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...