I read between stretches of work, and I also love to procrastinate by reading. I just read The Walk by Robert Walser, which, after a gloomy day, had a soothing affect on me, and felt like an afternoon-long procrastinator’s daydream—beguiling and infuriating—full of surprises. With regards to my reading, I have no system so I’m sharing a few things here I’ve read this year in no order.
Earlier this year I read Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter. It’s a school text in Russia but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Some time later I had a dream where Pushkin was camping out in a forest in late summer, hiding from an unknown enemy and re-writing The Captain’s Daughter. In this dream, I was sort-of-Pushkin. It rained and his bookshelf was wet; he flicked through the soaking pages. This dream delighted me. I thought about how this adventure tale—set in the Caucasus, and romanticising the events of a popular insurrection led by the Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev in the late 18th century—had slipped into my mind and unravelled there without my awareness; how Pushkin must have fertilised hundreds of thousands of hopefully-occasional pleasure-filled dreams. A Russian critic said there are few writers in the world who are as worshipped in their own country as Pushkin is in Russia, and as little known outside of it.
I was excited to see that one of my favourite poets, Canadian Karen Solie, had a new book out last year: The Caiplie Caves. She has a particular way of writing about nature and human interference in nature, with sadness and wit, always tender and acerbic. The new inventive and atmospheric collection is set in caves on the Scottish coast and revolves around St Ethernan, a 7th century Irish missionary. It’s exciting to follow a contemporary poet’s work.
Before my local pool closed as part of lockdown, I was in the sauna, where a few men were talking loudly.
‘I never read fiction, I mean I read philosophy, I read political stuff, I read analysis, you know, I just don’t really have the need to read fiction. You know, I read serious stuff, Adorno and Horkheimer, for example.’
‘Good on you, that’s good. People would find them tough, the language and that.’ ‘Oh you know, I say, get a fucking Oxford dictionary.’
Spectator to this, I grew embarrassed that I had been trying to make it through Dialectic of Enlightenment, not for the first time either. It’s difficult going and I’m not sure what made me persevere. Eventually, I was gripped by this work’s operatic scale, its morose, catastrophic thesis that seems fitting to our times, its incessant repetition of defiant statements and analyses.
Sometimes it’s nice to read a few pages of a novel in bed and doze off—to wake up again and read one more paragraph, before dozing off again—and for flashes of dreams to intermix with words read. I’d fallen asleep to both Gone Tomorrow and Horse Crazy by the critic, writer and actor Gary Indiana, recommended to me by a friend. These tales of high passion are elegant and mad. It seems so hard, almost impossible, to do something transgressive in art now, and Indiana’s work felt truly transgressive, perhaps because his method is precise and ruthless, and the sense of transgression is predicated on tragedy.
Paul, the film director in Gone Tomorrow feels ‘buried alive in his own kitsch’ while his lover is dying from AIDS. ‘Paul said that even his homosexuality had turned into sozialkitsch, because this nightmare which was so particular and moving to himself was happening to thousands of other people at the same time, and being treated as a “social problem,” or a political cause, and therefore his entire existence was becoming leftist kitsch or fascist kitsch, depending on the vantage point.’ Indiana kicks back against our comfortable descents into kitsch, sentimentality, or moral laziness, and his sentences feel earned. I love this bit in the opening pages of Horse Crazy: ‘I haven’t the heart to tell you my own story, and keep looking for less convoluted fictions. Love like a stone in the stomach, a penance, a noose: love like a crime. Is this about love, I wonder.’
I enjoyed The Ice Palace by the Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas, that begins with a very masterful scene between two little girls and takes us to a magical and grotesque ‘ice-palace’ that is formed at a waterfall in a Norwegian village in winter. Another friend recommended this novel, and noted how that scene is impressively ambiguous, it doesn’t say everything, and as a result turns the reader into an active participant in the story. It’s nice when things can be left unsaid and unresolved. Stories that are totally resolved don’t seem to live on, in art or life.
Finally, I finished Proust! I’ve been reading Proust for some years, and these books have been a real part of my life. There are many great passages on dreaming throughout. Each one of the volumes offered countless treats, but putting down the final volume I was profoundly moved by his concluding thoughts on art and literature, war and homosexuality, time, aging, beauty, class, society, love. Things are brought full circle though not resolved, and the narrator formulates for himself, in many glowing, beautiful passages, what he now sees as the purpose of his work and his life. I’d like to offer this passage, which felt to me so hopeful.
‘But art, if it means awareness of our own life, means also awareness of the lives of other people [….]. Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon’
Alena Lodkina is a filmmaker based in Melbourne. Her debut feature film Strange Colours is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.