Illuminations – Arthur Rimbaud; trans. by Louise Varèse; New Directions, 1957
The genesis of the prose poems in Illuminations is unclear: all we really know is that Rimbaud handed the manuscript to Verlaine in Stuttgart in 1875 and then took off for parts unknown. I came to them in Auckland the early 1970s via Louise Varèse’s translations. Other people prefer other versions but this is still the one for me. An alternate title for the collection was painted plates; which emphasises their status as pictorial writing. People have seen them as mystical and enigmatic but I’ve always read them as actual glimpses of cities Rimbaud knew—London, Brussels, Paris—of people he met and scenes along the roads he constantly travelled. I still think that’s what they are.
Queen Victoria - Lytton Strachey; Collins, 1921
I came across this in Wellington in the mid-1970s and picked it up because Strachey was a name I had heard in association with Bloomsbury circle. It’s a short book—only ten chapters and less than three hundred pages long—and thus quite unlike the vast and detailed biographies fashionable today. Strachey does not pile up information but instead makes his way swiftly and decisively across an entire century, illuminating an extraordinary life. He’s more famous now for its predecessor, Eminent Victorians and that too is a revolutionary work; but it was Queen Victoria which showed me how concision, insight, intelligence and, above all, a robust point of view are, in writing, as important as facts.
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa; trans. by Margaret Jull Costa; Serpent’s Tail, 1991
Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a book you may begin to read but will never end: because it is an infinite work. It wasn’t actually written by Pessoa but by his semi-heteronym, an obscure clerk in Lisbon called Bernardo Soares. And, in fact, it wasn’t really written at all, but put together by an editor out of fragments found in Pessoa’s trunk, which contained more than 25,000 items, after his death. The prose pieces in The Book of Disquiet are meditations which begin with some casual observation—the weather, a passer-by, an indisposition—and then, by some ineluctable process, loop out towards eternity and/or infinity. And then, most often, back to the quotidian again. There is no more intoxicating example I know of the power of language to transform thought.
The Rings of Saturn – W G Sebald; trans. Michael Hulse; Harvill Press, 1998
My copy of The Rings of Saturn has a detail of a Whistler painting on the cover, a solitary figure standing on a vast expanse of yellow sand before a blue and silver sky. The book is structured around a journey Sebald made, on foot, through Suffolk; but it covers an enormous amount of other ground. Vertiginously digressive, it is united by the voice in which it is told: sober, disenchanted, appalled, amused, engaged. The prose is as exhilarating as any I have read; a wandering which returns you, more enlightened, to the matter at hand. I’ve always been grateful I didn’t read this book until I’d written two of my own; otherwise I might have succumbed, as many others have, to Sebald’s witching power.
Award-winning writer Martin Edmond's latest biographical work, The Expatriates, examining the lives of New Zealanders Harold Williams, Ronald Syme, John Platts-Mills and Joe Trapp, was published by Bridget Williams Books in November 2017.
Note: Published in print by Fairfax Media, reproduced with permission.