JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 17 May 2019

I read New Yorker stories in bursts, several at a time, when I'm between books. A New Yorker story is just that, a New Yorker story, which is sometimes a comfort, sometimes so tidy it's dull, and sometimes a reading moment in the middle of the night. This week, Lauren Groff and Brawler, a story about diving and pills, was a reading moment. Somewhere in the middle of the middle column on the page, she starts her dive. The dive is the moment. Like the levitation dreams where you are slow motion somersaulting in a large room or hall. Then she goes home where a cheetah is chasing across the tv screen in gorgeous slow motion. Her mother, the thin, wasted, naturo/homeo/pillhead, recedes, and Sara, the diver, her daughter, leaps. After the cheetah, we see elephants washing, and then, later, the great huffing buffalo, followed by male springbok climbing aboard female springbok. Her mother lays her head on Sara's lap as 'the television scrolled onward through the miracles of the savanna and the lifting of white names through blackness'.

These terrible/serene moments—a mother's head on your lap when you are young—are riveting as you read, as I read, in the middle of the night.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

A man, a lawyer in mezzo al cammin, gets up early in the morning. This is Ferrara in the middle of the twentieth century. He is going hunting. The Heron by Giorgio Bassani, occupies a day, from four in the morning to late the same night.

At first I couldn't take the slow and ordinary start, the matutinal duties duly listed. I read the first few pages several times. But then, with successive insomniac readings, I began to occupy the same day, the same dark wood, the early Ferrara morning and beyond, as this emotionless yet passionate lawyer, quietly prepares.

The eponymous heron is wounded. The lawyer, immobilised by his thoughts, does not fire a shot. This is November, skies are low. His companion brings down thirty or forty water fowl. The heron dies.

Where are we going with this? If you're asking you already know. For a hunting novel this is very quiet. Images of taxidermy. Shots fire through mist and uncertainty. Very little conversation from which someone is not longing to escape. Waterfowl fall from the sky. An indulgent solitary lunch is followed by a dismal nap and several changes of mind.

Sometimes the baldest account speaks loudest. In the latest New Yorker, Guinevere Turner's account of childhood in a cult, if it was a cult rather than a Family, is bald. And loud. Factual. If factual includes extraordinary reality, it is indistinguishable from fictional. Giorgio Bassani's midlife hunter is dying with the heron, willing forward the end of his life. The heron carries all.

Friday, 26 April 2019

At the Easter Monday car boot sale on the GAA pitch in Blarney, I bought Change in the village by George Bourne, one of the short-lived Penguin Country Library, 1984-6. There were few books at the car boot, prodigious amounts of plastic and semi-defunct machinery, a few antiques, and a multifarious strolling public.

It's a rare charm to choose a book out of a display of maybe seven, next to ashtrays and old lace.

Change in the village was written in 1912 about a village called Bourne just outside Farnham in Surrey. George Bourne, (né George Strut, he borrowed the village for his pen name), was the son of a wheelwright and well-placed, says the blurb on the back, to recognise the changes that were necessary for the survival of the village, and identified them with a sympathetic view of the inevitable completely lacking in sentimentality. (Oh the blurbs of yesteryear).

It is moot, now, it is meet, to think about inevitable change. To think about anything being inevitable in society, which does exist, after all.

The car boot sale is inevitable, in Blarney, 2019. Discuss.

You walk up and down with maybe something in mind you're looking for, maybe not, maybe something will blow in or you'll have a grá for a 1950s saucer, or a wooden chisel. The stuff is laid out on trestles and tarpaulins, for barter, banter and ball-hopping, for well-being in the company of neighbours and strangers, locals, cousins and blow-ins, Roumanians at ease on a Fair day, Poles establishing their Blarney or Blackpool creds, their children standing alongside, hoicked into their pink flannel shorts, learning. I could see, in my mind's eye, my friend Rafferty, who liked fairs and markets, who liked his commerce tactile.

Take any two things and describe the difference between them. George Bourne's changing village (google it now and you get wall-to-wall real estate) and the car boot sale at Blarney GAA a century later.

Change in the village is a five-act drama.

THE VILLAGE
THE PRESENT TIME
THE ALTERED CIRCUMSTANCES
THE RESULTING NEEDS
THE FORWARD MOVEMENT

There are twenty-one scenes.

The Village, Self-reliance, Man and Wife, Manifold Troubles, Drink, Ways and Means, Good Temper, The Peasant System, The New Thrift, Competition, Humiliation, The Humiliated, Notice to Quit, The Initial Defect, The Opportunity, The Obstacles, The Women's Need, The Want of Book-learning, Emotional Starvation, The Children's Need, The Forward Movement.

Re-write as Blarney, 2019, the GAA pitch on Easter Monday. Not sure about The Forward Movement, but working on that.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks is a portal to me aged 17 or 18. The exact timbre of everyday concern, anxiety and self-establishment is painful when you recognise it. Like the music you preferred to dance to, then or now, the summation of dancing in your own time. Lynne Reid Banks and the L-Shaped Room, in Fulham in 1960, Leslie Caron and Tom Bell in the film version, all this is a cultural unit that encases me, with an inadvertent pregnancy at its heart, and therein the key to the rest of life. I bought my Penguin copy on March 13th 1965, wanting to know what the next piece of my life could look like if I were more of an urban creature. If I didn't answer an ad in The Lady magazine to rent a cottage in the Outer Hebrides, or to read to an old lady in Mousehole, Cornwall, in exchange for a cottage in the garden. I would write, read, and grow vegetables.

Yes, reader, I did. Write, read, and grow vegetables, in Ireland not in Cornwall. And the person I was reading to, was me.

Monday, 15 April 2019

There is a zebra on the front cover of Out of Africa; and one pencil mark in the text from an earlier reading, beside this paragraph.
Natives dislike speed, as we dislike noise, it is to them, at the best, hard to bear. They are also on friendly terms with time, and the plan of beguiling or killing it does not come into their heads. In fact the more time you can give them, the happier they are, and if you commission a Kikuyu to hold your horse while you make a visit, you can see by his face that he hopes you will be a long, long time about it. He does not try to pass the time then, but sits down and lives.
       Out of Africa, p. 261, Cape Edition, 1966.
Copying out (not copying and pasting) a paragraph into a new place suddenly opens it to new meaning. Released from the spell of reading Karen Blixen, tapping away at my copying, my delight starts to fracture. Though she was evidently liked and even loved by the Natives on her farm, and her observations about them are born of long experience, I start to balk at her language, at the idea of commissioning a Kikuyu to hold your horse, for example, while you visit a Lady in her Library. Is this Kikuyu patience, or is it something quite irrelevant to patience? Is their 'serenity only a deliberate hebetude', as T.S. Eliot says in Four Quartets?

Then, once again, I would like to think that there are, or were circa 1925, people who do not try to pass the time but sit down and live. I saw one sitting under a tree in West Cork circa 1985 and was well impressed. He was looking west when we passed by early in the afternoon, and was still there, looking west, when we came back a couple of hours later.

Karen Blixen gives rise to T.S. Eliot on a wet and sweeping April Sunday in Ireland. Reading interlocks like the vests of yore. Questions multiply idly and well. How does T.S. Eliot occupy landscape? With a growing terror of nothing to think about? As a distraction by distraction from distraction? T.S. Eliot did not know any Natives. He did not sit and live. He is not on friendly terms with time. There is much wailing and wreckage and despair; the best he can hope for is a conscienceless drift in restless waters. But he did know the river within us, the strong brown god, even if he converted the river, and everything else, almost instantaneously into words.

I tend to read Four Quartets to reacquaint with my old responses to favourite passages. This time, holding Karen Blixen's horse in strong sunlight in  Nairobi, I read it differently. I foundered among the rocks of The Dry Salvages as never before.
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.
It is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Out of Africa is clean, accurate, full and spare at the same time. For astonishing moments you're in Kenya circa 1925, society and landscape. Karen Blixen, Baroness Blixen of Denmark, had a view of where she was and whom she met and dealt with on her coffee farm outside Nairobi, that leaves any fictionalising like Binstead's Safari, Rachel Ingall's novel set in Africa that I read last week, gasping for breath. Out of Africa is not set in Africa, it constitutes seventeen years of Karen Blixen's life and experience of Africa.

She writes more about the squatters and the deputations, the Natives, the Mission and the Hospital, the dramas around her, than about her own feelings. Visitors from her European world, on the other hand, 'sometimes drifted into the farm like wrecked timber into still waters'.
We had many visitors to the farm. In pioneer countries hospitality is a necessity of life not to the travellers alone but to the settlers. A real friend who comes to the house is a heavenly messenger, who brings the panis angelorum.
The real friend, Denys Finch-Hatton, comes back after one of his long expeditions, starved for talk, and they sit over the dinner table into the small hours. (Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Sorry.) The patrician Danish sensibility in Kenya, the observant/compassionate outsider, artist, inhabitant of her lands.
Standing like this in the limpid shadow, looking up towards the golden heights and the clear sky, you get the feeling that you were in reality walking along the bottom of the Sea, with the currents running by you, and were gazing up towards the surface of the Ocean.
Karen Blixen translated her own Danish. All these displacements, these translations, Denmark to Kenya, Danish to English, Angel to Native, Squatter to High Priest, confer clarity and a peace. Which, she said, was what she wanted, a peaceful landscape. She wanted to live among the people who were there in a peaceful landscape.

One day a High Priest came to visit, from India.
We could not speak a word to ne another, for he understood neither English nor Swaheli, and I did not know his language. We had to express our great mutual respect by pantomime. He had already, I saw, been shown the house, all the plate that it possessed was set out on the table, and the flowers arranged according to Indian Somali taste. I went and sat down with him on the stone seat to the West. There, under the breathless attention of the onlookers, I handed him over the hundred Rupees which were wrapped up in a green handkerchief belong to Choleim Hussein. 
Could be a model for Brexit.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

The act of skimming bookshelves is inherently musical; where you lean, what you miss, one year to the next, looking for something to read, is your slow movement, piano scales that run like Beethoven up or down.

Here are Four Stories by Rachel Ingalls that had disappeared from view. And her short novel Binstead's Safari. I read a review in the New Yorker about a reissue of Binstead's Safari; and the bookshelves move into a different key next time I look.

Four Stories, published by Faber in 1987, has Rachel Ingalls on the back cover, for all the world a Girton girl, clever, a little old-fashioned, with perhaps some early onset savagery under the girlish exterior. Her stories have all that.

Relationships familial and chilly, on the whole, important things happening in other countries, as in E.M. Forster, you can see things better from there, you can will the right outcome when you're away from home.

Kathy Acker—I keep looking at Great Expectations—is always away from home.

Binstead's Safari I read too fast, as if on rewind. Something too meaningful happening from the start. Too much Visible Preparation of Outcome. Woman blooms and ultimately is consumed by Fable and the Great White Hunter, by Elephant and Lion. Rachel Ingalls has too much meaning, she's a skilled tourist with too much significance on hold.

Karen Blixen is cleaner. She lived in Africa, came from Denmark. Out of Africa is maybe what I should read next.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Kathy Acker suits and doesn't suit overwrought lives. I read a page or two of Great Expectations for the bam bam bam, the bumpy jolty, the loud rending sound — it's less like reading and more like overhearing conversations on the train — there's a kind of consistency, messy, and you can be fascinated and then abruptly not want to read, not to hear any more, just fix a stare at the middle of Ireland, the middle of anywhere, Portugal, for example, or Italy.

At other times of the day and night I have been reading Italo Zvevo Confessions of Zeno (which has been reissued, I noticed in Dublin the other day) which isn't very confessional beside Kathy Acker, who isn't very confessional beside Proust, who isn't any more than Freud or Dear Frankie. Kathy Acker and Italo Zvevo tango past the equinox. Sometimes this is as much I can read, when I'm reading the hill I live on day and night too.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Lynne Tillman is an interesting intern to have on a trip; she doesn't let up or let out, even at the end. American Genius, A Comedy, has been on my shelves for about 12 years. The last time I read it there was an after-image like the scene in Fahrenheit 451 in which ghostly book persons walk and read in their heads to and fro in the mist. This time, wandering about Alentejo in Portugal, we are in tandem. Lynne Tillman's prose runs in bursts of a few pages, returning often to her skin & her gut & her cat & the other inmates of wherever she is staying, an artist residency, in all likelihood, in New England, which gave rise to or at least accommodated this long recessive wander into her life, and, as I move on this ramble of a holiday from Azoia to Evora to Alvito and other small towns and villages often beginning and ending with vowels, into my life. I do not have such a sensitive skin as our narrator—I am annoyed she calls herself Helen when all the time she is Lynne—but I sneeze royally, as integral to my being, and I can have a sensitive gut. We both have things to say and do about chairs. On this reading, on this trip through gloriously wild and quiet Alentejo, I can relate entirely to the run of her preoccupations, the past interleaving with the present, the cat with the dog, the dead with the living and all their sensibilities, followed by a well-anointed bath.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov looked like a good choice for away reading. My edition is a relaxed, well-printed hardback from 1967 with a well-defined sunshine mark, yellow on the blue cover and spine. I have gone past it often on the shelves but have not been tempted to re-read. Bookless in Portugal seemed a good moment. At the last attempt I got as far as the second chapter on Pontius Pilate and lost patience. This time I skimmed Pontius Pilate, and limped through another chapter or two, unwilling as with food you can't eat for long.

Written in Stalin's Russia, the level of evasion and thickness of satire is more than I can bear: unusual strangers with jovial supernatural gifts, (the devil is always happy, I suppose), hauntings, vanishings, black magic, black cats, talking cats, a range of happenings and satire whose target is noisily suppressed. No, I can't read this, even if it inspired Mick Jagger. I'd rather listen to Sympathy for the Devil. Mick Jagger would be closer than I am to a Bulgakov who went back to religion to demonstrate freedom.

Holiday reading will be Lynne Tillman and Kathy Acker, who were both born the same year as me, both jewish and savage. They make the satire on Stalinist Russia look binary/scholarly. I will ramble around Alentejo, Portugal, with Tillman and Acker, and from the first page, on the plane out, I expect, I'll hear a loud rending sound.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

I wonder if Stuart Holland, political economist, who said to me circa 1972 that people like him worked in his way, among policy and debate, so that people like me could work in our way, among poetry and — he could not complete my sentences as I could not complete his.

Men who work the world not the land, who wield analysis and field opinion, do not know what to make of women who escape their grasp into a row of beans.

I have often remembered Stuart working for a world in which poetry could have an undisturbed, accepted place. I have thought of him and others I half-knew then who were working for a better world, I thought, with only such recognition or adulation as was due. One mutual friend said that Stuart was drawn up short by my, what was it, my immunity to his importance.

I was more egalitarian or innocent than he was; what I read as timidity, he read as strength. We're always at half-mast to our understanding of ourselves or of others.

I have continued reading Henry James this week, under the protective memory of Stuart Holland, who now divides his time, I learn, between Portugal, Hungary, and possibly Italy. I have read several novellas, one of whose principal characters, usually young, is dead at the end. I have thought about the relation of reading Henry James to streaming Netflix and watching the news. Henry James is one of those writers who demands to be situated, as if, out of a distinguished thinking family bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he, like Stuart Holland, must be in relation to his times.

Now I'm reading Washington Square, which is more like a play, more like the art of (domestic) war and thus surely cousin to Netflix if not the news in any era. People who don't like Henry James like Washington Square, apparently, as people who don't like opera like Mozart opera, while Henry himself didn't choose to include it in his collection of tales. Too simple perhaps, too relaxing a tale of misogyny and polite exploitation, not enough clauses. Reading Henry James is like flexing your clause muscles; Washington Square, for some, including Henry himself, is not enough of a workout.

I have never read Colm Toibin's novel about Henry James. I would rather read Henry James than a novel about Henry James. Though I did like Czapski's account of Proust as remembered from a prison camp as a means of mental and spiritual survival.

Much of my reading, be it Henry James or a New Yorker story in a hot bath, is pointillist in manner: dot and space and shy image as images show through as in memory, with loose, absorbent edges.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A review of the new film of The Aspern Papers sent me back to the Henry James nouvelle. Impossible to read Henry James without a wilful sense of purpose and some confused memories. Without becoming Henry James. That coolness and remoteness in the fastnesses of language. Where does that leave you, and Henry James? Is it, despite the odds, a warm embrace?

Margaret Roberts, Miss American Pie, as she liked to call herself, with the warmest of irony on a warm night in Chicago, announced she was going back to Henry James. Perhaps half Henry James readers are re-readers.

This time I read The Aspern Papers in the light of a film I haven't seen. The reviews are poor, but I enjoyed the sense of Vanessa Redgrave in her eighties guarding her memories and her papers in Venice, while local (Cork) boy Jonathan Rhys Meyer, whom I have somehow never trusted, as Morton, tries to extract her secrets, and Joely Richardson, Vanessa's daughter, playing Tita Bordereau, the niece, her name in the film changed to Tina, to avoid embarrassment. Henry James had faces and shadows to fit Bordereau, aunt and niece, and so do I.

You can withdraw into Henry James, if you need a certain coolness yet intimacy, some swift strokes of the pen, an amused distance, not much empathy. He can annoy, royally, as well, when you choose the wrong moment to read him; his sentences can be tortured; and you the reader are tortured, too.

I best came to terms with Henry James circa 1973 when I had a television for the first time and watched a BBC adaptation of The Golden Bowl, with Cyril Cusack, amused in his armchair, holding the tale by its subtleties at the close of each episode.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

I have spent much of the last week or two in early and mid-twentieth century Sweden. I read and then dipped into: Views from a Tuft of Grass by Harry Martinson (Green Integer Books 2005), and (It happened in) 1914 by Eyvind Johnson (Adam Books 1970).

For the summer of 1914 Eyvind Johnson, born 1900, worked a log jam, a log boom, up near the Arctic Circle, a boy among young men, and older men, often tubercular. He was a young man himself by the end. His childhood had come to an end, he said.

Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson were of a kind, rural autodidacts, coming out of the land and its work into, eventually, the Swedish Academy, they shared a Nobel prize in 1974. There was a Swedish Nobel furore that these two Academy members should be honoured. Harry Martinson—a tender portrait of him on the front cover—wasn't able for furore and killed himself soon after.  Eyvind Johnson's portrait on the back cover of the Adam edition shows a Nordic smile on an older face over a crisp white collar, under a slightly off-centre cap on what appears to be a rainy day by the sea.
When I was a child we experienced summer mostly as work, and now, much later, I realise that this was not necessarily the worst means. Somehow summer came closer that way. You took it by the hand and experienced it close to your eyes and nose. ... The inherent, drawn-out monotony of such work forced you to look for close contact with all living things.  (Summer, Harry Martinson)

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

For some weeks now a copy of the New Yorker in my room has been open at a photograph by Richard Avedon of Edward Gorey with a ginger cat around his neck, both of them looking downward into the dark of Mr Gorey's jumper, his beard and the cat's fur of a piece in black and white.

I found Edward Gorey in the Gotham Book Mart in 1980, his books, I mean. I was nosing about New York, pausing as I saw fit. The Gotham Book Mart, the Thalia cinema, Books & Co, another bookshop uptown, a record shop in Soho. Unaware that what I was doing was what people did in New York. I was walking, faster than I wanted, up and along New York streets, trying to find that natural, absorbing signs and untaken opportunities for services like full immersion tanks, reading advertisements of wares, considering displays of Chinese aluminium and perspex. 'I always wanted to look like this and now I do', said a young woman photographed in Soho around then. Not me. I had no idea I might look like this or what it was I always wanted.

Edward Gorey was also a shy man, nosing about in the Edwardian mode, privately having a laugh in the manner of Edward Lear and others. The era of Edward, indeed. The New Yorker article concerns a recent biography of Edward Gorey. Why read about the life of someone who created lives, in words and drawings, and was indifferent to his own? Like reading about a cousin you didn't know you had. Edward Gorey was a precocious child. Later, when asked about his sexuality, he said he supposed he was gay. He went to a lot of movies and was passionate about New York City Ballet. What more do we need to know?

Friday, 1 February 2019

American Indians have no word for wilderness because wilderness was their home, Edward Abbey, always a rambunctious read, tells us. Prompted equally by the preoccupations of an activist moment in my life, and by Józef Czapski's lectures on Proust, written without Proust's text, I remembered the Edward Abbey Reader bought in the 80s, and turned to the piece about going down the Green River in Utah with five friends and a ghost: Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden.

'Thoreau's mind has been haunting mine for most of my life', he says at the beginning of the river journey, but this is the first time in thirty years he has read Walden. It may also be thirty years since I read it. I went to Walden Pond on my trip around North America in 1980/81, at about the same time Edward Abbey was descending the Green River. That makes me, I feel, a privileged reader, even a companion of my own reading. Walden Pond was tame in 1981. The banks were well-trodden black earth, like the earth of the town where I grew up.
(Thoreau) lived in a relatively spacious America of only 24 million people, of whom one sixth were slaves. A mere 140 years later we have grown to a population ten times larger, and we are nearly all slaves. ... We are, most of us, dependent and helpless employees.
        What would Henry have said? He said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world ...  I go to my solitary woodland walks as the homesick to their homes".
As Edward Abbey and his friends float and row and paddle downriver, past Woodruff, Point and Saddlehorse bottoms, past upheaval Bottom and Hardscrabble Bottom, Thoreau accompanies. It's a fruitful companionship. When you're away you remember your life companions and their vividness grounds you. As you move downriver, you also stay put. Thoreau was rarely away. He wasn't a traveller.
Instead he made a world out of Walden Pond, Concord, and their environs. He walked, he explored, every day and many nights, he learned to know his world as few ever know any world.
As I call on neighbours here, I wonder what is the world they know, the world they explore, if exploration is the right word?

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

It's rare to read a book whose context is as powerful as its content. Lost Time was written as a series of lectures on Proust given by Józef Czapski when he was a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp. After a day's labour in freezing temperatures, prisoners hung onto their sanity by preparing talks on topics close to their hearts. Czapski retrieved A la recherché du temps perdu out of greatest need in the most gruelling circumstances. The prisoner's vigilance sharpens the mind and the memory, the need for relief.

A book once read and re-read, a book beloved, becomes embedded in the mind and cannot be erased. In Fahrenheit 451, books are walking around in remembered state in the half-light, their readers freed from the confines of a police state. Czapski is rescued from his ordeal by putting together, without reference to the book, which of course he didn't have, his recollections of Proust. A rememberer remembered at minus 45 degrees.

I taught Proust for many years, mostly the first two volumes. What would I be able to put together in dire circumstances, in dire need? Erich Auerbach in 1936 in Istanbul, also without books or periodicals, wrote Mimesis, which I read as a student, more impressed by the circumstances of the writing than by the book itself.

Questions and answers about the impression that reading lays down, imperceptible until revived, like the Proustian involuntary memory, in the mind of the reader. All the books I've read, some more startlingly than others, have furnished the privacy of my mind in different ways. I'd remember them in direst need. None perhaps more so than Proust, and I'd have to add Virginia Woolf, and the Four Quartets, and Sebald, and Mallarmé, and many more, in that boundless way that lists have.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

I've nearly finished Shyness and Dignity, another small hours immersive reading. Dag Solstad's nordic male run-on style of narrative hyphenates insomnia with ease—at the end of the hyphen you launch into sleep.

Whether it's Ibsen's character or Solstad's or the dear reader's there's a profound dismissal of all almost everything going on, including the eponymous shyness and dignity. All those repeated full names, Elias Rukla and Johan Corneliussen and Eva Linde, and addresses, the apartment at Jacob Aall's Gate, the Fagerborg Secondary School, dismiss themselves as soundly as the end of class bell at the said school. Students remove earbuds before class and then slouch.

However in last night's reading, one sentence rang out, well, several sentences.
People belonging to Elias Rukla's social stratum no longer talked together. Or only briefly and superficially. They practically shrugged at one another. Maybe to one another as well, in a sort of ironic mutual understanding. Because the public space required for a conversation is occupied.
The public space required. Yes. I wrote a story about an architect who designed an agora. He lived alone on an island connected to the mainland by a causeway accessible at low tide. A loner designing a public space. Requiring a public space. Needing a public space. Social interaction and building for the future. The architect did not know if he was waiting for the tide to go down or for the tide to come up.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Read exclusively in the early hours, the last, il ritorno in patria, section of Sebald's Vertigo, has implanted itself in the back brain. Sebald went back to W., the village of his childhood, for the first time in thirty years, and stayed, we read, in the same building, an inn, he'd lived in as a child, for an indefinite period, he told the landlady, during which time he was virtually the only guest.

He inhabits W. as he did when he was a child: indefinitely.

The past is a prison, a foreign country. People speak differently there. If they speak at all.

In the post today came Lost Time, the prison-camp talks on Proust given in 1941 by Jõsef Czapski without a book to consult. Erich Auerbach similarly wrote Mimesis in a bookless place. Remembering what you've read when you're far from books (even a short way down the road or in another room in your own house) is one of the most acute exercises a human can perform.

In the meantime, unhappily, irritated, reading Shyness and Dignity by Sag Solstad. I do not take kindly to the whinge-boring-teacher story. Talk to them, I want to say. Talk.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Dr K. evolves a fragmentary theory of disembodied love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement. If only we were to open our eyes, he says, we would see that our happiness lies in our natural surroundings and not in our poor bodies which have long since become separated from the natural order of things. 
This is from Sebald's Vertigo, and this is one reader pausing on one page in the middle of the night, wondering how poor is the body and what are natural surroundings? Figments of our exercise, our memory, our travels, our reading and our forgetting, selon Sebald, and I would agree, while I am reading Sebald at any rate. What are the salient characteristics of your natural surroundings? Natural surroundings are a moveable feast. Dr K. would say there was no difference now between natural and unnatural surroundings.

Vertigo is the third Sebald in a row I've read. There's a point at which a writer can seem too close, and although you like them you need some distance and would really rather read something else. Insomniac lately, I read in order to distract myself into sleep.

Dr K. in Vertigo is Kafka and to this reader also a man who sold shea butter in the local market pending something more fruitful in the zone in which he'd trained. I am also Dr K., technically. As well as just K. The apartment on the same landing as mine in Paris, apparently empty, had K. on the door. I noticed it every time I came and went.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Edward Gorey said that for a year after he had read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann he felt as if he had t.b. This is a reader paradigm that could do with expanding. As I start another W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, I wonder what imprint is settling in on me?

A melancholic empathy, for one. Sebald's emigrants are solitaries: a former landlord, a former teacher, a great-uncle and an artist in Manchester, more or less jewish or touched with an empathy for the outsiderhood of jewishness that Sebald himself must have had.

Or is it the even mist of biography, the long sentences and the quietness that precedes as well as follows death (emigrants are inclined to be suicides for all they have lost or not found, even if jews, as my mother used to say, are not), that produces the après Sebald effect: the birds fall silent, memories intensify the mist rather than the features it obscures.

Sebald's own memories intertwine with these tales of people he knew; he is the quiet one whose shadowlands and diligent researches are at the service of those who succumbed to sadness. In fact Sebald, who is always there when others' narratives dwindle into silence, could be said to be paying the debt of their melancholy by his attention.

His great-uncle, for example, according to one of the doctors who knew him, had a longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember. Sebald, as gently as you can with the written word, reverses that.

Great-Uncle Adelwarth, and Sebald's primary school teacher, have not been fully extinguished after all. Sebald pulls from his uncle's old agenda book a narrative in the first-person full of wonder, the converse of his later longing for extinction.

The artist Max Ferber (is that why Sebald liked to be called Max?) donates a manuscript about how they got out of Germany into Suffolk or Manchester. A gift freely given: you can do what you like this, je te le confie. Or the writer has invented them. Peu importe.

Memory, says Great-Uncle Adelwarth at the end of his agenda, is a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

Monday, 31 December 2018

To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write, said Roland Barthes. With a substrate of Roland Barthes and Brian Dillon and unseasonably warm, still weather, I start for maybe the third time The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, his walk down the Suffolk coast, a weave of internal, external coincidence and uncertainty with a warp of historical, geographical fact set up for us to absorb in a desolate landscape: internal, external.

These contemplative, melancholic yet factual men, I can keep pace with them, then rapidly I lose what I've read. It's the cloth I'm left with, and, this evening, Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet. Sebald's Suffolk is a landscape I know, I know the quality of the light and the relief of the desolation. This is the east coast of England, opposite Holland or Belgium. The east coast stands for lost causes. St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. I always liked that. It gave me something to start from.

Sebald, Max to his friends, incomer of a few decades, living up the road in Norfolk, has transferred his needs onto this empty coast whose moments came maybe a hundred years ago, maybe a thousand, maybe now. He is open to every association, like the small train crossing a river and how it was surplus to requirements in China a hundred years ago and fetched up in Suffolk, proving the decline of the Empire of China, and then there was the Joseph Conrad Suffolk connection and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand story, the silk industry and the urn burial—these factual men are in shadowlands, if this is what they want.

Suddenly, exhausted from a maze of August landscape and historical reference, here is Sebald ready to visit Michael Hamburger outside a village called Middleton, fellow incomer from Germany, translator, ruralist.

It's like the music of Philip Glass, just when you can't take another repetition, another league out from land, the music breaks and you're back in familiar rhythms again.

Hamburger's pile of jiffy bags by a door—you keep them and there are always more than you need—could have been Sebald's. Coincidences run wild. In rendering these people he becomes them, lapsing into the their language, their context, as his own. Down the coast there's Swinburne who visited, with other melancholics in the late nineteenth century, the lost village of Dunwich which slid into the sea. Lost cause, if ever. And Edward Fitzgerald who translated the Rubiyat of Omar Khayam from Boulge Hall in Suffolk and died of ancestral distress and failing sight. And how Sebald, Max to his friends, came upon Boulge, the Fitzgerald seat, via a Dutch man of money wishing to settle thereabouts. These are some of the threads we ride among the rings of Saturn.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Objects in This Mirror by Brian Dillon is a collection of essays in a plump sturdy paperback (Sternberg Press) that has occupied my winter reading ground for a few weeks now. First I read the whole thing then had the book around in my room and read maybe the contents page, or some of an essay, then stared at the fire and let it settle.

What you put into reading is nothing like what you get out; reading is fermentation, not arithmetic.
To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write. [Barthes]
Barthes brought Brian Dillon into his right world. A writer, a teacher, somebody brings you on and you don't look back. For him it was Barthes.
They are eager to learn to really dance.
This is the caption under a soft fifties photograph of two girls in Moscow doing grands jetés, one smiling at the other, both at the height of the leap and aware of each other. Really dancing meant leaping. I have always had a soft spot for the leaping photos of Lartigue, for flying dreams and for a teenager dancing in the living room on her own when everyone had gone out, ballet music on the record player, like an orphan.

As well as essay titles in Objects in This Mirror there are sections: Curiosities, On Land, Pathologies, Image Files, Inaesthetics, Syllabus. The inner shopping list.
The artist Nina Katchadourian once said to me that her job as she sees it is to simply pay closer attention to the world than others do ...
The closer the attention to greater the pain and if you're lucky the pleasure—if the world you attend is complaisant with your vision. To dance, to write, to leap over things at your own speed. There's the nub, or is it rub?

In the introduction Brian Dillon suggests that the reader may as go straight to the essay at the end about Barthes, 'before any of the more contained and probably assured pieces that come before it'. I didn't do that, I read it where it came in the running order, but in the re-reading it was the essay about Barthes I went to first.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018


Good Neighbours is a difficult link on the winter bookshelf. Is it Ask the fellow who cut the hay? or Pond Life? Or, moving into fiction, F.M. Mayor The Rector's Daughter?

Walter Rose and F.M. Mayor were born a year apart in the south of England; his portrait and her novel are grounded in the same reality but daily lives barely intersect on their pages. The landed and the religious keep a respectful distance from Walter Rose's village, as the nitty gritty of pig and plough is separate from the classical Rector and his dutiful daughter in fictional Dedmayne, though some characters do good work in the village, and find it easier to talk to villagers than to their social peers. The rector's daughter confides most freely in Cook and in one surprising sentence we find a parson's wife teaching carpentry to village boys.

Typical of me that I put myself to bed for the day (yesterday) with several books and several sheets of paper for notes then slip into non-reading non-sleeping emerging only to finish The Rector's Daughter and then, after cursory scan of possible relatives on the shelves, start reading it again, like a child who can't wait to know it well enough to anticipate every word.

This is bookish occupation, imagination as absolute seeing, guaranteed by words and sometimes pictures. The comfort of knowing, of being there more than ever.
Our brain, after all, are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint, and it is from this that an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel too, than the previous state of ignorance.   
W. G. Sebald

Thursday, 13 December 2018

A fault on the landline means taking out a number of books from the shelves to get at the sockets behind. These are motley garden and nature, pond and botanical books. Among them, Good Neighbours, written by Walter Rose in the 1940s, with drawings by John Hookham.  I bought it in 1974, previous owner DH Pasmore signed in discreet pencil on the flyleaf.

Good Neighbours is a portrait of Haddenham, a village in Buckinghamshire, reaching back to the author's boyhood in the late 19th century in a village in post-enclosure England. All the needs of life were met here: food, shelter, tools, clothes, shoes. Once a week to the market town, a couple of hours in pony and cart, and some seasonal outwork in the flat plains between Haddenham and London, known as Going Uppards.

A contained, intimate, community has its own dialect, which shows up bright as a misprint in Walter Rose's modest writing. Witchert. Yolm. Stulch. Todge. Dillen. Slabbin. Greaves. Wimble, Sneds. Frim. Sidcut.

And habits that need reviving, like Chapter V, Gnawing It Out, which was a form of barter involving milk, potatoes or a joint of pork or mutton as part of wages, which could take as long as fourteen years to settle, ending with a toss of a sovereign between two men.

And another form of barter called Chop.
It was once explained to me that the chop system secured double advantages, a profit on the sale and on whatever was taken in exchange; and further, that when making the chop you had only to assure yourself that it was for something of greater value, and you might pleasantly dream of beginning with a donkey, changing it for a pony, and end up as the proud possessor of a blood horse!
That sounds very like selling a piece of old rope on eBay and through multiple exchanges ending up with a fine house overlooking a golf course. There's an edge to dreaming now. In fact, dreaming isn't any longer the right word now we're parted from potatoes, mangold wurzel and the cottager's pig.
The lore and cult of the pig formed a bond between the villagers, as strong as if it had been inherited. All understood it naturally, save, maybe, the Parson. He, poor man, fresh from college, could not be expected to know more than which was the head and which the tail... To call on a neighbour without asking 'How's the pig a-doing' was a plain breach of courtesy, not to be lightly excused. The walk round the garden on a Sunday, or of an evening, the detailed examination of the growing cabbages, the savoys, the sprouts, the beans and peas, would have seemed incomplete without a long and interested pause at the sty, and a learned discussion on the merits of the particular pig.
PG Wodehouse and Flann O'Brien, with different levels of mockery and affection, have seen fit to foreground the pig.
The joys of routing thus ended, nothing remained but surrender to the blisses of eating and sleeping. To grow fast, and grow fat, made exertion less and less desirable. What need for effort with life so bountifully full?
As well as future food the pig was wish fulfilment.
To sleep the sleep of the just was better—with eyes slightly open—emitting melodious snores—and so to wile away the sultry hours of summer; to stretch the long body act ease on the soft straw in the cool shade of the shed, head only at the doorway to sniff the fragrant air from the cottage garden and valley beyond. This was the life of the pig.

Monday, 10 December 2018

These dark evenings, Brahms' A German Requiem underlies Henry Green's Doting, his last book and an artifice so sustained (almost entirely by dialogue) that it needs some rolling Brahms to ground it.

These people—Middletons Payntons Addinsell and Belaine—are in and out of each other's pockets. They talk therefore they are history, they are fiction. It takes a few pages to figure who they are and how they know each other, and then you're away, they're away, on their multiple intrigues, their skirmishes in restaurants, in flats, in rooms, their weave, their fugue. They telephone a little, Arthur, Annabel, Diana, Charles and Claire, along with Peter, a son despatched to school or salmon fishing in Scotland, plus various convenient servants.

The last sentence of the book is: The next day they all went on very much the same.

The book is the part of the fish that shows above water in uneasy times. Are all times uneasy? Is there a void when you take away Brahms? Why doting, after living, loving, party going and blindness? What does doting mean?

This is how we make our exit. Henry Green wrote nothing else for the remaining twenty-two years of his life, or nothing that has remained.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The looping impetus of Henry Green's writing (his self-portrait Pack My Bag) reaches you slowly and you get to feel for this awkward aesthete with a conscience, with a forelock and a downward tall stance, who wrote novels the way a composer might work on a single tune for life  (Berlioz was like that). Always caution, reluctance, persistence. Apology almost. Deference. He wrote longhand, at night. I have mostly read him at night. He is a burrowing kind of writer, seeking out himself and his reader. Prose is a long intimacy between strangers, he said.

In his novels there's always something large missing, like the definite and indefinite articles, or narrative without conversation. His memoir can afford to be poignant. This was just before World War Two. He might die. And in case he does, here is what he feels like setting down of his life: this is what comes to mind. Semi-patrician family life in Gloucestershire, private schools, Oxford. These men in the 1930s and 40s (Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell) they were basking, you might think, in their privilege, armed with irony and self-consciousness. Of all those Henry Green is the one I would like to have known.

He didn't die in World War Two, he wrote a clutch more novels, all with one word titles; and then wrote nothing for twenty-two years. He did not write a self-portrait before his actual death. I guess he didn't feel like it by then. His novels and their titles would have to speak for him. Living. Loving. Doting. BackNothing. Concluding.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Roald Dahl Boy and Henry Green Pack My Bag are coeval, more or less, memoirs of schooldays and just after. Roald Dahl stops after his schooldays. Henry Green, writing on the eve of World War Two in case he didn't survive, goes up to his falling in love. I haven't read much Roald Dahl, and none at the right age, whereas Henry Green came in on a tide of books predating my life that I read when I was in my twenties and thirties.

Roald Dahl was an entertainer, a tall boy with sisters in the 1920s. Norwegian. Henry Green, the pen-name of Henry Yorke, son of prosperous business people from the midlands. Roald Dahl's family were in business, too. Whatever that meant. Whatever the product, the material. They were established. Dahl and Yorke, Est., somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, good houses with good views, and good education. And this was the education from which they emerged. Roald Dahl's education was run through with beatings. Cruelty as formative. So what does he do? He writes warm/cruel tales for children. His letters home when he was at school were signed Boy.

Henry Green, formed in the soft valleys of Gloucestershire, writes cloudy novels of situations whose drama derives from weather, uncertainty and class difference. Pack My Bag is a self-portrait more than a memoir, an evocation rather than a tale, a sketch for a novel or the remains of a dream. He did come back from World War Two, he lived another thirty years, wrote nothing for the last twenty-two years of his life.

Henry Green's novels sit in a soft place akin to his home valley in Gloucestershire. Because their drama is that of gathering, eavesdropping, assembling and not quite getting there, though there are marriages and betrayals, there's a mist if not a fog and by the last page you feel that the writer, along with the characters, has only ever paused. The sentence is the thing that continues.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

I have had a slow, awkward time with a couple of books lately, author fatigue perhaps, plus reader's earlier pleasures not revived.

Book 6 of the Romanzo di Ferrara, The Smell of Hay, by Giorgio Bassani, left me unable to focus except on the eponymous haymaking episode in a graveyard–a semi-circle of scythes slowly advancing—as if these pages were for Signor Bassani the last threads of a cloth not sturdy enough to wear beyond his nostalgia—or mine. One other thing, just after the haymaking, was a list of relatives of the recently deceased Uncle Celio, including the name Ottolenghi. Having just made a recipe from the current chef of that name, involving red cabbage, grapes, juniper berries and blue cheese, inter alia, I started at that: some names you think must belong to only one person ever, and here they are, part of a tribe in a graveyard in Ferrara.

Oliver Sacks' The River of Consciousness similarly did not engage me. Not nearly as much as the red cabbage and grapes. I am not always open to the fascination of festination and aphasia, Darwin and Freud. Or only in a distant way, in honour of an earlier version of myself. Now and then I admired Oliver Sacks' ingenuity. He took twenty photographs of an almost motionless patient, who had, when asked about his frozen poses, said, what do you mean, I was just wiping my nose. The twenty photographs, when made into a flick book, clearly showed a man wiping his nose.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

How do I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson? The only horror stories I've read are by Henry James and Wilkie Collins, both old enough for horror to vanish into style. Film is where horror comes into its own. Black and white. I read Shirley Jackson as if she wrote for film, black and white, with episodes in colour. I read her as an adolescent exploring her darkness. How would it be if I killed all my family except the sister I like, and the cat, and Uncle Julian. How would that be? Is this horror or everyday life?

The main character in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat, is eighteen but feels like a wilful twelve. She charts her daily routes like a board game, she buries things, pins things to trees, neatens the house on the days for neatening the house, distrusts all visitors and maintains all barricades.

Does this ring a bell?

The author photo on the Penguin Modern Classics edition shows a three-quarter view of a woman in pearls and glasses, with a full mouth and a downward outward look, a nearly wicked smile. I used to know women who had that look. The pearls could throw you off the scent, and the light brown hair softly pulled off the face.

Outright stories, like this one, make me uneasy. I wasn't able to put my own cards on the table in a story-like way. Horror stories are wish fulfilment stories. If we lived in this house, had always lived in this house, if we lived in this house even after most of it had burned down because They out there hated us until, some time after the fire, they decided to leave us alone, even leave us food, the children playing at a distance, as if we were owed respect. For what? For killing the rest of our family?

Saturday, 3 November 2018


L.P. Hartley, aka Mr Leo Colston, aged almost thirteen and increasingly out of his depth in a heatwave in Norfolk, staying with his schoolfriend, Marcus, knew the dark and subtle arts of the go-between: anxious, willing to be devoted, trying to find out where best to invest, whom to adore, how to ask the right questions and stay out of the way while observing and absorbing like mad, finding yourself in medias res out of a simple desire to serve those who dazzle you, then when the vicissitudes of adult life are too much you write home to your mother and say you are not enjoying yourself any more.

I haven't read The Go-Between for many years. I have watched the film with the Pinter screenplay more often. Reading gets visceral if there's a good film of it. The chiaroscuro of film scenes and text. The central cricket match, for example. I have no knowledge of cricket. The film of The Go-Between is probably the high point of what I know about cricket. I can't read those two chapters without the film scenes hovering among the lines.

So I read as Pinter, and that is interesting in itself. I never met Pinter but a friend who knew him said that Pinter would like me, which was a suspect kind of remark, though part of it was pleasing.