JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 28 July 2017

Maggie Nelson on the colour blue (Bluets), Cyril Connolly as Palinurus (The Unquiet Grave), and recently Brian Dillon's Essayism, summer reading of the contemplative kind, not seeking to enlace with narrative but to convey a sense of questing wherever it may lead, with varying tones of scholarship and unhappiness. Good for daytime or nighttime, beach or bed. Reading that liberates by stating and leaving the reader to ponder, to ruminate.

Like Maggie Nelson on the Tuareg, or blue tribe of North Africa, who wear blue robes and are imbued with blue. Their name means 'abandoned by God' but the Tuareg do not call themselves Tuareg, they call themselves Imohag, which means 'free men'. I need to pause around this, and to throw private scorn on Volkswagen, for example, who call one of their models Tuareg, which we, in our late-onset diggers-pokery contort into Toe-rag. I always notice what names car manufacturers give their new models, as, in childhood, at breakfast, I would obsessively read the cereal packet, and any other printed words, safe residua, I walked past or sat beside during the day.
Perhaps writing is not really pharmakon, but more of a mordant—a means of binding colour to its object—or of feeding it into it, like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin. But "mordant" too has a double edge: it derives from mordēre, to bite—so it is not just a fixative or preserver, but also an acid, a corrosive.
I like the detail, it revives the teacher in me, each turn of the mind a body blow.

Maggie Nelson wonders if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue could alter you irrevocably, if the memory, once sited in the brain, remains constant or is replaced at each remembering by a new trace. My mother had a number of blue dresses, all of which she made herself. I have one of them in my wardrobe, though I can't wear it, the shoulders are too narrow and quite possibly the fit of another kind too uncomfortable. The one I have is aquamarine silk, there is another I remember which was deep blue velvet, with a pattern of various squares in a darker blue or black. I was astonished by the depth of that blue, and how it confirmed the special occasion for which she had made it. I think, now Maggie Nelson has encouraged me to do so, that each time I remember the blue velvet dress it forms a new trace in my brain.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Walks With Robert Walser by Carl Seelig is an uncanny read, a private view you hadn't imagined, of a writer whose essence is modesty, withdrawal, and, of course, walking. Yet here is Carl Seelig, a  younger friend, later literary executor, who walked with him about twice a year for twenty years, and, tactfully, respectfully, with an eye to the future, recorded the day: where they went, what they ate and drank, what Robert, as he now is, said, what he wore, how he looked. None of this did we think we'd ever know.

At first, while we get used to the idea of reading mediated Walser, it resembles the back of the back of the tapestry, ghostly but blunt. Here is Walserland with place names, train rides and menus. Here is Robert without overcoat or umbrella, in the rain. Here he is wanting to do his tasks in the asylum, to be enfolded in that structure, not wanting to be seen to shirk, not wanting privilege, ready every day to serve his own madness, if that's what it was. All his oeuvre underlies these walks. We feel we're reading his books all over again without having one of them in front of us.

We Walser readers, Walser walkers, modest seekers.
We settle down at the Bären for veal with mushroom sauce, Rösti, beans and caramel crème. Nearby a group of holidaymakers gently sings "In Aargäu warr two loverss"; a few village children pass by on the street with accordions. The littlest one wears a long veil of St. Gallen lace on her back like bride. We sit for nearly two hours.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

There can be, now and then, a perfect, almost painful, fit of book to reader, something too close to the bone, intently inhabited as much as read. Brian Dillon's Essayism, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is one such. The essay, he says, in one of many moments when he wrestles with what draws him, is 'something so artful it can be taken for disarray', 'at once the wound and a piercing act of precision', a 'combination of exactitude and evasion', 'her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all'. I read with a pencil to hand, wanting to to be able find certain passages again, to abandon myself to the relief of finding kin.

I was talking to my neighbour, M, recently, about tribes and whether or not I had one. Your tribe is Jewish people, she said, and I couldn't agree. My tribe is writers I have read and felt at home with. As  Brian Dillon makes his way through and around writers like Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, William Gass, Thomas Browne, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, as well as his own writing, I read with such a surfeit of an ancient, ardent, secret life that I have to stop often and look away, which is what you do with tribes, isn't it?

Does this make reading into an indulgence of a cerebral/emotional kind. You do not have to apologise (I tell myself). Well, for years I did. I learned to circumambulate, to sense the core of reading and writing, but not to be there, not to know what it was nor how to talk about it, as if talking destroyed it, the way certain physical phenomena disappear or irrevocably change under scrutiny. In my twenties I was addicted to a secrecy and exclusivity of reading that could hardly be borne. I never wrote, believing I did, as Marguerite Duras said. Words identified the absent middle of my life and one person, a teacher, who lived there too, who mirrored me in a way I had not experienced before. Breathless, I struggled to connect the depth of language with human love. It floored me, in fact. My teacher was not the same person as I was. He had an état civil. A what?

Brian Dillon in and among his essayism struggles with the connection between what he is drawn to in certain writers, and his beleaguered life.
What exactly do I mean, even, by 'style'? Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush. On what? The very idea. Form and texture rescued from chaos, the precision and extravagance of it, the daring, in the end the distance, such as I think I could never attain. As much in a person, in a body, as in prose: those people who can keep it together. 'I like your style' means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness. I'm a fan, too much a fan, of your rising above. What is it I want from you? Not quite comforting. Consolation. Is it consolation? A model of how to survive? The worst, most painful truth spoken as eloquently — or is it as strangely — as possible.
Yes, I reply, yes, yes.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

I started re-reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen among two days of gales. What is she doing, Eva Trout, why is she always escaping, to another household, another hotel, another country, and who are her allies, if any? Lashings of plot are bathed in onward uncertainty.  Elizabeth Bowen, and Eva, do not give much away. The sentences are tight and loose, nervous and lax. You can avoid saying by saying a lot as well by saying a little. You can fall into the abyss almost anywhere.

Twinges of recognition impel me on. I'm glad someone else has written this. I continue reading on flights to and from London, on trains to and from Gatwick. Eva Trout comes into her own when I'm on the move, all antennae out.

Life is an anti-novel, I read on page 211 of my Avon edition, 1978. The front cover has a woman in an unrealistically long blue satin dress, draped about on a sofa, also draped. The blue satin is at your own risk. 'Everything must be plausible, by tomorrow', on page 261. But it isn't.
Anyhow, what a slippery fish is identity; and what is it, besides a slippery fish?... What is a person? Is it true, there is not more than one of each? If so, is it this singular forcefulness, or forcefulness arising from being singular, which occasionally causes a person to bite on history? All the more, in that case, what is a person?