JUDY KRAVIS

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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Nominally I was reading The Soul of Kindness all week, by Elizabeth Taylor, before sleep, during sleep and in front of my stove in the afternoon, mid-twentieth century upper middle London, vacuous, comfortable, concerned, with passing boats and doves eating wedding cake. 

Mrs Lodge the housekeeper is the only one with a landscape in her head.

Her home, when she was a child, had been near an estuary, remote, with wonderful wide skies, a beautiful light. Terns used to gather on a sandbank at the edge of the water, and looked as if they were dancing on their frail, coral-red legs.

Two lines from Tim Robinson in The New York Review of Books chime with Mrs Lodge. 

Irish place names dry out when anglicised, like twigs snapped off from a tree. And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories.

Robert MacFarlane says something similar at the start of Landmarks.  The way language can conserve and remind and protect. A language for a landscape.  Mrs Lodge's estuary. Tim Robinson for Connemara. Tarjei Vesaas for Telemark. JK for the hill on which she lives. You for your patch.

Elizabeth Taylor's characters move between St John's Wood to a south Thames borough, called Towersy, somewhere between Tower Bridge and Bermondsey, I suppose. Middle-class despair and muddling through. Sufficient drama. A tiny societal lurch. A disconnect made acceptable. By the end of the book they have all resettled a little. Mrs Lodge, meanwhile, yearns.

At the great house where she went to work, there were nightingales in a copse, woods haunted by owls, elm trees clotted with rooks' nests, swallows in the eaves. Richness. Here, in London, she had some shabby sparrows, the fiendish starlings, and her heart overflowed when the robin came onto the window-sill. Two worlds, and the other the one she yearned for. To herself, she used that word 'yearn'. She had discovered that only this one described the pain and longing she felt, softened by the tenderness and pleasure of her memories.


Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The Ice Palace

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas runs so close to the bone that helplessly I have to say what happens, in my own words (if possible).

An eleven year-old girl, newly arrived in the village, has a secret she is almost ready to tell her new friend Siss  They have looked into the same mirror and found themselves there, in gleam and radiance, in Unn's tiny bedroom, with the door locked. I may not go to heaven, she says, and Siss suddenly has to go home although she is trembling with eagerness to stay. Next day Unn cannot face Siss, so she goes off for the day in her thick coat and double mitts, with her school satchel, to the Ice Palace, built on a waterfall that froze as it fell as it rose. The further into the rooms of the Ice Palace, the startling character of each room, the dismissal, room by room, including the shedding of the thick coat and the satchel, the more you know that Unn and her secret will freeze there, glimpsed once by Siss and no one else. In Spring, with the thaw, Unn would crash with the river with her secret and her satchel, her thick winter coat and her double mitts; and Siss would slowly learn to come back to life.

Each room of the ice palace is particular: a room of tears, an ice forest, a narrow room, a fissure abandoned by the water, and then the new room, which, for a while, was a miracle. 

Alice in Wonderland. The mouse's tears. Dante's Divine Comedy. Purgatorio and Paradiso. Unn in the ice palace excruciates the reader. The sum of a child's worst fears, deepest compulsions, and yet transcendent.

Tarjei Vesaas in his sixties had intact in him the passions of an eleven year-old girl, he understood the sharing of selves, the overwhelming sameness of two people, the safe haven and then the need to avoid it.

So little is said. So little happens. Yet everything is there, as, under ice like steel, fronds and seeds are caught below, and then covered with the snow when it comes.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

To Norway in two books: The Boat in the Evening and Spring Night, by Tarjei Vesaas, who is the most I know of Norway, apart from a Kiwi friend called John Wall many years ago who had lived in Norway for a while and evoked some slow quiet drinking and a despair indistinguishable from calm. Norway came up in the news recently as a country best-equipped to deal with lockdown. Their closeness to land and weather, long darkness and long night with the focus that brings, and perhaps the numbness.

Tarjei Vesaas spent almost all his life in the remote reaches of Telemark, in southern Norway. The second piece in The Boat in the Evening is about a boy who sees the dance of the cranes on a marsh.

I am too young.

Everything is so marvellously wrong. It's so horribly exciting.

Everything is so marvellously right.

There are clear, strict laws of life in such a marsh. One must go out on it. There might be something worth finding.

Lying drenched on a cold marsh, 'a cold tussock in a wind cheater', his marsh eye watches the cranes and he starts to understand they are not birds they are ourselves.

The translation from Tarjei Vesaas' Norwegian into English in the early 1970s is somehow awkward, or maybe that is the country simple showing through, or the adolescence. There are two versions of Norwegian, literary and country. A writer was expected to write in literary. Tarjei Vesaas wrote in country. He wrote what he lived. Lying drenched on a marsh; drifting downriver among mirrors; daybreak with shining horses. 

The Tranquil River Glides Out of the Landscape.

Just Walking Up to Fetch the Churn.

Words, Words 

His chapter headings are their own narrative.  

Spring Night is the story of two teenagers whose tranquil night at home without their parents turns into an unresolved series of dramas around a spiky family group whose car breaks down outside, with a young woman about to give birth, an older woman who has withdrawn and then dies, her fluttery husband, their perverse dealings with each other. The teenage boy finds his dream Gudrun, a year younger than him, among the dystopical family who have occupied the spring night and his and his sister's house; they compare arms in the middle of the spring night as if the unanswerable questions of adolescence are shaping directly into adulthood.


Wednesday, 4 November 2020

I went to university wanting to know what philosophy was, and I got Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

I, for instance, am horribly sensitive. I'm suspicious and easily offended, like a dwarf or a hunchback. But I believe there have been moments when I'd have liked to have my face slapped. I say that in all seriousness— I'd have derived pleasure from this too. Naturally it would be the pleasure of despair. But then, it is in despair that we find the most acute pleasure, especially when we are aware of the hopelessness of the situation. And when one's face is slapped—why, one is bound to be crushed by one's awareness of the pulp into which one has been ground.

An irritated man down a mouse hole. You go round a corner and it gets worse. Forerunner of existentialism, if you like. Actual rant and agony, humiliation and defiance: I can tell you anything and I can go on for as long as I like. At least Kafka was happy in his burrow, resting and checking the defences. 

Anyone who can make Kafka seem cosy ...

Now let's look at this mouse in action. Let's assume it has been humiliated (it is constantly being humiliated) and that it wishes to avenge itself.  ...  The nauseating, despicable, petty desire to repay the offender in kind may squeak more disgustingly in the mouse than in the natural man, who, because of his innate stupidity, considers revenge as merely justice, whereas the mouse, with its heightened consciousness, is bound to deny the justice of it. Now we come to the act of revenge itself. In addition to being disgraced in the first place, the poor mouse manages to mire itself in more mud as a result of its questions and doubts.  And each question brings up so many more unanswered questions that a fatal pool of sticky muck is formed. ...

Truth is crooked, as Nietzsche said.

Humiliation is purification, says Dostoyevsky.

Actually the notes of this lover of paradoxes do not end here. He couldn't resist and went on writing. But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here.

Tsypkin, who is jewish, is replenished by Dostoyevsky, who hates jews. By trying to understand someone who hates you, by following in his tracks, photographing the Petersburg he inhabited, you find a semblance of yourself. I find a semblance of myself, a semblance among semblances.