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.