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Autobiographies Reading

What I read in 2014: autobiography and other

Here are some more books I read in 2014.

Autobiography

  1. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Cathy N Davidson.  My first book of the year, started on the plane back from Japan after a family holiday. Cathy N Davidson is an American Academic, and here describes three long stays in Japan and the cultural differences she found there. A sensitively written, thoughtful account. Well worth looking at even if you have no intention of visiting Japan.
  2. On Writing, Stephen King Now this is the kind of how to write book I like. Such advice as there is, is  derived from his personal experience as a successful writer, and is presented in an autobiographical context. The book ends with a lengthy account of returning to work after an appalling road accident that left him for dead by the side of the road. Well worth reading.
  3. Rock Stars Ate My Life, Mark Ellen. I once met Ellen in a Chiswick swimming pool and chatted to him for five minutes. As genuinely nice then as he seemed on the telly. This book is a amiable recollection of how the love of music filled his life with characters and adventures. Ellen is engagingly self-depreciating, and quietly nostalgic for a lost age of rock music. A happy read.
  4. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou. I found this lived up to its reputation. Maya Angelou is unsentimental in her reminiscence. I find her account of her episode of silence after she was raped as child to be heartbreaking, and the depiction of her childhood in the country seems to me to be describing something from the 19th Century.
  5. Night, Elie Wiesel. Holocaust literature is always going to be gruelling. ‘Night’ is a  chilling account of the author’s deportation, the loss of his family and experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald with his father in the last years of the second world war. This, alongside Primo Levi’s work should be required reading throughout Europe, especially for nationalists of all hues.
  6. Experience, Martin Amis. A memoir of disparate strands. A murdered cousin, thoughts on writing, a history of his bad teeth, his relationship with his father Kingsley. To me this was a highly satisfying read, though I can’t quite say why. Martin Amis is one of those writers whose work plays on my mind afterwards.
  7. A death in the family, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This book is fascinating. It is ostensibly a novel, but is written so autobiographically with banal or hyperreal detail,  featuring the writer and his actual family that for me it transcends genre. My brother told me to read this. He said it was like inhabiting someone-else’s life. He was right. One of the few literary name-checks in it is for Proust, and I can see why.

Other

  1. The Big Book of Hell a cartoon book, Matt Groening. I’m a sucker for cartoons. And I love these drawn by the man who came up with The Simpsons and Futurama. Great stuff, and with a bleak pessimism that makes it all the funnier.
  2. Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges. A book of short stories, but annoyingly as everyone said about it, these are stories that stick with you. So for example when watching the Interstellar movie, I almost yelped, “Borges! Infinite library!” These stories are so influential on contemporary fiction, that it seemed rude not to have read them before. Marvellous stuff. One of my books of the year.
  3. The World of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As someone who did a degree, back in the days of quill pens, in Philosophy and Literature, I like to read a bit of philosophy every now and then, and prefer a bit of what used to be called Continental Philosophy to its Anglo-American counterpart. I particularly like it when a philosopher is forced to be clear and succinct and resort to natural language. Merleau-Ponty’s book was based on a series of radio talks given on French radio. An accessible glimpse into a great philosophical mind.

I also wrote about these two last books in this post.

Next post, Poetry.

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Forking paths and unknown territory

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Two books can clink against each other like flints. Tho books from the 1940s produced a spark that has set me thinking about the staleness lurking in contemporary writing. 

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Jorge Luis Borges

Beguling Borges and his forking paths

The first is Fictions (1944) a collection of short fictions by Jorge Louis Borges, which collected the splendidly-titled The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Artifices (1944). I learn that this book has been hugely influential, and I can see why. It anticipates postmodern themes with breathtaking bravura.  The stories are difficult to pigeonhole, they have fantastical, almost SF elements, combined with a playful air of meticulous scholarship. One story A survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, was first published as criticism in a literary magazine. Only later when this piece was republished, was it clear that Herbert Quain is a fictional author invented by Borges.

The story Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote, tells us about a fictional French writer in the 1930s who is trying to rewrite Cervantes Don Quixote word for word in his own time. In the story, Borges provides two identical quotes, one attributes to Cervantes the other to Menard and the narrator sets about comparing and contrasting them.

Each of the stories in Fictions creates a world, exemplified perhaps by the opening to the story The Library of Babel.

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.

I hope I am not being too simplistic in asserting that the stories are metatextual; much of the writing is about writing; the stories are about stories. They offer us a fascinating textual kaleidoscope to peer into with amazement.

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Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Merleau-Ponty and perception

Second is The World of Perception (1948) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A leading French philosopher of the mid-20th century, Merleau-Ponty was a proponent of phenomenology.

In a nutshell, phenomenology asks us to think about how we sense things. Philosophically speaking, a ‘phenomenon’ of a lemon is yellowness, another phenomenon of a lemon is its acidity, another the way its ends appear pointy. Studying how these things appear is called phenomenology.

But, as we all know, appearances can be deceptive. The moon may appear to be a crescent when it is new, or a circle when full, two entirely different shapes (or phenomena) that we associate with the same object: the moon. So phenomenology studies how we perceive things, but also looks sometimes at the gulf between our perception and what is out there in the world.

What’s really good about The World of Perception is that it is the text of a short series of radio broadcasts commissioned by French National Radio. I often like the results when a great thinker is challenged to be clear. (And I smell a rat when they can’t be.)

The world of perception, or in other words the world which is revealed to us by our senses and in everyday life, seems at first sight to be the one we know best of all… Yet this is a delusion… I hope to show that the world of perception is, to a great extent, unknown territory…

Merleau-Ponty cites what was then modern art (frequently Cézanne) as an example of how the artists have set themselves the task of seeing the world for themselves, rather than how it ‘should’ be seen. The philosopher is contrasting this with classically influenced art of the Renaissance, where everything depicted in great detail as if seen perfectly by the eye of God.

I like Merleau-Ponty because he asks us to look in an unfiltered way at the unknown territory in our ourselves and the world around us. The challenge is that we have so many expectations about how things should be seen, it takes determination and artistry to see through the encrustation of received opinion and stale ideas to see what is really there.

Why I hate writing about writing

The influence of Borges is strong. Fictions about fictions, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, fan fictions, the endless juxtaposition of the Aliens and Predators of old thoughts… I find  this trope of modern culture a bit tired. While Borges Fictions itself is a collection of masterpieces, it opened a portal into a hall of mirrors thronging now with people trying to escape again. For while it seemed that there were amazing horizons in there, the reality is that it’s all self-referential claustrophobia.

The notion that all the songs these days remind you of other songs, or that all ways of representing the world in painting have been used up and exhausted is defeatist bunk. Books and art forms are part of the world, and can be reflected in art. But for goodness sake, let’s follow Merleau-Ponty, and crack a window to search the world, and ourselves, for something a bit fresher.