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.