Dead Letters

Correctly, it seems, if belatedly, book blogging is pronounced dead. That the ‘golden age’ of book blogging is passed seems hardly worth debating. The conversation in diminished form is taking place elsewhere or perhaps nowhere. Whatever your passion or interest, blogging itself died as the marketing departments moved in offering swag and the illusion of influence.

Social media, occasionally blamed for distracting fickle blog readers, simply threw some dirt on a coffin that was already being lowered into the ground. For a moment, it seemed to offer an alternative, but was always destined a place for commerce, less agora and more commercial break without the intervening substance. There is still a possibility of connection, of finding a handful of people that get excited by the same set of things, but the anonymity of social media leaves you open to distraction from the type of opinionated men you’d cross the room to avoid at parties. I think a lot about Seth Godin’s comment in his On Being interview, “We are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk? All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments. I’m not buying it.”

All sorts of ‘dead’ languages are studied today, some less ‘dead’ than others. Literature may be dead, literary criticism is dying, serious novels are in steep decline, yet we continue to read. There is still the frisson of my RSS reader signalling a new post at This Space or flowerville. The book blog died a long time ago, but keep reading the ones you love as zombies in any part of human culture remain as effective as ever at reducing their subject to the bare, intricately nuanced essentials.

Broch’s The Sleepwalkers: Some Initial Thoughts

“Besides, after the material for character construction already provided, the reader can imagine it for himself.”

Hermann Broch’s modernist reputation only becomes clear in the second volume of The Sleepwalkers. The first is bound gently to the past, relaxed and expansive in the way of nineteenth century prose with an inner form that suggests maturity. Yet this was Broch’s first published novel.

By contrast the prose of the second volume is less elevated, more steeped in irony and skepticism. There is a dense undergrowth to the language, yet both volumes share the sinuous sentences which are hesitant about reaching a definite terminus. Each full-stop in volume two comes as a resigned sigh. You could perhaps argue that the trajectory of Broch’s “degeneration of values” critique of life is a little too evident, but I’ve yet to start the final volume, and am keen to see whether Broch synthesises the almost balladesque style of the first volume with the mocking pathos of the second, or whether he choses not to resolve.

I find in The Sleepwalkers something that happens rarely. While both styles intermingle, what is most striking is the presence of silence, a prose that holds time, that listens to its own echo. Whether or not Broch’s first novel lives up to its ambitious breadth of vision, whether he manages to resolve the chords of resonance across three volumes, it is nevertheless a book that is complete in itself. It is a book to lose oneself within.

Broch: First Impressions

“During the last few days he had become uncertain about many things; some pillar or other of life had become shaky, and though everything still remained in place, because the parts reciprocally supported each other, yet along with a vague wish that the vaulted arch of this equilibrium might cave in and entomb beneath it all that was tottering and uncertain, a fear had arisen at the same time that the wish might really be fulfilled, and there had grown within him a longing for permanence, security and peace.”

Reading Hermann Broch for the first time, been interested in reading Death of Virgil for years, but drawn to The Sleepwalkers after someone on Twitter, possibly Charlotte Mandell, posted fragments last year. Halfway through the first volume, The Romantic, first impression is that I like these sinewy sentences, clauses within clauses, the delicate shading, With Edwin and Willa Muir’s translations I always feel in good hands. I like that his style, the disturbed hesitations, so typical of an earlier time, force a slower pace. You must slow down to catch the echoes beneath the words.

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress

J. M. W. Turner
Landscape with a river and a bay in the distance c.1835–40

“I grew increasingly comfortable sitting at Mass and participating in everything but the Eucharist, for many years. The skepticism that was like a splash of iodine in the milk of my childhood home began to work its way out of my system.” p.XII

“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work.
Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics.” p.5

“There is a Muslim prayer that says, ‘Lord, increase my bewilderment,’ and this prayer belongs both to me and to the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ in my poems––and under multiple names in my fiction––where error, errancy, and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.” p.6

“The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others––places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.” p.15

“There is a new relationship to time and narrative, when the approach through events and observations is not sequential but dizzying and repetitive. The dance of the dervish is all about this experience.” p.18

“After all, the point of art––like war–– is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” p.23

“At what point, this kind of writing [Edith Stein’s] makes me ask, does the renaming of things actually transform the world around you? Can it? Can you build a vocabulary of faith out of a rhetoric first made of dread and then stand behind this new language? Is faith created by a shift in rhetoric, one that can be consciously constructed, or must there be a shattering experience, one that trashes the wold worlds for things? The difference between her two rhetorics––one hardcore philosophy, one dogmatic-spiritual––makes one wonder how they can coexist, when each one is (seemingly) unbelievable in relation to the other. Only in some of her poems (and her life( do they become indivisible.” p.59

“The importance of [Ilona] Karmel’s novel––its bitter inheritance of memory––lies in its depiction of the camp as the condition of the Western world in mid-century. The labour camp is not an aberration but a continuation of humanity’s increasing contempt for itself. Weary history is a one-way street with no U-turns, no exits.” p.64 [cf., Agamben, and news this week of further child deaths in American border camps.]

“Beyond that, I am at the end of a generation that began with existentialism; that still prefers irritation to irony; and that shares a political position sickened by the fatal incompatibilities between freedom and equality.” p.68

“Thomas Aquinas was an itinerant thinker. His thinking rolled like a reel.
It went forwards as a movement backwards. His thoughts may have been placed on the side like the eyes of any intelligent animals.
To mitigate pain he recommended weeping, condolence by friends, bathing, sleep, and the contemplation of the truth.” p.108

“Probably people should go Sannyasa as soon as they retire, and become wanderers, contemplatives, ones who act charitably all the day long.” p.111

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life

I don’t have anything to say about this dazzling, precious book. I’m a reader, not a book reviewer, and this one is too close. I’ll be reading this for a long time

The Hazards of Rereading

What is that changes when we reread? Not the sentences, though they may convey different meanings on rereading. As readers, we change, our moods or sensibilities are changed by experience, by other things we’ve read. It is also possible to reach back to past versions of ourselves. May it be possible to learn more about ourselves from the changes to how we react to a particular book, or writer’s work?

Geoff Dyer, like me, is a relentless book-culler, making his library, “tighter and tighter, again replicating in a personal way the larger process of canon formation by elimination and erosion over time.” It can be dispiriting to revisit a favourite writer’s work, as I did last year with Geoff Dyer’s books, only to discover that where there was once enchantment, there is  now little more than curiosity about how these sentences, words or stories, once cast such a spell. (With the exception of But Beautiful, which remains one of the finest books I’ve read about music and musicians.)

So it is with Tomas Espedal’s work. Although I still found a measure of pleasure and silence in Against Art, rereading Against Nature, Tramp, and reading for the first time the newly translated Bergeners didn’t disappoint, but there was not that special intimate encounter in which one fully inhabits a world carefully created by its writer. A certain narrative force carried me forward, but left me little desire to continue to engage with his work. For the most part, his literary and aesthetic reflections felt quotidian, in the case of the former: gossipy and trivial.

There is a certain satisfaction in the idea that rereading is an essential part of challenging our past selves and reshaping our personal literary canon, that, as Dyer writes, our library will be distilled to just what is essential: “In a quasi-Borgesian way, I would ideally draw my last breath just as I turned the final page of the only unread book left in my collection. At that moment my library – my life – would be complete.”

A New Thread in a Great Embroidery

“In the mornings we had breakfast together in the kitchen. She spoke of her father who’d worked on the railway, of her mother who’d died, and of Thea who’d moved into their house in Inndalsveien. She spoke of her sister Margit, and of her first meeting with her lover in the hut below Løvstakken, how he’d saved her. We lived together, got married and had a son, your father, she said. She talked away, bringing out the same stories over and over again, but each time a new detail was added, a new story, it wove itself into the others like a new thread in a great embroidery: her family tapestry. It hung there, unseen, on the kitchen wall, a large embroidered tapestry with characters she’d invented, landscapes as she recalled them, small studies of rooms and furniture which were sketched and woven together in her imagination; a tapestry of scenes from working life and family life, with streets and houses, a long, narrow street with blocks of brick buildings and children playing, and in the background, behind all the changing motifs, behind all the narratives, far away, like a miniature in the great, colourful weft: a picture of the harbour. Quayside cranes and shipyards, boats and factories, workers and seamen, small characters stitched in place between the buildings and the sea; I could see the same image from the flat where we were sitting, from the dining-room window; it was as if she’d put me into the tapestry she was weaving, I was being painstakingly woven into her story, the whole of my background and history, and gradually, too, my present, she cut it out and sewed it into this tapestry of motifs that resembled the ones I saw every single day from the dining-room window.”

From Tomas Espedal’s Against Art. His tapestry a revelation of his narrative approach, the interweaving of his life with those who came before, without whom he wouldn’t have existed. Everything interconnected. I wasn’t sure that my initial enchantment of discovering Espedal’s work would hold up, but I needn’t have worried.

An Attitude Towards Life

‘Greece for our purposes means not a race, but a culture, a language and literature, and still more an attitude towards life, which for us begins with Homer, and persists, with many changes but no breaks, till the closing of the Athenian lectures by Justinian.’ p.26

‘The spirit of man does not live only on tradition; it can draw direct from the fountain-head. We are dealing with a permanent type of human culture, which is rightly named after the Greeks, since it attained its chief glory in the literature and art of the Hellenic cities, but which cannot be separated from western civilisation as an alien importation.’ p. 28

‘A national character may be best exemplified in its rebels, a religion in its heretics. If Nietzsche was right in calling Plato a Christian before Christ, I do not therefore regard him as an unhellenic Greek. Rather, I trace back to him, and so to Greece, the religion and the political philosophy of the Christian Church, and the Christian type of mysticism.’ p. 29

‘The industrial revolution has generated a new type of barbarism, with no roots in the past. For the second time in the history of Western Europe, continuity is in danger of being lost. A generation is growing up, not uneducated, but educated in a system which has little connexion with European culture in its historical development. The Classics are not taught; the Bible is not taught; history is not taught to any effect. What is even more serious, there are no social traditions. The modern townsman is déraciné: he has forgotten the habits and sentiments of the village from which his forefathers came. An unnatural and unhealthy mode of life, cut off from the sweet and humanising influences of nature, has produced an unnatural and unhealthy mentality, to which we shall find no parallels in the past. Its chief characteristic is profound secularity or materialism.’ p.38

‘Quite logically the new spirit is in revolt against what it calls intellectualism, which means the dry light of reason to the problems of human life.’ p.38

Religion by William Inge. In: R.W. Livingstone. (Ed.). The Legacy of Greece. pp. 25-56.