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.