Friday 29 January 2016

Sam Shepard says in Motel Chronicles that he'd live on a train if someone gave him one. He feels, he says, a heart-breaking hunger for the land out the window. On the train to Dublin I look at fields in the heartless heart of Ireland in January and long to know each one as closely as I know the one out the back where I live. The longing is the thing. For the sense of destination and for the absence of destination, for the slant of trees on open land and the multiple rise of birds on a windy day, for the semi-darkness through grubby windows, the untidiness of the rail-side world, for the rise and fall of hedges and the black outlines of ivy-weighted trees, for the whitened grass and the poached fields and the mysterious razor-fenced small buildings in obscure railway use, for the nothing you've left and the nothing you haven't yet arrived at. Sam Shepard's father liked to live in the desert because he didn't fit with people, he said.

It's hard to read Sam Shepard without seeing his Americanness in your mind's eye, the way he stands, the way his hair goes front to back in one go. Most of the photographs in Motel Chronicles show Sam and a car or a truck or a bus, unsmiling. There's one with his father in which he, the son, echoing the expression on his father's face, is almost smiling. A smile in the desert is worth at least double.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Exactly what turns me towards Two Lives on a sullen day in January is as unknowable as humans will always be, however prolix our musing. The lives are those of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, weighed half a century later by Janet Malcolm in their complicated voices, their bad and unforgivable behaviours, with attendant Gertrude obsessives and Alice sympathisers all tight in their chairs, holding onto their manuscripts before the memory of large, warm-faced, egomaniacal Gertrude.

There is, as Janet Malcolm observes, no Gertrude Stein school of writers. She may not have a school, (whew), but many have passed through, often without finishing the book, and come out altered. In Everybody's Autobiography, the book that followed the much more popular Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, 'she reverts to her old way of writing as if the reader were an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at a dark house'. To make your way through The Making of Americans, all close-spaced 900 pages of it, by cutting it up into sections with a kitchen knife, as Janet Malcolm did, is the behaviour of an assailant, not a guest, invited or otherwise.

I have always liked writing that repels. My years with Mallarmé attest to this. You look at this language and you almost have to fight it off even as you press on, but you don't forget it. And one day you go back for another look. Gertrude Stein always repays another look, however short, she overwhelms in minutes. Alice Toklas over there, hiding in her chair. The soft, irregularly cut pages of this Yale University Press edition hold giant egos and suppressed rage tenderly.

Sunday 17 January 2016

In an interview in The Paris Review William H. Gass says he changed his handwriting, letter by letter through the alphabet, when he was twenty, to set himself at a remove, to start again. I smile in recognition. He would get asked to write wedding invitations in his new ceremonial hand, he says. I smile again. I changed my writing, likewise, with intent, at fourteen not long after I started keeping a diary: new writing, new self, deep gulfs on every side, reliable defences. I did wedding invitations too, in my ceremonial hand, with a certain artificial elegance, so much like strands of barbed wire, as William Gass says.
Descartes, examining a piece of beeswax fresh from the hive, brought it near a flame and observed all of its sensible qualities change. He wondered why he should believe that wax remained. Couldn't he give that puddle in his hand another name?
I used to read Fiction and the Figures of Life to students; this flexibility as writer, as philosopher, as respondent to the immediate world, put me on my home ground as a teacher, rescued me from academe while covering my back. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife was another early purchase: I liked the fonts and the playfulness, the search for a way to say; I liked less the tits and ass. I chose William Gass off displays in St Marks Bookstore et al in the 1970s and early 80s. In the heart of the heart of the country. On being blueThe world within the word. Whatever it is that makes you pick up this book or that. A few lines about beeswax. The playfulness, the ambiguity, the overreach, the pendulum experiencing a rush and then settling: tock tick, tick tock.

eyes, his new book, finds me ready and up to date with William H. Gass though I haven't read him for years. The novella called In Camera, the first piece in eyes, is home turf. Two isolated people and a shop full of old photographs that may have been stolen. What further twist or sideways move can we manage? How far can we extend—our remit—our patois—ourselves? What is going on here? There's no saying. You get to the end of the story and then what you see around you is the the outside world upside down, as it should be, coming in, as you have never seen it (because you haven't been outside), as it is. All your photographs have been taken away but you are living in a pinhole camera.

Tuesday 5 January 2016

Eudora Welty's southern speech makes me wonder what my speech is and who else speaks it.

On New Year's Day, which was wet, as usual, I read The Robber Bridegroom start to finish, with a sleep in the middle. This being a fairy tale in old-time Mississippi, they do a lot of sleeping too, a lot of thieving and hiding and disguising which adds up to justice in the end. Then I watched the 1958 film Cat on a hot tin roof, also a southern tale but with sarcasm, self-hatred and a powerful smell of mendacity. Two days later I read Delta Wedding, Eudora Welty's second book. This southernness can wrap you or rend you. Eudora Welty wraps you.

Tennessee Williams happened to be born in Mississippi and Eudora Welty spent her whole life there. She has a full sense of place, of the small towns around the Old Natchez Trace; he inhabits his family's and his own dysfunction, which you can do anywhere. Both worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the late 1930s, he in New Orleans, she across the state of Mississippi.

Welty and Williams make a fine team. Comfort and anguish in a southern climate. Delta Wedding is luxuriant even when its characters are momentarily having a hard time, though Welty's people do not seem to sweat. Cat on a hot tin roof is so savage, so sweaty, the luxury is seeing it enacted and knowing it isn't you.

Friday 1 January 2016

A cache of vintage science fiction is a great draw for a thoughtful twenty-something, probably a man, likely an artist, a philosopher, who stands in front of a shelf of them in the attic, purring. Although I read them when I was twenty-something I have no recollection of any of them or why I liked them; at that time I read and read, one direction then another, could be Proust, could be Kurt Vonnegut, looking for new realities, every day and half the night.

City by Clifford Simak, the 1965 Four Square edition, has only a faint smell off it; a Penguin the same age smells of vanilla. Can I get past the Editor's Preface, which is in fact part of the novel and continues throughout? Can I accept the dogs and then the ants gradually gaining supremacy over humans, who, by the end of the book, the few that are left in Geneva (Switzerland ever the refuge) have opted for endless, dreamless sleep? If I wear the Simak jacket, am I dislocated in a good cause? I can't help doing a rough reading, lopsided, flailing, looking for a smooth passage among all this transmutation, among which man (woman is hardly there) is the failed, faint, nostalgic form.

City comes out of world war two. As do I. The sense of human doom is modified by the kindness of dogs and robots, the ingenuity of mutants, then threatened by the building prowess of ants. The written word, as Simak says, is a sorry tool. But tales will be told, philosophies elaborated.
The Juwain philosophy provides an ability to sense the viewpoint of another. It won't necessarily make you agree with that viewpoint, but it does make you recognize it. You not only know what the other fellow is talking about, but how he feels about it.
A woman would know. Juwain is another fellow, and a martian. There's wisdom on Mars chez Simak, not on Earth; there's ecstasy on Jupiter, and full use of brain capacity, while on earth they stumble on empty. The Juwain philosophy remains incomplete through the agoraphobia of nearly extinct man, known generically as webster, second to Rover and Towser, third, eventually, to a colony of ants. Webster/Simak liked the countryside, the scent on the breeze. As much as a PG Wodehouse character, he liked and respected his robot, Jenkins, who had served four generations and would continue for thousands of years, serving the memory when there were no more humans left.

Once embarked in science fiction you're sealed from the world you know, until, some way into the book, you emerge and there it is, the world you know better now you're not in it any more, the idea of an ideal: no city, no war, no killing, like a less saccharine John Lennon.
No misunderstanding, no prejudice, no bias, no jangling — but a clear, complete grasp of all the conflicting angles of any human problem. Applicable to anything, to any type of human endeavour. To sociology, to psychology, to engineering, to all the various facets of a complex civilisation. No more bungling, no more quarrelling, but honest and sincere appraisal of the facts and the ideas at hand.
Thousands of years later the last webster is woken from his dreamless sleep by Jenkins the trusty robot, who wants to know what to do about the ants, whose building threatens to take over the earth. The advice, straight from the middle of the twentieth century, is poison in syrup, a slow poison they'd take back to the nest, to kill many instead of just two or three. Go to sleep again, says Jenkins.