JUDY KRAVIS

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Saturday, 11 April 2020

First swim in the pond. Counting whirligig beetles, betimes, reading W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country, his series of essays on writers he loves and the places that gave them reverie. Antidote to my previous read, Fontamara by Ignazio Silone, born Secondino Tranquilli, who, under his original  name and in easier times, would perhaps have liked the innerness of Sebald, or, to keep the chronology plausible, Sebald's much-loved Robert Walser.

The peasants of Fontamara, a barely fictional village in southern Italy in the 1930s, mostly cannot read at all. The literate, by the end of the book, after some surreal and helpless battles with unknowable powers, come up with a title for a local bulletin: What are we to do? Fontamara was distributed along Italian soldiers in World War Two to bolster a sense of purpose in the fight against fascism.

Fontamara is a 1938 Penguin book, serious orange cover, plenty of listings of new important Penguins and Pelicans and Specials at the back. I have had it since I was a teenager. It was a marker of leftist edginess, the politics I absorbed rather than understood when I was growing up.

I like to tango my reading at the best of times. Silone and Sebald do not exactly dance together. Silone has a purpose, even when dancing. Sebald, especially when he is writing about Robert Walser, finds joyful contemplative detour sentences and goes along with them as they scuttle away under our gaze like millipedes.
Walser must at the time have hoped, through writing, to be able to escape the shadows which lay over his life from the beginning, and whose lengthening he anticipates at an early age, transforming them on the page from something very dense to something almost weightless. His ideal was to overcome the force of gravity.
In these plague times we need to organise our reading, for variety, contradiction and sheer randomness. I have moved from Elizabeth Strout's small town Maine; to American Peace Corps in China, 1990, in a New Yorker articles; to the exploitation of peasants in southern Italy in the 1930s; to the calm and glorious sentences of W.G. Sebald.

Someone in the Irish Times suggested Montaigne's 'On Solitude', and I thought: good.

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