JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 30 July 2021

Rachel Cusk and Anne Carson

Rachel Cusk's writing, on first approach, up at the pond, made me clench my teeth and need another swim. I have read rapturous reviews of her writing but not been tempted. Too impersonal, too spare. Like a surgeon in a carpark running through her skills. 

One Cusk reading event took place up at Inisleena one hot afternoon when we'd canoed down from Carrigadrohid. Think of the lake in Maldon on a hot weekend, or Lake Balaton, perhaps, but louder, with fatter people and uglier clothes and more bereft children surrounded by more plastic. I sat in the shade and read Rachel Cusk while P went for the car back in Carrigadrohid. And Rachel Cusk held her head up above all this, but I was glad to be rescued, canoe back on the roof, and extricate from the scene.

The narrator, in her dust-sheeted room, listens to a student talk about the complete personal revolution she has recently undergone at an exhibition by an American painter called Marsden Hartley. She has already written 300,000 words of notes.

She sipped her tea with an air of equanimity, as though in the confident belief that I would not be able to resist asking her to continue and tell me precisely what had caused the personal revolution to occur.

I read Transit and then Outline, vols 2 and 1 of a trilogy, I could admire but not like, or even like myself for reading it, wearied if not repelled by this faultless and therefore faulty analysis of relationships, all of them, that she crossed in her life. 

At the height of the heatwave, the solution came to me. Read Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red. Alongside Rachel Cusk.

Herakles and Geryon had gone to the video store. ——— Full moon sends rapid clouds dashing past a cold sky. When they came back they were arguing.

It's not the photograph that disturbs you it's you don't understand what photography is.

Rachel Cusk's people explain anxiously, with a certain hauteur, as if life thus displayed is life solved, or absolved. Anne Carson throws her fragments of Geryon lightly, take it or leave it, a grandmother on a porch swing in the evening. 

Goodnight children, she called in her voice like old coals. May God favour you with dreams.

Rachel Cusk doesn't leave out any more than Anne Carson does. It's a question of accent and attitude. The distance of ancient greece is helpful. No wonder Rachel Cusk is in transit and in outline (kudos is the last volume in the trilogy). Anne Carson is telling the autobiography of an ancient greek who learned early about justice. 

Geryon was a monster everything about him was red

Put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red

How stiff the red landscape where his cattle scraped against

Their hobbles in the red wind

Burrowed himself down in the red dawn jelly of Geryon's

Dream

Friday, 23 July 2021

Diary, 1964

I started re-reading my diary after I'd read The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese a few weeks ago. I wanted to see what filled my days when I was seventeen and how I wrote about it. And then re-reading the diary became what it has always been, an addiction; and I read a few pages every evening.

1964 is written looseleaf in a hardback file, the front decorated with stick-on mock-tile at two corners, with DIARY slanting down the middle, also in mock-tile. 

I am currently reading FRANCE 1964 (bold headline, underlined). I went to stay with a family in Montpellier, a recent couple with separate children, two grandmothers, Mamies, a town house, a country house, and a rental by the sea. 

The country house, a former silkwormery high up in the Cévennes, among oak and chestnut to the far hills, was the moment. Perhaps for the first time in my life I experienced absolute and complete peace. The house — silkworms in the attic (once), people in the middle, animals on the ground floor (once) — was unlike anywhere I'd ever stayed, and I wanted to be there forever. But I was seventeen and life moved me on. 

I absorbed this messy french family who all seemed so nice with each other (I wondered how long this might last), I described them at length, including their mishaps that betokened deeper things but I didn't go too far down that road even when the deeper things seemed to leave me alone with the ghosts of silkworms and a ten year-old called Olivier, who was good company, knew a lot about nature, while Monsieur et Madame sorted the oldest child who'd been in a car crash. 

I went for a lot of walks and drank a lot of silence. 'When there's no noise at all, and it's very hot, it gives a very odd feeling.' Dizzyingly wonderful. Half the village was for sale, half-derelict. I was already moving into a house my parents would buy, well in advance of their retirement, where I'd go any time I could. 

It was the house and the landscape, the relation of the two, especially when sitting on a stone windowsill listening to Beethoven's Violin Concerto looking out over over the wooded hills, that stayed with me: I had no idea this was in the dictionary of lived experience. ' Music seems twice as beautiful here. I don't know why. It must be the silence that it breaks so beautifully.'

Back in Montpellier I listened to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in the park at night. That started something too. I have listened to music and looked at landscape most evenings for the last many thousand.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel

I have read chapters of Aberration by Starlight by Gilbert Sorrrentino for the last week or more of nights, trying to find my way—through the night and the book. I used to read to students bits of his Splendide-Hôtel, his Rimbaud-inspired alphabet,  to loosen their reading expectations.

Et le Splendide-Hôtel fut bâti dans le chaos de glaces et de nuit du pôle.

He inhabits the Splendide-Hôtel from A to Z, and that suits me better than the novel, whose ill-digested history and rampant male-world-view are hard to bear, in the middle of the night or at any other time. 

We go about our business in the rooms and corridors of the Splendide-Hôtel. Outside, the black polar night, a chaos of glaciers. In the ballroom, a false orchestra plays false music to which all are dancing.

Sorrrentino is a better poet than he is a story-teller. He is better with the fragment than when he tries to pack his past into chapters. His persistent imagining, in  Aberration by Starlight of his mother's sexual encounter with one so-called Tom Thebus is such a mess of lurid imagination you're left numb, wondering why he has to say all this. 

Sorrentino's alphabet, on the other hand, is free-form and compelling:

N stands for No, the one word that God would utter did He deign to speak. It is the controlling factor of all religion, no matter its protestations of optimism and joy: rightly so. Cleave to the strict beliefs of a fumbling creed or get out of it, get out of it! No, they stay, no. Say it along with them and those who believe in reform—happy men! I believe in the obfuscation of the celebration of God's mysteries, let it remain in Latin, let it be changed to Greek for that matter. It is the business of religion to conceal.

The hollow interior of O could be anything.

Sitting on a stone quay facing the Gulf of Mexico, many years ago I wrote an entire novel in my mind, its title, Blue Ray. It was, as I remember, a Christmas morning, warm and sunny, the water a bright blue, blue sky. It was, of course, about a young man alone in a Texas Gulf town.

By the time we get to Z:

Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel

The dancing is over and we are tired.  


Saturday, 10 July 2021

Summon a Sentence, Brian Dillon, Part the Second

Every few days I read another sentence and its scrutiny in Summon a Sentence by Brian Dillon.  I read with pleasure and ambivalence, a sentence/chapter at a time, writers I may not habitually read, like Annie Dillard, or once read, like Susan Sontag, or really like, like Janet Malcolm. I let myself into Brian Dillon's response to the sentences he has chosen as I let myself into chill water off a pier, then swim around happily in the currents, the flowing weed and the punctuation.

Janet Malcom died recently. Brian Dillon says she borrowed a lot from fiction in her writing about writers, and maybe that is why I like her, while reading very little—lately—of any of the nineteenth century moral picture builders like Tchekhov; reading Janet Malcolm, with her lucid uncertainties, is more pleasurable, closer to my understanding of the world, than reading Tchekhov. Though she has sent me back to Tchekhov more than once. 

A Janet Malcom sentence involves me as a friend's conversation involves me. We have read the same books and suffered the same scrutinies. 

Even an omniscient narrator, a narrator who has spoken to everyone who will speak, who has hung around the studio and the parties and the neighbourhood for years, gathering her evidence, making her notes and her precise appraisals—even such a figure may be working with material that threatens to dissolve at her touch or fade beneath her gaze. A sense of tells us how close Malcolm has got to the heart of things, and how much she doubts the mystery of character is penetrable in the first place.

 It is such a pleasure to read this. Not a question of agreement or enquiry, just recognition.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

The field near Coachford

P was reading Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Café and other stories, I was reading Daphne du Maurier, The Parasites, in the field near Coachford, by the lake. Shall I list the events? The way the sun eluded and then a generator started up on the other side of the lake, then a chainsaw, clearing the bottom of someone's garden. Followed by and punctuating, scullers come through from the National Rowing Centre (NRC), in training no doubt, but warm, neutral, receptive.

Close your eyes, said the coach from his motor launch, through a loudhailer.

We watched them sculling with their eyes closed, barely dividing the waters. Watching someone who has been told to close their eyes while sculling down a lake, is a choice pleasure.

Do you need to be told? Why can't you just glide? Is everything training for the Big Race (BR)?

While P was having a swim I borrowed Carson McCullers and read The King of Finland story. We'd been talking about tolerance of indeterminacy and how I had more than most. On the page, at any rate. Why, we didn't get into.

 I talked a bit about Daphne du Maurier; nothing indeterminate there. She is indulgent in a way people can understand. The glass is clear, you can see straight through to Daphne, straight through all the theatre, the popular tunes, the family knots and ties. 

Not quite so clear through to Carson. By the end of The King of Finland you are thoroughly removed from whatever you first thought about who is lying and whether or not lying might be our underlying condition. 

Daphne would say: Yes, it is. 


Monday, 28 June 2021

They walk in the city, by J.B. Priestley

In Greater London, a stone and brick forest nearly thirty miles long, thirty miles broad, eight million people eat and drink and sleep, wander among seven thousand miles of streets, pay their insurance money, send for the doctor, and die. 

 J.B. Priestley is expansive, leisured, omniscient; he measures 1930s London from the end of his pipe, the pipe of a Yorkshireman who likes to think of himself as lusty. They Walk in the City is a long, simple tale of Rose and Edward from Haliford (Halifax) who make their way to London out of love, missed rendezvous and lack of cell phones. He enacts their passage towards each other, he beds in, he conducts from his den. 

Edward finds his way in Willesden around backroad retail and letters home; Rose walks in the city, along the Strand, looking for London to detach itself from Haliford.

But when she reached Trafalgar Square, with its flutter of pigeons, its stone lions, its loiterers, London began to look more important, more itself and far less like Haliford. The huge grey pillars of the buildings did the trick. After waiting for a break in the traffic, which ran unreasonably to buses, she slipped across and made for Whitehall. A lot of importance, in weathered grey stone, all down there. Prime ministers and all that.  Rose did not care about them much. She might have known the names of two cabinet ministers, but beyond that could not have told you anything about the government, not even to which party it belonged. Politics were still to her something that men argued about with unnecessary noise and violence; one of their masculine fusses. She had no idea yet (but we must give her time) that anything that was said and done by political gentlemen behind those official-looking windows could possibly affect her own life.

They Walk in the City is 500 pages (soft, furry, almost wearable, paper). Reassuring to take a story this slow. We watched Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire last night. The same slow overview. Without judgement. With long moments of looking. J.B. in his den is looking into his head at his creatures, his figments, 'hand in hand, these children of our day'. The story pulls out of the magma of 1930s England, as Wings of Desire pulls out of, or hovers over and among, 1980s Berlin, looking at the city as it moves, rests, stalls, moves into colour.

What happens between Rose Salter, salt of Halifax and a beauty, and Edward Fielding, of Halifax also (far less detail about his physical charms), when they go down to London to seek and find and lose each other, is the scaffold for the times as understood by J.B. Priestley.

Rose and Edward finally meet up in London on page 361, after many unlikely twists and turns, and then have an afternoon and evening together, in which they are entertained by a couple of music hall magicians, go round the Egyptian rooms of the British Museum, and then, being children of their age, to the pictures.

There are another 150 pages of delayed closure, a couple of unlikely sidesteps involving corruption over the oil business in South America, and a wealthy woman of doubtful virtue in St John's Wood, all of which keeps Rose from Edward, until, reunited once more, just a few pages from the end, they are back on the next train to Halifax.

I enjoyed my stay. 1930s unease fits mine.




Sunday, 20 June 2021

Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, Part the First,

Up at the pond in the not quite sun, reading sentences, and sentences about sentences that summon the reading places I have been in all my life, riveted, as by the whirligig beetles, and the strangeness of this warmth without sun, faltering but going on, like the sentences. Reading, is not quite the word. Sailing, maybe. Climb on board and make your way at the stem. Read another sentence. Less a sentence than a pond, a lake, a sea, a storm, a wind from other planets blowing.

Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon is a book for a summer: 27 sentences played and replayed in the light of all the reading in the world. 

How do you choose your 27 from so many. I used to give a lecture about sentences that had stopped me in my tracks, and led me on. I began with the Bible, then Robert Musil, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Beckett.  Brian Dillon starts with Shakespeare, John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas de Quincey, Charlotte Brontë. Chronological order is the most peaceful.

Sentence no. 28 is the one he wrote to start the book: a page and a half sentence on the subject of sentences. You are on board so you continue, held together by punctuation and bated breath, by whirligig beetles. And later, a movement of a Schubert quartet. A sentence of another kind. A Quartettsatz. In C minor.

Sentences that have folded you in, or let you ride, or removed you from your day exactly as much as you wanted? All along you thought you were an orphan and suddenly you have frères et soeurs massed together on the page, for about as long as it takes Schubert to change from major to minor. Painful; welcome; tortuous and violent.

I was pleased to get to Gertrude Stein. Her sentences fold you in, take you in hand. She is intimate and triumphant. Language is her armour and her sport.  

Sickness is Brian Dillon's default resting place. His sentence from Virginia Woolf, which he has copied out more than any other, is 181 words leading deeper and deeper into the state of illness. In this culture of wellness, illness deserves a voice. Without illness there is no wellness: Discuss. 

The Virginia Woolf sentence I chose was from The Waves:

That would be a glorious life, to addict oneself to perfection; to follow the curve of the sentence wherever it might lead, into deserts, under drifts of sand, regardless of lures, or seductions; to be poor always and unkempt; to be ridiculous in Piccadilly.   

Brian Dillon's Beckett sentence is also about sickness, injustice, medicine.

... that smile at the human condition as little to be extinguished by bombs as to be broadened by the elixirs of Burroughes and Welcome, — the smile deriding, among other things, the having and the not having, the giving and the taking, sickness and health.

I chose something more terse and symmetrical. 

 I have always liked arithmetic. It has paid me back in full. 

This pausing on sentences suits my style of reading. I like to find a place to rest, a place to stop reading. Much as I want to read, I also want to stop. I want to count the whirligig beetles again. 


Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Venturing Abroad, Ray Dorien

As I neared the end of my O level exams in the summer of 1963, my mother bought me a book from a secondhand stall that had lately started in Maldon market, run by a couple who brought a flavour of Elsewhere and Other to our acquaintance, with their early veggie outlook, their propensity for bare feet and mobile relationships. It was touching to have a present on what was actually my mother's own birthday, though, with hindsight, Venturing Abroad by Ray Dorien, a light sequence of travels in Europe before and after World War 2, looks a little like a nudge from my mother into leaving home, which wasn't going to happen for another couple of years. 

The hardback book has been on my bookshelves ever since, one of a loose collection of titles that have been complete in themselves, like The Vicissitudes of Evangeline or The Daughter of Fu Manchu. This week, as a result of a diary re-read, Venturing Abroad finally seemed readable. Beside the entry in the list of books at the back of my diary, there was an F, which probably meant Fair, or in the exam-speak that dominated my life then, Fail.

Most of Ray Dorien's forays into Europe begin at Victoria Station, which put me in mind of Henry Green's Party Going, most of which takes place there, in one of the dense fogs that London did so well in the early twentieth century. Henry Green is a writer. He can stand still with his party and chart the complexities of their going, or rather, not going, because of the fog. Ray Dorien needs not only a destination, but idle chat with fellow travellers, as well as an item — a plate, a hat, a blouse etc — around which to focus each chapter. Only incidentally does she refer, in what must be the post-war travels, to a town (St Malo), as a heap of stones, and to the lament about rationing she heard everywhere in Sweden. Otherwise, no politics, no context. 

The most startling detail to the reader now is the information that in the Italian Riviera, presumably in the 1930s, the local paper published a list of visitors currently staying in the area. Ray Dorien doesn't show up much in Google searches, only a few of her books. Thus my book can go back to the bookshelf in the bedroom with scarcely a fresh shadow on it. 

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Cesare Pavese, The Beautiful Summer

Now halfway through a second consecutive read of The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese and just as pleasantly perplexed about what is so riveting about a tale of two girls in Northern Italy in the 1930s, posing for artists, eating ice cream and maybe falling in love. 

Pavese is always spoken of as a pre-eminent man of letters who ended his life by suicide during the period of Italian fascism. None of this gives any clue as to how and why he wanted to portray a young shop girl, Ginia, with an older girlfriend and a brother, as she emerged into womanhood. Call it that. Ginia and her  friend Amelia pursue their acquaintance with a couple of artists in an ideal seclusion of youth, with no distraction from the strangeness of first love except the local café and a ride out into the countryside. 

She went downstairs, bewildered, and for the moment she was convinced that she had become somebody different and that they were all ignoring her. 'That is why love-making is frowned on; that must be the reason.'

The translation is from the 1950s and has a clunky correctness at times, though maybe that adds to the particularity of the read. Pavese's Italian doubtless has its own datedness. Somewhere there in the telling, in whatever register of language, 1950s or translation, there is a girl growing into whatever life offers in her town.

'It is obvious he likes the way I talk, look, and how I am. He likes me like a sweetheart; he loves me. He did not believe I was seventeen, but he kissed my eyes. I am a grown-up woman now.'

If you're trying to imagine a girl talking to herself, as Pavese imagines Giana, your strokes are bolder and simpler. Other people. Girls in their summer dresses, simmering.

I talked to myself in my diary at seventeen. If you're writing your own account you'll be prolix, evasive: more language, more diversions, school—for one thing, permeates every page, couched in a desire to be saying the right kind of thing in the right kind of way, to show affiliation and removal at the same time. 

Since the taxi wasn't coming till quarter to twelve, & it was only just gone eleven, we went down to the Pimpernel to have yet another cup of coffee. Despite the fact that he was drunk, I fell for Daguerre. I always liked him, & now I feel sorry for him (I'm sure he'd hate to be felt sorry for). I wonder if his change of father has anything to do with his fierce drinking and smoking. Possibly. He says it's always the same at any party he goes to, he can't help it.

This was Maldon, 1964, after a party which ended when someone broke a window. Irresponsible enough to break a window, responsible enough to get it repaired next day.

Giana, after her party with Amelia and the two artists:

When she was alone, she began to feel better because there was no one looking at her. She sat on the edge of the bed and stayed there for an hour staring at the floor. Then she suddenly got undressed, flung herself down and put out the light.

My beautiful summer of 1964 began with a trip to London with Daguerre (Ray) to hear Menuhin and Rostropovich play the Brahms Double Concerto in the Albert Hall. Ray wore an embarrassing blue suit and thought nothing of taking taxis.

I love the way RCD gets a taxi promptly, whereas JK would have started running. ... I'm not very good at describing such things as concerts or operas, but I thought it was wonderful. The music is beautiful anywhere, but when you hear it live, and with about the best artists in the world, there's just no comparison to radio or records.

Pavese made his Giana out of rural fantasy, a shop girl and her supposed simplicity. I made myself, in my diary, in anticipation of the next stage of life. 

Monday, 31 May 2021

Stefan Themerson, Gaberbocchus Press,

You need the passivity of the injured to read Stefan Themerson—a sharp knock on the head against a concrete wall while trying to drown a magpie, should do it. I have read several of his novels lately, but none so vivid as the afternoon I was lying in front of the stove with a pack of frozen peas on my head.

This is a burrowing man, semantically and frantically on the move, like Kafka, but prickly, fractal, aggressively eclectic, untender. He sharpens the relations between language and the sentient world with a fast-breeding subset of explanation, translation and definition. A Polish/French/English/Jewish interiority and seriousness. But there's a real concern somewhere underneath the self-absorption, for the human world and its asperities, the pauses in foreign lands which turn into a life, which translates into Semantic Poetry. 

A woman knits with sky-blue yarn. Oh my old woman/ who hath the tender/kindly qualities of a female parent.

A female parent. Sky-blue yarn. Everything borders on another substrate. All  immediacy is dismembered. A very male basso continuo of discriminations, reductions, expansions and ingenious points of view. Like a series of knocks to the head. Recessive, obscurely painful. Pushed to the edge of your tolerance, your patience, you no longer want to understand. You read for a while and close your eyes. 

Stefan Themerson and his partner Franciszka came from Poland to Paris to London in the first half of the twentieth century. They founded the Gaberbocchus Press—Gaberbocchus is latin for Jabberwocky—and published their friends and their kin, as small presses do.  

Gaberbocchus Press produced a Black Series, of which I have five in a box. Always a weakness for books in boxes. Franciszka Themerson did number three. The Way It Walks, a series of drawings, a little like Saul Steinberg, as well as an Unnecessary Supplement  'Especially Compiled for Those who like their Pictures to be Attended by a Discourse of Reason', quotations humorously applied to drawings, where we can see who the Themersons knew and were reading—Marcel Proust, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gaston Bachelard, Aldous Huxley, Henri Bergson. Knowing people through what they read is un plaisir de choix. Clear because diagrammatic, and at the same time mocking, like the drawings. 

Man is the only creature on earth who tries to look into the inner life of another. 

Quoted by Gaston Bachelard in La Terre et les Rêveries du Repos.

Reading Stefan Themerson sets a whole new perspective on the slack parts of your day. Like the forty-minute stint in the doc's waiting room forced to listen to the radio ratcheting up an ode to dads heroically changing nappies, interspersed with requests for songs to make the sun come out. It was a cold, wet day. I was getting my ears cleaned, by the way.

Translate that into Semantic Poetry. 

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Robert Walser, Looking at Pictures

Robert Walser looks at pictures the way he looks at the immediate world he inhabits. His gaze is curiously low and even. Here he is on a walk, a little ramble, through the mountains.

I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see too much.

Pictures are soft and permeable, like the land he walks through, open to his modest, quiet, attention. He confers on what he sees the same unassuming manner he confers on himself. He encounters a picture as he encounters a few carts along a road, or some children.


A landlady takes down a picture because she finds nudity shameful. (Lucas Cranach, Apollo and Diana, 1530) He was working at a brewery in Thun at the time. He drank a great deal of beer, he says, 'and went for dips in the swift currents of the Aare'. He rented a room 
'in a beautiful roomy old house' whose landlady took down the picture every time she cleaned. He humbly requests that she leave the picture on the wall and simply doesn't look at it if she finds it offensive. They reach an agreement; and from then on the landlady is sweet to him, even offering to mend his torn trousers. 


His account of a painting by Ferdinand Hodler, The Beech Forest, begins: 'This morning I breakfasted sumptuously and with delight.' After breakfast he goes out and walks about town, past a public sculpture to which he offers respect, and then chuckles over recent critiques unloaded onto it. Then in the window of a bookshop he sees a reproduction of The Beech Forest.
And I thought how I'd seen the original in a maid's room. Well, pictures have to get hung somewhere. The house was chock-full of choice masterpieces, and the woman who called these works her own presented herself as a sort of figurine, and in this figurine's company I took tea, and the flawlessness of my conduct was indeed spectacular.

You can't put on airs with this little beech forest, he says.


Portrait of a Lady is by Walser's brother Karl. The foreground is clear on the smallest reproduction. A woman pauses in her reading. She is being painted, after all, she is being watched. Behind her is a meadow, smaller and more remote in the reproduction. Some of what Walser describes we cannot see at all in a book (or on a phone).
In painting the portrait of the young lady, (Karl Walser) is also painting her amiable secret reveries, her thoughts and daydreams, her lovely happy imagination, since, directly above the reader's head, or brain, in a softer, more delicate distance, as thought it were the construction of a fantasy, he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in a sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. 



The account of the second painting by his brother Karl, The Dream, begins:
I dreamed I was a tiny, innocent, young boy, more delicate and young than a human being has ever been before, as one can be only in dark, deep, beautiful dreams. Neither father nor mother did I have, neither a paternal home nor a fatherland, neither a right nor a happiness, neither a hope nor even the faintest inkling of one. I was neither a man who had ever longed for a woman, nor a person who had ever felt himself to be a human among humans. I was like a scent or a feeling: I was like a feeling in the heart of the lady who was thinking of me. I had no friend, nor did I wish for one, enjoyed no respect and wished for none, possessed nothing and felt not the slightest desire to own anything at all. 

He looks at the painting, and writes with the voice of the small Pierrot figure who is standing on a bridge leaning into the folds of a large, pink-draped woman. The entire piece of writing inhabits the painting, speaks from within the painting. There is no comment on it, no distance from it. A painting is a place to exercise your own life, an exercise yard for the unconscious. 

All we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we've never been. I was less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.

In the classroom when I was at school there was a reproduction of Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergères. I sat staring at her boredom for many hours. The picture was only a few feet in front of me. That was where I went during the classes that didn't interest me. I didn't know it was by Manet, didn't know who Manet was. I knew who the barmaid was. I knew the flat expanse of her waiting.

What we each have to say about what we see, is ours, part of our own lives, part of the circumstance of our seeing. A picture can be momentarily wonderful because the sun suddenly floods the room or the gallery; or because no one else is there. We may not notice the name of the artist, just as we may not know the name of the plant we enjoy as we walk round a garden. There is a democratic immediacy to our response to an over-full world. As Walser says in A Little Ramble, 'We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary, we already see so much.'

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan, first of the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, is a visual, visceral print on my memory from when I first read it circa 1970, an endless, sprawling dorsal fin of towers and corridors, an eruption within bounds, an excrescence, yet soft, trees penetrating buildings (there is a Root Room), rock indistinguishable from ghastly pallor, high walls and lowering skies. A forbidden city entirely built on ritual, law and costume. In black and white. In profusion. Creatures move according to their status, there is much language around the tiny useless squit in the kitchen, and the fusty trappings of power. The 76th Earl of Groan has his library. The Countess of Groan has 100 white cats and a selection of nesting birds about her person. These are the parents of Titus. Fuchsia, his sister, lurks in her private attics (traces of Jo in Little Women, including needing a bag of apples when she wanted to think), Nannie Slagg (straight out of Romeo and Juliet) fuss fuss oh my poor weak heart, Fuchsia's only friend, apart from Dr Prunesquallor — there's always a doctor in a well-rounded tale. 

Creatures start to gather, out of the ghoulish night. Steerpike, a cunning verminous underling, thin-faced, high shoulders (out of Bergen-Belsen) climbs up out of chef Swelter's kitchen, up the ivy of the Gormenghast Mountain, to land, exhausted, falling over a windowsill, into Fuchsia's private attics, where no one, not even Nannie Slagg, has ever entered (childhood fantasy, perennial).

The burning of the library of the 76th Earl of Groan is a pivotal moment (The Tempest. Prospero burning his books.)  As he descends into folly, the 76th Earl is for a moment closer to his daughter Fuchsia, who is pleased and bemused by the sudden emergence of a father. Insofar as anyone in the verbal sprawl of Gormenghast is capable of pleasure. Most are at odds with wherever they are, and with whom. Parents are cloaked in books and cats and birds. (Edward Lear) Aunts form covens and wear purple; they are easily fooled. (P.G. Wodehouse)

Titus Groan, 77th Earl, is only two at the end of the first volume.

Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911. Peking was a Forbidden City, rising out of the hoi polloi, endless high walls leaning inward towards its own rituals and costumes. 

I fell asleep this afternoon, for the first time in a long time, half-reading Titus Groan — how a name can be the principal activity of a life, a noisy narrative on its own. As with certain poetry you only know how these words are hitting out, not at what. Those long descriptions of Gormenghast, rooms and corridors, a few trees, a lake, all is knee-deep in its own meaning. The vastitudes of it, once you start, the savagery. A child's view, from the ground up. 

At the back of my copy there's a note from Jo, Lebanese Joe, my boyfriend at 24 or so. The first couple of lines are just legible, the rest is cryptic. I once knew them by heart, I'm sure. 

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser

While there's something reassuring about a hardbacked work of fiction, nice stubby size, thickish paper, single name title, once you're a few pages in, Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser, with its onward drive of early capitalist expansion, is almost mechanical, chilly. The tale of an american dreamer, is the subtitle, the humble lad who goes from cigar stand to café to chain of cafés to hotels ever more considered and eventually disturbing. There's nothing emotional about it. Progress is self-evident. A paradigm. The eponymous Martin Dressler is a demonstration, in an ably evoked Manhattan of 120 years ago, of onwardness and upwardness, of the relentless drive of a city to outdo itself, once the like of Martin Dressler set their sights on the future.

Expansionism, expertly managed with all the new turn of the century skills, like advertising, leads Martin Dressler towards hotel as cosmos, as replacement for the rest of the world, but ultimately so empty he has to employ actors to sit about behaving normally. Somewhere along the way he marries a ghostly Caroline, her sister Emmeline is his business associate; and there's a mother to the sisters who sits about in one hotel after another (Martin Dressler's own parents vanish from the picture early on) as well as architects, managers, a vast staff he stays in touch with, occupying as much of his empire as he can, his attention only deflected by the shadowy sisters, a chambermaid called Marie, and memories of a pure girl child who gave him a lock of her hair back in the day, and a few women in the house of the rattling door he frequented in his twenties, called Gerda the Swede, and the like.

Martin Dressler reverts to the real world in the final pages, having established an actor to play his own role in the failing Grand Cosmo (is that what actors are really for?). He goes for a walk in the sunshine, and thinks about starting back with a cigar stand. He knows a lot about cigars. But no hurry, now. 

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

I am a poor reader of poetry. Maybe poets always are. I run out of breath quickly, just a few words will do and before I know it I'm skimming, looking for who knows what, pausing on a word, being hastened by others, when all the time the first three lines, read several times at the outset, have already done it.
Be less porous and fewer people;

less populous and fewer permutations;

make and do with the furniture in the room.

                            Ellen Dillon, Achatina, Achatina! 

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Fugitive Reading

Yesterday on Howe's Strand, where some people were swimming in the cold sea & colder wind, was a black hole plumbed into a sleepless night. I read in the New Yorker about penobscot, a native american language, and the dictionary Frank Siebert compiled. By the time he had finished there were no fluent speakers of penobscot left. Carol Dana, a penobscot woman who had helped with the dictionary forty years earlier, was one of the last who spoke the language at all; and she was thinking of getting a parrot in order to have someone to talk to. 

The dictionary reigned over a vanished world. There was no english to penobscot section. But if you had something to go on, like, for example, the penobscot for canoe: that which flows lightly upon the water, and: butter is milk grease, lunch is noon eat. Once you learn how to bring your fractious world down to its simplest items: a flower is something bursting forth into the light. Once you retrieve the elements of your life, you can speak penobscot without a dictionary.

I read at arm's length, wanting to sleep but not being warm or cosy enough. A boy not far away on the beach was reading a book; I couldn't see the title. He was one of the ones who braved it into the cold sea.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Tove Jansson, The Listener,

The title story of her first collection, The Listener, and the last story, The Squirrel, pull me into Tove Jansson. The Summer Book had such recuperative powers when I was clearing out my father's house — my mother, who died some years earlier, had long relinquished all ownership, if such she ever felt. I stayed down the road, not in the house. I needed to be elsewhere before I could sleep. Reading at its best is very precise: this book at that time, this weather, under these circumstances I can read it fully. 

We are having our fourth or fifth successive cold dry spring and I feel it.

Tove Jansson knows how to come up close to the stuff of life; it takes a certain availability, a certain quiet, to settle into her observation of the natural world and the way we fit into it or not. 

The woman settling into a winter in the bay of Finland with a squirrel who stupidly set off on a log with its tail fanning the breeze, to land on an island with no other squirrels and a poor outlook, now that is a situation I can absorb. Ever since I saw Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman's island drama, I have been sensitive to the rich limits of Scandinavian island life. Tove Jansson does not do relationship drama, unless between an older woman fond of her Madeira and a squirrel who shows up on the pier. She is not melodramatic, she is close-focus, loner-ish, not short-sighted but as if, dealing with the practicalities of her life on the island; now with squirrel. 

The woman makes plenty of accommodations. Grumbling as she does so. What does a squirrel eat? Where does a squirrel like to sleep? What kind of bedding does a squirrel prefer?

She groped around on the shelves and felt the old uncertainty, the one affecting everything that can occur in many different ways, stumbling over forgetfulness and knowledge, memory and imagination, rows and rows of boxes and you never knew which ones were empty ...  I have to get a grip on myself. It's a box of cotton wadding, for the motor, a carton under the stairs. She found it and started pulling out cotton in long, reluctant tufts. 

There you go, she says, stuffing cotton wadding into a log pile so that the squirrel can build a nest. There you go. Build! Make yourself a nest! These gruff older women Tove Jansson has observed, has lived beside, and admires. No men. (No mention of the gender of the squirrel.) Women who live on islands on their own. Who can accommodate a squirrel alongside the morning Madeira, workday Madeira and sunset Madeira, adjust a woodpile to a squirrel's needs, adapt a shopping list, rearrange bookshelves and only much later feel a sudden need for company.  


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Cynthia Ozick, Two

Such a good time with Cynthia Ozick the other week, I thought I'd continue: The Messiah of Stockholm and Foreign Bodies. Sometimes you shouldn't continue. Sometimes you should veer off left and land wherever. La chair est triste hélas et j'ai lu tous les livres. Said Mallarmé

Cynthia Ozick is aware of being a parasite, of living off literature, off reading. She prompts a sense of my own history with books; alternating between pleasure at finding kin, and dismay at the reflection offered, the rabbit-hole of learning. What to do with all this language, this history. Cynthia Ozick comes back to her origins on little prompting. Rapidly you're there with the shifting population of central europeans in the early and mid-twentieth century, the shuffle of feet mostly westward, the resting places offered and then withdrawn. Ever onward. Permanent negotiation with the powers that be. 

She photographs with the clever schoolgirl to the fore. Even in old age. 

Much as I like her she makes me want to stop reading and walk out into the evening.


Saturday, 3 April 2021

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick is having a moment here, as a cold spring sharpens, then luxuriates in the late afternoon. 

In The Puttermesser Papers she invents a character who creates a girl golem by walking seven times around a pile of potting compost on the floor. The golem helps her creator, her mother, to rise in the world, until the golem, whose name is Xanthippe, also known as Leah, starts to get out of hand. She is a miracle and then useful and then runs amok and is returned —her mother walks around her seven times times in the other direction—whence she came, to the earth of her mother's pot plants in a heap on the floor. 

Cynthia Ozick stretches the sack of learning into one shape after another. After the golem story the relationship between George Eliot and George Lewes as paradigm; then a loud Russian cousin comes to stay. 

It would be cloying, this transference of reading into story, into life, but actually it's a delight. To a bookish reader like me, anyway. The narrator of Heir to the Glimmering World, Rose, or Rosie, or Mrs Tandoori (all names shift about in a glimmering world) is, at eighteen, as bookish as you can be and still keep your own voice.

My suitcases held only the sparest handful of the books I valued, since it had always been my habit—privately I felt it to be an ecstasy—to enter, as into a mysterious vault, any public library. I was drawn to books that had been read before, novels that girls like myself (only their mothers would not have died) had cradled and cherished. In my mind—I supposed in my isolation—I seized on all those previous readers, and everyone who would read after me, as phantom companions and secret friends.

Cynthia Ozick brings the Mitwissser tribe of German Jewish immigrants forward on a platter of thinking and some very lithe storytelling. Engrossing and sometimes moving, as she goes into the deeper surges and old ideals. For example, the narrator's gradual understanding of the german word Bildung.

(Mrs Mitwisser) would say of her grandfather ... "Er war en sehr gebildeter Mann," and she said the same of Erwin Schrödinger. Eventually I understood that a man in possession of Bildung was more than merely cultivated; he was ideally purified by humanism, an aristocrat of sensibility and wisdom.

(Mitwisser = With Knowledge, I suppose) In a story of runaways and reprobates, immigrants and denunciation of all that isn't Essence— 'to add is to undermine'—Rosie the narrator, amanuensis to a big unsmiling Teuton and companion to his wavering wife Elsa, and their five children, gradually brings forward her own life, as a young person should. She has an admirer, she has a cousin, she is needed, she has a role, she is grounded, eventually, in her creator's creation. 

Rosie/Rose, the eponymous heir, or one of them, finds her way through the Mitwisser tribe in 1930s outer Bronx, and emerges, ready for New York proper, having seen the Mitwissers disassemble and reform, add and subtract, countless times, and her own path grow out of theirs.


Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Ocean Vuong

Two wild ducks on the pond in the morning and I'm just passing through. Later, they're gone and I'm settled here as if winter hadn't been, with my shoes off and a pond bag at my side with the debris of summers past underneath diary and book: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. Coming after Joan Didion, Ocean Vuong's writing is like a tender and delicate and perplexing meal the day after being stabbed. She self-lacerating and he a quietly fierce apologian of his life. 

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous changed complexion with every subsequent read. At first I relished the language, the learnedness of it. Ocean Vuong, aka Little Dog, came to America from Vietnam when he was a child, with his mother, who spoke no English and couldn't read. Her son learned English from that day forth, read English literature until it had soaked through his brain and filled his needs.

Maybe I understand too well the need to populate the head with sentences, written by others and then written by you, maybe that is why I liked the book less each time I read another few sections. Or I have read too many New Yorker articles about extreme lives. These accounts are well-formed and accurate, and can leave you gasping, but they're not poetic. Ocean Vuong is a poet. His language seeks to render every cranny, to convert every memory into a mix of close detail and imagery and reflection. Like this moment with his Aunt Lan.

"Help me, Little Dog," She pressed my hands to her chest. "Help me stay young, get this snow off of my life—get it all off my life." I came to know, in those afternoons, that madness can sometimes lead to discovery, that the mind, fractured and short-wired, is not entirely wrong. The room filled and refilled with our voices as the snow fell from her head, the hardwood around my knees whitening as the past unfolded around us.

This is great writing, almost too great. You can open the book anywhere and find such moments. The writer's need to write like this in order to fulfil his history, not just narrate it, is almost painful. The need to gather up language to him and write like this, reminds me of myself. Though I leave out the story even more than he does.

He gives us the story of Tiger Woods, the story of his, Little Dog's, first love, the death and burial of Aunt Lan, the chemicals of the nail salon where his mother worked, the phantom fathers, the power of a boiled egg to heal a bruise, the faces of Oxycontin-gaunt trailer trash in Connecticut howling "What's good?" as you walked by. He gives us plenty.

I read to the end but I want to get away. Though that may be the flavour of the times showing through. Even up at the pond the silence is suspect.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Joan Didion

 Joan Didion gets a lot of coverage in the journals I subscribe to. I know because I usually avoid reading about her and I get a lot of practice at it. Though her books have good titles, like Slouching Towards Bethlehem or Play It As It Lays. Which it turns out I have, along with two other novels from the seventies. 

All right, I thought, let's see if I can get around to Joan Didion this time. The answer: barely. Here are a few crisply written vapid lives in California in the late sixties. Movie people. Chilly, laconic. Same milieu as The Player, except that the film with Tim Robbins is more enjoyable. Joan Didion is savagely dispiriting. Life is a craps game, it goes as it lays, don't do it the hard way. Thus said the father of Maria, the main character, who only sleeps well if she is out driving the freeways at ten in the morning, for hours, preferably without braking once.

 For all I know she has never braked since.

Monday, 8 March 2021

The World Turned Upside Down

A review in The New Yorker of a book about Mao's China plunged me into an ancient sense of my own borders. In the early 1970s I told Anouar Abdel-Malek, sociologist, how I had no sense of history, and he was appalled; or otherwise frustrated. The following year I told him about the day I stopped on a drive from the Fishguard ferry to Norfolk, in a village on a fierce windy day like a woman in an entirely different, earlier novel. That wind is straight off the Urals said the woman in the shop. And history, like a shy alien, showed. 

I turned a corner in Hertfordshire and for a moment I had a sense of history. Unspecific as that, but a milestone. I bought an apple and drove on. Anouar was not impressed. I was an educated woman. But a lost cause. He gave me a piece of fabric his mother had given him, as if I'd become a woman of fabrics rather than ideas. I used it in the construction of a box for a book about Cuba.  

I work my way, as a gardener does, through the article, China and Russia and the great movement of ideas and sorry outcomes, often as not. The way once I listened to my political, passionate, fully exercised fellow students. 

There is understanding and there is recognition.  These days  'History is irony on the move.' (E.M. Cioran) I haven't read Marx and a glance at Mao on poetry in 1968 was enough. Now I read that China has managed to postpone the end of history, and I am at the same blockage as back then. Visceral and inarticulate. Like the wind off the Urals.   

Tony Judt comes in towards the end of the review. New Yorker reviews and articles have this moment where they draw breath and you know you're about a page from the end. Then they bring in a new voice. 

In 2010 Tony Judt warned, not long before his death, that the traditional way of doing politics in the West—through "mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas,'—had become dangerously extinct. There were, Judt wrote, "no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself."


Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Wide Sargasso Sea

After a 25 year silence, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Mr Rochester's mad wife in Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys, like the mad wife, grew up in the Caribbean. Came to England at 16. Unhappy, fragile and brinkish, living from day to day, job to job, drink to drink.  Mr Rochester's wife is her constitutional. Her best expression. An absentee from her own life, shut up in a secluded wing of a country house, a prisoner in a northern country whose reality she has no means of believing—except for the cold.  

The other night I watched the 1943 film of Jane Eyre with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. The love story of Jane and Mr Rochester, gloriously acted and filmed as it is, leaves the mad wife even more isolated,  without habitat, without sunset or looking glass. (All Jean Rhys's characters want to look at themselves, often.)

In the early 1800s, wealthy young men went out to the colonies in search of further wealth.  Charlotte Brontë could imagine Mr Rochester going in search of adventure, but could not imagine the wife he found there. That was for Jean Rhys to do. She knew the reality of the place, its flora and fauna, the mix of peoples and resentment, the troubled history, the shifting sands of money and property and status.

After reading a run of forgotten novels, early Penguins from the mid-twentieth century, my reading self, like the fasting body, was re-set and ready to receive intensity. Wide Sargasso Sea is a vertical, piercing read, a story of sunshine and death in an alien place, wild and untouched, full of secrets and lies and obeah. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. Mr Rochester doesn't stand a chance. And neither does his wife.

I read Wide Sargasso Sea a second time, just to stay a while longer in a cold week. The book is an axe to the frozen sea within, says Kafka. 

Monday, 22 February 2021

The Fortunes of the Farrells

 The Fortunes of the Farrells by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey has been on my shelves since I was about fourteen. I did the bookstall at CND jumble sales around then. The woman who brought in The Fortunes of the Farrells said that she'd loved it when she was my age. She gave me the book, a handsome, illustrated edition published by The Religious Tract Society in 1907. Mrs George de Horne Vaizey's original name was Jessie Bell. She grew up in Liverpool. Ruth and Mollie Farrell are put through trials, like Tamino in The Magic Flute, not by the Queen of the Night, but by rich Uncle Bernard, who's fading away at The Court somewhere outside London, and has no heir. The Farrell sisters, along with two nephews from the other side of the family, Jack Melland and Victor Druce, are invited for three months so Uncle Bernard can observe them and decide who should be his heir. He would prefer a male heir, he said. But Jessie Bell, Mrs George de Horne Vaizey, wants justice for her girls. Especially her wild impulsive Mollie. She satisfies the needs of her story and her conscience, her sense of justice between two covers. Jack and Mollie. Ruth and the doctor back at home, who has already proposed. An Oirish female sense of justice and triumph. Victor and Lady Margot Blount, that's a story as yet untold.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Le Grand Meaulnes

I haven't read any french for a long time. And since we're not travelling. Let's travel. Not just to the Sologne in the département of Cher, but to the french language and who I was when I first read Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier. I was 20, and so prepared, somehow, for the long imagining and distress, the yearning and restlessness of la France Profonde at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Those literate past tenses striking out for paradise. Il put imaginer longuement.

I have three copies. A  Livre de Poche was the first, and possibly the only one I read. A hardback Harraps with long introduction and notes, from 1968, I read for the first time this week. My copy belonged to Patricia Carroll, student at a private school in Lewes run by Rosemary Rose, where I taught for a term or two. I don't know how I came by her copy. It smells of ether. 

On page 18 Patricia has written in biro: search for the ideal. We talked about that, ideals and wandering to fulfil them, if ever. She came from Wicklow. She talked about borrowing my house with her boyfriend one weekend. I remember standing outside the school and pointing out the direction of my house, about five miles away.

The third copy is a trade paperback from 1967 with wraparound cover, a still from the film showing an empty heathland, the end of the world on a sunny day. La Fête Étrange, Le Domaine Mystérieux. Begin here. I met someone in Paris who had worked on the film and gave me the book. There was going to be a trip to the Sologne, the next day, or the one after that. The way my journalist friends were going to Berlin the next day, from the Gare de Lyon; or they'd drive, start early. 

I didn't ever go to the Sologne; or to Berlin. I can't find that edition of the book. 

The first half of Le Grand Meaulnes has stayed in my head for more than half my life.  A layer called Epineul-le-Fleuriel. Meaulne-les-Alliers. Imagine growing up in Epineul-le-Fleuriel. Like living in a Mozart slow movement. I was hazy about the second half of the book, the moral shifting and plot resolution. I liked the Epilogue. Meaulnes on the road again, his young daughter on his shoulder.

Now, many years later, I read the french, the vocabulary and the turn of the phrase. I enjoy looking up rural french words I've forgotten, like the flora/fauna around a fête champêtre at the end of the nineteenth century, on the banks of the river, the form from which a hare springs. 

C'est là que passaient nos matinées; et aussi dans la cour où Florentin faisait pousser des dahlias et élevait des pintades; où l'on torréfiait le café, assis sur des boîtes à savon; où nous déballions des caisses remplies d'objets divers précieusement enveloppés et dont nous ne savions pas le nom ...

Reading Alain-Fournier is a bit like watching the young Steve McQueen as Nevada Smith in some splendid landscape in the American West. Never mind the story, take me to the river. From the beginning again. Le Domaine Mystérieux is found, and lost, and found and lost. At the end of the book le Grand Meaulnes is on the road again. His friend François, our narrator, watches him go,

Je m'étais légèrement reculé pour mieux les voir. Un peu déçu et pourtant émerveillé, je comprenait que la petite fille avait enfin trouvé le compagnon qu'elle attendait obscurément. Le seule joie que m'eût laissée le grand Meaulnes, je sentais bien qu'il était revenu pour me la prendre. Et déjà je l'imaginais, la nuit, enveloppant sa fille dans un manteau, et partant avec elle pour de nouvelles aventures.

Friday, 12 February 2021

WHY PRAY?


Hi Judy love

It is such a lovely letter you sent me. I’m so glad all your families are OK even if they are thousands of miles away — with gorgeous sunshine. And then of course one of you’re family is in Innishannon. That must be nice for you.

I do agree with you that if people did what they were supposed to do and wear masks & washed their hands it would help so much. We are doing the same thing as you and being what they called “cockooned” — think I’ve spelt that wrong.

As you know we are Jehovah’s Witnesses and we have a lovely

PTO

magasine I think you would like to read — particularly the last page is helpful. I hope you enjoy it.

Please keep in touch and let me know how your family is getting on.

Much love and take

care

Gai


This letter arrived in the post this morning and I read it on and off for the rest of the day, pushing at the boundaries of this new person I now am— according to Gai, whom I have never met, let alone written to — who has distant family in gorgeous sunshine and one in Innishannon, which must be nice for me; even though we are all cockooned it’s good to know there’s another family cockoon just down the road. 


The magazine showed a worried man, hands clasped, and the words: WHY PRAY? 




Tuesday, 9 February 2021

This week, chill February, back in the early/mid twentieth century: I am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton. Penguin Book number 54. My copy, bought in 1976, Second Impression 1937, came with an embedded receipt from Kingston's Ltd. Smart Wear For Men & Boys, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, Upr. O'Connell St, 10, South Great George's Street and 109 Grafton Street DUBLIN. 

I like these extras. Reminds me of Mabel, my french teacher at school, who said she didn't like taking books out of the town library because you might find things in them. Hairs, she said, shuddering.

By the stove on a winter's afternoon, Jonathan Scrivener is just the thing. Dated and ignorable if you like. Repetitive. Such consistent withholding, teasing. Who's telling the truth and how many reassurances do we need? Cubist, recessive, coming at human mysteries from all sides. London in the 1920s. Surfaces and mysteries. The idea of the modern. After every large war there's a new modern. Jonathan Scrivener embodies all that and more.

This could be source material for Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night, a traveller. I haven't ever wanted to re-read Calvino. Jonathan Scrivener has been on my shelves for forty-five years and I haven't re-read him either. 

An expansive graze over 1920s London and a need to be clever, to be ordinary and garrulous and then retreat to a library. An elastic book, to be read in bursts. Characterizations. Elements. This portion or that of London venues, London society.  Through many pages we fail to meet Scrivener through the chat and occasional reflection of a small crowd of people. Claude Houghton's youth laid bare. Let's suppose.

Earliest Penguin Books did not have blurbs or authors' lives or photographs. You enter via the Penguin on the title page, a perky version in the 1930s, then the printing history on the verso and then Part One. You're in. By halfway so far in you feel impatient and would read the last few pages in short order. If Scrivener turns up, he's not going to be Godot.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The Squinancy Tree

South by William Sansom and Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by A.E. Coppard. Vintage Penguins, 870 and 595. William Sansom went to Uppingham School and thence to Bonn to learn German. Later he travelled and lived a little in various parts of Europe including Spain and Hungary. 

If in doubt, go South, young man.

William Sansom is doing the Grand Tour. Putting up at hotels and gazing out from terraces with all his Graeco-Roman education. The leisured traveller with time for style. I don't entirely like him, but I can sense him, compile him in my mind's eye. His slicked-back hair in the manner of Heurtebise in Cocteau's Orphée. Apologetic. Faux-modeste. He pays homage, he describes. 

There lay the fine wide Place Masséna. On one side a garden of palms led to the milk-blue sea. But elsewhere rose a warm geometry of classic, arcaded buildings washed in pinks from pale rose to dark terra-cotta; hundreds of rectangular shutters were picked out in greens, olive to lizardly yellow.

A.E. Coppard was the son of a tailor and a housemaid. Left school at the age of nine to work as errand boy for a Jewish trousers maker in Whitechapel during the period of the Jack-the-ripper murders. He's on a journey.

In the great days that are gone I was walking the Journey upon its easy smiling roads and came one morning of windy spring to the side of a wood. I had just rested to eat my crusts and suck a drink from the pool when a fat woman appeared and sat down before me. I gave her the grace of the morning.

He overwrites nature as a natural must. As faery/ploughman, with a wicked sprint. Take the squinancy tree.  The squinancy tree drops red petals into the princess's bower in  'Princess of Kingdom Gone', princess of a tiny kingdom, she slips from its bower into dark velvet water.

I know squinancywort from the flower book of my childhood. Relative of woodruff. Squinancy tree is new. Googling the squinancy tree brings me to several non-functioning Armenian websites, plus a reference back to A.E. Coppard and the princess of a tiny kingdom.

At the back of my copy of Penguin 595 there is a phone number, Epping 2491, in my father's decided script. Maybe he was ringing about the squinancy tree. 

I went on alone and in the course of the days I fell in with many persons: stupid persons, great persons, jaunty ones. An ass passes me by, its cart burdened with a few dead sprays of larch and a log for the firing.  An old man toils at the side urging the ass onwards. They give me no direction and I wonder whether I am at all like the ass, or the man, or the cart, or the log for the firing. I cannot say.

Monday, 25 January 2021

I scour my bookshelves looking for something that has slipped my attention for years, and T.H. White, Farewell Victoria, a thin Penguin (number 342) held together with two staples since 1943 (a good year for staples), 4p or 4d in thick black marker across the front cover, fits the bill. 

The end of the back cover blurb about the author is enough:

His occupations, he says, are "keeping out of London, wondering why nobody cares about the country labourer, meeting him and other intelligent people".

His main character is Mundy, a groom, later a husband, soon an abandoned husband, then a soldier in the Zulu wars, then a coachman, a modest man who absorbs the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on behalf of the author, on behalf of the reader. The wartime edition suits his modesty, and calls up the reader's quietness and sympathy.

Out in South Africa he reads avidly the newspapers his mother sends by every boat — Natal was 29 days from England by sea.

It was an avid interest to him to exercise this new faculty of the hieroglyph. Ink in certain arrangements conveyed thought and fact from one mind to another. Print was a kind of invisible ink, a mysterious preparation in which the thoughts of one mind were fixed in dumbness and sent forth; to be steeped in the transferring agent of another and there re-vivified, made vocal, turned to thought again.

With the same avidity he observes Zululand. With the same sense of mystery he finds himself in a battle. 

And there they were, an inexorable, a sable host; nearer than he had dreamed. He wondered how they had come to be so near without his noticing. He wondered how many of them there were. He wondered whether it was snowing in England. He discharged his rifle.

Mundy is a quiet mouthpiece for T.H. White's reflections on the sorrow of the mass, the curiosities of war. Both Mundy and T.H. White are moustachioed, Edwardian, they try to keep their whiskers from their beards. 

A historical novel, said C. No, I said. It's not a story set in the past. Or a story at all. The past, the present are their own story, their own fabric. No one is a main character.  Or all of us are. 

War had happened before, and in battles many men had died. The creatures who were now falling on the Somme were in few respects different from those who fell on the triumphant hill at Albuera. Even the great war would be historical, a past imbroglio of the human race. There seemed to be some consolation in that. It would pass, and the race would continue; not very much wiser but possibly a little tamed.


Friday, 15 January 2021

Joubert: Pensées; Bluets: Maggie Nelson; Michael Frayn: Constructions; On Bullshit: Harry G. Frankfurt. This is the top layer of my desk. 

Underneath we have the orpheus quartet, work in progress. The seed list for Seed Savers 21: Touchstone Gold beans, Bath Island Cos, Outredgeous lettuce, Suyo Long cucumber, Fino fennel, Yerevan parsley, Lucullus chard.

George Craig thought Joubert was a good man but that there was somewhere a failure of nerve. I bought the Michael Frayn on George's recommendation. There's a physical resemblance too. In fact George Craig's face was right there at the top of a roster of faces from Colin Davis to Samuel Beckett.

Jean Joubert has an eager profile as he appears on the cover of Pensées: large eyes and a bandage-like cravat right under his chin, in the mode of the late eighteenth century.

         Dieu et le lieu où je ne me souviens pas du reste.

Maggie Nelson reads Joubert and I seek out Michael Frayn, Constructions, from 1974, on the bookshelves, the pages spotted with brown. Read a piece in NYRB about How The Awful Won, followed by Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt. 

Joseph Joubert, Maggie Nelson and Michael Frayn are all books of short thoughts. Sometimes this is the most peaceful, the least dictatorial reading. You read a line or three and then go happily into the white of the page, the white of your mind.

         Se faire de l'espace pour déployer ses ailes

In the same way as real thinking 

takes place when your head is empty, 

the landscape inside you is larger 

than the landscape outside you.

                                                      Kurt Johannessen

Plus, this evening, Alfred Brendel, Beethoven Opus 31. And the first rain in a while. 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

I started keeping a diary at the same age as Anne Frank. She was confined to the back of an office building in Amsterdam, with seven others, during the German occupation. I was confined to a family at liberty in a small town. Anne Frank's need for a friend with whom she could be completely open; that was the thing. Her diary was 'you' not 'it'. No one would believe she felt alone in the world, she said, she was such a chatterbox. 

On behalf of my much younger self, I believed her. Like her I needed to create myself on the page, though for the first few years I was cautious in the extreme, creating an unexceptionable schoolgirl and her daily life. I was certain that my diary would be read, most likely by my sister or my mother. 

Anne Frank, living in extremely close quarters with seven other people, never mentions the possibility of her diary being read. Open it at any page: intimacy and assurance leap out:

Relations between us here are getting worse all the time. At mealtimes, no one dares to open their mouths (except to allow a mouthful of food to slip in) because whatever is said you either annoy someone or it is misunderstood. I swallow valerian pills every day against worry and depression, but it doesn't prevent me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian pills, but we've almost forgotten how to laugh. I feel afraid sometimes that from having to be so serious I'll grow a long face and my mouth will droop at the corners.

As well as the Diary, I read The Footsteps of Anne Frank by Ernst Schnabel, bought the same year. He interviewed 42 people, almost everyone still living who had known her, before and during the two years she was in the Secret Annexe, then at Auschwitz, then Belsen. 

One of the interviewees, Mrs de Wiek, said how most people in the camps as they neared death had faces that were no longer human.

.... they looked like garrotted angels and no longer belonged to this world. They were already on their way back, with grey, ugly faces and their sallow, translucent skin. I think now that angels are grey and ugly, and their wings are only something our imaginations have added.

Many people lost their faces, she said, but Anne Frank still had her face. With shaved head, dressed in a sack, or naked, emaciated, her life still there in her large eyes.

I read The Diary of Anne Frank a month into my own diary, and said I found it to be a very interesting story. And that is how subterranean my expression was just then. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

The Other Side

Over on the far left of a middle bookshelf, somewhat obscured by shelves of CDs, I found The Other Side by Alfred Kubin. The Penguin Modern Classics glue has failed on many of the central pages, though I think I only read it once. It was written in the space of twelve weeks when Alfred Kubin was thirty, first published in 1909, with more than fifty illustrations. He was an artist and illustrator and this was his only book, written, as he says in the autobiographical pages at the end, 'out of an inner compulsion and psychological necessity ...  in an extraordinary state of mind that was literally comparable to intoxication'.

An old schoolfriend saves a fabulously wealthy Chinese couple from drowning, inherits their fortune and builds a European city in Central Asia, a few days journey from Samarkand, transporting buildings from Europe and inviting 65,000 people to come and live there. The Dream country rapidly becomes a grotesque nightmare, so monstrously detailed that I could only read it at great speed, in order, maybe, to understand why the writer had to write this. The misery of a substantial period of his childhood, expelled from school, hated by his father, persecuted by the girl who ran the household, is spelled out in the autobiography.

This time of isolation, however, proved remarkably stimulating to my fantasy. From the start I had found keen pleasure in dwelling in imagination on catastrophe and the upsurge of primeval forces; it was a like an intoxication, accompanied by a prickly feeling along my spine. A thunder storm, a conflagration, a flood caused by a mountain stream — to observe these was one of my greatest joys.

Early on the Dream country begins to be attacked by inexplicable states of rot and crumbling, torpor and disease. Unlike Poe who is a tidy story-teller, or Kafka who is humorous, Kubin is lush with horror and vultures, disaster, decay and a fascination with the worst instincts of human life. Only the blue-eyed people who live in The Suburb seem peacefully exempt; even swept by the acrid decay of the rest of the Dream State, they are silent and beautiful. Their presence towards the end of the novel ushers in the cataclysm that at last reveals the moon and the sun, both of which had been absent till then.

A soft and blessed frailty permeated the world. Out of a faint understanding grew a power, a yearning. It was an immense, self-assertive strength — it grew dark. In distinct, regular oscillations, the universe shrank to a point.

You could talk about Kubin's clairvoyance. Two world wars were to follow. Or, as he does in the final paragraph, you could talk about the forces of attraction and repulsion, the contradictory double game played out within us, 'inter faeces et urinam', between the shit and the piss.