Tuesday 26 September 2017

Orlando, Virginia Woolf, on foot the velvet odyssey, Judy Kravis

Orlando led me, by who knows what mycelium, to the first novel I wrote, circa 1978: on foot the velvet odyssey. The only copy I could find was a carbon copy sent to a friend who politely returned it. The blurred print is appropriate to the remoteness of the writer—me—a few years out of England with an English topography and an English idiom, her hesitations and her festivities, a lively step, several removes and a lot of inward turns. This is a distinct reading experience, a novel suspension of disbelief: is/was this one of my beings, aka me, who willed her words thus? If not, who?

I'm a reader amazed. This was how I ran on then. Oh, and I ran. Lush but obscure. Mouvementé. Accidenté. Apologetic. Too many adverbs. A genuine questing and wresting. Volume on the slow increase. Using all my language.  All my characters. Une doctrine en même temps qu'une contrée. A kinetic experience, like driving in a desert.

A carbon copy on thin bank paper, so, in order to read it, you have to detach a page into free air so that the next doesn't show through. Some letters didn't print, not enough pressure on the keys; and you have to travel the xxxx where you changed your mind.

How would this read if it were in focus?

The narrative is already soft: drift and perversity in England in the mid-20th century. A lot of sensing and longing for sleep and the sea, for a spectacle in which you were, briefly, a performer.

A carbon copy on bank paper could be the ideal state.

Friday 22 September 2017

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

When I read Virginia Woolf I don't know why I read anyone else; even in the coarse wrap of Ryanair, en route for Italy/Switzerland, this is home. A man in the seat in front of me is doing a tarot reading on a mobile device. Does tarot read accurately at 33,000 feet?

I read Orlando for the week I was away, unwilling to read too much because I wanted it to last, I wanted to have this to come back to while taking a break from the book fair, I needed to feel safe before falling asleep. I wanted to occupy the sentences and their aftermath, to know there would be more to read next day, that frozen London in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First would give way to Anatolian gipsies, eighteenth century English wits and poets, and even marriage, in the dampened nineteenth century, to Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine.

It was going to end in the present time, and this reader wouldn't reach hers until she got home. For now, in Lecco, Lugano, Gandria, Castello and the lower eastern edge of Lake Como, I needed Orlando to keep moving, as I needed his/her idle moments, when his/her chief resource, like mine, was looking out of the window, when snails and starlings are enough for narrative, when all you should want is to lie at peace with only the sky above, when you can arrive at ecstasy watching a toy boat on the Serpentine.

Shades of Rimbaud. Shades of Proust. All my readerly antennae are met.
So it was, and Orlando would sit by himself, reading, a naked man.
And again:
The pith of his phrases was that while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is at peace. And so he sank into a quiet mood, under the oak tree, the hardness of whose roots, exposed above the ground, seemed to him rather comfortable than otherwise.
And again.

Saturday 9 September 2017

Karl Čapek, Charles Nodier, The Luck of the Bean Rows, Pessoa, Woolf

— What are you reading? she asked.

— Karl Čapek's stories at night, I said. Early evening I have been reading my mother's first book, given to her when she was seven. A fairy tale by Charles Nodier. And all that magic and good fortune, those transformations of creature and size, made me think of re-reading Orlando. Which I have now started, at various times of day, with delight. Now and then I read a few lines of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. I like a good weave of reading. Virginia Woolf reviews her England through the androgynous Orlando, whom I can't help confusing with Tilda Swinton, who played Orlando in Sally Potter's film; Fernando Pessoa follows the journey in his head; Karl Čapek works around the streets of Prague, exploring justice.

— I gave up reading for sociability, she said, rueful but pleased. There we were talking, after all;  strangers, engrossed. What was the book your mother read when she was seven?

— The Luck of the Bean Rows. A foundling among the bean rows so merry and worthy that his beans flourish and his land expands without taking any from the neighbours. Eventually he goes out into the world and meets a princess in a chick pea coach who gives him three magic peas to plant. Orlando exists thanks to Virginia Woolf; he/she walks through one woman's knowledge of England's history and literature. Orlando transforms not by magic, but in a long walk across the centuries through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. I dreamed once that I met Virginia Woolf and talked to her about my writing and what would or wouldn't happen. It will be all right, she said. I was reassured.

— Who is Fernando Pessoa? Why is he disquieted?

— He is a diarist. Portuguese. Anyone would be disquieted if they daily followed the journey in their head. Oh. I do too. I'm not always disquieted though; sometimes I'm exhilarated. Must be all that planting I do.

— Legacy of Luck of the Bean Rows.
— Yes. And Virginia Woolf.
— Karl Čapek popularised the word robot, didn't he.
— No robots in his stories; only a pursuit of justice such as would be beyond a robot, then or now.
— Robot means a slave, a drudge.
— I'm glad he was pursuing justice.
— For robots?

Monday 4 September 2017

Charles Nodier, The Luck of the Bean Rows

A friend offered to lend me a book and I planted it under a willow tree beside a river.

Perhaps this charming dream arose out of reading yesterday my mother's first book, The Luck of the Bean-Rows, in which Princess Pea Blossom, who travels in a chick pea coach, gives Luck three peas to plant whenever he needs rescue or relocation, which he does, three times, before marrying Pea Blossom (or discovering he has been married to her six years already, since he was twelve).

The Luck of the Bean-Rows, (translated anonymously from Trésor des fèves, a fairy tale by Charles Nodier, with illustrations by Claud Lovat Fraser) was given to my mother on her 7th birthday:
To dear Dinah Feldstein with love From Miss M. Rojansky London, 26/6/24
My mother wrapped the book in brown sugar paper and wrote in her fresh young printing on the page opposite ONCE UPON A TIME:
This book belongs to Dinah Feldstein and anybody is quite welcome to read it
Miss M. Rojansky might have been a neighbour. My mother was an engaging little girl. A pleaser. She'd smile, she could be coy. She watched and she learned. She liked to say things as they were;  and, once she knew the parameters, she was generous. The 'quite' is entirely Dinah. Many years later she would explain to europeans at the european space agency the various registers of the word 'quite'. She is the only person I know who pronounced the f in twelfth.

So what did this, maybe the first book she owned, contribute to my mother's formation, as the french like to say, and to mine? I have the book on my shelves for many years. I don't think I read it till now. A fairy tale is the original Heraclitean river: you do not step into the same tale twice. You do not meet the same mother twice. My mother didn't give the book to me but she said I could take it. Maybe she'd want it back some day, but probably not.

Here is a future mother I never met: the 7 year-old making her way through the tale of the bean row foundling, his charm, his luck, his bonny success. He traverses the world, he is kind, he gives away his beans, he will be rewarded. In time of war his second planted pea brings him a refuge with a library.
The finest works in literature, the most useful in science had been gathered together for the entertainment and instruction of a long life—among them the Adventures of ingenious Don Quixote; fairy tales of evey kind, with beautiful engravings; a collection of curious and musing travels and voyages (those of Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe so far the most authentic); capital almanacks, full of diverting anecdotes and infallible information as to the phases of the moon and the best times for sowing and planting; numberless treatises, very simply and clearly written, on agriculture, gardening, angling, netting game and the art of taming nightingales—in short, all one can wish for when one has learned to value books and the spirit of their authors.