Monday, November 23, 2009

Paul Celan

On this day in 1920 Paul Celan was born, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. To read Celan is to understand what poetry can do. To borrow a phrase from Antonin Artaud, no poet has more successfully dug through “the shit of being and its language” . . .

“There are very few English poets who seem to have any sense of history as something happening in me and you and all around us all the time,” Christopher Middleton once objected. “They’ve steered off into a parochial corner of the universe and have lost their historical sense.”

The reasons for this might be geographical and historical, but also the influence of the dreaded Philip Larkin (“Foreign poetry! No!” Larkin once told the London Magazine).

But Celan had this historical sense and he admired it in others, notably Osip Mandelstam, with whom he felt an uncanny affinity, although they never met.

“I know scarcely any other Russian poet of his generation who was in time like him,” Celan said of Mandelstam, “thought with and out of this time, thought it through to its end, in each of its moments, in its issues and happenings, in the words that faced issues and happenings and were to stand for them, at once open and hermetic.”

This is, of course, a perfect description of Celan’s ambitions too.

“For a poem is not timeless,” he said in 1958. “Certainly, it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time – through it, not above and beyond it.”

Buy Paul Celan’s poetry in English translation here and here and this biography is essential...

You can also hear Celan reading his poems here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel

On this day (on alternate years) Mr Earbrass begins writing his new novel, having chosen its title at random from a list he keeps in a little green notebook. For a full account of this process, I highly recommend The Unstrung Harp or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by the late great Edward Gorey.

One of my favourite moments comes when Mr Earbrass attends a literary party:

“Among his fellow-authors, few of whom he recognizes and none of whom he knows, are Lawk, Sangwidge, Ha’p’orth, Avuncular, and Lord Legbail. The unwell-looking gentleman wrapped in a greatcoat is an obscure essayist named Frowst. The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gilles Deleuze: An Encounter

On this day in 1995 the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze committed suicide, throwing himself from the window of his Paris apartment. He was 70.

Today I wanted to mark his passing by posting a letter. At least, if I give it a virtual existence, it will always be around, in the public domain, even if one day my garden office burns down. But first, some context is required.

Looking back over my old journals – always an uncomfortable experience, meeting a younger self – I can just about piece together the chain of events.

In autumn 1994 I had completed a year of working towards a PhD on Deleuze and literature. However, all that was about to end.

‘The British Academy turned me down – again!’ I wrote in September 1994. ‘That’s the second time and it’s becoming a regular event. People will queue up to see the disappointment of Pindar. What I don’t understand is, having shown a willingness to fund myself for a year, why was I not even on the waiting list as I was last year? My ideas are so much more certain, my – oh! this country! this shitdish of a country! Christ what a planet!’

Around this time I must have reviewed Paul Patton’s English translation of Deleuze’s Différence et Répétition in the Times Literary Supplement.

My PhD supervisor had written to Deleuze a couple of times, never receiving a reply, and I thought I’d have a go. I sent a photocopy of my review, accompanied by a letter in which I pointed out that someone I knew had been driven almost suicidal by reading Différence et Répétition.

I also explained that although I admired Deleuze a great deal, the word ‘fan’ implied fawning gratitude, so I was content to be an ‘anti-fan’, an idea that set up a little resistance between us, I thought. Then, as an afterthought, I rather blew my cover by asking for a signed photograph.

‘Feel incredibly tired this morning,’ I wrote in my journal on 7 December 1994. ‘Yesterday evening I felt an overwhelming sense of not being wanted or needed by anyone.’ And then the postman passed by and an envelope dropped through the letterbox (this is no longer my address, so no mail please).

In my journal I called it ‘probably the most exciting letter in my short life: from a M. Gilles Deleuze.’ Here it is:

The handwriting is in places almost illegible, but I didn't know then that Deleuze was seriously ill, having undergone a tracheotomy. He had lost the power of speech and considered himself to be ‘chained like a dog’ to an oxygen machine.

The full text of the letter reads:

Dear Sir,
The worst thing that can befall a book is for it to induce in some way a state of death. Your letter gave me a lot of joy, and I will need readers like you. Thank you for your review of
Différence et Répétition, which is nice. How nice to have an anti-fan. But would a photo matter to an anti-fan? Happily, I don’t have one, and I don’t keep any with me. Don’t hold it against me, and believe me sincerely yours,
G. Deleuze

I think it shows that Deleuze had a great sense of humour, even when seriously ill, and that thoughts of suicide could not have been further from his mind at the time of writing.

For me, at that miserable time in my life, it was an early Christmas present.

'The whole letter calms me in a way I can't explain,' I wrote in my journal. 'Astounding. A happy day.'

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill

Searching for Howards End one day in her seemingly infinite Gloucestershire farmhouse, the novelist Susan Hill encounters a mountain of unread Booker prize winners and Richard and Judy recommendations. She resolves thenceforth to stop buying books for a year and to explore her own voluminous bookshelves instead.

It's a purely personal exercise. After a year, Hill has drawn up a list of 40 titles that "I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life". This is not a list of the 40 best books ever written. It has essentially the same quality as an inventory of favourite puddings, and is similarly comforting. Trollope and Wodehouse have two titles each on the list, which tells us something about Hill's tastes, as does the absence of any European authors. What we are left with is a mind-map of a novelist in her late 60s who has spent her life reading and writing books.

That this is not a list of the best new writing is apparent from her conservative poetry choices: late TS Eliot, WH Auden (whom she studied at A-level) and the Heaney-Hughes anthology The Rattle Bag. "I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new," she admits. "I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don't and that's that. Perhaps I don't need to. I can recite the whole of 'The Lady of Shalott', after all."

Eliot and Virginia Woolf are, in fact, subversive Modernists who have somehow made it under the radar of Hill's traditional tastes. She doesn't like it when "linguistic or stylistic obscurity is a hindrance to understanding". She opts for To the Lighthouse rather than The Waves, because the latter "always reminds me of the sort of highbrow radio play they used to broadcast on Radio 3".

Hill's old farmhouse is a major character in the book, with its aged wood beams and elm-wood stairs, "the Aga in the kitchen, the wood burner in the sitting room". It's a snug, warm, relaxing place where one might open a random volume and find a Christmas card from Penelope Fitzgerald. She excels at creating an autumnal, "throw another log on the fire" atmosphere; a cosy world of "doing crosswords and answering quizzes at Christmas". Meanwhile, lurking about the house is the shadowy presence of the "Shakespeare Professor", her husband Stanley Wells, whose bookshelves include long-forgotten Elizabethan plays with intriguing titles such as An Interlude called Lusty Juventus. Hill gives these a wide berth.

The autobiographical elements in the book are often delightful — Hill devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf while reading English at King's College London — and it is hard not to agree with her when she waxes lyrical about the Oxford World's Classics series ("printed on fine paper and published in demy octavo") or the Observer books of Moths, Birds' Eggs, Churches; or the beauty of some typefaces (Hill is a publisher too, and appreciates such things). There are also touching reminiscences of Charles Causley, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the dying Bruce Chatwin. Hill's novelist's eye perfectly captures E. M. Forster in the London Library ("He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable").

This might have been a smug and indulgent book, but Hill manages to keep it charming, aided by the quality of her writing. Her legion of fans will love it; the rest of us might also enjoy its gently whimsical, self-effacing tone, even if, lurking beneath, are the steely prejudices of Middle England.

Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin

James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) is a masterpiece, but the real Samuel Johnson has long been overshadowed by Boswell’s brilliant construct. Far from being an irascible arch-Tory roaring bon mots at his quailing opponents, Johnson was “a man wracked with self-doubt, guilt, fear and depression”, says Peter Martin in this sympathetic biography. What Boswell doesn’t tell us is that Johnson was “one of the most advanced liberals of his time”, who opposed slavery and “freed” and educated his black servant, then left him his estate. Johnson also “treated women as intellectual equals and promoted their literary careers”. Johnson’s “mental distress” at Oxford is nicely handled, as is the lasting effect on him of his young wife’s death. Recent scholarship continues to chip away at the authority of Boswell’s Life, and what with the recent arrival of David Nokes’s Samuel Johnson there are now multiple lenses through which to view the Great Cham. Although, as Martin readily admits, “The best way to get the measure of Johnson is to read him.”