JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin is the book for autumn in Inniscarra. It is, as so many commentators have said, an extraordinary book. At least two narratives are concurrent and overlapping in the blur through a snowy train window.  Tsypkin is on the train to Leningrad, and the Dostoyevskys are travelling to Baden-Baden. Suddenly there is a clearing, or the train stops and people are buying beer and pies on the platform; meanwhile Dostoevsky arrives in Baden-Baden with his young wife Anna who needs a new hat, at the very least. 

Leonid Tsypkin never left Russia, but, as he travels from Moscow to Leningrad on the train, he weaves in Dostoevsky's visit to Baden-Baden, his gambling and his pawning and his lying. There is a powerful account of one of his epileptic seizures. A train journey can count for so much when you are constrained from leaving the country where you live.

Dostoevsky went to Baden-Baden to try and win some money at the casino. Tsypkin was going to Leningrad because Dostoyevsky had lived there, and died there, when it was Petersburg, gateway to the west; and on the train he is reading Anna's Diary. What it is for a wild creature like Dostoyevsky to have a demure wife who keeps a diary.

As befits a train narrative, the sentences are long, often a page or more. Tsypkin moves towards Leningrad, and Dostoyevsky is staking on zero in Baden-Baden. Or Tsypkin is dreaming Dostoyevsky staking on zero and later walking with Anna by a lake.

Reflected upon the light-blue surface of the lake were gentle white clouds, and drifting slowly across it was a paddle-steamer, wheels cudgelling the water and splashing the deck where the Dostoyevskys stood together with their two children admiring the beautiful summer morning—

Later in the same sentence we understand that Anna bore one child, who died, and so between them, in memoriam or in hope or in despair, the Dostoyevskys had two children thenceforth, especially when they were walking by a lake or travelling quietly on a paddle-steamer; and particularly in their letters to each other. The Dostoyevskys, in reality, wherever that is, had two children, Lyuba and Fedya, the one with a profound lack of psychological balance, the other, diligent but rather dense, almost a malicious caricature of his father's skull, writes Tsypkin. 

The sentences at the end are even longer as Tsypkin reworks the end of Dostoyevsky's life in Petersburg and you start to wonder where the respite lies: every comma leads to the lurch of another clause, another complexity of human life and the russian soul, to the hard-won full stop a few pages on. 

Tsypkin tried for many years to leave Russia. He had one son who did leave, for America, but Tsypkin was refused an exit visa (and humiliated) several times. Humiliation is the crippling most likely to lead to creativity. 

I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation, and standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.

Writes Wayne Koestenbaum.

Friday, 16 October 2020

 AN UNFORGETTABLE BOOK, A MIGHTY MOVIE, A MAGNIFICENT AND ENDURING ADDITION TO THE GREAT BOOKS OF AMERICANA. 

This is the publisher's blurb on the back of my Corgi Western edition of Shane, by Jack Shaefer. Shane is the second movie book I've read recently. The other is The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, which is not so much Americana as the neurosis of Americana in the Hollywood of the late 1930s. 

As we near the end of Shane, language goes up a few notches. Here is Shane, the slim, dark, mysterious stranger with no past, just after he has wiped out the two baddies in a saloon shootout.

How could one describe it, the change that came over him? Out of the mysterious resources of his will the vitality came. It came creeping, a tide of strength that crept through him and fought and shook off the weakness. It shone in his eyes and they were were alive again and alert. It welled up in him, sending that familiar power surging through him again until it was singing again in every vibrant line of him.

The story is narrated through a boy's hero-worship. Shane's saving of the homesteaders' livelihood in the face of threat from a wealthy cattleman, is converted into hope for the boy's future. Shane has killed so that the boy can grow up strong and straight and look after his loving and worthy parents. Shane was the man, as the closing words of the book have it, 'who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane'. Americana is built on this kind of simplicity—mythic, and entirely without guile. It has spawned many other such tales. Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, for example. 

The film of Shane does the book every kind of favour by drenching the Wyoming landscape in lush cinematography, so much so that the book is pallid by comparison. The film version of The Day of the Locust, on the other hand, stands or falls by the performance of Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (no relation), principally his nervous watery eyes and his uncontrollable hands.     

From the start Homer's  hands have a life of their own, separate from the rest of his body.

One day, while opening a can of salmon for lunch, his thumb received a nasty cut. Although the wound must have hurt, the calm, slightly querulous expression he usually wore did not change. The wounded hand writhed about on the kitchen table until it was carried to the sink by its mate and bathed tenderly in hot water.

Ten pages later his hands keep his thoughts busy.

They trembled and jerked, as thought troubled by dreams. To hold them still, he clasped them together. Their fingers twined like a tangle of thighs in miniature. He snatched them apart and sat on them.

Near the end of the novella Homer's hands are playing  'Here's the church, here's the steeple', over and over. Tod, the narrator, who is a scenic artist, is watching.

It was the most complicated tic Tod had ever seen. What made it particularly horrible was its precision. It wasn't pantomime, as he had first thought, but manual ballet.

When Tod saw the hands start to crawl out again, he exploded.

'For Christ's sake!'

The hands struggled to get free, but Homer clamped his knees shut and held them.

'I'm sorry,' he said.

The final scene of violence and bedlam that brings to life the creatures of Tod's picture called The Burning of Los Angeles is, like the shootout in Shane, better in the film. Bedlam is laborious in narrative. Better, that is, for generations who grew up on intensive visuals. Homer's hands finally work free, and it is no triumph. Nor is it a piece of redemptive Americana. 

Shane was published in 1949, The Day of the Locust, ten years early in 1939. Ten years, a world war and a large-scale depression, were enough to foster the return of mythic America. 

                                                      

Sunday, 4 October 2020

My instinct, when choosing books to take on holiday, is to go for the deepest drift or trawl I can. W.G. Sebald, especially in autumn, has a long melancholic reach and hold. You start on a sentence and soon you are beyond the world yet further in. Everyone Sebald meets in The Rings of Saturn is strangely remote, ready to disappear or already gone. The narrator has an unerring gift for unearthing strangeness, loss and homesickness. In The Emigrants the ground is even more shifting, even more uneasy. The last emigrant whose tale emerges in the book is Max Ferber, a German painter living in Manchester, where Sebald arrived in the sixties. (Sebald, with several forenames to choose from, was generally known as Max). Manchester in the sixties was not yet risen from its post-industrial ashes and provided a densely atmospheric backdrop to the wanderings of the newly-arrived. There is a certain kind of traveller/wanderer/exile for whom urban decay is merciful. (Newly arrived in Paris in the sixties, or a visitor to Dublin, I sought out the least frequented, least refurbished neighbourhoods, found solace in cracks and darkness, where the past was laid bare and I felt safe.)

I started reading The Rings of Saturn before our stay on Coney Island, finished it, there and began The Emigrants, followed by Vertigo after we came home. A conversation the first evening we were there with N, whose house we stayed in, set Sebald into strange perspective. N is a plein-air painter. He can stay outdoors and paint for six hours at a time, taking landscape or seascape into his painting and going home content. I asked in all idleness — we were several hundred miles north of where we live — if they'd had a wet August this year. I don't know, said N, I live in the present. We were two weeks into September.

His reply, and the silence it produced, have stayed with me. I have scrutinised my sense of the present, my sense of the past, the present tense of gardening, the past tense of reading and writing. And there is N, seizing the long moment of the day's painting, in the present.

In one of those paragraphs Sebald is so good at, the first person narrative shifts into the third person and thence into a new first person, Sebald is visiting Max Ferber twenty years after their first acquaintance.

Ferber commented that, purely in terms of time I was now as far removed from Germany as he had been in 1966; but time, he went on, is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither past nor future. At least, not for me. The fragmentary scenes that haunt my memories are obsessive in nature. When I think of Germany, it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head.

Sebald's gentle tone, his careful detail, his mild disclaimers ('at least that was what the doctor said', 'so it is surely so', ) invite the reader to go along with him. He is irreproachably formal, yet insistent. 

I'm not sure I can bear, right now, to read Austerlitz as well. The last of his books, and the most poignant, the most driven by the mix of torpor and coincidence that make up our sense of where we have come from.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Coney Island, family history,

Sitting upstairs looking over to Rosses Point and Ben Bulben, one afternoon on tiny Coney Island in Sligo Bay, I read The Keeper by Miranda Doyle, descendant of the family who once lived in a two and a half room cottage a few yards up the road. There's a photograph of eleven of them in their Sunday best outside the cottage in the 1920s. The book is hard to read if you don't have a focus. So many people, so many names and those relationships that fall naturally as winged seeds from a tree if you are an insider.

Eventually I fitted into the picture the owner of the house where we're staying, and the author of the book, who is her niece. More obscure is the (older) woman who vowed to publish this family history, and most compelling her note, in bold typeface, about having changed the emphasis of parts of the tale, to spare living relatives. 

There is spoken testimony from family members, some of it glorious.

One house we came to. The man. He was in bed. You could see he was riven with Tuberculosis, or what we called in those days Consumption. Because of the dampness and the sheer everythingness of it.

Menfolk knew their Milton and their Shakespeare and their Shelley, even if some of the books got burned to keep the fire going. A copy of Virgil survived and now lives on a shelf in New Zealand. One at least wrote poetry, in the high literate tone that obliterates content. When literature meant something just by being as remote as possible from the dirt floor and the over and over slippery babies hitting the straw.

Babies were born onto the straw. Sometimes in houses that only had three walls, making for a lack of boundary between the inside and the out.

Just a small thing, which over time became the bricks and mortar built between people who have nothing more to say to each other.

I was not surprised to find, when I got home and googled Miranda Doyle, that she had later written a memoir called A Book of Untruths. Nothing in bold typeface here, and emphasis exactly as it should be. The sheer everythingness of it brought up to date.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

A book you know takes your temperature.

I re-read Embers by Sándor Márai and discover that I am not in the way of preferring solitude in the middle of a deep forest. Not at all. It's like looking down a long corridor, and there are two old men meeting after forty-one years. Cherchez la femme. When I first read it I relished the isolation, the bottomless quiet of it.  This time I'm restless with the rules, the codes, the duty and the proprieties.

I dip back into Roger Deakin's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm with relief.  Here he is watching his cat Millie.
You're a passionate little person — you sit on my table, and when I speak kind words to you, you purr. When I stroke you with kind words, you purr even louder than when I stroke you with my fingertips. And when a train goes by at the end of the fields, or a magpie calls, your ears swivel and focus all on their own, each ear moving independently. So one ear listens to a wood pigeon and another to the slight whirring of the fridge. 
That's better.


Saturday, 29 August 2020

The chance encounters that give rise to reading: watching a film of Brideshead Revisited followed by a sneezy cold in unseasonal weather lead me to re-read the novel over two days, a 1954 Penguin shedding an aromatic buff-coloured dust as I turned the pages, the book's fragility echoing mine as I lay on the sofa half under a blanket in what we still, after more than twenty years, call the new room.

Several of my Evelyn Waugh books are very old. I liked him best in my twenties and thirties when his taut mannerism suited my need for high aesthetic mixed with social savagery. The religious preoccupation got on my nerves but I managed to overlook it. Now, after more than forty years in a country whose Catholicism is everywhere and nowhere, I am no less irritated but a little more interested in how the English version managed to be so consumed in its trappings and its rules, much as it would have been several hundred years ago.

Every satirist hides an emotional maelstrom. Evelyn Waugh is not a likeable writer, but occasionally you feel for him, as, near the end of the book, he cooks up an extended arctic image of a hut in the last blizzard of winter.
Quite silently a great weight forming against the timber; the bolt straining in its socket; minute by minute in the darkness outside the white heap sealing the door, until quite soon when the wind dropped and the sun came out on the ice slopes and the thaw set in a block would move, slide and tumble, high above, gather way, gather weight, till the whole hillside seemed to be falling, and the little lighted place would crash open and splinter and disappear, rolling with the avalanche into the ravine.
In an author's note economically placed on the verso page, beneath the publishing history, he absents himself and those he knows from his book. Which is a sure way of planting them firmly on his pages.
I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.  E.W.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

This summer I have read the five last novels of Virginia Woolf, and the complete works of Roger Deakin. I have grazed elsewhere of course, but this was the backbone. For September I'm thinking of Tristram Shandy again. A poor summer (we have had a pandemic you know) seems a good moment for an old novel that takes a long time to begin and is tongue-in-cheek throughout. There are blank pages and black pages, tons of question marks.

Roger Deakin's Waterlog has blank stretches of water and black stretches of water, endolphins jumping in mountain streams, apprehension in pike-filled, eel-rich, silent, streams. About a third into his journey he wonders what he doing anyway, is he going mad like Ned Merrill in The Swimmer? What is this journey around Britain's waters, defying and seeking out, trespassing with intent, interrupting current practice in oversupervised waters? Enjoying old lidos and swimming holes? Satisfying a restless spirit. For now.

Friday, 21 August 2020

During days of gales and rain and storms I skirt the outdoors. Lay on the floor upstairs and read random bits of One Straw Revolution; more like grazing on a book. How you construct a world view is a subtle affair, a grasshopper on a stalk, for example. Or maybe you were asleep some of the time?

Next day, tail end of the storm, heavy showers, Roger Deakin's diary. He appreciates the principle of writing as flitting, as with diaries, journals. You can note the smallest, most important things:
Every now and again you find yourself slipping into a little pocket, a little envelope, of country that is unknown to anyone else, which feels as though it is your own secret land.
Idle thoughts are at the centre of his activity as a human.
If you want to know what it's like to be a tree, sleep with a cat on your bed and feel it manoeuvring and exploring your curves and hollows for the most comfortable nest.
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm is about his activity as a human, his reflection as a human. The travels and encounters of Wildwood, focused in chapters, are human too, but there is nothing to compare with notes taken on the hoof, swimming in the moat, sleeping in the shepherd's hut.
I slept in the shepherd's hut last night after an eight-length evening swim in the most, now beginning to weed up — a beautiful, nearly full moonlit night. Very bright, hardly proper darkness at all. At ten to four I was woken up by a warbler (not sure which) hopping along the tin roof of the hut, then striking up the most beautiful song, at first utterly solo in the half-light, soon joined by other birds.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Some reading moves me away from language and onto the land. After Virginia Woolf, Roger Deakin. Wildwood.

I read too quickly, to get to the chapters about Central Asia, land of fruit and honey, vision of fruitful valleys and ancient commonage and interdependence where walnuts are currency and everyone is poor.

Poverty must be based on a lie, on a bed of lies, if people who live close to the history of the land, eat walnuts (which resemble the brain) and apples and honey and kefir, are poor.

They are rich in everything that people in otherwise poor, which is to say, wealthy, countries, pay good money to experience: good air, fresh food in season, communality, harvest.

Le Regain. I should read Jean Giono next. Or John Giorno. For the urban translation.

The harvest here, this summer: courgettes, round, pale and french or dark green and long, sugar peas, pale yellow, lots of runaway Red Rapids lettuce, rocket flowering, fennel coming on, pumpkins (ushiki kuru) making their way through other plants, mice eating the beetroot, for the sweetness and the colour, dark red or pink-striped, beans working to make beans, tomatoes eccentric this year, Atomic Grape, forget it, cucumbers, plenty, herbs, coming on in the greenhouse, basil, coriander and dill.

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.