Sunday 29 October 2017

Kafka, Rosamond Lehmann, Madame de Sévigné

I feel like reading Kafka's story The Great Wall of China for its irremediable joy and remove. Why are we building this wall? Does anyone know? There is, they say, a director far away. Instead I am reading Rosamond Lehmann's The Swan in the Evening, english literary memoir circa 1960, cushioning myself in an era just before mine, the one to which my parents aspired. I am always one step ahead or behind.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter would not come amiss right now. I like to imagine Madame en carosse through France in the seventeenth century, always a long way from her daughter. My copy, leather-bound and marbled, second in the series "L'âme de la femme" published in 1927, came to me from a woman who invited me to tea when I was newly arrived in Paris in 1968; she lived in the rue de Vaugirard, the longest road in Paris, for many years. Along with the letters of Madame de Sévigné, I inherited ten years later three white linen cushion covers. I don't often read french any more, but when I do there's a clarity like late Mozart, with a dose of Proust, who adored Madame de Sévigné, and the length of the rue de Vaugirard, as I walked toward tea. Open Madame de Sévigné anywhere and there's her daughter.
A Vichy, dimanche 24 mai 1676 
Je suis ravie, en vérité, quand je reçois de vos lettres, ma chère enfant: elles sont si aimables, que je ne puis me résoudre à jouir toute seule du plaisir de les lire
Rosamond Lehmann had a daughter who died of polio in Java aged 24. After that she everything she wrote was a form of resurrection. I can go along with that in the middle of the night, for a night or two, but not in the afternoon.
Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak: "I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God we would be as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Saturday 21 October 2017

Anne Carson, John Berryman, Puerto Banus

De luxe hurricane blog post

Puerto Banus is not for poets. That's why I read poetry here. John Berryman. Anne Carson. As if being alone were not enough I'm sitting on the beach reading these utterly separating turns of phrase; the Thai masseuse passes offering neck and shoulders or full back, unconvinced; the African bag sellers defer to my solitude. A beached jellyfish the size of a transparent sombrero quivers slightly. A large catamaran opens the near horizon. We are all guarded by Señor Banus on his pillar like Napoleon. Bathers, readers, lovers, investors and lapdogs. Small flightless shrieks from gulls at water's edge as the midday tideless rises over countless pebbles. In the pleasure harbour tall masts quiver; a Bentley nudges the gangplank of a giant motor yacht; downwind of a famous buffet lunch—think Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot—where smart lunchers range along, choosing like the damned from vastitudes of salads, meats, desserts and cocktails by design. Later you can do a wellness spa w/personalized detox-style cuisine, Welcome Juice as well as detailed Body Composition Status & Progress Report.
Figurez-vous, a time swarms when the word
'happy' sheds its whole meaning
Three children under twelve spend twenty minutes under the beach shower, de-sanding; I want to tell them clean water is precious and they do not need to be this anxious about sand but instead I glare as they head off along the beach towards, doubtless, a hot shower back at the de luxe apartment. Water can be very drying, I learn from the wellness persons as they pass.
When worst got things, how was you? Steady on?
I move from John Berryman/gentle friendly Henry Pussy-cat to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red: careful strides of language and fancy footwork to please the most demanding holiday mind. So I am leaping and retracting all over Anne Carson's pages, keeping safe on a Spanish beach, looking after my language, making a cocoon for myself with some difficult poets and a towel beside the tideless sea, while, two thousand miles northnorthwest, Storm Ophelia is having her way with the home patch.
Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling.
 That night, despite a 600 thread count on sheets and Hungarian goose down in the pillows, I'm at home on the hill in Ireland. I want to see the angles at which the torn trees fall. I have to place every ripped limb, every stick and leaf as if blown way across the hot Atlantic to land in a lush, strangulating dip, in our patch. A hurricane is most particularly where you are, even if you're not there. Your oak your ash your beech your willow your will.  Señor Banus does not speak back. Storm Ophelia is barely a rustle in our tourist pelt. This is not a wellness issue.

Friday 13 October 2017

Meyer Levin, Compulsion

A few drop-in reads of Compulsion by Meyer Levin, a paragraph here and there, and eventually I read the whole thing. The frightful fifties Corgi book cover has lost its power and I relish the psychiatry 101 aspect of the trial that forms the second half of the book, I take on the jewishness and the readings of Nietzsche, the transcendence and the isolation.  The story inspired plays and films from Hitchcock to Michael Haneke. Why did two wealthy young men randomly choose and murder a boy of their acquaintance, their social circle? How often do we get around to asking why? When did a defence lawyer's summation last for twelve hours and get played, in the 1957 film version, by Orson Welles?

Known as alienists then, commissioned to investigate the penumbra of these two wealthy young men, the psychiatrists in the trial are fresh from encounters—never mind readings—of Jung and Freud. The narrator's excitement at the procedure of word association tests, feelings about mothers and fathers, childhood behaviours, fantasies, relationships with teddy bears, etc, is compulsive too, fascinated. The perfect crime engenders its own style, its own fantasies, emotional, intellectual and forensic, its own truth and its own derangement.
I wonder whether in all courtroom history the speaking effort of one man was ever awaited as was the speech of Jonathan Wilk for the defence of Steiner and Straus. Perhaps there was in this anticipation the sense that all the probings, all the expert testimony, had still fallen short of an explanation, and that only the ultimate effort of a great man could lift the meaning before us.

Saturday 7 October 2017

Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, Erich Auerbach, Compulsion

As the season turns so do the reading tables: I read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, dip into Compulsion by Meyer Levin, read an article about Erich Auerbach, who wrote Mimesis in Istanbul, in exile during the war, with very few books around him; and they read me, they take a print, mark out a zone of my current self as they pass through.

The first time I read Pessoa I stopped after 75 pages. This time I read more, in odd jerky moments, when the day can take a taste of the Pessoa flavour, but not for too long. For someone who doesn't want to be there he insists mightily. The misery of solipsism. The need for aphorism. For words to tie it up sharpish. Open the book and  you'll find one.
Why shouldn't the truth turn out to be something utterly different from anything we imagine, with no gods or men or reasons why?
How would I have liked this at 14? Which is when I first read Compulsion. I hated the cover, the jagged title print, blocky with sensation, and the two young men as if fried alive, in a pre-Eraserhead state of dumb shock and ghastly fear. Crime of the century meant something in the middle of that century.