Seeing to the Bottom of the Vessel

“How . . . how can I speak from my core; there is nil. I have turned thirty-six and shall never have children. I am a shrivelled person, I have sucked myself dry; I am a figure of fun; an object for curiosity; an old maid; or I shall be, old; don’t suppose I don’t mind. I do mind.”

Rosalind Belben’s decidedly original novel contemplates the distance between aloneness and loneliness. Published in 1979 it offers a more conscious version of that sub-genre of the early twentieth century, the spinster novel, a rendering that is wholly interior and includes an extended exploration of sexual frustration.

In her diary, Virginia Woolf writes, “I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat; of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel.” I know of no other novel that offers the reader a glimpse of the bottom of the vessel with such lucidness as Belben’s Dreaming of Dead People. It is wrapped in a particular atmosphere that conveys a sense of the existential aridity of isolation and loneliness, perhaps too familiar for some during this last terrible year.

It is a struggle to write through what Ilse Aichinger describes as the “undergrowth of banality” when thinking of such a stunningly alive yet deeply sad novel. Better perhaps to judge Belben’s nuances and pitch from an extended passage:

“I would laugh because I had come near enough to grasp that when all’s said and done – it isn’t said and done – you are beyond the point of caring about your books, or seeing the world first, or spending the rest of your money, or altering your will, or making a list of your treasures, or finding a beautiful landscape to die in, or fussing over your body and the redemption of your soul: you are flopped full length on your sofa, in your own room, gazing your last on the blur of your bookshelves – for the innocent reason that it happens to be the way you are facing; you are gone beyond the physical life; you are too near the fathomless bottom, dear nothing and nothing dear; you are not murmuring, even, howl, howl, howl, howl, howl, though you may be conscious of what is dead and what is alive. You may just write a letter to someone, sounding cheerful. No, that’s not true. Nothingness. And numbness. And blank, without either desolation or will.”

Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night

No place carries a stronger spirit of place in our memory than the places where we spent our childhood years. It is through the gift of our senses that we conjure up a place. What comes first when I think of the place where I spent my childhood is the uniform, relentless glare of a tropical sun, surrounded by an endless tangle of every shade of green, then comes the encompassing smell of the humid air and the gurgling jungle sounds. Only afterwards does my mind add the spectral presence of people, names and detail. An ordinary place for one person might be a sacred place for another.

Olga Tokarczuk lives in rural Lower Silesia, a region of Poland that was first integrated into the country after the Second World War. In a recent interview, she said: ““I’m lucky to have such an empty piece of land to describe because in Polish literature there are no legends or fairy-tales about it.” Nowa Ruda, a Polish mining town of medieval origin, with this history is recreated in Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night.

Tokarczuk calls these her “constellation novels”, in which she creates an interstitial space, into which she adds “stories, essays and sketches” and gives room for a reader’s “imagination to form them into meaningful shapes”. If you’ve read this post of my experience of reading you’ll not be surprised that I am strongly drawn to novels that create depth from composing a literary atmosphere rather than through narrative plot or historical context.

In this novel, Tokarczuk’s characters are not quite freed from History, but they are far less constrained to follow conventional narrative conjectures. She conjures an exterior landscape that is projected into the interior spaces of her characters in a way that feels rich and alive. Those interior spaces feel as much part of the landscape as the spaces the characters inhabit and wander through. Reading House of Day, House of Night is to sense an impending catastrophe, but one that allows a decampment to another space.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Montano’s Malady

“I have no literary interests, but am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else,” wrote Kafka in one of the five-hundred letters saved by his on-off fiancée Felice Bauer, a condition further exemplified in his short story In the Penal Settlement, in which a prisoner is punished by needles inscribing a text onto his skin, doubly punished by being forced to simultaneously read the inscription in a glass refractor.

In Montano’s Malady, Enrique Vila-Matas’ narrator invokes Ital Calvino as, “one of the first friends to open Tutankhamen’s tomb, by which I mean Pavese’s diary, a dangerous diary because it might infect whoever reads it with despair.” Vila-Matas’ narrator is afflicted by being “literature-sick”, so saturated with literature that it permeates every sphere of his life.

Montano’s Malady, like the other books of his I’ve read, is composed as a form of autobiography of questionable factual accuracy. His fictional universe is one of depths, leading a reader on a quest for core truths about origin and identity, a search that is never quite satisfied. It is reminiscent of Nabokov’s later fiction, a precarious dance of seven veils that I got bored with eventually, feeling overly manipulated. Persist through the manipulations of the first eponymous chapter and the reward is a story that combines structural complexity with a lightness of touch.

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Thoughts on finishing Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books

It may well come as no surprise to anyone except me that the word exhilarating derives from the same roots as hilarity and hilarious. I had thought exhilarating to describe a frothier emotion than to make merry, to cheer or to gladden greatly (definitions provided by Skeat). It is a word that often comes to mind when I reflect on a certain type of reading experience, that brought about, for me, by the writing, for example, of Clarice Lispector and Gerald Murnane, two writers that share little else in common. To gladden greatly, on the other hand, seems no less a correct way to describe how I feel during and after reading the writing of these two transformative writers.

It is this transformative quality that makes me unable to read their books one after another, for besides being exhilarating, having one’s way of perceiving literature and the world changed to a small or significant degree is not an experience to be expended profusely. It is worthy of careful reflection. However many of their books I read, I am unable to see the world in the way that Lispector or Murnane describes their perception. This is part of why I devote so much of my life to reading. How else is it possible to share for a few moments in so different a perspective?

There are writers whose writing has plunged me into reading binges of weeks or months, when I am compelled to read their books, often chronologically, one after another, in some cases on multiple occasions over several years. These are, I suspect, the writers that come closest to sharing, to a lesser or greater degree, something of how I perceive the world. The experience of following their thoughts from sentence to sentence, book to book, is no less exhilarating at the time, but being more comprehensible is perhaps less taxing. These writers, the subject of my periodic reading binges, tend to be those that, many years later, I feel that I have, in some indefinable way, outgrown, or maybe just absorbed.

These other writers, whose books I feel a need to ration, spreading the rewards of  transformed perception over time, are ultimately what I crave, though their fertilising pleasures are in short supply.