JUDY KRAVIS

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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.