A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

A Virtuoso of Disguise

“. . . in each disguise I assumed I looked better and more natural than in the last. I might appear as a Roman flute-player, a wreath of roses twined in my curly locks; as an English page in a snug-fitting satin with lace collar and plumed hat; as a Spanish bullfighter in spangled jacket and broad-brimmed hat; as a youthful abbé at the time of powdered wigs . . . whatever the costume, the mirror assured me that I was born to wear it, and my audience declared that I looked to the life exactly the person whom I aimed to represent.”

A passage from Thomas Mann’s translation of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, translated by Denver Lindley. This reminds me to make time one day to reread Doctor Faustus and Death in Venice. Both versions I read were Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations, now generally seen as not only dubious but in the case of the latter substantively altered  out of puritanism. David Luke’s Death in Venice is considered more faithful, and we are fortunate to have John E Wood’s translations of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!