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.