Shyness and Dignity

An aspect of blogging that is often disconcerting is being unable to recognise, or agree with, one’s earlier opinions of a book. Have I become more sensitive during the nine years of writing on this blog? A better reader? It is an unanswerable and rhetorical question. I certainly read different books, in a different way. I re-read Dag Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity, which I read almost eight years ago, missing entirely the unique force of Solstad’s story. The urge to delete or rewrite old blog posts is never stronger than such moments.

What Solstad captures so well is the strangeness of relationships, the way we form bonds with others. What I once saw as a pivotal moment in the novel is nothing of the sort, a mis-reading of what is in effect a decidedly powerful but trivial incident. Why do we decide to pursue a relationship of any depth with a particular person, and what is it about us that persuades that person to reciprocate?

“[…]he fully realised that, to the others, he was a person who lived in the shadow of Johan Corneliussen. But anyway, since it pointed to the obvious fact that Elias Rukla was Johan Corneliussen’s friend, it had to mean that there must be something about him too, in the eyes of the others. Elias Rukla himself often wondered what it could be. There must be something about him that caused Johan Corneliussen to prefer his company to that of others …. he had better not worry too much about what it could be, he thought – for if I discovered what it was it would either disappear or change into its unsympathetic opposite, insofar as I then would show it in a completely different way than I do now when I do not know what it is.”

Identity is shaped in context of our relationships with others. How do we form ourselves and how is our unique “I” nurtured by relationships? For those trying to live a reflective life, thinking too deeply about why our relationships exist can lead to feelings of imposture. As Solstad writes, “[…] his sullenness was, of course, only due to his trying to hide that he was overwhelmed with gratitude because Johan Corneliussen was his friend and to his having such warm feelings for him that he felt shy and miserable when this warmth swept through him.” However intimate we become, our separative, egocentric self is always present. But that self is never fixed, morphing and changing with every moment. It becomes a different self, as the self who read Shyness and Dignity eight years ago adequately demonstrates.

The narrator, Elias Rukla marries: “Yes, she’s Eva Linde, and I will never get to know why she wants to live with me, But her wanting is enough, actually more than enough; I’m delighted that she wants to, in spite of the fact that I will never know the reason why she wants to, and it is not certain that the reasons are the same as I wish they would be.”

Is there a better summary of the strangeness of long-term relationships, especially marriage? The concept of identity can seem so precarious. The power of Shyness and Dignity is its intriguing scrutiny of how two egocentric selves fuse together in a relationship and how their relationship of each other to each other depends on their self’s self-relation.

I re-read Dag Solstad’s book as there have been two new translations into English of later works, but before I get to them I plan to re-read his earlier translated novels.

The Miracle of Miracles

“Is not the sum of your actual experience taken at this moment and added together an utter chaos? The strains of my voice, the lights and shades inside the room and out, the murmur of the wind, the ticking of the clock, the various organic feelings you may happen individually to possess, do these make a whole at all? Is it not the only condition of your mental sanity in the midst of them that most of them should become nonexistent for you, and that a few others–the sounds, I hope, which I am uttering–should evoke from places in your memory, that have nothing to do with this scene, associates fitted to combine with them in what we call a rational train of thought–rational because it leads to a conclusion we have some organ to appreciate. We have no organ or faculty to appreciate the simply given order. The real world as it is given this moment is the sum total of all its beings and events now.
But can we think of such a sum? Can we realise for an instant what a cross-section of all existence at a definite point in time would be? While I talk and the flies buzz, a sea-gull catches a fish at the mouth of the Amazon, a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness, a man sneezes in Germany, a horse dies in Tartary, and twins are born in France. what does that mean? Does the contemporaneity of these events with each other and with a million more as disjointed as they form a rational bond between them, and unite into anything that means for us a world? Yet just such a collateral contemporaneity, and nothing else, is the real order of the world. It is an order with which we have nothing to do but to get way from it as fast as possible.”

William James, Principles of Psychology, 862-863

Jane Bowles’s Selected Letters

Throughout Jane Bowles’s letters, the unceasing lament about not-writing, “I have decided not to become hysterical, however. If I cannot write my book, then I shall give up writing, that’s all. Then either suicide or another life. It is rather frightening to think of. I don’t believe I would commit suicide, though intellectually it seems the only way out.”

The book, Out in the World, a follow-up to Two Serious Ladies, went unfinished, though she finished a single play, In the Summer House and a handful of stories. There are those who would argue that she is as important a figure as Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes. Whether or not such comparisons matter is of little real consequence, though Jane Bowles is greatly underrated. Two Serious Ladies and each of the meticulously crafted, unique stories demonstrate a vital force. Her fiction confronts life and death with open eyes. There is dark humour wrapped around the anguish of living in the face of death.

This weekend I finished a volume of selected letters, titled Out in the World, edited by Millicent Dillon, also Jane Bowles’s biographer (of whom Paul Bowles said “She managed to do exhaustive research. She never knew Jane, and I think that she never understood that the most important thing about Jane was her sense of humour.”)

To be aware of Jane Bowles’s fate is to imbue these letters with a painful predictability as the combination of drink and prescription drugs reaches its conclusion. As Stacey D’Erasmo wrote in her superb essay on Bowles, “You know, Jane, I think with some sourness as I go through these scant pages, some with only doodles of sad faces on them, it might have been better if you had stopped drinking.” Bowles’s wit comes across amid the endless worry in her letters, about writing, money, love, loneliness and drinking, but what also is evident from Jane Bowles’s letters is her kindness and understated warmth, which, in the end, with her enigmatic and beautiful stories, is enough.

Daniela Cascella’s Singed

To fervent readers, in truth to any members of a cultured society, the burning of books is always shocking. Whether motivated by a desire to blot out the past, an exercise of social hygiene or an insidious attack on a particular writer, book-burning is a uniquely nauseating form of criticism. The burning of The Satanic Verses in 1989, lead by Bradford’s senior imam seemed somehow more alarming than the subsequent fatwa against its writer Salman Rushdie. It is impossible to think of book-burning today without a mental image of blonde-haired Nazis in 1933 rejecting their rich cultural heritage.

In Daniela Cascella’s Singed, the book-burning is not a public auto-da-fe but a more intimate concern: a house-fire. “The smell of singed paper haunts me”, Cascella writes, “The smell of singed paper haunts me with a song.” Although her conflagration is no atavistic urge to cleanse society, it still inspires an act of spiritual reconquest, an excercise of memory to recall what was lost, the absent voices–books and CDs–of her library.

“Could I turn the fire inward,” Cascella writes, “use the charred remains as material to write with?” Writing only from memory, from the voices that remain after literature and music, Singed is a wholly exceptional treatment. It is difficult to recall another book that combines erudition and melodic intonation in the same way; the closest is Clarice Lispector whose voice runs through this book with its repeated words and rhythmic gradation of sounds.

I once read that novice monks lose their voice in the first months of chanting the Divine Office. This marks the point after which a monk learns to sing lightly enough to sustain the extensive chanting of his office. “A scar from ear to throat: the mark of necessity, the mark of muteness through a great effort of voice,” writes Cascella. The force of a voice that arises from an unexpected or unthinkable situation, a house-fire that destroys literature, can become the voicing of an emptying, a clearing. I read Singed in a few days, while travelling around Berlin, marvelling at its precision, its extraordinary rhythm. It will add richly to my library, physical and internal, of discourses of muteness.

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is an odd book. It does almost none of the things histories of literature do. It doesn’t start with Defoe. It doesn’t dissect texts in any conventional sense. Schmidt takes only passing interest in literary critics, preferring to learn about fiction from novelists. It took him twelve years to write The Novel, requiring him to read all the major and minor works referenced for the first time. Schmidt previously concerned himself with poetry rather than fiction. This is not an inward journey into Schmidt’s psyche, yet his voice is strong and distinctive. The book appears to have been written in an ecstatic trance of discovery, yielding as many surprises to the writer as for the reader. It is this quality that makes its thousand plus pages not only effortless but thrilling to read.

We read fiction for many qualities and the more I read the less I understand about why particular books appeal to individual readers: sometimes for style, or the characters, sometimes for insight or form or atmosphere, sometimes there is a perceptible but hard to describe force or tension that makes a story linger long after a book is shelved. Very occasionally all these factors come together to produce those major works that are passed down over time. This is the sociable aspect of fiction, often seen as a solitary pursuit, but few books live long that aren’t shared with friends in conversation or as gifts.

Reading nonfiction is different, although it can share characteristics with fiction, but sometimes what lives long after you complete a book is a sense of companionship, even friendship with a writer that inspires or influences your life. Marcus Aurelius wrote that, “when you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself.”

Schmidt’s simple premise is that fiction is a living organism, with all novels related in some way to one another. As readers we all have a different reading life, starting perhaps with Tintin and progressing to Proust, with many stops and detours in between. As with our own reading lives, fiction goes through times of low and high energy, but intrinsic is the idea of an interchange between writers: without Cervantes and Sterne, Woolf or Joyce would not have written in the way they did. In many ways, Sterne is as contemporary as Woolf, so although Schmidt’s biography is broadly chronological, when necessary he plucks writers out of time in order to situate their work in the ocean of literature.

If you care about the nature and fate of fiction, then you cannot fail to be enriched by the reflection, humour and great subtlety of this line by line celebration of  novels. Schmidt stops his biography at the year 2000 and I can only hope he writes a sequel to bring his thoughts on fiction up to date, if only to keep company with his wonderfully sociable reading life.


Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.


Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.