Monday 31 December 2018

W.G.Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write, said Roland Barthes. With a substrate of Roland Barthes and Brian Dillon and unseasonably warm, still weather, I start for maybe the third time The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, his walk down the Suffolk coast, a weave of internal, external coincidence and uncertainty with a warp of historical, geographical fact set up for us to absorb in a desolate landscape: internal, external.

These contemplative, melancholic yet factual men, I can keep pace with them, then rapidly I lose what I've read. It's the cloth I'm left with, and, this evening, Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet. Sebald's Suffolk is a landscape I know, I know the quality of the light and the relief of the desolation. This is the east coast of England, opposite Holland or Belgium. The east coast stands for lost causes. St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. I always liked that. It gave me something to start from.

Sebald, Max to his friends, incomer of a few decades, living up the road in Norfolk, has transferred his needs onto this empty coast whose moments came maybe a hundred years ago, maybe a thousand, maybe now. He is open to every association, like the small train crossing a river and how it was surplus to requirements in China a hundred years ago and fetched up in Suffolk, proving the decline of the Empire of China, and then there was the Joseph Conrad Suffolk connection and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand story, the silk industry and the urn burial—these factual men are in shadowlands, if this is what they want.

Suddenly, exhausted from a maze of August landscape and historical reference, here is Sebald ready to visit Michael Hamburger outside a village called Middleton, fellow incomer from Germany, translator, ruralist.

It's like the music of Philip Glass, just when you can't take another repetition, another league out from land, the music breaks and you're back in familiar rhythms again.

Hamburger's pile of jiffy bags by a door—you keep them and there are always more than you need—could have been Sebald's. Coincidences run wild. In rendering these people he becomes them, lapsing into the their language, their context, as his own. Down the coast there's Swinburne who visited, with other melancholics in the late nineteenth century, the lost village of Dunwich which slid into the sea. Lost cause, if ever. And Edward Fitzgerald who translated the Rubiyat of Omar Khayam from Boulge Hall in Suffolk and died of ancestral distress and failing sight. And how Sebald, Max to his friends, came upon Boulge, the Fitzgerald seat, via a Dutch man of money wishing to settle thereabouts. These are some of the threads we ride among the rings of Saturn.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon

Objects in This Mirror by Brian Dillon is a collection of essays in a plump sturdy paperback (Sternberg Press) that has occupied my winter reading ground for a few weeks now. First I read the whole thing then had the book around in my room and read maybe the contents page, or some of an essay, then stared at the fire and let it settle.

What you put into reading is nothing like what you get out; reading is fermentation, not arithmetic.
To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write. [Barthes]
Barthes brought Brian Dillon into his right world. A writer, a teacher, somebody brings you on and you don't look back. For him it was Barthes.
They are eager to learn to really dance.
This is the caption under a soft fifties photograph of two girls in Moscow doing grands jetés, one smiling at the other, both at the height of the leap and aware of each other. Really dancing meant leaping. I have always had a soft spot for the leaping photos of Lartigue, for flying dreams and for a teenager dancing in the living room on her own when everyone had gone out, ballet music on the record player, like an orphan.

As well as essay titles in Objects in This Mirror there are sections: Curiosities, On Land, Pathologies, Image Files, Inaesthetics, Syllabus. The inner shopping list.
The artist Nina Katchadourian once said to me that her job as she sees it is to simply pay closer attention to the world than others do ...
The closer the attention to greater the pain and if you're lucky the pleasure—if the world you attend is complaisant with your vision. To dance, to write, to leap over things at your own speed. There's the nub, or is it rub?

In the introduction Brian Dillon suggests that the reader may as go straight to the essay at the end about Barthes, 'before any of the more contained and probably assured pieces that come before it'. I didn't do that, I read it where it came in the running order, but in the re-reading it was the essay about Barthes I went to first.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Walter Rose and F.M.Mayor

Good Neighbours is a difficult link on the winter bookshelf. Is it Ask the fellow who cut the hay? or Pond Life? Or, moving into fiction, F.M. Mayor The Rector's Daughter?

Walter Rose and F.M. Mayor were born a year apart in the south of England; his portrait and her novel are grounded in the same reality but daily lives barely intersect on their pages. The landed and the religious keep a respectful distance from Walter Rose's village, as the nitty gritty of pig and plough is separate from the classical Rector and his dutiful daughter in fictional Dedmayne, though some characters do good work in the village, and find it easier to talk to villagers than to their social peers. The rector's daughter confides most freely in Cook and in one surprising sentence we find a parson's wife teaching carpentry to village boys.

Typical of me that I put myself to bed for the day (yesterday) with several books and several sheets of paper for notes then slip into non-reading non-sleeping emerging only to finish The Rector's Daughter and then, after cursory scan of possible relatives on the shelves, start reading it again, like a child who can't wait to know it well enough to anticipate every word.

This is bookish occupation, imagination as absolute seeing, guaranteed by words and sometimes pictures. The comfort of knowing, of being there more than ever.
Our brain, after all, are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint, and it is from this that an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel too, than the previous state of ignorance.   
W. G. Sebald

Thursday 13 December 2018

Walter Rose, Good Neighbours

A fault on the landline means taking out a number of books from the shelves to get at the sockets behind. These are motley garden and nature, pond and botanical books. Among them, Good Neighbours, written by Walter Rose in the 1940s, with drawings by John Hookham.  I bought it in 1974, previous owner DH Pasmore signed in discreet pencil on the flyleaf.

Good Neighbours is a portrait of Haddenham, a village in Buckinghamshire, reaching back to the author's boyhood in the late 19th century in a village in post-enclosure England. All the needs of life were met here: food, shelter, tools, clothes, shoes. Once a week to the market town, a couple of hours in pony and cart, and some seasonal outwork in the flat plains between Haddenham and London, known as Going Uppards.

A contained, intimate, community has its own dialect, which shows up bright as a misprint in Walter Rose's modest writing. Witchert. Yolm. Stulch. Todge. Dillen. Slabbin. Greaves. Wimble, Sneds. Frim. Sidcut.

And habits that need reviving, like Chapter V, Gnawing It Out, which was a form of barter involving milk, potatoes or a joint of pork or mutton as part of wages, which could take as long as fourteen years to settle, ending with a toss of a sovereign between two men.

And another form of barter called Chop.
It was once explained to me that the chop system secured double advantages, a profit on the sale and on whatever was taken in exchange; and further, that when making the chop you had only to assure yourself that it was for something of greater value, and you might pleasantly dream of beginning with a donkey, changing it for a pony, and end up as the proud possessor of a blood horse!
That sounds very like selling a piece of old rope on eBay and through multiple exchanges ending up with a fine house overlooking a golf course. There's an edge to dreaming now. In fact, dreaming isn't any longer the right word now we're parted from potatoes, mangold wurzel and the cottager's pig.
The lore and cult of the pig formed a bond between the villagers, as strong as if it had been inherited. All understood it naturally, save, maybe, the Parson. He, poor man, fresh from college, could not be expected to know more than which was the head and which the tail... To call on a neighbour without asking 'How's the pig a-doing' was a plain breach of courtesy, not to be lightly excused. The walk round the garden on a Sunday, or of an evening, the detailed examination of the growing cabbages, the savoys, the sprouts, the beans and peas, would have seemed incomplete without a long and interested pause at the sty, and a learned discussion on the merits of the particular pig.
PG Wodehouse and Flann O'Brien, with different levels of mockery and affection, have seen fit to foreground the pig.
The joys of routing thus ended, nothing remained but surrender to the blisses of eating and sleeping. To grow fast, and grow fat, made exertion less and less desirable. What need for effort with life so bountifully full?
As well as future food the pig was wish fulfilment.
To sleep the sleep of the just was better—with eyes slightly open—emitting melodious snores—and so to wile away the sultry hours of summer; to stretch the long body act ease on the soft straw in the cool shade of the shed, head only at the doorway to sniff the fragrant air from the cottage garden and valley beyond. This was the life of the pig.

Monday 10 December 2018

Henry Green, Doting

These dark evenings, Brahms' A German Requiem underlies Henry Green's Doting, his last book and an artifice so sustained (almost entirely by dialogue) that it needs some rolling Brahms to ground it.

These people—Middletons Payntons Addinsell and Belaine—are in and out of each other's pockets. They talk therefore they are history, they are fiction. It takes a few pages to figure who they are and how they know each other, and then you're away, they're away, on their multiple intrigues, their skirmishes in restaurants, in flats, in rooms, their weave, their fugue. They telephone a little, Arthur, Annabel, Diana, Charles and Claire, along with Peter, a son despatched to school or salmon fishing in Scotland, plus various convenient servants.

The last sentence of the book is: The next day they all went on very much the same.

The book is the part of the fish that shows above water in uneasy times. Are all times uneasy? Is there a void when you take away Brahms? Why doting, after living, loving, party going and blindness? What does doting mean?

This is how we make our exit. Henry Green wrote nothing else for the remaining twenty-two years of his life, or nothing that has remained.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Henry Green, Pack My Bag

The looping impetus of Henry Green's writing (his self-portrait Pack My Bag) reaches you slowly and you get to feel for this awkward aesthete with a conscience, with a forelock and a downward tall stance, who wrote novels the way a composer might work on a single tune for life  (Berlioz was like that). Always caution, reluctance, persistence. Apology almost. Deference. He wrote longhand, at night. I have mostly read him at night. He is a burrowing kind of writer, seeking out himself and his reader. Prose is a long intimacy between strangers, he said.

In his novels there's always something large missing, like the definite and indefinite articles, or narrative without conversation. His memoir can afford to be poignant. This was just before World War Two. He might die. And in case he does, here is what he feels like setting down of his life: this is what comes to mind. Semi-patrician family life in Gloucestershire, private schools, Oxford. These men in the 1930s and 40s (Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell) they were basking, you might think, in their privilege, armed with irony and self-consciousness. Of all those Henry Green is the one I would like to have known.

He didn't die in World War Two, he wrote a clutch more novels, all with one word titles; and then wrote nothing for twenty-two years. He did not write a self-portrait before his actual death. I guess he didn't feel like it by then. His novels and their titles would have to speak for him. Living. Loving. Doting. BackNothing. Concluding.

Monday 3 December 2018

Roald Dahl and Henry Green autobiographies

Roald Dahl Boy and Henry Green Pack My Bag are coeval, more or less, memoirs of schooldays and just after. Roald Dahl stops after his schooldays. Henry Green, writing on the eve of World War Two in case he didn't survive, goes up to his falling in love. I haven't read much Roald Dahl, and none at the right age, whereas Henry Green came in on a tide of books predating my life that I read when I was in my twenties and thirties.

Roald Dahl was an entertainer, a tall boy with sisters in the 1920s. Norwegian. Henry Green, the pen-name of Henry Yorke, son of prosperous business people from the midlands. Roald Dahl's family were in business, too. Whatever that meant. Whatever the product, the material. They were established. Dahl and Yorke, Est., somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, good houses with good views, and good education. And this was the education from which they emerged. Roald Dahl's education was run through with beatings. Cruelty as formative. So what does he do? He writes warm/cruel tales for children. His letters home when he was at school were signed Boy.

Henry Green, formed in the soft valleys of Gloucestershire, writes cloudy novels of situations whose drama derives from weather, uncertainty and class difference. Pack My Bag is a self-portrait more than a memoir, an evocation rather than a tale, a sketch for a novel or the remains of a dream. He did come back from World War Two, he lived another thirty years, wrote nothing for the last twenty-two years of his life.

Henry Green's novels sit in a soft place akin to his home valley in Gloucestershire. Because their drama is that of gathering, eavesdropping, assembling and not quite getting there, though there are marriages and betrayals, there's a mist if not a fog and by the last page you feel that the writer, along with the characters, has only ever paused. The sentence is the thing that continues.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Giorgio Bassani, Oliver Sacks

I have had a slow, awkward time with a couple of books lately, author fatigue perhaps, plus reader's earlier pleasures not revived.

Book 6 of the Romanzo di Ferrara, The Smell of Hay, by Giorgio Bassani, left me unable to focus except on the eponymous haymaking episode in a graveyard–a semi-circle of scythes slowly advancing—as if these pages were for Signor Bassani the last threads of a cloth not sturdy enough to wear beyond his nostalgia—or mine. One other thing, just after the haymaking, was a list of relatives of the recently deceased Uncle Celio, including the name Ottolenghi. Having just made a recipe from the current chef of that name, involving red cabbage, grapes, juniper berries and blue cheese, inter alia, I started at that: some names you think must belong to only one person ever, and here they are, part of a tribe in a graveyard in Ferrara.

Oliver Sacks' The River of Consciousness similarly did not engage me. Not nearly as much as the red cabbage and grapes. I am not always open to the fascination of festination and aphasia, Darwin and Freud. Or only in a distant way, in honour of an earlier version of myself. Now and then I admired Oliver Sacks' ingenuity. He took twenty photographs of an almost motionless patient, who had, when asked about his frozen poses, said, what do you mean, I was just wiping my nose. The twenty photographs, when made into a flick book, clearly showed a man wiping his nose.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

How do I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson? The only horror stories I've read are by Henry James and Wilkie Collins, both old enough for horror to vanish into style. Film is where horror comes into its own. Black and white. I read Shirley Jackson as if she wrote for film, black and white, with episodes in colour. I read her as an adolescent exploring her darkness. How would it be if I killed all my family except the sister I like, and the cat, and Uncle Julian. How would that be? Is this horror or everyday life?

The main character in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat, is eighteen but feels like a wilful twelve. She charts her daily routes like a board game, she buries things, pins things to trees, neatens the house on the days for neatening the house, distrusts all visitors and maintains all barricades.

Does this ring a bell?

The author photo on the Penguin Modern Classics edition shows a three-quarter view of a woman in pearls and glasses, with a full mouth and a downward outward look, a nearly wicked smile. I used to know women who had that look. The pearls could throw you off the scent, and the light brown hair softly pulled off the face.

Outright stories, like this one, make me uneasy. I wasn't able to put my own cards on the table in a story-like way. Horror stories are wish fulfilment stories. If we lived in this house, had always lived in this house, if we lived in this house even after most of it had burned down because They out there hated us until, some time after the fire, they decided to leave us alone, even leave us food, the children playing at a distance, as if we were owed respect. For what? For killing the rest of our family?

Saturday 3 November 2018

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

L.P. Hartley, aka Mr Leo Colston, aged almost thirteen and increasingly out of his depth in a heatwave in Norfolk, staying with his schoolfriend, Marcus, knew the dark and subtle arts of the go-between: anxious, willing to be devoted, trying to find out where best to invest, whom to adore, how to ask the right questions and stay out of the way while observing and absorbing like mad, finding yourself in medias res out of a simple desire to serve those who dazzle you, then when the vicissitudes of adult life are too much you write home to your mother and say you are not enjoying yourself any more.

I haven't read The Go-Between for many years. I have watched the film with the Pinter screenplay more often. Reading gets visceral if there's a good film of it. The chiaroscuro of film scenes and text. The central cricket match, for example. I have no knowledge of cricket. The film of The Go-Between is probably the high point of what I know about cricket. I can't read those two chapters without the film scenes hovering among the lines.

So I read as Pinter, and that is interesting in itself. I never met Pinter but a friend who knew him said that Pinter would like me, which was a suspect kind of remark, though part of it was pleasing.

Friday 26 October 2018

Alfred Hayes, In Love, My Face for the World to See

The clocks change this weekend, ushered in by post-equinoctial northerlies, post-full moon, post-most things. A ripe moment for more Alfred Hayes. Yesterday I read In Love at a sitting then began My Face for the World to See. Alfred Hayes was born in Whitechapel in 1911, eight years before my father, who was born in Whitechapel too. They broke the same bread and fought the same wars. I can read Alfred Hayes as someone who is ten steps sideways from my father, or as a writer I have not read before whose run-on efforts to understand his lusts his losses and his melancholy are touching because few men run on, run in, like this, and because a daughter may colour in her father any way she chooses.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café

Carson McCullers in The Ballad of the Sad Café takes you in hand from the start. She introduces eight men who gather in the store that will become a café, and tells the reader to think of them for the time being as a whole, not as individuals. The reader obeys. I wonder why I can enjoy this light managing tone from a writer in the American South, and not from a writer in the Irish South, where I live, and where light managing, or heavy, is an art, especially among women. Carson McCullers writes about outsiders, misfits, a trio of them in this story are an exploration of her own outsiderhood. She is of the South, fed by the South even when, still hungry, she has moved away. This is why I don't mind being managed.

What I absorb when I read Carson McCullers is the isolated small town, the life of the countryside, the music of the prose (Carson McCullers trained as a concert pianist), and the three awkward characters, so awkward they must be saying something beyond themselves: Miss Amelia, rich, a good businesswoman, unnaturally big and strong, Cousin Lymon, a hunchback, and Marvin Macy, handsome and almost as tall as Miss Amelia, but a bad lot.

The café, like the relationships between these three, is an interruption to the desolation of the town, not a permanent transformation. The rise and fall of the café is the rise and fall of the story.
.... the hunchback was sickly at night and dreaded to lie in the dark. He had a deep fear of death. And Miss Amelia would not leave him by himself to suffer with this fright. It may even be reasoned that the growth of the café came about mainly on this account; it was a thing that brought him company and pleasure and that helped him through the night. So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.
The state of Georgia in the middle of the last century is far away and thus more easily a narrative, almost a tale told on a cold night. Miss Amelia's shop sold feed, guano, farm implements, and staples such as meal and snuff. Goods were in sacks which a small person like the hunchback could sit on. She also distilled her own liquor of a peculiar, invisible power, like a message written in lemon juice and held to a flame.
Imagine that the whisky is the fire and that the message is that which is known only in the soul of a man — then the worth of Miss Amelia's liquor can be understood. Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harboured far back in the dark mind, are suddenly recognized and comprehended.
In the Irish South, I am fed by the land, but do not seek to play out my own inner dramas in the lives of people I know here; I am in the South but not of it. I feel implicated but not involved. I am allergic to the picturesque, easily irritated by the local. Perhaps this is why I do not write novels. And yes, like Carson McCullers, I am still hungry.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Alfred Hayes, The Girl on the Via Flamina

Halfway through The Girl on the Via Flamina by Alfred Hayes, the eponymous girl reminds the narrator that she is just a girl, an Italian girl the narrator met in the war, an adventure, and one day she'll be a story he'll tell his fiancée.
The one you pretend not to have. It will amuse her when you are in bed together. Your story about the Lisa you met in Rome. ....  It will be very funny, she said. How once in Rome during the war you lived with an Italian girl because she was . . . unlucky.
At first I found the book dull and simple, with screenplay detail down to the tassels on shoes and the shine on puttees. Like the writing of Ernest Hemingway but stripped of swagger and then turned inside out. The back cover blurb uses words like spare and searing, as if it were a fifties film. You have to read it in black and white, except for the bedspread, which is red. Alfred Hayes did become a screenwriter, after the war, in Italy and then in America. His narrator is a man in a war, seven thousand miles from home. She was hungry, I was lonely, that's the story, he says, pitching it to himself. This is far from a romance, though on maybe three pages it almost becomes one; and the impossibility of it can be more poignant than the real thing. Winter in Rome in 1944 is far from almost everything, including the war. To live inside the war, with the war outside, in the hills, in the next country, and the one after that, is perhaps worse than fighting, there is time to know what you don't have.
One lived peculiarly, and only at odd moments did the actual peculiarity of one's own life become altogether clear.
The narrator's state of mind is there in the author photo on the back cover of the book, a weary vulnerability inside an American haircut, learned in Italy in World War Two, and in Whitechapel, where he lived until he was three, when his family, immigrants already, moved to America.

By the time I reached the end of the book I wanted to read it again, to sense how the writing renders that peculiar life in wartime Rome, with allies everywhere, bearing chocolate and condensed milk, and hunger everywhere else, partisans in the hills and home embedded in the fruitcake your mother sent, though you didn't like fruitcake. On the first read I wondered how he'd manage the ending, which was bound to leave everyone lonelier than before, and when it came, as a single page chapter with a three-word final paragraph, I was impressed, and started the book again to see how he'd got there.

Saturday 6 October 2018

L.P. Hartley, The Eustace and Hilda Trilogy

With one chapter to go in the Eustace and Hilda trilogy I feel like an (unfamiliar) child who doesn't want to leave home. The home in question is that quiet, limited place that existed before I was born or when I was very young, without politics or any world events I could begin to think about. Eustace does not do world events, his slim gilt soul, created, as his friend Anthony says, by his sister Hilda, can only accommodate the world he knows and the other, much larger, fed by reading, of his fantasy. As he slips about among versions of how things will be, if Hilda marries into an old and landed family, if he himself becomes a novelist gliding among the aristocratic ex-pats of Venice or Rome, I can feel myself abandon every current contemporary difficulty, whether Brexit or the local bollixes who make ragged my own dreams.

I come back reluctantly. A sentence from W.G. Sebald (After Nature) forms a cushion under my return to this life. Sometimes a sentence is enough.
                 Our brains, after all,
are always at work on some quivers
of self-organisation, however faint,
and it is from this that an order
arises, in places beautiful
and comforting, though more cruel, too,
than the previous state of ignorance.

Thursday 27 September 2018

L.P. Hartley, The Eustace and Hilda Trilogy

A letter in The Guardian Weekly recently, from a reader in Texas, said he was writing notes in the flyleaf of some of the more unusual books he read, so that future readers, if any there were, might have an introduction to books they mightn't have heard of. It is an act of faith, that someone in the future might open a book and find one reader's response on the flyleaf and so be encouraged to read it. A generous-spirited idea, though it confirms that books and reading seem to need special pleading, special behaviours and rare levels of encouragement.

When I am feeling low about books and reading, I might well turn, as I did a week or so ago, to L.P. Hartley's Eustace and Hilda trilogy, which I have read about twenty times since I first bought it in the early seventies. It must be the recessive, perhaps faux-modeste narrator who calls me back each time, plus the quiet narrative and social assumptions of about seventy years ago. This is comfort reading, confirmed by the exceptional quality of old Faber paperbacks, which have travelled through so many readings and emerged reassuringly bent towards the end but sturdy as ever. Today I read a a few chapters of the third volume up at the reservoir on a cloudless day, still warm for the end of September, both the book and the afternoon. I was negotiating Venice with Eustace, watching a magpie take a bath at the water's edge, and sometimes closing my eyes for these two scenes and all their virtues to marry.
.... events never moved while you were watching them, and his own particular scrutiny, he sometimes felt, had a peculiarly arresting effect. He becalmed things.
Only when he turns his back on things do they change and take him by surprise. Eustace and Hilda are brother and sister, with low parental presence (the mother died young and the father not much older) with one of those aunts in literature who take the place of parents but are so much quieter. The sibling friendship similarly takes the place of other kinds of relationship that L.P. Hartley, a frightened gay, could not describe or perhaps even contemplate. Eustace is mainly concerned with managing, or trying to manage, Hilda's relationships; all the worry he and his creator may have had on their own behalf, is transferred to Hilda.

Whether or not this blog survives the predations of bots and spam-slingers, I have no desire to sully the Faber flyleaf.

Monday 17 September 2018

William Gerhardie, The Polyglots, The Beautiful Summer, Cesare Pavese

In Cork City R is reading The Ginger Man, which is funny, he says, smiling, and M is reading John Banville whom she finds very self-conscious. This is part of the local mycelium of reading. I trawl Vibes and Scribes on a Saturday morning and pause most by something autobiographical about Daphne Du Maurier and leave with nothing.

I have been reading William Gerhardie, The Polyglots, and The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese, one very long and the other very short.

I have looked at what passes for communication around this blog and found in the contributing sites and urls non-visitors from unknown regions and pornsites. It is hard to believe I am in any way speaking to friends.

So I am considering my options.

William Gerhardie when he was a child home for the holidays, sat on the hat rack and imagined he was a bird.

Sunday 2 September 2018

Norman Douglas, Old Calabria

Why Old Calabria now, on a drizzly day in County Cork, with territorial bad dreams occupying my head? Old Calabria is a thick-papered hardback from a 1990s Picador travel series, written by Norman Douglas about a hundred years ago. He was a friend of Elizabeth David, who was roaming food in France and Italy when he was a grand old bon vivant, a taste of European Englishhood in the era after Grand Tour travel. Norman Douglas, though rich, wasn't quite an aristo, he was a cultural refugee with a strong nostalgie de la boue, in need of the liberty of someone else's history, someone else's landscape.

OId Calabria is a rich, eccentric read in 2018, era of saturation tourism, with European cities foundering, visitors lodged in all styles everywhere. Norman Douglas, ex-Scot, ex-diplomat, adoptee Italian, writer and seeker after the perfect moment, finds lodgings that airbnb could not conceive. Here he is at a railway station late at night:
On my arrival in the late evening I learnt that the hotels were all closed long ago, the townsfolk having gone to bed 'with the chickens'; it was suggested that I had better stay at the station, where the manageress kept certain sleeping quarters specially provided for travellers in my predicament.
Certain sleeping quarters exhale an indescribable esprit de corps, he says, at the start of an eventful night in which we acquaint with his scanty stock of household remedies: court plaster and boot polish, quinine, corrosive sublimate, and Worcester sauce (detestable stuff, but indispensable hereabouts, he says), and the possible interest of the flea-ridden, already occupied couch in a cowshed (I would like to know what is corrosive sublimate).
Herein lies the charm of travel in this land of multiple civilisations—the ever-changing layers of culture one encounters, their wondrous juxtaposition.
Such a traveller, sleeping in cowsheds and worse, researching flying monks and ravening Saracens, walking all day to find no food at the inn. I read more than half the several hundred pages this afternoon, while the drizzle tried to occupy the dry land, and large earth-movers down the lane prepare for tarmac. Norman Douglas found that towns that cleaned up lost their charm. My dreams echo this almost every night. I can't engage with the history he seeks out, but his instincts as he travels Old Calabria ring true.
A landscape so luminous, resolutely scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression; it brings us to the ground, where we belong ....  The sage, that perfect savage, will be the last to withdraw himself from the influence of these radiant realities. ... From these brown stones that seam the tranquil Ionian, from this gracious solitude, he can carve out, and bear away into the cheerful din of cities, the rudiments of something clean and veracious and wholly terrestrial—some tonic philosophy that shall foster sunny mischiefs and farewell regret.
We travellers go where we will, even at home. From gracious solitude to cheerful din. Sunny mischiefs  and farewell regret. Norman Douglas first spoke German, then Russian, then Italian.; he wrote in English. No wonder he reads like a translation; he is a translation. A Scottish not quite aristo with German & Russian experiences at loose in Old Calabria, reshaping at will in chicken and cow sheds. 

Thursday 23 August 2018

Robert Creeley, Virginia Woolf

Take Creeley, seize him by his surname, and Virginia Woolf, to give her both her names, set his tiny Hanuman book, printed in Madras, beside her Penguin Classic mode, and you have the shock of our common yet multifarious pasts, his awkwardly analytical, hers embedded with relief in her words.

Creeley pauses towards the end of his autobiography on a line from Ginsberg—'And the sky above, an old blue place'—that Zukovsky was shy of, he said, because it fouls up the gauges, makes them stick. I have read the previous 99 pages waiting for gauges to be fouled, if not shattered, if not rhapsodised.

In 1939 when she was 51, Virginia Woolf wrote in 'A Sketch of the Past', that it was her shock-receiving capacity that made her a writer, writing puts the severed parts together, that Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet are the truth about this vast mass that we call the world.
But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.
How would 'A Sketch of the Past' read as in a Hanuman Book printed in Madras?

I like to read the page as well as the words, the non-being as well as the being. Poets of the Creeley mode are less concerned with the page, or unlucky with their publishers. Tiny Hanuman does for his thoughts on this life for which he has responsibility, as he puts it on page one, 'a substantial life, like a dog, but hardly as pleasant, to be dealt with no matter one could or couldn't, wanted to or not'.

Creeley the poet is uncomfortable with the task of autobiography; Virginia Woolf tunes her sketch of the past into her writing mode. Her life or the life of someone she sits opposite on the train down from London to Sussex, one she knows and the other she can imagine: tis all the one.

Creeley is a poet, unconscient of the page, the shock, keeping everything under his surname. Virginia Woolf is a poet also,

Sunday 19 August 2018

Robert Creeley, Autobiography

Robert Creeley's Autobiography published in tiny, wonky, format by Hanuman Books, Madras and New York, in 1990, you can read alongside anything, alongside Chopin, and the ripeness of summer.
A friend's father showed us how to make willow whistles and a more enduring kind from short lengths of copper or lead pipe we'd cut with a hacksaw, to make the notch, then pull partially with wood at one end. I recall there being endless things to learn and do of that kind, slingshots, huts (as we called them) in the woods, traps, and a great proliferating lore of rituals and locations, paths through the woods, secret signs, prisons for all manner of imaged possibility including at one point the attempt to make a glider out of bed sheets and poles tied together.
I have been a shy reader of poetry, preferring what poets say once they've slipped into something more comfortable, once they've made a flute out of willow and written a hundred hand sewn pages, approx 3 by 4 inches, of autobiography in an apartment block in Helsinki in the late eighties.

Creeley, we are in a land of surnames, like Ginsberg, Zukovsky, Williams, Duncan, Olson, makes his world, or he knows where it is, and it's somewhere along the road to his understanding of what consitutes manhood.
So it's probable that what I most wanted was a world, if not of that kind, at least of that place. ... It seemed absurd to go where there were no relationships.
He has his place, his people, but not his father or his left eye or his daughter Leslie, who died age eight. He has a measure of success. The kind that poets concede rather than enjoy. He has the span of literature to situate himself among. Homer and Hesiod onward. These men, they take comfort in each other's surnames. And there are some ground rules.
'To tell the truth the way the words lie.'

Saturday 11 August 2018

Virginia Woolf, The Mark on the Wall

In recent weeks I have been to late nineteenth century Brazil and nineteen thirties Russia. Today I felt like coming home to Virginia Woolf in first world war England—less England than her inner life as it settles into words. Ten pages of the story/essay The Mark on the Wall were enough to release me on this rare—this summer—wet afternoon.

I have never been drawn to meditation but I like contemplation and the vagaries of idle thought, especially in a familiar place. Virginia Woolf in her chair with her writing board and her cigarette after tea, notices a mark on the wall and that mark leads her hither and yon.
How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it...
So does she—swarm, lift, carry and leave her mark on the wall, on the page. She is mannered and idle by today's standards. She is not going anywhere that she knows about in advance.
Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one's hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse.
She wants, she writes, to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. So this is home, and home is the place you can think from, sink from, into fluid intermingled non-facts. We need more of those.
Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one's though as a fish slices the water with his fin ...
From the mark on the wall she moves into trees—
first the close dry sensation of being wood; then the grinding sap of the storm; then the slow delicious ooze of sap. I like to think of it, too, on winter's nights standing in the empty field with all leaves close-furled, nothing tender exposed to the iron bullets of the moon, a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long.
Reading is like a series of baths, salt, sweet and aromatic.
Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner

Epitaph of a small winner, or, literally translated, 'posthumous memoirs of Braz Cubas', came out of Brazil in 1880, written by Machado de Assis, whose own ill-health encouraged him to look at life from beyond the grave as a modest, playful sequence of not-quite-events; he brushes by everything long enough to recognise and toss aside what he will not achieve. So be it.

Here is a brush with paternity, for example.
One afternoon the castle of my paternal fantasies crumbled to dust. The embryo went away, at that stage at which a Laplace and a turtle look very much alike... I leaned against the window and looked out at the grounds behind the house, where the orange trees were turning green.
All we might count as major in life is brought to size in 200 pages of epitaph; frankness, as he says, is most appropriate to a defunct. 19th century Brazil could be Portugal, could be Spain or Italy or Argentina. Clarice Lispector's Brazil half a century later included a larger swathe of society. She had the blow-in's curiosity about the entire society she had entered at the age of one. Machado de Assis was born of a washerwoman and a wall painter. He emerges from his past without looking back. His books are what he created for himself, his modest ascent represented by Braz Cubas, narrator of this epitaph.

Here he is in chapter 24, Short but Happy.
I was prostrate with grief. And yet my character in those days was a faithful compendium of triviality and presumption. The problem of life and death had never troubled my mind; until the day of mother's death. I had never looked down into the abyss of the inexplicable, for I had lacked the essential stimulus, the confusion of mind resulting from a personal catastrophe.
He views life on a clean sheet each time; every abyss is enviably new. His life may be modest but it is examined, with relief.
How glorious to throw away your cloak, to strip off all your spangles in a ditch, to unfold yourself, to strip off all your paint and ornaments, to confess plainly what you were and what you failed to be!
Machado dictated this novel to his wife. It reads quick and light, apologetic and explanatory, leaping over loves lives ambition and death like a gazelle in a theme park. In later life he suffered from epilepsy and eye problems, and thus, some think, found this dreamy talking style, talking to yourself via your most trusted listener, saving any trace of misery for the last sentence of the last chapter: 'I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.'

There are several ways of belonging. One is you're born to it. Another is you fabricate it in such words as you can call up from your own particular abyss before you fall into it.

Monday 23 July 2018

Sholokov, Platonov

Down at the rocky swimming spot in Ballycotton sat a man reading a novel by Mikhail Sholokhov—I couldn't see which one—a day or two after I finished Happy Moscow. A spicy synchronicity. Stalin approved of Sholokhov, while Platonov was deemed unpublishable. Ballycotton can take them all—the choppy blue water and the thoughtful rope for hauling yourself out—and a reader down here who is not me, which is comforting, luxurious.

Back home I looked out Sholokhov's Virgin Soil Upturned on the bedroom bookshelves—reserved for childhood books and early independent purchases—one of those sunset-flavoured paperback covers with horses and wooden wagons and workers and scythes marching into the blaze of soviet realism—yes, if you can name it it probably doesn't exist. Any nation whose chief newspapers claim to be Reality and Truth must be deceived and deceiving much of the time.

I don't think I can read it now. I can catch the flavour (there are too many epithets, a forced grandeur, tons of moral imperative, yellowed cracky paper, tight print), read a few chapters, groan through the worthy translation, weary with the urgency of it all. What did I make of it in 1965? Why did I buy it? It was Russian and I identified with that, plus the title had an allure for a future gardener. I could not yet place the politics, the allegiances. Some writers work for a barely-knowing larger audience, a readily mythifying public. And Quiet Flows the Don is his most read book. Another alluring title. Don't be fooled. Even if did take 28 years to write.

Platonov is a desert writer, an urban writer out of the desert. Sholokhov is a romantic ruralist. Nothing like a good Cossack struggle. I would rather take Platonov to my desert island.

Saturday 21 July 2018

Platonov, Happy Moscow

Platonov's Happy Moscow has given me several stunned reading moments. The beginning of chapter 5 launches me into a prime 4 a.m. reverie. No, that's not the word. An uncanny sense of being as awake as I'll ever be, both soothed and alert.
Sambikin's economy with time made him untidy and slovenly, and the world's external matter felt to him like an irritation of his own skin. Day and night he followed the world-wide current of events, and his mind lived in a terror of responsibility for the entire senseless fate of physical substance.
Sambikin/Platonov absorbs and processes Stalin's Russia in the 1930s. I absorb, albeit at some distance, and would rather not process, the compound stare of Putin/Trump and wall-to-wall Brexit.
At night Sambikin took a long time to fall asleep, because he was imagining the labour, now lit by electricity, that was in progress on Soviet land. He saw structures, densely equipped with scaffolding, where unsleeping people came and went as they fastened down young boards made from fresh timber so as to be able to remain up there, high up, where the wind blows and from where night, in the form of the last remnant of the evening glow, can be seen moving along the edge of the world.
The awkwardness of translation, I like to think, is appropriate. Absurdity has to be scrupulous or it dissolves. Platonov is already translating Stalin's invented language, his invented reality. The only way I can absorb the absurdity of now is through the absurdity of then. I have difficulty reading newspapers. I do not officially live in a dictatorship. I cannot, as Platonov does, take the dictator's dictates, his language, and undermine it one comma at a time. There is not a dictator where I live, but there are many out there eating the ether and spitting it out, so we are all doused. Sad to say.

Happy Moscow fractures from the start. We have bad dreams. Blood is pouring from multiple fissures. Sartorius, sleepless, invents a weighing machine for weighing weightless things. Like filth and scum embedded in wounds. Like the sudden thrusting life a corpse could have.
Investigating more precisely, speculating about all this almost constantly, Sambikin came to believe that the moment of death some kind of hidden sluice must open in the human body, and that from it there flows through the organism a special fluid which poisons the pus of death and washes away the ash of exhaustion, and which is carefully preserved all through life, right up to the moment of supreme danger. 
Whenever that may be. It's a relief if there's a moment, like the end of a drought, or an electric storm, rather than the drift of history, insinuation of language, algorithms, unease, then or now.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Pierre Ryckmans and Simon Leys

I have one book by Pierre Ryckmans and one by Simon Leys, who are the same person. Why he does it I don't know, but the use of of two names gives full play to the doubt that permeates the average thinking life. In content, these two books are approximately polemic and reflection. Pierre Ryckmans The View from the Bridge is a series of lectures published in 1996 in Australia, where he lived and taught for many years. The Simon Leys was published in 2008 by Sylph Editions in London as one of their Cahier series. Notes from the Hall of Uselessness is a selection of pieces from the eponymous Hall, his writing room, where, as I can fully imagine, he contemplates the usefulness of the useless. Both books are permeated with Chinese thought and culture, and thus, for the European reader, they hang suspended in air of their own.

In presentation they are both slim volumes, but there the resemblance ends. The Cahier series published by Sylph are a model of thoughtful typesetting and design. The Australian book, published by the Australian Broadcasting Company, has an overlarge font and charmless layout. Does it matter?  Yes, for the way the reader is or isn't encouraged to read, and reflect. John Berger describes how, on first sight of a new book, he so disliked the production that he burnt it straightaway, which is a tad highhanded if a successful writer's privilege.

Pierre Ryckmans argues and implants ideas, he is not above being a perplexed old man. His chapter headings, in ABC's aggressively electronic font, are Learning, Reading, Writing, Going Abroad and Staying Home. Simon Leys, from the heart of the Hall of Uselessness, moves among words, music and silence, examines perfection and imperfection, listens with Glenn Gould to a sonata for piano and vacuum cleaner. The thinking and the layout of the page invite the reader to stop reading and look around, look back and forth.

I look forward to reading Notes from the Hall of Uselessness up at the reservoir. And then, settled in our spot, I note the local flora, go for a swim and fall asleep. 'Truth is grasped by an imaginative jump', is one of Simon Leys' headings. Truth is also grasped by falling asleep in the sun.

I like both writers, Pierre and Simon, Ryckmans and Leys. Though it's Simon Leys I would take to a desert island for his freedom, his interiority. If that isn't the Cahier style bringing me on.

Pierre Ryckmans chose Chinese and a pen-name, Simon Leys, and Australia. I chose French, and to keep my name, and Ireland, and Europe. Ryckmans is known for having debunked Chairman Mao before most had figured it. There is only one thing worse than being wrong and that is being right before anyone else.

Polemics leave me confused as to who scored which goal in what argument why. I like consensus conversations. I like to build à deux or alone, or with Mozart, or Chopin, and a writer who reflects. I find it hard to maintain an argument, I forget what it's for, or can't believe that any view of mine will hold, let along swing anything, which for a strong woman is a strange confession.

It is good to know that the hall of uselessness where Pierre/Simon/Judy write is useful for running all this before the mast.

Last night I dreamt of a drone attack, and later Mickos said I looked sad. That's how I feel about polemics as I build with Mozart over a shorn hayfield in Ireland's heatwave which is on the way to becoming a sea.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Clarice Lispector, Turgenev, Edward Louis

I have had Clarice Lispector's The Chandelier in continuo for many weeks. I like to have her around, interspersed with other reading. The last ten pages are overlaid by Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, read up at the pond, beside the reservoir and at night, finished a day or two ago, now replaced by Edouard Louis' A History of Violence, which has been in the house for a week or so, giving off some strong issues and flavours none of which appeal.

Sandie said that the way I live and read and write will only register after I'm dead. Not sure how comforting or accurate that might be. So I weave books around my sensibility where others weave goals, teams and aspirations. So?

What is language doing for these writers, this reader? How dependent are we? How involved how absent how urgent the tale? Clarice is the most urgent/dependent/absent; she has the least tale, the most setting of private dials. How do I deal with the world, what are the terms for my survival? What happens is less than what I make of it, how I weave it in words that in turn weave me. 
No tree, no rock, nakedness up the horizon of erased mountains; her heart was beating superficially and she was hardly breathing as if in order to live it was enough to look.
Turgenev's familial Russian decrepitude, I know as I begin to read, I expect these characters in these relations in nineteenth century rural Russia, with authorial pieties all observed: plenty fathers, plenty sons, mothers dead or otherwise meek, some crocky aunts and eccentric uncles living on lapsed or creaking country estates, a sense of roundedness by tale's end, some dead, some married, and Turgenev our author resembling one of his own uncles, à la fin. A peaceful, comfortably foreign past.

Edouard Louis, feu Eddy Bellegueule, is hardly older than Clarice Lispector when she wrote The Chandelier, but his history of violence is a mass of influences while she, like Bazarov the nihilist/natural scientist who dies of typhus at the end of Fathers and Sons, springs from her own source.

The influences of Bellegueule/Louis are the bootstraps of his rescue. He has read Bourdieu, and Faulkner, he attracts issues and issues attraction. He is at the centre of 21st century concern. Saleable. Recountable. Translatable. His author photo looks like someone I know. I read the first chapter with the most fairness I could muster.

Eddy & Clarice make an interesting couple, each as self-preoccupied as the other, one of them plain as the Daily Mail, the other rhapsodic/self-examining. Here they are, side by side.
It was then that she experienced all the way to the end whatever it was whose foreboding had already worried her at the edge of the plateau. With a contained joy, flashing and fine, she was in the meadow ...  you understand? she was asking herself confused, her dark eye watching to the rescue of the whitened mountains.
I looked down at my shoes like I was a moron too (I tried to go back to sleep, I wanted to sleep, but my body hurt too much). And he says to me, I hated everyone, I know it's crazy, Clara, but that morning I woke up hating everyone (and I thought: How can you hate them?).
Take your pick.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Clarice Lispector, The Chandelier

Clarice Lispector's The Chandelier, written when she was 23, calls up my diary's desert years, in my early twenties, which you can't so much read as taste and then pause. No crevice left unexplored, unsaid. Clarice had a firmer grasp on the stuff of her life than I did. She pulls back from the brink of what can't be said, and then says it.
That's when things became real. Who'd forced her to speak, who: she could cry scared and tired in that instant because if there were a strange phrase to say it would be: please pass me the olives.
She is persistent; you can choose any sentence in The Chandelier and there it is.
He laughed, all his teeth appeared in silence.
She has the muscularity of what she looks at. She is resolute. She uses many verbs. I avoided verbs, unless in the subjunctive mood. I liked (abstract) nouns. I was deflected, diluted and hung out to dry in the groves of academe. I was reading Mallarmé and trying to comprehend my solitude and its diary.
and to tell me not to speak
would be to tell me that
all I ever said was but
a crevice long in the wood
in the frame of a picture
I thought was not mine alone.
With Clarice there's a push to make clear the connect/disconnect of the outer to the inner world. Here is every last thought and observation, every conjecture.
Reality was laughing at all of them. She was arranging the flowers with all her fingers. Her barely-present lips were hiding in shadows born from the position of her head.. Her breasts were growing congested squeezed by her clothes, her hips were widening with fatigue, without beauty.
Tuesday 9th June 1970, JK's diary takes a rueful look at itself.
It will perhaps be the one triumph of this diary to have written itself both in and out of existence. 
On the 17th of July 1970 I recorded the bus conductor's conversation with one of his passengers. How he was going to Jersey this year with the wife, £42, cottage of course, including the fare, and that's £18, so it's not bad. Other people's reality butted in verbatim with a certitude I could only keep in reserve. Other people's lives. Clear as fiction.

Clarice, bless her, is always in existence, batting about among her certitudes, wrangling her definitions.
Stubborn, she was staring at her face trying to define its fleeting magic, the softness of the movement of breathing that was lighting it and slowly putting it out. The corruption was bathing her in a sweet light. So there she was. So there she was. There was no one who could save or lose her. And that's how the moments were unfurling and dying while her quiet and mute face was floating in expectation. So there she was. Even yesterday the pleasure of laughing had made her laugh. And ahead of her stretched the entire future. 
You can pick any few pages, any few lines, and there she is, seeking herself out, losing and then seeking, saying it all: the truth was so fast you had to squint to see it. In the diary of JK age 23, the truth was so submerged you had to drown to find it.
And the more dire the dead end, the long sheet of failure, gales that are perplexity incarnate.
The Chandelier and JK's diary are alike intense, best tasted in essence, like lavender, then left to rest. These two young women are scrupulous and relentless, JK all metaphor and remove, Clarice all tongue and fire, both strung out on the effort, torture, pleasure, of trying to clarify.

Saturday 9 June 2018

Henri Michaux, A Certain Plume

Reading A Certain Plume by Henri Michaux up by a certain pond watching a certain diver beetle surface, once, and a certain caddis fly pupa in the shape of a small leafy cigar, swim northeast a few inches under the water.
What he searches for in books is revelation. He skims through them. Suddenly, to his great delight, a sentence ... an incident ... whatever ... something there ... At which point he proceeds to levitate toward this something with everything he has within him, at times clinging to it as iron to magnet.
Yes. Yes also to his account of his reading habit.
His attention span was short, and even when interested in something, he noticed little, as if only an outer layer of attention were opening in him, but not his 'self'. He just stood there, shifting his weight back and forth. He would read a great deal, very quickly and very poorly. This is the form his attention took ... And if he tried to read slowly, to 'grasp' the subject: nothing! It was as if he was reading blank pages. But he was quite capable of rereading, as long as he went fast, as can easily be imagined.
Recognising someone else on the page is one of life's safe places. As Virginia Woolf said:
I want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions. After quarrelling and reconciliation I need privacy—to be alone with you, to set this hubbub in order. For I am neat as a cat in my habits. 
If anyone can make Virginia Woolf sound domestic it's Henri Michaux. He makes the going for himself; all his repetitions refusals and reversals, his disregard for style, his preference for overt dismissal, he turns his back at the drop of a hat, freezes, then runs away. You feel the satisfaction of the bottom of the page. There, that's laid out, there, direct from his inner basin to the page.
He lived for years, eyes on his inner basin.
A Certain Plume has an introduction by Lawrence Durrell from 1958. He met Michaux: 'a voice from the past, a stone-age voice full of veridic information about the state of mind in which poetry declares itself an absolute value.' Michaux is an acclaimed senior in the vatic trade, says Durrell.
The important thing was the moment of complete realisation, the old déclic which is always followed by a subtle shift of epicentre. Wholeness arrives!
My father liked to bring Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet into a conversation. Alongside Der Rosenkavalier. Our styles define us, our tastes, especially those we flaunt.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Isabella Tree, Wilding

Wilding by Isabella Tree was delivered by the postman through car windows as we were on our way to the reservoir for a swim. I read the first few chapters on the beach, as we like to call the grey stony southern rim of Cork's water supply. I'm usually alert to whatever is happening on the land around, which weeds shine through, which have vanished, what machinery is out there and to what effect, as well as local weather and how warm the water has become.

Wilding is the kind of book that makes you ten times more alert than you were before. Every strewn coffee cup every felled tree every strimmed verge. Short of leaving copies in public places — but nobody reads — my son does, said my neighbour in the fish queue this morning — it's had to know what to do. And what to do is of the essence. Bernard Loughlin, former director of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, said it was his privilege to testify to his idealism. He did something. He looked after a place where artists and writers and musicians came to stay. Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell are doing something on Charlie's ancestral 3,500 hectares. We are doing something here.

All of this is easier to believe when the weather is as warm and settled as for the last week or more. Easier to believe that every move has consequences. That there is a natural flux and an unnatural growth. You read Wilding down at the reservoir on a broody warm Wednesday, and you have no idea what may come of it, but feel optimistic.

Saturday 19 May 2018

Agota Kristof, Trilogy

Do I have to come to Spain to remember I can read in french? For a few days with my old friend Annette in Puerto Banus (Port of Abuse, as the judge would have it) I took with me Agota Kristof's trilogy, which I haven't read since I first did, in the nineties. The familiar foreignness, the edge of french, brings the sense of isolation and retreat that I cherish on beaches. To be alone and warm turning over and back in your space in the sand, your reading senses are acute. Before I even got to the beach I'd read much of the first volume on the plane. In fact, each volume I read so fast that, in order to save some for later, I dipped about in what I'd read to find again what was so astounding. You can read and reread, turn over and back in the sun, and still not know. This is beyond knowing.

Agota Kristof learned french after escaping to Neuchâtel from Hungary in 1956; her french is clear as a bell, frightening, almost, the french you learn in Switzerland when you have escaped from seismic politicks and deep chill at the age of twenty-one.

Her french sounds as if it has been recently learned, under pressure and with relief, by children at school. The lessons her resilient twins set themselves in Le Grand Cahier, volume 1, are frightening in any language.
Exercice d'endurcissement du corps
Exercice d'endurcissement de l'esprit
Exercice de mendicité
Exercice de cécité et de surdité
Exercice de jeûne
Exercice de cruauté
It's a relief to read such decisive coverage of the human condition. Talk about home schooling. This is self-schooling in a totalitarian state, a state of incomprehension. Claus and Lucas, whose names are renditions of each other, are relentless in their push for the evenness of truth, all of which they record in the eponymous grand cahier. Their identity shifts but not their absolute loneliness or their absolute devotion to each successive situation in which they find themselves. In your own grand cahier you do not have to tell the truth, though that might be your avowed intent; in fact, by definition, you're already lying.

These are some other chapter headings.
Le chantage
Notre premier spectacle
En prison
La fuite
La séparation
The twins have a scrupulous ethical position at all times. Frightening as other autonomous children in literature, they're more more stark than enfants terribles, they have less style, more brink, more chill. Language always stops short. Scene after scene, no comment, no feeling. We are suddenly dependent on feeling now that it's not there, now that it is an indulgence no one can afford.

Volume 2, L'épreuve, is more episodic. Tales are told. People arrive and then disappear. Just as the reader starts to know a person or a situation, everything changes, the person disappears, by her own hand or his, the situation changes, everyone is face on to loss which ever way you look. The twins are now in two different unnamed countries. Agota Kristof as she reads is in two different countries, Hungary and Switzerland. As I read I am on the beach in Puerto Banus amid the whine of jet skis and the savour of factor 50; I am in my room at home in County Cork listening to Mozart. You are wherever you are and wherever you were before or would like to be.

By Volume 3, Le troisième mensonge, the third lie, the narrative is fractal, as it has to be in a totalitarian state. Through the eyes of characters we think are the ones we've known all along, we see earlier versions: the child who lives with his grandmother at the edge of town, and plays harmonica in cafés; the deaf boy; the limping boy; the boy whose father or whose mother is dead, perhaps. Handsome boy, handsome girl, similar age, half sister or no relation. Every relationship is there to be fractured—by death, by accident, murder, suicide, escape.

The twins of Volume 1 are not united in Volume 3, we're not in the realm of satisfactory endings. Claus is now Klaus, and orthographically no longer inside the spelling of Lucas. There may not have been any twins in the first place, they were a fable, the two sides of a thwarted intimacy. It doesn't read like a tease of our expectations, it reads like mortal confusion, irresolvable loss, of identity, family and future.

Strong stuff for the beach. My ethical position, reading Agota Kristof on the beach, is clear: leave me be, leave me to think to the sound of the sea and then turn over. Almost total detachment from where I am, but hardly escapist.

Thursday 10 May 2018

Lorrie Moore & Clarice Lispector

By the serendipity of New York Review of Books advertising, I buy Clarice Lispector The Chandelier and Lorrie Moore See What Can Be Done at the same time and find that Lorrie has a piece about Clarice. Lorrie, in her merry American way, cannot get to Clarice at all. She makes light and looks for a quick touch.
Before beginning this review, I took a quick, unscientific survey: Who has read the work of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector? When I consulted with Latin American scholars (well, only four of them), they grew breathless in their praise.
Clarice is a dangerous European in South America, born in Ukraine and moved to northeastern Brazil when she was five. Europeans have intensity and innerness; South America is all mountainy renegades. The combination is deadly. Clarice's quirky Portuguese, like Beckett's quirky French, is more potent than your humorous professional journalist wants to be seen to take on board in North America. 
Lispector's uncategorizable work causes the reader to mimic her own processes: that is, her sentences are often in search of themselves and are constructed from the very casting about that a reader may undergo in having to find a term that is suitable to describe them.
Three cheers for every exploded category, three billion cheers and plenty casting about.

Sunday 6 May 2018

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

By the end of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I don't want to leave this place, these people, their language, behind. I don't do this often with books. I don't immerse in character and plot. But this is more like group loneliness, and I feel like circling that for ever. With seven pages to go, to soften the desolation—or deepen it— I begin the new translation of The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, first published only three years after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in 1946.

In the weekend Irish Times there's a column in praise of older books, but they don't go beyond the 1980s or 90s. I go back to the era of my parents' or my teachers'  youth, somewhere safe that I don't know, but do. Clarice Lispector is so unsafe she's safe (as houses). Reading her is like crossing a fast-flowing stream on stepping stones and now and then getting soaked. Exhilarating. Breathtaking. Uncomfortable. When will I next get wet?
Her life was painstaking but at the same time she was living just a single streak sketched without strength and without end, flat and terrified like the trace of another life; and the most she could do was cautiously follow her glimpses of it.
I seek in my reading the version of myself I haven't been able to write, or have written but can't read.  Clarice Lispector wrote this when she was twenty-three; my patois at twenty-three was less certain in its obscurity, the prose more purple. That's why you read your kin, to find their different clarity and then your own in the new context of many years later.
...changing with care the way she lived. The things that would inspire her were so brief. Vaguely, vaguely, if she'd been born, plunged her hands in the water and died, she'd exhaust her strength and her forward movement would have been complete...
And here is Carson McCullers' Mick Kelly age thirteen and three-quarters, seven pages from the end of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap — the store, then home to sleep, and back at the store again.
We read to situate ourselves anew.
Mick raked her hair from her forehead. Her mouth was open so that her cheeks seemed hollow. There were these two things she could never believe. That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead. And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth's.
I am grown and have astonishing freedom. I did not have to work at Woolworth's. I taught french literature and literature as a foreign language, I cultivated my garden.

Sunday 29 April 2018

Carson McCullers, The heart is a Lonely Hunter

I inscribed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter with my name and Christmas, 1964. Have I read it since? Have I needed this girl/boy child in the 1940s who, in her sharp, hot, aching small town in the deep South, finds Motsart?
There was one special fellow's music was like little coloured pieces of crystal candy, and other times it was the softest, saddest thing she had ever imagined about.
Mick Kelly, the girl/boy child, kin of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, hears Mozart a few times, in her mind she could remember about six different tunes from the pieces of his she had heard.
But they all made her somehow sad and excited at the same time.
A few days ago we spent a few hours with Anthony Mackey, in Waterford, his town. He made art about where he came from. Like Carson McCullers, he grew up local, he knows what community is, can't understand what it is not to have one.

Among the complex reasons why I choose to read this rather than that, why Carson McCullers, has to be Mackey in Waterford, Lookit, he says often, and you don't say that if you don't come from somewhere.

Saturday 21 April 2018

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies

Reading Sven Birkerts up at the pond on the best day for about half a year, I say yes all the time, I know all this and what pleasure to see it written, to pause as each yes bubbles up and put a light pencil mark in the margin at a sentence that I want to remember, that I do already remember because it is implanted from the first and many subsequent times I read it, some of it out loud to students whom I wanted to persuade about reading and depth, wanting to resurrect, as Sven Birkerts does, words like soul and truth, to have them out there, down there and up there, without luggage.

The Gutenberg Elegies was published in 1994, subtitled The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. I love the encomium to reading, I'm with every sentence; the electronic age chapters I have to read wryly, warmly, a little impatiently. I'm sympathetic, grateful, et cetera, but I don't want to go there.  These days, I learn, Sven Birkerts tweets quotes from whatever he's reading. Who else in tweetland uses inverted commas?

Saturday 14 April 2018

E.M.Forster, The Celestial Omnibus, Proust

The first three paragraphs of my copy of 'The Celestial Omnibus' by E.M. Forster have pencil brackets around them. This was a passage for translation I chose circa 1978, trying for completeness in the classroom as elsewhere, I willed the students to sense the moment of beginnings and endings before they fell into the messy pit of translation into french.

At dawn an early twentieth century boy rides an omnibus from the dead-end alley signposted To Heaven, opposite his house, at dawn, the steaming horses driven by Sir Thomas Browne, physician of the queasy soul. He meets a swathe of world literature and is home for tea.

I found the same brackets around the end of Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts, with its pageant in the garden, suffusing land and history, and then, the pageant over, the house giving little cracks as if it were very brittle, very dry, the garden returns to primeval forest. 'On the top of their matted branches birds sang...'.

When the boy takes the omnibus again next day, with Mr Bons, a family friend and possibly the wisest man in the world, owner of vellum books, and seven copies of Shelley, they are driven by a Dan someone, a sallow man with terrifying jaws and sunken eyes—Dante.

Marcel Proust said he wrote about his own past because he had no imagination. E.M. Forster, out of similar need, and only a tad more imagination, rehearses in his stories all he can't entirely deal with in his life.

Between the wise Mr Bons and the innocent boy, Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf, is perfect literacy and dependency, an entirely period fantasy of which I am a late product. I am drawn to writers who find their safety in books, and, by extension, their authors. The celestial omnibus is driven by writers. The nether world is peopled by characters: Mrs Gamp, Mrs Harris, Achilles, Tom Jones and the Duchess of Malfi; the soundtrack is Wagner. Heaven is nether, it's a riot, and, the boy, in his innocence, gets back home to hand the cake-stand on another day.

Mr Bons the wise, who knows his Keats from his radishes, does not come back.
The body of Mr Septimus Bons has been found in a shockingly mutilated condition in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works. The deceased's pockets contained a sovereign purse, a silver cigar-case, a bijou pronouncing dictionary, and a couple of omnibus tickets.

Thursday 5 April 2018

Marcel Proust, On Reading

Reading Marcel Proust On Reading in french or english on a cold April afternoon, I find the person who first read this, Marcel or me, extending out into the back country in the most sad, luxuriant way. Here is young Marcel under a hedge of trimmed hawthorn or hazel with a book.
I would run up the labyrinth as far as some hedge where I would sit, not to be found....  In this hedge, silence was profound, the risk of being discovered was almost nil, safety was made sweeter by the distant voices which from below called me in vain...
 What profound relief. There I am, there he is, at une distance d'âme, a soul's distance
... one of those distances which are not measured in metres and leagues like the others, and which, besides, cannot be confused with them when one looks at the 'distant' eyes of those who are thinking 'about something else'. Then, what? This book, it was nothing but that?
Under the hazels and the hawthorns of the park along Swann's Way, the emanations of the fields come to play silently near him, the scent of clover and sainfoin on which now and again he rests his tired eyes. The intoxication of the pages he reads are met by the sensations of where he sits in the silence and the solitude of les belles heures de l'après-midi.
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires.
I listen to Mozart to absorb and extend all this. Rudolph Serkin and friends, piano concertos in the chilly early evening. Not just Proust, but all our souls' distance.

Monday 2 April 2018

Bohumil Hrabal, Mr Kafka and Other Tales

Where do you want to go today? Prague under Stalin, steelworks and street scenes, ushers and stonemasons, dairymen and judges, people who form your world, and, simultaneously, undermine it. Bohumil Hrabal, you have to love him for his name, the soft burr of syllables, and, once you've read a few pages, his bemused, ironic look at the world around him, all of it.

MR KAFKA and Other Tales, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, has occupied my head for the last week or two. I don't know what I think so I read a tale or two again. I dip about so that certain words register and gradually I form a picture of this Hrabal, this side of me that understands Hrabal, that can mingle with his people and their perversity, their absentmindedness in the face of history.

Everything I read I try on like clothes. I am dragged by the hair through the streets of Prague. I drown in discarded letters. I ride the gondola of a steelworks gantry. Where did I go today? I sojourned in Hrabal land.

Thursday 22 March 2018


My fingers have learned to write Krasznahorkai's name by now; they do not hesitate around all those consonants in the unknown rhythm of Hungarian. After reading Krasznahorkai for several weeks I am at one with the Europa abyss, the total stalling of communication even as the lava of language flows: the more you try to catch chaos the worse it gets. The Irish abyss, par contre, is more scenic, just as much language but light and quirky, even in the blackness, like Flann O'Brien. None of this Europa violence and melancholy.

Krasznahorkai grew up in a small town in southeastern Hungary,  at the heart of the Europa melting pot. To the island stance of the Paddy or the Brit, whose language tends towards the heroic and identifying, this is as dense, as landlocked as it gets; in Gyula, Békécs County, next to Romania and not far from Serbia, heroics are a pile of rubble, identification a lost cause, language a necessary obfuscation, poignant and ridiculous: womb, tomb and sole conceivable kin.

Friday 9 March 2018

Lázló Krasznahorkai, War and War

Why do some men writers write exhaustively, and sometimes exhaustingly, each chapter its own sentence into which we burrow, like László Krasznahorkai, whose War and War I have experienced as a kind of basso continuo beneath the last couple of weeks, mostly in bed, or in the bath, which meant that weariness and softened muscles often hung me mid-sentence till the following night; I thought more than once during the first half or so that I would not go all the way with this, but did, out of ancient persistence or defiance or fascination, and finished it, the last few pages in their different font, sans serif, close to a last gasp in railway station somewhere in Europe, proving the hardest of all, taking three nights and maybe a couple of baths to achieve an end.

Do men more than women need to create this wraparound connection with language, this density, this  this bottomless scratching of would-be flesh, 'reality examined to the point of madness', as Krasznahorkai says, italics his? Think of James Joyce, Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, and—though the flow is gentler and the wraparound connection a lighter garment altogether—W.G. Sebald, or Proust.

I like occupying this exhaustiveness, losing my way in it, reading badly, you might say, missing so much and so much then finding my way again with a piece of self-reference or the perilous return of language to an equality with life as we prefer to understand it—going somewhere or meeting someone or putting a gun to your head. I enjoy imitating it, especially writing my diary, where the sense of depth and endlessness inside language is entirely concordant with the diary spirit. Unlike many writers who try to avoid influence, I seek it, honest thief that I am.

The other nub of Krasznakorkai is his acceptance, nay promotion, of the incomprehensible.
...each sentence was of vital importance, a matter of life and death, the whole developing and moving at a dizzy rate, and that which it relates, that which it constructs and support and conjures is so complicated that, quite honestly, it becomes perfectly incomprehensible...
Old Mallarmean that I am, this is so comfortable. Phew. We're off the hook, we're just reading, at that point where a horse no longer gallops but can be said to break into a run. Some pieces of life are like that. If you're lucky. Accepting the incomprehensible is not just the terrain of religion. It's an everyday skill.

Tonight I started to re-read The Melancholy of Resistance. The splendours of Bela Tarr's film The Werckmeister Harmonies, based on the book, made me impatient the first time. This time I will save the film for afterwards.

War and War ends with a railway station, The Melancholy of Resistance starts on a train: a woman sitting in a compartment feels insecure; her bra comes unhooked; she is even more insecure; she thinks she is pursued even though she is too old. She is sliding into what she cannot manage; and so are we.

Monday 26 February 2018

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

'I am nourishing a creature' wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, who nourished in her turn another, nameless, unnamed, unnameable creature, male, larger than life, like Byron silhouetted against mountain peaks, but vulnerable.

What do any do but digest as best they can? Mary Shelley had a mother, a father, a husband and a poet silhouetted against mountain peaks to digest through her own pregnancy and birth into Frankenstein and his monster.

The looming man, vessel of my early adolescent dreams. I dreamed him behind me and I couldn't move, in the lane out the back beside the Baptist Church.

For two hundred years the vessel of the monster fills, empties, refills with our terrors, our mothers, our fathers, our gullies, our peaks, our disguises. Jill Lepore in The New Yorker made me re-read Frankenstein then wonder if I'd ever read it at all, if you could be whacked the same way twice. It could have been one of those books you absorb without reading, like Moby Dick or Proust.
But the politics of "Frankenstein" are as intricate as its structure of stories nested like Russian dolls. The outermost doll is a set of letters from an English adventurer to his sister, recounting his Arctic expedition and his meeting with the strange, emaciated, haunted Victor Frankenstein. Within the adventurer's account, Frankenstein tells the story of his fateful experiment, which has led him to pursue his creature to the ends of the earth. And within Frankenstein's story lies the tale told by the creature himself, the littlest, innermost Russian doll: the baby.
 What does the baby sound like? Is he crying? Yes.

The reader makes free with Frankenstein and his monster, digests as s/he will, confounding Frankenstein and his monster, fear with adventure, love with loss, innocence with corruption. In common with our collage/assemblage habit two hundred years on, Mary Shelley pulls in all she knows from her innermost doll to her father's and her husband's and his friends' science, gothic and romance. This is who she is at the time she is writing, which is also the time when she is producing creatures herself, who die, and cry. 'Awake and find no baby', she wrote in her diary.
For the first theatrical production of "Frankenstein," staged in London in 1823, (by which time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice), the monster was listed on the playbill as "–––––".

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Lazlo Krasznahorkai, War and War

War and War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai has settled its sentences around the last week or so. I have read a sentence before sleep and then slept into it. A sentence, chez Krasznahorkai, is also a chapter, often of several pages. One reviewer said he (probably) had never got to know a character as well as the narrator of this novel. People cannot take very much interiority. Said the bird. It is true you read and you get further into Korin who has left middle europe and gone to new york in order to type into a computer and all eternity the manuscript he found or wrote before —

I am not sure how clever I want to be, how desperate I am.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Willa Cather, My Antonia

A chance visit to St Gobnait's shrine revealed why I have felt uneasy reading Willa Cather's My Ántonia. We happened on St Gobnait in Ballyvourney, County Cork, on the eve of her day, February 11th. Graves were being tidied, lurid primulas planted (with their pots) at the foot of her statue, some early prayerful women were already doing the stations of the cross. We gave the place its due, talked to a gravedigger, refreshed our ignorance of the rosary, then drove off on an unknown road south, rather than east, the way we were going, as if in order to confirm our stranger status.

Willa Cather's immersion in the prairies of Nebraska would have thrilled me when I was twelve. I may have read My Ántonia around then, when I depended upon immersion in whatever long grass would shelter me. But it was just long grass, not the long grass of home, or the long grass of my country, adopted or otherwise, it was temporary shelter; there was nobody else around, and wherever I found myself later I would seek out its equivalent.

Although My Ántonia focuses on newcomers to Nebraska, these were Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes who would stay there, and build and prosper, many of them. They confirmed the stranger in the narrator, who, like Willa Cather, moved there from Virginia when he was young. The land and the seasons give the book its pace and its roots. It isn't coy, or matter-of-fact. The very levelness of it confirms its truthfulness and my unease.

St Gobnait was the patron saint of bees. She chose her spot in Ballyvourney because she saw six white deer there, and the water was good among the small wooded hills. These days the deer are only carved into the metal railings, and water is everywhere around the old holy well because of attempts to drain the expanded carpark. A new well has been installed, more convenient, less boggy, though less charming than the old one, with its rag tree and bed of coins under the water, and there are instructions on how to proceed with the stations—certain parts of the route have to be walked twice, a bit like the Grand National.

I cannot stay with St Gobnait and the mysteries—joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous—I can only look; as I cannot settle among these new Nebraskans in the early twentieth century, I can only read.

Saturday 3 February 2018

Beckett, How it is

Beckett's How it is reads quiet after a performance of Part I by the Gare St Lazare the other night. I hurry along, looking for their performance on the page. There are some glorious moments of mental exercise. Despair too strong a word. Of course. As well as humour. Too comfortable. But, in tribute to the Gare St Lazare and their staging, lighting, their sudden shifts, their discomfiture, or was it ours? I was back in the Everyman Theatre, or wanted to be.

When I read How it is the last time, in my sprawling teaching Beckett period, I marked little, remembered less. 'I always liked arithmetic it has paid me back in full' leaped out of the dark, near or far, of the Everyman; the clouds parted with clarity and a smile. This is one of my Beckett quotes, one of the tenets of my faith.

Somewhere, perhaps more than once in the performance, two voices chased or echoed the same words, up on stage where we the audience sat, at the back, as wrong and as privileged as we can be (at the back of the stage looking out on the flats and the stalls), Beethoven, I thought, opus 31, maybe number 2.

There's a moment where we suddenly understand the piano to to be innately double, like ourselves, with our sack of memory, our native bent. That was, sometimes, what the Gare St Lazare players did with Beckett. Voices came from all levels of darkness and distance, within inches, within aeons, of each other. I fell among the interstices. It was warm and peaceful even as the voices carried on in the mist and a group of dark hooded creatures crossed the middle distance.

Monday 29 January 2018

Jack Robinson, An Overcoat

Some books challenge the sequence and linearity of reading. A narrative is there but skewed deep in itself, knocking about time zones, at the bottomlessness of a reader/writer's reactions. Jack Robinson's (Charles Boyle's) An Overcoat, a transposition of Henri Beyle's (Stendhal's) 19th century love life into the 21st century, has footnotes that spawn footnotes, references that spawn references, sometimes onto the next page, so that the reader reads Beyle (Boyle) across a couple of centuries and several page levels, with Robinson keeping his feet dry on the title page.

When I was studying latin at school our humorous and whimsical teacher encouraged us to interleave our set texts with blank pages, so that Virgil's Georgics and Horace's Odes in their staid bindings multiplied into comments, reminders and associations. When we gave the books back at the end of the year we took out our carefully glued in sheets of paper so that next year's students could insert and write their own.

Proust, in like manner, presented with proofs of A la recherché du temps perdu, sat up in bed near the end of his life and interleaved additional text then interleaved the interleavings, only death putting a stop to an endless process.

You can of course ignore the footnotes in An Overcoat. You can reduce the number of hidden pockets and whizz along more rapidly; Beyle/Boyle will be there in his essence. The footnotes, though, ranging around Stendhal and his commentators as well as Boyle/Beyle's scenes from everyday life, open up the book, let you lose your way as is proper in this 21st century. Keep your weakness intact, as Henri Michaux says, don't try to acquire strengths.

Friday 26 January 2018

Jack Robinson, Charles Boyle

Reading books by someone you know is even more piquant on the train: strangers all around and speed and space out of the window on a grey day ready for populating. The line from Cork to Dublin in January features reeds and heaps in flooded fields bordered by ivy-darkened trees, and up as far as Templemore, Charles Boyle writing as Jack Robinson about Robinson (Crusoe) in a language already familiar from conversation or emails. It is also discomfiting; I start to imagine people I know reading my books.

At Templemore a family gets on and settles two compartments down with a mammy who howls as across windy hillsides and small children who shriek back: life is this loud. I try for a reading that excludes all but give in to the easy contemplation of the lives of others, the very thing that Robinsons do not know how to do; this is an exercise for isolates like me who leave the island or come down from the tree with all the inner resources they have accrued now ready for dispersal.

My favourite Defoe reading was when I was about 23 and went on holiday with my mother—the only such occasion ever—and read the right-hand pages only of Robinson Crusoe. The book was heavy. I was recovering from having had my wisdom teeth taken out. It was an apt and adequate way to read half a book and keep a mother at a manageable distance in this unusual circumstance: Ibiza in the era of unfinished hotels on the beach.

The other Charles Boyle/Jack Robinson I read on the train was Jack Robinson by the same author, which is about staying close and keeping a distance from writers you know or could know. I do not know many writers; I know more artists and tree-planters. There are possibly some tactics here. The quote from Coleridge on the back cover strikes me as being the wrong way around. He says that writers of the past inspire passivity and submissiveness, whereas writers who are one's contemporaries can be friends. Writers of the past, like Virginia Woolf, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, feel like friends with an intensity beyond most that life in the living has to offer.

Just across from my seat is another arrival from the crusty midlands of Ireland, in her Regatta anorak and her black wig, or black-dyed hair, I'd suspect wig, reading her Irish Daily Mail and bulking consistently from the chin down to the floor.

Monday 15 January 2018

Oliver Sacks, Gratitude, Renata Adler, Speedboat

One damp and cloudy afternoon in Nijar, each change in the weather reflected in the white sea of plastic on the plain below, I read Oliver Sacks' Gratitude, four essays of such gentle and collected sanity that immediately I read them again. Although I know how much honing must go into these pages, I am completely humanised by their plain-speaking calm. This is what you can write when you are trying, as he says in the first essay, to complete your life. In the second essay he knows he has an unstoppable cancer and he begins to be able to see his life 'as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of connection of all its parts.' From the top of Nijar town, the plastic plain below is almost beautiful in that sunlight you can get towards the end of a bad day.

This second essay, called 'My Own Life', sits strangely beside a few lines I read in Renata Adler's Speedboat in the plane on the way to Spain.
In the South, in simpler days, I remember a middle-aged gentle black worker speaking to his son who had insomnia. 'When you can't sleep' he said, just tell yourself the story of your life. 'Now sometimes when I can't sleep I wonder. A twenty-four-hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let's just have a little quiet around here.
The speed of Renata Adler's prose outstripped the speed of the Boeing 737-800 series and made the journey feel unusually peaceful, preparing me for this afternoon with Oliver Sacks. In the fourth essay, Sabbath, Oliver Sacks comes to understand a sabbath after most of a lifetime without religious practice of any kind.
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of life might I have lived?
He regrets being as agonizingly shy at eighty as he was at twenty. He regrets speaking no language other than his mother tongue. But the impression the book leaves with the reader, as the title suggests and the publisher makes clear by excerpting on the back cover the ending of the second essay, is of acceptance, and gratitude, even a certain optimism that the future of the planet is in good hands (I'm grateful for the respite when I look out of the window at the largest concentration of plastic greenhouses in the world).
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.