‘We have no models, we have only precursors’

It would be easy for this blog to become a whirlpool, rotating obsessively around a small handful of writers that, to my mind at least, carve out a highly individual niche; perhaps a series of whirlpools that interconnect only at the periphery, and in doing so twirl off creating other eddies and vortexes. That sounds like a description of my reading mind. Two writers I keep returning to over the last few weeks, at night particularly, trying to understand why these two have captured so much of my waking and dreaming attention.

What is it that draws close the writing of Mircea Cărtărescu and Maria Gabriela Llansol? They are both European writers in the broad sense that they call upon a common pool of themes, myths and visions. Their writing appears, from what is translated heroically into English, to be marked by a transgression of genre, seeking instead to dance in the spaces between realism, magical realism, poetry, essay and analysis. Both writers summon strange figures to an oneiric imaginary geography, slipping in and out of the dramatis personae that is above all a way of constructing a form of hermitic autobiography. One could argue that their novels’ narrative fabric exists primarily as a device for reflection. There is also the space in which their stories function, bound not by a common conception of time but spatially, an amazing world where time sags and slows, dissolving into seemingly bottomless holes.

Both write in dialogue with ancient sources (the Bible and Ovid came quickest to mind) and also a strange world of literature that explores metafiction and intertextuality, inevitably hearkening back to old touchstones like Borges, Kafka, the Woolf of Orlando, even Nietzsche, and to writers I tasted and disregarded like Pynchon and García Márquez.

[The title of this post is from Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text.]

A Taste for Extravagant Writing

Moi, elle – Man Ray (1934)

In Nostalgia, Mircea Cărtărescu writes of ‘fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant’. It is this oneiric quality that I am drawn to in his and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing. Both engage in ambitious renewals of form that obliterate genre boundaries and build totalising stories that are monstrously beautiful.

Stories that operate at the threshold of reality and dreams are rooted in Dante, Kafka, Borges, surrealism and oddities like Woolf’s Orlando. Myths, dreams and memories are interwoven to lay a collective path between the brains of writer and reader. Proust employs a similar image in Swann’s Way: ‘All these memories . . . I could not discern between them—between my oldest, my instinctive memories, and those others, inspired more recently by a taste or “perfume,” and finally those which were actually the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them at second hand.’

I am reading Robert Alter’s beautiful translation of Job while awaiting a copy of Cărtărescu’s Blinding. There is also the distant prospect of Solenoid, currently being translated. Perhaps my appetite for cryptogrammic writing that affords a way to interrogate my subconscious is a sort of trapdoor from the despair of our political reality, and if that is so I will have great need of it in the years ahead.

The Intensity of Slow Reading

“[…] the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall sleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe.”

—Virginia Woolf, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, The Second Common Reader, p.258

This weekend I read Renee Gladman’s Morelia, a short book, in an hour, followed by a couple of hours in the garden in contemplation. This ‘sitting with’ a book one has finished is perhaps the finest part of reading. I reread and think often of Woolf’s encouragement to attend properly to what we read. Slow reading needn’t always mean to read slowly, but to reread, reflect and allow a book to return as a thing rather than a resource.

‘Look. This is the truth.’

Not my copy of ‘The Waves’. Alas.

“But how to describe a world seen without a self? There are no words. Blue, red — even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How describe or say anything in articulate words again? — save that it fades, save that it undergoes gradual transformation, becomes, even in the course of one short walk, habitual — this scene also. Blindness returns as one moves and one leaf repeats another. Loveliness returns as one looks with all its train of phantom phrases. One breathes in and out substantial breath; down in the valley the train draws across the fields lop-eared with smoke.

But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea and the sounds of the woods, had seen the house, the garden, and the waves breaking. The old nurse who turns the pages of the picture-book had stopped and had said, ‘Look. This is the truth.’”

[Firmly reinstated as my favourite of VW’s novels. But I like to imagine the one that was never written: “On May 26, 1924, Virginia Woolf notes in her journal: ‘My thoughts are completely occupied by The Hours‘”. — Henri Lefebvre, The Missing Pieces.]

Rereading The Waves

This is what she does so well: “what is the use of painfully elaborating these consecutive sentences when what one needs is nothing consecutive but a bark, a groan?” Conventional narratives fail to give any genuine sense of life itself, with its flow of associations, impressions, memories, its subliminal, discordant orchestration that pierces our moment to moment existence.  Woolf gets close in The Waves, maybe the closest of any writer to capturing the intersection of sensation, thought and other people. Imposing artificially coherent structure is part of our myth-making, our fear of apparent chaos. In place of complexity and mutation, we seek simplification and artificial beauty. “How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground!”

Part of the lie of rational narrative is this falsified sense of identity. As Bernard argues in The Waves, he is expected to be a “certain kind of man”, but of course there are “many Bernards . . . I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.”

Give me rupture, fragmentation, allow me to perform in the sense that I use my own interpretive failure to finish making a story, to fully appreciate the “mystery of things”.

I listened also to the Foucault episodes of Philosophize This! The third (episode 123) is very good, especially in its discussion of Bentham’s panopticon as a model for how we internalize constant surveillance. This seems also true of popular fiction with its apparent unique access to character’s private thoughts and lives, a superior position that enables us to identify with the watcher or narrator. Woolf denies her reader this superiority by not offering readers this higher perspective.