This Space

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

All our (Bernhardian) yesterdays

Today's date means it is thirty years since Thomas Bernhard died. Twenty years ago I wrote a short introduction to his work for Spike Magazine to mark ten years since his death. In those days, Bernhard was more or less unknown in English-speaking countries, with subtitled documentaries like the one below unimaginable, and this was the first essay I had written for the new-fangled internet, so should be considered in that light. Below, I list what I've written about Bernhard on This Space, with a few other treats along the way.

Last year I was keen to write a longer piece on the consequences for the novel in general of Bernhard's going in the opposite direction, the phrase he uses in The Cellar: An Escape, part three of Gathering Evidence, to describe one of the many wilful or chance actions he took in life and which his novels' characters often take too. I mention this feature in Bernhard begins from 2010. I went in the opposite direction and wrote nothing.

In 2011, Bernhard appears in four posts. The first is a long passage from Wittgenstein's Nephew, which demonstrates that Bernhard is not the misanthropic ranter of bookchat legend and instead a writer of breath-giving sentences. In the second, I embedded this short, dark, peaceful film of a drive leading up to one of Bernhard's farmhouses in Upper Austria.

The third is another gift of the internet: I posted an extract from Douglas Robertston's translation of Ungenach, a novella still to be published in English book form. His blog is full of other, otherwise untranslated gifts, such as the short story Midland in Stilfs.

The fourth of that year is my review of Seagull Books' impressively excessive production of Bernhard's short story for children Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale.

Another three years passed before I posted on Bernhard again. This time it was to write about My Prizes, a collection of Bernhard's short essays on the prizes he had won and the speeches he gave. The second sentence of his notorious Austrian State Prize acceptance speech is one of his most famous sayings.

Two years later, I wrote Unfoundland about the minimal existence of Bernhard's unfinished novel Neufundland, and then what I think is one the best things I have ever posted on this blog, and certainly the best on Bernhard: a review of the title story of another of Seagull Books' productions, Goethe Dies.

Apart from this very post, the most recent was a more general post about writing in which I discuss The Loser, Frost and the film Drei Tage, an extract from which you can see below and whose full text in translation can be read here.

Finally, there are many more links on the English website dedicated to his work and on the official Austrian one, in German.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

On the death of book blogging (nothing unhappy)

The Indie Book Blog Is Dead says The Vulture, a commerical culturesite I may or may not have seen before – they all look and sound the same – focusing on another commercial culturesite that looks and sounds pretty much the same but one I had definitely seen before though had never considered to be a book blog, which has been sold to another commercial culturesite, signalling, apparently, the end of indie book blogs, a distinguishing phrase that stood out – independent of what, I wondered; any feeling for literature?

The article prompted a bemused shrug from Anthony as he celebrated ten years of Time's Flow Stemmed, a brilliant and cutting response from Juliana of The Blank Garden and, most recently, Flowerville's reflections on why she continues to blog after all these years. I've written about the form a couple of times in The beginning of something and A blog comes to one in the dark, so I repeat myself now only to observe that such repetition indicates why book blogging maintains itself in a state of precarity: it offers an infinite and apparently meaningless freedom. It is like the novel in this sense and, like a novelist who embraces genre, the blogger can constrain themself by mimicking the culturesites with enthusiasm for new publications, offering consumer reports, prizechat and local agitations about diversity, but the longer one pursues such writing, the more nagging questions or feelings present themselves and demand to be explored.

"I understand less than I thought I knew about literature at the time" says Anthony looking back at his first post, echoing my own experience. In the early days especially I was contemptuous of the prevailing literary scene and impatient for it to change direction, until I realised I needed to do that myself. Pursuing questions about the strange familiarity of literature – pursuing one's ignorance! – is not to be found on respectable platforms, so no wonder The Vulture chooses to mention only those bloggers who have moved on, as if blogging is only an unpaid internship on more familiar career path; profitability is the guiding light. Meanwhile, the book blogger looks into the night sky to find a billion guiding lights engulfed in darkness.

Lately, I've been reading for the third time in thirty years VS Naipaul's novel The Enigma of Arrival and learning, perhaps for the first time, the lesson Naipaul learns himself: that a writer's true subject is often hidden in plain sight and takes a certain amount of luck or misfortune to recognise (a lesson curiously similar to Proust's, a very different writer). Naipaul's recognition came in middle age when he rented a cottage on a manor estate near Stonehenge to recover from years of travel journalism. What at first seemed like bucolic peace in ancient and eternal landscape peopled by succeeding generations of the same families, turned out to be as precarious as the one he'd left behind: the farm workers he gets to know as neighbours lose their jobs, their marriages, their homes, their lives, and the landscape changes according to the demands of the farming economy. The manor itself, a symbol of empire and class hierarchy, loses its aura of permanence and authority. It leads him to reflect on his own beginnings, coming to England from Trinidad as an 18-year-old with ambitions to be a writer in the home of the authors he grew up admiring, but failing to write about the chaos of postwar London, in particular his fellow transients in the austere lodging house in which he lived, in favour of the elevated subjects he believed necessary to a literary career. It's an exceptionally moving and disconcerting book, not least because it is a deeply felt essay on his own life and work rather than what it asserts on the cover. Perhaps Naipaul needed to call it a novel to protect himself from the misfortune of the discovery that his true subject was not other people, countries and cultures but the search for his own true subject.

In the surprise and discomfort of this discovery, the novel maintains itself in a state of precarity, and explains why in Sir Vidia's Shadow Paul Theroux is entirely correct in wrongly declaring The Enigma of Arrival to be the novel that marks the end of Naipaul's career as an important novelist ("a ponderous agglomeration of the dullest rural incidents") as it goes against the generic grain. If this is the case, the same could be said for Theroux's My Secret History, which stands as his own best novel, and why subsequent, ostensibly similar novels like Naipaul's A Way in the World and Theroux's My Other Life are so disappointing.

My own luck or misfortune has been to discover that I am intellectually not up to exploring the questions that have presented themselves to me, so I am happily stuck with the amateur hobbyism of blogging about extraordinary books like The Imperative to Write and the profoundly irrationalist literary apocalypse of Maurice Blanchot. But then I wonder how much it has to do with intellect than with luck or misfortune.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Axe-books of the year

 A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us, says Kafka in the famous letter.

I wondered what this might mean as the 'books of the year' lists began to appear last month. Imagine if each contributor constrained themselves to choose only axe-books. Each entry would likely remain blank and the value of what did appear would be extreme compared to the predictable logrolling we see each year. Or maybe they would be exactly the same, as the idea of such a book is so vague that it could include everything from everyday escapist relief to a silent version of Freud's talking cure.

For this reason, it is the second most abused quotation of modern literature, after Beckett's Fail better. While Beckett is encouraging deeper failure rather than one that is closer to success, its playful ambiguity has enabled it to become a motivational mantra for a million creative writing memes, allowing Beckett one more catastrophe as he fails to turn budding writers away from the sewer of success. Kafka's line may not be misunderstood but is preceded by flourishes that rather complicate its promise:
We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. We need the books that affect us like a disaster. We need books that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.
You can see why these words haven't become as popular. Yet as easily as such teenage-goth hyperbole is dismissed, the words do stir something beneath surface cynicism, which may be as slight as disappointment with everyday escapist relief, with Kafka's grim enthusiasm maintaining the promise of a future book that will allow us to bear the heaviest burdens without the lingering trauma, even if in doing so they retain the formula of disappointment: words that carry no weight.

My year of reading ended with four new books by or related to Maurice Blanchot, with one experienced with this kind of disappointment. I had been waiting twenty years for Christophe Bident's biography to be translated, as it promised a measure of the distance between Blanchot's life and his writing (what he discovered in writing). Several hundred pages later, the words Bident used to discuss key ideas and concepts became so light they floated free of any context that held any meaning for me: the absolute, the neuter, the unsayable, the avowable, the unavowable, the infinite, the impossible, the infinitely impossible. There is very little biographical detail, certainly not the trivia one might expect of the genre; his acquaintance with Brigitte Bardot as reported in L'Herne or the rumour that he learned Danish to read Kierkegaard in the original are not mentioned. As the book is a study of the work organised chronologically and written during Blanchot's lifetime, this is fair enough and mine is only an expression of disappointment and intellectual stupefaction. In reading hundreds of pages of commentary and analysis, I was reminded of Saul Bellow's narrator of Ravelstein who, when charged to read a philosophical article, felt like an ant who sets out to cross the Andes. Except, I was on the other side.

While it was no doubt disingenuous of me to hope for trivia from the life of this writer, there are two moments central to Blanchot's work in which the personal is exposed to the impersonal, suggesting there remains a navigable plain to be explored before the mountains rise up. Here is the first, in Ann Smock's translation of The Writing of the Disaster:

If the tears are evidence of an unfrozen sea, they are also evidence of disaster, grief and banishment, and so an experience much closer to Kafka's demands. And even if he is reading the sky and not a book, what happens then has the same ambiguous properties of reading, amplified here into a variety of religious experience; an experience that is repeated thirty years later.

The Instant of My Death describes how in the summer of 1944 a Nazi lieutenant ordered Blanchot out of the same house, perhaps to the same garden, to face a firing squad. As he awaits the order to fire, Blanchot writes that he experienced "a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however)". Distracted by noise of fighting, the lieutenant leaves the scene and the firing squad tells Blanchot to nip off. Fifty years later, Blanchot speculates that what he felt was perhaps ecstacy, defined by the OED as "the state of being ‘beside oneself’ in ... anxiety, astonishment, fear, or passion" or "the withdrawal of the soul from the body [in a] mystic trance". But then Blanchot says it was rather the feeling "compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal", notable for being the opposite of the familiar literary pursuit of living forever.

There is so much to say about such passages that Derrida has written a book on the latter, emphasising there what concerns me here: that both experiences are also non-experiences. The content of each is an exposure to that which is not there or that which didn't occur. Both correspond to the experience of reading and both are essentially literary experiences, with all the features of reading stories and the prejudices they encounter. Derrida argues that fiction haunts the project to be truthful in testimony and "is perhaps the passion of literature" – the Christian sense included: a suffering unto death in which death is not an end. In reading we are "close to a heart that beats no more": the instant of death has become literature, opening the mysterious distance necessary to itself and the peculiar value we place in it, as witnessed in the power of Kafka's letter.

Remember Kafka says there that books should affect us like a 'disaster', a key word in Blanchot's work. For Blanchot, the word means not only the terrible events in the news or the historical record but the breakdown of our relation to the stars, as reported in the 'primal scene'. The OED says "Disaster is etymologically a mishap due to a baleful stellar aspect". William S. Allen explains further in Understanding Blanchot, Understanding Modernism that, without the guiding light of the stars, our existence lacks unity to ground meaning or knowledge. The resulting anxiety necessarily infects language, as it fails to take the place of the stars. This is felt especially by the writer seeking, in both a personal and public sense, to stabilise existence and thereby reduce existential anxiety. But writing only doubles down on ambiguity: "Does this sentence describe my situation, or make it into something else; is it expressing my anxiety, or displacing it?" :
The disaster is not an event. It does not take place in the order of things that happen but is discovered as that which has taken place, as the experience of this utter lack of grounds for meaning, the lack of any transcendental unity or order, an experience that language conveys but that is not limited to language, which is its other, mortal side.
An experience of the transcendental and mortal sides combined might be the best way to define axe-books. It is not necessarily a pessimistic definition. What Kafka's writing gives is a glimpse of light, even if is the light of a baleful star, and thereby the possibility of communication in the darkness. Either instant on its own is not enough (perhaps Bident's string of key words became weightless for me because they were drained of their mortal side).

I have no axe-books for this year. Like Marcel's miraculous, timeless instants, they appear very rarely, if at all, always unexpected, and easily confused with narrative excitements. The closest for me was two years ago. I have often recognised since that this post was the culmination of what I had to say here (by coincidence, 'culmination' also has its root in the stars). And yet I continue. Why? Thirteen years after his famous letter, Kafka characterised his ability to write as "a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being". The question he asks in the next sentence remains outstanding: "But then what kind of surplus is it?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Interruption: Heaven on Earth by TJ Clark

‘The best things in museums are the windows’ 
Paintings on gallery walls have always been distant to me. I think of Pierre Bonnard's quip as I wander, aware that I am too soon drawn toward the text panel on the wall beside each painting, to the wall itself, to the design of the gallery space – what if there were a hundred windows and only one painting? – and then to the giftshop, as if in search of something to close that distance: a postcard or Mondrian mug. I am always trying to understand this space, specifically why a painting, any painting, has its peculiar presence in the world – part of the world and apart from it. It's a question that invariably leaves me frustrated or blank.

Which is why I have been drawn in recent years to what TJ Clark calls art writing: distance is there already in the relation to the form, something gratifyingly signalled in the epigraph to his latest book quoting Ruskin's revelation of the "entire superiority of Painting to Literature...and of the enormously greater quantity of Intellect which might be forced into a picture...compared with what might be expressed in words". Art writing thereby differs from literary criticism because, in the latter genre, mastery of the form often obscures whatever is being discussed, elevating and reducing itself and the object in the same movement. In writing about art, there is an implicit admittance of distance that immediately opens a space to be closed or at least traversed. While Clark orchestrates history, biography and technical detail in the way you'd expect of an art historian, each is always a means of investigating the intellect of a painting, which in Heaven on Earth means those that relate to "the idea that the world we inhabit might open onto another"; the life to come of the subtitle.

It was Clark's own Picasso and Truth (2013) that helped me to recognise that the content of my frustration and blankness was connected to this idea. When writing about The Painter and His Model from 1927, he begins with a description familiar from other art books:
We seem to be standing in a room. There appears to be light in the room, falling or flashing across the walls and floor like the beams of a searchlight: two great shapes of light, the one on the left a deadly bone-to-ashes off-white, and the other a slightly – but only slightly – more organic pale yellow.
To which I responded, as I always do, silently, churlishly, No, we're not in a room it's just paint. But then he asks if we should understand the lit shapes as holes in the picture surface: "holes that dramatize and materialize the strange fiction of European painting since the Renaissance called 'the picture plane'." So much of Picasso's painting, Clark says, has to do with this fiction.
The picture plane is an a priori. For depiction to take place at all, it says – for the very notion of appearance to make sense – hasn't what appears necessarily to appear somewhere else than where we are, on the other side of an ontological divide? There must be a place in representation – a virtual, invisible threshold – where the space of the scene ends and the space of the viewer begins. The picture shows us that place.
The absence of acknowledgement of the picture plane, I realised, constituted my distance, and the resentment underlying my behaviour in galleries was frustration with the acceptance or ignorance of what one might call the ontological divide, so that I could see the appreciation of art in general only as the connoisseur's admiration of technical facility, the romantic's sentimental wish-fulfilment or consumer's decorative kitsch.

Clark notes that the background or foreground of Picasso's painting is in 'free circulation', so that the holes turn the painting into a metafiction in which the light of painting is at the same time a darkness, and as such is in critical dialogue with Vermeer's The Art of Painting, another metafiction in which the invisible soul of painting is in the foreground:
What painting has to offer most deeply, so Vermeer seems to believe, is light; and it should not offer that ground of experience merely in spots or patches...but as a totality, here in front of us, completely present, completely intangible.
This prompts more of my confusion: why do we need what is already plain as day to be presented in artificial form in the first place? Given that painting no longer has an overt ritual function spinning metaphysical truth from the same material, what is the meaning of art? Framed colour on a wall is in itself a very odd thing when it ceases to have a practical purpose. The Painter and His Model might then be one of art's few suicide notes, with its relative ugliness enacting or at least encouraging a transformation of our relation to painting in order for us to ignore its promise, or at best to travel through its portal of light, foreclosing the divide and thereby perhaps merging its inherent perfection with the malady of our earthly quotidian.

It is this moment of transformation that is the centre of Clark's new study, which foregrounds works of art with Christian themes by Giotto, Bruegel, Poussin and Veronese, with Picasso reappearing to provide an atheist coda. His focus, however, is on political transformation, in which heaven on earth would be a really existing state rather than the promise of an afterlife, something he sees revealed in the subject paintings: "What the artists whose pictures held me captive offered most deeply" he says in the introduction "was a way of being earthbound – fully in the here and now." While the utopias of religion and politics have produced only hell on earth, these paintings frame a transformation with an awareness of how the wish for the life to come can lead to the life to end.

The fact that Heaven in Earth is a book of nearly 300 pages rather confirms Ruskin's observation, as it detours through innumerable avenues to back up its readings of individual paintings so that one is constantly flipping back to the illustration to rest from being in turn intrigued, engaged, overwhelmed and exhausted by the detail and digressions. But never bored. And for this reason it is also qualifies the value of Ruskin's truth, as it opens the eyes of the vacillating gallery visitor enough to see what he – that is, me – has casually overlooked.

The chapter on Poussin's Sacrament of Marriage is a prime example of Clark's passionate perception. Here is a familiar Old Master's representation of a religious scene, in this case the moment God interrupts the betrothal of Mary and Joseph to give it his blessing, so setting in motion the entire Christian story. It is a painting I would have walked by with barely a glance. Clark gives the biographical background to the painting and then a description of its internal symmetries and commentary on its people, clothes, setting and related works, including the six other paintings in the sequence, before coming to what he calls 'the presiding deity' of the painting, which is not, as one might assume, found at the centre, let alone in God Himself, represented here by the staff of flowers standing beside the couple, but the figure on the far left, half hidden by the column framing the event, whose folds of cloth are given impressive relief by the light streaming through the window.

Clark calls her the femme-colonne – the woman-column – because she in effect merges with the pillar. She is, Clark says, mysterious, veiled, marginal to the event, apart from the intervention of grace at the centre, outside even, at least "to one side of the sacred", thereby threatening the togetherness of the group. And as her head and face are covered up, she is also the embodiment of the double meaning of 'figure': both physical body and abstract metaphor, so that she is the attentive viewer of the transformation taking place yet also something more: a figure from myth and fairytale such as "the forgotten relative at the little princess Aurora's christening, bringing the gift of death".

The femme-colonne is also a figure of light and darkness, of the arbitrariness of the means of painting in that there's "something uncanny" in the way the viewer knows that she is looking at the scene even though we cannot see her face let alone her eyes. She is also the figure of things to come, of Christ's life prefigured in Mary's joining of hands with God, and also his death in that she and the column prefigure the darkness of his execution and thereby represents the figure of the human, the real body standing upright and alone in the real world, "all that is mortal in opposition to the reach of the cross"; a vulnerability emphasised by the protection and concealment of her clothes and in contrast to the unclothed boy on the other side of the pillar.

The proliferation of possible readings here and throughout Heaven on Earth demonstrates the challenge for Clark and the reader – one to explain to himself and us the intellect of a painting, and for us to cope with such sudden explosions of a figure who was merely one of many, apparently random onlookers. That said, this not a question of whether one accepts or rejects each or every possible reading, because they present themselves with the same hospitality and caution as one must present oneself in the here and now before a painting. For Clark, however, the demand must not end in a pick and mix sale of possibilities because, as if sensing that art criticism is not enough, the book ends with the 25-page essay For a Left with No Future first published in the New Left Review in 2012 that links the qualifications to the utopian vision he sees within the paintings to a revival of Left politics. Rather than a return to utopian visions he argues for a pragmatic, humanist politics of 'small steps' and 'a disdain for grand promises' that, while it does not seem revolutionary, because it is one "directed, step by step, failure by failure, to preventing the tiger from charging out would be the most moderate and revolutionary there has ever been".

While the appearance of the essay might be explained as a reminder of why the author is so passionate about the possibilities the intellect of art offers to frame a better world, it does suggests a lack of confidence in the previous focus entirely on individual paintings, as if the exceptional scrutiny and depth of research he displays is a means of justifying what André Malraux called the voices of silence. (The essay's appearance in the NLR prompted Susan Watkins' critical reply Presentism? and Sinéad Murphy's powerful defence The Thinking of Modern Life, so its position in the new book without any reference to objections is surprising if not unfortunate, suggesting a wish to make it place it in isolation, much like a painting in a room without windows.)

Clark's intense focus reminds me of Reger, the music critic in Thomas Bernhard's novel Old Masters, who spends much of his time in Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna studying each of the great masterpieces in its collection. He has a similar anxieties over utopian worlds:
Our age has long been intolerable as a whole he said, only when we perceive a fragment of it is it tolerable to us. The whole and the perfect are intolerable, he said. That is why, fundamentally, all of these paintings here in the Kunsthistorisches Museum are intolerable, if I am to be honest, they are abhorrent to me. In order to be able to bear them I search for a so-called massive mistake in and about every single one of them, a procedure which so far has always attained its objective of turning that so-called perfect work of art into a fragment, he said.  [Trans. by Ewald Osers]
In his own way, Clark too finds paintings unbearable in their perfection, only without such histrionics, and matches Reger's striving for recovery on a human level. And of course what he sees in the femme-colonne is not a massive mistake but what stands beside or outside the moment of grace given by God, or what is given by paintings in general, and how they may allow us to resist or mitigate the repulsion or suffering that Reger expresses. It is a sense of the unbearable that is akin to my unreflective resistance in galleries, which I attributed to a lack of acknowledgement of the picture plane – the purely procedural element of interaction – but after reading Heaven on Earth I realise it is perhaps a more basic response to the strangeness of art works in general. Why, again, do we feel the need to make and look at things that appear only to duplicate the world? Or, rather, what effect does such duplication have on us?
Unlesbarkeit dieser Welt. Alles doppelt / Illegibility of this world. All things twice over.
The first lines of Paul Celan's untitled poem from Schneepart/Snowpart suggest, to me at least, the effect of representation – in ink, in paint – is to make the world illegible, and Blanchot has written more clearly that the first one to write was "changing all relations between seeing and the visible" and what emerged as a result was "a gap in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing invisible". While Susan Sontag rejects the idea that there was a gap: "To possess the world in the form of images is to re-experience the unreality and the remoteness of the real". But it has been claimed by one prominent archeologist that for those who can be assumed to be the first to paint, the images were not representations of the other world but that other world itself as witnessed in dreams and trance states, and that painting was a means of fixing a direct relation to it. In the millenia since we have lost that relation and what art offers to conscious life instead inevitably remains apart; a vain promise. Painting is not the representation of the inaccessible but the inaccessible itself. And this bleeds into the real world because the somewhere else than where we are does not go away. You may remove an abstract that brings colour to your wilderness of lime render but, once gone, the unfaded light of the square left behind becomes as intangible as the painting, and then so too the surrounding wall, and so too the windows and the world beyond. This does at least mean that painting and the world become more fascinating presences, albeit in the distance.

At first I thought the book's focus on religious paintings would produce only minor interest after the contemporary philosophical challenges of Picasso and Truth, but this book continues the challenge of making painting a vital if obscure form of contestation of everyday life and its possibilities without reducing it to all the abuses to which 'art' is subjected. Heaven on Earth is an interruption of rote looking and rote thinking, which is appropriate given that Clark writes that theologians tells us that a sacrament is a mystery, hence the wish to fix one in a painting, and while over time religious ceremonies like paintings set in museums and galleries may become routine, diminishing their power, "there always remains about them a trace of the incomprehensible or ominous. Grace is interruption".

Monday, September 03, 2018

The end of literature, part two

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point is to be reached.

On Saturday I discovered that another secondhand bookshop in Brighton has closed; the third this year. Saturday mornings have often involved a walk along the promenade, a turn right into Ship Street and onto Colin Page's around the corner on Duke Street. There will be no motivation now the books are gone.

The window displayed antiquarian volumes of no interest to me, and indeed more or less everything inside the shop was of no interest to me, but in good weather the owner put two trestle tables out front that held hundreds of very reasonably priced paperbacks, and unusual paperbacks too, such as Robert Antelme's The Human Race in the original French and a collection of Heidegger's essays, bought for 70p. There were never any brightly coloured mass market paperbacks by Jennifer Someone or James Someone Else that make charity shops such hopeless places.

But I haven't bought anything there for months – the last was a collection of essays by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann – so I can't complain. Trawling though secondhand bookshops has become a groundhog day of blank disappointment. Contrast this with my first day in the city: walking down the road from the station, I found two shops facing each other on either side of the road. In the first I found Thomas Bernhard's The Loser in the rare Quartet hardback, Peter Handke's Absence in a rare Methuen hardback, and an even rarer copy of Maurice Blanchot's The Sirens' Song (two copies in fact, and I wonder if the person to whom I gifted the second still has it). Snapping all three from the shelf has become my guide to how I should consider a purchase: No snap, no buy. That said, I have often neglected the injunction, as I remember hesitating over Bultmann's collection, buying it eventually only out of gratitude that there were still alternatives to brightly coloured mass market paperbacks. I look at the book now and wonder why Lutheran theology might appeal to me more than the paperback of that novel everyone was talking about last year. One's needs develop, of course, sometimes quickly, and that's why the search goes on, as one seeks to understand obscure needs; to find the nourishment one needs. Sometimes I regret not snapping something off the shelf, such as a boxed set of Luther's writings for under a tenner, with the shop now stocking baby clothes.

Of course, if I wanted that boxed set so badly I could order a copy online, so I must be searching for the covert promise that comes from chance discovery more than from the overt content of the books. And this must be why my favourite TV show is Aussie Gold Hunters: mostly amateur men and women sweeping metal detectors over the Australian outback in temperatures of 40º and mostly turning up flakes of gold but, very occasionally, totally out of the blue, huge nuggets worth thousands. The contrast in values is what stirs: one can measure the price of the book against practical necessities, but not the value of its promise.

The itch to search has been there since I started reading. On Sundays in the late 1980s, I would cycle seven miles to a car boot sale in a field just outside the village of Titchfield hoping to find nuggets among the I shot JR mugs and paperbacks of Gormenghast and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Despite multiple visits, the only book I can recall finding is Gabriel Josipovici's novel Contre-Jour. It was 20 pence. Once, I stopped at a small town library as small and creaky as the Terrapin huts of my school years and picked up a 1960 hardback of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, also for 20p. Gold in the outback of provincial England.

I would also cross the harbour and tour the secondhand shops of Portsmouth and Southsea. The first was Adelphi Books, which I am amazed to see is still going, just. A little further on there was a small shop from which the only thing I bought was a pamphlet of short stories edited and published by the couple who ran the place. The male half expressed very clear views in its editorial: he wanted solid, entertaining stories that did a good job for the reader. He was not interested in stories with literary merit, he wrote. If your story had literary merit, he would chuck it aside. Naturally, his own story took a prominant place in the collection. It tells of a man whose neighbours are very touchy about his pet dog's interest in their guinea pigs living in a hutch in the garden. He assures them that his dog won't harm them. Of course, one day soon after, the dog waddles in proudly carrying a dead guinea pig in his mouth. The owner is frantic that the neighbours will find out before he can rectify the situation. Under cover of darkness he sneaks into the next door garden, opens the hatch and places the dead animal on its bed of straw, arranging the body so it looks like it's died in its asleep. Relieved, he goes to bed, only to be woken the next morning by a woman screaming "Fergie!!!". The dog owner acts innocent and asks what is wrong. The woman explains that the day before Fergie had died and they had buried her in the garden. 

The next shop on the route was a short walk from Fratton Park, my other haunt at the time. The Star Bookshop was where I bought this perfectly formed edition of Kafka's Letters to Felice and the stiffed-spined edition of Levinas' Totalty and Infinity, but failed to spend £4 on Bergson's Matter and Memory in the superb Zone Books edition, which I sometimes regret. It seemed a lot of money at the time, though I spent that amount on this 1964 Edinburgh University Press edition with slipcase of Montale's poems, with George Kay's translation of Meriggiare pallido e assorto; the best I've read. I can't remember how much I paid in the same shop for Marthe Robert's Franz Kafka's Loneliness, but look at that: a literary critical work on Kafka published by Faber & Faber!

Click for a close-up

Brand new paperbacks were not as expensive then as they are now, and I bought novels in regular bookshops. I've written before about the effect of reading the first paragraph Peter Handke's Across had on me as I browsed and how, a year later, after snapping it off the shelf, reading the Quartet Encounters edition of Bernhard's Concrete in the shadow of an office block from which I had once walked out of a job was like coming home. It doesn't happen now.

When that sort of thing did happen, I was walking towards rather than away. Walking out of that job now looks like an attempt to deal with the contrast of what I was experiencing and the blankness of drudge work. Coming to this cosmopolitan city to study was no doubt also an attempt to walk away physically, to manifest what appeared to be a process in practical existence, to get closer to what was revealed in various chance discoveries. After all, there was a clear programme to follow: academic study, perhaps book reviewing, even writing books. I followed all three, and, amongst other things, they exposed proximity to a void. 

Where now? Two years ago I marked thirty years of reading by reminiscing about holding a copy of The Sirens' Song I could not take home. I had no access to Blanchot's writing otherwise. By coincidence, the book was published by a press based in Ship Street so it looks like, by coming to live here and finding my own copy, I had arrived at the source of the literary Nile. But if this is true, it is also where I began, because recently I discovered that Titchfield has a close connection to Shakespeare. Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets, was also the Baron of Titchfield. He is buried in the parish church. And it made me think about his 400 year old bones in a coffin in that quiet place, and of their proximity to the absolute of literature, "the supreme Mecca of the English-speaking race" as Henry James characterised its birthplace, and of their proximity to that field. Wriothesley is not booked to appear at the next Hay-on-Wye literary festival (yet) so, to get closer to what inspired Shakespeare to write and everything that writing stands for, does one stand next to the tomb? If that's not close enough, does one open the coffin and fondle the bones? Does one climb in and snuggle next to them? Does one then close the coffin lid? And then?


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