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?