Sunday, 23 January 2022

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Deborah Levy and Fay Weldon

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

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

Puffball by Fay Weldon

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights,

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

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

I read this over and over.   

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

His leg does not write back. 

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Tango, Lynne Tillman, Raymond Radiguet,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 December 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Fleur Jaeggy, Hortus,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 November 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, to panic!

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

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

Sunday, 14 November 2021

The Emperor's Tomb, Joseph Roth,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 November 2021

Job, Joseph Roth: in Tuosist

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

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

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

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

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

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

America can produce miracles of this kind. 

So can Tuosist.


Sunday, 31 October 2021

The Umbrella, the New Yorker, Tove Ditlevsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Talk Poetry, Mairéad Byrne, My Dinner with André,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see that still, in the author photo. 

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Ripley's Game, Valentia Island, Patricia Highsmith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Shrimp and the Anemone, Valentia Island

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Maggie Nelson meets Dante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 October 2021

Maggie Nelson On Freedom, Judith Thurman On Dante, Translation,

Maggie Nelson On Freedom, Four Songs of Care and Constraint, is a ghostly read at the start of autumn. Maybe I would rather she was Anne Carson, or Rimbaud. I read Maggie Nelson, sometimes too fast, as the poem that spreads underneath, as mycelium spreads underneath the earth.

But the fact remains that no one can ferret out for us which pleasures are taken in an "experience without truth" (Derrida), and which can have truth-value (or something otherwise worthwhile); no one can figure out for us which modes of abandonment are wonderful, and which do damage (or more damage than they're worth); no one can determine for us when a strategy of liberation has flipped into a form of entrapment. As the slogan May you be blessed with a slow recovery suggests, such proximities constitute a knot that benefits from patient, perhaps even lifelong, untangling. 
Meanwhile, in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has been reading Dante and new Dante translations of Purgatorio, which are, she feels, are very good in a pandemic. This year is the 700th anniversary of Dante's death. There have been more than a hundred translations of the Divine Comedy. I have three of them. That is already strange in today's world. Where we drown in world views and the freedom to pass judgement in public.   
Many branches of radical ecological thinking edge into this territory, insofar as  grappling with systemic threats to the biosphere as we know it often demands a kind of zoomed-out perspective on humanity and planet that can prompt deeply unnerving paradigm shifts and proposals. ...  Our method of inhabiting the planet could be otherwise. Our attitude toward death, including our own deaths or that of our species, could be otherwise.
Maggie Nelson On Freedom is not translating Purgatorio. Or maybe she is. Purgatory was a recent invention, a middle child of three, between Inferno and Paradiso. Purgatory takes place on this Earth, not above or below. Here. Now. Grazing the meadow. Playing at trains in L.A. Reprieved. 

The Maggie Nelson poem I was trying to find underneath her four songs of care and constraint is the poem of the exorbitant reader and the anxious human. I haven't read what she has read, but I have read as she reads.  

Such is the approach taken in the pages that follow, in which "freedom" acts as a reusable train ticket, marked or perforated by the many stations, hands and vessels through which it passes. (I borrow this metaphor from Wayne Koestenbaum, who once used it to describe "the way a word, or a set of words, permutates" in the work of Gertrude Stein. "What the word means is none of your business," Koestenbaum writes, "but it is indubitably your business where the word travels.")


Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Selected Crônicas by Clarice Lispector

Selected Crônicas by Clarice Lispector is the book to open at random. On any page there's something that goes straight to the nub. She finds you out. Whatever has been happening in your own life, whatever stories you have lately heard, and paused over, Clarice will echo. It's a quality of attention. A modesty and persistence. A dailiness. 

Take note that I have said nothing about my emotional reaction: I spoke only of some of the thousands of things and people I keep an eye on. Nor does anyone pay me to do this job. I simply keep the world under observation. Is it hard work keeping an eye on the world? Most certainly.

Clarice weighs in. Reading as confirmation, sometimes that's what you need.  Like a quick chat about what you saw today. Picking elderberries. A brand-new tractor practises reversing and returning. A taxi-driver checking for break-ins. Clarice and I. 

You must be wondering why I keep an eye on the world. I was born with this mission. And I am responsible for everything in existence, even for those wars and crimes which cause so much physical and spiritual havoc. I am even responsible for this God Who is in a state of cosmic evolution towards greater perfection.

I too have been keeping an eye, and a pen, on the local world for the last couple of years. I don't feel responsible, but I'm having my say in the name of greater perfection. Not feeling responsible for at least some of the time is, I would argue, essential. Plus I cannot envisage at all this God Who.

Since childhood I have kept an eye on a swarm of ants: they crawl in Indian file, carrying a tiny particle of leaf which does not prevent them from pausing to chat whenever they meet another procession of ants coming from the opposite direction.

Is an ant responsible? Or does the ant, tiny as it is, embrace a world? Clarice Lispector is an open-minded commentator. But by writing anything at all about ants, she is taking a stance.

But I still have not found the person to whom I should report my findings. 

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Report from a Parisian Paradise, Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth spent the last fourteen years of his life in France. Notes from a Parisian Paradise is the feuilleton of his travels around France, freed from the weight of his own country, his own history, he finds what he needs, he feels at home. The enthusiasm, the traveller's lungs, the writer's eyes, old dreams of white cities descending in flat terraces and citadels in a Roman hand, Avignon, Nîmes, St Baux, Tournon, all the way down to Marseille, which, at the time of his visit in 1925, had seven hundred ships in the harbour. If you find your childhood dreams you find your childhood, which up till then appeared not to have existed at all. 

After World War 1, the global conflagration to which he has contributed, the unhappy grandson must put his grandfather on his lap and tell him stories of how he wore the uniform and ravaged the land, and now he must leave. Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, and Joseph Roth leaves for France, looking for the sweet freedom of not seeming to be anything more than he is.

From that time forth I have never believed in getting on trains, timetable in hand. I don't believe it is in us to travel with the serenity of a tourist, equipped for anything. The timetables are wrong, and the books are misleading. All travel books are dictated by a stupid spirit that can't see that the world is continually changing.

These are peculiar travelling times. They all are. Joseph Roth is the endangered, enraptured traveller who will walk from one town to another and intuit his way in among its streets, talk to any clown or longshoreman, idle over every relic, read up the history, try not to confuse names and things.

That's why we don't understand the world, and why it doesn't understand us. On the other  side of the fence it's vacation time. Lovely, long summer vacation. People don't take me literally. What I leave unspoken is heard. My every word is not a confession. Every lie is not wicked and unconscionable. Every silence is not enigmatic. Everyone understands it. It's as though people don't question my punctuality, even though my watch is wrong. People don't make inferences about me from what's mine. No one controls my day. If I waste it, so what, it was mine to waste.

I have read several of Joseph Roth's novels. They are profound and sad and riveting. Such is the freedom of Roth's journalism in France, it is hard to realise that at the same time, between 1925 and 1939, he also wrote those novels. The White Cities of southern France were protecting him. The bistros of Paris. Children sailing their toy boats in stone pools were protecting him. For as long as they could.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Finzi-Continis in a field near Coachford

We had sent off our appeal to the Board, to the current Inspector; the day was blue. It was a day for the field near Coachford, with sandwiches of amber beetroot and cheese, aubergine pickle, butter, mayonnaise, basil, coriander; with tomatoes, cucumber, a piece of fennel and the remains of yesterday's frittata.

To read, I took The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, for its tenderness, tennis parties, its moment in history, sense of loss, imminent or immanent in the magna domus, the House, and the garden, planted a couple of generations before, now ripe. Au vert paradis des amours enfantins. An old hunting dog called Jor lies in front of doorways. There are hot showers, telephones, and fruit water, iced for summer, warm for winter.

In the field near Coachford, a matted Border collie is padding about the shoreline, keeping half an eye out. I am in 1930s Ferrara. P is reading about the sensuousness of stones. The animate material of our world. Purple loosestrife at the water's edge. Ducks at sixes and sevens. east west, west east. An island of gulls. 

There is always a combustion engine in paradise. Today it was a pump across the water for an hour or so. Irrigating what? Later a birdscarer imitating shotgun fire. Protecting barley for cows for humans for milk and meat. The hum of rural empire. A slight wind from the east is enough to send us into the long grass. Grasshoppers use our knees as calling ground, chirping their knees together to call in a mate.  

People don't eat in the garden of the Finzi-Continis. They change their clothes. They play tennis. They reminisce about plums, and how later they preferred Lindt chocolate. The narrator and Micòl go on a pilgrimage round the garden. The scene revealed, inhabited. The action is all around, unspeakable. Meanwhile, the garden is respite, saviour, citadel. 

Micòl does not want to be kissed. The narrator has no idea why. She has no future. She prefers le verge le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui and even more the past, the dear, sweet, sainted past. She introduces him to trees, she speaks their dialect. 

"There they are, my seven old men," she might say. "look at their venerable beards!" Really—she would insist—didn't they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance, what"holiness" in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly? They looked like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts. 

The narrator is excluded. The Finzi-Continis excluded themselves. Though they are both jews. Juden sind everywhere unerwünscht. Unless you have your own garden, your own black-green hole. And even then they are falling, settling in irrevocably at the edge of town. And even that, as the medics say, will not protect you. 

His father has always said the Finzi-Continis are in a world of their own. Micòl is not for him. The young men, nonetheless, spend a winter of evenings talking Fascism, Communism, il Duce, Hitler, Franco, war and history, history and war, novels and poetry. They talk indoors, among books they have read. 

Anne Boyer (Garments against Women) says literature is the preserve of the property-owning class: what it means to be well or happy in a society that demands and denies the conditions of wellness and happiness: the state of not writing, otherwise known as life.

Life, however, includes books. And loss. And trees. And crow bangers. Wellness is a dubious word.

My story with Micòl Finzi-Contini ends here. So it is just as well for this story to end too, now, for anything I might add would longer concern her, but, if anyone, only myself.

Already, at the beginning, I have told of her fate and her family's.

Giorgio Bassani begins his novel with the description of a tomb. It stood out. It was meant to. A real horror, his mother said. A pastiche. Like Aïda. Ancient Egypt and Roman baroque, the Greeks at Knossos; all these cultures of the dead. He ends his story with the unburied death of his past, like Palinurus in Virgil, unburied on a foreign shore. 

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Electronic Civil Disobedience

Mid-afternoon, after picking blackberries—the ripe the soft, the hard, the unwilling, a few more pounds for wine, trip up in advance, these paths are getting overgrown—I read a couple of sentences of Electronic Civil Disobedience from the Critical Art Ensemble (1996). The book fell open on a paragraph about people buying VCRs, not knowing how to use them and feeling they'd bought an expensive clock that only ever said 12:00.

Cheerful tech naivete and derision from twenty-five years earlier. Strangely uplifting. 

By evening the blackberries were crushed, mashed, covered in water, en route in a bucket in the kitchen. 

Our current woe, twenty-five years later, is that babes and sucklings know how to use everything they buy or that is bought for them. Nearly all of them tell the time.  

Sunday, 5 September 2021

What are you reading?

What are you reading?

D had his books on display when we went to visit. His reading schedule is exacting: two John Pilger, one Irish novel, an Italian novel for translation, maybe, and his mother's copy of Arabian Nights, mysteriously broken into phrases with a biro for the first twenty pages. I can't remember which book he read with first or second coffee, or tea, or breakfast or alongside a nap in the afternoon, as well as before going to sleep at night, but I appreciate the timetable, the need to calibrate each day with books.

On the strength of Brian Dillon's piece on Claire-Louise Bennett in Supposing a Sentence, I bought Pond, and took it to Castle Island but didn't open it. This was not the right place. The right place hasn't yet showed itself. In a waiting room, perhaps. 

The penultimate sentence Brian Dillon chooses, which I read last night, is by Anne Carson. Anne Carson is proof against nearly everything. I have had Autobiography of Red on the go all summer, to be taken up at any moment when a fine, sharp instrument of language is needed to remind me what matters. 

Sunday, 29 August 2021

Virginia Woolf, To the lighthouse, on Castle Island

Eleven years later we take a while to recognise our camping spot, as if it needed to come forward from its past, or we from ours, till we knew where the tent went, where the fire spot must be, in a hollow with a grassy edge, for sitting and looking southwest, seals looking too, at us, we suppose. We pitched the tent, found mushrooms and a thick green net for carrying wood. Meanwhile a small east wind was getting up, so there was the question of a sheltered place to sit, or lie, or read, or not. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. In this case the Fastnet Rock coming and going in the haze. 

I found a hot spot and stretched out. Reading Virginia Woolf on Castle Island, re-reading sentences and paragraphs, settling the layers, closing your eyes: no greater pleasure.

.... it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she did not need to think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

Later we walked to the other side of the island where the ruined houses (west) stand, and, among the sheep and gorse and ghostly lazy beds, we had a conversation I'm sure we've had before, about what this island, those islands, could or should become, their swansong, perhaps. We are solitary shapemakers. I don't know the word for people who imagine looking out of empty frameless windows in roofless buildings facing southeast, but there must be one. As there must be a word for people who re-read Virginia Woolf and sit, like Mrs Ramsay knitting reddish-brown socks for the lighthousekeeper's son, in case the weather is calm enough to go out there next day.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The pond life of Gertrude Stein

Reading Ida by Gertrude Stein up at the pond, watching pond skaters, whirligig beetles and today's hawker dragonflies in their stop/start survey of our locale. Inexplicable compelling movements by insects and sentences alike in their nearly industrial rhythm. Ida is everywhere with her husbands and dogs and translocation of a kind that sentences do so much better than life. No wonder Ida spends her life resting. 

Gertrude Stein makes you feel the world has got stuck on its way around but that getting stuck is comfortable as well as the only way to be. She is of the era of Fritz Lang's M, the start of robotics. After railways, cars and planes and multiple viewpoints, staccato rhythms, narrative suspended. 

A pond can work wonders reading Gertrude Stein, watching the movements of insects and observing them when they come up close, their brilliant spots and stripes, their compound eyes, is an exercise in integration. Immediate crossover of sentences to insect movement. The dancing flies have gone, bring on the pond skaters.

Listen to me I, I am a spider, you must not mistake me for the sky, the sky read at night is a sailor's delight, the sky in the morning is a sailor's warning, you must not mistake me for the sky, I am I, I am a spider and in the morning any morning I bring sadness and mourning and at night if they see me at night I bring them delight, do not mistake me for the sky, not I, do not mistake me for a dog who howls at night and causes no delight, a dog says the moonlight makes  him go mad with desire to bring sorrow to any one sorrow and sadness, the dog says the night brings madness and grief, but the spider says I, I am a spider ...


Friday, 13 August 2021

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje

Yesterday fell out of the continuum. I ate only pap and lay down a lot, dozing or reading Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje. 

When your family is running in the lushness — societal and botanical — of early-mid-twentieth Ceylon, there's lots to tell, lots to recover, all the drama, the drinking, the heat, the large snakes shortcutting through the house, lots to inherit, lots to clarify, to seek out and confirm, lots to run with. 

Lots to run from. 'There's nowhere worse than home' (Bruce Gould).

Michael Ondaatje left Ceylon when he was eleven. Jean Rhys left Dominica when she was sixteen. Running in the Family is not Wide Sargasso Sea. It's a question of degree. Jean Rhys had five more years than Michael Ondaatje; and a wilder more rotten family, or the rot was closer to the surface. She had to act for a living, and drink and walk the streets in expectation of nothing and everything. Michael Ondaatje's father drank, by the caseload, buried under the lawn.  He was Tamil, the mother was Dutch, in the Ceylonese uppercrust way of miscegenate or drop. Drop anyway. Scatter. To the highlands in the hot season. And eventually leave, for England, for Canada. 

I understand that people want to make clear what isn't, what wasn't, what remains, of the family. But I have more sympathy with those who want to obfuscate, to veil and veil again, till what you can see of family is the hand, the fingers, the hardwired knuckle, in front of you. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Brideshead Revisited, Again

Slightly more sleep, slightly more sun, in fact hot beneath the westerly breeze, when it wasn't raining, then sometimes a clear blue day with rushing clouds; then a shower. A lush day to finish Brideshead Revisited. Revisited. I was saying to Mickos the other Saturday that I reread books all the time. He was incredulous. He had just handed back a thriller he had borrowed, its task completed. The idea you'd want to go again to feel the pace or rush on towards a savoury end you already knew, this was a passing conundrum. Like the beleaguered river we looked onto.

Recently I watched the Brideshead film, which does not touch the TV series but sends me back to the book  extra-receptive and keen. The wind in the aspen this afternoon now at the same remove as that ripe and distanced english catholicism, straight out of religious paintings, all drama and despair and scant decorum that propels Brideshead along. Not much to do with the irish version I have absorbed all these years. Both of them fictional.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Rachel Cusk and Anne Carson

Rachel Cusk's writing, on first approach, up at the pond, made me clench my teeth and need another swim. I have read rapturous reviews of her writing but not been tempted. Too impersonal, too spare. Like a surgeon in a carpark running through her skills. 

One Cusk reading event took place up at Inisleena one hot afternoon when we'd canoed down from Carrigadrohid. Think of the lake in Maldon on a hot weekend, or Lake Balaton, perhaps, but louder, with fatter people and uglier clothes and more bereft children surrounded by more plastic. I sat in the shade and read Rachel Cusk while P went for the car back in Carrigadrohid. And Rachel Cusk held her head up above all this, but I was glad to be rescued, canoe back on the roof, and extricate from the scene.

The narrator, in her dust-sheeted room, listens to a student talk about the complete personal revolution she has recently undergone at an exhibition by an American painter called Marsden Hartley. She has already written 300,000 words of notes.

She sipped her tea with an air of equanimity, as though in the confident belief that I would not be able to resist asking her to continue and tell me precisely what had caused the personal revolution to occur.

I read Transit and then Outline, vols 2 and 1 of a trilogy, I could admire but not like, or even like myself for reading it, wearied if not repelled by this faultless and therefore faulty analysis of relationships, all of them, that she crossed in her life. 

At the height of the heatwave, the solution came to me. Read Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red. Alongside Rachel Cusk.

Herakles and Geryon had gone to the video store. ——— Full moon sends rapid clouds dashing past a cold sky. When they came back they were arguing.

It's not the photograph that disturbs you it's you don't understand what photography is.

Rachel Cusk's people explain anxiously, with a certain hauteur, as if life thus displayed is life solved, or absolved. Anne Carson throws her fragments of Geryon lightly, take it or leave it, a grandmother on a porch swing in the evening. 

Goodnight children, she called in her voice like old coals. May God favour you with dreams.

Rachel Cusk doesn't leave out any more than Anne Carson does. It's a question of accent and attitude. The distance of ancient greece is helpful. No wonder Rachel Cusk is in transit and in outline (kudos is the last volume in the trilogy). Anne Carson is telling the autobiography of an ancient greek who learned early about justice. 

Geryon was a monster everything about him was red

Put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red

How stiff the red landscape where his cattle scraped against

Their hobbles in the red wind

Burrowed himself down in the red dawn jelly of Geryon's


Friday, 23 July 2021

Diary, 1964

I started re-reading my diary after I'd read The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese a few weeks ago. I wanted to see what filled my days when I was seventeen and how I wrote about it. And then re-reading the diary became what it has always been, an addiction; and I read a few pages every evening.

1964 is written looseleaf in a hardback file, the front decorated with stick-on mock-tile at two corners, with DIARY slanting down the middle, also in mock-tile. 

I am currently reading FRANCE 1964 (bold headline, underlined). I went to stay with a family in Montpellier, a recent couple with separate children, two grandmothers, Mamies, a town house, a country house, and a rental by the sea. 

The country house, a former silkwormery high up in the Cévennes, among oak and chestnut to the far hills, was the moment. Perhaps for the first time in my life I experienced absolute and complete peace. The house — silkworms in the attic (once), people in the middle, animals on the ground floor (once) — was unlike anywhere I'd ever stayed, and I wanted to be there forever. But I was seventeen and life moved me on. 

I absorbed this messy french family who all seemed so nice with each other (I wondered how long this might last), I described them at length, including their mishaps that betokened deeper things but I didn't go too far down that road even when the deeper things seemed to leave me alone with the ghosts of silkworms and a ten year-old called Olivier, who was good company, knew a lot about nature, while Monsieur et Madame sorted the oldest child who'd been in a car crash. 

I went for a lot of walks and drank a lot of silence. 'When there's no noise at all, and it's very hot, it gives a very odd feeling.' Dizzyingly wonderful. Half the village was for sale, half-derelict. I was already moving into a house my parents would buy, well in advance of their retirement, where I'd go any time I could. 

It was the house and the landscape, the relation of the two, especially when sitting on a stone windowsill listening to Beethoven's Violin Concerto looking out over over the wooded hills, that stayed with me: I had no idea this was in the dictionary of lived experience. ' Music seems twice as beautiful here. I don't know why. It must be the silence that it breaks so beautifully.'

Back in Montpellier I listened to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in the park at night. That started something too. I have listened to music and looked at landscape most evenings for the last many thousand.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel

I have read chapters of Aberration by Starlight by Gilbert Sorrrentino for the last week or more of nights, trying to find my way—through the night and the book. I used to read to students bits of his Splendide-Hôtel, his Rimbaud-inspired alphabet, to loosen their reading habit.

Et le Splendide-Hôtel fut bâti dans le chaos de glaces et de nuit du pôle.

He inhabits the Splendide-Hôtel from A to Z, and that suits me better than the novel, whose ill-digested history and rampant male-world-view are hard to bear, in the middle of the night or at any other time. 

We go about our business in the rooms and corridors of the Splendide-Hôtel. Outside, the black polar night, a chaos of glaciers. In the ballroom, a false orchestra plays false music to which all are dancing.

Sorrrentino is a better poet than he is a story-teller. He is better with the fragment than when he tries to pack his past into chapters. His persistent imagining, in  Aberration by Starlight of his mother's sexual encounter with one so-called Tom Thebus is such a mess of lurid imagination you're left numb, wondering why he has to say all this. 

Sorrentino's alphabet, on the other hand, is free-form and compelling:

N stands for No, the one word that God would utter did He deign to speak. It is the controlling factor of all religion, no matter its protestations of optimism and joy: rightly so. Cleave to the strict beliefs of a fumbling creed or get out of it, get out of it! No, they stay, no. Say it along with them and those who believe in reform—happy men! I believe in the obfuscation of the celebration of God's mysteries, let it remain in Latin, let it be changed to Greek for that matter. It is the business of religion to conceal.

The hollow interior of O could be anything.

Sitting on a stone quay facing the Gulf of Mexico, many years ago I wrote an entire novel in my mind, its title, Blue Ray. It was, as I remember, a Christmas morning, warm and sunny, the water a bright blue, blue sky. It was, of course, about a young man alone in a Texas Gulf town.

By the time we get to Z:

Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel

The dancing is over and we are tired.