- Adorno thought that Beethoven had gone too far with his Ninth Symphony, that he had made the work all too intelligible.
- Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is woven into the fabric of life in Japan with the finale available as a karaoke disc.
- The demonic composer Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus aspires only to unwrite Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
- Speaking about the nature of evil, Anthony Burgess said that evil is tantamount to farting during a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
- Twenty-one year old contralto Carolina Unger, who sang the contralto part at the first performance of this first major symphony to use voice, is credited with turning Beethoven to face his applauding audience.
- In Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, Mr Alexander plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony repeatedly in the hope of driving Alex De Large to suicide.
- In The Lost Steps, Alejo Carpentier replaces a madeleine with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the trigger for a memory of his father that sends the narrator-protagonist on a quest to war-torn Europe.
- It is little known today that the source of the ‘Turkish music’ (seventh variation) of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not Turkish drummers, but more likely the ‘African drum corps’, who were highly popular and active in European military and court bands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
- In Adrienne Rich’s poem The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at last as a Sexual Message, Rich attributes to the symphony the rage of sexual impotence.
- On Joseph Goebbel’s initiative, Hitler’s birthday in 1937 was celebrated with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a performance repeated in 1942 when Hitler assumed command of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front.
In the next few days I’ll draw to a close my present immersion into Sebald’s work, leaving The Natural History of Destruction, Campo Santo, Across the Land and the Water, Unrecounted and For Years Now for another day.It’ll prolong the moment when I can only reread Sebald, and also give me the chance to take a breather from his unique atmosphere of mourning and ghosts. Sebald’s work induces in me a particular sensation of vulnerability and melancholy; splashing about in the deep end is luxurious in its own peculiar way, but immersion can become overwhelming. (Though I’m considering reading some Woolf next so simply substituting another flavour of haunting and reflecting on the work of memory.)
Previously I’ve compiled bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature of writers whose work I hold in affection, Beckett and Kafka in particular. In Sebald’s case, Terry Pitt’s Vertigo should be the first stop for English-speaking Sebald obsessives, followed by Christian Wirth’s Sebald site for German speakers.
I’m sure the list below isn’t definitive. It represents those publications that caught my attention, which I plan to get around to reading sometime. If you think I’ve missed any that are worthwhile please let me know in comments.
- Saturn’s Moons: WG Sebald – A Handbook. Legenda, 2001. If you only buy a single piece of secondary material, this is the one to get. Jo Catling and Richard Hibbit have compiled an extraordinarily rich resource, including a huge secondary bibliography. The chapter on WG Sebald’s library alone makes this book worthwhile.
- Searching for Sebald: Photography After WG Sebald. Institute of Cultural Enquiry, 2007. There are some fancy editions of this book, but I have a softcover version. I have barely dipped into this beautifully produced book. Photographs in Sebald’s books constitute a parallel narrative, so I’m looking forward to studying this closely at some point.
- The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald. Seven Stories Press, 2007. I’ve read and enjoyed the Tim Parks essay, and will finish the other essays and interviews before moving on from Sebald.
- WG Sebald: History – Memory – Trauma. Walter de Gruyter, 2006. Looks like an interesting collection of essays, including Sebald’s Amateurs by Ruth Franklin.
- Reading WG Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience – Deane Blackler. Camden House, 2007. In his thoughts on the book, Terry Pitts said, “I will say that I found myself feeling that Blackler was often articulating how I feel as I struggle to understand why reading Sebald is unlike reading just about anyone else.”
- WG Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity – JJ Long. Columbia University Press, 2007. Sebald’s work in context with the ‘problem of modernity’ looks right up my street.
- WG Sebald: A Critical Companion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Essays and poems include those by JJ Long and Anne Whitehead and George Szirtes.
- The Undiscover’d Country: WG Sebald and the Poetics of Travel. Camden House, 2010. Terry Pitt’s posts on this publication.
- After Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. Full Circle Editions, 2014. I picked this book up at its London Review Bookshop launch. Intriguing collection of essays by artists and writers as diverse as Coetzee, Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane and Ali Smith.
- Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life – Helen Finch. Legends, 2013. I enjoy Helen Finch’s blog and Twitter account, and am very interested to read a book that Terry Pitts calls, “one of the most important books on Sebald to date”.
These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.
This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) , more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.
Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:
- Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
- Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
- Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
- Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
- Can Xue – The Last Lover
- Anna Smaill – The Chimes
- Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
- Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
- David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.
As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’
A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.
Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.
Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.
Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.
Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.
This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).
I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.
I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.
(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.
Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.
- Fuji X100 camera
- The Cure’s Boy’s Don’t Cry album
- Beckett’s “trilogy” of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
- Tony Scott’s film True Romance
- Dr. Marten 10-Eye steel toe-cap boots (Cherry Red)
- Sibelius’ The Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci
- Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
- Cross “Townsend” black lacquer fountain pen (medium nib)
[Inspired by “Houellebecq’s” lament for three perfect products in The Map and the Territory. I’ve drifted beyond fungible manufactured commodities into performance: what can be manufactured with sounds, words, bodies and light.]
‘In my life as a consumer.’ he said, ‘I’ve known three perfect products: Paraboot walking boots, the Canon Libris laptop-printer combination, and the Camel Legend parka. I loved these products, with a passion; I would’ve spent my life in their presence, buying regularly, with natural wastage, identical products. A perfect and faithful relationship had been established, making me a happy consumer. I wasn’t completely happy in all aspects of life, but at least I had that: I could, at regular intervals, buy a pair of my favourite boots. It’s not much but it’s something, especially when you’ve quite a poor private life. Ah yes, that joy, that simple joy, has been denied me. My favourite products, after a few years, have disappeared from the shelves, their manufacture has stopped purely and simply – and in the case of my poor Camel Legend parka, not doubt the most beautiful parka ever made, it will have lived for only one season …’
It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.
2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.
Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.
I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.
As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.
I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.