Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

“Every True Reader is a Writer in Force”

“Yes, exactly. But every true reader is a writer in force. A true reader is someone who remakes the other’s book. Besides, it’s the movement itself of the book. When you open a book, first of all, it’s a harsh act, because you break it. You open it up, to get out what’s inside. You begin your reading with the first page. You read the first page, you think you’ve retained it all. When you turn the page, what remains of the first, in the second? One or two phrases, an emotion at the moment of an encounter. You read the second page, go on to the third; of the second that you have nonetheless read completely, few things remain. All the rest gets erased. And gradually like that until the end. At the end, the book that you’ve enjoyed, that you’ve read with the greatest attention, becomes a book that’s fragmented by you, by the important pieces of your reading. It’s with that, that you will make your own book. And the author is always surprised when they cite a phrase of his when there were other phrases right beside it that perhaps seemed more important to him. For example, in my own experience, in the last book of The Book of Resemblances there are one or two phrases that were extremely important for me, phrases about myself, that revealed a lot of things. At least I thought so, that they were going to stop there and say, “Ah, look at this, here.” Well, even my closest friends didn’t see these phrases. What does that say? That says you can’t, you, transmit something through the book. It is blank each time. You can’t say, on a certain page, “Here it is,” because the reader doesn’t understand. Finally, it’s that all books work or they don’t. And when it does, it works according to the reading that you have given it. Of my books there have been the most contradictory readings.”

from this interview with Edmond Jabès

A Horrible Vision of the Future (1966)

“I elucidate my observation that there are people, an increasing number of people it seems to me, who resemble those sick people in the realm of normality: who keep their feelings and passions well tempered, never reach the verge of a real conflict, are able to swallow everything, if not process it, never know devotion or even moral steadfastness in love, nor see any reason or it . . .
Yes, he says, that is technology. It produces this human commodity, and we cultivate it–But to have to live among such people is a horrible vision of the future . . .–How so? You can still live among mentally ill people who still have all that. Besides, no hereditary biological mutations occur among these people, everything can be reclaimed in coming generations. If technology is not apathetically imitated, they way the pupil copies the teacher’s A, but if we play with it . . .”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Christa Wolf, City of Angels

Cassandra, Medea. In Christa Wolf’s retelling of these old stories, there are no more heroes. Her project is ideological, the dismantling of myth to uncover the inherent manipulation. By groping her way into the past, Wolf provides a different way to look at our present situation.

In the earlier No Place on Earth, Wolf’s reference points are taking shape, and will be further developed in the two later works. Though political, she is much more than a mere polemicist, explicitly playing with a concept of memory beyond Socrates’ slab of wax, closer to the idea that memory is what makes perception possible, and that our interpretation of reality, based on our memories, is our principle source of wisdom.

In her last novel, City of Angels, these themes coalesce in a book that blurs all the traditional boundaries between reality and fiction. These are my favourite books, surprising and felt in equal measure. Wolf projects instances of her life onto a protagonist that is simultaneously subject and character. But none of that is what makes this novel so brilliant. It is rather the way we inhabit her protagonist’s mind, Wolf’s mind, as its exploration of its own subjectivity and recollection unfolds. As Brodsky wrote, “Evolution is not a species’/adjustment to a new environment but one’s memories/triumph over reality.”

Old Questions

“If such things as primitive communism, group-marriage, and matriarchy were admitted into the beginnings of Greek civilisation, what would become of the dogma, on which the ruling class leant more and more heavily as the city-state declined, that its economic basis in private property, slave labour, and the subjection of women rested on natural justice? If the writings of the later materialists, Demokritos and Epicurus, had not perished, we might well have possessed a more penetrating analysis of early Greek society than Aristotle’s. But they perished partly for that reason. Plato wanted the works of Demokritos to be burnt, and his wish has been fulfilled.”

George Thomson,  Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean

Review of this rather curious, but fascinating book.

On Guard Against Herself

“She knows too well the causes which can trigger in a woman some unconscious response to a man: mere self-absorption, the dread of an ignominious loneliness. The man, driven by egotism to think himself irresistible, has the knack of interpreting such signals, no matter how covert, as an open invitation. She must be on guard against herself, all the more so because she considers herself capable on an uncalculating and boundless self-surrender.”

Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth, (trans. Jan van Heurck)

Christas Wolf’s No Place on Earth

This No Place on Earth is whimsy, a dark artifice stage-managed by Christa Wolf, placing Romantic poet Karoline von Günderrode in a succession of frames with Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist.

There is no evidence that the pair ever met, or engaged in the intoxicating, conversational interplay that Wolf conjures to comment on the patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century Germany and on the anxiety of post-Goethe German writers of the time. It is, I suppose, an essay as much as a novel in so far as it resists conventional categories; an essay in the true sense of trying something out, testing a hypothesis. I read and then reread No Place on Earth, translated by Jan van Heurck, and found not a single note out of place. It is just shy of one hundred and twenty pages, but contains an immense intimacy, a scrutiny of our chances of vanquishing self-alienation.

Günderrode and Kleist wander away from the tea party, which is the stage set for their encounter, frustrated by the empty chatter of the other guests, and discover during their intense conversation the tantalising possibility that they are intellectual equals capable of recognising each other’s autonomy. “Sometimes,” writes Wolf, “I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.”

Early in No Place on Earth, Wolf writes, “She knows the place where she must drive home the dagger, a surgeon whom she jestingly asked about it showed her the spot, pressing it with his finger.” Suicide, that frequent Romantic release overshadows this novel, and though Wolf closes with a note of hope: “Simply go on, they think. We know what is coming,” it is towards nothing: in Günderrode’s case, by a dagger she carried all the time in her handbag; in Kleist’s case by a bullet.

Bachmann and Wolf

The German Library’s Bachmann and Wolf caught me unawares; words spilling out, some stirring, others stinging, but the whole thing a treasure outright. How does one adequately explain why one loves this story or that particular book? The more I write here about books, the less I think I am even capable of objectivity. I don’t care for reviews, but only understanding why readers love the objects of their attention, which inevitably amounts to explaining themselves.

My affection for Christa Wolf’s stories is long standing. I expect to read everything of hers that makes it into English translation. If my memory serves me right, Wolf’s Cassandra landed first in my collection, imposing itself with its graceful interpretation of dismal aspects of the human condition. Wolf never coerces you into her stories, but invites you in gently, making you feel almost at home, before shaking you up, but gradually like a long ride over cobble-stones. Bachman and Wolf includes her short novel No Place on Earth, which quietly turned me over and over, leaving me washed ashore, and with little choice but to turn back to its first pages and read again, slower, carving notches with my pencil.

I suppose flowerville lead me to Wolf, as to Bachmann, first encountered in this collection, but quickly become indispensable, especially for the fiery lovers’ script of The Good God of Manhattan, translated by Valerie Tekavec, a flight into language every bit as inspired as Orpheus and Eurydice, or Romeo and Juliet. I expect to read as much Bachmann as I can find in translation.

Ingeborg Bachmann (German Library)

With its eye-popping red panel, bold black and white frame, the bravura display of Continuum’s German Library is blandishment to my book collector’s compulsion. Its finite 100 volumes, of many writers I wish to explore, goad me on to further temptation.

This afternoon with the Ingeborg Bachmann half of this edition, part of my calling this year to read her short stories and novels. Four Bachmann selections: Sightseeing in an Old City, a passage written for, but not incorporated into her novel Malina; the gelid Among Murderers and Madmen, which I read three times, more aghast each time; the hypnotic Word for Word, and ending with The Good God of Manhattan, a beguiling and evasive drama, given magnificence by its passages of moving  and beautiful language.

“Then there’s just so little time in the world. Because even when everything else has been discovered and formulated, the glaze of your mellow eyes and the blond steppe of hair on your skin will remain incomprehensible. When everything is known, done, and destroyed again, I’ll still be seduced in the labyrinth of our eyes. And the sob in your breath will affect me as never before.”

Reading the Religious . . . ?

“In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s Sammler, a Holocaust survivor who does not think of himself as a religious man, does not know why he keeps reading and returning to medieval religious texts. It is not that he wants to hitch a ride on the language of a belief he does not actually hold. Nor is his a curatorial concern that if modern people cannot read religious writing any more then much of human literature is lost to them, and will be lost ever increasingly in the future. What moves him is rather what made William James write The Varieties of Religious Experience: that there is something in this, even if we do not formally believe in it, even though we do not know how to translate it; something of deep primal importance even if finally we have it leave it behind.
It is towards the strange deep old texts that Sammler is drawn. Long tendentious arguments and reductive explanations are what, Sammler says, he finds too much around and about him. The old man is tired of their coercive pigeonholing, their constant thinness, and their passing fashion, He wants instead descriptions of experience to carry in his head, without being told what to make of them. Weary of modern noise, he wants succinct and austere sayings that stay in mind like poetry. ‘This too shall pass.’ What draws Sammler to these religious works, even as a non-believer, is a dissatisfaction related to Saul Bellow’s own sense that modern people may be trapped in a false and over-familiar framework, by an impoverished worldview. As if they might need a different model of self and a deeper psychological vocabulary to accompany an alternative ontology. ‘I am,’ cried the poet Cowper, ‘a stranger to the system I inhabit.’
What Saul Below feared was that the cry would not be made any more if it seemed melodramatic, stupid or pointless, and meaninglessly out-of-date.”

A passage from a short book, Reading and Reader, by Philip Davis, through which I expected to sail in a day, but which instead performs its own argument by creating what Davis terms a holding-ground for investigation and contemplation.

Pessimism Transformed (For We Must Go On)

“It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition it is his.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett

“If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention,  but since however we may debar ourselves from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise Life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.” Johnson, Rambler 47

“I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: I do wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett


Slight Impressions

” . . . the growth and maintenance of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist. Thus, if you remember anything of this book, it will be because your brain is slightly different after you have finished reading it.”

Kandel, In Search of Memory (2006)

Jude posted this fragment on Twitter as an instance of performative language. Unsurprisingly, I’ve thought about it often over the last two days. It was on my mind when compiling my personal canon. Memories, scenes, an atmosphere, a mood or milieu: these are what persist in memory of those books that we find a need to seek out repeatedly. It is as though a space, a cavity is opened up and filled with a new memory. Some books, dizzingly, open up multiple fissures. You sense the difference afterwards. The if only . . .

Inchoate Thoughts

Earlier I commented on Robert’s post entitled On Disdainful Ignorance. As I was reading and responding, I remembered this fragment of Wordsworth that always makes me think of that ‘how’.

”          but that the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, to which
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue.”

Wordsworth, The Prelude

Kierkegaard, Like the Interjection

“The life of mankind could very well be conceived as a speech in which different men represented the various parts of speech (that might also be applied to the nations in the relations to one another). How many people are mere adjectives, interjections, conjunctions, adverbs; and how few are substantives, verbs etc.; how many are copula?
In relation to each other men are like irregular verbs in different languages; nearly all verbs are slightly irregular.
There are people whose position in life is like that of the interjection, without influence on the sentence– They are the hermits of life, and at the very most take a case, e.g., O me miserum.
Our politicians are like Greek reciprocals (alleeloin) which are wanting in the nominative singular and all subjective cases. They can only be thought of in the plural and possessive cases.
The sad thing about me is that my life (the condition of my soul) changes according to the declensions where not only the endings change but the whole word is altered.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (trans. A Dru)

Of Accidie

“Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call ἀκηδία, and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. It is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul. And so some of the Fathers declare it to be the demon of noontide which is spoken of in the Ninety-first Psalm.

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. . . . Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep.”

The Desert Fathers (trans. Helen Waddell)