Sunday 30 April 2017

Degenerate Reading

Degenerate reading can be achieved in a number of situations.

In her last years my mother said she would take any book that was to hand at 4 a.m. or so and read the page she opened at, then try to go to sleep again. Could be Walter Scott. Could be The Paston Letters. Reading because she knew how to, because she had a book to hand and she was awake.

I used to keep Boswell's Life of Johnson in the car to read at traffic lights. It was comfortable, warm, remote, and, inevitably, sporadic. I wasn't reading my way through it, it was just to catch the tone and then the lights would go green. If that volume went to the great carpark in the sky with the aged Morris, so be it.

Recently I have read a few lines at a time, usually in the early evening, from a tiny copy of Eugène Sue's Mysteries of Paris, which is sensational in the 19th century manner, stiffly translated, serial in the way Dickens was; unreadable.
                        CHAPTER XXV1 
               THE ISLE OF RAVAGEURS 
The individuals now introduced to the reader's notice were a bloodthirsty and cruel race, with one exception, the eldest son. The head of the family had suffered on the scaffold, as his father had done. Their residence was well situated for the perpetration of any crime......

I have also dipped about in the catalogue at the back of the book. A portrait of reading in the mid-late 19th century. Series include THE NEW, NOVELIST'S LIBRARY, POETICAL SERIES, MISCELLANEOUS, PENNY GUIDES TO GAMES, and THE JUVENILE SERIES, in a variety of sizes and finishes, with or without vignette.

I had a phase of reading bad novels, after A levels and again after university. Victorian and Edwardian novels. I don't know now what I was trying to find out but degeneracy may have come into it.

Sunday 23 April 2017

Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay

Up at the reservoir on a warm morning it's easy to move from rural Suffolk a hundred years ago to the Brooklyn Public Library last week where a philosopher chews over some big questions with a group of third-graders.

This is reading as flexing, during which certain things fall away and others stand in soft relief, like an old tree stump in the water, down to its lineaments. Reading as part of the landscape.

George Ewart Evans published Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay in 1956. He's a plain reporting shy kind of writer, not at ease but keen to convey. There are chapters on bread, sheep, cheese, pigs and stonepicking, the dialect, the tales, the names of fields, the social structure: how far you had to go 'to go away foreign' (not very far).
...people rarely went out to buy things in the town, the village was almost entirely self supporting, most families living on what they grew or reared on their yards or allotments
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn Public Library, the big questions involve foxes, mushrooms, chewing gum and the soul and where it is. Third-graders have a great sense of reality.
What if we're not really here? What if we're in someone else's dream?
What if it's an object, and it's gum—but it's not, because those are just words we use for things?
The coconut scent of gorse runs through an inadvertent garden by the reservoir, sheltered from the light northerly air: ladies smock, foxglove, ragweed, hypericum, dandelion, willow herb, self-heal, eyebright.

I walked back along the lake very slowly, looking at air bubbles on underwater stones, negotiating gorse bushes—the water is high in the reservoir—noting plants and rescuing insects from shallow water.

One tree stump from 1951 when the reservoir was created, stood at the water's edge. I sat on it, but  I didn't sit on it, it's an object but it's not, because those are just words we use for things.

Saturday 15 April 2017

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay

The early pages of Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond usher in such a sweeping and tribal first person plural I'm not sure I want to read on, but, a few pages later, as our gender-loose narrator and Aunt Dot and the Reverend Father Chantry-Pigg set off with a camel to the Black Sea, in order, perhaps, to set up an Anglican mission in Trebizond, it sounds like English Eccentrics Go East, a mission with a pinch of salt, imperious and modest, ingenious and adaptive, happy to set up camp, to muster some Turkish out of a wrong-minded phrase book, and, later, to wait out the disappearance of Aunt Dot and The Reverend Father Chantry-Pigg behind the (Iron) curtain.

As s/he, our narrator, waits in Trebizond, s/he imagines what the English would do with the place. having spoiled anywhere they'd occupied, like Gibraltar and Cyprus
....with barracks and dull villas and pre-fabs. Actually, if we took Trebizond, we should probably clear away the Turkish houses and gardens and alleys from the citadel and cut away the trees and shrubs and leave it all stark and bare like a historical monument, and we should build a large harbour and fill it with cargo ships, and a few battleships, and there would be a golf club and a bathing beach and several smart hotels and a casino and a cinema and a dance hall and a new brothel, and several policemen, and a hospital, and a colony of villas, and soldiers and sailors would crowd about the streets and call it Trab, and large steamers would ply every day to and from Istanbul bring tourists, and the place would prosper once more, not as it used to in the great days when the trade from Persia and Arabia flowed into it by sea and caravan, and gold and jewels glittered like the sun and moon and stars within the palace, for no place can prosper like that, but it would be prosperous, it would have trade, it would have communications, inventions, luxury, it would have great warehouses on the quays and a great coming and going.
Our narrator heads south on the camel, through Palmyra, Aleppo, Homs, to Jerusalem, where s/he has a vision of Trebizond.
Then, between sleeping and waking, there rose before me a vision of Trebizond: not Trebizond as I had seen it, but the Trebizond of the world's dreams, of my own dreams, shining towers and domes shimmering on a far horizon, yet close at hand, luminously enspelled in the most fantastic unreality, yet the only reality, a walled and gated city, magic and mystical, standing beyond my reach yet I had to be inside, an alien wanderer yet at home....
An alien wanderer yet at home. And now? Now that aliens are science fiction and wanderers are refugees?

Sunday 9 April 2017

My first plotless experience, Cain's Book, Giovanni's Room

Unsure exactly who, among my selves, read Another Country, I'm now reading Giovanni's Room, another Corgi book with a blocky blue/red on black cover, to see if anything comes clear.

I cannot read James Baldwin novels without encountering my seventeen year-old self. That is how embedded I am in all I've ever read. Reading James Baldwin also involves reading my old diary. I cannot even look at the author photo on the back of the book without becoming the diarist I was. The diarist I am? The incomprehension and impatience of yesteryear are fresh.

Around the time I was reading James Baldwin I also read Alexander Trocchi, as recommended by a boy I fancied who worked in the market. Cain's Book was my first plotless experience; I still prefer plotless. Experiential. Another kind of page-turner.