Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space of Writing

In 2015, a selection of Stephen Mitchelmore’s writing on This Space was released in book form, making available his critiques of modernist literature as contemporary classics of the form. The irony, of course, is that Mitchelmore’s inimitable blog posts have long offered more depth and perspicacity than much of book reviewing that appears in print, rebuttal to the somewhat hysterical argument that book blogging will “be to the detriment of literature”.

Book blogging however is an easy target for mockery. Amongst the thousands of sites that are merely shills for publishers, This Space stands out, not only for a prose that is shorn of needless surface effect, but that provides essayistic posts about literature that deal with the ongoing challenge of modernism. Analysis is Mitchelmore’s strength, sifting narrative material with a playful alertness for the nuggets that pinpoint its weight.

I can no longer recall whether I discovered This Space before or after I started writing on this blog, but I’ve since read it twice end to end. That many of my favourite posts now exist in printed form is a revelation for it underscores how difficult I find linear in-depth reading on screen. I’m thrilled to be able to devote more sustained attention to Mitchelmore’s blog in the form of This Space of Writing.

The forty or so essays, read one after the other, form a heterogeneous whole, revealing the underlying unity of Mitchelmore’s concerns: reading, and writing what we read, is not about uncovering the meaning(s) of a work, but allowing a text to assert its own existence as a fracture of being.

Criticism, Blogging and Lampedusa’s The Leopard

If you aren’t following Robert Minto’s blog you’re missing some thought-provoking posts on the essence of criticism and blogging. I’ve been contemplating his On Apophatic Criticism post, which scrutinises, in part, Stephen Mitchelmore’s approach to criticism on my favourite book blog This Space.

Minto also categorises criticism into five varieties. I’m not sure how he would classify my writing about books, “book chat” perhaps; like astrology, I see elements of what I attempt in a number of his categories.

My interest in literature, and art in general, is shaped by curiosity about how others perceive or know the world. How do others perceive some thing (abstract or material) as a distinct object of perception, and how does this compare with my understanding. Kant says we don’t perceive things in themselves: “What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them.” I’ve never quite understood why everyone isn’t as haunted with this suggestion as I am. Perhaps they are, but don’t feel a need to create a blog to  babble on about it. As a consequence, I’m naturally intrigued with literature as literary object, about words, sentences, form and so on, but from a conviction that literature engenders an imaginative perceiving that is transformative, for a time at least, of the world before us. To read literature with sympathy, intuition, intelligence, comprehension and grace enriches perception and deepens our interpretive function.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Father’s Curse: The Son Punished (1777)

Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard this week, in which Greuze’s painting is given a structural and thematic role depicting the twin themes of decadence and sexual indulgence in the context of the story’s overarching theme of death. The painting leads into the beautiful final chapters, ‘Death of a Prince’ and ‘Relics’ in which Fabrizio determines that he has truly lived only two or three years of his life–all else was just boredom and pain. The painting reinforces Lampedusa’s autobiographical story about the social decline of his noble family into the middle classes.

If a reading of The Leopard begins with a sense of the book’s seductive prose and its inherent melancholy, where does the transition happen from a perception of the book as a work of literature to a transformative experience? What happens when we interrupt “normal’ life to occupy ourselves with something that isn’t of our life but enriches it in an unexpected way, giving it, if one is lucky, a new, deeply felt meaning? Exploring these questions are what compels me to read and to write about that experience on this blog.