JUDY KRAVIS

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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?