Saturday 29 February 2020

Robert Pogue Harrison, Maurice Blanchot.

In praise of sketchy reading

I read a review by Robert Pogue Harrison of a book about Maurice Blanchot; which sent me back to L'Espace Littéraire, bought in 1968, first read in Paris and annotated in pencil (some unknown other reader since added a few marks in pen). I can hardly make out the annotations, which have merged with the yellowing of the pages, but I only need to read a few sentences to reach straight back to that annotating self for whom reading was visceral, essential, vertical, vertiginous, unending—and in french.
 L'oeuvre attire celui qui s'y consacre vers le point où elle est l'épreuve de l'impossibilité. Expérience qui est proprement nocturne, qui est celle même de la nuit. ... profondeur silencieuse qui la garantit comme son sens. ... Mais quand tout a disparu dans la nuit, "tout a disparu" apparaît. C'est l'autre nuit. La nuit est apparition du "tout a disparu". Elle est ce qui est pressenti quand les rêves remplacent le sommeil.
This is where my aged edition — nrf idées — fell open.

Have a look at the opening essay, 'La Solitude Essentielle'. Rilke is there, welcoming himself into solitude. Then Mallarmé. Then Kafka. And me. In a flat in Montmartre under the volcano, the revolution, reading and reinventing my paquet de merveilles. José Corti in his bookshop by the Luxembourg gardens, had sent me back to Montmartre with Albert Béguin and Maurice Blanchot. I was already reading Rimbaud, and Nerval. The flat next door to mine, had a K on the door. The flat was empty.

I also read that year Le Livre à Venir and L'Entretien Infini. And Blanchot's novel, Thomas l'Obscur. Postmodern cousin of Jude The Obscure. Stretching into 'The Nothing Beyond Nothing'. Robert Pogue Harrison's title. And where we came in.

Friday 21 February 2020

Lucia Berlin, Lydia Davis, Grace Paley

I imagined that a book of essays by Lydia Davis would be just the thing in a stormy season. However, 500 bright white pages printed in a too-large font have me darting about, unable to settle. The tone is either explanatory or self-indulgent and clubby: I am a writer who knows many other writers and this is the kind of thing we talk about when we meet. She is an insider, she can shriek and moan. She is a teacher, she can offer up her experience. Somehow I'm not grateful.

However, her intro to the stories of Lucia Berlin sent me to A Manual For Cleaning Women and for that I am grateful. Lucia Berlin is all immediacy, on the bus to cleaning jobs as in the title story, getting older, getting drunk, pulling events into stories with the stop/start choppiness of a difficult life.

I was a cleaning woman, once a week for a year or two, of Spithurst House in Sussex. As I cleaned I looked at the books in the library, inspected the contents of the cupboard in the breakfast room with its rows of tins ready for world war three, dusted round the curare-tipped spears from South America (the house had been owned by a descendant of Hermann Melville). I was not a real cleaning woman; I was a literary tourist.

At the start of a story called 'Mourning' Lucia Berlin says 'I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that's one reason I don't mind working as a cleaning woman. It's just like reading a book.'

Lucia Berlin is a real everything: cleaning woman, drinker, mother, sister, daughter. Her life veered about among difficulty and disaster and the relentless ordinary of babies and lovers and launderettes. Her tone is abrupt, very verbal and comfortable.

Like Grace Paley's stories of the daily life of New York radicals she is beguiling because inclusive, inclusive because open: the reader is a friend, a neighbour, immediately an equal, someone she might have met on a bus.

My mother was good at talking to strangers on the bus, or in a queue. Even if you share nothing of the same experience, it's the willingness that counts, the way the bumpy human commonality shines through for exactly the time of the bus ride, the extent of the queue, and you move on in your day, extended.

Reading Lucia Berlin is a bit like that.

Monday 10 February 2020

I remember, Joe Brainard

I remember by Joe Brainard is the perfect read for a bitty life, an idle, not too committed life. With about fifteen short paragraphs per double page spread, this is a flat, even, pick up, put down, repeat, re-read, miss out, flick about and, now and then, when the mood is there, a real crescendo of a read whose poignancy takes you by surprise. Sometimes you have to put it down because you're no longer reading, exactly, more like consuming so fast that you seem to be running out of breath, running out of receptivity.

What Joe Brainard remembers is sometimes banal, sometimes touching. 'I remember the shadows of feet under the cracks of doors. And closeups of doorknobs turning.' A list has its own charms, by virtue of chance contiguities and, sometimes, predictable connection briefly shown. Page 144 (in the new Notting Hill edition), has a run of colours for example.
I remember, inside swimming trunks, white draw strings.
I remember, in a very general way, lots of dark green and brown. And, perhaps, a red canoe.
I remember, one summer way back, a new pair of red sandals. And I hated sandals.
I remember red fingers from eating pistachio nuts.
I remember black tongues from eating liquorice.
This lurching, grabbing, fleeting style has the cumulative effect of showing the reader a sentient life by gaps as much as by information.  The banal beside the affecting. 'I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.' This is how life works. A woman is crying and a boy is eating apricot pie whose taste, maybe, doesn't change at all. The tears and the pie are equal for all time.

I am reading this again as small hailstones slip down my windows on a februarial day of great chill and darkness.

Monday 3 February 2020

Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall

For the past week I have been climbing about in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a spiky, slippery and defiant text so dense with difficult statements you dread the appearance of the next one. For example: 'She has the strength of an incomplete accident — one is always waiting for the rest of it, the last impurity that will make her whole; she was born at the point of death, but, unfortunately, she will not age into youth.'

This is the third lesbian novel I have read recently, and by far the most recalcitrant. Still, it has the rare honour of being considered a masterpiece by both TS Eliot and William Burroughs. Less a masterpiece than an oddity, I think, a darkly raging slim book, well-suited to night reading though not likely to bring on sleep.

Characters do not arrive quietly. Especially Jenny Petheridge, who disrupts a relationship. She comes equipped with walls and peaks of description that have an opposite effect: she vanishes behind the detail, which was maybe the (subconscious) intent.
She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming off the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality) of a woman about to be accouchée. Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her head moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm.
The style of both Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes is so lush and overwrought that it's tempting to think that they needed excesses of language to hold the transgression of their stories. What you cannot say you must say louder, with more words, more structures, more contradiction, paradox and perversity. Djuna Barnes' writing makes me want to clean it up, to whack it down to fewer words. But then, perhaps, Djuna Barnes would be gone. She would be Patricia Highsmith.