JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 15 January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         Se faire de l'espace pour déployer ses ailes

In the same way as real thinking 

takes place when your head is empty, 

the landscape inside you is larger 

than the landscape outside you.

                                                      Kurt Johannessen

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

Sunday, 10 January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 January 2021

The Other Side

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

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

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

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

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

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