Thursday, 23 March 2017

Reviews of a new biography of Angela Carter sent me back to her books, all of which I have, I think, in their Picador/King Penguin/Virago editions of the 1970s and 80s. It wasn't until I'd finished Black Venus and started The Bloody Chamber that I remembered why I'd felt at home with them when they came out; and why I haven't re-read them. Certain books are absorbed by the life into which they fed. They do not teleport. Angela Carter came out of a reading culture I knew — from Baudelaire to fairy stories — and she was older than I was, with a will to shake off any chattels that didn't suit her.  I knew her, or wanted to know her.
His library seemed the source of his habitual odour of Russian leather. Row upon row of calf-bound volumes, brown and olive, with gilt entering on their spines, the octavo in brilliant scarlet morocco. A deep-buttoned leather sofa to recline on. A lectern, carved like a spread eagle, that held open upon it an edition of Huysmans's Là-bas...
This was a scenario I knew. What happened was secondary.  Standing at the lectern and reading, as interloper, as greedy thief, as innocent. That was as much as I could understand. The bloody chamber, the murdered wives, the gothic gore, were beyond me.

What did I make of the ruby choker that saves our fragile but resilient heroine? How did I wear it in 1979? With defiance, fear, quiet assurance or absolute refusal? Where did I stand, exactly, in my own  life, at what distance from it?  How much mythic could I stomach? How many prototypes? Then? Now?

Angela Carter leaves with more questions than she arrived.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

It may be that a completely new wraparound reality (Puerto Banus) is ideal for reading poetry. On the early spring beach, almost deserted, with two mountains of sand ready to spread for the coming season, I'm ready to renew too. Sharon Olds in Penguin Modern Poets Three (Your Family, Your Body) had me reading and re-reading. Residing, in fact. And while I sat, the beach changed under energetic waves. What was a glorious black wet landmark stone over to the left has vanished, and the flotsam that could have been a dead dog or a camera bag, has not landed. I like to think all this has an exact counterpart in my reading: things have moved, vanished, swallowed, shifted like the smashed tomato box once right in front of me, now some way to the left in several more pieces, in my mind too.

On the way back in the plane, the stag party to whom, on the way out, the pilot read the riot act while matron confiscated their gin, are now exhausted revellers, children with their mouths open, ears red, all bounce exhaled, stripes hold up nothing, porkpie hat sans ketchup, trackless tracksuit, asleep on their tray-tables, under their tattoos.

While they slept I perused Penguin Poets Two (Controlled Explosions) which felt too chilly and tense for in-flight mode. There will be blood, but not here. In my head, but not here, not now. There will be explosions, but not here, not now.

Perusal is reading, after all. You slip about the pages like a pig after truffles, or the customs dog at work among our legs and luggage when we came off the plane.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The last few days, or rather, nights, I have read Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man and Prater Violet. This is reading as eavesdropping, as just dropping in to Christopher's in L.A. or in London. Intimate yet formal. On page 90 of Prater Violet, the London film-making novel, he has a scene where Lawrence, the film's master cutter, discourses on film-making.
If you so-called artists would behave like technicians and get together, and stop playing at being democrats, you'd make the public take the kind of picture you wanted. This business about the box office is just a sentimental democratic fiction. If you stuck together and refused to make anything but, say, abstract films, the public would have to go and see them, and like them....
So right. This was the 1930s. Hitler was on the rise. Abstraction the safest place to be. Prater Violet is  the name of the film they're making, set in Vienna, with an Austrian director. The presence of the film in the novel is pleasantly spectral, a plot ideally keeping well into the background, about which you don't have to care; unlike Lawrence the Master Cutter, who always cares.

Monday, 27 February 2017

At the beginning of Pop Quiz 9, last section of Octet, in David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, his frighteningly extensive language turns abruptly on the reader.
How exactly the cycle's short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they're supposed to compose a certain sort of 'interrogation' of the person reading them, somehow—i.e. palpitations, feelers, into the interstices of something, etc... though what that 'something' is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you're working on the pieces.
There we are, readers, with all our interstices suddenly exposed. It's uncomfortable and pleasurable. His excesses are never far from pain. His writerly frenzy is almost sacrificial: he could torture for ever the least rustle of human life. He's writing but also doing something else less clear, something exhaustive. His words will never say it all, but they might insinuate themselves into the reader's equilibrium. There's no redemption unless we readers are redemptive, not just chewing on David Foster Wallace's frenzy but meeting it with a freshly minted frenzy of our own.

You have to read him while holding your breath, in order to stay clear, until after you stop reading, of this interrogation he's holding. How much of this can you, the reader, bear at one sitting? I like to imagine being on a train with only this book to read, maybe a stopped train on a branch line in the middle of Ireland for half a day or more, and how I'd stay with all the footnotes, which, as with Oliver Sacks, sometimes occupy more pages than the text itself, unspool all the possibilities to emerge eventually at my destination a fully interrogated, fully exposed human being.

In fact I am at home, a somewhat exposed human being listening to Shostakovich and watching a stormy sunset, reading David Foster Wallace, badly. As he fears he wrote, badly. Pop Quiz 9 doubts what any of the Pop Quizzes have managed to communicate.
At any rate it's not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they're reading is when they sit down to try and escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of prearranged meaning. Rather it's going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened about whether to trust even your fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do.
Like a thirteen year-old on the high diving board for the first time.

Friday, 17 February 2017

I dreamed I went to prison, sans crime, sans trial, sans anything. In a communal room I leafed quickly through layers of magazines in a large bowl. The last layer was all porn, and the circle sitting around me were all men. Everything calm. No guards around. Was I there as an experiment and I'd be out in a month or so? Who would plant the tomatoes this year? That was a worry.

And this was before I started reading Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. 

Back from our travels I read such a glut of New Yorkers and NYRBs, to say nothing of Triple Canopy emails, that even without listening to the news I feel saturated with the geist of the zeit. Philip K. Dick, in overprinted smudgy black print, is about right.

At first I'm impatient with the technicalities, like how someone called Jason Taverner, a TV celebrity with his own show, can slip into a parallel zone where he no longer exists, and all his data has vanished. No one knows him any more. The hit records he has made are now blank. Halfway through the book all these spiky, separate people who exist thanks to remote decisions on the part of some techie chemist with a world view, become fragile. We, reading, become fragile too, unseated, unhappy. We are so obscurely constructed. So hollow. A handmade blue vase is the carrier of most emotion in the novel. How many time zones do you have to cross to feel grief?

The policeman does not cry until Chapter Twenty-four.
He felt something on his face; putting up his hand, he found that his chin was wet. 
By Chapter Twenty-seven, he's in free fall.
His tears became each moment denser and faster and deeper. I'm going the wrong way, he thought ... All I can do now is witness something I can no longer control. I am painted on, like a fresco. Dwelling in only two dimensions, I and Jason Taverner are figures in an old child's drawing. Lost in dust.
Looking through other Philip K. Dick titles, I'm tempted by The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike and Puttering About in a Small Land.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

I began Middle C by William Gass on the plane, at thirty-eight thousand feet.
... it repented Jehovah that he had made man... 
I continued on a rooftop in Garachico on the north coast of Teneriffa, under the volcano. Lava flow & sea vapours, backlit yuccas and birdsong, the least murmur of human life. Church bell somewhere short of twelve. I was ready to embrace uncertainty in that back and forth, jewish/not jewish way. The part of jewishness that is also not jewishness, as part of identity is having none. Wrestling with William Gass wrestling with how to phrase the human race.
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.
I read William Gass with the greatest pleasure in the sun, his shifts and his emphases, his tries and retries, fitted my disponibilité. This is someone I know.
First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might not.
He had a feeling of great relief before he wondered what he might do with his wayward thoughts if he had no sentence to focus on.
And then the music.
Olive Fremstad and her sound—Calvé's, Caruso's sound—sounds—hollow, odd, remote,—that created a past from which ghosts could not only speak to admonish and astound, they could sing again almost as they once sang, sang as singing would never be heard sung again, songs and a singing from somewhere outside the earth where not an outstretched arm, not a single finger, could reach or beckon, request or threaten or connive.
Anywhere this would stop me in my tracks; in the sun on a rooftop in Garachico, it was glorious.

Later, on a beach in La Gomera, putting Middle C down after a few chapters, it seemed possible that all reading, as well as all hopes and fears and curiosity, could come together between two covers. Then I closed my eyes.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Platonov's The Foundation Pit is a violent, disturbing read. The violence is embedded in the language, not in the action. Having laboured and lying down, often not getting up again, are the dominant modes. Consciousness and the state are totalitarian. There is talk of socialised property and liquidation of illiteracy. The larger the words the emptier the minds of those who try to rest, the more excruciated their grasp on what is happening to them. Humans and their being in the world are constantly threatened if not already severed.

The difference between reading Platonov and reading Kafka or Beckett is that Platonov's creatures flail and sink inside a distinct historical reality. However little the reader might know about Stalin's Russia, the fact of it is there. Post-truth. Pre-truth. During truth.

I read The Foundation Pit badly, often in the middle of the night. Perhaps you have to read it badly, in short bursts, when the reading of the night before has all but vanished, as for Platonov's creatures the day before has all but vanished, along with the day to come. This is despair, after all, Russian despair. Everything vast. And hopeless. The foundation pit is a graveyard. A collective farm is a collection of bones. Barren hens quietly groan in people's arms.

Platonov's creatures feel at home as long as they can see limits of any kind, any form of endgame, any depth of absurdity. Some of my psyche feeds on this, I have to conclude. I might sleep better for it, and even if I don't, there'll be comfort and reflection in the wakefulness, the extenuated humour.
But why, Nikita, do the fields lie there so boringly? Is there really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there's a five-year plan?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

I bought a different translation of the Duino Elegies. As with a new recording of Beethoven late quartets, I was nervous and curious as I began. My original copy, bought when I was a student, is the dual language JB Leishman & Stephen Spender translation, hardcover, with nearly intact dust jacket, Hogarth Press, soft chalky paper, comfortable layout. The new book is a Vintage paperback, thin rough paper, pinched layout, over inked, also dual language, with translation and editing by Stephen Mitchell.

The new recordings of Beethoven (the Takacs quartet) I have been listening to this winter have easily overtaken the old ones, though I notice quieter transitions or unusual accents. Old involvement with a recording (the Budapest quartet), old investment in quality of sound with ambient associations, holds from one recording to another.

Not so on the page. In visceral, childish fashion I only want these words on this paper. I want my pencil marks, confirmation of my innerness then, the most reliable crux of life.  In order to read the Duino Elegies I have to be able to turn into the person I was when I first read them, and for that I need the paper, the marks, the page layout, the deep W at the start of the first elegy.
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength
of his
stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing
but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I repress myself, and swallow the call-note
of depth-dark sobbing. Alas, who is there
we can make use of? Not angels, not men;
and even the noticing beasts are aware
that we don't feel very securely at home
in this interpreted world.
I like the awkwardness and sometimes impermeability of this translation. I want to be as luxuriously bemused as I was when I was 22. Deep inside what I didn't understand, I did understand.

I heard on the radio this morning that ten percent of people in the UK do not have a book in their house. Ninety percent have a cook book or a self help or a manual or a novel. No mention of a bible, not even for smashing a ganglion.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The front cover of my copy of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland has faded to shades of light- and mid-blue, the colours of a lost morning. The reds are the first to go in colour printing. The Pontiac, if it's not a Chevy, on the front cover should be red, the office and its sign should be cerise. No champagne hour chez Philip K Dick. Everyone is too sad and unsuccessful, the view too veiled, too confused.

The last few chapters are best read in the bath, where a general softening of outlook allows Humpty Dumpty and his acquaintance fall down and pick themselves up over and over again, till by the last page you know this does not stop, a used car lot closes and another opens up, some die and some relocate, a record company called Teach is always looking for a new motif.

This is like Dashiell Hammett without the latent heroism. His detectives are laconic but they are heroes. Chez Philip K Dick, our used car salesman, our garage mechanic, our record company, our wives (who are Greek if not educated), strain for some kind of buoyancy. No heroes. No resolution. Prose is discarded talk. Plot is obfusc and fickle. Death tidier than most other states.

The used car salesman and the garage mechanic have lost all certainty of understanding the world in which they try to make their way, butting into obstacles that look like opportunity. They acknowledge no code of behaviour, no code at all, except, without conviction, a vaguely self-serving behaviour. If you make the right decision you'll probably die before you know it.

I don't get on well with Philip K Dick's science fiction. I find it hard enough to consider the world as it is, without taking on the world as it might have been. I have no room for imagined horrors. The novels contemporaneous with his Bay Area, Marin County, Sonoma/Petaluma experience I enjoy. They are discomfiting as Platonov's Central Asia or Walser's Middle Europe, if less poignant, or poignant without poetry, or rejecting the comfort that poignancy might bring.

The puff on the back cover from the Times Literary Supplement of the 80s includes words like Nescience and Anomie, which look quaint in today's strictly easy-peasy strain of enthusiasm. When my fellow students were reading Durkheim, Marx and Weber, I was reading Rimbaud, Rilke and Virginia Woolf. Anomie is a likeable word, secretive, detached yet warm, redolent of plant life, light winds, secure alienation. Nescience sounds like something George Clooney could sell.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Reading John Cage's diary does not preempt cleaning out and patching the pond, which is what we did today.
Diary: How to
Improve the World (you will
Only Make Matters Worse)
Up at the pond, we pull out our parrot weed and limit our bogbean, we squeeze out our Tec 7 onto prepared ovals of black plastic and cover over holes caused by, perhaps, slipping a coracle into the pond and pulling it out, or by shifting of substrate, revealing of small stones cracked into this shape by ancient fires, and rubbing of black plastic against same, we sharpen our awareness as to the limitations of our efforts. We might just as well, like John Cage, pluck our patches from our local beyond, juxtapose our bogbean prunings on the compost heap like cavaliers on holiday, throw muddy great diving beetles over the fence, leave this year's frogs back into the slime if that's where they want to go.
Old reasons for doing things no
longer exist. (Sleep whenever/ Your
work goes on being done. You and it no
longer have a means of separation.)
Some kinds of reading—of the pond and John Cage—meet and draw breath. What is a very small frog doing out and about at this time of year? Older bullfrogs are nearly ready for the season of singing and procreation. We pondworkers are entirely superfluous. With our waterlilies and our management and even our good will.
Do nothing for one reason only. Think
it with respect to a large number of
other reasons, preferably reasons
that seem contradictory.
A small spider climbing between the page and the desk light. John Cage would like that. Covert operations of chance and nature. The need for a skein to an upper level, and a quick escape back down. Hanging in the balance when I open the window for a taste of night air alongside Mozart (played by Mitsuko Uchida).
monks take turns: one of them reads out
loud while the others are eating.
They call it "the greater silence."

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Henry Green's Party Going (the gathering prior to departure rather than the habit of going to parties) revolves around a London station in a fog so dense a pigeon flew into a balustrade and fell down dead in front of a Miss Fellowes, who, wondering about fleas, washed it, wrapped it in brown paper and carried it to the rendezvous.

Henry Green avoids the definite article. He avoids the departure. He swirls with that fog inside and outside a London station. By page thirty-nine everyone is there, though people come and go, and some may not have come across others yet. This, says our narrator, was the beginning of a time for our party.

A time of double-postmarked letters, and divine tea and crumpets. As well as a nervousness—this was late nineteen thirties—fog went far beyond this London station, an old-fashioned station where travel was momentous, people could gather or fail to gather for hours on end, waiting for a boat train, for any train at all, piles of luggage around them. While you wait you might open a case.
If she had no memory for words she could always tell what she had worn each time she met him. Turning over her clothes as they had been packed she was turning over days. 
The station is thronging with travellers who are not travelling. Everyone, says our narrator, looks as if they've had enough. There's a blankness punctuated by tiny satisfactions—when going to sit by a bar was an idea—crossing the Channel in the company of other people was an idea too, if there were any trains.

Read a chapter of this supple disquiet in the middle of the night, reader, traveller, old thing, and you're made, like a mobster, like a nannie, you're swirling with your people in a fog of your own making.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

For the pit of the year, south of one storm, north or west of many others, I have been reading my address book at the kitchen table, The New Yorker in front of the stove, Hortus in the bath, and at my desk I have read and reread and rearranged the 20-word summaries of 9 o'clock movies typed out with a view to reading and re-reading and rearranging and understanding what's with these zombies, parasites, these demons, these aliens who are taking over, like predator, like prey, at 9 o'clock on a channel near you.

If everything we dream is us, so is every ravenous zombie, parasite, demon, alien. Every imminent invasion has already taken place and continues to take place all around us. We live in the anthropocene. A wafer of destruction on top of eras of consolidation. Have we always felt this perilous?

As long as we've been saying so. As long as we've been watching movies.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A wet night in December and Mahler songs sung by Janet Baker bring a line or two of a Joseph O'Neill story into literal relief. 'Pardon Edward Snowden' is ridiculously of the moment; as well as the petition, or poetition, to pardon Edward Snowden, and Bob Dylan's Nobel prize, there's this perilous poet confession: You become aware that what you're doing is almost nothing. That it's just a few atoms away from nothing.

Read that in the bath and you have your night's sleep in hand.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Float is 'a collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various. Reading can be freefall'. This assembly of a book corresponds to a dream sense of what it is to read, to allow the loop and whirl of our attention, the sound of synapses scraping, the shape of a topic floating by.

Whatever the sequence of pages, the lure of exposition, it is pleasing and homely to read as your attention allows. Now and then you stop in your tracks. Other times you know you've lost it—through ignorance, exhaustion or absentmindedness—but you're pleased to be back in whenever you choose.

These pages can scatter across the floor, across whatever you've already read, what you know and what you don't know. I do not read or speak Greek, but I like the leisure of languages I do not understand, as well as others, like Latin, of which I have shards and some backbone.

Today I looked at Stacks, Possessive Used as Drink (Me), A Lecture on Pronouns in the Form of 15 Sonnets, Contempts, How I like "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso" by Gertrude Stein, and Cassandra Float Can. And when I say 'looked at' I mean 'read', as you read a stripped log or a forest floor. The reading of logs and forest floors is fine preparation for Anne Carson.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Anne Carson's Float box of dark blue leaflets, in the hour entre chien et loup, is an energiser. Our language is our brain our gut. Our nine o'clock movie. Read it as it falls. The staples are dark blue. Like the sky entre chien et loup. 

There is great liberty at work in a box of disparate leaflets. Today's leaflet was called Candor. I worked in the vegetable plot then came and read about Helen who sprinkled contests into the cloth she wove. Candor—my Preceptor—is the only wile (Emily Dickinson).
Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper. She takes her pen and writes on it some marks no one else will ever see, she bestows on it a kind of surplus, she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name. (Anne Carson.)

Monday, 28 November 2016

Robert Walser is good at 3 a.m. Estranged and joyous.
John Cage's diary, 3 p.m. A snatch in the afternoon.
Everything we come across is to the point.
This is how we configure a day.
A night.

Friday, 25 November 2016

As soon as I read anything that smacks of my family's origins, I wriggle or turn away. In the middle of last night, awake at an even more ludicrous hour than usual, I read one of the Odessa stories by Isaac Babel and suddenly saw what I was reading: between Dashiell Hammett and my grandparents. I have been ill lately. My defences are lowered. I couldn't read Babel or his like while my parents were alive. Three of their parents came from north-east of Odessa, Bessarabia, as Babel calls it, as I did before I called it Russia, or Romania, or Moldova.

The name, elusive as Bessarabia/Romania/Moldova, is everything. If Odessa is a summary of whatever I wriggle from, so be it. I was pleased once to be described by a fellow jew as 'one of the Odessa crowd'.

In its tribal regalia, Odessa defeats me. I have no aptitude for the dense colours of these stories. Quickly I feel overwhelmed by rich tapestries of people strutting their noms de guerre. Social fabric I don't know how to weave, how to believe. I wriggle and turn away. Glimpses are all I can manage. I prefer Joseph Roth's Job: internal, uncomprehending, bottomlessly sad, engaged with a room and its outside, a family—if that—and its fragility.

I am happy to learn that in Odessa there were kefir makers, and that Bessarabia was a lush place with wine that smelled of sun and bedbugs. And I am always pleased to see the Yiddish term of endearment, bubbeleh, on the page. Babel's Odessa, up to almost including the pogrom, is linguistically riotous, seductive and vivid. Boris Dralyuk, the Pushkin Press translator, grew up there.

This language has lain mostly undisturbed all my life, just beneath my awareness; and my will. Inflections, inversions, a tone of complaint and triumph, a patois I could not accept as my father would have wanted. I had to invent my own. That was, and is still, the thing.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Job, The Story of a Simple Man, by Joseph Roth

Why do I need the unshed tears of this Roth creature in his Russian village, in New York? My predecessors are not my own. Or they are. Crouched by the stove.

Roth's boss at the Frankfurter Zeitung said that the sadder Roth was the better he wrote. Job was written in 1930, which was a sad time in general in Europe. Like now.

Do other readers like to take a rest in the sadness of long ago? Or would they rather raise their voices at the iniquities of now? Are these two sides of the same coin?

Sadness is slower than anger, that's all I know. Wind in the aspens, for some time before the leaves fall. Last leaves, last prayers. I have never prayed, I can say.

If sadness and anger are two sides of the same, the same, coin, then we are all closer than we think. If sadness is godless prayer. Then I have prayed.

Many pages into Google, Job is ancient poetry and sadness, not employment. Google is one reliable assessor of where we stand. Where we float.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

I started reading before a trip to London and finished when I came back, by which time our autumnal eco-patch and any sympathetic reading I might do in that direction were rendered even more poignant by the disastrous turn in American politics. Behind such noisy manipulation it's hard to hear yourself think.
Autumn sunlight through
such leaves as remain a sad—
ness unrequited
Fukuoka did not deviate from his way of farming, or his way of living, which were one and the same: no ploughing, no fertilising, no machines at all, growing crops as wild plants among other wild plants, living off his produce, knowing his trees and his plants, buying only soy sauce and vegetable oil; no wonder he lived to the age of 95.

Looming behind such lucidity and humaneness, is the agro-petro-chemical dependency machine that makes the farmer busier, the CEOs richer and the politics noisier. Better to have zero chemicals, zero machinery, zero economic growth and a population of 100% farmers who, in the slack winter season have the leisure to write haikus, says Fukuoka. Under 5% of the Irish population are farmers. No statistics on how many write haikus, or sonnets.

People are the way their land and air is, as Gertrude Stein said.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

John Hutchinson's The Tree pauses on note after note that resonates with me. Together they sound a diapason I don't want to forget.  Quietness. Wilderness. Vulnerability. Undifferentiated emptiness. And the ten thousand things that arise spontaneously from emptiness. A healthy wilderness of mind.

We are, as John Hutchinson says, culturally so averse to quiet.

This book is a goodbye to directing a gallery in Dublin and a hallo to whatever form of withdrawal the author might choose, whatever essay in idleness turns out to be his, on whatever mountain top. His last chapter is on Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution.

Maybe John Hutchinson's withdrawal from the gallery will involve the kind of farming that can coexist with the understanding that in this world there is nothing at all.

Well, there is Schubert.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

It is one thing to read News from Nowhere on holiday in Portugal, another to read it at home and interrogate your own reading with a view to creating a book. Leonard Cohen could take ten years to write a song. Bob Dylan was closer to ten minutes. We took about two weeks.

My sympathies are with utopia, with nowhere. I can relate to yearning. I am all for idealism. If you can't dream ahead what's the point of walking? As William Morris makes his way up the Thames in his post-Revolution utopian reverie, I can follow.

Conversations about utopia have plenty of brick walls and blind alleys, many a gaping void. It's a question of how long you can suspend disbelief. How much you desire. A question of who you are. For whatever reason. And there are always volumes of reasons.

William Morris's News from Nowhere is poignant in its excess. I want him to describe his ideal society, after the revolution, I lament its unreality. For him in 1890 as for us in 2016.

Out of these thoughts, these considerations, came this book.

Friday, 14 October 2016

News from Nowhere by William Morris, a utopian romance first published in 1890, is a defiant choice of reading for a holiday that starts on a ryanair flight. I am one row in front of a two year-old screaming No to everything, and beside a plump woman whose breasts quiver as we go through turbulence. On the seat panel in front of us we read instructions for infant flotation devices and emergency landings of several kinds.

I read most of News from Nowhere on the beach in Tavira, sailing between recliners out to the open sea, half Atlantic, half Mediterranean. At home I would listen to a Mozart piano concerto. In creating his utopia, William Morris remembered his childhood in rural Walthamstow Chingford Woodford and Epping, where, in different mode, my earliest years also were spent, all meadow and haymaking and happiness. His, that is. In mine, there were lurking men in Epping Forest; you did not wander there, you read fairy tales, avoiding some, waiting for the penultimate upsurge when you'd be safe. William Morris was safe; or he badly wanted to be. He wanted an epoch of rest in his head, and he placed in the 21st century.

And here we are in October, 2016, in Portugal, finding our view, getting used to our neighbours, overhearing their conversations. On the beach your neighbours are your society, but you're also going up the Thames with William Morris, from meadow to cottage to harvest, your idealism stretched but not under strain. 'Here I am loving you and you haven't learned a fucking thing', my neighbour (leopardskin bikini bottom and gold hoop earrings) is saying over a mojito and pringles and lover boy.

News from Nowhere comes from Ilha da Tavira, for now, from the beach on the Ria Formosa, sandbank of the gods, a holiday not a utopia. A utopia is when everyone agrees. The water is better far than the water of my childhood, glassy and warm, a caress not a challenge. And lover boy, unchastened, did sing his way back into favour.

My mother's brother Phil, with another chemist friend published Money Must Go in 1943. I have idealism in my veins. What is flowing in your veins isn't yours until you have entirely reconstructed it. Until you have read around it and gone in swimming.

My favourite chapter of News from Nowhere is about nine lines long: Concerning Politics.
Said I: 'How do you manage with politics?'
     Said Hammond, smiling: '…I will answer your question briefly by saying that we are very well off as to politics, —because we have none.'
'We need people like you to remind us what we're working towards,' a politico said to me when I was about twenty-five, which was obscure and warming, kinder than my earlier sense of myself vis-à-vis the Revolution (first in line for the firing squad). Mao's little red book had no poetry. I'd better keep my mouth shut.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

In a New York bar (1 Fifth Avenue) in the early eighties, I met a young Cuban who was looking at his future in Arizona, his lone ecstatic house with a wall of screens so he could watch several films at once, and a machine that would read books for him and tell him what he needed to know. His preferred face—serious, downward, withdrawn, nearly petulant—he produced as needed. This was the face the machine would read to know what he needed to know.

News From Nowhere by William Morris, 1890. Money Must Go: see the world from a new angle by Philoren, 1943. Ruskin, passim. Marx, Blake, Keats, Yeats, Hesiod and Catullus. Kafka, throughout, for his upside down handbook to self-regard in the machine age.

This is what I would like the machine to read off my preferred face today. No pleading notes as yet. Naivete still possible. A cross of beauty, nature, despair and impossibilism. Money Must Go. There are always new angles. Philoren (pseudonym of two chemists) regrets the innocence of earlier idealists. We will always regret lost innocence, but the news from nowhere according to William Morris is full of hope. That's the advantage of literature. Write it and it's yours, for a while.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Every book has a pedigree. Some books are more pedigree than book. I have been reading a novella by John Donovan, who was a neighbour and friend of my parents when I was growing up. When I was 17 he was 32, a wind from other planets blowing in Maldon, Essex; I first had couscous in his house, for example. We had first read and he second, of last week's New Statesman (?) from the library (at the end of the week they gave them away). He came on all the Ban the Bomb marches; he looked after the bric-à-brac stall at CND jumble sales in the Quaker meeting house (I did the book stall), and went to WEA lectures there, which may have been where he and my parents met. They had a troubled education in common, a desire to understand and to protest injustice and their horror. I didn't know he wrote; I knew he taught art. Whenever he came round I seemed to be washing my hair, he said.

In 1971 he published Anne in a Calder and Boyars new writers volume. His expression on the cover photo is intense, concerned, a slight frown, three-quarter view: everything matters. I took the book from my parents' house after my father died a few years ago; I have also had on my shelves for as long as I can remember, The Worst Journey in the World, whose flyleaf is inscribed with a large mid-blue italic signature: Donovan. Now I learn that John Donovan died last year.

When I read him now I retrieve a fresh calque of my 16 or 17 year-old self. There was John Donovan, walking along the Prom in Maldon, as I was around the same time, flailing about in doubts and desperate distances, as I did, embedding them in everything he saw, as I did. I was writing my diary and he was writing a novella, if he called it that, if he called it anything, if he could extract from the morass of everyday life what happened with Anne. Did she go on Ban the Bomb marches, or was this a girl of a different ilk? Why did he feel guilty? So responsible yet unclear? A difficult relationship to everyday life. In fact no such thing as the everyday. Every thought up for knocking down.
— Why? Harmless enough in itself. Anyway it's preferable to feeling nothing at all isn't it? A quick switch back to the horror of all that makes such dull moments seem not merely acceptable but positively good and desirable, however much the innocent over-sensitive part of oneself protests against it.
Had he missed reality altogether? Had I? Anne is made of burials and silences, hesitation and frustration. Many sentences stop before they've started. There is no explanation, no, nothing that will hold, only openings. Fragments and riffs. Opening one discussion, one philosophy, after another, and then stopping, picking up the everyday, loose hay spread around Platform Nine, the virtue of the Blenheim Orange apple.
'—"justify" eh? That's got a nice sort of something about it. "justify"…'
What would they be using a word like that for nowadays Bert?''
I've no idea Jack.'

Thursday, 15 September 2016

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you.
So says Anne Carson. Fellow of Clarice Lispector. And Elizabeth Strout. I have been reading a crisp new hardback copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. In fact I read it once and started it again immediately. One immersion was not enough. Enough for what, I wonder, when I understood it on the first reading?

Elizabeth Strout and Clarice Lispector. They sit together in my head along with other forceful internal women who chose to write. Elizabeth Strout tentative/ apologetic/ unable/ determined, Clarice Lispector wilder, more stridently tender. If I can bring them together in my mind, the north-american/tender/careful mayflowerish Strout and the ukrainian/ jewish/ brazilian Lispector, they could surely sit together in a quiet place and talk over the desire for some view of truth, Elizabeth coming in on the transverse, Clarice, fiercer by far, preferring anecdote to narrative. Elizabeth ghosting a story obscurely hers, of terror and deprivation and much left unsaid.

Anne Carson, meanwhile, responding to a Roni Horn sculpture, covers the territory.
Candor is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader, the point is the telling itself.
I read Anne Carson in the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets (orange) (three women).
Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper. Nothing else exists. She takes her pen and writes on air some marks no one else will ever see, she bestows on it a kind of surplus, she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

From the bedroom bookshelves I read three Daphne du Maurier novels this week in some southeast asian weather followed by gales. Daphne du Maurier is good for insomnia and this has been a week of that. At three in the morning you can pick up where you left off at eleven at night, and, heartily manipulated by so much plot and character, maybe sleep.

The Parasites hauls you into the lives of three siblings—an actress, a musician and an artist—their Pappy (a singer)—and their Mama (a dancer). Overwrought and entrancing, their vicissitudes are compelling in a void, like Hello magazine or Netflix series. You can be interested if you feel like it. The story leaves no residue. The siblings are indeed parasites, crawling all over our attention. If only Daphne du Maurier could have desisted from calling the father Pappy. I choked every time, in sheer irritation, which, with luck, might hasten sleep.

My cousin Rachel is even more overwrought. Is Rachel a devil or a saint? Anyone who intrudes on an English Great Estate, who interrupts the order of things in rural England, a foreigner and adventurer, will meet her death on the penultimate page as the order of things resumes; dogs settle by the fire with their master whose delusions have now passed.

Frenchman's Creek was the third du Maurier of the week, in a wartime economy edition (tight cloth binding, dull blue, with yellow-brown pages, thin and rough). The Frenchman anchored in the creek, sensitive and philosophical, a gentleman who pirates for the style of the thing, at the end lets the heroine, briefly his cabin boy, go back to her life, to the order of things, her ringlets in place, her adventure safe in her memory.

Why do I choose to read popular fiction from the era of my parents' youth? Popular fiction of now I hardly read at all. (Something grating or ingratiating about styles you can situate too exactly.) I have also had periods of reading popular fiction closer to the era of my grandparents, who were illiterate.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Unique among sympathetic remedies, reading lets you go where you please. After Antarctica, something warmer, less heroic and differently fraught. The Starship and the Canoe, Kenneth Brower's double biography of the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson and his son George, describes two senses of wilderness and frontier. Freeman wants to go live on an asteroid (wants his estranged son to go?) propelled by a series of nuclear explosions. George lives 95 feet up a Douglas fir near Vancouver, and builds kayaks, far from Princeton, where his father lives; his is the last tree before you get to the ocean.
It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilisation that small groups of men can escape from their neighbours and from their governments, to go and live as they please in the wilderness.
Says Freeman in defence of going to live on an asteroid; but not yet in defence of his son high up in a tree.

George needs to spend time in his tree house, he needs to be sequestered to see what kind of mind he has—not unlike his father's, as it turns out, they have the same eyes, the same face, the same laugh. It's the similarities that are the most painful to absorb. After rebelling against his father, George rebels against George in the tree house, he cuts his hair and moves closer to the rest of society.

You don't have to rebel for ever. And you don't have to join (your father). You can find your own way. Build your canoes. Listen to your whales. Googling reveals that present-day Freeman is a climate change sceptic and George sells canoes. Freeman thinks humans have been kind to the planet. He lives on hamburgers and coke. Kenneth Brower can't think how anyone can be so stupid. His sympathies are with George. He has a refreshing chapter called My Opinion.
Resting in the wan sunlight, I thought about the Dysons, father and son.
Sometimes it seemed to me that both were caught up in a kind of ghost dance. Both were hoping, like the plains Indians of the 1890s, for resurrections of ways of life that are past recall. George hadn't realised that the day of the Indians was over; Freeman hadn't seen that the white man's day was in its twilight.
The first time I read The Starship and the Canoe was pre-internet. The starship was the starship and the canoe was the canoe. The father and the son, asteroid and ocean. I understood the son and his habitat, his slow move into companionship in wild places; I had grudging patience for the father, looking out from his astrophysics, eating his hamburgers. So painstaking is Kenneth Brower's observation of a father-son dancing party in British Columbia and beyond. He interprets and makes it feel like a luxury we can ill afford to miss.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

  We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
TS Eliot at the end of Four Quartets.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard on The worst journey in the world.
The man with the nerves goes farthest. What is the ratio between nervous and physical energy? What is vitality? Why do some things terrify you at one time and not at others? What is this early morning courage? What is the influence of imagination? How far can a man draw on his own capital?  …
There are many reasons which send men to the Poles, and the Intellectual Force uses them all. …
Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.
Eliot published Four Quartets in 1944. Cherry-Garrard, who spent several years in the Antarctic, published The worst journey in the world in 1922. Guy Davenport taught a course on the year 1922. How would you teach 1944?
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
Eliot is glorious for your elliptical youth. While explorers sledge on, dodging crevasses and hauling out ponies and later eating them. They dream of food.
Night after night I bought big buns and chocolate at a stall on the island platform at Hatfield station, but always woke before I got a mouthful to my lips; some companions who were not so highly strung were more fortunate, and ate their phantom meals.
A séjour in the Antarctic brought about in these explorers a species of lectio divina. They had few books and they read them well. Scott favoured Darwin's Origin of Species as a sledging book, excellent for reflection and discussion. An encyclopaedia, plus Greek and Latin dictionaries were essential for settling disputes. Dante's Inferno did the rounds among the men, as well as several Histories, Browning, Tennyson and Bleak House.

The Worst Journey in the World has been on my shelves for a long time but I haven't read it till now. I wonder why.
     You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance,
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession
In order to arrive at what you are not
Books you choose but do not read are a niche category. During the years I did not embark upon The Worst Journey in the World, I read Four Quartets back to front, front to back, settling eventually on short sections— about dance, garlic, simplicity, exploration—that I read over and over the way I listened to short sections of Schubert or Beethoven, intently, in relief and in gratitude.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

If you want to relate to the writing of Witold Gombrowicz, it is advisable first to spend a day of sullen close weather dealing with Revenue and Felling Licences and Gmail accounts and the right amplifier for Quad speakers (Quad). Pornografia, a philosophical novel, crime novel and a state of general disarray and despair and absurdity in Occupied Poland circa 1943, is a marvellous fit.

Bacacay, a collection of early stories named for a side street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived (in exile), is good for the day after, with light winds, nebulous rain and occasional brightening of the sky. Early stories are looser and more naked. You can see more clearly why he needed to write in leaps, bounds and lacunae. Things are laid out like hammer blows once a story has a title and a main character, like 'The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki'.
I was born and raised in a most respectable home. It is with great emotion that I run toward you, my childhood! I see my father, a handsome man of lofty stature, with a face in which everything—gaze, features, and gray-tinged hair —all combined into the very image of perfect noble breeding. I see you too, mother, in spotless black, with no other adornment than a pair of antique diamond earrings. And I see myself, a small, solemn, thoughtful lad, and I feel like weeping at those shattered hopes. Perhaps the only imperfection in our family life was the fact that my father hated my mother.
Once you have found yourself a way to stay at a safe distance from the horrors, pushing and jabbing, you're on your way, you write on and on. Savagely. Stories, novels, plays. Gombrowicz's published diary runs to seven hundred pages. Seven hundred pages is a drop in the ocean. Monday—me. Tuesday—me. Wednesday—me.

Shadowy stories thrash about chez Gombrowicz. It is not his life with which we acquaint, it's his sound and his fury.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet makes a fine retreat on windy, sinusbound afternoon. I wanted something short and open, with suggestion. I also wanted to fall asleep for some time in the middle of reading, which I did.

I first read Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books, where already I realised that, given a slight tweak of history, I might have known him. Same age, same background, same weft and warp, more history, more discussion, a voluble rather than a silent family.

My young sense of kin was built on people like him I knew existed, probably in London, later in New York. When I did meet them I had a sense of recognition and discomfort, like an evening meal en famille, minus the black holes. I wasn't used to feeling at home.

He wrote or built The Memory Chalet during the later stages of motor neurone disease, in which limbs and functions drop away but the mind races on, nightlong. He's a historian, so his nightlong is full of structure, the only itch he can scratch till morning and assistance come. Harold Brodkey did something similar in 1996 when he was in hospital dying of AIDS: 'I am practicing making entries in my journal to record my passage into non-existence'. Tony Judt takes his cue from an Italian traveller to medieval China: The memory palace of Matteo Ricci. The building is a mnemonic device and a container to leave in trust.

Much of what I recognise in Tony Judt lies in his unease about identity labels such as English or Jew, his preference for edge people, as well as a shared era of Green Line buses and Paris événements. It's a relief to consolidate my own sense of being (happily) on the edge. Sometimes I forget how appealing that is, how fundamental to so much of life. Then there are moments when, for example, walking down the Coal Quay in Cork City on a Saturday morning, I realise among the organic veg stalls that I have skeetered back from the edge into a brief sense of the middle.