JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Monday, 30 January 2023

SKIMMING

What's wrong with skimming, with being superficial? says Rosalie in Yiyun Li's story, 'Wednesday's Child'?, as she waits for a train in Amsterdam. She has other radical ideas about reading. Couldn't we excise books, like unwanted DNA, she asks. Wanting another opinion, she gave Agota Kristof's Trilogy to her fifteen year-old daughter, Marcie, who soon afterwards walked under a train.

She wished there had been more time for Marcie to skim on the surface of her life. What's wrong with being superficial? With depth always comes pain.
That's why we go on holiday, where the greatest depth you can have is to sit on a rock by the Meeting of the Waters, on a still, quiet day, drinking liquorice tea looking down through the water at coins thrown in for luck or protection, and across the water to the elegant little bridge and the weir we came through with the canoe circa 1992, holding onto a rope to slow our passage through the rushing water. 

The difficulty with waiting, Rosalie thought, is that one can rarely wait in absolute stillness. Absolute stillness?—that part of herself which was in the habit of questioning her own thoughts as they occurred, raised a mental eyebrow. No one waits in absolute stillness, absolute stillness is death; and when you're dead you no longer wait for anything.

The day before I read 'Wednesday's Child', I spent an hour or so skimming Faces in the Water by Janet Frame, a slightly fictionalised account of the years spent in mental institutions. Skimming was all I felt like doing that day. I didn't want to go any deeper or take any longer than that. Which is perhaps why Yiyun Li's story made its impact.

Monday, 23 January 2023

JANET FRAME'S CREATURES

The fourth misty day. Reading Janet Frame's stories. How she made short melodies of her childhood stories. Songs in the morning and poems in the afternoon. Naive teaching suits the introspective in the class. Words made music of your awkwardness. Her early stories are tiny sketches of girls with different names but the same, frame, sorry. The story called Dossy stopped me in my insomniac tracks. A story of an imaginary friend, a way-station friend, with whom you can giggle.

The nuns heard someone laughing and they stopped at the gate to see who it was. They say a little girl playing ball by herself on the footpath. It's little Dossy Park, they said. With no mother and living in that poky little house in Hart Street and playing by herself all the time, goodness knows what she'll turn out to be.

 She turned out to be a writer, which she was all along.

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Edmund White and Janet Frame: TANGO

When you are confined to quarters in January, even snowed in, nothing better than A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty, by Edmund White, a climate in their own right. 

Like a blind man's hands exploring a face, the memory lingers over an identifying or beloved feature but dismisses the rest as just a curse, a bump, an expanse. Only this feature—these lashes tickling the palm like a firefly or this breath pulsing hot on a knuckle or this vibrating Adam's apple—only this feature seems lovable, sexy. But in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one's improvisations into a quiet new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. ....  I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I've made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something—may even mean something particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader.

I interviewed Edmund White in the 1990s in my office, top floor, number 3 Brighton Villas, on the Western Road. His way of sitting, half-slung and warm, permeates my reading now. A Boy's Own Story has the language of the gods. There's something he needs to create through words that is never quite there when you need it. So you must write.

Because a novel — these words — is a shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living. There is something so insipid about living that to do it at tall requires heroism or stupidity, probably both. Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added.

Last night we watched Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table, from Janet Frame's autobiography. Janet Frame had to write, to keep watch, to touch base, nearly all the time. The world out there, family, friends, society, was not to be trusted. She felt ungainly, unlikely, unlikeable. She had big red hair. An awkward gait. After the death of her father, going through his things, she put on his boots and relived his stance, in low light. Curly, he was called. 

A tango with Edmund White and Janet Frame is the flavour of the week. The strangest tango is the strongest. Edmund White could not keep away from the world. Janet Frame had difficulty being in it.

When I was sixteen, I took out from the library Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame's first novel. In the list at the back of my diary of the books I'd read that year, it came after John Bratby's Breakdown and before Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. That year I read 128 books, though some were followed by NF, for not finished. Owls Do Cry was labelled F, for fair, which meant I didn't get it. John Bratby got A, for awful, and Carlo Levi G for good.

Edmund White said his plots were scrapbooks. Janet Frame might say hers are plucked reconfigurations of the family tapestry. Different names. Different selections. In Owls Do Cry her name is Daphne, her brother is Toby, who takes fits, her sisters Francie and Chicks, their parents Amy and Bob. 

I don't wanner go to school, Toby said. I wanner go to the rubbish dump an' find things.

The lost lives of tyres and hoovers and books. They'd found Grimm's Fairy Tales the last time. Francie dies in a fire at the dump. Chicks, now Teresa, twenty years later has a house built on the dump. While Daphne spends years in a distant dump of her own, a seacliff of lunatics dressed in red flannel sacks and electro petrified every week or two. 'It's up to you to co-operate and pull yourself together.'

Edmund White, Bunny, Dumpling, so comfortable/pained with where he is, always disarmingly in flood, weaving his own tapestry. And then, back on high ground, the freedom of his (perceived) perversity. If it wasn't perverse he might not feel so free. Edmund Valentine White 111.







Tuesday, 10 January 2023

READING NOTES HOME AND ABROAD

In northeast London, after reading too much crap, P goes back to Henry James and Joseph Conrad, back to the books he read at college where you had to pay attention to know what was going on. In Brighton, M is reading The Trial and The Waves, in respite from academe and other speaks. In a gallery in Cork, A is reading The True Story of the Brooklyn Bridge UFO Sightings by Budd Hopkins, under plain cover. In a café in Macroom, a woman is reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is somehow invigorating, especially in January. 

Friday, 6 January 2023

PSYCHOTHERAPY, the diary

Setting up psychotherapy is the hard part, said Rudy Wurlitzer in New York, Easter 1984. He gave me a copy of Alice Miller The Drama of the Gifted Child which I read on the plane home, thinking that if any of it applied to me I'd have a hard time accepting it.

A conversation last week with C sent me back to my diary of 1984/5. She wanted to know was there a moment in psychotherapy when it all came clear, when you thought, that's it, now I see. It's not quite like that. There aren't revelations, or at least you don't know they're revelations until some time afterwards, when you're starting to learn to live with their truth.

After maybe four or five sessions in which I responded to the questions of M the therapist with what seemed even to me to be neat cameos of my life, she said:

What can I ask you that will make you react? I started to go numb, it began in my chest and into my throat. What conditions do you lay down for my having access to you? Tell me three conditions. I stared out of the window at the cement between the ridge tiles on the garage roof. 'That you be interested', I said weakly, 'that you feel for me'. I couldn't think of more, I couldn't think. I was crying. Leave the tears, said M, don't wipe them away.

It was the start of a very long, slow wash, all the atoms of the fabric of me battered and opened. 

Opening up, what do you think of in that phrase? A void, a huge gaping space, a wound, raw open flesh, I replied.

A year of thinking dangerously. Doing M's homework each week. Making bread. Making mud. Seeking shelter. Asking for things. Thinking about punishment. Writing unsent letters to my parents. You could get it from a book, said M, I'm helping you manage the emotions, so that everyday life can continue, teaching, etc. 

Several months later came another moment.

What do you see when you think of yourself as a small child?

A small lump beneath high-tension cables with an electric pole on either side.

The first image that comes to mind is the most accurate. That small lump between electric poles was one I came to know in the way of rare astounding knowledge that shapes a life. I was an image maker by inclination. Sometimes I could see nothing else. I saw my family in a waste land, on waste ground between houses, among those weeds I've always been drawn to. In dreams I was often on see-through bridges, terrified of the fast black river rushing below.

I wrote four volumes of diary a year back then. As a cast of characters and emotions reels through my life and my diary, my neat, monkish handwriting bursts into capitals and different coloured felt tips, with scribbles that evolve, by mid-late 1985, into drawings. For much of of the duration of therapy I'd lost the ability to listen to music. Now my diary was losing its language. I was scribbling in paint.

The words and the music came back. My solitary life became a life in partnership. Many years later I met M by chance in town and told her she'd turned my life around, and she glowed. 


Tuesday, 3 January 2023

PLAGIARISM: the further reaches

I read Kathy Acker and think of Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which I loved in 1978. Reading a few pages brings back all the unsayable,  all the oversaid of that era. Pain can be cloying. These days I am brought to a halt on page 26 by an embedded line of Rilke. Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders? And read no more. In reading Elizabeth Smart I am reading Rilke, Rimbaud, and the Old Testament, to name a few.

Kathy Acker was born a few months after I was. The last section of Tarantula is 'The Story of My Life', September 1973.

1947. I'm born April 18th; my family thinks of itself as aristocratic, though it isn't, since my grandmother (mother's mother) came from Alsace-Lorraine to U.S.A. poor and in her later life married a wealthy man. They properly worship money as do all good Americans. They assure me that only the unworthy work. I will never have to work since I'm rich and will marry rich, that if I ever have to think about money it's because I've come down in the world. They're incredibly stingy with me. These conflicting early trainings make me proud and shy, confident that I'm by nature above other people and aware that everyone, especially my parents, hates me. .... As a baby I spit at whoever I feel like ....

As a writer she spits. She is thrown in prison for trying to figure out her desires. Or is that the Marquis de Sade? She has read Alexander Trocchi, Lesley Blanch, author of The Wilder Shores of Love (and, my first cookbook, Around the World in Eighty Dishes) WB Yeats, Dickens.

This is writing through your reading. Kathy Acker has a lot more starting torque than Elizabeth Smart. A lot more hatred.

My mother wanted to make me exactly like her. I look like her; we both have large eyes, same bone structure, thick child's skin, dark brown hair, purple lips. We're fond of our bodies and wilful. From the first day I was born and hypocritically smiling, pretending I was happy, I opposed her: I set myself against her so that I should become someone else. She began outwardly to hate me when I began to menstruate. She wanted me to be nothing, like her.

Her autobiography segues into that of the Marquis de Sade. As, in earlier chapters, she copies events from other writers and in copying becomes their characters. Language creates her, not necessarily her own language. It is compelling to write down the words of others. If by reading you become the characters you're reading about, by copying other writers' words you embody them, inhabit them, and so release yourself from yourself. Which was maybe what she, like many writers, especially poets, was trying to do all along.


Wednesday, 28 December 2022

WOMEN IN 1944

In 1944 Natalia Ginzburg published an essay about women in the short-lived Italian journal Mercurio. This was recently republished by The New York Review of Books together with a letter from the journal's editor, Alba de Céspedes. These are women of my mother's generation, or a little older, and, while I can more easily read Natalia Ginzburg's novels as independent of era, an essay plants itself in its time, speaks clearly from my mother's generation despite the fact I never heard my mother talk of the position of women, except insofar as she provided a foil, a milder cushion for the views of her friend Gertie, who never married or had children and was vehement on the subject of men.  

The image that dominates Natalia Ginzburg's essay and her friend's response is the well of melancholy into which women fall, which accounts both for their pain and for their complicity.

The truth is two women will understand each other thoroughly when they start to talk about the dark well they fall into, and they can exchange many impressions about wells and the absolute impossibility of communicating with others, of accomplishing something worthwhile, no matter how hard they try, and about the floundering to get back to the surface.

Her friend Alba responds warmly to the essay, but adds a note of disagreement.

But—unlike you—I think these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall into the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men—who never fall into the well—will never understand.

The gender porosity of our era may dull the force of their debate. The well is open to all these days. Which is probably a good thing, even if an unwieldy means to achieve the privilege of melancholy.

I would like to speak to you at length about the suffering (women) experience in the well, because all suffering is in a woman's life; but then, to be perfectly honest, I should also talk about the joy they find there. 

But I can't talk to you about that today because I find myself—as is so often the case— in the well.


Thursday, 22 December 2022

FACES

After a week of flu and some desultory reading, mostly of New Yorkers and New York Review of Books, I picked up Eudora Welty's stories from the shelves and started from where I'd left a bookmark whenever I last read it, at a story called 'Clytie'. 

Clytie Farr and her brother and sister and bedridden father live in a large house in a very small town called Farr's Gin.

Anyone could have told you that there were not more than 150 people in Farr's Gin, counting Negroes. Yet the number of faces seemed to Clytie almost infinite. She knew now to look slowly and carefully at a face; she was convinced that it was impossible to see it all at once. The first thing she discovered about a face was always that she had never seen it before. When she began to look at people's actual countenances there was no more familiarity in the world for her. The most profound, the most moving sight in the whole world must be a face.

There was a face, a vision, she does not know exactly when she saw it, and she is looking for it once again. But all the faces of the townsfolk come between her and her vision. Like the captain of the barge in Jean Vigo's film l'Atalante who has lost his wife and looks for her in a bucket of water, according to the folk tale that you can find the face of your lost love reflected in the water. When he doesn't see her in the bucket of water, he dives into the river.

It was purely for a resemblance to a vision that she examined the secret, mysterious, unrepeated faces she met in the street of Farr's Gin.

At the end of the story, on an errand for rainwater for her father's weekly shave, she stands by the rain barrel.

Clytie did the only thing she could think of to do. She bent her angular body further, and thrust her head into the barrel, under the water, through its glittering surface into the kind, featureless depth, and held it there.

So later she is found 'with her poor ladylike black-stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a pair of tongs.'

As a return to the human world after several days of illness, the 'kind, featureless depth' is as comforting as reading can get.

Sunday, 11 December 2022

HOW MUCH EMPATHY DO YOU HAVE?

I've read Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout one and a half times in the past week. I was so uncomfortable with its contemporaneity that I had to start it again to see why. It's an almost invisible read, being set in the pandemic, its family narrative absorbed even as I read into the fabric of what I remember of those years. Maybe that's what I don't like about reading fiction set now. It disappears as you read it, merges with your own memory. Maybe that's exactly what most people like about it. 

That said, I have liked Elizabeth Strout from her earliest books. The level way she has of making her way through her characters' situations, the ordinary intimacy of it. Most of the characters' preoccupations concern loss and recovery of relations with family, and the warmth the crosses people's faces, masked or not, when they show understanding of other people. There's no malice and little hard feeling of any kind, except the narrator's own, and that's fairly mild by most standards. Her characters are her extensive life.

Some of her tics annoy me, like the tag, after some remark, 'is what I'm saying', or, 'I'm only saying', or 'what I mean is', all of which serve to make the narrator approachable, neighbourly. But I prefer not to be approached in this way. And even as I write that I'm writing something she would write. 

Reading a book like this constitutes an examination of the reader. How much empathy does she have for these people, or in general, for that matter?

Elizabeth Strout is an empathetic writer. She considers a policeman, watching him carefully.

I need to say: This is the question that made me a writer, always the deep desire to know what it feels like to be a different person. .... It sounds very strange, but it is almost as though I could feel my molecules go into him and his come into me.
As Emma Thompson is, to the fullest extent, an empathetic actor, as I read in a New Yorker piece about her.
You're like a piece of blotting paper that has been put into a bowl of water. You cannot absorb anything else. If you're really having to create a different person you're tricking your subconscious. It's a bit, fat magic trick. The hat you're pulling the rabbit out of is your own psyche. That's extremely demanding and weird, because you are in a sense no longer yourself.
The novelist Lydia Millet once told an interviewer that when she first moved to New York, in 1996, she was 'amazed' by how people were 'relentlessly interested in exclusively the human self'/ This myopia—a sort of 'inarticulate, ambient smugness about everything' —wasn't her creed. .... Millet is energised, instead, by how feelings are 'intermeshed with abstract thought,' with 'our place in the wider landscape'.

I read this by chance, in The New Yorker. I've also been looking at Nathalie Sarraute's Tropismes. No empathy there, for sure. The wider landscape emptier than ever.

Monday, 5 December 2022

REVIEWING THE FOURTH WALL

We were painting the living room and my role was to review, revisit, shift, dust and generally aerate the bookshelf wall, the fourth wall. I began at the bottom right, through old telephone books, radio manuals, gardening, food, and pond life. To poetry and drama, ancient and modern; and thinking, ideas, science, Gödel Escher Bach. To autobiography, biography, memoirs and diaries. To fiction, twentieth century and onward. 

I got stuck at John Cowper Powys. I was supposed to be reducing the volume of the shelves, getting the horizontal books into the vertical. Tidying. Dusting. Reviewing. Wolf Solent was my first John Cowper Powys. They are broad books, nearly half a shelf. Would they stay or would they go? 

I went back up to the top left, under the blue cornicing. 19th century novels. Russian fiction. Red miniature editions, some vellum, some gilded. Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures, for example. Dickens, Michael Fairless, The Roadmender. Michael Fairless is Margaret Barber. S/He was a wild success in the early part of the twentieth century.

I have attained my ideal: I am a road mender, some say stone breaker. Both titles are correct, but the one is more pregnant than the other.

I moved the red miniature books around. Left some where they had been. Others went upstairs, under the eaves. A swatch of red vellum upstairs and downstairs. 

So I came back to John Cowper Powys from above, via Kathy Acker and everyone back to the letter p. There were some interesting bookmarks. And a lot of dust. It was good to get Svetlana Alexeivitch comfortable on the shelves. And Olga Tokarczuk. On the title pages of Rowan Hewison's Salt Pan, I found a long dedication across the title pages about our small literary moment in Paradiso, Amsterdam, circa 1981.

All this comfort was made possible by packing into a cardboard box an entire set of french and other study books, as Claire would call them, Genette, Sarraute, Barthes etc. Reshelving your library. Resetting your vertebrae. Dusting as you go. Books and shelves. Lives. Soul. It was altogether an emotional affair, and the tidied books, with some space for new ones, looked less like mine than before.


Monday, 28 November 2022

Barbara Comyns and Virginia Woolf

The Vet's Daughter meets Mrs Dalloway on Clapham Common and in The New York Review of Books. Barbara Comyns and Virginia Woolf rub shoulders. 'Life, Death. This Moment of June.'

The eponymous vet is a terrible man, cruel, self-seeking. He wants nothing of his dead wife or her, his, daughter, who dodges through her childhood as best she can, knowing all along no good can come of being peculiar. No wonder she has the gift of levitation. 

Mrs Dalloway has her party to organise. Ordering flowers. Introducing people. Becoming Lady Bexborough. Yes. And no. Becoming Septimus Warren, the soldier who chose death in the civilised world, whose soul had been forced by the war and obscurely evil doctors. 

Clarissa Dalloway, after a spell in the little room, away from everyone, goes back to the party.

She lives, but the death that she escaped remains in the book as an almost invisible trace of an ending that might have been.

At the end, after long travails, the vet's daughter levitates from Clapham Common and is trampled by the crowd when she comes back down, in her long white dress. So this is it, this is what dying is. 

The inquest was held today on the three people recently trampled to death by a crowd on Clapham Common. The victims were Alice Rowlands and Rosa Fisher, both of Battersea, and a man so far unidentified.

At the end of The Waves, Bernard exclaims, inwardly, "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!' This is what Mrs Dalloway says.


Sunday, 20 November 2022

Counting Backwards from 100, Judy Kravis

In many insomniac nights I have started counting backwards from one hundred, looking for associations, counting my way through my life. Addresses, bus numbers, years, dates, Now that I have written down a version, I don't do it at night any more. I don't count backwards.  I sleep better. There's more room for dreams.

Here's the current end of Counting Backwards from 100

There are no number thirteen buses, I imagine

Twelve years a slave. Twelve years free 

Eleven pipers piping. If you like piping

Ten. One Oh. Forget it 

Dorothy L. Sayers' Nine Tailors were bells

Eight and a half. Fellini. Mastroianni over Roma 

Seven Years in Tibet

Now we are six 

Five Go Mad in Dorset

Four-minute warning before the world ends 

Three is not a crowd

Two of a kind is kindness itself 

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so


Thursday, 17 November 2022

Pig Earth, Once in Europa, by John Berger

A visit from Christina, who spent the summer milking goats and making cheese in the Swiss alps, made me think of John Berger who wrote about peasant life in the French alps in the 1970s and 80s. Peasant has its meaning still in French. Paysan, paysanne, creature of this land, knowing its habits and its ferocity, the shrill call of the goat:

The lament of breath issuing from a skin bag. The Greeks called the cry of the he-goat tragos, from which they derived tragedy.

In English a peasant is an idiot with a misfortunate past and a regrettable future. At best a lifestyle, a brand, a silhouette. A French boyfriend I had in my early twenties saw me bent double from the waist, picking a lettuce in my parents' garden. Tu es paysanne, he said, and I was pleased. 

For many years I have not looked at John Berger's books because I could hear his voice as I read. All the goat and shit and the wholesome authority were too clearly defined, whatever narrative or essayist voice he takes on. But it is many years since I read him, he has since died and the world has become noisier, and his voice, his insistence have grown quieter.

The stories in Pig Earth get longer as the book progresses and the writer's confidence in his own storytelling grows. In the last and longest story, John Berger becomes Jean, the narrator of  'The three lives of Lucie Cabrol'. 

Lucie Cabrol, known as the Cocadrille, a creature sprung from a cock's egg, a dwarfish wrong'un whose universe rose and fell and rose again, expanded to the zone she foraged. Jean the narrator finds the biggest cep he's ever seen and she seizes it. Everything on her alp she owns, she says, except the title. She dies of the fortune she reputedly gathered from foraging, axed through her skull. The money and the murderer were never found.

John Berger writes himself into a village in the alps. He shovels shit and herds goats, drinks gnôle, but the real participation is on the page, in the stories he wrote about the people he knew who'd lived there for generations. 

Pig Earth is first of the 'Into our labours' trilogy, published in 1979. In Once in Europa, the second volume published ten years later, the alp connects to the rest of the world in several painful ways. There is migration to factories, tanneries, chimneys to be swept in Paris. Men return triumphant and then fall. Women are temptresses and milkers, sustainers, or dead, or unknown. The title story 'Once in Europa' is about a factory that produces ferromanganese in blast furnaces. Workers are burned, maimed and killed, the surrounding landscape is poisoned. 

At the end of Pig Earth, John Berger wrote a historical afterword about the threat of extinction of peasants. Ten years later, when he published Once in Europa, one or two peasants had tractors and looked after land and animals on their own. By the end of the 20th century, in Western Europe, the extinction of peasants had effectively been achieved. There are some who, nostalgic for an imagined past, want to become peasants, to survive from the land with only a minimum of saleable product. But the pressures are immense.

As I learned a few weeks ago, the Ford factory in Cork was the first manufacturer in Europe of tractors. Mechanized agriculture and all that goes with it, started here, in 1919.

Saturday, 5 November 2022

IVY AND STEVIE AND KAY DICK

Ivy and Stevie is an intermezzo for a wet autumn. Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith interviewed by Kay Dick, published by Allison & Busby in 1971. Stevie was easier on the psyche than Ivy, when I first read them, a merry outcast living with aunt, the Lion, endearingly strange in Palmer's Green. Ivy needed to situate herself in the civilised world, as she called it. She knew what it was. She was a stern observer. 

And her hair. The forward roll around a black velvet band. I've only known two women who did their hair like that: my aunt Lily, who read Alice in Wonderland upside down on festive occasions; and Vanessa's mother, who was South African, and kept a stern house, sheets sides to middle and stewed apple. 

Ivy Compton-Burnett partakes of both. 

Maybe I can't grow into Ivy because I can't accommodate the overarching family, the constant interaction. I can read her in small, detached doses. Less concerned with who is doing what to whom than taking a print in the void, the way my mother picked up Walter Scott in the middle of the night, and read any page or two. Ivy said to Kay that a plot was a washing line on which to hang her dialogue. Which suits my reading style. Dipping in, taking the temperature. Then returning to myself. 

I have been dipping into A House and its Head this week. Spending time with Ivy. Closing the book when I'd had enough conversation, enough intimation. When I wanted to sleep.

"Is anything serious the matter?"

"Well, we use words like "serious". But words do not make much difference do they?"

 


Monday, 31 October 2022

WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD

On the first page of Barbara Comyns' Who was changed and Who was dead the river floods and ducks sail in through the drawing room windows of Willoweed House, setting the scene for radical disorder, in the family and in the village. Flood followed by pestilence and at the last a certain calm cut through with irony. 

Barbara Comyns' creatures are soaked in a kind of schoolgirl wickedness. The back flap of the book tells us that Barbara and her siblings were brought up by governesses and allowed to run wild. Ebin Willoweed, a former journalist, his children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, his mother, Grandmother Willoweed, plus Old Ives the gardener, and a couple of maids, Eunice and Norah, make up the household, whose disarray marks it off from the rest of the village. 

There are two deaths by the end of chapter three, one in the flood, the other the doctor's wife who has an unstoppable nosebleed. In chapter four, the baker, Horace Emblyn, already distressed by an ulcer and the infidelities of his wife, decides to experiment with rye bread, and makes a small loaf to go out with all the bread orders in the village. People seem to like it; they order more and the baker employs a new man, Old Toby, who had been disfigured by quicklime in his youth. 

The miller is the first to go. He drowns himself. Then the baker's wife, then the village butcher, who slices open his throat into a wound that looks like a smile; as well as the Willoweed grandson, Dennis, who fades out in great detail about halfway through the novel. 

There was ergot in the rye flour. Ergot is one of the bases for lysergic acid. It thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The village is burning from within. Some are changed and some are dead.

The miller, the baker and the rye flour are but the backdrop to the dreadful Grandmother Willoweed who likes eating and hitting out and stamping her feet. She does not like to walk on land she does not own. 

The book gives us a middle-class shakedown in large gardens, by a river, with early motor cars and superstition. If you die giving birth you have a black baby. Ebin Willoweed's wife Jenny died giving birth to Hattie, who is black, and named for the doctor who delivered her, Dr Hatt. As the shakedown settles she's have a pony, and a dog, and go to a regular school, where they christen her AP, (African Princess). Everything turns out well for the ones who are changed, not dead; and maybe also for those who are dead. 

Grandmother Willoweed has had enough of being a caricature. Willoweed life will go on without her. Ebin, the father, does not go to London with Hattie in order to get away from his mother. He grows a big red beard, buys a boat and is known as Old Captain Willoweed. Emma marries a young doctor and becomes civilised, exemplary, alien. She produces a son who is wheeled round Kensington Gardens, heir to the Willoweed lands and money, according to the dictates of her grandmother. 

Savagery in the English countryside among the relatively well-born, drawn with a caustic humour, is a genre in itself in the early twentieth century. Barbara Comyns, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm), Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Nancy Mitford, all of them born around the same time, have in common a sense of social and family structure and a need to tear at it from within, to slice it through and chop it about, make fun of it while demonstrating its invulnerability. 



Monday, 24 October 2022

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton Burnitt,

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton-Burnitt, was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, one of twelve children to a homeopath by two different wives. None of the twelve children had issue. As if each generation were a set of library books kept within family walls. 

Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels are almost entirely dialogue. Such as you might get in a large family, divided down the middle by two senior wives in the early years of the twentieth century. The youngest, in The Mighty and their Fall, are about twelve, plus a girl aged 14, then a pair of older siblings aged about twenty, their father, Ninian, his mother Selina, daughter Lavinia, a nebulous Uncle Hugo, absent Uncle Ransom, plus Cook, and Ainger. This was the era of servants, and doors at which to listen to the flow of dialogue. This was the era of names like Hengist and Egbert. And Lavinia. Ninian. Selina, his mother.

Did Ivy C-B contribute to the dialogue in her own family, or are her novels projections of the way large families might work if people talked directly out of their inner lives? The truth coming out in dribs and drabs and almost immediately degrading nearly everyone in the house. Are these the conversations, the turns of reflection that Ivy knew from experience or is she filling in silences? She claims her life was uninteresting. So she writes to set it humming. She brings out in unlikely but compelling dialogue the process of a family. This is fiction, but wouldn't you like to have been in on the conversation?

"Well, that is her offer," said Selina." So you may have what is left."

"It has its own quality," said Lavinia. "She has little to give, and so offered little. She does not evade the truth."

"It seems a shadow of a letter, Father. It somehow has no substance."

"It means what it does, as you have said."

Everyone talks the same way in her books, age four or fourteen or fifty or eighty, the way people talk when you imagine them, when you project them into your own experience, out of your age-old reality into something with multiple manoeuvres and a last page. 


Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Rivka Galchen's father

In the New Yorker I read Rivka Galchen's personal history of her father, her happy childhood.  How do you get over a happy childhood? she asks. Most of us are stopped in our tracks by this. A happy childhood is a tough act to follow, she says. In her Wikipedia photo she does not look like a woman with a happy childhood. Then again I don't know if I'd recognise a happy childhood if I bumped into one. Her piece about her father was onward and urgent. Her mother was perhaps a dishrag. Happy childhood deals with less than you think.

On tv I saw Ralph Fiennes' Four Quartets. I read them anew in his performance. In the New York Review of Books I read about Piet Mondriaan, and Gilgamesh, and Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks, the dances of Pam Tanovitz. By my stove at the start of the evening, I read Fergal Gaynor's cubist portrait of Hippolytus, his dismemberment and reinstatement. A shake-up of the inheritance, every way you look. At my computer I read Counting Backwards from 100, my insomnia exercise made into a small book, a ramification of number memory and loose association.

We are into the rainy season. Mushrooms are good this year. The pond has started to flow after five months. 

Sunday, 9 October 2022

THE COMFORT OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD

I have two copies of Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, one a British wartime edition, thin paper but clear printing, from 1942, the other a Knopf edition from 1923, the year after the stories were first published. The Knopf edition has wonderful endpapers, close relatives of the Omega workshop of Bloomsbury, as well as thick furry paper that tells you, before you've read a word, that you will be comfortable here. 

I re-read the Knopf edition, and I was comfortable, so much so that I came to the end of each story as you might come to the end of a nap. I have read Katherine Mansfield many times, and always found myself pleased with each story and then the next, till there were no more to read, and the leap to a book by someone else inconceivable for a while. 

Virginia Woolf, who knew KM quite well, envied a little her rise to fame, and distrusted her.

Ah, I have found a fine way of putting her in her place. The more she is praised the more I am convinced she is bad. After all, there's some truth in this. She touches the spot too universally for that spot to be of bluest blood.

This diary entry is from March 1922. Am I a Snob? was an essay she wrote in 1932. Yes, you might say. In another diary entry, from September 1921, we find VW dabbling in KM's stories and then needing to rinse her mind. In Dryden? she wonders. Still, if she were not so clever she could not be so disagreeable, she goes on.

There's an easy seduction to the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Her canvas is broad. VW stays in her own social stratum. The death of a cottager in KM's story The Garden Party is not equal to the death of the shell-shocked soldier in Mrs Dalloway. The soldier is also a poet. 

I will not read Dryden to rinse my mind after reading Katherine Mansfield. I might read Nietzsche.

Sunday, 2 October 2022

NO PLACE WORSE THAN HOME: Katherine Mansfield Kirsty Gunn George Balanchine & Mozart

For many years after I moved to Ireland, people would ask was I going home in the holidays, and I said, this is home, here, where I live now. Where I grew up may be a backdrop, a scrim across my psyche, but it isn't home. Maldon, Essex, England, the World,  has not evolved into writing material. Not as such. Not as prose. Poetry makes do with less.

Katherine Mansfield writes stories from London and Paris, about her childhood in Wellington, New Zealand, which she left in 1903. Kirsty Gunn, who grew up in the same part of Wellington, fifty or more years later, now living in London and Scotland, spends a winter back in Wellington. Rereads Katherine Mansfield. Writes some new stories herself. Lives in the old neighbourhood. Walks the walk. With her two daughters. Opens the front door and sees the lamp within.

How can we talk about exile when we wanted to leave in the first place? Home is where you no longer are. Maybe there's no place worse than home, as Bruce from Glasgow said, in Brittany. 

Discuss.

While I was reading My Katherine Mansfield Project, by Kirsty Gunn, I read in the New Yorker about George Balanchine going back to Russia in 1962, after fleeing the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1924. On his return, with the ballet company he'd formed in New York, he was dispirited and depressed. He said, that's not Russia. That's a completely different country, which happens to speak Russian.

There was no more place to be exiled from. Exile was no longer a state of being; it was a flight—a flight into the pure glass-and-mirrored realm of the imagination, its own kind of home. 

Kirsty Gunn doesn't find her former self in Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand, she finds Katherine Mansfield, who has been fixed forever in her stories. George Balanchine is fixed in the repertoire he created for his New York City Ballet, an angelic world of abstraction and relief. I read, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, or Jennifer Homans writing about Balanchine going back to Russia, and know once more that home is not where I grew up, it's not the place where, as Robert Frost said, they have to take you in. It's Mozart, for me, at the end of the day. That's home. Among these books and that music. With the view of the meadow and the trees. A place that I've made, dug and planted and let live, as far as possible.

Monday, 26 September 2022

Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Elizabeth Hardwick said that one's life, one's autobiography, is nothing other than what one has read. She liked to warm up before writing by reading Heine. 

My life, for the past couple of weeks, has been embedded in the novels of Turgenev: Fathers and Sons (twice), Smoke, in a beautiful edition with leather cover and gilded pages, and half of Liza. The New Yorker had a piece recently about a new translation of Fathers and Sons, which took me back to the top of my bookshelves (my life) where 19th century Russian writers live.

I have also had a cracking cold/cough, complete with a day of sneezing suited to empty a chest cavity more voluminous than I actually have. So I needed something substantial, distant and capacious. Turgenev was there on my parents' bookshelves too, and I can see why. His novels are full of discussion, and at about the level my parents would have related to: a flush of socialism, some music, literature, debate about all of these with, eventually, very few hard feelings.

These are men's books. There are no mothers and daughters, or not in the same household. Women are mothers (married to fathers) or they are aunts, sisters, widows or divorcees. They are introduced to others with their patronymic, their father's name, without which they are deemed incomplete or unknown. Fathers and son hold the floor, even, or especially, when the woman is strong-minded, like Madame Odintsov (Anna Sergyevna) who draws the two friends, the eponymous sons, into her net for a while.

One son, Arkady, is a romantic, happy to lie on his back and gaze at the sky. He is eventually attracted to Anna Sergyevna's sister Katya, who is quiet and young and plays the piano. Arkady and Katya meet in the cool of an ornamental temple.

Here, in the midst of the shade and coolness, she used to read and work, or to give herself up to that sensation of perfect peace, known, doubtless, to each of us, the charms of which consists in the half-unconscious, silent listening to the vast current of life that flows forever both around us and within us.

The other son, of a different family, Bazarov,  has no time for this kind of fancy talk. He is a nihilist, so-called, a radical, a sceptic, just as a susceptible to love but revealing it in short bursts and then dismissing it. He is training to be a doctor and is likely to recommend chemistry textbooks rather than literature, and to view the beauty of a woman's body as material for the dissecting table.

The two friends clash usefully, for the propagation of ideas. Conversation moves on the world as well as their friendship. One hates no one, the other hates so many. Arkady is timid, says Bazarov, he doesn't rely on himself much. He has ideals. He thinks Russia will come to perfection when every peasant has a nice clean house to live in. 

I look around my mental Irish landscape in 2022, full of nice clean houses and resplendent cars. And take refuge in the Bazarov's mother.

Anna Vlasyevna was a genuine Russian gentlewoman of the olden times; she might have lived two centuries before, in the old Moscow days. She was very devout and emotional; she believed in fortune-telling, charms, dreams, and omens of every possible kind; she believed in the prophecies of crazy people, in house-spirits, in wood-spirit, in unlucky meets, in the evil eye... 

My favourite among her beliefs is that a mushroom will not grow if it has been looked on by the eye of man. (We are in full mushroom season here.) (Is the eye of woman equally paralysing?)

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

A wet, warm afternoon in September, the stove going, nonetheless, and a Tove Jansson novel, The True Deceiver, about a young woman and her younger brother who is thought simple, about the machinations of a village during the northern winter, and how the sister contrives to move with her brother into the Rabbit House, home of wealthy artist Anna Aemelin. who makes books for children. 

I came to Tove Jansson through The Summer Book, which I first read in Bill and Katy's spare bedroom in Brampton, where I stayed while I was clearing out my father's house after he had died. With my brother. My brother and sister story resides there, if anywhere. The Summer Book was a rescue book. No plot, just situations on an island, in a family, the fragility of moss, the etiquette of islands. 

I didn't read the Moomin books until it was too late. There's only one chance to read children's books. Only one first time on a clean plate. The Moomins read at thirty or forty are too coy to be poetry, too cosy to be true. Maybe Tove Jansson thought so too, by the time she started writing for adults. Which is to say replacing one set of symbols for another.

Katri Kling, the unwilling, maybe sullen, maybe witching, viewpoint of The True Deceiver, has yellow eyes and so has her dog. Her dog has no name. Everything is with a view to further reversals or revelations in the snowiest winter anyone can remember. By the end it seems as if Anna Aemelin is the winner. Released by the yellow-eyed woman and her brother from the need to add rabbits to the ground she painted for her children's books.

Tarjei Vesaas' brother and sister in The Birds revolved around the simplicity of the brother. Tove Jansson has not fully entered Katri Kling. She is observing her. She's not sure why Katri Kling sets her sights on Anna Aemelin's Rabbit House. I'm not sure either. 



Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

I started Delta Wedding on Castle Island last week. In that wide-open space, with only singular lives barely intersecting—a fat gull, a slim moon, a hare, and four seals—a vast plantation family in the Mississippi delta full tilt towards a wedding, is too much. 

Back home, looking out on the cut field, or awake at night, I can manage a crowded family with names running out at all angles: Battle, India, Shelley, Dabney, Troy, Man Son, Partheny, Roxie, Ranny, Bluet and Pinck, a flurry of aunts to rival P.G. Wodehouse, some with men's names, all with culinary specialities and other quirks. I can't have anyone in the kitchen while I'm making the cornucopias, I can't have anyone making beaten biscuits. around me, says one of them, Studney, Tempe, Primrose or Jim Allen.

This is a plantation organism, a family and its town, Fairchilds, its houses, servants, climate, seasons, its fair children humming underfoot. Space to reflect is hardwon. As we know. Here is Robbie, married to George, the Fairchild darling, who causes the moon to hang in the sky, striking out on her own. 

Here she was—Robbie, making her way, stamping her feet in the pink Fairchild dust, at a very foolish time of day to be out unprotected. There was not one soul to know she was desperate and angry.

The wedding itself almost vanishes under the tide of people it supports and the preparations they have all made. After the wedding of her second daughter, Ellen Fairchild, wife of Battle Fairchild, reflects on the rarity of time for reflection. She watches the dancing. She tries to encompass the family before her. 

She saw George among the dancers, walking though, looking for somebody too. Suddenly she wished she might talk to George. It was the wrong time—she never actually had time to sit down and fill her eyes with people and hear what they said, in any civilised way. Now he was dancing, even a little drunk, she believed—this was a time for celebration, or regret, not for talk, not ever for talk.

Aunt Ellen is Burt Lancaster as the Leopard, il gattopardo, walking away from the wedding feast of his two fine young people, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. And then, in a deft and glorious pursuit of family exactitude, she continues:

As he looked in her direction, all at once she saw into his mind as if he had come dancing out it leaving it unlocked, laughingly inviting here to the unexpected intimacy. She saw his mind—as if it too were inversely lighted up by the failing paper lanterns— lucid and tortuous: so that any act on his part might be startling, isolated in its very subtlety from the action of all those around him, springing from long, dark, previous, abstract thought and direct apprehension, instead of explainable, Fairchild impulse.



Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Jackson Mississippi is my Castle Island

Last year I read Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, on Castle Island, camping at our old spot, in view of the Fastnet rock, seals singing on East Carthy island, a couple of wagtails skimming the rocks, a young gannet under instruction. 

This year I brought Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter. For a few days, her Mississippi is my Castle Island. She spent almost all her life in Jackson, Mississippi. I have spent three days maybe six times camping on the same spot on Castle Island. Nonetheless I live there and I've never left. When I can't sleep I remember the sound of waves at night on Castle Island.  

I wrote the yellow horned poppies on the beach and the sound of one church bell, the first time we came here. One year we were here in a thick August mist, bumping into things like the family in Amarcord. Once we had to haul the canoe over the island waist—Fitzcarraldo comes to Roaringwater Bay—because the wind was too strong. 

We have walked the sheep paths, reconstructed the donkey paths, picked up plastic, timed the Fastnet light, when it comes on and how frequently after that, picked mint outside one of the ruined houses, imagined the island's past and future.

Seals in the bay come to visit. On the last morning, a hare found our tent and stood up in periscope to consider it. The airstream is easterly, like last year. The ground is hard after a dry summer, a hard spring. The first night we sleep badly, then better the second, and better than at home, the third.

Before we started coming to Castle Island we went to the Upper Lake, Killarney, and before that, Derrynane. We left a 5p coin under a stone, as pledge of next year's visit. These have been our summer places for the past 35 years. Living on the ground and staring at the sky, the horizon, cooking on a fire.

The optimist's daughter is a meditation on daughterhood and belonging. Laurel revisits her home turf after the death of her father. She faces his insensitive new young wife of only a year or two. She is met at the station by her six bridesmaids, as they still are although her husband was killed in the war. Six bridesmaids who go on through death and divorce, bridesmaids till death. And the house full of her past.

Firelight and warmth—that was what her memory gave her. Where the secretary was now there had been her small bed, with its railed sides that could be raised as tall as she was when she stood up in bed, arms up to be lifted out.

Her father's new wife has left dribbles of nail varnish on her father's desk. She has emptied drawers. Taken over. The house is hers now. Laurel follows suit, burning letters, abandoning mementoes. The novel is a slow song of taking leave from your old life. Before she leaves, a chimney swift flies from room to room, knocking into things.

It is true that the starkest sense of home is the one you've left. Laurel's mother's 'up home', in the mountains of West Virginia, is the one you live in but hardly know.

A bit like Castle Island.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Stream of sentences: Gerald Murnane

In his introduction to the second edition of Tamarisk Row, Gerald Murnane sets to rights those readers who told him that the chapter 'The Gold Cup is run' is stream of consciousness. It is no such thing, he says.

What is now the last section of the book consists of five very long compound sentences, each comprising a main clause and numerous subordinate clauses, together with a description of part of a horse race.

He writes as a clockmaker, says J.M. Coetzee, a mapmaker, himself; he gives himself up to fiction. 

If you read Gerald Murnane at the right moment, his exactitude becomes dreamlike. There he is, giving himself up to a fiction of 1940s small town Australia, a boy age eight or ten, preoccupied by horse racing, racecourses, jockey colours, marbles, seeing up girls' pants behind tamarisk trees. 

The last time I read Gerald Murnane I was impatient with it. This time, more exténuée, I can keep restarting the race and the betting, Feel the flux of staying in one place. The depth charge. The adult writer reading and re-reading Proust.  

Proustian Australia is poignant. The broken pavé is a milkstone. Discuss. 


Tuesday, 16 August 2022

The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter

A flying black beetle got in and stunned itself on the light bulb, then lay on the floor scrambling and unscrambling its legs, as I was reading in the middle of the night. The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter is a coming-of-age tale from the mid nineteenth century. Victor, an orphan, fostered by a sweet woman in a country cottage, at his uncle's command walks to visit him, several days across the land of orchards and mountains, under achingly blue skies, to the island in a lake where his uncle has lived as a recluse for many years, and our young man stays for several weeks as a virtual prisoner. The story unfolds like a state of familial siege from which one slowly breaks free. You know the crusty uncle will relent, and the clean young man will stay clean through thick and thin, grow every day more honorable and fit, and marry sweetly when the time comes, as his uncle had not been able. Adalbert Stifter died by his own hand (a razor to his throat) when he was sixty-three. He was not able either. Which makes The Bachelors an even sweeter, more impossible and desirable book.


Wednesday, 10 August 2022

The Birds, Tarjei Vesaas

A book you finish and immediately want to start again is rare. The Birds, by Tarjei Vesaas, is one such. A story from inside Mattis, who lives with his sister Hege beside a lake in Norway, and asks questions. What am I? Why are things the way they are? Why don't you understand what's important, like the flight of the woodcock over the house, the storm that's coming, which tree has been struck by lightning? But can you understand it Hege? 

Hege carries on with her knitting, her lightning fingers working the eight-petalled rose. Her knitting kept them, Kept him. Mattis knew. Mattis and work did not go together. Mattis and Hege, went together. A pair of aspens by a lake. Then Hege and Jørgen. They were the strong and clever ones.

A woodcock flying over the house means change. Mattis knew that. He read their beak marks in the mud. He wrote back. He knew what lightning was, and thunder. The privy was the safe place. Maybe he couldn't thin turnips but he knew where to hide from storms, and he could row straight. 

Mattis becomes a ferryman. A regular job at last. Hege makes him sandwiches. He rows his leaky boat to and fro across the lake. Without passengers.  The boat is so rotten it could hardly take a passenger, but he waits, as Hege instructed, a ferryman must wait.

The only passenger Mattis finds is Jørgen, a lumberjack looking for work. Soon Hege and Jørgen, two of the strong, clever ones, are sweethearts, and Mattis has to look for a solution. The woodcock is dead under a stone, killed by a cocky young hunter. One of the two dead aspen trees in front of the cottage, called Mattis-and-Hege by the locals, is struck by lightning. The question is, which one is Mattis and which one is Hege? Jørgen tries to teach Mattis lumberjacking. Mattis has a dose of amanita mushrooms, so he's flying. The lake is threatened by thunderstorms. The lake, the leaky boat, an unfinished pair of oars, the farther shore, the depths of the lake, a fresh storm, are the answer.

I like reading writers who have stayed put. Tarjei Vesaas spent almost all his life in the same village, in Telemark, southern Norway,  For the cover of The Birds he's pictured with a tabby on his shoulder, and then, for the cover of The Boat in the Evening, which I read next, up at the pond in our next heatwave, he's in low-light profile, with his wife. The Boat in the Evening, the last book Tarjei Vesaas published, has all the understanding he gives Mattis, all the depth and focus, the world stripped down to these and those things, lake, trees, stillness, storms. He needed a simple creature, a simple Simon, to carry a man who is absorbed in his landscape and cannot understand anything beyond it.

All those who now seek to be in the moment, read on. 


Wednesday, 27 July 2022

POCKETBOOK SUMMER EDITORIAL 2022, Dear Reader,

Dear Reader,

I started this blog eight years ago, which makes it mature, even ancient, for a blog. I started because I was curious to know, after thirty years of teaching literature, what I had to say about the books I read now, according to whim, week by week, chosen along my own bookshelves, in bookshops, in my own time. What do I have to say, why do I have to say, now there is no one to say it to? 

As an adolescent, when my diary was young, I listed all the books I read, with a brief comment, like Good, Very Good, Incomprehensible, or Rubbish. A blog —  a resigned, persistent word, like slog, and bog — is a public place with stats and labels and search descriptions, putative readers and pliant, zealous bots from all over, going about their obedient, astral business, day and night. A blog is a format. The diary book, on the other hand, is only what it is, a book, with blank and then written pages. No passwords. No secret language. No algorithm. No one reads it except me. When I was fourteen I wrote with an awareness that someone might read it—my mother, my sister—and created a diligent schoolgirl worried about maths tests. Now I write with only an awareness, if any, of my own re-reading.

I'm aware of who some of my blog readers are, aware of which countries are most active, bots or humans, (USA and Ireland, forays into middle Europe) and that changes things again. Some readers have said that the shifts from one book to another are hard if you don't know the books or the writers. I have a past, I'm liable to change. My bookshelves are many-voiced. I walk up and down waiting for something to strike me. If you had a TV, said a carpenter many years ago, looking at my bookshelves, my records, my esoteric loudspeakers, you wouldn't need any of that. 

I am a creature of habit. I have kept a diary since I was fourteen. Once I have started something (making kefir, making bread, growing vegetables, doing yoga, writing a blog), I find it hard to stop. I read what catches my eye on the bookshelves — this week it was Robert Musil stories—what I come upon in Waterstones—They, by Kay Dick, for example, was prominent last time I looked. I met Kay Dick in Brighton once. I was reading William Gerhardie at the time, bad literature I loved to read after the years I spent with Mallarmé. William Gerhardie is a great writer, said Kay Dick, indignant. Bad is good, I said. 

A review in the New Yorker of a new biography of Jean Rhys makes me want to read her again. Inn the New York Review of Books I read about Henry James returning to America after many years in England, and the waste and vacuity he found there. A sentence from Henry James puts manners and mystery on you. 

There's a swirl of writers in my head at all times, whatever I am doing, going upstairs, picking sugar peas, walking the land, looking out of the window, and that has been the case since my adolescence when I was up to the town library two or three times a week. Reading is like closing your eyes, opening your eyes. You find the book and find your state of mind, a northwest breeze blowing through, whitening the meadow in a dry late summer. 

It's hard to pause a blog, to stay a fermentation. A diary pauses when you finish one and start another, this is a moment all its own, a moment with no momentum, a pause between a set of full pages and a set of empty ones. There's a certain discomfiture in putting pen to paper on the first of a set of empty ones. You can't just dash off your day, you need a few easements, a Mozart piano concerto, the same movement over and over. Proust did that with music, paid a string quartet to play over and over the same air, looking for whatever the music held for him. 

Hermès, once messenger of the gods, now guarantor of lifestyle, has taken out an arcane ad on the back cover of the New Yorker. A prone woman in a swimsuit, bits of sand clinging to her arm, shades most of her face with a tan leather disc in one hand, the other hand under her hair, her lips and chin in the sun, her face averted towards a wooden bowl. These are the Objects for Interior life— and if you understand that, you may well be suffering brain-melt.

It is late afternoon. The Hermès business plan for Interior life meets up, in Inniscarra, with Objects for Exterior life, for example blackcurrants, caterpillars, beetles and lacewings, tiny white moths rising out of the long grass, with kittens running through, then a heavy shower over the meadow in a dry summer. Phew.  

Today, five of us picked and cleaned some twenty pounds of blackcurrants. It was a July day, uncertain and cool. We talked the twenty poundsworth, sorted them into rumtopf best and the rest for jam, wine, blackcurrant cheese or frangipani, observed their quirks and their caterpillars, ate a royal lunch out front, with salad, sushi, beet, the first cucumber, then went for a swim in the reservoir. 

I usually write while listening to music. The music picks up the white July meadow, the shower of rain. The shape of a piano concerto or a string quartet. 

Reading I do in silence. Up at the pond, on the sofa in the new room, before I go to sleep. If I go to sleep, with all this rattling and stretching in my head. 

yrs, etc.

 


Sunday, 17 July 2022

Entangled Reading, Part Two.

Up at the pond in our heatwave, here on the edge of europe, where heatwaves are like harvests, never quite the business, with the intention of reading some pages I wrote about my history of reading, how it came out and what it led to, and reading instead an article in the New Yorker about Making America Hungary Again, at a CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) meeting in Orlando, Florida, followed by another in Hungary. 

I swim now and then, fishing out clumps of parrotweed which have a curious warmth that all healthy predators give off. Then back to Victor Orbán and his useful friends, Finkelbach and O'Sullivan, to name but two, and still more useful enemies, like George Soros. 

It is a sad story of manipulation and contempt, the mythifying of nationhood in the face of oppression, real or endemic. A disturbing picture of what is going on when you think everything (Trumpish) has gone quiet.

My history of reading, rife with privacy and intimacy, with library books and french literature, is suddenly unreadable. 

I rescue a grasshopper from the pond — yesterday a bee. 


Sunday, 10 July 2022

Reading in the right place


Reading SHYNESS & DIGNITY by DAG SOLSTAD by a river, on our own, by a bridge, on a perfect July afternoon, watching the small fish swarm and the slightly larger ones face the current, could be in France, could be anywhere by a river in the sunshine with a norwegian book you didn't get into till now, though you gave night room to this teacher of norwegian literature who quit his job and then told his own story, in the framework of Ibsen, his speciality.

On page 56, leaning against the rock, in the flicker of light from the river and the sun speckling the underside of the bridge, I read the narrator's account of his best friend's conversation, his plainspeak which ends up revealing his shyness and his dignity:

Johan Corneliussen expressed his great love of simple sentences, which said no more than they said and where the first segment was identical with the last, and of the revelation he sometimes experienced when time and place panned out in such a way that it was possible to pronounce, with the greatest inevitability and beauty, a sentence such as an open door is an open door.

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.