Sunday 31 October 2021

The Umbrella, the New Yorker, Tove Ditlevsen

On a wet and windy afternoon six people made their way up our field towards the pine grove, where in a groundswell moment, they were proposing to lie down on the ground for ten minutes. Most of them were well kitted out with waterproofs and something to lie on, except the two youngest, who were dressed as usual and huddled as they walked under a pale and partly broken small umbrella.

I had just read Tove Ditlevsen's story 'The Umbrella' in the New Yorker. A girl in the nineteen thirties dreams of owning an umbrella. When she is ten she sees a pretty woman in a nearly floor length yellow dress holding a slim strong translucent umbrella as she crosses the courtyard. A headscarf and a sturdy shopping basket is all you need, her mother taught, and look for a man with brown hair and dark eyes. You do not need an umbrella. Is our skin so fragile we can't take a little weather? 

But Helga had never tried to put herself in another person's shoes; it had never been necessary. Her entire character consisted on a pile of memories without a pattern or a plan. There were a number of pairs of brown eyes, a twilight mood, an immense, undefined expectation, a yellow dress, and an umbrella.

Helga marries Egon and the days pass. He starts drinking and she raids the piggy bank.

The moon lit the little room like a false dawn. With the deftness of a thief, she counted the money. There were almost forty kroner. She held them in her hands, smiling gently, redeemed and alone, like a child smiling in her sleep. All she could think of was an open, translucent umbrella with a certain shape and colour. 

Egon breaks the umbrella over his knee. Helga's is passive when Egon tells her, over his shoulder, at the end of the story, 'You'll get another umbrella.' 

The two girls this afternoon, 13 and 16, had not dreamed of their umbrella nor its replacement. They went up to the pine grove and lay there for ten minutes on a wet and windy day and took photos up their nostrils and into the pines. 

Their umbrella is disposable. It is a dishonest headscarf, enfin, and a sturdy shopping basket, an immense, undefined expectation, just as in nineteen thirties Copenhagen. 

It made sense that the umbrella was ruined. She had set herself up against the secret law steering her inner world. Few people, even once in their lives, dare to make the inexpressible real.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Talk Poetry, Mairéad Byrne, My Dinner with André,

Talk Poetry by Mairéad Byrne is just that, the poetry of talk, poetry talking us through the onwardness of every day and how it runs away with you: you laugh you cry you sew on a button. You do what you do. The place is set up for this. The world runs on and we drink our poems as we may. 

You cannot help an alcoholic. Except in the ordinary ways you can help anyone. Like sewing on a button. People do what they do. Sometimes it is beautiful.

It rained all day. I read Talk Poetry, lit the stove and watched My Dinner with André, uncomfortably, at my computer, at the knee chair. I hardly ever do that. You have to want to be in touch with others, for My dinner with André, swaying and adjusting on the knee chair, going with the conversation, as with the pulses of rain outside, coming in strongly towards the last half hour, the conversation, that is. 

Wallace Shawn's querying noises  have prepared us for his view on it all, when it eventually comes. Do you have to climb Everest, can't you just have a nice dinner at home and exercise your small talent when the chance arises? 

These are the positions after coffee, the restaurant has emptied, André has an espresso, Wally an amaretto. André pays and Wally takes a taxi home, finding associations with every other building they go past. While André is halfway up Everest or having an encounter with 40 Polish people in a forest, or preparing a safe place for a flying saucer to land. Satie's first Gymnopédie is the exit music. Wallace Shawn going home in his taxi, reviewing his childhood.

Mairéad Byrne is unreasonably fond of home, she has homes everywhere, in a queue at the bank, in a library, a bookshop, a telephone booth, a certain amount of space & silence. I slot myself into it whenever possible, she says. I know what she means. And I have a take on her take on family photos. 

In our house we didn't have a camera. We liked photos though and posed for them at every opportunity. .... There were eight children in our family ...  We liked to dress up and grin. There was a piano. Sometimes my younger sister, who got lessons, would sit on the piano stool, and holding her hands suspended somewhat claw-like above the keys, would swivel round her head at a 90º angle to her stalwart body, her face full of mischief and intent....

I don't know how we ever got anything done in our house, we spent so much time face-forward, grinning to beat the band, she ends. 

You can see that still, in the author photo. 

Thursday 21 October 2021

Ripley's Game, Valentia Island, Patricia Highsmith

I came back from Valentia with a copy of Ripley's Game, by Patricia Highsmith. 

I'd just read in the New Yorker extracts from her diary from her twenties. She was trying her hand, how to pitch journalism as entertainment. 

And to do this primarily, again, as entertainment. How perhaps even love, by having its head persistently bruised, can become hate. For the curious thing yesterday I felt quite close to murder, too, as I went to see the house of the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of possessing.

People translate into action; their next move will be proof of everything. Tom Ripley and Reeves Minot, Jonathan Trevanny and Héloïse, Gaby, etc. Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Matt Damon. All thrillers are screenplays. For the nonce. For Patricia Highsmith they are the bloodless—though bloody—narrative of her own life.

December 21, 1950: What shall I write about next, I think here in this diary where I think aloud. O more definitely than ever this 29th year, this third year and I always change on the thirds, has seen much metamorphosis. It will come to me. My love of life grows stronger every month. My powers of recuperation are wonderfully swift and elastic. I think of writing a startler, a real shocker in the psychological thriller line. I could do it adeptly.

Ripley is adept, he is in the shadows, working the story. When I see Ripley, it's Dennis Hopper, his covert conviction and urgency, not John Malkovich, who is sleazier, more vulpine. Nor Matt Damon, though that film is freshest in my memory. 

Reading Patricia Highsmith, you are doing just that, reading Patricia Highsmith as she thinks aloud, through her Ripley persona, her Ripley mycelium.   

I have a strong reaction to page-turners, thrillers—and Patricia Highsmith every once in a while constitutes my thriller input—two-thirds in I am happy to stop turning pages altogether, happy to leave Ripley and Jonathan Trevanny in a house called Belle Ombre near Fontainebleau, dealing with the mafia and coming out confident, writing the screenplay.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

The Shrimp and the Anemone, Valentia Island

I took L.P. Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone to Valentia Island, thinking I needed to read something so entirely familiar it would be less like reading and more like walking or swimming. In the first few pages, Eustace finds a shrimp being eaten by a sea anemone. To save the shrimp, which is already dead, he must get his shoes and socks wet, which he is supposed to avoid at all cost. He is torn with anguish. He calls his sister Hilda, who is a few years older, and taller, and might be able to reach into the rock pool without getting wet. She extracts the dead shrimp, and as she does so, tears at the digestion of the anemone, which also dies.

Two children on a beach with rock pools in 1940s England, a brother and sister in an accountable world, mysteriously driven, sadly knowable eventually, rescue a (dead) shrimp and kill a sea anemone. This is my comfort reading? Yes, when I find sea anemones beside our lunch spot on Valentia Island in October, on an old pier half destroyed by weather and desuetude, but warm and favoured, with bread from Emilie's yesterday, and a small stream flowing into the sea. After lunch we play at guessing which stone the other was looking at; and lay down for a while.

I stare into rock pools on Valentia Island and I am comforted. I know what those strange closed dark plum mounds are, just underwater, about to open as fronds and entrap a passing shrimp. 

Death lurks in rock pools; scruples only make it slower. 

Thursday 7 October 2021

Maggie Nelson meets Dante

Dante's La Vita Nuova sits on the floor alongside Maggie Nelson, Something Bright, Then Holes, on a resolute yet straggling grey wet day. Distraught with where I find myself, underslept, needing the friendship of books, I try to activate my reading patch and go to 1295, Florence, young Dante in love with the ever-distant Beatrice, in the courtly manner, always veering upward and beyond; and to the american underbelly in the past twenty years, Maggie Nelson  'Living as if every moment announced a beloved, and it does.'

In The New Life young Dante Alighieri writes sonnets to Beatrice, his life overwhelmed with joy and yearning. 

That oft I heard folk question as I went/ What such great gladness meant.

Wild reading for wet days. Transition, off-season reading. And people aren't happy, said M this morning. Look at me. I have the honey house to clean up, there's European Foul Brood about. I'm dog lazy, she says, and lists all she has yet to do today. To distract, I tell her I've been reading Dante's first book, last read when I was a student, called The New Life, and how refreshing it is to spend time in 13th century Florence, where people mostly stayed where they were born; while we wait it out here in 21st century Cork, shifting, shiftless. Unquiet.

Or New York or L.A, like Maggie Nelson.

We share a brightness/ It's called death/ in life'. /I toss and turn all night, hearing you say/I want to touch you/ without using my hands.

Dante would understand this. I doubt he ever touched his Beatrice with his hands; though there may have been replacements. Beatrice died of perfect gentleness. Like Beth in Little Women.  

When in mine anguish thou hast looked on me;/ Until sometimes it seems as if, through thee,/ My heart might almost wander from its truth.

Maggie Nelson and Dante are in conversation, and I am grateful. We are on the fringes of a storm, which translates locally as mist and murk. Somewhere in the midst a spluttering bird. And Beethoven's Ghost Trio. 

Friday 1 October 2021

Maggie Nelson On Freedom, Judith Thurman On Dante, Translation,

Maggie Nelson On Freedom, Four Songs of Care and Constraint, is a ghostly read at the start of autumn. Maybe I would rather she was Anne Carson, or Rimbaud. I read Maggie Nelson, sometimes too fast, as the poem that spreads underneath, as mycelium spreads underneath the earth.

But the fact remains that no one can ferret out for us which pleasures are taken in an "experience without truth" (Derrida), and which can have truth-value (or something otherwise worthwhile); no one can figure out for us which modes of abandonment are wonderful, and which do damage (or more damage than they're worth); no one can determine for us when a strategy of liberation has flipped into a form of entrapment. As the slogan May you be blessed with a slow recovery suggests, such proximities constitute a knot that benefits from patient, perhaps even lifelong, untangling. 
Meanwhile, in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has been reading Dante and new Dante translations of Purgatorio, which are, she feels, are very good in a pandemic. This year is the 700th anniversary of Dante's death. There have been more than a hundred translations of the Divine Comedy. I have three of them. That is already strange in today's world. Where we drown in world views and the freedom to pass judgement in public.   
Many branches of radical ecological thinking edge into this territory, insofar as  grappling with systemic threats to the biosphere as we know it often demands a kind of zoomed-out perspective on humanity and planet that can prompt deeply unnerving paradigm shifts and proposals. ...  Our method of inhabiting the planet could be otherwise. Our attitude toward death, including our own deaths or that of our species, could be otherwise.
Maggie Nelson On Freedom is not translating Purgatorio. Or maybe she is. Purgatory was a recent invention, a middle child of three, between Inferno and Paradiso. Purgatory takes place on this Earth, not above or below. Here. Now. Grazing the meadow. Playing at trains in L.A. Reprieved. 

The Maggie Nelson poem I was trying to find underneath her four songs of care and constraint is the poem of the exorbitant reader and the anxious human. I haven't read what she has read, but I have read as she reads.  

Such is the approach taken in the pages that follow, in which "freedom" acts as a reusable train ticket, marked or perforated by the many stations, hands and vessels through which it passes. (I borrow this metaphor from Wayne Koestenbaum, who once used it to describe "the way a word, or a set of words, permutates" in the work of Gertrude Stein. "What the word means is none of your business," Koestenbaum writes, "but it is indubitably your business where the word travels.")