Tuesday 27 January 2015

Ivy and Stevie by Kay Dick
Novel on yellow paper by Stevie Smith

Re-immersing in Stevie Smith after a day in the wood is un plaisir de choix, loamish and endless, a patois of leaf mould and rabbits: life is enemy territory, you know. Stevie in interview is like Stevie on her own pages: wilful, willing, honest, integral as a stick of Brighton rock.

Stevie Smith was too diffuse when I was 20 something, too easy yet obscure, a forward-looking girl who doesn't stay where she is.
That's on days when I am one big bounce, and have to go careful then not to be a nuisance. But later I get back to my own philosophical outlook that keeps us all kissable. 
My mother said I might enjoy German lieder when I was older, and she was right. Around the same time Stevie Smith came back into view, and I read Novel on yellow paper every few years after that, the way you revisit a bay where you swam as a child, though you didn't know it then, that you were a child, or what swimming was, or that later you'd remember swimming here, running down at low tide and then swimming, whatever swimming was, through seaweed, jellyfish, over molluscs towards firm sand.

Stevie Smith re-read Racine's Phèdre over and over. She dives into Racine's elegant lines and few words, his Phaedra and her implacable gods, her tragic simplicity; unlike Stevie's own life, which ran on its own eagerness and common sense, depreciating, negating, compensating, composting, singing, almost.

Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics sits on my desk with a mix of Michaux, Sebald, Heraclitus, The Pillow Book, Steinberg, Buzzi and the Collins guide to Cacti & Succulents. Reading syncopation. If there ever was a beat to be off. Or a small beat running on, like Pompey in Novel on yellow paper, like Stevie in interview, leaning on the ordinary, kiddo, picking up the obvious from behind, oh.
At Felixstowe dinner is on a higher plane. Very spiritual. With pink Shape to follow, very Platonic. Like it was a This World carbon copy of A Great Idea.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

A Weakness for almost Everything and Journey to the Land of the Flies by Aldo Buzzi
Reflections and Shadows by Saul Steinberg
Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano

I was thinking of writing a story based on a dream a friend told me about an Italian pop singer called Mina, and thought I'd read something Italian. I passed by Moravia, Calvino, C. Levi, P. Levi and Dante before stopping at Aldo Buzzi: here was a sensibility of place, travel and food, beginning in Italy then rapidly over the Alps to Switzerland, France, England, America and Djakarta, full of grounded glances and unusual information or advice, for example that toothpicks seem to have been invented for the Japanese, that before travel a Russian will spend time in his room with a pair of shoes, and that you shouldn't trust a writer who doesn't mention food.

With his friend Saul Steinberg, Aldo Buzzi went to architecture school in Milan in the 1930s. I like to imagine them there, and in New York, two stick figures, stock figures, wearing hats and carrying umbrellas, looking out across a short perspective down the avenue to their younger selves. Aldo Buzzi didn't start writing till he was 70, and Saul Steinberg was an artist, so their writings are refreshingly non-determinate, dry, willing: you can take it on from here yourself.
This is my paradise: a road along the sea without traffic, a wide, irregular walkway along the beach, paved with tiles, on which one can walk comfortably even with bare feet. A low wall on the beach side, where one can sit.
A winter's day soon after Christmas in Ireland, which Buzzi as far as I know, did not visit, the sea running shallow and wide with tiny ripples. No traffic. Low wall. My friend behind a table in front of his house by the sea, facing southwest, offering free rum punch to passers-by. Among whom Mina, the Italian pop singer, tax exile in Switzerland, where I would place her in Nabokov's hotel, the Montreux-Palace, with views over the lake to the Alps, like the narrator of Modiano's Villa Triste, but the other way around: she is on her balcony looking across the lake to distant insecurities.
Mina, my friend said, she was here. He pointed at the ground under the table. Over a rum punch or two, Mina meets a local farmer, and, abandoning pop and tax and exile and luxury, settles with him. So that is why, just after Christmas each year since that dream, I give free punch to anyone who is passing by. 
Aldo Buzzi, who in Journey to the Land of the Flies returns frequently to the waitress he once saw in Crescenzago, where he had lunch on the way to Gorgonzola, would understand.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch
A Schoolboy's Diary by Robert Walser

On a day that began with a thick mantle of snow and by midday had turned to rain and gales, I set up a tango between Denton Welch and Robert Walser, reading a chapter of one and then a story or two of the other. Denton, the 16 year-old with a taste for architecture and fine porcelain, runs away from school and then joins his father in Shanghai in the 1930s, meets Walser the perpetual child, the delighted servant of his own life, in the attic of my cabin fever one winter's afternoon. Denton tries out a frock for the first and maybe last time (he was paralysed by a bicycle accident not long after he returned to England), with full make-up and heels; Walser, suited, slightly hunched against the next mountain, but smiling, ever-obedient, apologetic, has to lead. They do not manage the full show of tango emotion, but at the end both are flushed with pleasure, exertion, and the expectation of how this will look on the page.

I recognise their discomfiture, their rawness and their pleasure at the stuff of their days, I know their relentless observation and unease, the way they skirt about experience until they find a temporary nook, a place from which to write, later. Reading is for recognition, for knowledge of your suddenly extensive kin.
When I read, I am a harmless, nice and quiet person and I don't do anything stupid. Ardent readers are a breed of people with great inner peace as it were. The reader has his noble, deep, and long-lasting pleasure without being in anyone else's way or bothering anyone. Is that not glorious?
You don't have to read a book; in China you can read the tea-leaves.
Each cup had a lid, and when I lifted mine I saw whole leaves swimming in the water like a school of fishes. They were pale green. Some had not yet uncurled. I watched them opening with pleasure, and I thought that we missed a lot in England by not leaving the tea-leaves in our cups. To watch them swirling and drifting is like watching the smoke from a cigarette. And what is smoking in the dark?
The daphne bholua in the front garden gave off a brave whiff of its scent, its inner peace, even through an inch of snow this morning. Is that not glorious?

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Westward Haut by Edward Dorn
Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley

Beckett worms worstward in 16pt Bembo, uncoupling as he goes:
What were skull to go? As good as go.
Into what then black hole? From out
what then? What why of all? Better worse
so? No. Skull better worse. What left of
skull. Of soft. Worst why of all of all.
So skull not go. What left of skull not go.
Into it still the hole. Into what left of soft.
From out what little left.
 Ed Dorn sets off west on I-80, loquacious and choppy:
Well, I Was Dead for Nearly Five Years Once …
Yess, the First Year is Sheer Torment
One doesn't Know What To Do …
Loose Ends, you know,
Difficult to Get Acclimatized,
But After That, When the Full Freedom
Of Your Non-entity Soaks in
It's the sheerest Joy Imaginable.
Charles Kingsley, in 1855, thanks his novel's dedicatees:
That type of English virtue, at once manful and godly, practical and enthusiastic, prudent and self-sacrificing, which he has tried to depict in these pages, they have exhibited in a form even purer and more heroic than that in which he has drest it, and than that in which it was exhibited by the worthies whom Elizabeth, without distinction of rank or age, gathered round her in the ever glorious wars of her great reign.

Saturday 10 January 2015

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke.

In winter, at the hour entre chien et loup, it takes some time to find the Rilke I first met in Paris when I was a student, susceptible to doubt and transformation as never before or perhaps since. Reading does not cast an even light throughout; it is not like fibre optic, whizzing through the material world to reach the immaterial.
In childhood I considered reading a profession one would take upon oneself, later some time, when all the professions came along, one after the other. I had, to tell the truth, no clear idea when that might be. I trusted that one would notice when life somehow turned and came only from without, as hitherto from within. 
By the time Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies he had noticed. Or maybe he hadn't. His language had. As far as this reader was concerned then, these were two separate affairs.

When I lived in Paris I knew a German journalist called Malte, engaged in worlds that were beyond me.  I was a green apple and would remain so until about last week.

Friday 9 January 2015

Bohumil Hrabal – just to say his name lands you plumb and softly in the middle of Europe – has very good titles: Closely Observed Trains, Vacant LotsI Served the King of EnglandToo Loud a Solitude, Total Fears. On a flight to London in November I reread Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. I began just after take-off and managed to time the end of the sentence, which is the whole book, for touch-down in Heathrow. This was so satisfying it felt like an augury. I'd swallowed the Irish Sea in a single sentence. No ill could come of this.

In London I bought Total Fears (published by Twisted Spoon Press in Prague), written as a series of letters to April Gifford, dubbed Dubenka. He needs to be talking out loud to someone, somewhere and she is that person and these pages are the place. His recollections and associations rampage at will through long paragraphs full of ellipses.

He never sent the letters. They were as much for Dubenka as they were for Pipsi, his dead wife, for the familiarity of talking to her, for his own comfort (and safety), and for me, midwinter, on a day of horizontal rain and wind. Wetterkrank. Sick with weather. Mid-Europeans are good with weather and sickness of the soul. Good with extent. Always landed, bordered, wry and fearful, translated from the word Go and, in the mid- to late-twentieth century, about to be crushed by a Bolshevik boot.

Bohumil Hrabal aged 75, thinking and drinking in Prague, London, Glasgow and the Delighted States of America where he gave talks at many universities, living with his twelve cats in the Kersko woods, addressing his Dubenka over in Stanford, California, his dead wife Pipsi, his rush of recollection in the late eighties and early nineties, Total Fears is the hurtling missive of his latter years. Or is that, missile? He feels hurt by his own house, his own bedroom, by the view through the window; the whole world is hurting; he avoids his own image in the mirror; in neither time or space, at the heart of horror and dread, he is cold.
… how many times I've felt like jumping from the fifth floor, from my apartment where every room hurts, but always at the last moment my guardian angel saves me, he pulls me back, just like my Herr Doktor Franz Kafka, who wanted to jump from the fifth floor … just like Malte Laurids Brigge, who also wanted to jump from the fifth floor, he was hurt too by the world in Paris. Brigge was hurt by the whole world as well, just like Rainer Maria Rilke.
Bohumil Hrabal died in 1997 after falling from his hospital window while trying to feed the pigeons.

Saturday 3 January 2015

Futility by William Gerhardi (sometimes with an e, though this may be an affectation, like the brocade dressing gown in which the author liked to be photographed).

In my twenties I read him under the rubric of bad literature, and ventured to say so to Kay Dick, whom I met this once; he's a great writer, she said indignantly, as if I might be sweeping her own writing into the same bin.
And so we covered verst after verst, as our luxurious train, freshly painted, beautifully furnished, admirably kept, rushed through a stricken land of misery. On our choice engines we moved like lightning, or perchance stood long hours at lonely wayside stations, the glamour of innumerable electric lights within our carriages presenting to a community of half-starving refugees the gloating picture of the Admiral and his 'staff' at dinner.
Wry, perhaps, faintly sardonic but moist; bad. Not Debbie Harry bad. Indulgent bad. Any insider/outsider who charts this mess of creaking aristocrats with their pert daughters in pre-revolutionary Russia is going to look bad. Revolution starts to look like a relief, cleanser of the last privileged social group who read, wrote, and thought; and lost their fortunes, or mislaid them.
'Motives!' he cried. 'That is the very point, There are no motives. The motives are naught. It is the consequences. Where are we going? Why are we going? Look: we are moving. Going somewhere. Doing something. The train rushes through Siberia. The wheels are moving. The engine-drivers are adding fuel to the engines. Why? Why are we here? What are we doing in Siberia? Where are we heading for? Something. Somewhere. But what? Where? Why?
Households. Dependents. Old men. Dependents. Scenery. Goldmines. Wives. Daughters. Mistresses. Their sisters. The tedium of expedience. Politics. The expedience of tedium. Divorce, or not. Boches and Bolsheviks. Petersburg Moscow or Siberia, everything remains the same. Complete households move from one side of a continent to the other: wives daughters, mistresses, dependents (quiet, persistent, grateful, anxious), their light feet on the brink of decamping.

The pages that please me the most take place on the Trans-Siberian Express, a journey that Uncle Kostia fears is in excess of anything they are likely to achieve, though everyone behaved as though they were going to Siberia for some reason.
'Oh' groaned Uncle Kostia at my stupidity. 'Can't you understand that it is the very fact of this physical futility that inflates me with a sense of spiritual importance?
I looked at him with a blank expression.
'When I am at home – I mean anywhere at a standstill – I am wretched intolerably. I write and I think – –'. He stopped.  …
Now it is different. We are moving, apparently doing something, going somewhere. One has a sense of accomplishing something. I lie here in my coupé and I think: It is good. At last I am doing something. Living, not recording. Living! Living!