Tag Archives: John Berger

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

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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Filed under Art, British Literature, Nonfiction

Pain and Pleasure: Some thoughts on And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger

Time and Space are the focus of Berger’s brief yet lovely writings in this impossible-to-classify book.  Part one, entitled “Once” is an attempt to capture  the enigmatic, human experience of time while part two, entitled “Here” explores the concept of space especially in relation to sight and distance.  The text feels like a series of snapshots into Berger’s mind as he uses art, photography, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdotes to grapple with time and space; Hegel, Marx, Dante, Camus, Caravaggio are just a few of the artists and thinkers that are given fleeting attention in his text.

At times Berger addresses his narrative to an unnamed “you” that is his lover.  Time and space have, perhaps, the greatest impact on love, sex, and desire: “The sexual thrust to reproduce and to fill the future is a thrust against the current of time which is flowing ceaselessly towards the past.  The genetic information which assures reproduction works against dissipation.”  And, “Love is a reconstitution in the heart of that holding which is Being.”  Berger’s thoughts to his beloved highlight a painful distance that separates them.  He is writing to her about going to a post office to send her a package or a letter, or he is reminding her of stolen moments spent together or a conversation about art while in bed.  Thoughts on vision and light are mixed with those on distance: “The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.”

Berger’s thoughts on the close association between pain and pleasure as they relate to time and space and love were the most interesting for me in this book as it brought to mind other authors who have also delved into this complicated association.  Berger writes, “Pleasure and pain need to be considered together, they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different.”  And:

It has never been easy to relieve pain.  The productive recourses have usually been lacking—food, adequate medicines, clothing, shelter.  But it has never been difficult to locate the causes of pain: hunger, illness, cold, deprivation…It has always been, in principle, simpler to relieve pain than to give pleasure or make happy.  An area of pain is more easily located.

With one enormous exception—the emotional pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart.  Such pain fills the space of an entire life.  It may have begun with a single event but the event has produced a surplus of pain.  The sufferer becomes inconsolable.  Yet, what is this pain, if it is not the recognition that what was once given as pleasure or happiness has been irrevocably taken away?

It is no wonder that the Epicureans attempted to follow a philosophy that was constructed around the close experiences of pleasure and pain.  I’ve tried to embrace Epicureanism in particular during this past year, jettisoning things and relationships that bring more pain than pleasure.  It is not an easy philosophy to follow, to say the least, but I have seen some value in it.

Berger brings into his discussion of pain and pleasure the paintings of Caravaggio and the facial expressions he captures in his art.  Berger writes, “I have not seen a dissimilar expression on the face of animals—before mating and before a kill.”  Jean Luc Nancy, who also explores the association between pain and pleasure in his book Coming, uses Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene on the cover of his text.  Nancy argues that pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful: “Sartre says, ‘There is no pleasure that does not know itself as pleasure.’ We could say the same thing the other way around: There is no pain that does not know itself as pain.  Pleasure is a state that seeks out its own perpetuation, while pain seeks out its own cessation, but it’s exactly the same thing in each sense.”  Pain is always present in jouissance, Nancy argues, because its extreme intensity becomes unbearable—it pushes us to our limits.

This connection between pain and pleasure is expressed by Quignard as a constant tension manifested as desire that never achieves jouissanceIn Sex and Terror, a book whose style of prose mixed with poetry and thoughts on art is similar to Berger,  writes:

Something that belonged to happiness is lost in the lovers’ embrace.  There is in the most complete love, in happiness itself, a desire that everything should suddenly tip over into death.  What overflows with violence in sexual climax is overtaken by a sadness that is not psychological.  By a frightening languor.  There are absolute tears that mingle.  In sensual delight, there is something that gives way.

And finally, Berger’s text brought to mind what I think is perhaps one of the greatest poetic renditions of the deep connection between pain and pleasure.  Ovid, in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, describes the death of Pyramus who, because of time and space, is not able to be with his lover.  Ovid’s description of Pyramus’s tragic death becomes infused with the erotic pleasure that he should have experienced with Thisbe (translation is my own):

He draws his own sword and plunges the iron into his guts,
and as he lays dying, without delay, he withdraws the sword
from the hot wound.  And as he lays prone on the earth, blood
spews high in the air, similar to when a pipe is split
because of a weak part in the lead and ejaculates a great
amount of water from its  thin, hissing stream and ruptures
the air with its blows.

The thrusting and withdrawal of the sword (ilia in Latin can mean “guts”, “intestines” as I translated it here but it is also the word for “groin”) and the ejaculating (eiaculator in the Latin) could just as easily have been words used to describe Pyramus’s consummation of his relationship with Thisbe. I will end with a fitting quote from John Berger from And Our Faces, which applies, I think, to Ovid’s description of pain and pleasure: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor. The result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

Pierre Gautherot. Pyramus and Thisbe. 1799.

 

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Filed under Art, British Literature