August: Contemporary English Language Books

Magnolias, the whetted irony of postmodern narrative, Socrates, and the pellucid veil of translated literature. Of all these I suffer from ambivalence.

I surround myself with books, about which I am also ambivalent. Sometimes I would like to own fewer books, but I keep buying and collecting books. What I like is the literature that happens to be contained in the books in the form of fiction, but also poetry, essays, religious and philosophical writing, and critical writing about art and literature.

According to the graphs and charts on LibraryThing, where I catalogue my books, almost sixty percent of the books in what I call my library is what Kate Briggs in This Little Art terms twice-written: translated literature.

I read a lot of literature in translation as I have a little French, but no German, or Norwegian, or Portuguese, or Romanian, no Spanish or Ancient Greek, and just a little Latin. Briggs writes: “When it comes to writing and reading translations the question of what is wholly normal or truly plausible, of what was really said or written gets suspended, slightly”. I allow translated literature to seduce me because I agree with Jon Fosse’s contention that, “uniquely literary qualities can often be translated . . . because literature is more linked to the sentence, both to the single sentence and to the text, the poetry collection, the novel, as a kind of mega-sentence, than to the word, and therefore more linked to rhythm than to sound”.

Recently, my ambivalence resurfaced. Should I make more effort to read literature with, as Virginia Woolf put it in her broadcast on Craftsmanship, the right words in the right order? Certain words and lines of Aeschylus, of Paul Celan and Friederike Mayröcker, have a definite hypnotic effect on me, but, of necessity, these are mediated by the labour of a translator? What about the contemporary? Instead of dwelling in murky, hundred-times explored worlds, what of the black squiggles of today?

August found me plunged deeply into books recently published in the English language. I read books by Deborah Levy, David Keenan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, Susanna Clarke, Sam Riviere, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, Damon Galgut, and Claire-Louise Bennett. Some of these were good books, with memorable atmospheres, and lines that set off interesting thought-trains. Some just passed the time, most were uninteresting to me. Only one, I would argue, contained literature, that is, held life within it, sufficient life to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul.

Which one contains literature, you ask? I have little to say about it because, finally, what can I possibly say that can express a text to you? This book operates on multiple levels simultaneously, blurring distinctions, crossing boundaries. It is self-conscious, introspective and demonstrates an extreme awareness of the imperfection and power of words. If it can be said to be about anything, perhaps it is about privilege, or lack of it, and control, or the lack of it. Checkout 19 opens, “Later on we often had a book with us”. Between those words and its closing pages, a small bit of the writer’s relationship, conveyed in writing, to the enigmatic nature of life (and death) is revealed.

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).

A Year End Post of Sorts

Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia is a world in miniature, and also, a people. In fervent minds such as Maria Gabriela Llansol’s and his, ideas come together from will to achievement to produce an extraordinarily rich vision, a higher synthesis in which contrasting ideas come forth to forge an incomparable unity. Like every brilliant work, Nostalgia and Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy need nothing. The tone and flavour of their work makes allusions to art that has gone before, but they are uniquely their own. Made of nothing but words they transmit  a vital atmosphere that seems freshly formed from nothing.

Of this year’s reading, a good year in which I’ve read several fine works that will stay with me for a long time, it is these two writers that give me both the passionate excitement and the contemplative rapture I find only from literature. Both stem the flow of time and leave me refreshed to perceive the world with altered lens.

I am reading Nostalgia again, so I shall begin the new years’s reading as I end this one. The list below summarises the books that stayed with me from this year’s solitary and mediative pursuit of reading literature. In Jon Fosse I think I may also have found another literary companion to accompany me through the dark forest of the next decade. I’ve long awaited a translation of Bazlen’s Notes and it was all I hoped it would be.

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (t. Willa and Edwin Muir)
Reading and re-reading Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy (t. Audrey Young)
Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (t. Robert Croll)
Reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle end to end (t. Don Bartlett)
Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
Roberto Bazlen, Notes Without a Text (t. Alex Andriesse)
Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (t. Jack Dawson)
Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (t. May-Brit Akerholt)
Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia (t. Julian Semilian)

A special thanks to Andrei, keeper of The Untranslated blog. It is through him that I discovered both Llansol and Cărtărescu and, of course, to the bold translators and publishers that interpret these remarkable texts into the English language.

Thoughts on Jon Fosse’s Boathouse

In Jon Fosse’s collection of essays, An Angel Walks Through the Stage, he writes: “As you grow older, you rarely come across a new author who truly tears you up the way much of the reading you did in your younger years could.” Fosse records a conversation with a “more well-known” Norwegian author, Roy Jacobsen: “He had recently read The Boathouse and he claimed that I, before I wrote this novel, had to have read Thomas Bernhard.” Fosse hadn’t but decides to and finds, “great comfort, and joy, to read Bernhard’s repetitious, dark, strongly rhythmical and enormously beautiful novel writing, for that way I could console myself that there was in Europe, an author, who allowed his prose to repeat and repeat, words and sentences and action sequences, in a way which far exceeded what I had managed to achieve in that direction.”

Boathouse, translated by May-Brit Akerholt, as is the collection of essays, both published in Dalkey Archive editions in 2017 and 2015 respectively, is early Fosse, originally published in 1989. It is the first of Fosse’s novels that I’ve read after reading An Angel Walks Through the Stage, the latter which gave me a  world and a half of pleasure. I came to Jon Fosse’s work through the writing of his one-time student, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote, “The presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alterness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text.”

The novel begins, “I don’t go out anymore, a restlessness has come over me, and I don’t go out.” While the writing shares the solipsistic agony of Bernhard’s writing, it is quieter and written less in eye-twinkling rage than chronic cognitive anxiety. The narrator and his best childhood friend, Knut, bump into each other, after a separation of ten years, in their native fjord small town. Since they last met, Knut moved away, became a music teacher and married a woman from the city. The story revolves around a triangle of emotional turmoil, intensified by older emotional rivalries between the two men. The novel is his recording of the anxiety caused by the reopened pain.

Part of the force of Boathouse is the claustrophobic landscape of the novel, centred around the houses of the men’s mothers, the dancehall and the titular boathouse. Due to its topography, maritime culture in western and northern Norway is specific and distinct; boathouses, a building where the land meets the sea, play an important part in that coastal tradition. The earliest boathouse sites suggest an origin in the first centuries AD, used not only to store a boat, but as workshops and storage facilities. The old boathouse, unchanged fjord landscape and small town, where everyone knows the protagonist’s reclusive nature, add to the dark emotional anxiety that situates the story: “all the while I perceive the unease, and I hear the waves, they roll not like the way they usually roll, but in a special way, like they used to roll before, long ago, yet only that I now hear them through an immense unease.”

A week after finishing the short 118 page novel it has consolidated with time, depositing sediments for continued reflection and thought. Its emotional charge will depend on a reader’s sensorial experience of anxiety and existential loneliness.

A Year, no, Decade of Reading

Yes, yes, it is of course too early for one of my year in reading posts, but I wasn’t going to write one any way. A year is too arbitrary in a lifetime of reading. The phases and disjunctures of my reading life operate more in decades. It’s five on Sunday morning in Beijing and city is quiet. I’m channeling through a Japanese IP address to get access to WordPress.

My decade in reading is charted here on this blog, a strange record of the meandering byways of a life spent reading. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why I read so coherently at the start, and then for a long time I thought reading was about seeing through another’s eyes. This isn’t of course possible nor does it explain with any clarity how essential books and specifically literature are to my life. Jon Fosse gets closer:

‘Some authors know that they don’t know, yet they still have the feeling of knowing something which cannot be known, something which cannot be pronounced as meaning, but which perhaps despite everything can be said through literature.’

It’s not about good books and certainly not exquisitely written stories, or pacy plots, or believable characterisation. A decade ago I would’ve argued against this perspective. It’s that sense that even the writer of an enchanted text doesn’t quite know the depths she or he has scaled. We don’t have the language to really capture the quickening that occurs when a voice has broken through and communicated something below our conscious mind. The ineffable in all its glorious beauty.

The quivering heart of this year’s reading is Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy. Her writing has transformed my way of perceiving writing and the world, which I increasingly think might well be the same thing. These squiggly symbols on a page are a Lascaux of sorts. They shape us as we interpret what we think we perceive.

This is a good year of reading. It is a life-changing decade of reading. It isn’t possible to see who I’d be without all these books, a version of myself that exists somewhere, but I’d rather not meet him.