JUDY KRAVIS

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Wednesday, 21 February 2018

War and War by Laszlo Kraznahorkai has settled its sentences around the last week or so. I have read a sentence before sleep and then slept into it. A sentence, chez Kraznahorkai, is also a chapter, often of several pages. One reviewer said he (probably) had never got to know a character as well as the narrator of this novel. People cannot take very much interiority. Said the bird. It is true you read and you get further into Korin who has left middle europe and gone to new york in order to type into a computer and all eternity the manuscript he found or wrote before —

I am not sure how clever I want to be, how desperate I am.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

A chance visit to St Gobnait's shrine revealed why I have felt uneasy reading Willa Cather's My Ántonia. We happened on St Gobnait in Ballyvourney, County Cork, on the eve of her day, February 11th. Graves were being tidied, lurid primulas planted (with their pots) at the foot of her statue, some early prayerful women were already doing the stations of the cross. We gave the place its due, talked to a gravedigger, refreshed our ignorance of the rosary, then drove off on an unknown road south, rather than east, the way we were going, as if in order to confirm our stranger status.

Willa Cather's immersion in the prairies of Nebraska would have thrilled me when I was twelve. I may have read My Ántonia around then, when I depended upon immersion in whatever long grass would shelter me. But it was just long grass, not the long grass of home, or the long grass of my country, adopted or otherwise, it was temporary shelter; there was nobody else around, and wherever I found myself later I would seek out its equivalent.

Although My Ántonia focuses on newcomers to Nebraska, these were Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes who would stay there, and build and prosper, many of them. They confirmed the stranger in the narrator, who, like Willa Cather, moved there from Virginia when he was young. The land and the seasons give the book its pace and its roots. It isn't coy, or matter-of-fact. The very levelness of it confirms its truthfulness and my unease.

St Gobnait was the patron saint of bees. She chose her spot in Ballyvourney because she saw six white deer there, and the water was good among the small wooded hills. These days the deer are only carved into the metal railings, and water is everywhere around the old holy well because of attempts to drain the expanded carpark. A new well has been installed, more convenient, less boggy, though less charming than the old one, with its rag tree and bed of coins under the water, and there are instructions on how to proceed with the stations—certain parts of the route have to be walked twice, a bit like the Grand National.

I cannot stay with St Gobnait and the mysteries—joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous—I can only look; as I cannot settle among these new Nebraskans in the early twentieth century, I can only read.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Beckett's How it is reads quiet after a performance of Part I by the Gare St Lazare the other night. I hurry along, looking for their performance on the page. There are some glorious moments of mental exercise. Despair too strong a word. Of course. As well as humour. Too comfortable. But, in tribute to the Gare St Lazare and their staging, lighting, their sudden shifts, their discomfiture, or was it ours? I was back in the Everyman Theatre, or wanted to be.

When I read How it is the last time, in my sprawling teaching Beckett period, I marked little, remembered less. 'I always liked arithmetic it has paid me back in full' leaped out of the dark, near or far, of the Everyman; the clouds parted with clarity and a smile. This is one of my Beckett quotes, one of the tenets of my faith.

Somewhere, perhaps more than once in the performance, two voices chased or echoed the same words, up on stage where we the audience sat, at the back, as wrong and as privileged as we can be (at the back of the stage looking out on the flats and the stalls), Beethoven, I thought, opus 31, maybe number 2.

There's a moment where we suddenly understand the piano to to be innately double, like ourselves, with our sack of memory, our native bent. That was, sometimes, what the Gare St Lazare players did with Beckett. Voices came from all levels of darkness and distance, within inches, within aeons, of each other. I fell among the interstices. It was warm and peaceful even as the voices carried on in the mist and a group of dark hooded creatures crossed the middle distance.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Some books challenge the sequence and linearity of reading. A narrative is there but skewed deep in itself, knocking about time zones, at the bottomlessness of a reader/writer's reactions. Jack Robinson's (Charles Boyle's) An Overcoat, a transposition of Henri Beyle's (Stendhal's) 19th century love life into the 21st century, has footnotes that spawn footnotes, references that spawn references, sometimes onto the next page, so that the reader reads Beyle (Boyle) across a couple of centuries and several page levels, with Robinson keeping his feet dry on the title page.

When I was studying latin at school our humorous and whimsical teacher encouraged us to interleave our set texts with blank pages, so that Virgil's Georgics and Horace's Odes in their staid bindings multiplied into comments, reminders and associations. When we gave the books back at the end of the year we took out our carefully glued in sheets of paper so that next year's students could insert and write their own.

Proust, in like manner, presented with proofs of A la recherché du temps perdu, sat up in bed near the end of his life and interleaved additional text then interleaved the interleavings, only death putting a stop to an endless process.

You can of course ignore the footnotes in An Overcoat. You can reduce the number of hidden pockets and whizz along more rapidly; Beyle/Boyle will be there in his essence. The footnotes, though, ranging around Stendhal and his commentators as well as Boyle/Beyle's scenes from everyday life, open up the book, let you lose your way as is proper in this 21st century. Keep your weakness intact, as Henri Michaux says, don't try to acquire strengths.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Reading books by someone you know is even more piquant on the train: strangers all around and speed and space out of the window on a grey day ready for populating. The line from Cork to Dublin in January features reeds and heaps in flooded fields bordered by ivy-darkened trees, and up as far as Templemore, Charles Boyle writing as Jack Robinson about Robinson (Crusoe) in a language already familiar from conversation or emails. It is also discomfiting; I start to imagine people I know reading my books.

At Templemore a family gets on and settles two compartments down with a mammy who howls as across windy hillsides and small children who shriek back: life is this loud. I try for a reading that excludes all but give in to the easy contemplation of the lives of others, the very thing that Robinsons do not know how to do; this is an exercise for isolates like me who leave the island or come down from the tree with all the inner resources they have accrued now ready for dispersal.

My favourite Defoe reading was when I was about 23 and went on holiday with my mother—the only such occasion ever—and read the right-hand pages only of Robinson Crusoe. The book was heavy. I was recovering from having had my wisdom teeth taken out. It was an apt and adequate way to read half a book and keep a mother at a manageable distance in this unusual circumstance: Ibiza in the era of unfinished hotels on the beach.

The other Charles Boyle/Jack Robinson I read on the train was Jack Robinson by the same author, which is about staying close and keeping a distance from writers you know or could know. I do not know many writers; I know more artists and tree-planters. There are possibly some tactics here. The quote from Coleridge on the back cover strikes me as being the wrong way around. He says that writers of the past inspire passivity and submissiveness, whereas writers who are one's contemporaries can be friends. Writers of the past, like Virginia Woolf, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, feel like friends with an intensity beyond most that life in the living has to offer.

Just across from my seat is another arrival from the crusty midlands of Ireland, in her Regatta anorak and her black wig, or black-dyed hair, I'd suspect wig, reading her Irish Daily Mail and bulking consistently from the chin down to the floor.

Monday, 15 January 2018

One damp and cloudy afternoon in Nijar, each change in the weather reflected in the white sea of plastic on the plain below, I read Oliver Sacks' Gratitude, four essays of such gentle and collected sanity that immediately I read them again. Although I know how much honing must go into these pages, I am completely humanised by their plain-speaking calm. This is what you can write when you are trying, as he says in the first essay, to complete your life. In the second essay he knows he has an unstoppable cancer and he begins to be able to see his life 'as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of connection of all its parts.' From the top of Nijar town, the plastic plain below is almost beautiful in that sunlight you can get towards the end of a bad day.

This second essay, called 'My Own Life', sits strangely beside a few lines I read in Renata Adler's Speedboat in the plane on the way to Spain.
In the South, in simpler days, I remember a middle-aged gentle black worker speaking to his son who had insomnia. 'When you can't sleep' he said, just tell yourself the story of your life. 'Now sometimes when I can't sleep I wonder. A twenty-four-hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let's just have a little quiet around here.
The speed of Renata Adler's prose outstripped the speed of the Boeing 737-800 series and made the journey feel unusually peaceful, preparing me for this afternoon with Oliver Sacks. In the fourth essay, Sabbath, Oliver Sacks comes to understand a sabbath after most of a lifetime without religious practice of any kind.
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of life might I have lived?
He regrets being as agonizingly shy at eighty as he was at twenty. He regrets speaking no language other than his mother tongue. But the impression the book leaves with the reader, as the title suggests and the publisher makes clear by excerpting on the back cover the ending of the second essay, is of acceptance, and gratitude, even a certain optimism that the future of the planet is in good hands (I'm grateful for the respite when I look out of the window at the largest concentration of plastic greenhouses in the world).
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Appropriate reading versus completely wrong reading.

Nijar Country by Juan Goytisolo, if you're going to sit in Nijar for nine days in January, is appropriate reading. The book of the place is a must for the winter traveller. If, on a winter's night, a traveller or two in Nijar, having read Nijar Country, decide to write it again, 63 years later, in translation like ourselves, with fresh comments on the lie of the land, what would that give?

On the map of Andalucia, Campo de Nijar is a crescent of desertish land with sierras above and smaller sierras toward the sea, strong winds, few crops, plenty grit flying. Goytisolo went for four days, in Franco's Spain, in summer. What did he see? Who did he meet? What did they talk about? How will this translate to a pair of snowbirds, well, rainbirds, from Ireland?

What have they done in Nijar country with the water they've plumbed out of the desert since Goytisolo wrote his book? They haven't planted trees, as recommended by the National Institute for Land Settlement, they have brought in the tourists on foot of a few spaghetti westerns (even the food is wrong) and then grown delicacies to send off-season to the tourists' northern lands. Talk about capitulation. To give your land use to the upwardly unhappy of northern lands, to forgo your trees and your future for a pack of winter strawberries.

Completely wrong reading would be dystopic blather from the north, such as our culture affects as it eats its strawberries and sucks on other sugars. You cannot turn over a review of books and films of this year and the next without finding crazed, obscure reasons for fear and mistrust while doing battle with Christmas treats and then giving in.

Why is it easier to write about a town in Almería province rather than about where I am? I read about Nijar in 1954, not about Cork then or now. Tons of Cork City and County come tumbling in every time I go out for the milk. There are headlines, there is idle talk, which, as we know, costs lives by betrayal and out of despair. And it's personal. I find that quite clammy and chill. I am ready to be slapped about and silenced. There is Land Development. There is Ownership and Recreation and Wellness and Yellow Lines along the Path. I have no right to speak.

Appropriate reading is also completely wrong reading.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Collected Short Stories of Jean Rhys is a large supple paperback of about forty stories, with forty narrators who segue into each other but for their names, which shift about the territory of England, Europe and the Caribbean. Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, out of which she chose Gwen Williams; she became Miss Gray when she was a Gaiety girl; Ford Madox Ford chose the name Jean Rhys. Finding a narrator in her stories is a strange sport; a page or two in and, oh, so this is the centre of the maelstrom, this restless, fraught Inez, or Francine, or Lotus, or Petronella. I imagine Jean Rhys choosing the names almost with impatience, for occasional use when the narrator is addressed by someone at enough distance to call her by her name. Now and then she gives in to the first person: Yes, this is me talking to you, too weary, too far gone to need a name; or too astounded.
Suddenly I realised I was happy.
There was a nightlight burning. He opened his eyes and looked straight into mine. His eyes were set slantwise, too, and I imagined they looked sad.
He was tied up in the French way like a Red Indian papoose, only his head out of the bundle. I shall dress him differently when we get home.
Little thing! I must kiss him.
Perhaps that is why he looks sad — because his mother has never kissed him.
Here at the pit of the year Jean Rhys stories are the thing. Especially when you've read half the book in shortish bursts in the middle of the night and then bring it out into the damp solstice light of afternoon. Her creatures lurch around their misfortunes with disarming freedom.
Nobody's going to comfort you, she told herself, you ought to know better. Pull yourself together. There was a time when you weren't afraid. Was there? When? When was that time? Of course there was. Go on. Pull yourself together, pull yourself to pieces. There was a time. There was a time. Besides I'll sleep soon. There's always sleeping, and it'll be fine tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Certain novels, often by women, of the mid-twentieth century, hang like tapestries. You can choose where to rest your eye.  In Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness I rested with housekeeper Mrs Lodge, who yearned for marshlands.
Her home, when she was a child, had been near an estuary, remote, with wonderful wide skies, a beautiful light. Terns used to gather on a sandbank a the edge of the water, and looked as if they were dancing with frail, coral-red legs.
And with another housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley, with her bountiful gentleman friends and her goodwill.
'If you're looking for a nice, pulling book,' Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.
'No, no,' he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves, 'I never read.'
The main action, the comfy middle classes and their boredoms, their weary subtlety, veiled despair, I read through with some impatience on a cold, wet, blustery December afternoon.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani, Within the Walls, on wartime Jewish Ferrara, and, weary, complexed, found myself unable to follow all those names of streets and squares, along city walls where sometimes the country leaked in. Ferrara is an island in my mind, hardly close to anything, not even Bologna which is geographically not far down the road, or Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. My auntie Fay sent us a postcard from Rimini in the 1950s. That's as close as I can get. Why am I reading about Ferrara? Why not Ballincollig? Ferrara had Jews. Why not Cork? Cork had Jewtown. Which sounds blunt and jeering. Ghetto sounds fine in Italian. David Marcus grew up in Jewtown, and he is one of one or two Jews in Ireland who noticed I am Jewish too.

When I examine my take on the politics and the idea of the tribe, I think the first was the truest. My adolescent uncertainty as to who was fighting whom and why, persists. Atrocity, betrayal, and fear, do not alter. Tribes do not alter. None of this do I understand. Fascists and Communists. These are boiling words. Berets and beards. Rallies and manifestoes.

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani and wander about like the half-dead in wartime Ferrara, along the Corso, across the Piazza, wearing the mantle of a confusion not entirely mine.

Friday, 1 December 2017

I read Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter once, and then, pleased with its spare, close focus, and haunted by an idea of home, I started again almost immediately. A few pages into the second reading I found a couple of sentences that brought a strange mix of comfort—the detail, the bottomless familiar—and disquiet that this novel, like all Eudora Welty's writing, arises out of a rootedness of which I have no notion. Laurel, and her father, and his new young wife, and the doctor, are in a hospital in New Orleans, which is out of town for all of them.
Laurel looked for a moment into the experienced face, so guileless. The Mississippi country that lay behind him was all in it.
The Mississippi country that lay behind his face also lay behind Eudora Welty. The country that lies behind my face, experienced but not guileless, behind my words, is a murky, jangling, evasive, uncomfortable, mostly northern European terrain, focused for the past forty years on a patch of ground in County Cork, way over west from anything that would pass for a place of origin, a patch that now holds all my underpopulated culture, though full of tree-planting and gardening.

Eudora Welty was a gardener too. Species names, as well as familiars, like the rose known as Miss Becky's Climber, confirm her sense of belonging.

Some forty pages in, Laurel's father dies, and the doctor treating him, who's from 'up home' too, says to Laurel, ' there's nobody from home with you. Would you care to put up with us for the rest of the night?' When, after her father's death, she accompanies his body 'up home', the friends who gather around her are the six bridesmaids, as she still calls them, years after her marriage, years into her widowhood, and a cast of local characters who all knew her and her family's history. She has even remembered to bring clothes appropriate to a little garden work among the irises. The only stranger is her father's second wife, the selfish young Texan, Wanda Fay, and a chimney swift that flies through the house from room to room.

We readers are all stabbed by different words, different expressions, with pleasure, with pain, with longing or with regret. We read to remember home or to realise that we don't know what or where it is.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

On the train up to Dublin and back I read the rest of The Country Child, which found its time and place on the crowded train coming back amid debates about reserved seats not showing on the display and who if anyone would be turfing out OAPs who had sat down in all innocence—the peace, the detail, the relish of rural life in Derbyshire in the early twentieth century, the language of it, the detail, are the balm you need, they need, these travellers, from Donegal towards their demented mother in Cork, their other mother or wife in Macroom after a week engineering in Blanchardstown, the match tomorrow over in Tralee and the need for team bonding on the train in adjacent seats, the contract entered into with Iarnrod Eireann as the coach, no slouch he, said.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

I rarely read a book I want to get done with. I rarely give up. I gave up on Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth a few months ago, I am glad she wrote it, but I couldn't absorb the detail. Information is emotional. I can only take so much.

These days I am giving up on The Chinese Room, a novel by Vivian Connell, 1943, Penguin number 809. Vivian Connell was born in Cork, his novel was made into a film in 1968. From page one I couldn't find the way, and, after multiple late-night and bath sessions I can only fast forward to the last pages where various lustful imaginings in opium clouds not far from London clubs find their resolution. The novel's best feature is that people write letters to themselves.

Rather than read the rest of the book I think I'll go off and write myself a series of letters.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Inside all day, half unwell half retreating. November, yes, and three weeks after the hurricane, the sequence of events churned about, as if the room you live in had dropped down with crashes and groans into someone else's bedlam and you're staring at your stuff as magma, breaking off and almost glowing, from their floorboards, then going back to an Elias Canetti essay called Dialogue with the Cruel Partner.
The sentence is always something different from the man writing it. It stands before him as something alien, a sudden solid wall which cannot be leaped over.
Then, as the day wanes, add logs to the fire and move on to Fence Magazine where sentences, lines, half-lines and spaces arise and puncture, stop short and relaunch in ways Elias Canetti could not conceive, as he could hardly conceive a writer who was a woman, unless many centuries earlier, like Sei Shonagon. Elias Canetti was Bulgarian Sephardic German English, but none of these got so far as to rupture his language.

The Fence contributors are ruptured throughout, they are perilous in this world. At the back of the magazine they tell us what they're reading. Many writers I haven't heard of, which is peaceful. There's a spread of publishing behind this writing, an irruption, a flood plain, an inland sea. Some contributors are very specific: there are books for the morning, for the evening, books carried around and books dipped into. It is a condition devoutly to be wished.

Friday, 3 November 2017

This week I bought a Peacock Edition from 1963 of Alison Uttley's The Country Child. The writer and her book are one in my memory, in the same cloth bag as Henry Williamson and his Tarka the Otter, and Salar the Salmon. I was a country child too, a generation later than Alison Uttley. As she read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, I read Alison Uttley, Henry Williamson, and Mary Webb's Gone to Earth and Precious Bane. My rural life was coloured by theirs. They deepened the view, lived in the thickets, trod the corn, knew the lairs, named the animals and the birds and lengthened my childhood.

Alison Uttley's country child is nine. Was that the age of romance in literary children then? The age when you might want to hide in a glade or join the circus? The age, too, that her country child started school. Helping on the farm, lying out on the fields on sunny days, counting stars at night, reading two or three books over and over, is school enough till then and possibly for ever.

Talk about the last child in the wood.

Now Alison Uttley feels like a stilted read. I shouldn't have read her Wikipedia entry, which was enough to stilt the most resilient writer. She was a controlling woman, not at all charming, it seems, one of a covey of children's writers that included Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter. I don't think Enid Blyton was charming either. Alison Uttley was only the second female graduate from Manchester university. That's what going to school was for.

I try to read her as I would have when I was nine. Talk about walking with ghosts. The walk, as I think of it now, begins at the end of Downs Road where our hairdresser, the daughter of Henry Williamson, lived. That was already ghostly and thrilling, the daughter of a writer whose books I had read. She, the hairdresser, paid it no heed. I was already miles away along the river bank.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

I feel like reading Kafka's story The Great Wall of China for its irremediable joy and remove. Why are we building this wall? Does anyone know? There is, they say, a director far away. Instead I am reading Rosamond Lehmann's The Swan in the Evening, english literary memoir circa 1960, cushioning myself in an era just before mine, the one to which my parents aspired. I am always one step ahead or behind.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter would not come amiss right now. I like to imagine Madame en carosse through France in the seventeenth century, always a long way from her daughter. My copy, leather-bound and marbled, second in the series "L'âme de la femme" published in 1927, came to me from a woman who invited me to tea when I was newly arrived in Paris in 1968; she lived in the rue de Vaugirard, the longest road in Paris, for many years. Along with the letters of Madame de Sévigné, I inherited ten years later three white linen cushion covers. I don't often read french any more, but when I do there's a clarity like late Mozart, with a dose of Proust, who adored Madame de Sévigné, and the length of the rue de Vaugirard, as I walked toward tea. Open Madame de Sévigné anywhere and there's her daughter.
A Vichy, dimanche 24 mai 1676 
Je suis ravie, en vérité, quand je reçois de vos lettres, ma chère enfant: elles sont si aimables, que je ne puis me résoudre à jouir toute seule du plaisir de les lire
Rosamond Lehmann had a daughter who died of polio in Java aged 24. After that she everything she wrote was a form of resurrection. I can go along with that in the middle of the night, for a night or two, but not in the afternoon.
Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak: "I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God we would be as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Saturday, 21 October 2017


De luxe hurricane blog post

Puerto Banus is not for poets. That's why I read poetry here. John Berryman. Anne Carson. As if being alone were not enough I'm sitting on the beach reading these utterly separating turns of phrase; the Thai masseuse passes offering neck and shoulders or full back, unconvinced; the African bag sellers defer to my solitude. A beached jellyfish the size of a transparent sombrero quivers slightly. A large catamaran opens the near horizon. We are all guarded by Señor Banus on his pillar like Napoleon. Bathers, readers, lovers, investors and lapdogs. Small flightless shrieks from gulls at water's edge as the midday tideless rises over countless pebbles. In the pleasure harbour tall masts quiver; a Bentley nudges the gangplank of a giant motor yacht; downwind of a famous buffet lunch—think Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot—where smart lunchers range along, choosing like the damned from vastitudes of salads, meats, desserts and cocktails by design. Later you can do a wellness spa w/personalized detox-style cuisine, Welcome Juice as well as detailed Body Composition Status & Progress Report.
Figurez-vous, a time swarms when the word
'happy' sheds its whole meaning
Three children under twelve spend twenty minutes under the beach shower, de-sanding; I want to tell them clean water is precious and they do not need to be this anxious about sand but instead I glare as they head off along the beach towards, doubtless, a hot shower back at the de luxe apartment. Water can be very drying, I learn from the wellness persons as they pass.
When worst got things, how was you? Steady on?
I move from John Berryman/gentle friendly Henry Pussy-cat to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red: careful strides of language and fancy footwork to please the most demanding holiday mind. So I am leaping and retracting all over Anne Carson's pages, keeping safe on a Spanish beach, looking after my language, making a cocoon for myself with some difficult poets and a towel beside the tideless sea, while, two thousand miles northnorthwest, Storm Ophelia is having her way with the home patch.
Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling.
 That night, despite a 600 thread count on sheets and Hungarian goose down in the pillows, I'm at home on the hill in Ireland. I want to see the angles at which the torn trees fall. I have to place every ripped limb, every stick and leaf as if blown way across the hot Atlantic to land in a lush, strangulating dip, in our patch. A hurricane is most particularly where you are, even if you're not there. Your oak your ash your beech your willow your will.  Señor Banus does not speak back. Storm Ophelia is barely a rustle in our tourist pelt. This is not a wellness issue.

Friday, 13 October 2017

A few drop-in reads of Compulsion by Meyer Levin, a paragraph here and there, and eventually I read the whole thing. The frightful fifties Corgi book cover has lost its power and I relish the psychiatry 101 aspect of the trial that forms the second half of the book, I take on the jewishness and the readings of Nietzsche, the transcendence and the isolation.  The story inspired plays and films from Hitchcock to Michael Haneke. Why did two wealthy young men randomly choose and murder a boy of their acquaintance, their social circle? How often do we get around to asking why? When did a defence lawyer's summation last for twelve hours and get played, in the 1957 film version, by Orson Welles?

Known as alienists then, commissioned to investigate the penumbra of these two wealthy young men, the psychiatrists in the trial are fresh from encounters—never mind readings—of Jung and Freud. The narrator's excitement at the procedure of word association tests, feelings about mothers and fathers, childhood behaviours, fantasies, relationships with teddy bears, etc, is compulsive too, fascinated. The perfect crime engenders its own style, its own fantasies, emotional, intellectual and forensic, its own truth and its own derangement.
I wonder whether in all courtroom history the speaking effort of one man was ever awaited as was the speech of Jonathan Wilk for the defence of Steiner and Straus. Perhaps there was in this anticipation the sense that all the probings, all the expert testimony, had still fallen short of an explanation, and that only the ultimate effort of a great man could lift the meaning before us.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

As the season turns so do the reading tables: I read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, dip into Compulsion by Meyer Levin, read an article about Erich Auerbach, who wrote Mimesis in Istanbul, in exile during the war, with very few books around him; and they read me, they take a print, mark out a zone of my current self as they pass through.

The first time I read Pessoa I stopped after 75 pages. This time I read more, in odd jerky moments, when the day can take a taste of the Pessoa flavour, but not for too long. For someone who doesn't want to be there he insists mightily. The misery of solipsism. The need for aphorism. For words to tie it up sharpish. Open the book and  you'll find one.
Why shouldn't the truth turn out to be something utterly different from anything we imagine, with no gods or men or reasons why?
How would I have liked this at 14? Which is when I first read Compulsion. I hated the cover, the jagged title print, blocky with sensation, and the two young men as if fried alive, in a pre-Eraserhead state of dumb shock and ghastly fear. Crime of the century meant something in the middle of that century.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Orlando led me, by who knows what mycelium, to the first novel I wrote, circa 1978: on foot the velvet odyssey. The only copy I could find was a carbon copy sent to a friend who politely returned it. The blurred print is appropriate to the remoteness of the writer—me—a few years out of England with an English topography and an English idiom, her hesitations and her festivities, a lively step, several removes and a lot of inward turns. This is a distinct reading experience, a novel suspension of disbelief: is/was this one of my beings, aka me, who willed her words thus? If not, who?

I'm a reader amazed. This was how I ran on then. Oh, and I ran. Lush but obscure. Mouvementé. Accidenté. Apologetic. Too many adverbs. A genuine questing and wresting. Volume on the slow increase. Using all my language.  All my characters. Une doctrine en même temps qu'une contrée. A kinetic experience, like driving in a desert.

A carbon copy on thin bank paper, so, in order to read it, you have to detach a page into free air so that the next doesn't show through. Some letters didn't print, not enough pressure on the keys; and you have to travel the xxxx where you changed your mind.

How would this read if it were in focus?

The narrative is already soft: drift and perversity in England in the mid-20th century. A lot of sensing and longing for sleep and the sea, for a spectacle in which you were, briefly, a performer.

A carbon copy on bank paper could be the ideal state.

Friday, 22 September 2017

When I read Virginia Woolf I don't know why I read anyone else; even in the coarse wrap of Ryanair, en route for Italy/Switzerland, this is home. A man in the seat in front of me is doing a tarot reading on a mobile device. Does tarot read accurately at 33,000 feet?

I read Orlando for the week I was away, unwilling to read too much because I wanted it to last, I wanted to have this to come back to while taking a break from the book fair, I needed to feel safe before falling asleep. I wanted to occupy the sentences and their aftermath, to know there would be more to read next day, that frozen London in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First would give way to Anatolian gipsies, eighteenth century English wits and poets, and even marriage, in the dampened nineteenth century, to Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine.

It was going to end in the present time, and this reader wouldn't reach hers until she got home. For now, in Lecco, Lugano, Gandria, Castello and the lower eastern edge of Lake Como, I needed Orlando to keep moving, as I needed his/her idle moments, when his/her chief resource, like mine, was looking out of the window, when snails and starlings are enough for narrative, when all you should want is to lie at peace with only the sky above, when you can arrive at ecstasy watching a toy boat on the Serpentine.

Shades of Rimbaud. Shades of Proust. All my readerly antennae are met.
So it was, and Orlando would sit by himself, reading, a naked man.
And again:
The pith of his phrases was that while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is at peace. And so he sank into a quiet mood, under the oak tree, the hardness of whose roots, exposed above the ground, seemed to him rather comfortable than otherwise.
And again.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

— What are you reading? she asked.

— Karl Čapek's stories at night, I said. Early evening I have been reading my mother's first book, given to her when she was seven. A fairy tale by Charles Nodier. And all that magic and good fortune, those transformations of creature and size, made me think of re-reading Orlando. Which I have now started, at various times of day, with delight. Now and then I read a few lines of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. I like a good weave of reading. Virginia Woolf reviews her England through the androgynous Orlando, whom I can't help confusing with Tilda Swinton, who played Orlando in Sally Potter's film; Fernando Pessoa follows the journey in his head; Karl Čapek works around the streets of Prague, exploring justice.

— I gave up reading for sociability, she said, rueful but pleased. There we were talking, after all;  strangers, engrossed. What was the book your mother read when she was seven?

— The Luck of the Bean Rows. A foundling among the bean rows so merry and worthy that his beans flourish and his land expands without taking any from the neighbours. Eventually he goes out into the world and meets a princess in a chick pea coach who gives him three magic peas to plant. Orlando exists thanks to Virginia Woolf; he/she walks through one woman's knowledge of England's history and literature. Orlando transforms not by magic, but in a long walk across the centuries through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. I dreamed once that I met Virginia Woolf and talked to her about my writing and what would or wouldn't happen. It will be all right, she said. I was reassured.

— Who is Fernando Pessoa? Why is he disquieted?

— He is a diarist. Portuguese. Anyone would be disquieted if they daily followed the journey in their head. Oh. I do too. I'm not always disquieted though; sometimes I'm exhilarated. Must be all that planting I do.

— Legacy of Luck of the Bean Rows.
— Yes. And Virginia Woolf.
— Karl Čapek popularised the word robot, didn't he.
— No robots in his stories; only a pursuit of justice such as would be beyond a robot, then or now.
— Robot means a slave, a drudge.
— I'm glad he was pursuing justice.
— For robots?

Monday, 4 September 2017

A friend offered to lend me a book and I planted it under a willow tree beside a river.

Perhaps this charming dream arose out of reading yesterday my mother's first book, The Luck of the Bean-Rows, in which Princess Pea Blossom, who travels in a chick pea coach, gives Luck three peas to plant whenever he needs rescue or relocation, which he does, three times, before marrying Pea Blossom (or discovering he has been married to her six years already, since he was twelve).

The Luck of the Bean-Rows, (translated anonymously from Trésor des fèves, a fairy tale by Charles Nodier, with illustrations by Claud Lovat Fraser) was given to my mother on her 7th birthday:
To dear Dinah Feldstein with love From Miss M. Rojansky London, 26/6/24
My mother wrapped the book in brown sugar paper and wrote in her fresh young printing on the page opposite ONCE UPON A TIME:
This book belongs to Dinah Feldstein and anybody is quite welcome to read it
Miss M. Rojansky might have been a neighbour. My mother was an engaging little girl. A pleaser. She'd smile, she could be coy. She watched and she learned. She liked to say things as they were;  and, once she knew the parameters, she was generous. The 'quite' is entirely Dinah. Many years later she would explain to europeans at the european space agency the various registers of the word 'quite'. She is the only person I know who pronounced the f in twelfth.

So what did this, maybe the first book she owned, contribute to my mother's formation, as the french like to say, and to mine? I have the book on my shelves for many years. I don't think I read it till now. A fairy tale is the original Heraclitean river: you do not step into the same tale twice. You do not meet the same mother twice. My mother didn't give the book to me but she said I could take it. Maybe she'd want it back some day, but probably not.

Here is a future mother I never met: the 7 year-old making her way through the tale of the bean row foundling, his charm, his luck, his bonny success. He traverses the world, he is kind, he gives away his beans, he will be rewarded. In time of war his second planted pea brings him a refuge with a library.
The finest works in literature, the most useful in science had been gathered together for the entertainment and instruction of a long life—among them the Adventures of ingenious Don Quixote; fairy tales of evey kind, with beautiful engravings; a collection of curious and musing travels and voyages (those of Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe so far the most authentic); capital almanacks, full of diverting anecdotes and infallible information as to the phases of the moon and the best times for sowing and planting; numberless treatises, very simply and clearly written, on agriculture, gardening, angling, netting game and the art of taming nightingales—in short, all one can wish for when one has learned to value books and the spirit of their authors. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Reading a live manuscript is so much more flexible, open to the four winds, than reading a publication, hardback, with author photo. Live, you are let in by unusual permission, and can disport yourself among these not-yet-pages from The Domestic Godless: Brandes, O'Shea and Murphy with an entourage of the admired, the tolerated, the invented and the cheerfully despised.

Culinary dada meets local assurance and universal defiance. They may be godless but they're not turfless; they roam around their terroir, polluted, no bother, helping out the farmers, processing invaders, taking the tests and undermining them at the same time, converting their spoils into barely imaginable feasts.

This is way beyond cooking, or deep inside it. Mockery and jaggery hold hands. There's plenty of science, and latin, a séance in a hurricane, a burning caravan, some non-Irish yearning and nostalgia, a jag or two of revulsion, some dispiriting memories.

At the outer edge of your food awareness, the inner edge of your fears, your credulity, Domestic Godless lead you further into the kitchen than you've been in a while. Welcome, I say.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Lately I have been reading without reading. What's that in Finnish? The Finnish abessive case is for things that aren't there, for doing things without doing them. In generous, egalitarian, Scandinavian manner, reading without reading focusses on the book being without a reader despite the appearance of one, rather than on the reader's helpless inattention. Either way, I have been reading without reading in this uncertain August weather. I have chosen books and held them up and turned a few pages. I have noticed sentences and then lost them, in Henry Green and Karel Čapek, in The New Yorker and Hortus. Menus and tattoos. Quickies in the The Guardian Weekly. I have scooped remarks from long ago diaries and then dropped the book on the floor, unable to take a word more. Those metaphors; their reach ever more diaphanous.

Polichinelle cache à la foule curieuse le fil conducteur de son bras.

I have not, at the moment, the generosity that reading needs. Or the needs that reading generates. Or the generous reads I need. Or the reads I dreamed. The dreams generated. I lose my red jumper out of a car. My teeth fall out in quantity yet in my mouth there are none missing.

Monday, 14 August 2017


Day One
On a pale grey warm day at the reservoir, close to the end of Eliz. Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, her reading of her past the template now, extensive on the light ripple of the water, for mine.

Undifferentiated remembering is easier looking over water. Certain muscles relax, others tense.

Eliz. Hardwick is unified by New York, with a little Boston and Maine and an undertow of the South. I am not, in like manner, unified by Maldon Brighton Paris or Cork. Or if I am, I cannot see it. I am unified by wherever I am now.


Day Two
I'd like to be back in Eliz. Hardwick, watching the light change on the pond, the whirligig beetles idle in the hush. Instead I'm in last night's dream in which my sister, who died last week, came over here on a stretcher, from which she got up now and then, leapt, in fact. So she was alive. Outside I saw a van with its back doors open and got in and stayed in till the van reached the next town and everything had fallen away, including all names.

Undifferentiated sorrow is the most noble I can imagine. And a slow, flat spin, like the whirligig beetles.

A woman writer doesn't need a plot, sensibility is structure.


Day Three
So Elizabeth Hardwick—now The New York Stories—is guardian of sorrows and inadequacies this August. She too, in her youth, struggled with judgement and keeping her distance. In an early story, 'Yes and No', she is discomfited to find her family normal, she who had gone off wanting to be a New York Jew. I who do not find my family normal, went off (to Paris, to Cork) already a jew with the smallest j, an english french irish jew of no conviction other than the words to say it.

I read Sleepless Nights during the day, and now The New York Stories by night, one or two at a time. They are arranged chronologically. I move through her youth with the same impatience as I move through my own when I re-read my diary.


Day Four
In a story called 'The Classless Society', a woman called Dodo is wistful.
She was incorrigibly reminiscent. The disposition came upon her with the regularity of a stutter.
Me too. And usually welcome. Whereas now I no more want to reminisce than a woodlouse does. I want to get under a log and keep very warm, dry and stumm.


Friday, 4 August 2017

It takes a chapter or two of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave for this reader to enter his angry, depressive, diary mode, to take on board his nostalgia, his obesity, his mother and his idealism. He uses the persona of Palinurus, helmsman to Aeneas, who falls overboard and dies, in order to pursue his own introspection. Connolly's reading list has been mine, too; I have a sizeable, half-submerged, Franco-European peninsula in my head. World War Two prevented him going to France. He wanted to proclaim his faith in the unity and continuity of Western culture. And now, when it's all robotics and economics and Brexit, how can I not lap up the back thoughts of Cyril Connolly, another diarist?
Working on the manuscript for another year, Palinurus began to see that there was a pattern to be brought out; in the diaries an art-form slumbered,—an initiation, a descent into hell, a purification and cure.
Palinurus, Cyril Connolly, and me.
While we re-live the horrors of the Dark Ages, of absolute States and ideological wars, the old platitudes of liberalism loom up in all their glory, familiar streets as we reel home furious in the dawn.
Among his recollections of France, one rang startlingly clear. In February 1929, Connolly went to the premiere of Un Chien Andalou at Studio 28 on the rue Tholozé, in Paris. There was a surrealist book stall in the foyer and a gramophone played Ombres Blanches.
The picture was received with shouts and boos and when a pale young man tried to make a speech, hats and sticks were flung at the screen. In one corner a woman was chanting 'Salopes, salopes, salopes!' and soon the audience began to join in. With the impression of having witnessed some infinitely ancient horror, Saturn swallowing his sons, we made our way out into the cold of February 1929, that unique and dazzling cold.
At the end of May 1968, I went to Studio 28, my neighbie art cinema to see Polanski's Dance of the Vampires. I lived on rue Durantin, round the corner, I was recovering from foot and mouth disease, Paris was at a standstill but I was awash and my diary with me, thanks to the Justabovit pills the doctor had given me: Paris on strike was running with cherries.
Slowly, from doubtful beginnings, the day turned into a holiday, so it was all dandy and shining to eat cherries and go to the little purple cinema down the road to see Polanski's Le Bal des Vampires the audience at one with catcalls and laughter, the boy in front of me chewing a cigar, then three of them as we came out, talking quite warm and young as if we were all staying on the same holiday island. I felt I should be suntanned, there should be grains of sand between my toes. On the corner of rue Tholozé and rue Durantin, some kids were singing loud and warm in an unknown language. How enormous, you can't help thinking, how deliriously enormous it all must be..
Justabovit, as I now learn, was an anabolic steroid; just what you need for the revolution.

What Cyril Connolly needed for World War Two:
May 1st: Today we begin a new pincer movement against Angst, Melancholia and Memory's ever-festering wound: a sleeping-pill to pass the night and a Benzedrine to get through the day. The sleeping-pill produces a thick sleep, rich in dreams that are not so much dreams as tangible experiences, the Benzedrine a kind of gluttonous mental anger through which the sadness persists —O how sad,— but very much farther off. Whether they can ever combine in the mind to produce a new energy remains to be proven. 
Sadness and War. The Sadness of War. The War of Sadness. Sadness during and after War. Read your way out of and into everything, over these years, over a lifetime, of darkness.
And what illness performs for the individual, war accomplishes for the mass, until total war succeeds in plunging the two thousand million inhabitants of the globe into a common nightmare. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Maggie Nelson on the colour blue (Bluets), Cyril Connolly as Palinurus (The Unquiet Grave), and recently Brian Dillon's Essayism, summer reading of the contemplative kind, not seeking to enlace with narrative but to convey a sense of questing wherever it may lead, with varying tones of scholarship and unhappiness. Good for daytime or nighttime, beach or bed. Reading that liberates by stating and leaving the reader to ponder, to ruminate.

Like Maggie Nelson on the Tuareg, or blue tribe of North Africa, who wear blue robes and are imbued with blue. Their name means 'abandoned by God' but the Tuareg do not call themselves Tuareg, they call themselves Imohag, which means 'free men'. I need to pause around this, and to throw private scorn on Volkswagen, for example, who call one of their models Tuareg, which we, in our late-onset diggers-pokery contort into Toe-rag. I always notice what names car manufacturers give their new models, as, in childhood, at breakfast, I would obsessively read the cereal packet, and any other printed words, safe residua, I walked past or sat beside during the day.
Perhaps writing is not really pharmakon, but more of a mordant—a means of binding colour to its object—or of feeding it into it, like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin. But "mordant" too has a double edge: it derives from mordēre, to bite—so it is not just a fixative or preserver, but also an acid, a corrosive.
I like the detail, it revives the teacher in me, each turn of the mind a body blow.

Maggie Nelson wonders if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue could alter you irrevocably, if the memory, once sited in the brain, remains constant or is replaced at each remembering by a new trace. My mother had a number of blue dresses, all of which she made herself. I have one of them in my wardrobe, though I can't wear it, the shoulders are too narrow and quite possibly the fit of another kind too uncomfortable. The one I have is aquamarine silk, there is another I remember which was deep blue velvet, with a pattern of various squares in a darker blue or black. I was astonished by the depth of that blue, and how it confirmed the special occasion for which she had made it. I think, now Maggie Nelson has encouraged me to do so, that each time I remember the blue velvet dress it forms a new trace in my brain.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Walks With Robert Walser by Carl Seelig is an uncanny read, a private view you hadn't imagined, of a writer whose essence is modesty, withdrawal, and, of course, walking. Yet here is Carl Seelig, a  younger friend, later literary executor, who walked with him about twice a year for twenty years, and, tactfully, respectfully, with an eye to the future, recorded the day: where they went, what they ate and drank, what Robert, as he now is, said, what he wore, how he looked. None of this did we think we'd ever know.

At first, while we get used to the idea of reading mediated Walser, it resembles the back of the back of the tapestry, ghostly but blunt. Here is Walserland with place names, train rides and menus. Here is Robert without overcoat or umbrella, in the rain. Here he is wanting to do his tasks in the asylum, to be enfolded in that structure, not wanting to be seen to shirk, not wanting privilege, ready every day to serve his own madness, if that's what it was. All his oeuvre underlies these walks. We feel we're reading his books all over again without having one of them in front of us.

We Walser readers, Walser walkers, modest seekers.
We settle down at the Bären for veal with mushroom sauce, Rösti, beans and caramel crème. Nearby a group of holidaymakers gently sings "In Aargäu warr two loverss"; a few village children pass by on the street with accordions. The littlest one wears a long veil of St. Gallen lace on her back like bride. We sit for nearly two hours.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

There can be, now and then, a perfect, almost painful, fit of book to reader, something too close to the bone, intently inhabited as much as read. Brian Dillon's Essayism, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is one such. The essay, he says, in one of many moments when he wrestles with what draws him, is 'something so artful it can be taken for disarray', 'at once the wound and a piercing act of precision', a 'combination of exactitude and evasion', 'her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all'. I read with a pencil to hand, wanting to to be able find certain passages again, to abandon myself to the relief of finding kin.

I was talking to my neighbour, M, recently, about tribes and whether or not I had one. Your tribe is Jewish people, she said, and I couldn't agree. My tribe is writers I have read and felt at home with. As  Brian Dillon makes his way through and around writers like Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, William Gass, Thomas Browne, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, as well as his own writing, I read with such a surfeit of an ancient, ardent, secret life that I have to stop often and look away, which is what you do with tribes, isn't it?

Does this make reading into an indulgence of a cerebral/emotional kind. You do not have to apologise (I tell myself). Well, for years I did. I learned to circumambulate, to sense the core of reading and writing, but not to be there, not to know what it was nor how to talk about it, as if talking destroyed it, the way certain physical phenomena disappear or irrevocably change under scrutiny. In my twenties I was addicted to a secrecy and exclusivity of reading that could hardly be borne. I never wrote, believing I did, as Marguerite Duras said. Words identified the absent middle of my life and one person, a teacher, who lived there too, who mirrored me in a way I had not experienced before. Breathless, I struggled to connect the depth of language with human love. It floored me, in fact. My teacher was not the same person as I was. He had an état civil. A what?

Brian Dillon in and among his essayism struggles with the connection between what he is drawn to in certain writers, and his beleaguered life.
What exactly do I mean, even, by 'style'? Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush. On what? The very idea. Form and texture rescued from chaos, the precision and extravagance of it, the daring, in the end the distance, such as I think I could never attain. As much in a person, in a body, as in prose: those people who can keep it together. 'I like your style' means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness. I'm a fan, too much a fan, of your rising above. What is it I want from you? Not quite comforting. Consolation. Is it consolation? A model of how to survive? The worst, most painful truth spoken as eloquently — or is it as strangely — as possible.
Yes, I reply, yes, yes.