JUDY KRAVIS

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Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Bucharest lies within my sense of the distant past, a place I know but have never visited. My grandparents were not far away. Saul Steinberg, Tristan Tzara, Eugene Ionesco, came from there, and left. For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, based on diaries he kept during the 1920s and 30s, shows why. Mihail Sebastian also left Romania (for Paris) for periods, but returned. He chronicles the arguments he had with his friends, while they were still his friends, mostly about anti-semitism.
Sometimes at the professor's course I feel like we're gathered together in a kind of ideological headquarters of an immense world war, waiting from hour to hour for telegrams about the catastrophe, dreaming of the new world that will be born from its ashes.
The author picture on the back cover shows a soft face with big eyes and full lips, a damp poet type with a widow's peak, looking up from a slightly tilted head.
Has anybody had greater need of a fatherland, a soil, a horizon with plants and animals? Everything abstract in me has been corrected and, for the most part, cured by a simple view of the Danube. Everything fevered has been soothed and ordered.
As a writer he is soft too, and modest. As a student he is ready to admire his teachers, as a jew ready to lay bare their anti-Semitism. Modesty is a rare gift among autobiographers and diarists. He is not wringing his hands. He thrashes it out with himself as he hears it thrashed out in his social circle. Here's his friend Maurice on a bus in Paris, spelling it out.
Whether dangerous or not, I'm still an anti-Semite. Or, to put it better, I'm against certain expressions of Judaic sensibility and psychology. I detest the agitated, convulsive, fevered aspect of the Jewish spirit. There's a Jewish way of looking at the world that distorts the proportions of nature, disturbs its symmetry, attacks the reality. The dreamlike tendency you were praising in Chagall is exactly what I denounce. My eyes are wide open. I don't like those who are only half awake. Your Chagall stumbles about between sleep and wakefulness, which disqualifies him from making art. A clear-headed Jew is a phenomenon. The great majority are sleepwalkers.
It was the sleepwalkers who left Bucharest. Mihail Sebastian, for the most part, stayed.
I've always believed that the only defeats and victories that matter in life are those you lose or win alone, against yourself. I have always believed it my right to have a locked door between me and the world, and to hold the key myself. Now look at it, kicked open. The doors are off their hinges, the portals unguarded, every cover blown.
He survived the war, the Holocaust, the 'Judaic taste for personal catastrophe', and was killed by a truck on his way to give his first lecture, on Balzac.

Monday, 12 August 2019

By the time you're on the third successive book by Natalia Ginzburg you're prepared for any kind of ellipsis or uncertainty. You know the context and here is a new set of voices, habits and disputes. Voices in the Evening is more fragmented than the two other books of hers I've read. Among the generations and couples and their houses, she chooses slighter and slighter evidence: names of streets the reader won't know, skeletal evidence of couples breaking up. Enough for her, enough for me.

Having just read Happiness, as such and Family Lexicon, I know where I am with this writing, the scraps and instalments of lives that come our way among people we know in places we're familiar with. Stories rise from the darkness or the miasma, and then sink back. In a novel as in life, death is hardly different from no longer being talked about.

I read this book twice, starting again as soon as I reached the end, happy to spend more time in this version of human life, in which thoughts feelings and actions make temporary appearances. I do not know any more about these people at the end of the second reading than I did at the end of the first. I do not necessarily want to know more. I like to exist among fragments, to break off with a banal musing, like Elsa's mother in the last sentence of the book, considering a move from one village to another: 'I wonder if they keep the stuff that I take for my blood pressure at the chemist's in Cignano.'

If there is any guarantee that life continues, it lies in the banality of our daily questions, and the possibility of voicing them to someone else.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Happiness as such is next in the Natalia Ginzburg season. I used to tell students that certain books were best read in one or two long goes. At first I read bits of this book at bad moments, and couldn't find my own or the story's feet. Then, for most of a wet day I read the rest of it, swerving between the letters (this is mostly an epistolary novel) as they swerve among the vicissitudes, the ordinary mess of their lives, then let you out at the end into a somewhat cleared sky.

This is how the book ends.
A number of times I have thought that maybe while he was dying he had a flash of understanding and he travelled all the paths of his memory and I am consoled by this thought because nothing brings consolation when there is nothing left, and even seeing that dusty undershirt in that kitchen, and then leaving it behind, was a strange, icy, lonely consolation.
Natalia Ginzburg and Grace Paley are kin. Tempestuous grounded motherhoods. Blunt, canny speech. Unjudging, wry, and rude around disasters, arguments and dirty socks. Varying spareness, sometimes exasperation but never venom.
His wife is having a baby next spring. Good God, why do all these babies keep coming when everyone is so fed up with them and no one wants them around. There are just too many babies.
     I'll stop here. I need to give this letter to Mathilde who's going out shopping now and I'll stay here to watch the snow and read Pascal's Pensées.
Natalia Ginzburg said she wrote in short sentences because she was the youngest and if she wasn't quick with what she wanted to say someone else would take over.
I think we will send you money periodically. Not that money will solve anything, since you're alone, broke, unsettled, and unreliable. But we're all unreliable and broken somewhere inside and sometimes it seems desperately attractive to be unrooted and breathing nothing but your own solitude. That's how people find each other, and understand.
If we read to be somewhere else, among other people, the converse is also true. We read to find each other, and understand. As one of her characters says, 'It's nice to talk to strangers when you're depressed. At least you can make things up.'