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Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Lost Art of Reading



In my teens and twenties, I once calculated, I read and finished a book every three and a half days. With each decade, that number has diminished - severely so. My passion for reading has not dimmed in any real degree, but the time to pursue it seems to have been nibbled away. My mind digs less deeply into a text. Other things seem to draw my mind with greater ease. My head fills with nothing substantial, and yet there seems less space for a sustained involvement on which reading a book - particularly fiction - insists.

David L Ulin, in a piece for LA Times, describes this same experience:
I am too susceptible, it turns out, to the tumult of the culture, the sound and fury signifying nothing. These days. . . after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don't. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I'm reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down.

What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something
out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age. Yet there is time, if we want it. Contemplation is not only possible but necessary, especially in light of all the overload. In her recent essay collection "The Winter Sun" (Graywolf: 196 pp., $15 paper), Fanny Howe quotes Simone Weil: "One must believe in the reality of time. Otherwise one is just dreaming."

That's the point precisely, for without time we lose a sense of narrative, that most essential connection to who we are. We live in time; we understand ourselves in relation to it, but in our culture, time collapses into an ever-present now. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?


This is where real reading comes in -- because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way. There is the present-tense experience of reading, but also the chronology of the narrative, as well as of the characters and author, all of whom bear their own relationships to time. There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide.

"I cannot seem to feel alive unless I am alert," Charles Bowden writes in his recent book, "Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $24), "and I cannot feel alert unless I push past the point where I have control." That is what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control.
Here we have the paradox, since in giving up control we somehow gain it, by being brought in contact with ourselves.

"My experience," William James once observed, "is what I agree to attend to" -- a line Winifred Gallagher uses as the epigraph of "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life" (Penguin Press: 244 pp., $25.95). In Gallagher's analysis, attention is a lens through which to consider not just identity but desire. Who do we want to be, she asks, and how do we go about that process of becoming in a world of endless options, distractions, possibilities?
These are elementary questions, and for me, they cycle back to reading, to the focus it requires.
Another surfer who came across Ulin's article also quotes the above, and adds:

As I write this, I have about seven Firefox windows open to different websites. Now, I am certainly grateful for the gifts of technology, and I believe in its profound potential to keep improving our world. I love being in the constant process of creating this website; I've learned a great deal and made both friends and allies through social networking tools. But I've noticed, too, that flattening sense of distraction that Ulin describes. And it is particularly apparent when I sit down to read, or meditate. It's an unsettling itch. I read with my fingers ready to get on with it, to turn the next page. I don't like it. I'm neither mindful nor content.

A bit of affirmative action is in order. That is, a concerted effort to choose where I put my time and attention more carefully. Do I really need to refresh my email as frequently as I do? Mightn't I try out opening one internet window at a time and doing one task at a time, instead of creating this false sense of simultaneity where articles remain unread on some open tab, as if by being accessible it is being addressed? I've heard of folks who go on "media fasts" and "technology fasts." For me, I think a balanced diet is in order.

At stake is my mentality and my spirit. At stake is my ability to continue finding great joy in reading; to better seek and understand.

I have just re-read Mansfield Park at the moment. I was listening to an audio version in my car, excellently read by Harriet Walters, but, because the version was abridged, I found myself wanting to read the novel again and at Austen's pace, not the reader's or the abridger's. Of all Austen's novels, it is the one that speaks most obliquely to us, the one time damages most, its heroine alien to us: our empathy with her needs rehearsing and those who oppose her, obstruct her or misunderstand her or all too easy for a modern mind to prefer. I wanted to slow the novel down, to slow myself down while reading it. Of one gives in, surrenders to its moral world, it is, almost, Austen's greatest work, but surrendering is not an instant act.

In my twenties, I read the book with greater ease. I knew that the novel would make little sense and give little pleasure if one did not side with the heroine. I fell through its pages. My reading this time was less fluent, more stuttering. The problem wasn't simply that Fanny's stance seems irritatingly passive or that the Crawfords seem even more our contemporaries in their preference for personality over principle, but the prose demanded more attention than it did. Reading had become a more fractured and fracturing activity. I had to concentrate far more.

Interested that this was something which I had to tell myself to do - that I was not as match fit for reading the book as I once had been- I began to surf and Google the subject. I came across Ulin's article and others on the theme of the lost art of reading - the web, a space in which the Crawfords would have thrived, evidently still has its share of Fanny Prices too.

Mansfield Park
itself was abandoned while I did this, and the rhythm necessary to reading it - and that I was aware of only just achieving - was lost.

Or so I thought, but perhaps the book and I - and time itself - had developed a more complicated rhythm than when I read the book twenty years before. Back then, I opened the book and might read uninterrupted for hours at a time, and, having read it, perhaps I would have read the foreword, its introduction and notes. I might, perhaps, have gone to a library to find a book on Austen or read another Austen with which to compare it: all this a slow and thoughtful procedure, the work of days.

Now, as I read it, some thought is occasioned by that reading. I put the book aside. I google the thought that arose from reading it. Having googled, I surf a little more - because surfing is not a linear movement - and then, sated or piqued, I return from the screen to the page, I move from skimming the web to that deeper immersion a book demands - and only minutes need pass while I do this.

The distraction of surfing is not a distraction, perhaps, but an amplification of what it means to read a book these days, an expansion of the reader's task.

As I was Googling this entry's title, I came across Gerald Stanley Lee's 1903 book, The Lost Art of Reading, available on google books and from Project Gutenberg. I won't ever read Lee's book - which illustrates my point perhaps - but its contents list has an Objectivist brio that makes it something of a 'found poem', and is now part of my experience of reading Mansfield Park.

BOOK I
INTERFERENCES WITH THE READING HABIT
CIVILISATION
I--Dust
II--Dust
III--Dust to Dust
IV--Ashes
V--The Literary Rush
VI--Parenthesis--To the Gentle Reader
VII--More Parenthesis--But More to the Point
VIII--More Literary Rush
IX--The Bugbear of Being Well Informed--A Practical Suggestion
X--The Dead Level of Intelligence
XI--The Art of Reading as One Likes
THE DISGRACE OF THE IMAGINATION
I--On Wondering Why One Was Born
II--The Top of the Bureau Principle
THE UNPOPULARITY OF THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR
I--The First Person a Necessary Evil
II--The Art of Being Anonymous
III--Egoism and Society
IV--i + I = We
V--The Autobiography of Beauty
THE HABIT OF NOT LETTING ONE'S SELF GO
I--The Country Boy in Literature
II--The Subconscious Self
III--The Organic Principle of Inspiration
THE HABIT OF ANALYSIS
I--If Shakespeare Came to Chicago
II--Analysis Analysed
LITERARY DRILL IN COLLEGE
I--Seeds and Blossoms
II--Private Road: Dangerous
III--The Organs of Literature
IV--Entrance Examinations in Joy
V--Natural Selection in Theory
VI--Natural Selection in Practice
VII--The Emancipation of the Teacher
VIII--The Test of Culture
IX--Summary
X--A Note
LIBRARIES. WANTED: AN OLD-FASHIONED LIBRARIAN
I--viz.
II--cf.
III--et al.
IV--etc.
V--O

BOOK II
POSSIBILITIES
I--The Issue
II--The First Selection
III--Conveniences
IV--The Charter of Possibility
V--The Great Game
VI--Outward Bound

BOOK III
DETAILS. THE CONFESSIONS OF AN UNSCIENTIFIC MIND
I--UNSCIENTIFIC
I--On Being Intelligent in a Library
II--How It Feels
III--How a Specialist Can Be an Educated Man
IV--On Reading Books Through their Backs
V--On Keeping Each Other in Countenance
VI--The Romance of Science
VII--Monads
VIII--Multiplication Tables
II--READING FOR PRINCIPLES
I--On Changing One's Conscience
II--On the Intolerance of Experienced People
III--On Having One's Experience Done Out
IV--On Reading a Newspaper in Ten Minutes
V--General Information
VI--But----
III--READING DOWN THROUGH
I--Inside
II--On Being Lonely with a Book
III--Keeping Other Minds Off
IV--Reading Backwards
IV--READING FOR FACTS
I--Calling the Meeting to Order
II--Symbolic Facts
III--Duplicates: A Principle of Economy
V--READING FOR RESULTS
I--The Blank Paper Frame of Mind
II--The Usefully Unfinished
III--Athletics
VI--READING FOR FEELINGS
I--The Passion of Truth
II--The Topical Point of View
VII--READING THE WORLD TOGETHER
I--Focusing
II--The Human Unit
III--The Higher Cannibalism
IV--Spiritual Thrift
V--The City, the Church, and the College
VI--The Outsiders
VII--Reading the World Together

BOOK IV
WHAT TO DO NEXT
I--See Next Chapter
II--Diagnosis
III--Eclipse
IV--Apocalypse
V--Every Man His Own Genius
VI--An Inclined Plane
VII--Allons





Friday, 14 August 2009

Reading as A Writer - E.L. Doctorow on Herman Melville's Moby Dick


This is from a lecture on Moby Dick by E L Doctorow, and s developed further in one of a collection of essays, Creationists. In it, he imagines Melville's novel not as the complete and completed behemoth it might be to the academic or the general reader, as Melville might have thought of it while composing it, a frank acknowledgment that writing is a series of decisions, and that those decisions have consequences that determine the shape, grain and tenor of the novel. This is Doctorow very much reading as a writer.

E.L. Doctorow, “Composing Moby Dick: What Might Have Happened.”


I can claim a personal relationship to Melville and his works, having read MOBY-DICK three and a half times. The half time came at the age of ten when I found a copy in my grandfather’s library --- it was one of a set of great sea novels all bound in green cloth—and it was fair sailing until the cetology stove me in. I first read the book in its entirety, (and Typee, Omoo, Billy Budd and The Enchantadas , and Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivener, for that matter) as an undergraduate at Kenyon College. Then, as a young editor at the New American Library a mass paperback publisher, I persuaded a Kenyon professor, Denham Sutcliffe to write an Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of Moby Dick, and so read the book again by way of editorial preparation. And now on the 150th anniversary of its publication (and after too many years) I have read it for the third time.

The surprise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is, and not merely the voice, but the technical effrontery, and not merely the technical effrontery, but the character and rhythm of the sentences…and so with some surprise, I’ve realized, how much of my own work, at its own level, hears Melville, responds to his perverse romanticism, endorses his double dipping into the accounts of realism and allegory, as well as the large risk he takes speaking so frankly of the crisis of human consciousness, that great embarrassment to us all that makes a tiresome prophet of anyone who would speak of it.

...

Literary history finds a few great novelists who achieved their greatness from an impatience with the conventions of narrative. Virginia Woolf composed Mrs. Dalloway from the determination to write a novel without a plot or indeed a subject. And then Joyce, of course: Like Picasso who was an expert draftsman before he blew his art out of the water, James Joyce proved himself in the art of narrative writing before he committed his assaults upon it.

The author of the sterling narratives Typee and Omoo precedes Joyce with his own blatant subversion of the narrative compact he calls Moby Dick. Yet I suspect that, in this case, the subversion may have been if not inadvertent, then only worked out tactically given the problem of its conception. I would guess that what Melville does in Moby Dick is not from a grand preconceived aesthetic (Joyce: I will pun my way into the brain’s dreamwork; I will respect the protocols of grammar and syntax but otherwise blast the English language all to hell.) but from the necessity of dealing with the problem inherent in constructing an entire 19th century novel around a single life and death encounter with a whale. The encounter clearly having to come as the climax of his book, Melville’s writing problem was how to pass the time until then --- until he got the Pequod to the Southern Whale fisheries and brought the white whale from the depths, Ahab crying “There she blows --- there she blows! A hump like a snow hill! It is Moby-Dick!” She blows, I note, not until page 537 of a 566 page book – in my old paperback Rhinehart edition.

A writer lacking Melville’s genius might conceive of a shorter novel, its entry point being possibly closer in time to the deadly encounter. And with maybe a flashback or two thrown in. A novelist of today, certainly, would eschew exposition as far as possible, let the reader work out for herself what is going on, which is a contemporary way of maintaining narrative tension. Melville’s entry point, I remind myself, is not at sea aboard the Pequod, not even in Nantucket: he locates Ishmael in Manhattan, and staying in scene every step of the way, takes him to New Bedford, has him meet Queequeg at the Spouter Inn, listen to a sermon, contrives to get them both to Nantucket, meet the owners of the Pequod, endure the ancient hoary device of a mysterious prophecy…. and it isn’t until Chapter 20 which begins “A day or two passed” that he elides time. Until that point, some ninety-four pages into the book, the writing has all been, a succession of unbroken real time incidents. Another ten pages elapse before the Pequod in Chapter 22 “thrusts her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves.”

I wouldn’t wonder if Melville at this point, the Pequod finally underway, stopped to read what he had written to see what his book was bidding him to do.

This is sheer guesswork of course. I don’t know what Melville himself may have said about the writing of Moby Dick beyond characterizing it as a “wicked book.” Besides, whatever any author says of his novel is of course another form of the fiction he practices and is never, never, to be taken on faith.

Perhaps Melville had everything comfortably worked out before he began, though I doubt it. Perhaps he had a draft completed of something quite conventional before his writer’s sense of crisis set in. The point to remember is the same that Faulkner made to literary critics: they see a finished work and do not dream of the chaos of trial and error and torment from which it has somehow emerged.

No matter what your plan for a novel --- and we know Herman was inspired by the account of an actual whaling disaster (the destruction of the ship Essex in 1819) and we know how this was a subject, whaling, he could speak of with authority of personal experience abetted by research, and we know he understood as well as the most commercial practitioner of the craft, that a writer begins with an advantage who can report on a kind of life or profession out of the ken of the ordinary reader --- nevertheless I say that no matter what your plan or inspiration, or trembling recognition for an idea that you know belongs to you, the strange endowment you set loose by the act of writing is never entirely under your control. It cannot be a matter solely of willed expression. Somewhere, from the depths of your being you find a voice: it is the first and most mysterious moment of the creative act. There is no book without it. If it takes off, it appears to you to be self-governed. To some degree you will write to find out what you are writing. And you feel no sense of possession for what comes onto the pages ---- what you experience is a sense of discovery.

“Excerpted from CREATIONISTS by E.L. Doctorow. Copyright © 2006 by E.L. Doctorow. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.”

Monday, 27 July 2009

Lola Montes



This is the trailer for Lola Montes, the last film made by Max Ophuls - a true genius of the cinema whose work becomes better and more moving with each decade that passes.

It was a troubled film, castigated and butchered on release - at least 40 minutes were cut. It isn't perfect, but it is a dream of a how perfect a film might be.

For this reason, it is a film best watched after the inestimable Le Plaisir, the fabulous La Ronde, the spellbinding Madame de, the exceptional Caught and, perhaps the best introduction to Ophuls, Letter from an Unknown Woman.

This doesn't mean that Lola Montes needs a primer to be enjoyed, rather that its beauty and its ambition is the greater for knowing the path that led to its making.


See these films because, unlike Lola Montez, they are wholly achieved pieces of cinema, and then see how Lola Montez is an attempt to transcend them. Don't see them if romance and emotion embarrass you, or if restraint means only common sense and sound judgement and not imprisonment, an impediment to motion to which all Ophuls characters are doomed or denied.

It's a movie aching with intent to summarise the maker's philosophy. It is epic in scale. It is in colour - the only Ophuls film that is - and it is an old man's dream of how life loops back on itself, a meditation of love, loss and fame, on freedom and imprisonment. Ophuls's use of the camera - those prowling tracking shots - is as eloquent as cinema gets.

In truth, and it hurts the film far more than any tales of botched editing, Martine Carroll is inadequate in the part. Any actress with whom Ophuls had worked previously would have succeeeded better, but, intellectually at least, her presence can be justified and made bearable if one thinks of the present day Lolas - the Jordans and the Paris Hiltons - oddly vacant and unexpressive women and yet about whom we seem unable to cease parading, circling, studying and interpreting - albiet less astsutely than Ophuls does Lola. Our current media prowl around and probe such women more lasciviously, insistently and with far greater cruelty, and yet, like Lola, they seem impelled to offer themselves up.

Anyway, praise the Lord, Lola Montez is available on DVD at last. One of my wishes granted. Next up, please - Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc - now that would be a great double bill with Lola

feet, room, poet


Continuing to Live

Continuing to live -- that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries --
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise --
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it's chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Philip Larkin

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Pavel Florensky: or why Neil Armsrong is not a muslim and Jeanette Winterson is guilty of prelest

I’m reading slowly - there is no other way – Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis.

Pavel Florensky, philosopher, theologian, scientist, art historian and Orthodox priest lived in dangerous times, a world agonizingly making itself new while he worked on both retrieving the past and envisaging the future.

In Iconostasis, he takes it, understandably, as a given that God is the maker of all things visible and invisible.

The boundary between these two worlds, the visible and invisible, as is the way with boundaries, both separates and joins.

At times we become aware of how these worlds touch. We experience moments when the visible world yields, and ‘we sense the invisible world…is breathing.’

Dreams, Florensky states, provide our first and simplest entry into the invisible world, and while I dispute his belief that dreams are only ever caused and terminated by external stimuli – light, sound – he describes well how time acts differently in dream and also creates an imaginary space – ‘an imaginary truly real in the way oneself is real.’

He goes on:
A dream…is a sign of a movement between two realms… both shores of existence are given to consciousness… the dream happens whenever our consciousness hugs the boundary of the crossing and therefore sustains the double perceptiveness that occurs whenever we lightly dream and drowsily keep awake.
What Florensky says of dreaming, he holds true of art, but it is not a simple assertion that dreaming is art or simply that art comes out of dreaming. The movement of ascent and the return to the earthly waking world generate two types of imagery.
In the upper world, the souls sheds – like outworn clothes – the images of our everyday emptiness, the psychic effluvia that cannot find a place above, those elements that are not spiritually grounded.
That which is base or mundane is jettisoned and what is experienced in the higher dream world might feel an achievement. Those higher images and symbols might indicate a greater truth, but imagery gained in the uprush of inspiration needs to be grounded, returned to and rooted in the objective world. To steal from the higher world these ‘spiritual’ images – to make an art out of them - is to lie to about the nature of God's creation.

What is noticeable about Florensky’s observations is his emphasis on vigilance or attention, and his fidelity to the known world and which no mystic should ignore. Positing a higher world, a heaven of dreaming, he demands we guard against exploiting the images and symbols to be gained from it. Such spiritual booty is, ultimately, trash, unless ploughed back and made profitable in the waking world.
In creating a work of art, the psyche or soul of the artist ascends from the earthly realm into the heavenly; there, free from all images, the soul is fed by contemplation by the essences of the higher realm, knowing the permanent noumena of things; then, satiated with this knowing, it descends again to the earthly realm. And precisely at the boundary of the two worlds, the soul’s spiritual knowledge assumes the shapes of symbolic imagery: and it is these images that make the permanent work of art
Art that feeds only on high imagery, art that is, finally, not cognizant of earth and its connective tissue with heaven, is guilty of prelest:
.. the deluded self... imagines itself to be moving along the perpendicular of the sensory world, withdrawn from it... The soul closes in on itself and then all occasion is gone wherein the soul could... waken once more into consciousness: the encounter with the objective world of God's creation.
Prelest is a handy word for a writer. It is more than just overwriting. it is more than just writing purple. Its about noticing what gets trampled when one overwrites. What gets stained when writing purple. We can woo ourselves with phrases that are entirely musical, turn language into a hum, and in our rapture believe ourselves in the grip of truths.

The past week I have cringed each time I have heard a BBC trailer for a documentary on TS Eliot.
The trailer's voiceover has Jeanette Winterson telling us ringingly that Eliot was a man who could hear the grass grow and, so pained and sensitised by this ability, he built a protctive membrane between himself and the world.

While there is truth here in the notion of Eliot of a man who withdraws from the world in order to make it bearable to him, there is none in the image itself. Even as metaphor, it is hobbled. What in nature, deciding its enviroment is too noisy, further decides to grow itself a skin? If Eliot was pained by the world, was it through his ears?

Eliot could no more hear the grass grow than Neil Armstrong could hear the Muslim call to prayer from the moon for it is widely believed that Armstrong became a musilm convert after standing on the moon, he heard the Muslim call to prayer reaching him from earth. The story is quite wonderful. It is seductive. It is completely bogus in every detail but given as fact on thousands of websites, and is mentioned approvingly in Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil

Its extravagance, while charming, is a lie. Its beauty is only seeming. But so is Winterson's assertion that Eliot could hear the grass grow and that the noise pained him. Big and small, these are examples of prelest. While such images enchant, they corrupt because they are not true. Winterson has many virtues, and, for me, Nadeem Aslam has many more, but both display the vice of prelest. It's a vice that only seems to reward a writer and a reader, but it damages both - it mires where it appears to uplift.

In Florensky there is an insistence that it is the return to earth that makes the art. The flight into the higher realm must be anchored. Attention is paid to the moment of transit between the visible and invisible world. An honouring of both worlds, a connecting with both worlds, creates the art we need, the imagery that is true.

And I think that's why Winterson's claim made me wince at my every hearing. Because Eliot was a poet eminently innocent of prelest. His imagery is culled from heaven and earth, both the dreaming ascent and gravity's wakeful embrace.

Isn
’t this the journey Eliot endorses at the conclusion of The Four Quartets?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Dennis Cooper's 69 Modern Classics Condensed via Amazon's SIP

From the excellent Dennis Cooper's blog

Amazon.com's Statistically Improbable Phrases, or “SIPs”, are the most distinctive phrases in the text of books in the Search Inside!™ program. To identify SIPs, our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside! program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to all Search Inside! books, that phrase is an SIP in that book.

SIPs are not necessarily improbable within a particular book, but they are improbable relative to all books in Search Inside!. For example, most SIPs for a book on taxes are tax related. But because we display SIPs in order of their improbability score, the first SIPs will be on tax topics that this book mentions more often than other tax books. For works of fiction, SIPs tend to be distinctive word combinations that often hint at important plot elements.


What Amazon doesn’t tell you is that, in the case of fiction, their SIP feature does not merely “hint at important plot elements” but MAGICALLY DISTILS THE ESSENCE OF THE WORK. They don’t tell you that because, obviously, if they did, why would anyone bother to order a novel or short-story collection after reading its SIPs?

To show you what I mean, I have compiled the SIPs for 69 works of twentieth-century fiction. Nearly all the works I’ve chosen would qualify as “modern classics,” and they include a number that are of special interest to readers of this blog. You’ll be surprised at how many you can recognize, though there’s an answer key at the bottom if you need it.


If there are any books here that you haven’t read before, you can go ahead and cross them off your list. Trust me, this is all you need to read.

—Alan

(visit my blog, The Purest of Treats)


1.

medical attaché, annular fusion, entertainment cartridge, improbably deformed, howling fantods, feral hamsters, dawn drills, tough nun, professional conversationalist, new bong, ceiling bulged, metro boston, tennis academy, red leather coat, soupe aux pois, red beanie, addicted man, magnetic video, littler kids, little rotter, technical interview, police lock, oral narcotics, sober time, veiled girl


2.

advertised phone number, snuff video, previous reviewers, cute face


3.

wanta screw, cock flipped, rectal mucus, disk mouth, distant fingers, dawn smell, blue silence, como perros, sex rooms, carbolic soap, como eso, green boys, tide flats, penny arcades


4.

mother cell, old gash, old junky


5.

grey hen, sick leg, four pounds ten, real silence, sixteen stones


6.

entomological allusions, cryptogrammic paper chase, enchanted hunters, moral apotheosis, verbal figurations, perilous magic, durable pigments, corrected misprint, gray star, glass lake


7.

enchanted hunters


8.

matrimonial gift, quaker librarian, charming soubrette, editor cried, retrospective arrangement, pike hoses, pensive bosom, seaside girls, absentminded beggar


9.

wather parted


10.

muted post horn


11.

inner party, three superstates, chinless man, chocolate ration, varicose ulcer


12.

red hunting hat, tiny little kid


13.

hands for the conch


14.

leaden circles, solitary traveller


15.

cultured gestures, pleural shock, little extra therapy, dining attendants, placet experiri, sine pecunia, ragged lips, informal pronouns, wild departure, baptismal bowl, classic gifts, good engineer, light favorites, rest cure, moist spot, purple cheeks, checked trousers, ivory complexion, silent sister, fever chart, social rooms, world republic, nightstand lamp


16.

ostensible acquittal, definite acquittal, pettifogging lawyers, man from the country, first plea, accused men, prosecuting counsel


17.

laughing aristocrats, bad zombies, black pear tree, emerald dust, falling dog, personal worthlessness, captured woman, damned birds, naked models, flee from the wrath


18.

Los Angeles, Captain Blood, New York, Tolstoy Museum, Louis Escher, Hotel Terminus, Engineer-Private Klee, Paul Klee, Richard Widmark, Errol Flynn, Old Testament, Shock Art, Chivas Regal, Count Leo Tolstoy, Fighter Squadron Five, Holy Ghost, Madam Olympia, The Interpretation of Dreams


19.

pink hawthorn, little nucleus, little clan, little phrase


20.

two buttocks, old libertine, lovely ass


21.

duffle coat pocket, landing slip, big lighthouse, sheltered angle, vertical embankment, old country woman, uneven cobbles, table wedged, cardboard strip, memorandum book, window recess


22.

moratorium owner, conapt building, kidney balm, consultation lounge, precog ability, empathy box, prudence organization, mood organ, many inertials, poop sheet, parked ship, harness bull, laser tube, false animal, psi field, brain unit, roof field, tomb world


23.

red drum, railroad gloves, railroad earth, lonesome traveler, nylon poncho, golden eternity, back scat


24.

independent dependent kind, dependent independent kind, one being living, servant queerness, independent dependent being, ten acre place, rich right american living, being ones being living, having stupid being, independent dependent nature, servant girl nature, loving repeating, poor queer people, having such angry feeling, being important inside, beginning middle living, mostly every one, country living feeling, one being fighting, completely little one, right rich being, fierce little temper, ones being thinking, dependent independent nature, dependent independent being


25.

sale cerveau, beautiful room with bath, fout ici, nearest cinema, hundred francs


26.

tall black circles, watching jewel, dont reckon, aint right, aint nothing, prescription case


27.

fractured windshield, airline coach, scarred mouth, instrument binnacle, windshield pillar, instrument dials, wheel housing, screen actress, radiator grilles, slip road


28.

behavioral sociologist, hostess bars, sex tourism


29.

snapper pizza, little hardbody, wool tuxedo, patterned silk tie, drink tickets, striped cotton shirt, dry beer, broadcloth shirt, pocket square, pleated trousers


30.

cool pants, chain artist, hitting women


31.

bun compartment, nucular bum, exercising board, cabinet under the bar, kickoff rally, young man sighed, front shutters, looseleaf folder, fat mother


32.

artificial extended families, new middle name, flying fuck


33.

carrie carrie carrie, town whistle, pig blood


34.

religious white men, white religious men, dildo thrust, male creep, fake brother, evil enchanters, cunt lips


35.

bloated colonel, tighter bomb pattern, intelligence tent, more combat missions, sei pazzo, sixty missions, seventy missions, illegal tobacco, railroad ditch, bomb line, forty missions, flak suit, group chaplain, lead bombardier, fifty missions, medical tent


36.

cyclone shot, apish man, head sidewise


37.

purring voice, little revolver


38.

plait round, plaited cord, extra button


39.

vivir sin amar, walnut grower, absolutamente necesario, old bean, first policeman


40.

smut gig, cop beaters, smut job, stag books, whore book, smut books, justice jail, purple car, young stuff, lab man, months suspension, trial board


41.

central booking, foxy brunette, hock hock hock hock, hack hack hack hack hack, girl with brown lipstick, social grin, bond trading room, circus arrest, haw haw haw haw haw, ordinary arrest, whaddaya whaddaya, entry gallery, plastic speaker, oak pedestal table, elevator vestibule


42.

malenky bit, real skorry, old baboochkas, old ptitsa, real bezoomny, starry ptitsa, kashl kashl kashl, old moloko, horrorshow smeck, real gromky, starry veck, red red krovvy, other veshches, oddy knocky, writer veck, young ptitsas, old veck, horrorshow groodies, real horrorshow, public biblio, top millicent, milky chai, prison charlie,

young swine


43.

shock shop, seclusion room, least black boy, bull goose loony, big black boys, wicker bag, ward policy, tub room, drug room, red capsules, dorm door, two black boys


44.

American Dream, Psychiatrist's Club, Mint Hotel, North Vegas, New York, Jesus Christ, Great Red Shark, Boulder City, Carson City, Desert Inn, Vincent Black Shadow, Horatio Alger, White Rabbit, San Francisco, Death Valley, Los Angeles, Barbra Streisand, Savage Henry, Main Street, Tim Leary, Coupe de Ville, White Whale


45.

great butler, distinguished household, staff plan, back corridor


46.

rich cunt, fifteen francs


47.

kif paste, much kif, delicate prey, smoking kif, lotus pods, circular valley


48.

black mahn, white mahn, ole lady, leg chain, tank room


49.

dees girl, pie wagon, accident policy, hell cat


50.

lit conductor, lit uniform, scarlet kimono, womanish voice, quarter past one, own compartment, communicating door, small dark man, restaurant car


51.

little china figures, judge stroked, judge nodded


52.

leather bracelets


53.

tormented writer, productive writer, gathering shadow


54.

gray caviare, heroin life, love under will, magical diary, adore thee, magic room, taking heroin


55.

uncivil teacher, circular ruins, blue tigers


56.

bearded bloke, scarlet tights, rummy thing, bally thing, mess jacket, nasty jar, second footman, purple socks, dear old chap


57.

black pickpocket, baize bag


58.

pitchpine table, rediffusion set, wild tannia, morris suite, laden hampers, exhibition examination, coal barrel, saman tree, stomach powder, back verandah, soft candle, bicycle clips, younger god, back trace, elder god, front verandah, stale cakes, tonka beans


59.

coloured fellow, jack ladder, coloured boy, coloured folks, copper shop, grey boy, coloured workers


60.

whiskey joint, short black man, funny boy


61.

handicraft instructor, inchoate eyes


62.

madness most discreet, golden dove


63.

dowager empress, silk cultivation


64.

stillsuit manufacturer, panoplia propheticus, gom jabbar, inkvine scar, ducal signet, factory crawler, poison snooper, voice from the outer world, stillsuit hood, weirding way, dew collectors, diamond tattoo, little makers, maker hooks, message cylinder, water flagon, funeral plain, death commandos, spice liquor, palm lock, prison planet, shield belt, terrible purpose, demanding memory


65.

barn cellar, famous pig, grey spider, old sheep, egg sac


66.

golden ticket, chocolate river


67.

ole chappie, killing beds, fertilizer mill, pickle rooms, chilling rooms


68.

brown bureau, redheaded fellow, little revolver, perfect murder


69.

little mole



BONUS:

Can you identify these two novels from the results of Amazon’s concordance feature, listing their “100 most frequently used words”?


1.

again alone always among another asked away bankes book cam came children come day down even eyes father feeling felt go going great hand head herself himself house husband itself james knew last let life light lighthouse liked lily little long look looked looking man men might mind minta moment mrs must night nothing now old once own paul people perhaps picture ramsay room rose round sat saw say saying sea see seemed should sitting something still stood table tansley things think thinking thought time together took turned upon wanted waves went window without woman words world years yes yet


2.

acid alex anything anyway ass away bed body boy chris come cool cute david door down drew dwarf even eyes face feel felt few first friends fuck fucked fucking get go going goof got guess guy hand hard head idea kid kind know least let life little long look looked love luke makes man mason maybe mean minutes now oh okay pam people place point porn really right room say scott second see seem sex shit should smear sniffles something sort sounds still sure take tell thing think thinking thought time turned two voice want weird whatever words world yeah








KEY:


1. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

2.
The Sluts, Dennis Cooper

3.
The Soft Machine, William S. Burroughs

4.
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

5.
Molly, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

6.
The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Appel, Jr. (ed.)

7.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

8.
Ulysses, James Joyce

9.
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

10.
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

11.
1984, George Orwell

12.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

13.
Lord of the Flies, William Golding

14.
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

15.
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

16.
The Trial, Franz Kafka

17.
60 Stories, Donald Barthelme

18.
40 Stories, Donald Barthelme

19.
Swann's Way, Marcel Proust

20.
120 Days of Sodom, Marquis de Sade

21.
The Voyeur, Alain Robbe-Grillet

22.
Four Novels of the 60s: The Man in the High Castle / The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Ubik by Philip K. Dick

23.
Road Novels 1957-1960: On the Road / The Dharma Bums / The Subterraneans / Tristessa / Lonesome Traveler / Journal Selections by Jack Kerouac

24.
The Making of the Americans, Gertrude Stein

25.
Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys

26.
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

27.
Crash, J.G. Ballard

28.
Platform, Michel Houellebecq

29.
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

30.
Money, Martin Amis

31.
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

32.
Slapstick, Kurt Vonnegut

33.
Carrie, Stephen King

34.
Don Quixote, Kathy Acker

35.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller

36.
Collected Novels, Dashiell Hammett

37.
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

38.
Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau

39.
Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

40.
L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy

41.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

42.
Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

43.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

44.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter Thompson

45.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

46.
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

47.
Collected Stories, Paul Bowles

48.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

49.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

50.
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

51.
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

52.
The Story of O, Pauline Réage

53.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino

54.
Diary of a Drug Fiend, Aleister Crowley

55.
Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges

56.
Right Ho, Jeeves; The Inimitable Jeeves; and Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

57.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow

58.
A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipal

59.
If He Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes

60.
The Third Generation, Chester Himes

61.
Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence

62.
Vertigo, W.G. Sebald

63.
Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

64.
Dune, Frank Herbert

65.
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

66.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

67.
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

68.
Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith

69.
Delta of Venus, Anaïs Nin


BONUS:

1.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

2.
Guide, Dennis Cooper

Revising The Great Gatsby




Now that Wyatt Mason’s blog is no more, although its archives are there to be surfed and enjoyed, hunting round for an alternative led me to The Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas' blog,
where I came across Revisioning the Great Gatsby by Susan Bell. The site has the piece in four extracts, and is itself extracted from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

Like Bell, most of us read The Great Gatsby at school or university, but, for most of us, it is the second reading that makes the difference. What intrigues, delights, astonishes and moves us in the novel is often the consequence of re-reading it. Fitzgerald's execution is breath-taking, but its unerring technical grace is allied to deep and direct plumb line into the spirit.

A recent Slate podcast, usually a reliable source of enthusing commentary, sounded several cloth-eared suspicions concerning Fitzgerald’s technical brilliance, as if he wrote the book to be taught, which is a nonsense, of course, but it is very much a novel whose excellence is visibly achieved, and it can stand as a primer on how a novel might be conceived and written.

Bell came back to reading The Great Gatsby after reading Scott Berg’s exemplary biography of the editor, Max Perkins. Perkins discovered and edited not only Fitzgerald, but also Hemingway, James Jones, and Thomas Wolfe.
By the way, does anybody still read Thomas Wolfe. He is certainly less than little-mentioned these days, although he is a major influence on Beat writers like Kerouac, and his titles, Look Homeward, Angel, Of Time and the River, From Death to Morning, are very evocative and indicate his singing, swinging prose, and there is also the stunning demotic of his short story, Only the Dead Know Brooklyn

Perkins tussles with Wolfe were detailed and protracted, and Perkins' relationships with him and other writers are astutely recorded in Berg’s biography. Modern editors are less hands-on, perhaps, but there are echoes of Perkins role in the current debate over Gordon Lish’s involvement in the work of Raymond Carver – see The New Yorker and its related links.

Bell’s essay shows between Fitzgerald and Perkins a more generous, sustaining and insightful nexus between editor and writer. Its title, Revisioning the Great Gatsby is the only ungainly thing about it, as revising and not revisioning was what the pair were involved in doing - not in seeing differently the work at hand, but in seeing it truly:

Perkins diplomatically complained of a common structural flaw: clumping. Fitzgerald had shoved a clump of biographical information into one place. Actors have an expression to describe the mere facts an audience must know to understand the story: they call them the plumbing. “I’m not doing the plumbing,” some will protest, when asked to say a few lines that explain plot or a character’s history but stick out from the action like the proverbial sore thumb. At its best, a book’s pipes are laid into the work so suavely that the reader simply feels them function and never notices their cold, hard nature.
But pipes protruded in the original version of the scene in which Nick visits Gatsby after the fatal car accident. The two men go to the terrace and sit “smoking out into the summer night.” Into this static setting, Gatsby gushes his life story. “Suddenly he was telling me a lot of things,” Nick says. The line is a warning to the reader: be patient, you are about to be hammered with “a lot of” information. Yawn. The historical details of Gatsby’s life are given up in a monotonous drone. He explains his Oxford claim, then recounts his teenage reveries, his subsequent apprenticeship with yachtsman Dan Cody, from which followed his army career, during which he met and fell in love with Daisy Fay, after which he received a letter at Oxford telling him he had lost her to Tom Buchanan. Are you with me?
Fitzgerald edited his way out of this clump once Perkins pointed it out to him. He broke up the thick block of data into smaller pieces he judiciously distributed throughout the text and enmeshed in the dialogue and drama. The improvement can be seen in the confrontation between Gatsby and Tom. In the manuscript, this scene carried no reference to Gatsby’s Oxford claim or his army career; in the revised proof, Fitzgerald fully explains and seamlessly weaves the Oxford and army stories into the drama. The final version reads:
Gatsby’s foot beat a short restless tattoo and Tom eyed him suddenly.
“By the way, Mr. Gatsby, I understand you’re an Oxford man.”
“Not exactly.”
“Oh, yes, I understand you went to Oxford.”
“Yes—I went there.”
A pause. Then Tom’s voice, incredulous and insulting:
“You must have gone there about the time Biloxi [a poseur who’d falsely claimed he’d gone to Yale] went to New Haven.”
Another pause. A waiter knocked and came in with crushed mint and ice, but the silence was unbroken by his “thank you” and the soft closing of the door. This tremendous detail was to be cleared up at last.
“I told you I went there.”
“I heard you, but I’d like to know when.”
“It was in nineteen-nineteen. I only stayed five months. That’s why I can’t really call myself an Oxford man.”
Tom glanced around to see if we mirrored his unbelief. But we were all looking at Gatsby.
“It was an opportunity they gave to some of the officers after the Armistice,” he continued. “We could go to any of the universities in England or France.”
I wanted to get up and slap him on the back. I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before.
The editor had helped the writer reconceive the information as dramatic.
GG Fitzgerald obliged his editor with no hint of defensiveness or anger. The writer had gone very far on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the last editorial push—one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone. He wrote to Perkins, “Max, it amuses me when praise comes in on the ‘structure’ of the book—because it was you who fixed up the structure, not me. And don’t think I’m not grateful for all that sane and helpful advice about it.” In fact, it was Fitzgerald who did the fixing, but the writer needed his editor to point the way and was not embarrassed to say it.
Perkins’s influence was more or less limited to the macro-edit. Unlike his editing of Thomas Wolfe’s work, Perkins didn’t mark up Fitzgerald’s text word for word, didn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, dig in, and reposition the prose. The micro-edits of Gatsby were a solitary endeavor. Fitzgerald was a prose techie who could not merely polish but power up a weak passage, raise the ram of a slow sentence. Take this early one: “The part of his life he told me about began when he was sixteen, when the popular songs of those days began to assume for him a melancholy and romantic beauty.” This sentence may seem all right, but I dare any reader to argue its elegance or gravity. Fitzgerald would delete it altogether. In its place, he wrote:
It was this night that he told me the strange story of his youth with Dan Cody—told it to me because “Jay Gatsby” had broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice, and the long secret extravaganza was played out.
Fitzgerald was driven to edit a sentence silly until it punched.
Inclined to clarity when he wrote, Fitzgerald’s first forays onto the page were at times—as for most mortal writers—blurred with ambiguity. As Somerset Maugham writes in The Summing Up:
[A cause] of obscurity is that the writer is himself not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not . . . exactly formulated it in his mind, and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea.
Sure enough, Fitzgerald seems unclear of his meaning in an early draft of the crucial scene at the Plaza Hotel. As Nick listens to Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby bicker, he tells the reader:
I was thirty. Beside that realization their importunities were dim and far away. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade.
A few paragraphs later, as he rides home with Jordan in a taxi, Nick adds:
I was thirty—a decade of loneliness opened up suddenly before me and what had hovered between us was said at last in the pressure of a hand.
Nick’s thoughts are opaque. A threat looms, but he does not say what it is. Fitzgerald is trying to conjure up the narrator, reveal his deepest concerns, but Nick remains hazy. The writer blankets the insufficiency with three multisyllabic words—realization, importunities, portentous—that sound smart and say little.
Now look at the final version of this same passage, after Fitzgerald dramatically reworked it:
I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.
That’s all. He deleted the rest of the paragraph to aim at one point. In the next paragraph, Nick is in the taxi as before, but this time Fitzgerald picks up the line he had held back—the undefined threat—and casts it:
Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, the thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat’s shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.
Fitzgerald took a couple of wordy, imprecise sentences and transformed them into a limpid exposé of a single idea: the loss of youth. The danger of turning thirty is defined: “the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” The theme of aging underscores the character descriptions and is not a coarse intellectual aside: “But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age.” The final sentence was a detached commentary on a detached relationship; now it is a commitment to human tenderness, however flawed: “the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.” By changing “a hand” to “her hand,” Fitzgerald created a truer intimacy that offers the poignant conclusion that human affection alone can compensate for the indignities of growing old.
Fitzgerald, Berg writes, “is generally regarded as having been his own best editor, as having had the patience and objectivity to read his words over and over again, eliminating flaws and perfecting his prose.” But The Great Gatsby would be a different book, and very possibly a lesser one, without Perkins’s counsel. Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes—a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The Geography of the Imagination


Last week I was shown a series of plans for novels by Arvon students. Discussion of such plans are useful but a plan - or (dread) a synopsis - is only a way of thinking about the novel. It is not the novel itself. A plan is as like the intended novel as a map of France is to France itself - it is like, but not like.

This isn't to dismiss the usefulness of planning. Maps are very useful: we get lost without them, errors in them cause neighbourly disputes, wars even - but to put their usefulness into perspective.

This week, the analogy came back to me while reading a posthumous collection of Michael Donaghy's prose - a benign and only seemingly quirky series of reflections on poetry - I came across his account of work with a number of deaf poets who, introducing their craft, gave him a photocopy of a poem by the American deaf poet, Clayton Valli.

He found himself 'acutely embarrassed by the apparent mediocrity of the work' until he was shown a video of Valli performing the piece.



Donaghy realised that it was:
...a clear example of Frost's dictum 'poetry is what's lost in translation,' for this performance was the poem. the photocopied sheet on my lap was no more a work of literary art than a choreographer's stage direction can be said to constitute a ballet or pediscript a pavane.'
It was so in the same way that a clock is merely a diagram of time, a means of measuring and representing it and yet so different from time as we experience it, or that these ice dance charts:


resemble this:



Donaghy quotes R G Collingwood who called dance 'the mother of language':
We get still farther away from the fundamental facts of speech when we think of it as something that can be written and read, forgetting that writing, in our clumsy notations, can represent only a small part of the spoken sound, where pitch and stress, where tempo and rhythm, are almost entirely ignored... the written or printed book is only a series of hints, as elliptical as the neumes of byzantine music

Neumes, Donaghy explains, are the little strokes indicating pitch and ornament accompanying the chats in ancient missals that gradually modify into musical notation that we use today.


Donaghy's point, to simplify, is that the poem exists to provoke its real life in the reader's mind - the (successful) poem, on paper, is as like in the reader's head as a a map of France is to France itself.

It is my point, too. The book exists to provoke a world inside the reader's head. And even for the writer this is true. The book as it comes into being is only a shadow - a map - of what it feels like in the writer's head.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Roland Barthes: Journal de deuil



Barthes' Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook) have recently been published in France.

Benjamin Ivry gives an even-tempered account of the history, controversy and people surrounding the publication of these two posthumous works in The Chronicle Review, but I'm reading the first book at the moment, and grief seems to be a recent theme here.

There's a line in Barthes' Bereavement Diary, that the measure of grief, according to the encyclopaedia, Memento Larousse, is eighteen months for a parent. The context and the bald giving of this fact suggests Barthes finds this measure unlikely - although it is among the earliest entries, which runs from 26 October, 1977, to 15 September, 1979. I am reading the book slowly so perhaps Larousse will be proved right. Unlikely though, isn't it?

I'm reading the book for several reasons.

Long, long before I taught within a university and, so, ignorant of Critical Theory and its impact, I read Barthes for the thrill of reading him: the quick notations, the spry insights, the world considered as other than it was conventionally perceived. I read The Lover's Discourse, Camera Lucida, and Roland Barthes, not fully aware that a system - a whole Theory indeed - had been made from them. I read them as I read Yeats or Blake, aware that some greater cosmology was being suggested but one that seemed, also, independent of the work and its immediate impact on me.

I am reading Journal de Deuil because I like reading him - he seems like one of those authors that, as Holden Caulfield suggested, you might want to ring up after you have been reading him. And I especially like the works that take the form of a notebook.

I like reading notebooks. Writers' notebooks especially. Susan Sontag, writing on Elias Canetti, described the notebook as 'the perfect literary form for an eternal student. . . . The notebook holds that ideally impudent, efficient self that one constructs to deal with the world.” That self, thought Sontag was one 'incapable of insipidity or satiety... a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.' That seems a perfect description of Barthes use of the form, too.

The second reason - cf The Thought-Fox below - was I thought it would help my French along. The only thing I really enjoyed about French in school was translating it back into English: we never had to do it the other way, just as we seldom used the 'tu' form. It was never expected that we would actually speak to French people except to ask directions or to be served in shops.

And, despite its subject, the book looks affable. Some 270 pages long, it is mostly white space. Each entry, and few of them are long, is given a page. A friend, the intellectually glamourous Georges-Claude Guilbert, said he read it in a sitting - or a standing - in a bookshop in twenty minutes. I wont manage it at that speed.

Another reason is that le deuil is one of my favourite words in French - or rather a favourite sound - as in feuille and acceuil. It's one of the few French sounds with which I feel confident after I learned to say it by imagining a yo-yo in my throat: deuil-euil-euil-euil!

Hill and Wang, FSG
in New York have acquired the English Language rights, and a translation is due soon.

In the meantime, I'd translate the title as Diary of Grief, which might sound stiff, but it also sounds starker - 'bereavement' seems too light and lightening a word - and 'diary' (although it shouldn't) sounds to my dim English ears much more of a daily account than 'journal' and, so far as I have read, the very burden of time - of what death does to time, what time does does to the dead - seems one of its most prominent themes.