Thursday 24 September 2015

You don't have to start at the beginning. I started You and Me by Susan Greenfield, at the end. Then I read the penultimate paragraph. After that I dipped about, finding good bits to rediscover later. You and Me, the neuroscience of identity, is a generous basket of goods. Wherever you read, at whatever moment you get on the bus, or decide to get off, this is the stuff of ourself, ourselves, and it's riveting. Getting this close in to the synapses. Susan Greenfield is professor of synaptic pharmacology. And, once you have wrapped your head around that, you are ready for anything.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Reading Wayne Koestenbaum on Humiliation. A boundless investigation in several fugues or fits, like The Hunting of the Snark, that you the reader undertake in the close company of the writer, the numbered sections corresponding to your, and his, need to draw breath between one idea, one example, and another, jump cuts or small lurches in whose valleys you can pause and situate yourself, adjust to who you are in relation to all this, start your own scan: do I know what he's talking about and if so, why, what, when?

Thursday 17 September 2015

I'm not good with writing as advocacy, even if I am already in agreement, as with Wendell Berry, whom I read today up at the pond in a burst of September sunshine. What he says may feed a conversation some time: a phrase, a notion, an insistence on stewardship, intimacy, involvement with the land on the part of the people who live there, general remarks I recognize on impact and hope I will find next time I'm talking about land, next time I would like to persuade.

What is your time worth? What are you doing with the time you have saved? Growing your own food is a complex activity, says Wendell Berry. I love to read this and understand so exactly what it means. And at the same time it makes me uncomfortable. Like meeting yourself and instinctively turning away.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Reading Danilo Kis, The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, always a sliver away from understanding where he's coming from. Or understanding only too well but no longer wanting to be there.

Yet in certain moods or on wet days or before I go to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel bedroom, an encyclopaedia of the dead can be just what I need: a mass of episode against a backdrop of persistent and troubling strangeness. The particularity of a story sitting side by each with its nemesis, the writer.

I'd like to read his diary. The nearest we get is a list in an interview from 1986, 3 years before his death.
My first sensory impressions of childhood go back to Novi Sad, which is located a hundred or so kilometres south of Subotica, on the Danube. Smells, tastes, colours. The smell of chestnut blossoms, of roses in a vase, of camomile, machine oil in the sewing machine, my father's cigarettes, cologne on my mother's neck, clean sheets, urine, the sailcloth on the table, coffee, soap, spices, the leather sweat band on my father's hat, cab seats, railways stations, pharmacies, an empty first-class compartment, the strap that opens the compartment window, a leather suitcase. The taste of cod-liver oil, of honey, of café au lait, of cinnamon, wooden crayons, paste, ink, paper, rubber, candy, blood from my finger, tincture of iodine, tears, cough medicine. Colours: the dark green on one side of chestnut leaves and the light green on the other….
Novi Sad was raided in January 1942, when Danilo Kis was 7. Shots sounded under his window. Jews and other unwanted elements were rounded up onto the frozen Danube and shots fired into the ice until it broke and the unwanted elements drowned in the icy water.

No wonder he prefers to speak in images. No wonder he says he spent his whole life preparing to be a poet.

Makes me think I'm only as far away from understanding Danilo Kis as he was himself.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

Late back from a wedding I read the chapter about Matera—squalor and malaria after prosecco and canapés and cake. Matera could not have seemed more naked. It wasn't Christ who stopped at Eboli, it was humanity.

This was the first book I ever reviewed, at the age of sixteen, as a school exercise. I asked my mother's friend Gertie which book I should write about, and read her choice with respect, gratitude and a degree of incomprehension. Learning how to enjoy not understanding is one of the major lessons of adolescence. Communism had a surge after WW2, and Gertie was a fellow traveller. I wasn't sure of the implications of that, either.

In 1935 Carlo Levi was exiled to Gagliano in Basilicata for being anti-Fascist. Romeo was banished from Padua for killing Tybalt. Carlo Levi was banished for having an opinion. Gagliano was worlds away from his native Turin, a peasant community where death was hardly distinguishable from life. When Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia/Eritrea) in the random way of conquest, the peasants thought dying in Abyssinia hardly distinguishable from living in Gagliano. They were not interested in the war, waged from Rome. One conqueror, one invader, is very like another. An eclipse of the sun presaged endless sorrow. They had 7 dialect words for tomorrow, part of a timeless incantation conferring no hope at all.
They have led exactly the same life since the beginning of time, and History has swept over them without effect.
Carlo Levi was measured and warm on the subjects of the peasants he came to know.
They have gentle hearts and patient souls; centuries of resignation weigh on their shoulders, together with a feeling of the vanity of all things and of the overbearing power of fate. But when after infinite endurance, they are shaken to the depths of their beings and are driven by an instinct of self-defence or justice, their revolt knows no bounds and no measure.
At what remove do you need to be to know this?

I have been to the region where Carlo Levi wrote this book. After a trip up Monte Pollino in Calabria our friend Pino took us over the mountain and down the other side, into Basilicata. On the way down we saw a VW Beetle loaded with sticks for the winter, battling over rocks that would give a goat pause. We stopped in a café and listened to local men talk and drink intently. What are they talking about? I asked Pino. Work, he said. And when they work they talk about drink.

You can have a garden if you have brains, said Andrea, who had made one in 1990s Calabria, over the mountains. You can get rid of malaria, said Carlo Levi, with a few precautions, and trees planted along the river. He sympathised with the peasants' mistrust of the rest of Italy. The faraway place with which they engaged was not Rome but New York.

I rarely read books as slowly as I read this one. I wanted to continue to go there before I went to sleep, to feel the world I live in articulated, clarified, by the world to which Carlo Levi was exiled in 1935.