Sphere of Harmony

“we are dealing with living objects of art, they have a shadow, but this must be proven in the practice of language, I say”. Reading Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald. Every written word announces: I have thought this, an affirmation of what appears and disappears in thought. What, I often wonder, would be my character, without the affective shadow of literature?

Mayröcker—”so much to write, suddenly everything is multiplying in front of my inner eye, everything seems to have CAUGHT FIRE again”—is one of a few writers that leave me with the sense that there are things to be sought in literature that have yet to be described. Beckett, at his best, of course; Lispector; Llansol. The old chestnuts. It takes just a simple shift of perspective to stop looking for a pattern in the carpet and see all one has read, all one has become and will be, as the resonance of one vast composition. Or is this a symptom of my immersion in McGilchrist earlier this year?

so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable.

Geoffrey Hill, Funeral Music

Sunday Notes

One of the lessons learned late in my reading life is to think in terms of not writers but books. By instinct a collector, repeatedly have I read a fine book and immediately set about acquiring multiple earlier books by the same writer. With some, my fervour is rewarded, watching a writer’s work become more concentrated over time. Clarice Lispector or Samuel Beckett are both writers that are improved by being read chronologically. With others, Iris Murdoch comes to mind, the early works serve to emphasise recurring foibles that detract, for this reader, from the body of work. Would that I had stopped at The Italian Girl. This lesson applies doubly for poets and poems.

My urge for collection building is balanced by a mid-life desire to travel more lightly, so I continue to thin out my library, discarding old books I will not reread, or whimsical purchases for which a momentary fascination has diminished. This week, laid low by a mild edition of coronavirus, my first, I took the opportunity of self-isolation to gather up a few bags for delivery, when I may once again do so, to my local book dealer.

Between sleeping, working and reading, I did, of course, order a few books while confined to my quarters: Philip Mann’s The Dandy at Dusk, Maria Michela Sassi’s The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something, and Clare Mac Cumhaill’s Metaphysical Animals. The latter two about Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch who all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s, follows a review in the LRB; the other two inspired by being mentioned on Twitter.

I finished two books this week: rereading Albert Camus’s The Outsider in Sandra Smith’s translation, and Marguerite Duras’s The Garden Square, an older translation, showing its age, by Sonia Pitt-Rivers and Irina Morduch. Both sustained earlier readings, unlike Coetzee’s Age of Iron, which I reread in part. The latter reads well as a study of South Africa’s apartheid ideology and how such power structures shape identity. Though there is much fine writing, there are no shortage of weary metaphors: have our two hearts, our organs of love, been tied for this brief while by a cord of sound? Or make of this what you will: Huge bull-testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them.

Crucified by Lassitude

“Luísa remains motionless, sprawled atop the tangled sheets, her hair spread out on the pillow. An arm here, another there, crucified by lassitude. The heat of the sun and its brightness fill the room. Luísa blinks. She frowns. Purses her lips. Opens her eyes finally, and leaves them fixed on the ceiling. Little by little the day enters her body.”

The word ‘lassitude’ is almost certain following the three opening words, or at least expected by anyone who is somewhat familiar with Clarice Lispector’s grammar and syntax, translated here by Katrina Dodson. A ‘bright stain of sunlight’ ‘takes possession of the room’ in which Luísa stirs.

I adore Lispector’s enigmatic, imperturbable characters and her serpentine prose. This short story, The Triumph, opens the Complete Stories, and begins, like her first novel, with a clock, an object that often features in Lispector’s fiction. Clocks also appear often in Kafka, in both his fiction and the diaries, unforgettably so in the highly-strung opening to The Metamorphosis.

Lispector’s writing is sometimes compared to Virginia Woolf’s, but it is always Kafka that comes closer to my reading experience. “As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realised that it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn’t very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked the way.” The sentence is Kafka’s, but with a few minor changes in syntax could have been borne by Lispector. Both writers bring to the fore both the demonic and the dreamlike in ways that would be difficult to perceive without them.

Genre no longer interests me. . .

Quote

“Genre no longer interests me. What interests me is mystery. Is there some ritual attached to mystery? I believe there is. In order to adhere to the certainty of things. Meanwhile, I somehow already adhere to the earth. I am a daughter of nature: I want to hold things, feel them, touch them, I want to exist. And this is all part of a totality, of a mystery. I am but one being. But there was a difference between the writer and me (or am I wrong? I cannot be certain). But no longer. I am but one being. And I leave you to be yourself. Does that frighten you? I believe it does. But it is worthwhile. Even if it hurts. For the pain soon passes.”

Clarice Lispector, Words From the Typewriter

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.