2017 in books and music

Snow Bunting at North Point State Park, Maryland, USA. © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Snow Bunting at North Point State Park, Maryland, USA. © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Following surgery to repair a pelvic fracture in January I was unable to put weight on my left leg for three months. One might think this would have resulted in a higher read count than usual for the year, but in fact my total fell short of my average over the past few years. Part of this was actually due to a concerted effort to slow down and read more leisurely. However, another reason was that once I was fully mobile I simply did not want to sit around reading, so I ended up reading much less in the second half of the year, though toward the end as bird migration tapered off and the weather grew colder my pace did pick up again.

Below is the list of books I assigned 5-star ratings on Goodreads in 2017. A number of books I rated 4 stars probably deserve a place here, too, but I had to draw the line somewhere. In the 4-star category I will mention the two Julien Gracq novels I read as being particularly noteworthy (The Castle of Argol and The Opposing Shore). Regrettably I believe both of these are out of print in English translation. However, I’m happy to report that NYRB has just reissued Gracq’s moodily atmospheric novel A Balcony in the Forest, so there’s hope now for future republication of his singular work in English.

In general this year was a good one for reissues of some of my favorite buried writers. Mid-20th century British avant-garde women writers fared especially well in 2017. Much of Leonora Carrington’s writing finally came back into print as part of the centennial celebration of her birth year, including short fiction collections in both U.S. and British editions, as well as her harrowing memoir Down Below and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams. A biography by Joanna Moorhead also appeared in the spring.

A 50th anniversary edition of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice came out from Penguin in the U.S. this fall. As the 50th anniverary of Kavan’s death approaches there has been a small surge of interest around her work. For example, the journal Women: A Cultural Review devotes its entire current issue to exploring various themes in Kavan’s work. Hopefully this new scholarship will help prompt Peter Owen to finally reprint Kavan’s mysterious novel Eagles’ Nest and the kaleidoscopic short fiction collection  A Bright Green Field, both of which have inexplicably been languishing out of print for years. (For more on Anna Kavan visit the House of Sleep).

Finally, the brief but bright shooting star of Ann Quin’s literary career received a much-deserved coda when the subscription-based UK publisher And Other Stories released a collection of her unpublished stories and fragments, which includes the powerful (though incomplete) manuscript The Unmapped Country. This fragment had previously appeared in shorter form in the long out-of-print Beyond the Words anthology. (Note that non-subscribers will need to wait until mid-January 2018 for the official publication of this volume). While the publication of this book is a boon for Quin fans, it’s probably not the best place to start with her writing. In fact, her four published novels are all quite different, so it’s tough to suggest a starting point with Quin. On an initial recommendation, I began with Tripticks and actually did not care for it but still sensed there was something drawing me to Quin. I found that in Passages, which I consider to be her masterwork. Three comes in second place, followed by her debut, Berg. Thankfully, all of Quin’s novels remain in print courtesy of Dalkey Archive Press, bless their dedicated hearts.

I will just mention one other reissue of note, tangential to Ann Quin. In April, the micro press Verbivoracious Press (VP) published the first volume of an omnibus edition of Alan Burns’ novels. Burns was part of a loosely connected band of British avant-garde writers in the 1960s that included Ann Quin, as well as B.S. Johnson, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, and others. His novel Europe After the Rain draws interesting parallels to Kavan’s Ice and the relationship between the two novels is investigated in an article by Leigh Wilson in the previously mentioned issue of Women: A Cultural Review. In the past, VP, which specializes in reprinting ‘exploratory literature from Europe and beyond,’ also reissued a volume collecting two of Heppenstall’s novels (review), and many other experimental gems, including much of Christine Brooke-Rose‘s output.

2017 5-star books (in order read):

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts / Reb Anderson
The Passion of New Eve / Angela Carter (Review)
The Poor Mouth / Flann O’Brien (Review)
The Plains / Gerald Murnane (Review)
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Review)
When the Time Comes / Maurice Blanchot (Review)
Snow Part / Paul Celan (Review)
S.S. Proleterka / Fleur Jaeggy (Review)
The Way of Chuang Tzu / Thomas Merton (Review)
The Rings of Saturn / W. G. Sebald (Review)
Alejandra Pizarnik: A Profile / Alejandra Pizarnik (Review)
Old Rendering Plant / Wolfgang Hilbig (Review)

Full list of books read in 2017 can be found here.

2017 soundtrack:

Barn Owl (and solo work by Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti)
Belgrado
Drab Majesty
Emma Ruth Rundle
Gate
Goat
Grails
Grouper
ISIS
Keluar
Kodiak
Marriages
Nadja
Neurosis
Portion Control
Scorn
Tim Hecker
Yellow Swans
…and too much post-punk to list (mostly by way of this finding aid)

digging in the shade of the vowel tree

Sylvia Plath wrote of
intolerable vowels
entering her heart
but what of ruthless
consonants headed
to our brains.

We all know about a-e-i-o-u and sometimes y. They may be intolerable but their numbers are small. And they are more easily made to do our bidding. The consonants, in contrast, are legion and their rigidity stifles. Perhaps the only way to harness their true power is to one-by-one start taking them away.

Anna Kavan wrote:

I had only learnt how to be friends with shadows; it might be too late to learn the way of friendship in the sun.

Friendship in the sun is a mirage. The way to it is false. The sun fades color and one day it will kill us all. Shadows make easy friends: we pass through them as they do through us. Few stay long. It is their nature. Sometimes it feels like it is in all our natures to expand and contract, pull away and grow close, like a squeezebox played by a jittery ghost.

Kafka wrote:

No one will want to lie in clouds of mist with me, and even if someone did, I couldn’t expel the mist from my head.

This gets at the heart of the problem, I think. One feels an isolation and maybe a desire to connect, sometimes even a desperate mania. But who can share a dreamy solitude? By definition, no one. And if it was at all even possible, the mist remains. How could we find each other. How could one’s dream self operate in reality? The pilot seat in your head is unlike the one outside of it. Out there, we cannot twist the knobs, adjust the instruments without consultation, without repercussions, without the sun blinding us. In the shadows, the mist, these difficulties melt away.

Jung wrote:

A man can hope for satisfaction and fulfillment only in what he does not yet possess; he cannot find pleasure in something of which he already had too much.

Yikes, Carl, that’s bleak, even by my admittedly generous standards. In fairness, on the next page of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung also states: “The needs and necessities of individuals vary. What sets one free is for another a prison.” So I guess one could argue that for some people overindulgence sets them free, although I don’t think that’s his point with the former quote. I think it is about anticipation. Jung is talking about this concept in the context of the development of analytical psychology, and yet it stands out in the text as such a sweeping statement. But I don’t think this aphorism or whatever you want to call it can be universally applied. Certainly competitive eaters don’t find pleasure in the 18th hot dog in a row that they’ve shoved down their throats. But can Jung honestly think that attaining the love of another person does not lead to satisfaction and fulfillment? I mean, I will grant him that unrequited love is an exquisite thing, and possibly more intense on the whole than many long-term relationships. But no satisfaction and fulfillment for those in love? I don’t know, maybe he is not including love or other emotions here. Maybe he is referring strictly to material things, in which case I willingly concede his point.

Édouard Levé wrote:

The full weight of depression comes on between 1-5 PM, particularly when I am home by myself. Mornings and night are more filled with promise.

Filled with promise. Is that what we are after? Moments filled with promise? Is it merely the anticipation we crave, what Jung says we can find satisfaction and fulfillment in? Anticipation can be tantalizing, I’ll admit. But how. How can we be satisfied with mere promise. Inherent in promise is a pledge to fulfill at some point in the future, not at the moment of the promise. Like an IOU. Is it the step we take to accept the promise that is meant to satisfy? Is it the mental and/or emotional trust fall we allow ourselves to take? If so, what of broken promises. Do those negate the previous gain in fulfillment? Well, do they, Jung? If he were here, I’d have more than a few questions for him.

Levé also wrote: “Above a certain height I like what I see. Below it I don’t.” I suppose we can read this on a literal or a metaphorical level. What is the certain height. And is it a chronological point, a philosophical one, a spiritual one. Who knows. I think we can safely say, though, that whatever the certain height represents, it changes between individuals. Remember how Jung said what sets one person free is another person’s prison.  Some people don’t like what they see above a certain height, while others crane their necks for a peek. Some spend their lives craning for that view, but some are content to not look. They don’t want to know…they look away in fear, shame, embarrassment, whatever.

So what is the conclusion. Is Kafka’s mist the same as Carson’s foam? Sometimes it’s a strain to make all the connections. Certainly reading and writing are key decoder rings. Endless battles, ceasefires, sneak attacks, and truces with the vowel and consonant armies. And maybe the ladder stretches high enough to see above the mist. I think others have ladders high enough, too. If we squint hard enough we can probably see each other, mouths flecked with foam, across the scorched battlefield strewn with bloody words and mangled sentences. Hello there! I do not have rabies. I am merely seeking the sublime. Perhaps you’d care to meet in the mist and discuss for a few moments. I’ll be waiting.

news from dream life

Last night I had a dream where, in answering someone’s question, I referred to a place that to my knowledge only exists in my own dream life. The place is a park with a campground that was the setting for an epic dream of many months before. This is the first time I can recall this happening and I woke up feeling exhilarated over this advancement in my dream explorations. I think it represents real progress. I have been reading Anna Kavan’s book Sleep Has His House at night before I go to sleep and I now wonder if it is influencing my night-time life.

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