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#fitzcarraldofortnight – a look back at some previous reads during my Fitzcarraldo journey! @FitzcarraldoEds

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As we make our way through #fitzcarraldofortnight, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at the books I’ve read from the publisher. As I shared earlier, this is my collection of their books:

There are of course two ways of looking at my collection; firstly, in terms of subject matter, blue cover are fiction, and white covers are non-fiction! However, with Fitzcarraldo that divide is often blurred, which is fine by me!

So here are my blue covers:

And here are my white:

They all look and sound delicious, as far as I’m concerned!

The other split is, of course, read, and unread! Here is my ‘read’ pile:

Fortunately (phew!) it’s the majority of the books and there are some really wonderful titles there.

The first Fitzcarraldo I read, back in 2018, was “Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk, which is probably the book which is most responsible for bringing the publisher to a wider audience (for obvious reasons…) I said at the time that it was “an extraordinary work, a real tour de force with soaring prose and unforgettable stories. Tokarczuk weaves a wonderful tapestry of travellers’ tales whilst all the while digging down into the human psyche to see what it is that motivates us and what it means to be human. Reading “Flights” is like taking a wide-ranging and thought-provoking journey.” I still stand by that – fabulous book….

My next Fitzcarraldo, somewhat inevitably, was Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which was very different to “Flights”, but just as powerful and affecting. I concluded that ““Plow” is another deeply moving, completely involving and thoroughly original book by Olga Tokarczuk, and I could have pulled out so many more quotes than I actually have… I reckon that this one will also end up in my books of the year round up in December. Tokarczuk is an author of originality and stature, and “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a masterly work.” I really do want to read more Tokarczuk!

Next up on my Fitzcarraldo journey was another blue cover, “Ash Before Oak” by Jeremy Cooper. Taking the format of a diary or journal, it follows the life of an unnamed male narrator, who may or may not be the author. The book takes in his life in the country, the world around him and his fragile emotional state. It’s an immersive read, covering big topics including breakdown and suicide attempts, as well as the effect of the natural world on humans. Despite the potential blurring of the lines between fiction and fact, I concluded that that element really didn’t matter; “It’s a book I found myself reading compulsively, drawn in by the imagery of the natural world around the narrator and the wish to follow his journey to whatever end it reached. In many ways, the book reads as an act of catharsis, of writing out of one’s pain, and the result is really stunning.”

By the time I got to my next Fitzcarraldo, I had really developed a taste for these lovely, thought-provoking books. As part of #WITmonth I read “Vivian” by Christina Hesselholdt, a fictionalised life of the iconic photographer Vivian Maier. This was a brilliantly written work, blurring the lines again and even allowing the narrator a snarky voice of their own, letting them insert themself into the narrative! I opined ““Vivian” … with its clever structure, wonderful writing, playful yet thought-provoking narrative, and all-round fascinating story, is a real winner. It’s such a deep, complex and provocative book that I could say a lot more about it.. “Vivian” is … a wonderful read, highly recommended.”

So far, I had only read Fitzcarraldo blue covers, but the release of a new collection of writing from Ian Penman, an author I’ve read since my teens, drew me towards reading a white cover – the marvellous anthology “It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track”. Penman is one of those authors who can make any topic he writes about fascinating and enlightening, and this book did not let me down! This is writing about music which draws in all manner of erudite references, as well as social commentary, and makes you look at things in a new light. As I said at the time, “Even if you think you don’t like the artists covered or writings about music, I would recommend you read this marvellous selection of pieces; Ian Penman was one of the first writers I read who made me realise that you could push the cultural boundaries and that it was a good thing to do so – and he’s still doing it!”

Emboldened by my first successful white cover Fitzcarraldo, I invested in several more non-fiction works when they had an amazing sale on. The first I read from this selection was a slim, intriguing and though-provoking work from philosopher Simon Critchley – “Notes on Suicide”. Critchley’s book takes on an emotive and difficult subject to discuss; and his measured look at why some might choose to end their lives is an important contribution to that dialogue. I said at the time, “However, I feel that what Critchley brings to his essay on the subject is a calm and rational look at why we might choose to end our lives, a kind of history of the subject, as well as a personal viewpoint of how the subject affects him. His philosophical training gives him the necessary expertise to discuss suicide as a concept and I feel his book is definitely adds much to our understanding of the human condition.” That’s a judgement I stand by and I’ve gone on to read another book of his, which featured on the blog earlier this week.

That book was “Memory Theatre”, a different kind of book from “Notes” and yet one which was just as absorbing and thought-provoking. Critchley explores the ancient concepts of the memory palace and memory theatre, creating in the mind a structure filled with visual mnemonics to aid memory and knowledge. It was a fascinating book which most definitely blurred the lines between genres – most interesting and you can read my thoughts here!

Well – that’s my Fitzcarraldo journey so far. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed there’s one book on the ‘read’ pile I haven’t mentioned – “Dark Satellites” by Clemens Meyer. My thoughts on that will appear on the Ramblings next week – but suffice to say it’s another thought-provoking read!

So, after going through the Fitzcarraldos I’ve read, I’m left with my unread pile which looks like this:

Interestingly, they’re all white cover non fiction! And all sound wonderful and all need to be read as soon as I can get to them. Will I read any before the end of our fortnight? That will be revealed later… ;D

“… the unity of the human and the divine” #fitzcarraldofortnight @FitzcarraldoEds

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Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley

I have been wrestling with some very complex works recently on the Ramblings (cough, cough, “Mythologies”…); and this slim but dense book from Fitzcarraldo is no exception. When I was looking through my pile of unreads to choose what to read for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, “Memory Theatre” jumped out at me because it sounded intriguing, and because I’d found Critchley’s other Fitzcarraldo title to be very stimulating. So “Memory Theatre” it was, then…

Ok. First up, what’s a memory theatre? Welll, an online definition states that it’s “An imaginary building thought of as comprising various rooms and areas, each containing mnemonic objects and features that symbolize particular ideas, which can be visualized mentally as a systematic method of remembering those ideas.” So, a way of helping us remember, fix memories and ideas, by rooting them in a specific space that acts as a visual trigger to bringing back the memory. It’s a clever idea, with a long history: the concept has its roots in the 16th century when an Italian philosopher Guilio Camillo wrote a book on the subject. The memory palace existed inside the mind, where a person could visualise a structure with symbols in it to act as those triggers, a sort of visual mnemonic – what Wikipedia calls “a spatial representation of chronology”. The theatre takes this a step further, arranging ideas according to importance, with the ultimate end of understanding the past and everything in it as well as being able to predict the future. At least, that’s how I interpret it – correct me anyone if you think I’m wrong…

Poetry lets us see things as they are. It lets us see particulars being various.… The poet sings a song that is beyond us and yet it is ourselves that it sings. Things change when the poet sings them, but they are still our things: recognizable, common, near, low. We hear the poet sing and press back against the pressure of reality.

Critchley’s starting point for his exploration of the topic is the discovery of a collection of boxes which appear in his office one day. They originate from a colleague, a French philosopher called Michel Haar who has been something of a mentor, and who has died in a savage summer heatwave. The boxes contain all manner of unpublished papers by Haar, and delving into them Critchley discovers a brilliant text on the ancient art of memory as well as a collection of astrological charts drawn by Haar which preduct the deaths of various philosophers (some know to both Haar and Critchley).

Through techniques of memory, the human being can achieve absolute knowledge and become divine.

Alarmingly, one chart predicts the course of Critchley’s own life and death; and somewhat inevitably Critchley becomes obsessed by this, as well as by a model memory theatre and the whole concept of the memory theatre itself. Needless to say, his mental state disintegrates somewhat at this point…

A representation of the memory theatre

“Memory Theatre” is a book which defies classificiation, and blurs the lines between genres much more than did “Notes on Suicide”. Fairly obviously, despite the astrological chart, Critchley does not die as predicted as he’s still amongst us now, working and writing. But the book shows how an idea can take hold of a person to such a degree that it affects their life dramatically; and how we humans have been searching for meaning for pretty much all of our existence, and haven’t necessarily found it. Critchley’s experiments in constructing his own memory theatre fail, and in fact he comes to the conclusion that it isn’t really possible to make something so fixed and static that contains all memory, all knowledge and the future. Instead he envisages something which is “an endlessly recreating, re-enacting memory mechanism.” Hmm – perhaps he thinks the Internet might be the answer then… ;D

Might not the space of a town or city be seen as a memory theatre? One walks or moves in the city, most Bloom-like, and somehow the entirety of the past is silently whispering through locations – ghostly and sepulchral. Like a huge question mark. And implicitly that story becomes one about the future as well. The city is a spatial network of memory traces, but also a vast predictive machine.

As I’ve said, this is a work which certainly stretches the boundaries of what kind of book it is. Part philosophy, part memoir and yes, part fiction, it really is a fascinating read. I say fiction, because in the glossary at the back of the book Critchley says of his friend Michel Haar that some of what appears about him in the book is not true… In addition, several characters are invented, and this all adds up to a heady and stimulating book about which it’s worth remembering that just because a work is branded non-fiction doesn’t necessarily make it fact…

Anyway. At the end of the day, I’m not a philosopher, but that’s my take on “Memory Theatre”. I’m not sure how many of the memoir elements were true, but certainly if they have any basis in fact Critchley has had a complex life! The book was a fascinating read which sent me off in all sorts of different directions, exploring concepts and philosophies and historical figures – ironically, none of which I would have been able to do without the memory theatre of the internet…. 😀 Another intriguing book from Fitzcarraldo, and I’m glad our #fitzcarraldofortnight provoked me into reading it right now.

Taking your life in your hands… @FitcarraldoEds @CritchleyUpdate

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Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley

First up, I should give a kind of trigger warning that the post below by necessity (and fairly obviously, from the title of this book) covers the subject of suicide (and by extension, suicide-by-murder, which I’ll mention later).

And it might not be the kind of book you’d expect to see on the Ramblings, although I have been reading quite a bit of non-fiction/essays and the like recently, particularly in lovely volumes from Fitzcarraldo Editions. This was a title that caught my eye when the publisher had a flash sale a little while back, and I was intrigued. It’s a slim but very powerful meditation on why a human being might consider ending their life, and although I read it in pretty much one sitting it’s definitely a book that lingers in the mind.

Let me say at the outset, at the risk of disappointing the reader, that I have no plans to kill myself… just yet.

Simon Critchley’s book “Notes on Suicide” opens with the bald statement “This book is not a suicide note” and goes on to present a sweeping and fascinating overview of a subject which has vexed many and is often considered taboo. Critchley considers specific cases of people (mostly artistic people of one kind or another) who’ve taken their lives; the laws and moral judgements passed on suicides; the writing and purpose of suicide notes; and whether the whole *point* of contemplating suicide comes down to making a decision as to whether life is really worth living. There is a sense that, as Critchley makes his way through historical attitudes to suicide from the ancients to the moderns (via Hume and Kant and Dorothy Parker), the religious and moral aspects, and the whole phenomenon of suicide notes, he is also using this process to work through his own issues. He situates the writing of the piece in a time and a specific location – on the East Anglian coast, looking at the bleak North Sea – and there is an underlying impression that in seeking to understand the reasons which impel human beings towards self-destruction, he is in fact seeking to understand himself.

Critchley also considers the mystique that often attaches to the act of suicide, the fascination we have with the doomed youth or the troubled genius who cuts off their life early. This false glamour perhaps hides the real torment people feel and also gets in the way of rational consideration of the subject. However, the book *does* wander into particularly knotty territory when it touches briefly on the subject of what Critchley terms ‘suicide by murder’. We’re all aware nowadays of the tendency of certain fanatics to either kill randomly and then take their own life, or use their suicide by bomb or whatever to take others with them. To be honest, I think that’s a whole other line of discussion that should perhaps be considered separately as I think manic killing in the name of some cause or other is very different from making the choice to take your own life.

Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in the sense that writing is a leave – taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to try and see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.

Suicide is an emotive subject, and indeed an emotive word; and depending on your moral standing or your religion, for example, you may have very strong feelings about it.  I should say here that I have had depressive episodes in my life, and one serious suicide attempt in my teens (which were a difficult time for me, mainly because of the death of my grandmother). Nowadays, I think I’m on a fairly even keel but I tend to think that a person’s life is a person’s life; it’s their own business and at the end of the day if they choose to end it because staying alive is unbearable then I can kind of understand it. It *isn’t* great for those left behind (and I can remember an incident decades ago when a colleague of Mr. Kaggsy took his life, and his partner found continuing unbearable and followed him later). It was a tragedy, but how can we judge the depths of other people’s feelings?

To be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself. Incarceration, humiliation, disappointment, disease-the world can do all of this to us, but it cannot remove the possibility of suicide. For as long as we keep this power in our hands, then we are, in some minimal but real sense, free.

It became clear to me as I was reading that there is something of a subtext to the book. All the arguments, religious and moral, about the act of self-destruction are underpinned by the idea of whether a human being has the freedom to take control of their destiny and take their life. Do we have that freedom, or have the religious and moral authorities taken it away? And oddly, if I’m honest, I have to say that there are times in my life when I’ve managed to carry on when I was feeling rotten in the knowledge that there was always the backup position of ending it all…

In many ways this has been a difficult post to write as so many people have strong views on this topic, and the last thing I would want to do is upset or offend anyone. However, I feel that what Critchley brings to his essay on the subject is a calm and rational look at why we might choose to end our lives, a kind of history of the subject, as well as a personal viewpoint of how the subject affects him. His philosophical training gives him the necessary expertise to discuss suicide as a concept and I feel his book is definitely adds much to our understanding of the human condition. Perhaps not to be read if you’ve been affected by the subject – or perhaps it should? Critchley ends his book on a positive note, having reached some kind of calm point himself and actually having decided that life is indeed worth carrying on with; and it may be that his work is what a reader might find helpful if they were in a point of transition themselves. Another thoughtful, and thought-provoking, work from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

*****

As an afterword, suicide as a topic is one that’s vexed all manner of thinkers over the years, including the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. Critchley’s book has as a coda a piece entitled “Of Suicide”, which includes broadly the same text as this little Penguin Great Ideas book. I’ve dipped into the Hume and tend to agree (mostly) with both men’s understanding that no human is going to take their life gratuitously; there is always going to be a reason, although that reason may be a good or a bad one…

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