Leavetaking and Vanishing Point by Peter Weiss


“I read of the world of the Russians and the French, of the English and Americans and Scandinavians, and nothing stopped me feeling at home there. I was akin to Gaugin in Tahiti, to Van Gogh in Arles, to Myshkin in St. Petersburg, to Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forests and to Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma.”

Being exiled is a training ground for a dedicated reader, rootless, inwardly alone and never without the lonely good company of a book. In Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, the twentieth century as the age of alienation finds eloquent expression. Peter Weiss writes: “For me there were no lost home and no thoughts of return, for I had never belonged anywhere.”

Cosmic and social unity is gradually displaced by commodification and selfish individuality, transformations accelerated during the industrial revolution. The wars of the twentieth century and the continuing aftermath: perpetual crisis, wars and persecutions make rootlessness a common experience for countless individuals. But even those fortunate to lead relatively settled lives are, to borrow Camus’s term, irremediable exiles.

Peter Weiss’s two autobiographies are possibly the best I’ve read on the emotional and intellectual manifestation of that feeling of not belonging and its concomitant desire for security, yet fear of loss of freedom. Like many lonely wanderers, Weiss turns to literature, both as reader and a writer. In these two spiritual autobiographies he recollects his tentative beginnings as an artist and reflects on the literature and experiences that provided a formative substratum. Without a home, all literature is foreign, but in what is strange or unfamiliar we can feel alive.

An Act of Resistance

‘But one day the why arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. Begins – this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.’

‘To think that the work of art can be considered at last as a refuge for the absurd, it is itself an absurd phenomenon and we are concerned merely with its description. It does not offer an escape for the intellectual ailment. Rather, it is one of the symptoms of ailment which reflects it throughout a man ́s whole thought. But for the first time it makes the mind get outside of itself and places it in opposition to others, not for it to get lost but to show it clearly the blind path that all have entered upon.’

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Returning from a trip that took me from LA to NYC, speaking to emboldened Conservatives bolstered by the pervasiveness of a rising right, what was most visible was the social vulnerability on the streets. As I write this, the UK is governed by an unelected and xenophobic administration expecting great success at an imminent election. Each day brings further frightening developments barely reflected in a neutered media.

This blog reflects my passion for a literature that ‘awakens consciousness and provokes what follows’, but it is sometimes difficult to sustain the concentration necessary when witnessing daily the destructiveness and xenophobia. Will literature help understand poverty beneath the cloud of abundance and extraordinary consumption, or the loneliness of rampant individualism? Is community, literary or otherwise, even possible in this late capitalist society?

Art, for Malraux, was triumph over death, the only thing that resists death. It is a beautifully simple idea. Deleuze wrote something similar: ‘The act of resistance has two sides. It is human, and it is also the act of art. Only the act of resistance resists death, whether the act is in the form of a work of art or in the form of human struggle.’

On the flight from LA, I watched Oliver Assayas’ Non-Fiction, essential for those passionate about literature, but also its themes of individualism and loneliness. Social criticism is the film’s undercurrent, with complex and multi-layered characters that, exposed in vulnerable moments, display aspects and emotions that people prefer to conceal. It isn’t preachy, nor are there moral judgements, but an encounter with an artist that handles painful subjects with honesty and courage. This is the possibility of art, whether film or literature, a place where dreadful things happen in a parallel existence, creating the chance for us to encounter our unplumbed fears and the Other within.

Holiday Reading – Piglia and Vila-Matas

I had travelled to Saint-Mézard, a remote commune in southwestern France, bringing with me books by Ricardo Piglia, Enrique Vila-Matas, Renee Gladman and Lucy Ellman. As is often the case, I read less than expected, preferring for much of the time to lose myself in contemplation, sitting quietly listening to the birdsong and observing the landscape. As Vila-Matas wrote, “Here in this village . . . where the hours pass in a slow but lively fashion, I think only about life.”

What little I read, Piglia’s diary, in which he fictionalises himself, and Vila-Matas’ novel in which he pretends to be writing a private diary that is trying not to become a novel, made me think mostly of the absurdity of all the time I spend deciphering symbols on a page that purport to represent life. It seems a decidedly odd way to use the apparently endless, but definitely finite and limited time alive, particularly during a week in which a radical, hard right—unelected—administration has taken control of this country.

Writers like Piglia and Vila-Matas—both books, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and Mac & His Problem are brilliant—highlight this absurdity. In both cases, thought itself is given a fictional characteristic and placed into a character (or series of characters). In this way the history of fiction can be represented as a progression that represents the idea of the Other. Both books express the Other by means of varied signs that mark distinct ruptures in the idea of writing and the nature of fiction. I’m doubtlessly explaining this badly. It made more sense as a conversation over a glass of local wine. Camus wrote, “We can only ever have a dissonant relationship with the world because we seek out truths about it that we cannot find or verify.”

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Without reservation, I am a deep-seated admirer of Geoff Dyer’s work. Since reading his D. H. Lawrence book I have continued through each of his titles. Last year I went to a talk that Dyer gave on Camus, (available here, but registration needed for the full video. It is worth it when you have a free 55 minutes.), when he spoke of Camus as a kindred spirit. It is a similar, extraordinary kinship I feel for Dyer’s writing. There is a connection beyond some murky similarities in our backgrounds.

Dyer’s latest book Zona has as its foundation Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has haunted me through three successive viewings. I am far from finished with Stalker so I am thrilled Dyer chose (and was permitted) to weave his discourse around (almost) a shot by shot post-mortem of the film. If you haven’t read Dyer before or seen Stalker, I recommend you watch the film and start elsewhere with Dyer.

At one point Dyer writes,

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly; there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.

By the time you’ve read several of Geoff Dyer’s books, fiction or non-fiction (these categories become irrelevant), the same statement could so easily apply. Conceptually and in its realisation Zona is reliant on Dyerian cliché, but that is not a negation of the book’s virtuosity. Dyer’s writing is idiosyncratically brilliant for its immunity from the traditional contrivances of literature. Ostensibly about Stalker, Dyer digresses far from his original theme. This latest Dyer is brilliant, but on this occasion please don’t expect objectivity.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.