Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Berg by Ann Quin. Brighton in the sixties, where I spent nine formative years. Any Brighton I read or see on film has to settle beside those nine years, five in the town, the last four out in the country. Ann Quin was fermenting her own death while I was vanishing into Mallarmé a few miles outside Lewes. She walked into the sea. I went to Ireland.

I read Berg in the last few days with a kind of nervous reserve, trying not to recognise more than I had to. I don't know why she had to have Berg a man, a son who might kill his father, when she was a woman, a daughter, who wanted to kill herself. Evasive behaviour from the nineteen sixties. We were all drilled into freedom but it didn't feel like that. We were not saying what we meant.

Ann Quin walked into the sea, salt and buoyant. Virginia Woolf walked into the Ouse not far away, with stones in her pockets.

The remembered mother, the implacable sea, says the back cover blurb of Berg, a Calder book, 1964, in thick chalky paper. Berg has a large author photo on the front cover, and 50p written in biro between title and author. Judy Kravis, 1975, written on the pre-title page.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen's Childhood, part one of The Copenhagen Trilogy, has me from page one.
So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn't say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.
I am sensitive to mother/daughter silence and tension, the forms of defence the daughter learns.
I carried the cups out to the kitchen, and inside of me long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane. A song, a poem, something soothing and rhythmic and immensely pensive but never distressing or sad, as I knew the rest of the day would be distressing and sad.
Tove Ditlevsen was born the same year as my mother, so to construe for a moment my mother as daughter adds a peculiar piquancy. You are not supposed to understand your mother's interiority, the childhood she carried about. It's enough, more than enough, to configure your own.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin and you can't get out of it on your own. It's there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as Pretty Ludwig's harelip. It's the same with him as with Pretty Lili, who's so ugly you can't imagine she ever had a mother. Everything that is ugly or unfortunate is called beautiful, and no one knows why. You can't get out of childhood, and it clings to you like a bad smell. You notice it in other children —each childhood has its own smell. You don't recognise your own and sometimes you're afraid that it's worse than others'.
By chapter 12 her childhood was thin and flat, paper-like, she couldn't help comparing. 'It was tired and threadbare, and in low moments it didn't look like it would last until I was grown up.'
My childhood was supposed to last until I was fourteen, but what was I going to do if it gave out beforehand? You never got answers to any of the important questions. Full of envy, I stared at Ruth's childhood, which was firm and smooth and without a single crack. It looked as if it would outlive her, so that someone else might inherit it and wear it out.
By chapter 15, when the narrator is 12, 'My tattered childhood flaps around me, and no sooner have I patched one hole than another breaks through.' By the end of volume one, the last remnants of her childhood fall away 'like flakes of sun-scorched skin, and beneath looms an awkward, an impossible adult.'

See volume 2, Youth, and volume 3, Dependency.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

If a novel can have a redemptive sentence, this is it for the early pages of The New House by Lettice Cooper.
They say there is only one half-hour when a pear is at its best for eating.
Do I really care about this family and their furniture, their hats and gloves and orchards, their contretemps? The family is or was prosperous, and the materfamilias and Rhoda, the daughter who lives with her, are moving house, which sends tremors through the whole family in 1930s Yorkshire.

A knowledge of pears involves me with Rhoda and Delia and Maurice and their mother Natalie and her sister Ellen. The particularity wraps around: this is human life revealed, every time, every day, a hundred pages each of morning afternoon and evening and then the day, the book, draws to a close.
Today, she thought, is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack, and, if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin to-morrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.
This is not Virginia Woolf but it is thoughtful and quiet. (Virginia Woolf has a Rhoda in The Waves.) The sound of women and men thinking in Yorkshire, in the 1920s or 30s. A protected world, but leaky.
Queer that when the present cracks it is not so much that the past is behind you as that it is all there inside you, part of you. ... We're like snails, really. We do carry our home on our backs wherever we remove to. It's all there with us, packed in layers of pleasure and pain.
Before I came to Ireland, Sally Corbett, a neighbour who would have been of Lettice Cooper's generation, said that I would be moving across the water with my snail, and I looked around at my things, mostly books and records, some furniture, and felt it pack into a whirly shell, along with the turmoil of anticipation and trepidation.
It would be unkind, perhaps, to tell her today, on top of everything else, to let her know on the first night in the new home that she was going to lose her daughter. All the same, Rhoda knew that she must do it. If she didn't do it to-day, she never would. Only free people, she thought, can afford to be kind, and I'm not free! She could do it to-day, when she was shaken out of her ordinary life, strung to an unusual clearness of perception.
Thus Rhoda, trying to shift from a future of petit bâton de vieillesse to free woman self-directed and therefore more kind. Aunt Ellen, who is surely related to Mrs Palfrey in Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, may or may not go to live with her sister, while Rhoda may take over her sister Delia's job at the lab in the city. These quiet bids for freedom are touching.
If it could really happen, she thought. If she could really be living in a house again, able to go into the kitchen and make a cake, or do some flowers for the table, or look through the linen for the laundry and see what wanted mending. 
I am putting off the last fifty pages for the half-hour when the pear is best for eating.