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.