Saturday 28 December 2019

patricia highsmith

What if Patricia Highsmith had written a spare trilogy about her growing up, as Tove Ditlevsen did, instead of these thriller tortures, these chilly people she has to invent in places she has visited, like Venice, Sorrento, Athens and Crete for The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January?

Why does Patricia Highsmith need to invent psychotics abroad, while Tove Ditlevsen stays at home—call it that—and has not read Freud?

I would like to read three slim volumes on thick chalky paper written by Patricia Highsmith about growing up in Texas in the 1920s and 30s. Her diaries, all 8,000 pages of them, are due to be published next year. Beside that complex flood, the novels may start to look slim.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen

By the end of Dependency, the third volume of Tove Ditlevsen's Copenhagen trilogy, my instinct is to look back through the book and re-read a sentence here and there, as if I might find something I'd missed the first time around, or to reconfirm her equal, even attention to the awful and the everyday. A novel about dependency creates its own addiction.

The Penguin publishers cannily separate the trilogy into three slim airy volumes with thick paper, like the books of childhood, so you read as a child reads, everything at the same pace, with the attention of the new-born reader.

Tove is pregnant and her mother visits, or she visits her mother.
I talk with her about giving birth, and she says that Edvin and I were born in a cloud of soap bubbles, because she tried to force us to come out by eating pine-oil soap. She says, I never liked children.
Well-spaced print on soft chalky paper holds unexploded bombs.

The eponymous dependency begins around pregnancies, among desires to be normal and knowledge that you're not. Specifically it begins at a Tubercular Ball with a doctor called Carl who looks as if he has sixty-four teeth and introduces her to Demerol to quell the pain of a quick scrape, a curettage, and then Chloral for sleep, methadone for earache.

I can't read anything about addiction without being reminded of my friend Rafferty, especially the spurious feeling of control after rehab. The clearer he sounded after his liver transplant, after psychotherapy, the swifter his gulps at a glass of water, his darting looks along a street, the less I believed anything he said. He wrote his account too; the glory hole of his life as reinvented to reassure himself that by saying it he was conquering it.

All that was missing, not sayable or not said in the first two volumes of Tove Ditlevsen's trilogy, has now channelled into the addiction, and, although still not explicable, not explained in any way, it has a place, a locus, a black hole, a focus and a structure. There are husbands and children and moves from one house to another, eventually to a hospital.
I'm lying in bed with my head lifted slightly from the pillow, staring stiffly at my wristwatch. With the other hand I'm wiping the sweat out of my eyes. I'm staring at the second hand, because the minute hand won't move, and once in a while I hold the watch up to my good ear, because I think it's stopped. I get a shot every three hours, and the last hour is longer than all the years I have lived on this earth.
Tove Ditlevsen is far less lurid than Edward St Aubyn, writing several decades later about the same thing. Writing has a different function for her. About halfway through the book, she says:
The days pass, the weeks pass. I've started writing short stories, and the veil between myself and reality is solid and secure again. 
 I wonder if, while writing this trilogy, the last volume written only five years before she committed suicide, the veil was still solid and secure.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen

I read the second volume of Tove Ditlevsen's Trilogy the length of what's known locally as a desperate day, strong winds from the south and very wet, pints of water under the front door. I would have preferred to take Youth slower, but, even with pausing between chapters for a look into the stove or out of the window, there wasn't a chance, not with that weather, especially knowing I had the third volume, Dependency, which is slightly longer, in reserve. The spare, onward movement of Youth took me through a dark afternoon into the real dark. Tove Ditlevsen is a dark afternoon. The real dark you have to supply yourself. That is the great thing about spare tales. You can work it how you will. This is a plain account of the years from fourteen to twenty, the shuffle into independence. Plain, but pained. With obscure costs buried under the white of the page. If you say this little, if you fail to show emotion when expected, if you're on the edge of any spot you're in, if you read and write beyond what's considered seemly, you can recount all you like of rooms and jobs and boys who squeezed you at the end of the evening, you're freighted, and that's how it is.

The Danish title of Dependency is Gift which means both marriage and poison.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Berg, Ann Quin

Berg by Ann Quin. Brighton in the sixties, where I spent nine formative years. Any Brighton I read or see on film has to settle beside those nine years, five in the town, the last four out in the country. Ann Quin was fermenting her own death while I was vanishing into Mallarmé a few miles outside Lewes. She walked into the sea. I went to Ireland.

I read Berg in the last few days with a kind of nervous reserve, trying not to recognise more than I had to. I don't know why she had to have Berg a man, a son who might kill his father, when she was a woman, a daughter, who wanted to kill herself. Evasive behaviour from the nineteen sixties. We were all drilled into freedom but it didn't feel like that. We were not saying what we meant.

Ann Quin walked into the sea, salt and buoyant. Virginia Woolf walked into the Ouse not far away, with stones in her pockets.

The remembered mother, the implacable sea, says the back cover blurb of Berg, a Calder book, 1964, in thick chalky paper. Berg has a large author photo on the front cover, and 50p written in biro between title and author. Judy Kravis, 1975, written on the pre-title page.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen, Copenhagen Trilogy

Tove Ditlevsen's Childhood, part one of The Copenhagen Trilogy, has me from page one.
So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn't say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.
I am sensitive to mother/daughter silence and tension, the forms of defence the daughter learns.
I carried the cups out to the kitchen, and inside of me long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane. A song, a poem, something soothing and rhythmic and immensely pensive but never distressing or sad, as I knew the rest of the day would be distressing and sad.
Tove Ditlevsen was born the same year as my mother, so to construe for a moment my mother as daughter adds a peculiar piquancy. You are not supposed to understand your mother's interiority, the childhood she carried about. It's enough, more than enough, to configure your own.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin and you can't get out of it on your own. It's there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as Pretty Ludwig's harelip. It's the same with him as with Pretty Lili, who's so ugly you can't imagine she ever had a mother. Everything that is ugly or unfortunate is called beautiful, and no one knows why. You can't get out of childhood, and it clings to you like a bad smell. You notice it in other children —each childhood has its own smell. You don't recognise your own and sometimes you're afraid that it's worse than others'.
By chapter 12 her childhood was thin and flat, paper-like, she couldn't help comparing. 'It was tired and threadbare, and in low moments it didn't look like it would last until I was grown up.'
My childhood was supposed to last until I was fourteen, but what was I going to do if it gave out beforehand? You never got answers to any of the important questions. Full of envy, I stared at Ruth's childhood, which was firm and smooth and without a single crack. It looked as if it would outlive her, so that someone else might inherit it and wear it out.
By chapter 15, when the narrator is 12, 'My tattered childhood flaps around me, and no sooner have I patched one hole than another breaks through.' By the end of volume one, the last remnants of her childhood fall away 'like flakes of sun-scorched skin, and beneath looms an awkward, an impossible adult.'

See volume 2, Youth, and volume 3, Dependency.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Lettice Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor,

If a novel can have a redemptive sentence, this is it for the early pages of The New House by Lettice Cooper.
They say there is only one half-hour when a pear is at its best for eating.
Do I really care about this family and their furniture, their hats and gloves and orchards, their contretemps? The family is or was prosperous, and the materfamilias and Rhoda, the daughter who lives with her, are moving house, which sends tremors through the whole family in 1930s Yorkshire.

A knowledge of pears involves me with Rhoda and Delia and Maurice and their mother Natalie and her sister Ellen. The particularity wraps around: this is human life revealed, every time, every day, a hundred pages each of morning afternoon and evening and then the day, the book, draws to a close.
Today, she thought, is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack, and, if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin to-morrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.
This is not Virginia Woolf but it is thoughtful and quiet. (Virginia Woolf has a Rhoda in The Waves.) The sound of women and men thinking in Yorkshire, in the 1920s or 30s. A protected world, but leaky.
Queer that when the present cracks it is not so much that the past is behind you as that it is all there inside you, part of you. ... We're like snails, really. We do carry our home on our backs wherever we remove to. It's all there with us, packed in layers of pleasure and pain.
Before I came to Ireland, Sally Corbett, a neighbour who would have been of Lettice Cooper's generation, said that I would be moving across the water with my snail, and I looked around at my things, mostly books and records, some furniture, and felt it pack into a whirly shell, along with the turmoil of anticipation and trepidation.
It would be unkind, perhaps, to tell her today, on top of everything else, to let her know on the first night in the new home that she was going to lose her daughter. All the same, Rhoda knew that she must do it. If she didn't do it to-day, she never would. Only free people, she thought, can afford to be kind, and I'm not free! She could do it to-day, when she was shaken out of her ordinary life, strung to an unusual clearness of perception.
Thus Rhoda, trying to shift from a future of petit bâton de vieillesse to free woman self-directed and therefore more kind. Aunt Ellen, who is surely related to Mrs Palfrey in Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, may or may not go to live with her sister, while Rhoda may take over her sister Delia's job at the lab in the city. These quiet bids for freedom are touching.
If it could really happen, she thought. If she could really be living in a house again, able to go into the kitchen and make a cake, or do some flowers for the table, or look through the linen for the laundry and see what wanted mending. 
I am putting off the last fifty pages for the half-hour when the pear is best for eating.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Nelson Algren, Tove Jansson, Ivor Cutler

Walk on the wild side by Nelson Algren was the bass line of this week's reading, with, the last day or two, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson on top.

I wouldn't have chosen to insert the funny, sensitive knowing child of The Summer Book into Nelson Algren's world of 1930s depressed, drifting America, but, after a day of biblical rain and in advance of talking to a bunch of transition year students who are coming tomorrow to scrutinise our land and its habitats, I need to enter the outdoor world.

When I first started Walk on the wild side the talk-heavy language beguiled but left me standing still. But, as Dove Linkhorn moves from East Texas to New Orleans, and tries, as he says, to make an honest living in a crooked sort of way, he learns to pimp and he learns to read and the language of the book changes. Less street talk. No one has the wearies any more. Shakespeare and Ecclesiastes are there like diary entries, ceremonial but natural. Nelson Algren on his own crusade. Dove Linkhorn comes clean.

The island of The Summer Book, way out in the Gulf of Finland, is in another key altogether. Taking possession of an island by looking at it, suffering and delighting in it, knowing it by living in it, idly, playing it, naming it, forgetting, reinventing by going further in and allowing the mind to wander, considerate, in a common sense way, of the needs of God and the place of ants in this life or the next.

Like the Ivor Cutler tale of the boy who planted himself in the garden till roots grew out of his feet, and then he could not be transplanted.

It is a story of planting or drifting.
Hoe your beans or walk on the wild side.
Or both.

Thursday 14 November 2019

Ivor Cutler

Unexpected reading, prone in front of the stove on a cold, clear, windy afternoon. Looking through all my Ivor Cutler books for a drawing of a boy who planted himself in the garden until roots started growing out of his feet.

I read several of his books at speed, looking for the next intake of breath. The world brought up close and crazy, perverse and defiant and warm. Short pieces with drawings here and there. Tiny format. Half of A6. Biggish, tight print. Never knowingly understood, as he liked to say, looking out sideways from his book covers.
Sailing on my floating island, I take one breath per day. I breathe it in at midnight —a great big breath — and spend the rest of the day clutching the roots below and letting out bubbles.
Ivor Cutler was on the radio when I was about twelve: Monday Night At Home was on Monday Nights, At Home, a bizarre concept now. Quiet and unpredictable, funny from a long way back. Ivor Cutler telling us about gruts for tea, oh no, not gruts again, in a voice that sounded slowed down inside a thickset hedge. Ivor, born Isidore, Cutler grew up jewish in glasgow, a disquieting category like most other beginnings in life, that gave rise to a displaced child with a perverse streak.
I spent ten years at the conservatoire learning how to listen. After graduating with an A+, I gave several concerts, sitting on a chair listening to restive audiences. Eventually they started bringing instruments and went home after, thrilled with the quality of my reception. 
I bought Ivor Cutler's books at Compendium in Camden. He brought them in himself in his bicycle basket. This was pre-internet. I know him through his books and his bicycle. Later, when I was talking to people about teaching literature, I wanted to talk to him, but he sent me a half-page note on lined paper declining.

And now, looking for Sam who planted himself, to his parents' consternation, in the garden, and couldn't be dug up, I find him again. Different pages come through. Like this one, from Is That Your Flap, Jack?
The albatross, the stormy petrel, the armadillo that grubs for ants in the desert night, the rock cavy with his York gangster face still and alert, the boatbill and the marabout, shoulders hunched from the ache of carrying the world, Schubert's Hurdygurdyman and my grandfather, stumbling through the main street of a long long village, fledglings fallen from the nest. They all have their tune, which is silent. Small girls can hear it. They comfort dead flies, and little brightly-coloured lumps of detritus. 

Tuesday 12 November 2019

El Llano in flames, Juan Rulfo

By the time I arrived at the penultimate story in El Llano in flames by Juan Rulfo I was nearly drama-numb, like listening to current news from almost anywhere in the world. The Guardian Weekly that arrived today has an article on Mexico and its drug wars, with a sub-heading 'We Mexicans live in a cemetery full of bodies with no story, and stories with no body'. Read a Mexican writer and Mexican stories flood in.

Juan Rulfo's stories are set at the time of the revolution of 1910-20 which led to a democratic Mexico (though drugs make nonsense of democracy). I went to Mexico once, in 1981, which left me with one distinct memory — a mariachi band playing in a café facing the television, which was on, not the people in the café — and one general memory — that Mexico was like Ireland but in colour.

Juan Rulfo writes in the talky street style that a number of writers used after world war two, as if one of the effects of war were to loosen literary (often male) tongues from correctness, give voice to the voiceless, without abandoning a richness of palette, or should that be palate? If violence and misery are everyday currency, they can be redeemed by the language in which they are played out.

The penultimate story, 'The legacy of Matilde Arcángel', is a father/son tale, the father literally a towering figure. 'You felt, when you saw him, like you'd been thrown together in a slapdash kind of way, from the offcuts.' Whereas the son was 'a scrawny ravel of a lad ... (who) lived ... under the rock of a crushing hatred, and it's fair to say that his adversity began with being born.'  The story ends with the son riding his father's horse, 'his left hand playing away on his flute, and his right holding on to his father's dead body, slung crossways over the saddle'.

Death is always a solution as well as a dissolution. The place and the time Juan Rulfo writes about were rife with it. If a time can be full of holes. Plenty of movies represent such realities, and it's easy, confronted by a gap-toothed actor in a Mexican hat who shoots someone every five minutes, or the Magnificent Seven carried through hills and valleys by the music of Elmer Bernstein, to ride along with it all, past the white-clad villagers who somehow always look like actors.

This sounds like an argument for the deeper powers of written language over the language of (mainstream) cinema. And maybe it is. A film has one story, however complex or fragmented. A book is a collection of, in this case, 17 stories, though so consistent, so mythico-real that it's hard not to feel as if the stories have merged into one. As if the heroes of movies have been removed and what we read about is what's left: the people, the villages, the stories, if not myths, which they sometimes become, the deaths, inadvertent and other, the hens scratching in the dust, all that movie heroes sweep aside so that the villagers, no longer actors nor indeed heroes, are exactly what remains.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, World Within World

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, number 48 of The Faber Library, 1936.  I bought it in 1972 and haven't read it for many years. Elegant and anxious, it confirms the climate of a few decades before I was born. Even the pinkish dust jacket, rough as sugar paper, speaks to me. The story title pages are gracious as many of the lives depicted therein. Dropped capital to begin, and generous font with plenty of page around the text.

One jacket puff says the book is an exciting experience for the imaginative reader. Another describes it as an extremely interesting book which all those who are concerned with the trends of modern writing, and many who are not, will enjoy. The trends of modern writing in the 1930s might include an awareness of psychology, the rumble of fascism, an uneasy correctness and a willingness to investigate politely human sexuality.

In his autobiography, World Within World, Stephen Spender writes that he grew up in a style of austere comfort against a background of calamity.  The stories of The Burning Cactus reflect roughly that: a young man observing the artistic and leisured, thinking classes, chiefly in Europe.

Virginia Woolf, in a quotation that lives on my desk, said she wanted someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions.

 I too want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit, which, this week, has involved mud and machines and weather and water and exhaustion. This week I sat beside Stephen Spender at the end of the day and in the middle of the night.

His early writing is careful, very mannered, with a ring of the alien ordinary.
"Look, there's Daddy on the lawn!" said Tom, pointing to the window.
With relief Werner turned round, and they all looked out of the windows at Lord Edward, who was strolling up and down. He walked with the self-conscious uprightness of a man who has corrected a tendency to stoop. He was wearing one of his hundred and four suits—he had two for each week of the year—
I knew Stephen Spender's nephew Quentin when he was about ten. He was a fey-looking boy like his father and his uncle, slight and fine-boned. Likely to become a psychotherapist. Humphrey and Stephen Spender, with their social conscience, worldly influence and sexual ambiguity, were eminent and gracious material for the next generation.

Virginia Woolf mocked Stephen Spender for thinking that writing could or should be put to the service of views about the world, that social factors mattered more than the quality of the writing. She thought that awareness of the calamities of the world did not make it possible to write about them. 'You have to be beaten and broken by things before you can write about them.'

Stephen Spender of The Burning Cactus is not beaten or broken. Perhaps, as he says in World Within World, he would have liked to be an outcast, but he wasn't.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Macgregor Skene, Roger Phillips, Professor Oliver

A Flower Book for the pocket by Macgregor Skene (1935 & 1951) is a multiple read: the soft painted illustrations by Charlotte Georgiana Trower and Ruth Weston were the home face of a day outdoors when I was twelve: reclusive, shortsighted, noticing everything that grew, picking some to take home, wanting to know the name and the latin. The paragraph on the opposite page, written by Macgregor Skene, gave me a language for where I'd been and who I was. The habitats of plants were my habitats. A not uncommon weed of cultivated ground through most of Britain. Local on sandy and shingle shores, from mid-Scotland southwards; I.

I think that I is Ireland. How coy is that.

Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips (1977) includes Ireland as common sense, one of these islands. Species most common in Cork and Kerry he says as if he's been there which he probably has. Roger Phillips uses photographs, softly printed. The illustrations of Charlotte Georgiana Trower and Ruth Weston, softly printed also, are clearer, because, where the camera sees with the camera in mind, the illustrator sees in order to make visible: she has been looking.

Illustrations of the Natural Orders of the Vegetable Kingdom by Professor Oliver. F.R.S. F.L.S, is of another order altogether. Illustrations by Mr W. H. Fitch, F.L.S. who has been looking for a long time at the inner lives of plants. Diagram of a flower, cross-section, with ovaries and filaments finely drawn, with coloured wash, leaf awake on the left, and leaf asleep on the right in the Oxalidaceae family.

Mr W. H. Fitch also did the line drawings for Illustrations of The British Flora, which I bought in 1960. The preface ends thus:
Although the illustrations are necessarily small and not intended to be coloured, many persons have found it of interest to do so, perhaps as a record of their observation and identification of the plants themselves.  So far as it has been possible in the present abnormal circumstances, a paper suitable for colouring has been used in this edition of the work.  July, 1919
I coloured in the field poppy and the grass vetchling, both red, and that was as far as my courage went.

John Nankivell, William Gass

Side Elevation of the Deanery, Ardagh, County Longford, drawn by John Nankivell.

A flyer from the Irish Georgian Society is on my desk.

I read William H. Gass's Omensetter's Luck prone before the stove, this lowering afternoon, and when I say read, and prone, that is what it was, the long, exact, Gass moment, and I couldn't say, à la fin, nor would I want to say, what kind of luck Omensetter had at all, or Gass, for that matter, having to write like this, relentless unto madness sometimes, the old push/pull of language going back to magma.

Thursday 24 October 2019

William H, Gass, Bill Gass

William H. Gass, Bill Gass, in a Revised & Expanded Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & other stories, is looking for a reader.
Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?  . . .  I am fashioning a reader for these fictions . . . of what kind, you ask? well, skilled and generous with attention, for one thing, patient with longueurs, forgiving of every error and the author's self-indulgence, avid for details . . . ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines.
I circle around his pages, pleased to be there, as you could circle a copse of trees and go home, go to sleep, all in a day's work. The calque or layer upon layer of reading every so many years, the re-forming of an image you will forget, amalgamates into a reading yet to come.
The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need.
William H., or Bill, is clear about the difficult and the free, subtle about the obvious.
... though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
Reading the stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is one thing. Reading the preface is suddenly closer to the source and instead of being teased and pleased, you're moved.
Unlike this preface, then, which pretends to the presence of your eye, these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness. I willed their existence , but I don't know why. Except that in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style. I wanted to feel responsible where I could bear to be responsible, and to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page—

Friday 18 October 2019

Gerald Murnane, William H. Gass

I began to get a heavy chilly feeling about a quarter of the way into Gerald Murnane's Tamarisk Row, and by the halfway point it was so bad I couldn't face these sentences: long, intricate, desolate, freezing at the height of summer.

This first novel from 1940s Australia is about horse-racing and boyhood, about racing marbles in the dust in place of horses, about a boy's preoccupation with catching a glimpse of girls' pants.

I read a lot of Patrick White in the seventies and eighties, and there's a chilly plainness in his novels too, as if this were the only way a sensitive Australian man could express the country he was born into, or out of.

Gerald Murnane writes sentences as vast and inhospitable as the land itself. The reining in of bleakness into sentences produces more bleakness.

J.M. Coetzee, who writes a puff on the back cover, is another chilly writer. Though I liked Foe, his reinvention of Daniel Defoe.

Just as I would not choose to read a novel that was in any way about football, I am dispirited by one which is about horse-racing.

By the end of the afternoon, a chance reference to William H. Gass in a review I read recently has sent me back to The Heart of the Heart of the Country.

A slow read of the long preface, lying in front of the fire on a sharp and windy afternoon, marking the most charming passages with a pencil, is what I need after Gerald Murnane.
Thus, obscurely and fortuitously, chance brought these stories forth from nowhere. Icicles once dripped solidly from my eaves, for instance. I thought them remarkable because they seemed to grow as a consequence of their own grief, and I wondered whether my feelings would freeze to me by the time they had traveled my length, and whether each of us wasn't just the size of our consciousness solidified;

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

For my state of disturbance and expectation this autumn, Virginia Woolf on her way to the the late, chamber music-like novels, is a right read. I can open Jacob's Room almost anywhere and be touched by these sentences that push at truths to be found next time around.
There are very few good books after all, for we can't count profuse histories, travels in mule carts to discover the sources of the Nile, or the volubility of fiction. I like books whose virtue is all drawn together in a page or two. I like sentences that don't budge though armies cross them. I like words to be hard —
She writes her London; she walks and looks about; takes the omnibus and sits in the park. She works on the music of non-sequiturs. I bought this book in 1975 and wrote in the margin of page 116: How much further the sentence, in pencil.
Alas, women lie! But not Clara Durrant. A flawless mind; a candid nature; a virgin chained to a rock (somewhere off Lowndes Square) eternally pouring out tea for old men in white waistcoats, blue-eyed, looking you straight in the face, playing Bach.
Sentences that arrest you while at the same time pushing you on:
'Anyhow, I can drown myself in the Thames,' Fanny cried, as she hurried past the Foundling Hospital. 
I read Virginia Woolf every time with a sense of relief. Like listening to Schubert or Mozart.
So we are driven back to see what the other side means — the men in their club and Cabinets — when they say that character-drawing is a frivolous fireside art, a matter of pins and needles, exquisite outlines enclosing vacancy, flourishes and mere scrawls. .... These actions, together with the incessant commerce of banks, laboratories, chancellories, and houses of business, are the strokes which oar the world forward, they say.  ....  It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force. They say that the novelists never catch it; that it goes hurtling through their nets and leaves them torn to ribbons. This, they say, is what we live by — this unseizable force.

Monday 30 September 2019

Proust, Guy Davenport, Virginia Woolf,

By 1922 Japan was sending to the west those folded paper flowers that open when you put them in water. Proust saw them, Virginia Woolf saw them. The folded paper flowers are there, swelling, in the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, and halfway through Jacob's Room.

Guy Davenport taught a course on the year 1922. I expect he knew about the shipments of folded paper flowers from the East and their effect on Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf.
About this time a firm of merchants having dealings with the East put on the market little paper flowers which opened on touching water. As it was the custom also to use finger-bowls at the end of dinner, the new discovery was found of excellent service. In these sheltered lakes the little coloured flowers swam and slid; surmounted smooth slippery waves, and sometimes foundered and lay like pebbles on the glass floor. Their fortunes were watched by eyes intent and lovely. It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union of hearts and foundation of homes. The paper flowers did no less.
Virginia Woolf circles her flowers; she can be the quietest writer. Eyes intent and lovely.

Marcel Proust's paper flowers swell into houses and characters, they become the river, the park, the village, the church, all of his childhood at Combray, through the unfolding of the lime-blossom tea in a cup, he remembers.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Ruskin, Proust, Veronese

Up at the reservoir, trying to read Ruskin in the shadow of the equinox, wind picking up, gravel pit works grinding away on the other side, followed by a swim, ultimate or penultimate, who knows, then home. The next Ruskin essay, in the evening, is an inaugural address to the Cambridge School of Art, 
Sight. Not a slight thing to teach, this: perhaps, on the whole, the most important thing to be taught in the whole range of teaching. .... To be taught to see is to gain word and thought at once, and both true.
Ruskin, earnest Victorian, two firm syllables however you say it. Proust read Ruskin. His Venice was created by reading Ruskin, so that when eventually he went to Venice he was disappointed: this was not Venice at all. He would have been better off staying at home and sending postcards, as Flann O'Brien recommends.

Reading Ruskin makes me think of whoever I know who who has read Ruskin, or might, who lives by a certain way of questioning or wrestling, enjoys the rhythm of sentences, the geography of thinking, not preachy, more explicatory in the manner of a country man leaning on a gate or sitting at a hearth.

Ruskin spent six weeks in Turin studying the brocade in a Veronese painting. Can we read Ruskin as he reads brocade? For six weeks?
When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower.
Women too. When are women rightly occupied? Where is the amusement of women? Whence this masculine optimism? Why can't I read without asking these questions? This is the amusement of women.

As Ruskin says, one kind of writing exists because, for various reasons, there is no one to say it to.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Gucci, Mallarmé, New Yorker

Read of the week was a Gucci ad on the back of the New Yorker. Straight to the point. In french.

Droit au but, les revers voient grand.  

The point is out of sight, beyond a pair of wide, white lapels on black silk and wool. Mallarmé would write like this in 2019.

Vous ne risquer pas de manquer votre entrée en optant pour cette veste de smoking croisée noire 
en cady de soie et laine.

Mallarmé wrote and produced a fashion magazine called La Dernière Mode at the end of the nineteenth century, a poet on sabbatical among women's clothes, compiling his sentient dictionary, his gamut of suggestion.

Et l'on n'est pas au bout de ses surprises, puisque 
l'ensemble se complète d'un casque en feutre noir à visière jaune transparente

The less you understand the more
The better the entrance you make
Say nothing and you fascinate
By the reach of your lapels
You are transparent and 
Still you have secrets


Your visor tinted
Spastic in stance
You strike a pose
Of antic Egyptian
You play your role
As you understand it
As we understand you
To understand it in this costume

Jouez votre rôle comme vous l'entendez

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Flann O'Brien

On a good day in September you talk to a few people in the market, take your place in the world for an hour or so, then go down to Vibes and Scribes to find something to read, and there are two books on the front display that will prime the change in the season.

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
How it is if you have paranoid tendencies and a missing twin. '... as if I'd been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane.' Dislocation of the real. As respite. The relief of spelling it out is only temporary.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A story written by a library. 'I emerged from the library at age 28,'  says Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 is the fantasy nightmare dream tale of a graduate of libraries who has absorbed hundreds of styles and aspirations.

Science fiction is a total misnomer. Dystopian fiction even worse. More like the usual warped autobiography. If we're prepared to be honest. Ragle Gumm in Time Out of Joint is at the centre of an invented universe. Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 is trying to escape with his books intact. Their names tell all. These are auto-explanations of a rational/passionate/desperate order.

The resident image, recurring as with dreams, is Truffaut's film of Fahrenheit 451, with its speaking book people to and fro in the dusk or the dawn at the end of the film: he's Plato she's Alice in Wonderland, he's the Third Policeman. They walk to and fro saying their books, being their books in open spaces between trees.

A new Desert Island Discs question: if you had to choose a book to learn by heart, to guarantee for your lifetime, what would you choose? Fahrenheit 451? A Robert Walser story. A la recherche du temps perdu? One of the four quartets? Orlando?

Ray Bradbury invented Guy Montag, the fireman (though he claims it was the other way around) because he had grown in books and could not do without them. So he writes, or is written, as above all a passion for books, a need for books and libraries. Truths less carved in stone than printed on the memory.

Within a few pages Montag the fireman who burns books (with relish), meets Clarisse, the self-confessed insane 17 year-old with the faintest breath of fresh apricots and strawberries about her; and begins his transformation.

This is a redemption story. Ray Bradbury is a golden labrador of a writer. His enthusiasm for what he has to say is infectious.

Philip K. Dick, or PKD, on the other hand, is not redeemed. (I can't think of an introspective breed of dog.) He makes his tragic discovery and it's recessive. Everything he knows quickly leads to doubting everything he knows. Every border an introduction to a new unreality.
'Maybe,' Phil Dick told a Vancouver convention in 1972, 'all systems .... are the manifestations of paranoia. We should be content with the mysterious, the meaningless, the contradictory, the hostile, and most of all the unexplainably warm and giving...'

Saturday 31 August 2019

Norman Douglas, Siren Land

I was reading Norman Douglas, Siren Land, in the middle of the night, the chapter on the Blue Grotto of Capri, with lavish quotes from Ouida and other, only slightly less rapturous visitors, then went back to sleep and dreamed of a stretch of calm sea with, every few yards, a horse showing through: head and neck and mane. Then the horses went back under the water, though you could still see them, shadowy, moving slightly.

You need to take some kind of deep breath to read Norman Douglas. This erudite, hedonistic, cheerfully opinionated writing is not of our time. Siren Land (1911) feels more natural to him than South Wind. He treats his historical knowledge and feeling for place with more relish and comfort than the social world he reconstructs in South Wind. 

The popularity of the Blue Grotto arose in the high Romantic period, 'on the crest of an immense wave of cavern and ruin worship that overswept Northern  Europe', and might not have happened if tastes had gone some other way. They would have found the Blue Grotto by now, I thought; they have found everything, and what they haven't found, they have constructed, in this, the high Capitalist period.
Shelley warbled of odorous caves so tunefully that men were almost tempted to become troglodytes again; Rousseau raved of noble savages; he showed us how to discover beauty in Switzerland.... long may it continue to attract, and wholly absorb, the superbly virile energies of our own upper-better-middle classes! Thanks, Rousseau; thanks for not living in Italy. 
Norman Douglas is similarly acerbic about England. 'English nature is too green, he wrote, and that green too monotonous in shade and outline; it is (entre nous) a salad landscape. '

Other riotous chapters include one about Sister Serafina, the local not quite saint of Capri, so much the antithesis of Norman Douglas' own tastes in life, like pleasure, and wine, and lying under carob trees in golden light, that he gets into perverse stride.
I linger upon the personality of this energetic single-minded woman, for she is the embodiment of what the Hellenic spirit was not: its very antithesis. Earthly existence she held to be an illusion; the world was death; the body a sinful load which must be tortured and vexed in preparation for the real life—the life beyond the grave. To those Greeks, the human frame was a subtle instrument to be kept lovingly in tune with the loud-voiced melodies of earth and sky and sea; these were the realities; as for a life beyond, let the gods see it it—a shadowy, half-hearted business, at best.

Sunday 25 August 2019

Norman Douglas, South Wind

Reading Norman Douglas South Wind I am astounded, and bored, and for a moment fascinated, especially the bits I read in the middle of the night, when fascination is a good prelude to sleep. Mine is a 21st edition printed in 1947, thirty years after first publication. Who were these thousands of readers then who would happily disport by proxy on the island of Nepenthe?

Soldiers in WW1, I have learned, liked being reminded of the idle life of Nepenthe, Norman Douglas's lightly disguised island of Capri. They didn't mind the assumption that everyone knows latin and greek, has no need of regular work and understands the easy tone of good society. The snobbery went down well with all classes. "You cannot be frank with men of low condition."

Norman Douglas assumes that Capri in the teens of the twentieth century, like The Field in County Kerry in the 1960s, with its minute machinations, crises and reversals, is bottomless and riveting. They have the same potential, let's say, Capri and County Kerry, early or mid-twentieth century, low or high, visceral or scholarly, they're devious and bibulous, feelings run high and this, bottom line, is the piece of rock on which we find ourselves.

I haven't read The Field but I've seen the film, Richard Harris emoting down the ditches and in the pub. My parents had South Wind on their shelves. I didn't read it then. Nor did I know that Norman Douglas was friends with Elizabeth David, who turned English cooking around at the same time as he was writing his swan song on Capri.

My last try with South Wind was down at the reservoir today, where, for once, there was no wind, and sun for the most part eluded. The Poles were there today, across the water, several families, and the teenagers off to one side. I listened to the Polishness of their voices and the song of two wood pigeons, one throaty and ending on that poignant half-note, the other, more shrill, stopping short of the ending.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Bucharest, Steinberg, Tzara, Ionesco, Mihail Sebastian

Bucharest lies within my sense of the distant past, a place I know but have never visited. My grandparents were not far away. Saul Steinberg, Tristan Tzara, Eugene Ionesco, came from there, and left. For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, based on diaries he kept during the 1920s and 30s, shows why. Mihail Sebastian also left Romania (for Paris) for periods, but returned. He chronicles the arguments he had with his friends, while they were still his friends, mostly about anti-semitism.
Sometimes at the professor's course I feel like we're gathered together in a kind of ideological headquarters of an immense world war, waiting from hour to hour for telegrams about the catastrophe, dreaming of the new world that will be born from its ashes.
The author picture on the back cover shows a soft face with big eyes and full lips, a damp poet type with a widow's peak, looking up from a slightly tilted head.
Has anybody had greater need of a fatherland, a soil, a horizon with plants and animals? Everything abstract in me has been corrected and, for the most part, cured by a simple view of the Danube. Everything fevered has been soothed and ordered.
As a writer he is soft too, and modest. As a student he is ready to admire his teachers, as a jew ready to lay bare their anti-Semitism. Modesty is a rare gift among autobiographers and diarists. He is not wringing his hands. He thrashes it out with himself as he hears it thrashed out in his social circle. Here's his friend Maurice on a bus in Paris, spelling it out.
Whether dangerous or not, I'm still an anti-Semite. Or, to put it better, I'm against certain expressions of Judaic sensibility and psychology. I detest the agitated, convulsive, fevered aspect of the Jewish spirit. There's a Jewish way of looking at the world that distorts the proportions of nature, disturbs its symmetry, attacks the reality. The dreamlike tendency you were praising in Chagall is exactly what I denounce. My eyes are wide open. I don't like those who are only half awake. Your Chagall stumbles about between sleep and wakefulness, which disqualifies him from making art. A clear-headed Jew is a phenomenon. The great majority are sleepwalkers.
It was the sleepwalkers who left Bucharest. Mihail Sebastian, for the most part, stayed.
I've always believed that the only defeats and victories that matter in life are those you lose or win alone, against yourself. I have always believed it my right to have a locked door between me and the world, and to hold the key myself. Now look at it, kicked open. The doors are off their hinges, the portals unguarded, every cover blown.
He survived the war, the Holocaust, the 'Judaic taste for personal catastrophe', and was killed by a truck on his way to give his first lecture, on Balzac.

Monday 12 August 2019

Natalia Ginsburg

By the time you're on the third successive book by Natalia Ginzburg you're prepared for any kind of ellipsis or uncertainty. You know the context and here is a new set of voices, habits and disputes. Voices in the Evening is more fragmented than the two other books of hers I've read. Among the generations and couples and their houses, she chooses slighter and slighter evidence: names of streets the reader won't know, skeletal evidence of couples breaking up. Enough for her, enough for me.

Having just read Happiness, as such and Family Lexicon, I know where I am with this writing, the scraps and instalments of lives that come our way among people we know in places we're familiar with. Stories rise from the darkness or the miasma, and then sink back. In a novel as in life, death is hardly different from no longer being talked about.

I read this book twice, starting again as soon as I reached the end, happy to spend more time in this version of human life, in which thoughts feelings and actions make temporary appearances. I do not know any more about these people at the end of the second reading than I did at the end of the first. I do not necessarily want to know more. I like to exist among fragments, to break off with a banal musing, like Elsa's mother in the last sentence of the book, considering a move from one village to another: 'I wonder if they keep the stuff that I take for my blood pressure at the chemist's in Cignano.'

If there is any guarantee that life continues, it lies in the banality of our daily questions, and the possibility of voicing them to someone else.

Sunday 4 August 2019

Natalia Ginzburg and Grace Paley

Happiness as such is next in the Natalia Ginzburg season. I used to tell students that certain books were best read in one or two long goes. At first I read bits of this book at bad moments, and couldn't find my own or the story's feet. Then, for most of a wet day I read the rest of it, swerving between the letters (this is mostly an epistolary novel) as they swerve among the vicissitudes, the ordinary mess of their lives, then let you out at the end into a somewhat cleared sky.

This is how the book ends.
A number of times I have thought that maybe while he was dying he had a flash of understanding and he travelled all the paths of his memory and I am consoled by this thought because nothing brings consolation when there is nothing left, and even seeing that dusty undershirt in that kitchen, and then leaving it behind, was a strange, icy, lonely consolation.
Natalia Ginzburg and Grace Paley are kin. Tempestuous grounded motherhoods. Blunt, canny speech. Unjudging, wry, and rude around disasters, arguments and dirty socks. Varying spareness, sometimes exasperation but never venom.
His wife is having a baby next spring. Good God, why do all these babies keep coming when everyone is so fed up with them and no one wants them around. There are just too many babies.
     I'll stop here. I need to give this letter to Mathilde who's going out shopping now and I'll stay here to watch the snow and read Pascal's Pensées.
Natalia Ginzburg said she wrote in short sentences because she was the youngest and if she wasn't quick with what she wanted to say someone else would take over.
I think we will send you money periodically. Not that money will solve anything, since you're alone, broke, unsettled, and unreliable. But we're all unreliable and broken somewhere inside and sometimes it seems desperately attractive to be unrooted and breathing nothing but your own solitude. That's how people find each other, and understand.
If we read to be somewhere else, among other people, the converse is also true. We read to find each other, and understand. As one of her characters says, 'It's nice to talk to strangers when you're depressed. At least you can make things up.'

Monday 29 July 2019

Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon

I set into Natalia Ginzburg's Family Lexicon one night and gasped, without knowing why.

I was inside a family constructed around their habits and the way they talked, the bumpy rhythms of recollection, the tedium of what you find there: you always say the same thing, it's boring, jackass. But it's consistent, it's voiced, it forms bedrock.

Having grown up in a family beset by silence more than by speech, I move into this household in Turin in the 1930s, listen to these people, move about their world, breath drawn, disbelieving—that anyone could say this much, this clearly, without emotion, without judgement.

The habits of our language are the habits of our world. Discuss.

I first read Natalia Ginzburg when I was twenty-something and found her writing dull, but, as with Schubert songs, which my mother said I might like better when I was older, now she seems lucid and brave, her rhythms her own.

No, not brave. Honest. No, not honest, free. Not free, freed. This is family plainspeak. She had to be this blunt and if you're patient you'll find out why.  Her family was italian jewish catholic anti-fascist and that's enough for anybody in this life. She doesn't judge, she releases her family life through the things they said to each other, the clothes they wore and what they had for breakfast.

Halfway through the book we read, in mid-page, in a sentence, that the narrator married Leone Ginzburg. This is not a 'reader, I married him'. Her father flew into a rage as he did when any of his children got married, and that's it, she becomes his Ginzburg daughter.
We got married, Leone and I, and we went to live in the apartment on via Pallaglio.
Twenty-five pages later, Leone is dead.
On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone; his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his thick black hair, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.
By the time Natalia Ginzburg enters her own story, by the time she grows up, we realise we have been curious all along, waiting for her to emerge from a hundred pages of watching and listening to her family and their friends, neighbours, absorbing the talk in which she grew.

Family Lexicon won the Strega Prize For Fiction in 1963. That was a day for truth.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Daniel Robberechts

Arriving in Avignon by Daniël Robberechts leapt from an upstairs shelf this week: the right book for right now, in need of distraction, in need of kin, neither novel nor essay, just writing inside pale covers, published by Dalkey Archive, with a sketchy town in red on the front cover, propped up by rough black lines, for the arriving, the departing, the not having been there at all.
Approaching may be our most profound vocation. Perhaps we do nothing else in our lifetimes but hedge round, surround things and people with greater or lesser precision, more or less conscientiously, swerving or brushing past them, at most grasping them for a moment, never arriving anywhere for good, except, at the very last, in the earth.
Daniël Robberechts killed himself at the age of fifty-five. His books swerve towards that. Arriving in Avignon is least of all about Avignon, more about a twenty year-old looking for adventure.
What kind of adventure? The kind a twenty-year-old still cares about. Nothing could be better suited to closing the book on the past and yet nothing could be as unadventurous as a commercial traveller's hotel near the train station of vegetable-trade town.  He lacks any experiences of the sort you can hold on to. But wasn't it an experience to look up at the multicoloured radiance of the sky in the morning?
'Where is this report going?' the writer asks. Good question.
It isn't true that the reality of books is more beautiful than that of life, it's precisely the other way round, the reality of life is incomparably more beautiful than that of books, and not for some aesthetic, moral, or philosophical reason: quite simply by definition. Is it possible, this nothing thinks, that one has not yet seen, recognised and said anything real and important? Is it possible that one has had thousands of years of time to look, reflect, and write down, and that one has let the millennia pass away like a school recess in which one eats one's sandwich and apple?
Nearing the end of the book we read a headlong history of Avignon; another way of approaching it, for sure, and definitely not an experience you can hold on to.
These are the facts. Are they the full facts? No, not at all, one can't know them all, one can't even know the facts he knows, and certainly not list them. 
Ten or twenty pages from the end, there is a build-up of sentences beginning: one can also write.
One can also write: One day a man will arrive in Avignon.
The remainder of the book dances around that. One day, one can also write, he'll move into Avignon, 'the real, integrated, Avignon', and he'll observe the vital signs are carefully as any surgeon.
One wonders whether a whole lifetime would be enough to really see this town. To see it with the eyes of a stranger, but also with those of a native shopkeeper, a bum, a housekeeper, a farmer and solder, a priest and poet and patient and day-laborer and whore and journalist and concerned citizen and street sweeper ...

Monday 15 July 2019

Hall's Ireland, Dante

Hall's Ireland by Mr and Mrs C. Hall, an account of a tour in 1840, underlies my map of Ireland, I realise when I re-read the first section. 'Our work commences with Cork', they write. I imagine Mrs C. Hall dominating the writing, even if her husband dominates her name. Surely she is the one who finds the picturesque, the spectacular and the frequent beauty of the landscape, if it is he who emphasises why they are able to see it and to say so, he who dictates their reaction to the people they meet. Uneasy symbiosis. The beggars of Cork or Macroom, the wheedling and the drama, the attempt at fairness by the visitors.
In the small town of Macroom, about which we walked one evening, desiring to examine it undisturbed, we had refused in positive terms to relieve any applicant, but promised however to bestow a halfpenny upon each who might ask of it the following morning. Next day it cost us exactly three shillings and ten pence to redeem the pledge we had given, no fewer than ninety-two having assembled at the inn gate.
They are even-handed in their observations. That's one of their privileges. Another is the ability to see the beauty of landscape, to experience perfect solitude. You're not inclined to find beauty or relish solitude when you're hoicking spuds; when you harbour resentment and enjoy a fight, you're inclined to fear.
The highest of the Galtee mountains, called the Galtee Mor, and sometimes Dawson's Seat, rises over a gloomy lake which is said to be the residence of a Pooka [...] and which is believed to be unfathomable [....] let the slightest breeze arise on the warmest day of summer, and the cold around the lake will be intense.
Gougane Barra brings 'utter loneliness, stern grandeur and savage magnificence'. The Beara peninsula is a wild and primitive district, abounding in picturesque and romantic scenery. Glengariff is close to the 33rd canto of Dante's Paradiso.
Language utterly fails to convey even a limited idea of the exceeding beauty of Glengariff—the rough glen—which merits to the full the enthusiastic praise on it by every traveller by whom it has been visited.
The etchings in the book often show rivers or bays or mountains, with Breughel-like figures in the foreground, or a cottage or inn. The reproductions are very grey, but that only confirms how far away this is. Academic, almost. About as close to Cork Today as a load of seaweed.

Friday 5 July 2019

Brian Dillon, In the Dark Room

Brian Dillon's In the Dark Room has taken a long time to read for the fast reader I usually am. Praise for the book's intertwining of wide reading and personal pain lent doubt from the start: either because much of his reading echoes my own or because I am at least as circumspect as he is about what I have coolly called personal pain.

His careful sentences lend an ache to his tale. A woman I used to know called Kathy said she could never believe what I said about the difficulties of my life because I expressed them so well. It's not that I disbelieve what I read of Brian Dillon's early life, rather that his complex sentences wring my heart and make me turn away. To bind your inner life into a grammatically intact version of things, is pain in itself.

John Banville in his back cover blurb says In the Dark Room is a wonderfully controlled yet passionate meditation on memory and the things of the past. Controlled yet passionate is probably how John Banville likes to think about his own writing.

In the end, which I am nearing now on page 257, a slow reading, a few pages before sleep, was probably about right. I read Brian Dillon's Essayism with a rare sense of identification. I like him unreservedly when he is writing about writing. His memoir, written 15 years earlier, is a more painful case of word over mind.

Friday 28 June 2019

Kishinev, Bessarabia

The pogrom of Kishinev in 1903 resulted in an exodus of Jews in the next decade, among them three of my grandparents. Yesterday, between swims, lying on the reservoir's gravel shore on the hottest day so far this year, I read a review, in the The New York Review of Books, of Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven. J. Zipperstein.

I held the paper up against the sun as I absorbed an account of the origins of my vulnerability. It was hard, in that bright light, to see the picture reproduced in the review of a vandalised house, furniture half in half out of windows, some bentwood chairs at all angles, and a family looking every which way but mostly downwards.

I have always had trouble saying anything about Kishinev, or Bessarabia, the country that it was in 1903. I could only stress the Russian, Romanian and Russian again, followed by Moldovan, identity, the shifting, shiftless, sands of what is easily called a backwater.

It was only a few years ago that I knew that the pogrom in Kishinev was in some way significant.  I thought I learned it was the first, but actually it was its representation, in journalism and poetry, that made it, as reviewer Avishai Margalit describes it, an exemplary pogrom. A backwater is a clean slate for a demolition story.

I half-think all this through into my own life as I hold The New York Review of Books against the sunlight, interspersed with a swim or two. That's about the only way I can absorb any origin story.

Monday 17 June 2019

Han Ong, Johann Peter Hebel, Clarice Lispector, Cronicas

At the end of a story about a reclusive, ageing painter and a young Mexican boy, we can, if we like, go to the New Yorker website to hear what the author, Han Ong, has to say about 'straying into topicality'. The Mexican boy and his mother and her friends in his story are caught up in the trumpian anti-immigrant scourge. The artist paints and repaints stripes, then burns them, as if saving all her feelings, eventually, for the Mexicans.

I have also been reading The Treasure Chest by Johann Peter Hebel, from about two hundred years ago, a collection of short, sane, family friend moral tales he wrote for almanacs—the one book other than a bible that you might expect to find in almost every (rural) home in the early nineteenth century. In an almanac you could find the complete underpinning of the year ahead: full moons, high tides, the farming seasons, the structure of labour and festivals.

Something clean and reassuring about both these ventures; not brave but normal. Johann Peter Hebel's stories do not stray into topicality. They live there. There was a new almanac every year, unlike the Bible, which was for good. A house would have a Bible and an Almanac in the early nineteenth century; now an internet connection and an Ikea catalogue, perhaps.

In the 1960s and 1970s Clarice Lispector published Cronicas, week by week, in a Brazilian newspaper. A hundred and fifty years later, topicality has moved into anecdote. The focus is up close: how long you should wait after seabathing to wash off the salt, for example, or, advice on how to treat one's possessions.
There is a creature living inside me as if he were at home, and he is. He is a black horse with a shiny coat and although completely wild—for he has never lived inside anyone before nor ever been saddled—although completely wild, this gives him the primitive sweetness of a creature without fear.
Erasmus saw a piece of paper in the street in the fifteenth century and picked it up to see what was written on it. 
Are we using our life or not when we fritter it away? What precisely am I trying to find out?

Thursday 13 June 2019

William Maxwell, So long, See you tomorrow

A few pages from the end of So long, See you tomorrow by William Maxwell, he, the teller of the tale, says in parentheses that it is time to let go all of these people; and yet he finds it difficult. It almost seems, he says, that the witness cannot excused until they are through testifying.

I don't usually like to be reminded of the storyteller's relationship to the characters, all the twists and wry turns of characters with a life of their own, as people like to say. But it is William Maxwell through his characters that you know at the end. The story he has unwrapped of a small town murder in the midwest of America about a hundred years ago, betrays his own vulnerabilities as much as theirs.
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in asking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
I read the whole book yesterday, having decided in the morning that was what I'd do with this unseasonably cold day, I'd light the stove and read all of a short book as the north wind blew. I last read So long, See you tomorrow in February 2015, a rough, grubby season it seems, with tadpoles starting to move about in the pond.
When I got home from school I did what I had always done, which was to read, curled up in the window seat in the library or lying flat on my back on the floor with my feet in a chair, in the darkest corner I could find. The house was full of places to read that fitted me like a glove, and I read the same books over and over.
Seven Types of Deprivation could be the subtitle. Seven Types of Refuge.
Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too—the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old set-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the open door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.

Saturday 8 June 2019

W.G. Sebald, George Bourne, Sebald-Walser, Schubert-Mörike

One way of reading is to scour the written world for confirmation of something you haven't yet figured out how to say. I've been reading A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald in the same way I read Change in the Village by George Bourne. 

Where is the sentence, the paragraph, where I can lay my weary head? 
… nowhere do I find the idea of a world in perfect equilibrium more vividly expressed than in what Hebel writes about the cultivation of fruit trees, the flowering of wheat, a bird’s nest and the different kinds of rain; nowhere more readily grasped than when I observe the way in which, with his unerring moral compass, he differentiates between gratitude and ingratitude, avarice and extravagance, and all the other various vices and frailties mankind is heir to. 
W.G. Sebald reads Johann Peter Hebel, or Mörike or Rousseau, he listens to Schubert, he reassures me that whatever I want to say has been said.
The moment of utmost clarity of the landscape is at once the moment at which individual existence dissolves at its limits and is dreamily transformed into into thin air.
The world settles into a new order.
... there would be no deceit and no violence, and everywhere peace and satisfaction would reign ‘if only all men would cultivate the fields and provide for themselves by the work of their hands’.
Yes, get out there and plant some beans. There's still time. 

At the same time the poet Mörike was writing in a Swabian orchard, Schubert composed his songs in an area of Berlin called the Place of the Gate of Heaven. In some portraits Mörike and Schubert resemble each other: intellectual cherubic, with round wire glasses and curls, posing for the draughtsman with a napoleonic thumb in an upper pocket.

Schubert’s Mörike songs are the work of twins in an ideal landscape, a form of composition which seeks to re-create, in a snatch of half-vanished melody, that authentic Volkston which, in fact, has never existed. 
Sebald's readings and reworking, reconnecting writers thinkers composers and artists, places and departures, according to his need, allow us to do the same. 

The Sebald-Walser path, like the Schubert-Mörike path, as represented, for example, by Cy Twombly, would have a light and fragile relationship with the ground through which it passed. 

Thursday 30 May 2019

Fanny Howe and M

I was having a cup of tea with my neighbour M. Two young cats were licking each other on the windowsill. M was sorting through her mail, occasionally tearing envelopes in two with a little 'dealt with that' sigh each time. In among the pile she found a card: Here, here's a prayer for you, she said. There's two. One from the pope before this one, the other from a local bishop. I read them both. She wanted to know what I'd say but I could see she was not going to comment, whatever it was. I've never prayed, I told her, not ever. You can't if you've never seen anyone praying and have no sense at all there's anyone to pray to. I might have pleaded to the void now and then.

This evening I began Indivisible by Fanny Howe. Billed as a novel, but really just writing, entre chien et loup, which is a rarity on bookshelves throughout Cork City. I found it in the Quay Co-op bookshop the other day. I'd never been there before. A considered and comfortable bookshop, run by volunteers, who contribute just that: willingness and public spirit. The books come in and go out in a semi-library flow. I could take a guess as to who brought in Fanny Howe, and why she might not have had patience with it. If this is about motherhood and catholicism it's even more of a mess than I thought.

A page or two into Fanny Howe, she is in Dublin, with a friend.
My friend was tall, aristocratic in his gestures — that is, without greed. He said the holy spirit was everywhere if you paid attention. Not as rewarded prayer but as an atmosphere that threw your body wide open.
I planted a packet of holy spirit beans but only one has germinated.

I met Fanny Howe in Cork once, I said I had one of her books, Holy Smoke. I can't remember, a novel or poetry. She couldn't remember either.

Indivisible is billed as a novel. It begins with a husband locked in a closet one fine winter morning with two pairs of shoes, a warm coat, a chamber pot, a bottle of water, peanut butter and a box of crackers. Halfway through, with a nonchalance rare in considerations of religion, she thinks about what God does to language.
I think the way they talk about God as "love" is a heresy unless the word "love" has no meaning but then all words about God have to have less meaning than the word God itself which, because it already has no meaning at all, places all words in a difficult situation.
I wonder if my neighbour M could relate to this; she put the prayer card, untorn, into the rubbish. I say the Lord's Prayer sometimes, she said.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Elizabeth Smart, Tove Jansson

Two books I have recently been unable to re-read.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, even the title, did it for me in 1978. A literary love poem/novel elevated enough for my own general remove from things then. Elizabeth Smart fell in love with a married poet, bore him four children (he fathered fifteen, by four different women, only one of them his wife) and later wrote this 'profoundly honest, open wound of a book', as Cosmopolitan magazine said.

If you leave a book long enough it transforms; or you do. Angela Carter—I was reading her in 1978 as well—praised it at first then said later it should have been called By Grand Central Station I Tore His Balls Off. It was first published in 1945, the year Angela Carter was born. Maybe this will come into its own again, I thought as I chose it the other night, in dire need of a phoenix book to rise off the shelves and find me transformed.

There was no phoenix. I am not transformed. I am exasperated. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is unreadable from about line two. Everything is Unreadable, even the puffs, the introduction.

I read in the Guardian Weekly that a quarter of the population of Finland had recently turned on their tvs to watch a new animation series about Finn Family Moomintroll. I have only one Moomin book, Moominvalley in November. I'm not good with children's books I didn't know as a child. I read a page or two. I like the titles. I like them on the shelf. You can like a writer for being there and not want to read the books.

Tove Jansson's The Summer Book was a rescue book. Not a children's book but a book about being a child on an island in the Gulf of Finland. I read it while clearing out my father's house after he had died. Tove Jansson had an island, a grandmother, the serenity of untouched moss, at times, and other times its fragility. I am not good with little creatures who have strange names. I am good with the fragility of moss, and other times its serenity.

Friday 17 May 2019

Lauren Groff

I read New Yorker stories in bursts, several at a time, when I'm between books. A New Yorker story is just that, a New Yorker story, which is sometimes a comfort, sometimes so tidy it's dull, and sometimes a reading moment in the middle of the night. This week, Lauren Groff's 'Brawler', a story about diving and pills, was a reading moment. Somewhere in the middle of the middle column on the page, she starts her dive. The dive is the moment. Like the levitation dreams where you are slow motion somersaulting in a large room or hall.

Then Sara, the diver, goes home where a cheetah is chasing across the tv screen in gorgeous slow motion. Her mother, the thin, wasted, naturo/homeo/pillhead, recedes, and Sara, the diver, her daughter, leaps. After the cheetah, we see elephants washing, and then, later, the great huffing buffalo, followed by male springbok climbing aboard female springbok. Her mother lays her head on Sara's lap as 'the television scrolled onward through the miracles of the savannah and the lifting of white names through blackness'.

These terrible/serene moments—a mother's head on your lap when you are young—are riveting as you read, as I read, in the middle of the night.

Saturday 4 May 2019

Giorgio Bassani, The Heron

A man, a lawyer in mezzo al cammin, gets up early in the morning. This is Ferrara in the middle of the twentieth century. He is going hunting. The Heron by Giorgio Bassani, occupies a day, from four in the morning to late the same night.

At first I couldn't take the slow and ordinary start, the matutinal duties duly listed. I read the first few pages several times. But then, with successive insomniac readings, I began to occupy the same day, the same dark wood, the early Ferrara morning and beyond, as this emotionless yet passionate lawyer, quietly prepares.

The eponymous heron is wounded. The lawyer, immobilised by his thoughts, does not fire a shot. This is November, skies are low. His companion brings down thirty or forty water fowl. The heron dies.

Where are we going with this? If you're asking you already know. For a hunting novel this is very quiet. Images of taxidermy. Shots fire through mist and uncertainty. Very little conversation from which someone is not longing to escape. Waterfowl fall from the sky. An indulgent solitary lunch is followed by a dismal nap and several changes of mind.

Sometimes the baldest account speaks loudest. In the latest New Yorker, Guinevere Turner's account of childhood in a cult, if it was a cult rather than a Family, is bald. And loud. Factual. If factual includes extraordinary reality, it is indistinguishable from fictional. Giorgio Bassani's midlife hunter is dying with the heron, willing forward the end of his life. The heron carries all.

Friday 26 April 2019

George Bourne in Blarney

At the Easter Monday car boot sale on the GAA pitch in Blarney, I bought Change in the village by George Bourne, one of the short-lived Penguin Country Library, 1984-6. There were few books at the car boot, prodigious amounts of plastic and semi-defunct machinery, a few antiques, and a multifarious strolling public.

It's a rare charm to choose a book out of a display of maybe seven, next to ashtrays and old lace.

Change in the village was written in 1912 about a village called Bourne just outside Farnham in Surrey. George Bourne, (né George Strut, he borrowed the village for his pen name), was the son of a wheelwright and well-placed, says the blurb on the back, to recognise the changes that were necessary for the survival of the village, and identified them with a sympathetic view of the inevitable completely lacking in sentimentality. (Oh the blurbs of yesteryear).

It is moot, now, it is meet, to think about inevitable change. To think about anything being inevitable in society, which does exist, after all.

The car boot sale is inevitable, in Blarney, 2019. Discuss.

You walk up and down with maybe something in mind you're looking for, maybe not, maybe something will blow in or you'll have a grá for a 1950s saucer, or a wooden chisel. The stuff is laid out on trestles and tarpaulins, for barter, banter and ball-hopping, for well-being in the company of neighbours and strangers, locals, cousins and blow-ins, Roumanians at ease on a Fair day, Poles establishing their Blarney or Blackpool creds, their children standing alongside, hoicked into their pink flannel shorts, learning. I could see, in my mind's eye, my friend Rafferty, who liked fairs and markets, who liked his commerce tactile.

Take any two things and describe the difference between them. George Bourne's changing village (google it now and you get wall-to-wall real estate) and the car boot sale at Blarney GAA a century later.

Change in the village is a five-act drama.


There are twenty-one scenes.

The Village, Self-reliance, Man and Wife, Manifold Troubles, Drink, Ways and Means, Good Temper, The Peasant System, The New Thrift, Competition, Humiliation, The Humiliated, Notice to Quit, The Initial Defect, The Opportunity, The Obstacles, The Women's Need, The Want of Book-learning, Emotional Starvation, The Children's Need, The Forward Movement.

Re-write as Blarney, 2019, the GAA pitch on Easter Monday. Not sure about The Forward Movement, but working on that.

Sunday 21 April 2019

The L-Shaped Room, Lynne Reid Banks,

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks is a portal to me aged 17 or 18. The exact timbre of everyday concern, anxiety and self-establishment is painful when you recognise it. Like the music you preferred to dance to, then or now, the summation of dancing in your own time. Lynne Reid Banks and the L-Shaped Room, in Fulham in 1960, Leslie Caron and Tom Bell in the film version, all this is a cultural unit that encases me, with an inadvertent pregnancy at its heart, and therein the key to the rest of life. I bought my Penguin copy on March 13th 1965, wanting to know what the next piece of my life could look like if I were more of an urban creature. If I didn't answer an ad in The Lady magazine to rent a cottage in the Outer Hebrides, or to read to an old lady in Mousehole, Cornwall, in exchange for a cottage in the garden. I would write, read, and grow vegetables.

Yes, reader, I did. Write, read, and grow vegetables, in Ireland not in Cornwall. And the person I was reading to, was me.

Monday 15 April 2019

Out of Africa, T.S. Eliot, Karen Blixen, Four Quartets

There is a zebra on the front cover of Out of Africa; and one pencil mark in the text from an earlier reading, beside this paragraph.
Natives dislike speed, as we dislike noise, it is to them, at the best, hard to bear. They are also on friendly terms with time, and the plan of beguiling or killing it does not come into their heads. In fact the more time you can give them, the happier they are, and if you commission a Kikuyu to hold your horse while you make a visit, you can see by his face that he hopes you will be a long, long time about it. He does not try to pass the time then, but sits down and lives.
       Out of Africa, p. 261, Cape Edition, 1966.
Copying out (not copying and pasting) a paragraph into a new place suddenly opens it to new meaning. Released from the spell of reading Karen Blixen, tapping away at my copying, my delight starts to fracture. Though she was evidently liked and even loved by the Natives on her farm, and her observations about them are born of long experience, I start to balk at her language, at the idea of commissioning a Kikuyu to hold your horse, for example, while you visit a Lady in her Library. Is this Kikuyu patience, or is it something quite irrelevant to patience? Is their 'serenity only a deliberate hebetude', as T.S. Eliot says in Four Quartets?

Then, once again, I would like to think that there are, or were circa 1925, people who do not try to pass the time but sit down and live. I saw one sitting under a tree in West Cork circa 1985 and was well impressed. He was looking west when we passed by early in the afternoon, and was still there, looking west, when we came back a couple of hours later.

Karen Blixen gives rise to T.S. Eliot on a wet and sweeping April Sunday in Ireland. Reading interlocks like the vests of yore. Questions multiply idly and well. How does T.S. Eliot occupy landscape? With a growing terror of nothing to think about? As a distraction by distraction from distraction? T.S. Eliot did not know any Natives. He did not sit and live. He is not on friendly terms with time. There is much wailing and wreckage and despair; the best he can hope for is a conscienceless drift in restless waters. But he did know the river within us, the strong brown god, even if he converted the river, and everything else, almost instantaneously into words.

I tend to read Four Quartets to reacquaint with my old responses to favourite passages. This time, holding Karen Blixen's horse in strong sunlight in  Nairobi, I read it differently. I foundered among the rocks of The Dry Salvages as never before.
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.
It is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Out of Africa, Karen Blixen

Out of Africa is clean, accurate, full and spare at the same time. For astonishing moments you're in Kenya circa 1925, society and landscape. Karen Blixen, Baroness Blixen of Denmark, had a view of where she was and whom she met and dealt with on her coffee farm outside Nairobi, that leaves any fictionalising like Binstead's Safari, Rachel Ingall's novel set in Africa that I read last week, gasping for breath. Out of Africa is not set in Africa, it constitutes seventeen years of Karen Blixen's life and experience of Africa.

She writes more about the squatters and the deputations, the Natives, the Mission and the Hospital, the dramas around her, than about her own feelings. Visitors from her European world, on the other hand, 'sometimes drifted into the farm like wrecked timber into still waters'.
We had many visitors to the farm. In pioneer countries hospitality is a necessity of life not to the travellers alone but to the settlers. A real friend who comes to the house is a heavenly messenger, who brings the panis angelorum.
The real friend, Denys Finch-Hatton, comes back after one of his long expeditions, starved for talk, and they sit over the dinner table into the small hours. (Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Sorry.) The patrician Danish sensibility in Kenya, the observant/compassionate outsider, artist, inhabitant of her lands.
Standing like this in the limpid shadow, looking up towards the golden heights and the clear sky, you get the feeling that you were in reality walking along the bottom of the Sea, with the currents running by you, and were gazing up towards the surface of the Ocean.
Karen Blixen translated her own Danish. All these displacements, these translations, Denmark to Kenya, Danish to English, Angel to Native, Squatter to High Priest, confer clarity and a peace. Which, she said, was what she wanted, a peaceful landscape. She wanted to live among the people who were there in a peaceful landscape.

One day a High Priest came to visit, from India.
We could not speak a word to one another, for he understood neither English nor Swahili, and I did not know his language. We had to express our great mutual respect by pantomime. He had already, I saw, been shown the house, all the plate that it possessed was set out on the table, and the flowers arranged according to Indian Somali taste. I went and sat down with him on the stone seat to the West. There, under the breathless attention of the onlookers, I handed him over the hundred Rupees which were wrapped up in a green handkerchief belong to Choleim Hussein. 
Could be a model for Brexit.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Bookshelves, Rachel Ingalls, Karen Blixen

The act of skimming bookshelves is inherently musical; where you lean, what you miss, one year to the next, looking for something to read, is your slow movement, piano scales that run like Beethoven up or down.

Here are Four Stories by Rachel Ingalls that had disappeared from view. And her short novel Binstead's Safari. I read a review in the New Yorker about a reissue of Binstead's Safari; and the bookshelves move into a different key next time I look.

Four Stories, published by Faber in 1987, has Rachel Ingalls on the back cover, for all the world a Girton girl, clever, a little old-fashioned, with perhaps some early onset savagery under the girlish exterior. Her stories have all that.

Relationships familial and chilly, on the whole, important things happening in other countries, as in E.M. Forster, you can see things better from there, you can will the right outcome when you're away from home.

Kathy Acker—I keep looking at Great Expectations—is always away from home.

Binstead's Safari I read too fast, as if on rewind. Something too meaningful happening from the start. Too much Visible Preparation of Outcome. Woman blooms and ultimately is consumed by Fable and the Great White Hunter, by Elephant and Lion. Rachel Ingalls has too much meaning, she's a skilled tourist with too much significance on hold.

Karen Blixen is cleaner. She lived in Africa, came from Denmark. Out of Africa is maybe what I should read next.

Thursday 28 March 2019

Kathy Acker and Italo Zvevo

Kathy Acker suits and doesn't suit overwrought lives. I read a page or two of Great Expectations for the bam bam bam, the bumpy jolty, the loud rending sound — it's less like reading and more like overhearing conversations on the train — there's a kind of consistency, messy, and you can be fascinated and then abruptly not want to read, not to hear any more, just fix a stare at the middle of Ireland, the middle of anywhere, Portugal, for example, or Italy.

At other times of the day and night I have been reading Italo Zvevo Confessions of Zeno (which has been reissued, I noticed in Dublin the other day) which isn't very confessional beside Kathy Acker, who isn't very confessional beside Proust, who isn't any more than Freud or Dear Frankie. Kathy Acker and Italo Zvevo tango past the equinox. Sometimes this is as much I can read, when I'm reading the hill I live on day and night too.

Sunday 17 March 2019

Lynne Tillman, American Genius, Fahrenheit 451, Alentejo

Lynne Tillman is an interesting intern to have on a trip; she doesn't let up or let out, even at the end. American Genius, A Comedy, has been on my shelves for about 12 years. The last time I read it there was an after-image like the scene in Fahrenheit 451 in which ghostly book persons walk and read in their heads to and fro in the mist. This time, wandering about Alentejo in Portugal, we are in tandem. Lynne Tillman's prose runs in bursts of a few pages, returning often to her skin & her gut & her cat & the other inmates of wherever she is staying, an artist residency, in all likelihood, in New England, which gave rise to or at least accommodated this long recessive wander into her life, and, as I move on this ramble of a holiday from Azoia to Evora to Alvito and other small towns and villages often beginning and ending with vowels, into my life. I do not have such a sensitive skin as our narrator—I am annoyed she calls herself Helen when all the time she is Lynne—but I sneeze royally, as integral to my being, and I can have a sensitive gut. We both have things to say and do about chairs. On this reading, on this trip through gloriously wild and quiet Alentejo, I can relate entirely to the run of her preoccupations, the past interleaving with the present, the cat with the dog, the dead with the living and all their sensibilities, followed by a well-anointed bath.

Sunday 3 March 2019

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov looked like a good choice for away reading. My edition is a relaxed, well-printed hardback from 1967 with a well-defined sunshine mark, yellow on the blue cover and spine. I have gone past it often on the shelves but have not been tempted to re-read. Bookless in Portugal seemed a good moment. At the last attempt I got as far as the second chapter on Pontius Pilate and lost patience. This time I skimmed Pontius Pilate, and limped through another chapter or two, unwilling as with food you can't eat for long.

Written in Stalin's Russia, the level of evasion and thickness of satire is more than I can bear: unusual strangers with jovial supernatural gifts, (the devil is always happy, I suppose), hauntings, vanishings, black magic, black cats, talking cats, a range of happenings and satire whose target is noisily suppressed. No, I can't read this, even if it inspired Mick Jagger. I'd rather listen to Sympathy for the Devil. Mick Jagger would be closer than I am to a Bulgakov who went back to religion to demonstrate freedom.

Holiday reading will be Lynne Tillman and Kathy Acker, who were both born the same year as me, both jewish and savage. They make the satire on Stalinist Russia look binary/scholarly. I will ramble around Alentejo, Portugal, with Tillman and Acker, and from the first page, on the plane out, I expect, I'll hear a loud rending sound.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Stuart Holland, Henry James, Colm Toibin

I wonder if Stuart Holland, political economist, who said to me circa 1972 that people like him worked in his way, among policy and debate, so that people like me could work in our way, among poetry and — he could not complete my sentences as I could not complete his.

Men who work the world not the land, who wield analysis and field opinion, do not know what to make of women who escape their grasp into a row of beans.

I have often remembered Stuart working for a world in which poetry could have an undisturbed, accepted place. I have thought of him and others I half-knew then who were working for a better world, I thought, with only such recognition or adulation as was due. One mutual friend said that Stuart was drawn up short by my, what was it, my immunity to his importance.

I was more egalitarian or innocent than he was; what I read as timidity, he read as strength. We're always at half-mast to our understanding of ourselves or of others.

I have continued reading Henry James this week, under the protective memory of Stuart Holland, who now divides his time, I learn, between Portugal, Hungary, and possibly Italy. I have read several novellas, one of whose principal characters, usually young, is dead at the end. I have thought about the relation of reading Henry James to streaming Netflix and watching the news. Henry James is one of those writers who demands to be situated, as if, out of a distinguished thinking family bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he, like Stuart Holland, must be in relation to his times.

Now I'm reading Washington Square, which is more like a play, more like the art of (domestic) war and thus surely cousin to Netflix if not the news in any era. People who don't like Henry James like Washington Square, apparently, as people who don't like opera like Mozart opera, while Henry himself didn't choose to include it in his collection of tales. Too simple perhaps, too relaxing a tale of misogyny and polite exploitation, not enough clauses. Reading Henry James is like flexing your clause muscles; Washington Square, for some, including Henry himself, is not enough of a workout.

I have never read Colm Toibin's novel about Henry James. I would rather read Henry James than a novel about Henry James. Though I did like Czapski's account of Proust as remembered from a prison camp as a means of mental and spiritual survival.

Much of my reading, be it Henry James or a New Yorker story in a hot bath, is pointillist in manner: dot and space and shy image as images show through as in memory, with loose, absorbent edges.

Sunday 17 February 2019

The Aspern Papers, Henry James, Cyril Cusack

A review of the new film of The Aspern Papers sent me back to the Henry James nouvelle. Impossible to read Henry James without a wilful sense of purpose and some confused memories. Without becoming Henry James. That coolness and remoteness in the fastnesses of language. Where does that leave you, and Henry James? Is it, despite the odds, a warm embrace?

Margaret Roberts, Miss American Pie, as she liked to call herself, with the warmest of irony on a warm night in Chicago, announced she was going back to Henry James. Perhaps half Henry James readers are re-readers.

This time I read The Aspern Papers in the light of a film I haven't seen. The reviews are poor, but I enjoyed the sense of Vanessa Redgrave in her eighties guarding her memories and her papers in Venice, while local (Cork) boy Jonathan Rhys Meyer, whom I have somehow never trusted, as Morton, tries to extract her secrets, and Joely Richardson, Vanessa's daughter, playing Tita Bordereau, the niece, her name in the film changed to Tina, to avoid embarrassment. Henry James had faces and shadows to fit Bordereau, aunt and niece, and so do I.

You can withdraw into Henry James, if you need a certain coolness yet intimacy, some swift strokes of the pen, an amused distance, not much empathy. He can annoy, royally, as well, when you choose the wrong moment to read him; his sentences can be tortured; and you the reader are tortured, too.

I best came to terms with Henry James circa 1973 when I had a television for the first time and watched a BBC adaptation of The Golden Bowl, with Cyril Cusack, amused in his armchair, holding the tale by its subtleties at the close of each episode.