JUDY KRAVIS

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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!