A Year in Reading: Claire-Louise Bennett

December 2, 2016 | 3 books mentioned 1 5 min read

covercovercoverI have been a terrible reader this year, demanding the impossible — I wanted to experience the same tumult and sting of feelings I encountered when I read classic books for the first time, around the age of 16. There are many different reading modes and naturally I frequently read as a writer so as to augment my sense of what is possible formally — I am fascinated by unorthodox structuring methods — but I am only a writer when I am writing and for much of this year I was not writing a great deal, and so I read with a deeper more personal hunger. I wanted to be moved, stirred, disturbed, shaken, perhaps even turned on a little. And so during a trip to Paris in spring, I picked up five books by Anaïs Nin and was for several weeks cast out in an unmoored realm of trenchant lust and forensic self-scrutiny as Nin’s novels charted her decadent quest to overthrow the boundaries of personality through a tantalizing series of choppy sexual encounters. For Nin, any kind of stability was deadly — “When I am most deeply rooted, I feel the wildest desire to uproot myself” — and yet I’d be reluctant to describe her deracinating tendencies as reckless or self-destructive. Insatiable, certainly, but that doesn’t imply that Nin was not in possession of a finely-tuned sensitivity and an acute sense of love, her writing attests to both superbly, and magnanimously — Nin is nothing if not generous — and so, despite my not quite having gone to the fleshly extremes she went to, her uninhibited prose recognizes and delineates that strange ineffable ache that from time to time dumbly echoes in the very pit of me. The frequency with which I underlined the most resonant sentences increased the further into whichever book I went, as if the process of reading gradually effected a reciprocal divestment of shame so that I became more willing to admit and highlight uncomfortable affinities. At the end of Henry and June Nin writes “I wept because I was no longer a child with a child’s blind faith…I wept because I could not believe anymore and I love to believe…I wept because I have lost my pain and I am not yet accustomed to its absence.” At around the same time, I was writing a story in which the narrator confesses, “My heart is no longer immersed and the mornings come like frigid air, stinging my unconsumed heart into rude awareness.” When books are selected in order to loosen an intrinsic deadlock, the most exquisite and searing simultaneities often arise — there it was again, that same paradoxical suffering, intravenous and estranged, in a very short piece titled “Such Gentleness” by Clarice Lispector; “I am a bit disoriented as if a heart had been torn from me, and in its place were now the sudden absence, an almost palpable absence of what before was an organ bathed in the darkness of pain.” I like to read Lispector’s stories aloud because it is inside the mouth that the import of her rhizomatic sentences is best released and absorbed. This imbibing approach was also very effective when it came to taking in Raduan Nassar’s Ancient Tillage, a full-bodied short novel that evokes the calamitous sexual awakening of André — “I was absolutely certain my body had been carved out to receive the devil himself”– a young man growing up on a farm in Brazil. Here is another individual sensually ablaze and pitted against carnal thresholds; for André the passage across is supported but mostly thwarted by fluctuating spiritual, familial, physical, and agrarian injunctions — distinct and demanding forces that Nassar channels and conflates with such power and prowess that the prose practically attains to the shamanic in several places. It shook me to the core. Following on from this, I entered into “Green, bourgeoise France,” the location for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The story of a love affair told by an onlooking collector of photographs, the prose here flickers with observations and impressions, “as if a huge deck of images is being shuffled. After this will come the trick.” A fair warning: the narrator, by his own admission, is not entirely reliable; “I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.” Pulsing, suspended, slowly perilous, the details of these erotic fragments seamlessly entwine the fanciful with the ordinary, as this particularly well-compressed couplet illustrates, “Aureate light is reflected from the ceiling. He has a hard-on he is sure will never disappear.”

covercoverIn order to address the fact that for much of the year I wasn’t writing a great deal, I spent the best part of autumn on a residency in Italy. It was here I came across Enrique Vila-Matas’s book Bartleby and Co., a book that every writer retreat should have multiple copies of upon its shelves, not least because its subject is antithetical to the purposes of a residency. Bartleby is the law-copyist from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who, for reasons never ascertained, responds to his employer’s increasingly exasperated demands by saying “I would prefer not to.” From this one instance of flat refusal Vila-Matas develops a worldly compendium of writers who can’t or won’t write and thus builds up a composite and compelling case for not putting pen to paper, which was a delight to peruse while on a writing residency — not getting down to work was no longer strictly attributable to lily-livered indolence but perhaps indicated a vital and sophisticated caesura. Vila-Matas’s examples introduced me to an extraordinary array of work, including a very fine piece by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Letter of Lord Chandos.” In this fictional missive addressed to Francis Bacon, Philip Chandos explains, with somewhat self-refuting erudition, why he has abandoned all literary endeavors; “My case, in short, is this: I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently.” This dire incapacity isn’t due to Chandos losing his mind, on the contrary, it would seem his mind is all too present and mercilessly impressed upon by uncontained stimuli; “my mind compelled me to view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness…For me everything disintegrated into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.” Chandos no longer perceives the world as a unifying whole and its disintegration has induced an enhanced state of consciousness, and empathy, but at the cost of a loss of faith in language. The same paradox might also have afflicted the narrator of Roger Lewinter’s The Attraction of Things, a recently translated work, which, in the author’s own words, tells “the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him, toward what he attracts…” The various encounters with “beings, works, things” are also viewed from “an uncanny closeness,” but Lewinter bypasses the oppressive difficulty of linguistic representation with a sinuous syntax that is up to the task of calibrating and enacting the intricacies of an atomized reality. Consequently the process of putting life into words does not lead to a void, as it does with Chandos, but towards moments of tranquil illumination. Indeed, the sensation of Lewinter’s prose upon one’s eyes is not dissimilar to looking across at the sun through overlapping branches of thin bright leaves.

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is the author of Pond, published by Riverhead Books.