Sunday morning at The Sunday Salon
Yesterday I received through the post a slim volume from Carcanet Press with a glossy dark brown cover that at first glance I thought was poetry. I’d never ordered a novel by Gabriel Josipovici before and I don’t know whether Everything Passes is representative of his favored style. But I was struck by the amount of white space the reader is confronted with on each page, the writing being confined to a slender column of dialogue that is itself intermittent, fragmented by vertiginous silences. I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.
This morning I’ve been rereading it. I’m not a good rereader. The sense of déjà lu makes me jumpy and lazy, and I haven’t been able to begin at the beginning and carry on to the end. Instead, I’ve skipped about in the text, returning to passages I loved (there’s the best discussion of Rabelais’ writing I have ever come across), weighing the weight of certain phrases, unpacking the structure, although that’s difficult to do here. I don’t want to start talking about what happens in it or what it means as, thin and brief as this narrative is (a mere 60 pages), it requires a proper review, which I’ll give it in the week. I wanted just to stay for a moment instead with the sense of shock that accompanies a reading that unexpectedly moves me, that sets me a formidable challenge. I return to the book, open the pages randomly. Yes, it is still there. Am I expecting it to have metamorphosed into a conventional narrative over night? I open the pages, flick around in the fragments, read a little here and there and close it quickly, as if I could somehow startle it into revealing its meaning to me. Josipovici usually wins this game, which is only right and proper if I am to maintain this level of respect for him. On one such dive into the fresh, bracing waters of the prose, I notice that the dedication at the front of the book is to Stephen Mitchelmore, whose blog I read regularly. Well, ok. That impresses me, too.
I’ve been reading a book that’s been recommended to me: Stop Thinking, Start Living, by Richard Carlson. The premise of the book (so far as I can see) is that one can live a happier, freer, lighter life by recognizing the fictional nature of one’s thoughts. We depress and limit ourselves, the author claims, by giving our thoughts credence, taking them too seriously, and analyzing situations we should simply experience. Once we recognize that thought is like steam rising off our minds, potentially dense but permanently evaporating, then we can get on with the business of living, not tied down by reflection, anxiety, doubt and the endless need to investigate. I’m sure he’s right, but this is not good news to someone like me, essentially an analytical mind on legs. Most of my day is taken up with reflection, investigation and analysis, and my entire working life has been put to the service of exploring the power of the imagination in the form of fiction, and within those fictions, the way people think, feel and react themselves into and out of crisis situations. What interests me in life is the way we think; I’ve not reached the end of my curiosity concerning our mental structures and our uses of symbolization. So here’s the question: is it possible to work on thought but to live with an entirely different relationship to it? Is it possible to analyse novels but not myself? It seems an act of compartmentalization way beyond my capacities. I know I need to change, but is there a plan B?
What I really need is a new novel to read. The Josipovici is a tough act to follow and I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. It used to be that my reading was dictated by whatever I was teaching or researching and I’d squeeze comfort books in around the edges. Now my reading is often picked with an eye on this blog. The series I’ve been writing on men in love is still intriguing me and I have a long-ish list of possible novels to read: Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story, Mary by Nabokov, James Salter’s Light Years, Javier Marías’s All Souls, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons. And yet I’m not sure I’m in the mood for any of them. I’ll try and come to a decision.
One last, brief addition. Searching my shelves only resulted in more choices: André Makine’s The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, Julian Macdonald-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger (Penguin sent me this modern classic free and I am feeling very guilty about not having reviewed it), Niall Williams’ Four Letters of Love, Colm Toíbín’s Mothers and Sons. After Josipovici I wanted something clean and beautiful, but the men were holding out on me. Peter Carey’s first few pages were as pungent as stepping into the back yard of a restaurant before dustbin day. I wasn’t in the mood for a jaunty, fast-paced, expletive ridden monologue. I had hopes for the Toíbín as I thought it would be a different perspective on loving, but the writing, though clear and clean was shot through with a kind of desperate bleakness in the first story, at least, that sat uneasily in my mind. The Marquez was like the fetid remnants of a Roman feast, overripe, lush, cluttered, rich. I was looking for some Swiss pure mountain air and could only find the dank perfume of the sewers. The Makine was very promising; his prose style has a syrupy hint to it that he lightens with bittersweet beauty, but no, not the war, not today. In the end I settled on the Marías. It’s a busy, busy form of prose, rather like being talked at by an overenthusiastic Radio 4 presenter, but it worked to entertain me, and I couldn’t resist the accuracy of his account of taking a translation class in Oxford. I’m a few chapters in and liking it very much indeed.