JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Fleur Jaeggy, Hortus,

The Paris Review described reading Fleur Jaeggy as not unlike diving headlong, naked, into a bramble of black rose bushes. 

I would say, medicinal. Leaves you slightly numb. In need of antidote. 

She is the kind of writer who gets under your skin so you can't help imitating. 

If she gets under your skin it's because she was already there.

Fleur Jaeggy is a sharpener. At no point does she reassure. Au contraire. The ground is likely to vanish under you. Yes, the depths of your bramble roots. Vanished also.

I read a piece in the New Yorker about the value of pain in prompting our endogenous morphine to kick in. As if our chief activity as humans were to produce pain and then to produce painkillers. 

Reading Fleur Jaeggy is a bit like that. She produces, describes, pain, and the bluntness and swiftness of her style is the painkiller. 

Actually, as I began the title story of I am the brother of XX, I was relieved rather than pained that without ceremony we were plunged into the crosscurrents of family, that we took on the remoteness, the unwillingness, yet compulsion, the little you can say about it, the sense of release in saying even this much.

Most of Fleur Jaeggy's creatures are close to untimely death. Her sentences are short. You're left at the end of each one, abandoned, as she, the writer, we must suppose, was abandoned, obscurely and politely, in her upper middle class Swiss early life, without pathos or explanation.

Need to read a piece or two in Hortus to right the balance. 'I never tasted anything as good as an Ashmead's Kernel on a biodynamic farm near Stroud a few years ago.' We have an Ashmead's Kernel tree and the soft russety taste at this time of year is redemptive. 

Chez Fleur Jaeggy a lakeside calm in one story is the most redemption you find. There is very little eating. No apples at all that I can remember.


Sunday, 28 November 2021

Jane Gardam, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends, Sebald biography

I needed to rest for a few days with deep story, the kind that pursues itself to the end, tying ends you didn't know were loose. Old Filth by Jane Gardam is deep story, in fact it is Deep Story, with its two sequels, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. A strung-out tale of Orphans of the Raj and other rootless internationals with a fair measure of success among them, mostly in law. For British children born in India in the twenties and thirties, Home was England, where they were sent to school. The capital letter of Home gave rise to other capitals, similarly uncertain, brave, circumspect, but never ironic.

At the end of each book, Jane Gardam gives full revelation about her sources. She is married to a QC who spent time in the Far East, where all the characters spend much of their lives, before retiring to Deep England to live out their days.

I have read several reviews lately of the biography of W.G. Sebald, which appears to focus on Sebald's unreliability as a writer, and as a person. After years of readers' relishing of what they take in his writing to be the scent of truth, the biographer, Carole Angier, enjoys exposing Sebald as a liar, or at least this is what most of the reviews focus on. He conveys the sadness of truth. How he does it, what conversions and inventions he uses — is academic.

Jane Gardam's very correct and polite Acknowledgements of books she read and people she knows or knew, who were once Raj Orphans and who set off in Wartime convoys to the East, could not be more different from Sebald, or Max, as he preferred to be called (what is it about men who prefer to be called Max?), who says nothing. He is dreaming, as writers do, he does not commit. That's what novels are for. What you read is what you get and what you feel is yours to absorb, or dream on, as you please. The truth is also what you get, if that's what you want. And that's the catch (in the throat), the ping (of life) as the writer creates it, out of long absorption.

Jane Gardam could have made one large volume out of her knowledge and research. It would have saved her some repetition. By the time I reached the end of the last volume I was chiefly curious as to which half-forgotten threads she would revive. Nonetheless, for the coldest week of the autumn, it was perfect.

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

I have read most of Elizabeth Strout, most of Jane Gardam, some Elizabeth Taylor, these intricate, domestic women in their recessive worlds, their talking tone, their willingness to tell and their ability to avoid telling. Sometimes this is just what I need.

I read Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout this week. Every few pages there's a long moment during which Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout's familiar, talks to us from the page — 'Oh, I cannot say any more right now'. Or:

But I have always remembered that. At the time I thought, Well, at least he is being honest.

But we had these surprises and disappointments with each other, is what I mean.

Social understanding, intimacy real or imagined—what does it matter—social observation, the pools and sharps of our history with each other, Elizabeth Strout is insistent. I don't often want to be this clearly in any world, invented or otherwise. I don't want to be in our culture of domesticity and lineage. Of the blood. The platitudes. The parentage. The losses.

Oh, to panic!

Elizabeth Strout has the art of slowly ravelling our lives in full view of each other.  

I could read Jane Gardam next, for the English version. Though Elizabeth Strout is English enough, Puritan. Gardam and Strout are a fine pair. They could sell groceries or mend shoes. 



Sunday, 14 November 2021

The Emperor's Tomb, Joseph Roth,

Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis in Istanbul between the wars, at the eastern edge of Europe, without many of the books he was writing about. Though nothing is that simple and there's probably a very good library and a talky literate café down the street in Istanbul in the 1930s. This image of a man writing about books he read in the past, who has incorporated European Literature, can consult at will Emma Bovary and The Idiot, Odyssey and Thebeiad, perhaps even more vividly when he has been pushed to the edge of Europe through one of those geopolitical bumps we must all learn to accommodate.

I have just finished reading Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb in my room in Inniscarra, at the western edge of Europe. There isn't a very good library, or a talky café, down the street. Erich Auerbach might have felt at home in Istanbul. I might feel at home in Inniscarra. 

This is how at home Joseph Roth feels, writing in Paris in the 1930s. 

My people's roots are in Sipolje, in Slovenia. Sipolje no longer exists, hasn't for a long time. It's been assimilated with several other villages to form a middle-sized town. As everyone knows, that's the trend nowadays. People are no longer capable of staying on their own. They form into nonsensical groups, and it's the same way with the villages. Nonsensical structures come into being. The farmers move into the cities, and the villages themselves — they want to be cities.

Everything that starts—a life, a marriage, a war—every nonsensical structure has the kiss of death. In Paris. Istanbul. Inniscarra.

I kissed my mother's hand, as I always did. Her hand — how could I ever forget it — was slender and delicate and veined with blue. The morning light swept into the room, a little dimmed by the dark red silk curtains, like a well-behaved guest dressed in formal attire. 

Joseph Roth tells his tale and takes it away in the same breath. The narrator signs up for World War One and soon is a prisoner of war. Around chapter XXII the narrator escapes from prison camp to a safe house and a new life. A prisoner in Siberia was where he felt most at home.

Our host belonged to the long-established community of Siberian Poles. He was a trapper by profession. He lived on his own, with a dog of no certifiable breed, a couple of hunting rifles, a number of home-made pipes in two spacious rooms full of scruffy furs. His name was Baranovich, first name of Jan. He hardly spoke. A full black beard enjoined him to silence.

In Siberia there is peace. Eventually the narrator and his friends are sent back to prison camp, for arguing. You can't argue in a safe house. This is how the new life ends. Until, after the war, the next one begins. And the one after that.

But from the moment I held my son in my arms, I experienced a dim version of that incomprehensibly lofty satisfaction that the Creator of the world must have felt when he saw his incomplete work nevertheless as done. 

Two chapters later the narrator no longer has a house or a home. His mother is dead. His wife has gone to Hollywood to be an actress. He sends his son away to a friend in Paris and spends his days waiting for his dearly loved evenings, in which he can stretch the story this way or that in short order; and then die of it.

Towards the end of The Emperor's Tomb the tale starts to limp. He repeats himself, especially on the subject of his mother; he is weakening. It doesn't matter what he plucks from his tale now that his tale is ready to pluck him. 



Monday, 8 November 2021

Job, Joseph Roth: in Tuosist

I chose Job by Joseph Roth to take to Tuosist last week. A spontaneous outing to the land, to other lands than here, demands spontaneous choice of reading. I last read Job five years ago. Once every five years is often enough for the deep sources, the temperature of the years before I was born. A small, complete woodland in Tuosist, facing northwest along the bay, is a deep source too.

We walk and stumble and pause among trees that have been growing and decaying for about a hundred years. Out of sheer, fruitful, lassitude. Weaving their way. Falling down, waiting, renewing and regrowing, out of the moss of ages and the soakage of leaves, of the southwestern edge of this island. Oak, hazel, holly and moss, with clearings. A venerable crabapple. That softness of consolidation. The sight of next year's primroses, a stack of rock inside trees. Druidic. Lost. Then a clearing. And again. Several magisterial oaks. Holly of all ages. Hazel throughout. Sika deer upending through the dark afternoon. Streams spreading into a boggy patch in front of the sea, with tough tussocky grass and bog asphodel.

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, an ordinary Russian Jew, the way Jews assert their ordinariness with such conviction and resignation that it is extraordinary: he teaches, he prays, his family takes its course, towards extinction, he supposes. Russia, New York, it is the same, children betraying, dying and going insane, all narratives half-understood, but onward. Before, during and after World War 1.

But there is a happy ending. Menuchim, the last child, the cripple, the idiot, the silent, was left behind when his family moved to America. His mother would have taken him on the boat in a bag, but feared that immigration might lance all the bags to check the contents, and kill him. Menuchim, epileptic, crippled, vanishes from the story, thought dead.  

At the start of World War 1, Mendel Singer's home town, and Joseph Roth's, on the borders of Austria-Hungary and Russia, is sacked and burned. Menuchim is helped from a burning house, and shouts Fire, his second word. Mama was his first. He is taken to a hospital where a doctor cures him, then shelters him in his own home; thus, after long travail and discovery, Menuchim is reborn. Through music. He sits at a piano and finds he can play anything that is in his head.

He has brought his song from the home village to his father in New York. A future spun out of long silence. Ancient woodland regenerates. Out of abandonment grows a song.  

America can produce miracles of this kind. 

So can Tuosist.

 


Sunday, 31 October 2021

The Umbrella, the New Yorker, Tove Ditlevsen

On a wet and windy afternoon six people made their way up our field towards the pine grove, where in a groundswell moment, they were proposing to lie down on the ground for ten minutes. Most of them were well kitted out with waterproofs and something to lie on, except the two youngest, who were dressed as usual and huddled as they walked under a pale and partly broken small umbrella.

I had just read Tove Ditlevsen's story 'The Umbrella' in the New Yorker. A girl in the nineteen thirties dreams of owning an umbrella. When she is ten she sees a pretty woman in a nearly floor length yellow dress holding a slim strong translucent umbrella as she crosses the courtyard. A headscarf and a sturdy shopping basket is all you need, her mother taught, and look for a man with brown hair and dark eyes. You do not need an umbrella. Is our skin so fragile we can't take a little weather? 

But Helga had never tried to put herself in another person's shoes; it had never been necessary. Her entire character consisted on a pile of memories without a pattern or a plan. There were a number of pairs of brown eyes, a twilight mood, an immense, undefined expectation, a yellow dress, and an umbrella.

Helga marries Egon and the days pass. He starts drinking and she raids the piggy bank.

The moon lit the little room like a false dawn. With the deftness of a thief, she counted the money. There were almost forty kroner. She held them in her hands, smiling gently, redeemed and alone, like a child smiling in her sleep. All she could think of was an open, translucent umbrella with a certain shape and colour. 

Egon breaks the umbrella over his knee. Helga's is passive when Egon tells her, over his shoulder, at the end of the story, 'You'll get another umbrella.' 

The two girls this afternoon, 13 and 16, had not dreamed of their umbrella nor its replacement. They went up to the pine grove and lay there for ten minutes on a wet and windy day and took photos up their nostrils and into the pines. 

Their umbrella is disposable. It is a dishonest headscarf, enfin, and a sturdy shopping basket, an immense, undefined expectation, just as in nineteen thirties Copenhagen. 

It made sense that the umbrella was ruined. She had set herself up against the secret law steering her inner world. Few people, even once in their lives, dare to make the inexpressible real.


Thursday, 28 October 2021

Talk Poetry, Mairéad Byrne, My Dinner with André,

Talk Poetry by Mairéad Byrne is just that, the poetry of talk, poetry talking us through the onwardness of every day and how it runs away with you: you laugh you cry you sew on a button. You do what you do. The place is set up for this. The world runs on and we drink our poems as we may. 

You cannot help an alcoholic. Except in the ordinary ways you can help anyone. Like sewing on a button. People do what they do. Sometimes it is beautiful.

It rained all day. I read Talk Poetry, lit the stove and watched My Dinner with André, uncomfortably, at my computer, at the knee chair. I hardly ever do that. You have to want to be in touch with others, for My dinner with André, swaying and adjusting on the knee chair, going with the conversation, as with the pulses of rain outside, coming in strongly towards the last half hour, the conversation, that is. 

Wallace Shawn's querying noises  have prepared us for his view on it all, when it eventually comes. Do you have to climb Everest, can't you just have a nice dinner at home and exercise your small talent when the chance arises? 

These are the positions after coffee, the restaurant has emptied, André has an espresso, Wally an amaretto. André pays and Wally takes a taxi home, finding associations with every other building they go past. While André is halfway up Everest or having an encounter with 40 Polish people in a forest, or preparing a safe place for a flying saucer to land. Satie's first Gymnopédie is the exit music. Wallace Shawn going home in his taxi, reviewing his childhood.

Mairéad Byrne is unreasonably fond of home, she has homes everywhere, in a queue at the bank, in a library, a bookshop, a telephone booth, a certain amount of space & silence. I slot myself into it whenever possible, she says. I know what she means. And I have a take on her take on family photos. 

In our house we didn't have a camera. We liked photos though and posed for them at every opportunity. .... There were eight children in our family ...  We liked to dress up and grin. There was a piano. Sometimes my younger sister, who got lessons, would sit on the piano stool, and holding her hands suspended somewhat claw-like above the keys, would swivel round her head at a 90º angle to her stalwart body, her face full of mischief and intent....

I don't know how we ever got anything done in our house, we spent so much time face-forward, grinning to beat the band, she ends. 

You can see that still, in the author photo. 



Thursday, 21 October 2021

Ripley's Game, Valentia Island, Patricia Highsmith

I came back from Valentia with a copy of Ripley's Game, by Patricia Highsmith. 

I'd just read in the New Yorker extracts from her diary from her twenties. She was trying her hand, how to pitch journalism as entertainment. 

And to do this primarily, again, as entertainment. How perhaps even love, by having its head persistently bruised, can become hate. For the curious thing yesterday I felt quite close to murder, too, as I went to see the house of the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of possessing.

People translate into action; their next move will be proof of everything. Tom Ripley and Reeves Minot, Jonathan Trevanny and Héloïse, Gaby, etc. Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Matt Damon. All thrillers are screenplays. For the nonce. For Patricia Highsmith they are the bloodless—though bloody—narrative of her own life.

December 21, 1950: What shall I write about next, I think here in this diary where I think aloud. O more definitely than ever this 29th year, this third year and I always change on the thirds, has seen much metamorphosis. It will come to me. My love of life grows stronger every month. My powers of recuperation are wonderfully swift and elastic. I think of writing a startler, a real shocker in the psychological thriller line. I could do it adeptly.

Ripley is adept, he is in the shadows, working the story. When I see Ripley, it's Dennis Hopper, his covert conviction and urgency, not John Malkovich, who is sleazier, more vulpine. Nor Matt Damon, though that film is freshest in my memory. 

Reading Patricia Highsmith, you are doing just that, reading Patricia Highsmith as she thinks aloud, through her Ripley persona, her Ripley mycelium.   

I have a strong reaction to page-turners, thrillers—and Patricia Highsmith every once in a while constitutes my thriller input—two-thirds in I am happy to stop turning pages altogether, happy to leave Ripley and Jonathan Trevanny in a house called Belle Ombre near Fontainebleau, dealing with the mafia and coming out confident, writing the screenplay.


Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Shrimp and the Anemone, Valentia Island

I took L.P. Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone to Valentia Island, thinking I needed to read something so entirely familiar it would be less like reading and more like walking or swimming. In the first few pages, Eustace finds a shrimp being eaten by a sea anemone. To save the shrimp, which is already dead, he must get his shoes and socks wet, which he is supposed to avoid at all cost. He is torn with anguish. He calls his sister Hilda, who is a few years older, and taller, and might be able to reach into the rock pool without getting wet. She extracts the dead shrimp, and as she does so, tears at the digestion of the anemone, which also dies.

Two children on a beach with rock pools in 1940s England, a brother and sister in an accountable world, mysteriously driven, sadly knowable eventually, rescue a (dead) shrimp and kill a sea anemone. This is my comfort reading? Yes, when I find sea anemones beside our lunch spot on Valentia Island in October, on an old pier half destroyed by weather and desuetude, but warm and favoured, with bread from Emilie's yesterday, and a small stream flowing into the sea. After lunch we play at guessing which stone the other was looking at; and lay down for a while.

I stare into rock pools on Valentia Island and I am comforted. I know what those strange closed dark plum mounds are, just underwater, about to open as fronds and entrap a passing shrimp. 

Death lurks in rock pools; scruples only make it slower. 

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Maggie Nelson meets Dante

Dante's La Vita Nuova sits on the floor alongside Maggie Nelson, Something Bright, Then Holes, on a resolute yet straggling grey wet day. Distraught with where I find myself, underslept, needing the friendship of books, I try to activate my reading patch and go to 1295, Florence, young Dante in love with the ever-distant Beatrice, in the courtly manner, always veering upward and beyond; and to the american underbelly in the past twenty years, Maggie Nelson  'Living as if every moment announced a beloved, and it does.'

In The New Life young Dante Alighieri writes sonnets to Beatrice, his life overwhelmed with joy and yearning. 

That oft I heard folk question as I went/ What such great gladness meant.

Wild reading for wet days. Transition, off-season reading. And people aren't happy, said M this morning. Look at me. I have the honey house to clean up, there's European Foul Brood about. I'm dog lazy, she says, and lists all she has yet to do today. To distract, I tell her I've been reading Dante's first book, last read when I was a student, called The New Life, and how refreshing it is to spend time in 13th century Florence, where people mostly stayed where they were born; while we wait it out here in 21st century Cork, shifting, shiftless. Unquiet.

Or New York or L.A, like Maggie Nelson.

We share a brightness/ It's called death/ in life'. /I toss and turn all night, hearing you say/I want to touch you/ without using my hands.

Dante would understand this. I doubt he ever touched his Beatrice with his hands; though there may have been replacements. Beatrice died of perfect gentleness. Like Beth in Little Women.  

When in mine anguish thou hast looked on me;/ Until sometimes it seems as if, through thee,/ My heart might almost wander from its truth.

Maggie Nelson and Dante are in conversation, and I am grateful. We are on the fringes of a storm, which translates locally as mist and murk. Somewhere in the midst a spluttering bird. And Beethoven's Ghost Trio. 

Friday, 1 October 2021

Maggie Nelson On Freedom, Judith Thurman On Dante, Translation,

Maggie Nelson On Freedom, Four Songs of Care and Constraint, is a ghostly read at the start of autumn. Maybe I would rather she was Anne Carson, or Rimbaud. I read Maggie Nelson, sometimes too fast, as the poem that spreads underneath, as mycelium spreads underneath the earth.

But the fact remains that no one can ferret out for us which pleasures are taken in an "experience without truth" (Derrida), and which can have truth-value (or something otherwise worthwhile); no one can figure out for us which modes of abandonment are wonderful, and which do damage (or more damage than they're worth); no one can determine for us when a strategy of liberation has flipped into a form of entrapment. As the slogan May you be blessed with a slow recovery suggests, such proximities constitute a knot that benefits from patient, perhaps even lifelong, untangling. 
Meanwhile, in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has been reading Dante and new Dante translations of Purgatorio, which are, she feels, are very good in a pandemic. This year is the 700th anniversary of Dante's death. There have been more than a hundred translations of the Divine Comedy. I have three of them. That is already strange in today's world. Where we drown in world views and the freedom to pass judgement in public.   
Many branches of radical ecological thinking edge into this territory, insofar as  grappling with systemic threats to the biosphere as we know it often demands a kind of zoomed-out perspective on humanity and planet that can prompt deeply unnerving paradigm shifts and proposals. ...  Our method of inhabiting the planet could be otherwise. Our attitude toward death, including our own deaths or that of our species, could be otherwise.
Maggie Nelson On Freedom is not translating Purgatorio. Or maybe she is. Purgatory was a recent invention, a middle child of three, between Inferno and Paradiso. Purgatory takes place on this Earth, not above or below. Here. Now. Grazing the meadow. Playing at trains in L.A. Reprieved. 

The Maggie Nelson poem I was trying to find underneath her four songs of care and constraint is the poem of the exorbitant reader and the anxious human. I haven't read what she has read, but I have read as she reads.  

Such is the approach taken in the pages that follow, in which "freedom" acts as a reusable train ticket, marked or perforated by the many stations, hands and vessels through which it passes. (I borrow this metaphor from Wayne Koestenbaum, who once used it to describe "the way a word, or a set of words, permutates" in the work of Gertrude Stein. "What the word means is none of your business," Koestenbaum writes, "but it is indubitably your business where the word travels.")

 

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Selected Crônicas by Clarice Lispector

Selected Crônicas by Clarice Lispector is the book to open at random. On any page there's something that goes straight to the nub. She finds you out. Whatever has been happening in your own life, whatever stories you have lately heard, and paused over, Clarice will echo. It's a quality of attention. A modesty and persistence. A dailiness. 

Take note that I have said nothing about my emotional reaction: I spoke only of some of the thousands of things and people I keep an eye on. Nor does anyone pay me to do this job. I simply keep the world under observation. Is it hard work keeping an eye on the world? Most certainly.

Clarice weighs in. Reading as confirmation, sometimes that's what you need.  Like a quick chat about what you saw today. Picking elderberries. A brand-new tractor practises reversing and returning. A taxi-driver checking for break-ins. Clarice and I. 

You must be wondering why I keep an eye on the world. I was born with this mission. And I am responsible for everything in existence, even for those wars and crimes which cause so much physical and spiritual havoc. I am even responsible for this God Who is in a state of cosmic evolution towards greater perfection.

I too have been keeping an eye, and a pen, on the local world for the last couple of years. I don't feel responsible, but I'm having my say in the name of greater perfection. Not feeling responsible for at least some of the time is, I would argue, essential. Plus I cannot envisage at all this God Who.

Since childhood I have kept an eye on a swarm of ants: they crawl in Indian file, carrying a tiny particle of leaf which does not prevent them from pausing to chat whenever they meet another procession of ants coming from the opposite direction.

Is an ant responsible? Or does the ant, tiny as it is, embrace a world? Clarice Lispector is an open-minded commentator. But by writing anything at all about ants, she is taking a stance.

But I still have not found the person to whom I should report my findings. 

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Report from a Parisian Paradise, Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth spent the last fourteen years of his life in France. Notes from a Parisian Paradise is the feuilleton of his travels around France, freed from the weight of his own country, his own history, he finds what he needs, he feels at home. The enthusiasm, the traveller's lungs, the writer's eyes, old dreams of white cities descending in flat terraces and citadels in a Roman hand, Avignon, Nîmes, St Baux, Tournon, all the way down to Marseille, which, at the time of his visit in 1925, had seven hundred ships in the harbour. If you find your childhood dreams you find your childhood, which up till then appeared not to have existed at all. 

After World War 1, the global conflagration to which he has contributed, the unhappy grandson must put his grandfather on his lap and tell him stories of how he wore the uniform and ravaged the land, and now he must leave. Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, and Joseph Roth leaves for France, looking for the sweet freedom of not seeming to be anything more than he is.

From that time forth I have never believed in getting on trains, timetable in hand. I don't believe it is in us to travel with the serenity of a tourist, equipped for anything. The timetables are wrong, and the books are misleading. All travel books are dictated by a stupid spirit that can't see that the world is continually changing.

These are peculiar travelling times. They all are. Joseph Roth is the endangered, enraptured traveller who will walk from one town to another and intuit his way in among its streets, talk to any clown or longshoreman, idle over every relic, read up the history, try not to confuse names and things.

That's why we don't understand the world, and why it doesn't understand us. On the other  side of the fence it's vacation time. Lovely, long summer vacation. People don't take me literally. What I leave unspoken is heard. My every word is not a confession. Every lie is not wicked and unconscionable. Every silence is not enigmatic. Everyone understands it. It's as though people don't question my punctuality, even though my watch is wrong. People don't make inferences about me from what's mine. No one controls my day. If I waste it, so what, it was mine to waste.

I have read several of Joseph Roth's novels. They are profound and sad and riveting. Such is the freedom of Roth's journalism in France, it is hard to realise that at the same time, between 1925 and 1939, he also wrote those novels. The White Cities of southern France were protecting him. The bistros of Paris. Children sailing their toy boats in stone pools were protecting him. For as long as they could.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Finzi-Continis in a field near Coachford

We had sent off our appeal to the Board, to the current Inspector; the day was blue. It was a day for the field near Coachford, with sandwiches of amber beetroot and cheese, aubergine pickle, butter, mayonnaise, basil, coriander; with tomatoes, cucumber, a piece of fennel and the remains of yesterday's frittata.

To read, I took The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, for its tenderness, tennis parties, its moment in history, sense of loss, imminent or immanent in the magna domus, the House, and the garden, planted a couple of generations before, now ripe. Au vert paradis des amours enfantins. An old hunting dog called Jor lies in front of doorways. There are hot showers, telephones, and fruit water, iced for summer, warm for winter.

In the field near Coachford, a matted Border collie is padding about the shoreline, keeping half an eye out. I am in 1930s Ferrara. P is reading about the sensuousness of stones. The animate material of our world. Purple loosestrife at the water's edge. Ducks at sixes and sevens. east west, west east. An island of gulls. 

There is always a combustion engine in paradise. Today it was a pump across the water for an hour or so. Irrigating what? Later a birdscarer imitating shotgun fire. Protecting barley for cows for humans for milk and meat. The hum of rural empire. A slight wind from the east is enough to send us into the long grass. Grasshoppers use our knees as calling ground, chirping their knees together to call in a mate.  

People don't eat in the garden of the Finzi-Continis. They change their clothes. They play tennis. They reminisce about plums, and how later they preferred Lindt chocolate. The narrator and Micòl go on a pilgrimage round the garden. The scene revealed, inhabited. The action is all around, unspeakable. Meanwhile, the garden is respite, saviour, citadel. 

Micòl does not want to be kissed. The narrator has no idea why. She has no future. She prefers le verge le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui and even more the past, the dear, sweet, sainted past. She introduces him to trees, she speaks their dialect. 

"There they are, my seven old men," she might say. "look at their venerable beards!" Really—she would insist—didn't they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance, what"holiness" in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly? They looked like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts. 

The narrator is excluded. The Finzi-Continis excluded themselves. Though they are both jews. Juden sind everywhere unerwünscht. Unless you have your own garden, your own black-green hole. And even then they are falling, settling in irrevocably at the edge of town. And even that, as the medics say, will not protect you. 

His father has always said the Finzi-Continis are in a world of their own. Micòl is not for him. The young men, nonetheless, spend a winter of evenings talking Fascism, Communism, il Duce, Hitler, Franco, war and history, history and war, novels and poetry. They talk indoors, among books they have read. 

Anne Boyer (Garments against Women) says literature is the preserve of the property-owning class: what it means to be well or happy in a society that demands and denies the conditions of wellness and happiness: the state of not writing, otherwise known as life.

Life, however, includes books. And loss. And trees. And crow bangers. Wellness is a dubious word.

My story with Micòl Finzi-Contini ends here. So it is just as well for this story to end too, now, for anything I might add would longer concern her, but, if anyone, only myself.

Already, at the beginning, I have told of her fate and her family's.

Giorgio Bassani begins his novel with the description of a tomb. It stood out. It was meant to. A real horror, his mother said. A pastiche. Like Aïda. Ancient Egypt and Roman baroque, the Greeks at Knossos; all these cultures of the dead. He ends his story with the unburied death of his past, like Palinurus in Virgil, unburied on a foreign shore. 

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Electronic Civil Disobedience

Mid-afternoon, after picking blackberries—the ripe the soft, the hard, the unwilling, a few more pounds for wine, trip up in advance, these paths are getting overgrown—I read a couple of sentences of Electronic Civil Disobedience from the Critical Art Ensemble (1996). The book fell open on a paragraph about people buying VCRs, not knowing how to use them and feeling they'd bought an expensive clock that only ever said 12:00.

Cheerful tech naivete and derision from twenty-five years earlier. Strangely uplifting. 

By evening the blackberries were crushed, mashed, covered in water, en route in a bucket in the kitchen. 

Our current woe, twenty-five years later, is that babes and sucklings know how to use everything they buy or that is bought for them. Nearly all of them tell the time.  

Sunday, 5 September 2021

What are you reading?

What are you reading?

D had his books on display when we went to visit. His reading schedule is exacting: two John Pilger, one Irish novel, an Italian novel for translation, maybe, and his mother's copy of Arabian Nights, mysteriously broken into phrases with a biro for the first twenty pages. I can't remember which book he read with first or second coffee, or tea, or breakfast or alongside a nap in the afternoon, as well as before going to sleep at night, but I appreciate the timetable, the need to calibrate each day with books.

On the strength of Brian Dillon's piece on Claire-Louise Bennett in Supposing a Sentence, I bought Pond, and took it to Castle Island but didn't open it. This was not the right place. The right place hasn't yet showed itself. In a waiting room, perhaps. 

The penultimate sentence Brian Dillon chooses, which I read last night, is by Anne Carson. Anne Carson is proof against nearly everything. I have had Autobiography of Red on the go all summer, to be taken up at any moment when a fine, sharp instrument of language is needed to remind me what matters. 



Sunday, 29 August 2021

Virginia Woolf, To the lighthouse, on Castle Island

Eleven years later we take a while to recognise our camping spot, as if it needed to come forward from its past, or we from ours, till we knew where the tent went, where the fire spot must be, in a hollow with a grassy edge, for sitting and looking southwest, seals looking too, at us, we suppose. We pitched the tent, found mushrooms and a thick green net for carrying wood. Meanwhile a small east wind was getting up, so there was the question of a sheltered place to sit, or lie, or read, or not. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. In this case the Fastnet Rock coming and going in the haze. 

I found a hot spot and stretched out. Reading Virginia Woolf on Castle Island, re-reading sentences and paragraphs, settling the layers, closing your eyes: no greater pleasure.

.... it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she did not need to think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

Later we walked to the other side of the island where the ruined houses (west) stand, and, among the sheep and gorse and ghostly lazy beds, we had a conversation I'm sure we've had before, about what this island, those islands, could or should become, their swansong, perhaps. We are solitary shapemakers. I don't know the word for people who imagine looking out of empty frameless windows in roofless buildings facing southeast, but there must be one. As there must be a word for people who re-read Virginia Woolf and sit, like Mrs Ramsay knitting reddish-brown socks for the lighthousekeeper's son, in case the weather is calm enough to go out there next day.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The pond life of Gertrude Stein

Reading Ida by Gertrude Stein up at the pond, watching pond skaters, whirligig beetles and today's hawker dragonflies in their stop/start survey of our locale. Inexplicable compelling movements by insects and sentences alike in their nearly industrial rhythm. Ida is everywhere with her husbands and dogs and translocation of a kind that sentences do so much better than life. No wonder Ida spends her life resting. 

Gertrude Stein makes you feel the world has got stuck on its way around but that getting stuck is comfortable as well as the only way to be. She is of the era of Fritz Lang's M, the start of robotics. After railways, cars and planes and multiple viewpoints, staccato rhythms, narrative suspended. 

A pond can work wonders reading Gertrude Stein, watching the movements of insects and observing them when they come up close, their brilliant spots and stripes, their compound eyes, is an exercise in integration. Immediate crossover of sentences to insect movement. The dancing flies have gone, bring on the pond skaters.

Listen to me I, I am a spider, you must not mistake me for the sky, the sky read at night is a sailor's delight, the sky in the morning is a sailor's warning, you must not mistake me for the sky, I am I, I am a spider and in the morning any morning I bring sadness and mourning and at night if they see me at night I bring them delight, do not mistake me for the sky, not I, do not mistake me for a dog who howls at night and causes no delight, a dog says the moonlight makes  him go mad with desire to bring sorrow to any one sorrow and sadness, the dog says the night brings madness and grief, but the spider says I, I am a spider ...

 

Friday, 13 August 2021

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje

Yesterday fell out of the continuum. I ate only pap and lay down a lot, dozing or reading Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje. 

When your family is running in the lushness — societal and botanical — of early-mid-twentieth Ceylon, there's lots to tell, lots to recover, all the drama, the drinking, the heat, the large snakes shortcutting through the house, lots to inherit, lots to clarify, to seek out and confirm, lots to run with. 

Lots to run from. 'There's nowhere worse than home' (Bruce Gould).

Michael Ondaatje left Ceylon when he was eleven. Jean Rhys left Dominica when she was sixteen. Running in the Family is not Wide Sargasso Sea. It's a question of degree. Jean Rhys had five more years than Michael Ondaatje; and a wilder more rotten family, or the rot was closer to the surface. She had to act for a living, and drink and walk the streets in expectation of nothing and everything. Michael Ondaatje's father drank, by the caseload, buried under the lawn.  He was Tamil, the mother was Dutch, in the Ceylonese uppercrust way of miscegenate or drop. Drop anyway. Scatter. To the highlands in the hot season. And eventually leave, for England, for Canada. 

I understand that people want to make clear what isn't, what wasn't, what remains, of the family. But I have more sympathy with those who want to obfuscate, to veil and veil again, till what you can see of family is the hand, the fingers, the hardwired knuckle, in front of you. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Brideshead Revisited, Again

Slightly more sleep, slightly more sun, in fact hot beneath the westerly breeze, when it wasn't raining, then sometimes a clear blue day with rushing clouds; then a shower. A lush day to finish Brideshead Revisited. Revisited. I was saying to Mickos the other Saturday that I reread books all the time. He was incredulous. He had just handed back a thriller he had borrowed, its task completed. The idea you'd want to go again to feel the pace or rush on towards a savoury end you already knew, this was a passing conundrum. Like the beleaguered river we looked onto.

Recently I watched the Brideshead film, which does not touch the TV series but sends me back to the book  extra-receptive and keen. The wind in the aspen this afternoon now at the same remove as that ripe and distanced english catholicism, straight out of religious paintings, all drama and despair and scant decorum that propels Brideshead along. Not much to do with the irish version I have absorbed all these years. Both of them fictional.

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 habit.

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 Malcolm 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."