An Empty Gesture

The universe is a unity
making itself manifest
through an infinite number
of relative phenomena
in part accessible to our senses
(in their relativity).
Only through things
do we sense the unity.

Wols. Aphorisms and Pictures (1971)

It is quite possible to hold literature in high regard and recognise its dangers. You remember Plato’s Republic denies writers a place. Rightly, for in the perfect community they are superfluous and hazardous.

Why read? Transformation. The characteristic feature of literature is the way it transforms. Is it possible to imagine oneself without literature, a person who had never read transformative literature? I have tried to make separate reading as an act of transformation, and reading as consumption.

To avoid writing that is expression for the sake of expression. Is this the nature of blogging? Expression mattering more than what is expressed. As Richter wrote, “As a record of reality, the thing I have to represent is unimportant and devoid of meaning, though I make it just as visible as if it were important”.

Why blog? To think. The demand to think about what I read, to reflect upon my position in a collaboration between writer and reader. Even if I fail to write about what I am reading, the act of blogging here for so long is sure to make me think as though I am to write about what I read. To tell the truth, these days I write in my notebooks more. The more I’ve written about literature, the less I understand. The less I have to say.

With the misery and suffering in the world, reading, writing sometimes feels ridiculous, contemptible. There is one ally only against barbarism – friends. Why blog? For the people I’ve met through blogging. A small handful but they are dear to me. A blog lives by companionship.

We want to understand literature. Why not try to understand birdsong? There are so many things I love, the night, trees, waves, everything around, but I don’t feel I must understand them. I read autobiographies as though this might help to understand literature, but understanding writers is of no more use to understanding literature than understanding birdsong. Perhaps less.

To read as an adventure into unknown worlds. To blog as a simple expression of complex thoughts. An attempt to destroy illusion and reveal truth.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

Cage 1 - 6 - Gerhard Richter (2006)

Besides a single chapter Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation is situated on a piece of land commonly known today as the Mark Brandenburg in present-day eastern Germany and western Poland. On the land beside a lake formed ‘eighteen thousand years ago [as] the glacier’s tongues began to melt,’ several families’ lives unfurl, bridging the German Empire of the late nineteenth century to the German reunification of the late twentieth century. This strategically located piece of land is witness to all the quiet horror of twentieth century Europe.

In an epigraph Jenny Erpenbeck quotes George Büchner, ‘As the day is long and the world is old, many people can stand in the same place, one after the other.’ Many families live on this piece of land, from the mayor and daughters of Klotthof farm, to the summer vacationers who dwell temporarily in the thatched cottage. The sole permanent resident of this piece of land is The Gardener, the silent observer doggedly undertaking his seasonal chores oblivious to the accretion of German history.

Set in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II the most lacerating chapter of Visitation is based on letters written by Doris Kaplan, to whom the novel is dedicated, to her parents. From her hiding chamber Doris recalls summers at the vacation house by the lake and asks,”When you die at age twelve, do you also reach old age earlier?’

The prolonged acknowledgements at the end of the book are at variance with what seems a compact novel, but Erpenbeck writes succinctly and with resonance, carefully layering the story as history is arranged, layer by layer, on the lakeside piece of land. It is a work of considerable beauty.

Though I got to Visitation later than intended, I read the novel in participation with German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Richter’s Incandescent Show

Seascape (Sea-Sea) Seestück (See-See) Oil on canvas

Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.

For the second time I viewed Gerhard Richter’s exhibition. Tate Modern is showing 50 years of work, from early history paintings to the breathtaking still lifes of today. The breadth of the work is overwhelming, exquisite portraits and huge, garish abstract paintings. I spent two hours wandering from room to room, unable to settle, disturbed by the jarring juxtaposition of styles. Don’t miss the show.