Tuesday, 4 August 2020

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

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

Thursday, 23 July 2020

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

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

Thursday, 16 July 2020

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

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

Thursday, 9 July 2020

This is the second time I have read Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. An easy read in one way, for a native in summertime mode, but, out of the naïveté of the children's adventures — they are children, they are pretending in the early twentieth century when pretending was a way to pass a summer and try out a few practical skills — out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, questions flow: where are these adventures now and the places in which to have adventures, where is the trust, where is the groundedness?

The natives these days are wrecked with doing right by their children, which doesn't include sewing them a tent out of light canvas if they want to go camping on an island in a lake, if they could think of camping, or canvas, or a lake. Natives are not natives, they are consumers.

I didn't read Swallows and Amazons as a child. I was thrown by the middle child who was called Titty; she was the one who chose Robinson Crusoe for the ship's library, and who, with her creator, Arthur Ransome, thought the only thing wrong with Robinson Crusoe was the end.
But who would wave a flag to be rescued if they had a desert island of their own? That was the thing that spoilt Robinson Crusoe. In the end he came home. There never ought to be an end.
In the end it is Titty, whose name so embarrassed me when I was twelve that I couldn't read the book, who resonates now.  Chapter XX, 'Titty Alone' was the moment when I gathered myself as reader and participant. She begins by keeping a log. Robinson Crusoe kept a log. She wrote in the style of a native, her mother.
"Twenty-five years ago this day I was wrecked on this desolate place. Wind south-west. Sea slight. Fog at dawn. Met a polite bird. I saw him flying underwater. I found a native canoe on the shore. The native was friendly. Her name was Man Friday. In her country there are kangaroos. Also bears. It was a joy to me in my lonely state to hear a human voice, though savage. Man Friday cooked our dinner. Pemmican cakes with tea. She went away in her canoe to the mainland where the natives are. She ..."
Able-seaman Titty could think of no more say. She had caught up with herself.
As a diarist I understand this. There's only so much you can say. Events will overtake. The other Swallows will come back to the island, with the Amazons and maybe Captain Flint. The weather will change. A battle will be arranged. A storm will come up. Treasure will be found. This book will be written.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

How effortlessly you inhabit my life, said George Craig in a letter circa 1972. I didn't know quite what he meant but I was pleased and it was a model, a paradigm for much else, later. Writers inhabit my life effortlessly. As I came upstairs one evening, a few weeks ago, I had a Grace Paley moment. Whatever adjustments life was making just then, Grace Paley was the woman for them. I didn't need to read her; she was there.

And in July, a broody season, the field not yet cut, bird's foot trefoil showing up in new places, vetches and hawkbit moving down the slope, Virginia Woolf's Between the acts comes into focus. I read it, that is, technically that's what I'm doing. But it feels like setting a calque of an uneasy leisured england on the meadow I walk through and stare at every day, leisured and uneasy.

Reading, like walking, is associative. Pointz Hall, where Between the acts happens, in 1940, gave rise to a pseudonym I used once: Katherine Poyntz. The first novel I wrote, On foot the velvet odyssey, echoed the pageant of Between the acts as well as a performance I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985, in which Europe shuffled west, puppets and humans alike.

So, when I say I have been reading Between the acts slowly for the past week or so, often at night, I am also adjusting my life to its past. Counting meadow brown butterflies and grasshoppers.
Suddenly the tune stopped. The tune changed. A waltz was it? Something half known, half not. The swallows danced it. Round and round, in and out they skimmed. Real swallows. Retreating and advancing. And the trees, O the trees, how gravely and sedately like senators in council, or the spaced pillars of some cathedral church....

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Up at the pond on the summer solstice, my second read of Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet. The hawker dragonfly is back, circling the pond as Tony Judt circles my sense of myself. He was a year younger than me and I seem to know him. The furnishing of his memory chalet is not so different from mine. The choices are different but the people doing the choosing are related. We are edge people. His precise placing of himself in relation to London Paris and New York could be mine. He liked New York, for example, because he felt most European there. When he thought or spoke of the English he did so in the third person.

He did not sit by ponds, I think. He liked Switzerland: mountains, trains. He was not a ruralist. He was a public intellectual.  Where I engaged with him first was perhaps his account of traversing London on tubes or Green Line buses, a boy in gaberdine I would have recognised.

One reason to read is to find your kin. One reason to sit by the pond is to find your neighbours, to breathe with the transitioning tadpole at the water's edge.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

All the manoeuvres we make for our daily relations with the world—how to fix a blog and kill a magpie—deflect us from describing it. Eudora Welty in Mississippi early twentieth century, describes. She observes. It's a relief to read a description born of a need to observe.
He stood there with a stunned, yet rather good-humoured look of delay and patience in his face, and kept on standing there. He stamped his mud-red boots, and his enormous hands seemed weighted with the rain that fell from him and dripped down the barrel of the gun. Presently he sat down with dignity in the chair at the table, making a little tumult of his rightful wetness and hunger. Small streams began to flow from him everywhere.
This isn't description it's reanimation. Her language reanimates her memory, her observation. People seem to think of description as inert. It isn't. To watch everything around me, says Eudora Welty, I regarded grimly and possessively as a need. As a child she needed to read the world in conformity with her inner life; perpetually alert, fearing the untoward.

Behold this dreamer cometh.

Eudora Welty's stories in The Modern Library Edition have been the refuge among local carnage lately: ten hens, a fierce fox, two crows and multiple magpies. I needed something quiet and passionate, sentences taking shape and closing like a Scarlatti sonata. 

Sunday, 31 May 2020

The Blue Flower is the only book by Penelope Fitzgerald I've read. Every few years I read it twice, I finish it and start again immediately, as if there's more to be found, more of the unfinished and gentle, the impossible blue flower of Novalis, né Friedrich von Hardenberg, Fritz, the poet philosopher, a big-eyed and yearning man of the late eighteenth century, bowling from Schloss to Schloss on an old horse or on foot to be close to Sophie, his wisdom, who is twelve.
Sophie, listen to me. I am going to tell you what I felt, when I first saw you standing by the window. When we catch sight of certain human figures and faces ... especially certain eyes, expressions, moments — when we hear certain words, when we read certain passages, thoughts take on the meaning of laws ... a view of life true to itself, without any self-estrangement. And the self is set free, for the moment, from the constant pressure of change ... Do you understand me?
Fritz employs a painter to paint his wisdom, who finds after a few weeks' residence that he cannot paint Sophie.
Hardenberg, in every created thing, whether it is alive or whether it what we usually call inanimate, there is an attempt to communicate, even among the totally silent. There is a question being asked, a different question for every entity, asked ...  incessantly.
He cannot paint Sophie because he could not hear her question.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

At first I resisted Robert MacFarlane's Landmarks. I was too involved already on my own terms in land and language and didn't want to be distracted, though I wished him well and was glad people were reading this and indeed lauding him for doing a good job of introducing not just a set of ideas but also a set of writers for further reading.

However I did read it in the end. I had come to the end of Robert Musil (a heavy book for nighttime reading) and Landmarks was there, a thick but light paperback, a present from a friend. In one of the introductory chapters, A Counter-Desecration Phrase-book,  I read an account of a battle against wind turbines in the Hebrides which so resonated with our efforts against a proposed neighbouring solar development last year that if I read no more this would win my thanks. I envied the group effort of locals in the Hebrides who explored the invisible content of the land by walking and scrutinising and reviving the words particular to the place. And they won. I envied that too.

I was interested in J.A. Baker who was walking the Essex marshes at approximately the same time as I was, except he was following peregrines and then I couldn't tell a peregrine from a handsaw. Though we were both shortsighted and came from unhappy families. As Robert Macfarlane says, J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine is less about following a peregrine than about becoming one (I read about someone trying to become a badger a while back) which, if you have a crippled body and poor sight, involves a yearning and fury and a despair that only an obsession can start to satisfy.

Friday, 8 May 2020

There is a community of sentences, the ones you write and the ones, when you read them in other people's books, you could have written; they're already on the back of your brain; we have common cause, common relief.

Alongside my reading of other people's books there is my reading of whatever I am writing. This winter I have been reading and writing (the two become indistinguishable as the months go by), a long instruction and reverie on how to talk to the inspector who has been inspecting the hill where I live.

I did not have the concept of the inspector until a year ago, but now I cannot shake him/her/them. An inspector is an inspectorate, a series of documents, porous protestation, rampant fungibility and politics of the third (and the second and the first) kind.

I am out of my depth straightaway.

So I write every evening and I read every evening the version that may only, since a day or two ago, have changed by five words in sixteen pages.

This is less reading or writing than imprinting, holding my own, a book, a hill, still open to question.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

A lockdown testimonial in the New Yorker said this was not a time to learn to play the violin or reread Dostoevsky. Another said it was not a time to read. Not my take at all. I read with extra need, extra extravagance. State control brings full time unease. Resist.

Climbing about in the sentences of Robert Musil as translated by Joel Agee is visceral, kinetic, takes you out of yourself, or further in, I can't tell, don't want to know. Last night I got to the beginning of chapter 26, Up Jacob's Ladder to a Stranger's Home, whose first paragraph ends with this:
But in fact she alone had lost her composure, or her sanity, then that too would not have been limited to herself, because something had been set free in the things, a liberation that was stirring with miracles. "One moment more, and it would have peeled us out of our clothes like silver knife, without having a moved a finger!" she thought.
I have also read an essay by Charles Eisenstein, The Coronation, about these times and what good could possibly emerge from them, if we want it enough, if we're rattled enough, and indeed sent it on to people very few of whom seem to have read it all. What do we want of words when we're constrained. We don't, it seems, want to have to think right now or possibly ever.

I listen to Schubert quartets after a long walk round the neighbourhood, where people are out in their gardens, which is something, deciding where to plant a tree.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

However many gloves socks shirts I took off there was always another layer; I was fully clothed for all time, however fast I divested, however acutely I needed to get down to skin. I particularly noticed the gloves. I would never get down to my hands. I was no longer sure I had hands. I was reading Robert Musil in the night and I had this dream, deep yet depthless, like Musil's sentences.
It seemed to him at this moment that those ardent verses were all he needed to know of his sister to realise she was never "completely inside" of anything, that she too was a person of "passionate incompleteness" like himself. That made him forget the other half of his nature, which required moderation and control.
Ulrich, the man without qualities, reacquaints with Agathe, the forgotten sister, following the death of their father, whom neither of them liked. They sit about and walk about in their strange new condition, they engage in holy conversation, they take off one by one the layers of their acquaintance and their new involvement. There are endless gloves in a holy conversation, unpeeled. Endless socks.

Agathe or the forgotten sister is a newly translated and arranged set of chapters from The Man Without Qualities, with some other, unpublished material. I can't imagine anyone making free with A la recherche du temps perdu — another unfinishable oeuvre of the early twentieth century— in this way: selecting chapters, reshaping the writer's bottomless uncertainty as to what can and can't be said about what matters most.
So now do tell me, for God's sake, tell me finally when, at what moments, does anything in life seem necessary? asks Agathe. When one turns over in bed, Ulrich gruffly declared. You're uncomfortable; you keep thinking of changing your position; you form one resolution after another; and suddenly you've turned over! It's really more accurate to say you've been turned over.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

For the first ten or twelve years I lived in Ireland I kept copies of all the personal letters I wrote. An artist friend gave me a cardboard concertina file she'd decorated with drawings, and I kept them in there.  A few years ago I consigned the file to the attic. (Things that go up into the attic and then come down again. That's a cantata in itself.)

One of my correspondents from the late seventies wrote (emailed) recently to say he was sending back to those who wanted them the letters he'd received and stored for the same ten years as I was copying and conserving. He was startled to find I had copies already. I was embarrassed, as if our friendship had been compromised, my generosity in doubt.

My friend's package included a couple of postcards I hadn't seen since I sent them. One had a picture of  a line-up of white Brahman cattle, which had begun to be popular in Texas.
Just to tell you that I went on your behalf to hear Jerry Jeff Walker at the Armadillo World H.Q. closing few nights. Austin seems just like Brighton in the late 60s. Full of pigtails, dope + karma. I've borrowed a house here for a week of so, as a break from my relentless travelling.
Another highlight of the bundle was a copy of a communal poem I did with first year students in 1980. I asked them to write down the most outrageous lies they could think of. 'I am a flower, my sister's a weed, we live in a sock at the end of a bumble bee's garden.'

People get upset these days at the thought of losing their emails, both sent and received; they take it as a mortal blow, a reason to reassess or mourn. Keeping copies of letters starts to seem sensible, almost tame: all this innocent paperwork, the very thin paper (bank, it was called) the blurry carbon copies. The handwritten letters I typed out before I sent them were the strangest: as the pen strokes were fluid and emphatic, the typing was all typos and blind need.

I noticed that the stamp corners had been taken off the envelopes of the letters. Impossible to imagine an email having that kind of shadow life.

' I live in a voice. My morning is speech.'

Saturday, 11 April 2020

First swim in the pond. Counting whirligig beetles, betimes, reading W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country, his series of essays on writers he loves and the places that gave them reverie. Antidote to my previous read, Fontamara by Ignazio Silone, born Secondino Tranquilli, who, under his original  name and in easier times, would perhaps have liked the innerness of Sebald, or, to keep the chronology plausible, Sebald's much-loved Robert Walser.

The peasants of Fontamara, a barely fictional village in southern Italy in the 1930s, mostly cannot read at all. The literate, by the end of the book, after some surreal and helpless battles with unknowable powers, come up with a title for a local bulletin: What are we to do? Fontamara was distributed along Italian soldiers in World War Two to bolster a sense of purpose in the fight against fascism.

Fontamara is a 1938 Penguin book, serious orange cover, plenty of listings of new important Penguins and Pelicans and Specials at the back. I have had it since I was a teenager. It was a marker of leftist edginess, the politics I absorbed rather than understood when I was growing up.

I like to tango my reading at the best of times. Silone and Sebald do not exactly dance together. Silone has a purpose, even when dancing. Sebald, especially when he is writing about Robert Walser, finds joyful contemplative detour sentences and goes along with them as they scuttle away under our gaze like millipedes.
Walser must at the time have hoped, through writing, to be able to escape the shadows which lay over his life from the beginning, and whose lengthening he anticipates at an early age, transforming them on the page from something very dense to something almost weightless. His ideal was to overcome the force of gravity.
In these plague times we need to organise our reading, for variety, contradiction and sheer randomness. I have moved from Elizabeth Strout's small town Maine; to American Peace Corps in China, 1990, in a New Yorker articles; to the exploitation of peasants in southern Italy in the 1930s; to the calm and glorious sentences of W.G. Sebald.

Someone in the Irish Times suggested Montaigne's 'On Solitude', and I thought: good.

Friday, 3 April 2020

A pair of skylarks have come to the new field.
A far cry from everywhere.
The skylarks ready a fresh weave of reading.
A tune beyond us yet ourselves.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.
V111 Stepping Poems by Fergal Gaynor.

A duet for splendid isolation.
Man w/out qualities as continuum.
Sinking into reveries instead of making up his mind.
Stepping poems stepping in and out.

We are on the same page, here.
Lying in a shape we have made.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Finally up at the (revised) pond in sunlight reading Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout and noting the reestablishing wildlife: ten thousand tadpoles, six whirligig beetles and a couple of water boatmen. It's hard to imagine being as involved as Elizabeth Strout and her Olive in a small town like Crosby, Maine, taking sustenance from the same, peopled place. I suppose I had that in Maldon, Essex, but did not choose to stay with it in any way.

Olive Kitteridge was a maths teacher in Crosby, Maine, and in some chapters her former pupils remember her as odd and strong; they remember her, anyway, so she appears in their lives, these chapters, among these boiling tadpoles in the first good day in six months.

Although much of the world's current nervous stasis is sympathetically quiet, I balk at the connection everyone wants to make with links & vids & photos & chat. I don't want any more from people than I did a month ago or a year ago. And such as I might want is supplied by Olive, Again.

With the advent of dry weather, Tim Chambers has spread slurry in the field below. The northeast breeze sends the smell, ammoniacal, right up through the pond. The tadpoles, I suspect, have no sense of smell.

Friday, 20 March 2020

In the last four weeks seventeen thousand native trees have gone into the fifteen acre field and I have read maybe seventy stories in the middle of the night: first Paul Bowles then Lucia Berlin, through Morocco, Mexico, New York, California, Colorado, Albuquerque and beyond. The geographical spread is charming and diverting, counterbalancing the native trees with this foreign legerdemain. Though the insomnia has increased from two hours to three. Either I haven't gone far enough or when the home patch is going through major change there is no travel broad enough in the middle of the night.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

A few weeks ago I googled George Craig, the teacher who fully inhabited my reading/writing life in the sixties and seventies. I found a eulogy; he had died a year before. I hadn't seen him for maybe forty years. The last time we met, at Brighton station, there was a caravan in the concourse with a banner over it: LETTERS ARE BETTER.

George and I got to know each other by letter. A piece of life in the wrong order, he said. Maybe the wrong order is the right order. Letters are indeed better. In a letter you can say, he was able to say, that he was attracted by certain directions of my mind, and thus could bypass the tutor/student form and confer on me the status of Real Person. He was in Sussex, teaching; I was in Paris, learning. I was twenty; he was thirty-six.

I read his letters over breakfast in the apartment where I was au pair. A cover page closely written on both sides, with two or three more pages on thinner paper, closely written on both sides, barely room for the signature at the bottom of the last page. The maid asked me if I was reading a novel. Of a sort, yes. A bottomless set of discriminations and refinements of approach, in the margins, between the lines, run through with apology, disclaimer and reassurance. I was not used to this kind of attention and concern.

George was diffident, circuitous, he could modify his modification of the situation till the pages grew into each other. Along with Rimbaud Blanchot Nerval Michaux et al. Along with revolution. George Craig's letters and the reading he influenced or suggested, refined almost everything that year, and for many years.  I read the letters often.

Later I went to live and teach in Ireland, where he grew up. I saw faces that reminded me of George, and of Beckett. I found his irishness, his diffidence, his apology. Our correspondence started up again, with new shifts in prolixity: subjects formerly inadmissible entered and were scrutinised. We were intimate and maybe easier on the page yet in truth no more intimate than before. Periodically I wondered what was the whole thing with George and why did it trouble me, what was this plateau on which for many years we had danced our private dance?

As well as the bundle of George's letters, tied around with thin cord in the old way, I have been reading his Sylph Cahier on Writing Beckett's Letters. After he finished teaching he spent fifteen years on the translation of letters Beckett wrote in French. Anything George wrote sounds like George. I can hear him saying it, even when he's writing; wrestling with something, call it the finer points, as students later said I was wrestling, they didn't know with what but something resonated and we all felt a surge.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

In praise of sketchy reading

I read a review by Robert Pogue Harrison of a book about Maurice Blanchot; which sent me back to L'Espace Littéraire, bought in 1968, first read in Paris and annotated in pencil (some unknown other reader since added a few marks in pen). I can hardly make out the annotations, which have merged with the yellowing of the pages, but I only need to read a few sentences to reach straight back to that annotating self for whom reading was visceral, essential, vertical, vertiginous, unending—and in french.
 L'oeuvre attire celui qui s'y consacre vers le point où elle est l'épreuve de l'impossibilité. Expérience qui est proprement nocturne, qui est celle même de la nuit. ... profondeur silencieuse qui la garantit comme son sens. ... Mais quand tout a disparu dans la nuit, "tout a disparu" apparaît. C'est l'autre nuit. La nuit est apparition du "tout a disparu". Elle est ce qui est pressenti quand les rêves remplacent le sommeil.
This is where my aged edition — nrf idées — fell open.

Have a look at the opening essay, 'La Solitude Essentielle'. Rilke is there, welcoming himself into solitude. Then Mallarmé. Then Kafka. And me. In a flat in Montmartre under the volcano, the revolution, reading and reinventing my paquet de merveilles. José Corti in his bookshop by the Luxembourg gardens, had sent me back to Montmartre with Albert Béguin and Maurice Blanchot. I was already reading Rimbaud, and Nerval. The flat next door to mine, had a K on the door. The flat was empty.

I also read that year Le Livre à Venir and L'Entretien Infini. And Blanchot's novel, Thomas l'Obscur. Postmodern cousin of Jude The Obscure. Stretching into 'The Nothing Beyond Nothing'. Robert Pogue Harrison's title. And where we came in.

Friday, 21 February 2020

I imagined that a book of essays by Lydia Davis would be just the thing in a stormy season. However, 500 bright white pages printed in a too-large font have me darting about, unable to settle. The tone is either explanatory or self-indulgent and clubby: I am a writer who knows many other writers and this is the kind of thing we talk about when we meet. She is an insider, she can shriek and moan. She is a teacher, she can offer up her experience. Somehow I'm not grateful.

However, her intro to the stories of Lucia Berlin sent me to A Manual For Cleaning Women and for that I am grateful. Lucia Berlin is all immediacy, on the bus to cleaning jobs as in the title story, getting older, getting drunk, pulling events into stories with the stop/start choppiness of a difficult life.

I was a cleaning woman, once a week for a year or two, of Spithurst House in Sussex. As I cleaned I looked at the books in the library, inspected the contents of the cupboard in the breakfast room with its rows of tins ready for world war three, dusted round the curare-tipped spears from South America (the house had been owned by a descendant of Hermann Melville). I was not a real cleaning woman; I was a literary tourist.

At the start of a story called 'Mourning' Lucia Berlin says 'I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that's one reason I don't mind working as a cleaning woman. It's just like reading a book.'

Lucia Berlin is a real everything: cleaning woman, drinker, mother, sister, daughter. Her life veered about among difficulty and disaster and the relentless ordinary of babies and lovers and launderettes. Her tone is abrupt, very verbal and comfortable.

Like Grace Paley's stories of the daily life of New York radicals she is beguiling because inclusive, inclusive because open: the reader is a friend, a neighbour, immediately an equal, someone she might have met on a bus.

My mother was good at talking to strangers on the bus, or in a queue. Even if you share nothing of the same experience, it's the willingness that counts, the way the bumpy human commonality shines through for exactly the time of the bus ride, the extent of the queue, and you move on in your day, extended.

Reading Lucia Berlin is a bit like that.

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.