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.

 

Poor, fragile Macabéa

‘Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.’ p.11

‘The more genuine part of my life is unrecognisable, extremely intimate and impossible to define.’ p.12

‘Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?’ p.15

‘Why do I write? First of all because I have captured the spirit of the language and at times it is the form that constitutes the content.’ p.17

‘Of one thing I am certain: this narrative will combine with something delicate: the creation of an entire human being who is as much alive as I am.’ p.19

‘I have grown weary of literature: silence alone comforts me. If I continue to write, it’s because I have nothing more to accomplish in this world except to wait for death. Searching for the word in darkness.’ p. 70

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (t. Giovanni Pontiero)

This earlier translation by Giovanni Pontiero (Carcanet, 1986) is more fulfilling as a work of art than the later New Directions edition. I can’t comment on the success of the translation, but think Pontiero’s version a better piece of writing.

Rosemarie Waldrop: practise and philosophy of translation

“A student asks what sustained me in translating so many volumes of Jabès. I say: Envy and pleasure in destruction.
I am not altogether joking, Destruction is unavoidable. Sound, sense, form, reference will never again stand in the same relation to each other. I have to break apart this ‘seemingly natural fusion’ of elements, melt it down to–what? The ‘genetic code’ of the work I have called it, following Novalis who contrasts a superficial ‘symptomatic imitation’ with ‘genetic’ imitation.’ It is a state in which the finished work is dissolved back into a state of fluidity, of potential, of ‘molten lava’ (Harold de Campos)–not unlike the ‘state of dissolution’ in which ‘reality is contained in language,’ according to Wilhelm von Humboldt. In this state the translator will be able, with a mix of imagination and understanding, to penetrate into the work and re-create it.

There is pleasure in the destruction because it makes the work mine. It is the same ‘no’ to what already exists that is a crucial part of all making, even a translation. Destruction is part of creation. It provides the energy.
Envy provides the impulse. August Wilhelm Schlegel admits: ‘I cannot look at my neighbour’s poetry without immediately coveting it with all my heart, so that I am the prisoner of continuous poetical adultery.’ Just so have I loved and coveted Jabès work. A work so rich in pleasures, with such scope, such depth that is has fed my own thinking endlessly, has taken me into metaphysical dimensions that are not in my own ‘nature.’ How could I not want to have written it?
Together, I say, these two vices have allowed me to write a work that I could never have written on my own.” p.23

It was compelled by such an impulse that I bought an old typewriter and copied Lispector’s novel Água Viva, to feel what it was like to write something so extraordinary.

There is no better book than Waldrop’s at describing a philosophy and practise of translation.

“When I say I make Jabès work ‘mine,’ I do not at all mean adapting him to ‘my style.’ On the contrary, I want to ‘write Jabès’ in English, write à l écoute de Jabès, write listening to his French.
My translation process always moves through three stages–I should say four, actually, because there is of course a preliminary stage of intense reading, which, together with my first round of writing (interlinear, almost word for word) attempts to understand the work, Antoine Berman is right that a translator’s understanding if ‘different from a hermeneutico-critical comprehension.’ It aims more at retracing the author’s steps, his creative process, than at analysing how the finished product fits within its culture. as Valéry puts it:

Translating . . . makes us try to step into the vestiges of the author’s footprints; not to fashion one text out of another, but to go back from this one to the virtual epoch of its formulation, to the phase where the state of mind is that of an orchestra whose instruments awaken, call out to one another, try to be in tune before the concert.

In the second round, I do not look at the French. I must separate myself from its authority. I treat the mess of the first draft (which is neither French nor quite English) as if it were a draft of my own, though with a sense of the text’s intentionality in mind. I try to reproduce, re-create it in English. The importance of this stage of separation cannot be exaggerated, and I am still grateful that I was very early pointed in this direction by Justin O’Brien.
In the third round, I go back to dialogue with the French and try to wrestle the English as close to the French as possible.
It is hard to say if one stage is more important than another. Each is only possible once I have gone through the preceding one. I can only write an English text once I have ‘understood’ the French. I can only get close to the French once I have a text that can stand by itself as a text in English. With Jabès, much of the work at the third stage has been on syntax, on letting the sentences approach again the length of the French ones, on trying to catch the rhythm of the paragraphs.” p. 27-28

Rosemarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès.