Friday 28 June 2019

Kishinev, Bessarabia

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

Han Ong, Johann Peter Hebel, Clarice Lispector, Cronicas

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

William Maxwell, So long, See you tomorrow

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 a 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

W.G. Sebald, George Bourne, Sebald-Walser, Schubert-Mörike

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.