Tuesday 27 October 2020

Summer in Baden-Baden, Leonid Tsypkin,

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin is the book for autumn in Inniscarra. It is, as so many commentators have said, extraordinary. At least two narratives overlap in the blur through a snowy train window.  Tsypkin is on the train to Leningrad, and the Dostoyevskys are travelling to Baden-Baden. Suddenly there is a clearing, or the train stops and people are buying beer and pies on the platform; meanwhile Dostoevsky arrives in Baden-Baden with his young wife Anna who needs a new hat, at the very least. 

Leonid Tsypkin never left Russia, but, as he travels from Moscow to Leningrad on the train, he also travels with Dostoevsky and Anna to Baden-Baden. A train journey can count for so much when you are constrained from leaving the country where you live. Dostoevsky went to Baden-Baden to try and win money at the casino. He was an inveterate gambler, an epileptic, an immensely irritated human being, hard to like, anti-semitic, ready to be degraded, humiliated. Tsypkin, who was jewish, was going to Leningrad because Dostoyevsky had lived there, and died there, when it was Petersburg, gateway to the west; and on the train he is reading Anna's Diary. What it is for a wild creature like Dostoyevsky to have a demure wife who keeps a diary. And a devout reader like Tsypkin, who somehow needs him.

As befits a train narrative, the sentences are long, often a page or more. Tsypkin moves towards Leningrad, and Dostoyevsky is staking on zero in Baden-Baden. Or Tsypkin is dreaming Dostoyevsky staking on zero and later walking with Anna by a lake.

Reflected upon the light-blue surface of the lake were gentle white clouds, and drifting slowly across it was a paddle-steamer, wheels cudgelling the water and splashing the deck where the Dostoyevskys stood together with their two children admiring the beautiful summer morning—

Later in the same sentence we understand that Anna bore one child, who died, and so between them, in memoriam or in hope or in despair, the Dostoyevskys had two children thenceforth, especially when they were walking by a lake or travelling quietly on a paddle-steamer; and particularly in their letters to each other. The Dostoyevskys, in reality, wherever that is, had two children, Lyuba and Fedya, the one with a profound lack of psychological balance, the other, diligent but rather dense, almost a malicious caricature of his father's skull, writes Tsypkin. 

The sentences at the end are even longer as Tsypkin reworks the end of Dostoyevsky's life in Petersburg and you start to wonder where the respite lies: every comma leads to the lurch of another clause, another complexity of human life and the russian soul, to the hard-won full stop a few pages on. 

Tsypkin tried for many years to leave Russia. He had one son who did leave, for America, but Tsypkin was refused an exit visa (and humiliated) several times. Humiliation is the crippling most likely to lead to creativity. 

I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation, and standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.

Writes Wayne Koestenbaum.

Friday 16 October 2020

Shane, Jack Shaefer, Day of the Locust,


This is the publisher's blurb on the back of my Corgi Western edition of Shane, by Jack Shaefer. Shane is the second movie book I've read recently. The other is The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, which is not so much Americana as the neurosis of Americana in the Hollywood of the late 1930s. 

As we near the end of Shane, language goes up a few notches. Here is Shane, the slim, dark, mysterious stranger with no past, just after he has wiped out the two baddies in a saloon shootout.

How could one describe it, the change that came over him? Out of the mysterious resources of his will the vitality came. It came creeping, a tide of strength that crept through him and fought and shook off the weakness. It shone in his eyes and they were were alive again and alert. It welled up in him, sending that familiar power surging through him again until it was singing again in every vibrant line of him.

The story is narrated through a boy's hero-worship. Shane's saving of the homesteaders' livelihood in the face of threat from a wealthy cattleman, is converted into hope for the boy's future. Shane has killed so that the boy can grow up strong and straight and look after his loving and worthy parents. Shane was the man, as the closing words of the book have it, 'who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane'. Americana is built on this kind of simplicity—mythic, and entirely without guile. It has spawned many other such tales. Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, for example. 

The film of Shane does the book every kind of favour by drenching the Wyoming landscape in lush cinematography, so much so that the book is pallid by comparison. The film version of The Day of the Locust, on the other hand, stands or falls by the performance of Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (no relation), principally his nervous watery eyes and his uncontrollable hands.     

From the start Homer's  hands have a life of their own, separate from the rest of his body.

One day, while opening a can of salmon for lunch, his thumb received a nasty cut. Although the wound must have hurt, the calm, slightly querulous expression he usually wore did not change. The wounded hand writhed about on the kitchen table until it was carried to the sink by its mate and bathed tenderly in hot water.

Ten pages later his hands keep his thoughts busy.

They trembled and jerked, as thought troubled by dreams. To hold them still, he clasped them together. Their fingers twined like a tangle of thighs in miniature. He snatched them apart and sat on them.

Near the end of the novella Homer's hands are playing  'Here's the church, here's the steeple', over and over. Tod, the narrator, who is a scenic artist, is watching.

It was the most complicated tic Tod had ever seen. What made it particularly horrible was its precision. It wasn't pantomime, as he had first thought, but manual ballet.

When Tod saw the hands start to crawl out again, he exploded.

'For Christ's sake!'

The hands struggled to get free, but Homer clamped his knees shut and held them.

'I'm sorry,' he said.

The final scene of violence and bedlam that brings to life the creatures of Tod's picture called The Burning of Los Angeles is, like the shootout in Shane, better in the film. Bedlam is laborious in narrative. Better, that is, for generations who grew up on intensive visuals. Homer's hands finally work free, and it is no triumph. Nor is it a piece of redemptive Americana. 

Shane was published in 1949, The Day of the Locust, ten years early in 1939. Ten years, a world war and a large-scale depression, were enough to foster the return of mythic America. 


Sunday 4 October 2020

Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

My instinct, when choosing books to take on holiday, is to go for the deepest drift or trawl I can. W.G. Sebald, especially in autumn, has a long melancholic reach and hold. You start on a sentence and soon you are beyond the world yet further in. Everyone Sebald meets in The Rings of Saturn is strangely remote, ready to disappear or already gone. The narrator has an unerring gift for unearthing strangeness, loss and homesickness. In The Emigrants the ground is even more shifting, even more uneasy. The last emigrant whose tale emerges in the book is Max Ferber, a German painter living in Manchester, where Sebald arrived in the sixties. (Sebald, with several forenames to choose from, was generally known as Max). Manchester in the sixties was not yet risen from its post-industrial ashes and provided a densely atmospheric backdrop to the wanderings of the newly-arrived. There is a certain kind of traveller/wanderer/exile for whom urban decay is merciful. (Newly arrived in Paris in the sixties, or a visitor to Dublin, I sought out the least frequented, least refurbished neighbourhoods, found solace in cracks and darkness, where the past was laid bare and I felt safe.)

I started reading The Rings of Saturn before our stay on Coney Island, finished it, there and began The Emigrants, followed by Vertigo after we came home. A conversation the first evening we were there with N, whose house we stayed in, set Sebald into strange perspective. N is a plein-air painter. He can stay outdoors and paint for six hours at a time, taking landscape or seascape into his painting and going home content. I asked in all idleness — we were several hundred miles north of where we live — if they'd had a wet August this year. I don't know, said N, I live in the present. We were two weeks into September.

His reply, and the silence it produced, have stayed with me. I have scrutinised my sense of the present, my sense of the past, the present tense of gardening, the past tense of reading and writing. And there is N, seizing the long moment of the day's painting, in the present.

In one of those paragraphs Sebald is so good at, the first person narrative shifts into the third person and thence into a new first person, Sebald is visiting Max Ferber twenty years after their first acquaintance.

Ferber commented that, purely in terms of time I was now as far removed from Germany as he had been in 1966; but time, he went on, is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither past nor future. At least, not for me. The fragmentary scenes that haunt my memories are obsessive in nature. When I think of Germany, it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head.

Sebald's gentle tone, his careful detail, his mild disclaimers ('at least that was what the doctor said', 'so it is surely so', ) invite the reader to go along with him. He is irreproachably formal, yet insistent. 

I'm not sure I can bear, right now, to read Austerlitz as well. The last of his books, and the most poignant, the most driven by the mix of torpor and coincidence that make up our sense of where we have come from.