JUDY KRAVIS

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Monday, 22 February 2021

The Fortunes of the Farrells

 The Fortunes of the Farrells by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey has been on my shelves since I was about fourteen. I did the bookstall at CND jumble sales around then. The woman who brought in The Fortunes of the Farrells said that she'd loved it when she was my age. She gave me the book, a handsome, illustrated edition published by The Religious Tract Society in 1907. Mrs George de Horne Vaizey's original name was Jessie Bell. She grew up in Liverpool. Ruth and Mollie Farrell are put through trials, like Tamino in The Magic Flute, not by the Queen of the Night, but by rich Uncle Bernard, who's fading away at The Court somewhere outside London, and has no heir. The Farrell sisters, along with two nephews from the other side of the family, Jack Melland and Victor Druce, are invited for three months so Uncle Bernard can observe them and decide who should be his heir. He would prefer a male heir, he said. But Jessie Bell, Mrs George de Horne Vaizey, wants justice for her girls. Especially her wild impulsive Mollie. She satisfies the needs of her story and her conscience, her sense of justice between two covers. Jack and Mollie. Ruth and the doctor back at home, who has already proposed. An Oirish female sense of justice and triumph. Victor and Lady Margot Blount, that's a story as yet untold.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Le Grand Meaulnes

I haven't read any french for a long time. And since we're not travelling. Let's travel. Not just to the Sologne in the département of Cher, but to the french language and who I was when I first read Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier. I was 20, and so prepared, somehow, for the long imagining and distress, the yearning and restlessness of la France Profonde at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Those literate past tenses striking out for paradise. Il put imaginer longuement.

I have three copies. A  Livre de Poche was the first, and possibly the only one I read. A hardback Harraps with long introduction and notes, from 1968, I read for the first time this week. My copy belonged to Patricia Carroll, student at a private school in Lewes run by Rosemary Rose, where I taught for a term or two. I don't know how I came by her copy. It smells of ether. 

On page 18 Patricia has written in biro: search for the ideal. We talked about that, ideals and wandering to fulfil them, if ever. She came from Wicklow. She talked about borrowing my house with her boyfriend one weekend. I remember standing outside the school and pointing out the direction of my house, about five miles away.

The third copy is a trade paperback from 1967 with wraparound cover, a still from the film showing an empty heathland, the end of the world on a sunny day. La Fête Étrange, Le Domaine Mystérieux. Begin here. I met someone in Paris who had worked on the film and gave me the book. There was going to be a trip to the Sologne, the next day, or the one after that. The way my journalist friends were going to Berlin the next day, from the Gare de Lyon; or they'd drive, start early. 

I didn't ever go to the Sologne; or to Berlin. I can't find that edition of the book. 

The first half of Le Grand Meaulnes has stayed in my head for more than half my life.  A layer called Epineul-le-Fleuriel. Meaulne-les-Alliers. Imagine growing up in Epineul-le-Fleuriel. Like living in a Mozart slow movement. I was hazy about the second half of the book, the moral shifting and plot resolution. I liked the Epilogue. Meaulnes on the road again, his young daughter on his shoulder.

Now, many years later, I read the french, the vocabulary and the turn of the phrase. I enjoy looking up rural french words I've forgotten, like the flora/fauna around a fête champêtre at the end of the nineteenth century, on the banks of the river, the form from which a hare springs. 

C'est là que passaient nos matinées; et aussi dans la cour où Florentin faisait pousser des dahlias et élevait des pintades; où l'on torréfiait le café, assis sur des boîtes à savon; où nous déballions des caisses remplies d'objets divers précieusement enveloppés et dont nous ne savions pas le nom ...

Reading Alain-Fournier is a bit like watching the young Steve McQueen as Nevada Smith in some splendid landscape in the American West. Never mind the story, take me to the river. From the beginning again. Le Domaine Mystérieux is found, and lost, and found and lost. At the end of the book le Grand Meaulnes is on the road again. His friend François, our narrator, watches him go,

Je m'étais légèrement reculé pour mieux les voir. Un peu déçu et pourtant émerveillé, je comprenait que la petite fille avait enfin trouvé le compagnon qu'elle attendait obscurément. Le seule joie que m'eût laissée le grand Meaulnes, je sentais bien qu'il était revenu pour me la prendre. Et déjà je l'imaginais, la nuit, enveloppant sa fille dans un manteau, et partant avec elle pour de nouvelles aventures.

Friday, 12 February 2021

WHY PRAY?


Hi Judy love

It is such a lovely letter you sent me. I’m so glad all your families are OK even if they are thousands of miles away — with gorgeous sunshine. And then of course one of you’re family is in Innishannon. That must be nice for you.

I do agree with you that if people did what they were supposed to do and wear masks & washed their hands it would help so much. We are doing the same thing as you and being what they called “cockooned” — think I’ve spelt that wrong.

As you know we are Jehovah’s Witnesses and we have a lovely

PTO

magasine I think you would like to read — particularly the last page is helpful. I hope you enjoy it.

Please keep in touch and let me know how your family is getting on.

Much love and take

care

Gai


This letter arrived in the post this morning and I read it on and off for the rest of the day, pushing at the boundaries of this new person I now am— according to Gai, whom I have never met, let alone written to — who has distant family in gorgeous sunshine and one in Innishannon, which must be nice for me; even though we are all cockooned it’s good to know there’s another family cockoon just down the road. 


The magazine showed a worried man, hands clasped, and the words: WHY PRAY? 




Tuesday, 9 February 2021

This week, chill February, back in the early/mid twentieth century: I am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton. Penguin Book number 54. My copy, bought in 1976, Second Impression 1937, came with an embedded receipt from Kingston's Ltd. Smart Wear For Men & Boys, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, Upr. O'Connell St, 10, South Great George's Street and 109 Grafton Street DUBLIN. 

I like these extras. Reminds me of Mabel, my french teacher at school, who said she didn't like taking books out of the town library because you might find things in them. Hairs, she said, shuddering.

By the stove on a winter's afternoon, Jonathan Scrivener is just the thing. Dated and ignorable if you like. Repetitive. Such consistent withholding, teasing. Who's telling the truth and how many reassurances do we need? Cubist, recessive, coming at human mysteries from all sides. London in the 1920s. Surfaces and mysteries. The idea of the modern. After every large war there's a new modern. Jonathan Scrivener embodies all that and more.

This could be source material for Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night, a traveller. I haven't ever wanted to re-read Calvino. Jonathan Scrivener has been on my shelves for forty-five years and I haven't re-read him either. 

An expansive graze over 1920s London and a need to be clever, to be ordinary and garrulous and then retreat to a library. An elastic book, to be read in bursts. Characterizations. Elements. This portion or that of London venues, London society.  Through many pages we fail to meet Scrivener through the chat and occasional reflection of a small crowd of people. Claude Houghton's youth laid bare. Let's suppose.

Earliest Penguin Books did not have blurbs or authors' lives or photographs. You enter via the Penguin on the title page, a perky version in the 1930s, then the printing history on the verso and then Part One. You're in. By halfway so far in you feel impatient and would read the last few pages in short order. If Scrivener turns up, he's not going to be Godot.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The Squinancy Tree

South by William Sansom and Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by A.E. Coppard. Vintage Penguins, 870 and 595. William Sansom went to Uppingham School and thence to Bonn to learn German. Later he travelled and lived a little in various parts of Europe including Spain and Hungary. 

If in doubt, go South, young man.

William Sansom is doing the Grand Tour. Putting up at hotels and gazing out from terraces with all his Graeco-Roman education. The leisured traveller with time for style. I don't entirely like him, but I can sense him, compile him in my mind's eye. His slicked-back hair in the manner of Heurtebise in Cocteau's Orphée. Apologetic. Faux-modeste. He pays homage, he describes. 

There lay the fine wide Place Masséna. On one side a garden of palms led to the milk-blue sea. But elsewhere rose a warm geometry of classic, arcaded buildings washed in pinks from pale rose to dark terra-cotta; hundreds of rectangular shutters were picked out in greens, olive to lizardly yellow.

A.E. Coppard was the son of a tailor and a housemaid. Left school at the age of nine to work as errand boy for a Jewish trousers maker in Whitechapel during the period of the Jack-the-ripper murders. He's on a journey.

In the great days that are gone I was walking the Journey upon its easy smiling roads and came one morning of windy spring to the side of a wood. I had just rested to eat my crusts and suck a drink from the pool when a fat woman appeared and sat down before me. I gave her the grace of the morning.

He overwrites nature as a natural must. As faery/ploughman, with a wicked sprint. Take the squinancy tree.  The squinancy tree drops red petals into the princess's bower in  'Princess of Kingdom Gone', princess of a tiny kingdom, she slips from its bower into dark velvet water.

I know squinancywort from the flower book of my childhood. Relative of woodruff. Squinancy tree is new. Googling the squinancy tree brings me to several non-functioning Armenian websites, plus a reference back to A.E. Coppard and the princess of a tiny kingdom.

At the back of my copy of Penguin 595 there is a phone number, Epping 2491, in my father's decided script. Maybe he was ringing about the squinancy tree. 

I went on alone and in the course of the days I fell in with many persons: stupid persons, great persons, jaunty ones. An ass passes me by, its cart burdened with a few dead sprays of larch and a log for the firing.  An old man toils at the side urging the ass onwards. They give me no direction and I wonder whether I am at all like the ass, or the man, or the cart, or the log for the firing. I cannot say.

Monday, 25 January 2021

I scour my bookshelves looking for something that has slipped my attention for years, and T.H. White, Farewell Victoria, a thin Penguin (number 342) held together with two staples since 1943 (a good year for staples), 4p or 4d in thick black marker across the front cover, fits the bill. 

The end of the back cover blurb about the author is enough:

His occupations, he says, are "keeping out of London, wondering why nobody cares about the country labourer, meeting him and other intelligent people".

His main character is Mundy, a groom, later a husband, soon an abandoned husband, then a soldier in the Zulu wars, then a coachman, a modest man who absorbs the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on behalf of the author, on behalf of the reader. The wartime edition suits his modesty, and calls up the reader's quietness and sympathy.

Out in South Africa he reads avidly the newspapers his mother sends by every boat — Natal was 29 days from England by sea.

It was an avid interest to him to exercise this new faculty of the hieroglyph. Ink in certain arrangements conveyed thought and fact from one mind to another. Print was a kind of invisible ink, a mysterious preparation in which the thoughts of one mind were fixed in dumbness and sent forth; to be steeped in the transferring agent of another and there re-vivified, made vocal, turned to thought again.

With the same avidity he observes Zululand. With the same sense of mystery he finds himself in a battle. 

And there they were, an inexorable, a sable host; nearer than he had dreamed. He wondered how they had come to be so near without his noticing. He wondered how many of them there were. He wondered whether it was snowing in England. He discharged his rifle.

Mundy is a quiet mouthpiece for T.H. White's reflections on the sorrow of the mass, the curiosities of war. Both Mundy and T.H. White are moustachioed, Edwardian, they try to keep their whiskers from their beards. 

A historical novel, said C. No, I said. It's not a story set in the past. Or a story at all. The past, the present are their own story, their own fabric. No one is a main character.  Or all of us are. 

War had happened before, and in battles many men had died. The creatures who were now falling on the Somme were in few respects different from those who fell on the triumphant hill at Albuera. Even the great war would be historical, a past imbroglio of the human race. There seemed to be some consolation in that. It would pass, and the race would continue; not very much wiser but possibly a little tamed.


Friday, 15 January 2021

Joubert: Pensées; Bluets: Maggie Nelson; Michael Frayn: Constructions; On Bullshit: Harry G. Frankfurt. This is the top layer of my desk. 

Underneath we have the orpheus quartet, work in progress. The seed list for Seed Savers 21: Touchstone Gold beans, Bath Island Cos, Outredgeous lettuce, Suyo Long cucumber, Fino fennel, Yerevan parsley, Lucullus chard.

George Craig thought Joubert was a good man but that there was somewhere a failure of nerve. I bought the Michael Frayn on George's recommendation. There's a physical resemblance too. In fact George Craig's face was right there at the top of a roster of faces from Colin Davis to Samuel Beckett.

Jean Joubert has an eager profile as he appears on the cover of Pensées: large eyes and a bandage-like cravat right under his chin, in the mode of the late eighteenth century.

         Dieu et le lieu où je ne me souviens pas du reste.

Maggie Nelson reads Joubert and I seek out Michael Frayn, Constructions, from 1974, on the bookshelves, the pages spotted with brown. Read a piece in NYRB about How The Awful Won, followed by Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt. 

Joseph Joubert, Maggie Nelson and Michael Frayn are all books of short thoughts. Sometimes this is the most peaceful, the least dictatorial reading. You read a line or three and then go happily into the white of the page, the white of your mind.

         Se faire de l'espace pour déployer ses ailes

In the same way as real thinking 

takes place when your head is empty, 

the landscape inside you is larger 

than the landscape outside you.

                                                      Kurt Johannessen

Plus, this evening, Alfred Brendel, Beethoven Opus 31. And the first rain in a while. 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

I started keeping a diary at the same age as Anne Frank. She was confined to the back of an office building in Amsterdam, with seven others, during the German occupation. I was confined to a family at liberty in a small town. Anne Frank's need for a friend with whom she could be completely open; that was the thing. Her diary was 'you' not 'it'. No one would believe she felt alone in the world, she said, she was such a chatterbox. 

On behalf of my much younger self, I believed her. Like her I needed to create myself on the page, though for the first few years I was cautious in the extreme, creating an unexceptionable schoolgirl and her daily life. I was certain that my diary would be read, most likely by my sister or my mother. 

Anne Frank, living in extremely close quarters with seven other people, never mentions the possibility of her diary being read. Open it at any page: intimacy and assurance leap out:

Relations between us here are getting worse all the time. At mealtimes, no one dares to open their mouths (except to allow a mouthful of food to slip in) because whatever is said you either annoy someone or it is misunderstood. I swallow valerian pills every day against worry and depression, but it doesn't prevent me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian pills, but we've almost forgotten how to laugh. I feel afraid sometimes that from having to be so serious I'll grow a long face and my mouth will droop at the corners.

As well as the Diary, I read The Footsteps of Anne Frank by Ernst Schnabel, bought the same year. He interviewed 42 people, almost everyone still living who had known her, before and during the two years she was in the Secret Annexe, then at Auschwitz, then Belsen. 

One of the interviewees, Mrs de Wiek, said how most people in the camps as they neared death had faces that were no longer human.

.... they looked like garrotted angels and no longer belonged to this world. They were already on their way back, with grey, ugly faces and their sallow, translucent skin. I think now that angels are grey and ugly, and their wings are only something our imaginations have added.

Many people lost their faces, she said, but Anne Frank still had her face. With shaved head, dressed in a sack, or naked, emaciated, her life still there in her large eyes.

I read The Diary of Anne Frank a month into my own diary, and said I found it to be a very interesting story. And that is how subterranean my expression was just then. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

The Other Side

Over on the far left of a middle bookshelf, somewhat obscured by shelves of CDs, I found The Other Side by Alfred Kubin. The Penguin Modern Classics glue has failed on many of the central pages, though I think I only read it once. It was written in the space of twelve weeks when Alfred Kubin was thirty, first published in 1909, with more than fifty illustrations. He was an artist and illustrator and this was his only book, written, as he says in the autobiographical pages at the end, 'out of an inner compulsion and psychological necessity ...  in an extraordinary state of mind that was literally comparable to intoxication'.

An old schoolfriend saves a fabulously wealthy Chinese couple from drowning, inherits their fortune and builds a European city in Central Asia, a few days journey from Samarkand, transporting buildings from Europe and inviting 65,000 people to come and live there. The Dream country rapidly becomes a grotesque nightmare, so monstrously detailed that I could only read it at great speed, in order, maybe, to understand why the writer had to write this. The misery of a substantial period of his childhood, expelled from school, hated by his father, persecuted by the girl who ran the household, is spelled out in the autobiography.

This time of isolation, however, proved remarkably stimulating to my fantasy. From the start I had found keen pleasure in dwelling in imagination on catastrophe and the upsurge of primeval forces; it was a like an intoxication, accompanied by a prickly feeling along my spine. A thunder storm, a conflagration, a flood caused by a mountain stream — to observe these was one of my greatest joys.

Early on the Dream country begins to be attacked by inexplicable states of rot and crumbling, torpor and disease. Unlike Poe who is a tidy story-teller, or Kafka who is humorous, Kubin is lush with horror and vultures, disaster, decay and a fascination with the worst instincts of human life. Only the blue-eyed people who live in The Suburb seem peacefully exempt; even swept by the acrid decay of the rest of the Dream State, they are silent and beautiful. Their presence towards the end of the novel ushers in the cataclysm that at last reveals the moon and the sun, both of which had been absent till then.

A soft and blessed frailty permeated the world. Out of a faint understanding grew a power, a yearning. It was an immense, self-assertive strength — it grew dark. In distinct, regular oscillations, the universe shrank to a point.

You could talk about Kubin's clairvoyance. Two world wars were to follow. Or, as he does in the final paragraph, you could talk about the forces of attraction and repulsion, the contradictory double game played out within us, 'inter faeces et urinam', between the shit and the piss. 

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Ex Libris

Anne Fadiman on her life with books, Ex Libris, is a long hot bath not just in winter but especially this midnight of our discombobulation which may go on to next summer. Root hairs extend into darkness more naturally than into light. The chapter on Carrots, Carets and Compulsive Proofreading made me laugh out loud. The chapter on the Literary Glutton. A laugh in the middle of the night is extra, like a glass of wine at lunch time, as Bridget used to say in Café Paradiso, with her warm upraised smile as she left you to it. 

You need support, says the boy towards the end of About a Boy when he has learned a few lessons. Anne Fadiman is support for my book life, which is ordinarily just that, a private life, at home in the middle of the night when a book declares its self-sufficiency. This is it for now, between these covers.


Monday, 21 December 2020

Maiden Voyage

On Howe's Strand at the solstice a boy and girl were taking selfies at the water line, then crouching down to photograph the lowlit turbulence of the stream at the back of the beach, which was swollen after a couple of heavy showers. A man was walking his dog on a circuit round the beach, at least three times. We were drinking spicy tea from a flask, propped against a poured concrete wall. In the sodden stubble fields up on the headland, a flock of yellowhammers lifted the breeze. Up the road when we left, the girl from the selfies was smiling. She was the joy of solstice. Everyone in their masks in their cars, their bubbles, was eclipsed by her smile up there in the late sun. 

I absorb a headland and a beach south of Cork city, as Denton Welch absorbed Shanghai and surrounds in the 1930s. I've been re-reading Maiden Voyage as slowly as I can, often in the middle of the night. Denton heads out into the Shanghai night in his friend Vesta's clothes, lipstick staining his teeth pink. We head down to the coast on a maybe OK day, meet a shower of two, and hail, get a wet foot in the swollen stream, tramp among sugar beet and blackened stubble. Reading influences the walking and music influences all of it. I've listened to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo almost every night this week. A model of musical clarity, beneath whose orderly structure everything is ready to be described.

William Burroughs recommended Denton Welch to students, perhaps as material ready to be cut up, each phrase or word a bright shiny object that could find itself next to new neighbours and lose none of its patina.


Sunday, 13 December 2020

Yesterday afternoon I watched Cocteau's Orphée. It was the right level of artifice for the middle of winter, where people in our world skirt each other under watery sun, and nothing useful to say on a christmas card is coming to mind. 

Give me the Café des Poètes in vivid black and white 1950s, Orphée the national poet idol in his pleated chinos, his well-lit bone structure and upward stance, Eurydice in her shirt-waister and full skirt, the foreign princess Death in her strict high heels, her black and white style, imperious and eventually human, and her smooth endearing chauffeur Heurtebise (would that be Hotchkiss, in English?) who ripple through mirrors between this world and the underworld, where Cocteau's voiceover in soothing, precise words carries them onward in some of the most flowing and expressive filming seen from that day to this.

Later the same day I read the first three poems of the second part of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, which are about mirrors. I smiled. Following Rilke (by bike, as it were), bringing Cocteau to Rilke and vice versa, interweaving our cultures with each other is like lining the brain with overlapping layers and seeing each anew. 

Mirrors: no one has ever known how/ to describe what you are in your inmost realm./ As if filled with nothing but sieve-holes, you/ fathomless in-between spaces of time./ You prodigals of the empty chamber—/vast as forests, at the close of day ...  /And the chandelier strides like a sixteen-pointer /through your unenterability.

None better than Cocteau to show how to enter a mirror. Death, and Heurtebise, Orphée and Eurydice enter the underworld through mirrors. They wear rubber gloves because they were filmed dipping their hands into mercury, this practicality offset by the unearthly sounds of Les Structures Sonores, the glass and metal instruments of Lasry/Baschet. The underworld was filmed in the ruins of the St Cyr military academy outside Paris, lit to accommodate Death, in her final robes, white then black then full and flowing, going off, I suppose, into an under-underworld, as punishment for having fallen in love with Orphée and having released him and Eurydice back into their lives.

Friday, 4 December 2020

A complex urban dream about failing to get to the dentist despite the help of a man called Camille, had me searching, on a cold windy afternoon, through my diary from 1967 for the name of a novel that I thought might have been Camille ou l'Incertitude. I was in Paris with M at Easter that year, staying in a hotel room with a red ceiling. Our wanderings around Paris took us one stormy day to Montparnasse and what I described as a collection of open bones of houses peeled bare & fallen into piles of rubbish. A big placard announced that this was the Cité Falguière. Most window glass was broken and light fell in everywhere onto mirrors, paintings mobiles and floorboards. It started to rain and we were invited in to a room partitioned off with sacking, planks and pots of dead daffodils. There was a woman by a stove, two younger ones, the man who'd invited us in and an older man in a beret. The older man was the only one who said anything, sucking on Gauloises, talking about his favourite novel, Corinne ou l'Italie, a doorstopper of a volume bound in dark green.  Then other people arrived and the rain stopped and soon we left. Though we were only sheltering from the rain, there was something life-long about it, I wrote.

I never did read Corinne ou l'Italie, which is by Madame de Stael, though in the nineties one of my colleagues was teaching it in a literary seminar and I remembered the old man in the Cité Falguière. That was the last time I thought about it until today, until the dream about not getting to the dentist despite the help of a man called Camille.

A couple of months after the old man in the ruins of the Cité Falguière, I was back in Brighton, at the theatre. I didn't much like the play, I reported in my diary, but I liked Gladys who played the piano, and I liked the old man sitting next to me who read a novel called Stranger in Italy during the the interval. But more than all that, god, I like this record that's playing, I wrote. So often it was music that held everything.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Talking to C yesterday about experiencing music from inside, as a player, one among eight timpanists for the Berlioz Requiem, for example, in a semi-circle at the back of the orchestra and what that felt like. The tiny runkles and adjustments, the gut mistakes and penance. She could only listen, from the audience, from the auditorium, if she didn't know any of the players, she said. So she wouldn't have to empathise with the horn player coming in a bit late, you know. 

The musician has to face the music. With lipstick.

The writer has to face the page. Without lipstick.

The novels of Elizabeth Taylor are orchestral, or chamber pieces, mid-twentieth century dull and then surreal. Am I reading from the strings, the horns, the timpani or the two-hundred strong choir? Or from my chair by the stove coming up to the winter solstice? Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont followed by Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor's last novel. 

Gareth got up and helped himself to another drink. The telephone conversation, when at last it began, was terse. 

When it was over, he asked, " Is she a counter-irritant?"

"No, just an irritant; sometimes like a dead albatross. Talking of irritants, that awful Vicar came again the other day. I do wish he would not. They simply think they can call without being invited, as in what Dora talks of as the old-fashioned days. I was so glad to see  him go."

"Then he accomplished something, coming here. "


Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Nominally I was reading The Soul of Kindness all week, by Elizabeth Taylor, before sleep, during sleep and in front of my stove in the afternoon, mid-twentieth century upper middle London, vacuous, comfortable, concerned, with passing boats and doves eating wedding cake. 

Mrs Lodge the housekeeper is the only one with a landscape in her head.

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 at the edge of the water, and looked as if they were dancing on their frail, coral-red legs.

Two lines from Tim Robinson in The New York Review of Books chime with Mrs Lodge. 

Irish place names dry out when anglicised, like twigs snapped off from a tree. And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories.

Robert MacFarlane says something similar at the start of Landmarks.  The way language can conserve and remind and protect. A language for a landscape.  Mrs Lodge's estuary. Tim Robinson for Connemara. Tarjei Vesaas for Telemark. JK for the hill on which she lives. You for your patch.

Elizabeth Taylor's characters move between St John's Wood to a south Thames borough, called Towersy, somewhere between Tower Bridge and Bermondsey, I suppose. Middle-class despair and muddling through. Sufficient drama. A tiny societal lurch. A disconnect made acceptable. By the end of the book they have all resettled a little. Mrs Lodge, meanwhile, yearns.

At the great house where she went to work, there were nightingales in a copse, woods haunted by owls, elm trees clotted with rooks' nests, swallows in the eaves. Richness. Here, in London, she had some shabby sparrows, the fiendish starlings, and her heart overflowed when the robin came onto the window-sill. Two worlds, and the other the one she yearned for. To herself, she used that word 'yearn'. She had discovered that only this one described the pain and longing she felt, softened by the tenderness and pleasure of her memories.


Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The Ice Palace

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas runs so close to the bone that helplessly I have to say what happens, in my own words (if possible).

An eleven year-old girl, newly arrived in the village, has a secret she is almost ready to tell her new friend Siss  They have looked into the same mirror and found themselves there, in gleam and radiance, in Unn's tiny bedroom, with the door locked. I may not go to heaven, she says, and Siss suddenly has to go home although she is trembling with eagerness to stay. Next day Unn cannot face Siss, so she goes off for the day in her thick coat and double mitts, with her school satchel, to the Ice Palace, built on a waterfall that froze as it fell as it rose. The further into the rooms of the Ice Palace, the startling character of each room, the dismissal, room by room, including the shedding of the thick coat and the satchel, the more you know that Unn and her secret will freeze there, glimpsed once by Siss and no one else. In Spring, with the thaw, Unn would crash with the river with her secret and her satchel, her thick winter coat and her double mitts; and Siss would slowly learn to come back to life.

Each room of the ice palace is particular: a room of tears, an ice forest, a narrow room, a fissure abandoned by the water, and then the new room, which, for a while, was a miracle. 

Alice in Wonderland. The mouse's tears. Dante's Divine Comedy. Purgatorio and Paradiso. Unn in the ice palace excruciates the reader. The sum of a child's worst fears, deepest compulsions, and yet transcendent.

Tarjei Vesaas in his sixties had intact in him the passions of an eleven year-old girl, he understood the sharing of selves, the overwhelming sameness of two people, the safe haven and then the need to avoid it.

So little is said. So little happens. Yet everything is there, as, under ice like steel, fronds and seeds are caught below, and then covered with the snow when it comes.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

To Norway in two books: The Boat in the Evening and Spring Night, by Tarjei Vesaas, who is the most I know of Norway, apart from a Kiwi friend called John Wall many years ago who had lived in Norway for a while and evoked some slow quiet drinking and a despair indistinguishable from calm. Norway came up in the news recently as a country best-equipped to deal with lockdown. Their closeness to land and weather, long darkness and long night with the focus that brings, and perhaps the numbness.

Tarjei Vesaas spent almost all his life in the remote reaches of Telemark, in southern Norway. The second piece in The Boat in the Evening is about a boy who sees the dance of the cranes on a marsh.

I am too young.

Everything is so marvellously wrong. It's so horribly exciting.

Everything is so marvellously right.

There are clear, strict laws of life in such a marsh. One must go out on it. There might be something worth finding.

Lying drenched on a cold marsh, 'a cold tussock in a wind cheater', his marsh eye watches the cranes and he starts to understand they are not birds they are ourselves.

The translation from Tarjei Vesaas' Norwegian into English in the early 1970s is somehow awkward, or maybe that is the country simple showing through, or the adolescence. There are two versions of Norwegian, literary and country. A writer was expected to write in literary. Tarjei Vesaas wrote in country. He wrote what he lived. Lying drenched on a marsh; drifting downriver among mirrors; daybreak with shining horses. 

The Tranquil River Glides Out of the Landscape.

Just Walking Up to Fetch the Churn.

Words, Words 

His chapter headings are their own narrative.  

Spring Night is the story of two teenagers whose tranquil night at home without their parents turns into an unresolved series of dramas around a spiky family group whose car breaks down outside, with a young woman about to give birth, an older woman who has withdrawn and then dies, her fluttery husband, their perverse dealings with each other. The teenage boy finds his dream Gudrun, a year younger than him, among the dystopical family who have occupied the spring night and his and his sister's house; they compare arms in the middle of the spring night as if the unanswerable questions of adolescence are shaping directly into adulthood.


Wednesday, 4 November 2020

I went to university wanting to know what philosophy was, and I got Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

I, for instance, am horribly sensitive. I'm suspicious and easily offended, like a dwarf or a hunchback. But I believe there have been moments when I'd have liked to have my face slapped. I say that in all seriousness— I'd have derived pleasure from this too. Naturally it would be the pleasure of despair. But then, it is in despair that we find the most acute pleasure, especially when we are aware of the hopelessness of the situation. And when one's face is slapped—why, one is bound to be crushed by one's awareness of the pulp into which one has been ground.

An irritated man down a mouse hole. You go round a corner and it gets worse. Forerunner of existentialism, if you like. Actual rant and agony, humiliation and defiance: I can tell you anything and I can go on for as long as I like. At least Kafka was happy in his burrow, resting and checking the defences. 

Anyone who can make Kafka seem cosy ...

Now let's look at this mouse in action. Let's assume it has been humiliated (it is constantly being humiliated) and that it wishes to avenge itself.  ...  The nauseating, despicable, petty desire to repay the offender in kind may squeak more disgustingly in the mouse than in the natural man, who, because of his innate stupidity, considers revenge as merely justice, whereas the mouse, with its heightened consciousness, is bound to deny the justice of it. Now we come to the act of revenge itself. In addition to being disgraced in the first place, the poor mouse manages to mire itself in more mud as a result of its questions and doubts.  And each question brings up so many more unanswered questions that a fatal pool of sticky muck is formed. ...

Truth is crooked, as Nietzsche said.

Humiliation is purification, says Dostoyevsky.

Actually the notes of this lover of paradoxes do not end here. He couldn't resist and went on writing. But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here.

Tsypkin, who is jewish, is replenished by Dostoyevsky, who hates jews. By trying to understand someone who hates you, by following in his tracks, photographing the Petersburg he inhabited, you find a semblance of yourself. I find a semblance of myself, a semblance among semblances.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin is the book for autumn in Inniscarra. It is, as so many commentators have said, extraordinary. At least two narratives overlap in the blur through a snowy train window.  Tsypkin is on the train to Leningrad, and the Dostoyevskys are travelling to Baden-Baden. Suddenly there is a clearing, or the train stops and people are buying beer and pies on the platform; meanwhile Dostoevsky arrives in Baden-Baden with his young wife Anna who needs a new hat, at the very least. 

Leonid Tsypkin never left Russia, but, as he travels from Moscow to Leningrad on the train, he also travels with Dostoevsky and Anna to Baden-Baden. A train journey can count for so much when you are constrained from leaving the country where you live. Dostoevsky went to Baden-Baden to try and win money at the casino. He was an inveterate gambler, an epileptic, an immensely irritated human being, hard to like, anti-semitic, ready to be degraded, humiliated. Tsypkin, who was jewish, was going to Leningrad because Dostoyevsky had lived there, and died there, when it was Petersburg, gateway to the west; and on the train he is reading Anna's Diary. What it is for a wild creature like Dostoyevsky to have a demure wife who keeps a diary. And a devout reader like Tsypkin, who somehow needs him.

As befits a train narrative, the sentences are long, often a page or more. Tsypkin moves towards Leningrad, and Dostoyevsky is staking on zero in Baden-Baden. Or Tsypkin is dreaming Dostoyevsky staking on zero and later walking with Anna by a lake.

Reflected upon the light-blue surface of the lake were gentle white clouds, and drifting slowly across it was a paddle-steamer, wheels cudgelling the water and splashing the deck where the Dostoyevskys stood together with their two children admiring the beautiful summer morning—

Later in the same sentence we understand that Anna bore one child, who died, and so between them, in memoriam or in hope or in despair, the Dostoyevskys had two children thenceforth, especially when they were walking by a lake or travelling quietly on a paddle-steamer; and particularly in their letters to each other. The Dostoyevskys, in reality, wherever that is, had two children, Lyuba and Fedya, the one with a profound lack of psychological balance, the other, diligent but rather dense, almost a malicious caricature of his father's skull, writes Tsypkin. 

The sentences at the end are even longer as Tsypkin reworks the end of Dostoyevsky's life in Petersburg and you start to wonder where the respite lies: every comma leads to the lurch of another clause, another complexity of human life and the russian soul, to the hard-won full stop a few pages on. 

Tsypkin tried for many years to leave Russia. He had one son who did leave, for America, but Tsypkin was refused an exit visa (and humiliated) several times. Humiliation is the crippling most likely to lead to creativity. 

I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation, and standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.

Writes Wayne Koestenbaum.

Friday, 16 October 2020

 AN UNFORGETTABLE BOOK, A MIGHTY MOVIE, A MAGNIFICENT AND ENDURING ADDITION TO THE GREAT BOOKS OF AMERICANA. 

This is the publisher's blurb on the back of my Corgi Western edition of Shane, by Jack Shaefer. Shane is the second movie book I've read recently. The other is The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, which is not so much Americana as the neurosis of Americana in the Hollywood of the late 1930s. 

As we near the end of Shane, language goes up a few notches. Here is Shane, the slim, dark, mysterious stranger with no past, just after he has wiped out the two baddies in a saloon shootout.

How could one describe it, the change that came over him? Out of the mysterious resources of his will the vitality came. It came creeping, a tide of strength that crept through him and fought and shook off the weakness. It shone in his eyes and they were were alive again and alert. It welled up in him, sending that familiar power surging through him again until it was singing again in every vibrant line of him.

The story is narrated through a boy's hero-worship. Shane's saving of the homesteaders' livelihood in the face of threat from a wealthy cattleman, is converted into hope for the boy's future. Shane has killed so that the boy can grow up strong and straight and look after his loving and worthy parents. Shane was the man, as the closing words of the book have it, 'who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane'. Americana is built on this kind of simplicity—mythic, and entirely without guile. It has spawned many other such tales. Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, for example. 

The film of Shane does the book every kind of favour by drenching the Wyoming landscape in lush cinematography, so much so that the book is pallid by comparison. The film version of The Day of the Locust, on the other hand, stands or falls by the performance of Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (no relation), principally his nervous watery eyes and his uncontrollable hands.     

From the start Homer's  hands have a life of their own, separate from the rest of his body.

One day, while opening a can of salmon for lunch, his thumb received a nasty cut. Although the wound must have hurt, the calm, slightly querulous expression he usually wore did not change. The wounded hand writhed about on the kitchen table until it was carried to the sink by its mate and bathed tenderly in hot water.

Ten pages later his hands keep his thoughts busy.

They trembled and jerked, as thought troubled by dreams. To hold them still, he clasped them together. Their fingers twined like a tangle of thighs in miniature. He snatched them apart and sat on them.

Near the end of the novella Homer's hands are playing  'Here's the church, here's the steeple', over and over. Tod, the narrator, who is a scenic artist, is watching.

It was the most complicated tic Tod had ever seen. What made it particularly horrible was its precision. It wasn't pantomime, as he had first thought, but manual ballet.

When Tod saw the hands start to crawl out again, he exploded.

'For Christ's sake!'

The hands struggled to get free, but Homer clamped his knees shut and held them.

'I'm sorry,' he said.

The final scene of violence and bedlam that brings to life the creatures of Tod's picture called The Burning of Los Angeles is, like the shootout in Shane, better in the film. Bedlam is laborious in narrative. Better, that is, for generations who grew up on intensive visuals. Homer's hands finally work free, and it is no triumph. Nor is it a piece of redemptive Americana. 

Shane was published in 1949, The Day of the Locust, ten years early in 1939. Ten years, a world war and a large-scale depression, were enough to foster the return of mythic America. 

                                                      

Sunday, 4 October 2020

My instinct, when choosing books to take on holiday, is to go for the deepest drift or trawl I can. W.G. Sebald, especially in autumn, has a long melancholic reach and hold. You start on a sentence and soon you are beyond the world yet further in. Everyone Sebald meets in The Rings of Saturn is strangely remote, ready to disappear or already gone. The narrator has an unerring gift for unearthing strangeness, loss and homesickness. In The Emigrants the ground is even more shifting, even more uneasy. The last emigrant whose tale emerges in the book is Max Ferber, a German painter living in Manchester, where Sebald arrived in the sixties. (Sebald, with several forenames to choose from, was generally known as Max). Manchester in the sixties was not yet risen from its post-industrial ashes and provided a densely atmospheric backdrop to the wanderings of the newly-arrived. There is a certain kind of traveller/wanderer/exile for whom urban decay is merciful. (Newly arrived in Paris in the sixties, or a visitor to Dublin, I sought out the least frequented, least refurbished neighbourhoods, found solace in cracks and darkness, where the past was laid bare and I felt safe.)

I started reading The Rings of Saturn before our stay on Coney Island, finished it, there and began The Emigrants, followed by Vertigo after we came home. A conversation the first evening we were there with N, whose house we stayed in, set Sebald into strange perspective. N is a plein-air painter. He can stay outdoors and paint for six hours at a time, taking landscape or seascape into his painting and going home content. I asked in all idleness — we were several hundred miles north of where we live — if they'd had a wet August this year. I don't know, said N, I live in the present. We were two weeks into September.

His reply, and the silence it produced, have stayed with me. I have scrutinised my sense of the present, my sense of the past, the present tense of gardening, the past tense of reading and writing. And there is N, seizing the long moment of the day's painting, in the present.

In one of those paragraphs Sebald is so good at, the first person narrative shifts into the third person and thence into a new first person, Sebald is visiting Max Ferber twenty years after their first acquaintance.

Ferber commented that, purely in terms of time I was now as far removed from Germany as he had been in 1966; but time, he went on, is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither past nor future. At least, not for me. The fragmentary scenes that haunt my memories are obsessive in nature. When I think of Germany, it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head.

Sebald's gentle tone, his careful detail, his mild disclaimers ('at least that was what the doctor said', 'so it is surely so', ) invite the reader to go along with him. He is irreproachably formal, yet insistent. 

I'm not sure I can bear, right now, to read Austerlitz as well. The last of his books, and the most poignant, the most driven by the mix of torpor and coincidence that make up our sense of where we have come from.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Coney Island, family history,

Sitting upstairs looking over to Rosses Point and Ben Bulben, one afternoon on tiny Coney Island in Sligo Bay, I read The Keeper by Miranda Doyle, descendant of the family who once lived in a two and a half room cottage a few yards up the road. There's a photograph of eleven of them in their Sunday best outside the cottage in the 1920s. The book is hard to read if you don't have a focus. So many people, so many names and those relationships that fall naturally as winged seeds from a tree if you are an insider.

Eventually I fitted into the picture the owner of the house where we're staying, and the author of the book, who is her niece. More obscure is the (older) woman who vowed to publish this family history, and most compelling her note, in bold typeface, about having changed the emphasis of parts of the tale, to spare living relatives. 

There is spoken testimony from family members, some of it glorious.

One house we came to. The man. He was in bed. You could see he was riven with Tuberculosis, or what we called in those days Consumption. Because of the dampness and the sheer everythingness of it.

Menfolk knew their Milton and their Shakespeare and their Shelley, even if some of the books got burned to keep the fire going. A copy of Virgil survived and now lives on a shelf in New Zealand. One at least wrote poetry, in the high literate tone that obliterates content. When literature meant something just by being as remote as possible from the dirt floor and the over and over slippery babies hitting the straw.

Babies were born onto the straw. Sometimes in houses that only had three walls, making for a lack of boundary between the inside and the out.

Just a small thing, which over time became the bricks and mortar built between people who have nothing more to say to each other.

I was not surprised to find, when I got home and googled Miranda Doyle, that she had later written a memoir called A Book of Untruths. Nothing in bold typeface here, and emphasis exactly as it should be. The sheer everythingness of it brought up to date.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

A book you know takes your temperature.

I re-read Embers by Sándor Márai and discover that I am not in the way of preferring solitude in the middle of a deep forest. Not at all. It's like looking down a long corridor, and there are two old men meeting after forty-one years. Cherchez la femme. When I first read it I relished the isolation, the bottomless quiet of it.  This time I'm restless with the rules, the codes, the duty and the proprieties.

I dip back into Roger Deakin's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm with relief.  Here he is watching his cat Millie.
You're a passionate little person — you sit on my table, and when I speak kind words to you, you purr. When I stroke you with kind words, you purr even louder than when I stroke you with my fingertips. And when a train goes by at the end of the fields, or a magpie calls, your ears swivel and focus all on their own, each ear moving independently. So one ear listens to a wood pigeon and another to the slight whirring of the fridge. 
That's better.


Saturday, 29 August 2020

The chance encounters that give rise to reading: watching a film of Brideshead Revisited followed by a sneezy cold in unseasonal weather lead me to re-read the novel over two days, a 1954 Penguin shedding an aromatic buff-coloured dust as I turned the pages, the book's fragility echoing mine as I lay on the sofa half under a blanket in what we still, after more than twenty years, call the new room.

Several of my Evelyn Waugh books are very old. I liked him best in my twenties and thirties when his taut mannerism suited my need for high aesthetic mixed with social savagery. The religious preoccupation got on my nerves but I managed to overlook it. Now, after more than forty years in a country whose Catholicism is everywhere and nowhere, I am no less irritated but a little more interested in how the English version managed to be so consumed in its trappings and its rules, much as it would have been several hundred years ago.

Every satirist hides an emotional maelstrom. Evelyn Waugh is not a likeable writer, but occasionally you feel for him, as, near the end of the book, he cooks up an extended arctic image of a hut in the last blizzard of winter.
Quite silently a great weight forming against the timber; the bolt straining in its socket; minute by minute in the darkness outside the white heap sealing the door, until quite soon when the wind dropped and the sun came out on the ice slopes and the thaw set in a block would move, slide and tumble, high above, gather way, gather weight, till the whole hillside seemed to be falling, and the little lighted place would crash open and splinter and disappear, rolling with the avalanche into the ravine.
In an author's note economically placed on the verso page, beneath the publishing history, he absents himself and those he knows from his book. Which is a sure way of planting them firmly on his pages.
I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.  E.W.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

This summer I have read the five last novels of Virginia Woolf, and the complete works of Roger Deakin. I have grazed elsewhere of course, but this was the backbone. For September I'm thinking of Tristram Shandy again. A poor summer (we have had a pandemic you know) seems a good moment for an old novel that takes a long time to begin and is tongue-in-cheek throughout. There are blank pages and black pages, tons of question marks.

Roger Deakin's Waterlog has blank stretches of water and black stretches of water, endolphins jumping in mountain streams, apprehension in pike-filled, eel-rich, silent, streams. About a third into his journey he wonders what he doing anyway, is he going mad like Ned Merrill in The Swimmer? What is this journey around Britain's waters, defying and seeking out, trespassing with intent, interrupting current practice in oversupervised waters? Enjoying old lidos and swimming holes? Satisfying a restless spirit. For now.

Friday, 21 August 2020

During days of gales and rain and storms I skirt the outdoors. Lay on the floor upstairs and read random bits of One Straw Revolution; more like grazing on a book. How you construct a world view is a subtle affair, a grasshopper on a stalk, for example. Or maybe you were asleep some of the time?

Next day, tail end of the storm, heavy showers, Roger Deakin's diary. He appreciates the principle of writing as flitting, as with diaries, journals. You can note the smallest, most important things:
Every now and again you find yourself slipping into a little pocket, a little envelope, of country that is unknown to anyone else, which feels as though it is your own secret land.
Idle thoughts are at the centre of his activity as a human.
If you want to know what it's like to be a tree, sleep with a cat on your bed and feel it manoeuvring and exploring your curves and hollows for the most comfortable nest.
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm is about his activity as a human, his reflection as a human. The travels and encounters of Wildwood, focused in chapters, are human too, but there is nothing to compare with notes taken on the hoof, swimming in the moat, sleeping in the shepherd's hut.
I slept in the shepherd's hut last night after an eight-length evening swim in the most, now beginning to weed up — a beautiful, nearly full moonlit night. Very bright, hardly proper darkness at all. At ten to four I was woken up by a warbler (not sure which) hopping along the tin roof of the hut, then striking up the most beautiful song, at first utterly solo in the half-light, soon joined by other birds.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Some reading moves me away from language and onto the land. After Virginia Woolf, Roger Deakin. Wildwood.

I read too quickly, to get to the chapters about Central Asia, land of fruit and honey, vision of fruitful valleys and ancient commonage and interdependence where walnuts are currency and everyone is poor.

Poverty must be based on a lie, on a bed of lies, if people who live close to the history of the land, eat walnuts (which resemble the brain) and apples and honey and kefir, are poor.

They are rich in everything that people in otherwise poor, which is to say, wealthy, countries, pay good money to experience: good air, fresh food in season, communality, harvest.

Le Regain. I should read Jean Giono next. Or John Giorno. For the urban translation.

The harvest here, this summer: courgettes, round, pale and french or dark green and long, sugar peas, pale yellow, lots of runaway Red Rapids lettuce, rocket flowering, fennel coming on, pumpkins (ushiki kuru) making their way through other plants, mice eating the beetroot, for the sweetness and the colour, dark red or pink-striped, beans working to make beans, tomatoes eccentric this year, Atomic Grape, forget it, cucumbers, plenty, herbs, coming on in the greenhouse, basil, coriander and dill.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

As I read Virginia Woolf's The Waves this time I slowed and slowed until the last fifty pages took nigh on a week. I still have a few pages left, in fact. Now that she has massed her six characters, Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis, plus Percival, who died in an accident in India, now she has pulled them in close to herself and finally met them as her own creatures, I am not ready; I will never be ready. The coming together of these six or seven creatures, the uniting of them as hers, as mine, I can wait for as long as it takes.
And now I ask, "Who am I?" I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead, and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt "I am you." This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome.
This has been a late Virginia Woolf summer: Between the Acts, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and The Waves. An uneasy summer with uneasy weather. A communal awareness is always uneasy. The weather, the earth, know what to do.

Virginia Woolf was urban at heart. Gardens registered a little, seascape and blackcurrant bushes, but it was London streets that her creatures walked, that she walked, finding her phrases and writing them down in innumerable notebooks, writing herself down. 



Thursday, 23 July 2020

A friend was telling me he read one book with the first cup of coffee, another with breakfast, a third with the second cup of coffee, and the fourth book before he went to sleep, not much of the last one, he admitted. There were two John Pilger, an unfinished Camus, Le Premier Homme, and I can't remember the fourth.

Why not continue with the same book throughout? Because, the day does not proceed evenly, it is not a continuum of moments; the first coffee is different from the second; then during breakfast, everything changes; while the demands made on a book read before sleep are kin with the need for dreams. Only when you've read something, anything, when you've gone down sentences as tunnels, as undergrowth, ridden sentences as clouds, as paths through clouds, through hay; only when you've inhabited sentences as that afternoon you inhabited land and sea and the old aches, the timeless unresolvable, the western sky, can you go to sleep.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Our first canoe trip in many years, a short one, up the lake to the pigeon house, where we swam among small fry and picnicked and dozed and I read Elizabeth David, I'll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon, one of the Penguin 60 series from 1995, a small book perfect for the front pocket of a rucksack and the middle of the warmest afternoon in a while. She is very good on picnics, ending with Osbert Sitwell, who, she says, has described perhaps the perfect meal:
the fruits of the month, cheese with the goaty taste of mountains upon it, and if possible bilberries, apples, raw celery, a meal unsophisticated and pastoral.
On a docky stony beach — and the lake has hardly any beaches this year, the water level is so high, in keeping with the fear that has seized everyone — we had cheese, lettuce, butter, mayonnaise, brinjal pickle between slices of home bread, rye, wheat, seeds, molasses and long habit, with the year's first cucumber plus a flask of Bengal Spice tea with a little honey.

The docks came in handy for a horsefly bite; horseflies always find me; I kept the dock leaves on the spot behind my knee with the rubber band that had gone around the sandwiches. As the bite cooled and P was falling asleep I read out loud from the Normandy chapter of Elizabeth David an account of a feast written up in the mid-nineteenth century by one George Musgrave:
He watched a couple (on their honeymoon, he thought) on board the river steamer at Rouen consuming a midday meal of soup, fried mackerel, beefsteak, French beans and fried potatoes, an omelette fines herbes, a fricandeau of veal with sorrel, a roast chicken garnished with mushrooms, a hock of ham served upon spinach. There followed an apricot tart, three custards, and an endive salad, which were the precursors of a small roast leg of lamb, with chopped onion and nutmeg sprinkled upon it. Then came coffee and two glasses of absinthe and eau dorée, a Mignon cheese, pears, plums, grapes and cakes. Two bottles of Burgundy and one of Chablis were emptied between eleven and one o'clock.
I had to read it out loud again when P woke up.