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2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“I remain behind the door” #rolandbarthes

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Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Howard

Even after all these decades of reading, I still find that there are some books I finish and I just don’t know what to say about them – in a good way, but I still find myself a bit speechless! “Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes is just such a book; I found it a stunning and absorbing read, yet what can I actually tell you about it? What is it saying to me or anyone else – what is Barthes revealing or concealing? I’ll trying to string something together, but what kind of sense it might make is anyone’s guess! 😀

Well, it’s Roland Barthes again, for a start; a man who’s been haunting the Ramblings this year, either in the form of books of his that I’ve read or documentaries I’ve been watching. I’ve only read a few of his works – he was a prolific man (and “properly clever”, as Richard Clay says!) – so I’m not sure what impelled me to pick up this particular book of his at this time, especially as I have both “Image, Music, Text” and “Cameria Lucida” lurking. But I did, anyway.

“Roland Barthes…” is ostensibly autobiography, but this being Barthes, it’s never going to be a straightforward look at his life. The book opens with a selection of photographs from the thinker’s past – what he describes as a ‘treat to himself’ – and bearing in mind his writings on the effects of images, these are particularly moving and telling. The captions reveal much about Barthes’ early life and family. However, these are followed by no linear narrative; instead, in a format closer to the structure of the “Mourning Diary”, Barthes uses headed paragraphs of varying lengths to explore his life obliquely through his work. It’s an intriguing conceit, and perhaps not surprising from someone who’s used to deconstructing the everyday!

…I myself am my own symbol, I am the story which happens to me: freewheeling in language, I have nothing to compare myself to…

As you can see from the amount of post-its sticking out of this relatively slim book, it’s a deeply thought-provoking piece of work. By looking at his life through the lens of his work, Barthes reveals himself gradually and indirectly – his likes and dislikes (I share his love of the Marx Brothers!), his beliefs and feelings, things which he recalls from his childhood and which still inform his life up to that point. His childhood in Bayonne is a touchstone, shown in the photographs at the start and often recurring in the text sections of the book. Barthes’ voice takes on a dual role, sometimes narrating his life in the first person and sometimes in the third; blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity perhaps?

Propensity for division: fragments, miniatures, partitions, glittering details (according to Baudelaire, the effect of hashish), a bird’s-eye view of fields, windows, haiku, line drawing, script, photography, in plays the “scene” à l’italienne, in short, depending on your point of view, all the articulation of the semanticist or all the raw material of the fetishist. This propensity is labeled progressive: art of the rising classes proceeds by just such framing (Brecht, Diderot, Eisenstein).

I would be lying if I said this book was an easy read; it explores any number of complex topics and had me reaching for a dictionary at many points. But it’s a fascinating and evocative book to spend time with as not only does it raise all manner of intriguing ideas with phrases jumping at you which need more exploration (hence all the coloured markers!); it also does reveal much about the man himself. He was brilliant, yet apparently full of doubt about his life and his achievement; and I ended up wondering whether he realised that his thinking would become so important to how we decode the modern world.

“Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes turned out to be unlike any other autobiography I’ve read – but then, Barthes is like no other writer I’ve read! He says at the start of this book that it “must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” and that’s perhaps a good way to approach it. The real Barthes is often elusive and evasive here – but his ideas shine through and in the end maybe that’s what really matters.

(Although this post is going up in December, I’m going to claim the book for Nonfiction November! I read it in November, wrote the bulk of the above in November, and even if Barthes is obscuring some of the facts, it’s definitely not fiction! :D)

“After Mythologies, the world never looked or meant the same.” #richardclay #rolandbarthes #mythologies

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Intrigued by the ideas of twentieth-century French thinker Roland Barthes, but a little intimidated by his reputation as ‘difficult’? Keen to explore further but wondering whether he’s still relevant in the twenty-first century? Curious as to how he would interpret our modern world? Fear not! A recent documentary is just the solution! 😀

c. ClearStory/BBC

Twenty First Century Mythologies“, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, aired last night on BBC4. Richard has featured on the Ramblings on numerous occasions – reviews, interviews and inspiration – and I obviously think very highly of his work. He made a welcome revisit to the blog last week, providing a fascinating new interview, some of which is relevant to the programme and you can read it here. However, I think Richard may well have outdone himself on this occasion… His latest programme is focused around the continuing relevance of Roland Barthes; and as I’ve been spending much time in the last year with that great thinker, the documentary had a particular resonance for me.

“Myths” (let’s call the programme that for convenience) takes as its starting point Barthes’ seminal book “Mythologies” and his concept (and exploration) of the forces that shape our lives. Opening the programme atmospherically and poignantly with Barthes’ untimely death, Clay gives a useful summary of Barthes’ thinking. He then goes on to tackle a number of myths, past and present, exploring how relevant they still are; and looks at situations Barthes would not have encountered but would have instantly understood. His aim, as he states it, is to find out how Barthes’ ideas have permeated our culture and how relevant they still are today. And, well – they really are!

The Myth of Plastic (c. ClearStory/BBC)

So the documentary is structured round these sections on specific myths, interspersed with biographical Barthes bites, which works beautifully in giving a picture of the thinker and his work. Richard begins by exploring the myth of plastics, a topic Barthes predicted might affect the world negatively in the long term, as indeed it does; and as the documentary makes clear, despite being aware of the awful problems it causes, we are still using it… In this section, as with many of the others, Clay meets with modern artists of all kinds to explore how they engage with the issues he finds, and this adds a fascinating element to the programme.

The Myth of Money (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Then there is the myth of money, surely the thing which most affects how our world is run nowadays; and the complex, mythical existence of cryptocurrency, which seems as elusive as smoke to me! This feeds into the myth of the Internet, something Barthes never could have foreseen. Richard’s exploration of this is particularly enlightening, exposing as fake the myth of the freedom we supposedly get from Internet with a welcoming burst of scepticism; revealing that it’s a double edged sword, serving those those in control. This is a programme at its mythbusting best, debunking any idea that the internet is controlled by anything other than money

This also linked into a particularly telling section on the myth of the Madonna, looking at the portrayal of women. The art historian in Clay emerged as he explored the history of the portrayal of the Madonna and the pressure on women to conform to images of perfection. Some have turned to self-documentation to supposedly subvert the stereotype; however, I’ve always had doubts about this and as the programme discusses, this has simply replaced the imposed image with a self-imposed one. Another commentator pointed out that this is most definitely a myth as women have simply become objects of their own making, trying to sell themselves within a system created and controlled in the main by young, white men. Which is chilling… I wondered what Barthes would have made of this, particularly as his notions of women very much stemmed from the idealisation of his mother.

c. ClearStory/BBC

The study of signs and symbols can appear a little exotic if you’re unfamiliar, and Richard provides a very handy semiotics 101 explaining Barthes’ system of signs: the signifier being a sign that transmits a meaning to us (e.g. a no entry sign) and the signified being that message or meaning (e.g. don’t drive down this road!) For someone who’s occasionally got a bit woolly about those terms, this was most helpful! Interestingly, with shifts in culture, a signifier can have more than one signified/meaning, that meaning changing according to current perceptions – a good example Clay gives being the yellow vest, once a sign of someone in charge, and now subverted by French protesters. All this, of course, ties in with Richard’s work on iconoclasm and sign transformation – very relevant at the moment with the protests this year, which have seen the meanings conveyed by certain statues of dead white men becoming unacceptable in public places. I’ve often felt that semiotics and iconoclasm are branches on the same tree, but that’s by the by… Anyway, It was certainly entertaining seeing Clay help a graffiti artist recoding traffic signs with stickers in an attempt to cause the public to think about what they’re actually seeing.

Contemplating the Myth of Copyright (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Other myths explored were copyright and authenticity, a knotty subject and one which divides opinions strongly; if you create something, you have a right to have control over it, but that seems impossible in the digital age. The argument of copyright vs creativity is not one I would like to take a definitive stand on, though if anyone ripped off the Ramblings I’d probably be a bit peeved! And the myth of the gun as the ultimate righter of wrongs is unnerving in our modern age of violence, particularly when there’s often such an unrealistic portrayal in the media which establishes that myth, letting us accept the existence of guns. As Richard reminds us, repetition normalises a myth so that we regard it as part of our everyday life; and that’s never more true than of the advertising with which we’re constantly bombarded. Back when “Mythologies” was originally published, Barthes was already aware of the effect of images embedded in culture – how much more is that evident nowadays!

The Myth of Race (c. ClearStory/BBC)

“Myths” concludes with a most powerful section at the end concerning race. Barthes was aware of the contradictions which existed in French society of his time, living in a country in the middle of an imperialist war with Algeria. In his book he deconstructed a troubling “Paris Match” cover; and Clay takes this as his jumping off point to consider the myth of race. Interviewing historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, both men acknowledge that less than 1% of 1% of DNA differs between so-called different races of people. However, it’s chilling to hear Bunch state that despite those infinitesimal variances in DNA, we are visual beings and so see and judge by the superficial differences we perceive. It’s a potent piece with which to round off what has been an entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of TV. The documentary closes with the myth of Barthes’ meaningless end; was it really an accident or had he simply given up the will to live, devastated as he had been by his mother’s death? I guess we’ll never know…

“Twenty First Century Mythologies” is a wonderful introduction to the concepts of Roland Barthes and a powerful reminder of how relevant his ideas still are to the times in which we live. Tracing the evolution of Barthes’ life and thought, Clay reveals how the French thinker deconstructed and challenged many of the myths we take for granted nowadays, and goes on to lay bare the myths that came after Barthes. At the end of the documentary, Richard considers whether we can be “post myth”? I don’t think so personally, as the cultural controls imposed by the signs and symbols fed to us by those in charge are too embedded, and most people still don’t think enough about the norms to which they’re expected to conform. We need certain myths to structure the world; what we need to try to do is not let them control us.

Professor Richard Clay (c. ClearStory/BBC)

As I mentioned in my review of “Viral“, Clay wears his erudition lightly, but his commentary here draws on decades of his own research; for example, the defacing of money and coins reminds me of the part of “Utopia” dealing with Thomas Spence. There are sly hints at the Situationists, with the Beach Beneath the Streets becoming Wi Fi Beneath the Streets. What’s especially interesting for me, as someone who’s followed Richard’s work for some time now as well as watching his documentaries from the very start, is seeing how his ideas have evolved, observing how he expands on concepts hinted at in previous programmes. He’s a brilliant communicator, adept at getting complex ideas across in an accessible way and I have to applaud him for continuing with his one-man mission to sneak semiotics into the mainstream! These can be complex topics, but in the hands of an experienced and erudite commentator like Clay, they become wonderfully clear.

As you can tell, I absolutely *loved* this programme – it could have been made for me! It’s quite clear that we can’t underestimate the importance of Barthes’ thinking nowadays, in a world where the population is distracted by consumer society; which I guess is why, even in these days of lies and fake news and no leadership worth talking about, we still put up with so much and don’t rebel. If there is a lesson to be taken from Roland and Richard, I would say that it is to try to look past the constant daily bombardment of signs and symbols, ignoring the distractions, really *seeing* what is in front of us in everyday quotidian life – and question it. That is the liberation of understanding how these myths work. “Twenty First Century Mythologies” is on the iPlayer here at the moment, and I strongly urge you to catch it while you can – definitely my documentary of the decade!

“…asking questions about processes of meaning making…” – A new interview with Professor Richard Clay #c21stmyths @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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If you’re a regular reader of the Ramblings, you’ll know of my love of a good documentary! BBC4 is my channel of choice, and I’ve been known to witter on endlessly about my favourite programmes. I was delighted to have the opportunity last year to interview Professor Richard Clay, the man who’s behind my favourite shows over the last several years; you can visit the two parts here and here. The interview coincided with the transmission of his excellent documentary “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”, and you can read my post about that here.

(c. ClearStory/BBC)

Naturally, therefore, I was thrilled to hear that Richard was making a new film, particularly when I found out the subject; the new show is entitled “21st Century Mythologies”, and it takes a look at the work of Roland Barthes, an author who seems to have been haunting my reading in recent months! The documentary takes a look at his relevance in our modern world and airs on BBC4 next week. Ahead of its transmission, I asked Richard if he’d be kind enough to make a repeat visit to the Ramblings and I’m happy to say that he agreed! 😀

KBR: Richard, welcome back to the Ramblings! You last visited around the time of your excellent documentary “How to Go Viral” last year. Apart from your new programme, which we’ll get onto later, have you been working on any interesting projects since then which you can share with us?

RC: Ah, all kinds of stuff! I particularly enjoyed doing a short film, called ‘Revolution Up North’, about the surprising links between the North East and French revolutions. We filmed at the Bowes Museum; it was founded around the collection of Josephine Bowes and her British husband. She was the daughter of a sans-culottes of the first French Revolution and escaped Paris during the revolutions of 1848.

The Bowes Museum (Alden Chadwick, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Myself, a colleague (Dr Gillian Jein), a PhD student (Lauren Dudley), and an undergraduate fine artist (Lauren Kelly) chatted on camera at the Bowes about its amazing collection and the stash of incredible 1968 revolutionary posters produced by Atelier Populaire artists that are down the road at Brancepeth Castle in County Durham (why is another story).

Our film was basically a pitch for an exhibition that we would love to do, bringing modern Parisian street artists, Lek and Sowat, to County Durham to keep the tradition alive! And that is without getting into the claim that the revolutionary martyr Jean-Paul Marat might have studied medicine in Newcastle (maybe he spoke English with a Geordie accent!) or the survival of copper plates used to print fake revolutionary French money in the North East as an act of 1790s economic warfare! One day, I’m sure we will put the film on YouTube.

You’re currently based at Newcastle University, with the intriguing-sounding job title of Professor of Digital Cultures. Could you expand a little on the kind of thing which that (possibly unique) role entails?

There are other academics out there with a Digital Cultures brief. I’m a bit unusual because I’m a ‘translational prof’ and my role spans across subject areas. I’m a kind of champion of working across academic disciplines and sectors of the economy to do stuff together that has digital dimensions. For example, I’m involved with the Creative Fuse North East project that has been going for more than 5 years and involves all 5 of the region’s universities working in collaboration with creative industries (http://www.creativefusene.org.uk).

For someone who appears on TV you have a relatively low online profile. In these days of constant surveillance, either from external sources or self-inflicted, is this a deliberate decision?

It’s a deliberate decision. I’m aware of how our data is harvested and sold by websites and the risks that poses. Hence, I surf the web with cookies turned off to leave less of a trail and I don’t engage with social media. Social media companies are able to gather a few key points of information about each user and establish surprisingly accurate profiles of the products and services they are likely to buy when targeted with adverts. Users’ clicks and cookie data helps sharpen that picture by telling each site you visit where you’ve been previously. Hence, social media platforms are increasingly replacing print publishing as preferred platforms for advertisers because they can micro target their ads at users.

As the saying goes, ‘If it’s free online, you’re the product’. While many people feel okay with that as being a kind of quid pro quo, I am concerned by the ways in which, for example, such data is being used in often highly targeted political campaigns that are divisive and discourage the kinds of dialogue between citizens that seem ever more crucial. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, the sale of huge social media datasets is being used in pretty shady ways by a range of political and commercial players. Plus, I’m not a big fan of accessing news on platforms whose algorithms are designed to give you more and more of the stuff your clicks suggest that you like. I prefer accessing more diverse bodies of opinion. And that’s without even getting into the ‘clickbait’ culture of much web design….

All of that might make me sound like I’m somehow anti-web, which I most certainly am not! Yeah, I choose to surf in particular ways (cookies turned off, clearing my surfing history periodically, having an email address I only use when I need to give one to purchase something online). But I still surf, getting my news, doing research, being a consumer and so on. As I think I said in our last interview, the web is a truly revolutionary tool that is bringing vast benefits to global society. I don’t want to turn it off, I just don’t want to be manipulated.

Moving on to your new documentary, it’s based around the seminal figure of Roland Barthes (who’s made many an appearance on the Ramblings) and is called “21st Century Mythologies”. Can you tell us a little about the show and what sparked the idea of making it?

Well, I was talking to BBC staff about how to do semiotics on television and Cassian Harrison (BBC4 Channel Editor) said, ‘Why not do a C20th take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”?’ I said, ‘Yeah, definitely!’ Then I had to actually read the book which was first published in 1957 and written before Barthes really engaged with semiotics! I loved it. It’s a collection of short essays that Barthes wrote for a magazine about a series of modern myths and then some heavier weight pieces that unpack what he means by a myth – something that is endlessly repeated as if it’s true to the point that we don’t question it. For example, he pointed to strip tease and asked whether it’s actually sexy to sit with strangers watching someone disrobe for money, and to professional wrestling which we know is closer to theatre than competitive sport. So, I selected a bunch of C21st myths and we set about unpicking them through interviews in the U.K., USA, and Italy. Oh, and we snook in some semiotics en route!

When did you first encounter the work of Barthes?

That was at UCL as a Masters student. I read his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and it blew my mind. I read it every year for 7 years before I realised that the one point that he made that I couldn’t comprehend was about something he later changed his mind about. I love the serious attention he devoted to popular culture. He didn’t see ‘fine art’ as inherently more interesting or worthy of consideration than advertising. It was liberating. Plus, he helped me got my head around semiotics…

“Mythologies” deals, of course, with semiotics and that subject might not appear on first glance to be related your specialism of iconoclasm. However, you’ve discussed the latter in terms of material sign transformation; could you expand on what connections you see between the two disciplines?

Well, I’d say that semiotics is the name given to the study of sign systems and it offers a range of concepts that can be used in such efforts. For example, a statue can be regarded as being a sign that has two components: the signifier (i.e. a statue of, say, a Confederate officer) and the signifieds that it points to (i.e. the meanings that ‘Confederate officer’ has for any given viewer). The signier + signifieds = statue as sign. Thinking about a statue in this way helps us to describe how and why iconoclasm (image breaking) comes about. For many people who know about the Confederacy’s defence of slavery, a statue of a Confederate officer connotes on-going acceptance and, indeed, heroicisation of that cause in a public space. To other people, the same statue’s ‘signifieds’ (its meanings) are more or less acceptable representations of events that took place generations ago. So, the same statue has multiple meanings to different people at any given time.

Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As discourse around the Confederacy and its legacies mutates, people have new knowledge to apply in making sense of the statue’s meanings; when another innocent African American is murdered in the street by police officers, those people can come to use material alteration of contested signifiers (statues) to make the object point legibly and publicly to new meanings in public. Hence, the Black Lives Matter graffiti appearing all over Confederate statues in the USA that was then photographed and shared globally online and across the media publicising that the legacies of historic racism are rejected by many people. As protests around such signifiers grew, eventually, activists came to take matters into their own hands and pulled the statues down, often breaking them up, transforming them physically so that what was left (usually just an empty plinth) aligned with their opinions of acceptable meanings (signifiers) in public space and of acceptable behaviour. Hence, I’ve written about the material transformation of signs; but I also write about how those acts are always preceded, accompanied, and followed by transformations of signifiers at the level of discourse which make new meanings available for them and render material transformation imaginable and desirable to some people.

So yeah, I’ve found semiotics useful in terms of thinking about how signs are used to mediate conflicts within societies. But semiotics could equally be used to talk through why some people turn their nose up when they see the signifier that is a jar of Marmite (i.e. it connotes negative meanings for them). We really do live in a republic of signs (a res publica, a public thing) that occupies the material world through which we move and the world of ideas that shapes the sense that we make of that which we see (or hear, or taste, or touch!).

A casual viewer might think that these are abstract ideas which aren’t particularly relevant to them. Why do you think they’re important to our everyday life?

I just think that some of the basic concepts of semiotics are useful tools for thinking with: signifier + signifieds = sign; a symbol as a kind of sign that points to meanings if the viewer knows a rule (i.e. a no entry sign doesn’t look like not entering somewhere; connotation; polysemicity [multiple meanings]; polyvalency [multiple values].) These kinds of notions allow us to deconstruct what is going on when, say, a website tries to get us to make sense of the news it is presenting in a particular way using the signifiers of words, images, film, and/or sound. Thinking semiotically involves asking questions about processes of meaning making and the impact that they have on all aspects of our lives.

Of course, words are signs too. The signifiers that are the written words ‘nation state’ point to meanings in our heads that that vary from person to person, sometimes subtly and sometimes profoundly. Yet, whole tranches of public debate assume that participants are using the words in the same way. In Barthes’s terms, ‘nation state’ is a myth – a notion that is widely used and rarely queried. Yet, armies are mobilised and sent to war in defence of nation states (most of which were not even claimed to exist until after the second half of the nineteenth-century).

Without revealing too much, “21st Century Mythologies” builds to some very powerful concluding sections; it’s perhaps your most impactful programme so far. Did you envisage this when initially planning it?

Yep. I really wanted to end with the myth of ‘race’; a pseudo-scientific myth but probably the most pernicious social reality. I’m always amazed that people speak so readily of, for example, African Americans, as being members of a different ‘race’ to non-African Americans. Yet, Europeans only started to describe people of differing skin tones (varying shades of brown) as belonging to different races at a point in history when ‘white’ people began to enslave other ‘races’ for slavers’ commercial gain? I think that all citizens need to reflect on the world around them as Barthes did and be alert to the fact that there are interest groups out there who do not wish us to unpack and challenge myths like ‘race’ and ask how can they still persist.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch of the Smithsonian Institution with Richard (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Barthes has a long cultural reach, influencing works as diverse as “The 7th Function of Language” by Laurent Binet and “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs. Why do you think he still inspires such interest?

Well, he was properly clever!

It’s hard at the moment to ignore current world circumstances. How has this impacted on your working and teaching – and, indeed, the making of the documentary?

Well, filming was complete before the first lockdown and the finished edit was sent to the BBC during the first month of that lockdown. But contemporary affairs other than the current pandemic had impacted on the film during its development and production. I don’t claim to make objective films any more than I’d claim to write objective history; objectivity is a laudable but unattainable goal. I’ve always thought that history is more or less consciously written in the present, about the past, with an eye on the future and the same applies to documentary film making.

As for the impact of the global pandemic on teaching, most of mine is in one-to-one supervisions with undergraduate and postgraduate students writing a dissertation or thesis. It isn’t quite the same having our discussions over Zoom or Teams, but it’s not as problematic as it is for many other forms of teaching. I really feel for my colleagues and our students, but they are all doing their very best to make the most of deeply challenging circumstances.

You’ve talked in the past about the challenge of condensing your work into a relatively short television format, as well as the difficulty of getting semiotics on camera. Do you think that sometimes TV companies underestimate the interest of their audiences in engaging with more complex ideas?

I think that independent TV companies who make films don’t underestimate audiences’ interests in engaging with challenging ideas, but I’m not sure that the same is the case for all broadcasters. I’ve been lucky because BBC4 took a liking to the kinds of films I’m interested in making. But whether that will last is another matter.

In our previous interview you described yourself as a synthesist, and you’ve explored this path widely with initiatives such as the C.A.K.E. (Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange) events. “21st Century Mythologies”, as with your earlier programmes, draws on a wide range of contributors from different disciplines. Do you regard this cross-curricular approach as crucial?

It is for me! I just like being challenged to think in new ways that help me to look at the world afresh, to ask new questions, to reach new conclusions, to query my own assumptions. But then I’m the kind of person who’d start a conversation at a bus stop; you just never know what you might learn.

You’ve been quite vocal in the past about the focus on STEM in education, championing instead the STEAM model, integrating arts into the mix along with sciences. Do you believe in the continued need for the arts to help us make sense of our world?

I do! Many moons ago I heard the then Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) telling a story about his predecessor listening to his equivalent at the Medical Research Council saying, quite rightly, that their work saved lives. The AHRC head said, ‘Yes, but our Council makes people’s lives worth living’.

David’s masterly image

We covered your early career and training as an art historian in our first interview. Popping your art historian hat back on for a moment, do you have a favourite artist and/or painting?

Jacques-Louis David, ‘Marat at his last breath’, oil on canvas, 1793 (Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels).

Finally, having gone from strength to strength with your series of wonderful documentaries, do you have any plans for future programmes?

Ah, thanks! The challenge is finding an idea that appeals to commissioning editors; otherwise, it just remains an idea. I’ve been pondering Henri Lefebvre’s argument that all space is coded and how my take on his thinking could shape some good films. But maybe there won’t be more TV commissions for me, and I’ll need to think about whether to make and share films in different ways. Broadcast is being revolutionised by YouTube and streaming. Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to that technology that has stood the test of time for sharing complex ideas – the book!

*****

Well, let’s hope that last sentence comes to pass, because it would be wonderful to see Richard share some new writings! I’d very much like to thank Richard for being prepared to make a revisit to the Ramblings and providing such an utterly fascinating and thought-provoking interview, as brim full of ideas as his documentaries and writings always are. “21st Century Mythologies” premieres on BBC4 on Monday 9th November at 9 a.m. – don’t miss it! 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

“…death and the photograph as memento mori…” #indexcards #moyradavey @FitzcarraldoEds

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It’s pretty obvious from my blog posts this year, and particularly my involvement in co-hosting with Lizzy the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, that I’m a huge fan of the publisher’s output. In fact, I credit their books with my rekindled love of the essay format as so many of their non-fiction works have taken that genre and riffed on it in an individual way. So when I read about their recent release, “Index Cards” by Moyra Davey, I was convinced it would be one for me – I mean, anything slated as weaving into its narrative Mary Wollstonecroft, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes (yes, that man again!), to name but a few, is likely to be a book which appeals to me! 😀

Based in New York, Davey is an acclaimed artist, photographer, writer, and filmmaker; possibly most known for her film “Les Goddesses”, which explores the connections between the artist’s family, and the family of Mary Wollstonecroft (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay). Certainly that’s the work of hers of which I’d heard, and the Wollstonecroft women *do* make regular appearances in this book. But what, exactly, *is* “Index Cards”?

The book is billed as a collection of essays, and since that form is an elastic one encompassing all manner of structures nowadays, it’s probably the best one to use. The pieces in the book are dated, ranging from the early 2000s up to more modern times, but the subject matter often travels back in time to Davey’s childhood as well as historical times. Some essays, such as the opener “Fifty Minutes”, read more like a film script or written narration; others are more fragmentary, reading like diary entries or indeed jottings on an index card. Because of that loose structure “Index Cards” can be hard to categorise; but it’s never anything less than a bracing and exhilarating read.

Davey’s main artistic medium is obviously the visual and many of her writings focus on the art of photography, with the changes which have taken place in that discpline over the years. She takes several deep dives into the theory of photography and its changing focus; the morals and ethics of street photography; and looks closely at the work in this field of Barthes and Sontag. Her contemplation of her own films and those of her contemporaries is also fascinating. Davey is honest in these writings; she’s not afraid to interrogate her art and her motivations, discussing her period in analysis, her health issues, her friendships and her emotions about the loss of her son as he grows up and moves on in his life. I felt she revealed an underlying sense of uncertainty about her arts, constantly questioning herself, and her honesty in revealing her doubts was refreshing.

The other major theme which struck me in “Index Cards” was that of reading and writing. On the second page of the book Davey finds herself in a situation which will be familiar to most readers:

I spend most of my time trolling through half a dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if I could only just put my finger on it. Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it. Sometimes I persist with the book, even just through inertia, and it can happen that the writing will suddenly open itself up to me.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in that position… Davey quotes freely from the writers who inspire her, and the list is impressive (with many oddly familiar to me…): Bowen, Akhmatova, Benjamin, Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Barthes, Perec, Calvino, Robert Walser, Jean Genet, Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc are just some of the names making an appearance. Virginia Woolf’s flaneurie of reading is something of a touchstone, and even Larkin and his destroyed diaries appear in passing. Later on in the book she goes on to consider the problem of reading in the modern world, with so much available and distracting our attention from focusing on just one work at a time. Her reading is obviously wide-ranging, with the authors quoted having a particular resonance for her.

I found, and still find the letters oddly comforting for the way they translate thorny life problems into Gertrude-Stein like, droning-on prose. I’ve often thought that diaries and letters are the real modernism: stream of consciousness without the contrivance. (On Jane Bowles’ letters)

At one point in “Index Cards”, while Davey is discussing Sontag’s writings on photography, she comments on its “epigrammatic structure, where ideas, indented with dingbats, accumulate, and indeed follow one another with a sort of loose, fragmentary randomness.” Although Davey she says never connected emotionally with Sontag, intriguingly I felt her own work could well have been described in the same way. In many ways “Index Cards” reads as a Commonplace Book (albeit a very brilliant one) with the randomness and immediacy of a journal; however, despite its apparently disparate nature, there are elements which run through the book; including the constant theme of the drawing of resonances between the life of herself and her family, and those who inspire her. Stories and recollections reappear like a thread running through the narrative of the essays, and the repetition of these elements serves to emphasise their importance to Davey. She quotes Barthes at one point as saying “Note-taking gives me a form of security“, and certainly I can empathise with the need to record events in order to make sense of life itself.

Lots of post-its… maybe I should have made notes on index cards…

Even after reading it and writing about it, I still find “Index Cards” a book which is impossible to pin down and categorise (which is maybe why I loved it so much). It could perhaps be considered a sum of its parts, a book rich with references and full of provocations which throws up many questions which linger in the mind long after finishing it (as can be seen from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy). Davey’s blurring of lines between art forms is fascinating, and I was left with the impression of an artist taking stock of her work in various formats, wanting to leave behind her something which might inspire artists, writers and readers to come in the same way she had been inspired by others. “Index Cards” is a stunning book in all senses of the world, one which resonated with me throughout and a work I will no doubt be drawn back to again and again.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – for which many thanks!)

“To each his own rhythm of suffering.” #rolandbarthes #mourningdiary @NottingHillEds

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Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

I seem to have been lost in something of a Barthesian parallel universe of late; as well as reading his seminal book “Mythologies” back in January, he’s turned up in books about translation, collections of essays, and even cartoon anthologies! I’ve also nearly read some of his works at times (“A Lover’s Discourse” was a possible for the 1977 Club). However, my most recent reading of Barthes is a lovely, and possibly unexpected, work published in a beautiful version by Notting Hill Editions – one of their first, I believe.

Around 6 p.m.: The apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.

“The Mourning Diary” is, at first sight, a rather different book in many ways to his more philosophical works; but as I read on I soon began to wonder if it really was. Barthes lived for most of his life with his mother Henriette; her death in 1977 devastated him, and it could be argued that he never really recovered from that loss, dying in the aftermath of a car accident in 1980. “The Mourning Diary” is made up of notes he made on small slips of paper after her death, recording the process of grieving, which were finally collected and pubished in 2010. In it, the reader watches a great mind try to come to terms with loss, and it’s a moving and resonant work.

I now know that my mourning will be chaotic

Barthes’ father was killed in World War 1 when baby Roland was not even one, so he was raised by his mother (and grandmother); an upbringing which would by necessity create a close bond. The family moved to Paris when Barthes was 11, and he lived with his mother for the rest of his life. Part of me would argue that that isn’t necessarily healthy (I’ve seen in my own family-by-marriage the detrimental effect on one particular individual by not leaving the nest); but nevertheless, so it was for Barthes and who are we to judge another person’s way of living?

Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment- a kind of numbness -which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.

So inevitably the death of Henriette was a catastrophe for Barthes, and an event with which he struggled to deal. He noted his thoughts, feelings and emotions on these little pieces of paper, in fragments which often read like poetry, and these meditations explore the effect of death and mourning, how we deal (or don’t deal) with the fact the loved one is no longer present, and in fact that gaping absence. This latter factor is one that shines through most strongly as Barthes attempts to understand the way he’s feeling; and the hollowness after a loss is one of the hardest parts, the fact that the person has gone missing from your life permanently.

We don’t forget,
but something vacant settles in us.

You could argue that it’s impossible to rationalise this kind of human emotion; yet the intellectual in Barthes cannot help but try to make sense of his loss. It’s our way, I suppose; with anything, we try to understand it, yet with grief I don’t know that we ever can. So we witness Barthes drawing on the experience of Proust, when his beloved grandmother died; and finding himself soothed by the poetry of haiku (an increasing influence during his later life, as I discovered from “This Little Art“).

I am either lacerated or ill at ease and occasionally subject to gusts of life

I very much recognised Barthes’ need to understand his mourning from my own personal experience. I lost my father in 2015 – the first major close family death in my adult life – and frankly the shock was immense and I didn’t actually know how to deal with it. Nothing prepares you for the death of a parent, and I wish at the time I’d had this book to hand. Even if it didn’t necessarily bring comfort, as more saccharine works might try, it may have helped me to rationalise some of what I was feeling but couldn’t articulate.

A cold winter night. I’m warm enough, yet I’m alone. And I realise that I’ll have to get used to existing quite naturally within the solitude, functioning there, working there, accompanied by, fastened to the presence of the absence.

“Mourning Diary” is a powerful and emotional read, and a very different one from what I’ve encountered from Barthes the theorist. And yet, his study of a photograph of Henriette as a child led him to write one of his most famous works, “Camera Lucida”, which although ostensibly a study of the essence of photography, apparently also is something of a tribute to his mother. I have a copy of this work sitting on the TBR; the first Barthes I ever bought, I believe, after a recommendation by either Georges Perec or Italo Calvino, and it may have to come off the shelves soon. I have a feeling it’s going to be a Barthesian kind of year…

On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!

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After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

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

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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! 😀

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

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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… 😀

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!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *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

 

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