Thursday 25 August 2016

T.S.Eliot and Apsley Cherry-Garrard

  We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
TS Eliot at the end of Four Quartets.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard on The worst journey in the world.
The man with the nerves goes farthest. What is the ratio between nervous and physical energy? What is vitality? Why do some things terrify you at one time and not at others? What is this early morning courage? What is the influence of imagination? How far can a man draw on his own capital?  …
There are many reasons which send men to the Poles, and the Intellectual Force uses them all. …
Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.
Eliot published Four Quartets in 1944. Cherry-Garrard, who spent several years in the Antarctic, published The worst journey in the world in 1922. Guy Davenport taught a course on the year 1922. How would you teach 1944?
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
Eliot is glorious for your elliptical youth. While explorers sledge on, dodging crevasses and hauling out ponies and later eating them. They dream of food.
Night after night I bought big buns and chocolate at a stall on the island platform at Hatfield station, but always woke before I got a mouthful to my lips; some companions who were not so highly strung were more fortunate, and ate their phantom meals.
A séjour in the Antarctic brought about in these explorers a species of lectio divina. They had few books and they read them well. Scott favoured Darwin's Origin of Species as a sledging book, excellent for reflection and discussion. An encyclopaedia, plus Greek and Latin dictionaries were essential for settling disputes. Dante's Inferno did the rounds among the men, as well as several Histories, Browning, Tennyson and Bleak House.

The Worst Journey in the World has been on my shelves for a long time but I haven't read it till now. I wonder why.
     You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance,
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession
In order to arrive at what you are not
Books you choose but do not read are a niche category. During the years I did not embark upon The Worst Journey in the World, I read Four Quartets back to front, front to back, settling eventually on short sections— about dance, garlic, simplicity, exploration—that I read over and over the way I listened to short sections of Schubert or Beethoven, intently, in relief and in gratitude.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Witold Gombrowicz, Pornografia

If you want to relate to the writing of Witold Gombrowicz, it is advisable first to spend a day of sullen close weather dealing with Revenue and Felling Licences and Gmail accounts and the right amplifier for Quad speakers (Quad). Pornografia, a philosophical novel, crime novel and a state of general disarray and despair and absurdity in Occupied Poland circa 1943, is a marvellous fit.

Bacacay, a collection of early stories named for a side street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived (in exile), is good for the day after, with light winds, nebulous rain and occasional brightening of the sky. Early stories are looser and more naked. You can see more clearly why he needed to write in leaps, bounds and lacunae. Things are laid out like hammer blows once a story has a title and a main character, like 'The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki'.
I was born and raised in a most respectable home. It is with great emotion that I run toward you, my childhood! I see my father, a handsome man of lofty stature, with a face in which everything—gaze, features, and gray-tinged hair —all combined into the very image of perfect noble breeding. I see you too, mother, in spotless black, with no other adornment than a pair of antique diamond earrings. And I see myself, a small, solemn, thoughtful lad, and I feel like weeping at those shattered hopes. Perhaps the only imperfection in our family life was the fact that my father hated my mother.
Once you have found yourself a way to stay at a safe distance from the horrors, pushing and jabbing, you're on your way, you write on and on. Savagely. Stories, novels, plays. Gombrowicz's published diary runs to seven hundred pages. Seven hundred pages is a drop in the ocean. Monday—me. Tuesday—me. Wednesday—me.

Shadowy stories thrash about chez Gombrowicz. It is not his life with which we acquaint, it's his sound and his fury.

Monday 15 August 2016

Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet

Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet makes a fine retreat on windy, sinusbound afternoon. I wanted something short and open, with suggestion. I also wanted to fall asleep for some time in the middle of reading, which I did.

I first read Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books, where already I realised that, given a slight tweak of history, I might have known him. Same age, same background, same weft and warp, more history, more discussion, a voluble rather than a silent family.

My young sense of kin was built on people like him I knew existed, probably in London, later in New York. When I did meet them I had a sense of recognition and discomfort, like an evening meal en famille, minus the black holes. I wasn't used to feeling at home.

He wrote or built The Memory Chalet during the later stages of motor neurone disease, in which limbs and functions drop away but the mind races on, nightlong. He's a historian, so his nightlong is full of structure, the only itch he can scratch till morning and assistance come. Harold Brodkey did something similar in 1996 when he was in hospital dying of AIDS: 'I am practicing making entries in my journal to record my passage into non-existence'. Tony Judt takes his cue from an Italian traveller to medieval China: The memory palace of Matteo Ricci. The building is a mnemonic device and a container to leave in trust.

Much of what I recognise in Tony Judt lies in his unease about identity labels such as English or Jew, his preference for edge people, as well as a shared era of Green Line buses and Paris événements. It's a relief to consolidate my own sense of being (happily) on the edge. Sometimes I forget how appealing that is, how fundamental to so much of life. Then there are moments when, for example, walking down the Coal Quay in Cork City on a Saturday morning, I realise among the organic veg stalls that I have skeetered back from the edge into a brief sense of the middle.

Monday 8 August 2016

David Jones, In Parenthesis

David Jones' In Parenthesis is as visceral a long piece of language as you could find anywhere. As impenetrable as war itself. He called his poem Rosi when he was writing it in the 1920s, from the heart of NeuRosiS. Did it help to medicalise war? Did it help to write it, to rebuild the paraphernalia, the accents, glimpses of french farm life, violation of landscape, clouds, how firm the mist holds in low places? Is helping even a word?
 How piteous the torn small twigs. Thin blue smoke rises straight, like robber-fire,
The immediacy is too dire. I have to stare out at my own surroundings, the windy summer day. And then I can read it. This intimacy and pliancy. For a short time.

Likewise I can't take too much news (about Syria). I heard on the radio about a bookshop or book club in, I think, Aleppo. Isn't it dangerous to be going out getting books here? asked the reporter. It's dangerous everywhere, said a man who was reading Hamlet: I've read half and before the end of the year I hope to read the other half.

What was David Jones reading in the trenches? He must have been writing when he could, holding on to the landscape the moonlight and the soldierspeak, as well as all the reading he'd done, all the words he'd absorbed. In Parenthesis is saturated with The Golden Bough, Malory, the Old Testament, Plato, Shakespeare, the songs the Welsh sang at rugby matches. Ransacking for comfort in the era of footnotes. David Jones footnoted in gentlemanly fashion. I read them, mostly, even when I don't need to. To step outside the trenches.

I read part 4 up at the pond this afternoon. Neither sunny nor not. Fished out lemna betimes. Two buzzards out, one bathing in the feeder pond when I went up. The savagery of David Jones' language next to a whirr of whirligig beetles in the middle of the pond. One intimacy for another. One routine. Lemna watch. Rat watch.
When it's all quiet you can hear them:
scrut scrut scrut
when it's as quiet as this is.
It's so very still.
Your body fits the crevice of the bay in the most comfortable fashion imaginable.
It's cushy enough. 
The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? — bugger all to report?—kipping made? christ, mate—you'll 'ave 'em all over.
If trenches in France you can't comprehend, if the big picture is crooked once you're inside it, absorb what's closest—in a trench everything is close—including death, life and lukewarm tea, populate with Welsh myth and legend, Morte d'Arthur and sundry heroes, fools and dreamers.
Roll on duration—
  we're drawing pith-helmets for the Macedonian war—they camel-corps won't have platoon drill anyway—deux grenadine ma'm'selle—this is mine, Alphonso—here's the lucky Alphonse, the genuine lion heart, back in time for the 'bus to Jaffa and the Blackamoor delectations.
  He swayed his pelvis like a corner-boy.
 In Parenthesis is a diary written afterwards, an onward rush through a year or so of World War 1. You have to read it as he wrote it. Is that an obvious thing to say? Or does certain writing present as the only way to say it, no compromise, no cliché, no long list for literary award, no list at all?

Monday 1 August 2016

Catching the Light, Arthur Zajonc

The humanity of Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind by Arthur Zajonc (a great watery roving Slav name) is what makes it hard to read except glidingly. I have always read science books for whatever briefly made sense, and for whatever decisively didn't. I like being bemused. I can rest across paragraphs and sentences I don't understand. Arthur Zajonc's history of light and mind is history, illuminated, orderly. I have to rewrite it as I read, take off where I can. A phrase about looking through a vacuum to the other side, another about the tenderness you learn in childhood—a quick dash through my childhood reveals none, except in the music of Schubert.

Reading science in my twenties I learned to open a book at random and rove around till I lit on a phrase I didn't understand in a pleasurable way. Douglas Hofstadter. Richard Feynman. Paracelsus. Lucretius. I preferred reading that was beyond me. And so learned to live there.

As my onetime neighbour in Sussex, Sally Corbett  (SNEC) asked, when I enthused about Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, my reading of the moment, I don't read much, she said, I need to know before I start do I need to read this? Yes, I said. Everyone needs to understand a tailor retailored.

The quality of thought is concurrent with the quality of light. The way I might read Catching the Light, or Sartor Resartus, in summer differs from the way I'd read in winter; or next week, or half an hour from now, after I have released a blackbird from the greenhouse, a juvenile I think, with young, anxious feathers.