Monday 29 July 2019

Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon

I set into Natalia Ginzburg's Family Lexicon one night and gasped, without knowing why.

I was inside a family constructed around their habits and the way they talked, the bumpy rhythms of recollection, the tedium of what you find there: you always say the same thing, it's boring, jackass. But it's consistent, it's voiced, it forms bedrock.

Having grown up in a family beset by silence more than by speech, I move into this household in Turin in the 1930s, listen to these people, move about their world, breath drawn, disbelieving—that anyone could say this much, this clearly, without emotion, without judgement.

The habits of our language are the habits of our world. Discuss.

I first read Natalia Ginzburg when I was twenty-something and found her writing dull, but, as with Schubert songs, which my mother said I might like better when I was older, now she seems lucid and brave, her rhythms her own.

No, not brave. Honest. No, not honest, free. Not free, freed. This is family plainspeak. She had to be this blunt and if you're patient you'll find out why.  Her family was italian jewish catholic anti-fascist and that's enough for anybody in this life. She doesn't judge, she releases her family life through the things they said to each other, the clothes they wore and what they had for breakfast.

Halfway through the book we read, in mid-page, in a sentence, that the narrator married Leone Ginzburg. This is not a 'reader, I married him'. Her father flew into a rage as he did when any of his children got married, and that's it, she becomes his Ginzburg daughter.
We got married, Leone and I, and we went to live in the apartment on via Pallaglio.
Twenty-five pages later, Leone is dead.
On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone; his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his thick black hair, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.
By the time Natalia Ginzburg enters her own story, by the time she grows up, we realise we have been curious all along, waiting for her to emerge from a hundred pages of watching and listening to her family and their friends, neighbours, absorbing the talk in which she grew.

Family Lexicon won the Strega Prize For Fiction in 1963. That was a day for truth.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Daniel Robberechts

Arriving in Avignon by Daniël Robberechts leapt from an upstairs shelf this week: the right book for right now, in need of distraction, in need of kin, neither novel nor essay, just writing inside pale covers, published by Dalkey Archive, with a sketchy town in red on the front cover, propped up by rough black lines, for the arriving, the departing, the not having been there at all.
Approaching may be our most profound vocation. Perhaps we do nothing else in our lifetimes but hedge round, surround things and people with greater or lesser precision, more or less conscientiously, swerving or brushing past them, at most grasping them for a moment, never arriving anywhere for good, except, at the very last, in the earth.
Daniël Robberechts killed himself at the age of fifty-five. His books swerve towards that. Arriving in Avignon is least of all about Avignon, more about a twenty year-old looking for adventure.
What kind of adventure? The kind a twenty-year-old still cares about. Nothing could be better suited to closing the book on the past and yet nothing could be as unadventurous as a commercial traveller's hotel near the train station of vegetable-trade town.  He lacks any experiences of the sort you can hold on to. But wasn't it an experience to look up at the multicoloured radiance of the sky in the morning?
'Where is this report going?' the writer asks. Good question.
It isn't true that the reality of books is more beautiful than that of life, it's precisely the other way round, the reality of life is incomparably more beautiful than that of books, and not for some aesthetic, moral, or philosophical reason: quite simply by definition. Is it possible, this nothing thinks, that one has not yet seen, recognised and said anything real and important? Is it possible that one has had thousands of years of time to look, reflect, and write down, and that one has let the millennia pass away like a school recess in which one eats one's sandwich and apple?
Nearing the end of the book we read a headlong history of Avignon; another way of approaching it, for sure, and definitely not an experience you can hold on to.
These are the facts. Are they the full facts? No, not at all, one can't know them all, one can't even know the facts he knows, and certainly not list them. 
Ten or twenty pages from the end, there is a build-up of sentences beginning: one can also write.
One can also write: One day a man will arrive in Avignon.
The remainder of the book dances around that. One day, one can also write, he'll move into Avignon, 'the real, integrated, Avignon', and he'll observe the vital signs are carefully as any surgeon.
One wonders whether a whole lifetime would be enough to really see this town. To see it with the eyes of a stranger, but also with those of a native shopkeeper, a bum, a housekeeper, a farmer and solder, a priest and poet and patient and day-laborer and whore and journalist and concerned citizen and street sweeper ...

Monday 15 July 2019

Hall's Ireland, Dante

Hall's Ireland by Mr and Mrs C. Hall, an account of a tour in 1840, underlies my map of Ireland, I realise when I re-read the first section. 'Our work commences with Cork', they write. I imagine Mrs C. Hall dominating the writing, even if her husband dominates her name. Surely she is the one who finds the picturesque, the spectacular and the frequent beauty of the landscape, if it is he who emphasises why they are able to see it and to say so, he who dictates their reaction to the people they meet. Uneasy symbiosis. The beggars of Cork or Macroom, the wheedling and the drama, the attempt at fairness by the visitors.
In the small town of Macroom, about which we walked one evening, desiring to examine it undisturbed, we had refused in positive terms to relieve any applicant, but promised however to bestow a halfpenny upon each who might ask of it the following morning. Next day it cost us exactly three shillings and ten pence to redeem the pledge we had given, no fewer than ninety-two having assembled at the inn gate.
They are even-handed in their observations. That's one of their privileges. Another is the ability to see the beauty of landscape, to experience perfect solitude. You're not inclined to find beauty or relish solitude when you're hoicking spuds; when you harbour resentment and enjoy a fight, you're inclined to fear.
The highest of the Galtee mountains, called the Galtee Mor, and sometimes Dawson's Seat, rises over a gloomy lake which is said to be the residence of a Pooka [...] and which is believed to be unfathomable [....] let the slightest breeze arise on the warmest day of summer, and the cold around the lake will be intense.
Gougane Barra brings 'utter loneliness, stern grandeur and savage magnificence'. The Beara peninsula is a wild and primitive district, abounding in picturesque and romantic scenery. Glengariff is close to the 33rd canto of Dante's Paradiso.
Language utterly fails to convey even a limited idea of the exceeding beauty of Glengariff—the rough glen—which merits to the full the enthusiastic praise on it by every traveller by whom it has been visited.
The etchings in the book often show rivers or bays or mountains, with Breughel-like figures in the foreground, or a cottage or inn. The reproductions are very grey, but that only confirms how far away this is. Academic, almost. About as close to Cork Today as a load of seaweed.

Friday 5 July 2019

Brian Dillon, In the Dark Room

Brian Dillon's In the Dark Room has taken a long time to read for the fast reader I usually am. Praise for the book's intertwining of wide reading and personal pain lent doubt from the start: either because much of his reading echoes my own or because I am at least as circumspect as he is about what I have coolly called personal pain.

His careful sentences lend an ache to his tale. A woman I used to know called Kathy said she could never believe what I said about the difficulties of my life because I expressed them so well. It's not that I disbelieve what I read of Brian Dillon's early life, rather that his complex sentences wring my heart and make me turn away. To bind your inner life into a grammatically intact version of things, is pain in itself.

John Banville in his back cover blurb says In the Dark Room is a wonderfully controlled yet passionate meditation on memory and the things of the past. Controlled yet passionate is probably how John Banville likes to think about his own writing.

In the end, which I am nearing now on page 257, a slow reading, a few pages before sleep, was probably about right. I read Brian Dillon's Essayism with a rare sense of identification. I like him unreservedly when he is writing about writing. His memoir, written 15 years earlier, is a more painful case of word over mind.