Thursday 21 November 2019

Nelson Algren, Tove Jansson, Ivor Cutler

Walk on the wild side by Nelson Algren was the bass line of this week's reading, with, the last day or two, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson on top.

I wouldn't have chosen to insert the funny, sensitive knowing child of The Summer Book into Nelson Algren's world of 1930s depressed, drifting America, but, after a day of biblical rain and in advance of talking to a bunch of transition year students who are coming tomorrow to scrutinise our land and its habitats, I need to enter the outdoor world.

When I first started Walk on the wild side the talk-heavy language beguiled but left me standing still. But, as Dove Linkhorn moves from East Texas to New Orleans, and tries, as he says, to make an honest living in a crooked sort of way, he learns to pimp and he learns to read and the language of the book changes. Less street talk. No one has the wearies any more. Shakespeare and Ecclesiastes are there like diary entries, ceremonial but natural. Nelson Algren on his own crusade. Dove Linkhorn comes clean.

The island of The Summer Book, way out in the Gulf of Finland, is in another key altogether. Taking possession of an island by looking at it, suffering and delighting in it, knowing it by living in it, idly, playing it, naming it, forgetting, reinventing by going further in and allowing the mind to wander, considerate, in a common sense way, of the needs of God and the place of ants in this life or the next.

Like the Ivor Cutler tale of the boy who planted himself in the garden till roots grew out of his feet, and then he could not be transplanted.

It is a story of planting or drifting.
Hoe your beans or walk on the wild side.
Or both.

Thursday 14 November 2019

Ivor Cutler

Unexpected reading, prone in front of the stove on a cold, clear, windy afternoon. Looking through all my Ivor Cutler books for a drawing of a boy who planted himself in the garden until roots started growing out of his feet.

I read several of his books at speed, looking for the next intake of breath. The world brought up close and crazy, perverse and defiant and warm. Short pieces with drawings here and there. Tiny format. Half of A6. Biggish, tight print. Never knowingly understood, as he liked to say, looking out sideways from his book covers.
Sailing on my floating island, I take one breath per day. I breathe it in at midnight —a great big breath — and spend the rest of the day clutching the roots below and letting out bubbles.
Ivor Cutler was on the radio when I was about twelve: Monday Night At Home was on Monday Nights, At Home, a bizarre concept now. Quiet and unpredictable, funny from a long way back. Ivor Cutler telling us about gruts for tea, oh no, not gruts again, in a voice that sounded slowed down inside a thickset hedge. Ivor, born Isidore, Cutler grew up jewish in glasgow, a disquieting category like most other beginnings in life, that gave rise to a displaced child with a perverse streak.
I spent ten years at the conservatoire learning how to listen. After graduating with an A+, I gave several concerts, sitting on a chair listening to restive audiences. Eventually they started bringing instruments and went home after, thrilled with the quality of my reception. 
I bought Ivor Cutler's books at Compendium in Camden. He brought them in himself in his bicycle basket. This was pre-internet. I know him through his books and his bicycle. Later, when I was talking to people about teaching literature, I wanted to talk to him, but he sent me a half-page note on lined paper declining.

And now, looking for Sam who planted himself, to his parents' consternation, in the garden, and couldn't be dug up, I find him again. Different pages come through. Like this one, from Is That Your Flap, Jack?
The albatross, the stormy petrel, the armadillo that grubs for ants in the desert night, the rock cavy with his York gangster face still and alert, the boatbill and the marabout, shoulders hunched from the ache of carrying the world, Schubert's Hurdygurdyman and my grandfather, stumbling through the main street of a long long village, fledglings fallen from the nest. They all have their tune, which is silent. Small girls can hear it. They comfort dead flies, and little brightly-coloured lumps of detritus. 

Tuesday 12 November 2019

El Llano in flames, Juan Rulfo

By the time I arrived at the penultimate story in El Llano in flames by Juan Rulfo I was nearly drama-numb, like listening to current news from almost anywhere in the world. The Guardian Weekly that arrived today has an article on Mexico and its drug wars, with a sub-heading 'We Mexicans live in a cemetery full of bodies with no story, and stories with no body'. Read a Mexican writer and Mexican stories flood in.

Juan Rulfo's stories are set at the time of the revolution of 1910-20 which led to a democratic Mexico (though drugs make nonsense of democracy). I went to Mexico once, in 1981, which left me with one distinct memory — a mariachi band playing in a café facing the television, which was on, not the people in the café — and one general memory — that Mexico was like Ireland but in colour.

Juan Rulfo writes in the talky street style that a number of writers used after world war two, as if one of the effects of war were to loosen literary (often male) tongues from correctness, give voice to the voiceless, without abandoning a richness of palette, or should that be palate? If violence and misery are everyday currency, they can be redeemed by the language in which they are played out.

The penultimate story, 'The legacy of Matilde Arcángel', is a father/son tale, the father literally a towering figure. 'You felt, when you saw him, like you'd been thrown together in a slapdash kind of way, from the offcuts.' Whereas the son was 'a scrawny ravel of a lad ... (who) lived ... under the rock of a crushing hatred, and it's fair to say that his adversity began with being born.'  The story ends with the son riding his father's horse, 'his left hand playing away on his flute, and his right holding on to his father's dead body, slung crossways over the saddle'.

Death is always a solution as well as a dissolution. The place and the time Juan Rulfo writes about were rife with it. If a time can be full of holes. Plenty of movies represent such realities, and it's easy, confronted by a gap-toothed actor in a Mexican hat who shoots someone every five minutes, or the Magnificent Seven carried through hills and valleys by the music of Elmer Bernstein, to ride along with it all, past the white-clad villagers who somehow always look like actors.

This sounds like an argument for the deeper powers of written language over the language of (mainstream) cinema. And maybe it is. A film has one story, however complex or fragmented. A book is a collection of, in this case, 17 stories, though so consistent, so mythico-real that it's hard not to feel as if the stories have merged into one. As if the heroes of movies have been removed and what we read about is what's left: the people, the villages, the stories, if not myths, which they sometimes become, the deaths, inadvertent and other, the hens scratching in the dust, all that movie heroes sweep aside so that the villagers, no longer actors nor indeed heroes, are exactly what remains.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, World Within World

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, number 48 of The Faber Library, 1936.  I bought it in 1972 and haven't read it for many years. Elegant and anxious, it confirms the climate of a few decades before I was born. Even the pinkish dust jacket, rough as sugar paper, speaks to me. The story title pages are gracious as many of the lives depicted therein. Dropped capital to begin, and generous font with plenty of page around the text.

One jacket puff says the book is an exciting experience for the imaginative reader. Another describes it as an extremely interesting book which all those who are concerned with the trends of modern writing, and many who are not, will enjoy. The trends of modern writing in the 1930s might include an awareness of psychology, the rumble of fascism, an uneasy correctness and a willingness to investigate politely human sexuality.

In his autobiography, World Within World, Stephen Spender writes that he grew up in a style of austere comfort against a background of calamity.  The stories of The Burning Cactus reflect roughly that: a young man observing the artistic and leisured, thinking classes, chiefly in Europe.

Virginia Woolf, in a quotation that lives on my desk, said she wanted someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions.

 I too want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit, which, this week, has involved mud and machines and weather and water and exhaustion. This week I sat beside Stephen Spender at the end of the day and in the middle of the night.

His early writing is careful, very mannered, with a ring of the alien ordinary.
"Look, there's Daddy on the lawn!" said Tom, pointing to the window.
With relief Werner turned round, and they all looked out of the windows at Lord Edward, who was strolling up and down. He walked with the self-conscious uprightness of a man who has corrected a tendency to stoop. He was wearing one of his hundred and four suits—he had two for each week of the year—
I knew Stephen Spender's nephew Quentin when he was about ten. He was a fey-looking boy like his father and his uncle, slight and fine-boned. Likely to become a psychotherapist. Humphrey and Stephen Spender, with their social conscience, worldly influence and sexual ambiguity, were eminent and gracious material for the next generation.

Virginia Woolf mocked Stephen Spender for thinking that writing could or should be put to the service of views about the world, that social factors mattered more than the quality of the writing. She thought that awareness of the calamities of the world did not make it possible to write about them. 'You have to be beaten and broken by things before you can write about them.'

Stephen Spender of The Burning Cactus is not beaten or broken. Perhaps, as he says in World Within World, he would have liked to be an outcast, but he wasn't.