I am back. This is to say that I have returned to a world where 12h workdays (weekends included, how very uncool) give way to weekends that start on a Friday morning. Back to mornings that begin with hours of sitting in an armchair by the window, reading magazines and books, the words abruptly slashed by the occasional take-off bruit of Parisian motorbikes.
Feeling new ideas processed by brain cells is one of the most certain ways of knowing one is Alive. Later, once doubt kicks in again, it is possible to return to the copious pages of reading notes and journal entries. There it is, again – proof that days did not slip through one’s fingers. Or, to paraphrase a Hungarian saying, that there were angles walking through the stage.
The best thing I wrote in January was a letter to my grandmother, for her 87th birthday. She’s in Tartu and I’m in Paris and it doesn’t almost matter, almost, because there is a phantom thread weaved of memories and bloodlines that connects us at all times.
It was a good reading month.
Books read this month:
- An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse, 6/5
- The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, 5/5
- Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra, 4/5
- The Plains by Gerald Murnane, 5/5
- Replace Me by Amber Husain, 3/5
- Apocalypse and Golden Age by Christopher Star, 5/5
- Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag, 4/5
- Dreams by Carl Gustav Jung, 4/5
Best of stories, essays + poetry read this month
- The Glass Essay – poem by Anne Carson (so many relatable lines)
- The Instrumentalist – review of the movie Tár by Zadie Smith (so much fun to read)
An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse
Jon Fosse’s Septology was the book I ended 2022 with, and its 700+ pages took their time to convince me. Once they did, I was immersed in the meditative sentences, an acolyte to the point I felt like following up with some more Fosse. This time, I went for the Norwegian author’s essays and plays.
(This is a double recommendation, you must read Septology!)
In the short pieces in An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays, Fosse explores the essence of what makes good art and literature. He gets very close – both to the answer and to my readerly heart.
I feel almost too jealous to share some of the revelatory observations that I jotted down. Suppressing my selfishness and considering that nobody reads this review anyhow, here are a few:
“The good story refuses to solve the mystery; it approaches the mysterious. The good story in never ambiguous, but always ambiguous, ironic, often in such a way that even as one thing happens, another thing happens and what has really happened is anyone’s guess; it can change as it is viewed from one way or from another.”
“Meaning is a wonder. Thereby the novel is actually an insistence that wonder exists, and in this way, the novel offers an opening towards the divine.”
In Dante’s Middle Ages they configured four different methods of reading to correspond with four levels of meaning (sensus quadruplex). The first level of meaning which is described, …, is historia, which gives a method of reading in which the reader looks for the literal meaning (sensus literalis). The next level is allegoria, where the reader tries allegorically to find the deeper, underlying true meaning (sensus spiritualis). The third level of meaning is tropologia, in which the reader tries to extract what is called the moral meaning, tries to pull from the literature fundamental teachings by which they can live.
The fourth of the methods is anagoge, there the reader is after the highest, mystical meaning (sensus mysticus), “where we, in concurrent secularized exposition, open up to the incomprehensible in literature, as incomprehensible, and thus also, I believe, open up to what literature actually is. We open up to the incomprehensible remainder. And that remainder is what is literature’s most valuable secret.”
The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra
One thing leads to another and once I’d stumbled upon Zambra’s autobiographical story “Blue-eyed Muggers” in the Granta magazine, I was charmed by his nonchalant style enough to get my hands on his novella The Private Lives of Trees.
The book tells the story of Julián, a literature professor, who is waiting for his wife Verónica to return from a drawing class. There’s no word from her, no sign, and the hours keep passing without her return. Will she ever return?
The short novel (or long short story) happens in the span of one stretched-out night, the narrator’s thoughts circling around the possible reasons and future implications of Verónica’s non-return, occasionally reaching further, taking daring leaps into memories of past relationships and scenarios far in the future.
The Private Lives of Trees is Zambra’s second published book and it’s got a sense of a young writer’s playfulness. The literary tricks Zambra employs are on the verge of coming off as gimmicky yet pull off a Nabokovian seriousness that make them seem justified as means of telling the particular story.
Already on the third page of the book, Zambra writes, mystically:
“It’s still not completely certain that there will be a next day, since Verónica isn’t back yet from her drawing class. When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is gone, the book will continue. The book goes on until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she isn’t going to return.”
And a few pages later:
“Stretched out on the bed in the white room, Julián lights a cigarette, the last one of the daym the next to last, or perhaps the first of an immensely long night, during which he is fated to go over the pluses and minuses of the past that is, frankly, blurry.”
After finishing the novel, I immediately followed up with a third Zambrian work – a collection of his literary columns for a Chilean newspaper, essays, and speeches Not to Read – brief, crisp, and amusingly witty.
The Plains by Gerald Murnane
The Plains was the first book by an Australian writer I read, after discovering it via a New Yorker essay by Merve Emre.
Murnane’s is a curious, beautiful book, its carcass of philosophical musings holding up a story of a filmmaker traveling to the plains (or Plains) to witness their endless vistas while endeavoring to capture their essence on film.
The last paragraph of the book:
“And so, on those darkening afternoons, at those scenes whose scenery seemed more often pointed at than observed, whenever the campera in my hand put me in mind of some young woman who might see me years afterwards as a man who saw further than others, I would always ask my patron at last to record the moment when I lifted my own camera to my face and stood with my eye pressed against the lens and my finger poised as if to expose to the film in its dark chamber the darkness that was the only visible sign of whatever I saw beyond myself.”
Apocalypse and Golden Age by Christopher Star
“Near the midpoint of his Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Very soon, everything in existence will be changed; and it will be either vaporized, if the nature of the universe is one, or it will be scattered.”
This is the starting point of Christopher Star’s Apocalypse and Golden Age, an inquiry into the eschatological and apocalyptic narratives of ancient Greeks and Romans. A thoroughly researched, fascinating book with frequent references to other researchers’ work and the classical texts of Seneca, Plato, Aristotle, et al.
This particular reader spent hours transcribing the reading notes, excited about facts like…
“The Stoics argued that the universe was made up of one primal universal building block, divine fire. It periodically returns to this element and the world is “vaporized” in the fiery ekpyrosis. Orthodox Stoic theory also stated that the world is then reborn and unfolds in exactly the same way.
The Epicurians believed that the universe consists of atoms and void and eventually our world will return to its constituent building blocks.”
“The post-catastrophe scenarios include a continuation of the cycles in various forms (Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Polybius, Vergil) or a complete annihilation of our world but with continued development and destruction of other worlds (Atomists, Epicureans). Other scenarios do not explicitly say what comes next but seem to envision the total collapse of the cosmos without rebirth (e.g. Seneca’s Thyestes, Lucan, pseudo-Seneca’s Herculeus Oetaeus and Epigrams 1).”
“Humans are born and die in mediis rebus. And to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems,” Frank Kermode wrote. In the modern world, apocalyptic narratives are weaved into news headlines daily. Knowing that these thoughts have colonized the best of human brains for thousands of years, brings certain comfort.