Tuesday 23 March 2021

Ocean Vuong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Joan Didion

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

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

 For all I know she has never braked since.

Monday 8 March 2021

The World Turned Upside Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Wide Sargasso Sea

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

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

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

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

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