Saturday, 2 July 2022

Knowing what you need to read

Do you need to quit your own life for a while and occupy someone else's, Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, Mrs Brown, Laura? Or do you need to cut through to the frozen sea within, selon Kafka? 

If you ask these questions, you need to read Henri Michaux. 

He takes his words, now yours, to the edge of what you want to say. You read a page or two and put it down, Henri's face staring up at you, égaré, on the front cover of Tent Posts. 

Words have always taken you to the brink. At the brink it's best to weaken and to idle, to know nothing. Michaux pulls back from certitudes even as he seems to set them up. You're contagious to yourself, remember. 

Michaux intensifies. And you, the reader, intensify alongside. 

At the brink there is landscape. Mozart and a meadow late in the day. 

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Four loaves, Three lives, Two pairs, One continuum

I made four loaves on a turbulent June day. 

Read The Hours by Michael Cunningham while the loaves proved and then baked. 

Finished it in the afternoon, between half-naps and assorted dreamtimes. 

Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, arranges a party for her dying poet friend. 1990s

Mrs Brown, Laura, makes a birthday cake for her husband, with Bug, her three year-old son. 1940s

Virginia Woolf walks into the river with a large stone in her pocket. 1940s

1920s. Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway. 'The Hours' was the working title. 

Four loaves, four hours. Four nervous showers of rain.

Three lives. Three women. Three eras.

Two pairs. Love and loss. Madness and the ordinary. 

One continuum.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Barbara Pym and Natalia Ginzburg in a railway compartment.

Barbara Pym was a girl from Oswestry, Shropshire, of careful decent people, but she roamed Europe in her day, and laid the plans for future novels, before settling in England. Natalia Ginzburg was a girl from Turin, of art/political/activist antecedents; she had several brothers who, she said, didn't leave much room for her to talk, so she learned to be brief. 

I can see them opposite each other in a railway compartment circa 1960.

Barbara would look at Natalia Ginzburg and situate her in the rich tapestry of human life. Maybe too european for one of her characters, sitting by the window looking out, frowning a little, too harsh, or dry, riven by continental truths. Might not see Barbara Pym at all, a cosy Englishwoman abroad. A bullet between the eyes, is Natalia's style. And then hang out the washing. 

Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, Norman and Edwin, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, have lunch in different places, live alone, tend toward mania and avoidance, dye their hair, or not, exhaust their own attention to where they are now, in the autumn of their lives, in the zone of social workers and luncheon vouchers. They end as they began, separately, quietly. 

The Sweet Dove Died is quiet too, elegant, sad, nonchalant, and onward. There's a belief in this english continuum. Cloying and attractive, by turns. The elegant older woman, Leonora, the antique dealer Humphrey and his sweet nephew, James, whom Leonora wishes to trap with silken threads, James's love life, the gentle pursuit of antiques, objects that contain so much more than themselves.

A Few Green Leaves is a portrait of a village in the second half of the twentieth century, the balance tender and amused. Playing a village like an instrument, out of curiosity and kindness. Always a vicar, and several unmarried Misses, an academic couple, a DMV (deserted mediaeval village), jumble sales and flower festivals. 

Barbara Pym is comfortable in her settings, with no difficult questions; this world should continue, there is good will, eventually, through every turn, forgiveness and resignation in equal parts. Natalia Ginzburg is terse, passionate, direct; not inviting any future nor invoking any past. 

I read Barbara Pym on the rocks down at Howe's Strand on a sunny Monday. Last time we went to Howe's Strand I was reading Virginia Woolf, and a group of girls on the little beach in front of us talked loudly and ate Pringles sandwiches, saying they'd go vegan, if anything. This time there was no one, except two plump brothers who came through silently, turned around and went back.

Monday, 13 June 2022

Natalia Ginzburg

I've been reading Natalia Ginzburg. The Dry Heart and The Road to the City. Short novels of northern Italy in the nineteen fifties, young women on a cusp, thinking to be loved and maybe to love, to have a house in the city, a man, a baby, some furnishings, gadgets, an embroidery basket. Natalia Ginzburg is dry and quick. I like her sentences. They anchor you drily in a blustery week.

My father has been a country doctor at Maona for over twenty years. He is a tall, stout, slightly lame old man who uses a cherry-wood cane for walking. In summer he wears a straw hat with black ribbon around it and in winter a beaver cap and overcoat with a beaver collar. My mother is a tiny woman with a thick mass of white hair.  

I like her seventeen year-old girl walking the road to the city, coming to terms with how it is, how all along you have loved Nini your half-cousin who will die, and there you'll be, suddenly, in this unexpected life, with or without a husband or a child, none of your expectations come to fruition, just this onwardness and silence. Vous êtes sur terre, c'est sans remède.

For a girl at seventeen in the nineteen-fifties there was no interlude in which you might study, or travel, there was only life ahead, a version of the lives around, and the question of love, whether you would or anyone would love you, this bare, unattractive you who is suddenly, every day, unleashed on the world. 

On page one of The Dry Heart, a teacher/mother/wife shoots her husband between the eyes; she narrates it as if about to hang out the washing. When her baby dies of meningitis, she throws out all the baby's things. 

We're stupid and don't know what we really want when we're young. Life runs away with us before we know what it's all about.

When I was 17 or 23 life was not running away with me. Au contraire. Life hadn't arrived at all. I was still reading the label on the honey jar as I ate my toast in the morning. I was not thinking of a husband, a house or children. I was thinking of the obverse of all that, whatever it turned out to be. I had no expectations. No image. There's a freedom in hardly seeing past the end of your nose, in either direction. 

Saturday, 4 June 2022

Search Description for QUICK SERVICE by P.G.WODEHOUSE

Quick Service by P.G. Wodehouse is in a world of its own, mid-Atlantic, mid-twentieth century, English country houses and butlers, a choice of cars if you wanted to go to London, a choice of crass and crusty older men and unexpectedly lively young men, the English class system in operation, the shift of money from one generation to the next, a few steps sideways, a meeting by the moat, or in The Gardenia Tea Shoppe for a dozen strategic teas and buns, add an imperious mid-atlantic matron, a few games of craps with the stable boys, a slip of a thing, a poor relation, Miss Fairmile who goes the country mile to the future head of the Art Department at J.B Duff's Magnificent Hams, currently J.B. Duff's valet, yours truly Joss Weatherby, artist, who, lovely as it is beside the moated manor house in perpetual summer, would be happy with a gasworks in Jersey City, if only Miss Fairmile, Sally, were beside him, she was the blossom along the bough.

Nothing better to read if you feel in any way fragile or uncertain. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Virginia Woolf in Whitechapel: writing about dogs

 J.R. Ackerley's Tulip led me to Virginia Woolf's Flush, A Biography, which I can nearly imagine her taking up on a whim after the ardours of The Waves. Elizabeth Barrett's dog Flush, who drank from a purple dish and slept on a sofa at Miss Barrett's feet, kept Virginia Woolf in her own territory, if a hundred years earlier. Flush lived in Wimpole Street, and, as we learn, 'as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilisation is secure'. However, Flush is not secure if he is not on a chain when Miss Barrett goes shopping. And one day, on an errand in Vere Street, she forgot. 

In the 1840s, Mr Taylor and his society of thieves made a living from Wimpole Street dogs and other valuables. Flush was a pedigree spaniel, with all the right points on top of his head and around his paws. If the Barretts did not pay six guineas, this pedigree head and these pedigree paws would arrive in Wimpole street in a bloody package the very next day.

The description of Flush's days in Whitechapel occupies about one fifth of this short book. He is in a chill, damp, low, dark room, with broken chairs and a tumbled mattress.

Great boots and draggled skirts kept stumbling in and out. Flies buzzed on scraps of old meat that were decaying on the floor. Children crawled out from dark corners and pinched his ears. He whined, and heavy hand beat him over the head. He cowered down on the few inches of damp brick against the wall. Now he could see that the floor was crowded with animals of different kinds. Dogs tore and worried a festering bone that they had got between them. Their ribs stood out from their coats — they were half famished, dirty, diseased, uncombed, brushed; yet all of them, Flush could see, were dogs of the highest breeding, chained dogs, footmen's dogs, like himself.

Rebecca West wrote that this was not one of VW's best books, and it isn't. But here is Virginia Woolf, who walked London, who went to live in Bloomsbury from Hyde Park Gate, which was a déclassé move in the 1920s, writing from her walks in still less salubrious parts of London in a still less salubrious era nearly a hundred years earlier. I wonder what she read for her picture of teeming people living above cattle and pigs. Mayhew's London, perhaps. 

Flush ends his days in Italy. The worst he suffers is mange, and a lion cut to relieve his itching in the heat. 

Six months after the publication of Flush she and Leonard take a trip to Ireland, 'this downtrodden land'. Galway, for example, had two great bookshops and is 'otherwise wild, poor, sordid'. Wherever they go they tend to meet people who accept them as 'their sort', some indeed who encourage the Woolfs to come and live in Ireland.

No, it wouldn't do living in Ireland, in spite of the rocks & the desolate bays. It would lower the pulse of the heart;: & all one's mind wd. run out in talk.
We (P & I) have lately become citizens of Ireland, after very long sojourns and quite a bit of talk, as well as swathes of private silence in the oasis we have created. 'This downtrodden land' is today the 4th richest by GDP in the OECD, richer than America, technically. As unequal as ever, but in new ways. Still talking roundly. 

VW is much taken with Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 
However I can give no notion of the flowing, yet formed sentences, the richness & ease of the language; the lay out, dexterity & adroitness of the arrangement ... Talk is to her an intoxicant, but there is ... something heartless about the I(rish); quite cold indifferent sarcastic, for all their melody, their fluency, their adorable ease and forthcomingness. She was very much on the spot, accurate, managing, shrewd, hard headed, analytic. Why aren't these people the greatest novelists in the world?
'Everything is the proper stuff of fiction' said Virginia Woolf. Flush, a pedigree spaniel, as much as Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 

Thursday, 26 May 2022

My father and myself, My dog Tulip, J.R. Ackerley,

J.R. Ackerley, as he appears in My father and myself, is a polite and questing son, investigating the complicated lives of his father, known as the Banana King. It took him half a lifetime to piece together his father's exploits, his relationships, his children, his early life with louche semi-aristocrats. J.R. Ackerley devotes many pages to his own awkward and unsatisfied love life, (even the phrase, 'love life'  has an optimism his life didn't match). He was a homosexual who didn't like the word, who never found his Ideal Friend, his formulation for the boy (beautiful, working-class) he sought through hundreds in his life (1896 - 1968), at least not until he stopped sifting through boys and acquired a pedigree Alsatian bitch he called Queenie in life, and Tulip in the extraordinary book he wrote about her.

Where he might appear circumspect and even prudish in his trawl through his father's life and his own, when it came to Tulip, he said it all. The politeness of his writing style, echoing his social style, allowed him to investigate this Ideal Friend, to provide for her happiness in any way he could, most particularly her sex life. He wanted her to mate, with the right dog, to know (as he hadn't, we suppose) the joy of sex, and procreation, which he certainly didn't. He follows each coming into heat, twice a year, evokes the opening of the vagina, the heating of the vulva. 

In the event, canine relations were already denatured in the 1950s and 1960s, as now, pedigree did not easily mate with pedigree. Quite how complex it is you may not want to know, but Joe Ackerley spells it out. A mongrel made it through to Tulip/Queenie who had a litter of eight puppies, not the triumph of pedigree and cherishing he had imagined, but he gave them every care, at the expense of his bourgeois flat in Putney. 

I am not at all a dog person. But I was riveted. Here was fulfilment. Not to be denied. Tulip draws from Joe a lyricism that nothing in his own life could match. I read both books in a few days, labouring under a cold following a party last weekend in a chilly May breeze, dozing now and then in the new room, the dozing room. 

The opening sentence of My father and myself, 'I was born in 1896 and my parents were married 1919' sets the frame for Joe's investigations into his family, conducted with a graciousness neither apologetic nor judgemental, nor even exactly sad. It is a gift to tell a history how you have found it, with the language you have learned to use for other purposes, ( J. R. Ackerley was for many years literary editor of The Listener).

Whatever sadness and desolation follows on from his quest to know the history of his father, and his family, Queenie/Tulip redresses all. Not many can do as much.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Dime-Store Alchemy

A relief to read Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic. Each page a box. Bottomless. Yet you move on. There are other boxes, other pages to be composed. Other objects waiting to come together. Joseph Cornell compiled his boxes over years, the compositions reducing as he reduced, less and less taking on more and more space. A box, a page, a resting place, Hôtel Beau-Séjour, Hôtel des Etrangers, Hotel du Nord. "You have no secrets from your insomnia," says the sign at the entrance to the hotel at the end of the world.

Charles Simic has a feeling for Joseph Cornell's boxes, and writes as a friend would. He was walking the streets of New York, he says, at around the same time Joseph Cornell did. They could have passed each other. Certain artists, certain writers, inspire this kind of affectionate co-identity. If you like what someone makes or writes, you feel you know them intimately, even, for the time of looking, or the time of reading, you have become that person. Each page of this book is either in direct reference to Joseph Cornell or in the spirit of his serendipity, his assemblages.

New Yorkers assemble their own New York. Londoners their own London. All of us assemble, and disassemble, the pages of our past. I have always had a liking for glass jars, the larger ones became repositories for the small treasures of my youth; they are still intact in the attic. The artist Robin Winters had a collection of hatboxes; and a collection of glass jars. Artists and writers feel a need to contain things, and for those things, in many cases, to take a long time to come together. 

The intimacy and charm of a Joseph Cornell box and a Charles Simic page is that you engage with their choices and supplement them with your own. He suggests that perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes is to place them on the floor and lie down beside them.

It is not surprising that child faces stare out of the boxes and that they have the dreamy look of children at play. Theirs in the happy solitude of a time without clocks when children are masters of their world. Cornell's boxes are reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. They are inviting us, of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again.

His final boxes, Charles Simic remarks, are nearly empty, as final boxes should be. 

Emptiness, this divine condition, this school of metaphysics. 
A small white ball 
In a bare, whitewashed room 
With a QUIET sign.

Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no.  Says Charles Simic. 

Friday, 13 May 2022

Reading in hospital: E.M.Forster and Virginia Woolf

In Room 19 at the Bon Secours hospital, known as the Bons, with a large magnolia outside the window—one of the oldest trees in Cork, said the woman who came to disinfect the room—over a hundred years old, it's fablous isn't it, fablous—I have two books, The Collected Short Stories of E.M. Forster and The Haunted House, stories by Virginia Woolf. 

I started E.M. Forster in the Medical Assessment Unit, amid bleepers out of sync with each other, cubicle to cubicle, interruptions and diagnoses in the offing. I couldn't read, but needed to be turning the pages. Next day, I read them again, sitting by the window, young magnolia leaves run through with weather I couldn't see, with the road I couldn't see either, only people's feet as they walked by, and a fly on the outside I'd let in if I could, for a bit of life, but the window doesn't open. No flies in the horsepiddle, please.

But I can have fauns and sirens, other kingdoms, hollow trees, the other side of the hedge. I can ride a celestial omnibus driven by Sir Thomas Browne for the journey before dawn, Dante for the journey after sunset. A young boy who believes in dreams and signposts To Heaven  until he's whacked back into nursery tea and common sense. Fellow-traveller is Mr Bons, of this hospital, perhaps, who was found dead next day in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works.

E.M. Forster wants his systems and dichotomies, his frustration, his Table of Precedency. Underlying all that he wants a Sicilian diver naked on a rock, crossing himself before diving into the blue waters of Capri to rescue a precious notebook on the Deist Controversy.

Few things have been more beautiful than my notebook on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge.

All this makes me want Virginia Woolf who wants a quiet chair and a mark on the wall. From there she contemplates 'those real standard things'. 'What an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses. Nothing is proved. Nothing is known.' The real standard things, she offers, are men. 

Men, perhaps, should you be a woman: the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which established Whitaker's Table of Precedency, which has become, I suppose, since the war, half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin, where the phantoms go, the mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell, and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom — if freedom exists ...

Near the beginning of 'The Mark on the Wall', freedom exists, exults. 

Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour —landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one's hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels, in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse.

E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries. I find myself in hospital with one each of their books. I read Virgnia Woolf often, she is . E.M. Forster very rarely, and then usually 'The Celestial Omnibus'. I get on a bus at sunrise or sunset, talk to Dante and Sir Thomas Browne. I have a return ticket after all. Virginia Woolf is there when I get back.

The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane ... I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interpreted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with is hard separate facts. To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes ...

Signed: Virginia Woolf, and me.

Friday, 6 May 2022

The woman in the dunes, Kobo Abe

Up at the pond, reading Woman in the dunes by Kobo Abe, and, a while before I've finished, the book comes back already in the series of stances, defences you need in the face of moving sand. You have to read according to the philosophy of sand and holes. An entomologist, Niki Jumpei, finds himself trapped in a house with a woman, unnamed, who spends all night shovelling sand, to protect her house and the village. The rope ladder he descended when he first arrived, looking for somewhere to stay for the night, is removed. He's a prisoner who must shovel sand at the bottom of a shifting dune.

Up at the pond I sing the song of the sands. A leaf with new life propels itself along the bottom of the pond. A caddis fly larva wrapped in a hawthorn leaf moves through the pond forest. 

I'm turning Japanese I really think so.

A story set in sand is a philosophy, like Camus or Kafka, you can read it anywhere and in any order. The ground, the walls, shift constantly. Find a sand dune up at the pond. Spit out sand. Bathe your sand fever. Take a short dip. Check the tadpoles. Plan your escape. Fail again. Fail better. Dance an internal tango of the sand dune and the pond.

Around page 183 a piece of paper fell out of my new-last-week copy, published by Penguin Modern Classics, with a message:

Life itself is the Supreme Guru; be attentive to its lesson and obedient to its commands. Monday JUNE 1st.

Is there someone who goes around bookshops inserting short texts into random volumes? Now there's an idea. From Woman in the dunes I could select my texts. Less supreme guru, more sand. More down to earth eternity. For example:

The beauty of sand, in other words, belonged to death. It was the beauty of death that ran through the magnificence of its ruins and its great power of destruction.


Sand not only flows, but this very flow is the sand. 

You yourself become sand. You see with the eyes of the sand. Once you're dead you don't have to worry about dying any more. 
I saw the film of Woman in the dunes when I was twenty, the grain of the film the sand of its subject, the erotics of sand, the dampness at the heart of the desert, on the edge of town. A one way ticket to the blues. Escape is the same as staying put, once you've found fresh water deep in the sand. When the rope ladder is let down again, he doesn't escape.

Only the man who obstinately hangs on to a round-trip ticket can hum with real sorrow a song of the one-way ticket.

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

The Illiterate, Agota Kristof

The start of The Illiterate by Agota Kristof fits my case.

I read. It is like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children's books. Everything in print.

Growing up I read the back of the cornflakes packet, the fru grain tin, insects in the long grass, the back of my hand.

I am four years old. The war has just begun.

 How do you become a writer? she asks. 

First of all, naturally, you must write. Then, you must continue to write. Even when it doesn't interest anyone.

A slim book in the Spring is worth double. Birch are in their early green. The dark night of the soul is over. 

If ever.

There's room in a spare tale for all of us. Reading Agota Kristof makes me write as she does. There are a thousand entrances on every page. We can all settle in with our own bare bones. 

One kind of writing exists because, for various reasons, there is no one to say it to. ( Ruskin)

Friday, 22 April 2022

Anne Redmon, Music and Silence

Music and Silence I bought for its title in 1980. A ticket to Talking Heads in Radio City Music Hall, Sunday Nov O2 1980, was left between the pages. Anne Redmon, the author, is not available on google except for a few copies of her books from the usual sources. One Kirkus Review about a promising writer in 1978. Somewhere I found a photo of a large, smiling woman, and could see her in a shabby but warm flat near Victoria, which is where much of the novel is set.

The novel is a women's two-hander, one Music and the other, Silence, with a lurking religious fanatic, a maestro of the cello and his handsome wife and a couple of other small male parts, plus Italian and Spanish outreach and social chill. Duty, patience, not quite regret. Polite disquiet. Walking into your plot with your umbrella furled. There are alternating chapters, silence then music, with the religious fanatic waiting in the wings and the cello maestro, Alba, listening to music and occasionally playing.

This time, Alba sat back and well and truly listened. I cannot describe how he did this—I only know that the effect was extraordinary. It was as if his ear was firmly braced down under me; it was as if all my life I had been a trapeze dancer without a net; he spread his consciousness low to catch me. 

The music pages sang. The structure ached a bit, like an old bed in Casa Grande, Portugal, the Blue Room. The ending will have to be surprising and hence not surprising at all. The novel travels on her own two feet. 

I prefer dreams, which are inconsequential and relentless. It all turns on a blush and a pile of photographs, a tumble drier and a coffee cup left in a broken wall at the bottom of the hill. You wake up and bask all over again. 

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Reading in Portugal

For the first few days in Portugal I read nothing, stunned by being in another country after three years. All I could do was read the flowers, the orchids on the coastal path, the waves on the beach, the surfers on and under and among, long-legged dogs digging holes in the sand and then lying in them, a five year-old girl playing ringmaster with her younger brother who is now a cat, now a tiger. 

I brought Bohumil Hrabal but he is not good for beaches. I read, on the first page of Too Loud A Solitude, his wonderful sentences about how books spread through the sensibility of reader, and that was enough.

Because when I read I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

I turned to Anne Carson. Poetry is easier, slighter and deeper. The poem arrives from nowhere and disappears without trace. Understanding also disappears without trace, into the sand, into the sea. Everything, by then, is between the lines.

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to be to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you. Candor is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has to get itself woven out somewhere.

In the local supermarket I picked up a few cards. I read them over and over and absorbed the social and animal needs of southwestern anglo Portugal in 2022.

Carole Perrin, Magnetizer/Energetician. Quantum Therapy. Energy Treatment.

Wild Soul Alice, Wild Soul Healing, Reiki, Sound Healing, Yin Yoga. 100% Pure Oils.

Else, Private Chef, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. Fingerfood & Cocktails, a unique culinary experience in the comfort of your (holiday) home.

Svenja, Happy Buddy Dog Therapist, following the principles of living in a pack. Sensibility, Communication, Understanding, Positive Intensification. The key for a happy relationship.

Noah Balulis, Creative Writer.

Along the way, mostly at night, I read John Williams' Nothing but the night, trying to overlook the overwriting. A young person's book can be fresh, but this one is laboured, all descriptions are multiple. I only have to see an 'and' between epithets and I start to groan.

From the orchestra stalls at a rare surfer-less beach, I started reading Fleur Jaeggy again. I am the brother of XX. The stories are short. The sentences are sharp. We're always being jolted to a stop. There's no satisfaction to be had. That's fine by me. The satisfaction is all out there, in the waves & the sun. There is calm amid a vague stealthy disquietude. 
It's nice to sit on a bench and think, with a feeling of reciprocity, of the void.
Fleur Jaeggy knows the void like the back of her hand, like her pocket. She drops the start of a story like a small bomb.

The pain her son had caused her by choosing to die on a day in spring was less than she had expected. He is happy now, she said. And she herself felt almost relived. She would have liked to die that way. 
This story is called 'The Perfect Choice'. The son in question was sickly and suffered from insomnia.
The only son had become so tired he no longer cared about insomnia. He didn't even notice. He stayed up all night, it seemed to him that he had a great deal to do, in the doing of nothing.

The beach is like that. There is a great deal of nothing to do, watching walls of water best each other like children. A kite man is high above the beach, sitting under his sail like an early aviator. He has no mission except staying up there and then coming down when he chooses and moving to another beach.

Sunday, 27 March 2022

Together and Apart, Virginia Woolf

A writer sketching a recent encounter, weighing it, palping it, taking a print. That's where I want to be at the end of the day. With Virginia Woolf at her writing board, thinking through recent moments. That's what grounds me in the middle of the night. Moments of Being. No candles lit. Conversations and their mycelium.

Mrs Dalloway introduced them, saying you will like him. The conversation began some minutes before anything was said, for both Mr Serle and Miss Anning were looking at the sky and in both of their minds the sky went on pouring its meaning ...

Everything pours its meaning before a departure. I have been more focused on what to read in Portugal than on what I'm reading here. Bohumil Hrabal, Fleur Jaeggy and one of the Penguin Modern Poets have made it to the pile so far.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Virginia Woolf & Jim Jarmusch

An unwritten novel suits my moment. We are talking to people in Tramore Valley Park, where the city dump used to be. We are professional conversationalists in a sharp March wind, putting a pause in the day. 

Virginia Woolf on the train between Victoria and Rodmell, observes her fellow passenger and sketches the novel they might become. Minnie Marsh and James Moggridge. The creatures who grow out of her carriage companions.

If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, It's you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it's you I embrace, you I draw to me — adorable world!

Virginia Woolf with her folded newspaper on the train, imagining the world, imagining a novel. Compassionate, fascinated, human scrutiny. Fellow-travellers in every sense. Maybe the breath of something larger than their own circle.

Inside Virginia Woolf. On a train between London and Sussex. Sitting with her writing board in the evening, smoking roll-ups and pulling the day into focus. She wrote a diary, and letters, she wrote novels and sketches of novels. Sitting on the train with a newspaper to protect you, you can try out whoever is in your carriages. Imagine them. Move them on at your own whim. If this isn't a story it is a trial of the novel-bearing muscle.

Jim Jarmusch, criticised by Nicholas Ray for his film being uneventful, went away and made it even less eventful. Nicholas Ray praised him for being so obstinate.

Saturday, 12 March 2022

James Salter is out on a limb

Everyone is out on a limb if it comes to that. James Salter writes about people who spend a lot of time in restaurants, in apartments. Hardly anyone is outdoors. Relationships are there to be undermined, and indoors is better for that. His writing is male and white and suave and heartbroken, stylish and succinct. Every crevasse is slim and bottomless. I read him when in need of that kind of calm. Vivian Gornick said he was writing the same stories at the end of his life as he had at the beginning and that he wrote about people remote from most lives; and all that is true. 

The story of M, who has worked down at the city dump—now recycling—for 40 years, his norrie aggression, his tribal/territorial stance, is also remote from most lives, even though, as they throw out hoovers and microwaves and soft toys, they are part of it, unwritten. They know their roles and they go home pleased. They have done the right thing. They are insiders even as they discard.

The stories of James Salter, born James Arnold Horowitz, hypnotised by the social unease beneath social ease, by the ease of silky flesh, especially in the small of the back, his caviar with silver spoons, expensive wine and extra vodka, his pugs and deerhounds, his starry skies and silky flesh, his female characters' silky flesh, his community is exclusive and fragile, and, in truth, not even his. 

The city dump is now a park. Good citizens discard microwaves and hoovers, cables cut so that no one can claim malfunction if they take a machine away. It's all about insurance, says M. He's defiant and fatalistic and triumphant. He has a community and they'll back him up. Along the perimeter fence of the recycling, M and the others have attached teddy bears. They have a sign up: THE CUDDLY TOY HEAVEN WALK. Children are terrified, apparently, all these soft toys pinioned to the fence with plastic ties. 

Friday, 4 March 2022

Odessa Stories, Isaac Babel

I can barely read Isaac Babel. I am turning the pages but only certain words are coming forward, action words like bleeding, shouting, pleading, running, tearing, choking, blowing, boiling, like the sunset. 

I picked up the book because of Putin, because of my history, because I remember at Liverpool Street Station late at night in the 1960s, Ukrainian nationalists would meet and shout. 

What can you do when someone starts a war? You can read something from the history of that place. 

I've tried to read Isaac Babel before, jewish street life in Odessa in 1905, the year Einstein, in Bern, thought up his theory of relativity. He was well placed, well displaced, Einstein, for relativity. Isaac Babel was well-placed for fiction, at a distance from the life of his stories.

The streets, the tribe, was the real life, that's to say, fiction. But at the same time you had to pass exams, you had to excel if you were a jew. Fight or excel. Scamp or scholar. Stories were the currency of the life you didn't quite live. 

It was only when I started the second half of Odessa Stories that I started reading: a wider sweep than these here pages.  

'The Story of my Dovecote' opens the Childhood and Youth section. A nine-year-old wants a dovecot. He must earn it by passing exams. By excelling at exams. Since there are only two places for jews at secondary school. He excels, his uncle makes a dovecot, he goes into town for the doves. A pogrom is in progress. The nine year-old is beaten with his own doves, who die. 

I walked down an unfamiliar street cluttered with white boxes, walked alone, adorned in bloody feathers, down pavements swept as clean as if it were Sunday, and wept more bitterly, fully and joyously than I ever would weep again in all my life. 

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Anne Carson, The H of H Playbook

For some years I have bought anything Anne Carson produces. Slow burners all. For a while the book is around, opened and closed. Examined but not read. Atoms are exchanged. Float, her box of leaflets, and red.doc, whose columns of text were originally a keyboard misstep. The afterlife of reading them echoed by the pre-life of having them in the room.

The H of H Playbook reminds me of my early presentation of my own poems, roughly chopped up typed text badly stuck into a supermarket school exercise book, lined, what's more. It doesn't show much respect for your own work, someone said. All of which was dizzying. 

Anne Carson's varying sizes of cut-out text on distressed backgrounds with bloody memories, line drawings (her own) and some torn pages. A triumph of disrespect, hardback, printed in China, full of dissonance and anachronism. Her second translation of Euripides' play, if translation is still the right word this far out from land, leaves a reader as embattled as Heracles during his Labours, and as wearied. Have two and half thousand years of histories brought us to this?

You look weary, I said to the lad at the checkout the other day. You mean tired? he asked. 

We are so weary we have all but lost the word.

As I turned the pages of the H of H Playbook, the collage of cut-outs and drawings and blotches, finely smoothed with classy creamy paper, an experience of turning pages for its own sake, interspersed with some turns of phrase I'd read off any page, at any time.

After an event like a killing he always needs to go to sleep, then he'll wake up feeling that cold clear thing he hates and it will be strange for a while and then he'll see. 

What Anne Carson has translated from Euripides is how we talk about seeming-inevitabilities. Some distressing silences. As she says, a glacier is silence until it snaps. How we dismiss the heroic and press NORMAL on the washing machine for the nth time. Have a sandwich. Take over from Atlas holding up the sky while he has a sandwich. If he doesn't come back, we'll just let go.

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Entangled Reading

I sleep so badly that the night has become a poorly cropped field with tangled patches of woodland where, if the gods are good and the leaf-fall honest, I might enter a glade of a dream with a cabin in it and maybe a stream and a semblance of lightly-gardened order. The reading I do during the day is a diurnal version of that field, those tangles and glades and maybe a cabin if I turn the page. I can't stay long with any book; the cabin is elusive and maybe the door is locked and the garden grown over. The pages of Books of Jacob, back in 18th century central europe in the murky jewish soul; and Entangled Life, the study of mycelium by the wonderfully-named Merlin Sheldrake, who maybe should be writing about dragons—or maybe is—intermingle and coalesce into a cracky exhaustion. 

In the afternoon I lie down on the floor and look at random pages of The Red Shoes by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, a series of fragments from putative tales, an unbuttoned lexicon, as tattered as my consciousness. None of it takes. I do not sleep. The pages are the undergrowth. Already brambles are poking out and rooting anew.

For all this fragmentation there is a strange, tight identity to these days, the push of an emotional mycelium that, on encountering an obstacle, simply bifurcates and continues on its way. Even the new shoot of a bramble splits into two before seizing the next bit of ground.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Bambi, Felix Salten, Walt Disney

Most people over a certain age do not need to be reminded of what happens in Bambi, Walt Disney's film of 1942, voted 20 in the list of all-time horrors. The death of Bambi's mother. The hunter hunted. Blood in woodland glades. 'We were all there bawling, me and my mum and brothers and sisters.'

I haven't seen the film but the book by Felix Salten was given to me on my seventh birthday, along with Wind in the Willows and Fairy Tales From the Balkans; seven was the start of books with more words than pictures. Felix Salten was a strange name, I thought, even then. Something uncomfortable. The stopped leap of a deer in a meadow.

Bambi in its English translation has come out of a difficult copyright history and been re-translated. I read a New Yorker story about the Bambi complex and Walt Disney's film, who Felix Salten was and what his story meant. 

Bambi was banned in Nazi Germany. Was it a the tale of precious deer and woodland glades He stalked with his third arm? Or a tale of Jews and fascism in the early twentieth century? 

Felix Salten was born Siegfried Satzmann, a new Viennese jew out of Austro-Hungary. He is now most famous for a porn novel he wrote, Josefine Mutzenbacher; or, The Story of Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, which has never been out of print. It occupies 'much the same place in the Salten oeuvre as his homage to carpets: the one that lies at the intersection of ambition, graphomania, and penury', says the New Yorker.

All this was new to me. Felix Salten came down from the bedroom bookshelf, his strange name intact. He will go back altered. I read it in two days, the thick soft pages interspersed with Colour Plates. There are no chapters in Bambi, only line drawings and Colour Plates, with titles such as ' The sweet smell of the meadow made Bambi wildly happy', and, 'For a while Bambi and old stag walked together in silence'. A rhythm of its own. Ecstasy and companionship. 

Phrases like 'Can't you stay by yourself' became the entire bent of my early youth. Images of nature and seasons I plundered for an essay competition organised by Maldon Town Council when I was fourteen: seed pods perched innumerable on the fine tips of the branches, tender and firm and resolute. I learned the intimacy of a woodland glade, the crackle of dead leaves and twigs, the brushing of grasses, dappled light, myriad voices, buds stretched like fists into the sky.

I won a book token for fourteen and six for my essay on A Walk in Maldon.

Why would I be interested in someone else's story? said Johan, his own unsaid story bristling out of him. We bumped into him and Ellie outside Atkins' Farm Shop. We were buying hen food and Ellie was going back to Holland, after ten years in Ireland.

Because in someone else's story you can find whatever Bono was looking for. You can recognise yourself.

Sunday, 30 January 2022

The Books of Jacob

A very long book sits in your life like an accidental landscape you inhabit when you choose. I inhabit The Books of Jacob, its pages numbered backward, in homage to hebrew, every day or two. There are good reading days and poor, distracted ones. Either way the reader joins the mesh of the book, which is as variously produced as the bible: voices upon voices, suppositions, myths, reports, enquiries, responses, with a few illustration pauses, as with Sebald and others. 

Reading the books of Jacob meshes with the rest of my life. I am an onlooker, commentator, an unwitting, hoodwinked member of the tribe. I enjoy the digressive testimonials of people. I'm not sure who they are, and they don't know me either. I like the polysyllabic names; clutches of consonants have a way of settling the nerves, especially in winter. 

Today I read an exchange of letters between Elżbieta Drużbacka and Father Chmielowski. Elżbieta writes of bread and mushrooms, querns and looms. Father Chmielowski writes of learning and freedom.

You, my Friend, are completely free in what You write, while I must stand on the Foundations of that which has already been written. You draw from the Imagination and the Heart, scrupulously reach into Your Feelings and Your Fantasies as tho' into a purse, and scatter gold Coins all around You, where they gleam, luring the Masses. I contribute Nothing of my own, merely citing and compelling. I mark my sources very carefully, which is why I place throughout a sort of 'Teste', which advises the Reader to go and see for himself in the Mother Book, to note how Information weaves together, gathering across the Centuries.

Sunday, 23 January 2022

The Gate of Horn & The Gate of Ivory, Bessie Golding,

I've been reading The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, which is, as its 900 pages suggest, a major investment both of time and memory. Even to say I remember the vast zone of jewishness that the book explores, is inaccurate. Rather it pulls into one volume everything I've ever absorbed, whether it might be my father saying he would take The Jewish War by Josephus as his chosen book for the desert island (I suspected he was showing off); or some of the stories of Borges in which he draws on aspects of jewish mysticism; as well as a general mist of wailing and wryness that constitutes my rarely exercised sense of being jewish. 

All this, while compelling and mind-stretching, leaves this reader in need of something way shorter and quieter, a compass for a moment in the afternoon, no more. I read the first line of Bessie Golding's poem 'The Gate of Horn & The Gate of Ivory' in The New Yorker, and I was immediately where I wanted to be. 'Somewhere I read that music was invented to confirm human loneliness'. The second line, even more so. 'But from the same source I learned that truth disappears in the telling of it.' And the fourth and fifth lines: '–the same way a mad raving/might come in through the same door of the mind as a profound equilibrium'.

And there I was, in January, famously difficult northern hemisphere January, month of our birthdays and at best an eerie gentleness with almost no weather at all, reading a short piece of writing that led me along a well-known but rare version of myself and my reading. With each line, each thought in the poem, I found confirmation, yes, this is where I live too, in a bottomless rush of what Bessie Golding calls pathological sourcing, trying to establish where things come from, which door they came through in the first place, the door of fulfilment or the door of deception. As she says, nothing just comes in and sits down. Except the reader, one January afternoon. 

Friday, 14 January 2022

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead,

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a story of a crone alone in the countryside, barrelling the world along in her own way, with her own crone certainties. Olga Tokarczuk's Creature, Mrs Duszejko,  follows the movements of planets, observes her patch as a countrywoman should. Her neighbours are Bigfoot and Oddball, her friends are Goodnews and Dizzy. She teaches, sometimes, English. She mourns the loss of her Little Girls, her two dogs, whom the hunters have killed. She weeps often. And she says what she pleases to whom she pleases. She likes her capital letters, her freedom and her William Blake (from whose writing the title of the book comes).  

Mrs Duszejko lives in northwest Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, in a village where the local saint is commemorated by hunters. The priest, Father Rustle, is a hunter too. The Animals will make their voices heard, she says. Mrs Duszejko is listening out for the Animals. And weeping for her two dogs. She makes her voice heard against the hunters, against ownership and insensitivity. She speaks out to the priest.

'Why do you weep?' he asked in that strange impersonal priest's slang, in which they say 'trepidation' instead of 'fear', 'attend' instead of 'take notice', 'enrich' instead of 'learn' and so on. But not even that could stop me. I went on crying. /My Dogs have gone missing', I said at last. /It was a winter afternoon. Gloom was already pouring into the dayroom through the small windows, and I couldn't see the expression on his face./' I understand your pain', he said after a pause. 'But they were just animals.'/ 'They were my loved ones. My family. My daughters.'/ Please do not blaspheme', he bristled. ' You cannot speak of dogs as daughters. Don't weep any more. It's better to pray — that brings relief in suffering.'

Later she derides the priest's sermon, in which he blesses the hunters and all their works, as nonsense and not fit for the ears of children. 'Hey you, she says, get down from there'. She is ejected from the chapel. The pleasure and fury of Olga Tokarczuk, as agent of the intimate fiction of Mrs Duszejko, is palpable. She is having her say. She makes me think of various women I know, including myself, especially at this time of day, nearly dark, a bird outside hitting the pitch for the end of the day, with Chopin Nocturnes on the Stereo. I will read some William Blake. Have a look at Moby Dick. The right-hand pages only. 

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Deborah Levy and Fay Weldon

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Real Estate is a living autobiography (what is a dead autobiography?) Deborah Levy has read her Bachelard and her Duras, she has seen her Godard and her Bergman. If you are going to glide by Rilke and Eluard, Bachelard, Heidegger and André Breton, in London, India, Paris and Greece, you need a carefully made hardback book with the right weight of paper and large type, a slightly rounded spine, red cover, very matte. The eponymous real estate turns out to be her own books, after much thought and cross-reference in great locations deftly described and dreamed of. Well-managed anxieties. Well-phrased questions. Is a woman steering her high horse, with desires of her own, likeable? Brave statements about pain. Well-placed quotation towards eventual uplift.

Puffball by Fay Weldon

I need to look at Fay Weldon after Deborah Levy. A paperback, her pages ready to be bent back as you read on the train, or with a cup of coffee in the kitchen. In Puffball, the only woman steering her high horse is Fay Weldon, the author, and she isn't likeable. In the seventies and eighties being unlikeable, especially if you were in advertising, was the way forward. Fay Weldon chivvies her characters into the story she has devised for them. She's brash and sardonic, gruffly compassionate at the last, an ineffectual witch after all.

Liffey was a candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner's shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.

Deborah Levy grew up in South Africa. Fay Weldon in New Zealand. Both settled in England. One placating the English, the other spitting at them. One generation apart. I am between the two of them. If it matters. And one step to the left, in Ireland. 

Sunday, 2 January 2022

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights 2, What the Shrouded Runaway was Saying

In the middle of  Olga Tokarczuk's Flights we meet a shrouded runaway, a woman dressed in many layers who stands in the street cursing the world hoarse. Enter Annushka who is wandering the city, looking for a good place to cry, with maybe one or two observers, is best in her view.  'I can't go home', she says to the shrouded woman. 'Do you have an address?' asks the shrouded woman. Annushka recites her address. 'So just forget it,' blurts the shrouded woman.

Some reading confirms one's own existence, and some contradicts it so vehemently that the words come on like a strong wind blowing through. So just forget it, she says. I am the converse of the shrouded woman in her quilts and boots. I have lived in the same place for forty-five years. I do not readily take flight, shift, sway, move, except in my mind's eye. The counterbalance to the swaying moving populace in Flights, is the procession of foetuses and body parts in jars, helpless ocnophils ready to be studied. 

In the 1980s I learned a pair of words, ocnophil and philobat. An ocnophil is attached to things and places.  If an ocnophil travels, she has a teddy hanging from her rucksac. A philobat has a desire for open spaces. Olga Tokarczuk is a philobat. Sway, go on, move, says the shrouded woman. That's the only way to get away from whatever tyrant is persecuting you. Antichrist or husband.

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such a hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

Some of the narratives are extensive, like the one about the shrouded woman, others might be only a page or a paragraph. The structure is an example of what the book is about, running in all directions, in all centuries. In Polish the words for past and future differ by only one letter. Surely this gives the Polish speaker an altered perspective on past and future, with just that one dip of difference between a y and an e. 

The title, Flights, suggests airports to the anglophone — and there are plenty of airports, various — whereas the Polish title, Bieguni, means something more like wanderers or runaways, and refers to a sect, possibly real, possibly not, whose members wandered the earth like yogi. 

The reader wanders this book as yogi wandered the earth. It's the kind of book that spoils you for other books for a while, before the old roving curiosity kicks back in and you ride out on the back of your reading, like the Youngest Prince rising out of the poppy fields on the back of an albatross over the marshes and forests of the kingdom of Thrice Nine, towards the empire of Thrice Ten. 

Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling.

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights,

Halfway through Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, in the middle of the night, I read about Filip Verheyen, seventeenth century anatomist, ancestor of Oliver Sacks, and Borges, and me, who writes letters to his amputated leg, preserved in formaldehyde.

Why am I in pain? Is it because ....  in essence body and soul are part of something larger and something shared, states of the same substance, like water that can be both liquid and solid?  How can what does not exist cause me pain? Why do I feel this lack, sense this absence? Are we perhaps condemned to wholeness, and every fragmentation, every quartering, will only be a pretence, will happen on the surface, underneath which, however, the plan remains intact, unalterable? Does even the smallest fragment still belong to the whole? If the world, like a great glass orb, falls and shatters into a million pieces — doesn't something great, powerful and infinite remain a whole in this?

I read this over and over.   

Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn't it be better to fasten my mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs? I could use quotes and footnotes. I could in the order of points or chapters reap the  consequences of demonstrating step by step what I mean; I would verify an aforementioned hypothesis and ultimately be able to carry off my arguments like sheets after a wedding night, in view of the public. I would be mistress of my own text, I could take an honest per-word payment for it.

His leg does not write back. 

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Tango, Lynne Tillman, Raymond Radiguet,

This is the season for Janet Baker singing Mahler songs at the hour of the wolf, around five o'clock, when darkness is falling rapidly and you've just started reading Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet, following on directly from Lynne Tillman Men and Apparitions. We are in a tango season. 

Reading Lynne Tillman made me think of Raymond Radiguet, his steamy old-fashioned schoolboy precision-tooled roman passionel, interspersed with pronouncements beyond his emotional age, as we might say now. Scandalous in 1923, the tale of of a sixteen-year-old boy and an eighteen-year-old girl recently married to a soldier who's away fighting in WW1, which was off, stage left, if you were sixteen and living in a strange kind of holiday, in a town beside the river Marne, where usual rules did not apply. Perfect for a poète maudit, a phenomenon of french literature, as Cocteau said, and he would know.

There is a hundred year gap between Tillman and Radiguet. Radiguet, who loved at sixteen, published at twenty and then died of TB, had a cultural vocabulary and some extraordinary grammar — what twenty-year-old now would know the past subjunctive in any verb at all, let alone scatter them throughout in full knowledge of how far away, how processed. His love runs along lines that reading has taught him. He is inclined, as Lynne Tillman is, towards the general statement, the tidy analysis, as well as an observational manner born out of reading Proust, Laclos and Baudelaire.

Mon esprit s'engourdissait peu à peu auprès d'elle, je la trouvai différente. C'est que, maintenant que j'étais sûr de ne plus l'aimer, je commençais à l'aimer.

Zeke Stark, ethnographer, Lynne Tillman's narrator, favours acronyms and abbreviations, as if he is writing notes for a thesis, and addressing readers who are used to reading notes. He makes clear his sources, books, films, tv series, snapshots, pix that r us, many of which are included in the book, he wields his culture, happy to be clunky, ready to be done over once again.  

In the beginning there is nothing, and nothing becomes something, and something becomes everything, and you're fucked.

The other night I watched Scent of a Woman, in which Al Pacino, embittered, angry, blind, dances as a blind man must dance, in the dark, in a New York hotel, with a doe-like girl whose uncertainty turns rapidly to enchantment. 

In my reading tango of Tillman and Radiguet, Tillman leads, with her overload of 21st century awareness, and Radiguet, fervent with new/old youthful passion, is the boy/girl, learning the dance as he glides and swoops and twirls.

The tango is a fault line between two dancers. Passion a fire that divides as much as it unites. 

Friday, 17 December 2021

Isaac Babel, Irving Howe, New York Review of Books,

I read the essay on Isaac Babel by Irving Howe, published this week in the New York Review of Books, written in the late 1980s and left in a drawer. All the contextuals rumble under the page as I read. I have tried Isaac Babel a few times, but can't quite get there. Irving Howe, writing in the 1980s, can get there, I can sieve out my own reading from his. Affectionate irony and embarrassed nostalgia. Half-rhythms of Yiddish. Rueful inversion, like, 'Resting I did at school.' 

I recognise the narrator with his spectacles on his nose and autumn in his soul, watching the Cossack's grace, in fear and reverence. Like Pierre in War and Peace, out at the Battle of Borodino, I think, watching the battle from a nearby hillock and taking notes. Someone needs to take notes.

Isaac Babel wrote about Odessa in 1920s. Someone I met in Paris recognised me as 'one of the Odessa crowd', and I was happy to go along with that. The pit of northeastern europe, the ferment of old-style crossroads and staging-posts, a mess of language, many futile journeys in one direction or another. All this I respond to as to the manner born, which I was, we all are. In a manner, born.

After that we went to bed in the hay-loft. There were six of us sleeping there, keeping each other warm, with our legs entangled, under a roof full of holes that let in the starlight. I dreamt, and there were women in my dreams, but my heart, my scarlet murderer's heart, creaked and bled.

I have a childhood book called The Twenty-Four Ivans in which twenty-four ivans make their way to St Petersburg to buy a new bell for their village church. They try to make porridge in a river, and they sleep, as chez Babel, with their legs entangled so that in the morning they do not know who they are, Ivan, Ivan, Ivan, Ivan or Ivan. 

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Fleur Jaeggy, Hortus,

The Paris Review described reading Fleur Jaeggy as not unlike diving headlong, naked, into a bramble of black rose bushes. 

I would say, medicinal. Leaves you slightly numb. In need of antidote. 

She is the kind of writer who gets under your skin so you can't help imitating. 

If she gets under your skin it's because she was already there.

Fleur Jaeggy is a sharpener. At no point does she reassure. Au contraire. The ground is likely to vanish under you. Yes, the depths of your bramble roots. Vanished also.

I read a piece in the New Yorker about the value of pain in prompting our endogenous morphine to kick in. As if our chief activity as humans were to produce pain and then to produce painkillers. 

Reading Fleur Jaeggy is a bit like that. She produces, describes, pain, and the bluntness and swiftness of her style is the painkiller. 

Actually, as I began the title story of I am the brother of XX, I was relieved rather than pained that without ceremony we were plunged into the crosscurrents of family, that we took on the remoteness, the unwillingness, yet compulsion, the little you can say about it, the sense of release in saying even this much.

Most of Fleur Jaeggy's creatures are close to untimely death. Her sentences are short. You're left at the end of each one, abandoned, as she, the writer, we must suppose, was abandoned, obscurely and politely, in her upper middle class Swiss early life, without pathos or explanation.

Need to read a piece or two in Hortus to right the balance. 'I never tasted anything as good as an Ashmead's Kernel on a biodynamic farm near Stroud a few years ago.' We have an Ashmead's Kernel tree and the soft russety taste at this time of year is redemptive. 

Chez Fleur Jaeggy a lakeside calm in one story is the most redemption you find. There is very little eating. No apples at all that I can remember.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Jane Gardam, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends, Sebald biography

I needed to rest for a few days with deep story, the kind that pursues itself to the end, tying ends you didn't know were loose. Old Filth by Jane Gardam is deep story, in fact it is Deep Story, with its two sequels, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. A strung-out tale of Orphans of the Raj and other rootless internationals with a fair measure of success among them, mostly in law. For British children born in India in the twenties and thirties, Home was England, where they were sent to school. The capital letter of Home gave rise to other capitals, similarly uncertain, brave, circumspect, but never ironic.

At the end of each book, Jane Gardam gives full revelation about her sources. She is married to a QC who spent time in the Far East, where all the characters spend much of their lives, before retiring to Deep England to live out their days.

I have read several reviews lately of the biography of W.G. Sebald, which appears to focus on Sebald's unreliability as a writer, and as a person. After years of readers' relishing of what they take in his writing to be the scent of truth, the biographer, Carole Angier, enjoys exposing Sebald as a liar, or at least this is what most of the reviews focus on. He conveys the sadness of truth. How he does it, what conversions and inventions he uses — is academic.

Jane Gardam's very correct and polite Acknowledgements of books she read and people she knows or knew, who were once Raj Orphans and who set off in Wartime convoys to the East, could not be more different from Sebald, or Max, as he preferred to be called (what is it about men who prefer to be called Max?), who says nothing. He is dreaming, as writers do, he does not commit. That's what novels are for. What you read is what you get and what you feel is yours to absorb, or dream on, as you please. The truth is also what you get, if that's what you want. And that's the catch (in the throat), the ping (of life) as the writer creates it, out of long absorption.

Jane Gardam could have made one large volume out of her knowledge and research. It would have saved her some repetition. By the time I reached the end of the last volume I was chiefly curious as to which half-forgotten threads she would revive. Nonetheless, for the coldest week of the autumn, it was perfect.