Saturday 26 December 2015

On yet another wet day, I start Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, on foot of a review of a Peggy Guggenheim biography, and have to restart at least four times, weary from the first line—to say nothing of TS Eliot's introduction, which I couldn't finish—of sentences that take forever to get there. 'There is no there there', as Gertrude Stein said.

I am rewarded on page 28, however, by this:
After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.
From then on I am reading in the right key, and there is, over to the northwest, a sign of clearance in the sky.

William Burroughs admired Nightwood. It would work well as a cut-up. Better, even.

Thursday 24 December 2015

My relationship with PG Wodehouse goes back to his name over and over on book spines along the Ws on the last shelf of the town library. I wasn't ready for eggs, beans and crumpets, the empress of Blandings, Jeeves etc. This was a foreign language. I'd learn French first.

Ten years went by. I read Virgil Dante Kafka Montaigne Rimbaud Proust Beckett and Mallarmé. PG Wodehouse had to be authenticated by a man who also read all of the above, an Irishman, as it happened, one of my teachers at university.

Comfort reading has many fellow-travellers. PG Wodehouse carries an Irishman, several Frenchman and a deal of insomnia. I like reading him in the middle of the night. His sentences give the most somnolent, mindless, delightful pleasure. The plot is always secondary to the delight, and delight is a launching pad into sleep, if you're lucky, if you're not preoccupied with—for example—how you lost the pruning knife again in the dying light of the winter solstice.

I can be irritated by his misogyny—all women—and there are few—are aunts or writers or gorgons or all three; and his poor rich young men keeping up appearances in all kinds of ingenious ways, but you can reside in his language without reference, almost, to the stuff of his tales. 'In the most apparently Grade A ointment there is always a fly'.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Reading Edmund White after Svetlana Alexievich is relaxing, even lush: here is a youth devoted to youth and its necessary anguish, its insufficiency. Sentences are expansive, the candour rich and startling, yet comfortable, as if the conversion into language and the implicit sharing with reader/confidant were already soothing. Welcome, he seems to say, and thank you, 'my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, of a life, than the author you're allowing for a moment to exist yet again'.

Such kindness is rare, such politeness and warmth. The reader has a role and the writer is grateful. I interviewed Edmund White some decades ago and can't help finding him in his writing, the particular way he sat in my office as I interviewed him on the subject of teaching literature. Affable and genuine, guileless, almost, teaching and literature weighed in either hand alongside other, more personal concerns, which, on hardly any prompting, he would talk about too.

Thursday 3 December 2015

I want to read things that will slice underneath everything. There has to be a lot of pain before I understand. Am I to that extent Russian?  Even a few pages into Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich, I'm readied for the enormity of what they have to say: you've never shot anyone, you pacifist, you haven't heard a bullet whizzing past your ear, brought the truth home in a plastic bag, what you do know?

If I took in one thing with mother's milk it was the wantonness of war. Can we say, at the time, or afterwards, with any certainty what people were fighting for in many countries whose names are associated with wars, like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and later, Iraq, Iraq, Libya, Syria? World War Two, with Hitler at its centre, remains oddly romantic.

The people who were fighting cannot say with any certainty. The zinky boys thought they were going into something romantic, or at least worthy. War makes you forget what war is for, if you ever knew. The person you were who might have known has gone for good. You've forgotten the word for thank you. War is an opportunity you may not survive, or not with all your limbs; a belief you will not survive; war is about being literally blown to bits, running after your brain after it has been shot out; on your behalf an empty uniform packs with some Afghan earth into the zinc coffin, for the weight.

The voices of many mothers are there in Zinky Boys (and how far is that zappy title from its meaning), voices of widows, voices of depleted people. I perceive the world through the medium of human voices, says Svetlana Alexievich. Russian mothers, I can't help reminding myself, Russian widows, Russian depleted people. When I was fourteen I could take pride in Russian suffering as it rustled through Russian birches and swept over Russian steppes, as it came to lodge beneath Russian cheekbones.

Now I don't take pride in any nationality. I take pride in a compost heap of my own making, and the four loaves I bake every ten days. Russians leave a loaf of bread to sit after a funeral, to nourish the dead. Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.