Sunday, 17 June 2018

Clarice Lispector's The Chandelier, written when she was 23, calls up my diary's desert years, in my early twenties, which you can't so much read as taste and then pause. No crevice left unexplored, unsaid. Clarice had a firmer grasp on the stuff of her life than I did. She pulls back from the brink of what can't be said, and then says it.
That's when things became real. Who'd forced her to speak, who: she could cry scared and tired in that instant because if there were a strange phrase to say it would be: please pass me the olives.
She is persistent; you can choose any sentence in The Chandelier and there it is.
He laughed, all his teeth appeared in silence.
She has the muscularity of what she looks at. She is resolute. She uses more verbs. I was hesitant. I avoided verbs. I was deflected, diluted and hung out to dry in the groves of academe. I was reading Mallarmé and trying to comprehend my solitude and its diary.
and to tell me not to speak
would be to tell me that
all I ever said was but
a crevice long in the wood
in the frame of a picture
I thought was not mine alone.
With Clarice there's a push to make clear the connect/disconnect of the outer to the inner world. Here is every last thought and observation, every conjecture.
Reality was laughing at all of them. She was arranging the flowers with all her fingers. Her barely-present lips were hiding in shadows born from the position of her head.. Her breasts were growing congested squeezed by her clothes, her hips were widening with fatigue, without beauty.
Tuesday 9th June 1970, JK's diary takes a rueful look at itself.
It will perhaps be the one triumph of this diary to have written itself both in and out of existence. 
On the 17th of July 1970 I recorded the bus conductor's conversation with one of his passengers. How he was going to Jersey this year with the side, £42, cottage of course, including the fare, and that's £18, so it's not bad. Other people's reality butted in verbatim with a certitude I could only keep in reserve. Other people's lives. Clear as fiction.

Clarice, bless her, is always in existence, batting about among her certitudes, wrangling her definitions.
Stubborn, she was staring at her face trying to define its fleeting magic, the softness of the movement of breathing that was lighting it and slowly putting it out. The corruption was bathing her in a sweet light. So there she was. So there she was. There was no one who could save or lose her. And that's how the moments were unfurling and dying while her quiet and mute face was floating in expectation. So there she was. Even yesterday the pleasure of laughing had made her laugh. And ahead of her stretched the entire future. 
You can pick any few pages, any few lines, and there she is, seeking herself out, losing and then seeking, saying it all: the truth was so fast you had to squint to see it. In the diary of JK age 23, the truth was so submerged you had to drown to find it.
And the more dire the dead end, the long sheet of failure, gales that are perplexity incarnate.
The Chandelier and JK's diary are alike intense, best tasted in essence, like lavender, then left to rest. These two young women are scrupulous and relentless, JK all metaphor and remove, Clarice all tongue and fire, both strung out on the effort, torture, pleasure, of trying to clarify.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Reading A Certain Plume by Henri Michaux up by a certain pond watching a certain diver beetle surface, once, and a certain caddis fly pupa in the shape of a small leafy cigar, swim northeast a few inches under the water.
What he searches for in books is revelation. He skims through them. Suddenly, to his great delight, a sentence ... an incident ... whatever ... something there ... At which point he proceeds to levitate toward this something with everything he has within him, at times clinging to it as iron to magnet.
Yes. Yes also to his account of his reading habit.
His attention span was short, and even when interested in something, he noticed little, as if only an outer layer of attention were opening in him, but not his 'self'. He just stood there, shifting his weight back and forth. He would read a great deal, very quickly and very poorly. This is the form his attention took ... And if he tried to read slowly, to 'grasp' the subject: nothing! It was as if he was reading blank pages. But he was quite capable of rereading, as long as he went fast, as can easily be imagined.
Recognising someone else on the page is one of life's safe places. As Virginia Woolf said:
I want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions. After quarrelling and reconciliation I need privacy—to be alone with you, to set this hubbub in order. For I am neat as a cat in my habits. 
If anyone can make Virginia Woolf sound domestic it's Henri Michaux. He makes the going for himself; all his repetitions refusals and reversals, his disregard for style, his preference for overt dismissal, he turns his back at the drop of a hat, freezes, then runs away. You feel the satisfaction of the bottom of the page. There, that's laid out, there, direct from his inner basin to the page.
He lived for years, eyes on his inner basin.
A Certain Plume has an introduction by Lawrence Durrell from 1958. He met Michaux: 'a voice from the past, a stone-age voice full of veridic information about the state of mind in which poetry declares itself an absolute value.' Michaux is an acclaimed senior in the vatic trade, says Durrell.
The important thing was the moment of complete realisation, the old déclic which is always followed by a subtle shift of epicentre. Wholeness arrives!
My father liked to bring Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet into a conversation. Alongside Der Rosenkavalier. Our styles define us, our tastes, especially those we flaunt.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Wilding by Isabella Tree was delivered by the postman through car windows as we were on our way to the reservoir for a swim. I read the first few chapters on the beach, as we like to call the grey stony southern rim of Cork's water supply. I'm usually alert to whatever is happening on the land around, which weeds shine through, which have vanished, what machinery is out there and to what effect, as well as local weather and how warm the water has become.

Wilding is the kind of book that makes you ten times more alert than you were before. Every strewn coffee cup every felled tree every strimmed verge. Short of leaving copies in public places — but nobody reads — my son does, said my neighbour in the fish queue this morning — it's had to know what to do. And what to do is of the essence. Bernard Loughlin, former director of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, said it was his privilege to testify to his idealism. He did something. He looked after a place where artists and writers and musicians came to stay. Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell are doing something on Charlie's ancestral 3,500 hectares. We are doing something here.

All of this is easier to believe when the weather is as warm and settled as for the last week or more. Easier to believe that every move has consequences. That there is a natural flux and an unnatural growth. You read Wilding down at the reservoir on a broody warm Wednesday, and you have no idea what may come of it, but feel optimistic.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Do I have to come to Spain to remember I can read in french? For a few days with my old friend Annette in Puerto Banus (Port of Abuse, as the judge would have it) I took with me Agota Kristof's trilogy, which I haven't read since I first did, in the nineties. The familiar foreignness, the edge of french, brings the sense of isolation and retreat that I cherish on beaches. To be alone and warm turning over and back in your space in the sand, your reading senses are acute. Before I even got to the beach I'd read much of the first volume on the plane. In fact, each volume I read so fast that, in order to save some for later, I dipped about in what I'd read to find again what was so astounding. You can read and reread, turn over and back in the sun, and still not know. This is beyond knowing.

Agota Kristof learned french after escaping to Neuchâtel from Hungary in 1956; her french is clear as a bell, frightening, almost, the french you learn in Switzerland when you have escaped from seismic politicks and deep chill at the age of twenty-one.

Her french sounds as if it has been recently learned, under pressure and with relief, by children at school. The lessons her resilient twins set themselves in Le Grand Cahier, volume 1, are frightening in any language.
Exercice d'endurcissement du corps
Exercice d'endurcissement de l'esprit
Exercice de mendicité
Exercice de cécité et de surdité
Exercice de jeûne
Exercice de cruauté
It's a relief to read such decisive coverage of the human condition. Talk about home schooling. This is self-schooling in a totalitarian state, a state of incomprehension. Claus and Lucas, whose names are renditions of each other, are relentless in their push for the evenness of truth, all of which they record in the eponymous grand cahier. Their identity shifts but not their absolute loneliness or their absolute devotion to each successive situation in which they find themselves. In your own grand cahier you do not have to tell the truth, though that might be your avowed intent; in fact, by definition, you're already lying.

These are some other chapter headings.
Le chantage
Notre premier spectacle
En prison
La fuite
La séparation
The twins have a scrupulous ethical position at all times. Frightening as other autonomous children in literature, they're more more stark than enfants terribles, they have less style, more brink, more chill. Language always stops short. Scene after scene, no comment, no feeling. We are suddenly dependent on feeling now that it's not there, now that it is an indulgence no one can afford.

Volume 2, L'épreuve, is more episodic. Tales are told. People arrive and then disappear. Just as the reader starts to know a person or a situation, everything changes, the person disappears, by her own hand or his, the situation changes, everyone is face on to loss which ever way you look. The twins are now in two different unnamed countries. Agota Kristof as she reads is in two different countries, Hungary and Switzerland. As I read I am on the beach in Puerto Banus amid the whine of jet skis and the savour of factor 50; I am in my room at home in County Cork listening to Mozart. You are wherever you are and wherever you were before or would like to be.

By Volume 3, Le troisième mensonge, the third lie, the narrative is fractal, as it has to be in a totalitarian state. Through the eyes of characters we think are the ones we've known all along, we see earlier versions: the child who lives with his grandmother at the edge of town, and plays harmonica in cafés; the deaf boy; the limping boy; the boy whose father or whose mother is dead, perhaps. Handsome boy, handsome girl, similar age, half sister or no relation. Every relationship is there to be fractured—by death, by accident, murder, suicide, escape.

The twins of Volume 1 are not united in Volume 3, we're not in the realm of satisfactory endings. Claus is now Klaus, and orthographically no longer inside the spelling of Lucas. There may not have been any twins in the first place, they were a fable, the two sides of a thwarted intimacy. It doesn't read like a tease of our expectations, it reads like mortal confusion, irresolvable loss, of identity, family and future.

Strong stuff for the beach. My ethical position, reading Agota Kristof on the beach, is clear: leave me be, leave me to think to the sound of the sea and then turn over. Almost total detachment from where I am, but hardly escapist.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

By the serendipity of New York Review of Books advertising, I buy Clarice Lispector The Chandelier and Lorrie Moore See What Can Be Done at the same time and find that Lorrie has a piece about Clarice. Lorrie, in her merry American way, cannot get to Clarice at all. She makes light and looks for a quick touch.
Before beginning this review, I took a quick, unscientific survey: Who has read the work of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector? When I consulted with Latin American scholars (well, only four of them), they grew breathless in their praise.
Clarice is a dangerous European in South America, born in Ukraine and moved to northeastern Brazil when she was five. Europeans have intensity and innerness; South America is all mountainy renegades. The combination is deadly. Clarice's quirky Portuguese, like Beckett's quirky French, is more potent than your humorous professional journalist wants to be seen to take on board in North America. 
Lispector's uncategorizable work causes the reader to mimic her own processes: that is, her sentences are often in search of themselves and are constructed from the very casting about that a reader may undergo in having to find a term that is suitable to describe them.
Three cheers for every exploded category, three billion cheers and plenty casting about.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

By the end of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I don't want to leave this place, these people, their language, behind. I don't do this often with books. I don't immerse in character and plot. But this is more like group loneliness, and I feel like circling that for ever. With seven pages to go, to soften the desolation—or deepen it— I begin the new translation of The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, first published only three years after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in 1946.

In the weekend Irish Times there's a column in praise of older books, but they don't go beyond the 1980s or 90s. I go back to the era of my parents' or my teachers'  youth, somewhere safe that I don't know, but do. Clarice Lispector is so unsafe she's safe (as houses). Reading her is like crossing a fast-flowing stream on stepping stones and now and then getting soaked. Exhilarating. Breathtaking. Uncomfortable. When will I next get wet?
Her life was painstaking but at the same time she was living just a single streak sketched without strength and without end, flat and terrified like the trace of another life; and the most she could do was cautiously follow her glimpses of it.
I seek in my reading the version of myself I haven't been able to write, or have written but can't read.  Clarice Lispector wrote this when she was twenty-three; my patois at twenty-three was less certain in its obscurity, the prose more purple. That's why you read your kin, to find their different clarity and then your own in the new context of many years later.
...changing with care the way she lived. The things that would inspire her were so brief. Vaguely, vaguely, if she'd been born, plunged her hands in the water and died, she'd exhaust her strength and her forward movement would have been complete...
And here is Carson McCullers' Mick Kelly age thirteen and three-quarters, seven pages from the end of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap — the store, then home to sleep, and back at the store again.
We read to situate ourselves anew.
Mick raked her hair from her forehead. Her mouth was open so that her cheeks seemed hollow. There were these two things she could never believe. That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead. And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth's.
I am grown and have astonishing freedom. I did not have to work at Woolworth's. I taught french literature and literature as a foreign language, I cultivated my garden.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

I inscribed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter with my name and Christmas, 1964. Have I read it since? Have I needed this girl/boy child in the 1940s who, in her sharp, hot, aching small town in the deep South, finds Motsart?
There was one special fellow's music was like little coloured pieces of crystal candy, and other times it was the softest, saddest thing she had ever imagined about.
Mick Kelly, the girl/boy child, kin of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, hears Mozart a few times, in her mind she could remember about six different tunes from the pieces of his she had heard.
But they all made her somehow sad and excited at the same time.
A few days ago we spent a few hours with Anthony Mackey, in Waterford, his town. He made art about where he came from. Like Carson McCullers, he grew up local, he knows what community is, can't understand what it is not to have one.

Among the complex reasons why I choose to read this rather than that, why Carson McCullers, has to be Mackey in Waterford, Lookit, he says often, and you don't say that if you don't come from somewhere.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Reading Sven Birkerts up at the pond on the best day for about half a year, I say yes all the time, I know all this and what pleasure to see it written, to pause as each yes bubbles up and put a light pencil mark in the margin at a sentence that I want to remember, that I do already remember because it is implanted from the first and many subsequent times I read it, some of it out loud to students whom I wanted to persuade about reading and depth, wanting to resurrect, as Sven Birkerts does, words like soul and truth, to have them out there, down there and up there, without luggage.

The Gutenberg Elegies was published in 1994, subtitled The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. I love the encomium to reading, I'm with every sentence; the electronic age chapters I have to read wryly, warmly, a little impatiently. I'm sympathetic, grateful, et cetera, but I don't want to go there.  These days, I learn, Sven Birkerts tweets quotes from whatever he's reading. Who else in tweetland uses inverted commas?

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The first three paragraphs of my copy of 'The Celestial Omnibus' by E.M. Forster have pencil brackets around them. This was a passage for translation I chose circa 1978, trying for completeness in the classroom as elsewhere, I willed the students to sense the moment of beginnings and endings before they fell into the messy pit of translation into french.

At dawn an early twentieth century boy rides an omnibus from the dead-end alley signposted To Heaven, opposite his house, at dawn, the steaming horses driven by Sir Thomas Browne, physician of the queasy soul. He meets a swathe of world literature and is home for tea.

I found the same brackets around the end of Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts, with its pageant in the garden, suffusing land and history, and then, the pageant over, the house giving little cracks as if it were very brittle, very dry, the garden returns to primeval forest. 'On the top of their matted branches birds sang...'.

When the boy takes the omnibus again next day, with Mr Bons, a family friend and possibly the wisest man in the world, owner of vellum books, and seven copies of Shelley, they are driven by a Dan someone, a sallow man with terrifying jaws and sunken eyes—Dante.

Marcel Proust said he wrote about his own past because he had no imagination. E.M. Forster, out of similar need, and only a tad more imagination, rehearses in his stories all he can't entirely deal with in his life.

Between the wise Mr Bons and the innocent boy, Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf, is perfect literacy and dependency, an entirely period fantasy of which I am a late product. I am drawn to writers who find their safety in books, and, by extension, their authors. The celestial omnibus is driven by writers. The nether world is peopled by characters: Mrs Gamp, Mrs Harris, Achilles, Tom Jones and the Duchess of Malfi; the soundtrack is Wagner. Heaven is nether, it's a riot, and, the boy, in his innocence, gets back home to hand the cake-stand on another day.

Mr Bons the wise, who knows his Keats from his radishes, does not come back.
The body of Mr Septimus Bons has been found in a shockingly mutilated condition in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works. The deceased's pockets contained a sovereign purse, a silver cigar-case, a bijou pronouncing dictionary, and a couple of omnibus tickets.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Reading Marcel Proust On Reading in french or english on a cold April afternoon, I find the person who first read this, Marcel or me, extending out into the back country in the most sad, luxuriant way. Here is young Marcel under a hedge of trimmed hawthorn or hazel with a book.
I would run up the labyrinth as far as some hedge where I would sit, not to be found....  In this hedge, silence was profound, the risk of being discovered was almost nil, safety was made sweeter by the distant voices which from below called me in vain...
 What profound relief. There I am, there he is, at une distance d'âme, a soul's distance
... one of those distances which are not measured in metres and leagues like the others, and which, besides, cannot be confused with them when one looks at the 'distant' eyes of those who are thinking 'about something else'. Then, what? This book, it was nothing but that?
Under the hazels and the hawthorns of the park along Swann's Way, the emanations of the fields come to play silently near him, the scent of clover and sainfoin on which now and again he rests his tired eyes. The intoxication of the pages he reads are met by the sensations of where he sits in the silence and the solitude of les belles heures de l'après-midi.
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires.
I listen to Mozart to absorb and extend all this. Rudolph Serkin and friends, piano concertos in the chilly early evening. Not just Proust, but all our souls' distance.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Where do you want to go today? Prague under Stalin, steelworks and street scenes, ushers and stonemasons, dairymen and judges, people who form your world, and, simultaneously, undermine it. Bohumil Hrabal, you have to love him for his name, the soft burr of syllables, and, once you've read a few pages, his bemused, ironic look at the world around him, all of it.

MR KAFKA and Other Tales, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, has occupied my head for the last week or two. I don't know what I think so I read a tale or two again. I dip about so that certain words register and gradually I form a picture of this Hrabal, this side of me that understands Hrabal, that can mingle with his people and their perversity, their absentmindedness in the face of history.

Everything I read I try on like clothes. I am dragged by the hair through the streets of Prague. I drown in discarded letters. I ride the gondola of a steelworks gantry. Where did I go today? I sojourned in Hrabal land.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

My fingers have learned to write Krasznahorkai's name by now; they do not hesitate around all those consonants in the unknown rhythm of Hungarian. After reading Krasznahorkai for several weeks I am at one with the Europa abyss, the total stalling of communication even as the lava of language flows: the more you try to catch chaos the worse it gets. The Irish abyss, par contre, is more scenic, just as much language but light and quirky, even in the blackness, like Flann O'Brien. None of this Europa violence and melancholy.

Krasznahorkai grew up in a small town in southeastern Hungary,  at the heart of the Europa melting pot. To the island stance of the Paddy or the Brit, whose language tends towards the heroic and identifying, this is as dense, as landlocked as it gets; in Gyula, Békécs County, next to Romania and not far from Serbia, heroics are a pile of rubble, identification a lost cause, language a necessary obfuscation, poignant and ridiculous: womb, tomb and sole conceivable kin.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Why do some men writers write exhaustively, and sometimes exhaustingly, each chapter its own sentence into which we burrow, like László Krasznahorkai, whose War and War I have experienced as a kind of basso continuo beneath the last couple of weeks, mostly in bed, or in the bath, which meant that weariness and softened muscles often hung me mid-sentence till the following night; I thought more than once during the first half or so that I would not go all the way with this, but did, out of ancient persistence or defiance or fascination, and finished it, the last few pages in their different font, sans serif, close to a last gasp in railway station somewhere in Europe, proving the hardest of all, taking three nights and maybe a couple of baths to achieve an end.

Do men more than women need to create this wraparound connection with language, this density, this  this bottomless scratching of would-be flesh, 'reality examined to the point of madness', as Krasznahorkai says, italics his? Think of James Joyce, Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, and—though the flow is gentler and the wraparound connection a lighter garment altogether—W.G. Sebald, or Proust.

I like occupying this exhaustiveness, losing my way in it, reading badly, you might say, missing so much and so much then finding my way again with a piece of self-reference or the perilous return of language to an equality with life as we prefer to understand it—going somewhere or meeting someone or putting a gun to your head. I enjoy imitating it, especially writing my diary, where the sense of depth and endlessness inside language is entirely concordant with the diary spirit. Unlike many writers who try to avoid influence, I seek it, honest thief that I am.

The other nub of Krasznakorkai is his acceptance, nay promotion, of the incomprehensible.
...each sentence was of vital importance, a matter of life and death, the whole developing and moving at a dizzy rate, and that which it relates, that which it constructs and support and conjures is so complicated that, quite honestly, it becomes perfectly incomprehensible...
Old Mallarmean that I am, this is so comfortable. Phew. We're off the hook, we're just reading, at that point where a horse no longer gallops but can be said to break into a run. Some pieces of life are like that. If you're lucky. Accepting the incomprehensible is not just the terrain of religion. It's an everyday skill.

Tonight I started to re-read The Melancholy of Resistance. The splendours of Bela Tarr's film The Werckmeister Harmonies, based on the book, made me impatient the first time. This time I will save the film for afterwards.

War and War ends with a railway station, The Melancholy of Resistance starts on a train: a woman sitting in a compartment feels insecure; her bra comes unhooked; she is even more insecure; she thinks she is pursued even though she is too old. She is sliding into what she cannot manage; and so are we.

Monday, 26 February 2018

'I am nourishing a creature' wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, who nourished in her turn another, nameless, unnamed, unnameable creature, male, larger than life, like Byron silhouetted against mountain peaks, but vulnerable.

What do any do but digest as best they can? Mary Shelley had a mother, a father, a husband and a poet silhouetted against mountain peaks to digest through her own pregnancy and birth into Frankenstein and his monster.

The looming man, vessel of my early adolescent dreams. I dreamed him behind me and I couldn't move, in the lane out the back beside the Baptist Church.

For two hundred years the vessel of the monster fills, empties, refills with our terrors, our mothers, our fathers, our gullies, our peaks, our disguises. Jill Lepore in The New Yorker made me re-read Frankenstein then wonder if I'd ever read it at all, if you could be whacked the same way twice. It could have been one of those books you absorb without reading, like Moby Dick or Proust.
But the politics of "Frankenstein" are as intricate as its structure of stories nested like Russian dolls. The outermost doll is a set of letters from an English adventurer to his sister, recounting his Arctic expedition and his meeting with the strange, emaciated, haunted Victor Frankenstein. Within the adventurer's account, Frankenstein tells the story of his fateful experiment, which has led him to pursue his creature to the ends of the earth. And within Frankenstein's story lies the tale told by the creature himself, the littlest, innermost Russian doll: the baby.
 What does the baby sound like? Is he crying? Yes.

The reader makes free with Frankenstein and his monster, digests as s/he will, confounding Frankenstein and his monster, fear with adventure, love with loss, innocence with corruption. In common with our collage/assemblage habit two hundred years on, Mary Shelley pulls in all she knows from her innermost doll to her father's and her husband's and his friends' science, gothic and romance. This is who she is at the time she is writing, which is also the time when she is producing creatures herself, who die, and cry. 'Awake and find no baby', she wrote in her diary.
For the first theatrical production of "Frankenstein," staged in London in 1823, (by which time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice), the monster was listed on the playbill as "–––––".

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

War and War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai has settled its sentences around the last week or so. I have read a sentence before sleep and then slept into it. A sentence, chez Krasznahorkai, is also a chapter, often of several pages. One reviewer said he (probably) had never got to know a character as well as the narrator of this novel. People cannot take very much interiority. Said the bird. It is true you read and you get further into Korin who has left middle europe and gone to new york in order to type into a computer and all eternity the manuscript he found or wrote before —

I am not sure how clever I want to be, how desperate I am.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

A chance visit to St Gobnait's shrine revealed why I have felt uneasy reading Willa Cather's My Ántonia. We happened on St Gobnait in Ballyvourney, County Cork, on the eve of her day, February 11th. Graves were being tidied, lurid primulas planted (with their pots) at the foot of her statue, some early prayerful women were already doing the stations of the cross. We gave the place its due, talked to a gravedigger, refreshed our ignorance of the rosary, then drove off on an unknown road south, rather than east, the way we were going, as if in order to confirm our stranger status.

Willa Cather's immersion in the prairies of Nebraska would have thrilled me when I was twelve. I may have read My Ántonia around then, when I depended upon immersion in whatever long grass would shelter me. But it was just long grass, not the long grass of home, or the long grass of my country, adopted or otherwise, it was temporary shelter; there was nobody else around, and wherever I found myself later I would seek out its equivalent.

Although My Ántonia focuses on newcomers to Nebraska, these were Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes who would stay there, and build and prosper, many of them. They confirmed the stranger in the narrator, who, like Willa Cather, moved there from Virginia when he was young. The land and the seasons give the book its pace and its roots. It isn't coy, or matter-of-fact. The very levelness of it confirms its truthfulness and my unease.

St Gobnait was the patron saint of bees. She chose her spot in Ballyvourney because she saw six white deer there, and the water was good among the small wooded hills. These days the deer are only carved into the metal railings, and water is everywhere around the old holy well because of attempts to drain the expanded carpark. A new well has been installed, more convenient, less boggy, though less charming than the old one, with its rag tree and bed of coins under the water, and there are instructions on how to proceed with the stations—certain parts of the route have to be walked twice, a bit like the Grand National.

I cannot stay with St Gobnait and the mysteries—joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous—I can only look; as I cannot settle among these new Nebraskans in the early twentieth century, I can only read.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Beckett's How it is reads quiet after a performance of Part I by the Gare St Lazare the other night. I hurry along, looking for their performance on the page. There are some glorious moments of mental exercise. Despair too strong a word. Of course. As well as humour. Too comfortable. But, in tribute to the Gare St Lazare and their staging, lighting, their sudden shifts, their discomfiture, or was it ours? I was back in the Everyman Theatre, or wanted to be.

When I read How it is the last time, in my sprawling teaching Beckett period, I marked little, remembered less. 'I always liked arithmetic it has paid me back in full' leaped out of the dark, near or far, of the Everyman; the clouds parted with clarity and a smile. This is one of my Beckett quotes, one of the tenets of my faith.

Somewhere, perhaps more than once in the performance, two voices chased or echoed the same words, up on stage where we the audience sat, at the back, as wrong and as privileged as we can be (at the back of the stage looking out on the flats and the stalls), Beethoven, I thought, opus 31, maybe number 2.

There's a moment where we suddenly understand the piano to to be innately double, like ourselves, with our sack of memory, our native bent. That was, sometimes, what the Gare St Lazare players did with Beckett. Voices came from all levels of darkness and distance, within inches, within aeons, of each other. I fell among the interstices. It was warm and peaceful even as the voices carried on in the mist and a group of dark hooded creatures crossed the middle distance.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Some books challenge the sequence and linearity of reading. A narrative is there but skewed deep in itself, knocking about time zones, at the bottomlessness of a reader/writer's reactions. Jack Robinson's (Charles Boyle's) An Overcoat, a transposition of Henri Beyle's (Stendhal's) 19th century love life into the 21st century, has footnotes that spawn footnotes, references that spawn references, sometimes onto the next page, so that the reader reads Beyle (Boyle) across a couple of centuries and several page levels, with Robinson keeping his feet dry on the title page.

When I was studying latin at school our humorous and whimsical teacher encouraged us to interleave our set texts with blank pages, so that Virgil's Georgics and Horace's Odes in their staid bindings multiplied into comments, reminders and associations. When we gave the books back at the end of the year we took out our carefully glued in sheets of paper so that next year's students could insert and write their own.

Proust, in like manner, presented with proofs of A la recherché du temps perdu, sat up in bed near the end of his life and interleaved additional text then interleaved the interleavings, only death putting a stop to an endless process.

You can of course ignore the footnotes in An Overcoat. You can reduce the number of hidden pockets and whizz along more rapidly; Beyle/Boyle will be there in his essence. The footnotes, though, ranging around Stendhal and his commentators as well as Boyle/Beyle's scenes from everyday life, open up the book, let you lose your way as is proper in this 21st century. Keep your weakness intact, as Henri Michaux says, don't try to acquire strengths.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Reading books by someone you know is even more piquant on the train: strangers all around and speed and space out of the window on a grey day ready for populating. The line from Cork to Dublin in January features reeds and heaps in flooded fields bordered by ivy-darkened trees, and up as far as Templemore, Charles Boyle writing as Jack Robinson about Robinson (Crusoe) in a language already familiar from conversation or emails. It is also discomfiting; I start to imagine people I know reading my books.

At Templemore a family gets on and settles two compartments down with a mammy who howls as across windy hillsides and small children who shriek back: life is this loud. I try for a reading that excludes all but give in to the easy contemplation of the lives of others, the very thing that Robinsons do not know how to do; this is an exercise for isolates like me who leave the island or come down from the tree with all the inner resources they have accrued now ready for dispersal.

My favourite Defoe reading was when I was about 23 and went on holiday with my mother—the only such occasion ever—and read the right-hand pages only of Robinson Crusoe. The book was heavy. I was recovering from having had my wisdom teeth taken out. It was an apt and adequate way to read half a book and keep a mother at a manageable distance in this unusual circumstance: Ibiza in the era of unfinished hotels on the beach.

The other Charles Boyle/Jack Robinson I read on the train was Jack Robinson by the same author, which is about staying close and keeping a distance from writers you know or could know. I do not know many writers; I know more artists and tree-planters. There are possibly some tactics here. The quote from Coleridge on the back cover strikes me as being the wrong way around. He says that writers of the past inspire passivity and submissiveness, whereas writers who are one's contemporaries can be friends. Writers of the past, like Virginia Woolf, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, feel like friends with an intensity beyond most that life in the living has to offer.

Just across from my seat is another arrival from the crusty midlands of Ireland, in her Regatta anorak and her black wig, or black-dyed hair, I'd suspect wig, reading her Irish Daily Mail and bulking consistently from the chin down to the floor.

Monday, 15 January 2018

One damp and cloudy afternoon in Nijar, each change in the weather reflected in the white sea of plastic on the plain below, I read Oliver Sacks' Gratitude, four essays of such gentle and collected sanity that immediately I read them again. Although I know how much honing must go into these pages, I am completely humanised by their plain-speaking calm. This is what you can write when you are trying, as he says in the first essay, to complete your life. In the second essay he knows he has an unstoppable cancer and he begins to be able to see his life 'as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of connection of all its parts.' From the top of Nijar town, the plastic plain below is almost beautiful in that sunlight you can get towards the end of a bad day.

This second essay, called 'My Own Life', sits strangely beside a few lines I read in Renata Adler's Speedboat in the plane on the way to Spain.
In the South, in simpler days, I remember a middle-aged gentle black worker speaking to his son who had insomnia. 'When you can't sleep' he said, just tell yourself the story of your life. 'Now sometimes when I can't sleep I wonder. A twenty-four-hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let's just have a little quiet around here.
The speed of Renata Adler's prose outstripped the speed of the Boeing 737-800 series and made the journey feel unusually peaceful, preparing me for this afternoon with Oliver Sacks. In the fourth essay, Sabbath, Oliver Sacks comes to understand a sabbath after most of a lifetime without religious practice of any kind.
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of life might I have lived?
He regrets being as agonizingly shy at eighty as he was at twenty. He regrets speaking no language other than his mother tongue. But the impression the book leaves with the reader, as the title suggests and the publisher makes clear by excerpting on the back cover the ending of the second essay, is of acceptance, and gratitude, even a certain optimism that the future of the planet is in good hands (I'm grateful for the respite when I look out of the window at the largest concentration of plastic greenhouses in the world).
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Appropriate reading versus completely wrong reading.

Nijar Country by Juan Goytisolo, if you're going to sit in Nijar for nine days in January, is appropriate reading. The book of the place is a must for the winter traveller. If, on a winter's night, a traveller or two in Nijar, having read Nijar Country, decide to write it again, 63 years later, in translation like ourselves, with fresh comments on the lie of the land, what would that give?

On the map of Andalucia, Campo de Nijar is a crescent of desertish land with sierras above and smaller sierras toward the sea, strong winds, few crops, plenty grit flying. Goytisolo went for four days, in Franco's Spain, in summer. What did he see? Who did he meet? What did they talk about? How will this translate to a pair of snowbirds, well, rainbirds, from Ireland?

What have they done in Nijar country with the water they've plumbed out of the desert since Goytisolo wrote his book? They haven't planted trees, as recommended by the National Institute for Land Settlement, they have brought in the tourists on foot of a few spaghetti westerns (even the food is wrong) and then grown delicacies to send off-season to the tourists' northern lands. Talk about capitulation. To give your land use to the upwardly unhappy of northern lands, to forgo your trees and your future for a pack of winter strawberries.

Completely wrong reading would be dystopic blather from the north, such as our culture affects as it eats its strawberries and sucks on other sugars. You cannot turn over a review of books and films of this year and the next without finding crazed, obscure reasons for fear and mistrust while doing battle with Christmas treats and then giving in.

Why is it easier to write about a town in Almería province rather than about where I am? I read about Nijar in 1954, not about Cork then or now. Tons of Cork City and County come tumbling in every time I go out for the milk. There are headlines, there is idle talk, which, as we know, costs lives by betrayal and out of despair. And it's personal. I find that quite clammy and chill. I am ready to be slapped about and silenced. There is Land Development. There is Ownership and Recreation and Wellness and Yellow Lines along the Path. I have no right to speak.

Appropriate reading is also completely wrong reading.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Collected Short Stories of Jean Rhys is a large supple paperback of about forty stories, with forty narrators who segue into each other but for their names, which shift about the territory of England, Europe and the Caribbean. Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, out of which she chose Gwen Williams; she became Miss Gray when she was a Gaiety girl; Ford Madox Ford chose the name Jean Rhys. Finding a narrator in her stories is a strange sport; a page or two in and, oh, so this is the centre of the maelstrom, this restless, fraught Inez, or Francine, or Lotus, or Petronella. I imagine Jean Rhys choosing the names almost with impatience, for occasional use when the narrator is addressed by someone at enough distance to call her by her name. Now and then she gives in to the first person: Yes, this is me talking to you, too weary, too far gone to need a name; or too astounded.
Suddenly I realised I was happy.
There was a nightlight burning. He opened his eyes and looked straight into mine. His eyes were set slantwise, too, and I imagined they looked sad.
He was tied up in the French way like a Red Indian papoose, only his head out of the bundle. I shall dress him differently when we get home.
Little thing! I must kiss him.
Perhaps that is why he looks sad — because his mother has never kissed him.
Here at the pit of the year Jean Rhys stories are the thing. Especially when you've read half the book in shortish bursts in the middle of the night and then bring it out into the damp solstice light of afternoon. Her creatures lurch around their misfortunes with disarming freedom.
Nobody's going to comfort you, she told herself, you ought to know better. Pull yourself together. There was a time when you weren't afraid. Was there? When? When was that time? Of course there was. Go on. Pull yourself together, pull yourself to pieces. There was a time. There was a time. Besides I'll sleep soon. There's always sleeping, and it'll be fine tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Certain novels, often by women, of the mid-twentieth century, hang like tapestries. You can choose where to rest your eye.  In Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness I rested with housekeeper Mrs Lodge, who yearned for marshlands.
Her home, when she was a child, had been near an estuary, remote, with wonderful wide skies, a beautiful light. Terns used to gather on a sandbank a the edge of the water, and looked as if they were dancing with frail, coral-red legs.
And with another housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley, with her bountiful gentleman friends and her goodwill.
'If you're looking for a nice, pulling book,' Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.
'No, no,' he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves, 'I never read.'
The main action, the comfy middle classes and their boredoms, their weary subtlety, veiled despair, I read through with some impatience on a cold, wet, blustery December afternoon.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani, Within the Walls, on wartime Jewish Ferrara, and, weary, complexed, found myself unable to follow all those names of streets and squares, along city walls where sometimes the country leaked in. Ferrara is an island in my mind, hardly close to anything, not even Bologna which is geographically not far down the road, or Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. My auntie Fay sent us a postcard from Rimini in the 1950s. That's as close as I can get. Why am I reading about Ferrara? Why not Ballincollig? Ferrara had Jews. Why not Cork? Cork had Jewtown. Which sounds blunt and jeering. Ghetto sounds fine in Italian. David Marcus grew up in Jewtown, and he is one of one or two Jews in Ireland who noticed I am Jewish too.

When I examine my take on the politics and the idea of the tribe, I think the first was the truest. My adolescent uncertainty as to who was fighting whom and why, persists. Atrocity, betrayal, and fear, do not alter. Tribes do not alter. None of this do I understand. Fascists and Communists. These are boiling words. Berets and beards. Rallies and manifestoes.

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani and wander about like the half-dead in wartime Ferrara, along the Corso, across the Piazza, wearing the mantle of a confusion not entirely mine.

Friday, 1 December 2017

I read Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter once, and then, pleased with its spare, close focus, and haunted by an idea of home, I started again almost immediately. A few pages into the second reading I found a couple of sentences that brought a strange mix of comfort—the detail, the bottomless familiar—and disquiet that this novel, like all Eudora Welty's writing, arises out of a rootedness of which I have no notion. Laurel, and her father, and his new young wife, and the doctor, are in a hospital in New Orleans, which is out of town for all of them.
Laurel looked for a moment into the experienced face, so guileless. The Mississippi country that lay behind him was all in it.
The Mississippi country that lay behind his face also lay behind Eudora Welty. The country that lies behind my face, experienced but not guileless, behind my words, is a murky, jangling, evasive, uncomfortable, mostly northern European terrain, focused for the past forty years on a patch of ground in County Cork, way over west from anything that would pass for a place of origin, a patch that now holds all my underpopulated culture, though full of tree-planting and gardening.

Eudora Welty was a gardener too. Species names, as well as familiars, like the rose known as Miss Becky's Climber, confirm her sense of belonging.

Some forty pages in, Laurel's father dies, and the doctor treating him, who's from 'up home' too, says to Laurel, ' there's nobody from home with you. Would you care to put up with us for the rest of the night?' When, after her father's death, she accompanies his body 'up home', the friends who gather around her are the six bridesmaids, as she still calls them, years after her marriage, years into her widowhood, and a cast of local characters who all knew her and her family's history. She has even remembered to bring clothes appropriate to a little garden work among the irises. The only stranger is her father's second wife, the selfish young Texan, Wanda Fay, and a chimney swift that flies through the house from room to room.

We readers are all stabbed by different words, different expressions, with pleasure, with pain, with longing or with regret. We read to remember home or to realise that we don't know what or where it is.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

On the train up to Dublin and back I read the rest of The Country Child, which found its time and place on the crowded train coming back amid debates about reserved seats not showing on the display and who if anyone would be turfing out OAPs who had sat down in all innocence—the peace, the detail, the relish of rural life in Derbyshire in the early twentieth century, the language of it, the detail, are the balm you need, they need, these travellers, from Donegal towards their demented mother in Cork, their other mother or wife in Macroom after a week engineering in Blanchardstown, the match tomorrow over in Tralee and the need for team bonding on the train in adjacent seats, the contract entered into with Iarnrod Eireann as the coach, no slouch he, said.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

I rarely read a book I want to get done with. I rarely give up. I gave up on Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth a few months ago, I am glad she wrote it, but I couldn't absorb the detail. Information is emotional. I can only take so much.

These days I am giving up on The Chinese Room, a novel by Vivian Connell, 1943, Penguin number 809. Vivian Connell was born in Cork, his novel was made into a film in 1968. From page one I couldn't find the way, and, after multiple late-night and bath sessions I can only fast forward to the last pages where various lustful imaginings in opium clouds not far from London clubs find their resolution. The novel's best feature is that people write letters to themselves.

Rather than read the rest of the book I think I'll go off and write myself a series of letters.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Inside all day, half unwell half retreating. November, yes, and three weeks after the hurricane, the sequence of events churned about, as if the room you live in had dropped down with crashes and groans into someone else's bedlam and you're staring at your stuff as magma, breaking off and almost glowing, from their floorboards, then going back to an Elias Canetti essay called Dialogue with the Cruel Partner.
The sentence is always something different from the man writing it. It stands before him as something alien, a sudden solid wall which cannot be leaped over.
Then, as the day wanes, add logs to the fire and move on to Fence Magazine where sentences, lines, half-lines and spaces arise and puncture, stop short and relaunch in ways Elias Canetti could not conceive, as he could hardly conceive a writer who was a woman, unless many centuries earlier, like Sei Shonagon. Elias Canetti was Bulgarian Sephardic German English, but none of these got so far as to rupture his language.

The Fence contributors are ruptured throughout, they are perilous in this world. At the back of the magazine they tell us what they're reading. Many writers I haven't heard of, which is peaceful. There's a spread of publishing behind this writing, an irruption, a flood plain, an inland sea. Some contributors are very specific: there are books for the morning, for the evening, books carried around and books dipped into. It is a condition devoutly to be wished.

Friday, 3 November 2017

This week I bought a Peacock Edition from 1963 of Alison Uttley's The Country Child. The writer and her book are one in my memory, in the same cloth bag as Henry Williamson and his Tarka the Otter, and Salar the Salmon. I was a country child too, a generation later than Alison Uttley. As she read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, I read Alison Uttley, Henry Williamson, and Mary Webb's Gone to Earth and Precious Bane. My rural life was coloured by theirs. They deepened the view, lived in the thickets, trod the corn, knew the lairs, named the animals and the birds and lengthened my childhood.

Alison Uttley's country child is nine. Was that the age of romance in literary children then? The age when you might want to hide in a glade or join the circus? The age, too, that her country child started school. Helping on the farm, lying out on the fields on sunny days, counting stars at night, reading two or three books over and over, is school enough till then and possibly for ever.

Talk about the last child in the wood.

Now Alison Uttley feels like a stilted read. I shouldn't have read her Wikipedia entry, which was enough to stilt the most resilient writer. She was a controlling woman, not at all charming, it seems, one of a covey of children's writers that included Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter. I don't think Enid Blyton was charming either. Alison Uttley was only the second female graduate from Manchester university. That's what going to school was for.

I try to read her as I would have when I was nine. Talk about walking with ghosts. The walk, as I think of it now, begins at the end of Downs Road where our hairdresser, the daughter of Henry Williamson, lived. That was already ghostly and thrilling, the daughter of a writer whose books I had read. She, the hairdresser, paid it no heed. I was already miles away along the river bank.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

I feel like reading Kafka's story The Great Wall of China for its irremediable joy and remove. Why are we building this wall? Does anyone know? There is, they say, a director far away. Instead I am reading Rosamond Lehmann's The Swan in the Evening, english literary memoir circa 1960, cushioning myself in an era just before mine, the one to which my parents aspired. I am always one step ahead or behind.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter would not come amiss right now. I like to imagine Madame en carosse through France in the seventeenth century, always a long way from her daughter. My copy, leather-bound and marbled, second in the series "L'âme de la femme" published in 1927, came to me from a woman who invited me to tea when I was newly arrived in Paris in 1968; she lived in the rue de Vaugirard, the longest road in Paris, for many years. Along with the letters of Madame de Sévigné, I inherited ten years later three white linen cushion covers. I don't often read french any more, but when I do there's a clarity like late Mozart, with a dose of Proust, who adored Madame de Sévigné, and the length of the rue de Vaugirard, as I walked toward tea. Open Madame de Sévigné anywhere and there's her daughter.
A Vichy, dimanche 24 mai 1676 
Je suis ravie, en vérité, quand je reçois de vos lettres, ma chère enfant: elles sont si aimables, que je ne puis me résoudre à jouir toute seule du plaisir de les lire
Rosamond Lehmann had a daughter who died of polio in Java aged 24. After that she everything she wrote was a form of resurrection. I can go along with that in the middle of the night, for a night or two, but not in the afternoon.
Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak: "I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God we would be as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.