JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Friday 23 February 2024

the oligarch's son, a harsh male predicament

A few pages into The Man from the Sea by Michael Innes, last of the old green penguin mysteries I've been reading at night, I found this:

Even as he stared at the other naked man he recognised within his own physical response a thrill of pleasure. What had risen from the sea was some harsh male predicament to which he responded as a release.

The one on the beach is naked because he is on, in, an assignation — the dark word still excited him — with the wife of local nouveau laird and scientist, Alex Blair. The man from the sea is a fugitive, a belt about his middle and a wisp of fabric round his loins, his secrets everywhere.

I read The Man from the Sea over a week or so, at night, without interest in the plot or its outcome, pausing where I paused, absorbing the costume and circumstance of new characters, then forgetting them. On the last page the man from the sea, a nuclear scientist with not long to live, walks back into sea in the clothes of the local nouveau laird and scientist, his daughter, not his wife, now the focus, as well as an Australian girl cousin called Georgiana, like someone out of Jane Austen gone walkabout. 

Dovetailed into this in my reading life, an article in the New Yorker called 'The Oligarch's Son', about a boy called Zac Brettler aged nineteen in London, who jumped off a posh balcony near Vauxhall Bridge, in order to live or in order to die, is unclear.  Another harsh male predicament. He changed his name, he was a not-quite from Maida Vale, he thought, a fabulist in a maelstrom of russian and arab rich kids.  He would rather be an oligarch's son, his mother in Dubai, everyone at a distance, various businesses on course. His actual parents in Maida Vale utterly perplexed and sad. 

At the end of The Man from the Sea I'd learned more about the author and his times than about the plot. A nineteen fifties fable. At the end of 'The Oligarch's Son' I've learned the fragility of whoever jumped off the posh balcony, to live or to die, the fabulist teenager in oligarchs' London laundry, in deeper than he could manage. Whether or not he was on heroin is immaterial, who he called and what he googled before jumping off the balcony towards the Thames. To live or to die. All part of the harsh male predicament.


Thursday 15 February 2024

INCURABLE

This afternoon I listened to Daniel Michael Kaiser's translation of incurable into music, a music of disappearing, almost a non-music, DK says. All rhythms were suddenly strange, every pause uncertain. The singing voice dancing over what I wrote and how I have read it out loud, to say nothing of how it took form in the first place. A manifestation of how DK made his way through it, what resonances he found and how the singer sings them.

The best part of listening is I have no words for it. I barely have words for what I write. I listened with bated breath on a broad plain. A thin fabric, translucent, seemingly improvised (although it is not). I wanted to focus on the resonance, he says. The reverb was recorded in an abandoned sugar factory tower.

Hard to listen on the computer, such thin sound. Brings you up short. I wanted to hear this sung version in all its literal resonance, this light incantation, translucent, yes. And all the time I was pulling on what I wrote seven years ago. incurable 'A tense and gnomic journey into the past as it resonates during a difficult long moment in the present, with personal photographs and influential images from the dangerous years of growing up', I said.

Thursday 8 February 2024

BLOG MYSTERIES

At night I have been reading mid-twentieth century mystery novels, the penguins with the green covers, by Margery Allingham, Josephine Bell, Carter Dickson. There was a moment in the 1970s when people I knew were reading mysteries, as well as a brief moment when a well-digger asked me what I wrote— mysteries? No, I said, I write about here, and waved an arm around.

Margery Allingham wrote in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, a few miles from where I grew up. Josephine Bell took medical tripos at Cambridge and poverty in Shadwell Basin. Carter Dickson, one of his names, writes a faux breezy pulp style.

Dream fodder. Expurgation. People running through. He Wouldn't Have Killed Patience? The Port of London Murders. Who wants to know? I, said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow. 

The solution is there. Any problem will do.

In a mystery there are so many people with attributes —looks, job, circumstance — in truth I have little patience, but to be led along the mystery of death or deaths is to ignore nearly everything else, which is the whole idea, and only incidentally or par hasard, find what you are looking for. 

Last night I dreamed I looked around at this line of people, that crowd, these few, who would all soon be dead, all of us, I knew — look again, dead again.

Sunday 28 January 2024

SELF-PORTRAITS, AGED THIRTY-ONE

When I was thirty-one I wrote a self-portrait every day for a year. I typed it out, a folder per month, a page or so a day. For example:

I like valleys, not wind, and sea and mountains only on royal days when I'm ready.

What I like best of all is a hand upon my forehead or the world somehow exactly equal to that as I watch from beside a tree.

I'm honestly selfish, and in lucid, plain moments think that others are mostly dishonestly unselfish.

I've always thought I'd never really been hurt. But sometimes I believe I've been hurt on a grand scale.

For a week in March I drew a self-portrait instead. Mostly patterns, one or two words. In July I went to visit my parents. Hand-written and noticeably blunt. I have been clearing out a filing cabinet and found these, among other files, manuscripts, clippings, photographs, envelopes—many envelopes. Hard to know what speed to take a dismantling of this kind. How much to read and how fast. Lecture notes on Pinget, Cocteau, Baudelaire. A story collection called Cacti and Succulents, three copies. Music notes for Monday Night At Home, a radio piece. An early artist book called Suckling Herd, hand-written on a blotting paper book, with tipped-in extracts from the Farmers' Journal.  

Dizzying.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

NOT READING BUT FLYING

I knew as I neared the end of Inland by Gerald Murnane, that I would immediately start reading it again now I was attune to the shifting forms and spaces, multiple identities and unfulfilled histories, now I was a fully-fledged reader, I wouldn't need to keep re-reading the beginning, as I did the first time, to settle, as I thought, questions of who was where and in what language, between which rivers, with a view of what kinds of grasslands, inner and outer. This time I would not need to settle anything. As I began, I found I was turning the pages with the joy of dream-flying, Look! no hands, on a bicycle, the glorious understatement of the moment when horses no longer gallop but are said to break into a run.

The boy-man between two streams, on the grasslands, the same and different grasslands, same and different girl-woman, many names, many plants, a science everywhere if you're looking, the more you look the more enraptured and uneasy you become. Gerald Murnane, like Proust, like Virginia Woolf, makes you inhabit your own thoughts in the guise of his. The hungarian puszta, the faux american prairie, the grasslands of Melbourne County, the grasslands beyond where you live, between two creeks that flow down the map but never join up. People live between them and are fashioned by them, they have been ousted and must resettle between another pair of creeks, the same and different. As every person is many people, every name many names, every word many words, every grassland multiple within and without. There is another world but it is inside this one. Gerald Murnane kneads this Eluard line across several pages, stays with it, plays with it in the middle of the book, and we, his readers, often invoked, stay and play too. The room in which we read splits slightly for a moment to show what's inside.

When we were driving around Australia I wrote down the name of every creek we crossed. When I drove round North America in 1980-1, south from New York, west from New Orleans, north from L.A,  east from northern California, I noted all those You Are Now Entering boards at the edge of towns with name, elevation and population. Entering Ideal, South Dakota, elevation 12, Population 57. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

LITTLE WOMEN KNOW THEIR FABRICS

On foot of seeing the last half hour of a film adaptation of Little Women the other day, I started reading the book for the first time since I was maybe ten or twelve. On page 37, a word leapt off the page: spandy. Not sure I've ever had the experience of a word coming to greet me in quite that way, sharp and clear after many many years. I must have liked it when I was twelve or so. I may not have seen it since. According to the OED it is American English and first appeared in 1830. Frequency: 0.01 in a million. Louisa May Alcott comes up as one of the prime users.

The two older girls are getting ready to go to a party. They'll have to wear their poplins, and be presentable.

"Girls, girls! have you both got nice pocket-handkerchiefs? "Yes, yes, spandy nice, and Meg has cologne on hers", cried Jo. "I do believe Marmee would ask that if were all running away from an earthquake."

The March family are poor (somewhat fallen, one gathers). There is much discussion of clothes, especially Meg, the oldest, and Amy, the youngest. Dresses are referred to by the fabric they're made of. The word tarlatan caught my eye later in the book, and my ear. Their poplins, or pops, are the older girls' best  dresses (they yearned after silk, Meg did anyway), there was tarlatan in summer and gingham with sashes. Always gloves. Jo is impatient with all this. As Louisa May was too. But you have to know your fabrics whether you're a little woman or an incipient boy, awkward and antic, always losing hairpins. Dresses were made by a dressmaker then, and mended by the owner. The fabric was the thing, not, as now, the label. There were no labels. If there was a burn or a tear at the back of your dress, you spent as much time as possible against the wall. If one glove was less than perfect, you wore one and carried the other.

By page 239, Meg has her first silk dress. The impossibly sweet Beth has recovered from scarlet fever, the absent father, who has also been ill, has returned from the war. It's a cloying tale. Too much principled goodness, too much Marmee in her corner, faithful servant Hannah, wonderful neighbours, Mr Laurence and grandson Laurie, many references to The Pilgrim's Progress. Goodness winning through, whatever you were wearing.

Louisa May Alcott, like many of her readers, took refuge in Jo, up in her attic, reading and eating apples, playing with the rats — yes. Whenever I have thought of Little Women since I first read it, I have thought of Jo reading and eating apples in the attic — I forgot the rats.


Thursday 4 January 2024

FOU T'SONG PLAYS SCARLATTI

Fou T'Song was the first Chinese pianist to become well known in Europe. In the eighties I saw him on tv playing Scarlatti with such gentleness, his face seraphic. I was new to tv and this was one of its early moments, along with the bbc adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl and The Old Grey Whistle Test.  Later I bought the Scarlatti CD and listen to it when I need to bring the days to size in the early evening. Fou  T'Song is good for managing your reading in deepest January, snowdrops nearly out, frog spawn beginning, lots of indoor time with upstairs reading, nighttime reading, reading in the bath. A great deal of my being is spread out over these books and New Yorkers, Hortus, the newspaper before you light the fire with it, to say nothing of the label on the organic milk, etc. Fou T'Song brings it all together, Eileen Myles' Working Life, mine, Elizabeth Strout's, Elizabeth Taylor's. Elizabeth Strout has said that when she meets people she absorbs their molecules and that is how she is able to write her characters. Elizabeth Taylor, half a century earlier, english rural middle class, does not have the concept of molecules. Eileen Myles does  not have the concept of character. She is on her own planet. I absorb their molecules, all of them. Often on the same day. That's where Fou T'Song and his seraphic smile come in.

Tuesday 26 December 2023

NEW DOWN PILLOWS

We bought new down pillows about a month ago, after years in a pillow desert, and since then, uniquely I think, I have read all the novels of Elizabeth Strout that I have, which is all she has written bar about two, with my head resting on these soft, minimal yet full, pillows, either before I go to sleep or by way of interlude during the night. She has inhabited her people and I inhabit them in turn, buoyed by the new pillow and the sleep it will surely bring. It is only now I am on the most recent novel Lucy by the Sea, which is very much about the pandemic time, that I'm getting impatient, as I think I did when I first read it: this is too close to what I know, it doesn't matter that it's Maine or New York. In fact, knowing the characters from earlier books adds to the sense of familiarity: these are people I know, neighbours almost, and their story has become too familiar. Yes we were all united by the pandemic but I didn't want to be. I dislike the feeling of being united by anything. I prefer the condition of detachment. This is what I am saying, as Elizabeth Strout would say — she likes these little emphases, this disarming writerly presence which is both insistent and apologetic. Detachment is easier if the stories are of the past, like LP Hartley, whom I also re-read often in large doses, or Elizabeth Taylor, a more recent minor addiction, both of them early to mid-twentieth century. If I want to feel united, it is not with a society, it is with those strange and already themselves detached creatures like Virginia Woolf or Clarice Lispector. With them, not with the society they might depict along the way, I feel at one.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Aghia Galini, 1966

Lynne Tillman's Motion Sickness by page nine pauses at a hotel in Aghia Gallini in Crete. I stayed in a hotel in Aghia Gallini in 1966, it was two and six for a room with a bed, one and six for a mattress on the terrace, one shilling for a space on the terrace. Thin old women in black came down from the hills with sticks and cheese. I thought I'd rent a tiny cottage and look over the sea for a winter, write in a rocky landscape. There was a lot to absorb that year and far away by a sea the place for that, in a language I didn't understand. Sea urchins among the rocks. 

Lynne Tillman, thirty or so years later, stays on her shady balcony in Aghia Gallini, for fear of the Cretan sun. She is aware of her neighbours, Australians, and a New Zealander.

The New Zealander yells down that we should have a drink. He has a bottle, he says. Of what, I wonder, but don't ask. I say, I'm reading but all right. I don't know why I put it that way— 'reading but all right'. Perhaps I meant to suggest that his visit ought to be short.

Online now Aghia Gallini  looks like average tourists in shorts viewing the merchandise as they go down to the harbour. 

Lynne Tillman is in Bologna Paris Venice London Amsterdam and Agia Gallini. I am there too, passingly, by proxy and in my own right. We share the same motion sickness, or at least some of the same comforts.

I feel out of place and know that I'm right to feel out of place. Travel unsettles the appropriate. You're bound to be inappropriate. Which is probably why I don't feel the intense embarrassment some do at not being able to speak foreign languages correctly. It seems to me that one of the privileges of travel is never to fit in. And not to fit in, not to be able to, is a kind of freedom.


Sunday 10 December 2023

MYLES AND STROUT

I've read, for now, I've read chelsea girls and "working life", I've read the life of Eileen Myles these past weeks, a saturation that sounds like her truth and therefore nearly mine, while I'm reading her, or just after. 

In the middle of the night I read Eliz. Strout. I'm on Anything is Possible which is what you need to hear in the middle of the night.

Monday 4 December 2023

STROUT AND MYLES

Strout at night and Myles by day, Elizabeth and Eileen, my two companions as we trumpet into winter in a strong northerly wind, sun barely up, ever, neighbours on the rampage, other airborne infections breeding fast.

Elizabeth Strout probably too young for Woodstock. Eileen was there, witnessing the end of America. 

But Jimi Hendrix was the best. It spelled destruction. it was so sour and noble. His Star Spangled Banner was the end of America for me. We were through with it. It was the most ironic end of an empire song any culture ever played for itself. I was so glad to be there to hear it. To know it was over.

It's important to feel when you're young that something is over. If something, everything, is over then you can do anything. Elizabeth aka Olive Kitteridge aka Lucy Barton has less an end-sense than a slow, not-even-rueful backwards look and coming to terms. Eileen is always in an endgame. A drinker and a brinkster.

I always heard a little voice yell my name just before I lost consciousness. I thought my death would be this way.  I loved it.

Elizabeth constructs herself among the stories of others' woes. Whether or not you can say you're trash. Why your brother paraded in women's underwear over his clothes. Now and then you — I — feel you've touched base. With Eileen you touch base every ten lines. With Elizabeth it's deferred, deflected into the lives of others. Eileen is onto it.

You can't force a story that doesn't want to be told. It was that kind of year .... I couldn't have handled anything less. I was going down to get some coffee and the Boston Globe to make me be something. Everything I did was something to fix me. With all my heart I was trying to be dead.

Lucy Barton is in hospital. Her mother has come to stay. There are startling revelations and long pauses in their conversation. Subtle, careful sentences. Where Eileen barks, bites into epiphany, Elizabeth moves quietly, and the devastation, for being hidden, is acute.

This is the rhythm that suits as we head into the winter solstice. I would like to be out more but it's freezing. 

Saturday 2 December 2023

WINTER

I've read Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout before going to sleep for a couple of weeks now. Olive taking residence at the back of my brain through new pillows, inside and out. I might ask, why is it comforting to give residence to Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's creature of contrasts. Her confrontational empathy and plainness of thought. After Olive there is Lucy Barton, and Lucy Barton's Mom. 

This is my nighttime occupation.  I need to replace the current contents of my head with someone else's dramatic personae, their doppelgänger, my repository. 

Last night, after a sweet/sour night away in Kerry, I read a chapter of My Name is Lucy Barton and next morning read it again. Elizabeth Strout's narrator cannot bear the sound of a child crying in desperation. She can read the levels of children crying: tiredness, crabbiness, and desperation. 

It helps me to sleep, knowing that someone else can distinguish between the levels of crying in children, and will change carriages in the subway to get away from desperation. 

Tuesday 21 November 2023

TANGO - FLEUR JAEGGY AND EILEEN MYLES

Fleur Jaeggy, swiss smooth and chilled, now partner on my private dance floor to Eileen Myles, open american and rough, both writers of hyper-aware short books. I bought The Water Statues and For Now in London, two short neat books, almost the same size. My favourite kind of reading. You read them once you read them twice, you look over them again for sentences that correspond to you in your inner receptive spaces.

I hadn't read Eileen Myles before. For Now is a talk she gave at Yale in 2019, who bought her archive. She is conversationally endearingly blunt. 'I have a very definite feeling that I am simply living ...' Living, thinking, copying is what she does. She is blunter than Fleur Jaeggy and blunter than me by a poet's mile. She talks and she talks and meanders with intent.

If you ask me to tell you why I write it probably has to do with this deep comfort/discomfort of being in the world and this option of devotion. If I want to sit here and copy all day that might be the best option available to me, it's not an anti-depressant and it's not exhilarating and it's not aerobic but it is a form of chanting and I do do it for religious reasons. I mean it's my default position.

Fleur Jaeggy's comfort/discomfort is far more processed. The eponymous water statues, collected in a flooded basement, are the carriers of her history. This is an intense, prickly, non-linear book of terse little chapters, often only a page, unheaded, beheaded. If a tale is told it's told in ice and avoidance, as in certain families, where the only alternative to ice is the slush or marshiness after a slight thaw. 

Beeklam, her main character, as a child wished to live as though he'd drowned. 

He was once again persuaded that his life was passing, had passed, and this made him rejoice while admiring the efforts of his fellow creatures, of the Dutch population with their firmness regarding the radiant pinnacles of domestic comfort —such home-sweet-home settings made his heart sink, so much happiness he was happier living without.

How writers try to characterise their own strangeness. This is the tango's turn and poise. These are defiantly singular writers, with what Fleur Jaeggy calls a theological ability to live alone. 

Eileen Myles would say it differently. She returns often to the question of 'my writing', 'that fuzzy category', what it is and when she is doing it, like now, writing a talk to be given at Yale, and if not how to say what it is. About thirty pages into the book, the talk, in a long sentence of a page and a half, she does what sometimes a writer of our ilk has to do, she says what writing feels like, how it is never ease, how it is perched in relation to this other thing called living.

Thursday 16 November 2023

I was ready to write a tango of Fleur Jaeggy and Eileen Myles, a splendid non-pair, I thought, to share a dance floor, when a chance re-reading of an unfinished piece about a radio programme called 'Monday Night at Home' from 2008 made me think how I might finish it, and, into my mind fresh from a long sleep on the bookshelves outside the bedroom, came a book I bought in Paris called Sur Un Air de Scarlatti. I may not have read it for decades but I often think of the title and occasionally notice the book on which I put an orange cover since its own was decrepit, using paper with which I made chinese lantern lampshades for my otherwise charmless flat in Paris. 

Sur Un Air de Scarlatti by Edmond Jaloux is from 1928, printed on soft watermarked paper with uneven edges, dark woodcuts settled into the page and dropped capitals in orangey red at the start of each section. I have always known, without looking inside the book to remind myself, that it was a tale that had slipped effortlessly into my state of mind after I found it in a box outside a secondhand bookshop further along the rue Durantin where I lived. Yes, I thought the other day, the radio programme in my story could somehow end with that. The narrator, who already shares a number of my tastes, could have this one too, whatever it was.

Something to do with the french language, with being a young and dream-filled passionate reader looking for as many truths as possible on the page rather than on the street — though this being Paris the street had truths of its own — I was in a nearly constant state of heightened receptivity, devoured by my own emotions, like the narrator of this tale who goes to Venice in search of more indifference, greater calm, less involvement, and feels he's succeeding until, on one of his nocturnal walks he finds a garden where a a violinist is playing the Scarlatti sonata, a mysterious young woman accompanied by visions that he too can see, visions of a century before, 'cette nostalgie d'un Paradis de verre filé dispersé depuis le Déluge', and finds himself ensnared as never before.

So, shall I leave my radio announcer, Thom Katch, happily stranded in Edmond Jaloux's Venice, chasing visions and the light dream of a happiness without intoxication and without tomorrow?

Friday 10 November 2023

Junk Percussion, Roger Turner

1966 or 7, in the vast social space Sussex University had in its early days, Ginger Baker was doing a drum solo and I was right in front of him with Roger Turner who was right in with Ginger Baker's long frame, swift arms and hollow cheeks, the shifts and witching of the drum kit registering in his head with a precision and a passion he has spent the last half century refining and expanding. He was reading Ginger Baker and I was reading him.

And now I've read his book, Junk Percussion, an illustrated inventory of some of his instruments, and a reflection on the musical possibilities of junk, as well as, in the epilogue, a brief history of how sound exploration entered his bloodstream, via the Goon Show, via a mother who'd grown up in Palestine and sang Arab songs, and a wide array of jazz records brought home by an older brother. The first concert he went to was the Coltrane Quartet with Eric Dolphy, and Elvin Jones' drumming 'started to occupy my senses like rays from the planets'.

I remember going to a car salvage yard with Roger in the eighties. I was focused on whatever part my car needed, while Roger was darting about looking and tapping things lightly with his long reach, within and without, his eyes lighting up at the myriad prospects of half-dismantled cars and their viscera spread about on the ground, getting the antennae focused and spotting the future territory. 

His assemblage of instruments is a delight. The reader slips into the pleasure of using what others have discarded, finding the multiple musics of rubbish, chains, forks, bicycle bells, saucepan lids etc, slipping the unpitched into the pitch of manufactured instruments, 'playing inside the detail of the music'. I like that phrase for its sudden insight into the way percussion works with voice, other instruments, or melody, as if an inner voice were coming through, one that could bring flurries of electricity, send a light shock through what's there, or give an interlude of nearly pure interiority.

There's an episode late in the book, the last piece in the inventory, on the subject of the charms of paper and the like, one of the most ubiquitous forms of rubbish we create. Roger and a saxophonist were on their way by ferry and car to a concert in Brussels, when they were stopped by border police and Roger was asked, on a bright windy day, to empty his drum case, which contained 

...  masses of different kinds of paper of different lengths, colours and qualities. There were crumpled foils in silver and gold, and rectangles of silver paper, mirror-like, a dozen or more different kinds of poly-bags, with supermarket and specialist shop labels in various languages, winking at us all, some filled with polystyrene packing-beans blowing around, escaping into the air, gift-wrappers scrunched or rolled ... The paper was performing, blowing up in festoons of waves and the poly-bags filling with air, swirling and trying to get airborne ... The two policemen stood staring at the action. What was going on? ... We are musicians playing a concert tomorrow at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels,' we declared, 'This is all percussion, I added, waving my arm around generously to include the fields and trees. 'Just listen...'



Monday 6 November 2023

The right moment to read Adalbert Stifter

Back from London, ill in bed, of all the books I bought I chose Adalbert Stifter, Motley Stones, in order to occupy on the page what I could not occupy outside. I read it in two or three days and then read it again, the fixity of the view outside my window expanded into Stifter's scrupulously described landscapes in 19th century Austria, one pulsing after another, along with snowstorms, hailstorms, fires and floods. 

The stories are embedded in the landscape, people are participants in their landscape, their work is elemental, they are shoemakers, dyers, tanners, fullers, they grow food and keep bees, they walk everywhere, know their rocks and their mountains, which streams overflow in a storm. Principal characters often show halfway through the story, or later, as dark interruptions to the Biedermeier charms of the narrators and their families, hairline cracks that turn into full-blown disaster.

Stifter doesn't like commas, nouns run along the rill of the line as if their togetherness matters more than their particularity. He repeats himself often, as if addressing children. Maybe this is comforting to the reduced reader. And peaceful. All is as it should be in the burgeoning bourgeois world, in the manor house, the castle and the trades folk's comfortable houses. At the same time all is not all right. In almost every story there are stranded, shy, reclusive stray folk who cross these lives and send shivers through them. In Stifter's life too, there are dark corners, we assume, a large unhappy man who lived too well after early writing success, who did not achieve anything like the gemütlich family life he often described, and cut his own throat with a razor. 

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Clarice Again

Last week I made for Clarice Lispector like a homing pigeon. Hour of the Star has fed my inner writerliness for many years. I read it every year or two, when I want to situate myself between the beginnings of a story, with its thin, rachitic main character, and the eager, awkward writer, not entirely sure what she's doing but doing it anyway.   

It's peaceful to read stories like those of Rachel Ingalls or Elizabeth Taylor, and sometimes sleep inducing, which is a boon, but the possibility of sharing pages with a writer who writes from way back inside the fount of things may calm me even more by making me feel less alone.

A book is not just its pages, it's also the writer and her presence, even her face. Clarice Lispector, with her wonderful name, has for me an aura as powerful as Beckett or Kafka.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Mrs Caliban

In the context of Rachel Ingall's Mrs Caliban, very few mention Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest, scion of the witch Sycorax, a sad monster endowed with some of Shakespeare's best moments:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.

Mrs Caliban is Dorothy's married name. Or is it? Her husband is hardly Fred Caliban, no monster he, only ever referred to as Fred either going out the door or, briefly, coming back in. Their marriage is shaky en permanence. 'I think we're too unhappy to get a divorce', says Dorothy to her friend Estelle, divorced herself.   

This is not Beauty and the Beast. It's the unhappy wife, grieving lost children and much else, who finds an equal soul in Larry, a 6' 7'' man like a frog escaped from a brutal institute where scientists  purported to study him. Dorothy and Larry come together very soon after they have met, in the way of dreams. He comes in through the back door, 'a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face'.

Larry and Dorothy adapt rapidly to their secret life, as we adapt to dreams, sounds and sweet airs. Whether it is or we want it and so it is, or it is only as long as we want it and then the frog-like creature goes back to the Gulf of Mexico, or it never was, except —

I started the book again after I had finished it, to see where, how, in the housewifely life, you cross from unhappiness to dream.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Narratives, stories, tales

The word narrative has something controlling about it; story is cosy; a tale is recessive, mossy. 

We live in an era of narrative. Narrative sells. We all have one, whether or not we know it. These are the structures that shape our ends. Though actually, reading Elizabeth Taylor in the middle of the night, shaping sleep is what I'm trying for. The fascination of the weave should put me out, I hope.

In town today I sought out Elizabeth Taylor and Rachel Ingalls, both writers who have been resting for many decades, as actors used to say, 

I choose old narratives and their trappings because it's more peaceful. I do not want to read narratives of now, of Ireland. Why? To read its current fiction is to take on its history, the assumptions that underly it. 

The assumptions that lie beneath Elizabeth Taylor or Rachel Ingalls I grew up with. I didn't' know them, they were absorbed through the young soles of my shoes up and down Maldon High Street. I have no desire to write the fabric of Maldon High Street; or of Inniscarra, County Cork. I want to island myself on this island. 

Wednesday 27 September 2023

READING IN THE BATH

I  read the New Yorker in the bath for the plaisir de luxe, today the story by Lore Segal, 'On the Agenda', a few women friends who meet, or not, and go some way towards structuring their encounters—shall we talk about forgetting? and then abandon, disperse. Lore Segal is ninety-five. Different rhythm and weave, but the same bumpy-jolty as other moments of life, different uncertainties, varieties of diffidence, deeper perhaps with age, and warmer.

It turned out to be easier to stay at home—not to have to leave the house. Then, one day, Ruth e-mailed everybody to ask if anyone would mind if they took a hiatus. Nobody minded, and it has become easier to not have Ladies Lunch. For now?

I have no idea, in truth, of this kind of late-stage camaraderie, the ability to condone, to commune and then withdraw. But I like reading about it. Grace Paley, she who occupies several of the steps up to my room, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, they all give me this feeling. The steps up to my room are well-occupied, slightly worn. 

Storm Agnes came through and had me running for shelter. 

 

Sunday 24 September 2023

A CHANGED SEASON

Junot Diaz wrote a chopped-about page about a chopped-about life, his Dominican-American languages knifing through the lines. Drown, his first book, is 160 chopped-about pages. At first you want to check his glossary for the words you don't know, then eventually you go along with these holes in the text. There's an honesty in a hole. We all have these penetrable/impenetrable words, rocker words, rocking chair words, cushions, pauses, old words so full of meaning they might just as well have none.

I have had his book for twenty-five years but not re-read it till now. Timeliness is all. The chance of a glance along the bookshelves in a changed season. 

Monday 18 September 2023

THE READING DIET

When fully preoccupied with my own words, I seek out the words of others in strangely precise and precisely strange doses. More stories than usual. A plot is relaxing, after all, an end is an end. Rachel Ingalls does me well for that. She weaves tales, and the tired head is susceptible. One day, floored by a heavy head, I read all of Binstead's Safari and marvelled at her persistence with the lion theme, wondered if she'd been on safari herself or just read/seen Out of Africa.  

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World —the title surely editorial, opportunistic— Barry Lopez' essays arrived and I scanned them for recognition moments. Did not quite find them. I was put off by the devoutness, the prayer—killer words. Flatteners, anyway. I haven't much liked travel writing unless very old, like Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey or Arabia Deserta, that glorious piece of desert English written and lived by Charles Montagu Doughty at the end of the nineteenth century.

Barry Lopez getting in wood for heating, choosing those he works with, growing old, pacing himself, writing himself into his life, and out of it, that I can read. Part of the reading diet is this flat speak, days of my life, very managed, convinced, less a confession than a table of contents.

In the bath I read an article in The New York Review of Books about Jean Eustache. More than Binstead's Safari or Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, I felt at home. By proxy. I have read more about Jean Eustache than seen his films. I cannot distinguish the two. 


Monday 11 September 2023

Utopia, or Anything is Possible, Steven Millhauser, Richard Jefferies

The background of my reading for the last while is the sequence of eight wall panels we have been constructing on the subject of Utopia. People wrote, or didn't write, their idea of an ideal society, and I edited, jiggled and conjured a series of texts out of their imaginings. 

At the same time, mostly before or during sleep interludes, I was reading Steven Millhauser and Richard Jefferies, nearly a century apart. Steven Millhauser's story 'The Dream of the Consortium', the department store story, has an ending that pleased me. When you have exited the nearly infinite store, you are still not out of it.

Overhead, the avenue-wide strip of sky is brilliant blue. As we hurry along the sidewalk, we have the absurd sensation that we have entered still another department, composed of ingeniously lifelike streets with artful shadows and reflections—that our destinations lie in a far corner of the same department—that we are condemned to hurry forever through these artificial halls, bright with late afternoon light, in search of a way out.

Richard Jefferies, nearly a century earlier, I came to via the Faber Book of Utopias. The editor took Utopia at face value: no place, including good and bad. Richard Jefferies battled with good and bad. Just as William Morris did. 

Amaryllis at the Fair, the second piece in my Everyman Library edition, stems from a desire to set down his early life, good and bad, without regard for narrative. Every chapter is static. And on the last page he leaves his creatures as he made them, idle in their rural circumstances, with all their charms and yearning on display. 'I'll leave them there', he says.



Monday 28 August 2023

Cathay, Steven Millhauser, Borges, Summer

Borges, Steven Millhauser, Utopia. Recent reading at the end of a summer that was so little summer so long ago. I read a review of a new collection of Steven Millhauser and went back to the ones I already have, In the penny arcade, 1999. The first story, 'August Eschenberg', and the last 'Cathay', both had me. Especially the last. August Eschenberg, a builder of mechanical universes so finely differentiated from the real that you would be dead to think of it, like Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman, Borges' dreamers. These perfectly calibrated tiny worlds. 

The twelve singing birds in the throne room of the Imperial Palace are made of beaten gold, except for the throats, which are of silver, and the eyes, which are of transparent emerald-green jade.

And The Knife Thrower, 1998. Which I'll read next.  

Sunday 20 August 2023

Borges

I first read Borges' stories fifty years ago, slowly, one at a time, stopping so as to have more to read. Another one tomorrow. Savouring your goodies, your fictions, tales he has made, fashioned, fabricated, woven, in the manner of life, history and matters of fact, affairs of the mind and the book. Borges was a portal. I have lived there ever since.

No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sink into the sacred mud, but in a few days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man came from the South and that his home had been one of those numberless villages upstream in the deeply cleft side of the mountain, where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek, and where leprosy is infrequent.

I read Borges in my early twenties. I was the grey man from the South, the bamboo canoe and the unanimous night. I wrote the Zend language, I lived in the circular ruins. I dreamed and was dreamed. 

At first his dreams were chaotic; then in a short while they became dialectic in nature. The stranger dreamed that he was in the centre of a circular amphitheatre .... clouds of taciturn students filled the tiers of the seats.  .... Asleep or awake, the man thought over the angers of this phantoms, ... He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe.

Worthy of participating in the universe. If you value the universe. The grey man dreamed a man — I was not, am not, bothered it was a man, not a woman or any other combination—dreamed with misgivings—without birds, in sheets of flame—every dream ends abruptly. He dreamed a man limb by limb, a man capable of walking thought fire without being burned.

For a moment, he thought of taking refuge in the water, but then he understood that death coming to crown his old age and absolve him from his labours. .... With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone was dreaming him.


Tuesday 15 August 2023

PONDWORKS 2023

I was up at the pond today as soon as I saw a sunny period unfold from the northwest. Two sunny periods, in fact, separated by slow-moving cloud, in which I wrote up two complex dreams in my diary, read the surface of the water, dragonfly reflections and water skaters, plus a story by Cynthia Ozick, The French Doll, in the New Yorker, a review of the film Oppenheimer and an article about Ultra Processed Food and how Nestlé sent a boat down the Amazon to bring junk food to indigenous children who then developed diet-related diabetes as well as more lethal covid; and closed my eyes, lay flat on my back. The sun was out again. The heating was on.  

Tuesday 8 August 2023

POCKETBOOK SUMMER EDITORIAL, 2023

A July New Yorker piece called Tell No Tales offered the case for stories and the case for the dark matter that makes up so much of life, swarm not story, frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments Elena Ferrante called it. All the carrying that stories do, whether to satisfy the sense of belonging to a culture, staving off death, like Scheherazade, or simply putting a shape on the magma for a while, if not a a piece of laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time, as Lorrie Moore said.

August is a good month for reading, and slipping off into thinking about it, thinking out from it, engrossed for a short time, numbed, and then, back to the place in which you read, the pillow as it often is, or staring into the view out of the window, the shaping to be done out there, the sycamore basal growth trimmed, the euphorbia dead bits cut off, the state of compost heaps, frantumaglia of the garden.

I have been reading William Morris again, and his ancient forebears, Plutarch etc, browsing the Faber Book of Utopias from the front and from the back.  

Then he sat down beside me and said he'd been spending the morning wrestling with the problem of speaking the truth in books; so I said, haven't you always spoken it? because that seemed to me the chief point of M's books. But he said, not much, because most of it was quite unspeakable in our world, as we found it too shocking and humiliating.

Aldous Huxley in 1930, a long short story called 'After the Fireworks'. 

Clarice Lispector, in Agua Viva, 1973, does not need the word for truth.

This is not a story because I don't know any stories like this but all I know how to do is go along saying and doing: it is the story of instants that flee like fugitive tracks seen from the window of a train. 

Clarice Lispector is a continuum under my reading. Like Virginia Woolf. Like thinning out young turnips, leaving the spare seedlings beside the row. As all our fellow-travellers go too far sometimes, it is by this excess we find ourselves.

I read Aldous Huxley because I saw a lad called Florian in Sneem with a copy of Island in his hand, which he'd got from the village book box, read, then  gave to a young Portuguese woman working in the hotel for the summer. We talked for a while about utopia and dystopia. I have never been tempted to reread Aldous Huxley: something pinched and fussy, his language reflecting the machines he feared. Always harping on humiliation. Some other story there. 


Friday 28 July 2023

Circus Train by Joan Selby-Lowndes

Gertie gave me Circus Train by Joan Selby-Lowndes for Christmas, 1958. I wrote my name on the flyleaf. I was impressed someone had thought about me enough to choose this, and read with respect and eagerness the story of running away to sea and then travelling with the circus, being chinese and having acrobatics bred into you, the fluidity and the stillness. From very young they can all hold and then flip their bodies with grace, it's natural, it's a way of dealing with world wars and starvation. Balance and interdependence. Onwardness and otherness. Encountering that at age eleven was electric.

Joan Selby-Lowndes has little online life except for several portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. Her writing too, is pre-motor car. She could have trusted more the tale recounted live to her. Kai Yong from China, who went to sea, then learned how to spin plates, entered the circus life, married Joanna from Germany, and had children who later formed a troupe of artistes, the Yong Sisters and Brothers, spanning China, Germany, France, England, America. There were long separations, deep privations. Joan Selby-Lowndes filled in the history around the tale of Kai Yong and his family like blue poster paint for the sky and black for world wars. 

 

Tuesday 25 July 2023

The Greek Sources

My friend Noreen back in the day liked to get up at six, have a glass of grape juice and check the Greek sources. She said it with intensity and conviction. I felt excluded but pleased. That anyone should do this, say this.

Reading bits of Plutarch in the early evening recalls Noreen. I start to know what a source might be. The speech of a society two thousand years ago. In the infancy of looking at yourself. Plutarch's Lives are Parallel Lives. Greece and Rome. The glory that was Greece, the splendour that was Rome. I read all of the life of Lycurgus and the beginning of Demetrius. Simple moral certitudes which don't follow through any more. 

I read the beginning of the life of Demetrius, only because my boyfriend was Demetrius in the school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (I was Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, my brother was Puck). The art of medicine, the art of music, must consider disease and noise. 

These arts below no praise on that innocence which boasts an entire ignorance of vice. In their reckoning, it is rather an absurd simplicity to be ignorant of these things, which every man that is disposed to live virtuously should make it his particular care to know.

I get up at eight, after mint tea, and check the Inniscarra sources. 

One of the big aspens fell up at the pond though there was little wind, knocking into a myrtle and a smaller aspen, happily missing the eucryphia and the snowdrop tree. The builders, Finbarr, Mick, Will and Nathan from Normandy, plus Ambrose, heritage joiner, occasionally, are renewing the new room twenty-seven years on. And the greenhouse. Talk runs around lead troughs and glazing bars. I spray the dust off the tomatoes after they've gone. 

Sunday 23 July 2023

Plutarch's Lives — Lycurgus

'Of Lycurgus, the lawgiver, we have nothing to relate that is certain and uncontroverted', wrote Plutarch two thousand years ago. My edition of Plutarch, marbled and leather-bound, translated by the Langhorne brothers in England in the eighteenth century, has a simplicity, a clarity born, perhaps of something similar to a novelist's wishful thinking. Lycurgus was a designer of ancient Sparta. The education of youth was the greatest and most glorious work of a lawgiver, he said. He went to strenuous lengths.

A second and bolder political enterprise of Lycurgus was a new division of the lands. For he found a prodigious inequality, the city overcharged with many indigent persons who had no land, and the wealth centred in the hands of the few. Determined, therefore, to root out the evils of insolence, envy, avarice, and luxury, and those distempers of a state still more inveterate and fatal—I mean poverty and riches—he persuaded them to cancel all former divisions of land and to make new ones, in such manner that they might be perfectly equal in their possessions and way of living. 

In the late nineteenth century, William Morris read Plutarch. News From Nowhere is saturated with  ancient greece. In the early twenty-first century, where News From Nowhere was set, where we now are, stressing and steaming in late capitalism when William Morris had us bucolic along the river by now, gathering for haymaking with comely folk in well-wrought clothes, having done away with money and politics.

Lycurgus minted iron money and luxury died away of itself, replaced by simple food and lots of exercise. No unnecessary production. Joy in workmanship. Les arts décoratifs. Healthy activity in leisure time. Reading and conversation. Common sense in 1930s Europe. Lycurgus as written by Plutarch, translated in the late eighteenth century, read by William Morris in the late nineteenth century, feeds into my history. As well as a child of Hitler I am a child of common sense. 

It was not, however, the principal design of Lycurgus that this city should govern others, but he considered its happiness, like that of a private man, as flowing from virtue and self-consistency; he therefore so ordered and disposed it, that by the freedom and sobriety of its inhabitants, and their having a sufficiency within themselves, its continuance might be the more secure.