JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 26 October 2018

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 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

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

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.