Saturday 30 April 2016

Reading by turns Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend and Italo Svevo As a man grows older on a savage April afternoon, January and May blowing out of the northwest onto the same field, young birch leaves catching the light, Ferrante savage too, cold and angry, ruthless with herself and her past in Naples, she has to find her own fluid, flat and engaging style, she has to have a pen name since she is literally writing herself into existence: full disclosure, total data. And she's furious. Controlled. Determined. Sometimes amazed, like the first time she sees the sea (aged twelve or so). You don't remember this much unless you're furious. Every knowledge is a knowledge won and recorded.

Svevo, the bourgeois in Trieste half a century earlier, constructs his his love life over and over; he's not angry he's anxious and he has a code of behaviour, a dubious ethics that marries well with literature. They are made for each other. The status is quo and the beloved is an angel and a whore.

I feel uneasy with both writers; I want my tales more skeletal. My Brilliant Friend has something of the books you stare at while waiting in the queue at the Post Office: 'My mother sold me for a box of matches', except the fury is scrupulous and poignant. Elena Ferrante is in high demand throughout the branches of Cork County Library. Took me four months to get it, my first library book in decades. Inside the laminated plastic paperback I'm aware of other readers' marks as they've read while drinking tea or eating risotto. My A level french teacher said she never took books out of the library because you might find other people's hairs between the pages.

Svevo, on the other hand, is hardly read at all now. Nothing between his pages except that old Penguin vanilla smell. He is very old male, self-owning, impassioned (within the codes of his day, which are made to increase passion) and sexist (other codes also made to increase passion). Elena Ferrante is very female, very Karl Ove Knausgaard, relentless: nothing will escape, I will spare no blood, I need to structure this, the shoe must fit I will be plain and you will listen, you have lived through your version of this but you haven't got around to finding your own fluid and engaging style.

If I interrupted a reading of Svevo to see what Ferrante was like, it was because Svevo was getting relentless too, fluid and engaging in an earlier way, jostling his inamorata and his sister, his friends and his standing in Trieste into position and getting older in the process.

Anger or anxiety. The choice is yours.

Do I read all these narratives in order to cut them short, in order to irritate myself back into poetry?

Monday 25 April 2016

Reading in Andalucia for a week, inland, in the mountains, and lastly by the sea, demands a book with old-fashioned largesse and a leading rein. Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo, since I'm in Italian mode lately, should take me through. He's beguiling enough, a chirpy depressive of nearly a century ago, and I bop along his pages on the beach, in bed, at night, his confessions, as he calls them, less intimate than expansive and headlong, sardonic. If this is what his shrink recommends, as per the book's central conceit, then none of us are having any of it.

We have a beach to lie on and look at the sea for hours on end, suspending the waves then rattling the shingle. Sweeps of light mackerel cloud across the sky; very quiet swimming up there too. Read Svevo and doze off, as if bourgeois Trieste of a hundred years ago were softly and forgettably adjacent behind these hills, this paraje naturel or natural spot patrolled, unaccountably, by a small Spanish navy vessel moving from right to left and left to right; while two art students experiment with a mirror but fall into the sea nymph fallacy, unbuttoning their long red-blonde hair.

How long can you watch the sea, clear water over stones, without feeling so far in you need rescuing?

The last day on the beach I finished Svevo, which, by the end, was as odd and tiring as the shifts of travel. Book and circumstance intertwine, irrevocably: the soul on holiday is the soul at home. Always modern. Svevo was modern in Trieste a hundred years ago, along with James Joyce, who was there too. He was modern, that is, ironical, in relation to the Oedipus complex a psychiatrist was determined to give him; and ancient in his attitude to women, about which his psychiatrist had nothing to say.

For the journey home I found a Patricia Highsmith among the disposable fiction on the stairs at our apartment, and read it on the plane and the day after, tearing along, flailing for the end. But in Patricia Highsmith there are always a few resting places.
Rydal walked into a café and had a cup of coffee. It was a dull town, Chania, but Rydal rather liked dull towns, because they forced one to look at things—for want of anything else to do—that one might not otherwise notice. Like the number of flowerpots on windowsills as compared with the number in Athens or in other small towns he had been in on the mainland; the number of cripples on the street; the quality of building materials used in the houses; the variety or lack of variety of the foodstuffs in the market.
At Malaga airport I noticed ugly women and the pathos of families, happy and fat and clinging together, looking over their till receipts, following daddy and striking out for the loo.

Friday 15 April 2016

In the wakeful middle of the night I'm reading Moravia again. Intense short bursts, maybe fifteen minutes. For fifteen minutes I'm a shy law student in a pensione in Rome, or a boy at a sanatorium trying to be bad.  I've become accustomed to Italy in the forties and fifties, the Italy that predates my first visits in the sixties, during my dreamy adolescence. Italy allows a dreamer to flourish, sustains her during winters further north where she can read Moravia, and Bassani, and Svevo in almost total ignorance of the history or the politics, with just the jewishness, the obscure threat and the sunlight, the remote thud of a tennis ball (Bassani), the saturation of an awkward youth (Moravia), the last cigarette (Svevo). In their author pictures they look very similar. Dark hair brushed back. Intensity and formality meet seduction. I was never convinced by Italian men, even during the dreamy parts of my adolescence.

Friday 8 April 2016

The name of Mallarmé sprang from The New Yorker today and in I went. This is prepared ground. I spent four or five years with Mallarmé in my twenties, working on a PhD, the most comfortable/uncomfortable fit of my young life. 'After only a few lines of Mallarmé, you are engulfed in a fine mist, and terror sets in,' writes Alex Ross. To me it wasn't terror, unless the terror that underlies ecstasy. Most other reading after that was akin to a long hot bath or an afternoon in the sun. My immersion in Mallarmé prepared me in an absolute way for the long business of not understanding. Any correlation between words and life was silently shattered. I was more at home among words that were, you could say, talking among themselves, than among people. I could move among words as among trees or clouds. Especially French words, with their greater, plausible, unknowability. For a number of years I wrote my diary in Mallarméan encryption from which I only emerged by going to live in another country and becoming a teacher. For years after my thesis, and the book I made from it, the name of Mallarmé was unbearable. What kind of creature could read Mallarmé with such fellow feeling? Become Mallarmé when left to herself? I didn't wait around to hear the answer.

Sunday 3 April 2016

For the last two nights there has been a direct line from my reading to my dreams.

The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia, 'this powerful modern novel' as the 1950s Penguin blurb has it, is 'told entirely in the first person' by a young prostitute. Moravia sees off criticism with a brief note at the beginning; he knows a young (or old) prostitute is unlikely to be able to articulate her acceptance or her bewilderment. Her life is not her own; it belongs to the composite lover, the author.

Italian novels often involve prostitutes. Giorgio Bassani's young, thoughtful, male characters visit them. Moravia has no note on why he chose to narrate as a prostitute. I have gone rapidly past this book on my shelves ever since I first bought it, as if its modernity (and indeed its translation) were long past their moment.
The scene is Mussolini's Rome, and against this background of squalor and cynicism the novelist has painted the figure of a dauntless, fascinating personality.
At the start of the novel she is an artist's model. At the beginning of Part Two she meets a young intellectual and falls in love. The nakedness of her body and then her soul prompted my two dreams. In the first I went out with no clothes on, thinking, it doesn't matter, no one will notice, or maybe they will, maybe I should put on a t shirt. In the second I was talking to a young soldier, so close up I could overlook his uniform. Twin souls we were, such as I imagined when I was about 17, which is roughly when I first read The Woman of Rome. I don't know what we talked about but at the end I said, 'that was one of the best conversations of my entire life', and woke up feeling enlightened and refreshed.