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.