When One Was Without Light: All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a virtuoso viol player and teacher in seventeenth-century France, is a man of extremes: he practices his instrument for extensive, solitary hours, he rejects any attention or spotlight for his talents, and he still feels a deep, passionate love for his long-deceased wife.  When the novella begins, Colombe’s wife has died but his feelings for her have not faded in the least: “Three years after her death, her image was still before him.  After five years, her voice was still whispering in his ears.”  He becomes a recluse and music becomes the center of his life:  “Sainte Colombe henceforward kept to his house and dedicated his life to music.  Year after year he labored at the viol and became an acknowledged master.  In the two years following his wife’s death he worked up to fifteen hours a day.”

He takes his solitude and misanthropy to an extreme by having a small practice hut constructed out of an old mulberry tree and doesn’t allow anyone to intrude on his playing, not even his two young daughters.   When his daughters are of the appropriate age, he teaches them his craft and the trio offer fortnightly concerts to a small group of friends.  The extraordinary talent of Colombe eventually gains the attention of the king who sends ambassadors to invite him to play for the royal court.  But in a fit of rage Colombe violently rejects the king’s offer of wealth and fame: “You will thank his majesty for nothing,” he shouted.  “I prefer the radiance of the setting sun upon my hands to all the gold he might offer.  I prefer my plain clothes to your cumbersome bags of hair.  I prefer my hens to the violins of the kings and my pigs to you.”

What fascinated me most about this book, as well as Quignard’s other novella, A Terrace in Rome, is his commentary on the conditions that produce artistic genius.  In both of Quignard’s narratives, he imagines an artist who suffers a sudden tragedy and loses the woman that is the love of his life.  The trauma drives each man into solitude and this loneliness and craving for the person he cannot have has a profound, positive effect on his craft.  In All the World’s Mornings, Colombe’s wife begins to visit him as a ghost— he speaks to her, he drinks wine with her, he continues to feel an intense physical need for her.  And all this time he practices the viol harder and for longer hours and creates the most beautiful music.  Both novellas have all of the components that I love most in a Quignard text: beautiful and enigmatic language, compelling and provocative thoughts on art and inspiration and a didactic, historical component.

There is a temporary intrusion on Colombe’s seclusion when he accepts a young man named Marin Marais as his pupil.  But Colombe cannot seem to transfer his radical and serious ideas about music to his protégé.  When Colombe finds out that Marais has performed the viol in front of the king in the royal chapel, the master’s reaction is violent and swift.  As he smashes Marais’s viol he shouts at him: “Leave this place forever, Monsieur, you are a great circus performer, a master juggler.  The plates go flying around your head and you never lose your balance but you are a paltry musician.  You are a musician no bigger than a plum or a cockchafer.”  But on the day of his departure from Colombe’s house, Marais begins an affair with Madeleine, Colombe’s oldest daughter, whose intensity of emotion rivals that of her father’s.

Madeleine and Marais not only have a passionate love affair, but Madeleine, a talented viol player herself, continues to teach her lover her father’s musical techniques.  But when Marais’s feelings for Madeleine fade, the emotional consequences of the breakup are dire and tragic for her.  Madeleine is very similar to her father and clings to her feelings for Marais for many years but, unlike her father, she cannot turn her tragedy into inspiration for her music.

Quignard ends the novella with a surprising reunion of master and teacher.  Colombe realizes that if he continues to shut himself off from the world  then his music will be lost forever; his Le Tombeau des regrets, a composition that was a memorial to his wife, is the piece that he desires most to be heard by others.  And Marais finally learns that it is not for fame or gold that once produces music.  The purpose of music, he concludes, is: “A little drinking fountain for those abandoned by language. For the shadows of children. For the hammer blows of shoemakers.  For whatever it is that precedes childhood.  When one was without breath.  When one was without light.”

14 Comments

Filed under French Literature

Respice Futurum: Some Reading Plans for 2018

Henricus Respicit Futurum.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past— it is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.   Respice Futurum is an fitting description for thinking about my reading plans for 2018

Respicio in Latin means more than “looking back.” One of my favorite translations of this word is “to have regard for another person’s welfare.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, applies respicio to the idea of self-improvement in his work De Clementia: sapiens omnibus dignis proderit et deorum more calamitosos propitius respiciet. (A wise man will offer help to those who are worthy and, in the manner of the gods, he especially will have regard for those in need.”) A good person, Seneca argues, always looks towards his future but uses experiences from the past to inform his decisions.  So as I look forward to books I intend to read in 2018, I can’t help but consider which literary selections in 2017 have influenced my choices.  Which books, based on previous choices, will give me a chance for deep reflection and even self-improvement?

Based on my past experiences, there are a few of my favorite publishers that put out spectacular books year after year.  A few of these titles I am looking forward to are:

Seagull Books:

Villa Amalia, Pascal Quignard
Eulogy for the Living, Christa Wolf (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
The Great Fall, Peter Handke (trans. Krishna Winston)
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom (trans. David Colmer)
Lions, Hans Blumberg (trans. Kári Driscoll)
Requiem for Ernst Jandl,  Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)

NYRB Classics:

The Juniper Tree, Barbara Comyns
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov (trans. Donald Rayfield)
The Seventh Cross, Anna Seghers (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
Anniversaries, Uwe Johnson (trans. Damion Searls)

Yale University Press:

Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel
A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan
Journeying, Claudio Magris (trans. Anne Milano Appel)

I am also looking forward to more publications from Fitzcarraldo Editions, New Directions, Archipelago Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Persephone Books (whose bookshop I hope to visit in the spring) and the Cahier Series. I’ve also heard that new books by Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk will be coming out later in 2018 and I am eager to read new titles by both of these women.

While I am waiting for the books listed above to be published, I will dip into German and British classics which I have loved reading over the last year. Here is what I have sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention in 2018:

German Literature:

Hyperion, Holderlin (trans. Ross Benjamin)
The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)
The Lighted Windows, Heimito von Doderer (trans. John S. Barrett)
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)
On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane (trans. Peter James Bowman)

British Literature:

Marriage, Susan Ferrier
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (I’d also like to continue reading her volumes of essays and diaries)
To the Wedding and G., John Berger
Pilgrimage, Vols. 3 and 4, Dorothy Richardson

Russian Literature:

I was disappointed this year not to get around to this stack of Russian literature in translation books as well as Russian history books I have sitting on my shelves—

Gulag Letters, Arsenii Formakov (ed. Elizabeth D. Johnson)
Found Life, Lina Goralik
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)
Sentimental Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko (trans. Boris Dralyuk)
October, China Mieville

(I’ve toyed with the idea of starting War and Peace as well, but who knows where my literary moods will take me)

And for some Non-fiction:

I am very eager to read more George Steiner: Errata, The Poetry of Thought and Grammars of Creation are all on my TBR piles.
I am teaching a Vergil/Caesar class and an Ovid (Metamorphoses) class in the spring and in preparation for these authors I would like to read some of Gian Biaggio Conte’s books, especially Latin Literature: A History and Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry.

I know, this list seems impossible, ridiculous, all over the place. But who knows what rabbit holes I will fall down, or where my journey will take me. All I can say for sure is that 2018, much like 2017, will be filled with great books and interactions with other wonderful readers. Happy New Year!

47 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Seagull Books, Virginia Woolf

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

 

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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…

 

31 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, History, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Virginia Woolf