Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book reading indeed requires good intentions - Wuthering Expectations in 2017

Don‘t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch.  All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again.  On the other hand, I advise you not to tremble in the face of months, years even, of procrastination, since there’s something quite formative and educational in waiting.

Such good advice from Robert Walser, as found in his 1933 sketch “Something about Eating,” as found in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (2016).  I always flail around a lot after a break, as if I have forgotten how to write.

The reading and writing on Wuthering Expectations, now in the winter of its tenth year, will likely look much like it did last year, for a time, at least.  More American literature, more Henry James, more poetry circa World War I.  The chronological drift continues, though, so more of the James will be the dreaded, beloved Late James.  The war poetry will become post-war poetry.  Books from 18XX will become more rare, books from 190X more common.

Twelve or so years ago I began reading 19th century literature intensely, reading through it with a chronological bias – not neurosis, I hope – in order to see how the pieces of the different literary traditions fit together, and how the traditions bumped against each other.  When I started Wuthering Expectations I was just leaving the 1830s, and thus writing about Balzac, Poe, and early Dickens.  Now I am looking forward to the end of the long 19th, the years before the war.  Conrad, Wharton, James; Lawrence, Kafka, Proust.

I spent some time reading Yiddish, Scottish, Portuguese, Scandinavian, Austrian, and Italian literature as a way to study those traditions from a different direction, separated from the drift.  These literatures are small – I mean, in the 19th century and especially in English – and manageable.  The chronological drift was really determined by British, French, American, and Russian literature.

For whatever reason, last year my reading of poetry raced forward into the 1910s.  The story these books of poems are telling remains exciting.  Even the early books of a diehard second-rater like Conrad Aiken, who aspired to the condition of music and thus labeled his poems “symphonies” and “nocturnes” and such nonsense, have been deeply interesting as part of the larger story of poetic Modernism.  So it is likely that I will drift into the 1920s.  Lorca, Eliot, Vallejo, WCW, Rilke, Moore, Yeats, Jeffers – what happened next? is what I keep asking.

The number of books published 18XX that I am excited about reading now and in reality, rather than someday and theoretically, has gotten pretty small.  But I am about ten percent of the way into War and Peace, which I have not read for a long time, in part because I have doubts about its bloggability, and it is among other things making me excited to reread Anna Karenina.  There are no rules here.

Book reading indeed requires good intentions…  I must stress, incidentally, that very few contemporary books, books of today, fall into my hands.

That’s Walser again, from “A Woman’s Book.” “The reader might note that none of this is so terribly significant.”  So true.


  1. I love your currently reading list! I enjoyed Chopin's story and I also would very much like to tackle War and Peace this year. But you are right about writing posts for it--seems daunting. I look forward to your posts in 2017. Happy reading, Tom!

  2. I once did a similar, though far less thorough, read through English literature chronologically (no literature in translation or poetry). I notice I stopped at 1864, not quite making it to the end of Dickens. My plans at the time only made it as far as The Turn of the Screw so I'll be very interested to see what you read of the 20th century.

  3. Always love reading your posts even if I don't always comment (it's not easy cross-platform). Look forward to your thoughts on War and Peace!


  4. Happy New Year to you, Tom. I don't mean to complain, but it's been an awfully long time since you added any new mummified cats content. Your new plans sound as interesting as usual, though, so I'll thank you in advance for your action-packed entertainment & edification hijinks with or without any new mummified cats action. Loved your quip about "the dreaded, beloved Late James," by the way. Nicely played.

  5. I wish I knew how to loosen up the commenting. I make it as friendly as the software allows, I think. Maybe I should create a shell Wordpress account and see what the obstacle is.

    Maybe I will treat War and Peace like a series of four separate novels. Or even better, fifteen novellas. That doesn't sound so daunting. I don't believe that W&P is as complexly made as Anna Karenina, but I fear that, unable to handle the mass of the thing, I will never really know.

    How I wish I had more mummified cat content.

    Chronology is not the only to organize books, not at all, but I would urge anyone with the temperament to do it to carve out some favorite chunk of literary history and give it a try, like 1streading says. See what happens.

  6. Happy new year!

    If there are no more mummified cats left, there's always that magnificent un-mum-mified cat, Tobermory. Tobermory's creator, Saki, died a hundred years ago, give or take a month or two.

  7. Thanks, happy New Year.

    Reading more Saki is a good idea, but I will sometimes feel that I will never have as good an idea as Mummified Cat Week, or Golem Week, or a number of other pieces form the increasingly distant past.

    Munro's death - what a blow. What a shock.

  8. As you prepare for Anna Karenina, consider at least revisiting your thoughts about Daniel Deronda, a book with a similar construction, and similar brilliance and structural problems, two novels barely able to carry the weight of their philosophical arguments, yet both among the towering achievements of the late 19th century. And, well--are any novels more fraught with problems--and greatness--than the three towering novels of the late James's grand style?

  9. I'll give it a shot - if only I were a better reader of Eliot. In most moods, I take Anna Karenina as the high point of the art of the novel.

    Those three late James novels are the big goals of the year. At least two of them. Maybe all three.

  10. It's nice to have a fellow chronological slogger/blogger! As for W&P, you might find this of interest. Like kaggsy, I look forward to your posts about it.

  11. W&P as a devotional! Although I think it only works for someone who has read the book several times. For some of us, it is still a page-turner - the limit of a chapter a day would chafe.

    Thanks for the pointer.

  12. Interesting that that guy came to War and Peace through Tolstoy's political/religious writings, rather than the other way around!

    I instinctively cringe at comparing Daniel Deronda and Anna Karenina, as I love the first and was incredibly bored by the second. But one similarity between them is that the characters who do the opposite of what the novelist considers best are the most vivid- Anna and not just Gwendolen but the Princess Halm-Eberstein/Daniel's mom, who sums up everything that can be said against Eliot's focus on roots and place and the need for specificity (as exemplified in the novel by Judaism). I found Daniel a lot more interesting than Levin, though.

    Note that in both W & P and Anna Karenina, life-changing wisdom is transmitted by a peasant called Platon. Not terribly subtle.

    Personally I find W & P a lot more interesting than AK--it's a bildungsroman at three different ages at once.

  13. Incredibly bored! Boy oh boy, that is not me. Perhaps it is relevant that I don't know what to do with the ethical or philosophical arguments of any of these books.

    When I write about Anna Karenina, I predict it's going to be nothing but art, art, art, like when I write about Flaubert.

  14. From someone who genuinely has forgotten how to write (or at least the art of finishing blog posts) you remain a beacon. I have a Crime and Punishment reread lined up as part of a classic book group I have joined at my local library. It has me reading 19th century fiction Jane Eyre/Silas Marner/Christmas Carol. C&P is the most ambitious so far but it may lead me to feel the need to read a bit more deeply into the 19th C. However, I am far more drawn to chaos than order and may just react by reading a pile of recent fiction to balance the 'classics'. Whatever happens with my own reading I look forward as ever to reading Wuthering Expectations, particularly on Kafka and Proust (& Lorca and Eliot and Yeats...) I think I'll try to read a couple of James' novels as well. He intrigues me rather than inspiring love but I did really enjoy Washington Square. It's a long time since I read one of his later novels.

  15. Thanks. That sounds like an inspirational pile of books.

    I will bet I do not get to Proust or Kafka this year, but who knows how they will tempt me. Old friends.

  16. The range of your reading makes mine seem rather impoverished in comparison.

    I very much look forward to what you make of "Conrad, Wharton, James; Lawrence, Kafka, Proust". And, of course, those two big Tolstoys. I am due another re-read of W&P myself: it has been too long since the last one. And yes, do please write about the art: there are ideas in the novels, certainly, but they are by no mean philosophical treatises dressed up as novels.

    I'd be particularly interested in what you make of The Golden Bowl. I think I have a reasonable understanding of The Ambassadors and the Wings of the Dove, but The Golden Bowl continues to elude me. Perhaps it's meant to - I really don't know.

  17. "Range" is purely the result of temperament. I'm out towards the edge of extensive reading, I've learned that. That's all.

    Those James novels - three in a year - I dunno. But I'll try.

  18. Late James seems to have loved playing games of the "did he or didn't he intend for this name to be allusive" kind with his readers, and not just the more crass ones like Fanny and Bob Assingham. For example, according to ancient astrology, the zodiac signs “de feu et d’air sont Stant et malefiques, et les signes de terre et d’eau sont Iacent et benefiques." Now this is suggestive because Adam, of course, means red earth, and as for Margaret (Maggie), it means pearl.

  19. I wish you a great reading year.

    I try to read your posts but it's often too difficult for me to follow entirely so I rarely comment.

    I'll still follow your reading adventures in 2017.

  20. There is a line in Princess Casamassima, basically a list of names, that is so funny I will be sure to use it when I write about that book. What galls me is that James complains about Trollope's joke names, but I take that as some kind of deflection.

    Emma, thanks. Sometime my posts are too difficult for me to follow, too. And then look we all see what happens. But I walk away from the crash and try again.

  21. Should you reread Anna Karenina again, may I join you? I have read it four or five times, but I never tire of it. In fact, I yearn for Tolstoy fairly regularly.

  22. Sure! Spring, summer, around then, let's say. Toothache time!

  23. I'm planning a War and Peace readalong for the summer. It'll be my first time, so hopefully the blogability won't be too bad! So far I'm reading a few "how to read W&P" articles, which alternately advise me to skim the "war" parts, because they aren't that important, or, don't skim the war parts. I'm not a skimmer so I know which side I'll fall on here :)

  24. The advice to skim is anti-literature, anti-art, anti-Tolstoy, anti-etc. Not that important! First learn how to read military history - some time with John Keegan's The Face of Battle - maybe that would go on my "how to."

    Maybe the loose, baggy monster aspect of War and Peace makes it more bloggable, but I am not convinced that it is actually so loose and baggy. Whatever that means.