Wednesday 30 October 2019

Macgregor Skene, Roger Phillips, Professor Oliver

A Flower Book for the pocket by Macgregor Skene (1935 & 1951) is a multiple read: the soft painted illustrations by Charlotte Georgiana Trower and Ruth Weston were the home face of a day outdoors when I was twelve: reclusive, shortsighted, noticing everything that grew, picking some to take home, wanting to know the name and the latin. The paragraph on the opposite page, written by Macgregor Skene, gave me a language for where I'd been and who I was. The habitats of plants were my habitats. A not uncommon weed of cultivated ground through most of Britain. Local on sandy and shingle shores, from mid-Scotland southwards; I.

I think that I is Ireland. How coy is that.

Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips (1977) includes Ireland as common sense, one of these islands. Species most common in Cork and Kerry he says as if he's been there which he probably has. Roger Phillips uses photographs, softly printed. The illustrations of Charlotte Georgiana Trower and Ruth Weston, softly printed also, are clearer, because, where the camera sees with the camera in mind, the illustrator sees in order to make visible: she has been looking.

Illustrations of the Natural Orders of the Vegetable Kingdom by Professor Oliver. F.R.S. F.L.S, is of another order altogether. Illustrations by Mr W. H. Fitch, F.L.S. who has been looking for a long time at the inner lives of plants. Diagram of a flower, cross-section, with ovaries and filaments finely drawn, with coloured wash, leaf awake on the left, and leaf asleep on the right in the Oxalidaceae family.

Mr W. H. Fitch also did the line drawings for Illustrations of The British Flora, which I bought in 1960. The preface ends thus:
Although the illustrations are necessarily small and not intended to be coloured, many persons have found it of interest to do so, perhaps as a record of their observation and identification of the plants themselves.  So far as it has been possible in the present abnormal circumstances, a paper suitable for colouring has been used in this edition of the work.  July, 1919
I coloured in the field poppy and the grass vetchling, both red, and that was as far as my courage went.

John Nankivell, William Gass

Side Elevation of the Deanery, Ardagh, County Longford, drawn by John Nankivell.

A flyer from the Irish Georgian Society is on my desk.

I read William H. Gass's Omensetter's Luck prone before the stove, this lowering afternoon, and when I say read, and prone, that is what it was, the long, exact, Gass moment, and I couldn't say, à la fin, nor would I want to say, what kind of luck Omensetter had at all, or Gass, for that matter, having to write like this, relentless unto madness sometimes, the old push/pull of language going back to magma.

Thursday 24 October 2019

William H, Gass, Bill Gass

William H. Gass, Bill Gass, in a Revised & Expanded Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & other stories, is looking for a reader.
Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?  . . .  I am fashioning a reader for these fictions . . . of what kind, you ask? well, skilled and generous with attention, for one thing, patient with longueurs, forgiving of every error and the author's self-indulgence, avid for details . . . ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines.
I circle around his pages, pleased to be there, as you could circle a copse of trees and go home, go to sleep, all in a day's work. The calque or layer upon layer of reading every so many years, the re-forming of an image you will forget, amalgamates into a reading yet to come.
The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need.
William H., or Bill, is clear about the difficult and the free, subtle about the obvious.
... though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
Reading the stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is one thing. Reading the preface is suddenly closer to the source and instead of being teased and pleased, you're moved.
Unlike this preface, then, which pretends to the presence of your eye, these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness. I willed their existence , but I don't know why. Except that in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style. I wanted to feel responsible where I could bear to be responsible, and to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page—

Friday 18 October 2019

Gerald Murnane, William H. Gass

I began to get a heavy chilly feeling about a quarter of the way into Gerald Murnane's Tamarisk Row, and by the halfway point it was so bad I couldn't face these sentences: long, intricate, desolate, freezing at the height of summer.

This first novel from 1940s Australia is about horse-racing and boyhood, about racing marbles in the dust in place of horses, about a boy's preoccupation with catching a glimpse of girls' pants.

I read a lot of Patrick White in the seventies and eighties, and there's a chilly plainness in his novels too, as if this were the only way a sensitive Australian man could express the country he was born into, or out of.

Gerald Murnane writes sentences as vast and inhospitable as the land itself. The reining in of bleakness into sentences produces more bleakness.

J.M. Coetzee, who writes a puff on the back cover, is another chilly writer. Though I liked Foe, his reinvention of Daniel Defoe.

Just as I would not choose to read a novel that was in any way about football, I am dispirited by one which is about horse-racing.

By the end of the afternoon, a chance reference to William H. Gass in a review I read recently has sent me back to The Heart of the Heart of the Country.

A slow read of the long preface, lying in front of the fire on a sharp and windy afternoon, marking the most charming passages with a pencil, is what I need after Gerald Murnane.
Thus, obscurely and fortuitously, chance brought these stories forth from nowhere. Icicles once dripped solidly from my eaves, for instance. I thought them remarkable because they seemed to grow as a consequence of their own grief, and I wondered whether my feelings would freeze to me by the time they had traveled my length, and whether each of us wasn't just the size of our consciousness solidified;

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

For my state of disturbance and expectation this autumn, Virginia Woolf on her way to the the late, chamber music-like novels, is a right read. I can open Jacob's Room almost anywhere and be touched by these sentences that push at truths to be found next time around.
There are very few good books after all, for we can't count profuse histories, travels in mule carts to discover the sources of the Nile, or the volubility of fiction. I like books whose virtue is all drawn together in a page or two. I like sentences that don't budge though armies cross them. I like words to be hard —
She writes her London; she walks and looks about; takes the omnibus and sits in the park. She works on the music of non-sequiturs. I bought this book in 1975 and wrote in the margin of page 116: How much further the sentence, in pencil.
Alas, women lie! But not Clara Durrant. A flawless mind; a candid nature; a virgin chained to a rock (somewhere off Lowndes Square) eternally pouring out tea for old men in white waistcoats, blue-eyed, looking you straight in the face, playing Bach.
Sentences that arrest you while at the same time pushing you on:
'Anyhow, I can drown myself in the Thames,' Fanny cried, as she hurried past the Foundling Hospital. 
I read Virginia Woolf every time with a sense of relief. Like listening to Schubert or Mozart.
So we are driven back to see what the other side means — the men in their club and Cabinets — when they say that character-drawing is a frivolous fireside art, a matter of pins and needles, exquisite outlines enclosing vacancy, flourishes and mere scrawls. .... These actions, together with the incessant commerce of banks, laboratories, chancellories, and houses of business, are the strokes which oar the world forward, they say.  ....  It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force. They say that the novelists never catch it; that it goes hurtling through their nets and leaves them torn to ribbons. This, they say, is what we live by — this unseizable force.