’s work. Both writers have an austere luminosity, every inch poetic and eloquent,  both writers capable of crafting the most unerring sentences.

What is apparent even in Cusk’s early work is a voice formed from confusion, mortality and defeat, a voice that without ever hardening acquires over time a deepening force and clarity. Though I read Pond for the most part with pleasure, there is a precocious, knowing tone that becomes mildly vexing. The way of observing the world, uncanny in its quickness is a little naive and disembodied. Read in juxtaposition to a different writer, the shade cast will have been different.

Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees

What are we to make of a fiction in which the main subject fails to appear? “For now,” writes Alejandro Zambra, “Verónica is someone who hasn’t arrived, who still hasn’t returned from her drawing class.” In The Private Lives of Trees the drama is turned inside out, dismantling the expected protagonist-antagonist tension. When Zambra writes, “When [Veronica] returns, the novel will end,” we know that the protagonist, like Godot, will never appear.

If the self-deception inherent in fiction relies on the portrayal of a representative character we can emulate, or with whom we can sympathise, how stable is a story based on the absence of a central subject? Though Verónica is only tangible through anticipation, she is also strangely present – to recall Berger’s critique of oil paintings of the nude – as the spectator in front of the scene. Everything is addressed to Verónica, yet she is, by definition, a stranger.

Thomas Nagel, in The View from Nowhere writes, “how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included”. By dismantling a traditional conception of character in fiction, Zambra asks how we equate characters with people, and how we come to believe in characters that are nothing more than verbal abstractions or constructs.