As part of a life-long liaison with France I am drawn to accounts written by English residents comparing England and France. Lucy Wadham’s The Secret Life of France combines French depth with English humour.
Writing about her husband’s ex-girlfriend, an erotic bombshell, she discerns a need in social groups that would be an anathema in England (which explains a lot about English sexual malfunction):
When I heard this story I inwardly vowed to cut Aurélie out of my life. At the time Laurent had the elegance not to object, but after we split up he and Aurélie became close again. Today I feel a good deal more charitable towards her. In fact, as Hortense once explained to me, women like Aurélie fulfil a useful role in society. They are erotic catalysts. Not all women should be matronly or sisterly or otherwise sexually passive. If they are, the erotic charge disappears from the social group, or goes underground and becomes pathological, disembodies, infected by guilt. The idea is that in the presence of this type of predatory woman, wives and girlfriends feel at risk and this sense of risk reboots the libido. Significantly, Carl Jung identified the vital social role of this type of woman in his book Aspects of the Feminine. Even he, however, could not help giving her the pejorative label ‘The Overdeveloped Eros.’
Much of the difference between England and France Wadham attributes to the latter’s historic Catholicism. This reminds me to read Peter Ackroyd’s lecture entitled “The Englishness of English Literature,” in which he argues:
… that a ‘Catholic’ strand of English consciousness, one that is exuberant, irrational and indeed visionary, has been overlaid and repressed by the protestant rationalism that has prevailed since the Enlightenment.
John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet is poignant and elegant. I had read little of Berger’s work but got drawn in by Geoff Dyer’s enthusiasm. This is Berger’s description of being cultivated by an early mentor:
Sometimes there were several, one on top of the other, so that I might chose George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. Katherine Mansfield. The Garden Party. Lawrence Sterne. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer. Neither of us, for different reasons, believed in literary explanations. I never once asked him about what I failed to understand. He never referred to what, given my age [11 years old] and experience, I might find difficult to grasp in these books. Sir Frederick Treves. The Elephant Man and other Reminisces. James Joyce. Ulysses. (An English edition published in Paris.) There was a tacit understanding between us that we learn – or try to learn – how to live partly from books. The learning begins with looking at our first illustrated alphabet, and goes on until we die. Oscar Wilde. De Profundis. St. John of the Cross.
Here is Where We Meet is a memoir, of sorts, and a good place to begin a wider reading of John Berger’s many books.
In a later passage, Berger describes the basis of a successful, for a time, relationship:
For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.
Style? A certain lightness. A sense of shame excluding certain actions and reactions. A certain proposition of elegance. The supposition that, despite everything, a melody can be looked for and sometimes found. Style is tenuous however. It comes from within. You can’t go out and acquire it. Style and fashion may share a dream, but they are created differently. Style is about an invisible promise. This is why it requires and encourages a talent for endurance and an ease with time. Style is very close to music.
Sebald’s use of language and metaphor in Austerlitz is glorious, and although moved, the impact of the book was less than Rings of Saturn, which was overpowering: the hammer-blow that we seek from great writing. By the last thirty pages I wanted to leave Austerlitz. This takes nothing from the book, which I will reread at some point. I suspect that after Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, Austerlitz was too novelistic and I’ve come to expect different qualities from Sebald.
Sebald’s Austerlitz is beautiful. This passage is the start of a minutely observed and extreme case of writer’s block:
How happily, said Austerlitz, have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander, and how secure have I felt seated at the desk in my house in the dark night, just watching the tip of my pencil in the lamplight following its shadow, as if of its own accord and with perfect fidelity, while that shadow moved regularly from left to right, line by line, over the ruled paper. But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed. If at times some kind of self-deception none the less made me feel that I had done a good day’s work, then as soon as I glanced at the page the next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies and lapses staring at me from the paper. However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.
Everything we introduce into a novel becomes a sign: it is impossible to insert an element that does not change it to some degree, any more than you can insert a number, algebraic sign, or superfluous exponent into an equation. Sometimes-rarely, because one of the novelist’s cardinal virtues is a beautiful and intrepid unconscious-on a day or critical inclination, a sentence I have written will conjure up horrors before me, as Rimbaud wrote: as soon as it is integrated into the narrative, assimilated by it, caught irrevocably in a pitiless continuity, I sense the radical impossibility of discerning the ultimate effect of what I have shoved into a delicate, growing organism: food or poison?
– Julien Gracq, Reading Writing, on the novel:
Julien Gracq, who died in 2007, wrote with great elegance and lucidity. He deserves to be more widely read. This a passage from Reading Writing, on the novel:
Of a poem, there is no form of memory other than its exact memorisation, line by line. No reconnection with it is possible aside from its literal resurrection in the mind. But the memory one retains of a long and exacting work of fiction, of a novel, last read or reread years ago-after all the work of simplification, reconstruction, fusion, and readjustment that the elision of memory brings with it-would, if the matter were not so evasive by nature, provide a very interesting topic of study. In fact, if such a study could ever present some reliability, it would provide new information on the structure and secret resources of works of fiction.
We would have to compare the memories that avid readers of good faith distantly retained of the same work, and have them recount their idea of the book-or rather what remains of it, omitting any references to the text-from memory, to note the fairly regular recurrence of the shipwreck of entire sections that have sunk to the bottom of memory, and flashpoints, on the contrary, that continue to irradiate it, and by whose light the work is reconstructed in an entirely different way. Another book would appear beneath the first-the way another painting appears beneath an X-rayed painting-that, to the economic map of a country, would be a little like a map of its energy source.