Saturday 31 August 2019

Norman Douglas, Siren Land

I was reading Norman Douglas, Siren Land, in the middle of the night, the chapter on the Blue Grotto of Capri, with lavish quotes from Ouida and other, only slightly less rapturous visitors, then went back to sleep and dreamed of a stretch of calm sea with, every few yards, a horse showing through: head and neck and mane. Then the horses went back under the water, though you could still see them, shadowy, moving slightly.

You need to take some kind of deep breath to read Norman Douglas. This erudite, hedonistic, cheerfully opinionated writing is not of our time. Siren Land (1911) feels more natural to him than South Wind. He treats his historical knowledge and feeling for place with more relish and comfort than the social world he reconstructs in South Wind. 

The popularity of the Blue Grotto arose in the high Romantic period, 'on the crest of an immense wave of cavern and ruin worship that overswept Northern  Europe', and might not have happened if tastes had gone some other way. They would have found the Blue Grotto by now, I thought; they have found everything, and what they haven't found, they have constructed, in this, the high Capitalist period.
Shelley warbled of odorous caves so tunefully that men were almost tempted to become troglodytes again; Rousseau raved of noble savages; he showed us how to discover beauty in Switzerland.... long may it continue to attract, and wholly absorb, the superbly virile energies of our own upper-better-middle classes! Thanks, Rousseau; thanks for not living in Italy. 
Norman Douglas is similarly acerbic about England. 'English nature is too green, he wrote, and that green too monotonous in shade and outline; it is (entre nous) a salad landscape. '

Other riotous chapters include one about Sister Serafina, the local not quite saint of Capri, so much the antithesis of Norman Douglas' own tastes in life, like pleasure, and wine, and lying under carob trees in golden light, that he gets into perverse stride.
I linger upon the personality of this energetic single-minded woman, for she is the embodiment of what the Hellenic spirit was not: its very antithesis. Earthly existence she held to be an illusion; the world was death; the body a sinful load which must be tortured and vexed in preparation for the real life—the life beyond the grave. To those Greeks, the human frame was a subtle instrument to be kept lovingly in tune with the loud-voiced melodies of earth and sky and sea; these were the realities; as for a life beyond, let the gods see it it—a shadowy, half-hearted business, at best.

Sunday 25 August 2019

Norman Douglas, South Wind

Reading Norman Douglas South Wind I am astounded, and bored, and for a moment fascinated, especially the bits I read in the middle of the night, when fascination is a good prelude to sleep. Mine is a 21st edition printed in 1947, thirty years after first publication. Who were these thousands of readers then who would happily disport by proxy on the island of Nepenthe?

Soldiers in WW1, I have learned, liked being reminded of the idle life of Nepenthe, Norman Douglas's lightly disguised island of Capri. They didn't mind the assumption that everyone knows latin and greek, has no need of regular work and understands the easy tone of good society. The snobbery went down well with all classes. "You cannot be frank with men of low condition."

Norman Douglas assumes that Capri in the teens of the twentieth century, like The Field in County Kerry in the 1960s, with its minute machinations, crises and reversals, is bottomless and riveting. They have the same potential, let's say, Capri and County Kerry, early or mid-twentieth century, low or high, visceral or scholarly, they're devious and bibulous, feelings run high and this, bottom line, is the piece of rock on which we find ourselves.

I haven't read The Field but I've seen the film, Richard Harris emoting down the ditches and in the pub. My parents had South Wind on their shelves. I didn't read it then. Nor did I know that Norman Douglas was friends with Elizabeth David, who turned English cooking around at the same time as he was writing his swan song on Capri.

My last try with South Wind was down at the reservoir today, where, for once, there was no wind, and sun for the most part eluded. The Poles were there today, across the water, several families, and the teenagers off to one side. I listened to the Polishness of their voices and the song of two wood pigeons, one throaty and ending on that poignant half-note, the other, more shrill, stopping short of the ending.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Bucharest, Steinberg, Tzara, Ionesco, Mihail Sebastian

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

Natalia Ginsburg

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

Natalia Ginzburg and Grace Paley

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.'