JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 18 April 2021

Tove Jansson, The Listener,

The title story of her first collection, The Listener, and the last, The Squirrel, pull me into Tove Jansson. The Summer Book had such recuperative powers when I was clearing out my father's house — my mother, who died some years earlier, had long relinquished all ownership, if such she ever felt. I stayed down the road, not in the house. I needed to be elsewhere before I could sleep. Reading at its best is very precise: this book at that time, this weather, under these circumstances I can read it fully. 

We are having our fourth or fifth successive cold dry spring and I feel it.

Tove Jansson knows how to come up close to the stuff of life; it takes a certain availability, a certain quiet, to settle into her observation of the natural world and the way we fit into it or not. 

The woman settling into a winter in the bay of Finland with a squirrel who stupidly set off on a log with its tail fanning the breeze, to land on an island with no other squirrels and a poor outlook, now that is a situation I can absorb. Ever since I saw Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman's island drama, I have been sensitive to the rich limits of Scandinavian island life. Tove Jansson does not do relationship drama, unless between an older woman fond of her Madeira and a squirrel who shows up on the pier. She is not melodramatic, she is close-focus, loner-ish, not short-sighted but as if, dealing with the practicalities of her life on the island; now with squirrel. 

The woman makes plenty of accommodations. Grumbling as she does so. What does a squirrel eat? Where does a squirrel like to sleep? What kind of bedding does a squirrel prefer?

She groped around on the shelves and felt the old uncertainty, the one affecting everything that can occur in many different ways, stumbling over forgetfulness and knowledge, memory and imagination, rows and rows of boxes and you never knew which ones were empty ...  I have to get a grip on myself. It's a box of cotton wadding, for the motor, a carton under the stairs. She found it and started pulling out cotton in long, reluctant tufts. 

There you go, she says, stuffing cotton wadding into a log pile so that the squirrel can build a nest. There you go. Build! Make yourself a nest! These gruff older women Tove Jansson has observed, has lived beside, and admires. No men. (No mention of the gender of the squirrel.) Women who live on islands on their own. Who can accommodate a squirrel alongside the morning Madeira, workday Madeira and sunset Madeira, adjust a woodpile to a squirrel's needs, adapt a shopping list, rearrange bookshelves and only much later feel a sudden need for company.  


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Cynthia Ozick, Two

Such a good time with Cynthia Ozick the other week, I thought I'd continue: The Messiah of Stockholm and Foreign Bodies. Sometimes you shouldn't continue. Sometimes you should veer off left and land wherever. La chair est triste hélas et j'ai lu tous les livres. Said Mallarmé

Cynthia Ozick is aware of being a parasite, of living off literature, off reading. She prompts a sense of my own history with books; alternating between pleasure at finding kin, and dismay at the reflection offered, the rabbit-hole of learning. What to do with all this language, this history. Cynthia Ozick comes back to her origins on little prompting. Rapidly you're there with the shifting population of central europeans in the early and mid-twentieth century, the shuffle of feet mostly westward, the resting places offered and then withdrawn. Ever onward. Permanent negotiation with the powers that be. 

She photographs with the clever schoolgirl to the fore. Even in old age. 

Much as I like her she makes me want to stop reading and walk out into the evening.


Saturday, 3 April 2021

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick is having a moment here, as a cold spring sharpens, then luxuriates in the late afternoon. 

In The Puttermesser Papers she invents a character who creates a girl golem by walking seven times around a pile of potting compost on the floor. The golem helps her creator, her mother, to rise in the world, until the golem, whose name is Xanthippe, also known as Leah, starts to get out of hand. She is a miracle and then useful and then runs amok and is returned —her mother walks around her seven times times in the other direction—whence she came, to the earth of her mother's pot plants in a heap on the floor. 

Cynthia Ozick stretches the sack of learning into one shape after another. After the golem story the relationship between George Eliot and George Lewes as paradigm; then a loud Russian cousin comes to stay. 

It would be cloying, this transference of reading into story, into life, but actually it's a delight. To a bookish reader like me, anyway. The narrator of Heir to the Glimmering World, Rose, or Rosie, or Mrs Tandoori (all names shift about in a glimmering world) is, at eighteen, as bookish as you can be and still keep your own voice.

My suitcases held only the sparest handful of the books I valued, since it had always been my habit—privately I felt it to be an ecstasy—to enter, as into a mysterious vault, any public library. I was drawn to books that had been read before, novels that girls like myself (only their mothers would not have died) had cradled and cherished. In my mind—I supposed in my isolation—I seized on all those previous readers, and everyone who would read after me, as phantom companions and secret friends.

Cynthia Ozick brings the Mitwissser tribe of German Jewish immigrants forward on a platter of thinking and some very lithe storytelling. Engrossing and sometimes moving, as she goes into the deeper surges and old ideals. For example, the narrator's gradual understanding of the german word Bildung.

(Mrs Mitwisser) would say of her grandfather ... "Er war en sehr gebildeter Mann," and she said the same of Erwin Schrödinger. Eventually I understood that a man in possession of Bildung was more than merely cultivated; he was ideally purified by humanism, an aristocrat of sensibility and wisdom.

(Mitwisser = With Knowledge, I suppose) In a story of runaways and reprobates, immigrants and denunciation of all that isn't Essence— 'to add is to undermine'—Rosie the narrator, amanuensis to a big unsmiling Teuton and companion to his wavering wife Elsa, and their five children, gradually brings forward her own life, as a young person should. She has an admirer, she has a cousin, she is needed, she has a role, she is grounded, eventually, in her creator's creation. 

Rosie/Rose, the eponymous heir, or one of them, finds her way through the Mitwisser tribe in 1930s outer Bronx, and emerges, ready for New York proper, having seen the Mitwissers disassemble and reform, add and subtract, countless times, and her own path grow out of theirs.


Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Ocean Vuong

Two wild ducks on the pond in the morning and I'm just passing through. Later, they're gone and I'm settled here as if winter hadn't been, with my shoes off and a pond bag at my side with the debris of summers past underneath diary and book: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. Coming after Joan Didion, Ocean Vuong's writing is like a tender and delicate and perplexing meal the day after being stabbed. She self-lacerating and he a quietly fierce apologian of his life. 

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous changed complexion with every subsequent read. At first I relished the language, the learnedness of it. Ocean Vuong, aka Little Dog, came to America from Vietnam when he was a child, with his mother, who spoke no English and couldn't read. Her son learned English from that day forth, read English literature until it had soaked through his brain and filled his needs.

Maybe I understand too well the need to populate the head with sentences, written by others and then written by you, maybe that is why I liked the book less each time I read another few sections. Or I have read too many New Yorker articles about extreme lives. These accounts are well-formed and accurate, and can leave you gasping, but they're not poetic. Ocean Vuong is a poet. His language seeks to render every cranny, to convert every memory into a mix of close detail and imagery and reflection. Like this moment with his Aunt Lan.

"Help me, Little Dog," She pressed my hands to her chest. "Help me stay young, get this snow off of my life—get it all off my life." I came to know, in those afternoons, that madness can sometimes lead to discovery, that the mind, fractured and short-wired, is not entirely wrong. The room filled and refilled with our voices as the snow fell from her head, the hardwood around my knees whitening as the past unfolded around us.

This is great writing, almost too great. You can open the book anywhere and find such moments. The writer's need to write like this in order to fulfil his history, not just narrate it, is almost painful. The need to gather up language to him and write like this, reminds me of myself. Though I leave out the story even more than he does.

He gives us the story of Tiger Woods, the story of his, Little Dog's, first love, the death and burial of Aunt Lan, the chemicals of the nail salon where his mother worked, the phantom fathers, the power of a boiled egg to heal a bruise, the faces of Oxycontin-gaunt trailer trash in Connecticut howling "What's good?" as you walked by. He gives us plenty.

I read to the end but I want to get away. Though that may be the flavour of the times showing through. Even up at the pond the silence is suspect.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Joan Didion

 Joan Didion gets a lot of coverage in the journals I subscribe to. I know because I usually avoid reading about her and I get a lot of practice at it. Though her books have good titles, like Slouching Towards Bethlehem or Play It As It Lays. Which it turns out I have, along with two other novels from the seventies. 

All right, I thought, let's see if I can get around to Joan Didion this time. The answer: barely. Here are a few crisply written vapid lives in California in the late sixties. Movie people. Chilly, laconic. Same milieu as The Player, except that the film with Tim Robbins is more enjoyable. Joan Didion is savagely dispiriting. Life is a craps game, it goes as it lays, don't do it the hard way. Thus said the father of Maria, the main character, who only sleeps well if she is out driving the freeways at ten in the morning, for hours, preferably without braking once.

 For all I know she has never braked since.

Monday, 8 March 2021

The World Turned Upside Down

A review in The New Yorker of a book about Mao's China plunged me into an ancient sense of my own borders. In the early 1970s I told Anouar Abdel-Malek, sociologist, how I had no sense of history, and he was appalled; or otherwise frustrated. The following year I told him about the day I stopped on a drive from the Fishguard ferry to Norfolk, in a village on a fierce windy day like a woman in an entirely different, earlier novel. That wind is straight off the Urals said the woman in the shop. And history, like a shy alien, showed. 

I turned a corner in Hertfordshire and for a moment I had a sense of history. Unspecific as that, but a milestone. I bought an apple and drove on. Anouar was not impressed. I was an educated woman. But a lost cause. He gave me a piece of fabric his mother had given him, as if I'd become a woman of fabrics rather than ideas. I used it in the construction of a box for a book about Cuba.  

I work my way, as a gardener does, through the article, China and Russia and the great movement of ideas and sorry outcomes, often as not. The way once I listened to my political, passionate, fully exercised fellow students. 

There is understanding and there is recognition.  These days  'History is irony on the move.' (E.M. Cioran) I haven't read Marx and a glance at Mao on poetry in 1968 was enough. Now I read that China has managed to postpone the end of history, and I am at the same blockage as back then. Visceral and inarticulate. Like the wind off the Urals.   

Tony Judt comes in towards the end of the review. New Yorker reviews and articles have this moment where they draw breath and you know you're about a page from the end. Then they bring in a new voice. 

In 2010 Tony Judt warned, not long before his death, that the traditional way of doing politics in the West—through "mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas,'—had become dangerously extinct. There were, Judt wrote, "no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself."


Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Wide Sargasso Sea

After a 25 year silence, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Mr Rochester's mad wife in Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys, like the mad wife, grew up in the Caribbean. Came to England at 16. Unhappy, fragile and brinkish, living from day to day, job to job, drink to drink.  Mr Rochester's wife is her constitutional. Her best expression. An absentee from her own life, shut up in a secluded wing of a country house, a prisoner in a northern country whose reality she has no means of believing—except for the cold.  

The other night I watched the 1943 film of Jane Eyre with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. The love story of Jane and Mr Rochester, gloriously acted and filmed as it is, leaves the mad wife even more isolated,  without habitat, without sunset or looking glass. (All Jean Rhys's characters want to look at themselves, often.)

In the early 1800s, wealthy young men went out to the colonies in search of further wealth.  Charlotte Brontë could imagine Mr Rochester going in search of adventure, but could not imagine the wife he found there. That was for Jean Rhys to do. She knew the reality of the place, its flora and fauna, the mix of peoples and resentment, the troubled history, the shifting sands of money and property and status.

After reading a run of forgotten novels, early Penguins from the mid-twentieth century, my reading self, like the fasting body, was re-set and ready to receive intensity. Wide Sargasso Sea is a vertical, piercing read, a story of sunshine and death in an alien place, wild and untouched, full of secrets and lies and obeah. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. Mr Rochester doesn't stand a chance. And neither does his wife.

I read Wide Sargasso Sea a second time, just to stay a while longer in a cold week. The book is an axe to the frozen sea within, says Kafka. 

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.