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Penguin Moderns 29 and 30 – Essays, dreams and ‘camp’ culture..

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Well, I’m pleased to report that following my read of Penguin Moderns 27 and 28 (Kathy Acker and Chinua Achebe) I was determined to keep the impetus up and pick up another two of these fascinating volumes. And, delightfully, numbers 29 and 30 were from authors I already know and love, so I had high hopes – which weren’t disappointed!

Penguin Modern 29 – Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag

Sontag has made a number of appearances on the blog, most usually because of an essay mentioning her or an introduction to a book or the suchlike. However, I do have her lurking on the TBR and I loved her essay on Barthes. So I was keen to read the two essays included in this Penguin Modern – the title one, and a second called “On Culture and the New Sensibility“.

One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.

“Notes…” is one of her seminal pieces, taking a look at the whole concept of camp culture, and exploring it in a series of numbered points as a cultural sensibility rather than an ideology. The whole notion of sensibility itself seems crucial to Sontag’s way of looking at things, hinting towards a more fluid, complex response to the world than most -ims allow for. She draws on the wonderful Oscar Wilde, possibly the epitome of classic camp, and explores what actually qualifies as camp and what doesn’t; whether it’s a naive or deliberate thing; and what art forms can actually be camp. It’s quite fascinating, opening up many avenues of thinking which I hadn’t considered before.

A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments.

The second piece was perhaps for me even more interesting, taking as it does its starting point from C.P. Snow’s seminal essay “Two Cultures”. The latter looked at the conflict between the arts and sciences, arguing for that divide to be dissolved, but Sontag is dismissive of Snow’s work. Instead she argues for new definitions of both the arts and the sciences, and that there are fewer differences between them than we might think; particularly in our modern world (she was writing in the 1960s) when mechanical methods of production were infiltrating the art (Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechnical Reproduction” springs to mind too).

Both of Sontag’s essays made fascinating reading; and although I think she might be an author I won’t always agree with, I love her style and her individual take on things. There’s much to think about in these essays, and I suspect I’ll be pondering for quite some time…

Penguin Modern 30 – The Red Tenda of Bologna by John Berger

By contrast, I have read a *lot* of John Berger (although there is still much I haven’t; he was a prolific writer); so I approached this essay, which I hadn’t heard of, with great interest. I call it an essay, but really it’s a work which defies description – and I love works like that!

Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or physical sense – I felt resssured. Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.

So it contains memoir, in the form of the story of his relationship with his favourite uncle, Edgar; a wonderful sounding man with whom Berger obviously had a close relationship, and who runs like a thread through the book. It contains travel, as nephew and uncle go on visits, and then Berger visits Bologna and meditates on his memories of his uncle, food, paintings, and the beauty of the city. He notes the distinctive red colour often used in the city, sets off to buy some fabric in that colour, and encounters his late uncle when he least expects too.

…in the evening Pleasure and Desolation take their evening stroll along the arcades and walk hand in hand.

The narrative of this short work has a wonderful dream-like atmosphere, and Berger’s writing is as beautiful as ever. He creates a nuanced, delicate picture of his uncle and their relationship; and his visions of Edgar after his death seem to imply that those we love live on in some shape or form within our lives. It’s a stunning and moving piece of writing, which was originally published in 2007 and hopefully will deservedly reach a wider audience now. Just wonderful…

*****

So two Penguin Moderns by highly-regarded authors at the top of their game. I’ve found each of the books in the set I’ve read so far to be excellent and stimulating, but these two in particular had me reaching for the post-its on numerous occasions. The Berger alone was worth the price of the set, and that’s high praise… Having got back into the groove with the Penguin Moderns, I can’t wait to see which authors come up in the next pairing! 😀

“…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!)

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! 😀

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