August: Contemporary English Language Books

Magnolias, the whetted irony of postmodern narrative, Socrates, and the pellucid veil of translated literature. Of all these I suffer from ambivalence.

I surround myself with books, about which I am also ambivalent. Sometimes I would like to own fewer books, but I keep buying and collecting books. What I like is the literature that happens to be contained in the books in the form of fiction, but also poetry, essays, religious and philosophical writing, and critical writing about art and literature.

According to the graphs and charts on LibraryThing, where I catalogue my books, almost sixty percent of the books in what I call my library is what Kate Briggs in This Little Art terms twice-written: translated literature.

I read a lot of literature in translation as I have a little French, but no German, or Norwegian, or Portuguese, or Romanian, no Spanish or Ancient Greek, and just a little Latin. Briggs writes: “When it comes to writing and reading translations the question of what is wholly normal or truly plausible, of what was really said or written gets suspended, slightly”. I allow translated literature to seduce me because I agree with Jon Fosse’s contention that, “uniquely literary qualities can often be translated . . . because literature is more linked to the sentence, both to the single sentence and to the text, the poetry collection, the novel, as a kind of mega-sentence, than to the word, and therefore more linked to rhythm than to sound”.

Recently, my ambivalence resurfaced. Should I make more effort to read literature with, as Virginia Woolf put it in her broadcast on Craftsmanship, the right words in the right order? Certain words and lines of Aeschylus, of Paul Celan and Friederike Mayröcker, have a definite hypnotic effect on me, but, of necessity, these are mediated by the labour of a translator? What about the contemporary? Instead of dwelling in murky, hundred-times explored worlds, what of the black squiggles of today?

August found me plunged deeply into books recently published in the English language. I read books by Deborah Levy, David Keenan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, Susanna Clarke, Sam Riviere, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, Damon Galgut, and Claire-Louise Bennett. Some of these were good books, with memorable atmospheres, and lines that set off interesting thought-trains. Some just passed the time, most were uninteresting to me. Only one, I would argue, contained literature, that is, held life within it, sufficient life to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul.

Which one contains literature, you ask? I have little to say about it because, finally, what can I possibly say that can express a text to you? This book operates on multiple levels simultaneously, blurring distinctions, crossing boundaries. It is self-conscious, introspective and demonstrates an extreme awareness of the imperfection and power of words. If it can be said to be about anything, perhaps it is about privilege, or lack of it, and control, or the lack of it. Checkout 19 opens, “Later on we often had a book with us”. Between those words and its closing pages, a small bit of the writer’s relationship, conveyed in writing, to the enigmatic nature of life (and death) is revealed.

Nocturnal Worlds

“A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams the next morning on an empty stomach. In this state, though awake, one remains under the spell of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablutions, the grey penumbra of dream persists and, indeed, in the solitude of the first waking hour, consolidates itself. He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast. He thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds-a precaution justified only by the combustion of dream in a concentrated morning’s work, if not in prayer; otherwise this avoidance can be a source of confusion between vital rhythms. In this condition, the narration of dreams can bring calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and must incur its revenge. To express this in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naivete, and in laying hands on his dream visages without thinking, he surrenders himself. For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be addressed from the superior vantage of memory. This further side of dream is attainable only through a cleansing analogous to washing, yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep.”

Walter Benjamin, Breakfast Room from One-Way Street, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter

Exuberance and Decay: H.D.’s Visions and Ecstasies

Everything below this paragraph is taken from Visions and Ecstasies, a series of essays by the American writer H.D. They are collected in a volume published by David Zwirner Books, part of a series I enjoy collecting. The pages in this volume are few, but there are genuine ideas to be found from an unfamiliar perspective, amidst a stream of merely intelligent thought. H.D.’s brief list of pornographic literature would make a satisfying winter reading list.

‘My sign-posts are not yours, but if I blaze my own trail, it may help give you confidence and urge to get out of the murky, dead, old, thousand-times explored old world, the dead world of overworked emotions and thoughts.’

***

‘Two or three people, with healthy bodies and the right sort of receiving brans, could turn the whole tide of human thoughts, could direct lightning flashes of electric power to slash across and destroy the road of dead, murky thought.

Two or three people gathered together in the name of truth, beauty, over-mind consciousness could bring the whole force of this power back into the world.’

***

‘There is plenty of pornographic literature that is interesting and amusing.

If you cannot be entrained and instructed by Boccaccio, Rabelais, Montaigne, Sterne, Middleton, de Gourmont and de Régnier there is something wrong with you physically.’

***

‘But a man has intellect, brain—a mind in fact, capable of three states of being, a mind that may be conscious in the ordinary, scholarly, literal sense of the word, or sub-conscious—those sub-conscious states varying in different states of dream or physical feeling, or illness, delirium or madness—a mind over-conscious as well, able to enter into a whole life as Leonardo entered, Euripides, the Galilean with his baskets and men’s faces and Roman coins—the first hermits of the Ganges and the painter who concentrated on one tuft of pine branch with its brown cone until every needle was a separate entity to him and very pine needle bore to every other one, a clear relationship like a drawing of a later mechanical twentieth-century bridge builder.’

***

‘I draw the curtain across my window, across them, their impertinence and their greatness. I cannot bear to think of them. But with my fingers stained with moss and scratched with whortleberry and oak-tangle, I open a little Tauchnitz volume.

With my fingers too, rather than with my eyes, I read these poems.’

***

[Anacreon] ‘is gone. There floats this legend through old text-books, a date, an anecdote, but he, he himself is gone. He is gone, cruel in his immortality. He has left us—he has left me, and before me fingering this little volume, there is a path, set with small white paving-stones, a little edge of white marble, laid in long, even, slender, graceful books, stone blocks, imperceptible curves, two steps, columns, very small, very perfect.’

That Astonishing Excavation: White Egrets by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott, Portrait of Claudia in Yellow Armchair, 2005

In many of the poems in Derek Walcott’s White Egrets, it is possible to imagine the influence of post-impressionist painters with his intensity of attention for ordinary things: domesticities or the expression on a face:

Irises stipple the hot square in passing showers,
shadows pause in their casework, ornate balconies rust,
the sunlight of olive oil slowly spread in saucers
and loves that are hard to break have a screw crust.
Esperanza, cherished Esperenza!
Your lashes like black moths, like twigs your frail wrists,
your small, cynical mouth with its turned-down answer,
when it laughs, is like a soft stanza

That concentration on the essence of a plain object, without sentimentality, with such clarity, brings to mind painters like Bonnard or Degas, who would be capable of finding ‘the sunlight of olive oil slowly spread in saucers’. No surprise that Walcott is a painter as well as a poet (and a playwright).

White Egrets is his fourteenth collection, the work of mature Walcott, stripped of any complication and obscurity, though that may be a personal reaction after my recent immersion in the recondite poetry of Friederike Mayröcker and Paul Celan. What is immediately evident is the unpretentious lucidity of his verse. It is easy to take this for granted, but all the more necessary with these poems to slow down and reread. What is beneath the surface readability are a range of concerns and passions recorded with such heightened intelligence and objective observation.

Where there is melancholy in Walcott’s poetry, you feel the reverberations of a human struggling with the lived experience of love and ageing, rather than the vulgar professional unhappiness of a lesser writer.

If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.

What is left after reading these poems, something I will do often, is Walcott’s insistence that he cannot escape from himself. There is weight to this work, but an absence of dogmatism:

in March, you blaze in her praise like a sea-almond
the crab scrawls your letters then hides them,
certain that she would never understand.
How boring the love of others is, isn’t it, Reader?
This page, touched by the sun’s declining arc,
sighs with the same whinge, the Sonnets and Petrarch.

Walcott’s poems are best read in the original collections rather than in anthologies or journals. There is a cumulative effect, which gives the sense of bringing us closest to the poet’s intention.

Nothing to Talk About

Quote

“Gilles Deleuze
53 rue de Colombier
Lyon 7ème

Dear Francois [Châtelet],

Thanks for your letter. You know that I would be happy to write for La Quinzaine, if the chance arose. Unfortunately, I can’t for Painter*. I am like you, I find the book atrocious and meaningless, and poor in its principle. And I do not want to do an article “against” something or “savaging” it (here again, I think I am like you, since as far as I know you have never done an article solely to say something was bad). To be able to write, you have to have some small amount of esteem. Painter was vaguely detective, vaguely ethnographer, vaguely erudite American shit . . . there is nothing to talk about. I will be in Paris at the end of the month and would be happy to see you if you have time.

Friendship and wishes,

Gilles”

*A reference to Painter’s Marcel Proust: A Biography, a nasty, gossipy, psychoanalytical-type biography, all that I loathe in biographies, as compared to the magnificent Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner, or David Gilmour’s The Last Lepoard, a biography of Lampedusa. For the same reasons as Deleuze, I think I only wrote one post here about a book I found vaguely bad, to which the author, also a vaguely erudite American shit wrote to correct some points. I don’t remember the author or book and think I deleted the post.