Monday 31 December 2018

W.G.Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write, said Roland Barthes. With a substrate of Roland Barthes and Brian Dillon and unseasonably warm, still weather, I start for maybe the third time The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, his walk down the Suffolk coast, a weave of internal, external coincidence and uncertainty with a warp of historical, geographical fact set up for us to absorb in a desolate landscape: internal, external.

These contemplative, melancholic yet factual men, I can keep pace with them, then rapidly I lose what I've read. It's the cloth I'm left with, and, this evening, Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet. Sebald's Suffolk is a landscape I know, I know the quality of the light and the relief of the desolation. This is the east coast of England, opposite Holland or Belgium. The east coast stands for lost causes. St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. I always liked that. It gave me something to start from.

Sebald, Max to his friends, incomer of a few decades, living up the road in Norfolk, has transferred his needs onto this empty coast whose moments came maybe a hundred years ago, maybe a thousand, maybe now. He is open to every association, like the small train crossing a river and how it was surplus to requirements in China a hundred years ago and fetched up in Suffolk, proving the decline of the Empire of China, and then there was the Joseph Conrad Suffolk connection and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand story, the silk industry and the urn burial—these factual men are in shadowlands, if this is what they want.

Suddenly, exhausted from a maze of August landscape and historical reference, here is Sebald ready to visit Michael Hamburger outside a village called Middleton, fellow incomer from Germany, translator, ruralist.

It's like the music of Philip Glass, just when you can't take another repetition, another league out from land, the music breaks and you're back in familiar rhythms again.

Hamburger's pile of jiffy bags by a door—you keep them and there are always more than you need—could have been Sebald's. Coincidences run wild. In rendering these people he becomes them, lapsing into the their language, their context, as his own. Down the coast there's Swinburne who visited, with other melancholics in the late nineteenth century, the lost village of Dunwich which slid into the sea. Lost cause, if ever. And Edward Fitzgerald who translated the Rubiyat of Omar Khayam from Boulge Hall in Suffolk and died of ancestral distress and failing sight. And how Sebald, Max to his friends, came upon Boulge, the Fitzgerald seat, via a Dutch man of money wishing to settle thereabouts. These are some of the threads we ride among the rings of Saturn.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon

Objects in This Mirror by Brian Dillon is a collection of essays in a plump sturdy paperback (Sternberg Press) that has occupied my winter reading ground for a few weeks now. First I read the whole thing then had the book around in my room and read maybe the contents page, or some of an essay, then stared at the fire and let it settle.

What you put into reading is nothing like what you get out; reading is fermentation, not arithmetic.
To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write. [Barthes]
Barthes brought Brian Dillon into his right world. A writer, a teacher, somebody brings you on and you don't look back. For him it was Barthes.
They are eager to learn to really dance.
This is the caption under a soft fifties photograph of two girls in Moscow doing grands jet├ęs, one smiling at the other, both at the height of the leap and aware of each other. Really dancing meant leaping. I have always had a soft spot for the leaping photos of Lartigue, for flying dreams and for a teenager dancing in the living room on her own when everyone had gone out, ballet music on the record player, like an orphan.

As well as essay titles in Objects in This Mirror there are sections: Curiosities, On Land, Pathologies, Image Files, Inaesthetics, Syllabus. The inner shopping list.
The artist Nina Katchadourian once said to me that her job as she sees it is to simply pay closer attention to the world than others do ...
The closer the attention to greater the pain and if you're lucky the pleasure—if the world you attend is complaisant with your vision. To dance, to write, to leap over things at your own speed. There's the nub, or is it rub?

In the introduction Brian Dillon suggests that the reader may as go straight to the essay at the end about Barthes, 'before any of the more contained and probably assured pieces that come before it'. I didn't do that, I read it where it came in the running order, but in the re-reading it was the essay about Barthes I went to first.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Walter Rose and F.M.Mayor

Good Neighbours is a difficult link on the winter bookshelf. Is it Ask the fellow who cut the hay? or Pond Life? Or, moving into fiction, F.M. Mayor The Rector's Daughter?

Walter Rose and F.M. Mayor were born a year apart in the south of England; his portrait and her novel are grounded in the same reality but daily lives barely intersect on their pages. The landed and the religious keep a respectful distance from Walter Rose's village, as the nitty gritty of pig and plough is separate from the classical Rector and his dutiful daughter in fictional Dedmayne, though some characters do good work in the village, and find it easier to talk to villagers than to their social peers. The rector's daughter confides most freely in Cook and in one surprising sentence we find a parson's wife teaching carpentry to village boys.

Typical of me that I put myself to bed for the day (yesterday) with several books and several sheets of paper for notes then slip into non-reading non-sleeping emerging only to finish The Rector's Daughter and then, after cursory scan of possible relatives on the shelves, start reading it again, like a child who can't wait to know it well enough to anticipate every word.

This is bookish occupation, imagination as absolute seeing, guaranteed by words and sometimes pictures. The comfort of knowing, of being there more than ever.
Our brain, 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.   
W. G. Sebald

Thursday 13 December 2018

Walter Rose, Good Neighbours

A fault on the landline means taking out a number of books from the shelves to get at the sockets behind. These are motley garden and nature, pond and botanical books. Among them, Good Neighbours, written by Walter Rose in the 1940s, with drawings by John Hookham.  I bought it in 1974, previous owner DH Pasmore signed in discreet pencil on the flyleaf.

Good Neighbours is a portrait of Haddenham, a village in Buckinghamshire, reaching back to the author's boyhood in the late 19th century in a village in post-enclosure England. All the needs of life were met here: food, shelter, tools, clothes, shoes. Once a week to the market town, a couple of hours in pony and cart, and some seasonal outwork in the flat plains between Haddenham and London, known as Going Uppards.

A contained, intimate, community has its own dialect, which shows up bright as a misprint in Walter Rose's modest writing. Witchert. Yolm. Stulch. Todge. Dillen. Slabbin. Greaves. Wimble, Sneds. Frim. Sidcut.

And habits that need reviving, like Chapter V, Gnawing It Out, which was a form of barter involving milk, potatoes or a joint of pork or mutton as part of wages, which could take as long as fourteen years to settle, ending with a toss of a sovereign between two men.

And another form of barter called Chop.
It was once explained to me that the chop system secured double advantages, a profit on the sale and on whatever was taken in exchange; and further, that when making the chop you had only to assure yourself that it was for something of greater value, and you might pleasantly dream of beginning with a donkey, changing it for a pony, and end up as the proud possessor of a blood horse!
That sounds very like selling a piece of old rope on eBay and through multiple exchanges ending up with a fine house overlooking a golf course. There's an edge to dreaming now. In fact, dreaming isn't any longer the right word now we're parted from potatoes, mangold wurzel and the cottager's pig.
The lore and cult of the pig formed a bond between the villagers, as strong as if it had been inherited. All understood it naturally, save, maybe, the Parson. He, poor man, fresh from college, could not be expected to know more than which was the head and which the tail... To call on a neighbour without asking 'How's the pig a-doing' was a plain breach of courtesy, not to be lightly excused. The walk round the garden on a Sunday, or of an evening, the detailed examination of the growing cabbages, the savoys, the sprouts, the beans and peas, would have seemed incomplete without a long and interested pause at the sty, and a learned discussion on the merits of the particular pig.
PG Wodehouse and Flann O'Brien, with different levels of mockery and affection, have seen fit to foreground the pig.
The joys of routing thus ended, nothing remained but surrender to the blisses of eating and sleeping. To grow fast, and grow fat, made exertion less and less desirable. What need for effort with life so bountifully full?
As well as future food the pig was wish fulfilment.
To sleep the sleep of the just was better—with eyes slightly open—emitting melodious snores—and so to wile away the sultry hours of summer; to stretch the long body act ease on the soft straw in the cool shade of the shed, head only at the doorway to sniff the fragrant air from the cottage garden and valley beyond. This was the life of the pig.

Monday 10 December 2018

Henry Green, Doting

These dark evenings, Brahms' A German Requiem underlies Henry Green's Doting, his last book and an artifice so sustained (almost entirely by dialogue) that it needs some rolling Brahms to ground it.

These people—Middletons Payntons Addinsell and Belaine—are in and out of each other's pockets. They talk therefore they are history, they are fiction. It takes a few pages to figure who they are and how they know each other, and then you're away, they're away, on their multiple intrigues, their skirmishes in restaurants, in flats, in rooms, their weave, their fugue. They telephone a little, Arthur, Annabel, Diana, Charles and Claire, along with Peter, a son despatched to school or salmon fishing in Scotland, plus various convenient servants.

The last sentence of the book is: The next day they all went on very much the same.

The book is the part of the fish that shows above water in uneasy times. Are all times uneasy? Is there a void when you take away Brahms? Why doting, after living, loving, party going and blindness? What does doting mean?

This is how we make our exit. Henry Green wrote nothing else for the remaining twenty-two years of his life, or nothing that has remained.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Henry Green, Pack My Bag

The looping impetus of Henry Green's writing (his self-portrait Pack My Bag) reaches you slowly and you get to feel for this awkward aesthete with a conscience, with a forelock and a downward tall stance, who wrote novels the way a composer might work on a single tune for life  (Berlioz was like that). Always caution, reluctance, persistence. Apology almost. Deference. He wrote longhand, at night. I have mostly read him at night. He is a burrowing kind of writer, seeking out himself and his reader. Prose is a long intimacy between strangers, he said.

In his novels there's always something large missing, like the definite and indefinite articles, or narrative without conversation. His memoir can afford to be poignant. This was just before World War Two. He might die. And in case he does, here is what he feels like setting down of his life: this is what comes to mind. Semi-patrician family life in Gloucestershire, private schools, Oxford. These men in the 1930s and 40s (Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell) they were basking, you might think, in their privilege, armed with irony and self-consciousness. Of all those Henry Green is the one I would like to have known.

He didn't die in World War Two, he wrote a clutch more novels, all with one word titles; and then wrote nothing for twenty-two years. He did not write a self-portrait before his actual death. I guess he didn't feel like it by then. His novels and their titles would have to speak for him. Living. Loving. Doting. BackNothing. Concluding.

Monday 3 December 2018

Roald Dahl and Henry Green autobiographies

Roald Dahl Boy and Henry Green Pack My Bag are coeval, more or less, memoirs of schooldays and just after. Roald Dahl stops after his schooldays. Henry Green, writing on the eve of World War Two in case he didn't survive, goes up to his falling in love. I haven't read much Roald Dahl, and none at the right age, whereas Henry Green came in on a tide of books predating my life that I read when I was in my twenties and thirties.

Roald Dahl was an entertainer, a tall boy with sisters in the 1920s. Norwegian. Henry Green, the pen-name of Henry Yorke, son of prosperous business people from the midlands. Roald Dahl's family were in business, too. Whatever that meant. Whatever the product, the material. They were established. Dahl and Yorke, Est., somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, good houses with good views, and good education. And this was the education from which they emerged. Roald Dahl's education was run through with beatings. Cruelty as formative. So what does he do? He writes warm/cruel tales for children. His letters home when he was at school were signed Boy.

Henry Green, formed in the soft valleys of Gloucestershire, writes cloudy novels of situations whose drama derives from weather, uncertainty and class difference. Pack My Bag is a self-portrait more than a memoir, an evocation rather than a tale, a sketch for a novel or the remains of a dream. He did come back from World War Two, he lived another thirty years, wrote nothing for the last twenty-two years of his life.

Henry Green's novels sit in a soft place akin to his home valley in Gloucestershire. Because their drama is that of gathering, eavesdropping, assembling and not quite getting there, though there are marriages and betrayals, there's a mist if not a fog and by the last page you feel that the writer, along with the characters, has only ever paused. The sentence is the thing that continues.