Thursday 29 June 2017

Elizabeth Bowen, The heat of the night

Elizabeth Bowen on 'that heady autumn of the first London air raids', has a freedom, a light-headedness, the intimacy of the besieged, which she must have had already in her Anglo-Irish blood. The heat of the night, Chapter Five, I read in astonishment. Fear is my inherited sense of the Blitz, not privilege.
All through London, the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of street made islands of exalted if stricken silence, and people crowded against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side.
Something of that sunny emptiness lasted into my childhood, fifty miles from London, drifts of leaves, dazzling silences. I didn't know bomb sites on the ground but I knew them in my mind.
The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or to think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran to slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.
How much of this we take in with mother's milk is a conundrum.
That autumn of 1940 was to appear, by two autumns later, apocryphal, more far away than peace. No planetary round was to bring again that particular conjunction of life and death; that particular psychic London was to be gone for ever; more bombs would fall, but not on the same city.
Whence our sense of ruin.
The first generation of ruins, cleaned up, shored up, began to weather — in daylight they took their places as a norm of the scene; the dangerless nights of September two years later blotted them out. It was from this new insidious echoless propriety of ruins that you breathed in all that was most malarial.
I read this, not even at three a.m., and recognised everything.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

The Little Girls, Elizabeth Bowen

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen, a Reprint Society edition of 1966, sturdy hardback for these summer days.

The eponymous little girls are grandmothers at the start, mysteriously convoked by one of them. Part Two returns to their time at St Agatha's school, a coven of 11 year-olds who bury a box just before World War 1, a coffer of their secret, significant things, with a message written in blood.

We are dead, and all our fathers and mothers. You who find this, Take Care. These are our valuable treasures, and our fetters. They did not kill us, but could kill You. Her Bones, too. You need not imagine that they are ours, but Watch Out. No wonder you are puzzled. Truly Yours, the Buriers of This Box.

If I am drawn to the writing of the early-mid-twentieth century, it's because the psychic metronome was set then, the discomfort and the transparency. My own reunions going on fifty years are opaque, though I'm drawn to them. The nearest I can get to understanding female friendship and its angularities is via my mother and her friend Gertie, who bickered and sulked their way into old age; and the movie The Second Wives Club.
You know, a person's only a person when they have some really raging peculiarity—don't you notice that, Mrs Coral, with all your friends? 
So says Dinah. My mother was also called Dinah, always, (she disliked being mistaken for a Diana) unlike Elizabeth Bowen's principal Little Girl, who began as Diana, and was Dicey to her friends.
You are Dinah. One becomes, you've become. So look here, Dinah, try and have sense! Sad though it was we lost touch, you and I have got on perfectly well without one another for going on fifty years—
Up at the pond, I lean in on the uncomfortable prose, the frequent asides and italicised emphases, the unfinished sentences, so English, so chilly and sensible. The plot, the buried coffer, all turn out to be empty. Everything, home and reality, the blood of messages, has run away.
Everything has. Now it has, you see. Nothing's real any more ...  Nothing's left, out of going on fifty years.
Part Three draws into deepening disquiet as Dicey, Sheikie and Mumbo re-enter each other's lives. Nothing, of course, is resolved or revealed. Sentences lean into their hesitations, their uncertain clauses, exhaustive precisions, their long stories never quite told, the door to the cave, the new, expanded coffer for the future, is tied shut with thick, damp rope. 

Sunday 11 June 2017

Diane Arbus, Chaucer

The best read of the week was from Diane Arbus' student essay on Chaucer in 1940.
Chaucer seems to be very sure and whole and his attitude toward everything is so calm and tender because he was satisfied and glad that he was himself .... He seems to love physical things, even obscene ones, and from looking at them, he gets a contact with the other person. His way of looking at everything is like that of a newborn baby: he sees things and each one seems wonderful, not for its significance in relation to other things, but simply because it is unique and because it is there.
Wonderful what you can write when you don't quite know what you're saying, then go on saying it, through your work, for the rest of your life.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

John Berger, Into Their Labours

I don't know why, yesterday, the phrase 'into their labours' came into my head, and John Berger with it. Maybe it was planting out the leeks, or re-heaping the compost. John Berger's spoken voice and tv/photo presence make me uneasy. I find it hard to start reading him again. I sympathise with his take on life, but his ego grates. He does his proselytising so quietly it hurts.

I can read anything in the bath. I can read the first story in Once in Europa, the middle volume of the trilogy, Into Their Labours. Peasants are on their way down the mountain, some of them dying as they go, not leaving heirs or moving heirs to the town. The expository style does not fool.

The voice disappears behind the pages, without style or emphasis, without humour, into our lap. As a transplant myself, I'm uneasy about why he wants to tell these tales of peasant life in the french alps. I'm uncomfortable with his Marxist regret. He tries to keep the emotion out of his voice. Sometimes the less you show the more you show.

He has good titles. Once in Europa. Europa is full of myth and idea, a name worth reviving in these fractured European days. John Berger likes to return to the idea of things, the idea of peasant life, as well as the labour of it, the idea of Europe, which the change of an e to an a, Europa, reinforces.

Friday 2 June 2017

William Saroyan, Rock Wagram,

My copy of William Saroyan's Rock Wagram (1952), has, in addition to a sweet musty smell, a dedication and a date in code on the flyleaf, and the price, 16/=, mostly erased, and then, maybe half a century later, £1.00, written in large sloppy pencil. The code looks mathematical, with a lot of dashes between symbols. You can sense an intimacy, a friendship, between two men, I'd think. Good to remember that the gift of a book communicates before you've read a word.

Not a great novel, but if you like William Saroyan's stories, spend time in his company, as well as in the company of the two men whose friendship was in code. As Proust said somewhere, all great literature is in code; or did he say all great literature is a foreign language, which is maybe the same thing? All ordinary literature also, all ordinary life.

Actually, when I pulled the Saroyan off the shelves, I meant to look at William Sansom, who was adjacent, reminded of something he wrote about moving a table out into a garden in order to write, and how I didn't need a table, just somewhere flat with a backrest and preferably sun. The William Sansom book, a Penguin with the price, second-hand, 3P, slathered across the front cover in black felt-tip, was also published in 1952.