Tuesday 31 May 2016

I read in The New Yorker about the artist, Thomas Thwaites, who got a Wellcome Trust grant to learn how to be a goat, and his fellow-traveller who at the same time was learning badger. This was in England. It would be poignant anywhere, once you get into the nitty-gritty of prosthetic goat legs and a goat digestive system, or when the badger sett is riddled with worms after heavy rain. You have to take radical measures to get away from the ravages, the absurdity, of human life.

Thomas Thwaites spent time with goats, practised with his prosthetic legs, read Heidegger, learned to react to his surroundings in a goatlike way. He would have achieved goathood, he thought, when he could see a word without reading it (I'd like to try that), or look at a chair without thinking about sitting on it, or, more important, look at a goat and think of it as another person, like him.

David Garnett's Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo from 1922 and 1924, Bloomsbury, explored similar preoccupations, from the point of view of the human trying to hang on to his humanness. David Garnett makes much slower and sadder, fraught progress towards foxhood. One day Mr Tebrick looks round and sees that Mrs Tebrick has turned into a vixen, just like that, complete, no Heidegger, no prosthetics, only suspension of disbelief. He remains in love with his vixen, with his Sylvia, at first he dresses her and plays cards with her, later he's horrified when she kills and devours a rabbit, and jealous when she produces cubs. She has prostituted herself with a fox. How is he going to deal with that? It is only near the end of the tale that he finds his way past his horror of, guilt at, desire for, the bestial.
At that moment all human customs and institutions seemed to him nothing but folly, 'for said he, 'I would exchange all my life as a man for my happiness now, and even now I retain almost all of the ridiculous conceptions of a man. The beasts are happier and I will deserve that happiness as best I can.
David Garnett, known as Bunny, was calming a private mind here. Men sin because they cannot be animals, he concludes. There is always something to overcome, even in Bloomsbury. His man in a zoo, labelled and on show, is another species, mauled by an orang-utan, befriended by a caracal. Tilda Swinton on show in the Serpentine, asleep, is somehow comparable. A zoo, a gallery, an audience.

David Garnett is labouring compared with Thomas Thwaites, who is, according to the subtitle of the book he wrote about being a goat, on holiday from being human. The 21st century manifests a refreshing directness in the face of lunacy. After talking to a shaman about animism and totemism, he concludes
Really, to want to become a goat is pretty standard. In fact, historically speaking it's almost odder to not want to become a goat.

Friday 27 May 2016

Reading the stories of Robert Musil, either too slowly or too fast, disquieted as I can be when I read what I like to call my diary's desert years, my early twenties, when everything was bottomless, especially words and the sentiments they tried to track. Fractals they turned out to be. A Musil narrator lost in her own finesse was just what I needed to read then. Not now. I'm impatient with my younger self, struggling to accommodate my older self. The Musil introspection overwhelms. Perhaps it's the translation. Or the translatedness of everything, German into English and future into past, what might happen into what has not happened. I want something swifter, like two swallows whizzing through a dark shed and out into the air.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Wanting to read is a condition of early evening, in playful combat with wanting to write. I was thinking of Rilke and opened instead Robert Creeley's Autobiography, published by Hanuman Books and printed in India in tiny format—70 x 104 mm—with uncertain inking and page trim, from among the (small) books that live on my desk. To judy from J.D. says the dedication, as if I'd given it to myself, which I thought I had. The life within an Autobiography this small is brought down to size; to say nothing of judy and J.D. He—we—have parents and went fishing, we read books, fell in love, we regard the sky, 'this shifting massive place of light and weather', 'an old blue place', refer to our friends, gauge our displacement.
Wittgenstein proposes that it is the "I" that is "deeply mysterious," not "you" or "them." What cannot be objectified is oneself. Yet the fiction, finally for real, is attractive—that the Walt Whitman of Song of Myself is, as Borges says, one of the consummate literary fictions of all time.

Saturday 14 May 2016

A review of Bohumil Hrabal by Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books had me pondering a Russian proverb: 'In the vegetable garden grows the elder tree, and uncle is in Kiev'. The inconsequence plus the elements of vegetable garden, elder tree, uncle and Kiev, gave me a feeling of intense familiarity and contentment. I understood or recognised without understanding or recognition. The small leaps between vegetable garden, elder tree, uncle and Kiev, the dislocation and the warmth, the lightness of being, swam delightfully together.
(Hrabal) said he always had the impression that people who kept rabbits, hoed their own potatoes, and butchered animals lived more intensely. In the midst of some ordinary story they'd surprise you by saying something extraordinary.
I keep hens but butcher them with circumspection, if at all. I endeavour to keep rabbits away from young trees and indeed the vegetable garden. Talk around hens, live or dead, around potatoes and rabbits is vivid enough for six in the era of digital treasure.

Thus primed I return to Too Loud A Solitude and relish it so much I have to stop after only a few pages. Yes, yes and yes. Hrabal is a hectic writer. He sucks on sentences like sweets, drinks in order to think better, to read better, to go to the heart of what he reads. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by a book-compactor. All day he compacts books in a hydraulic press, rescuing and reading volumes here and there, learning the joys of devastation, the pleasures of the wrecking ball.
I can be by myself because I'm never lonely, I'm simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harm-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to have taken a liking to the likes of me.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Candido or A Dream Dreamed in Sicily by Leonardo Sciascia becomes A Dream Dreamed in Inniscarra as the season of reading outdoors begins. Sicily is easily Italy and then slips out to be part of North Africa. Or Inniscarra.

Leonardo Sciascia is another Italian writer of the mid-twentieth century with a clean receding hairline.
Time was when you couldn't google an Italian writer's hairline. You could only read his books and peruse his name: Scia Scia.

Sciascia's Candido is facile and touching, clean-run and impervious. You don't feel for him but you feel for his trajectory, his will to truth, which looks like blindness or naiveté, idiocy in the old sense, silly in the old sense too: of the soul.

All this under a clean plain hairline. Of all the Italian writers I've read recently, Bassani is probably best on women (although that could be De Sica speaking). Sciascia is like Moravia: his forthrightness on housekeepers and whores is defensive and chilly.

But there are ideals. Candido wants to give away land in order that a hospital be built by the town gates. You do not give away land, says the gombeen man, that cuts out the swathe of intrigue and profit on which politics is built, Candido learns.

Reading about Sicily in Ireland is about right. Within the last half-century. Apart from fascism and communism. We're not talking Fine Fail and Fine Gael. We're talking Voltaire. Vol Taire. Flight silenced, as Mallarmé noticed.

'Then it was clear to him that perhaps he had indeed not known how to read many things, but others he had not understood precisely because he had understood them; that is, he had denied that Marx had meant to say and had said precisely what he had said.'

And: 'the very people who preferred to talk little, whose family and social life was made up of silences more than of words, loved long preachments and speakers who made themselves least understood. "My soul understands him", a little old woman said.'

Friday 6 May 2016

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis I knew first as De Sica's film, and then, for decades in my memory, as a vast garden with a tennis court and a brother and sister separated from the town of Ferrara by a high wall. The two young actors (Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger) have an internal nordic complicity or likeness that deflects from the Sephardi identity they have in the book; they don't so much act as lie in wait for our responses. If that is a condition of haute jewishness in late nineteen thirties Italy, then De Sica is eloquent.

There are three generations of Finzi-Continis; the house has a library; there's a constant and again nordic great dane dog called Jor. If this were Visconti rather than De Sica the house and garden would be more voluptuous, more lingering. There would be more politics, if gentlemanly and gracious. The tennis is awkward, as if, despite or because of Skiwasser (water with raspberry syrup, a slice of lemon and a few grapes) and very distinguished canapés from the kosher shop in Ferrara, every match is doomed.

Bassani's book is less rhapsodic than De Sica's film. Here is a young man in love, reflection and confusion about when to kiss, when to stay away, about missed opportunities, bungled moments, conversations about politics, choice of thesis topic; and then Hitler obliterates everything; fascism and communism are both relegated. There are no more conversations.

The story is better than the writing. The translation could be more involving. The printing of the edition I bought is repro, too thick and too black, which adds to the discomfort, the feeling that you're reading for the tale, for the narrator's loss, the jewish loss, and in honour of the Finzi-Contini garden, those tennis afternoons and their refreshments, as well as your responsive twenty-five year-old self.

The title, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, like, The Beautiful Room is Empty, or, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, is everything.