Thursday 30 May 2019

Fanny Howe and M

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 23 May 2019

Elizabeth Smart, Tove Jansson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 17 May 2019

Lauren Groff

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

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

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

Saturday 4 May 2019

Giorgio Bassani, The Heron

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

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

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

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

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