Buried Treasure

Don Paterson on Emil Cioran's 'The Trouble With Being Born'

If Emil Cioran is still unknown to most readers, it's because he worked in two of the least fashionable literary forms: the freewheeling philosophical essay and the aphorism. This means he continues to escape nearly every survey of both 20th-century philosophy and literature. Cioran was a Romanian, wrote most of his work in French, and died in 1995 at the age of 84. Any of the French books - all magnificently translated by the poet Richard Howard - can be considered representative. A good place to start is The Trouble With Being Born (Quartet Books), where he often sounds like a raging Buddha, cursed with a European incarnation and language (reduced to one word for absolute, as opposed to the 120 in Sanskrit). Like his great friend Samuel Beckett, Cioran takes a terrifyingly undeluded look at living, as in our having been dumped here as a conscious soul. His aphorisms are a kind of very black metaphysical recognition comedy. I carry Cioran everywhere I go, and I read him when I'm mentally falling asleep, or feeling miserable; and I always find myself lent a little wakefulness or a little courage. As he says, "In a world without melancholy, the nightingales would belch"; and "It's not worth the bother of killing yourself, because you always kill yourself too late."

Don Paterson's 'Landing Light' is the winner of this year's TS Eliot Prize and Whitbread Poetry Award