Sunday 25 September 2016

Calder and Boyars, New Writers 1971, John Donovan

Every book has a pedigree. Some books are more pedigree than book. I have been reading a novella by John Donovan, who was a neighbour and friend of my parents when I was growing up. When I was 17 he was 32, a wind from other planets blowing in Maldon, Essex; I first had couscous in his house, for example. We had first read and he second, of last week's New Statesman (?) from the library (at the end of the week they gave them away). He came on all the Ban the Bomb marches; he looked after the bric-à-brac stall at CND jumble sales in the Quaker meeting house (I did the book stall), and went to WEA lectures there, which may have been where he and my parents met. They had a troubled education in common, a desire to understand and to protest injustice and their horror. I didn't know he wrote; I knew he taught art. Whenever he came round I seemed to be washing my hair, he said.

In 1971 he published Anne in a Calder and Boyars new writers volume. His expression on the cover photo is intense, concerned, a slight frown, three-quarter view: everything matters. I took the book from my parents' house after my father died a few years ago; I have also had on my shelves for as long as I can remember, The Worst Journey in the World, whose flyleaf is inscribed with a large mid-blue italic signature: Donovan. Now I learn that John Donovan died last year.

When I read him now I retrieve a fresh calque of my 16 or 17 year-old self. There was John Donovan, walking along the Prom in Maldon, as I was around the same time, flailing about in doubts and desperate distances, as I did, embedding them in everything he saw, as I did. I was writing my diary and he was writing a novella, if he called it that, if he called it anything, if he could extract from the morass of everyday life what happened with Anne. Did she go on Ban the Bomb marches, or was this a girl of a different ilk? Why did he feel guilty? So responsible yet unclear? A difficult relationship to everyday life. In fact no such thing as the everyday. Every thought up for knocking down.
— Why? Harmless enough in itself. Anyway it's preferable to feeling nothing at all isn't it? A quick switch back to the horror of all that makes such dull moments seem not merely acceptable but positively good and desirable, however much the innocent over-sensitive part of oneself protests against it.
Had he missed reality altogether? Had I? Anne is made of burials and silences, hesitation and frustration. Many sentences stop before they've started. There is no explanation, no, nothing that will hold, only openings. Fragments and riffs. Opening one discussion, one philosophy, after another, and then stopping, picking up the everyday, loose hay spread around Platform Nine, the virtue of the Blenheim Orange apple.
'—"justify" eh? That's got a nice sort of something about it. "justify"…'
What would they be using a word like that for nowadays Bert?''
I've no idea Jack.'

Thursday 15 September 2016

Anne Carson, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Strout

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you.
So says Anne Carson. Fellow of Clarice Lispector. And Elizabeth Strout. I have been reading a crisp new hardback copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. In fact I read it once and started it again immediately. One immersion was not enough. Enough for what, I wonder, when I understood it on the first reading?

Elizabeth Strout and Clarice Lispector. They sit together in my head along with other forceful internal women who chose to write. Elizabeth Strout tentative/ apologetic/ unable/ determined, Clarice Lispector wilder, more stridently tender. If I can bring them together in my mind, the north-american/tender/careful mayflowerish Strout and the ukrainian/ jewish/ brazilian Lispector, they could surely sit together in a quiet place and talk over the desire for some view of truth, Elizabeth coming in on the transverse, Clarice, fiercer by far, preferring anecdote to narrative. Elizabeth ghosting a story obscurely hers, of terror and deprivation and much left unsaid.

Anne Carson, meanwhile, responding to a Roni Horn sculpture, covers the territory.
Candor is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader, the point is the telling itself.
I read Anne Carson in the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets (orange) (three women).
Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper. Nothing else exists. She takes her pen and writes on air some marks no one else will ever see, she bestows on it a kind of surplus, she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Daphne du Maurier, insomnia reading

From the bedroom bookshelves I read three Daphne du Maurier novels this week in some southeast asian weather followed by gales. Daphne du Maurier is good for insomnia and this has been a week of that. At three in the morning you can pick up where you left off at eleven at night, and, heartily manipulated by so much plot and character, maybe sleep.

The Parasites hauls you into the lives of three siblings—an actress, a musician and an artist—their Pappy (a singer)—and their Mama (a dancer). Overwrought and entrancing, their vicissitudes are compelling in a void, like Hello magazine or Netflix series. You can be interested if you feel like it. The story leaves no residue. The siblings are indeed parasites, crawling all over our attention. If only Daphne du Maurier could have desisted from calling the father Pappy. I choked every time, in sheer irritation, which, with luck, might hasten sleep.

My cousin Rachel is even more overwrought. Is Rachel a devil or a saint? Anyone who intrudes on an English Great Estate, who interrupts the order of things in rural England, a foreigner and adventurer, will meet her death on the penultimate page as the order of things resumes; dogs settle by the fire with their master whose delusions have now passed.

Frenchman's Creek was the third du Maurier of the week, in a wartime economy edition (tight cloth binding, dull blue, with yellow-brown pages, thin and rough). The Frenchman anchored in the creek, sensitive and philosophical, a gentleman who pirates for the style of the thing, at the end lets the heroine, briefly his cabin boy, go back to her life, to the order of things, her ringlets in place, her adventure safe in her memory.

Why do I choose to read popular fiction from the era of my parents' youth? Popular fiction of now I hardly read at all. (Something grating or ingratiating about styles you can situate too exactly.) I have also had periods of reading popular fiction closer to the era of my grandparents, who were illiterate.

Saturday 3 September 2016

The Starship and the Canoe

Unique among sympathetic remedies, reading lets you go where you please. After Antarctica, something warmer, less heroic and differently fraught. The Starship and the Canoe, Kenneth Brower's double biography of the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson and his son George, describes two senses of wilderness and frontier. Freeman wants to go live on an asteroid (wants his estranged son to go?) propelled by a series of nuclear explosions. George lives 95 feet up a Douglas fir near Vancouver, and builds kayaks, far from Princeton, where his father lives; his is the last tree before you get to the ocean.
It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilisation that small groups of men can escape from their neighbours and from their governments, to go and live as they please in the wilderness.
Says Freeman in defence of going to live on an asteroid; but not yet in defence of his son high up in a tree.

George needs to spend time in his tree house, he needs to be sequestered to see what kind of mind he has—not unlike his father's, as it turns out, they have the same eyes, the same face, the same laugh. It's the similarities that are the most painful to absorb. After rebelling against his father, George rebels against George in the tree house, he cuts his hair and moves closer to the rest of society.

You don't have to rebel for ever. And you don't have to join (your father). You can find your own way. Build your canoes. Listen to your whales. Googling reveals that present-day Freeman is a climate change sceptic and George sells canoes. Freeman thinks humans have been kind to the planet. He lives on hamburgers and coke. Kenneth Brower can't think how anyone can be so stupid. His sympathies are with George. He has a refreshing chapter called My Opinion.
Resting in the wan sunlight, I thought about the Dysons, father and son.
Sometimes it seemed to me that both were caught up in a kind of ghost dance. Both were hoping, like the plains Indians of the 1890s, for resurrections of ways of life that are past recall. George hadn't realised that the day of the Indians was over; Freeman hadn't seen that the white man's day was in its twilight.
The first time I read The Starship and the Canoe was pre-internet. The starship was the starship and the canoe was the canoe. The father and the son, asteroid and ocean. I understood the son and his habitat, his slow move into companionship in wild places; I had grudging patience for the father, looking out from his astrophysics, eating his hamburgers. So painstaking is Kenneth Brower's observation of a father-son dancing party in British Columbia and beyond. He interprets and makes it feel like a luxury we can ill afford to miss.