Monday 4 November 2013

I started rereading Robert Walser after recommending him to a friend. I had to revisit what I’d recommended and imagine him reading it, to reconstitute Walser as well as my friend. How did Walser’s relentless modesty, his will to disappear, fit my friend’s taste? Did I have any idea about him, my friend, at all? This is the kind of uncertainty I have battled with since I started keeping a diary. Reading and writing unsettle the world; you are reassured and you are undermined. Where you find yourself at the end is no concern of any book. You have been taken (for a ride), transported, let go, and then you’re your own. All universes are parallel.

In winter, reading takes on a muscular aspect. I reread The Robber, The Tanners, Jacob von Gunten, cut through with Anne Carson’s red doc. As I move from book to book, from writer to writer, wide awake with Anne Carson’s language, disquieted and ravished by Robert Walser’s self-effacement, I am exercised and, later, put to rest.

Robert Walser has been for some time a place of refuge. It’s good to be this far away from wherever you find yourself. When you find a writer who does it for you, you pick up on every connection. Walser has his people. WG Sebald, for example. Circa 1995 I gathered the local Walser men in the Wine Vault on the Western Road in Cork for Ian Breakwell who was researching a new film about audiences, prompted by Walser’s 'Response to a Request'. Later Bernd in the French Alps wondered how I’d come across Walser at all. One black beetle knows another, I said.

Robert Walser relates to my inner life as Proust does, and Beckett, and other writers I have read and taught and reread as one revisits or remembers friends; anchors and guarantors.

Anne Carson strides in on a beam of light, like an extraterrestrial. Autobigraphy of Red, red doc and Nay, rather. My observation at age eighteen that the books I didn’t understand were the ones I liked best, has come of age. When I can’t see through the language to observable or narrative coherence, when I cannot even see through a glass darkly, but only in uncertain winks and leaps, I feel at home.

Anne Carson has, as I do, some grandiose baggage. She has Greek, I have French, literature habits, none of which is conducive to cracking on with the story.

Monday 7 October 2013

In The New Yorker I read pieces about the environment before any others; Hortus, the literate garden quarterly, makes expansive reading outdoors or in the bath. Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding by George Monbiot, is the first book about the environment I’ve read in many years; the first articulate rant/rhapsody.

For the first chapter or two I was uneasy; it wasn’t Thoreau, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey; maybe Roger Deakin with urgency and politics. He establishes his credentials, takes us to some of his key places, and does not assume too much about his reader, in the manner of a journalist.

Somewhere around chapter six, Greening the desert, enchantment begins. I spent my adolescence imagining the end of the world; I was postwar, post-apocalyptic, post-sanity, held together by discrete and solitary visions in small town wasteland: I looked for enchantment in the raw peace of Beckett, the absurdity of Kafka, so far out it was beautiful.

And now, in my patch in Ireland, I look after a garden, plant trees, allow a field to revert to what suits it; which is local comfort and fine defiance beside the depradations of agriculture under capitalism, but it doesn’t connect; it’s an ecological ivory tower.

Greening the desert, bringing back wolves or beavers, trees growing, children playing in woods, species proliferating, trophic cascades cascading, chapter by exhilarating chapter, Feral joins the dots and the wolf leaps.

These are large visions. Large and pullulating. How rare to bump into optimism. How much imagination do we need? More, perhaps, and more energy, than we need for imagining other people’s lives when we read literature, or even the paper. This is our planet coming into view. This is where we could live.

Monday 1 July 2013

I started reading Infinite Jest near the start of what turned out to be a summer they’d write songs about. The plateau of house and garden baked, the cats extenuated.

A second try at some essays by David Foster Wallace as well as an article in the New Yorker about a new biography of DFW, left me curious and raised a challenge: young men under twenty-five are apparently his natural constituency, my friend in Waterstones tells me. I ordered two copies. One was for a friend who is slightly nearer the ideal than I: thirty-something, a woman, a compulsive in a different darkroom.

My progress was slow. I often read it at night, which made it even slower. This is a thick heavy book. Proust would have done it in three volumes. DFW has longer, thinner breaths. Sometimes I felt like my mother in her latter years picking up The Paston Letters or a volume of Walter Scott at four a.m. neither knowing nor caring how recently, if at all, she’d read this page. Sometimes I couldn’t face David Foster Wallace (who may have liked to resonate with Charles Foster Kane). On any impulse I picked up something else: Amos Tutuola, Ruskin, Janet Malcolm’s essays, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall, a hardback William Saroyan novel on the free shelves at the Ireland waiting area at Heathrow, Allen Shawn’s book about phobia, I wish I were there, a new issue of Sebald writing, even other essays by DFW, especially about Roger Federer; anything to be in a different jungle with other animals.

I talked about this to my friend in Waterstones as I bought the new Sebald, A Place in the Country (among titles to seduce and distract). Maybe the second half will be easier, she said. If only DFW had had an island in a lake, like Rousseau, a house by a river, like Kleist and Robert Walser. A house on an island or by a river.

There were moments when I felt at one with DFW’s mania. He was a riotous Allen Shawn, Sir Thomas Browne with tennis instead of religion, he played among pharmaceuticals Proust hadn’t dreamed of. Worst fears and best fun. The liberty of despair. A description of the return from an NA meeting in Boston on foot, and what befell, must stand as one of the great unputdownable reading moments: it wasn’t the drama, it was the compulsive attention, the wilful, willless, lurid, anal, rhapsodic attention of it, so voluble that its clarity turned to obscurity and back again several times as I read, like that woman in North Kerry the night of her mother’s funeral who said she was so drunk she was coming round to being sober again.

I enjoyed DFW’s bracketing and his disruptions, the relentless closeness of his verbal acrobatics and where they left me, the reader, breathless and disorientated, so sensitised I was almost happy. A fine prelude to sleep, as well as a fruitful pondering around four a.m. especially around the subject of the second copy I bought but have not yet sent to my friend in London. It is too thick to go through her letterbox, and she has a bad record of picking things up from the Post Office. I could tear it into sections and send them in sequence or out. Would it matter? A chunk of language, a random segment of mania. Though I’m not sure that Infinite Jest, both in title and in substance (abuse) might not be a bit close to the bone.

Monday 14 January 2013

‘Busy Timmy puts on his outdoor shoes’ is the first sentence I ever read. Aged three or four, I absorbed the picture of Timmy in his blue trousers, his lace-up shoes half on, his eyes already distracted by the sandpit in which he would play. Over and over again I read the sentence next to the picture and felt the new reader’s awe and pleasure: these letters, that boy, his outdoor shoes, the sandpit and all that led to.

In the second reading age, which lasts twenty or thirty years, books are limitless, you don’t reread unless you have to, for study, or, later, for teaching; there are even several writers you’re saving for later.

‘People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading,’ said Logan Pearsall Smith. Age thirteen or fourteen, engaged in books at a rate of one a day from the local library, I would have agreed. As I worked my way through fiction A to Z, I could sense the day I’d need a bigger library, or the desire to reread.

The third reading age is Mallarmé’s: la chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres. ‘The flesh is sad, alas, and you’ve read everything’. The writers you were saving for later still do not draw you. Faulkner, for example. Book choice is more freighted, more difficult. The third reading age is the age of rereading.

When I first read Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges in my early twenties, synapses were popping by the end of the first page. I had no idea where these stories took me but I didn’t want to leave. I read them slowly, with a long pause between each, like a child with a favourite dessert, delaying the last mouthful. When I got to the end of the last story, I started reading it again. I didn’t understand it any better, but we were on a different footing now: Borges had taken up residence in my head, I didn’t need to understand it any more than I needed to understand a walk through the woods.

After that, every year or two I reread Borges, and The Waves and The Shrimp and the Anemone, William books when I was ill, or PG Wodehouse.  A hundred years of solitude had me for at least a decade. I read it twice in succession while staying in an architect’s house in the Berkshires which offered no other reading books. Every ten years I read Proust again. Moby Dick now and then. Robinson Crusoe (most memorably, on holiday, lying on my bed, I read only the righthand pages). More recently I’ve reread Sándor Márai, Roberto Bolaño, James Salter, Grace Paley, WG Sebald, some of them many times. It’s good to know what it’s time for, in the mental landscape. Most writers say they avoid reading books that might influence them. I seek them out. 

I read Roger Deakin’s Wildwood for the first time before Christmas. Although it looked like the kind of book I would ideally like to read outdoors, in summer, I began, and almost immediately it felt like a book by someone I knew, or could have known, wished I had known (he died a few years ago). In a practical, democratic, reassuring sweep, he moves through land, trees and the people whose lives are engaged with them. The chapters about apple and walnut trees in central Asia were the best: Central Asia is my idea of the middle of the world. The capital of Khazakhstan, Almaty, means, Where the apples are. In my mental topography, the centre of the world should be an orchard, a hill, and hives of bees, a river running through it, meadows. And it is.

When I was seven I was given Fairy Tales from the Balkans. My favourite story was The Tzarevna Loveliness Inexhaustible, in which a sleeping princess/warrior/recluse guards the flask of living water. One sip, and you’d live for ever. My favourite part was where the Tsarevna, weary of war, weary of the highway, disports herself with her maidens in sunlit meadows, eating fruit, nuts and honey before going home for a very long sleep. All this took place beyond the lands of thrice nine, in the empire of thrice ten, far away to the north-east, across the Great Marsh, over the mountains and through the forest untouched by human hand since the beginning. Khazakhstan, Uzbekhistan and Kyrghyzstan, as I now understand. Roger Deakin witnessed what I imagined from the age of seven, what I’ve attempted to create where I live. My garden is the fruitful meadow in which the Tzarevna and her maidens played. Believe that. On a good day. The apples I grow came first from there. No, second. First from further east. And then it travelled in the digestive system of the horse, westward.

How many times did I read the story of the Tzarevna Loveliness Inexhaustible? Perhaps hundreds, certainly dozens.

Roger Deakin is a rereader. One book, A Million Wild Acres, he says he has never really stopped reading. As in a way I have never stopped reading Proust. Even if I never read it again.

I read Wildwood for the second time two weeks later, in January, making my way towards the good bits, as I would with a Schubert quartet: the shape of the walnut (if it looks like a brain it must be good for the brain), the country girl in Uzbekhistan in her sloppy joe jumper, how the apple travelled west, the smell of apples in Michael Hamburger’s library. 

Let’s rewrite Mallarmé: the flesh is happy, and all the books I’ve liked best are still there to be read again.