Rereading and George Eliot

Inevitably, perhaps, distraction came during Book 3 of The Iliad. To admire dedicated rereaders, as I do, is insufficient inducement to compel me to turn to an old favourite again, not often enough to make me a Nabokovian good reader; “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” I shall settle for dilettante reader status for now and promise to try better. Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty kept whispering my name, linked in my mind to Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days, both of which Steve listed as his favourite books of last year. I’ve been dipping again into the latter, rereading with great pleasure.

This afternoon I went to a bookshop to buy George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life. Before adopting her nom de plume, Eliot taught herself Latin and spent a decade translating Spinoza’s Ethics, the first translation into English, unfortunately not published in her lifetime. Only after completing this project did she turn to writing fiction, Scenes being her first published collection of stories.

In a letter to Dr. Payne in 1876 Eliot wrote, “My writing is simply a set of experiments in life—an endeavour to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of—what stores of motive. . . give promise of a better after which we may strive to keep hold of as something more sure than shifting theory.” I am fascinated to explore how Eliot’s ideas found expression in her fiction. Clare Carlisle, in an interview, argued that Eliot is a philosophical novelist. My plan is to trace Eliot’s thinking through the fiction. This will, of course, involve rereading Middlemarch as I progress chronologically, if I am able to resist the distractions of a library with over six-hundred unread books.

The Physical Pleasures of Dancing and Writing

Quote

Perhaps one reason why both [Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot] of them were able to go on writing so extraordinarily well was that, despite the views they held and the bundle of prejudices they, like all of us, carried with them, they remained close to the child and the adolescent in themselves, ever responsive to the physical pleasures of dancing and writing.

Gabriel Josipovici, Eliot in His Letters, from The Teller and the Tale

Like steps of passing ghosts

Tastes in critics and book reviewers, like cities and vegetables, are idiosyncratic. It probably has as much to do with voice as with the acuity of their exegesis, or exquisite taste. As much as we resist, fashion and peer pressure might play a part. Some, like Gabriel Josipovici, earn our trust and admiration for the rigour of his prose, even when our literary tastes differ markedly.

I’ve travelled a lot lately, but am in Hampshire for the autumn, with the low, dense English skies that always bring me home. Looking up some notes on Borges, I came across a poem I recorded in a notebook a few years back, by an American poet called Adelaide Crapsey:

‘Listen.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.’

The other night I had a strange, striking dream. I rarely remember dreams and I remember little of the narrative context, but I was accompanied throughout the dream by Eileen Battersby, a book reviewer, American by birth, but who lived in Ireland, and died last year. I barely know her work, perhaps read one or two reviews when someone linked to them on Twitter. I still know little but watched on YouTube an interview with Battersby, John Banville and Enrique Vila-Matas. I can see little from her reviews to suggest we would share literary inclinations, but I liked her physical voice and passion for literature.

The Real Question

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici’s introduction to his The Mirror of Criticism seems to me to pin down the most real but least well understood question and challenge of literature, any writing that aspires to be literary:

“. . . confirms Kafka in his feelings that the well-written work [Gerhard Hauptmann’s Anna], however well it is written, holds no interest for him. It makes him realise once more (the remark comes in a letter written towards the end of his life) that for him the real question has never been: How can I write as well as this? but: Why should I write this kind of thing at all? And, if not this, then what? The encounter with [Hans] Arp’s work reveals to [Wallace] Stevens, through what it lacks, that the greatest art is an affront as well as a pleasure; that there is an art which is good, intelligent, aesthetically pleasing, but which we will never feel to be really important because it never quite dares to be more than that, to recognise its dangerous power.”

— Gabriel Jospovici, The Mirror of Criticism

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.