Sunday 29 November 2015

I have a high threshold for pain, a low threshold for lies, an allergic reaction to bullshit and smugness. In the past ten days or so I have been reading Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, in small pieces, the way you read certain books, setting it aside and knowing it's there when next you're ready for that degree of voice. When you need to refresh your preconceptions. Souvent mais peu à la fois. Little but often. When you need to slice through everything.

Words can convey the worst, the least imaginable reality; or cover it up. Voices from Chernobyl cover nothing, or if they feel they might be about to, they check and revise. This is essential speech from the pit of the earth. Earth is where I keep my stuff, said a poster in the Cork climate change march this afternoon, save it.

Chernobyl is beyond saving. But nothing is beyond learning. Or beyond saying. The Swedes knew what they were doing when they gave Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel prize for literature. If literature only knew too.

Friday 20 November 2015

Last night, in a short burst of sleep amid nightmarish itching, I dreamed of a young artist who'd written in a section of his painting in tiny angular script. For the first time I've written the truth, he said. Have you read Walser's Microscripts? I asked.

So I have to look at Walser again. Eloquent yet taciturn wordsmith, as he describes himself, these pieces come from a brink of some kind, they have been brought forward from their micro state into the light of a handsome volume (New Directions/Christine Burgin 2010). How to read them. Easy to reside there, to pick up phrases here and there like a dilettante at a picnic. A piece of Comté with bullace cheese. Walser wishes he had the right to find fault with a crisis of cheerfulness. He enters his every day with disarming penetration.
Usually I first put on a prose piece jacket, a sort of writer's smock, before venturing to begin with composition, but I'm in a rush right now and besides, this is just a tiny little piece, a silly trifle featuring beer coasters round as plates. Children were playing with them and I was watching them play. 
As far in as he manages to go, in words, he does not, in person, you imagine; he watches. What you are reading is someone's entire relationship to the world around him. There is no more he can say than this. Which is the same as saying this is the truth.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

I bought my copy in 1974, the year I came to Ireland. I grew up fifty or so miles south of Akenfield, in east Essex. It is reassuring to know that I liked the spoken/written word in 1974. Polar opposite of Mallarmé and the lads. Or maybe not. There was much that was unsayable whether you were a Suffolk ploughman or a Paris poet. The loneliness and self-determination were the same. Living inside books and never reading books were the same too.

Pigs are interesting people, says the pig man, and some of them can leave quite a gap when they go off to the bacon factory.

It is a jolt now to read about a farm worker my age in 1967, on day release to a college in Ipswich, eating up the chance to think about the broader world. He came to conclusions about the Vietnam war far earlier than I, some way down the path of education, could have: they're just farmers having a revolution, he said. I had to ask my brother who was fighting whom in Vietnam.

The Suffolk village Ronald Blythe creates out of conversations with its inhabitants was, and remains, what I think of as a village. I did not come to live in any such village  in Ireland, though from my address you'd think there was one. Ireland doesn't do villages; there's another style, another culture, longer, meandering over miles, unadmitted. It has taken forty years for me to muster a sense of community — if very far-flung, diffuse, occasional, and nothing to do with my address.

I like the JP/Samaritan who concludes disbelievingly that some people just aren't joiners. I like the district nurse, the orchard men, the orchard timetable; I'm amazed by the school log in the 1930s (half-day off for blackberrying!), entranced by the craftsmen, the shepherds, the hands of the forge, the open-ended community Ronald Blythe created and laid out: here, consider this if you will, here is a village in the late sixties in England.

I read it twice this time. I wanted to know what a village was, wanted to be reminded of what people in their lives will say if you give them the space, the ease of mind.

Friday 13 November 2015

John Cage thought there was just the right amount of suffering in the world. That is an opening conundrum in Darwin's worms by Adam Phillips. John Cage knew how: 4 minutes 32 seconds of silence with suffering inside?

If I'm going to face difficult realities in the middle of the night, ideally I'd seek distraction with this.

Nature, says Raymond Williams, is perhaps the most difficult word in the language.

I like to land on a word, an idea, and stay there, especially in the middle of the night, surrounded by silence not my own. Resonance is the thing, not meaning.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

A place in the country by WG Sebald

Two hours in a doctor's waiting room with under sixes playing onscreen games in their silver space boots, swinging pink backpacks and screaming as they are inducted into the world of blood tests and anxiety.

And a door banged and banged.

After that I need reading as pooling, reading without reading, listening to Schubert songs sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a fire lighting, I inhabit those sentences and sensibilities without scanning the pages, the book open beside me enough to stay an island in the Lac de Bienne where Rousseau stayed, and, a hundred years later, Sebald; to sit outside the house on the river where Kleist stayed, stand in the snow with Robert Walser, float in a balloon with Nabokov over a sleeping Germany.

Reading without reading; I nearly know what that would be in Finnish.

I was rebuked age 20 for reading for pearls, and for the musical equivalent, waiting for the good bit, the tip into the minor key, for example, then waiting for the repeat. Landing stage and launch at once. As Winterreise dips and reaches, so does Sebald in his sentences. I was rebuked, later, age 50 perhaps, for not knowing exactly what Fischer-Dieskau is saying/singing, for not knowing the poem. I understand about 20 percent of the words, the rest is my own, or, if Sebald is open beside me, his.

I have read Sebald and he has read Walser, as I have; and Hebel, Mörike, and Keller, whom I haven't, but I have spent time in Keller's Ideal Landscape with Trees, a third of which one of his women friends carefully cut away, following the contours of the trees. Reading and not reading Sebald, knowing and not knowing the words of Schubert songs is life as I understand it best. This is music to my ears, the shorter music of German word endings and the longer music of Schubert.