Saturday 26 December 2020

Ex Libris

Anne Fadiman on her life with books, Ex Libris, is a long hot bath not just in winter but especially this midnight of our discombobulation which may go on to next summer. Root hairs extend into darkness more naturally than into light. The chapter on Carrots, Carets and Compulsive Proofreading made me laugh out loud. The chapter on the Literary Glutton. A laugh in the middle of the night is extra, like a glass of wine at lunch time, as Bridget used to say in Café Paradiso, with her warm upraised smile as she left you to it. 

You need support, says the boy towards the end of About a Boy when he has learned a few lessons. Anne Fadiman is support for my book life, which is ordinarily just that, a private life, at home in the middle of the night when a book declares its self-sufficiency. This is it for now, between these covers.

Monday 21 December 2020

Maiden Voyage

On Howe's Strand at the solstice a boy and girl were taking selfies at the water line, then crouching down to photograph the lowlit turbulence of the stream at the back of the beach, which was swollen after a couple of heavy showers. A man was walking his dog on a circuit round the beach, at least three times. We were drinking spicy tea from a flask, propped against a poured concrete wall. In the sodden stubble fields up on the headland, a flock of yellowhammers lifted the breeze. Up the road when we left, the girl from the selfies was smiling. She was the joy of solstice. Everyone in their masks in their cars, their bubbles, was eclipsed by her smile up there in the late sun. 

I absorb a headland and a beach south of Cork city, as Denton Welch absorbed Shanghai and surrounds in the 1930s. I've been re-reading Maiden Voyage as slowly as I can, often in the middle of the night. Denton heads out into the Shanghai night in his friend Vesta's clothes, lipstick staining his teeth pink. We head down to the coast on a maybe OK day, meet a shower of two, and hail, get a wet foot in the swollen stream, tramp among sugar beet and blackened stubble. Reading influences the walking and music influences all of it. I've listened to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo almost every night this week. A model of musical clarity, beneath whose orderly structure everything is ready to be described.

William Burroughs recommended Denton Welch to students, perhaps as material ready to be cut up, each phrase or word a bright shiny object that could find itself next to new neighbours and lose none of its patina.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Cocteau' Orphée, Rilke, Café des Poètes,

Yesterday afternoon I watched Cocteau's Orphée. It was the right level of artifice for the middle of winter, where people in our world skirt each other under watery sun, and nothing useful to say on a christmas card is coming to mind. 

Give me the Café des Poètes in vivid black and white 1950s, Orphée the national poet idol in his pleated chinos, his well-lit bone structure and upward stance, Eurydice in her shirt-waister and full skirt, the foreign princess Death in her strict high heels, her black and white style, imperious and eventually human, and her smooth endearing chauffeur Heurtebise (would that be Hotchkiss, in English?) who ripple through mirrors between this world and the underworld, where Cocteau's voiceover in soothing, precise words carries them onward in some of the most flowing and expressive filming seen from that day to this.

Later the same day I read the first three poems of the second part of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, which are about mirrors. I smiled. Following Rilke (by bike, as it were), bringing Cocteau to Rilke and vice versa, interweaving our cultures with each other is like lining the brain with overlapping layers and seeing each anew. 

Mirrors: no one has ever known how/ to describe what you are in your inmost realm./ As if filled with nothing but sieve-holes, you/ fathomless in-between spaces of time./ You prodigals of the empty chamber—/vast as forests, at the close of day ...  /And the chandelier strides like a sixteen-pointer /through your unenterability.

None better than Cocteau to show how to enter a mirror. Death, and Heurtebise, Orphée and Eurydice enter the underworld through mirrors. They wear rubber gloves because they were filmed dipping their hands into mercury, this practicality offset by the unearthly sounds of Les Structures Sonores, the glass and metal instruments of Lasry/Baschet. The underworld was filmed in the ruins of the St Cyr military academy outside Paris, lit to accommodate Death, in her final robes, white then black then full and flowing, going off, I suppose, into an under-underworld, as punishment for having fallen in love with Orphée and having released him and Eurydice back into their lives.

Friday 4 December 2020

Cité Falguières, Corinne ou l'Italie, Madame de Staël

A complex urban dream about failing to get to the dentist despite the help of a man called Camille, had me searching, on a cold windy afternoon, through my diary from 1967 for the name of a novel that I thought might have been Camille ou l'Incertitude. I was in Paris with M at Easter that year, staying in a hotel room with a red ceiling. Our wanderings around Paris took us one stormy day to Montparnasse and what I described as a collection of open bones of houses peeled bare & fallen into piles of rubbish. A big placard announced that this was the Cité Falguière. Most window glass was broken and light fell in everywhere onto mirrors, paintings, mobiles and floorboards. It started to rain and we were invited in to a room partitioned off with sacking, planks and pots of dead daffodils. There was a woman by a stove, two younger ones, the man who'd invited us in and an older man in a beret. The older man was the only one who said anything, sucking on Gauloises, talking about his favourite novel, Corinne ou l'Italie, a doorstopper of a volume bound in dark green.  Then other people arrived and the rain stopped and soon we left. Though we were only sheltering from the rain, there was something life-long about it, I wrote.

I never did read Corinne ou l'Italie, which is by Madame de Stael, though in the nineties one of my colleagues was teaching it in a literary seminar and I remembered the old man in the Cité Falguière. That was the last time I thought about it until today, until the dream about not getting to the dentist despite the help of a man called Camille.

A couple of months after the old man in the ruins of the Cité Falguière, I was back in Brighton, at the theatre. I didn't much like the play, I reported in my diary, but I liked Gladys who played the piano, and I liked the old man sitting next to me who read a novel called Stranger in Italy during the the interval. But more than all that, god, I like this record that's playing, I wrote. So often it was music that held everything.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Berlioz Requiem, Elizabeth Taylor,

Talking to C yesterday about experiencing music from inside, as a player, one among eight timpanists for the Berlioz Requiem, for example, in a semi-circle at the back of the orchestra and what that felt like. The tiny runkles and adjustments, the gut mistakes and penance. She could only listen, from the audience, from the auditorium, if she didn't know any of the players, she said. So she wouldn't have to empathise with the horn player coming in a bit late, you know. 

The musician has to face the music. With lipstick.

The writer has to face the page. Without lipstick.

The novels of Elizabeth Taylor are orchestral, or chamber pieces, mid-twentieth century dull and then surreal. Am I reading from the strings, the horns, the timpani or the two-hundred strong choir? Or from my chair by the stove coming up to the winter solstice? Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont followed by Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor's last novel. 

Gareth got up and helped himself to another drink. The telephone conversation, when at last it began, was terse. 

When it was over, he asked, " Is she a counter-irritant?"

"No, just an irritant; sometimes like a dead albatross. Talking of irritants, that awful Vicar came again the other day. I do wish he would not. They simply think they can call without being invited, as in what Dora talks of as the old-fashioned days. I was so glad to see  him go."

"Then he accomplished something, coming here. "