June Reading: Sebald, Clark, Joseph, Barthelme, Ridgway, Moore, Updike

This month I finished reading two books that had been lying open – by my bedside, on my desk – for months and months: WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (a re-read) and TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death. Obviously, this makes them the opposite of page-turners – page-turn-backers, perhaps, as, with the Sebald especially, I found myself going back and starting chapters over, settling myself back in to whichever slippery, slow-moving digression he was taking me on. With the Clark the stop-start process was not a problem. I knew what I was reading it for: I was reading it for insight, for ideas about how we look at paintings, and what it means to come back and look at paintings over and over again, day after day, rather than assume that we can take them in at one glance.

It’s a marvellous book about art, that exhibits its authority not in the range of its reference (though that’s there), but in the focus of its attention. In it Clark spends a six-month sabbatical sitting in a gallery looking at two paintings by Poussin, giving his thoughts not in a clever post-hoc essay, but in diary form, as they come. It makes me want to read Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf, his book about sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud, which presumably has as much to say about the day-to-day process of art on the other side of the aesthetic divide.

Clark’s book might have something to say about why I’ve chosen, or ended up, reading the Sebald in slow, overlapping, self-replicating waves, rather than a simple linear progression. He is particularly good on the importance of the viewing position in front of the painting, something that is impossible to recreate with any kind of reproduction – and boy the reproductions in The Sight of Death are good, dozens and dozens of details on high-gloss paper, magnified crops to illustrate whatever point Clark is making. I went to see one of ‘his’ Poussins in the National Gallery last week, and it was – in its current condition, or lighting, or situation – a sad and muddy mess: impossible to make out even half of what the book shows us, but then Clark is all about the contingencies of the moment: the hanging, the room in the gallery, whether the lights are on or off, the weather outside. He says:

So pictures create viewing positions – don’t we know that already? Yes, roughly we do; but we have only crude and schematic accounts of how they create them, and even cruder discussions of their effects – that is, of how the positions and distances are or are not modes of seeing, modes of understanding, intertwined with the events and objects they apply to.

Every time he goes back to look at the painting he must reorient himself in front of it, let himself work his way back in. Does something similar happen with books? Perhaps. The key problem with Sebald, for me, is how you should negotiate the information he gives you. (How far his ‘mode of understanding’ matches ours.)

Sebald’s books are full of information, and what is information for? It is to for us to turn into knowledge. The Rings of Saturn is, whatever else it is, a great source of potential knowledge about all manner of interesting things – let’s not forget that it’s one of those books that glory in the funny, fussy stylistic flourish of the chapter summary, eg for Part III:

Fishermen on the beach – The natural history of the herring – George Wyndham Le Strange – A great herd of swine – The reduplication of man – Orbis Tertius

I say potential knowledge, though, because as much as Sebald is about the giving of information, ranging from the provincial to the esoteric to the general-literary, there is always something about the nature and quality of the information that remains, or rather becomes, nebulous, and ambiguous. I’ve also been reading Simon Critchley’s excellent A Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy and he’s very good laying out the history of the opposition between analytic (Anglo-American) and phenomenological (Continental) approaches to the world – basically, whether the scientific approach is valid in all things, whether we can ever know anything independently of our position in history/society/class/biology etc.

The way I see it, a painter, out in the field, holds up his thumb and squints, to judge and measure the world. The analytic view says that, with or without the thumb, we can see, and know the world (though they forget, or dismiss, the importance of the eye in that operation). The phenomenological, at its worst, sees only the thumb.

Sebald, then, gives information, but somehow makes you pause, at the moment when you start to turn that information into knowledge. The very slipperiness of that train of thought (how on earth did we get from the natural history of herrings to the reduplication of man?) puts into question the information that it carries*. The thumb slips, wobbles, goes out of focus.

Sometimes, in my darker moments, I wonder if the huge appeal of Sebald – beyond the sentences themselves, and the masterful display of literary-historical etiquette – is to do with the frisson the reader experiences when they are given information that they don’t know what to do with, knowledge that they at once cherish and suspect.

Take Sebald’s famously uncaptioned images, for example. Once you know (and the knowledge of how Sebald works is unfortunately hard to avoid, his reputation being what it is)… once you know that not all the photographs are of what you might be led to believe they are of, given their position in the text, then you are faced with a delicate proposition: do I take them at face value, or do I distrust them?  Is that Roger Casement? Is thatMount Pelee erupting? This uncertainty transfers to the text, which at times seems to be paraphrasing documentation that it disdains to reference. Did Casement do that? Say that? And Conrad? And some bloke in Suffolk? There are ways and means of finding out what (supposedly) lies behind the text (for instance, that Thomas Abrams, with his model of the Temple of Jerusalem, is really Sebald’s old friend so-and-so) but is that the point?

Would you read a biographical sketch of Roger Casement if you knew it was ‘untrue’? If you can’t be sure it’s ‘true’ why would you read it? Critchley, summarising John Stuart Mill on Bentham vs Coleridge, says:

Mill thinks Bentham asks of any ancient doctrine or received opinion, ‘Is it true?‘; whereas Coleridge asks, ‘What is the meaning of it?‘ So, ‘the Continental philosophy’ is concerned with meaning, whereas its Benthamite opposite is concerned with truth. In terms of the schema of my opening chapter, if Bentham is concerned with the question of knowledge, then Coleridge is concerned with the question of wisdom.

Using that formulation with regards to Sebald (and this needn’t necessarily be a black or white issue), are we there for the knowledge of Casement, Conrad and the herring, or for the wisdom that we earn when we hold up our thumb to measure that knowledge against the possibility that it may not be knowledge at all? And, if the latter, than what happens to the knowledge that ends up as mere fuel for the production of wisdom? What do we come away with? What is knowledge for?

At my most pessimistic I wonder if there is anything more to our appreciation of Sebald’s books than that they flatter our sense of being happy to be so adrift and unmoored, of being at home in this post-structuralist world in which it is impossible to be at home, for the concept of home is defunct.

I’m not a hater, though. I’m a lover. Two great books, then.

Two highly enjoyable books in June were Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, and Anjali Joseph’s second novel, Another Country. Joseph (okay, Anjali) is a friend of mine from Norwich, so anything I say must be read with that in mind, but I thought this was a great Anti-Bildungsroman, that gives a wonderfully recognisable picture of what life is like in those difficult years between university and career, when our stoked-up backlog of ambition, and our hypotheses about ourselves, must be put into practice and run, often with a thud, up against brutal experience. She might not thank me for the comparison, but it reminded me of Geoff Dyer’s Paris, Trance, for its variously clear- and misty-eyed view of what it is like to be young-ish, intelligent, drifting. The characters drift, and the plot drifts too. (Drifts, and jumps: it’s highly confident in its happiness to flip forward through Leela’s existence and leave the reader to play catch-up.)

What gives the book a quiet strength is its structure, which sees Cambridge graduate Leela make mistakes in love and work in Paris, then London, then Bombay. The work, and the men, vary, a little, but the mistakes are the same. That is why I call it an Anti-Bildungsroman, because Leela undergoes no development, or growth, or maturation during the book. Or rather, what develops is a very modern aimlessness, uncertainty, near-depressive fatalism that never even nears tragedy, however comforting that might be. (The beautiful last chapter upends some of these notions, but by then, you feel, it’s almost too late.)

Alongside all this the book revels in some sparklingly terse sentences (“She went home inebriated and truculent, and stayed up too late” – love that ‘truculent’) and treats the issue of sex with an acuteness that can make you bristle, almost to the point of dark, embarrassed laughter. There’s a line about fingernails that I can’t bring myself to look back up, but how about this as a substitute:

‘It’s a lovely room,’ she said, but Simon was bending to kiss her again, more intent, and his expression – she kept her eyes open, alarmed at herself – was completely serious, admitting of no humour. She felt self-conscious, she wanted to make a joke; she put up her arms to hold his upper arms, and he put a hand up her top, moved aside her bra to rub a nipple, a gesture that made her flinch, or shiver, she wasn’t sure.

(There’s a description, too, of a smile being ‘endlessly understanding’ that either Anjali STOLE FROM ME, or I’ll just have to take out of the text of my novel. (I don’t think she stole it, but still: damn.))

The Barthelme I read, at last, off the back of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (Independent review imminent), and loved it, a virtuoso performance that pulls all sorts of post-Beckettian, post-Shakespearean, post-Rabelaisian, post-pretty much everyone tricks (at times it seems like a wry primer for literary styles and devices), and still manages to conjure an emotional response, more or less through the simplest trick of all: of having all its cards permanently on the table. Or rather: enough cards that you think, surely that must be all of them, when there’s one card left…

Some silly parts, some dull parts, some parts that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but other parts that made me want to stand up in the tube train and read them out loud:

They found the Dead Father standing in a wood, slaying. First he slew a snowshoe rabbit cleaving it in twain with a single blow and then he slew a spiny anteater and then he slew two rusty numbats and then whirling the great blade round and round his head he slew a wallaby and a lemur and a trio of ouakaris and a spider monkey and a common squid. The moving up and down the green path in his rage he dispatched a macque and a gibbon and fourscore innocent chincillas who had been standing idly by watching the great slaughter. Then he rested standing with the point of his sword stuck in the earth and his two hands folded upon the hilt. Then he again as if taken by a fit set about the bloody work slaying a prairie dog and a beaver and a gopher and a dingo and a honey badger and…

Fantastic, isn’t it? It goes on for another page or so. Later he slays an equal quantity of musicians.

Briefly, then, I read three short stories that stayed with me. Encouraged by a post by Eva Stalker I read Keith Ridgway’s The Spectacular (a digital-only sort of companion piece to, sort of advert for his new novel Hawthorn and Child), which is about a washed-up writer who decides that, rather than writing a pulp thriller about a terrorist attack on the Olympic Games, he’ll actually bomb the frigging thing. (Is it a riposte to DeLillo’s comments about the terrorist having taken over the novelist’s turf in the public consciousness?) It’s stark and funny and kind of collapses at the end, but does make me eager to read Hawthorn.

Lorrie Moore’s story in the 200th issue of The Paris Review is called Wings. It’s characteristically sumptuous in its acrobatic prose, flipping so dextrously between irony and compassion towards its characters, and the world, that you never quite know where you stand. From Wings:

KC herself imagined dying would be full of rue, like flipping through the pages of a clearance catalogue, seeing the drastic markdowns on stuff you’d paid full price for and not gotten that much use from, when all was said and done. Though all was never said done. That was the other part about death.

You want to cut that out and pin it on your wall, except that you’re worried you’d never write anything so good. And then you’re worried that writing this well isn’t enough. Moore is often accused of sentimentality, and for all her controlled brilliance, the emotional impact of the story, when it comes, doesn’t hit home. I re-read it, in parts, to see why it hadn’t fully burrowed into my book-world-memory, when so much of it was underlined, from the first reading, from sheer pleasure, and perhaps there’s the problem: she rushes the truth.

Then I read Updike’s Ace in the Hole, just to see, and by comparison (and for Updike) there’s so little going on, in the writing, but the truth is there, nonetheless. It makes you glad there are old-fashioned realists there, for when you need them.

* Found later, in Brian Dillon’s essay ‘Airlocked’ in Waterlog (the book to accompany the exhibition inspired by Rings of Saturn that took place in Norwich in 2007):

‘Waterlog’ is in this sense an exhibition about curiosity, about our capacity to drift from on place, one history or one subject to another and still have no notion how we navigated the darkness in between. This is one of Sebald’s disorienting skills as a writer: one is constantly turning back to see by what unnoticed sleight he took us, say, from modern Norfolk to seventeenth-century Holland, from the Forbidden City of the 1860s to a darkening view of Berlin in November 1933. The trick is performed in plain view, but seems occulted or shrouded.

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