There is no sovereign music for our desire

Dammee - tagged again! I always curse a bit when this happens, but gradually the curses fade into grumbles, the grumbling turns into mumbling & then a list begins to appear:

1. The King Must Die & The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault

When I was quite young, these filled me with the wonder & terror of their imagining of antiquity, specifically, the Theseus story. For years afterwards I thought I probably was Theseus & maybe still do. The sequence on Naxos when Ariadne joins the Maenads in their revels has never left me.

2. Thus Spake Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche

Read this in a Penguin Classic edition the summer after I left school, the summer before I went to university. Was working at the General Motors plant in Trentham, assembling cars at the time. Remember lying on my tummy on the sitting room floor covering pages & pages of a pad with Nietzschean prose, since lost & now unremembered.

3. Labyrinths - Jorge Luis Borges

Again, a discovery of the early 1970s, one that completely changed my, & a lot of other people's, notions of what writing could be. My copy has my mother's name & address impressed on the cover, which means I must have posted it to her, why I don't know, in 1970 or '71 by the style of the hand.

4. Illuminations - Arthur Rimbaud

Probably came to Rimbaud via Robert Lowell's Imitations, which was a kind of sacred text for us in the early 1970s. What can you say about Illuminations? Inexhaustible, ineffable, incomparable. How about a line like this: La musique savante manque à notre désir, which Louise Varèse, whose translations I prefer above all others, renders: There is no sovereign music for our desire.

5. Illuminations - Walter Benjamin

This was a selection translated by Harry Zohn with an introduction by Hannah Arendt published in 1968 I think. Inexhaustible, like it's namesake above. There are essays on his library, on Kafka, on Baudelaire, on the Philosophy of History. There's a companion volume, called Reflections that I also have. Benjamin's prose is mysterious, redolent, you can meditate upon a sentence or a phrase forever it seems.

6. Triste Tropiques - Claude Lévi-Strauss

Like the Benjamin, I read this in the mid-seventies in Wellington. They taught Structural Anthropology at Vic & I've always been grateful for that introduction, since it meant I didn't have to genuflect when deconstruction became the rage a little bit later on. Lévi-Strauss' theoretical works were too much for me but this book is a delight, an education in itself.

7. Canopus in Argos - Doris Lessing

Some books change forever the way you think about things & this series did that for me, especially the first, Shikasta, & the third, The Sirian Experiments. They suggest that something completely different to what our histories have taught is going on on the planet - & in the universe. It's not necessarily true, you don't have to believe it, but you can't altogether dismiss it either.

8. Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy

This I bought at Sydney Airport one day in the late 1980s or early 1990s, because it looked interesting. A Picador paperback. Had no idea who the author was, but have now read most, if not all, of what he's published. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West is roughly comparable in its range & intensity with Moby Dick. Except of course it’s a Western. The ending is like nothing else I've ever read.

9. The Book of Disquiet - Bernardo Soares, Assistant Book-keeper in the City of Lisbon

... who is actual a semi-heteronym of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who I first discovering from reading José Saramago's magnificent The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The Book of Disquiet is an infinite book, & there are many English selections / translations, all different; I like best the one prepared by Margaret Jull Costa. This is writing that somehow manages to be at once dream & reality.

10. The Rings of Saturn - W. G. Sebald

... have always counted myself lucky that I'd written my first two books before I encountered Sebald, because, I don't know, the anxiety of influence I guess. This was the first book of his I read & it's still my favourite. A melancholy master like Soares perhaps, with an ability to digress that always returns you to the main theme.

Others who don't figure as particular books but as authors I re-read might include Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, Henri Michaux, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Beckett, Bruce Chatwin, William Gaddis, Italo Calvino, John Berger, William Burroughs and perhaps a thousand others.

I've also always read a lot of poetry & if I had to make a list of ten poets they would be, in no particular order, W. B. Yeats, James K Baxter, Alan Brunton, César Vallejo, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton & Constantin Cavafy.

Painters have been an influence, especially, and decisively, Philip Clairmont, with his techniques of layering & collage, where pieces of old works are archaeologically present as constituents of the new.

Influence is a strange beast, there are books / writers you read that seem to have been prefigured in your soul - so it's not so much about wanting to be like them as it is of discovering how & why this deep affinity exists. You can admire a book or a writer without feeling this affinity; you can also feel it for a work you don't necessarily admire. Some sort of DNA involved perhaps?


Jack Ross said...

A lot of those ring bells with me, too -- especially Mary Renault. I've been trying to collect all of her books for years now -- even the ones not about ancient Greece. The King Must Die rocked my world and I don't think I've ever quite gotten over it (The Bull from the Sea less so, I have to admit). I also like the Alexander novels as well as the late one about the poet Simonides, The Praise Singer ...

Martin Edmond said...

... there's a bio of MR by a fellow called Sweetman that's interesting, she wrote all her archaic books in South Africa after an alternative career as a novelist (6 titles) in England. The Praise Singer is the only one I've read as an adult, had a similar effect to the others when I was a child.