Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Summer reading"

Last week in the TLS the good and the ghastly offered their summer reading plans so, without anybody asking, here's my alternative list.

The left and right choices are related in that, for Bernhard, "Trakl’s influence on my work was devastating; if I had never heard of him I would have come a lot farther by now". (I now realise some time after posting that it's exactly 25 years since I saw the edition below of the Gesammelte Gedichte on display in a small town's library in the Sauerland region of north-west Germany and thinking in that moment of an impossible future.)


There are already two volumes of Bernhard's poetry in translation so, while one can't have too many translations, I do wonder what there is in addition to Princeton UP's In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon, also translated by James Reidel, and Peter Waugh's On Earth and in Hell. There's also Reidel's translation of the long poem Ave Virgil, which I believe was written in London, published in Conjunctions: 53.



In contrast to Bernhard, I know nothing about Franz Fühmann but At the Burning Abyss has a great subject and an even better title. It might be worth noting that both this and Bernhard's poetry are published by Seagull Books and both editions are absent from its website (at least, I can't find them). Fortunately, the excellent University of Chicago Press has stepped in with pages for them, with the latter described as "a gripping and profoundly personal encounter" with Trakl's poetry.

The middle choice, The Eroticization of Distance: Nietzsche, Blanchot, and the Legacy of Courtly Love, was prompted by Joseph Kuzma's brilliant essay The Intimate Blanchot, which I read earlier this year. It challenges the assumption that his works "evoke sterility or even coldness" and instead argues Blanchot's fiction and criticism of 1940s and 50s reveals "the most profound intimacy occurs only when separation has been experienced, and affirmed, in its most radical form". This occurs to me as fundamental to the experience of literature. I'm especially keen to read this because, along with Jeff Fort's recent The Imperative to Write and Leslie Hill's Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing, two of the most remarkable books I've ever read, we appear to be in rich period of Blanchot studies in English. There's also John McKeane's forthcoming translation of Christophe Bident's biography.

What's notable in this list is that there is no fiction. Sometimes, while I await happy contradiction, I wonder if other forms offer more right now. An example might be Pierre Joris' translation of Paul Celan's Microliths, whose publication was postponed from February but, fingers crossed, might appear next month. Meanwhile, extracts are available here.

Finally, what's alternative about my list is that I won't likely be reading any of them, as the combined cost of those pictured is £99.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A commentary on myself

Robert Minto belongs to a rare and special group of people: he bought my book. Even rarer, he wrote a response, classifying it alongside Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry under a new genre, apophatic criticism: “a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits”. Whatever the validity of the label, this is one the best things ever to happen in all my years of blogging, as I realise there are some critics who will never receive anything more than a cheque in the post. If there is one thing that has kept me writing for so long, it has been to find words for an experience of literature that appears to differ so markedly from those at the cash machine, so to have that recognised and appreciated in this way is not only gratifying but a great help.

You can read the whole thing here.
(As it's no longer on the site, I'll quote the relevant part below)


"An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method. You may have heard of Mitchelmore from his blog This Space. Not so long ago, he made the excellent decision to turn a number of posts from that blog into a book, entitled This Space of Writing, published by Zero Press. When I found out about this book, I purchased it with glee. I discovered Mitchelmore’s blog when I was a college student. Without going too deeply into it, I was a miserable person then: I was cooped up in a terrible university I had chosen for religious reasons, and those religious reasons were beginning to get complicated, to slip away, and I was waking up to the profound intellectual poverty of my surroundings. I felt alone in my enthusiasm for books and philosophy and history, despite a lively social life and intense involvement in all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time holed up in quiet corners, desperately reading, or looking for real live intellectual models and virtual friends on the internet. I stumbled onto This Space and encountered a way of talking about books that seemed as far above me in intellectual seriousness as I felt I was above my fellow students. 

Mitchelmore clearly valued books more than anyone I’d ever met. But he had some secret technique or method of approach that guided everything he said while evading all my attempts to isolate it. He’d developed a kind of discourse that seemed to turn every story into a text about reading and writing itself.

Mitchelmore’s essays have none of the fat that characterizes commercial criticism or the different kind of fat that characterizes book blogging. He writes with an intensity of focus that either sucks you in or makes you scornful. Those seem to be the two responses his blog draws: and the critical response to his book has been no different. In a blog post called “Mehr Nichts” (it’s also included in the book), he asks at the end: “What does it mean to acknowledge the limits of writing?” And it was only after I had read Mitchelmore for many months, as a teenager, that I realized this was the question, or the kind of question, guiding his work. He prefers fiction that raises the question; and he reads all fiction, the good and the bad, with the question in mind. Before I clued into this apophatic method, I found Mitchelmore’s writing difficult for a very specific reason: it rebuffed my desire to imitate it. I was deeply impressed by his irascibility toward other reviewers and by the way he seemed to dive into a text, causing it to disappear by becoming more intensely itself. But when I tried to read that way myself, or to discriminate between the critics and novels who offered or allowed for that way of reading and those who didn’t, I continually arrived at the “wrong” conclusions. Like Churchill, who supposedly taught himself politics while he was stationed in India by reading volumes of the debates of parliament, determining his own views and reasons about each issue, and then measuring them against the reported outcome of the actual debates, I essentially taught myself to read like an apophatic critic (or tried to) by seeing what book Mitchelmore had written about, trying to read that book as I imagined he would, and then comparing my experience to what he wrote.

It sounds more slavish than it was. I’ll write more on some other occasion about Mitchelmore, his book, and what his blog meant to me in college, because he deserves the attention, and I owe it to the role he played in my self-education. His book also requires its own post because to really show what he’s up to would require zeroing in on how he talks about specific texts, and I can sense this post will already be rather long without a digression of that kind. In fact, that is the very the feature of an apophatic criticism that most appeals to me: despite the way it might seem abstract or predictable from an outside description, in practice it is more deeply focused on the real (or virtual?) object in front of the critic than any other form of criticism."

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