Thursday 26 January 2017

Platonov, The Foundation Pit

Platonov's The Foundation Pit is a violent, disturbing read. The violence is embedded in the language, not in the action. Having laboured and lying down, often not getting up again, are the dominant modes. Consciousness and the state are totalitarian. There is talk of socialised property and liquidation of illiteracy. The larger the words the emptier the minds of those who try to rest, the more excruciated their grasp on what is happening to them. Humans and their being in the world are constantly threatened if not already severed.

The difference between reading Platonov and reading Kafka or Beckett is that Platonov's creatures flail and sink inside a distinct historical reality. However little the reader might know about Stalin's Russia, the fact of it is there. Post-truth. Pre-truth. During truth.

I read The Foundation Pit badly, often in the middle of the night. Perhaps you have to read it badly, in short bursts, when the reading of the night before has all but vanished, as for Platonov's creatures the day before has all but vanished, along with the day to come. This is despair, after all, Russian despair. Everything vast. And hopeless. The foundation pit is a graveyard. A collective farm is a collection of bones. Barren hens quietly groan in people's arms.

Platonov's creatures feel at home as long as they can see limits of any kind, any form of endgame, any depth of absurdity. Some of my psyche feeds on this, I have to conclude. I might sleep better for it, and even if I don't, there'll be comfort and reflection in the wakefulness, the extenuated humour.
But why, Nikita, do the fields lie there so boringly? Is there really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there's a five-year plan?

Sunday 22 January 2017

Rilke, Duino Elegies

I bought a different translation of the Duino Elegies. As with a new recording of Beethoven late quartets, I was nervous and curious as I began. My original copy, bought when I was a student, is the dual language JB Leishman & Stephen Spender translation, hardcover, with nearly intact dust jacket, Hogarth Press, soft chalky paper, comfortable layout. The new book is a Vintage paperback, thin rough paper, pinched layout, over inked, also dual language, with translation and editing by Stephen Mitchell.

The new recordings of Beethoven (the Takacs quartet) I have been listening to this winter have easily overtaken the old ones, though I notice quieter transitions or unusual accents. Old involvement with a recording (the Budapest quartet), old investment in quality of sound with ambient associations, holds from one recording to another.

Not so on the page. In visceral, childish fashion I only want these words on this paper. I want my pencil marks, confirmation of my innerness then, the most reliable crux of life.  In order to read the Duino Elegies I have to be able to turn into the person I was when I first read them, and for that I need the paper, the marks, the page layout, the deep W at the start of the first elegy.
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength
of his
stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing
but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I repress myself, and swallow the call-note
of depth-dark sobbing. Alas, who is there
we can make use of? Not angels, not men;
and even the noticing beasts are aware
that we don't feel very securely at home
in this interpreted world.
I like the awkwardness and sometimes impermeability of this translation. I want to be as luxuriously bemused as I was when I was 22. Deep inside what I didn't understand, I did understand.

I heard on the radio this morning that ten percent of people in the UK do not have a book in their house. Ninety percent have a cook book or a self help or a manual or a novel. No mention of a bible, not even for smashing a ganglion.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Philip K. Dick, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

The front cover of my copy of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland has faded to shades of light- and mid-blue, the colours of a lost morning. The reds are the first to go in colour printing. The Pontiac, if it's not a Chevy, on the front cover should be red, the office and its sign should be cerise. No champagne hour chez Philip K Dick. Everyone is too sad and unsuccessful, the view too veiled, too confused.

The last few chapters are best read in the bath, where a general softening of outlook allows Humpty Dumpty and his acquaintance fall down and pick themselves up over and over again, till by the last page you know this does not stop, a used car lot closes and another opens up, some die and some relocate, a record company called Teach is always looking for a new motif.

This is like Dashiell Hammett without the latent heroism. His detectives are laconic but they are heroes. Chez Philip K Dick, our used car salesman, our garage mechanic, our record company, our wives (who are Greek if not educated), strain for some kind of buoyancy. No heroes. No resolution. Prose is discarded talk. Plot is obfusc and fickle. Death tidier than most other states.

The used car salesman and the garage mechanic have lost all certainty of understanding the world in which they try to make their way, butting into obstacles that look like opportunity. They acknowledge no code of behaviour, no code at all, except, without conviction, a vaguely self-serving behaviour. If you make the right decision you'll probably die before you know it.

I don't get on well with Philip K Dick's science fiction. I find it hard enough to consider the world as it is, without taking on the world as it might have been. I have no room for imagined horrors. The novels contemporaneous with his Bay Area, Marin County, Sonoma/Petaluma experience I enjoy. They are discomfiting as Platonov's Central Asia or Walser's Middle Europe, if less poignant, or poignant without poetry, or rejecting the comfort that poignancy might bring.

The puff on the back cover from the Times Literary Supplement of the 80s includes words like Nescience and Anomie, which look quaint in today's strictly easy-peasy strain of enthusiasm. When my fellow students were reading Durkheim, Marx and Weber, I was reading Rimbaud, Rilke and Virginia Woolf. Anomie is a likeable word, secretive, detached yet warm, redolent of plant life, light winds, secure alienation. Nescience sounds like something George Clooney could sell.

Sunday 8 January 2017

John Cage's diary up at the pond

Reading John Cage's diary does not preempt cleaning out and patching the pond, which is what we did today.
Diary: How to
Improve the World (you will
Only Make Matters Worse)
Up at the pond, we pull out our parrot weed and limit our bogbean, we squeeze out our Tec 7 onto prepared ovals of black plastic and cover over holes caused by, perhaps, slipping a coracle into the pond and pulling it out, or by shifting of substrate, revealing of small stones cracked into this shape by ancient fires, and rubbing of black plastic against same, we sharpen our awareness as to the limitations of our efforts. We might just as well, like John Cage, pluck our patches from our local beyond, juxtapose our bogbean prunings on the compost heap like cavaliers on holiday, throw muddy great diving beetles over the fence, leave this year's frogs back into the slime if that's where they want to go.
Old reasons for doing things no
longer exist. (Sleep whenever/ Your
work goes on being done. You and it no
longer have a means of separation.)
Some kinds of reading—of the pond and John Cage—meet and draw breath. What is a very small frog doing out and about at this time of year? Older bullfrogs are nearly ready for the season of singing and procreation. We pondworkers are entirely superfluous. With our waterlilies and our management and even our good will.
Do nothing for one reason only. Think
it with respect to a large number of
other reasons, preferably reasons
that seem contradictory.
A small spider climbing between the page and the desk light. John Cage would like that. Covert operations of chance and nature. The need for a skein to an upper level, and a quick escape back down. Hanging in the balance when I open the window for a taste of night air alongside Mozart (played by Mitsuko Uchida).
monks take turns: one of them reads out
loud while the others are eating.
They call it "the greater silence."