JUDY KRAVIS

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Monday, 29 January 2018

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

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

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.