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.

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab

Musil’s MwQ, Control of the Imaginary

Maurice Blanchot preferred to translate Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as L’homme sans particularités or The man without particularities. Musil’s concept for his protagonist, Ulrich, is that he lacks substance, that there is no causal link between essence and effect, that his self is formed and responds impersonally, almost randomly, to elements and events of his environment. As Blanchot puts it, “the man does not accept being crystallised into a character or fixed in a stable personality”.

I’ve never been much of a believer in the entrenched idea that individuals have fixed personality characteristics that are essentially unchanged over the course of a life, so looking through Ulrich’s eyes feels like returning to a comfortable armchair in a favourite corner of a much-loved home. The term personality is rooted in the Latin persona, and ancient Greek pros-opon, and referred originally to a mask worn by actors. That personality is little more than the way we appear to others makes more sense to me.

I’ll be reading The Man Without Qualities for several more weeks. It is slow but delicious to follow Musil’s sentences to their conclusion, and it feels too rich to read more than two of three chapters without transferring underlined parts into my notebooks. I’m resisting the temptation to read anything in parallel as The Man Without Qualities is permeating my dreams, both day and night, and I’m rather enjoying the saturation. I’m reading this book alongside Frances and Richard throughout the summer.

Let me share briefly a description Musil offers of a moment of illumination, not unlike my sensations while reading his book.

“Life’s very shape was completely altered. Not placed in the focus of ordinary attention but freed from sharpness. Seen this way, everything seemed a little scattered and blurred, and being infused all the while with a delicate clarity and certainty from other centres. All of life’s questions and occurrences took on an incomparable mildness, gentleness, and serenity, while their meaning was utterly transformed.”

It isn’t easy to concentrate at a time when the political landscape in this country is facing a radical transfiguration at the hands of fruitcakes, lunatics and not-so-closet racists, but there are few writers more distracting than Musil to elevate oneself away from the cares of everyday existence for an hour or two here or there.

Josh Cohen’s The Private Life

Josh Cohen introduces The Private Life by explaining the links between psychoanalysis and literature: “I read books obsessively, and eventually chose to teach them, because they hinted at the miraculous possibility of experiencing inner lives other than my own.” Freud borrowed as heavily from Greek myth as Jung did from folklore; stories are at the heart of both literature and psychoanalysis. As I spoke of once before, my avid consumption of literature is rooted in a similar attraction, so I developed early an affinity with Cohen’s description of his relationship with literature.

I was fourteen or maybe fifteen years old when I discovered Freud, initially through the case histories, and then in the very readable The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Somewhere I still have the paperback Penguin Freud that I read avidly at boarding school, but the annotations would embarrass me too much to even think of rereading that edition.

These days I am less convinced by Freud’s conception of the extent of the unconscious or psychoanalysis’s totems and taboos, and Cohen’s book did little to convince me otherwise. There is nevertheless much in The Private Life that is fascinating, particularly the way that Cohen brings his literary influences to bear on his argument that our modern culture is endangering our psychic health by eroding the value of privacy.

The penultimate chapter in particular which begins with a look at babyhood and the inevitability of anxiety, develops into a probing of the nature of torture and its psychological effects, and ends with our compulsion to scare ourselves with horror films, is both brilliant and haunting. Cohen’s deployment of Blanchot, Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Paul Celan’s work to underpin his argument is profound and elegant.

Here’s a brief description, perhaps as Cohen concedes, overly simplistic, of intra-uterine life, that Cohen uses to contrast the shock of birth:

Sentient life began for you in a vessel precisely adapted to your needs, in which food, warm and shelter were provided from the first with unbroken reliability and constancy, ensuring you registered neither the need of them nor the possibility of their loss. If you expanded, space expanded with you. You were God, to all intents and purposes, the centre of an integral, self-sufficient universe without beginning or end. Profoundly attuned to the syncopated flow of the world’s blood and breath, you took the endlessly variegated transmissions of one voice, and even the more tinny and sporadic emanations of other voices, for discrete parts of the music you alone composed, played and conducted.

Strange Struggle With Meaning

It was during this translation [of Blanchot’s work] that I experienced another strange struggle with meaning: when in a simpler paragraph I found I could follow the thread of M. Blanchot’s argument from one sentence to the next, and that it made sense to me, I could not summarise at the end of the page or even at the end of the paragraph, what I had just read. I thought that this was my own weakness; then when I described this difficulty to others I found that it was true for them as well: it was in the nature of the argument to resist summary. Resisting summary did not mean resisting understanding. Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment to moment; one had to remain in the moment and not look back on the whole; or dwell inside the moment and not stand back from it; one’s understanding proceeded like the guide’s flashlight illuminating one by one the animals painted on the wall of the ancient cave.

Lydia Davis, For Maurice Blanchot. Nowhere Without No, Vagabond Press, 2003