Saturday 30 December 2017

Juan Goytisolo, Nijar Country

Appropriate reading versus completely wrong reading.

Nijar Country by Juan Goytisolo, if you're going to sit in Nijar for nine days in January, is appropriate reading. The book of the place is a must for the winter traveller. If, on a winter's night, a traveller or two in Nijar, having read Nijar Country, decide to write it again, 63 years later, in translation like ourselves, with fresh comments on the lie of the land, what would that give?

On the map of Andalucia, Campo de Nijar is a crescent of desertish land with sierras above and smaller sierras toward the sea, strong winds, few crops, plenty grit flying. Goytisolo went for four days, in Franco's Spain, in summer. What did he see? Who did he meet? What did they talk about? How will this translate to a pair of snowbirds, well, rainbirds, from Ireland?

What have they done in Nijar country with the water they've plumbed out of the desert since Goytisolo wrote his book? They haven't planted trees, as recommended by the National Institute for Land Settlement, they have brought in the tourists on foot of a few spaghetti westerns (even the food is wrong) and then grown delicacies to send off-season to the tourists' northern lands. Talk about capitulation. To give your land use to the upwardly unhappy of northern lands, to forgo your trees and your future for a pack of winter strawberries.

Completely wrong reading would be dystopic blather from the north, such as our culture affects as it eats its strawberries and sucks on other sugars. You cannot turn over a review of books and films of this year and the next without finding crazed, obscure reasons for fear and mistrust while doing battle with Christmas treats and then giving in.

Why is it easier to write about a town in Almería province rather than about where I am? I read about Nijar in 1954, not about Cork then or now. Tons of Cork City and County come tumbling in every time I go out for the milk. There are headlines, there is idle talk, which, as we know, costs lives by betrayal and out of despair. And it's personal. I find that quite clammy and chill. I am ready to be slapped about and silenced. There is Land Development. There is Ownership and Recreation and Wellness and Yellow Lines along the Path. I have no right to speak.

Appropriate reading is also completely wrong reading.

Monday 25 December 2017

Jean Rhys, Collected Stories

The Collected Short Stories of Jean Rhys is a large supple paperback of about forty stories, with forty narrators who segue into each other but for their names, which shift about the territory of England, Europe and the Caribbean. Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, out of which she chose Gwen Williams; she became Miss Gray when she was a Gaiety girl; Ford Madox Ford chose the name Jean Rhys. Finding a narrator in her stories is a strange sport; a page or two in and, oh, so this is the centre of the maelstrom, this restless, fraught Inez, or Francine, or Lotus, or Petronella. I imagine Jean Rhys choosing the names almost with impatience, for occasional use when the narrator is addressed by someone at enough distance to call her by her name. Now and then she gives in to the first person: Yes, this is me talking to you, too weary, too far gone to need a name; or too astounded.
Suddenly I realised I was happy.
There was a nightlight burning. He opened his eyes and looked straight into mine. His eyes were set slantwise, too, and I imagined they looked sad.
He was tied up in the French way like a Red Indian papoose, only his head out of the bundle. I shall dress him differently when we get home.
Little thing! I must kiss him.
Perhaps that is why he looks sad — because his mother has never kissed him.
Here at the pit of the year Jean Rhys stories are the thing. Especially when you've read half the book in shortish bursts in the middle of the night and then bring it out into the damp solstice light of afternoon. Her creatures lurch around their misfortunes with disarming freedom.
Nobody's going to comfort you, she told herself, you ought to know better. Pull yourself together. There was a time when you weren't afraid. Was there? When? When was that time? Of course there was. Go on. Pull yourself together, pull yourself to pieces. There was a time. There was a time. Besides I'll sleep soon. There's always sleeping, and it'll be fine tomorrow.

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness

Certain novels, often by women, of the mid-twentieth century, hang like tapestries. You can choose where to rest your eye.  In Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness I rested with housekeeper Mrs Lodge, who yearned for marshlands.
Her home, when she was a child, had been near an estuary, remote, with wonderful wide skies, a beautiful light. Terns used to gather on a sandbank a the edge of the water, and looked as if they were dancing with frail, coral-red legs.
And with another housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley, with her bountiful gentleman friends and her goodwill.
'If you're looking for a nice, pulling book,' Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.
'No, no,' he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves, 'I never read.'
The main action, the comfy middle classes and their boredoms, their weary subtlety, veiled despair, I read through with some impatience on a cold, wet, blustery December afternoon.

Sunday 10 December 2017

Giorgio Bassani, Within the walls

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani, Within the Walls, on wartime Jewish Ferrara, and, weary, complexed, found myself unable to follow all those names of streets and squares, along city walls where sometimes the country leaked in. Ferrara is an island in my mind, hardly close to anything, not even Bologna which is geographically not far down the road, or Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. My auntie Fay sent us a postcard from Rimini in the 1950s. That's as close as I can get. Why am I reading about Ferrara? Why not Ballincollig? Ferrara had Jews. Why not Cork? Cork had Jewtown. Which sounds blunt and jeering. Ghetto sounds fine in Italian. David Marcus grew up in Jewtown, and he is one of one or two Jews in Ireland who noticed I am Jewish too.

When I examine my take on the politics and the idea of the tribe, I think the first was the truest. My adolescent uncertainty as to who was fighting whom and why, persists. Atrocity, betrayal, and fear, do not alter. Tribes do not alter. None of this do I understand. Fascists and Communists. These are boiling words. Berets and beards. Rallies and manifestoes.

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani and wander about like the half-dead in wartime Ferrara, along the Corso, across the Piazza, wearing the mantle of a confusion not entirely mine.

Friday 1 December 2017

Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter

I read Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter once, and then, pleased with its spare, close focus, and haunted by an idea of home, I started again almost immediately. A few pages into the second reading I found a couple of sentences that brought a strange mix of comfort—the detail, the bottomless familiar—and disquiet that this novel, like all Eudora Welty's writing, arises out of a rootedness of which I have no notion. Laurel, and her father, and his new young wife, and the doctor, are in a hospital in New Orleans, which is out of town for all of them.
Laurel looked for a moment into the experienced face, so guileless. The Mississippi country that lay behind him was all in it.
The Mississippi country that lay behind his face also lay behind Eudora Welty. The country that lies behind my face, experienced but not guileless, behind my words, is a murky, jangling, evasive, uncomfortable, mostly northern European terrain, focused for the past forty years on a patch of ground in County Cork, way over west from anything that would pass for a place of origin, a patch that now holds all my underpopulated culture, though full of tree-planting and gardening.

Eudora Welty was a gardener too. Species names, as well as familiars, like the rose known as Miss Becky's Climber, confirm her sense of belonging.

Some forty pages in, Laurel's father dies, and the doctor treating him, who's from 'up home' too, says to Laurel, ' there's nobody from home with you. Would you care to put up with us for the rest of the night?' When, after her father's death, she accompanies his body 'up home', the friends who gather around her are the six bridesmaids, as she still calls them, years after her marriage, years into her widowhood, and a cast of local characters who all knew her and her family's history. She has even remembered to bring clothes appropriate to a little garden work among the irises. The only stranger is her father's second wife, the selfish young Texan, Wanda Fay, and a chimney swift that flies through the house from room to room.

We readers are all stabbed by different words, different expressions, with pleasure, with pain, with longing or with regret. We read to remember home or to realise that we don't know what or where it is.