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.

Vivid and Loving Study

The Return of Persephone, bell-krater

‘But can one apply the same process to Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet? Can any one tell us in a few words what they come to? Or can a person get the good of them in any way except one–the way of vivid and loving study, following and feeling the author’s meaning all through? To suppose, as I believe some people do, that you can get the value of a great poem by studying an abstract of it in an encyclopaedia or by reading cursorily an average translation of it, argues really a kind of mental deficiency, like deafness or colour-blindness. The things that we have called eternal, the things of the spirit and the imagination, always seem to lie more in a process than in a result, and can only be reached and enjoyed by somehow going through the process again. If the value of a particular walk lies in the scenery, you do not get that value by taking a short cut or using a fast motor car.’ p.7

‘In the first place, it is not a beauty of ornament; it is a beauty of structure, a beauty of rightness and simplicity.’ p.9

‘I therefore cannot resist the conclusion that, if the language of Greek poetry has, to those who know it intimately, this special quality of keen austere beauty, it is because the minds of the poets who used that language were habitually toned to a higher level both of intensity and of nobility than ours.’ p.11

‘The power of seeing things straight and knowing what is beautiful or noble, quite undisturbed by momentary boredoms or changes of taste, is a very rare gift and never perhaps possessed in full by any one. But there is a profound rule of art, bidding a man in the midst of all his study of various styles or his pursuit of his own imaginations, from time to time se retremper dans la nature–’to steep himself again in nature’. And in something the same it seems as if the world ought from time to time to steep itself again in Hellenism: that is, it ought, amid all the varying affectations and extravagances and changes of convention in art and letters, to have some careful regard for those which arose when man first awoke to the meaning of truth and beauty and saw the world freely as a new thing.’
p. 21

The Value of Greece to The Future of the World by Gilbert Murray In: R.W. Livingstone. (Ed.). The Legacy of Greece. pp. 1-23.

Thoughts on Fanny Howe’s Nod

Waves Breaking against the Wind c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02881

Still five days remaining, but Fanny Howe’s Nod might be a place to rest for the year. Maybe some poetry or philosophy to conclude. Some big books this year, Middlemarch, Schmidt’s The Novel, Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations; each absorbed over a month. But it feels good to have read fewer books, to have read better and reflected more.

So pleased to have discovered Fanny Howe and Nod is a little special. Perhaps I’ll spend the remainder of the year reading it again. A third reading. I like to finish an extraordinary  book and reread it immediately, without the tension of reading for discovery, just for immersion in its depths. There is plenty of water in Nod, the sea one of its small cast of characters. There is also annihilating human cruelty, more intense than the story’s despair, deliberate cruelty of the sort that often only occurs within the protection of unconditional love, malignant cruelty that destroys self-love.

Yet Nod is not hope-less. It lacks the unredeemed and desperate cruelty of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, stories of such saturated excess it took years to almost forget. Nod‘s characters are not diabolical, merely human. Howe allows us to glimpse the rationale, to grasp the ethics, the desire that underpins the cruelty. For this is also a story steeped through with desire and longing, human loneliness taken to an almost infinite degree.

There is great subtlety in Howe’s work, whether in Nod or in the essays of The Winter Sun and The Needle’s Eye. Her roots as a poet are evident in the attentive, meticulous prose. I want to read everything.