Monday 29 December 2014

If the one word name worked for Colette it could work for Teffi, the pen name of a Russian émigrée writer who lived in Paris from the 1920s to early 1950s. Teffi sounds less coy than Colette, more androgynous, more Welsh.

I read Russian writers looking for signs. My mother said she didn't like Chekhov's plays because they reminded her of her family. She said it with a half-laugh, half-lament: what passes for home, as good as it gets, full of holes. The only sentence my mother could say in Russian was: 'I'm tired and I want to go home'. I've never been to Russia; as with my mother and Chekhov, maybe signs are as near as I want to get.

The signs are: relentless self-scrutiny; the need to be separate, the need to sit down. My mother wouldn't talk about Chekhov when she was standing up, or about family, unless beset by fury. Sticking together by mutual revulsion, as Teffi says of lesrusses (one word) in 'Que Faire'. Which is fine if everyone is doing it. Well, when I say fine… In Teffi's stories, everyone is doing it.
Should I go home? Anna said loudly. She shook her head and looked around. Next to the door stood an exotic plant. The plant looked stunted but it was in a very large tub, and tucked away behind it was a low armchair.
     "Just what I need."
She sat and drew the thick, plush curtain hanging by the window towards herself.
     "Perfect. Now I can do some thinking." 
In the low armchair behind the stunted plant, inside the plush curtain, Anna thinks.
Going home could be very frightening. The night before her elder sister had come and sat on her bed and said tenderly, "Why make things hard for yourself? You'll only wear yourself out." This sister, who had died four years ago, had never really loved her, and it was very strange suddenly to hear her speaking so affectionately. If she had been alive she would have done nothing but judge.
The work of dreams and nightmares. Good and bad. Another human drama. Any minute.
 It was a real breakthrough – to draw a boundary oneself. But hardly anyone seemed to grasp this. She had heard, not long ago, about a prisoner whose cell was six steps in length. Every time he reached the wall he wanted to smash his head against it, so tormented was he by this limit imposed on his freedom. Six steps – that was all. Then he decided he would take only four steps. He drew a boundary, of his own free will, and he felt free.
The émigrée draws a boundary at four feet and she feels free.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

In Vejer de la Frontera, Andalucía, on a misty afternoon I read a story and fell asleep, read another and fell asleep again. My second read of Flannery O'Connor; and the first time I have slept in the afternoon, twice, ever. Two days later, via the Refugio de Juanar, a walk and two miradors, in warm sunshine on the beach at Marbella, I read another story and then fell asleep. I'd been to rural Georgia of about fifty years ago, and now I was tired and happy to have spent this time away from myself.

Flannery O'Connor didn't move about – from Georgia to Iowa and back to Georgia – she didn't live long, or marry, or go on holiday, she lived with her mother with peacocks, ducks and hens and wrote astounding stories of people she must have known and absorbed with the air she breathed. To be this muscular with her creatures she must have stared at them and inhabited them long after they'd gone.

An old General attends his granddaughter's graduation ceremony; he sits behind her in his wheelchair, as Dignity Honour and Courage among all these upstarts. She wanted him to be there. My kin, she wanted to scream, See him. It has taken her twenty years to graduate. As he is honoured, as his granddaughter is honoured, a hole begins in his head. The black music brings in the hole and then he's running backwards into words and stabs of pain he meets with curses and then death. 
A quick paraphrase of A Late Encounter With The Enemy

By the time we got to Málaga I couldn't read any more; I was gazing. From a hotel balcony on a hill, I absorbed another human drama behind the second, the fourteenth or the nine hundredth window from the left; I hovered with sixty-four thermal gulls as firecrackers belted out of the avenida beside the ferry to Africa. Then there was the sunset and after. The great distances of unfamiliar places.

Flannery O'Connor didn't gaze. She entered confusion and prejudice with the confidence of a long-distance swimmer.

She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel. God save me, she cried silently, from the stinking power of Satan!
The Displaced Person

Wednesday 10 December 2014

I'd done university, I was considering the Outer Hebrides and maybe reading to an old lady, growing veg, gazing west. Meanwhile I read these Victorian, Edwardian wives: Mrs Henry Wood, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Mrs Amanda McKittrick Ross. I bought them in junk shops, it was a reason to forage and there were easy finds that fed, in the end, not the Outer Hebrides but the Complete Works of Mallarmé in rural Sussex and a PhD.

I read a sentence from East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood – the book fell open in a hardback thread sewn way, at the beginning of Chapter XV – and began my odyssey through what I called bad literature, pre-Kindle, pre-strange attractor, a warm bath of plot, character, reversal, the improbable crushed by the impossible in sentences pitched high.
There went, sailing down the avenue to East Lynne, a lady one windy afternoon. 
Mallarmé dances with Mrs Henry Wood. Coevals, more or less. Mallarmé good (PhD), Mrs Henry Wood, bad (warm bath). Not as bad as some later sensationalists like Elinor Glyn (Would you like to sin on a tiger skin with Elinor Glyn?), but outrée in her day.
Oh reader, believe me! Lady–wife–mother! Should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them…
These writers were the furthest back I could go, seduced by the loud-hailer prose and the exotic plot. This was the era of my grandparents. Not that they could read. Not that they sailed down avenues. Hurried back to the ghetto, more like. I started with the wives, and later moved on to the husbands: Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Bulwer Lytton, Harrison Ainsworth, happy ugly ducklings, purple prosers if not posers.

What would I have read to an old lady in the Outer Hebrides?

Friday 5 December 2014

The last time Ian Breakwell came to visit, he moved straight to the wall of books in the living room and cast about their titles. He preferred perusing the shelves to conversation. Though he did say later as we stood in the greenhouse that he blamed Proust for making it impossible to live in the present.

It was only after he'd gone that I saw he'd left two comments on the bookshelves, two volumes pulled out: Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, and The Vicissitudes of Evangeline by Elinor Glyn. I left them for a long time after his death, Ian's raised eyebrows in the living room.

Monday 1 December 2014

With Borges by Alberto Manguel.

And he was, the young Manguel, between 1964 and 1968, with Borges in Borges' apartment in Buenos Aires, taking books off the shelves, reading out loud from Stevenson, Kipling, Henry James or Chesterton, to blind Borges, wizard of the infinite. These were the books towards which Borges felt his way and in which, sometimes, he left folded money where it might or might not be found again.

How is it to read about Borges going to the cinema to see, to hear, West Side Story for the nth time, to meditate on Maria as Beatrice, as Juliet, as Lesbia, as Laura? To hear his views on the tango (entered a decline in 1910 and has not emerged, despite or because of the efforts of Astor Piazzolla); to know how his mother spoke of him and his (also blind) father ?
She meant to say: J'ai été la main de mon mari; maintenant, je suis la main de mon fils. ('I used to be the hand of my husband, now I'm the hand of my son') but, opening the diphthong in 'main' as Spanish-speaking people tend to so, she said instead: J'ai été l'amant de mon mari; maintenant, je suis l'amant de mon fils' ( 'I used to be my husband's lover, now I'm the lover of my son'). Those who knew her possessiveness were not surprised.
Do I want to imagine the wizard of the infinite wrestling into a long white nightshirt, then closing his eyes and reciting out loud the 'Our Father' in English? Yes and no. Easier to see him run his fingers over the spines of books as if they were a relief map. To know he loved yellow (of tigers, of roses). The colour of sunlight. The last thing he imagined he saw after he went blind.

Fictions came into my hands when I was about twenty-two, in a portentous Calder paperback. I read the first story and paused. He wrote to be translated, in a high, clear tone, with dizzy twists and cheerful abysses. I kept the next story the way as a child I kept halva in the cupboard, happy to know whenever I was ready I could whirl into the next fiction and genially lose my bearings, take another bite of halva, or not. That was the era of the next (door), the next, the very next, when I began to understand it was better, in general, not to understand, to have tried and pensively failed then given up altogether and become more cheerful.

Borges, Manguel tells us, was haunted by two nightmares: the labyrinth, the house with no doors and a monster in the middle, and the mirror, which one day would reflect back a face that was not his own or worse, no face at all. Near the end of his life, in Geneva, he asked Marguerite Yourcenar to find the apartment his family had once occupied when he was an adolescent and describe it to him, which she did. The only thing she omitted to tell him was that as soon as you entered the apartment a gigantic gilded mirror reflected the visitor from head to foot.

If you are blind the mirror does not reflect your face.

That you know of.

Monday 24 November 2014

Ill in bed; time for LP Hartley. Four novels should see me through a bad cold, as they often have before, those robust paperbacks with the densely lettered covers, early modernity chez Faber and Faber, their spines now permanently slanted in the direction of my reading.

The Eustace and Hilda trilogy and The Go-Between, written in the 1940s/1950s, relate to an earlier era when people travel by landau and barouche, by train and bicycle, when men return from the Boer War with scarred faces, large houses have many servants and people spend three months at a time in Venice in order to be with others doing the same thing.

Since I've known Joseph Losey's film of The Go-Between I read the novel with images behind it; I open doors onto known rural vistas, walk back from church, watch the cricket match, slide down straw stacks, see Julie Christie lolling with parasol in a hammock, Alan Bates in his kitchen tending the cut knee of their overheated young postman, our narrator; I hear the voice of Edward Fox, draw the scar on his face, skirt with caution the poisonous atropa belladonna.

The engine of The Go-Between is embarrassment: a boy visiting an Edwardian country house,  not knowing what to say, what to wear, getting it right, getting it wrong. Wanting to please. To learn, but not too much at a time. Things were either rather wrong or very wrong, according to his mother, a widow in humbler circumstances. Then, according to Julie Christie's mother, you just had to charge in on the unthinkable scene and cause everyone to scatter, even die.

Do not make love in an outhouse guarded by a large specimen of atropa belladonna.

LP Hartley is a nostalgist; to read these books you'd think nostalgia construed the entire task of the writer. Sick people tend towards nostalgia, and there's plenty of sickness in his novels, plenty of cripples and bath chairs as well as cures and midnight spells. The eponymous Eustace is often faint, if not worse, and even his robust sister Hilda is literally paralysed by a disappointment in love.

Reading about Eustace in Venice makes me start paragraphs in my head that I have not the energy to set down, the drift so seductive, like Eustace not arriving at the church he intended to visit, or not from the direction he'd imagined.

When I first read the trilogy I related intensely to the narrator's state of being, his dreamy bloodlessness while all around him drives on, his passionate distance from all that befalls.
Back at Anchorstone, Eustace's thoughts began to busy themselves with the coming birthday party. He would have been going there, of course, only Lady Nelly had made a special point of his coming out to Venice in time for the Feast of the Redeemer. He couldn't do both; the dates, it seemed, clashed. Perhaps it was just as well; events never moved while you were watching them, and his own particular scrutiny, he sometimes felt, had a peculiarly arresting effect. He becalmed things. 
I relate both to the novel and to the person I was when I first read it: the faint one who is ill after a week in the shifting sands of London, and the other one I may or may not be ready to revert to.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Robert Walser's Schoolboy Diary at Gatwick Airport and then at 30,000 feet.
How to restore yourself to yourself while travelling.
Keep yourself safe from loud children and ryanair

When I raise my head and look out over the many schoolboy heads around me, I cannot help but laugh. It is so mysterious, so strange, so bizarre. It is like a sweetly humming fairy tale. To think that every one of those heads is full of diligent, frolicking, racing thoughts is mysterious enough. Writing class may be the most lovely, attractive time for just this reason.

Walser's gentle persistence does not transfer to my surroundings. It saves me from the muffins and the phone calls, the melting chocolate and the safety drill. It doesn't give me curiosity, only peace.

It's convenient that the schoolboy dies. Then the adult (Walser) can begin.

By the time we were over the Irish Sea the adult (JK) was in abeyance. A very gentle regression followed by a near nap.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Went to a film prompted by Melmoth the Wanderer, though if it hadn't said that on the tin I wouldn't have known. The film rang fewer bells than my memory of the book I last read 40 years ago and more, in its overwrought setting of the Mallarmé Baudelaire years of my life. The film was theirs, not mine. They were perplexed and saddened, it seemed to me, by the difficulties of wandering in our day and age, what with the overrun nature of the world and people, the film people included, needing to know, to document, to interpret, to deconstruct and comment fourteen times before they go to sleep. No wonder it's difficult to wander.

My copy of Melmoth the Wanderer has no markings at all. Evidently I read it and then left it to rest with Orlando and Poe and the Romantic Agony of Mario Praz, to rise to the surface with a diffuse, uncertain aura, just like a smell or a piece of music.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

With a change in the weather and most of the leaves down from the big sycamore outside my window, in the aftermath of Central Asia and the soul tribe: Fragments by Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton.
The soul is undiscovered,
though explored forever
to a depth beyond report.
I used to say to students: read René Daumal's Le Mont Analogue in the light of Heraclitus.
The waking have one world
in common. Sleepers
meanwhile turn aside, each
into a darkness of his own.
Read Proust in the light, in the darkness, of Heraclitus.
Whoever cannot seek
the unforeseen sees nothing,
for the known way
is an impasse.
Set Heraclitus as a gauge of whatever you read and see what that gives.

These translations of Heraclitus have lived for the last twelve years among the elite, heterogeneous books on my desk, beside Henri Michaux's Tent Posts and Journey to the Land of the Flies by Aldo Buzzi, to say nothing of the handbook on Cacti and Succulents I bought when I was about twelve, and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

Of Heraclitus' writing we have only fragments, an attraction to anyone who wakes up each day feeling that something is missing. You can read them at speed and then go straight back and read again. Lectio divina. Vertical attention. Islands of words. I'm glad I don't know Greek. Though I do, or did, know Latin. Formative reading of Virgil, Catullus, then later Lucretius in English.

In our tired post-post society we're refreshed by ancient forms of language and thought: this much was said and no more.
Of all the words yet spoken,
none comes quite as far as wisdom,
which is the action of the mind
beyond all things that may be said.

Friday 31 October 2014

Soul by Andrey Platonov
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Conjure these, a novella and a travel book, on a damp and windy day in verdant Inniscarra and you know you've pleasantly, violently, achingly, lost your footing.

Andrey Platonov's creatures in Soviet Uzbekistan are beyond Beckett's; voiceless.
They sat on the ground and fell into thought, even though, given their advanced years, they had already had more than enough time to think everything through and arrive at truth.
The people Colin Thubron meets in the same place, sixty years later, post-Soviet, have something to say. When he asks a young girl about her future she replies that soon she'll be a young woman and then she'll be married and then she'll be an old woman. Then a corpse, she adds.

Unlike the soul nation in Andrey Platonov, they have not forgotten who they are, though some would prefer to. It was better when you were a Muslim and a member of your family, not Uzbek or Tajik or Kyrgyz or Kazakh, says one man. It was better when you didn't know anywhere other than where you were.

Many Uzbeks think England is next to America; and they're right. In Central Asia, nationality is a bend in the river, a mountain range, a horde on the steppes, a burrow in the sand. If you can trace your ancestry back to the Middle Horde across thousands of miles of arid steppe, what need of placehood, only inwardness and a mouthful of damp sand.

I once met a woman who wanted to be in the middle of the world. When she said it I thought of Central Asia, obscurely but definitely, as if learned during childhood, from folk tales or music: In the steppes of central Asia by Borodin, for example. The size of Asia gives its centre a ring of truth: the desert is like the sea and the mountains the sky, how could you not think you were in the middle of the world, the middle of your world, the one you've crossed and recrossed and thus own?

Alexander of Macedon, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, did. Then, when trade east/west transferred to the sea, sparse hordes criss-crossed the steppes and the mountains, picking fights and sucking sand, and new nations formed, like the Soul nation, out of wayfarers caught like tumbleweed in the scrub, Stalin thought it ripe for gigantesque conversion. He scooped up Central Asia, all of it, and set about collectivising (read: starving) the nomads and depleting the inland seas.

Wastelands go away East and South from the Aral Sea, whose former ports are now sixty miles from the nearest water. What's left condenses into clouds that fall as salt rain all around. Cotton crops no longer grow, nor any other. They're trading oil out of the lost heart of Asia these days, which makes 5% rich and leaves 95% poor. The country code for Uzbekistan is 998. Add one and it's a major emergency.

Colin Thubron's penultimate chapter begins: I was entering the fringes of a formidable solitude. Here's Beckett again. Here's Platonov. Puzzling echoes of Roger Deakin (Wildwood), whose Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are apple and walnut paradise. Colin Thubron sees a slightly warmer Siberia where discarded people, Trotsky among them, could be parked, and nuclear fission tested.

Andrey Platonov, who was born in Uzbekistan, finds the sublime when he returns. As we're inclined, all of us who return, towards the sublime. To get published at all, Platonov has to satisfy the Supreme Soviet; Chagataev, his main character, is sent back to his birthplace to bring socialism to his nation. The ridiculous aids the sublime.

I know this nation, said Chagataev. I was born in Sary-Kamysh. 
That's why you're being sent there, the secretary explained. What was the name of your nation – do you remember?
It wasn't called anything, said Chagataev, though it did give itself a little name.
What was this name?
Dzhan. It means soul, or dear life. The nation possessed nothing except the soul and dear life given to it by mothers, because it's mothers who give birth to the nation.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Reading Soul by Andrey Platonov at Limerick Junction waiting for the down train opposite a large stone building with unaccountable small holes at regular intervals up and down the front. The broken glass in the windows is triumphant, even, beside the dwellings of the Soul nation I am reading about – if they have dwellings, if they haven't left to wander. It is a light, sad feeling, sitting on the platform at a railway junction, in the middle of several choices, with the wind blowing from west to east, reading about people on the steppes of Central Asia in the 1930s, who chew on tumbleweed and have forgotten how to think.

The station men at Limerick Junction are plump and smoking, flicking dog-ends onto the tracks. There are older travellers, their wheeled luggage trilling along behind them, younger ones with rucksack and boots, undefeated; a Chinese father and son with their guides, phones and notebooks. Nowhere any of the merriment of despair that the Soul nation can raise as they invite death from the great and powerful who can bestow it. None of the lightness of being.

At Limerick Junction on a Monday morning in the middle of Ireland there's a fullness, a satisfaction even in the lateness of the up train, the cosy station men out of a 1960s Czech film, the important door of the station master, all announcements in triplicate in two languages. The train to Dublin is running thirty minutes late. Next train at platform one is the Cork train, the Cork train, the Cork train.

Reading Soul is like being at sea. Whatever you look at on land afterwards is excessive. Too many features, too many clothes, too many bags. People on the move in Modern Europe are even more substantial than when they're at home, packed into their train seats with their paper coffee cups and their apple Danish wrappers, their soccer fanatic newspaper pullouts. The calorie count of every item, including nought for tea, coffee and diet coke, is given on the train menu.

The Soul tribe, the Dzhan, move around the steppes Central Asia in euphoric desolation: desert, mountains, marsh and oasis. They are called soul because that's all they have. They are called nation not because they are many but because they are persistent, so far beyond sense that they are back inside it.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Scanning the shelves I stopped at Grace Paley. Enormous Changes At The Last Minute. Why? Yesterday I met a woman who said she was a housewife, a sink wife, she added, I'm married to that sink. She said it without bitterness, but verging on a little black humour or domestic abyss wryness. She had eight children, all grown, and three freezers. Her husband grew a great array of fruit and she processed it all as she had processed the children.

I could wish that woman a read of Grace Paley. If she's not locked in the fruit cage or on her way to mass.

Although in my adult life I have neither children nor obvious politics other than what rises from my garden, I prepared for Grace Paley in my mother's kitchen once or twice a week when I came home from school, attending the chat between women over a cup of tea. It could be acid but it was always lyrical; they flowed with their opinions. They only had till five o'clock or so.

Grace Paley's stories are in this zone. As a writer she travels light: like my mother and her friends, this is all she's got time for.
As for you, fellow independent thinker of the Western Bloc, if you have anything sensible to say, don't wait. Shout it out loud right this minute. In twenty years, give or take a spring, your grandchildren will be lying in sandboxes all over the world, their ears to the ground, listening for signals from long ago.
I'm alert to this sense of having your say. As fundamental to a writer as to Beethoven. Marguerite Duras had her say, but she's harsher, she's french, she travels along lacunae. Grace Paley is warmer, more optimistic. She has common sense and energy I recognize. She stops short but the warmth still flows.
A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next.

Friday 10 October 2014

There's a volume to be written on the reading you do out of nervousness, displacement, anxiety or inability to sleep; minor and major attempts to secure an anchor at times when reading is for some reason impossible, as when the weather has turned autumnal and your principal reading place in the attic is shaken by hammer blows from the lads re-roofing the house, singing their way through heavy showers, bless them.

Reading is not the word. Devouring the medium in which you immerse yourself. Searching through old New Yorkers for stories you haven't read, or have read but forgotten, racing to the finish as if this completion would transfer to the day, or the night, or the storm, or the roof. Reading on the sofa downstairs with the cat, hoping for a nap; in the middle of the night in the distracted, tricksy search for sleep; in the bath, a steamy, enclosed story of, as it often is in the New Yorker, marital distress or juvenile delirium; on the train, forswearing the company of strangers and the view out of the window for a tale, written up in Hortus, of tulip hunters in the 'Stans, anticipating their species, eating their mutton stew, for their cries of delight when tulipa whateveriensis heaves and flutters into view on a chilly Spring hillside in Turkmenistan.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

This must be the last of the pond moments (I've thought this for a month), last of the sun at the start of the (school) year;  not the last of the roofers, who start appearing from 8 a.m., all eyes on the 60 feet by 18 times 2 of the roof (of my life) which they are re-slating. I go past with a box of eggs, a bucket of apples or an outsize package of paper (Munken Lynx rough, 150gsm).  One of them asked what the straw in the shed was for, so I explained about the horses down the road and how the straw came back as manure. He also asked about bees, elderberries and the sedum roof on the shed. As they are roofing I am watching a small bumble bee on a blue scabious flower and working my way towards writing about Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star.

From her name to her spiky vigour on the page, I am completely seduced every time I open the book. As I was at first by Marguerite Duras in her later more talky books. Duras came into literature from foreign lands (Indo-China); Lispector (may I call you Clarice?) from Ukraine to Brazil, via international diplomacy and jewishness. Savage women wresting words out of difficult lives.

The Hour of the Star is a short book, the endgame of a writing life, with enough narrative to float compassion for this creature/character called Macabéa from the northeast of Brazil, displaced & inadequate, outlandish & naive in Rio de Janeiro, her naiveté her only strength, her life and her death.

I have misgivings about narrative as I have misgivings about poetry, yet feast off both.

Read this: 'I am a typist and a virgin and I like coca-cola'. And sigh. (Small bang). The first time I read  The Hour of the Star, the bang/small bang moments, both ironic and childlike, made me catch my breath. As well as the hesitancy, the diffidence, the assertions: 'What troubles my existence is writing.' Existence is already what must be wrenched into being. Not just Macabéa. Me. You. The small bumble bee. The roof (of my life).

What is the truth about my Maca? It is enough to discover the truth that she no longer exists: the moment has passed. I ask myself: what is she? Reply: she is not.

I like writers who make me feel that what I am reading has brought them, and me, into existence, golem-like, relentless, scattering powers to the four winds.

And now – now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me? 
Don't forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Sartre said that if readers wanted to learn anything about his life they should read his novels and plays, not his autobiography. Stefan Zweig is elusive in all these genres. Or he's a species of selfless writer I haven't encountered before, whose work is a duty to humanity. Even a novel like Confusion, which appears to flow straight from a writer's best-kept secret to the page, may have little to do with his own experience, or even his wishful thinking. His autobiography The world of yesterday announces on page one, line one of the Foreword that he does not feel important enough to be the main character in a book (or he is a faux-modeste); we only learn he is married when he uses the first person plural pronoun. Instead he writes about the world he has lost, for which, with his second wife in their final exile in South America, he was prepared to kill himself.

In order to lose a world you have to have one in the first place. Zweig grew up in a privileged Jewish enclave in Vienna. His history is already a novel, he doesn't have to confess anything; he only has to turn a trick. He knew everyone, met everyone, emerged from a swaddle of literary-minded young men as the one most likely to succeed. I'm thrown by this kind of belonging; I can barely conceive of it; is this what allows Zweig, what compels him, to write outside himself?

I may never have begun reading Zweig at all if it hadn't been for the copy of Beware of pity at the end of my parents' bookshelves, which I didn't read then, in its probably charmless 1930s translation, and would perhaps never have read without the Pushkin Press translations of the last 15 years. I've re-read Confusion, CasanovaThe Governess and other stories, read Beware of pity and The world of yesterday. And Zweig has become fictional. He has joined his characters. In his portraits he looks like Schubert then Proust, more canny than either of these. Now that I know him, or rather, hardly know him, I'm not sure I like him, not even his worthy stance on war. I would prefer him to have been a historian or a politician.

Monday 22 September 2014

Tove Jansson's Summer Book in an Indian summer is a treat indeed. Her island in the Gulf of Finland comes through in tiny luxuriance on this third reading; every stone, every path and plant, the warm and prickly relationship between the grandmother and the granddaughter, the questions they ask each other, the many ways they avoid replying. I first read it when I was clearing out my father's house after his death, staying up the road so as not to have to try to sleep at the scene of such exhaustive anguish. The second time, at home, I read it for itself, for the grandmother and granddaughter and their playfulness, their questions, not to avoid my father or to quell him. This third time I read free and clear for all of us, daughters and grandmothers, aunts and mothers, islanders, who occupy a scrupulous territory and spend time figuring how to say so.

Monday 15 September 2014

After a Cork Italian dinner (ravioli quite good; salad vinegar best used for cleaning windows), I dreamed we were going home from the beach carrying a leather-bound book. Sections of the book detached in the wind and clusters of pages bundled out across flatlands behind the dunes. I gave chase, ending up in a café with huts nearby, one of which was occupied by a young woman. I needed to pee; there was a queue; when I finally got in, after the pleasure/pain of a long deferred pee, I saw through the slightly open window my father smoking a joint. As I left, shielding my face, I heard my father say, That looks like Judy. I went into my new friend's hut, locked the door and crouched down on the floor. It's my father I said, I just saw my father, that's why I locked the door. Wait till I tell you about mine, she said. After her tale I stood up and there outside the window my father stared in at me with a face neither his when younger nor his at all, so blank you couldn't say was this fury, contempt or terminal incomprehension.

I needed to read the apple and walnut chapters of Roger Deakin's Wildwood after that, sitting in the evening sun, leaning up against a pine tree. I needed to be in the fruitful, honeyed centre of the world, that is, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, bringing in the harvest, standing under ancient trees, or reading about Roger Deakin doing so, then going to find an apple in Garravaghstan, where I live.

Monday 8 September 2014

Glenmore, a few miles outside Cobh

This is where I began my Irish sojourn forty years ago today-ish in the large recessive house just behind the beach, which, as a look through the front door told me when no one answered the bell, entirely resembles my memory of it. My instincts in choosing it, or rather a wing of it, were infallible. On the brink of starting my own, I needed to know a house, someone else's house, that had settled into itself and would stay there: a muted runner down the hall, brass signs on the doors announcing Drawing Room, Dining Room, a table lamp lit by the phone.

Was the oil refinery there in 1974, perhaps smaller, is that what I saw when I went down to the beach – a generous word for a short stretch of rock, grit and seaweed – overwrought with the move I'd made? For the first few weeks, lying on the beach, sitting on the grass that led down there, I was sure I'd left something behind, something crucial. Brave quiet days, Quaker, like the family who lived there, Bill, Daisy and their children, plus Aunt May who collected carragheen moss on the beach, and Aunt Lilian who regularly forgot her dinner on the stove. There was a foghorn, now silenced, I think.

I packed a sandwich, a bottle of redcurrant cordial, and I'd need a book, perhaps. Not the French Romantic poets whom forty years ago I was unwillingly rereading in order to teach them (not my choice). What else did I read? Four Quartets? Too portentous. 'Garlic and sapphires in the mud.' 'We are here to pray where prayer has been valid.' Passionate but too discordant for a harbour beach in September in 2014, even during an Indian summer. Between the acts, my copy dated forty years ago.  That will be atmospheric reading candy. I must have bought it before I came here, in a rush of defensive purchasing including a dark green sou'wester and Tommy, A rock opera.Virginia Woolf could have stayed here. No oil refineries then. No uncertain smells. No discarded beer cans or poisoned small fry among the seaweed. She would have retreated to the beach and amassed yellow shells and blue glass, as I did. She might not have picked watercress from the stream that flows into the beach, into the sea, a little way east of here.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

I've left Antal Szerb and his mid-European yearning and, in uncanny concert with Smilla's sense of snow, I've moved on to The ice palace by Tarjei Vesaas. Reading the wrong book for the place you're in is one of the great feats of the human mind. I sit and toast on the beach and read about the sound of ice groaning as it thickens as it deepens down into the water in late autumn, Norway. Here in Italy large stones shift under good-sized waves. A sort of stormy chuckling. A rhythm at any rate, more regular than the chambers of the ice palace, a Mediterranean clarity, ancient ordinariness. People have been sitting on this beach since –

I had forgotten how sad The Ice Palace is; almost unbearable. So much left unsaid: the brief intimacy of two 11 year-old girls, the winter in which one girl comes to terms with the disappearance of the other. So unlikely for a writer in his sixties to have this insight, to be able to let it through the economy of his language, through the cold of a Norwegian winter in an isolated community that seems to have nothing to do with the world most of us live in; a plain style in a bare rhythm for our crowded times.

On our Italian beach, in the lull after lunch, among one of the quieter crowds of the western world, a woman sings softly to her small daughter.

Monday 25 August 2014

Reading on the beach, Bonassola

The father of the very noisy little boy is reading comic strips. The young man in the soft, hairy mode of Jesus that has been current for the past half-century, is reading, if that's the right word, puzzles on his tablet. The woman who arrived just after us to this tiny bay at the morning end of the beach, and seemed peeved that we were there at all and even taking her chosen spot, is reading The Book Thief (in Italian). I'm on the last few chapters of Journey by Moonlight, reading slower and slower, not wanting to get to the end.

Walk round the headland to the small private beach of La Francesca. Sea too rough for swimming. Water breaking noisily around large rocks, leaving a small quiet area in which to paddle. We settle in this new place. A blonde woman of forty something stands in the water petting a much younger black woman with a red handkerchief tied round her leg. Later she, the blonde one, is reading one of those Khaled Hosseini novels (in Italian). P walks out beyond the small breakwater that protects the bay, and reports a naked man standing on a promontory holding a book out in front of him, he can't see what. Kierkegaard I expect, if not Nietzsche. When I go to look I see only an upturned copy of a Dan Brown novel (in Italian) left on a rock. Meanwhile, in the shallow water, a young woman stands for some time reading a book whose title I struggle to see, lying down lower so as to be beneath the level of the front cover. She moves occasionally, facing the rock, the beach, into the sun, away from the sun. I have not seen this kind of reading since the man on the bike in my childhood who always had a book perched on top of his bike basket. The roads were quiet then. The reader in the water turns my way and finally I see the cover of her book: Smilla's sense of snow (in Italian). Sense of snow, sense of tideless sea crashing against a large volcanic rock (calme bloc d'ici-bas chu d'un désastre obscur). Before we leave I'll tell her, if I can, how much I liked watching her read.

No one is reading. Except menus.
The reader in the water was a dancer called Gaia, studying dance theatre. She was working for the summer at La Francesca and Smilla's sense of snow was a set book. The other book I brought with me is The Ice Palace. I was doubtful as I chose it, but now, after Journey by moonlight and Smilla's sense of the tideless sea, it seems entirely appropriate.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Bonassola, Liguria.

We first came here 23 years ago. We rented a piccolo appartamento in the main square for a week in  early October. The beach was warm and quiet. I read Borges' Seven Nights and Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. This time, our fourth or fifth visit, on a very busy but eminently watchable beach, it's my third or fourth reading of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb.

This morning, sitting on a bench in the square eating a peach – was it just before or just after or during the first bite? – I had a rush, almost tearful, of nostalgia. Does nostalgia always arrive before its content or cause, in this case, perhaps, the adventure of the first time we were here, near the start of our three-month journey down Italy and back?

Nostalgia and yearning are meat and drink in Journey by Moonlight, as well as the wry weakness that allows them in the first place. As I read I also yearn for the nostalgia of the narrator's exalted youth with Éva and Tamás (whose nearly parentless existence is reminiscent of Les Enfants Terribles) up in the Buda hills, with its sense of permanent removal from the currency of everyday life. Borrowed nostalgia is a complicated, and, some might say, indulgent emotion.

Early on in the novel, on his honeymoon in Venice, Mihály tells his new wife about his friendship with Éva and Tamás and  two other friends, all of whom, including Tamás who killed himself, haunt the novel's peregrinations in Italy and Paris. Marriage, after this, is little more than a taunt from the facts of bourgeois life and the future he avoids. Telling your past does not relieve nostalgia; if anything it intensifies with the exposure to alien air.

As they journey through Tuscany Mihály asks: 'Tell me, why do I feel as if I spent part of my youth among these hilltop towns?' 'You're daft', says his new wife. 'She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest.'

Journey by Moonlight – none of this could be told in the light of day – echoes the great upheaval of Europe, and particularly Jewish Europe, in the 1930s; the sense that life is elsewhere or never to be experienced again; a hungry dependence on language: 'just to say the name Siena gives me the feeling that I might stumble across something there that would make everything all right'; expectation of release: 'he was filled with the happy feeling that he did not have to be where the important things happened'. Though he did, both he the narrator and he the writer. 'The facts were stronger than he was', he says on the last page of the novel, heading back to Budapest and work in his father's firm.

Antal Szerb died in a labour camp in 1944 at the age of 43.

Friday 8 August 2014

At eight a.m. in a small carpark by a busy road, people are going to work, carrying takeout coffee, adjusting headphones and other transitional objects. In their warrior boots and haircuts, they have no honour to strip, no petticoats to rustle; they aren’t intent on becoming employee of the month; there’s a gruffness about their gait; work is penury, if that, especially in the summer. I’m waiting in the car, reading Chapter 6 of Stefan Zweig’s Casanova, my last thing at night book of the moment. So early in the morning, this is practically joined-up reading.

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity was at the end of the bookshelves in my parents’ house; as a child I dusted the shelves for modest payment, annually, checking each book as I went. The black cloth binding, the slow foreign surname at the end of the alphabet, the complicated title, made Zweig a severe choice I wasn’t yet ready for.

 In 1998, Pushkin Press published a new translation of Casanova, the first volume of a Zweig series. Translation is the aerodynamics of literature, propelling the reader not only from German to English, in this case, also from the 21st to the 18th century, via the 1920s and 30s, the Austria of Zweig’s origin, the Italy of his subject, and the French of his subject’s memoirs; accommodating Heath Ledger as Casanova in his beguiling, effortless youth, Peter O’Toole as the ageing Casanova, who, out of habit though with little outcome other than pathos, engages the attention of the maid as he writes his memoirs; as well as, for this reader, Moonlight Cruise, spoils of a CND jumble sale of my youth, about the man who hated women and the woman who hated men, en passant par the man who loved women.

 Chapter six of Casanova is Homo Eroticus, a comparison of Casanova and Don Juan, the bene and the malefactor, the lover and the hater of women whose lifeworks strangely resemble each other. Casanova’s memoirs are a catalogue of conquest; he stands better over the myth he generated than his amorous exploits, which, like anything else relentlessly pursued, becomes tedious and curiously unemotional. These are operas of the flesh, no more, without moral undertow or spiritual aspiration. 

Don Juan on the other hand is all tortured aspiration and warped morality. His catalogue of conquest represents the growing stock of honour he has stolen and tragedies wreaked upon women who will hate him forever.

  Don Giovanni is all I know of Don Juan. In Mozart’s music can you hear the honour and the savagery? In the evening I listen again. I don’t hear Don Juan I hear Mozart acting and Mozart from within, the savagery converted into beauty: the menace of a fugue, as we move into the end of Act 1, the grievance of Donna Elvira halfway through Act 2: he stripped me of my honour, he betrayed me, woe and vengeance.

 For many years I wanted literature to be contentless (which is easier if it’s in a language not native to you), not looking through the glass of art but at it. I have also been chastised for listening to music in the same way. Passion and how it translates into music, into beauty; that’s what I hear. A convolute way of coming to the humanity of music perhaps, but, once established, indissoluble.

Monday 2 June 2014

Since I was twenty there have been books I read in short bursts, keeping them by me for months, dipping into a few lines to check the internal weather, unable to read more: plotless, intimate writing that plumbs depths rather than covers ground. Less like reading and more like diving into language then stopping short, having your moment and eating it in the stillness of complicity.

The heart of reading is atavistic and possessive: out of a pan of undifferentiated yearning come these words you could have written yourself. Could have but shouldn’t have needed to. Shouldn’t but did.

We read with all the reading we’ve ever done. We write through all the reading we’ve ever done. Idra Novey writes through Clarice Lispector (Sylph Editions Cahier 23). Elfriede Jelinek (Sylph Editions Cahier 18) writes through Robert Walser. Anne Carson (Sylph Editions Cahier 21) writes through Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon, Hölderlin, Paul Celan.

Clarice Lispector’s Cronicas appeared in a Brazilian newspaper in the early seventies. Where’s a newspaper now that would publish these? Actually, as I learned at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, journalists rant through jocular teeth, making the shift for their readers to the World Cup on TV, seamless.

Cronicas are short pieces arising out of the thoughts or observations of a small daily life, the sudden revelations you might have experienced before but which strike with the force of upheaval when you experience them again. Just as The Hour of the Star, her last novel, leaves narrative gasping in the gutter, the Cronicas are fully estranged from journalism.

Clarice: The Visitor by Idra Novey
The writer as visitor to the reader’s life, with all the wiles and the wherewithal to dismay and invigorate. What more can a book do? Sting and move on. Leave a residue of sisterhood, call it that, and suspense. Such a relief that you can know and not know at the same time, the condition of the other.

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek
Robert Walser via the sensibility of Elfriede Jelinek – and the reader makes three – featherweight upheavals one after another. Crushing modesty and persistence. Constant unseating for the reader. Who is shaping whom and can we be further reduced on the page?

Nay Rather by Anne Carson
The voices of Joan of Arc had no stories and she did not know what language they spoke. What do your voices sound like? asked her inquisitors. Ask me next Saturday, she replied. Are they one or many? they asked. The light comes in the name of the voice, she said.

While staying up at night the Cycladic people invented the frying pan, says Anne Carson through the Greek poet Ibykos.

Monday 5 May 2014

‘That would be a glorious life, to addict oneself to perfection; to follow the curve of the sentence wherever it might lead, into deserts, under drifts of sand, regardless of lures, of seductions; to be poor always and unkempt; to be ridiculous in Piccadilly.‘ The Waves p. 74

When I first read The Waves in 1968 I marked sentences that leapt at me, and on every subsequent reading I meet the younger self who chose this sentence over that, who was moved by this coincidence of VW’s reach for reality, and her own.

There are sentences that arrest, perplex and then release you a happier camper than you were before, fulfilled and relieved.

Robert Musil: ‘Two weeks later Bonadea had already been his mistress for a fortnight’. Beckett: ‘You have to be there better than that, Clov, if you want them to let you go, in the end’.

The first sentence I read, aged three or so, was ‘Busy Timmy puts on his outdoor shoes’. Busy Timmy was there and not there, in the words as in the blue romper suit in the picture. When I moved to Ireland I had to say how many books I was importing, how many records. 'If you had a television you wouldn’t need any of that', said the man who came to fix the cooker. I was discomfited and joyful at the same time.

Monday 7 April 2014

There are few greater intimacies than reading someone else’s diary in the middle of the night: a few pages of Virginia Woolf’s journey around Ireland in 1934, her sense of The Waves as it came into being, her thoughts on her thoughts, who came to tea that day; I sleep well after that.

Ireland in 1934. As she writes from The Lismore Hotel, the Eccles in Glengariff, the Glenbeigh Hotel, the Dunraven Arms in Adare, VW struggles with Ireland, the friendliness and the calculation. She doesn’t really know what she thinks until she’s back in Sussex, when she says this is one of the most interesting trips they, she and Leonard, have made.

I’ve been reading Orlando in the bath. Where you read is as important as what. If the reading gets too fragmented you can always transfer to wet afternoons up in your room. Land with Orlando in the twentieth century. Hard to detach him/her from Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s film once you’ve seen it.

Also taking gobs at Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t. Her brevity and narkiness make me read in like fashion. I put it down saying that’s enough of that, wanting something more accepting, or transporting.

Start The Waves again. To submerge, to lean on those names: Bernard, Jinny, and the rest. Be there on a summer’s afternoon, near blackcurrant bushes and beyond. Absorb the quality of exchange. Separate and together. The tussle of words. Onwardness of experience.

Lydia Davis has no such gentleness. She’s wry, and dry, and undercuts, rather than props up her reality. She is maybe the person Neville in The Waves needed, ‘someone whose mind falls like a chopper on a block; the whom the pitch of absurdity is sublime, and a shoestring adorable’. The Waves p.43

Monday 3 March 2014

I reread Virginia Woolf every few years to reassure myself that life is this diffuse yet precise, a series of lulls and shocks underscored by pain, healed by beauty; for someone other than me. At least half my reading is rereading; I like the density of it, the thickness of the fabric.

This time I began with ‘Sketch of the Past’ (in Moments of Being, Panther Books, 1978). Some pages I read again and again, especially the ones about her obsession with her dead mother. After she wrote To the Lighthouse the obsession disappeared. ‘She obsessed me… until I was forty-four. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings.’ Then she ceased to see her mother, ceased to hear her voice. ‘It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole’, she wrote.

I reread To the Lighthouse with a new sense of preparedness, with VW’s childhood and youth in my mind. When the mother is there on the front step with her son, knitting stockings for the son of the lighthouse keeper, I too am anchored and relieved.

‘Certainly there she was, in the very centre of that great Cathedral space which was childhood; there she was from the very first.’ In the ghostly third section Mrs Ramsay dies again and again. Thus does VW disburden herself of the feeling of her mother; as two years later she disburdened herself, in the River Ouse, with stones in her pockets, of the feeling of herself.

Thursday 27 February 2014

Today I read a six-month shift of my diary when I was seventeen, and found that for half a century I have depended on books and quiet places in which to read them. At seventeen I started on Proust, tried Kafka, learned how to spell Nietszche’s name. I was already a hunter/gatherer of things beyond me yet myself.

I read large amounts of dross at the suggestion of binding, font or title on library shelves, novels beyond my emotional range, beckoning; such a relief still, to leave adults to their peculiar games.

I was applying for university that year, reading set texts at all times in all places, bewailing nearly everything, finding the future in a language for all that, mine or someone else’s. I was a postwar bulge baby, disciplined to the point of despair, unable to convince anyone I was worthy of a university education, only fit for grinning out of a Tootal shirt advertisement.

Oscar Wilde, via Gwendoline in The Importance of Being Earnest, liked to have his diary with him on the train in order to have something sensational to read. I know what she/he means.

Reading old diaries is calming and astounding; finding yourself again as you hardly remember you were; finding yourself again as you still are. I can’t do it often. The sense of the person I am having been formed by the person I wrote is too disturbing.

The next night I dreamt I had the same clothes all my life. They hung in wardrobes, open, masked by dense silky cobwebs it was a pleasure to break through and then bundle the threads into a tiny ball.

Monday 3 February 2014

In bed with a cold I turn to Jane Gardam. Even after recovering from the cold I am still reading Jane Gardam. She is one of the places where I seek refuge in difficult times. Lashings of characters and a certain wryness, ellipsis, search. She knows the awkwardness of youth, its will to plunder. In one day I read the whole of The Flight of the Maidens, and by dusk could not distinguish my own emotions from the characters’; the trees outside, and the mossy stones, flocks of pigeons and a fox, a blackbird, suddenly none of mine.

Somewhere in the great reread of Jane Gardam, five novels in succession, during and after my cold, I remember Virginia Woolf, and Nella Last. One writer leads to another. Their voices resonate with each other. One black beetle knows another. Nella Last, housewife 49, chimes with Wimbledon, after the marmalade, or 22 Hyde Park Gate, moments of being.

Virginia Woolf gave up the struggle around the time that Nella Last found her voice. Jane Gardam, a few decades on, is sanguine. Making the marmalade is also a moment of being. VW is one with Nella’s frank dailiness and Jane Gardam’s marmalade.

The focus these women have, why they need to write it down. How they write it down. This is what preoccupies me. Marguerite Duras is another. ‘I don’t like literature but this isn’t like literature it’s like life’, said a student, making my day some years ago.

Monday 6 January 2014

When I first saw her name I detached the surname from the first name. Nella Last’s War. Nella Last’s Peace. Nella Last in the 1950s. These are the three published volumes of her diary, of which no one, perhaps, has read the entirety.

Even Nella sounded like the remains of a name. Last, her husband’s name (he ran a joinery shop) leaves her there, complete, in the diaries she was prompted to write by Mass Observation, founded in 1937 to see what people were doing with their days. Nella Last was identified as: Housewife, 49. Last seen in Barrow-in- Furness, then Lancashire, now Cumbria, England. As I read her diaries I find myself setting her life next to mine, her Barrow-in-Furness next to my Inniscarra, her wartime my uneasy peace. What would Nella Last think? I ask myself several times a day. Halfway into the first volume I didn’t want them to come to an end. When I went to the library every day as an adolescent, I thought I might find a writer whose books were infinite(ly reassuring). For a while, after finding PG Wodehouse, I thought he or she might be in the Ws.

I read Nella’s diaries in the wrong order, starting with the last volume, then the first, then the second. I was a child in the 1950s; this was the world in which I grew up. My parents did not talk about the war. My mother’s fear lurked. My father’s photographs of soldiers in groups, projected as needs must. A piece of shrapnel in a box. A group of men in khaki. That was the war. I was one of Hitler’s children; I did not seek out my baggage.

Nella Last supplied a war I didn’t know; lurching from ordinary effort to extraordinary terror. Such focus on daily needs and practical care in the everyday, the home and the community, the soldiers, food, tea; making do. I had no idea. WW2 was the piece of shrapnel that did not hit my father; my mother’s terror; the holocaust and the word for it inseparable.

Nella Last’s Peace included the time of my birth in the worst winter anyone could remember. The freezing winter was the war all over again; the difficult peace. No wonder I breathe lightly, walk a knife edge. For the first couple of months of my life, there was wailing, freezing and falling over on the ice; you had clothes on but you were naked to the bone.

Nella Last in the 1950s is so close to her own dailiness I can see my mother, a couple of hundred miles south and east, clothing us, feeding us; you did what needed to be done, my mother said later, defensively. You concentrated on simple things and hoped the difficult things (children, parents, war, need) would resolve themselves. You made do, you managed, you lied: ‘Funny how a lie can make you happier than the truth’, says Nella.