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.