Monday, 10 February 2020

I remember by Joe Brainard is the perfect read for a bitty life, an idle, not too committed life. With about fifteen short paragraphs per double page spread, this is a flat, even, pick up, put down, repeat, re-read, miss out, flick about and, now and then, when the mood is there, a real crescendo of a read whose poignancy takes you by surprise. Sometimes you have to put it down because you're no longer reading, exactly, more like consuming so fast that you seem to be running out of breath, running out of receptivity.

What Joe Brainard remembers is sometimes banal, sometimes touching. 'I remember the shadows of feet under the cracks of doors. And closeups of doorknobs turning.' A list has its own charms, by virtue of chance contiguities and, sometimes, predictable connection briefly shown. Page 144 (in the new Notting Hill edition), has a run of colours for example.
I remember, inside swimming trunks, white draw strings.
I remember, in a very general way, lots of dark green and brown. And, perhaps, a red canoe.
I remember, one summer way back, a new pair of red sandals. And I hated sandals.
I remember red fingers from eating pistachio nuts.
I remember black tongues from eating liquorice.
This lurching, grabbing, fleeting style has the cumulative effect of showing the reader a sentient life by gaps as much as by information.  The banal beside the affecting. 'I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.' This is how life works. A woman is crying and a boy is eating apricot pie whose taste, maybe, doesn't change at all. The tears and the pie are equal for all time.

I am reading this again as small hailstones slip down my windows on a februarial day of great chill and darkness.

Monday, 3 February 2020

For the past week I have been climbing about in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a spiky, slippery and defiant text so dense with difficult statements you dread the appearance of the next one. For example: 'She has the strength of an incomplete accident — one is always waiting for the rest of it, the last impurity that will make her whole; she was born at the point of death, but, unfortunately, she will not age into youth.'

This is the third lesbian novel I have read recently, and by far the most recalcitrant. Still, it has the rare honour of being considered a masterpiece by both TS Eliot and William Burroughs. Less a masterpiece than an oddity, I think, a darkly raging slim book, well-suited to night reading though not likely to bring on sleep.

Characters do not arrive quietly. Especially Jenny Petheridge, who disrupts a relationship. She comes equipped with walls and peaks of description that have an opposite effect: she vanishes behind the detail, which was maybe the (subconscious) intent.
She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming off the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality) of a woman about to be accouchée. Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her head moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm.
The style of both Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes is so lush and overwrought that it's tempting to think that they needed excesses of language to hold the transgression of their stories. What you cannot say you must say louder, with more words, more structures, more contradiction, paradox and perversity. Djuna Barnes' writing makes me want to clean it up, to whack it down to fewer words. But then, perhaps, Djuna Barnes would be gone. She would be Patricia Highsmith.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

American writers who spent time in France in the early to mid-twentieth century have an observational composure in their writing, a perceived european quietude whose formality and dignity suit the handling of passions that others are undergoing. The writer is involved and not involved, honing by observing, observing by honing.

Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk, in its clear, quiet, one hundred pages, principally focussed on an Irish couple called Cullen during a single afternoon in a country house outside Paris, is one such. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford is another. Both writers revolved around the distracted rich who fed and watered and bickered in Europe then. In the end you're not sure if it's the story or the involvement of the teller that's more moving. No, you are sure, it's the latter. The story is its telling, its estrangement.

As well as the writer/narrator, there is another observer. The hawk, called Lucy, after Walter Scott and Lucia di Lammermoor, who spends the afternoon of the novel sitting on her mistress's arm on a gauntlet 'stiffened and discoloured by a hundred little sanguinary banquets', is the narrator's most evident companion, his avian alter ego and a means of considering the meaning of events. 'People as a rule do mean much more than they understand.'
(the hawk's) chief beauty was that of expression. It was like a little flame; it caught and compelled your attention like that, although it did not flicker and there was nothing bright about it nor any warmth in it. It is a look that men sometimes have, men of great energy whose appetite or vocation has kept them absorbed every instant of their lives.
Plenty of hawk vocabulary lends an air of expertise and familiar access. These tastes of hawk life resonate strangely, especially if you're reading in the middle of the night: 'Whenever I began to be bored, a solemn glance of its maniacal eyes helped me to stop listening and to think concentratedly of myself instead, or for myself.'

The narrator, Alwyn Tower, like the narrator of The Good Soldier, is so sensitive and discriminating that the Cullens seem to retreat behind fine touches of psychology and observation, and we end having no idea who they are after they have carried us through the story's natural length. And that is what Ford Madox Ford and Glenway Wescott are so good at: displaying a story in its natural length and no more.

As we approach the end of the afternoon, and events between the Cullens come to a head, the narrator watches Mrs Cullen rushing on her high heels across cobblestones with the hawk on her arm, and sees the absurdity of it all.
It was absurd. Even her little blind headgear with parrot feathers seemed to me absurd; it matched the French hat which her mistress was wearing at so Irish an angle, except that it was provided with secure drawstrings. In spite of my bewilderment and alarm, I began to laugh. It struck me as a completion of the cycle of the afternoon, an end of the sequence of meanings I had been reading into every thing, especially Lucy. The all-embracing symbolic bird, primitive image with iron wings and rusty tassels and enamelled feet, airy murderess like an angel; young predatory sanguinary de luxe hen—now she was funny, she had not seemed funny before.
For an hour or so after I stopped reading I felt as if I were the hawk, peering about into the darkness, sleep well-nigh impossible.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

In a classic winter week of rain and cold I read Patricia Highsmith's Carol and then The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, the first from 1952, the second from 1928, 300 pages and 500 pages. It was hard to read Radclyffe Hall after the crispness of Patricia Highsmith. Carol starts straight in from the crucial encounter. The Well of Loneliness begins before birth, as it would. The description of the splendid birthplace and, for a while, perfect parents, is wearisome, verbose, tripping over itself in its desire to emphasise—the charms of nature, the intelligence of a beloved horse, etc.

I read too fast, not really reading, only skimming, impatient, then after a few chapters I have taken on her style and settled in. It is pleasing to read too fast sometimes, disrespectfully, in winter, when maybe you're not feeling great, one lesbian novel leading to another, an exercise in comparison as well as an indulgence in a taste I used to have for long novels mostly written by women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Patricia Highsmith is so good at human chill in her thrillers, how does a romance turn out of her typewriter. There are thriller touches like a hidden, unsent letter, a detective who follows the couple on their road trip, but how startling when the writer so understanding of the psychopathic mind writes the sudden unfurling of passion.
And now it was pale blue distance and space, an expanding space in which she took flight suddenly like a long arrow. The arrow seemed to cross an impossibly wide abyss with ease, seemed to arc on and on in space, and not quite stop. .... 'My angel,' Carol said. 'Flung out of space.'
It is one of the charms of invention that a couple who recognize their reciprocity can occupy the same metaphorical and physical space.

Radclyffe Hall, on the other hand, is less adept. Her protagonist, Stephen Gordon (her parents wanted a boy), is always in charge of the language. She is also richer than her adoptees, especially the last and most protectable, Mary Llewellen. Stephen is always described as tall and lithe and physically powerful. We have more sense of the horse called Raftery and the swan called Peter as independent creatures with whom conversations can be had, than we have of Mary, or any of the other friends and love-interests in the book.

Both books have surprising minor moments. The young woman in Carol learns to drive with her lover over a week or so and after that, without further ado, participates in the driving on the trip. Stephen and Mary in The Well of Loneliness take a boat after the first world war from Southampton to Tenerife for a holiday. No flygskam (flight shaming) in 1919. The ménage they set up in Paris, in an old house with a garden in the rue Jacob, not far from (inspired by?) Gertrude Stein in the rue de Fleurus in the same era. Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall. What a pair. Did they ever meet?

Saturday, 11 January 2020

One night I read In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the title story of Delmore Schwarz's 1938 collection, I walked along its present tense dream narrative and found little to hold me there, then read it again the next night and found everything.

Now I have read most of the other stories in the book, all of which are less dreamlike, more painstakingly autobiographical, the title story, by far the shortest, is still my favourite. So much so that when, a day or two after my successful reading of it, I saw the table in our cabin inches deep with  paper shreddings from Jo's psychotherapy notes, I immediately thought of the end of Delmore Schwarz's story.
... I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.
It is quite something to see a table thick with paper shreddings that stop quietly and somehow neatly at the edge of the table, and immediately think of a line of two of narrative you recently read.

In this story unlike the others in the book the present tense of dream as well as the plain talking of 'my father' and 'my mother', and 'I', rather than the odd clunky names Schwarz chooses elsewhere like Shenandoah and Rudyard, bring out a compelling immediacy, so that when he says, for example, 'I am anonymous, I have forgotten myself', exactly the opposite seems true. He may have forgotten himself, as he never forgets Shenandoah or Rudyard, Wilhelmina or Seymour, but this reader remembers him, knows him.

The dream takes place as if in a motion picture theatre, as he calls it, and concerns the courtship of his parents. At the moment of the proposal, his mother sobs, his father finds this scarcely to his taste, and the dreamer, the writer, stands up in the theatre and shouts:
"Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous."
Shredded psychotherapy notes, ha.

Friday, 3 January 2020

The other day I zipped through The Third Policeman till I came to the bit, roughly halfway through, where Sergeant Pluck is showing the narrator Policeman MacCruiskeen's room, in which, at first, he doesn't see much. Sergeant Pluck urges him to look again, in the right quarter.
'If I ever want to hide,' he remarked, 'I will always go upstairs in a tree. People have no gift for looking up, they seldom examine the lofty altitudes.
I looked at the ceiling.
'There is little to be seen there,' I said, 'except a bluebottle that looks dead.'
The Sergeant looked up and pointed with his stick.
'That is not a bluebottle', he said, 'that is Gogarty's outhouse.'
This is the beginning of the revelation that the ceiling of Policeman MacCruiskeen's room, comprising tiny cracks and marks and dead flies, was in fact a map of the parish, complete, reliable and astonishing.

I had recently read The Third Policeman when I first came to Ireland, and was thus primed for occupancy of this hill where I still live. The idea that there could be a police station under or beside the hill, of the old-fashioned kind where you could expect a crock of porridge to be served, and maybe a row of cabbages growing outside, and that the resident policeman's room should have evolved on its ceiling a map of the neighbourhood, was entirely consonant with my expectations.
'The funny thing is,' the Sergeant said, 'that MacCruiskeen lay for two years before he saw it was a map of superb ingenuity. ... And he lay looking at the map for five years more before he saw that it showed the way to eternity.'
Such are the monkey-tricks of Flann O'Brien's tale that a susceptible reader, newly arrived in Ireland, and with a prolific internal imagination, may find in her own surroundings a swift and complex replica of the book.
The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side. The earth was agog with invisible industry. Trees were active where they stood and gave uncompromising evidence of their strength. Incomparable grasses were forever at hand, lending their distinction to the universe.
Local knowledge and the mapping thereof together formed an appropriate conundrum, a difficult pancake, a very compound crux. After a year of very particular and scrupulous attention paid both to the actuality and the history of this hill, I have still not at all got to the bottom of the business of the police station and the map on the ceiling, but I look to Flann O'Brien for the comfort of incomplete revelation. As they emerge from eternity, with Sergeant Pluck explaining to Policeman MacCruiskeen his outlook on Ju-jubes and jelly-sweets and Turkish Delights, the narrator realises that although they have been underground for several hours, everything still wore an air of early morning.
There was an incommunicable earliness in everything, a sense of waking and beginning. Nothing had yet grown or matured and nothing begun had yet finished. A bird singing had not yet turned finally the last twist of tunefulness. A rabbit emerging still had a hidden tail.
He falls into a full and simple sleep, awakening the following morning with the recollection that he had been in the next world yesterday.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

What if Patricia Highsmith had written a spare trilogy about her growing up, as Tove Ditlevsen did, instead of these thriller tortures, these chilly people she has to invent in places she has visited, like Venice, Sorrento, Athens and Crete for The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January?

Why does Patricia Highsmith need to invent psychotics abroad, while Tove Ditlevsen stays at home—call it that—and has not read Freud?

I would like to read three slim volumes on thick chalky paper written by Patricia Highsmith about growing up in Texas in the 1920s and 30s. Her diaries, all 8,000 pages of them, are due to be published next year. Beside that complex flood, the novels may start to look slim.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

By the end of Dependency, the third volume of Tove Ditlevsen's Copenhagen trilogy, my instinct is to look back through the book and re-read a sentence here and there, as if I might find something I'd missed the first time around, or to reconfirm her equal, even attention to the awful and the everyday. A novel about dependency creates its own addiction.

The Penguin publishers cannily separate the trilogy into three slim airy volumes with thick paper, like the books of childhood, so you read as a child reads, everything at the same pace, with the attention of the new-born reader.

Tove is pregnant and her mother visits, or she visits her mother.
I talk with her about giving birth, and she says that Edvin and I were born in a cloud of soap bubbles, because she tried to force us to come out by eating pine-oil soap. She says, I never liked children.
Well-spaced print on soft chalky paper holds unexploded bombs.

The eponymous dependency begins around pregnancies, among desires to be normal and knowledge that you're not. Specifically it begins at a Tubercular Ball with a doctor called Carl who looks as if he has sixty-four teeth and introduces her to Demerol to quell the pain of a quick scrape, a curettage, and then Chloral for sleep, methadone for earache.

I can't read anything about addiction without being reminded of my friend Rafferty, especially the spurious feeling of control after rehab. The clearer he sounded after his liver transplant, after psychotherapy, the swifter his gulps at a glass of water, his darting looks along a street, the less I believed anything he said. He wrote his account too; the glory hole of his life as reinvented to reassure himself that by saying it he was conquering it.

All that was missing, not sayable or not said in the first two volumes of Tove Ditlevsen's trilogy, has now channelled into the addiction, and, although still not explicable, not explained in any way, it has a place, a locus, a black hole, a focus and a structure. There are husbands and children and moves from one house to another, eventually to a hospital.
I'm lying in bed with my head lifted slightly from the pillow, staring stiffly at my wristwatch. With the other hand I'm wiping the sweat out of my eyes. I'm staring at the second hand, because the minute hand won't move, and once in a while I hold the watch up to my good ear, because I think it's stopped. I get a shot every three hours, and the last hour is longer than all the years I have lived on this earth.
Tove Ditlevsen is far less lurid than Edward St Aubyn, writing several decades later about the same thing. Writing has a different function for her. About halfway through the book, she says:
The days pass, the weeks pass. I've started writing short stories, and the veil between myself and reality is solid and secure again. 
 I wonder if, while writing this trilogy, the last volume written only five years before she committed suicide, the veil was still solid and secure.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

I read the second volume of Tove Ditlevsen's Trilogy the length of what's known locally as a desperate day, strong winds from the south and very wet, pints of water under the front door. I would have preferred to take Youth slower, but, even with pausing between chapters for a look into the stove or out of the window, there wasn't a chance, not with that weather, especially knowing I had the third volume, Dependency, which is slightly longer, in reserve. The spare, onward movement of Youth took me through a dark afternoon into the real dark. Tove Ditlevsen is a dark afternoon. The real dark you have to supply yourself. That is the great thing about spare tales. You can work it how you will. This is a plain account of the years from fourteen to twenty, the shuffle into independence. Plain, but pained. With obscure costs buried under the white of the page. If you say this little, if you fail to show emotion when expected, if you're on the edge of any spot you're in, if you read and write beyond what's considered seemly, you can recount all you like of rooms and jobs and boys who squeezed you at the end of the evening, you're freighted, and that's how it is.

The Danish title of Dependency is Gift which means both marriage and poison.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Berg by Ann Quin. Brighton in the sixties, where I spent nine formative years. Any Brighton I read or see on film has to settle beside those nine years, five in the town, the last four out in the country. Ann Quin was fermenting her own death while I was vanishing into Mallarmé a few miles outside Lewes. She walked into the sea. I went to Ireland.

I read Berg in the last few days with a kind of nervous reserve, trying not to recognise more than I had to. I don't know why she had to have Berg a man, a son who might kill his father, when she was a woman, a daughter, who wanted to kill herself. Evasive behaviour from the nineteen sixties. We were all drilled into freedom but it didn't feel like that. We were not saying what we meant.

Ann Quin walked into the sea, salt and buoyant. Virginia Woolf walked into the Ouse not far away, with stones in her pockets.

The remembered mother, the implacable sea, says the back cover blurb of Berg, a Calder book, 1964, in thick chalky paper. Berg has a large author photo on the front cover, and 50p written in biro between title and author. Judy Kravis, 1975, written on the pre-title page.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen's Childhood, part one of The Copenhagen Trilogy, has me from page one.
So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn't say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.
I am sensitive to mother/daughter silence and tension, the forms of defence the daughter learns.
I carried the cups out to the kitchen, and inside of me long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane. A song, a poem, something soothing and rhythmic and immensely pensive but never distressing or sad, as I knew the rest of the day would be distressing and sad.
Tove Ditlevsen was born the same year as my mother, so to construe for a moment my mother as daughter adds a peculiar piquancy. You are not supposed to understand your mother's interiority, the childhood she carried about. It's enough, more than enough, to configure your own.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin and you can't get out of it on your own. It's there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as Pretty Ludwig's harelip. It's the same with him as with Pretty Lili, who's so ugly you can't imagine she ever had a mother. Everything that is ugly or unfortunate is called beautiful, and no one knows why. You can't get out of childhood, and it clings to you like a bad smell. You notice it in other children —each childhood has its own smell. You don't recognise your own and sometimes you're afraid that it's worse than others'.
By chapter 12 her childhood was thin and flat, paper-like, she couldn't help comparing. 'It was tired and threadbare, and in low moments it didn't look like it would last until I was grown up.'
My childhood was supposed to last until I was fourteen, but what was I going to do if it gave out beforehand? You never got answers to any of the important questions. Full of envy, I stared at Ruth's childhood, which was firm and smooth and without a single crack. It looked as if it would outlive her, so that someone else might inherit it and wear it out.
By chapter 15, when the narrator is 12, 'My tattered childhood flaps around me, and no sooner have I patched one hole than another breaks through.' By the end of volume one, the last remnants of her childhood fall away 'like flakes of sun-scorched skin, and beneath looms an awkward, an impossible adult.'

See volume 2, Youth, and volume 3, Dependency.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

If a novel can have a redemptive sentence, this is it for the early pages of The New House by Lettice Cooper.
They say there is only one half-hour when a pear is at its best for eating.
Do I really care about this family and their furniture, their hats and gloves and orchards, their contretemps? The family is or was prosperous, and the materfamilias and Rhoda, the daughter who lives with her, are moving house, which sends tremors through the whole family in 1930s Yorkshire.

A knowledge of pears involves me with Rhoda and Delia and Maurice and their mother Natalie and her sister Ellen. The particularity wraps around: this is human life revealed, every time, every day, a hundred pages each of morning afternoon and evening and then the day, the book, draws to a close.
Today, she thought, is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack, and, if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin to-morrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.
This is not Virginia Woolf but it is thoughtful and quiet. (Virginia Woolf has a Rhoda in The Waves.) The sound of women and men thinking in Yorkshire, in the 1920s or 30s. A protected world, but leaky.
Queer that when the present cracks it is not so much that the past is behind you as that it is all there inside you, part of you. ... We're like snails, really. We do carry our home on our backs wherever we remove to. It's all there with us, packed in layers of pleasure and pain.
Before I came to Ireland, Sally Corbett, a neighbour who would have been of Lettice Cooper's generation, said that I would be moving across the water with my snail, and I looked around at my things, mostly books and records, some furniture, and felt it pack into a whirly shell, along with the turmoil of anticipation and trepidation.
It would be unkind, perhaps, to tell her today, on top of everything else, to let her know on the first night in the new home that she was going to lose her daughter. All the same, Rhoda knew that she must do it. If she didn't do it to-day, she never would. Only free people, she thought, can afford to be kind, and I'm not free! She could do it to-day, when she was shaken out of her ordinary life, strung to an unusual clearness of perception.
Thus Rhoda, trying to shift from a future of petit bâton de vieillesse to free woman self-directed and therefore more kind. Aunt Ellen, who is surely related to Mrs Palfrey in Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, may or may not go to live with her sister, while Rhoda may take over her sister Delia's job at the lab in the city. These quiet bids for freedom are touching.
If it could really happen, she thought. If she could really be living in a house again, able to go into the kitchen and make a cake, or do some flowers for the table, or look through the linen for the laundry and see what wanted mending. 
I am putting off the last fifty pages for the half-hour when the pear is best for eating.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Walk on the wild side by Nelson Algren was the bass line of this week's reading, with, the last day or two, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson on top.

I wouldn't have chosen to insert the funny, sensitive knowing child of The Summer Book into Nelson Algren's world of 1930s depressed, drifting America, but, after a day of biblical rain and in advance of talking to a bunch of transition year students who are coming tomorrow to scrutinise our land and its habitats, I need to enter the outdoor world.

When I first started Walk on the wild side the talk-heavy language beguiled but left me standing still. But, as Dove Linkhorn moves from East Texas to New Orleans, and tries, as he says, to make an honest living in a crooked sort of way, he learns to pimp and he learns to read and the language of the book changes. Less street talk. No one has the wearies any more. Shakespeare and Ecclesiastes are there like diary entries, ceremonial but natural. Nelson Algren on his own crusade. Dove Linkhorn comes clean.

The island of The Summer Book, way out in the Gulf of Finland, is in another key altogether. Taking possession of an island by looking at it, suffering and delighting in it, knowing it by living in it, idly, playing it, naming it, forgetting, reinventing by going further in and allowing the mind to wander, considerate, in a common sense way, of the needs of God and the place of ants in this life or the next.

Like the Ivor Cutler tale of the boy who planted himself in the garden till roots grew out of his feet, and then he could not be transplanted.

It is a story of planting or drifting.
Hoe your beans or walk on the wild side.
Or both.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Unexpected reading, prone in front of the stove on a cold, clear, windy afternoon. Looking through all my Ivor Cutler books for a drawing of a boy who planted himself in the garden until roots started growing out of his feet.

I read several of his books at speed, looking for the next intake of breath. The world brought up close and crazy, perverse and defiant and warm. Short pieces with drawings here and there. Tiny format. Half of A6. Biggish, tight print. Never knowingly understood, as he liked to say, looking out sideways from his book covers.
Sailing on my floating island, I take one breath per day. I breathe it in at midnight —a great big breath — and spend the rest of the day clutching the roots below and letting out bubbles.
Ivor Cutler was on the radio when I was about twelve: Monday Night At Home was on Monday Nights, At Home, a bizarre concept now. Quiet and unpredictable, funny from a long way back. Ivor Cutler telling us about gruts for tea, oh no, not gruts again, in a voice that sounded slowed down inside a thickset hedge. Ivor, born Isidore, Cutler grew up jewish in glasgow, a disquieting category like most other beginnings in life, that gave rise to a displaced child with a perverse streak.
I spent ten years at the conservatoire learning how to listen. After graduating with an A+, I gave several concerts, sitting on a chair listening to restive audiences. Eventually they started bringing instruments and went home after, thrilled with the quality of my reception. 
I bought Ivor Cutler's books at Compendium in Camden. He brought them in himself in his bicycle basket. This was pre-internet. I know him through his books and his bicycle. Later, when I was talking to people about teaching literature, I wanted to talk to him, but he sent me a half-page note on lined paper declining.

And now, looking for Sam who planted himself, to his parents' consternation, in the garden, and couldn't be dug up, I find him again. Different pages come through. Like this one, from Is That Your Flap, Jack?
The albatross, the stormy petrel, the armadillo that grubs for ants in the desert night, the rock cavy with his York gangster face still and alert, the boatbill and the marabout, shoulders hunched from the ache of carrying the world, Schubert's Hurdygurdyman and my grandfather, stumbling through the main street of a long long village, fledglings fallen from the nest. They all have their tune, which is silent. Small girls can hear it. They comfort dead flies, and little brightly-coloured lumps of detritus. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

By the time I arrived at the penultimate story in El Llano in flames by Juan Rulfo I was nearly drama-numb, like listening to current news from almost anywhere in the world. The Guardian Weekly that arrived today has an article on Mexico and its drug wars, with a sub-heading 'We Mexicans live in a cemetery full of bodies with no story, and stories with no body'. Read a Mexican writer and Mexican stories flood in.

Juan Rulfo's stories are set at the time of the revolution of 1910-20 which led to a democratic Mexico (though drugs make nonsense of democracy). I went to Mexico once, in 1981, which left me with one distinct memory — a mariachi band playing in a café facing the television, which was on, not the people in the café — and one general memory — that Mexico was like Ireland but in colour.

Juan Rulfo writes in the talky street style that a number of writers used after world war two, as if one of the effects of war were to loosen literary (often male) tongues from correctness, give voice to the voiceless, without abandoning a richness of palette, or should that be palate? If violence and misery are everyday currency, they can be redeemed by the language in which they are played out.

The penultimate story, 'The legacy of Matilde Arcángel', is a father/son tale, the father literally a towering figure. 'You felt, when you saw him, like you'd been thrown together in a slapdash kind of way, from the offcuts.' Whereas the son was 'a scrawny ravel of a lad ... (who) lived ... under the rock of a crushing hatred, and it's fair to say that his adversity began with being born.'  The story ends with the son riding his father's horse, 'his left hand playing away on his flute, and his right holding on to his father's dead body, slung crossways over the saddle'.

Death is always a solution as well as a dissolution. The place and the time Juan Rulfo writes about were rife with it. If a time can be full of holes. Plenty of movies represent such realities, and it's easy, confronted by a gap-toothed actor in a Mexican hat who shoots someone every five minutes, or the Magnificent Seven carried through hills and valleys by the music of Elmer Bernstein, to ride along with it all, past the white-clad villagers who somehow always look like actors.

This sounds like an argument for the deeper powers of written language over the language of (mainstream) cinema. And maybe it is. A film has one story, however complex or fragmented. A book is a collection of, in this case, 17 stories, though so consistent, so mythico-real that it's hard not to feel as if the stories have merged into one. As if the heroes of movies have been removed and what we read about is what's left: the people, the villages, the stories, if not myths, which they sometimes become, the deaths, inadvertent and other, the hens scratching in the dust, all that movie heroes sweep aside so that the villagers, no longer actors nor indeed heroes, are exactly what remains.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, number 48 of The Faber Library, 1936.  I bought it in 1972 and haven't read it for many years. Elegant and anxious, it confirms the climate of a few decades before I was born. Even the pinkish dust jacket, rough as sugar paper, speaks to me. The story title pages are gracious as many of the lives depicted therein. Dropped capital to begin, and generous font with plenty of page around the text.

One jacket puff says the book is an exciting experience for the imaginative reader. Another describes it as an extremely interesting book which all those who are concerned with the trends of modern writing, and many who are not, will enjoy. The trends of modern writing in the 1930s might include an awareness of psychology, the rumble of fascism, an uneasy correctness and a willingness to investigate politely human sexuality.

In his autobiography, World Within World, Stephen Spender writes that he grew up in a style of austere comfort against a background of calamity.  The stories of The Burning Cactus reflect roughly that: a young man observing the artistic and leisured, thinking classes, chiefly in Europe.

Virginia Woolf, in a quotation that lives on my desk, said she wanted someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions.

 I too want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit, which, this week, has involved mud and machines and weather and water and exhaustion. This week I sat beside Stephen Spender at the end of the day and in the middle of the night.

His early writing is careful, very mannered, with a ring of the alien ordinary.
"Look, there's Daddy on the lawn!" said Tom, pointing to the window.
With relief Werner turned round, and they all looked out of the windows at Lord Edward, who was strolling up and down. He walked with the self-conscious uprightness of a man who has corrected a tendency to stoop. He was wearing one of his hundred and four suits—he had two for each week of the year—
I knew Stephen Spender's nephew Quentin when he was about ten. He was a fey-looking boy like his father and his uncle, slight and fine-boned. Likely to become a psychotherapist. Humphrey and Stephen Spender, with their social conscience, worldly influence and sexual ambiguity, were eminent and gracious material for the next generation.

Virginia Woolf mocked Stephen Spender for thinking that writing could or should be put to the service of views about the world, that social factors mattered more than the quality of the writing. She thought that awareness of the calamities of the world did not make it possible to write about them. 'You have to be beaten and broken by things before you can write about them.'

Stephen Spender of The Burning Cactus is not beaten or broken. Perhaps, as he says in World Within World, he would have liked to be an outcast, but he wasn't.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

A Flower Book for the pocket by Macgregor Skene (1935 & 1951) is a multiple read: the soft painted illustrations by Charlotte Georgiana Trower and Ruth Weston were the home face of a day outdoors when I was twelve: reclusive, shortsighted, noticing everything that grew, picking some to take home, wanting to know the name and the latin. The paragraph on the opposite page, written by Macgregor Skene, gave me a language for where I'd been and who I was. The habitats of plants were my habitats. A not uncommon weed of cultivated ground through most of Britain. Local on sandy and shingle shores, from mid-Scotland southwards; I.

I think that I is Ireland. How coy is that.

Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips (1977) includes Ireland as common sense, one of these islands. Species most common in Cork and Kerry he says as if he's been there which he probably has. Roger Phillips uses photographs, softly printed. The illustrations of Charlotte Georgiana Trower and Ruth Weston, softly printed also, are clearer, because, where the camera sees with the camera in mind, the illustrator sees in order to make visible: she has been looking.

Illustrations of the Natural Orders of the Vegetable Kingdom by Professor Oliver. F.R.S. F.L.S, is of another order altogether. Illustrations by Mr W. H. Fitch, F.L.S. who has been looking for a long time at the inner lives of plants. Diagram of a flower, cross-section, with ovaries and filaments finely drawn, with coloured wash, leaf awake on the left, and leaf asleep on the right in the Oxalidaceae family.

Mr W. H. Fitch also did the line drawings for Illustrations of The British Flora, which I bought in 1960. The preface ends thus:
Although the illustrations are necessarily small and not intended to be coloured, many persons have found it of interest to do so, perhaps as a record of their observation and identification of the plants themselves.  So far as it has been possible in the present abnormal circumstances, a paper suitable for colouring has been used in this edition of the work.  July, 1919
I coloured in the field poppy and the grass vetchling, both red, and that was as far as my courage went.
Side Elevation of the Deanery, Ardagh, County Longford, drawn by John Nankivell.

A flyer from the Irish Georgian Society is on my desk.

I read William H. Gass's Omensetter's Luck prone before the stove, this lowering afternoon, and when I say read, and prone, that is what it was, the long, exact, Gass moment, and I couldn't say, à la fin, nor would I want to say, what kind of luck Omensetter had at all, or Gass, for that matter, having to write like this, relentless unto madness sometimes, the old push/pull of language going back to magma.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

William H. Gass, Bill Gass, in a Revised & Expanded Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & other stories, is looking for a reader.
Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?  . . .  I am fashioning a reader for these fictions . . . of what kind, you ask? well, skilled and generous with attention, for one thing, patient with longueurs, forgiving of every error and the author's self-indulgence, avid for details . . . ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines.
I circle around his pages, pleased to be there, as you could circle a copse of trees and go home, go to sleep, all in a day's work. The calque or layer upon layer of reading every so many years, the re-forming of an image you will forget, amalgamates into a reading yet to come.
The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need.
William H., or Bill, is clear about the difficult and the free, subtle about the obvious.
... though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
Reading the stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is one thing. Reading the preface is suddenly closer to the source and instead of being teased and pleased, you're moved.
Unlike this preface, then, which pretends to the presence of your eye, these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness. I willed their existence , but I don't know why. Except that in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style. I wanted to feel responsible where I could bear to be responsible, and to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page—

Friday, 18 October 2019

I began to get a heavy chilly feeling about a quarter of the way into Gerald Murnane's Tamarisk Row, and by the halfway point it was so bad I couldn't face these sentences: long, intricate, desolate, freezing at the height of summer.

This first novel from 1940s Australia is about horse-racing and boyhood, about racing marbles in the dust in place of horses, about a boy's preoccupation with catching a glimpse of girls' pants.

I read a lot of Patrick White in the seventies and eighties, and there's a chilly plainness in his novels too, as if this were the only way a sensitive Australian man could express the country he was born into, or out of.

Gerald Murnane writes sentences as vast and inhospitable as the land itself. The reining in of bleakness into sentences produces more bleakness.

J.M. Coetzee, who writes a puff on the back cover, is another chilly writer. Though I liked Foe, his reinvention of Daniel Defoe.

Just as I would not choose to read a novel that was in any way about football, I am dispirited by one which is about horse-racing.

By the end of the afternoon, a chance reference to William H. Gass in a review I read recently has sent me back to The Heart of the Heart of the Country.

A slow read of the long preface, lying in front of the fire on a sharp and windy afternoon, marking the most charming passages with a pencil, is what I need after Gerald Murnane.
Thus, obscurely and fortuitously, chance brought these stories forth from nowhere. Icicles once dripped solidly from my eaves, for instance. I thought them remarkable because they seemed to grow as a consequence of their own grief, and I wondered whether my feelings would freeze to me by the time they had traveled my length, and whether each of us wasn't just the size of our consciousness solidified;

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

For my state of disturbance and expectation this autumn, Virginia Woolf on her way to the the late, chamber music-like novels, is a right read. I can open Jacob's Room almost anywhere and be touched by these sentences that push at truths to be found next time around.
There are very few good books after all, for we can't count profuse histories, travels in mule carts to discover the sources of the Nile, or the volubility of fiction. I like books whose virtue is all drawn together in a page or two. I like sentences that don't budge though armies cross them. I like words to be hard —
She writes her London; she walks and looks about; takes the omnibus and sits in the park. She works on the music of non-sequiturs. I bought this book in 1975 and wrote in the margin of page 116: How much further the sentence, in pencil.
Alas, women lie! But not Clara Durrant. A flawless mind; a candid nature; a virgin chained to a rock (somewhere off Lowndes Square) eternally pouring out tea for old men in white waistcoats, blue-eyed, looking you straight in the face, playing Bach.
Sentences that arrest you while at the same time pushing you on:
'Anyhow, I can drown myself in the Thames,' Fanny cried, as she hurried past the Foundling Hospital. 
I read Virginia Woolf every time with a sense of relief. Like listening to Schubert or Mozart.
So we are driven back to see what the other side means — the men in their club and Cabinets — when they say that character-drawing is a frivolous fireside art, a matter of pins and needles, exquisite outlines enclosing vacancy, flourishes and mere scrawls. .... These actions, together with the incessant commerce of banks, laboratories, chancellories, and houses of business, are the strokes which oar the world forward, they say.  ....  It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force. They say that the novelists never catch it; that it goes hurtling through their nets and leaves them torn to ribbons. This, they say, is what we live by — this unseizable force.

Monday, 30 September 2019

By 1922 Japan was sending to the west those folded paper flowers that open when you put them in water. Proust saw them, Virginia Woolf saw them. The folded paper flowers are there, swelling, in the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, and halfway through Jacob's Room.

Guy Davenport taught a course on the year 1922. I expect he knew about the shipments of folded paper flowers from the East and their effect on Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf.
About this time a firm of merchants having dealings with the East put on the market little paper flowers which opened on touching water. As it was the custom also to use finger-bowls at the end of dinner, the new discovery was found of excellent service. In these sheltered oaks the little coloured flowers swam and slid; surmounted smooth slippery waves, and sometimes foundered and lay like pebbles on the glass floor. Their fortunes were watched by eyes intent and lovely. It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union of hearts and foundation of homes. The paper flowers did no less.
Virginia Woolf circles her flowers; she can be the quietest writer. Eyes intent and lovely.

Marcel Proust's paper flowers swell into houses and characters, they become the river, the park, the village, the church, all of his childhood at Combray, through the unfolding of the lime-blossom tea in a cup, he remembers.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Up at the reservoir, trying to read Ruskin in the shadow of the equinox, wind picking up, gravel pit works grinding away on the other side, followed by a swim, ultimate or penultimate, who knows, then home. The next Ruskin essay, in the evening, is an inaugural address to the Cambridge School of Art, 
Sight. Not a slight thing to teach, this: perhaps, on the whole, the most important thing to be taught in the whole range of teaching. .... To be taught to see is to gain word and thought at once, and both true.
Ruskin, earnest Victorian, two firm syllables however you say it. Proust read Ruskin. His Venice was created by reading Ruskin, so that when eventually he went to Venice he was disappointed: this was not Venice at all. He would have been better off staying at home and sending postcards, as Flann O'Brien recommends.

Reading Ruskin makes me think of whoever I know who who has read Ruskin, or might, who lives by a certain way of questioning or wrestling, enjoys the rhythm of sentences, the geography of thinking, not preachy, more explicatory in the manner of a country man leaning on a gate or sitting at a hearth.

Ruskin spent six weeks in Turin studying the brocade in a Veronese painting. Can we read Ruskin as he reads brocade? For six weeks?
When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower.
Women too. When are women rightly occupied? Where is the amusement of women? Whence this masculine optimism? Why can't I read without asking these questions? This is the amusement of women.

As Ruskin says, one kind of writing exists because, for various reasons, there is no one to say it to.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Read of the week was a Gucci ad on the back of the New Yorker. Straight to the point. In french.

Droit au but, les revers voient grand.  

The point is out of sight, beyond a pair of wide, white lapels on black silk and wool. Mallarmé would write like this in 2019.

Vous ne risquer pas de manquer votre entrée en optant pour cette veste de smoking croisée noire 
en cady de soie et laine.

Mallarmé wrote and produced a fashion magazine called La Dernière Mode at the end of the nineteenth century, a poet on sabbatical among women's clothes, compiling his sentient dictionary, his gamut of suggestion.

Et l'on n'est pas au bout de ses surprises, puisque 
l'ensemble se complète d'un casque en feutre noir à visière jaune transparente

The less you understand the more
The better the entrance you make
Say nothing and you fascinate
By the reach of your lapels
You are transparent and 
Still you have secrets


Your visor tinted
Spastic in stance
You strike a pose
Of antic Egyptian
You play your role
As you understand it
As we understand you
To understand it in this costume

Jouez votre rôle comme vous l'entendez

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

On a good day in September you talk to a few people in the market, take your place in the world for an hour or so, then go down to Vibes and Scribes to find something to read, and there are two books on the front display that will prime the change in the season.

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
How it is if you have paranoid tendencies and a missing twin. '... as if I'd been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane.' Dislocation of the real. As respite. The relief of spelling it out is only temporary.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A story written by a library. 'I emerged from the library at age 28,'  says Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 is the fantasy nightmare dream tale of a graduate of libraries who has absorbed hundreds of styles and aspirations.

Science fiction is a total misnomer. Dystopian fiction even worse. More like the usual warped autobiography. If we're prepared to be honest. Ragle Gumm in Time Out of Joint is at the centre of an invented universe. Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 is trying to escape with his books intact. Their names tell all. These are auto-explanations of a rational/passionate/desperate order.

The resident image, recurring as with dreams, is Truffaut's film of Fahrenheit 451, with its speaking book people to and fro in the dusk or the dawn at the end of the film: he's Plato she's Alice in Wonderland, he's the Third Policeman. They walk to and fro saying their books, being their books in open spaces between trees.

A new Desert Island Discs question: if you had to choose a book to learn by heart, to guarantee for your lifetime, what would you choose? Fahrenheit 451? A Robert Walser story. A la recherche du temps perdu? One of the four quartets? Orlando?

Ray Bradbury invented Guy Montag, the fireman (though he claims it was the other way around) because he had grown in books and could not do without them. So he writes, or is written, as above all a passion for books, a need for books and libraries. Truths less carved in stone than printed on the memory.

Within a few pages Montag the fireman who burns books (with relish), meets Clarisse, the self-confessed insane 17 year-old with the faintest breath of fresh apricots and strawberries about her; and begins his transformation.

This is a redemption story. Ray Bradbury is a golden labrador of a writer. His enthusiasm for what he has to say is infectious.

Philip K. Dick, or PKD, on the other hand, is not redeemed. (I can't think of an introspective breed of dog.) He makes his tragic discovery and it's recessive. Everything he knows quickly leads to doubting everything he knows. Every border an introduction to a new unreality.
'Maybe,' Phil Dick told a Vancouver convention in 1972, 'all systems .... are the manifestations of paranoia. We should be content with the mysterious, the meaningless, the contradictory, the hostile, and most of all the unexplainably warm and giving...'

Saturday, 31 August 2019

I was reading Norman Douglas, Siren Land, in the middle of the night, the chapter on the Blue Grotto of Capri, with lavish quotes from Ouida and other, only slightly less rapturous visitors, then went back to sleep and dreamed of a stretch of calm sea with, every few yards, a horse showing through: head and neck and mane. Then the horses went back under the water, though you could still see them, shadowy, moving slightly.

You need to take some kind of deep breath to read Norman Douglas. This erudite, hedonistic, cheerfully opinionated writing is not of our time. Siren Land (1911) feels more natural to him than South Wind. He treats his historical knowledge and feeling for place with more relish and comfort than the social world he reconstructs in South Wind. 

The popularity of the Blue Grotto arose in the high Romantic period, 'on the crest of an immense wave of cavern and ruin worship that overswept Northern  Europe', and might not have happened if tastes had gone some other way. They would have found the Blue Grotto by now, I thought; they have found everything, and what they haven't found, they have constructed, in this, the high Capitalist period.
Shelley warbled of odorous caves so tunefully that men were almost tempted to become troglodytes again; Rousseau raved of noble savages; he showed us how to discover beauty in Switzerland.... long may it continue to attract, and wholly absorb, the superbly virile energies of our own upper-better-middle classes! Thanks, Rousseau; thanks for not living in Italy. 
Norman Douglas is similarly acerbic about England. 'English nature is too green, he wrote, and that green too monotonous in shade and outline; it is (entre nous) a salad landscape. '

Other riotous chapters include one about Sister Serafina, the local not quite saint of Capri, so much the antithesis of Norman Douglas' own tastes in life, like pleasure, and wine, and lying under carob trees in golden light, that he gets into perverse stride.
I linger upon the personality of this energetic single-minded woman, for she is the embodiment of what the Hellenic spirit was not: its very antithesis. Earthly existence she held to be an illusion; the world was death; the body a sinful load which must be tortured and vexed in preparation for the real life—the life beyond the grave. To those Greeks, the human frame was a subtle instrument to be kept lovingly in tune with the loud-voiced melodies of earth and sky and sea; these were the realities; as for a life beyond, let the gods see it it—a shadowy, half-hearted business, at best.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Reading Norman Douglas South Wind I am astounded, and bored, and for a moment fascinated, especially the bits I read in the middle of the night, when fascination is a good prelude to sleep. Mine is a 21st edition printed in 1947, thirty years after first publication. Who were these thousands of readers then who would happily disport by proxy on the island of Nepenthe?

Soldiers in WW1, I have learned, liked being reminded of the idle life of Nepenthe, Norman Douglas's lightly disguised island of Capri. They didn't mind the assumption that everyone knows latin and greek, has no need of regular work and understands the easy tone of good society. The snobbery went down well with all classes. "You cannot be frank with men of low condition."

Norman Douglas assumes that Capri in the teens of the twentieth century, like The Field in County Kerry in the 1960s, with its minute machinations, crises and reversals, is bottomless and riveting. They have the same potential, let's say, Capri and County Kerry, early or mid-twentieth century, low or high, visceral or scholarly, they're devious and bibulous, feelings run high and this, bottom line, is the piece of rock on which we find ourselves.

I haven't read The Field but I've seen the film, Richard Harris emoting down the ditches and in the pub. My parents had South Wind on their shelves. I didn't read it then. Nor did I know that Norman Douglas was friends with Elizabeth David, who turned English cooking around at the same time as he was writing his swan song on Capri.

My last try with South Wind was down at the reservoir today, where, for once, there was no wind, and sun for the most part eluded. The Poles were there today, across the water, several families, and the teenagers off to one side. I listened to the Polishness of their voices and the song of two wood pigeons, one throaty and ending on that poignant half-note, the other, more shrill, stopping short of the ending.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Bucharest lies within my sense of the distant past, a place I know but have never visited. My grandparents were not far away. Saul Steinberg, Tristan Tzara, Eugene Ionesco, came from there, and left. For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, based on diaries he kept during the 1920s and 30s, shows why. Mihail Sebastian also left Romania (for Paris) for periods, but returned. He chronicles the arguments he had with his friends, while they were still his friends, mostly about anti-semitism.
Sometimes at the professor's course I feel like we're gathered together in a kind of ideological headquarters of an immense world war, waiting from hour to hour for telegrams about the catastrophe, dreaming of the new world that will be born from its ashes.
The author picture on the back cover shows a soft face with big eyes and full lips, a damp poet type with a widow's peak, looking up from a slightly tilted head.
Has anybody had greater need of a fatherland, a soil, a horizon with plants and animals? Everything abstract in me has been corrected and, for the most part, cured by a simple view of the Danube. Everything fevered has been soothed and ordered.
As a writer he is soft too, and modest. As a student he is ready to admire his teachers, as a jew ready to lay bare their anti-Semitism. Modesty is a rare gift among autobiographers and diarists. He is not wringing his hands. He thrashes it out with himself as he hears it thrashed out in his social circle. Here's his friend Maurice on a bus in Paris, spelling it out.
Whether dangerous or not, I'm still an anti-Semite. Or, to put it better, I'm against certain expressions of Judaic sensibility and psychology. I detest the agitated, convulsive, fevered aspect of the Jewish spirit. There's a Jewish way of looking at the world that distorts the proportions of nature, disturbs its symmetry, attacks the reality. The dreamlike tendency you were praising in Chagall is exactly what I denounce. My eyes are wide open. I don't like those who are only half awake. Your Chagall stumbles about between sleep and wakefulness, which disqualifies him from making art. A clear-headed Jew is a phenomenon. The great majority are sleepwalkers.
It was the sleepwalkers who left Bucharest. Mihail Sebastian, for the most part, stayed.
I've always believed that the only defeats and victories that matter in life are those you lose or win alone, against yourself. I have always believed it my right to have a locked door between me and the world, and to hold the key myself. Now look at it, kicked open. The doors are off their hinges, the portals unguarded, every cover blown.
He survived the war, the Holocaust, the 'Judaic taste for personal catastrophe', and was killed by a truck on his way to give his first lecture, on Balzac.

Monday, 12 August 2019

By the time you're on the third successive book by Natalia Ginzburg you're prepared for any kind of ellipsis or uncertainty. You know the context and here is a new set of voices, habits and disputes. Voices in the Evening is more fragmented than the two other books of hers I've read. Among the generations and couples and their houses, she chooses slighter and slighter evidence: names of streets the reader won't know, skeletal evidence of couples breaking up. Enough for her, enough for me.

Having just read Happiness, as such and Family Lexicon, I know where I am with this writing, the scraps and instalments of lives that come our way among people we know in places we're familiar with. Stories rise from the darkness or the miasma, and then sink back. In a novel as in life, death is hardly different from no longer being talked about.

I read this book twice, starting again as soon as I reached the end, happy to spend more time in this version of human life, in which thoughts feelings and actions make temporary appearances. I do not know any more about these people at the end of the second reading than I did at the end of the first. I do not necessarily want to know more. I like to exist among fragments, to break off with a banal musing, like Elsa's mother in the last sentence of the book, considering a move from one village to another: 'I wonder if they keep the stuff that I take for my blood pressure at the chemist's in Cignano.'

If there is any guarantee that life continues, it lies in the banality of our daily questions, and the possibility of voicing them to someone else.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Happiness as such is next in the Natalia Ginzburg season. I used to tell students that certain books were best read in one or two long goes. At first I read bits of this book at bad moments, and couldn't find my own or the story's feet. Then, for most of a wet day I read the rest of it, swerving between the letters (this is mostly an epistolary novel) as they swerve among the vicissitudes, the ordinary mess of their lives, then let you out at the end into a somewhat cleared sky.

This is how the book ends.
A number of times I have thought that maybe while he was dying he had a flash of understanding and he travelled all the paths of his memory and I am consoled by this thought because nothing brings consolation when there is nothing left, and even seeing that dusty undershirt in that kitchen, and then leaving it behind, was a strange, icy, lonely consolation.
Natalia Ginzburg and Grace Paley are kin. Tempestuous grounded motherhoods. Blunt, canny speech. Unjudging, wry, and rude around disasters, arguments and dirty socks. Varying spareness, sometimes exasperation but never venom.
His wife is having a baby next spring. Good God, why do all these babies keep coming when everyone is so fed up with them and no one wants them around. There are just too many babies.
     I'll stop here. I need to give this letter to Mathilde who's going out shopping now and I'll stay here to watch the snow and read Pascal's Pensées.
Natalia Ginzburg said she wrote in short sentences because she was the youngest and if she wasn't quick with what she wanted to say someone else would take over.
I think we will send you money periodically. Not that money will solve anything, since you're alone, broke, unsettled, and unreliable. But we're all unreliable and broken somewhere inside and sometimes it seems desperately attractive to be unrooted and breathing nothing but your own solitude. That's how people find each other, and understand.
If we read to be somewhere else, among other people, the converse is also true. We read to find each other, and understand. As one of her characters says, 'It's nice to talk to strangers when you're depressed. At least you can make things up.'

Monday, 29 July 2019

I set into Natalia Ginzburg's Family Lexicon one night and gasped, without knowing why.

I was inside a family constructed around their habits and the way they talked, the bumpy rhythms of recollection, the tedium of what you find there: you always say the same thing, it's boring, jackass. But it's consistent, it's voiced, it forms bedrock.

Having grown up in a family beset by silence more than by speech, I move into this household in Turin in the 1930s, listen to these people, move about their world, breath drawn, disbelieving—that anyone could say this much, this clearly, without emotion, without judgement.

The habits of our language are the habits of our world. Discuss.

I first read Natalia Ginzburg when I was twenty-something and found her writing dull, but, as with Schubert songs, which my mother said I might like better when I was older, now she seems lucid and brave, her rhythms her own.

No, not brave. Honest. No, not honest, free. Not free, freed. This is family plainspeak. She had to be this blunt and if you're patient you'll find out why.  Her family was italian jewish catholic anti-fascist and that's enough for anybody in this life. She doesn't judge, she releases her family life through the things they said to each other, the clothes they wore and what they had for breakfast.

Halfway through the book we read, in mid-page, in a sentence, that the narrator married Leone Ginzburg. This is not a 'reader, I married him'. Her father flew into a rage as he did when any of his children got married, and that's it, she becomes his Ginzburg daughter.
We got married, Leone and I, and we went to live in the apartment on via Pallaglio.
Twenty-five pages later, Leone is dead.
On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone; his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his thick black hair, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.
By the time Natalia Ginzburg enters her own story, by the time she grows up, we realise we have been curious all along, waiting for her to emerge from a hundred pages of watching and listening to her family and their friends, neighbours, absorbing the talk in which she grew.

Family Lexicon won the Strega Prize For Fiction in 1963. That was a day for truth.