Home

Sontag, Barthes and the hybrid novel #rolandbarthes #susan sontag #thislittleart @FitzcarraldoEds

22 Comments

Well, as the world continues to battle on with what’s being thrown at it right now, I’ll continue rambling about books here; they’re being a great comfort to me, as they always are in crises, and hopefully are to you too. Anywa,y if you follow me on social media, you might have seen the photo I shared recently of the pile of Susan Sontag books I hauled home from the local library (probably now closing for the duration….) Since reading “Essayism” in particular, I’ve been keen to explore Sontag’s writings, and I have a tendency to use the library as a way of trying to stave off random and hysterical book purchasing… Needless to say, they’ve had to go back as I ran out of time to read them. However, I *did* manage to dip into her seminal collection “Under the Sign of Saturn” and read one particular essay which called to me strongly: “Remembering Barthes” (yes, it really *is* that man again!)

Sontag was of course friends with the great theorotician, as well as later editing a volume “The Barthes Reader”; there is a picture online of her attending one of his lectures alongside soiologist Richard Sennett and author Umberto Eco. Her essay was written after his untimely death following a car crash in 1980 and it’s a moving piece, conjuring up her memories of her friend vividly.

I found the essay fascinating, and Sontag’s writing excellent (so I will definitely be exploring her work more – I wonder if there is a Sontag Reader?) But I wanted to share one particular quote which resonated.

In “This Little Art“, Kate Briggs spent much time considering Barthes’ stated ambition to write a novel, a project which occupied much of the substance of his last lectures, which she translated; alas his death put an end to that plan. However, the novel as a form is something which was being much debated at the time, and at one point Sontag opines of Barthes that he is:

… the writer whose most wonderful books – Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse – are themselves triumphs of modernist fiction in that tradition inaugurated by Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography, in a linear-notebook rather than a linear-narrative form.

Apart from having resonances with my other reading (Rilke and of course his links with Pasternak and Tsvetaeva), that description of the modernist format really struck home as very much the kind of book I’m enjoying reading nowadays. Less straightforward story and more speculative form, blending all kinds of different writing.

I think I’m going to get on with Susan Sontag! ๐Ÿ˜€

“I want obliquity…” #fitzcarraldofortnight @FitzcarraldoEds @briangdillon

26 Comments

Essayism by Brian Dillon

As can be seen by the pictures I’ve shared of my Fitzcarraldos, I had a number of choices for our fortnight of reading; and I thought I had settled on the ones I would tackle during the event. However, despite being thoroughly involved in “This Little Art” (as well as polyreading “Fandango” alongside it), for some reason I was suddenly hit by the urge to pick up another of my pending Fitzcarraldos. The book in question is “Essayism” by Brian Dillon, and not only did I start dipping, I actually finished it in record time… ๐Ÿ˜€

Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is currently UK editor of Cabinet magazine as well as teaching at the Royal College of Art, London. “Essayism” was his first Fitzcarraldo, but he’s written a number of books, myriad articles and curated exhibitions; and rather excitingly has a new book out this year. However, on to “Essayism” itself.

The book is, obviously, about essays, and the latter is a form of writing of which I’m becoming increasingly fond. I have all manner of essay collections lying about in Mount TBR and I’m often drawn to them as opposed to fiction. Maybe it’s the shorter form – manageable in the shorter chunks of reading time I often have nowadays. Whatever it is, the older I get, the more I want to read them! And Brian Dillon seems to be inordinately fond of the form too; he’s a regular practitioner, and his book is something of an extended meditation on the essay format, as well as a celebration of some of its best practitioners.

Oddly, though, it seems that the essay is hard to define, perhaps because it can encompass so much. Is there a set length? A set style? A preferred range of subjects? It seems not, as many of the examples covered by Dillon demonstrate. The authors he cites are wide-ranging, from Sir Thomas Browne through Montaigne, Woolf, Benjamin, Perec and up to more modern practitioners like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. All of these writers have a very individual style and take on the essay form, yet all produce stimulating and fascinating pieces of writing which change the way you think about the world around you.

The essay, which in essence wants to wander, may pursue its adventure by the paradoxical means of an ordered stasis: all its elements arranged as if in a cabinet of curiosities, an elaborate microcosm that freezes in an image some version of the world outside the collection.

However, the book is not simply a contemplation of the essay in its multifarious forms; woven into Dillon’s narrative is a moving autobiographical strand, where he relates the effect that writers and writing have had on him at pivotal points in his life, as well as while negotiating a breakdown. Dillon lost both of his parents at a fairly young age, and close together; and much of his life seems to have been marked by depression, an afflication with which his mother also suffered. As someone who always turns to the written word as a necessary coping mechanism at times of deep stress, this element of the book particularly resonated.

And actually there were *so* many aspects of “Essayism” which resonated; the eye-opening effect of Paul Morley and Ian Penman’s writing in the NME of the 1980s; the soaring beauty of Virginia Woolf’s prose; and yes, that man again – Roland Barthes is a regular thread in the book, an author to whom Dillon keeps returning and one who seems to be constantly turning up in *my* line of sight.

I think what I wanted from writing – from Barthes in particular but others too – was a passage out of the dismal place in which I found myself in my mid-teens, but also some assurance that the world could not only be recast in words but had been made of language in the first place.

The unread white cover Fitzcarraldos at the start of this reading event….

One of the most interesting elements of Dillon’s dissection of the essay was the concept of these as fragments – anything from the works of Adorno to the idea of the list-as-essay (exemplified perhaps by Perec’s very wonderful “An Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Paris”). But what struck me most, I think, whilst reading this excellent book was how the essay reflects so much the personality of the author; and I realised I’m often looking for some kind of connection with an author when I read, a tendency which is more pronounced in the shorter form of the essay.

Essays, ancient and modern, can seem precious in their self-presentation, like things too well made ever to be handled. Touch them however they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing, and the essay reveals itself to have been less compact and smooth than thought, but instead unbounded and mobile, a form with ambitions to be unformed.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I read “Essayism” in the middle of also reading “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs; and interestingly, my response to each of these books was enhanced by reading the other. There are threads that connect them both, which I hope will become clear when I get to “Art”; however, I suspect I’ll only scratch the surface of this pair of remarkable works.

Anyway; “Essayism” turned out to be a quite marvellous and involving read; thought-provoking, moving, absorbing and, very dangerously, with a reading list in the back! (I *have* fortunately read quite of a few of the books suggested). I was reminded occasionally of Simon Critchley’s writings, with a similar mix of personal and meditative as featured here, though Dillon’s voice is very individual and his exploration of the essay quite fascinating. I’m very glad some kind of force impelled me to pick this one up for the #Fitzcarraldofortnight, and I suspect I may have to track down his other title from the publisher… ;D

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

43 Comments

Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been aย  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

“A light without a shadow generates an emotion without reserve” #mythologies #rolandbarthes

21 Comments

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Well – I may not quite have had a Barthes Binge (except in shopping terms…) but I *have* finished “Mythologies”; and what a fascinating and brain-pummeling book it turned out to be. I read it during December, finishing it close to the end of the month (yes, I’m very behind with my reviewing); and I let it sit and settle over the Christmas and New Year period. If I’m truly honest, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to approach this post as so much has been said about the book over the years that I find myself wondering if I’m really qualified to comment (or, indeed, clever enough…) But for what it’s worth I’ll throw my two penn’orth into the discussion…

Barthes on the train…

According to Wikipedia, “Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.” For a non-academic like me, that’s fairly scary to start with; but in fact I’ve owned a Barthes book since 2015 when I picked up “Camera Lucida“; and I considered reading “A Lover’s Discourse” for our 1977 Club reading week, but ran out of time. So Barthes has slipped in and out of my line of sight for some time now, turning up most recently in Richard Clay’s “Viral…” documentary; and frankly he seemed like an author I had to read, so after a bit of thought I decided to start with his most famous work – “Mythologies“.

The book was first published in 1957, and is split into two parts; the first section collects together a series of essays Barthes wrote on modern myths. Covering anything from wrestling to soap powder to toys to the face of Greta Garbo, he discusses the signs and symbols which affect us on a daily basis. This was a time in the 20th century where the mass media was taking hold and bombarding us with all kinds of imagery designed to sell stuff, control us and mould our thinking; imagine how much more powerful that media control is nowadays… Anyway, these essays were fascinating; a glittering series of pieces, full of so many ideas and observations that linger in the mind. The wrestling essay struck a number of bells as I can remember this being on the TV when I was growing up, with its (what seemed to me) ridiculous ritualistic format; and Barthes identified it as a form of theatre, as subject to signs and symbols as is any drama.

Advertising, of course, is one place where semiotics are vital (and this element turned up in the “Viral…” documentary); Barthes deconstructs this wonderfully and I shall try to keep his comments in mind when next being tempted to splurge on something I really don’t need! The essays sparkle with trenchant and often very funny analysis – I hadn’t quite expected to find myself laughing out loud at Barthes! His essay on the differing on-screen representations of historical Romans by French and American cinema was hilarious, with his discussion of Spectacle as a concept perhaps prefiguring the Situationists (“What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees”). “Blind and Dumb Criticism” is quite brilliant, and actually makes me think I should stop implying I don’t know what I’m talking about and have the belief that I’m making some kind of sense.

Part two of the book contains an extended section entitled “Myth Today”, and I have to confess to finding this a little more difficult than the essays. In fact, I wish I’d discovered the graphic below earlier to help clarify signified, signifier etc in my head a bit more clearly… However, it was worth persevering with, because in particular his insights into the effects of bourgeois cultural norms on our everyday lives were utterly fascinating.

Katyabogomol [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Semiology can sound scary, but the more I read and think about this, the more I believe we need to pay attention to the objects around us and what they signify. And interestingly, there seems to me to be a strong relationship between semiotics and iconoclasm; if we study the signs and symbols around us and there is a disjuncture between these and our beliefs, then naturally we’re going to want to tear down those symbols…

“Mythologies” is a book that is still so very relevant, particularly in our modern world where the cultural norms seem to be all over the place at times, and there are multiple media competing for our attention. Commenting on celebrity culture, Barthes bemoans the โ€œregrettably materialistic times, and the glamour status which bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so long as they remain harmless)“, a statement that still sounds fresh today. And he’s very clear-eyed about the aspirations fed to the general public to keep them distracted from the real issues, saying of bourgeois culture:

The whole of France is seeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.

Semiotics is not something I’ve really thought about until recent years, but I do feel that it’s such an important element of understanding our world. Part of our inherited survival skills come from our ability to correctly decipher the signs and symbols around us; on the most basic level, “Is that rustle in the bushes over there a ferocious threatening beast or just the wind?” I guess the risk is that you could end up analysing your responses to everything around you so thoroughly that you become paralysed and unable to take any action! However, I do think we need to look morely closely at the signs and symbols we’re being fed, and resist the forms of control society is trying to enforce.

The Barthes pile has increased slightly…

Well – that’s my (hopefully not too dumb) non-academic take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”. Although at times a testing read, it was fascinating and in plenty of places I got those “Yes!” moments you sometimes get when reading a book, realising how we’re often surrounded by cliche and cultural shorthand, really not thinking very deeply about the world. Although it’s over 60 years old, so much of the book seems remarkable relevant; and in this day and age, when the signs and symbols being fed to us daily by our mogul-controlled mass media are becoming hard and harder to decipher and decode, we need Barthes and his “Mythologies” even more than we ever did.

Here comes 2020! (well, almost…)

35 Comments

I can hardly believe it’s 2020, but there you go – it is, so Happy New Year to all readers of the Ramblings! Traditionally, I should be announcing all sorts of shiny reading plans and challenges for the new year (and new decade) but I haven’t got my head around that yet, to be frank. I have my eyes on a couple of low-stress projects involving translated literature, and of course there will be our Club week reads. So I shall ponder on plans for the next few days and a post will follow…

Meantime, just for fun, here’s an image of the books I read in December. I’ve got into the habit of taking a snap of each month’s reading, inspired by Andy Miller’s pictures on Twitter; however, December’s reading was a bit thin, thanks to me being screamingly busy at work and home. Never mind – a new month, a new year, a new decade and so hopefully more impetus for reading! ๐Ÿ˜€ As you can tell, I’m a bit behind on my reviewing and several of these will be covered in January. The Lem is for Shiny New Books, and was a great joy!

As for what my first read of 2020 will be? Well, it’s this:

That birthday book token is coming in very useful, because this *didn’t* arrive from Santa and I wanted it so much, so it was purchased straight after Christmas (ahem…) I love James’ writing and I love Larkin, so I’m hoping it will be the perfect read for me. What books are you starting 2020 with???

On My Book Table… 4 – decisions, decisions!

42 Comments

Since I last reported on the state of my Book Table, it has been through several changes as there have been bookish comings and goings as well as raging indecision about what to read next. This of course is particularly bad at what is a busy time of year, but as I’m now off work for the festive season, it seemed a good time to tidy up a little and take stock. So here is the current state of the Table itself:

As you can probably tell, there are a number of heavyweight books on there (and I don’t mean in size necessarily, but in content). Shall we take a closer look?

This stack is mainly review books – some lovely British Library Editions, glorious Russians from Pushkin Press, an intriguing title from Michael Walmer and an author new to me from NYRB. Then there’s “Jam Today”, a book I was very excited to track down recently. All of these would be ideal next reads.

This is what I mean by heavyweight… Essays, short fiction, Montaigne, Proust, Pessoa, philosophy. I’d like to read them all at once, which is not helpful. Especially as I feel as if I could quite easily have a month of reading nothing but Fitzcarraldo books!

And finally, Barthes… Three physical books (there is a digital one too) and the Binet book about Barthes which has been on the Table for months. I am nearing the end of “Mythologies”, but unsure whether I should read another Barthes straight off or let the first settle a bit…

Of course, there are the birthday arrivals which came into the house recently and haven’t made it to the Book Table yet (and they’ll no doubt be joined by some Christmas arrivals at some point soon). A further complication exists in the form of the Book Token my work presented me with on my birthday which is itching to be spent. An embarrassment of riches, but I do find that the more choices I have, the harder the decision becomes! What would *you* read next??? ๐Ÿ˜€

Three Things #6 …… difficult reading, documentaries (again!) and dancing

25 Comments

The “Three Things” meme was created by Paula at Book Jotter, and I haven’t done one for literally months! However, as I was crashing out of the “Berlin Alexanderplatz” readalong, I thought it might be time to revive the meme! So, time to share thoughts on things I’ve been reading, looking at and thinking… ;D

Reading

As you might have noticed, I’ve been wrestling during November with a challenging book, during the readalong of Alfred Doblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” for German Literature Month. It’s a book I struggled with at the start, and although I found at points that I did become quite engaged, I eventually lost the will to live (or at least read on with it) and abandoned ship. I confess to having interspersed the reading of it with other books, and a complete (and pleasant!) contrast was “Noted Murder Mysteries” by Marie Belloc Lowndes. I have her crime novel “The Lodger” lurking on the TBR; this is her re-telling of several true crimes which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer. It’s very entertaining and a review will follow when I catch up with these; I’m a bit behind with them at the moment, and things aren’t helped by an attack of raging indecision about what to read next: should it be a Barthes Binge or an Attack of the Gides????? ;D

Looking (at)

I do love a good documentary, as is probably blindingly obvious to anyone who drops into the Ramblings, but I’ve been struggling recently to find any decent ones. I do lose patience with some of them; the content can be trite, the music over-done and the points often lost. I had high hopes of the recent slew of Cold War programmes, but in the end only two held my interest – “Letters from London”, about a propaganda radio show, and “A British Guide to the End of the World”, a very thought-provoking work about the effects of nuclear testing and the daft films put out to guide us how to survive an attack. I really could do with a decent documentary, along the lines of Professor Richard Clay’s “Utopia” (which is currently repeating on BBC4 in the wee small hours, if you’ve not seen it) or “Viral“, both of which I enjoyed hugely. Fortunately, a little hint of a glimpse of a rumour reaches me that he might be in the process of filming something new, which is excellent, as his ideas are so very interesting and the subject matter sounds quite fascinating!

Thinking

I’m going to bend this category a little bit, as I spent some time recently looking at a live event as well as searching for documentaries, and that set me thinking about past times! That live event was an OMD concert at a lovely venue in the local Big Town; I’ve seen the band there four times now and they never disappoint, presenting a highly-charged and enjoyable set full of hits old and new. Despite my increasing age (hah!) I refuse to conform to anyone’s expectations of how I should behave; and so I spent the two hours of the gig happily dancing my little socks off right in front of the stage. It was a wonderful night and rest assured, I will be there at the front again when they make their next visit!

Andy McCluskey of OMD

The venue itself is a wonderful one, with a long history. It was previously a Gaumont and back in the 1960s hosted visits from both the Beatles and the Stones (and Mr. Kaggsy, being somewhat older than me, was at both concerts!) In my time, I’ve seen some inspirational musicians play there, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, The Teardrop Explodes, Tori Amos, and Morrissey (ahem…) to name a few. In fact, when I think back I’ve seem some incredible acts perform over the years: Bob Dylan, Echo and the Bunnymen, Patti Smith umpteen times, The Velvet Underground on their 1990s reunion tour, and the great John Cale on more occasions than I can recall. I love music almost as much as I love books, and there’s nothing better than a really good live gig! ๐Ÿ˜€

*****

So there you go. Three aspects of where I am at the moment: glad to be out of Berlin Alexanderplatz, looking forward to new documentaries and wishing more decent bands would play locally! “Three Things” is a fun meme – do join in if you want to! ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: