Friday, 13 May 2022

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

 Reading E.M. Forster in Room 19 at the Bon Secours hospital, the Bons, in the a large magnolia outside the window—one of the oldest trees in Cork, said the woman who came to disinfect the room—over a hundred years old, it's fablous isn't it, fablous. There were only a few flowers left, but the leaves were young and tremulous. 

I started the Collected Short Stories the day before, in the Medical Assessment Unit, amid bleepers out of sync with each other, cubicle to cubicle, interruptions and diagnoses in the offing, I couldn't read, but needed to be turning the pages. At the end of the day the stories were a bumpy-jolty geography of bald panic and resignation.

Next day, I read the Collected Stories again, sitting by the window, magnolia leaves run through with weather I couldn't see, with the road I couldn't see either, only people's feet as they walked by; a fly on the outside I'd let in if I could, for a bit of life, but the window doesn't open. No flies in the horsepiddle, please.

Fauns and sirens, other kingdoms, hollow trees, the other side of the hedge, a celestial omnibus driven by Sir Thomas Browne for the journey before dawn, Dante for the journey after sunset. 'The Celestial Omnibus' is a heightener in your average hospital room.A young boy who believes in dreams and signposts To Heaven until he's whacked back into nursery tea and common sense. And Mr Bons, of this hospital, perhaps, who went with him and Dante out of Surbiton and into the beyond, was found dead next day in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries. I find myself in hospital with just two books, his Complete Stories and her A Haunted House

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

Signed: Virginia Woolf, and me.

Friday, 6 May 2022

The woman in the dunes, Kobo Abe

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

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

I'm turning Japanese I really think so.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

The Illiterate, Agota Kristof

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

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

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

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

 How do you become a writer? she asks. 

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

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

If ever.

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

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

Friday, 22 April 2022

Anne Redmon, Music and Silence

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Reading in Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noah Balulis, Creative Writer.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 March 2022

Together and Apart, Virginia Woolf

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

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

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

Monday, 21 March 2022

Virginia Woolf & Jim Jarmusch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 12 March 2022

James Salter is out on a limb

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

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

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

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

Friday, 4 March 2022

Odessa Stories, Isaac Babel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Anne Carson, The H of H Playbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Entangled Reading

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Bambi, Felix Salten, Walt Disney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 January 2022

The Books of Jacob

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 January 2022

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Deborah Levy and Fay Weldon

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

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

Puffball by Fay Weldon

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights,

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

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

I read this over and over.   

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

His leg does not write back. 

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Tango, Lynne Tillman, Raymond Radiguet,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 December 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Fleur Jaeggy, Hortus,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 November 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

I have read most of Elizabeth Strout, most of Jane Gardam, some Elizabeth Taylor, these intricate, domestic women in their recessive worlds, their talking tone, their willingness to tell and their ability to avoid telling. Sometimes this is just what I need.

I read Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout this week. Every few pages there's a long moment during which Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout's familiar, talks to us from the page — 'Oh, I cannot say any more right now'. Or:

But I have always remembered that. At the time I thought, Well, at least he is being honest.

But we had these surprises and disappointments with each other, is what I mean.

Social understanding, intimacy real or imagined—what does it matter—social observation, the pools and sharps of our history with each other, Elizabeth Strout is insistent. I don't often want to be this clearly in any world, invented or otherwise. I don't want to be in our culture of domesticity and lineage. Of the blood. The platitudes. The parentage. The losses.

Oh, to panic!

Elizabeth Strout has the art of slowly ravelling our lives in full view of each other.  

I could read Jane Gardam next, for the English version. Though Elizabeth Strout is English enough, Puritan. Gardam and Strout are a fine pair. They could sell groceries or mend shoes. 

Sunday, 14 November 2021

The Emperor's Tomb, Joseph Roth,

Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis in Istanbul between the wars, at the eastern edge of Europe, without many of the books he was writing about. Though nothing is that simple and there's probably a very good library and a talky literate café down the street in Istanbul in the 1930s. This image of a man writing about books he read in the past, who has incorporated European Literature, can consult at will Emma Bovary and The Idiot, Odyssey and Thebeiad, perhaps even more vividly when he has been pushed to the edge of Europe through one of those geopolitical bumps we must all learn to accommodate.

I have just finished reading Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb in my room in Inniscarra, at the western edge of Europe. There isn't a very good library, or a talky café, down the street. Erich Auerbach might have felt at home in Istanbul. I might feel at home in Inniscarra. 

This is how at home Joseph Roth feels, writing in Paris in the 1930s. 

My people's roots are in Sipolje, in Slovenia. Sipolje no longer exists, hasn't for a long time. It's been assimilated with several other villages to form a middle-sized town. As everyone knows, that's the trend nowadays. People are no longer capable of staying on their own. They form into nonsensical groups, and it's the same way with the villages. Nonsensical structures come into being. The farmers move into the cities, and the villages themselves — they want to be cities.

Everything that starts—a life, a marriage, a war—every nonsensical structure has the kiss of death. In Paris. Istanbul. Inniscarra.

I kissed my mother's hand, as I always did. Her hand — how could I ever forget it — was slender and delicate and veined with blue. The morning light swept into the room, a little dimmed by the dark red silk curtains, like a well-behaved guest dressed in formal attire. 

Joseph Roth tells his tale and takes it away in the same breath. The narrator signs up for World War One and soon is a prisoner of war. Around chapter XXII the narrator escapes from prison camp to a safe house and a new life. A prisoner in Siberia was where he felt most at home.

Our host belonged to the long-established community of Siberian Poles. He was a trapper by profession. He lived on his own, with a dog of no certifiable breed, a couple of hunting rifles, a number of home-made pipes in two spacious rooms full of scruffy furs. His name was Baranovich, first name of Jan. He hardly spoke. A full black beard enjoined him to silence.

In Siberia there is peace. Eventually the narrator and his friends are sent back to prison camp, for arguing. You can't argue in a safe house. This is how the new life ends. Until, after the war, the next one begins. And the one after that.

But from the moment I held my son in my arms, I experienced a dim version of that incomprehensibly lofty satisfaction that the Creator of the world must have felt when he saw his incomplete work nevertheless as done. 

Two chapters later the narrator no longer has a house or a home. His mother is dead. His wife has gone to Hollywood to be an actress. He sends his son away to a friend in Paris and spends his days waiting for his dearly loved evenings, in which he can stretch the story this way or that in short order; and then die of it.

Towards the end of The Emperor's Tomb the tale starts to limp. He repeats himself, especially on the subject of his mother; he is weakening. It doesn't matter what he plucks from his tale now that his tale is ready to pluck him. 

Monday, 8 November 2021

Job, Joseph Roth: in Tuosist

I chose Job by Joseph Roth to take to Tuosist last week. A spontaneous outing to the land, to other lands than here, demands spontaneous choice of reading. I last read Job five years ago. Once every five years is often enough for the deep sources, the temperature of the years before I was born. A small, complete woodland in Tuosist, facing northwest along the bay, is a deep source too.

We walk and stumble and pause among trees that have been growing and decaying for about a hundred years. Out of sheer, fruitful, lassitude. Weaving their way. Falling down, waiting, renewing and regrowing, out of the moss of ages and the soakage of leaves, of the southwestern edge of this island. Oak, hazel, holly and moss, with clearings. A venerable crabapple. That softness of consolidation. The sight of next year's primroses, a stack of rock inside trees. Druidic. Lost. Then a clearing. And again. Several magisterial oaks. Holly of all ages. Hazel throughout. Sika deer upending through the dark afternoon. Streams spreading into a boggy patch in front of the sea, with tough tussocky grass and bog asphodel.

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, an ordinary Russian Jew, the way Jews assert their ordinariness with such conviction and resignation that it is extraordinary: he teaches, he prays, his family takes its course, towards extinction, he supposes. Russia, New York, it is the same, children betraying, dying and going insane, all narratives half-understood, but onward. Before, during and after World War 1.

But there is a happy ending. Menuchim, the last child, the cripple, the idiot, the silent, was left behind when his family moved to America. His mother would have taken him on the boat in a bag, but feared that immigration might lance all the bags to check the contents, and kill him. Menuchim, epileptic, crippled, vanishes from the story, thought dead.  

At the start of World War 1, Mendel Singer's home town, and Joseph Roth's, on the borders of Austria-Hungary and Russia, is sacked and burned. Menuchim is helped from a burning house, and shouts Fire, his second word. Mama was his first. He is taken to a hospital where a doctor cures him, then shelters him in his own home; thus, after long travail and discovery, Menuchim is reborn. Through music. He sits at a piano and finds he can play anything that is in his head.

He has brought his song from the home village to his father in New York. A future spun out of long silence. Ancient woodland regenerates. Out of abandonment grows a song.  

America can produce miracles of this kind. 

So can Tuosist.


Sunday, 31 October 2021

The Umbrella, the New Yorker, Tove Ditlevsen

On a wet and windy afternoon six people made their way up our field towards the pine grove, where in a groundswell moment, they were proposing to lie down on the ground for ten minutes. Most of them were well kitted out with waterproofs and something to lie on, except the two youngest, who were dressed as usual and huddled as they walked under a pale and partly broken small umbrella.

I had just read Tove Ditlevsen's story 'The Umbrella' in the New Yorker. A girl in the nineteen thirties dreams of owning an umbrella. When she is ten she sees a pretty woman in a nearly floor length yellow dress holding a slim strong translucent umbrella as she crosses the courtyard. A headscarf and a sturdy shopping basket is all you need, her mother taught, and look for a man with brown hair and dark eyes. You do not need an umbrella. Is our skin so fragile we can't take a little weather? 

But Helga had never tried to put herself in another person's shoes; it had never been necessary. Her entire character consisted on a pile of memories without a pattern or a plan. There were a number of pairs of brown eyes, a twilight mood, an immense, undefined expectation, a yellow dress, and an umbrella.

Helga marries Egon and the days pass. He starts drinking and she raids the piggy bank.

The moon lit the little room like a false dawn. With the deftness of a thief, she counted the money. There were almost forty kroner. She held them in her hands, smiling gently, redeemed and alone, like a child smiling in her sleep. All she could think of was an open, translucent umbrella with a certain shape and colour. 

Egon breaks the umbrella over his knee. Helga's is passive when Egon tells her, over his shoulder, at the end of the story, 'You'll get another umbrella.' 

The two girls this afternoon, 13 and 16, had not dreamed of their umbrella nor its replacement. They went up to the pine grove and lay there for ten minutes on a wet and windy day and took photos up their nostrils and into the pines. 

Their umbrella is disposable. It is a dishonest headscarf, enfin, and a sturdy shopping basket, an immense, undefined expectation, just as in nineteen thirties Copenhagen. 

It made sense that the umbrella was ruined. She had set herself up against the secret law steering her inner world. Few people, even once in their lives, dare to make the inexpressible real.

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Talk Poetry, Mairéad Byrne, My Dinner with André,

Talk Poetry by Mairéad Byrne is just that, the poetry of talk, poetry talking us through the onwardness of every day and how it runs away with you: you laugh you cry you sew on a button. You do what you do. The place is set up for this. The world runs on and we drink our poems as we may. 

You cannot help an alcoholic. Except in the ordinary ways you can help anyone. Like sewing on a button. People do what they do. Sometimes it is beautiful.

It rained all day. I read Talk Poetry, lit the stove and watched My Dinner with André, uncomfortably, at my computer, at the knee chair. I hardly ever do that. You have to want to be in touch with others, for My dinner with André, swaying and adjusting on the knee chair, going with the conversation, as with the pulses of rain outside, coming in strongly towards the last half hour, the conversation, that is. 

Wallace Shawn's querying noises  have prepared us for his view on it all, when it eventually comes. Do you have to climb Everest, can't you just have a nice dinner at home and exercise your small talent when the chance arises? 

These are the positions after coffee, the restaurant has emptied, André has an espresso, Wally an amaretto. André pays and Wally takes a taxi home, finding associations with every other building they go past. While André is halfway up Everest or having an encounter with 40 Polish people in a forest, or preparing a safe place for a flying saucer to land. Satie's first Gymnopédie is the exit music. Wallace Shawn going home in his taxi, reviewing his childhood.

Mairéad Byrne is unreasonably fond of home, she has homes everywhere, in a queue at the bank, in a library, a bookshop, a telephone booth, a certain amount of space & silence. I slot myself into it whenever possible, she says. I know what she means. And I have a take on her take on family photos. 

In our house we didn't have a camera. We liked photos though and posed for them at every opportunity. .... There were eight children in our family ...  We liked to dress up and grin. There was a piano. Sometimes my younger sister, who got lessons, would sit on the piano stool, and holding her hands suspended somewhat claw-like above the keys, would swivel round her head at a 90º angle to her stalwart body, her face full of mischief and intent....

I don't know how we ever got anything done in our house, we spent so much time face-forward, grinning to beat the band, she ends. 

You can see that still, in the author photo. 

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Ripley's Game, Valentia Island, Patricia Highsmith

I came back from Valentia with a copy of Ripley's Game, by Patricia Highsmith. 

I'd just read in the New Yorker extracts from her diary from her twenties. She was trying her hand, how to pitch journalism as entertainment. 

And to do this primarily, again, as entertainment. How perhaps even love, by having its head persistently bruised, can become hate. For the curious thing yesterday I felt quite close to murder, too, as I went to see the house of the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of possessing.

People translate into action; their next move will be proof of everything. Tom Ripley and Reeves Minot, Jonathan Trevanny and Héloïse, Gaby, etc. Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Matt Damon. All thrillers are screenplays. For the nonce. For Patricia Highsmith they are the bloodless—though bloody—narrative of her own life.

December 21, 1950: What shall I write about next, I think here in this diary where I think aloud. O more definitely than ever this 29th year, this third year and I always change on the thirds, has seen much metamorphosis. It will come to me. My love of life grows stronger every month. My powers of recuperation are wonderfully swift and elastic. I think of writing a startler, a real shocker in the psychological thriller line. I could do it adeptly.

Ripley is adept, he is in the shadows, working the story. When I see Ripley, it's Dennis Hopper, his covert conviction and urgency, not John Malkovich, who is sleazier, more vulpine. Nor Matt Damon, though that film is freshest in my memory. 

Reading Patricia Highsmith, you are doing just that, reading Patricia Highsmith as she thinks aloud, through her Ripley persona, her Ripley mycelium.   

I have a strong reaction to page-turners, thrillers—and Patricia Highsmith every once in a while constitutes my thriller input—two-thirds in I am happy to stop turning pages altogether, happy to leave Ripley and Jonathan Trevanny in a house called Belle Ombre near Fontainebleau, dealing with the mafia and coming out confident, writing the screenplay.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Shrimp and the Anemone, Valentia Island

I took L.P. Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone to Valentia Island, thinking I needed to read something so entirely familiar it would be less like reading and more like walking or swimming. In the first few pages, Eustace finds a shrimp being eaten by a sea anemone. To save the shrimp, which is already dead, he must get his shoes and socks wet, which he is supposed to avoid at all cost. He is torn with anguish. He calls his sister Hilda, who is a few years older, and taller, and might be able to reach into the rock pool without getting wet. She extracts the dead shrimp, and as she does so, tears at the digestion of the anemone, which also dies.

Two children on a beach with rock pools in 1940s England, a brother and sister in an accountable world, mysteriously driven, sadly knowable eventually, rescue a (dead) shrimp and kill a sea anemone. This is my comfort reading? Yes, when I find sea anemones beside our lunch spot on Valentia Island in October, on an old pier half destroyed by weather and desuetude, but warm and favoured, with bread from Emilie's yesterday, and a small stream flowing into the sea. After lunch we play at guessing which stone the other was looking at; and lay down for a while.

I stare into rock pools on Valentia Island and I am comforted. I know what those strange closed dark plum mounds are, just underwater, about to open as fronds and entrap a passing shrimp. 

Death lurks in rock pools; scruples only make it slower. 

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Maggie Nelson meets Dante

Dante's La Vita Nuova sits on the floor alongside Maggie Nelson, Something Bright, Then Holes, on a resolute yet straggling grey wet day. Distraught with where I find myself, underslept, needing the friendship of books, I try to activate my reading patch and go to 1295, Florence, young Dante in love with the ever-distant Beatrice, in the courtly manner, always veering upward and beyond; and to the american underbelly in the past twenty years, Maggie Nelson  'Living as if every moment announced a beloved, and it does.'

In The New Life young Dante Alighieri writes sonnets to Beatrice, his life overwhelmed with joy and yearning. 

That oft I heard folk question as I went/ What such great gladness meant.

Wild reading for wet days. Transition, off-season reading. And people aren't happy, said M this morning. Look at me. I have the honey house to clean up, there's European Foul Brood about. I'm dog lazy, she says, and lists all she has yet to do today. To distract, I tell her I've been reading Dante's first book, last read when I was a student, called The New Life, and how refreshing it is to spend time in 13th century Florence, where people mostly stayed where they were born; while we wait it out here in 21st century Cork, shifting, shiftless. Unquiet.

Or New York or L.A, like Maggie Nelson.

We share a brightness/ It's called death/ in life'. /I toss and turn all night, hearing you say/I want to touch you/ without using my hands.

Dante would understand this. I doubt he ever touched his Beatrice with his hands; though there may have been replacements. Beatrice died of perfect gentleness. Like Beth in Little Women.  

When in mine anguish thou hast looked on me;/ Until sometimes it seems as if, through thee,/ My heart might almost wander from its truth.

Maggie Nelson and Dante are in conversation, and I am grateful. We are on the fringes of a storm, which translates locally as mist and murk. Somewhere in the midst a spluttering bird. And Beethoven's Ghost Trio.