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.