Saturday 28 December 2019

patricia highsmith

What if Patricia Highsmith had written a spare trilogy about her growing up, as Tove Ditlevsen did, instead of these thriller tortures, these chilly people she has to invent in places she has visited, like Venice, Sorrento, Athens and Crete for The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January?

Why does Patricia Highsmith need to invent psychotics abroad, while Tove Ditlevsen stays at home—call it that—and has not read Freud?

I would like to read three slim volumes on thick chalky paper written by Patricia Highsmith about growing up in Texas in the 1920s and 30s. Her diaries, all 8,000 pages of them, are due to be published next year. Beside that complex flood, the novels may start to look slim.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen

By the end of Dependency, the third volume of Tove Ditlevsen's Copenhagen trilogy, my instinct is to look back through the book and re-read a sentence here and there, as if I might find something I'd missed the first time around, or to reconfirm her equal, even attention to the awful and the everyday. A novel about dependency creates its own addiction.

The Penguin publishers cannily separate the trilogy into three slim airy volumes with thick paper, like the books of childhood, so you read as a child reads, everything at the same pace, with the attention of the new-born reader.

Tove is pregnant and her mother visits, or she visits her mother.
I talk with her about giving birth, and she says that Edvin and I were born in a cloud of soap bubbles, because she tried to force us to come out by eating pine-oil soap. She says, I never liked children.
Well-spaced print on soft chalky paper holds unexploded bombs.

The eponymous dependency begins around pregnancies, among desires to be normal and knowledge that you're not. Specifically it begins at a Tubercular Ball with a doctor called Carl who looks as if he has sixty-four teeth and introduces her to Demerol to quell the pain of a quick scrape, a curettage, and then Chloral for sleep, methadone for earache.

I can't read anything about addiction without being reminded of my friend Rafferty, especially the spurious feeling of control after rehab. The clearer he sounded after his liver transplant, after psychotherapy, the swifter his gulps at a glass of water, his darting looks along a street, the less I believed anything he said. He wrote his account too; the glory hole of his life as reinvented to reassure himself that by saying it he was conquering it.

All that was missing, not sayable or not said in the first two volumes of Tove Ditlevsen's trilogy, has now channelled into the addiction, and, although still not explicable, not explained in any way, it has a place, a locus, a black hole, a focus and a structure. There are husbands and children and moves from one house to another, eventually to a hospital.
I'm lying in bed with my head lifted slightly from the pillow, staring stiffly at my wristwatch. With the other hand I'm wiping the sweat out of my eyes. I'm staring at the second hand, because the minute hand won't move, and once in a while I hold the watch up to my good ear, because I think it's stopped. I get a shot every three hours, and the last hour is longer than all the years I have lived on this earth.
Tove Ditlevsen is far less lurid than Edward St Aubyn, writing several decades later about the same thing. Writing has a different function for her. About halfway through the book, she says:
The days pass, the weeks pass. I've started writing short stories, and the veil between myself and reality is solid and secure again. 
 I wonder if, while writing this trilogy, the last volume written only five years before she committed suicide, the veil was still solid and secure.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Tove Ditlevsen

I read the second volume of Tove Ditlevsen's Trilogy the length of what's known locally as a desperate day, strong winds from the south and very wet, pints of water under the front door. I would have preferred to take Youth slower, but, even with pausing between chapters for a look into the stove or out of the window, there wasn't a chance, not with that weather, especially knowing I had the third volume, Dependency, which is slightly longer, in reserve. The spare, onward movement of Youth took me through a dark afternoon into the real dark. Tove Ditlevsen is a dark afternoon. The real dark you have to supply yourself. That is the great thing about spare tales. You can work it how you will. This is a plain account of the years from fourteen to twenty, the shuffle into independence. Plain, but pained. With obscure costs buried under the white of the page. If you say this little, if you fail to show emotion when expected, if you're on the edge of any spot you're in, if you read and write beyond what's considered seemly, you can recount all you like of rooms and jobs and boys who squeezed you at the end of the evening, you're freighted, and that's how it is.

The Danish title of Dependency is Gift which means both marriage and poison.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Berg, Ann Quin

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, Copenhagen Trilogy

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

Lettice Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor,

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.