Monthly Archives: December 2017

Ours is the Long Day’s Journey of the Saturday: Conversations with George Steiner

Even in reading this brief interview with literary critic, scholar and polyglot George Steiner one is impressed with the scope of his erudition.  Born in Paris in 1929, his Jewish parents had fled Vienna because his father sensed the impending danger posed by the Nazis.  Steiner’s father moved the family, once again, to America just as the Germans were invading Paris.  The details of his upbringing and early years as a scholar that he discusses with his interviewer Laure Adler in this book are fascinating.

I thought it would be fitting for my last post of this year to share Steiner’s metaphor of “A Long Saturday” of life.  Steiner explains in greater detail what he meant when he wrote in his book Real Presences, “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.”

I took the Friday-Saturday-Sunday schema from The New Testament.  Christ’s death on Friday, with the darkness that descended on earth, the tearing of the veil of the Temple; then the uncertainty that—for the believers—had to be beyond horror, the uncertainty of the Saturday when nothing happened, nothing moved; finally the resurrection on Sunday.  It’s a schema with limitless power of suggestion.  We live through catastrophes, torture, anguish; then we wait, and for many the Saturday will never end.  The Messiah won’t come, and Saturday will continue.

So how should we live this Saturday?

This Saturday of the unknown, of waiting with no guarantees, is the Saturday of our history. In this Saturday there’s an element both of despair—Christ killed in a terrible manner, buried—and of hope.  Despair and hope, of course, are the two sides of the coin of the human condition.

It’s very hard for us to imagine a Sunday, except (and this is important) in the realm of our private lives.  Those who are happy in love have known Sundays, epiphanies, moments of total transfiguration.

This was another book that someone from literary Twitter recommended to me in the early fall.  Time’s Flow has done a wonderful series of posts on Steiner  which I highly encourage everyone to visit, that reminded me I had this book sitting on my shelf.   I am so grateful for the literary community of likeminded readers who have had a profound influence on my reading choices for this year.

Happy New Year and happy reading in the new year.

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The Expectation of a Body: From A to X by John Berger

In this epistolary novel, a woman named A’ida writes to her boyfriend Xavier who has been given two life sentences for committing some non-specific political act against the totalitarian regime under which they live.  Xavier is not allowed to have any visitors and their request for a marriage license is denied three times, so they only means of contact they have is through letters.  A’ida’s missives to Xavier are full of images of her daily life—visits with friends, her work as a pharmacist, trips to the market, run ins with soldiers from the military.   The enduring message in all of her writing is her longing, always hopeful, to keep a human connection with Xavier no matter how long he is in prison.  Images of different senses pervade her letters.  First touch:

There’s such a difference between hope and expectations.  At first I believed it was a question of duration, that hope was awaiting something further away.  I was wrong.  Expectation belongs to the body, whereas hope belongs to the soul.  That’s the difference.  The two converse and excite or console each other but the dream of each one is different.  I’ve learnt something more.  The expectation of a body can last as long as any hope.  Like mine expecting yours.

Then sound and voice:

I stare at this paper I’m writing on and I hear your voice.  Voices are as different from each other as faces and far more difficult to define.  How would I describe your voice to someone so they could infallibly recognize it?  In your voice there’s a waiting—like waiting for the train to slow down a little so you can  jump.  Even when you say: O.K., let’s go, give me your hand, don’t look back!  Even then there’s this quality of waiting in your voice.

She also starts drawing pictures of hands at the of her letters which we learn that Xavier keeps taped to the wall of his cell.  One letter ends with such a drawing and these words:

In the dark folds of time maybe there’s nothing except the dumb touch of our fingers.

And our deeds.

 

Even in the last few letters A’ida’s hope continues:

And in our life today we are condemned to endless irregularity.  Those who impose this on us are frightened by our irregularity.  So they build walls to keep us out.  Yet their walls will never be long enough and there’ll always be ways round, over and under them.

In a single piece of writing Berger manages to compose a stellar example of the epistolary technique, a political commentary on oppressive regimes, and a story about an enduring love that survives time and space.   Whether I am reading his essays, poems or novels Berger’s writing has that special quality that forces me to look inward.  I kept thinking to myself while reading her letters : if I were A’ida, how long would I wait?

 

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Slightly Exhausted at the End: My Favorite Books of 2017

I received several lovely books as gifts for Christmas and tucked inside one of them was a handwritten notecard with this quote by William Styron:  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.  You live several lives while reading.”  I thought this sentiment was perfect for writing about my list of books this year that have provided me with rich and deep cerebral experiences;  these are the  books I have thought about on sleepless nights, these are the books that have left me figuratively and literally exhausted.

Many of the books on this list are classics, written in the 19th or 20th century.  Only a couple of titles that were published this year have made the list.  There is also a predominance of classic British and German literature.

Mrs. Dalloway,  To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Virginia Woolf.  This was the year that I finally discovered the wonder that is Virginia Woolf.  Of the three titles I read I couldn’t possibility pick a favorite, they all resonated with me for different reasons.  I’ve also enjoyed reading her essays along side the novels.

Pilgrimage, Vols. 1 and 2, Dorothy Richardson.  I started reading Richardson towards the end of the summer and was instantly captivated by her language and her strong, daring female character.  I made it about half way through Pilgrimage before taking a break.  But I will finish the last two volumes in the new year.

Map Drawn by a Spy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.  This is another great title from Archipelago books and a chilling account of the author’s escape from his homeland of Cuba.  A unique, eye-opening read on the mindset of those living under an oppressive, totalitarian regime.

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos and Bento’s Sketchbook,  John Berger.  I initially picked up And Our Faces when Scott Esposito pointed it out on Twitter several months back.  I just happened to be walking by one of my bookshelves one day and it caught my eye.  I haven’t stopped reading Berger since.  I also remembered that I had a copy of Bento’s Sketchbook which came recommended by someone with impeccable literary taste who said it is one of those “must read” books.  He was not wrong.

The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf.  I first discovered Wolf last year when I read her Medea and Cassandra.  Surprisingly, I think of all the Wolf  titles I’ve read so far, The Quest for Christa T. has been my favorite.  I have also gotten about half way through her memoir One Day a Year which I am hoping to finish in the new year.

Effi Briest, Theodor FontaIne.  I saw a list of Samuel Beckett’s favorite books and Effi was on the list.  I immediately picked up a copy and read it.  This is a title that is worthy of multiple reads, one that indeed left me exhausted yet eager to start all over from the beginning.

Other Men’s Daughters, Richard Stern.  It is no surprise that my list includes at least one title from NYRB Classics.  I had never heard of Stern and this book made me want to explore more of his writings.  This is a tale of a marriage and divorce, but Stern’s writing is not typical of this genre in any way whatsoever.

Penthesilea, Heinrich von Kleist.  Kleist’s story of Penthesilea and her brief yet powerful relationship with the hero Achilles was captivating.  I oftentimes avoid retellings of Ancient myths because they veer too far from the original stories, but Kleist’s rendition of these events from the Trojan War deftly incorporate his own backstory with these ancient characters.

Poetic Fragments, Karoline von Gunderrode.  This was another title that I came across on literary Twitter.  For all of the negative things that can be said about social media,  it has definitely served a great purpose for me through interacting with a community of liked minded readers.  Thanks to flowerville, in particular, who has steered me toward many a great German classic that I would otherwise not have been made aware of.

Blameless, Claudio Magris.  As with other Magris novels I have read, I was impressed with the high level of the author’s erudition mixed with poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which is also on this list,  it is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless

A Terrace in Rome, Pascal Quignard.  I have been slowly making my way through all of  the Quignard that is in translation.  A Terrace in Rome had  all of the elements that I love about a Quignard title; it was poetic, passionate, philosophical, enigmatic, and beautiful.  I am especially eager to get a copy of Villa Amalia which Seagull Books will soon be publishing.

Compass, Mathias Enard.  This is one of the few books actually published this year on my list.  This is a book for those who really enjoy books.  My TBR pile grew by leaps and bounds collecting just a fragment of the titles mentioned by Enard in his fascinating story of a musicologist who suffers from a sleepless night.

Now I’m exhausted just thinking about these books all over again…

 

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Rock Crystal: A Christmas Novella by Adalbert Stifter

I’ve fittingly ended the year by reading another classic piece of German Literature, Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter. I have to, once again, thank literary Twitter for steering me towards this author. The NYRB Classics edition I read also includes a lovely introduction by W.H. Auden.

In Stifter’s Christmas Eve tale, two young children get caught on a mountain in a snowstorm on the way home from their grandmother’s. He begins his story by describing the warmth and charm of the holiday: “One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when the nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields: Christmas.” Stifter is a master at laying out a detailed landscape that captures the quiet beauty of the snowy, mountainous scene in which the brother and sister get lost (it is no wonder that he was a landscape painter):

They went steadily up the winding road now west to east, now east to west. The wind predicted by their grandmother had not come up; the air, on the contrary was so still not a twig or a branch stirred; in fact, it felt warmer in the woods, as is usual, in winter, among spaced objects like tree trunks, and the flakes kept falling thicker and thicker so the ground was already white, and the woods began to gray and take on a dusty look, with snow settling upon the garments and hats of both the boy and his sister.

This is truly a gem of a novella as Stifter describes the tender devotion of family, the coming together of an entire village during Christmas and the demonstration of rare emotion from what is an otherwise taciturn father. I highly recommend this short yet beautiful book; I look forward to exploring more of Stifter’s writing in the new year.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Freed from the Block: Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

I had intended to finish the year reading a stack of German literature that I have acquired, but instead I have fallen down a John Berger rabbit hole.  Bento’s Sketchbook is one of those titles recommended by a friend with the very strong assertion that it is something I “must read.”

We know from different sources that the philosopher Baruch (Benedict or Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677) enjoyed drawing and that he always carried his sketchbooks around with him, none of which seemed to have survived.  When John Berger’s friend gives him a virgin sketchbook, he decides, “This is Bento’s!”  Berger begins to making drawings “prompted by something asking to be drawn.”  He comments about the development of his book, “As time goes by, however, the two of us—Bento and I—become less distinct.  Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable.  And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.”

For Berger a cluster of irises, a painting in the National Gallery, a friend’s old bicycle all become subjects for drawing and reflection.  The stories and the sketches are simple yet fascinating.  My favorite, one of the more abstract and philosophical pieces, begins:

Around her is a block.  The block is invisible because totally transparent.  Nor does the block restrict her movements.  Is the block what separates Being from Becoming? I don’t know, for this is happening where there are not words.

Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them.  This was happening somewhere to the side of language.  Any frontal view of language was impossible there.  From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke—I—like a single post in a vast landscape.

The task was to dismantle the block—to take it apart and lift it off piece by piece.  She allowed this to happen—No. Active and Passive have merged together.  Let us say: She happened this to herself with the utmost ease.  I was with her in what she (we) were doing.

The lovers slowly begin to dismantle the block starting from her head.  The task is tiring, he says, and he needs to take breaks.  But when he is tired he also embraces her and they gain strength from one another.  Finally the block is completely gone and:

She was there whole, looking exactly as she had at the beginning, capable of the same actions and no more, having the same name, the same habits, the same history.  Yet, freed from the block, the relations between her and everything which was not her had changed.  An absolute yet invisible change.  She was now the centre of what surrounded her.  All that was not her made space for her.

This passage of Berger’s pulled my thoughts toward Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth.  Although it is oftentimes viewed as a commentary about unattainable standards of beauty, I’ve always seen more in the Latin than this message.  Pygmalion, in his daily solitude, uses the utmost care and love to gently coax a form out of the white block of marble that will become his beloved: “Pygmalion is amazed at his creation and drinks up the with his heart the passionate fires of her simulated body.”  Both stories demonstrate the power that love, kindness, and, most importantly, patience can have on our relationships.

 

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