Sunday Notes

Finding a writer and book that you never knew existed is a pleasing serendipity. Steve Mitchelmore listed with his favourite books of 2021, Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days and Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty.

Steve’s description of Sharp’s book was compelling. I have some resistance to the term ‘autofiction’, but Twenty-Twenty sits in that mode of life-writing that acknowledges the impossible sincerity of autobiography, but invokes the genre at the same time as addressing its fictional nature. The constraint of both this and Josipovici’s book is time, to record daily for a year. Both struggle against the compulsion to write, but succeed in reshaping the autobiographical genre to their needs, in Sharp’s case to rail against the treatment of Palestinians, Zionism and the way in which the Labour Party dealt with the largely unproven accusations of anti-Semitism. Framing his polemic is an elusive listing of books read, films and television programmes watched, meals eaten, and daily appearances of his  daughter. Twenty-Twenty is as mesmerising as Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which also addresses the question of how language can be coerced to give an adequate expression of lived experience.

I’ve not returned to Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad. Instead I started reading a collection of Ellis Sharp’s essays: Sharply Critical. I went to the bookshop this week to pick up a copy of Byung-Chul Han’s latest book, Hyperculture, Antonio Scurati’s M : Son of the Century, and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. In the post yesterday was a copy of George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics.

The picture at the top is a pastel by Chantal Joffe, which has been much in my mind this week.

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.

My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.