Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.

Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.

Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?

Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.

There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.

There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.

Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.

Thoughts on Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row

It seems that Gerald Murnane’s way of viewing the world is born of astonishment. Herbert Read quotes Picasso, upon viewing an exhibition of children’s drawings: “It took me many years to learn how to draw like these children.” My reading of Murnane is provisional, based on the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and the novels, Barley Patch and recently Tamarisk Row, yet what seems possible from my reading is that Murnane’s astonishment is that of a child.

This is not to detract in any way from the sophistication of his vision, but his way of capturing reality with an immediacy and sensitivity that reveals the wonderment in the mundane. Picasso’s apparent obsession with drawings that have the properties of a child’s perspective I think was something different, an inherent conservatism perhaps, that glorified what he saw as primitive art, a retreat from the idea of progress rather than an opening up of vision.

In Tamarisk Row, Murnane’s vision, his astonishment, offers a way of seeing the world that is familiar, but long repressed. Something hidden is brought to light and, as a consequence, offers an opportunity to come away with an expanded perspective. Taken at surface level, the narrated story of a slice of a young boy’s life is simple, but what Murnane does is to emphasise the immanent strangeness. This is what the world looked like before  being stifled by the experience of adulthood.

My intention this year is to read more or less chronologically through much of Murnane’s writing, interspersed perhaps with Clarice Lispector’s stories, another writer that for different reasons never fails to have a profound effect on the world around me.

Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs

It seems from the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs that Gerald Murnane is a writer that writes for his own pleasure and necessity. Murnane describes himself as a technical writer who is compelled to find words to explore the contours of his thoughts, a phrase he finds in Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, explaining that it “is a magical phrase for me. It has helped me in times of trouble in the way that phrases from the Bible or from Karl Marx probably help other people.”

My reading is obsessive by nature, often sending me into what is now a frequent pattern of reading a writer until exhausting all available work, reading some secondary material and, in some cases, reading the books that they acknowledge as influences. An earlier version of my reading self read Barley Patch nine years ago and, though I recall appreciating Murnane’s evident pleasure at playing with language, the book failed to trigger the sort of obsession I’ve experienced with Virginia Woolf, Dante, J. M. Coetzee, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Denton Welch, Christa Wolf, or Clarice Lispector. Triggering such an obsession required, firstly, for me to be the reader I am today, and secondly the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.

What I find in Murnane’s essays is not just a writer that inspires a reader to reflect on existential questions, part of why I read what I read, but also a writer that opens blissful landscapes where I find colossal, quiet spaces. Murnane describes his own discovery of such spaces in discovering Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: “The book was like a blow to the head that wipes out all memory of the recent past. For six months after I first read it I could hardly remember the person I had been beforehand. For six months I believed I had all the space I needed.” It is from experiences like this that my love of literature comes, why I discover ecstatic spaces from human beings that I am never likely to meet, but considers companions in navigating this often ghastly world around me.

 

 

2019 in Review at Time’s Flow Stemmed by Numbers

There was a spike in blog readership a few days ago. Michael Orthofer included my blog in a post about personal-website/blog year-in-review/reading overviews. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my reading numbers and statistics these days, but prompted by Michael’s post, insomnia, and while trying to decide how to follow up Hans Blumenberg’s brilliant The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, I decided to run some numbers.

In 2019, I read 68 books, precisely my ten-year average. I don’t set reading targets nor particularly care how many books I read, beyond feeling decidedly mortal with a reading window that inevitably gets smaller each year.

There were writers I read more than once in 2019. Those listed 1-7 will continue to be part of my future reading plans.

  1. Karl Ole Knausgaard (6)
  2. Enrique Vila-Matas (3)
  3. Clarice Lispector (2)
  4. Maria Gabriela Llansol (2)
  5. Mircea Eliade (2)
  6. S. D. Chrostowska (2)
  7. Jon Fosse (2)
  8. Claudia Rankine (2)
  9. Virginie Despentes (2)
  10. Tomas Espedal (2)

The publishers that featured more than twice were (I don’t solicit or accept review copies):

  1. Dalkey Archive Press (5)
  2. Fitzcarraldo Editions (4)
  3. Harvill Secker (6)
  4. New Directions (3)

This year I am continuing to subscribe to Fitzcarraldo and have also subscribed to Archipelago Books.

Books read were originally written in the following languages:

  1. English (30) – 44%
  2. Norwegian (12)
  3. Spanish (8)
  4. Portuguese (4)
  5. Italian (4)
  6. French (3)
  7. Romanian (3)
  8. German (3)
  9. Polish (1)

Fiction was dominant at 38 books, although these boundaries are wonderfully porous these days, twenty-seven non-fiction (diaries, memoirs, philosophy and literacy criticism) and only three poetry collections.

Publication dates ranged from 1947 to 2019, with all but ten books published after the year 2000. This wasn’t a year for the nineteenth century or earlier.

Fifty-eight percent of the books I read were written by men. My ratio of male-to-female writers has changed markedly over the ten years of this blog, not by any particular design, just exposure to a wider range of writing.

Fifty-two percent of my reading was of writers I read for the first time. There is every year an intention to read more deeply of my literary touchstones, but inevitably I get diverted. I don’t expect that to change. Notably, this year marked my first reading of Mircea Cărtărescu, Hermann Broch, Mircea Eliade, Jon Fosse, Renee Gladman and Ricardo Piglia, each writers whose work I would like to explore further.

If I was compelled to narrow down the year to a single brilliant book, it would be Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia. I abandon books without guilt, so couldn’t name the year’s worst book.

Visitors to Time’s Flow Stemmed declined by 9% year on year, and down 27% from this blog’s peak in 2013. Comments (335 in total) declined by 28% from 2018 and 48% from a peak in 2017. Of the twenty-two thousand visitors to this blog, most came from America, UK and Canada, followed by India, Australia and Germany. That pattern is consistent over the years. In total visitors came from 156 countries.

Seventy percent of the visitors here came via search, mostly Google, with Twitter referring 18% of visitors. The latter is always a conundrum to me; while I’ve made some enduring friendships on Twitter, its addictive quality represents a serious distraction from reading and reflection. I don’t expect to find resolution anytime soon. My number one external referrer in 2019 was Seraillon (thanks, Scott).

Sadly a Happy Woman

‘Yes, she felt a perfect animal inside her. The thought of one day setting this animal loose disgusted her. Perhaps for fear of lack of aesthetic. Or dreading a revelation …’ p.10

‘And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?’ p.23

‘The impression that if she could remain in the feeling for a few more instants she’d have a revelation—easily, like seeing the rest of the world just by leaning from the earth towards space. Eternity wasn’t just time, but something like the deeply rooted certainty that she couldn’t contain it in her body because of death; the impossibility of going beyond eternity was eternity; and a feeling in absolute, almost abstract purity was also eternal. What really gave her a sense of eternity was the impossibility of knowing how many human beings would succeed her body, which would one day be so far from the present with the speed of a shooting star.’ p.35

‘Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.’ p.36

‘From that day on, Joana felt voices. She understood them or didn’t understand them. No doubt at the end of her life, for each timbre heard a wave of her own reminiscences would surface to memory, she’d say: how many voices I’ve had …’ p. 66

‘Because the last ice cubes had melted and now she was sadly a happy woman.’ p.101

‘… in that same, strange, deceptive room where the dust had now won out over the shine.’ p.104

‘Sunday is something like Christmas trees …’ p.161

There are comparisons between Clarice Lispector’s and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing that I resisted as too easy. But they share Spinoza’s God and Nietzsche’s joyous, brooding presence. My second reading of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, translated by Alison Entrekin, richer and deeper than the first. Dorothy Richardson, in the early parts of Pilgrimage, is traversing similar plains.