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“For a sixteen-year-old, it is an ambitious and serious library, comprising poetry, philosophy and translated classics, mostly affordable Everyman, Oxford and Penguin editions, those early-twentieth-century projects in the democratization of knowledge. The photograph is not well lit, but the large numbers on the spines of the Everyman volumes allow the identification of several of them. The key writings of Plato, St Augustine, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Locke, Kant and Descartes are represented, as are Russian classics such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are no English novels, nor is there any Shakespeare, but there are collected works of poetry by T. S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Keats. Books such as Euclid’s Elements point to Coetzee’s ambition to become a mathematician, though Marx’s Das Kapital may have been less influential. Several of these books would leave their mark on the later fictions, although important future influences such as Pound, Beckett and Kafka are not as yet present.”

— Hermann Wittenberg, Times Literary Supplement

Autobiography is always negotiating two or more voices, speaking from separate and distinct moments in time. We can see this in what is perhaps the earliest example of modern autobiography, St Augustine‘s Confessions, where a present-day narrator attempts to reconstruct a previous life. In this way, autobiographical writing attempts to collapse the distance between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, and past and present.  (more…)

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Spent yesterday evening reading Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Still a young man, he has lost his mother and his father to illness. With no fixed home, he moved from his birthplace in France to America, then back to France, then to England, and now to America. His attention to detail is wonderful, whether describing middle-class English life or American cinemagoers enjoying Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his literary career, and there are early signs that he will consider monastic life. I’m looking forward to returning to the book as soon as I can: rich in everyday details, it’s a remarkable document of early-twentieth-century life.

I am becoming increasingly fascinated with life writing for its potential to blend historical record, philosophical observation, and literary style. I’m thinking here not only of Merton, but figures like St AugustineHenri Amiel, and one of my all-time favourites, Jules Renard. Samuel Beckett‘s poignant and dryly humorous letters have a similar quality.

In a recent interview with Neil Badmington, I was reminded of the profound power and solace that that life writing can provide. Badmington reveals that ‘The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow’.

Lara Feigel reviews Peter Boxall’s new book about the relevance of the novel in the 21st century

peter-boxall-value-of-the-novel

In his 1925 essay, “Why the Novel Matters”, DH Lawrence celebrated the novel as the “one bright book of life”. According to him, the novelist alone understands that there is as much life in the hand that writes as in the mind that thinks. Where science and philosophy privilege mind over matter, turning man into a “dead man in life”, the novel resurrects the “whole man alive”. Lawrence acknowledged that books do not constitute life, but insisted that they were “tremulations on the ether” that could make the whole man alive tremble into urgent being.

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