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.