Saturday 26 December 2015

On yet another wet day, I start Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, on foot of a review of a Peggy Guggenheim biography, and have to restart at least four times, weary from the first line—to say nothing of TS Eliot's introduction, which I couldn't finish—of sentences that take forever to get there. 'There is no there there', as Gertrude Stein said.

I am rewarded on page 28, however, by this:
After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.
From then on I am reading in the right key, and there is, over to the northwest, a sign of clearance in the sky.

William Burroughs admired Nightwood. It would work well as a cut-up. Better, even.

Thursday 24 December 2015

My relationship with PG Wodehouse goes back to his name over and over on book spines along the Ws on the last shelf of the town library. I wasn't ready for eggs, beans and crumpets, the empress of Blandings, Jeeves etc. This was a foreign language. I'd learn French first.

Ten years went by. I read Virgil Dante Kafka Montaigne Rimbaud Proust Beckett and Mallarmé. PG Wodehouse had to be authenticated by a man who also read all of the above, an Irishman, as it happened, one of my teachers at university.

Comfort reading has many fellow-travellers. PG Wodehouse carries an Irishman, several Frenchman and a deal of insomnia. I like reading him in the middle of the night. His sentences give the most somnolent, mindless, delightful pleasure. The plot is always secondary to the delight, and delight is a launching pad into sleep, if you're lucky, if you're not preoccupied with—for example—how you lost the pruning knife again in the dying light of the winter solstice.

I can be irritated by his misogyny—all women—and there are few—are aunts or writers or gorgons or all three; and his poor rich young men keeping up appearances in all kinds of ingenious ways, but you can reside in his language without reference, almost, to the stuff of his tales. 'In the most apparently Grade A ointment there is always a fly'.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Reading Edmund White after Svetlana Alexievich is relaxing, even lush: here is a youth devoted to youth and its necessary anguish, its insufficiency. Sentences are expansive, the candour rich and startling, yet comfortable, as if the conversion into language and the implicit sharing with reader/confidant were already soothing. Welcome, he seems to say, and thank you, 'my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, of a life, than the author you're allowing for a moment to exist yet again'.

Such kindness is rare, such politeness and warmth. The reader has a role and the writer is grateful. I interviewed Edmund White some decades ago and can't help finding him in his writing, the particular way he sat in my office as I interviewed him on the subject of teaching literature. Affable and genuine, guileless, almost, teaching and literature weighed in either hand alongside other, more personal concerns, which, on hardly any prompting, he would talk about too.

Thursday 3 December 2015

I want to read things that will slice underneath everything. There has to be a lot of pain before I understand. Am I to that extent Russian?  Even a few pages into Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich, I'm readied for the enormity of what they have to say: you've never shot anyone, you pacifist, you haven't heard a bullet whizzing past your ear, brought the truth home in a plastic bag, what you do know?

If I took in one thing with mother's milk it was the wantonness of war. Can we say, at the time, or afterwards, with any certainty what people were fighting for in many countries whose names are associated with wars, like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and later, Iraq, Iraq, Libya, Syria? World War Two, with Hitler at its centre, remains oddly romantic.

The people who were fighting cannot say with any certainty. The zinky boys thought they were going into something romantic, or at least worthy. War makes you forget what war is for, if you ever knew. The person you were who might have known has gone for good. You've forgotten the word for thank you. War is an opportunity you may not survive, or not with all your limbs; a belief you will not survive; war is about being literally blown to bits, running after your brain after it has been shot out; on your behalf an empty uniform packs with some Afghan earth into the zinc coffin, for the weight.

The voices of many mothers are there in Zinky Boys (and how far is that zappy title from its meaning), voices of widows, voices of depleted people. I perceive the world through the medium of human voices, says Svetlana Alexievich. Russian mothers, I can't help reminding myself, Russian widows, Russian depleted people. When I was fourteen I could take pride in Russian suffering as it rustled through Russian birches and swept over Russian steppes, as it came to lodge beneath Russian cheekbones.

Now I don't take pride in any nationality. I take pride in a compost heap of my own making, and the four loaves I bake every ten days. Russians leave a loaf of bread to sit after a funeral, to nourish the dead. Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.

Sunday 29 November 2015

I have a high threshold for pain, a low threshold for lies, an allergic reaction to bullshit and smugness. In the past ten days or so I have been reading Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, in small pieces, the way you read certain books, setting it aside and knowing it's there when next you're ready for that degree of voice. When you need to refresh your preconceptions. Souvent mais peu à la fois. Little but often. When you need to slice through everything.

Words can convey the worst, the least imaginable reality; or cover it up. Voices from Chernobyl cover nothing, or if they feel they might be about to, they check and revise. This is essential speech from the pit of the earth. Earth is where I keep my stuff, said a poster in the Cork climate change march this afternoon, save it.

Chernobyl is beyond saving. But nothing is beyond learning. Or beyond saying. The Swedes knew what they were doing when they gave Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel prize for literature. If literature only knew too.

Friday 20 November 2015

Last night, in a short burst of sleep amid nightmarish itching, I dreamed of a young artist who'd written in a section of his painting in tiny angular script. For the first time I've written the truth, he said. Have you read Walser's Microscripts? I asked.

So I have to look at Walser again. Eloquent yet taciturn wordsmith, as he describes himself, these pieces come from a brink of some kind, they have been brought forward from their micro state into the light of a handsome volume (New Directions/Christine Burgin 2010). How to read them. Easy to reside there, to pick up phrases here and there like a dilettante at a picnic. A piece of Comté with bullace cheese. Walser wishes he had the right to find fault with a crisis of cheerfulness. He enters his every day with disarming penetration.
Usually I first put on a prose piece jacket, a sort of writer's smock, before venturing to begin with composition, but I'm in a rush right now and besides, this is just a tiny little piece, a silly trifle featuring beer coasters round as plates. Children were playing with them and I was watching them play. 
As far in as he manages to go, in words, he does not, in person, you imagine; he watches. What you are reading is someone's entire relationship to the world around him. There is no more he can say than this. Which is the same as saying this is the truth.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

I bought my copy in 1974, the year I came to Ireland. I grew up fifty or so miles south of Akenfield, in east Essex. It is reassuring to know that I liked the spoken/written word in 1974. Polar opposite of Mallarmé and the lads. Or maybe not. There was much that was unsayable whether you were a Suffolk ploughman or a Paris poet. The loneliness and self-determination were the same. Living inside books and never reading books were the same too.

Pigs are interesting people, says the pig man, and some of them can leave quite a gap when they go off to the bacon factory.

It is a jolt now to read about a farm worker my age in 1967, on day release to a college in Ipswich, eating up the chance to think about the broader world. He came to conclusions about the Vietnam war far earlier than I, some way down the path of education, could have: they're just farmers having a revolution, he said. I had to ask my brother who was fighting whom in Vietnam.

The Suffolk village Ronald Blythe creates out of conversations with its inhabitants was, and remains, what I think of as a village. I did not come to live in any such village  in Ireland, though from my address you'd think there was one. Ireland doesn't do villages; there's another style, another culture, longer, meandering over miles, unadmitted. It has taken forty years for me to muster a sense of community — if very far-flung, diffuse, occasional, and nothing to do with my address.

I like the JP/Samaritan who concludes disbelievingly that some people just aren't joiners. I like the district nurse, the orchard men, the orchard timetable; I'm amazed by the school log in the 1930s (half-day off for blackberrying!), entranced by the craftsmen, the shepherds, the hands of the forge, the open-ended community Ronald Blythe created and laid out: here, consider this if you will, here is a village in the late sixties in England.

I read it twice this time. I wanted to know what a village was, wanted to be reminded of what people in their lives will say if you give them the space, the ease of mind.

Friday 13 November 2015

John Cage thought there was just the right amount of suffering in the world. That is an opening conundrum in Darwin's worms by Adam Phillips. John Cage knew how: 4 minutes 32 seconds of silence with suffering inside?

If I'm going to face difficult realities in the middle of the night, ideally I'd seek distraction with this.

Nature, says Raymond Williams, is perhaps the most difficult word in the language.

I like to land on a word, an idea, and stay there, especially in the middle of the night, surrounded by silence not my own. Resonance is the thing, not meaning.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

A place in the country by WG Sebald

Two hours in a doctor's waiting room with under sixes playing onscreen games in their silver space boots, swinging pink backpacks and screaming as they are inducted into the world of blood tests and anxiety.

And a door banged and banged.

After that I need reading as pooling, reading without reading, listening to Schubert songs sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a fire lighting, I inhabit those sentences and sensibilities without scanning the pages, the book open beside me enough to stay an island in the Lac de Bienne where Rousseau stayed, and, a hundred years later, Sebald; to sit outside the house on the river where Kleist stayed, stand in the snow with Robert Walser, float in a balloon with Nabokov over a sleeping Germany.

Reading without reading; I nearly know what that would be in Finnish.

I was rebuked age 20 for reading for pearls, and for the musical equivalent, waiting for the good bit, the tip into the minor key, for example, then waiting for the repeat. Landing stage and launch at once. As Winterreise dips and reaches, so does Sebald in his sentences. I was rebuked, later, age 50 perhaps, for not knowing exactly what Fischer-Dieskau is saying/singing, for not knowing the poem. I understand about 20 percent of the words, the rest is my own, or, if Sebald is open beside me, his.

I have read Sebald and he has read Walser, as I have; and Hebel, Mörike, and Keller, whom I haven't, but I have spent time in Keller's Ideal Landscape with Trees, a third of which one of his women friends carefully cut away, following the contours of the trees. Reading and not reading Sebald, knowing and not knowing the words of Schubert songs is life as I understand it best. This is music to my ears, the shorter music of German word endings and the longer music of Schubert.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

I have been reading essays (Notting Hill Editions, A Eulogy for Nigger and other essays) by day, and James Purdy novels (Malcolm, followed by The Nephew and In a shallow grave) by night. This doesn't feel like a decision I've taken, fiction opening the dream channel and essays for the light of day. Reading is a path to follow, or paths. Friends all. The life of the mind, as people used to say.

James Purdy tells truths at a useful, awkward distance, useful to James Purdy, that is, as well as to certain readers since 1959. Awkward on my bookshelves too, lodged for many years in a corner you can hardly see, next to Barbara Pym. The essays are of now, written in the last year or two. These are people thinking and writing in the world I live in. A contemplation of a rabbit's detachment; a docket from a day's thinking up a mountain, in the clear air; a eulogy for nigger, the word and her maidens.

We present ourselves to an essay as the essay presents itself to us, disarmed and revealed, a state of mind as well as an argument and a history: what we can understand by considering a rabbit; having time to contemplate a rabbit.

James Purdy's characters would have time, like Malcolm on his gilded bench, fatherless, expectant; or the nephew in his home town of Rainbow before he went out to Korea and was killed; or Garnet Montrose In a shallow grave, back from Korea, with all his insides on the outside, mulberry-coloured, the applicants who look after him, they have time. Characters are created out of the writer's time, the writer's contemplation. Do you know how long that can go on?

Fiction is a tale to tell on your own out of a dark place, the best tale you have just a short walk away from the truth. The essay is an exploration without purpose; you don't know what you might find or lose. It's only when you read people who have been thinking, who continue to think after you have stopped reading them, that the world activates again.

Friday 16 October 2015

Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandelstam

Armenia was already an event when I was sixteen; there was an Armenian about my age, or younger, whom I met once or twice by the river where I went to play tennis with the quality. He was Armenian before he was anything else. I liked his dark looks, long lashes and outsiderhood. Everything Armenian began with an A.

Osip Mandelstam fashions his sentences as you pick up dropped stitches in knitting: it will not look like the full knit, or not for a long time, and you know it. His abrupt and observing mind, a poet descending, as he might think, into prose, notices then abandons some charming things.
When you look around, your eyes need more salt. You catch forms and colours — and all is unleavened bread. Such is Armenia.
Only last year on the island of Sevan in Armenia, as I went strolling in the waist-high grass, I was captivated by the shameless burning of the poppies. Bright to the point of surgical pain... 
Mandelstam was reverenced among the boy poets of the Ireland of the 1970s. I didn't do reverence therefore I didn't do Mandelstam; I didn't do adoration. Poetry was pain and dislocation; I had no altars, wanted no balm.

So I can't exactly read Mandelstam, even now, I can only jump in and out as with a rough sea.

Sunday 11 October 2015

A short history of power by Simon Heffer, was my other holiday reading.

As I read I was reminded of my mother and how her face seemed to register the flux of her understanding and her readiness to be interrupted.

I have had a troubled and defiant relationship with history. I remember telling a sociologist that I had no sense of history. Impossible, he said. A few years later I wrote to him to say I'd found it after all, as I rounded a bend into a village somewhere northwest of London, where the wind, said the woman in the shop, came straight off the Urals.

A short history of power is long in its reach: Thucydides to the present day (before yesterday), much of the northern hemisphere, a little of the southern, tumultuous battles and obscure retribution, emperors and inadequates, gods and ideologies (why have I always disliked that word?), it is what it says on the tin and still leaves you unsatisfied.

Holiday reading? you ask.

Well yes. I slip between the cracks, pick up on what I know something about, sail on familiar names, like Kublai Khan and Thomas Carlyle, slide about on my fractured knowledge and then fall asleep.

Like listening to an unfamiliar piece of music, new spaces, new notes, no notes, no meaning, as John Cage said, just sound.

Infiltrating the synapses, affecting the future in ways you can hardly tell.

Saturday 10 October 2015

On a long sandy beach in Portugal, over several days, I read You and Me from start to finish. All around they were reading Kathy Reich, John Grisham, and Bandit Country. I don't know why people read rubbish on the beach, where the mind has so much room. I'm ready for the intrigue of You and Me, the neuroscience of identity. This is the territory I like to be in.

Among the many paragraphs and sentences that needed the expanse of sun and sea, this one leapt:
If the screen-based lifestyle of the twenty-first century is an unprecedented and pervasive phenomenon, then prolonged and frequent video-gaming, surfing and social networking cannot fail to have an unprecedented and transformational effect on the mental state of a species whose most basic and valuable talent is a highly sensitive adaptability to whatever environment in which is it placed.
Dolphins go by—now you see them where will they pop up next—and we all leap. The neural handshake of a school of dolphins, secures October.

—Well, we know where we are, said a woman to her husband as she turned over to toast her back.

In 1995 three groups of people, none of whom could play the piano, volunteered for a five-day experiment. One group stared at a piano, the next learned five-finger exercises, and the third imagined they were playing the piano. The ones who played and the ones who imagined playing showed the same enhanced brain activity, synapses popped and handshakes clenched between neurons: aha! The ones who stared, stared, their brain activity unchanged: a piano is a run of black and white, a run of grey.
Emily Brontë once wrote, 'I have dreamed in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind. How we process the world around us indeed alters our identity. Our dreams need to be nurtured with the best possible materials.
And that includes the beach. The night. And reading. 

Thursday 24 September 2015

You don't have to start at the beginning. I started You and Me by Susan Greenfield, at the end. Then I read the penultimate paragraph. After that I dipped about, finding good bits to rediscover later. You and Me, the neuroscience of identity, is a generous basket of goods. Wherever you read, at whatever moment you get on the bus, or decide to get off, this is the stuff of ourself, ourselves, and it's riveting. Getting this close in to the synapses. Susan Greenfield is professor of synaptic pharmacology. And, once you have wrapped your head around that, you are ready for anything.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Reading Wayne Koestenbaum on Humiliation. A boundless investigation in several fugues or fits, like The Hunting of the Snark, that you the reader undertake in the close company of the writer, the numbered sections corresponding to your, and his, need to draw breath between one idea, one example, and another, jump cuts or small lurches in whose valleys you can pause and situate yourself, adjust to who you are in relation to all this, start your own scan: do I know what he's talking about and if so, why, what, when?

Thursday 17 September 2015

I'm not good with writing as advocacy, even if I am already in agreement, as with Wendell Berry, whom I read today up at the pond in a burst of September sunshine. What he says may feed a conversation some time: a phrase, a notion, an insistence on stewardship, intimacy, involvement with the land on the part of the people who live there, general remarks I recognize on impact and hope I will find next time I'm talking about land, next time I would like to persuade.

What is your time worth? What are you doing with the time you have saved? Growing your own food is a complex activity, says Wendell Berry. I love to read this and understand so exactly what it means. And at the same time it makes me uncomfortable. Like meeting yourself and instinctively turning away.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Reading Danilo Kis, The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, always a sliver away from understanding where he's coming from. Or understanding only too well but no longer wanting to be there.

Yet in certain moods or on wet days or before I go to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel bedroom, an encyclopaedia of the dead can be just what I need: a mass of episode against a backdrop of persistent and troubling strangeness. The particularity of a story sitting side by each with its nemesis, the writer.

I'd like to read his diary. The nearest we get is a list in an interview from 1986, 3 years before his death.
My first sensory impressions of childhood go back to Novi Sad, which is located a hundred or so kilometres south of Subotica, on the Danube. Smells, tastes, colours. The smell of chestnut blossoms, of roses in a vase, of camomile, machine oil in the sewing machine, my father's cigarettes, cologne on my mother's neck, clean sheets, urine, the sailcloth on the table, coffee, soap, spices, the leather sweat band on my father's hat, cab seats, railways stations, pharmacies, an empty first-class compartment, the strap that opens the compartment window, a leather suitcase. The taste of cod-liver oil, of honey, of café au lait, of cinnamon, wooden crayons, paste, ink, paper, rubber, candy, blood from my finger, tincture of iodine, tears, cough medicine. Colours: the dark green on one side of chestnut leaves and the light green on the other….
Novi Sad was raided in January 1942, when Danilo Kis was 7. Shots sounded under his window. Jews and other unwanted elements were rounded up onto the frozen Danube and shots fired into the ice until it broke and the unwanted elements drowned in the icy water.

No wonder he prefers to speak in images. No wonder he says he spent his whole life preparing to be a poet.

Makes me think I'm only as far away from understanding Danilo Kis as he was himself.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

Late back from a wedding I read the chapter about Matera—squalor and malaria after prosecco and canapés and cake. Matera could not have seemed more naked. It wasn't Christ who stopped at Eboli, it was humanity.

This was the first book I ever reviewed, at the age of sixteen, as a school exercise. I asked my mother's friend Gertie which book I should write about, and read her choice with respect, gratitude and a degree of incomprehension. Learning how to enjoy not understanding is one of the major lessons of adolescence. Communism had a surge after WW2, and Gertie was a fellow traveller. I wasn't sure of the implications of that, either.

In 1935 Carlo Levi was exiled to Gagliano in Basilicata for being anti-Fascist. Romeo was banished from Padua for killing Tybalt. Carlo Levi was banished for having an opinion. Gagliano was worlds away from his native Turin, a peasant community where death was hardly distinguishable from life. When Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia/Eritrea) in the random way of conquest, the peasants thought dying in Abyssinia hardly distinguishable from living in Gagliano. They were not interested in the war, waged from Rome. One conqueror, one invader, is very like another. An eclipse of the sun presaged endless sorrow. They had 7 dialect words for tomorrow, part of a timeless incantation conferring no hope at all.
They have led exactly the same life since the beginning of time, and History has swept over them without effect.
Carlo Levi was measured and warm on the subjects of the peasants he came to know.
They have gentle hearts and patient souls; centuries of resignation weigh on their shoulders, together with a feeling of the vanity of all things and of the overbearing power of fate. But when after infinite endurance, they are shaken to the depths of their beings and are driven by an instinct of self-defence or justice, their revolt knows no bounds and no measure.
At what remove do you need to be to know this?

I have been to the region where Carlo Levi wrote this book. After a trip up Monte Pollino in Calabria our friend Pino took us over the mountain and down the other side, into Basilicata. On the way down we saw a VW Beetle loaded with sticks for the winter, battling over rocks that would give a goat pause. We stopped in a café and listened to local men talk and drink intently. What are they talking about? I asked Pino. Work, he said. And when they work they talk about drink.

You can have a garden if you have brains, said Andrea, who had made one in 1990s Calabria, over the mountains. You can get rid of malaria, said Carlo Levi, with a few precautions, and trees planted along the river. He sympathised with the peasants' mistrust of the rest of Italy. The faraway place with which they engaged was not Rome but New York.

I rarely read books as slowly as I read this one. I wanted to continue to go there before I went to sleep, to feel the world I live in articulated, clarified, by the world to which Carlo Levi was exiled in 1935.

Sunday 16 August 2015

The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

All the signs are propitious, including the difficulty of pronouncing the author's name and the illustration on the cover—an empty classroom with paint peeling off the desks (Chernobyl).

The members of the letter killers club are a bunch of conceivers, matterphobic and phobic in general. Look to the political and social tensions of 1920s Russia if you like, or to a philosophical stance (K as an adolescent read Kant), it is disconcerting to read a tale of a club that meets in a room of empty black bookshelves and tells tales that test the limits of conception. Letters (on the page) should be killed. This book shouldn't exist but I am reading it. Like being stabbed but not yet dead.

After reading the book twice, it beeps in the dark, a map of obscure and plaintive indications; it floats about in the brain emulsion, along with fellow travellers like Daniil Kharms and Andrey Platonov; leaves the reader awash with paradox, like the morning after an all-night dream.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Rain all day, or 100% humidity against deep grey. I didn't venture out. Read Allen Shawn instead, Wish I Could Be There: notes from a phobic life. By evening and no clearing of the sky, what I've read has filtered in and opened up everything it found there. As JS Foer said, and Rimbaud did not need to: everything is illuminated.
It is therefore no mere figure of speech to say that what happens to us becomes a part of us. Just as our faces, our hands, our skins, our hearts, and our lungs reflect our habits, so do our brains. In other words, what we do, feel, and live through is what we become.
Wish I Could Be There is a paradigm of scrutiny. Here is Allen Shawn on the subject of his father's face:
as he drove through a deserted mountainous area or an expanse of empty land, as if the shadow of death were passing over him. The outer vacuum seemed to be seeping into his brain, as if he could not help internalizing the emptiness he saw outside the car window… There was almost no boundary between his sensitivity to the mystery of life and his phobic terror of it. (In Hebrew, incidentally, there is also no such differentiation; the same word is used to connote both 'awe' and 'fear'.
The phobia might be a metaphor, a story you tell yourself to mask the real story, an outlet, like dreams, where we can disguise our meaning as much as we need to.
We could almost say that our sense of 'security' and 'safety' represents a reprieve from uneasiness… when we are feeling safe, we are simply inured to the strangeness of life.
I have, I think (as we all like to think with recurrent dreams) the usual spread of phobias – snakes, jellyfish, the sight of tripe or suction pads on squid, water in various guises – but to read a book like this is to emerge more alert to the quality of your own experience, your various fears and trepidations raised like braille on the fabric of your day. Nothing is usual, after all.

The degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling, he writes, near the beginning of the book. That's OK, I want to say to him. Some of us enjoy that. I always used to have trouble with how to spell 'appalling'. I was too appalled to know. Too embarrassed (whose spelling I also had trouble with).
'Just remember', said one of Allen Shawn's teachers, 'your strengths are your weaknesses.'

Monday 3 August 2015

There are books so right they're wrong, books that belong to another era of your (reading) life, books that you read at the wrong moment, that do not fit your current sensibility, whose timbre you can register only briefly in the middle of the night, when past selves come out to play.

The Boat in the Evening, the last work of Tarjei Vesaas, is such a book. I have been reading it on and off for several weeks, unwilling to give in to it, not just because it's bare and Norwegian, austere, minimal and I bought it in what passes for summer here, this year; also because its doubts and raptures recall my adolescence. Poetic scenes with cinematic beauty, says the blurb on the back. Intense, solitary, like my adolescence. And cold.

I liked the chapter about his mother going out in a snowstorm to make music with friends. And the one on going out to watch the dance of the cranes, freezing and still, waiting and then rewarded. His absorption in the place he knows, where he's lived all his life, I like all that, I love it.
If only one could share their music and shrieking, shriek with the shrieking birds, about what one wishes to know!
The difference between this and Tess (of the d'Urbevilles) receiving the cold potato fields of Wessex into her tired brain, is the difference between misery and rapture.
They are not birds, they are ourselves when we have passed between the millstones, crossed the thorny wastes, gone through the fire, undertaken wondrous journeys and given away our heart to things unworthy of it—with the resulting humiliation unto death.
Then it happens.
Then we must dance like this. Then we clothe ourselves in the proud guise of the crane...

Sunday 26 July 2015

I came back to ee cummings by a circuitous route. His poems give a kick to a grey and turbulent afternoon. Take them like a tonic, as with Gertrude Stein. Wake up, go back to the day with a different head on you.

ee cummings was at Harvard at the same time as Joe Gould, later, in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, the Greenwich Village bum known as Professor Seagull (because he did seagull imitations) who was writing, he said, the oral history of his times. He was immortalized, as they say, by Joseph Mitchell, who maybe impersonated or invented or wanted to be Joseph Gould.

Last night I read an article in The New Yorker about Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell: did Joe Gould really write the 9 million words of oral history he claimed? Did Joseph Mitchell really want to get to the bottom of it? Jill Lepore investigates, via ee cummings and Ezra Pound, among others.

I read the article inside the insomniac hour between four and five, and by the end I was woven in with the two Josephs, the facts of it and the fiction, the onlookers, the benefactors, malefactors, psychiatrists, poets, artists and reporters.

ee cummings, against the odds, became famous. Joe Gould did not. No one wants to take on the possibility that Joe Gould's 9 or 11 million words in their dusty copybooks exist somewhere, on a chicken farm (where he said many of the books were stored, though it turns out the chicken farm was a psychiatric hospital). If enough people know that an oral history of his times may have existed it will start to exist.

After reading Jill Lepore and today the poems of ee cummings, it exists a little more.

One ee cummings edition I found on my shelves, 50 poems published in 1940, had an obituary tucked inside from the Herald Tribune of September 9, 1962, written by Malcolm Cowley, another Harvard Man. The brown newspaper cutting smells of vanilla. On page 13, where the review has lodged these 75 years, there is a ghostly imprint of the folded paper insert. The brown fades into page 12 and then disappears.

(will you teach a
wretch to live
straighter than a needle)

Thursday 16 July 2015

I've rarely read a book as fast as I read Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald. The Avon paperback with red-edged pages and cover text out of register, invited speed and derision; the short sentences and perpetual dialogue propelled a version of plot-driven impatience I'd forgotten about.

I'd seen the film the night before and was curious to see if it was as funny on the page or if it was born to be plundered. I found myself looking only for differences in the plot, locations, characters. Why is the name Underwood changed to Underhill in the film? or Nevada to Utah? Adultery to bigamy?

I must have bought it in the seventies or eighties during a trip to New York. My taste was more catholic then, and I was trying to understand America. Even cowgirls get the blues, for example, illuminated a road trip across America in 1980/1. Teach Yourself Irish and the autobiography of Sean O'Casey, Volume I, illuminated my early years in Ireland.

Fletch is less funny on the page than in the character played by Chevy Chase. Such is the wraparound nature of film, and the open nature of reading.

I read Fletch that day because I felt disinclined for most else. Dan and Alessandro were up in the field trampling dock around the new trees; I didn't feel like working on poems while they were doing that. They were doing the work and I felt tired. So I read Fletch and listened to Fidelio (talk about crossed lines) and I read it fast.

Friday 3 July 2015

I have always shied away from Primo Levi, whether for the chemistry that informed his profession (running a paint factory) or for the chemistry that informed his and my origins (jewish). I read a selection of his stories and found the language annoyingly subservient to the plot (I can get very impatient with plot, especially on a hot day), then began The Periodic Table, the Penguin edition festooned with praise from other jewish writers like Roth and Bellow, neither of whom attract me. I have enjoyed Oliver Sacks on the subject of his youth and chemistry, so why not this?

The Urstoff of Primo Levi is jewish, which I prefer with a small j, as with french, english, irish and arab. This is how far from Primo Levi I am. My father would have been closer. He liked Primo Levi. In fact he seized Primo Levi, as Saul Bellow seized the day and Philip Roth assumed a supremacy I find intolerable. If these characteristics are also mine I'd rather not know.

That is why I have always shied away from Primo Levi.

Saturday 20 June 2015

A woman on the Ryanair flight back from France was reading Chat magazine: dense cover, lots of red and yellow, dense chat pages featuring text as onslaught and pictures as dough, interspersed with puzzles. I remembered her as I was reading Simone Weil up at the pond today. I don't know if it's hilarious or normal, the encounter of Chat and an essay on the abolition of all political parties. Ryanair is on the side of Chat, that's for sure.

I brushed by Simone Weil a long time ago, when I was inherently allergic to anything that flew in the face of common sense. A crowd of siskins rising from a hayfield, yes. Any kind of god, no. It wasn't the difficulty of her writing. I'm good at reading books I don't understand. I can find a phrase here, a sentence there, an idea, a chord touched. More like how we choose to spend our thinking time.

An idea that turns the norm around is attractive. Political parties haven't taken up much of my energy. Truth, on the other hand, has. Honesty. Integrity. Always wrestling with something like that. So far as political parties, or party politics, are concerned, I have not been drawn. Even green politics, even the Monster Raving Loony Party.

I would like a woman whose life could be described as a life of deliberate foolishness, as Czeslaw Milosz said, I would like the truth she espoused, she lived and died for, Joan of Arc with language and sight, I would like her refusal to join or seek adherents. All this is music to my alien ears. I might be afraid of her, but it is a fellow-feeling.

Thursday 18 June 2015

I dreamed my diary was stolen from a blue bucket in which it lived, that I was ejected from a play directed by a friend, and lastly that, when I tried to take a shower to wash these woes away, as fast as I took off my clothes, the more they stuck to me, more and more of them, tighter and tighter. The sense of desolation lasted all day, even as we sat in the afternoon sun by the river Dordogne, with a few locals also sitting, swimming, fishing, watching willow fluff float downstream like sleeping flies. Travel all this way and there's always a moment by a river, quiet and calm, where you might be reading William Saroyan, even reading a section out loud, about wanting to be alive and not having any interruptions. I have relished William Saroyan many times, for his onward émigré voice and the way the history of humanity is there entire by the end of each story, and that's where it's been going all the time.

This is what I read out, from the story 'The little dog laughed to see such sport':
It is a private concern of mine. It is an altogether selfish concern of mine. I want to live while I am alive, that is all. I want at least to try. We have not yet been able to find out if it is possible for us really to live during all the seasons, all the changes of climate, all the stages of growth, each with its own fierce and magnificent problems, but we have the right to want to try. We don't really care if it kills us, just so we are allowed to try and are not interrupted by some irritating idiocy such as war which comes about through the same despair in duller men finding a different outlet. We want to go about it quietly, privately, without cannon booming, without oratory, without transportation, aviation, war tactics, abnormal pain, abnormal heroism, abnormal greatness. We want to go about it in some small part of the world we know, in which we have lived, and we want every part of this small landscape to be real to us, to become a part of us, and we want every God damn tree in the place, every patch of empty earth, every plant with leaves, every stream, every moment of sky, every hour light in the world, every ounce of pressure of air, every mouthful of food and water and wine, to mean something to us, to be a part of our seeking be alive immortally. We want to have the time it takes and we don't want any interruptions.

Monday 8 June 2015

It's great isn't it, said M to her friend R, it's so comfortable to slip back into all that with someone else, the guilt and all that awful stuff we love to hate. M looked at me. You weren't educated by the nuns were you, she said. No, I said, and I don't know what it is to slip back into all that, all anything, with someone else. I can't think who would give me that feeling, let alone a group, to say nothing of a tribe. I can't even understand the concept of that, said M, and she looked at me to see if she could find a useful concept somewhere on my face. If I slip into anything, I said, it's not with anyone, it's with books and music. That's what I need to slip into often. And it's not awful stuff I love to hate, it's wonderful stuff I love to love. We looked at each other briefly, pleased with having sorted out a warm, mutual, incomprehension.

Monday 1 June 2015

Now and then I buy a book on the strength of a review, often in The New Yorker. I enjoyed reading about Nell Zink, I liked the sound of her publisher called Dorothy. A review is a mild and orderly affair. Turning the pages of a book is bumpier, more savage.

You have to read The Wallcreeper fast, the way it was written, in about three weeks, we're not surprised to learn. The language is emotionless, a bit chilly and clipped, maybe defensive, often sardonic, funny in a diggy way, as if the world deserves all the stink it gets. Going from Henry James to this is asking for trouble. One all suggestion and the other nekked as the day we die.

One phrase from the review that stayed with me involved Nell Zink's life-raft being hailed by the container ship Franzen. I've read Franzen on birds but not Franzen. I liked Nell Zink better on the life-raft. There are so many writers on their life-rafts, writing diaries, studying birds, breaking riverbanks, scooting after fresh sex between one shore and another.

The eponymous wallcreeper has been lacerated by a hawk by page 55. What are we to think? Nonchalance is a great leveller. Or is it fever? When you write this fast you have plenty of hours in the day to count birds, learn birdcalls, flood old riparian woodland and covet your neighbouring eco activist. The eco actions themselves are about as much fun as a routine burglary, hardly a heist; little excitement builds around the next round of infidelity. At the end she surmises about the movie version.

I understand her attitude; maybe I don't like understanding her. I'm disconcerted by being able to understand her. Not everyone is asking for empathy. Not everyone has received it.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

The fireside opening, travellers gathered, an intimate narrator with a tale of an English country house, a mysterious, absent owner, a new governess, an old housekeeper, two ghosts, two angelic children, several unexplained deaths by 10pm as I like to say of italian tv: you can revel in the tropes as in creamy summer seas. At least for a while.

The Turn of the Screw by was Henry James' most popular book and his shortest, which is why, snob that I was, I thought when I first read it that it must be an aberration, an exercise in 'general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain'. The children's beauty, the English country house, the English country garden, all are flawed like the golden bowl, not a hairline crack, more of a gash, or many spectral gashes half-revealed. There is more atmosphere than plot, more anguish than causes.
No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see—what I don't fear!
Thus the governess. And one of her charges, the boy eventually admits that he was thrown out of school because he said things to a few people, the ones he liked.
Those he liked? I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?
The horror and the infamy that play about these two sunlit children and the two ghosts (of the previous governess and a valet) in whose power they seem to be held, anticipates the murky darkness of Freud, (The Turn of the Screw was first published in 1898), to say nothing of the lurid and graphic accounts of abuse and false memory to which we are now inured. We can't read it as a ghost story any more.

Not that Henry James knew what he was suggesting. Not exactly knew. (See Cynthia Ozick, What Henry James Knew). He is temperamentally and artistically inclined to leave things open, every motive uncertain, every outcome a maze of suggestion and unresolve. I used to love all that, and still do, when I want to be kind to a former self who grappled endlessly, obtusely with what could and couldn't be said.

Thursday 21 May 2015

My diary from May 1968 in Paris is a tremulous and speedy read, as if I don't recognize this person or recognize her too well and want to pass over as fast as possible, seizing a word here, an image there, a faintness of spirit, a sudden delirium. May 1968 is such a set piece. Revolution within and without. Can I bear it? The monkish handwriting in black ink with medium oblique nib, the curlicues and grace notes, the evasiveness, the embarrassment, the incomprehension. Do I still speak the language?

I read in The New Yorker about Nell Zink translating a friend's novel from Hebrew, a language she barely understood, and in the process writing a book that in no way resembled the original. The friend liked it so much he translated it back into Hebrew.

A reading, and another, and another, of a diary over many years is already a translation. A culinary reduction. Old words are altered by a new gaze; the original starts to break up; a phrase here and there has cracked clean in two.

Some of the things I felt unable to say in 1968 I was in fact saying; the sheer relief of writing obscured nearly everything, especially what I did with my days and what was going on around me. Words, as I wrote at 3 a.m. on Saturday the 23rd of March 1968, took away my voice.

I had to go teaching french literature in Ireland to get my voice back.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Today I Wrote Nothing, The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, was where I was going before I got ill. I like the fixed stare he has, the dangerous childish eyes, tight white collar, faintly prognathous thrust to the jaw. Something harrowing about his look, especially next to the red on the cover of this edition. No surprise that he died of starvation in a Russian prison in 1942.

It is a relief that writing like his is out there. Thunderbolts in the shape of pancakes. Tiny stories that defy you to find a meaning, and then punish you by lethargy if you do.


'Tumbling Old Women' is one story I keep going back to.
Because of her excessive curiosity, one old woman tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces. 
Is how it begins.
When the sixth old woman tumbled out of her window, I got sick of watching them and walked over the Maltsev Market where, they say, a blind man had been given a knit shawl.
Is how it ends.


By then, numbed and pleased, you're beyond the tumbling old women and with the blind man, then without him either. The non sequitur, the strangeness, the lack of resolution, leave you where a long strand of avant-garde art leaves you: a little emptier and freshly composed. Meaninglessness has a kind of peace.


Hard not to read into Daniil Kharms' intense and vehement gaze the physical vastitudes of Russia, the several climates, the uneasy look west and east, revolution, destitution, fairy tales gone wrong. Beyond the lands of Thrice Nine in the empire of Thrice Ten there lies not eternal life but the sane madness, or mad sanity, of Daniil Kharms.

I read Kharms to make my reality more visible, especially the parts that make me angry, like the destruction of landscape (I nearly wrote language), of habitat, creatures scurrying every which way, predators hovering. Writers who do this should have their own shelf.

Monday 11 May 2015

Inside the parenthesis of a streaming cold, I read Loving by Henry Green, all of it in one day, between naps. It's a downstairs tale in a big house in Ireland during World War Two, though you could say it's a tale only in its first and last lines: 'Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room', and, 'Over in England they were married and lived happily ever after'. What goes on in between is far more odd and poetic. Although narratives thread together – a lost sapphire ring, a dead peacock, a bit of fiddling of the books – downstairs life proceeds in the way of a confined society: formless when you're inside it, jumpy on the page. Aristocratic, or at least mandarin, economy of diction meets backstairs vernacular in a looping, wonky dance, everything truncated, as if abandoned in a rush: quick sparkles in the chandeliers, a waste of giggling behind housemaids' eyes, stolen peacock eggs preserved in waterglass. Henry Green (originally Yorke) was an aristocrat (his wife, the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, was known as Dig, which proves that she had to prove nothing to anyone) and a businessman (a factory inherited from his father) for whom people he met on the factory floor and as a soldier in the war offered the bottomless fascination of the Other as well as the key to the ordinary impulses of the Self.

Thursday 7 May 2015

I am an eclectic reader but science fiction is a step too far sideways, even though I have in the attic my brother's collection of science fiction books and magazines and for a period in my twenties I did read them, alongside Gödel Escher Bach and a lot of maths and philosophy I couldn't understand but which got me going in ways I didn't understand either. Who was I, poking around in other worlds achieved by knowledge not language? I was in danger of lift-off myself, with a head full of Mallarmé, Berlioz and the like.

I did like Blade Runner though, Harrison Ford in love with a replicant and endless rain in Chinatown, Darryl Hannah on the roof, Rutger Hauer biting heads off whippets. And in the nineteen eighties Philip K Dick was re-issued in paperback, including the non-science fiction novels. I bought Confessions of a Crap Artist.

It's a brother story, the eponymous crap artist is a brother who has a collection of rocks and electronics and a head full of unnatural ideas, such as regarding lamp posts as authority figures and believing his geometry teacher to be a rooster in a suit. He lost his job as a tyre re-groover because he stole a can of chocolate-covered ants from a supermarket.
When in exasperation – and fear– I had realised that his brain simply had a warp to it, that in distinguishing fact from fiction he chose fiction, and between good sense and foolishness he preferred foolishness. He could tell the difference – but he preferred the rubbish. 
This is the sister speaking.
This is the brother, the author.
I used to believe the universe was basically hostile. And that I was misplaced in it, I was different from it… I had a lot of fears that the universe would discover just how different I was from it… and its reaction would be normal: it would get me.  I didn't feel that it was malevolent, just perceptive. And there's nothing worse than a perceptive universe if there's something weird about you.
His clean, disconcerted paranoia slices through crass Californian human life like a kid on a bike in a mud patch. Information is the only escape, half an explanation of the weirdness and the effort, as well as an obscure warning: if all this is the case, then what?
Sunlight has weight. Every year the earth weighs tens thousand pounds more, because of the sunlight that reaches it from the sun. That fact has never left my mind, and the day I calculated that since I first learned the fact, in 1940, almost one million nine hundred thousand pounds of sunlight have fallen on the earth.
My preferred forms of weirdness are more claustrophobic (Kafka, Kharms, and other writers whose names begin with K), more abrupt and organic. But there are moments in Philip K Dick when I feel at one with his weirdness.
Every time there's a quake I ask myself: is this going to open up the crack in the ground that finally reveals the world inside? Will this be the one?

Saturday 2 May 2015

I went round several bookshops in Cork this morning, took their temperature, toyed with more Edith Pearlman or Lorrie Moore or Jane Gardam, Ovid or Catullus ( I love you and I hate you such a good title), or Mozart's letters to his father; and bought nothing.

At home I considered the longterm book selection at the back of my desk: Cacti and Succulents, the The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Perfect Egg by Aldo Buzzi, Reflections and Shadows by Saul Steinberg, Heraclitus' Fragments, The Street of Crocodiles played by Théâtre de Complicité, Tent Pegs by Henri Michaux, Traité du funambulisme by Philippe Petit, What a life! by E.V.L & G.M., and The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Bioy was a friend of Borges in Buenos Aires. Robbe-Grillet found the seeds of Last Year at Marienbad in The Invention of Morel. Which in its turn leaned on The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells which I haven't read or do not remember. Bioy and Borges venerated HG Wells and GK Chesterton and RL Stevenson. From their libraries and drawing rooms in Buenos Aires, they invented elegant tales whose wistfulness strikes you later, after you've put down the book then picked it up next day to re-read as a local rather than as a tourist.

The Invention of Morel derives from the genres of mystery, romance and adventure, but the after-effect is of emotional tectonic plates shifting: a hunted and haunted man on an island off India, a museum which is more like a hotel or a sanatorium, people who are there and not there, plants inimical to life, mosquitos that bite, sour marshes, two suns in the sky, two moons, two books, not copies but the same book twice, a confusion of tides, figments, projections, time-planes, appearances and disappearances, words shouted and not heard or maybe ignored.
I have been thinking about all this for a long time, so now I was quite tired, and I continued less logically: I was not dead until the intruders arrived; when one is alone it is impossible to be dead.
Bioy and Borges have the gentlemanly tone of the earlier English writers they admire: unseated but correct, they get to dream through reason, and don't get out again. Who is dead and who is present and to what extent, if any, when, if ever, is the puzzle you need as you read.

There are illustrations by Borges' sister Norah of stylised crosshatched young women and men outside a house, by the sea, with two suns and at the end with one. The drawings alone stand still in the book. The narrative is vertiginous.

Morel's invention is a kind of camera that even Apple has not produced – yet – that plays pieces of reality over and over again. This is how dead and disturbing eternity can be.
"To make living reproductions, I need living transmitters. I do not create life.
"The thing that is latent in a phonograph record, the thing that is revealed when I press a button and turn on the machine – shouldn't we call that 'life'? Shall I insist, like the mandarins of China, that every life depends on a button which an unknown being can press?

Monday 27 April 2015

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, in two very old Penguin editions (1949 and 1954), feel brittle up at the pond in this nearly harsh sunlight. Handle with care. Do not leave out in the sun. Cover with socks when unattended.

Nancy Mitford is a soufflé after the sorbet (lemon) of Fay Weldon; her creatures think of themselves as the lost generation, islanded in wealth and wilfulness between the wars. Fay Weldon's middle class women after the war have au pairs instead of nannies and accept being put upon as a second career. Plus ça change.

Nancy Mitford's narrator Fanny confesses that she never thought about whether she enjoyed coming out, it was just what you had to do.
Girls had to come out, I knew. It is a stage in their existence just as the public school is for boys, which must be passed before life, real life, could begin.
It was like going to a play in a foreign language, she said, going to dances. She hoped one day she'd see the point but she never did.

She could see the point of meeting in the airing cupboard at the top of the house (the only warm place) where the young Hons confide and explicate the day's main stories, shrieking and exclaiming in the half-light. Imagine. No one is solitary, unless seriously grumpy or so Counter-Hon as to be without substance.

The boys are barely visible (sent to the wrong House at Eton), and the men without speech, only assets, abilities and quiet charm. Or noisy effete charm, in the case of Cedric the confounding relative from Nova Scotia who saves the day in Love in a cold climate.

Defiant yet compliant women chatter on in their own language without let or hindrance, as did Madame de Sévigné in letters to her daughter. (Nancy Mitford must have read Madame de Sévigné; her education was restricted to french and riding and reading). In the lives they tell there's plenty of let and not a little hindrance. Their triumphs are in their intimacies with their female friends, or, failing that, with dogs, horses, bats, voles and chubb, which, chez Nancy Mitford, in deep winter are fuddled by a Chubb Fuddler.

Love is mostly longed-for and unsuitable, then later transmutes soundlessly into something even less likely; babies die conveniently, or are brought up by someone else; wives die conveniently too; men are more often ill than women but they live long enough to change their will and even their opinion of sewers and foreigners. In a closed society, the structure is always there, an aunt or a nanny will do instead of a mother, and a dog or a horse instead of a lover. If you can't say it in English you can say it in eggy-peggy.

Something strange happens when you read about the time before you were born and when you were young. Nella Last's diary for Mass Observation during and after World War 2 made me feel almost present at my own birth. The upper class Nancy Mitford, and the middle class Fay Weldon define my own experience by having nothing to do with it.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Fay Weldon is a dose. I read her novels when I was thirty-something and ready for someone else's template: none of your literature, more of a nosedive into worlds I had somehow avoided, yet not. Praxis (bold as love). Puffball. Female Friends. I have eight novels by Fay Weldon, along with exemplars by Erica Jong, Fran Lebowitz, Lisa Alther, Marilyn French, plus The Female Eunuch and Our Bodies Ourselves, part of the motley on the bedroom bookshelves that includes William books, PG Wodehouse, Dornford Yates and a small irish section representing my attempt to get to know the country I moved to: Teach yourself irish, The Tailor and Ansty, Frank O'Connor.

From among these women, those antiquities and these irish, my dream channel is nourished. Every time I translate any of it into everyday life I have a feeling of perfidy. On the bedroom bookshelves books are more insistently historical than anywhere else, more insistently books.

In Ireland in the early nineteen-seventies women had to leave civil service jobs when they married. Feminist writers looked more obvious a choice than ever before, easier in a new country, and a boost I might need as well as a test of nascent teaching skills. I could try out some female eunuch thinking on a farmer's wife, or the carpenter, a former priest, who came to put in an attic window. I only like to talk politics if it's a private performance.

Otherwise I'd rather work in the garden. Silent politics. Apart from the birds. Check the trees, the tadpoles. Plant a Himalayan lily in as much leaf mould as I can find. Re-read Fear of flying in the afternoon. The book seemed very eager this time, very earnest and rather bedraggled. Pond warblers and water boatmen whizzed straight through.

Sunday 19 April 2015

The neighbours are painting their house (again), in search of complete cleanliness and renewal, not to say purge, for the time being.

I'm reading The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. 'Today, the fifth of November, I shall begin my report,' she says on line one. This is what you do when you're the last person in the world, just in case you're not the last, or not for ever.

The neighbours have chosen a colour very similar to the one they chose two years ago, close to the colour of a buff envelope; they tried several untidy swatches on the front to make it look as if it needed doing.

In addition to writing the report, the woman keeps a diary, tightening and containing the days, with inexplicable lacunae. For example, she never writes about killing deer, she tells us. The report covers two years in a forest with a dog, a cat and a cow, then kittens and a calf, milking the cow, mucking her out, catching trout, making hay, feeding deer in winter and eating them as necessary.

The neighbours are doing what they're doing. I'm saying what a woman in a book is doing and how she chooses what to say, on her own in the forest, with the rest of the world stopped in its tracks beyond a transparent wall. An ordinary woman, nameless, middle-aged, not very good at carpentry, didn't know she had hands until she was forty. She doesn't dwell on her situation; too much to do. The report covers two years in the forest and takes her four months to write; she stops when she runs out of paper.

After ten pages I forgot the premise of the book, and the neighbours needlessly painting their house. A woman in a hunting lodge in a forest, spared the frozen, stone-like death of the rest of the world, is more pressing and more vulnerable than most of us. This is an end-story of the 1960s, which I'm somehow bound to understand.

Not Thoreau, not Robinson Crusoe, not JG Ballard, not Beckett. Not any of these. The woman is a thin skin covering a mountain of memories, she says. Her dog Lynx looks after her as much as she looks after him. Even after his death, which colours the report long before it's happened, he's there with her, like her, hungry and yearning, following invisible trails.

In a line here, an image there, the reporter falters and the page slips into the minor key. Not for long.  This is not a reflective book. It moves through tasks and events, neither exasperated nor happy. All the reflection is yours; afterwards you look anew at a wheelbarrow, a woodpile, a greenhouse, a loaf of bread you've made, your own cats and hens, the gentleness, sometimes, when the rest of the world is there, repainting the house, maybe, or washing the car.

The end of the book startled me; I would have been happy without an ending, without the rest of the world in any shape or form. I would have been happy with just the prospect of further and maybe reduced life in the forest, which is there too, in the final pages.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

William books by Richmal Crompton, who is a woman, won out over Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, who is not a woman, in an unfamiliar room in Bristol with a bookshelf filled by a departed daughter.

A William book is a good bet for sleep in unfamiliar rooms. All the language is used up, there's nothing left over, this is all there is, once you've read it you've consumed it, each chapter leaves you épuisée, that is, ready for sleep. The drawings by Thomas Henry show a scowling boy – even his socks look defiant – who is waiting for the freedom that is surely his and already yours. The childhood you can read now, on this fluent chalky paper, rather than the one you had, should take care of your dreams.

I first read William as an adult, ill in bed. As a child I was too much of a snob for William's chopped-off English, his grubby adventures; I was already moving towards the middle of the library where the foreign section was. Swallows and Amazons I also came to as an adult. Less snobbery than discomfort, here, what with homemade tents and a girl called Titty. What to do with these? It was the foreign section all over again: English life and camaraderie in the mudflats of East Anglia, where, as it happened, I grew up. Swallows and Amazons forever.

I didn't experience camaraderie in the mudflats, I experienced solitude.

Swallows and Amazons are 1930s. William is a boy of the 1920s. I was a girl of the 1950s. There we all are in our towns, our woods, our boats, our mudflats, our languages. William's joys and woes are in Richmal Crompton's language. By the end of each chapter William has escaped, from her language as from his family, he has nothing more to say, he's gone down the road with Jumble his dog and a new whistle he finally learned how to make.

I dreamed, those nights in the unfamiliar room, as it turned out, of a black mongrel dog swimming underwater comme si de rien n'était, and then, the night before I left, of an airport that turned into a hospital where, having missed the plane I was tested, I was mad, thick noise came out of my mouth. The hens will need feeding, I was trying to say.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

In the sun, late in the day, up at the pond, idling about in Tender Buttons. I'd forgotten how persistent Gertrude Stein is, how elegant and recalcitrant. Her buttons are inscrutable, their tenderness elusive. You've no idea why they fasten together like this, but with the sun on her Objects Food and Rooms, you wish her bonne route. If she sees things this way, if this puts a shine on her breakfast, bless her.

I can stay with tender buttons only about ten minutes at a time, then I need to close my eyes and open them to water boatmen pursuing their own ends in the pond.

Monday 6 April 2015

A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family by Peter Dimock

I wanted to read this again because I'm looking for a form of speech, a persuasive tone for a letter I have to write but have no idea how to begin. If you set up the conditions for something to be said, if you assemble your examples and your images, establish your tone and explain why you are writing, by the end of the book it is said: a father's pernicious involvement in the Vietnam war as security advisor, his elder son who did the right thing, and more, the younger son's resistance and now his bequest to two boys, one his nephew, who may, when they are old enough to comprehend what sort of family they belong to, want to leave it.

By the end of the book you have a sense of the material in hand; though the structures of rhetoric and the injunctions to practise it, you feel the writer's unequivocal horror. If you then watch The Deer Hunter, the horror increases.

I want to write a letter to persuade a man to sell me a field in order that I might rescue it from agriculture and plant trees in it.  There is no comparison.  I left the family a long time ago. No horror, or none that is visible to the naked eye. Or maybe there is. Rhetoric does not discriminate. Agriculture does. And war. And justice.
In some careful, pleasured tone, practice the art of direct address, taking full advantage of the vocative. Above all, do not be embarrassed or reluctant to use it for your own enjoyment.
Rhetoric involves flying kites in clear blue air and the idea of it afterwards. You're going to love it.

Thursday 2 April 2015

Embers by Sándor Márai
A single breath tale for a day like today, with a poor night's sleep behind me, and strong gusts from the northwest pushing rain sideways across windows the way it is pushed upwards on the windows of a plane. Embers is the right thing to read and yet comfortless: the old General in his castle who has waited forty-one years to ask the friend of his youth two questions that, in the event, his friend chooses not to answer, and, in truth, does not need to answer.

I wish the main voice were not that of a General, and yet, for the balance of the tale and the era in which it takes place – the first half of the twentieth century – it has to be the voice of a General, or some such privileged person smack in the middle of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I also wish he didn't have to be in a castle in the middle of a forest with a couple of faithful retainers, though usually the middle of a forest would seem a fine place to be.

Sometimes the raw sad things a novel strives to say look absurdly simple, or maybe this is my insomnia speaking. We seek our twin who turns out to be our opposite, to be Other, that is, in this book, musical rather than military, and then we wait for death. There is no satisfactory conclusion, only the onward flow of language, the understanding now and then that for some creatures the only way emotion can emerge is over very many years and between the rules of engagement.

Monday 30 March 2015

The faces you see as you read Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger are yours to choose. As is the cat called Bloomberg. I would like Michelle Williams as Franny and someone between Billy Crudup and Jake Gyllenhall as Zooey. Neither of our cats would do as Bloomberg.

As I read I see another Michele, who likes J.D. Salinger and looks like an Audrey Hepburn for whom life was and is a great deal more perilous than anyone would want. She talks like Franny, smokes like Franny, sleeps and doesn't eat like Franny; and she has a Mercy tattoo on her wrist. I can imagine her in the Underground – she lives in London – looking at her boyfriend and momentarily seeing him, as Franny sees her boyfriend, as an ad she's staring at on the other side of the carriage.

Franny gets about forty pages, Zooey more like a hundred and forty, though many of these involve the existential crisis of Franny, who, like Phoebe for Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, guarantees Zooey even as he tries to sort her out. Smoking guarantees everyone in the Glass family, even the two who are dead. It helps to read The Cloud of Unknowing in a cloud of smoke.

Franny's boyfriend cuts into frogs legs while Franny ponders Mercy and how it doesn't have to mean Mercy, and exhales. Saw the Anton Corbijn film yesterday about Ian Curtis of Joy Division. In an early scene in his teenage bedroom he tells a visitor who has refused a cigarette that everyone who comes into this room has to smoke.

Enter Zooey, smoking. Enter Buddy. Enter Bessie, the mother. Several Glass family members who mutter on in grouchy clever family ways. This is the sound of a family. This is the Salinger Fascination. This muttering on and the small advances, the latest difficult rescue of the imminently dead by the catcher in the rye.

Much of the Zooey volume takes place in the bath where he is reading a letter from his older brother Buddy, pages of it, as well as fielding questions from his mother Bessie, and smoking. Mrs Glass is also smoking, sometimes several at once. Franny is on the sofa refusing chicken soup and crying for Seymour who killed himself, if she isn't asleep. The last part of Zooey's tale takes place on the phone, talking into a void that Franny fully occupies.

All these articulate, troubled, sometimes dead Glass children, seven of them, these everyday rituals, like bathing or shaving or talking or finally accepting chicken soup, into which you can pile so much and so much. You will always disagree, you hope for mercy, you field anxiety, re-lather where you must shave again.

Mercy is about right. Though, now that I think about it, before I knew Michele I didn't know Mercy either. If I do now. Without the tattoo.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

The need to read.

Age 14 I was going to the library every day. It was in an old church in the middle of a small town, with a venerable holm oak outside. You went in through the church porch, soft stone unreconstructed.

The girl by the window in DLR Lexicon, the new library in Dun Laoghaire, architectural event between the Marine Hotel and the sea, needs to read: Jane Austen. A woman on the train was reading Murder at Pemberley. Here's a man who has just finished a PhD on Duchamp. He leans up and down the book stall we are tending. What would you recommend? he asks. How to write round things. Another who works in the legal business and esteems Séan ó Riordáin. What would I recommend for his bedtime reading? Local. I live on the hill where Séan ó Riordáin lived; many times I saw him outside his house gazing westward. Should have guessed he was a poet.

My bedtime reading at the moment is Edith Pearlman. She has knocked open the dream channel. In the morning I can remember neither my several wild dreams nor the story I read.

Monday 23 March 2015

Whenever I want something ticklish, plotless, full of words I don't know and situations I've yet to experience, I read Guy Davenport. In his stories, his multiple sunlit stories/essays/poems, you could be living in a jar with a dead bee, attending the birth of photography in Toledo, driving down the boulevard Raspail with Gertrude Stein, walking on a mountainside with Robert Walser, riding Da Vinci's bike through the twentieth century, bathing in all Guy Davenport has read. And he has read vastly. Giddily. Making connections and abruptly severing them with the intelligence and imagination of the twelve-year-old boy he'd like to be, climbing trees, nudging and nipping. He disports himself in his knowledge, apricates in his reading.

As, in their turn, do his readers. Read a few pages and then pause. Especially outdoors. Read a paragraph and stop. I like reading words I don't know, or might have known once but have forgotten, and enjoy guessing, or just reading for the sound and the rhythm. I like not knowing where I am in what I read. That makes me an odd reader but I like that too.

In my various volumes of Guy Davenport's writing, I found only one pencil mark in the margin, a circle, indicating particular pleasure, in the Walser story A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg:
… if you stare through a window into a snowfall the room will rise and snow stand still …
I think I may have used that in a story. And the title of his essay collection Every Force Evolves a Form has entered the vernacular in this house, a great encouragement when the force is with you but the form has not yet arrived.

I interviewed Guy Davenport by correspondence for a book on teaching literature. He taught as if that were the only thing he did, he said. Which in a way it was. And he wrote as if writing were the only thing he did. As if all he'd read were continually present in his head. He found my Irish address improbable and insufficient. Which it is.

Saturday 14 March 2015

First time this year sitting up at the pond, blissfully warm, listening to the play of water trickling, and a bird or two, staring at lightly rippled reflections and not quite reading Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald which I started again yesterday. Now and then glance at the cover of the book next to me, with its image of a little boy dressed in white like a creature out of time; then look at the pond with Sebald-like attention and dreaminess, the way you watch a film about Pina Bausch, and afterwards, even without moving, you're convinced that you can walk, leap and collapse like Pina Bausch and her dancers.

How does the impermanence, the melancholy of Austerlitz inhabit the home pond: water boatmen in the salle des pas perdus, towns unaccountably empty if not bereaved, memories that will not, will, will not enter the mind they vacated many years before; the ghostly-uncanny of Prague in the 1930s, the sorrow of Belgium, the chill of Wales, the sooty subterranean of Liverpool Street Station, the skulls of Bedlam, the silence of Terezín?

A small brown beetle I don't recognise swims my way. By the time it reaches the edge and disappears behind a stone, I know what it is: a Sebald beetle.

Like Awakenings, Austerlitz is far from plot, more like a state of being, a quest in danger of arrest if not paralysis. No grinding machinery here, only aftermath and disquiet. No characters. So to speak. Sebald often says that. So to speak. So is a weightier word in German than in English. Flatter yet more resonant or differently resonant, differently interrogatory:
Vera said that every time we reached the page which described the snow falling through the branches of the trees, soon to shroud the entire forest floor, I would look up at her and ask: But if it's all white, how do the squirrels know where they've buried their hoard? Ale když všechno zakryje sníh, jak veverky najdou to místo, kde si schovaly zásoby? Those were your very words, the question which constantly troubled you. How indeed do the squirrels know, what do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Dipped about in Thomas Browne Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall on a very windy day. Oliver Sacks read Thomas Browne. So did W.G. Sebald. I dip about. Preferably outdoors but March isn't quite the season.

The darknesses of all reading are more pronounced when the spelling is unfamiliar. 'The line of our dayes is drawne by night, and the various effects therein by a pencil that is invisible.'

Isn't that what we need to read in early to mid-March when large issues stalk the planet and we mouth through them in disbelief?

Thomas Browne was a Norfolk doctor in the seventeenth century. Burial Urns were discovered at Walsingham in that county. My parents' ashes are part of that county. Or they washed through it in the River Bure, having travelled in their actual and imaginative lives the Volga the Thames and the (Essex) Blackwater.
We are onely that amphibious piece betweene a corporall and spirituall essence, that middle frame that linkes those two together, and makes good the method of God and nature.
Pity it isn't spelled Godd, at least.

Monday 9 March 2015

Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

Next door to our room last night at the Absolute Hotel a course called Introductory Mindfulness was in progress. At Limerick Junction, on the way home, a woman up the platform was reading If I die.

I was reading Awakenings and the stationmaster was reading the paper. My neighbour praised the stonework of the building opposite, the one that is perforated in mysterious ways, either by bullets or decay. The train was late but I didn't mind; I was deep in the strangest lives it's possible to read.

Twenty case studies of Oliver Sacks' patients at a hospital in the Bronx in the late sixties and early seventies, who, some for as long as forty years, had been fixed in severe Parkinsonism after an attack of sleepy sickness, in the era of epidemics towards the end of World War One.

Then along comes a new drug at the end of the 1960s, L-DOPA, that wakes them up, often explosively. Suddenly there they after forty years in their own reality. One patient wanted to return to 1926. The lost forty years were absurd, unbearable. You don't always want a miracle. You want ordinariness. Cobbling shoes or playing the piano. Walking into the garden and sitting talking with your sister.

The language that you meet chez Oliver Sacks is as strange as his patients' lives, but if you skate over the words you don't know, if you don't anguish over the meaning of erethism or oculogyric crisis, their humanity is ours too, at railway and all other junctions. What is illimitable and insatiable, (Oliver Sacks likes italics), either too fast or frozen, what is immeasurable in their experience is ours too. Our lives as collections of moments without time and change without transit, like quantum mechanics. A lifetime burning in every moment, as Eliot says.
The state is there, and it cannot be changed. From gross still vision, patients may proceed to an astonishing sort of microscopic vision or Lilliputian hallucination in which they may see a dust-particle on the counterpane filling their entire visual field, and presented as a mosaic of sharp-faceted faces.
In her halcyon days on L-DOPA, Gertie L. was in a state of 'great inner stillness' and of 'acquiescence'.
'My mind was like a still pool reflecting itself.' She would spend hours and days and even weeks reliving peaceful scenes from her own childhood – lying in the sun, drowsing in a meadow, or floating in a creek near her home as a child; these Arcadian moments could apparently be extended, indefinitely, by the still and intent quality of her thought.
Rose R. had a repertoire of means of thinking about nothing.
One way is to think about the same thing again and again. Like 2=2=2=2; or, I am what I am what I am what I am. It's the same thing with posture. My posture continually leads to itself. Whatever I do or whatever I think leads deeper and deeper into itself.
Frances D. thought up ways to negotiate space.
It's not as simple as it looks. I don't just come to a halt, I am still going, but I have run out of space to move in… You see, my space, our space, is nothing like your space: our space gets bigger and smaller, it bounces back on itself, and it loops itself round till it runs into itself.
How to stay alive and human in a Total Institution. Rolando P. is at the end of his tether.
'Can't you fuckers leave me alone? What's the sense in all your fucking tests? Don't you have eyes and ears in my head? Can't you see I'm dying of grief? For Chrissake let me die in peace!' These were the last words which Rolando ever spoke. He died in his sleep, or his stupor, just four days later.
When to get out.

Every afternoon after lunch Leonard L. lay down on his bed and hallucinated into the frame of a picture of a shanty town from a Western movie. He ordered the painting for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it. Creating reality. 'They hallucinate the richness and drama and fulness of life. They hallucinate to survive'.

Imagine knowing your crisis comes every week on a Wednesday, and being able now and again to delay it till Thursday; drinking five or six gallons of water a day; planning your route to bed, Now! Deciding to die. Being utterly still yet perpetually moving, in an ontological orbit contracted to zero, like Hester Y., or, like Robert O., have thoughts suddenly vanish in the middle of a sentence, drop out and leave a space like a frame without a picture.

As much as Proust or Virginia Woolf or TS Eliot or Beckett or Rilke. Read Awakenings.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

What do you read while an old sycamore tree is being reduced (by something less than a third) outside the window? What tale can keep you from staring at at the high vis young tree surgeon up among the smaller branches with two chainsaws and a Japanese knife hanging round his waist and the wind strengthening?

The tale of Little Joe Gould, that's who, bohemian, bum, down and out in thirties and forties New York, Yankee crank with a Harvard accent, the Professor, the Sea Gull, Professor Sea Gull, the Mongoose, Professor Mongoose, or the Bellevue Boy, who has been writing for many years an Oral History, already the length of eleven Bibles, in longhand, and has stowed the copy books around New York and environs, in cupboards, behind bars, under hen roosts.

Like Little Joey Block, our onetime neighbour, who felled a few trees in his day, and told a few tales. 'How I got here, now that's a fairy tale'. He wrote poetry, in quantity, and read it out at the drop of a hat.

The only sections of the Joe Gould's Oral History (of Our Times) that Joseph Mitchell gets to see are essay chapters rather than oral chapters, he is told, about Joe Gould's father, and his mother, about the eugenics of two Indian tribes, the importance of tomato ketchup, and translations of Longfellow into the language of the seagull. (Apparently 'Hiawatha' works better in seagull.)

He does not get see the oral chapters. That's because the Oral History of Our Times is enacted, not written. Little Joe Gould, in bars, flophouses and hospitals, through the agency of Joseph Mitchell, brings it into being. To each, an amanuensis. Whether or not we write our oeuvre is ours to judge.

Sunday 1 March 2015

In natural sequence you'd read Jane Eyre next, watch the Orson Welles film and wonder what Jean Rhys thought of Rochester as romantic hero and the mad wife in the tower as part of his nobility.

Instead, by who knows what osmosis: The Rector's Daughter by F. M. Mayor.

A page or two in, the Rector's daughter wishes she hadn't been born. There she is in a purposefully featureless place called Dedmayne in a flat eastern county of England, in charge of her imbecilic (sic) sister and her learned autocratic father. The brothers have all moved away. The mother is dead. 'Life hath a load which must be carried on. And safely may.'

Does it have to be like this?

The Rector is a Canon with a Library and low tolerance for anyone who hasn't read it. Occasionally he consents to 'a happy day', with lunch, a leisurely afternoon, and tea to follow. Did his daughter read Jane Eyre, when she wasn't improving with Bacon's essays or transcribing Tertullian for her father, or was Trollope her only consolation? The sister dies and then there's just the Rector, his daughter, and Cook, and the village. Much revolves around walking, reading aloud, and tea.

Did Beckett draw on 'a happy day', with tea to follow?

'There's something beyond us in the wind and clouds, I never feel heaven can be at all like July,' says the Rector's daughter in her one burst of freedom with Mr Herbert, who goes on to marry someone else. After her father dies she moves to a suburb with an aunt, where 'perhaps she lost some of that individuality, that unlikeness to the ordinary world which had given her a kind of gauche, innocent charm'.

The Rector's daughter dies in the 'flu epidemic, like James Salter's mother. 'How long it was after her father's death depends on how one judges of time.' After a brief spell of being more like other people, she was glad she didn't have to do another forty years.

Heaven isn't like July, it's a wintry burst of light, a collection of poems the Rector's daughter wrote from which 'something emerges occasionally – an odd cry from the heart, or whatever there is beyond the heart, and one feels she's curiously complete'.

Jean Rhys and F. M. Mayor, elephants in a different dark room in Paris and Cambridge in the 1920s. Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams and Flora Macdonald Mayor. People say a great deal about connectivity and the like. Tossing your reading around, is how I'd say it. The books you've read are there to be played. The Library as Keyboard. The Music of Time and how one may judge it. A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

After Ford Madox Ford, Jean Rhys, Quartet, which is about the ménage she shared in Paris with F. M. F. and Stella Bowen. After you read Quartet, F.M.F. is no longer the narrator in The Good Soldier, he is the gentleman philanderer, Edward Ashburnham, who maybe doesn't love women at all, and Stella Bowen is his wife, the clean-run Leonora, who sets him up.

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in Dominica, came to England aged nearly seventeen. England was never England as she'd imagined, it was just another set of lies. No wonder she decided to study drama, where at least lies were de quoi vivre, even a métier. As Ella or sometimes Emma, or Petronella, she was cast adrift, often ill, always poor, easily led, either beholden or in despair.

Among the characters of The Good Soldier she would fall somewhere between Maisie Maidan on the boat back from India, and Nancy the convent girl who by the end of the novel is mad, with touches of the Russian Grand Duke's concubine and an uncertain taste in hats. In Wide Sargasso Sea, her prequel to Jane Eyre, she conflated all of them in Antoinette/Bertha/the first Mrs Rochester, madwoman in the attic: her story.

Ford Madox Ford named her Jean Rhys (he changed his own name, changing hers was part of his predatory move). He opened doors for her, made her a writer. Other doors he closed. He gave her shelter but he ate her alive. There's a fine line between people doing things for you and people controlling you while their wives or procuresses listen outside doors and sneer.

Jean Rhys must have read The Good Soldier or the Saddest Story Ever Told. Did the upright Englishness of Edward Ashburnham fool her for a while? Wouldn't she have been warned? Did she suspect the affectless American narrator? Was she seduced by the conversational intimacies, the wave upon wave of language, The Good Soldier as Venus flytrap, consuming the susceptible? Or did she just feel completely inadequate?

Jean Rhys's main characters are all women alone, looking for safety in bars and hotels, uncertainly dressed, pulled this way, pushed that, drawn to the ideal of the English gentleman, the physical type anyway, of the successful pretender, like Ford Madox Ford, with his clean-run, scornful wife Leonora, or Stella.

Jean Rhys is not a pretty writer. The reader must scuttle and wilt and watch, full of pity, confusion or revulsion at the seediness of it all. This is not a gathering of uncertain hearts at a German spa, it's the transit lounge of 1920s Paris, where there are no good soldiers, only international vagrants, petty thieves and gigolos.

Jean Rhys's novels are The Saddest Story. Ford Madox Ford knew nothing of sadness.

Saturday 21 February 2015

The Good Soldier or The Saddest Story Ever Told by Ford Madox Ford was described by one of the author's friends as the finest French novel in the English language. Discuss. Or write the author a letter, as I used to say to students.

My dear F.M.F.,

Hard to know where the Good is, or the Saddest in your story. You are disingenuous, Sir. Un faux modeste. Faux croyant. Neither Good nor Saddest. Fractal, perhaps. This is not a story you heard, it's a story in which you were embroiled. You trip over yourself, recount from so many angles there is no more solid ground, let alone a minuet, while appearing to be a colourless, wealthy American telling this complicated tale to a stranger in an inn near the sea. Uncertainty is the key, constant undermining and recovery, as in much of life, which is why your book is such a seductive read. The sort of giddy subtlety you no longer find in the newspapers. You make a meal of not knowing how to tell your tale, lurid as it essentially is, dashing back and forth from one point of view to another, none of them – least of all yours – reliable; you share your frailty with your listener/reader, as if that let you off a lot of hooks, then resume the tale with an old world politesse. 'Did Florence commit suicide? I didn't know.' There's a great deal of slippage and unease. Fissures open every other line. You, our narrator disperse among the uncertainties as if you had no say in the matter. All this smacks of French difficulty or exception, a tricky relation between novel and reader, novel and writer, life and the telling. If you don't seek clarity you'll find it, weaving between events and their resolution, which is usually death and in one instance, madness. What is one to think of humanity?

Your J.K.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Buy Music for Chameleons and read Handcarved Coffins, a friend urged in Chicago in 1981, during a year of making friends and influencing nothing (that I knew of yet). That was my introduction to Truman Capote. Then I read In Cold Blood, then other semi-fictions, later The Complete Stories, and lastly saw the film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who acted Capote perhaps as well as Capote himself.

Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons. He'd been trying to get the world into a book since he was eleven. Now and then he succeeds, and it brings balm in the vast unsatisfactions of his life. The novel Answered Prayers was to be his Proust but, despite his telling everyone about the mountainous manuscript on his desk, it was barely begun when he died.

Some of his Proust he had already written, like the story about making Christmas cakes with his version of Proust's grandmother, a much older cousin everyone called Miss Sook, and her rat terrier Queenie. Or maybe, across his stories, and fiction/nonfiction, he'd already written all of it.

You may want to dislike some of his characters but they're disarming and vanish without trace. He gives them enormous attention: their eyes their legs their hair their mouths; they often have his own short body. You can feel him slough it off with a fine-turned sentence, a well-wrought tale.
He would tell Anna these stories, go home and go to sleep. His dreams were clear blue.
You can't quite feel for him; he won't let you; but you have to admire his gall. And your dreams will be clear blue too.
At this moment the telephone rang. And rang. And it was ringing so loud he was sure all the hotel could hear. An army would be pounding at his door. So he pushed his face into the pillow, covered his ears with his hands, and thought: Think of nothing things, think of wind.

Monday 16 February 2015

So long, See you tomorrow by William Maxwell

The title hangs in the air. The ordinary is suddenly perilous, again. 'Whether they are part of home or home is part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer.'

I've read this novel about seven times, twice in the last two days, and each time I find new places to pause, new ways to read. A crime of passion in rural Illinois in the early 1920s is not a narrative whose summary would draw me in. But this is less about crime than the friendship of two boys, stopped in its fragile tracks, and the attempt of one of them, now a man in his sixties, to make amends. 'If I knew where Cletus Smith is right this minute, I would go and explain. Or try to.'

He circles the story, intricate as it becomes, more well-intended, then despairing. What the preacher should say. What the farm dog would say. What justice ever is. 'In any case, talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.' He tries one then another point of view, each choice, each change making it a lie each time.

'In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead. '

Circling till you tire and you have only the loss and the humanity left. You hope your friend is 'undestroyed by what was not his doing.' That is what you've tried to say, though now, as then, you fail to know how to understand, or weep, or make amends.

'Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.'

One of the astonishments of reading is how completely, especially on winter afternoons, you can inhabit another's mind, then move on with your day, go check the new frogspawn in the pond, and apparently forget, but not.

Thursday 12 February 2015

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

The Pillow Book is not by Sei Shōnagon, it's of her. The notebooks in which she wrote were surplus to requirements at the Imperial Court of tenth century Japan, where she was a lady-in-waiting. Let me make them into a pillow said Shōnagon to the Empress. She wrote her days then slept on them, dreamlessly. A report from a thousand years ago is already a dream. What delights her, what bores her, what is unsuitable or squalid or makes the heart race, today's main stories in the Imperial Court, colour schemes according to season, rendezvous manqués and bedroom etiquette, the sound of a distant flute and how it differs from a flute nearby.

To read The Pillow Book is to re-do your day.

Today's main stories here on the hill in early 2015 are the first frogspawn, the weather turning round to the west, new pruning knife ordered. Encouraging Things: talking to Pat in the farm shop, Mary bagging fondant for the bees, the broad bean bed turned and planted. Delightful Sensations: pulling several feet of pristine bindweed root out of black leaf mould, smelling a sack of newly-dug artichokes. Things that give a poignant feeling: the wind in silhouetted trees in the evening, Mozart about to turn to the minor key.