Wednesday 29 March 2017

James Baldwin, Another Country

I bought Another Country by James Baldwin on Saturday 3rd April, 1965. I wrote the date on the flyleaf the next day. Into my life of applying for university, working for A levels, digesting my family, came James Baldwin. The same day I bought The Magic Mountain, all 650 pages of it, for later. And on Tuesday 13th April, after a detailed account of my (paternal) grandparents' fugues from diverse hospitals, I quoted Thom Gunn, who was on the A level English syllabus: One is always nearer by not keeping still. This is the kind of civilised being I was.

And now? Bring James Baldwin into my life of reading writing composting planting, etcaetera, in Ireland, and what happens? I become the person who read it in 1965 and have no notion what this life, James Baldwin's, with its sharp poignant divisions, means to me, or meant.

I resist for a while then give in. Halfway through Another Country this time I start to read, the way a horse that gallops can be said, at a certain point, to break into a run.

Thursday 23 March 2017

Angela Carter, Black Venus, The Bloody Chamber

Reviews of a new biography of Angela Carter sent me back to her books, all of which I have, I think, in their Picador/King Penguin/Virago editions of the 1970s and 80s. It wasn't until I'd finished Black Venus and started The Bloody Chamber that I remembered why I'd felt at home with them when they came out; and why I haven't re-read them. Certain books are absorbed by the life into which they fed. They do not teleport. Angela Carter came out of a reading culture I knew — from Baudelaire to fairy stories — and she was older than I was, with a will to shake off any chattels that didn't suit her.  I knew her, or wanted to know her.
His library seemed the source of his habitual odour of Russian leather. Row upon row of calf-bound volumes, brown and olive, with gilt entering on their spines, the octavo in brilliant scarlet morocco. A deep-buttoned leather sofa to recline on. A lectern, carved like a spread eagle, that held open upon it an edition of Huysmans's Là-bas...
This was a scenario I knew. What happened was secondary.  Standing at the lectern and reading, as interloper, as greedy thief, as innocent. That was as much as I could understand. The bloody chamber, the murdered wives, the gothic gore, were beyond me.

What did I make of the ruby choker that saves our fragile but resilient heroine? How did I wear it in 1979? With defiance, fear, quiet assurance or absolute refusal? Where did I stand, exactly, in my own  life, at what distance from it?  How much mythic could I stomach? How many prototypes? Then? Now?

Angela Carter leaves with more questions than she arrived.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Reading poetry on the beach at Puerto Banus

It may be that a completely new wraparound reality (Puerto Banus) is ideal for reading poetry. On the early spring beach, almost deserted, with two mountains of sand ready to spread for the coming season, I'm ready to renew too. Sharon Olds in Penguin Modern Poets Three (Your Family, Your Body) had me reading and re-reading. Residing, in fact. And while I sat, the beach changed under energetic waves. What was a glorious black wet landmark stone over to the left has vanished, and the flotsam that could have been a dead dog or a camera bag, has not landed. I like to think all this has an exact counterpart in my reading: things have moved, vanished, swallowed, shifted like the smashed tomato box once right in front of me, now some way to the left in several more pieces, in my mind too.

On the way back in the plane, the stag party to whom, on the way out, the pilot read the riot act while matron confiscated their gin, are now exhausted revellers, children with their mouths open, ears red, all bounce exhaled, stripes hold up nothing, porkpie hat sans ketchup, trackless tracksuit, asleep on their tray-tables, under their tattoos.

While they slept I perused Penguin Poets Two (Controlled Explosions) which felt too chilly and tense for in-flight mode. There will be blood, but not here. In my head, but not here, not now. There will be explosions, but not here, not now.

Perusal is reading, after all. You slip about the pages like a pig after truffles, or the customs dog at work among our legs and luggage when we came off the plane.

Thursday 9 March 2017

Reading as eavesdropping, Christopher Isherwood

The last few days, or rather, nights, I have read Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man and Prater Violet. This is reading as eavesdropping, as just dropping in to Christopher's in L.A. or in London. Intimate yet formal. On page 90 of Prater Violet, the London film-making novel, he has a scene where Lawrence, the film's master cutter, discourses on film-making.
If you so-called artists would behave like technicians and get together, and stop playing at being democrats, you'd make the public take the kind of picture you wanted. This business about the box office is just a sentimental democratic fiction. If you stuck together and refused to make anything but, say, abstract films, the public would have to go and see them, and like them....
So right. This was the 1930s. Hitler was on the rise. Abstraction the safest place to be. Prater Violet is  the name of the film they're making, set in Vienna, with an Austrian director. The presence of the film in the novel is pleasantly spectral, a plot ideally keeping well into the background, about which you don't have to care; unlike Lawrence the Master Cutter, who always cares.