Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Wrapped up in Books

Few books that have been important for me in 2009. Now only 5, there's a lot more of them, but the rest I'm going to list separately.

1. Return to T.S. Eliot

"In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V."

First, he made me sympathize with a prematurely aged 20-, than 30- and 40-something at the age of 15, when, via the Metaphysical poets, he’s became my most cult author – because his influence on me didn’t include only poetry, but mainly – essays. Tradition and Individual Talent, Music of Poetry, What is a Classic and various essays on the aforementioned poets I could quote by heart. The dissociation of sensibility and detachment between senses and intellect haunted my youth. Then he’s became an object of my dissertation at my early English literature studies. Then I’ve became more prone to the “experimental” poetry and started reading Pound, Lewis and Laura Riding more ferociously.

There is something about good old TSE you just can’t resist. Even though he, at some point, professed fascism, expressed anti-Semitism, misogyny and god knows what else. It probably has to do with that he was able to permeate my desperate teens to such a deep, overtaking extent, along maybe only with Rimbaud and Thomas Mann (sic!). The publication of the Letters 1923-25 reveals the especially difficult period in TSE life: he published The Waste Land, a shocker of a poem, which shook the ground of English literature and determined the development of poetry at least for the next decade, his marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood has proven to be a disaster for both, Eliot still worked at Lloyd’s bank and descended slightly into an especially severe condition, a combination of depression, guilt and self denial. As he wrote in February 1923, to Middleton Murry: ‘it will take me a year or two to throw off The Waste Land and settle down and get at something better which is tormenting me by its elusiveness in my brain.’ It actually finally took place, cf. The Hollow Men, but in a rather exhaustive manner to say the least. Certain vein, set of possibilities, certain momentum, had been already exhausted and faded to an infinite gray.

2. Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of

Call me reactionary; I like this book. I like Julian Barnes. He’s frequently genuinely funny, self-ironic and never falls into self indulgence or hatred, as for example Martin Amis does. Flaubert’s Parrot is a brilliant book and one of the best accounts on Flaubert there are, remaining an enjoyable, hilarious read. The same goes with A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Before She Met Me. Even Talking it Over is not without charms. I can forgive him his French pretentiousness and his living in Provence. And I enjoyed his last novel, Arthur and George, quite much. Surely, no wonder, he’s no new Dostoyevsky, but we just can’t afford any new Dostoyevsky or Dickens nowadays. Let’s face it: Barnes at least represents cultured, cultivated times, when writers at least could write proper sentences, and he’s reasonable, modest, and definitely knows how to operate with the pen.
I said ‘reactionary’, cos Nothing considers this usually controversial topic, that is (non)religion. Before you start yawning, I ensure you, that Barnes deals with his own maturing to atheism in an interesting way. He struggles with his brother – analytic philosopher, ultra conservative mother, agnostic father, and grandparents: communist granny especially neat. But he’s not mocking any possibility, and the review of his family beliefs is a nice family portrait and I’m always interested in family portraits. Then there goes his review of books and his significant other authors, like aforementioned Flaubert or Jules Renard, and their views on religion. The conclusion is not revolutionary, we are all afraid of death etc., but what the hell. As Flaubert says, “We have to learn everything, from how to talk to how to die.” Philosopher, c’est apprendre de mourir, wrote Montaigne. Ah well.

ps. Barnes on Orwell here

3. Miron Białoszewski Chamowo & Juliusz Strachota Cień pod blokiem Mirona Bialoszewskiego

Some strictly Polish stuff, haha. Białoszewski (1922-1983) was our one of the best poets of the 20th century, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in linguistic poetry, soaking it with an extremely ‘local’ climate. He was a local poet to the bone, and Warsaw, with its topography, architecture, shape, district division, and the local languages, was his city: his territory, his destiny. I will write a ‘hauntological’ post on Białoszewski once, feel warned!

He survived Warsaw Uprising as a young man, which experience he delineated after years (1970) in the one of the most stirring and poetically excellent war account ever written, that is The Diary from The Warsaw Rising. He invented a new type of literary language: colloquial, mundane, trying to be as sincere to the way things are spoken as it’s possible, simultaneously inventing a new way of recording it: experimented with punctuation marks, small letters etc. But what is the most important is the wholly new way of writing about oneself, which is at the same time very close to life and distanced, as if the writer’s ego, its ontological status, translocated and transformed and become the speech itself. Chamowo, which title is derived from a common name of a part of Saska Kepa, a district in Warsaw, is an exercise in combining a diary, autobiography with a “chronicle of events", but a very strange one indeed, because those events are of a kind, that someone went for a trip near Warsaw or bought a new pair of trousers. It’s a metaphysics of the everyday, of the ordinary.

[this is actually literally "the shadow over the Miron Białoszewski tower block" in Saska Kepa in Warsaw]

Juliusz Strachota is a late heir of Białoszewski, that has a cult status among Polish writers. He was a creator of a whole tradition in Polish literature and Juliusz (1979), whom I happen to know, is its new continuator and a great fan of his. His short stories are really short – like 2,3, 4 pages maximum and his style you could describe as a combination of Etgar Keret, Raymond Carver and Bialoszewski himself. Strachota is the best portrayer of the current 20somethings generation: his typical hero is as anti-heroic as it’s possible, usually a 30 years old computer programmer, neurotic, haunted by memories (clearly soaked with Peoples Republic reality of PL) and the fantastic, grotesque visions of reality. Clearly he’s also unable to express or to feel emotions. But it's not a typical ‘loneliness in a big city’ type of desolation – we are too provincial for it and Strachota is too ironic and self deprecatory. The language is laconic, hilarious, restrained. His hero struggles with his demons, but is looking for a way out.

And Strachota is also one of the most local authors I know, in whose prose details, like the number or a route of a tram or the design of a special street, are of crucial importance. He was obsessed with Saska Kepa in Warsaw, where Bialoszewski lived, living himself in Grochow. And now he lives in Krakow’s Nowa Huta, a famous social realist district designed for workers, a city within a city indeed. The spectral tower blocks and nonsentimentalism of this areas in his prose delight me. Now Nowa Huta has become also a theme for the discussed collection and for his next novel, which I’m currently reading in a manuscript. Hell, it is good. And we need another account of Nowa Huta in literature.

But it doesn’t change the fact I was absolutely thrilled, when I discovered this some time ago from my favourite blogger. Scroll a bit to the top and you will read, how Owen is juxtaposing Nowa Huta with Shirley in his familial Southampton. As far as I’m concerned, we could carry on a twinning of Nowa Huta and Thornhill any time.

4. Rereading of L-F Celine

I don’t really want to dwell on Celine, that is, Louis Ferdinand Destouches (1894-1961), famous for his anti-semitism and favouring Nazism too much. To me he was one of the rare true literary geniuses of the 20th century and its one of the most problematic if not controversial personalities at the same time.

Celine is an ideal writer when you’re young, angry and prone to any shallow radicalism, then he becomes a writer of non-comparable despair. Show me more excruciating, heartrending passages, than those of Bardamu, the hero and the narrator of Mort a credit (Death on credit, 1936). Show me a more contradictory genius of 20th century prose, who was, no doubt about it, such a scum and sociopath. The keys to Celine are his miserable childhood and youth, as presented in Death; then his nightmarish experiences at the WWI front, described in the Journey to the End of the Night, that left him a handicap. Celine had a tin plate in his head and had a high ringing sound in his ears for the rest of his life, as a result of an explosion he endured. then there comes his lifelong experience as a doctor for the poor - his contemptous passages on the proletariat he treated from Death are stirring, but on the other hand, he cured them for free without any spare questions; But nothing can explain or justify what he wrote in Trifles for the Massacre (1937) or then in an even more terryfying pamphlet, L'École des cadavres [The School of Corpses] published a bit later (1938), where Celine postulated a total subjugation and fraternite with the Nazi Germany.

This is something “one would expect from an anti-Semite of Céline's tireless and impenitent ardor, a writer who, from 1937 to 1944, spent all his flagrant literary energy and aptitude calling—shouting—for the death of every Jew in France (for a start).” (to quote this helpful piece). “Once one extends the reach of Godard's claim to include the anti-Semitic trilogy, the congruence of Céline's wink-wink misanthropy with his unblinking sociopathy becomes apparent. It is not that we shouldn't read Céline because he was, at a profound level, contemptible. It is rather that, to understand Céline, we must be ready to, and permitted to, read all that he wrote. Only in this way can we begin to understand what we are saying when we might think to class him as—of all things—a humorist.”


  1. tak na wszelki wypadek: to raczej nie jest blok, w ktorym mieszkal Miron Bialoszewski na Saskiej Kepie

  2. bardzo fajnie,że napisałaś co nie co o Mironie dla osób które zapewne nigdy o nim nie słyszały (postać to znana poza Polska niewielu jak przypuszczam)
    a na dodatek znalazł się w tutaj w całkiem zacnym towarzystwie;)