Friday 30 July 2021

Rachel Cusk and Anne Carson

Rachel Cusk's writing, on first approach, up at the pond, made me clench my teeth and need another swim. I have read rapturous reviews of her writing but not been tempted. Too impersonal, too spare. Like a surgeon in a carpark running through her skills. 

One Cusk reading event took place up at Inisleena one hot afternoon when we'd canoed down from Carrigadrohid. Think of the lake in Maldon on a hot weekend, or Lake Balaton, perhaps, but louder, with fatter people and uglier clothes and more bereft children surrounded by more plastic. I sat in the shade and read Rachel Cusk while P went for the car back in Carrigadrohid. And Rachel Cusk held her head up above all this, but I was glad to be rescued, canoe back on the roof, and extricate from the scene.

The narrator, in her dust-sheeted room, listens to a student talk about the complete personal revolution she has recently undergone at an exhibition by an American painter called Marsden Hartley. She has already written 300,000 words of notes.

She sipped her tea with an air of equanimity, as though in the confident belief that I would not be able to resist asking her to continue and tell me precisely what had caused the personal revolution to occur.

I read Transit and then Outline, vols 2 and 1 of a trilogy, I could admire but not like, or even like myself for reading it, wearied if not repelled by this faultless and therefore faulty analysis of relationships, all of them, that she crossed in her life. 

At the height of the heatwave, the solution came to me. Read Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red. Alongside Rachel Cusk.

Herakles and Geryon had gone to the video store. ——— Full moon sends rapid clouds dashing past a cold sky. When they came back they were arguing.

It's not the photograph that disturbs you it's you don't understand what photography is.

Rachel Cusk's people explain anxiously, with a certain hauteur, as if life thus displayed is life solved, or absolved. Anne Carson throws her fragments of Geryon lightly, take it or leave it, a grandmother on a porch swing in the evening. 

Goodnight children, she called in her voice like old coals. May God favour you with dreams.

Rachel Cusk doesn't leave out any more than Anne Carson does. It's a question of accent and attitude. The distance of ancient greece is helpful. No wonder Rachel Cusk is in transit and in outline (kudos is the last volume in the trilogy). Anne Carson is telling the autobiography of an ancient greek who learned early about justice. 

Geryon was a monster everything about him was red

Put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red

How stiff the red landscape where his cattle scraped against

Their hobbles in the red wind

Burrowed himself down in the red dawn jelly of Geryon's


Friday 23 July 2021

Diary, 1964

I started re-reading my diary after I'd read The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese a few weeks ago. I wanted to see what filled my days when I was seventeen and how I wrote about it. And then re-reading the diary became what it has always been, an addiction; and I read a few pages every evening.

1964 is written looseleaf in a hardback file, the front decorated with stick-on mock-tile at two corners, with DIARY slanting down the middle, also in mock-tile. 

I am currently reading FRANCE 1964 (bold headline, underlined). I went to stay with a family in Montpellier, a recent couple with separate children, two grandmothers, Mamies, a town house, a country house, and a rental by the sea. 

The country house, a former silkwormery high up in the Cévennes, among oak and chestnut to the far hills, was the moment. Perhaps for the first time in my life I experienced absolute and complete peace. The house — silkworms in the attic (once), people in the middle, animals on the ground floor (once) — was unlike anywhere I'd ever stayed, and I wanted to be there forever. But I was seventeen and life moved me on. 

I absorbed this messy french family who all seemed so nice with each other (I wondered how long this might last), I described them at length, including their mishaps that betokened deeper things but I didn't go too far down that road even when the deeper things seemed to leave me alone with the ghosts of silkworms and a ten year-old called Olivier, who was good company, knew a lot about nature, while Monsieur et Madame sorted the oldest child who'd been in a car crash. 

I went for a lot of walks and drank a lot of silence. 'When there's no noise at all, and it's very hot, it gives a very odd feeling.' Dizzyingly wonderful. Half the village was for sale, half-derelict. I was already moving into a house my parents would buy, well in advance of their retirement, where I'd go any time I could. 

It was the house and the landscape, the relation of the two, especially when sitting on a stone windowsill listening to Beethoven's Violin Concerto looking out over over the wooded hills, that stayed with me: I had no idea this was in the dictionary of lived experience. ' Music seems twice as beautiful here. I don't know why. It must be the silence that it breaks so beautifully.'

Back in Montpellier I listened to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in the park at night. That started something too. I have listened to music and looked at landscape most evenings for the last many thousand.

Thursday 15 July 2021

Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel

I have read chapters of Aberration by Starlight by Gilbert Sorrrentino for the last week or more of nights, trying to find my way—through the night and the book. I used to read to students bits of his Splendide-Hôtel, his Rimbaud-inspired alphabet, to loosen their reading habit.

Et le Splendide-Hôtel fut bâti dans le chaos de glaces et de nuit du pôle.

He inhabits the Splendide-Hôtel from A to Z, and that suits me better than the novel, whose ill-digested history and rampant male-world-view are hard to bear, in the middle of the night or at any other time. 

We go about our business in the rooms and corridors of the Splendide-Hôtel. Outside, the black polar night, a chaos of glaciers. In the ballroom, a false orchestra plays false music to which all are dancing.

Sorrrentino is a better poet than he is a story-teller. He is better with the fragment than when he tries to pack his past into chapters. His persistent imagining, in  Aberration by Starlight of his mother's sexual encounter with one so-called Tom Thebus is such a mess of lurid imagination you're left numb, wondering why he has to say all this. 

Sorrentino's alphabet, on the other hand, is free-form and compelling:

N stands for No, the one word that God would utter did He deign to speak. It is the controlling factor of all religion, no matter its protestations of optimism and joy: rightly so. Cleave to the strict beliefs of a fumbling creed or get out of it, get out of it! No, they stay, no. Say it along with them and those who believe in reform—happy men! I believe in the obfuscation of the celebration of God's mysteries, let it remain in Latin, let it be changed to Greek for that matter. It is the business of religion to conceal.

The hollow interior of O could be anything.

Sitting on a stone quay facing the Gulf of Mexico, many years ago I wrote an entire novel in my mind, its title, Blue Ray. It was, as I remember, a Christmas morning, warm and sunny, the water a bright blue, blue sky. It was, of course, about a young man alone in a Texas Gulf town.

By the time we get to Z:

Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel

The dancing is over and we are tired.  

Saturday 10 July 2021

Summon a Sentence, Brian Dillon, Part the Second

Every few days I read another sentence and its scrutiny in Summon a Sentence by Brian Dillon.  I read with pleasure and ambivalence, a sentence/chapter at a time, writers I may not habitually read, like Annie Dillard, or once read, like Susan Sontag, or really like, like Janet Malcolm. I let myself into Brian Dillon's response to the sentences he has chosen as I let myself into chill water off a pier, then swim around happily in the currents, the flowing weed and the punctuation.

Janet Malcolm died recently. Brian Dillon says she borrowed a lot from fiction in her writing about writers, and maybe that is why I like her, while reading very little—lately—of any of the nineteenth century moral picture builders like Tchekhov; reading Janet Malcolm, with her lucid uncertainties, is more pleasurable, closer to my understanding of the world, than reading Tchekhov. Though she has sent me back to Tchekhov more than once. 

A Janet Malcom sentence involves me as a friend's conversation involves me. We have read the same books and suffered the same scrutinies. 

Even an omniscient narrator, a narrator who has spoken to everyone who will speak, who has hung around the studio and the parties and the neighbourhood for years, gathering her evidence, making her notes and her precise appraisals—even such a figure may be working with material that threatens to dissolve at her touch or fade beneath her gaze. A sense of tells us how close Malcolm has got to the heart of things, and how much she doubts the mystery of character is penetrable in the first place.

 It is such a pleasure to read this. Not a question of agreement or enquiry, just recognition.

Saturday 3 July 2021

The field near Coachford

P was reading Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Café and other stories, I was reading Daphne du Maurier, The Parasites, in the field near Coachford, by the lake. Shall I list the events? The way the sun eluded and then a generator started up on the other side of the lake, then a chainsaw, clearing the bottom of someone's garden. Followed by and punctuating, scullers come through from the National Rowing Centre (NRC), in training no doubt, but warm, neutral, receptive.

Close your eyes, said the coach from his motor launch, through a loudhailer.

We watched them sculling with their eyes closed, barely dividing the waters. Watching someone who has been told to close their eyes while sculling down a lake, is a choice pleasure.

Do you need to be told? Why can't you just glide? Is everything training for the Big Race (BR)?

While P was having a swim I borrowed Carson McCullers and read The King of Finland story. We'd been talking about tolerance of indeterminacy and how I had more than most. On the page, at any rate. Why, we didn't get into.

 I talked a bit about Daphne du Maurier; nothing indeterminate there. She is indulgent in a way people can understand. The glass is clear, you can see straight through to Daphne, straight through all the theatre, the popular tunes, the family knots and ties. 

Not quite so clear through to Carson. By the end of The King of Finland you are thoroughly removed from whatever you first thought about who is lying and whether or not lying might be our underlying condition. 

Daphne would say: Yes, it is.