Category Archives: Letters

Communication in the Midst of Solitude: My Year in Reading—2019

In his essay “On Reading,” Proust writes, “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” I try to make reading plans every year but I honestly never know where the year will take me. This year was a stellar year for me as far as these “communications in the midst of solitude” were concerned. But my communications were carried farther by the literary connections for which I am very grateful—-readers of my blog, my fellow bloggers, and, the one that has the most influence on my reading, the wonderful literary community on Twitter. I know that social media is a tough place for some—I’ve seen many come and go. But my little corner of book Twitter has proven to be a wonderful place this year and I would like to thank all of those who have commented, connected, supported my reading on this blog and on Twitter.

Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, trans. by Robert Baldick

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura by Christine Wuunicke, trans. by Philip Boehm

Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

Romola, by George Eliot (I only got half way through this one. Not the right time for this book for me.)

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illus. by Dore

The Completion of Love by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Temptation of Quiet Veronica by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil, trans. Shaun Whiteside

Thought Flights by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Landscapes by John Berger

The Man Without Qualities Volumes 1 and 2 by Robert Musil, trans. Sophie Wilkins

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Hadji Murat by Tolstoy, trans. Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes

Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, trans. Moncrieff et al.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide, trans. Richard Howard

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, trans. Michael Henry Heim

Aline & Valcour Volumes 1 and 2 by Marquis de Sade, trans. Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons

Notebooks 1935-1951 by Camus, trans. Philip Thody and Justin O’Brien

The Stranger by Camus, trans. Matthew Ward

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt (I have been reading this book for half the year and have about 300 pages left to read which I will finish in the final week of the year.)

Poetry:

I have read more poetry this year then every before because I have been stopping to read selections from the poets that Michael Schmidt discusses in his book Lives of the Poets. Too many to list here. So listed here are only the collections I’ve read in their entirety:

Poets on Poets, edited by Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt

A Test of Poetry by Louis Zukofsky

Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, trans. David Curzon and Grazyna Drabik

Love and I by Fanny Howe

Lapis: Poems by Robert Kelly

Elegiac Sonnets by Charlotte Smith

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems

Selected Poems by Charlotte Mew

The Last Innocence/The Lost Adventures by Alejandra Pizarnik

Selected Poems of Attila Jozsef, trans. Peter Hargitai

The Withering World by Sandor Marai, trans. John Ridland and Peter V. Czipott

The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolaño, trans. Laura Healy

I’ve also continued to translate my own selections of Ancient Greek and Latin poetry which I won’t bother to list again. But translating Sappho was a particularly rewarding experience.

And finally, I’ve done posts on the fabulous artwork I’ve had the pleasure of viewing this year. I had the pleasure of seeing the Bonnard exhibit at the Tate Modern, The Blake Exhibit at the Tate Britain, The Ruskin Exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, and, my favorite, The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum. A stellar year for reading, for poetry and for art all around.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays, and Io Saturnalia!

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Letters, Literature in Translation, Opinion Posts, Poetry, Russian Literature, Swann's Way, Tolstoi

There is no Wealth But Life: Ruskin at the Yale Center for British Art

Proust’s translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilles.

In a letter to his English friend, Marie Nordlinger, dated January 1900 Proust writes (trans. Mina Curtiss):

On learning of Ruskin’s death, I cannot keep from thinking of you so poignantly that I must write to you. Not that it needed this to make me think of you. Having been ill for several days, unable to write easily and unwilling to dictate a letter to you, all mo most friendly and grateful thoughts of you, of your letter, of the book [Queen of the Air, by John Ruskin] you sent with its even more precious annotations, are lodged in the very forefront of my being, not in that secluded part of oneself that one visits only rarely, but in that intimacy of the heart where we meet each other several times a day. But when I learned of Ruskin’s death, I wanted to express to you before anyone else, my sadness, a healthy sadness, however, and indeed full of consolations, for I know how little death matters when I see how powerfully this dean man lives on, how much I admire him, listen to him, try to understand him, to follow him more than I do man of the living.

Proust began reading Ruskin in 1897 and translated two of his texts: The Bible of Amiens in 1904 and Sesame and Lilles in 1906 and also contributed prefaces to each book. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, while visiting family in the New Haven area, I was able to see the Ruskin exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art which is on until December 8th. I was eager to see what Proust admired in this author, artist and critic and came away with a much greater appreciation for Ruskin.

The exhibit begins with one of Turner’s paintings of Venice (the museum also has quite a nice collection of Turner in its main gallery) which inspired Ruskin not only to defend Turner’s work but also to write a three volume history of the city, The Stones of Venice.

Turner. Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute. 1835. Oil on Canvas.

Ruskin. The south side of the Basilica of St. Mark’s from the Loggia of the Doge’s Palace, Venice. 1850-52. Watercolor over pencil, heightened with gouache.

My favorite parts of the exhibit were, no surprise, the books and notebooks on display. The collection of Ruskin’s first edition books was impressive, many of them borrowed from the nearby Beinecke Rare Books library. Here are few of Ruskin’s personal notebooks with drawings and sketches:

Ruskin. Manuscript notebook with watercolors, sketches and drawings. 1842

Ruskin Notebook containing a partial manuscript of The Ethics of Dust. 1865

I also enjoyed Ruskin’s attempts to replicate 5th century Ancient Greek red figure paintings:

Ruskin. Owl after and Attic Kantharos. 1870. Pen and black ink and watercolor on paper.

The Ruskin exhibit is absolutely worth a trip if you are anywhere near the New Haven area. The gallery also has a fabulous collection of British Art from various eras. I lingered for a while on the upper floors looking at their Turners and the few Blakes that they have. One can easily spend half a day looking at this gem of a gallery in the heart of New Haven. The Yale Art Gallery is also across the street and the Beinecke Rare Books library is a short walk. And New Haven abounds with fantastic cuisine. New Haven is the place of my birth and where I lived until the age of 18. It’s interesting to think about how a city evolves in one’s memories and impressions.

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Filed under Art, British Literature, French Literature, Letters

An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:

Poetry:

I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.

Essays:

I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.

Fiction:

Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

Thou Sun Amongst Women: Kierkegaard’s Letters to Regine

Reading Kierkegaard’s letters, selections from his journals and a short biography of this Danish philosopher and author was a rabbit hole I tumbled down while making my way through Kafka and Stach’s biography of Kafka.  Kierkegaard comes up numerous times in Kafka’s life, but no so much for his philosophy as for the details about his personal life and his broken engagement.  A twenty-four-year old Kierkegaard meets the fifteen-year old Regine Olsen at a mutual friend’s house in 1837 and he is immediately smitten with her.  He wisely waits, however, until she is eighteen to begin writing her love letters and courting her.  I was surprised, delighted and, at times,  just slayed by the tender, caring, erudite and loving messages that Kierkegaard composes for her.  The intelligence combined with sincere, true expressions of love are what impressed me most about these letters.   He would oftentimes visit Regine more than once a day and hand deliver these letters (letter undated-translated by Henrik Rosenmeier):

Yesterday your brother scolded me for always speaking of my cobbler, my fruit dealer, my grocer, my coachman, etc., etc., etc.  By this means he seems to have accused me of a predominant use of the first-person possessive pronoun.  Only you know of your faithful friend that I am not extensively but intensively much more given to the use of the second-person possessive pronoun.  Indeed, how could he know that, how could any person at all—as I am only yours.

On another occasion, he remembers the details of a conversation on one of their daily visits and thoughtfully sends her a gift (letter undated, trans. Rosenmeier):

The other day when you came to see me you told me that when you were confirmed your father had presented you with a bottle of lily of the valley.  Perhaps you thought that I did not hear this, or perhaps you thought that it had slipped by my ear like so much else that finds no response within.  But not at all!  But as that flower conceals itself so prettily within its big leaf, so I first allowed the plan of sending you the enclosed to conceal itself in the half-transparent veil of oblivion so that, freed from every external consideration, even the most illusive, rejuvenated to a new life in comparison with which its first existence was but an earthly life, it might now exude that fragrance for which longing and memory (‘from the spring of my youth’) are rivals.  However, it was nearly impossible for me to obtain this essence in Copenhagen.  Yet in this respect there is also a providence, and the blind god of love always finds a way.  You happen to receive it at this very moment (just before you leave the house), because I know that you, too, know the infinity of the moment.  I only hope it will not be too late.  Hasten, my messenger, hasten my thought, and you, my Regine, pause for an instant, for only a moment stand still.

My impression of him before reading this letter was that of a taciturn, melancholy, selfish man but he was clearly capable of being thoughtful, tender and even happy.  It shows a lot about his character that he went to some trouble to get this scent for Regine!

And this gift was not a one-time occurrence.  He loved to send her all sorts of thoughtful gifts—paintings, a scarf, a handkerchief, and drawings he did himself.  He would also include in his letters translations of poems or poetry he composed himself based on famous verses.  For example, on Wednesday, the 28th of October, 1840 he writes to Regine and quotes Joachim von Eichendorff:  “In the stillness of midnight, for the day does begin at midnight, and at midnight I awoke and the hours grew long for me, for what is as swift as love?  Love is the swiftest of all, swifter than itself: Two musicians journeyed thither/From the woods so far away./One of them is deeply in love,/The other would like to be so.”

Much like Kafka, Kierkegaard struggles with making a full commitment to marriage and family life.  In the end he decides that he cannot go through with it, but Regine puts up a good fight.  There is a hint, I think, in some of the letters of Kierkegaard’s anguish between wanting to be alone and wanting to marry Regine.  This passage, from an undated letter, is one of my favorites (trans. Rosenmeier):

In truth, I come, I write, I think, I speak and falter and sigh, and my room resounds with my monologues, and in you alone, my sole confidante, dare I confide what it is that now boisterously wells up in me and then again is lost in silent reverie—in you alone dare I confide—what you have confided in me.  For know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love.  Know that every time you thus solemnly assure me that you always love me equally well, both when I am happy and when I am sad, most when I am sad—most when I am sad—because you know that sorrow is divine nostalgia and that everything good in man is sorrow’s child—know that then you are rescuing a soul from Purgatory.

He ends the letter with a tender postscript: “Whenever you catch a breath of that heliotrope at home, which is still fresh, please think of me, for truly my mind and my soul are turned towards this sun, and I have a deep longing for you, thou sun amongst women.”  Although he breaks off their engagement, he loves her and thinks of her for the rest of his short life. He never courts another woman and his diaries continue to mention her and so does his will.  In an entry of his journal in 1848, a full seven years after their broken engagement,  he writes, “The few scattered days I have been, humanely speaking, really happy, I always have longed indescribably for her, her whom I have loved so dearly and who also with her pleading moved me so deeply.”  When he dies he leaves all of his money and possessions to Regine:  “What I wish to express,” he writes, “is that for me the engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage.”

I am planning on reading Kierkegaard’s work Either/Or and his Works of Love.  Please leave me other Kierkegaard reading suggestions in the comments!

 

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Filed under Letters, Nonfiction

The Bachelor of World Literature: Kafka-The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach

In a letter written while in his twenties, Rainer Maria Rilke describes his vision of what a good marriage ought to be (trans. John J.L. Mood):

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of is fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closet human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This is one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read of what a good, supportive and loving marriage could be. I keep thinking about Rilke’s thoughts as I make my way through the second volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka. Stach begins The Decisive Years in 1910 when a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka is still a bachelor, is still living at home with his parents and sisters, and is still trying to find enough solitude to write. Even though he is the only member of the family to have his own room, the constant noise in the apartment and the proximity of his family hinders his writing during daylight hours. Kafka’s closest friends—Max Brod, Oscar Baum and Felix Weltsch—as well as his sisters have gotten married or are making plans to get married. As Stach points out, Kafka is certainly neither innocent nor sexually neutral—he visits prostitutes to satisfy his physical needs. But the thread we see running throughout his diaries and letters is an intense, obsessive, and urgent desire to write; a wife, and family would certainly not give him the solitude he needs for his literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Bachelors, Young and Old” Stach writes (translated Shelley Frisch): “Franz Kafka is the bachelor of world literature. No one, not even the most open-minded reader, can imagine him at the side of a Frau Doktor Kafka, and the image of a white-haired family man surrounded by grandchildren at play is irreconcilable with the gaunt figure and self-conscious smile of the man we know as Kafka, who blossomed and wilted at an early age.”

Kafka has two “relationships” of sorts before he meets Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he will become engaged. Hedwig Weller is his first girlfriend in his early twenties and he exchanges letters with her between 1907 and 1909. She lives in Berlin and so most of their contact is only through letters. In 1912, Kafka and Max Brod take a trip to Weimar to meet with publishers and visit Goethe’s home which has been turned into a museum. The caretaker of Goethe’s estate has a teenage daughter with whom Kafka becomes obsessed. It is sweet and endearing how he eagerly awaits for her outside of local shops and taverns to catch fleeting glimpses of her. He even has Brod run interference with her father so he can have a stolen moment with her in the orchard on the Goethe property. (This moment is captured in a blurry photograph that Wagenbach includes in his biography of Kafka.) He is sad when he has to leave her, but it’s interesting to note that Kafka keeps choosing women that live quite a distance from him and with whom there is never a realistic chance of pursuing a serious courtship. As Stach is leading up to the chapters on Felice Bauer in this second volume, these earlier precedents will serve to shed more light on his later, failed engagements.

Marriage and the distinct possibility of not having a partner for the rest of his life also weighs heavily on Kafka. In November 1911, in a fragment of a story called “The Bachelor’s Unhappiness” he depicts a pathetic, lonely, joyless, unmarried, older man: “It seems so strange to remain a bachelor, to become an old man struggling hard to preserve his dignity while pleading for an invitation when he wants to spend an evening with people, being ill and spending weeks staring into an empty room from the corner of his bed, always saying good night at the gate, never running up the stairs beside his wife…” Kafka’s diaries entries just two years later in which he lists the pros and cons of marriage reiterate this fear of perpetual loneliness: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague presence of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone.” But sacrificing his solitude to write, even if it eases his loneliness, is not something is his willing to do. Not, at least, at this point in his life.

And so my mind returns to that lovely Rilke quote which, I think, is something that Kafka might have appreciated. If he could only find a wife that would have been that “guardian of his solitude,” It is tragic that this concept of marriage is something that would have been completely alien to him, especially given his social and religious upbringing. Even more than his relationships with Felice and Milena, I am eager to read Stach’s description of the last months of Kafka’s life when he doesn’t marry but does live with a woman named Dora Diamant, which is the closet he will ever get to a domestic life. Did she protect his solitude? Or did he finally decide that he didn’t want to die alone?

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Filed under German Literature, Kafka, Letters, Nonfiction