JUDY KRAVIS

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Saturday, 20 July 2019

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 supposition. 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 hum, a housekeeper, a farmer and solder, a priest and poet and patient and day-laborer and whose and journalist and concerned citizen and street sweeper ...

Monday, 15 July 2019

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 siblings 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'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

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

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

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  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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

THE VILLAGE
THE PRESENT TIME
THE ALTERED CIRCUMSTANCES
THE RESULTING NEEDS
THE FORWARD MOVEMENT

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 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

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 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 ne another, for he understood neither English nor Swaheli, 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

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 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 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 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

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

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.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

I have spent much of the last week or two in early and mid-twentieth century Sweden. I read and then dipped into: Views from a Tuft of Grass by Harry Martinson (Green Integer Books 2005), and (It happened in) 1914 by Eyvind Johnson (Adam Books 1970).

For the summer of 1914 Eyvind Johnson, born 1900, worked a log jam, a log boom, up near the Arctic Circle, a boy among young men, and older men, often tubercular. He was a young man himself by the end. His childhood had come to an end, he said.

Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson were of a kind, rural autodidacts, coming out of the land and its work into, eventually, the Swedish Academy, they shared a Nobel prize in 1974. There was a Swedish Nobel furore that these two Academy members should be honoured. Harry Martinson—a tender portrait of him on the front cover—wasn't able for furore and killed himself soon after.  Eyvind Johnson's portrait on the back cover of the Adam edition shows a Nordic smile on an older face over a crisp white collar, under a slightly off-centre cap on what appears to be a rainy day by the sea.
When I was a child we experienced summer mostly as work, and now, much later, I realise that this was not necessarily the worst means. Somehow summer came closer that way. You took it by the hand and experienced it close to your eyes and nose. ... The inherent, drawn-out monotony of such work forced you to look for close contact with all living things.  (Summer, Harry Martinson)

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

For some weeks now a copy of the New Yorker in my room has been open at a photograph by Richard Avedon of Edward Gorey with a ginger cat around his neck, both of them looking downward into the dark of Mr Gorey's jumper, his beard and the cat's fur of a piece in black and white.

I found Edward Gorey in the Gotham Book Mart in 1980, his books, I mean. I was nosing about New York, pausing as I saw fit. The Gotham Book Mart, the Thalia cinema, Books & Co, another bookshop uptown, a record shop in Soho. Unaware that what I was doing was what people did in New York. I was walking, faster than I wanted, up and along New York streets, trying to find that natural, absorbing signs and untaken opportunities for services like full immersion tanks, reading advertisements of wares, considering displays of Chinese aluminium and perspex. 'I always wanted to look like this and now I do', said a young woman photographed in Soho around then. Not me. I had no idea I might look like this or what it was I always wanted.

Edward Gorey was also a shy man, nosing about in the Edwardian mode, privately having a laugh in the manner of Edward Lear and others. The era of Edward, indeed. The New Yorker article concerns a recent biography of Edward Gorey. Why read about the life of someone who created lives, in words and drawings, and was indifferent to his own? Like reading about a cousin you didn't know you had. Edward Gorey was a precocious child. Later, when asked about his sexuality, he said he supposed he was gay. He went to a lot of movies and was passionate about New York City Ballet. What more do we need to know?

Friday, 1 February 2019

American Indians have no word for wilderness because wilderness was their home, Edward Abbey, always a rambunctious read, tells us. Prompted equally by the preoccupations of an activist moment in my life, and by Józef Czapski's lectures on Proust, written without Proust's text, I remembered the Edward Abbey Reader bought in the 80s, and turned to the piece about going down the Green River in Utah with five friends and a ghost: Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden.

'Thoreau's mind has been haunting mine for most of my life', he says at the beginning of the river journey, but this is the first time in thirty years he has read Walden. It may also be thirty years since I read it. I went to Walden Pond on my trip around North America in 1980/81, at about the same time Edward Abbey was descending the Green River. That makes me, I feel, a privileged reader, even a companion of my own reading. Walden Pond was tame in 1981. The banks were well-trodden black earth, like the earth of the town where I grew up.
(Thoreau) lived in a relatively spacious America of only 24 million people, of whom one sixth were slaves. A mere 140 years later we have grown to a population ten times larger, and we are nearly all slaves. ... We are, most of us, dependent and helpless employees.
        What would Henry have said? He said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world ...  I go to my solitary woodland walks as the homesick to their homes".
As Edward Abbey and his friends float and row and paddle downriver, past Woodruff, Point and Saddlehorse bottoms, past upheaval Bottom and Hardscrabble Bottom, Thoreau accompanies. It's a fruitful companionship. When you're away you remember your life companions and their vividness grounds you. As you move downriver, you also stay put. Thoreau was rarely away. He wasn't a traveller.
Instead he made a world out of Walden Pond, Concord, and their environs. He walked, he explored, every day and many nights, he learned to know his world as few ever know any world.
As I call on neighbours here, I wonder what is the world they know, the world they explore, if exploration is the right word?

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

It's rare to read a book whose context is as powerful as its content. Lost Time was written as a series of lectures on Proust given by Józef Czapski when he was a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp. After a day's labour in freezing temperatures, prisoners hung onto their sanity by preparing talks on topics close to their hearts. Czapski retrieved A la recherché du temps perdu out of greatest need in the most gruelling circumstances. The prisoner's vigilance sharpens the mind and the memory, the need for relief.

A book once read and re-read, a book beloved, becomes embedded in the mind and cannot be erased. In Fahrenheit 451, books are walking around in remembered state in the half-light, their readers freed from the confines of a police state. Czapski is rescued from his ordeal by putting together, without reference to the book, which of course he didn't have, his recollections of Proust. A rememberer remembered at minus 45 degrees.

I taught Proust for many years, mostly the first two volumes. What would I be able to put together in dire circumstances, in dire need? Erich Auerbach in 1936 in Istanbul, also without books or periodicals, wrote Mimesis, which I read as a student, more impressed by the circumstances of the writing than by the book itself.

Questions and answers about the impression that reading lays down, imperceptible until revived, like the Proustian involuntary memory, in the mind of the reader. All the books I've read, some more startlingly than others, have furnished the privacy of my mind in different ways. I'd remember them in direst need. None perhaps more so than Proust, and I'd have to add Virginia Woolf, and the Four Quartets, and Sebald, and Mallarmé, and many more, in that boundless way that lists have.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

I've nearly finished Shyness and Dignity, another small hours immersive reading. Dag Solstad's nordic male run-on style of narrative hyphenates insomnia with ease—at the end of the hyphen you launch into sleep.

Whether it's Ibsen's character or Solstad's or the dear reader's there's a profound dismissal of all almost everything going on, including the eponymous shyness and dignity. All those repeated full names, Elias Rukla and Johan Corneliussen and Eva Linde, and addresses, the apartment at Jacob Aall's Gate, the Fagerborg Secondary School, dismiss themselves as soundly as the end of class bell at the said school. Students remove earbuds before class and then slouch.

However in last night's reading, one sentence rang out, well, several sentences.
People belonging to Elias Rukla's social stratum no longer talked together. Or only briefly and superficially. They practically shrugged at one another. Maybe to one another as well, in a sort of ironic mutual understanding. Because the public space required for a conversation is occupied.
The public space required. Yes. I wrote a story about an architect who designed an agora. He lived alone on an island connected to the mainland by a causeway accessible at low tide. A loner designing a public space. Requiring a public space. Needing a public space. Social interaction and building for the future. The architect did not know if he was waiting for the tide to go down or for the tide to come up.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Read exclusively in the early hours, the last, il ritorno in patria, section of Sebald's Vertigo, has implanted itself in the back brain. Sebald went back to W., the village of his childhood, for the first time in thirty years, and stayed, we read, in the same building, an inn, he'd lived in as a child, for an indefinite period, he told the landlady, during which time he was virtually the only guest.

He inhabits W. as he did when he was a child: indefinitely.

The past is a prison, a foreign country. People speak differently there. If they speak at all.

In the post today came Lost Time, the prison-camp talks on Proust given in 1941 by Jõsef Czapski without a book to consult. Erich Auerbach similarly wrote Mimesis in a bookless place. Remembering what you've read when you're far from books (even a short way down the road or in another room in your own house) is one of the most acute exercises a human can perform.

In the meantime, unhappily, irritated, reading Shyness and Dignity by Sag Solstad. I do not take kindly to the whinge-boring-teacher story. Talk to them, I want to say. Talk.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Dr K. evolves a fragmentary theory of disembodied love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement. If only we were to open our eyes, he says, we would see that our happiness lies in our natural surroundings and not in our poor bodies which have long since become separated from the natural order of things. 
This is from Sebald's Vertigo, and this is one reader pausing on one page in the middle of the night, wondering how poor is the body and what are natural surroundings? Figments of our exercise, our memory, our travels, our reading and our forgetting, selon Sebald, and I would agree, while I am reading Sebald at any rate. What are the salient characteristics of your natural surroundings? Natural surroundings are a moveable feast. Dr K. would say there was no difference now between natural and unnatural surroundings.

Vertigo is the third Sebald in a row I've read. There's a point at which a writer can seem too close, and although you like them you need some distance and would really rather read something else. Insomniac lately, I read in order to distract myself into sleep.

Dr K. in Vertigo is Kafka and to this reader also a man who sold shea butter in the local market pending something more fruitful in the zone in which he'd trained. I am also Dr K., technically. As well as just K. The apartment on the same landing as mine in Paris, apparently empty, had K. on the door. I noticed it every time I came and went.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Edward Gorey said that for a year after he had read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann he felt as if he had t.b. This is a reader paradigm that could do with expanding. As I start another W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, I wonder what imprint is settling in on me?

A melancholic empathy, for one. Sebald's emigrants are solitaries: a former landlord, a former teacher, a great-uncle and an artist in Manchester, more or less jewish or touched with an empathy for the outsiderhood of jewishness that Sebald himself must have had.

Or is it the even mist of biography, the long sentences and the quietness that precedes as well as follows death (emigrants are inclined to be suicides for all they have lost or not found, even if jews, as my mother used to say, are not), that produces the après Sebald effect: the birds fall silent, memories intensify the mist rather than the features it obscures.

Sebald's own memories intertwine with these tales of people he knew; he is the quiet one whose shadowlands and diligent researches are at the service of those who succumbed to sadness. In fact Sebald, who is always there when others' narratives dwindle into silence, could be said to be paying the debt of their melancholy by his attention.

His great-uncle, for example, according to one of the doctors who knew him, had a longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember. Sebald, as gently as you can with the written word, reverses that.

Great-Uncle Adelwarth, and Sebald's primary school teacher, have not been fully extinguished after all. Sebald pulls from his uncle's old agenda book a narrative in the first-person full of wonder, the converse of his later longing for extinction.

The artist Max Ferber (is that why Sebald liked to be called Max?) donates a manuscript about how they got out of Germany into Suffolk or Manchester. A gift freely given: you can do what you like this, je te le confie. Or the writer has invented them. Peu importe.

Memory, says Great-Uncle Adelwarth at the end of his agenda, is a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.