Tuesday 16 April 2024


Andrey Platonov's Chevengur is a large book about meagre lives in a vast land—southern Russia after the revolution. I read it in bed, during round two of a bad cold, at first put off by the size of it, in hardback too, but then grateful for the heft of the book, the chalky, well-designed pages that stay open if you put the book aside.  Most days, with rests between chapters, I found it beautiful. 

On the first page is a man alone who can fix or equip anything, who in summer lives out in the open with his tools in a sack. He treated people and fields with 'an indifferent tenderness, not infringing on their interests'. He is the first in a novel full of people adrift in some expectation of communism, which, according to one man 'might inadvertently have come about somewhere or other, since there was nothing people could do with themselves except join together out of fear of troubles and the strengthening of need.'

To call their lives meagre already seems wrong, as I lie in bed, under a duvet, with a cup of hot ginger to hand. Elemental? Desperate? No. Not any more than Beckett's characters are desperate. They are too far beyond. And, as with Beckett, therein lies the beauty. To say they live close to the land is an understatement. They are of the land and the land is of them. And the sky, the sun and the moon and the stars. They have nothing and expect nothing.

When property lies between people, they calmly expend their powers on concerns about that property, but when there is nothing between people, then they choose not to part from one another and to preserve one another from cold in their sleep.

Chevengur is a village in the steppes that has been cleared of its bourgeoisie and occupied by what one of the 'organisers' calls 'the proletariat and others'.

These others are simply others. Worse than proletariat—no one and nobody. .... They're fatherlessness. ... They were living nowhere. They wander.

They are wandering, one man suggests, if you want to put a word on it, to communism. And Chevengur has communism. This is stated as the vaguest and most definite of facts. These others had their first sense of the world in cold, in grass made moist by traces of their mother, and in aloneness. Not one of the others had ever seen their father. There are characters who read books, who fix things, mend roofs, collect plants for food, and so on, but the others sound like a barely perceptible human note. They are the disparate mass on the fringes of the masses, the proletariat, history's detritus. Here's one of them, thinking.

What first took place in him and his fellow others was not thought but a certain pressure of dark warmth. Then, one way or another, thought would speak its way out, cooling as it escaped.

I read Platonov for these depictions. For this slightness of life amid the vast spaces of the steppes. Since I was a child I have been bewitched by the phrase 'the steppes of Central Asia', the extent of them needing no support from the music of the same name by Borodin, nor the realisation from looking at a map, of their enormous extent, from Ukraine to China.

There is little difference between clear consciousness and the vision of dreams—what happens in dream is the same life, only its meaning laid bare.

Monday 8 April 2024


Anna Seghers' Transit has been in transit on the floor for several months, beside my chair. When I bought it I read a paragraph and sensed a depth I wasn't in the mood for. Then the other day, now that it's Spring, I picked it up, read the first few pages and found that, despite the moment in history — Europe evacuating ahead of Hitler's armies— there was a lightness of touch, almost a casualness. The narrator, who's young, German, but not Jewish, makes his way to Marseille, the only open port in France, seething with refugees looking for exit visas, transit visas, boat tickets, friendly folk in consulates, lost husbands and wives, manuscripts in suitcases, trying to get to Colombia, Mexico, Martinique, America, via Spain or Casablanca or Lisbon, anywhere out of this world. Transit is a seething surface; depth is optional or a distraction in late 1940 in Europe. People meet in cafés, eat pizza, marvel at pizza, pluck coffee beans out of barley to have one real cup a week, drink rosé on the nights they serve alcohol, talk through where they are and where they might go, under which name, hide behind newspapers when they don't want to talk, change their mind and their name, if it suits. Every ship might be the last ship, and if you do get on, to Brazil or Mexico, it might sink, and then all there'd be, if you're fortunate, is this permeable story, persistently in flux, which you have told. As the narrator says to the American consul, 'all those writers who were in the concentration camp with me, who escaped with me, it seems to me that we lived through these most terrible stretches in our lives just so we could write about them: the camps, the war, escape and flight.'

There's a strange levity about this. Anna Seghers herself left Germany in 1933, then was interned in France because she was a communist and a jew; she escaped from the camp and left Europe with her husband and two children, from Marseille, in 1940. She went to Mexico where she wrote this book, framing it as a kind of thriller with a young male narrator who uses, by accident really, the identity of a writer who has committed suicide.

The narrative thread is what you need to wend your way through the bureaucratic flux of transit. Any story will do, there are as many stories as there are refugees, stories of escape and documentation, boats that sink and boats that don't leave. Less dark than Kafka, less esoteric than Borges, and far less dated than we would like, now, in 2024, when travel is closer to travail than ever, and the world is filled with displaced people, 110 million at the last count.

Tuesday 2 April 2024


I heard Pete's account of reading Wendell Berry's Stand by Me, a collection of his stories, while we were in Portugal. It was hard to get into, he said, old-fashioned, so many people you don't know if you should remember them all. It gets better, he said, as he went on, and eventually he was engrossed. 

Feeling ill and staying in bed for a day is a bit like being on holiday. The view is down to one window, it's quiet, there's nothing else you're capable of doing. Stand by Me is a substantial book, capable of seeing even a rapid reader like me through a day or two. I have liked Wendell Berry's essays, up to a point. He can be too earnest. But the stories in Stand by Me gather momentum. Perhaps there is no other way to persuade of the value of land, of community, than by weaving tales of the same group of people, involved in the same activities, interconnected, part of a membership, as one character, Burley Coulter, likes to say. The penultimate story, 'Fidelity', is about the death of Burley Coulter, and, debilitated as I was on Easter Monday, disinclined for much more than the smudge of a purple honesty flower outside the window, I was racing toward the end of the story. I had joined this small community of people gathered in the lawyer's office to bring about the defeat of a young detective who's trying to figure out how Burley Coulter was kidnapped from the hospital and taken to a reassuring death on land that he knew.

I read about this membership and their landedness and their mutual affection and support with awe. I have no experience of this. I never will. You can't buy this as real estate or gather it up in pots at a garden centre and plant it. Yet I know the attention to land. Mat Feltner in 'The Boundary', an old man going to check a fence down a stream he has known all his life, clambers in the company of the dead and, on the way back up, tired at the end of the day, all but joins them. I think I have practised this kind of attention since I was very young, claiming woods, fields and streams wherever I found them, adjacent to where I lived and even passingly, from a paused bus or train. I have that need to occupy land. Wendell Berry is the doyen of this kind of occupation. 

Saturday 30 March 2024


Last year we invited people to write a few lines about utopia, their idea of a society in which they'd like to live. We talked to people in Cobh, County Cork, and emailed friends. We thanked everyone who gave it thought and wrote it down, as well as those whose silence made us wonder why it is so hard to think beyond the confines of the society we are in. 

Utopia? That isn't real 

Utopia? Cobh is a very historical place

Utopia? It never works out, I hear

Utopia is a cas limite. Hard to imagine beyond the reality that surrounds you and you imagine an ideal, though you may not like the word. Take a leap. You have the time, the freedom. 

You have a neck, use it, Tony O'H used to say. 

Tread softly for you tread on my dreams. Mr Yeats.

It's a privilege to bear witness to your ideals. Bernard Laughlin.

A plague mentality has overtaken us. A  state of ranting and whingeing. We only have time for opposition. Utopia isn't opposition, it's dreaming radically and convincingly beyond your current state. 

Friday 22 March 2024


Read the first chapter of Lynne Tillman on the plane, Haunted Houses. Too speedy at thirty-seven thousand feet. A quick whizz through the early lives of three girls,  Short sentences. All emotion kept to the full stops. I already had enough haunting of my own. I was impatient with Jane, Grace and Emily. I wanted to sleep. The cloud cover over southern Portugal was frayed underneath, shreds of it dangling in yellowish light as we approached the airport. 

On the communal bookshelf in the guest house in Tavira, on the main square, by the Ponta Romana, I found Graham Norton. 'Like sucking on sweets', said one of the puffs. I knew Graham Norton when he was twenty or so. He was defensive/derisive then. So I expected him to be wielding his material with some mix of his former self. But no. He was right in his small town mystery and the concoction of his plot. As advised I read  Forever Home at a gallop. It's a deepening puzzle, a domestic mystery plot, with wit, description, decisions and solutions in West Cork, a little emotion, not enough to be frightening, enough to affirm, in view of a positive outcome. Well, Graham, I would hardly have recognized you if you weren't so famous.

The next day we took a long walk along the beach, into the rising mist and the sun. Thinking about footprints and sand, how far we've come, how far to go, to the anchor cemetery where we learn the history of tuna fishing, its energy and then its demise. There's yellow broomrape in the marshes. Broomrape grows on the energy of other plants. Resplendent yellow flowers on a fat stem coming out of nowhere. The tuna do not run any more, straight in April into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, athwart in September, the other way around. Seventy men, fourteen boats that formed a circle in which the massive tuna were trapped. A whole summer of work back then.

On the beach by the tuna cemetery I read the first paragraph of 'The Umbrella' by Tove Ditlevsen, and stopped, so pleased by this quietude, this unpromise. Every usual situation undermined, under threat. The stories in The Trouble with Happiness are very short, no one comes out of them well. Something that was already underway has come to a head and the future will scarcely be different. Writing is more than redemptive. It is a lone signal of being alive. My nephew Tom was in a band called Redemption but did not know what the word meant.

Hallélujah, says the accordion on the Ponta Romana, Tavira, that evening.

There's a wooden hut with a rusty padlock we occupy most of the day on the beach. We have a table for lunch, an old plank. Bread, cheese, tomatoes, olive oil. I read a Tove Ditlevsen story and then lie back. 

On the plane home I am still not ready for Lynne Tillman. My neighbour is a large woman in red who is doing Tesco Sudoku puzzles and eating crackers and chocolate biscuits alternately..  

Saturday 9 March 2024

Greetings from the Countryside (Strong Emotions)

An exchange between Judy Kravis and Laura Fitzgerald 

Hi Laura,

I've been reading your Greetings from the Countryside (Strong Emotions).

Good to see it on the page, with time to mull over your version of land etc.

You are so much of the place, by birth and more, whereas we have come in and made a place our own.

Strong emotions in either case. You by birthright and we by no right, as some would say.

Our immediate neighbours, and we only have one lot, have told us that everyone around here hates us.

Which isn't true, but they'd just like company for their own hatred.

I asked another neighbour a mile or two away, from a small farm in west cork herself, why they hate us.

She said it's because we're english by birth and they think we're better than them.

Becoming irish is no answer. You have to have a couple of people in the ground to be irish, someone told us.

And if you do, it's just another set of problems isn't it ....

Hope the exhibition went well. Do come visit if you're coming this way,

all the best,

Judy xx

Hello Judy,

I think the above email is very much a thing in itself, a container story. It's complex isn't it ... we all do and don't belong. Sure I think I'm probably Norman given the Fitzgerald, who knows who plundered what if you go back far enough ...

Thanks so much for buying a copy of the publication. I'm very glad I was able to make the printed version, the gallery were very good to me.

I hope we can manage to meet up over the summer, yourself and Peter are very welcome to call to us in Inch also. I'm sure Dad would enjoy showing you around.

Thanks for the great email/short story!

Best wishes,


Friday 1 March 2024


Yesterday afternoon I nearly dozed reading Sleepless by Marie Darrieussecq, by the stove, entranced by these literate non-sleepers, Kafka, Proust, Duras and many fellows who wrote out of and into their sleeplessness. Nothing like other people's failure to sleep for making you sleepy. This a leap year so we should leap. With friends, if possible. 

Friday 23 February 2024

the oligarch's son, a harsh male predicament

A few pages into The Man from the Sea by Michael Innes, last of the old green penguin mysteries I've been reading at night, I found this:

Even as he stared at the other naked man he recognised within his own physical response a thrill of pleasure. What had risen from the sea was some harsh male predicament to which he responded as a release.

The one on the beach is naked because he is on, in, an assignation — the dark word still excited him — with the wife of local nouveau laird and scientist, Alex Blair. The man from the sea is a fugitive, a belt about his middle and a wisp of fabric round his loins, his secrets everywhere.

I read The Man from the Sea over a week or so, at night, without interest in the plot or its outcome, pausing where I paused, absorbing the costume and circumstance of new characters, then forgetting them. On the last page the man from the sea, a nuclear scientist with not long to live, walks back into sea in the clothes of the local nouveau laird and scientist, his daughter, not his wife, now the focus, as well as an Australian girl cousin called Georgiana, like someone out of Jane Austen gone walkabout. 

Dovetailed into this in my reading life, an article in the New Yorker called 'The Oligarch's Son', about a boy called Zac Brettler aged nineteen in London, who jumped off a posh balcony near Vauxhall Bridge, in order to live or in order to die, is unclear.  Another harsh male predicament. He changed his name, he was a not-quite from Maida Vale, he thought, a fabulist in a maelstrom of russian and arab rich kids.  He would rather be an oligarch's son, his mother in Dubai, everyone at a distance, various businesses on course. His actual parents in Maida Vale utterly perplexed and sad. 

At the end of The Man from the Sea I'd learned more about the author and his times than about the plot. A nineteen fifties fable. At the end of 'The Oligarch's Son' I've learned the fragility of whoever jumped off the posh balcony, to live or to die, the fabulist teenager in oligarchs' London laundry, in deeper than he could manage. Whether or not he was on heroin is immaterial, who he called and what he googled before jumping off the balcony towards the Thames. To live or to die. All part of the harsh male predicament.

Thursday 15 February 2024


This afternoon I listened to Daniel Michael Kaiser's translation of incurable into music, a music of disappearing, almost a non-music, DK says. All rhythms were suddenly strange, every pause uncertain. The singing voice dancing over what I wrote and how I have read it out loud, to say nothing of how it took form in the first place. A manifestation of how DK made his way through it, what resonances he found and how the singer sings them.

The best part of listening is I have no words for it. I barely have words for what I write. I listened with bated breath on a broad plain. A thin fabric, translucent, seemingly improvised (although it is not). I wanted to focus on the resonance, he says. The reverb was recorded in an abandoned sugar factory tower.

Hard to listen on the computer, such thin sound. Brings you up short. I wanted to hear this sung version in all its literal resonance, this light incantation, translucent, yes. And all the time I was pulling on what I wrote seven years ago. incurable 'A tense and gnomic journey into the past as it resonates during a difficult long moment in the present, with personal photographs and influential images from the dangerous years of growing up', I said.

Thursday 8 February 2024


At night I have been reading mid-twentieth century mystery novels, the penguins with the green covers, by Margery Allingham, Josephine Bell, Carter Dickson. There was a moment in the 1970s when people I knew were reading mysteries, as well as a brief moment when a well-digger asked me what I wrote— mysteries? No, I said, I write about here, and waved an arm around.

Margery Allingham wrote in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, a few miles from where I grew up. Josephine Bell took medical tripos at Cambridge and poverty in Shadwell Basin. Carter Dickson, one of his names, writes a faux breezy pulp style.

Dream fodder. Expurgation. People running through. He Wouldn't Have Killed Patience? The Port of London Murders. Who wants to know? I, said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow. 

The solution is there. Any problem will do.

In a mystery there are so many people with attributes —looks, job, circumstance — in truth I have little patience, but to be led along the mystery of death or deaths is to ignore nearly everything else, which is the whole idea, and only incidentally or par hasard, find what you are looking for. 

Last night I dreamed I looked around at this line of people, that crowd, these few, who would all soon be dead, all of us, I knew — look again, dead again.

Sunday 28 January 2024


When I was thirty-one I wrote a self-portrait every day for a year. I typed it out, a folder per month, a page or so a day. For example:

I like valleys, not wind, and sea and mountains only on royal days when I'm ready.

What I like best of all is a hand upon my forehead or the world somehow exactly equal to that as I watch from beside a tree.

I'm honestly selfish, and in lucid, plain moments think that others are mostly dishonestly unselfish.

I've always thought I'd never really been hurt. But sometimes I believe I've been hurt on a grand scale.

For a week in March I drew a self-portrait instead. Mostly patterns, one or two words. In July I went to visit my parents. Hand-written and noticeably blunt. I have been clearing out a filing cabinet and found these, among other files, manuscripts, clippings, photographs, envelopes—many envelopes. Hard to know what speed to take a dismantling of this kind. How much to read and how fast. Lecture notes on Pinget, Cocteau, Baudelaire. A story collection called Cacti and Succulents, three copies. Music notes for Monday Night At Home, a radio piece. An early artist book called Suckling Herd, hand-written on a blotting paper book, with tipped-in extracts from the Farmers' Journal.  


Wednesday 24 January 2024


I knew as I neared the end of Inland by Gerald Murnane, that I would immediately start reading it again now I was attune to the shifting forms and spaces, multiple identities and unfulfilled histories, now I was a fully-fledged reader, I wouldn't need to keep re-reading the beginning, as I did the first time, to settle, as I thought, questions of who was where and in what language, between which rivers, with a view of what kinds of grasslands, inner and outer. This time I would not need to settle anything. As I began, I found I was turning the pages with the joy of dream-flying, Look! no hands, on a bicycle, the glorious understatement of the moment when horses no longer gallop but are said to break into a run.

The boy-man between two streams, on the grasslands, the same and different grasslands, same and different girl-woman, many names, many plants, a science everywhere if you're looking, the more you look the more enraptured and uneasy you become. Gerald Murnane, like Proust, like Virginia Woolf, makes you inhabit your own thoughts in the guise of his. The hungarian puszta, the faux american prairie, the grasslands of Melbourne County, the grasslands beyond where you live, between two creeks that flow down the map but never join up. People live between them and are fashioned by them, they have been ousted and must resettle between another pair of creeks, the same and different. As every person is many people, every name many names, every word many words, every grassland multiple within and without. There is another world but it is inside this one. Gerald Murnane kneads this Eluard line across several pages, stays with it, plays with it in the middle of the book, and we, his readers, often invoked, stay and play too. The room in which we read splits slightly for a moment to show what's inside.

When we were driving around Australia I wrote down the name of every creek we crossed. When I drove round North America in 1980-1, south from New York, west from New Orleans, north from L.A,  east from northern California, I noted all those You Are Now Entering boards at the edge of towns with name, elevation and population. Entering Ideal, South Dakota, elevation 12, Population 57. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024


On foot of seeing the last half hour of a film adaptation of Little Women the other day, I started reading the book for the first time since I was maybe ten or twelve. On page 37, a word leapt off the page: spandy. Not sure I've ever had the experience of a word coming to greet me in quite that way, sharp and clear after many many years. I must have liked it when I was twelve or so. I may not have seen it since. According to the OED it is American English and first appeared in 1830. Frequency: 0.01 in a million. Louisa May Alcott comes up as one of the prime users.

The two older girls are getting ready to go to a party. They'll have to wear their poplins, and be presentable.

"Girls, girls! have you both got nice pocket-handkerchiefs? "Yes, yes, spandy nice, and Meg has cologne on hers", cried Jo. "I do believe Marmee would ask that if were all running away from an earthquake."

The March family are poor (somewhat fallen, one gathers). There is much discussion of clothes, especially Meg, the oldest, and Amy, the youngest. Dresses are referred to by the fabric they're made of. The word tarlatan caught my eye later in the book, and my ear. Their poplins, or pops, are the older girls' best  dresses (they yearned after silk, Meg did anyway), there was tarlatan in summer and gingham with sashes. Always gloves. Jo is impatient with all this. As Louisa May was too. But you have to know your fabrics whether you're a little woman or an incipient boy, awkward and antic, always losing hairpins. Dresses were made by a dressmaker then, and mended by the owner. The fabric was the thing, not, as now, the label. There were no labels. If there was a burn or a tear at the back of your dress, you spent as much time as possible against the wall. If one glove was less than perfect, you wore one and carried the other.

By page 239, Meg has her first silk dress. The impossibly sweet Beth has recovered from scarlet fever, the absent father, who has also been ill, has returned from the war. It's a cloying tale. Too much principled goodness, too much Marmee in her corner, faithful servant Hannah, wonderful neighbours, Mr Laurence and grandson Laurie, many references to The Pilgrim's Progress. Goodness winning through, whatever you were wearing.

Louisa May Alcott, like many of her readers, took refuge in Jo, up in her attic, reading and eating apples, playing with the rats — yes. Whenever I have thought of Little Women since I first read it, I have thought of Jo reading and eating apples in the attic — I forgot the rats.

Thursday 4 January 2024


Fou T'Song was the first Chinese pianist to become well known in Europe. In the eighties I saw him on tv playing Scarlatti with such gentleness, his face seraphic. I was new to tv and this was one of its early moments, along with the bbc adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl and The Old Grey Whistle Test.  Later I bought the Scarlatti CD and listen to it when I need to bring the days to size in the early evening. Fou  T'Song is good for managing your reading in deepest January, snowdrops nearly out, frog spawn beginning, lots of indoor time with upstairs reading, nighttime reading, reading in the bath. A great deal of my being is spread out over these books and New Yorkers, Hortus, the newspaper before you light the fire with it, to say nothing of the label on the organic milk, etc. Fou T'Song brings it all together, Eileen Myles' Working Life, mine, Elizabeth Strout's, Elizabeth Taylor's. Elizabeth Strout has said that when she meets people she absorbs their molecules and that is how she is able to write her characters. Elizabeth Taylor, half a century earlier, english rural middle class, does not have the concept of molecules. Eileen Myles does  not have the concept of character. She is on her own planet. I absorb their molecules, all of them. Often on the same day. That's where Fou T'Song and his seraphic smile come in.

Tuesday 26 December 2023


We bought new down pillows about a month ago, after years in a pillow desert, and since then, uniquely I think, I have read all the novels of Elizabeth Strout that I have, which is all she has written bar about two, with my head resting on these soft, minimal yet full, pillows, either before I go to sleep or by way of interlude during the night. She has inhabited her people and I inhabit them in turn, buoyed by the new pillow and the sleep it will surely bring. It is only now I am on the most recent novel Lucy by the Sea, which is very much about the pandemic time, that I'm getting impatient, as I think I did when I first read it: this is too close to what I know, it doesn't matter that it's Maine or New York. In fact, knowing the characters from earlier books adds to the sense of familiarity: these are people I know, neighbours almost, and their story has become too familiar. Yes we were all united by the pandemic but I didn't want to be. I dislike the feeling of being united by anything. I prefer the condition of detachment. This is what I am saying, as Elizabeth Strout would say — she likes these little emphases, this disarming writerly presence which is both insistent and apologetic. Detachment is easier if the stories are of the past, like LP Hartley, whom I also re-read often in large doses, or Elizabeth Taylor, a more recent minor addiction, both of them early to mid-twentieth century. If I want to feel united, it is not with a society, it is with those strange and already themselves detached creatures like Virginia Woolf or Clarice Lispector. With them, not with the society they might depict along the way, I feel at one.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Aghia Galini, 1966

Lynne Tillman's Motion Sickness by page nine pauses at a hotel in Aghia Gallini in Crete. I stayed in a hotel in Aghia Gallini in 1966, it was two and six for a room with a bed, one and six for a mattress on the terrace, one shilling for a space on the terrace. Thin old women in black came down from the hills with sticks and cheese. I thought I'd rent a tiny cottage and look over the sea for a winter, write in a rocky landscape. There was a lot to absorb that year and far away by a sea the place for that, in a language I didn't understand. Sea urchins among the rocks. 

Lynne Tillman, thirty or so years later, stays on her shady balcony in Aghia Gallini, for fear of the Cretan sun. She is aware of her neighbours, Australians, and a New Zealander.

The New Zealander yells down that we should have a drink. He has a bottle, he says. Of what, I wonder, but don't ask. I say, I'm reading but all right. I don't know why I put it that way— 'reading but all right'. Perhaps I meant to suggest that his visit ought to be short.

Online now Aghia Gallini  looks like average tourists in shorts viewing the merchandise as they go down to the harbour. 

Lynne Tillman is in Bologna Paris Venice London Amsterdam and Agia Gallini. I am there too, passingly, by proxy and in my own right. We share the same motion sickness, or at least some of the same comforts.

I feel out of place and know that I'm right to feel out of place. Travel unsettles the appropriate. You're bound to be inappropriate. Which is probably why I don't feel the intense embarrassment some do at not being able to speak foreign languages correctly. It seems to me that one of the privileges of travel is never to fit in. And not to fit in, not to be able to, is a kind of freedom.

Sunday 10 December 2023


I've read, for now, I've read chelsea girls and "working life", I've read the life of Eileen Myles these past weeks, a saturation that sounds like her truth and therefore nearly mine, while I'm reading her, or just after. 

In the middle of the night I read Eliz. Strout. I'm on Anything is Possible which is what you need to hear in the middle of the night.

Monday 4 December 2023


Strout at night and Myles by day, Elizabeth and Eileen, my two companions as we trumpet into winter in a strong northerly wind, sun barely up, ever, neighbours on the rampage, other airborne infections breeding fast.

Elizabeth Strout probably too young for Woodstock. Eileen was there, witnessing the end of America. 

But Jimi Hendrix was the best. It spelled destruction. it was so sour and noble. His Star Spangled Banner was the end of America for me. We were through with it. It was the most ironic end of an empire song any culture ever played for itself. I was so glad to be there to hear it. To know it was over.

It's important to feel when you're young that something is over. If something, everything, is over then you can do anything. Elizabeth aka Olive Kitteridge aka Lucy Barton has less an end-sense than a slow, not-even-rueful backwards look and coming to terms. Eileen is always in an endgame. A drinker and a brinkster.

I always heard a little voice yell my name just before I lost consciousness. I thought my death would be this way.  I loved it.

Elizabeth constructs herself among the stories of others' woes. Whether or not you can say you're trash. Why your brother paraded in women's underwear over his clothes. Now and then you — I — feel you've touched base. With Eileen you touch base every ten lines. With Elizabeth it's deferred, deflected into the lives of others. Eileen is onto it.

You can't force a story that doesn't want to be told. It was that kind of year .... I couldn't have handled anything less. I was going down to get some coffee and the Boston Globe to make me be something. Everything I did was something to fix me. With all my heart I was trying to be dead.

Lucy Barton is in hospital. Her mother has come to stay. There are startling revelations and long pauses in their conversation. Subtle, careful sentences. Where Eileen barks, bites into epiphany, Elizabeth moves quietly, and the devastation, for being hidden, is acute.

This is the rhythm that suits as we head into the winter solstice. I would like to be out more but it's freezing. 

Saturday 2 December 2023


I've read Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout before going to sleep for a couple of weeks now. Olive taking residence at the back of my brain through new pillows, inside and out. I might ask, why is it comforting to give residence to Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's creature of contrasts. Her confrontational empathy and plainness of thought. After Olive there is Lucy Barton, and Lucy Barton's Mom. 

This is my nighttime occupation.  I need to replace the current contents of my head with someone else's dramatic personae, their doppelgänger, my repository. 

Last night, after a sweet/sour night away in Kerry, I read a chapter of My Name is Lucy Barton and next morning read it again. Elizabeth Strout's narrator cannot bear the sound of a child crying in desperation. She can read the levels of children crying: tiredness, crabbiness, and desperation. 

It helps me to sleep, knowing that someone else can distinguish between the levels of crying in children, and will change carriages in the subway to get away from desperation. 

Tuesday 21 November 2023


Fleur Jaeggy, swiss smooth and chilled, now partner on my private dance floor to Eileen Myles, open american and rough, both writers of hyper-aware short books. I bought The Water Statues and For Now in London, two short neat books, almost the same size. My favourite kind of reading. You read them once you read them twice, you look over them again for sentences that correspond to you in your inner receptive spaces.

I hadn't read Eileen Myles before. For Now is a talk she gave at Yale in 2019, who bought her archive. She is conversationally endearingly blunt. 'I have a very definite feeling that I am simply living ...' Living, thinking, copying is what she does. She is blunter than Fleur Jaeggy and blunter than me by a poet's mile. She talks and she talks and meanders with intent.

If you ask me to tell you why I write it probably has to do with this deep comfort/discomfort of being in the world and this option of devotion. If I want to sit here and copy all day that might be the best option available to me, it's not an anti-depressant and it's not exhilarating and it's not aerobic but it is a form of chanting and I do do it for religious reasons. I mean it's my default position.

Fleur Jaeggy's comfort/discomfort is far more processed. The eponymous water statues, collected in a flooded basement, are the carriers of her history. This is an intense, prickly, non-linear book of terse little chapters, often only a page, unheaded, beheaded. If a tale is told it's told in ice and avoidance, as in certain families, where the only alternative to ice is the slush or marshiness after a slight thaw. 

Beeklam, her main character, as a child wished to live as though he'd drowned. 

He was once again persuaded that his life was passing, had passed, and this made him rejoice while admiring the efforts of his fellow creatures, of the Dutch population with their firmness regarding the radiant pinnacles of domestic comfort —such home-sweet-home settings made his heart sink, so much happiness he was happier living without.

How writers try to characterise their own strangeness. This is the tango's turn and poise. These are defiantly singular writers, with what Fleur Jaeggy calls a theological ability to live alone. 

Eileen Myles would say it differently. She returns often to the question of 'my writing', 'that fuzzy category', what it is and when she is doing it, like now, writing a talk to be given at Yale, and if not how to say what it is. About thirty pages into the book, the talk, in a long sentence of a page and a half, she does what sometimes a writer of our ilk has to do, she says what writing feels like, how it is never ease, how it is perched in relation to this other thing called living.

Thursday 16 November 2023

I was ready to write a tango of Fleur Jaeggy and Eileen Myles, a splendid non-pair, I thought, to share a dance floor, when a chance re-reading of an unfinished piece about a radio programme called 'Monday Night at Home' from 2008 made me think how I might finish it, and, into my mind fresh from a long sleep on the bookshelves outside the bedroom, came a book I bought in Paris called Sur Un Air de Scarlatti. I may not have read it for decades but I often think of the title and occasionally notice the book on which I put an orange cover since its own was decrepit, using paper with which I made chinese lantern lampshades for my otherwise charmless flat in Paris. 

Sur Un Air de Scarlatti by Edmond Jaloux is from 1928, printed on soft watermarked paper with uneven edges, dark woodcuts settled into the page and dropped capitals in orangey red at the start of each section. I have always known, without looking inside the book to remind myself, that it was a tale that had slipped effortlessly into my state of mind after I found it in a box outside a secondhand bookshop further along the rue Durantin where I lived. Yes, I thought the other day, the radio programme in my story could somehow end with that. The narrator, who already shares a number of my tastes, could have this one too, whatever it was.

Something to do with the french language, with being a young and dream-filled passionate reader looking for as many truths as possible on the page rather than on the street — though this being Paris the street had truths of its own — I was in a nearly constant state of heightened receptivity, devoured by my own emotions, like the narrator of this tale who goes to Venice in search of more indifference, greater calm, less involvement, and feels he's succeeding until, on one of his nocturnal walks he finds a garden where a a violinist is playing the Scarlatti sonata, a mysterious young woman accompanied by visions that he too can see, visions of a century before, 'cette nostalgie d'un Paradis de verre filé dispersé depuis le Déluge', and finds himself ensnared as never before.

So, shall I leave my radio announcer, Thom Katch, happily stranded in Edmond Jaloux's Venice, chasing visions and the light dream of a happiness without intoxication and without tomorrow?

Friday 10 November 2023

Junk Percussion, Roger Turner

1966 or 7, in the vast social space Sussex University had in its early days, Ginger Baker was doing a drum solo and I was right in front of him with Roger Turner who was right in with Ginger Baker's long frame, swift arms and hollow cheeks, the shifts and witching of the drum kit registering in his head with a precision and a passion he has spent the last half century refining and expanding. He was reading Ginger Baker and I was reading him.

And now I've read his book, Junk Percussion, an illustrated inventory of some of his instruments, and a reflection on the musical possibilities of junk, as well as, in the epilogue, a brief history of how sound exploration entered his bloodstream, via the Goon Show, via a mother who'd grown up in Palestine and sang Arab songs, and a wide array of jazz records brought home by an older brother. The first concert he went to was the Coltrane Quartet with Eric Dolphy, and Elvin Jones' drumming 'started to occupy my senses like rays from the planets'.

I remember going to a car salvage yard with Roger in the eighties. I was focused on whatever part my car needed, while Roger was darting about looking and tapping things lightly with his long reach, within and without, his eyes lighting up at the myriad prospects of half-dismantled cars and their viscera spread about on the ground, getting the antennae focused and spotting the future territory. 

His assemblage of instruments is a delight. The reader slips into the pleasure of using what others have discarded, finding the multiple musics of rubbish, chains, forks, bicycle bells, saucepan lids etc, slipping the unpitched into the pitch of manufactured instruments, 'playing inside the detail of the music'. I like that phrase for its sudden insight into the way percussion works with voice, other instruments, or melody, as if an inner voice were coming through, one that could bring flurries of electricity, send a light shock through what's there, or give an interlude of nearly pure interiority.

There's an episode late in the book, the last piece in the inventory, on the subject of the charms of paper and the like, one of the most ubiquitous forms of rubbish we create. Roger and a saxophonist were on their way by ferry and car to a concert in Brussels, when they were stopped by border police and Roger was asked, on a bright windy day, to empty his drum case, which contained 

...  masses of different kinds of paper of different lengths, colours and qualities. There were crumpled foils in silver and gold, and rectangles of silver paper, mirror-like, a dozen or more different kinds of poly-bags, with supermarket and specialist shop labels in various languages, winking at us all, some filled with polystyrene packing-beans blowing around, escaping into the air, gift-wrappers scrunched or rolled ... The paper was performing, blowing up in festoons of waves and the poly-bags filling with air, swirling and trying to get airborne ... The two policemen stood staring at the action. What was going on? ... We are musicians playing a concert tomorrow at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels,' we declared, 'This is all percussion, I added, waving my arm around generously to include the fields and trees. 'Just listen...'

Monday 6 November 2023

The right moment to read Adalbert Stifter

Back from London, ill in bed, of all the books I bought I chose Adalbert Stifter, Motley Stones, in order to occupy on the page what I could not occupy outside. I read it in two or three days and then read it again, the fixity of the view outside my window expanded into Stifter's scrupulously described landscapes in 19th century Austria, one pulsing after another, along with snowstorms, hailstorms, fires and floods. 

The stories are embedded in the landscape, people are participants in their landscape, their work is elemental, they are shoemakers, dyers, tanners, fullers, they grow food and keep bees, they walk everywhere, know their rocks and their mountains, which streams overflow in a storm. Principal characters often show halfway through the story, or later, as dark interruptions to the Biedermeier charms of the narrators and their families, hairline cracks that turn into full-blown disaster.

Stifter doesn't like commas, nouns run along the rill of the line as if their togetherness matters more than their particularity. He repeats himself often, as if addressing children. Maybe this is comforting to the reduced reader. And peaceful. All is as it should be in the burgeoning bourgeois world, in the manor house, the castle and the trades folk's comfortable houses. At the same time all is not all right. In almost every story there are stranded, shy, reclusive stray folk who cross these lives and send shivers through them. In Stifter's life too, there are dark corners, we assume, a large unhappy man who lived too well after early writing success, who did not achieve anything like the gemütlich family life he often described, and cut his own throat with a razor. 

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Clarice Again

Last week I made for Clarice Lispector like a homing pigeon. Hour of the Star has fed my inner writerliness for many years. I read it every year or two, when I want to situate myself between the beginnings of a story, with its thin, rachitic main character, and the eager, awkward writer, not entirely sure what she's doing but doing it anyway.   

It's peaceful to read stories like those of Rachel Ingalls or Elizabeth Taylor, and sometimes sleep inducing, which is a boon, but the possibility of sharing pages with a writer who writes from way back inside the fount of things may calm me even more by making me feel less alone.

A book is not just its pages, it's also the writer and her presence, even her face. Clarice Lispector, with her wonderful name, has for me an aura as powerful as Beckett or Kafka.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Mrs Caliban

In the context of Rachel Ingall's Mrs Caliban, very few mention Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest, scion of the witch Sycorax, a sad monster endowed with some of Shakespeare's best moments:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.

Mrs Caliban is Dorothy's married name. Or is it? Her husband is hardly Fred Caliban, no monster he, only ever referred to as Fred either going out the door or, briefly, coming back in. Their marriage is shaky en permanence. 'I think we're too unhappy to get a divorce', says Dorothy to her friend Estelle, divorced herself.   

This is not Beauty and the Beast. It's the unhappy wife, grieving lost children and much else, who finds an equal soul in Larry, a 6' 7'' man like a frog escaped from a brutal institute where scientists  purported to study him. Dorothy and Larry come together very soon after they have met, in the way of dreams. He comes in through the back door, 'a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face'.

Larry and Dorothy adapt rapidly to their secret life, as we adapt to dreams, sounds and sweet airs. Whether it is or we want it and so it is, or it is only as long as we want it and then the frog-like creature goes back to the Gulf of Mexico, or it never was, except —

I started the book again after I had finished it, to see where, how, in the housewifely life, you cross from unhappiness to dream.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Narratives, stories, tales

The word narrative has something controlling about it; story is cosy; a tale is recessive, mossy. 

We live in an era of narrative. Narrative sells. We all have one, whether or not we know it. These are the structures that shape our ends. Though actually, reading Elizabeth Taylor in the middle of the night, shaping sleep is what I'm trying for. The fascination of the weave should put me out, I hope.

In town today I sought out Elizabeth Taylor and Rachel Ingalls, both writers who have been resting for many decades, as actors used to say, 

I choose old narratives and their trappings because it's more peaceful. I do not want to read narratives of now, of Ireland. Why? To read its current fiction is to take on its history, the assumptions that underly it. 

The assumptions that lie beneath Elizabeth Taylor or Rachel Ingalls I grew up with. I didn't' know them, they were absorbed through the young soles of my shoes up and down Maldon High Street. I have no desire to write the fabric of Maldon High Street; or of Inniscarra, County Cork. I want to island myself on this island. 

Wednesday 27 September 2023


I  read the New Yorker in the bath for the plaisir de luxe, today the story by Lore Segal, 'On the Agenda', a few women friends who meet, or not, and go some way towards structuring their encounters—shall we talk about forgetting? and then abandon, disperse. Lore Segal is ninety-five. Different rhythm and weave, but the same bumpy-jolty as other moments of life, different uncertainties, varieties of diffidence, deeper perhaps with age, and warmer.

It turned out to be easier to stay at home—not to have to leave the house. Then, one day, Ruth e-mailed everybody to ask if anyone would mind if they took a hiatus. Nobody minded, and it has become easier to not have Ladies Lunch. For now?

I have no idea, in truth, of this kind of late-stage camaraderie, the ability to condone, to commune and then withdraw. But I like reading about it. Grace Paley, she who occupies several of the steps up to my room, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, they all give me this feeling. The steps up to my room are well-occupied, slightly worn. 

Storm Agnes came through and had me running for shelter. 


Sunday 24 September 2023


Junot Diaz wrote a chopped-about page about a chopped-about life, his Dominican-American languages knifing through the lines. Drown, his first book, is 160 chopped-about pages. At first you want to check his glossary for the words you don't know, then eventually you go along with these holes in the text. There's an honesty in a hole. We all have these penetrable/impenetrable words, rocker words, rocking chair words, cushions, pauses, old words so full of meaning they might just as well have none.

I have had his book for twenty-five years but not re-read it till now. Timeliness is all. The chance of a glance along the bookshelves in a changed season. 

Monday 18 September 2023


When fully preoccupied with my own words, I seek out the words of others in strangely precise and precisely strange doses. More stories than usual. A plot is relaxing, after all, an end is an end. Rachel Ingalls does me well for that. She weaves tales, and the tired head is susceptible. One day, floored by a heavy head, I read all of Binstead's Safari and marvelled at her persistence with the lion theme, wondered if she'd been on safari herself or just read/seen Out of Africa.  

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World —the title surely editorial, opportunistic— Barry Lopez' essays arrived and I scanned them for recognition moments. Did not quite find them. I was put off by the devoutness, the prayer—killer words. Flatteners, anyway. I haven't much liked travel writing unless very old, like Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey or Arabia Deserta, that glorious piece of desert English written and lived by Charles Montagu Doughty at the end of the nineteenth century.

Barry Lopez getting in wood for heating, choosing those he works with, growing old, pacing himself, writing himself into his life, and out of it, that I can read. Part of the reading diet is this flat speak, days of my life, very managed, convinced, less a confession than a table of contents.

In the bath I read an article in The New York Review of Books about Jean Eustache. More than Binstead's Safari or Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, I felt at home. By proxy. I have read more about Jean Eustache than seen his films. I cannot distinguish the two. 

Monday 11 September 2023

Utopia, or Anything is Possible, Steven Millhauser, Richard Jefferies

The background of my reading for the last while is the sequence of eight wall panels we have been constructing on the subject of Utopia. People wrote, or didn't write, their idea of an ideal society, and I edited, jiggled and conjured a series of texts out of their imaginings. 

At the same time, mostly before or during sleep interludes, I was reading Steven Millhauser and Richard Jefferies, nearly a century apart. Steven Millhauser's story 'The Dream of the Consortium', the department store story, has an ending that pleased me. When you have exited the nearly infinite store, you are still not out of it.

Overhead, the avenue-wide strip of sky is brilliant blue. As we hurry along the sidewalk, we have the absurd sensation that we have entered still another department, composed of ingeniously lifelike streets with artful shadows and reflections—that our destinations lie in a far corner of the same department—that we are condemned to hurry forever through these artificial halls, bright with late afternoon light, in search of a way out.

Richard Jefferies, nearly a century earlier, I came to via the Faber Book of Utopias. The editor took Utopia at face value: no place, including good and bad. Richard Jefferies battled with good and bad. Just as William Morris did. 

Amaryllis at the Fair, the second piece in my Everyman Library edition, stems from a desire to set down his early life, good and bad, without regard for narrative. Every chapter is static. And on the last page he leaves his creatures as he made them, idle in their rural circumstances, with all their charms and yearning on display. 'I'll leave them there', he says.