A Snowbound Weekend’s Reading

‘ – a love can sometimes cease / in the extinguishing of an eye / and what we come to see / is love’s extinguished eye.’ These lines from Ingeborg Bachmann (t. Peter Filkins), who I must read this year. Poetry, prose, more. Love ceases of writers’ work I once thought indispensable. This hazard of re-reading. A one-time companion now seems over-sentimental, another so riddled with cliché that the work is unreadable.

And yet a new discovery still has the capacity to rob me of sleep, lines rolling around and over, even hissed in the middle of a dream. Anna Kamieńska: there is little in translation of her fifteen books of poetry and two books of notebooks. (These edited and translated by by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon.)

‘So it’s necessary to keep on shedding skin . . .
We live among question marks’

even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, last year’s discovery. Something shifted after reading her Book of Communities (t. Audrey Young), and my reading keeps circling the same question marks, the unbeliefs. I’m not in any hurry to read the last two books of Llansol’s trilogy. There is little of her small body of work in translation but I’m told more is forthcoming.

This snowbound weekend afforded time to read. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginning of Spring confirmed I’m not the reader for her elegant comedies of manners. I also read Kate Zambreno’s latest, Appendix Project, essays and talks based on sections excised from her remarkable Book of Mutter. I may have more to say on these. Zambreno’s writing gets richer with each book.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower was a surprise. I read historical fiction reluctantly, like a dose of cod-liver oil.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s final novel, considered her masterpiece, is a bildungsroman of protagonist Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenburg (Fritz to his friends and family), better remembered as German Romantic poet Novalis.

Fritz falls in love and is betrothed to Sophie, an apparently insipid, frivolous teenager. Over the course of the novel, Fritz’s family and the reader succumb to Sophie’s charms. A simple story, told without excessive prose but rich with successive degrees of detail.

Fitzgerald’s resists completely the plague of historical fiction: the overindulgent padding of unnecessary historical facts and detail to demonstrate a writer’s skills as a researcher. In five succinct pages Fitzgerald gives us the background we require to decipher the motivation of Fritz’s father (chapter 5: The History of Freiherr Heinrich Von Hardenberg).  In one paragraph Fitzgerald reveals the essence of the Freiherr:

Freiherr von Hardenberg was born in 1738, and while he was still a boy came into properties of Oberwiederstadt on the River Wipper in the county of Mansfeld, and the manor and farm of Schlöben-bei-Jena. During the Seven Years’ War he served, as a loyal subject, in the Hanoverian Legion. After the Peace of Paris he gave up his commission. And he married, but in 1769 there was an epidemic of smallpox in the towns along the Wipper, and his young wife died. The Freiherr nursed the infected and the dying, and those whose families could not afford a grave were buried in the grounds of Oberwiederstadt which, having once been a convent, still had some consecrated earth. He had undergone a profound religious conversion –  but I have not! said Erasmus, as soon as he was old enough to ask about the rows of green mounds so close to the house. ‘I have not – does he ever think of that?’

Though Fitzgerald provides little descriptive detail the characters are each distinctive, constructed carefully through dialogue and action. Fritz’s brother “the Bernhard” deserves a story of his own.

Novalis’s best known work is his prose poem Hymns to the Night.

Rested and Read

Unlike my usual exploratory holidays, this last week was spent unashamedly enjoying being outdoors in the sun: tennis, swimming, archery, badminton, even some football and lots of reading. After a long English winter, to sit by a pool and read for hours on end was a luxury.

It was an heterogenous selection of paperbacks that accompanied me to Cyprus:

  1. David Foster WallaceThis is Water
  2. Adam Thirlwell – Politics
  3. Tom McCarthyRemainder
  4. Penelope Fitzgerald – The Blue Flower
  5. John Williams – Stoner

Each of the novels merits a brief blog post of its own.

The first book on the list, DFW’s This is Water subtitled Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, is the text of a  commencement address given to the 2005 graduating class of DFW’s alma mater. For motives unknown the publishers Little, Brown have presented the book one sentence per page as a series of aphorisms. The format is annoying but the text is worth reading; DFW unpacks “the old cliché about the mind ‘being an excellent servant but a terrible master.'” As he explains, “This, like many clichés, so lame and banal on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”

And I submit that this is the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.