I'm completely exhausted and must soon make myself some soup or something. Anyway, I thought - God knows why - I'd actually try to list my leisure reading for this year, to keep a track of my reading habits. I've never done it before. I'll keep this list in this particular blog entry, but I won't make it a sticky post, so if you're at all interested, you'll just have to bookmark it or something. I'll only list the books I actually finish (not those I merely dip into, which I tend to do quite a lot these days) and I won't list the books that I read in relation to my work for Chômu Press. This is strictly what I read away from the computer screen 'on my own time'. At the time of starting this blog post, I have a number of books 'on the go', including Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces by C.S. Lewis, Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren, Hadrian the Seventh by Baron Corvo aka Fr. Rolfe, which I've almost finished and which sadly I've pretty much hated, Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz, Meido by Uchida Hyakken, which I'm reading very slowly, The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, which has been in my reading limbo for months, and a number of other volumes that I'll probably remember at some point or another.
Anyway, I'll list, below, the books I've read, as I finish them, along with any summaries I feel like making:
The Life of J.-K. Huysmans, by Robert Baldick. A biography of J.-K. Huysmans, and the best thing I've read in a very long time. Huysmans is someone whose work I am sure I will keep returning to throughout my life, and this book has given me invaluable insight into the author, as well as into a fascinating human life.
A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. Some notebooks kept by Lewis after the death of his wife. I'm not a big fan of British literature, but Lewis, in his essays, exhibits what I think of as the particular virtues of good British writing. I suppose one word that comes to mind is 'concision' - using precisely the right word in the right place, without flab, in such a way that one's prose tends towards aphorism. Regarding the subject matter - generally with Lewis, there are some areas to which I cannot follow, sympathetically speaking, but I am fascinated to find whole passages that seem like my own thought processes dictated onto the page.
On the 3rd or 4th, I believe, I finished Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Although I still think everyone should read this, I'm sometimes not sure whether Bradbury is really a good writer. My impression of his writing is that he's a tightrope walker who gets to the other side by sheer speed. The results are not always convincingly elegant, but the fact is, he does get there, without falling. He seems quite regularly to create emotionally affecting scenes, too, which is an ability not to be underestimated. This work belongs to me with Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (I know the first two films, not the book) in having a possible anti-Nirvana message, which I appreciate. Books represent intellectual conflict (of which Nirvana is supposedly the end), just as emotions represent a similar conflict in Bodysnatchers (especially the 70s version). Not sure about some of the folksy wisdom contained in 451. Quite near the end of the book is a use of the word "Godamn" (very minor point, but) that represents to me some of the weaknesses of American fiction.
Wednesday the 8th. Furnace, by James Tressel. It's half past eleven as I write, so I won't write more on this tonight - later. 11th Feb. Continued: This is not a very original observation, but poetry is really its own thing. Furnace is a very short collection of poems and prose-poems which reminds me of this fact. What do I mean by this? Well, not all poetry exhibits those qualities I have in mind that are unique to poetry, but some, such as this, does. I suppose what I mean is that, you can read a poem of this type, and you don't have to understand it - that is, relate the signifier to the signified - in order to 'get it'. One presumes there is a 'signified' because that's what words are for, and because in 'getting it' one has a sense of experience, and this experience is at least equal to 'something signified' and possibly actually is. But somehow, there's not a feeling of having to relate the poem to the world (signifier to signified) in the way that there generally is with prose fiction, for instance. To put it another way, poetry can be non-representational, but, unlike some (all?) non-representational painting, it is also rich in symbolism. The symbolism, one realises, is fascinating because it is ambiguous to the point of opacity. My impression is that Furnace belongs to a type of poetry that in some ways takes the realistic depiction of sensual and psychic experience to such literal lengths that it ends up being almost impenetrably symbolic.
New paragraph, but I'm still on Furnace. Some of the pieces in the collection, as I mentioned, are more in the nature of prose-poems, and these have a narrative or a vignette quality, but even so, the narrative in these cases seems a dimension added to the general 'non-representational' feeling of the work, rather than a dilution of it. I suppose it would be fair to use the over-used word 'surreal' for some of this work. One-on-one symbolic meaning is generally banal (E.G. snake equals phallus, valley equals vulva, etc.), but I am not convinced myself that dreams always work in such a way. The surrealist movement was influenced by Freud and dream analysis, but although symbolism can sometimes be sublimely and vigorously obvious, it can also remain as enigmatical as a hawk-headed god. The latter, I would suggest, is the kind of symbolism you will find in Furnace. The observational (I realise that 'observation' implies 'signified') language is sensitively 'just off' enough to be, somehow, exactly on, as in, for instance, "A cigarette like a flake of whitewash/between his fingers." Off, because it evokes perfectly the sense of 'random surface' that is what we tend to call 'reality', and on because it suggests something weird about that surface, and with such suggetion blurs things to a double image, and with a double image suggests the possibility of layers. Or... should the terms 'off' and 'on' swap their positions in the previous sentence?... In case you missed it, I interviewed James Tressel here. (NB. I'm going to have to give more thought to what I mean by poetry being non-representational, as it's clearly a problematical statement, but perhaps you know what I mean.)
15th of Feb. Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz. This book was given me, I am tempted to think, because of some thematic similarities (or similarities in imagery) with Shrike. It's actually a two-novel volume, the second novel (Pornografia) I'll probably read at some later date. These days I don't like to read too many books by the same author in a row. Perhaps this is a sign that I don't have the intense, fanatical enjoyment of the vision of individual writers in the way that I used to. I don't know. I guess that Cosmos is a book that many would find dissatisfying, as it's about... it's eleven o'clock here and there's no way I can rouse myself to try and explain what Cosmos is about. Momus once sang, "I'm in love with Witold Gombrowicz/That sombre Polish man." Whether Gombrowicz was personally sombre or not, I found Cosmos pretty funny. I'm not sure everyone would. I think I kind of enjoy outrageously absurd literary intellectualism of a certain cast. EG: "Who wanted syphilis, for instance? No one, of course, and yet the syphilitic wanted to be himself, i.e., a syphilitic; it was easy to say he wanted to get well again, but it was like saying 'I don't want to be what I am', it didn't ring true." This kind of thing, as far as I'm concerned, is pure, uncut, comedy stand-up. And Cosmos is composed largely of this kind of thing. Does it actually mean anything? Hard to say. I enjoyed it, anyway. The only thing that really irritated me was the use of comma splices throughout. I don't know if this was meant to reproduce the style of the original Polish, but frequently I wanted to kill the translator. (If you're the translator and you're reading this, I don't mean literally, but the whole comma splice situation was extremely annoying.)
I decided to make this post sticky, after all, for the duration of 2012, or until I get sick of its stickiness.
23rd of February. Finished Grey Inserts Himself, Like an Oven Mitt in a Top Hat, by Brian Warfield. Will write more on this later. 29th Feb. Continued. The story opens, "The color grey sat looking at me like I was just a piece of shit..." At this very early stage in the proceedings, I feel moved to say, "I know the feeling." This tone of heavy pathos doesn't let up throughout. I was intrigued by the possibilities of having ambivalent friendships with Platonic manifestations of concepts, although it's true that, in this tale, Grey is both abstract and concrete, being the colour grey itself, but also a blob of grey paint. I wondered if Plato himself had ever felt that an abstract concept was looking at him like he was a piece of shit... I must admit I didn't wonder so much whether he had felt an inanimate object or semi-object was looking at him like he was a piece of shit. I read a Goodreads review of this book that questioned the attempts to be witty. But I think that 'witty' is an inappropriate choice of word in this case. I think that the current paucity of vocabulary that people tend to display is linked with a loss of variety in concepts at people's ready command. This book provides the opportunity to remind people of the word and the concept "droll". What is drollery? Well... I think you can try and succeed to be witty, but that if you try to be droll you automatically fail. I'd say this book is very droll. I'll give an example of what I liked about this book that may not mean much out of context.
I asked Grey [what kind of birds they were] and he shrugged and said, "I don't know anything." He was feeling depressed or something.
What I like here is the use of "or something". Colloquial language is often used very badly by writers - in an attempt to be colloquial for its own sake that doesn't actually add anything to the text. This is a good use of colloquialism. "Or something" is a very familiar and very throwaway phrase, but here it tells us a great deal about the narrator and his relationship with a blob of grey paint. It tells us with great economy that he's not really interested in Grey's depression and hints at tensions between the two of them. Etc.
29th of February. Finished Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti. Will write more on this later.
9th of March. Finished The Mystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. I wasn't sure whether to include this, as it's not a 'book' as such. It's a number of printed pages recently lent or given(?) to me by a friend. But I'm including it because I guess that Dionysius considered it a 'book' when he wrote it. Also, it can stand, as it were, for all the other bits and pieces like this I will read throughout the year. Will write more on this later.
8th of April. Finished Institute Benjamenta (original title, Jakob von Gunten), by Robert Walser. This is supposed to be a great book. At first, while I thought it was good, I remained unconvinced. I wondered if this was due to the translation, which perhaps failed to catch the nuances and pristine expressive accuracies of the original. (Incidentally, as with the Gombrowicz translation, I noticed a large number of comma splices in this.) I also wondered whether it is due to the vague nature of the narrator's thought patterns, and the lack of external imagery.
In any case, towards the end, this work became much more meaningful for me. It captures the poignancy of 'leaving school' - a poignancy very similar to the sight of buds on the otherwise bare branches of a tree in springtime. There's a particular kind of terror that attaches to the spring - it's been a while since I've felt it, and it was good to be reminded of it. Also, at the very end of the book, something seemed to bloom in my heart, like a surge of love - whatever that is; I felt something like love for this narrator who seemed to have shown me the worthlessness of deception, the need simply to live. I'm not even sure how the ending was intended - ironic or not - but it doesn't seem to matter. I feel, too, the need to set out on a journey, to live, but I fear that the deception that snares whenever numbers of people group together is now inescapable in this world, and that there is nowhere for me to journey to, unless, in order to live, which is actually to die, I must journey out of this world altogether. That is how it seems, in fact, and I feel sick at heart.
15th of April. Finished The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, by Tom Baker. Much as I love Tom Baker, I think it has to be said that, based on this evidence, his skill at writing fiction is not great. It's kind of... Tim Burton territory. Dark gothic 'modern fairy tale'. It does have its moments - there's enough of a Tom Baker glow about it that I felt somewhat warmed by it. It would probably be a much better experience to hear him read it aloud, as he has the best voice ever.
17th of April. Finished The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Edmund White is quoted on the jacket as follows: "Read this book and fall back in love with life." Great, I thought, I'd like to "fall back in love with life". Sadly, I am unable to report any such effect in my case. I suppose there is a kind of 'triumph of the human spirit' quality to the book, and I'm certainly not intending to disparage the author's accomplishment. In case you don't know the background of the book, it was written by the author while he was paralyzed in a hospital in northern France. He was able only to move his left eyelid, and so what he has achieved is something like writing a novel by dictation via the text function of a mobile phone, by winking. Full respect for that. The text in this case is a kind of memoir, of his time in hospital and various episodes in his former life. Sadly, he never did recover fully from his paralysis, and died a day or two after the book was published.
This may sound ridiculous, but I found the book rather lightweight, and I'm left with questions about what literature is, and why it is I prefer skilful fiction (highly aestheticised) to the 'real life' that is preferred by so many. I wonder if I am officially 'effete' or something. God knows.
22nd of April. Finished Aladdin's Problem by Ernst Jünger. This is more like it. This is the first Jünger that I've read, but one of his last works, written, I believe, when he was in his eighties. It concerns one Friedrich Baroh, who becomes one of the founders of a company selling 'in perpetuity' plots in a burial ground, after a conversation with a friend on how no graves can rest long undisturbed these days, because of developers and so on. The allegory, as it were, is plain enough - nothing is built to last in the modern world, not even the afterlife. This is a very sparsely written novel, almost like a philosophical treatise. In fact, at first I thought it was. We seldom slow down to 'real time' scenes, but are given salty little sketches of the various episodes in the story. There's something epigrammatic about the writing, too. The philosophy doesn't pause to explain itself. In fact, very often, this style made me feel that I was reading non sequiturs. I wonder if this is not in part due to the translation. I know very well that much of what connects one sentence to another in any language is implied, and these implied connections can be lost in translation. In fact, such implied connections would surely make an interesting linguistic study.
Anyway, I enjoyed this, and, if I live long enough, will no doubt be reading more of Jünger. I'm not sure who else he might be compared to - if we must - among other writers. I suppose the three writers that come to mind are Hermann Hesse, Laurens van der Post and Jorge Luis Borges.
3rd or possibly 4th of June. Finished In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka. I don't have much time at present, so won't write at length on this. This book was one of the fifty Mini Modern Classics published by Penguin in 2011. It contains the two stories 'In the Penal Colony' and 'The Judgement'. They are both very taut pieces of writing (re-reading, I discovered, yet again, inadequacies in translation, but never mind), but the title piece is the stronger of the two works. I believe that Kafka would, on occasion, be in fits of laughter when reading his work out to Max Brod (I might be misremembering). If that is true, I can certainly understand it. The humour is of that painful kind that arises from focusing very precisely on the details of a deranged world. Funnier, darker and more pointed by far than Chris Morris.
4th of July. Finished The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. I hope to write more about this when I get the time.
16th of July. Finished Woods Etc by Alice Oswald. I hope to write more about this when I get the time.
24th of July. Finished The Details of Time by Julian Hervier/Ernst Jünger. This is basically an extended interview, or interviews, by Julian Hervier with Ernst Jünger. I hope to write more about this when I get the time.
25th of July. Finished The Horror! The Horror! by Jim Trombetta. A book about fifties crime, horror and sci-fi comics, and about their censorship by the Comics Code Authority. I hope to write more about this when I get the time.
31st of July. Finished Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers. I hope to write more about this when I get the time. Etc.
31st of August. Finished Hadrian the Seventh by Fr. Rolfe (AKA Baron Corvo). I hope to write more about this when I get the time. Etc.
20th of Sept. To my surprise, I finished this morning Nemureru Bijo (The House of Sleeping Beauties) by Kawabata Yasunari. I say "surprise" because this has been, I suppose for some months, what Stewart Lee (or Chris Moyles or someone), would call a "toilet book" in my flat. It has sat just above the toilet roll 'dispenser' thingy, on the window sill. I've read it a page or two at a time. And this morning I actually finished it. This book is also an example of a book that I have re-read. This is my second reading of it. The first was perhaps twenty years ago, in English. This time I read the original (one of the justifications for re-reading, but not the only one). I don't have much to say about the book itself at the moment, but it is worth reading.
1st of October. Finished Kappa by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke. I hope to write more about this when I get the time. Etc.
7th of October. Finished Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I hope to write more about this when... etc.
22nd of October. Finished Reality by Peter Kingsley. I hope to write more about this when... etc.
5th of November. Finished The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar A. Poe.
21st of December. Finished Kokoro by Natsume Soseki. A very simple but deeply fascinating story, which I would like to recommend to people if there are any decent translations of it in existence, or, preferably, if they can read the original.
23rd of December. Finished A Story Waiting to Pierce You (Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World) by Peter Kingsley. I actually bought this as a present for someone, but have read it first, and am now about to review it in terms that are not glowing. A Story Waiting to Pierce You is something of a curate's egg. Jospeh Rael, in his introduction, writes, "Most books are pretty boring, just facts and information. But this book is pure music. It sings to the reader." So, for starters we have a book recommendation from someone who clearly doesn't know much about books. Rael - and he's not the only one - praises Kingsley's writing style. In my opinion, this book is written with very poor style. Back in October I read Kingsley's more substantial Reality - claims of great writing style would apply more easily to that book. I found it an impressive and compelling read - it had what might be called persuasive momentum to it. This is something that comes, I think, with a confidence in, and a willing to linger on, details, without impatience. Paradoxically, the ability to linger can create this greater momentum. Even with Reality, however, I became aware after a while that the weapons in Kingsley's rhetorical arsenal were limited. He made the best of the few weapons he had, but there were moments that had the appearance of laziness when he would repeat the same trick a second, third or fourth time.
A Story Waiting to Pierce You takes this repetition to such lengths that it becomes parodic. Reading Reality I was impressed - where I disagreed, I questioned myself. There were at least two times reading A Story... where I was overcome by a pall of disgust at the babble of the language, and thought, "Why am I reading this drivel?" Let me give examples. On page 22 of the book (a book with print on the large side) is the phrase, "There is something I never quite had a chance to say about the Avars." We're only about ten minutes into reading the thing, and Kingsley, out of sheer sloppiness, is using a rhetorical device that should be reserved for the end of something: "never quite had a chance to say". The artifice of this phrase could be forgiven if it were skilfully done, but it's not. And this is only one example of a phenomenon with which the text is riddled, giving the whole production - rather ironically, since it's about regaining mystical human consciousness and coming alive again and so on - a feeling as if it's been mashed together by a few internet bots who've been fed stock Peter Kingsley phrases.
Here, from page 10 of A Story Waiting to Pierce You is THE quintessential Kingsley rhetorical device: "And if it seems we are near the end of the story, the truth is we have only just begun." The number of times he uses variations of this little flourish are beyond count. And this was on page 10! No, it doesn't seem we're near the end of the story. Also, "the truth is" or "in reality" are favourite Kingsley idioms, often making U-turn assertions that are either banal in their vagueness, or which have nothing to back them up apart from the idiom "the truth is" itself. Rael finds facts and information boring. To me, the only parts of this book that weren't boring were where Kingsley left behind the clumsy rhetorical padding - in this volume descending into the most stultifying hyperbole - and gave us a few crumbs of actual information. Before I get to that information, let me just give an example or two of the hyperbole:
And in putting these two words together [Hyperborean Apollo] he [Pythagorus] produced an enigma of unimaginable dimensions. With that simple little statement he ripped aside the veil of Greek supremacy; created a tear in the fabric of isolation which later Greeks would work so desperately to repair.
But what to us already seems more than enough is, for people like him, always only the start. And that, too, was just the beginning - because what Pythagorus was actually doing, with this riddle of his which strips every trace of normal sense away, was making a tear in the fabric of the mind.
The basic template for a Kingsley paragraph is, "You think this, but, aha!, in reality, and almost literally unbelievably, the truth is that the exact opposite was true, turning all we know on its head; but this was only the beginning, the beginning of yet another beginning; and even that wasn't what you thought it was, because, with people like those I'm talking about, who secretly created our whole civilisation, it never is, which takes us back again, to the beginning, and from there to a hidden riddle of an enigma you will never understand, unless you're like me."
Yet more repeated Kingsley phrases include, "on the contrary" (often repeated in close proximity), and "but there's something else" (also often repeated in close proximity). Enough. You get the idea.
I'm interested in the subject matter of this book. It is a volume divided into a first half, which is just over eighty pages of mystical historical essay 'proem', and a second half of numerous endnotes to back up the assertions he's managed to make sound so implausible with his hyperbole. These endnotes are detailed citations of scholarly texts. I'd be interested in keeping this book for myself, for the sake of the endnotes alone, checking up on some of the assertions by reading the cited texts. I'm especially interested in what is said about the Mongols being religiously pluralist and victims of a kind of smear campaign throughout history (one small example being the use of the word 'Mongoloid' to refer to people with Down's syndrome); and in the assertion that Dalai Lamas throughout history have deliberately ordered the destruction of the indigenous shamanistic cultures of Tibet and Mongolia - you know, just the boring facts and information.
Finally, about this book, I'd like to make one particular criticism: Kingsley writes by paradox. In this book, the paradoxes are really on auto-pilot. There's one paradox, however, that I find objectionable. At the top of page 39 is the following: "All of a sudden symbols of oneness had become twisted into our familiar myths of supremacy and separation. And it was this illusion of superiority, that mirage of knowing better, which now has brought us to the end of our world." Further down the page, apparently with a complete lack of irony, Kingsley writes, "Most people are just dragged through their lives in spite of themselves, grabbing at anything to hold on to, guessing at some sense to everything unfolding all around them, always left without a clue." In fact, this is almost Kingsley's ultimate conclusion. On page 82 of the 84 pages of the main text, he writes, "There are really only two kinds of people in existence." And he describes the confused people who don't believe or see, or whatever, the same things as him, and then he describes the people who "work in perfect stillness", etc. Right, so, we're all one, Kingsley, but some of us are more one than others? Yeah, I feel like I've heard that before somewhere. (Which takes us back to the beginning, etc.) Well, you know where you can stick your oneness.
27th of December. Finished The Tempest by William Shakespeare.