Tuesday 27 October 2015

I have been reading essays (Notting Hill Editions, A Eulogy for Nigger and other essays) by day, and James Purdy novels (Malcolm, followed by The Nephew and In a shallow grave) by night. This doesn't feel like a decision I've taken, fiction opening the dream channel and essays for the light of day. Reading is a path to follow, or paths. Friends all. The life of the mind, as people used to say.

James Purdy tells truths at a useful, awkward distance, useful to James Purdy, that is, as well as to certain readers since 1959. Awkward on my bookshelves too, lodged for many years in a corner you can hardly see, next to Barbara Pym. The essays are of now, written in the last year or two. These are people thinking and writing in the world I live in. A contemplation of a rabbit's detachment; a docket from a day's thinking up a mountain, in the clear air; a eulogy for nigger, the word and her maidens.

We present ourselves to an essay as the essay presents itself to us, disarmed and revealed, a state of mind as well as an argument and a history: what we can understand by considering a rabbit; having time to contemplate a rabbit.

James Purdy's characters would have time, like Malcolm on his gilded bench, fatherless, expectant; or the nephew in his home town of Rainbow before he went out to Korea and was killed; or Garnet Montrose In a shallow grave, back from Korea, with all his insides on the outside, mulberry-coloured, the applicants who look after him, they have time. Characters are created out of the writer's time, the writer's contemplation. Do you know how long that can go on?

Fiction is a tale to tell on your own out of a dark place, the best tale you have just a short walk away from the truth. The essay is an exploration without purpose; you don't know what you might find or lose. It's only when you read people who have been thinking, who continue to think after you have stopped reading them, that the world activates again.

Friday 16 October 2015

Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandelstam

Armenia was already an event when I was sixteen; there was an Armenian about my age, or younger, whom I met once or twice by the river where I went to play tennis with the quality. He was Armenian before he was anything else. I liked his dark looks, long lashes and outsiderhood. Everything Armenian began with an A.

Osip Mandelstam fashions his sentences as you pick up dropped stitches in knitting: it will not look like the full knit, or not for a long time, and you know it. His abrupt and observing mind, a poet descending, as he might think, into prose, notices then abandons some charming things.
When you look around, your eyes need more salt. You catch forms and colours — and all is unleavened bread. Such is Armenia.
Only last year on the island of Sevan in Armenia, as I went strolling in the waist-high grass, I was captivated by the shameless burning of the poppies. Bright to the point of surgical pain... 
Mandelstam was reverenced among the boy poets of the Ireland of the 1970s. I didn't do reverence therefore I didn't do Mandelstam; I didn't do adoration. Poetry was pain and dislocation; I had no altars, wanted no balm.

So I can't exactly read Mandelstam, even now, I can only jump in and out as with a rough sea.

Sunday 11 October 2015

A short history of power by Simon Heffer, was my other holiday reading.

As I read I was reminded of my mother and how her face seemed to register the flux of her understanding and her readiness to be interrupted.

I have had a troubled and defiant relationship with history. I remember telling a sociologist that I had no sense of history. Impossible, he said. A few years later I wrote to him to say I'd found it after all, as I rounded a bend into a village somewhere northwest of London, where the wind, said the woman in the shop, came straight off the Urals.

A short history of power is long in its reach: Thucydides to the present day (before yesterday), much of the northern hemisphere, a little of the southern, tumultuous battles and obscure retribution, emperors and inadequates, gods and ideologies (why have I always disliked that word?), it is what it says on the tin and still leaves you unsatisfied.

Holiday reading? you ask.

Well yes. I slip between the cracks, pick up on what I know something about, sail on familiar names, like Kublai Khan and Thomas Carlyle, slide about on my fractured knowledge and then fall asleep.

Like listening to an unfamiliar piece of music, new spaces, new notes, no notes, no meaning, as John Cage said, just sound.

Infiltrating the synapses, affecting the future in ways you can hardly tell.

Saturday 10 October 2015

On a long sandy beach in Portugal, over several days, I read You and Me from start to finish. All around they were reading Kathy Reich, John Grisham, and Bandit Country. I don't know why people read rubbish on the beach, where the mind has so much room. I'm ready for the intrigue of You and Me, the neuroscience of identity. This is the territory I like to be in.

Among the many paragraphs and sentences that needed the expanse of sun and sea, this one leapt:
If the screen-based lifestyle of the twenty-first century is an unprecedented and pervasive phenomenon, then prolonged and frequent video-gaming, surfing and social networking cannot fail to have an unprecedented and transformational effect on the mental state of a species whose most basic and valuable talent is a highly sensitive adaptability to whatever environment in which is it placed.
Dolphins go by—now you see them where will they pop up next—and we all leap. The neural handshake of a school of dolphins, secures October.

—Well, we know where we are, said a woman to her husband as she turned over to toast her back.

In 1995 three groups of people, none of whom could play the piano, volunteered for a five-day experiment. One group stared at a piano, the next learned five-finger exercises, and the third imagined they were playing the piano. The ones who played and the ones who imagined playing showed the same enhanced brain activity, synapses popped and handshakes clenched between neurons: aha! The ones who stared, stared, their brain activity unchanged: a piano is a run of black and white, a run of grey.
Emily Brontë once wrote, 'I have dreamed in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind. How we process the world around us indeed alters our identity. Our dreams need to be nurtured with the best possible materials.
And that includes the beach. The night. And reading.