JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 19 January 2020

In a classic winter week of rain and cold I read Patricia Highsmith's Carol and then The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, the first from 1952, the second from 1928, 300 pages and 500 pages. It was hard to read Radclyffe Hall after the crispness of Patricia Highsmith. Carol starts straight in from the crucial encounter. Radclyffe Hall begins before birth. The description of the splendid birthplace and, for a while, perfect parents, is wearisome, verbose, tripping over itself in its desire to emphasise—the charms of nature, the intelligence of a beloved horse, etc.

I read too fast, not really reading, only skimming, impatient, then after a few chapters I have taken on her style and settled in. It is pleasing to read too fast sometimes, disrespectfully, in winter, when maybe you're not feeling great, one lesbian novel leading to another, an exercise in comparison as well as an indulgence in a taste I used to have for long novels mostly written by women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Patricia Highsmith is so good at human chill in her thrillers, how does a romance turn out of her typewriter. There are thriller touches like a hidden, unsent letter, a detective who follows the couple on their road trip, but how startling when the writer so understanding of the psychopathic mind writes the sudden unfurling of passion.
And now it was pale blue distance and space, an expanding space in which she took flight suddenly like a long arrow. The arrow seemed to cross an impossibly wide abyss with ease, seemed to arc on and on in space, and not quite stop. .... 'My angel,' Carol said. 'Flung out of space.'
It is one of the charms of invention that a couple who recognize their reciprocity can occupy the same metaphorical and physical space.

Radclyffe Hall, on the other hand, is less adept. Her protagonist, Stephen Gordon (her parents wanted a boy), is always in charge of the language. She is also richer than her adoptees, especially the last and most protectable, Mary Llewellen. Stephen is always described as tall and lithe and physically powerful. We have more sense of the horse called Raftery and the swan called Peter as independent creatures with whom conversations can be had, than we have of Mary, or any of the other friends and love-interests in the book.

Both books have surprising minor moments. The young woman in Carol learns to drive with her lover over a week or so and after that, without further ado, participates in the driving on the trip. Stephen and Mary in The Well of Loneliness take a boat after the first world war from Southampton to Tenerife for a holiday. No flygskam (flight shaming) in 1919. The ménage they set up in Paris, in an old house with a garden in the rue Jacob, not far from (inspired by?) Gertrude Stein in the rue de Fleurus in the same era. Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall. What a pair. Did they ever meet?

Saturday, 11 January 2020

One night I read In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the title story of Delmore Schwarz's 1938 collection, I walked along its present tense dream narrative and found little to hold me there, then read it again the next night and found everything.

Now I have read most of the other stories in the book, all of which are less dreamlike, more painstakingly autobiographical, the title story, by far the shortest, is still my favourite. So much so that when, a day or two after my successful reading of it, I saw the table in our cabin inches deep with  paper shreddings from Jo's psychotherapy notes, I immediately thought of the end of Delmore Schwarz's story.
... I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.
It is quite something to see a table thick with paper shreddings that stop quietly and somehow neatly at the edge of the table, and immediately think of a line of two of narrative you recently read.

In this story unlike the others in the book the present tense of dream as well as the plain talking of 'my father' and 'my mother', and 'I', rather than the odd clunky names Schwarz chooses elsewhere like Shenandoah and Rudyard, bring out a compelling immediacy, so that when he says, for example, 'I am anonymous, I have forgotten myself', exactly the opposite seems true. He may have forgotten himself, as he never forgets Shenandoah or Rudyard, Wilhelmina or Seymour, but this reader remembers him, knows him.

The dream takes place as if in a motion picture theatre, as he calls it, and concerns the courtship of his parents. At the moment of the proposal, his mother sobs, his father finds this scarcely to his taste, and the dreamer, the writer, stands up in the theatre and shouts:
"Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous."
Shredded psychotherapy notes, ha.

Friday, 3 January 2020

The other day I zipped through The Third Policeman till I came to the bit, roughly halfway through, where Sergeant Pluck is showing the narrator Policeman MacCruiskeen's room, in which, at first, he doesn't see much. Sergeant Pluck urges him to look again, in the right quarter.
'If I ever want to hide,' he remarked, 'I will always go upstairs in a tree. People have no gift for looking up, they seldom examine the lofty altitudes.
I looked at the ceiling.
'There is little to be seen there,' I said, 'except a bluebottle that looks dead.'
The Sergeant looked up and pointed with his stick.
'That is not a bluebottle', he said, 'that is Gogarty's outhouse.'
This is the beginning of the revelation that the ceiling of Policeman MacCruiskeen's room, comprising tiny cracks and marks and dead flies, was in fact a map of the parish, complete, reliable and astonishing.

I had recently read The Third Policeman when I first came to Ireland, and was thus primed for occupancy of this hill where I still live. The idea that there could be a police station under or beside the hill, of the old-fashioned kind where you could expect a crock of porridge to be served, and maybe a row of cabbages growing outside, and that the resident policeman's room should have evolved on its ceiling a map of the neighbourhood, was entirely consonant with my expectations.
'The funny thing is,' the Sergeant said, 'that MacCruiskeen lay for two years before he saw it was a map of superb ingenuity. ... And he lay looking at the map for five years more before he saw that it showed the way to eternity.'
Such are the monkey-tricks of Flann O'Brien's tale that a susceptible reader, newly arrived in Ireland, and with a prolific internal imagination, may find in her own surroundings a swift and complex replica of the book.
The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side. The earth was agog with invisible industry. Trees were active where they stood and gave uncompromising evidence of their strength. Incomparable grasses were forever at hand, lending their distinction to the universe.
Local knowledge and the mapping thereof together formed an appropriate conundrum, a difficult pancake, a very compound crux. After a year of very particular and scrupulous attention paid both to the actuality and the history of this hill, I have still not at all got to the bottom of the business of the police station and the map on the ceiling, but I look to Flann O'Brien for the comfort of incomplete revelation. As they emerge from eternity, with Sergeant Pluck explaining to Policeman MacCruiskeen his outlook on Ju-jubes and jelly-sweets and Turkish Delights, the narrator realises that although they have been underground for several hours, everything still wore an air of early morning.
There was an incommunicable earliness in everything, a sense of waking and beginning. Nothing had yet grown or matured and nothing begun had yet finished. A bird singing had not yet turned finally the last twist of tunefulness. A rabbit emerging still had a hidden tail.
He falls into a full and simple sleep, awakening the following morning with the recollection that he had been in the next world yesterday.