JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 18 April 2021

Tove Jansson, The Listener,

The title story of her first collection, The Listener, and the last, 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.