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.