Sunday, 3 May 2009

books i have(n't) read

I am reading A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in French, by which I mean that I took about a year to read Du cote du chez Swann a year or two ago and have just got A l'ombre des jeune filles en fleur out of the library. My French is very bad, and I read at the rate of one or two pages a night, without using a dictionary or a grammar book, so (a) I keep having experiences like when people refer to 'the scene with the hawthorn bush' and I go OH IS THAT WHAT AUBEPINE MEANS, and (b) I expect it will take me at least ten years to finish it. But I'm actually really enjoying it, in a strange, impressionistic kind of way (and I absolutely bloody hated Madame Bovary, which I also read in French without knowing what lots of the words meant, so some kind of encounter is going on between me and the text.) It makes me think about Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read, and how the idea of having 'read' a book covers so many different kinds of encounters with and knowledges about a text - there are books I haven't read that I 'know' quite well (Joyce's Ulysses, of which I read the first 42 pages in about 1990), and books I have read that I have entirely forgotten, and all points in-between. Which is something which pulls together all the kinds of teaching that I do: I teach a course on 'contemporary writing' which is focussed through rewriting and appropriation, and I'm getting more and more interested in the rewriting of books one hasn't read (Walcott, in his epic poem Omeros, has his narrator claim that he 'never read' the works of Homer 'all the way through', and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is very closely related to Joyce's Ulysses, which - according to the story she tells about it - she too has never read.) But also, I'm teaching a Latin course (Level B, for post-beginners) and thinking about the ways I ask the students to 'read' Vergil and Lucan, that very normative, close, philological/critical kind of reading, attending to the grammar and the syntax and the literary qualities all at the same time. The kind of back-and-forth between part and whole which has to go on, paying attention to detail and texture and individual words, but knowing that their meaning is conditioned by their total context (which itself, of course, is constructed and contingent, never finally determinable). And how does that idealized model of reading actually map onto the experience of reading in a language at which one isn't very proficient, like me and French? It's something to think about, the way I demand my students should be able to account for every case, mood, and tense of every word in the texts they read, versus the impressionistic way I read Proust, missing lots of words and lots of sentences and lots of paragraphs but somehow loving it nonetheless, having lots of it remain with me in nonverbal ways.

And I've also been meaning to write about how much I love Eric, or Little by Little, and how much it reminds me of my own fiction, and how I feel like I should only love it in some sort of kitsch or ironic way, but actually I just really love it for the same reasons I love books that I know are actually much better, as books (as crafted artefacts and as pieces of what Benjamin calls 'counsel', 'wisdom woven into the fabric of everyday life', in his essay 'The Storyteller'). Everyone has so many feelings about everything, and there are so many wonderful words, descriptions, moral asides, narratorial interjections... So overwrought and highly-coloured and excessive. Actually, it reminds me of a quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick which I used last week in a brief 'position paper' for a debate about interdisciplinarity (and which I used in my essay on fanfiction, I can't let it go):

I think that for many of us in childhood the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects, objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us, became a prime resource for survival. We needed there to be sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other… The need I brought to books and poems was hardly to be circumscribed, and I felt I knew I would have to struggle to wrest from them sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself and (in various senses) my kind. The reading practices founded on such basic demands and intuitions had necessarily to run against the grain of the most patent available formulae for young people’s reading and life… Becoming a perverse reader was never a matter of my condescension to texts, rather of the surplus charge of my trust in them to remain powerful, refractory, and exemplary.

So let this be my 'in memoriam' post for Sedgwick, who died a few weeks ago and who saved my life and many others. Not good enough as a memorial for her, not nearly good enough, but at least perhaps she would like the context: genderfucked Victorian boys' fiction (remind me to post the quote about Eric in his pink dress with the silver clasp that shows off his figure*) and Proust, high culture and popular culture, mysterious, oblique and excessive.

*in which he is playing cricket, naturally

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