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Saturday, May 25, 2024

39 Books: 2016

I love it when people announce that "if Shakespeare was alive today, he'd be writing Eastenders", or Game of Thrones or crime fiction, according to one and another variation. The innocence of the claim is charming, giving voice to the desperation to give weight to ephemera. But I doubt that I've missed the Hamlet of primetime. As Half Man Half Biscuit sang, "In kingdom of the blind, they say the one-eyed man is king. And in the kingdom of the bland, it's nine o'clock on ITV."

Gabriel Josipovici begins his book by outlining how strange Shakespeare's play is, easily ignored given the familiarity of certain scenes and the compression of the plot in memory. "[In] no other play of Shakespeare’s – probably no other major literary work – are so many key episodes shrouded in mist":

Has Claudius been legally elected according to Danish custom or has he usurped the throne? Is his marriage to his brother’s wife seen as perfectly natural by everyone but Hamlet, or do others share his feeling that it should not have happened at all and was in any case over-hasty? Did Claudius commit adultery with his brother’s wife or merely woo his widow? Why does Claudius not react to the mime, which is meant to reflect his murder back at him? Does Ophelia drown by accident or is it suicide? What exactly is the nature of the wager that Claudius enters into with Laertes over the duel?
But rather than apply answers from disciplines outside of the play, as is inevitable in our positivist age, Josipovici wonders if the "puzzles and confusions be seen as part of the fabric of the play, part of what the play is about, rather than as so many problems to be explained away". The fabric is compared to the folds of a fan, hence the title, drawn from Mallarmé's poem about Bruges cathedral.

For a fan is not simply vertical when shut and horizontal when open, it allows us to imagine…an absolute verticality and an absolute horizontality united in one object so small and light it almost does not exist – the very model of Mallarmé’s ideal poem.

When the fan is open, the plot is revealed in its entirety with all the puzzles open before us, as light as the object cooling our face, and when compressed we recall only inconclusive elements, such as Hamlet's angst, so small that the play no longer exists. The book therefore is a patient close reading of the unfolding. This is a helpful metaphor for those writing reviews of modern novels, invariably read horizontally.

Those who wish to identify contemporary Shakespeares may point out that one can see Hamlet's existential anxiety in any number of modern dramas, but in popular culture these tend to be contingent rather than representative. To appreciate Hamlet's condition, Josipovici compares it to the curse of perception endured by Kierkegaard's indecisive young man and Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn: "the coldness that comes from seeing too clearly into the nature of things." Like Hamlet, they find themselves in a limbo between one age and another, which in Hamlet's case is when an age of superstition is coming to an end. To appreciate him and the play:

we need is to understand what it feels like to live in a world that, for all its brutality, made sense, and, in one’s lifetime, see it transformed into one in which nothing seemed any longer to make any sense and where all attempts to impose meaning were immediately subject to suspicion.

This world is familiar to us only in the consistency of its unfamiliarity. It's like each of us stands in the still centre of a centrifgue as contingent factors spin before us. It's curious that when I wondered about modern correspondents of Hamlet that the movie Synecdoche, New York came to mind and checking up on Roger Ebert's review I found that he uses Josipovici's term to describe its effect on the viewer: "The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman." In fact, there are metafictional parallels with the play itself when Caden Cotard stages a play to make sense of his life and then he and we struggle to distinguish between act and acted upon. If Shakespeare was alive today, he'd be Charlie Kaufman.

Friday, May 24, 2024

39 Books: 2015

In the Spring of 1997, I visited a friend in Kassel, a city in the middle of Germany, home of the Brothers Grimm and Franz Rosenzweig, and not very far from Weimar, hence the visit to the Goethehaus mentioned in the entry for 1989. I hadn't heard of it before and nor had my friend until she got a job there. By coincidence, the tenth edition of the Documenta festival of contemporary art, which I had also not heard of before, was taking place, with Gerhard Richter's large-scale Atlas exhibtion showing at the Fridericianum and Joseph Beuys' das Rudel at the Neue Galerie, so we could add arts tourism as we rekindled our louche student lifestyle.

Unfortunately, bar the Museum für Sepulkrakultur, I don't remember visiting any other exhibitions and now regret not spending more time looking around. But the visual arts are a blindspot for me, as my 2006 entry explains. On the plus side, I did enjoy living there for a few weeks and treasure my souvenir Documenta X tee-shirt with its huge logo, although this wasn't ideal wearing in public later that year when Princess Diana died. 

I'm not sure when I discovered that Beckett had stayed in Kassel many times, but it was before I got there, as I studied the map looking for Landgrafenstraße 5, which is the address on the first entry in volume one of the Beckett correspondence, and sent to none other than James Joyce. Many years later, I discovered that the street name had been snappily renamed to Bodelschwinghstraße and I had stayed a two-minute walk away in Pestalozzistraße.

For many years after, Kassel felt like a secret between me and Beckett, so when I found out one of Europe's best living novelists was publishing a novel about the city and the Documenta, I was taken aback. The first-person narration follows a writer invited to speak at Documenta 13 fifteen years after my visit and comprises the comical convolutions of the circumstances of the visit and the "atmosphere of fatality" in Europe at the time that led him "to see the world as something now tragically lost" and, in unnecessarily long digressions, how this atmosphere relates to the avant-garde works on display.

That said, the lack of necessity characterises avant-garde art: "Everybody knows that most so-called avant-garde art these days requires one part that is visual and another that is discursive to back it up and try to explain what we are seeing".

Study for Strings was a somber installation, a simple piece that went directly to the heart of the great tragedy, the end of the utopia of a humanizing world. Philipsz had situated loudspeakers in an enclosed area of Kassel’s Hauptbahnhof that were audible to people walking to the end of that stretch of platform—exactly the same stretch on which a great number of Jewish families waited for the train that would transport them to concentration camps; from these loudspeakers came beautiful but devastatingly sad music.
           [Trans. Anne McLean and Anna Milsom]

If an arts festival held "in the center of Germany, in the center of Europe...where it was more obvious than anywhere else that everything had been cold and dead and buried for decades" demands anything it is to forget "the triumph of reason and the idea of progress in the age of Enlightenment", and to not-forget while forgetting: "Nothing could be ruled out in a place like Kassel, which, opening its doors to the ideas of the avant-garde, was implicitly rejecting any invitation to logic." 

While The Illogic of Kassel is exhausting to read, its length challenges my preference for short, aesthetically constrained novels. "Without cruelty, no festival" wrote Nietzsche.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

39 Books: 2014

One could say that Mallarmé, through an extraordinary effort of asceticism, opened an abyss in himself where his awareness, instead of losing itself, survives and grasps its solitude in a desperate clarity.

This is from The Silence of Mallarmé, an essay in Blanchot's first collection Faux Pas published in occupied France in 1943, translated here by Charlotte Mandell, the final two words of which provide the title to this year's book. The abyss is characterised by Blanchot as one that opens between Mallarmé's dream of a poetry of formal perfection so "prodigiously impossible that its realization would be the equivalent of the creation of the universe".

The essay is one of 170 Blanchot published in the Journal des débats between April 1941 and August 1944, a selection of which comprises Faux Pas, but those remaining were not collected in French until 2007 and not translated into English until these four editions were published between 2014 and 2019 (during which Fordham UP tweaked the design so that the title on the spines of the final two make for an inconsistent set, not to mention the logo).

The disaster of the first title follows the defeat of France, a defeat that for Blanchot opened an abyss of equivalent proportions, as Michael Holland explains in his introductions. Blanchot saw literature as "the purest expression of French civilization" and, while fiercely critical of Hitlerism and its racist ideology, he continued to review writers who associated with collaborators and anti-semites, "something extremely difficult to confront, and a source of profound unease" to modern readers, as the introduction also comments. 

Instead of dismissing Blanchot as a collaborationist, Holland argues that we need to approach Blanchot's writings at this time "as the site of a huge and fundamental change in Western values" in which "a new relationship is established...between literature and thought". If the idealised France of Blanchot's aristocratic characterisation placed literature apart from the demand of contemporary events, its defeat also defeated his concomitant ideal of literary perfection, turning "the silent retreat of the writer into a site of endless divergence and effectively suspend[ing] individual subjectivity":

Because in [Blanchot's] own mind the issue of collaboration and that of anti-Semitism had been clearly decided once and for all, it was of no interest to him whether a given writer subscribed to either or both, provided that in his writing, he recognized and responded to the disastrous ordeal onto which writing opened, and which for Blanchot constituted the sole reality henceforth. However, our consternation at this seeming absence of judgment is, I would argue, something that we, his readers can ultimately acknowledge and accept, in the knowledge that in 1942, the writer we expect better of is on the way to discovering an entirely new and original order of value. 

Anyway, Holland continues, there are examples of Blanchot's integrity regarding the occupation and offers some more himself with some detective work in the archives of the Journal des débats

In 2014, I did not write about this, nor any of the other three volumes, and do so now because the dates have taken on more significance. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn became the first Labour Party leader with a meaningful record of resistance to racism and regime-change wars of aggression and, but for the machinations of the party bureaucracy run by his enemies in the party, would have won the 2017 election, "receiving the largest increase in the share of the vote by a Labour leader since Clement Attlee in 1945". It was clear the establishment had underestimated the effect having a real choice has on an electorate, even after the vote for Brexit. It would not make the same mistake again and a campaign of vilification whose cynicism and dishonesty infected the entire political and media class, including novelists, shocked even lifelong Conservatives. Asa Winstanley's comprehensive Weaponising Anti-Semitism describes it in detail. I've written about this and literature recently concerning John Pilger's lament for the silence of writers, but rereading Michael Holland's introductions has helped bring clarity on the reasons for the desultory nature of my reading and, by extension, of contemporary literary culture. We are missing the abyss.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

39 Books: 2013

I reread books like Aharon Appelfeld's A Table for One and Anne Atik's How It Was as if returning to a particular bench with a view of the sea. On first glance A Table for One promises only banal, coffee-table memories and reflections, and that would be almost right:

Real cafés are inviting, they tempt you with fresh coffee and a cake straight out of the oven, and offer the chance to spend a precious hour or two alone with yourself. 

But this promise is deceptive. Each chapter is accompanied by large reproductions of figureless cityscapes, rather like Frank Auerbach’s of London, painted by the author’s son, Meir. Overall they complement the text only by effacing themselves – "what he paints, I write", says the father. They confirm the subtitle’s claim to come from "under the light of Jerusalem". 

The text, on the other hand, comes from under the dim light in the corner of a café. It is here that Appelfeld prefers to write. 

In cafés you can sometimes hear words cold as ice, or words full of longing and a fierce loyalty. Usually there’s silence in a café, but sometimes a wave of speech will surge up, flooding the listener with painful things that have been mostly kept down, things buried deep in the soul for many years that have at last found an opening and emerged in words. 

What’s buried deep, and how it moves beneath the surface of the present, is Appelfeld’s subject. Curiously this is also Proust’s, and it was Proust, I think, who said that the best places to write are hotel rooms and railway waiting rooms. Appelfeld sketches how his writing developed over the years in various cafés. Whenever he could spare time, he would visit them, seeking a way forward. He tells of those who helped him: Kafka and SY Agnon in particular. Then a refugee from old Europe, met playing chess in Café Rehavia, introduced him to Kleist’s stories. 

As soon as I started to read them I understood: this was a writer from whom I could learn. Throughout the 1950s, I had written short stories, but wasn’t happy with them. It was clear to me that I knew neither the secret of plot development nor the power of simply stated facts. Instead of searching for a correct fact, I reach for metaphors. An excess of metaphors produces an unpleasant mist and a false sense of the poetic. The right facts, one following the next, are the driving force, the engine that moves a story along. A story, like a river, cannot stand still in one place. 

One thing that can be said of Appelfeld’s novels is that they never stand still. They move forward with what David Auerbach called "a styleless immediacy"; hence Kafka and Kleist. Sometimes, it seems indulgent, daydreamy, free of relevance to the empire. Appelfeld recalls people who criticised his work for this reason, such as Rachel Yanait:

[She] had been quarried out of touch material: the Russian revolution and the Zionist revolution. Low-key literature, writing that did not bite into the meat of life, was not to her liking. She made no effort to hide her view that … literature should have a definitive message. I listened to what she said, but in my heart I was far away. 

What comes through more than anything in A Table for One is Appelfeld’s relentless loyalty to what his heart tells him about his art. Sometimes it borders on self-absorption, sometimes self-sacrifice. Despite offers and requests, he declines to write daily columns in the newspapers, or to write explicitly about the state of Israel – though he willingly serves in its army, taking delight in using an automatic gun. But when he briefly recalls the siege of Jerusalem, Appelfeld’s true relevance is suggested: "Since then some fifty years have passed. Sometimes it seems to me that I’m still standing there, stirred by the immense light."

Appelfeld’s novels exist in such an uncertain light: a weird tranquillity with a constant threat of violence. By discussing where and how he works, we learn how he brings this to the fore in fiction. It depends on the atmosphere of the café. In his best work we’re able to appreciate Appelfeld’s claim that his work reflects "a religious attitude to life", an attitude that is really only a "seriousness and sense of obligation to art". 

On the radio and in the press people talked of miracles, of Redemption and the coming of the Messiah. These terms were beyond me. I love the mysticism of daily life, the colors and the shadows that surround me, particular spots in Jerusalem toward evening, the light that glints out from parched earth. 

I have to report that one "particular spot" is not brought to light. Appelfeld mentions the Palestinians not once. He does refer to a "huge incited mob" during the siege and a nightmare of a "horde of Arabs" when he served in the army. Otherwise, nothing. What lies unsaid between the words is, he insists, central to his artistic expression. Appelfeld does not call Israel his "homeland", as that was a word used by the Nazis. He prefers "home" alone. Perhaps there’s a Palestinian sitting in a café somewhere right now, also writing, not at home and, like Appelfeld, lucky to have survived the unsaid.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

39 Books: 2012

Of all the books in this series, this was the one I most wanted to write about and also the one I knew would be impossible to write about, at least in a couple of distracted hours. Imagine this: through mathematical calculation, close reading and literary detective work, a philosopher regarded as a radical atheist uncovers a code in a canonical poem to claim against critical orthodoxy that it is the fulfilment of the poet's quest to create a civil religion to succeed Christianity as a relation to the infinite.

A sample: Quentin Meillassoux says Stéphane Mallarmé gives a central role to the number seven in Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard / A throw of the dice will never abolish chance because it is the number of rhymes in what he believed is the perfect poetical form, the sonnet, and also the number of stars in the constellation containing the North Star by which navigators where sure to find their way but which is now "detached in all its resplendence on the ground of eternal Chance". The stars reminds us that:

the absence of God, his proven Nothingness, is the condition of the Beautiful, just as Night and the annihilation of solar light is the condition of stellar splendor – which is, from now on, our compass.    [translated by Robin Mackay]

I wanted to write about the book because it probably represents the turn in my interests away from the restless demands of the literature industry and towards something less easily served; "backing up to the monastery", as Saul Bellow answered when asked why he taught university classes. While contemporary literature is thriving, its shallow roots are obscured by its wealth and energy, something on which this blog fed for many years, albeit often antagonistically. However, following a head injury and losing my job because of its side effects, I slowed down and became more sensitive to the stars' reminder. What after all is the point of this manic logging of literary experience in lists, essays and reviews, and why this concern for evaluating the generic qualities of a novel and one's reaction to them? Asking the question may be why I remained silent about The Number and the Siren, as it meant turning against the tide of wealth and energy with pitiful levels of both. Instead, here are two excellent reviews of The Number and the Siren by Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith.

I wonder if the surprise of The Number and the Siren as an event in itself can be instructive. Published by small presses Urbanomic in the UK and Sequence Press in the US, it was ignored by newspapers book pages. Perhaps this reveals that literature has become exhausted and yet cannot exhaust itself, as a bright-burning supernova cannot yet become a black hole. Meillassoux's book reminds us that the task of literature is to return to silence. While Meillassoux claims to go in the opposite direction to Maurice Blanchot's reading of Mallarmé as a writer "gripped by the impossible and sterile dreams of a Work doomed to failure", he has perhaps written the history of Mallarmé's silence Blanchot said in 1943 might be written in the future, a history that would have "the interest of a gaze directed at an absence, at a very profound reality that would only yield to awareness the fact that it cannot be known". That absence may be literature itself.

Monday, May 20, 2024

39 Books: 2011

How does one respond to Nietzsche's revelation at Sils Maria?

I read Pierre Klossowski's Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle because the thought of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same occurred to me as a literary concept, perhaps the ultimate experience of the literary, but needed someone else's words to express it. However, this book draws one inexorably into a mode of intellectual habilitation apparently irreconcilable with the "hohe Stimmung" of Nietzsche's experience. This meant my perennial negotiation between a wish to understand an idea and its implications and the wish for a work subject to the experience of which it speaks rather than one safely distant from it. This may explain the haphazard procedure of my reading over the course of these 39 years.

The literary quality of Nietzsche's work could be why Klossowski claims that the thought of Eternal Recurrence preserves "the character of ... a sudden unveiling" even as it becomes a literary experience. Walter Kaufmann dilutes the suddenness, however, by noting Nietzsche had previously encountered the idea in a book by Heinrich Heine.

What does it mean when the violent ecstacy of thought becomes the peace of the book?

Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing – and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.

This is from Peter Handke's notebook. His best novel, Repetition, takes its English title from the nature of storytelling, a synonym of Nietzsche's key word. Could we then read a novel as the eternal recurrence of the same in microcosmic, human form, and we turn to novels to induce in the forgetting necessary to enable the sudden unveiling that, while we exist in time, there is another time? The temporality of narration becomes the temporality of God, that is to say eternity in which there is nothing new under the sun? This is why the peace of the book disturbs us and generates the anxieties over its relevance.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

39 Books: 2010

This series has sailed into the doldrum years. Reading has become less of a headlong existential adventure than something one does, a pastime, a hobby, something you tell a quiz show presenter how you relax: "I like to read, Brad."

By this time I had given up reviewing elsewhere. After reading had got me to university, a job, my own place, a new life, I assumed that writing for print venues was the natural progression. Instead, it made me ill. The head injury had side effects nobody had warned me to expect and the tide returned me to the remote island of blogging. Anyway, what can be worse than a literary professional?

This is not a photograph of a book I own. I bought a copy as a gift, no doubt wishing to spark in another what reading had sparked in me, and leafed through carefully to read each page without soiling the paper, and then sent it on its way, something I've regretted ever since. I doubt it was ever read. Not regret for losing the book as something to read and reread – Schalansky's story of the moai of Easter Island is inaccurate – as losing its presence as a token of regret, of what the book itself regrets, the regret that enables it, the success of regret, the deepest pleasure of reading.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

39 Books: 2009

The further I get into this series, the fewer books there are on my yearly lists that I haven't already written about and among those few that I feel able to write about. For 2009 there is one outstanding exception: another book about a writer exiled in Paris. Already I've written about Anne Atik's memoir of her family's friendship with Samuel Beckett. This time it's Jean Daive's friendship with Paul Celan, published in this year by Burning Deck in Rosemarie Waldrop's translation. City Lights reissued Under the Dome in 2020.

Not that it has many other similarities to How It Was: the subjects' prodigous recall of poetry is one, their persistent enigma another. Where the latter has episodes in a clear chronology, concluding with Beckett's funeral, the former is fragmentary, oblique and non-linear: Celan burial is mentioned on page twelve and ten pages later Daive hears his name for the first time. Celan's disappearance and appearance recur. Anecdotes recur: the assertion that he will translate Daive's poetry, the lightbulb hanging low in a net shopping bag, hilarity at the words on the side of a passing van, God appearing as a ray of light under the door of a London hotel. The true picture of the past flits by, more than once.

Why do we live more forcefully in the hearts and minds of those who are close to us when we are dead rather than when we were alive?

Gabriel Josipovici's question in The Singer on the Shore is straightforward, at first, and then you notice that "we" are dead. How is this possible? You pick up a book like Under the Dome and the answer becomes clear.

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