JUDY KRAVIS

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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.