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.

Dorothy Richardson, France Concentrated

”   And Paris, barely glimpsed and shrouded with the glare of night . . . the emanation even of Paris was peace. An emanation as powerful as that of London, more lively and yet more serene. Serene where gracious buildings presided over the large flaring thoroughfares, serene even in the dreadful by-streets.

And that woman at the station. Black-robed figure, coming diagonally across the clear space yellow in gas-light against the background of barriered platforms, seeming with her swift assured gait, bust first, head reared and a little tilted back on the neck, so insolently feminine, and then as she swept by, suddenly beautiful; from head to foot all gracefully moving rhythm. Style, of course, redeeming ugliness and cruelty. She was the secret of France. France concentrated.”

Yet to return to the last four (and fifth unfinished) books of Pilgrimage. I read a few pages at a time, but must soon opt for immersion.

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.

 

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

Rereading and Second Chances

Rereading books I disliked in my first reading with a new-found admiration is establishing an alternative reading list, titled perhaps Instances of my Earlier Obtuseness. Dismissing Rachel Cusk’s Kudos a third of the way into her book on my first reading, now I’ve read it to the end, would have been to jeopardise the opportunity to understand what Cusk set out to do in her trilogy. As my friend Michelle and I discussed, Cusk’s trilogy is arguably only fully appreciated after reading all three books, preferably back to back. It is only in the closing pages of Kudos that the rage becomes fully apparent.

After dismissing Leaving the Atocha Station twenty pages from the end I concocted a quasi-moral justification for my disdain based on Lerner’s use of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. With greater appreciation of how Lerner (and Cusk) are continuing to open up the form of the novel, with the negation of any distinction between autobiography, memory and fiction, I reread Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it. In some way, reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage taught me how to appreciate fiction that uses form to explore a writer’s self-consciousness.

After liking Lerner’s 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, I decided to reread The Hatred of Poetry, an essay I sampled and dismissed on my first reading. It confronts the difficulty of writing and appreciating poems in an atomised and vacant world. Its ruminative tone is common with his fiction, a curious mixture of dispassionate criticism and child-like enthusiasm. Second time around I enjoyed the twisting and turning of Lerner’s argument, quite as much as both novels. I don’t quite recall what I disliked in the first place, maybe the use of the word hate in the title, seemingly hyperbolic but its Platonic note better appreciated after reading the essay.

There is something I think in the idea that the books we dislike intensely–and I don’t mean poorly written books, which are innumerable–might tell us something about ourselves if given a second chance, in the same way that those people one instantly dislikes offer the same opportunity for epiphany.