Sunday 28 November 2021

Jane Gardam, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends, Sebald biography

I needed to rest for a few days with deep story, the kind that pursues itself to the end, tying ends you didn't know were loose. Old Filth by Jane Gardam is deep story, in fact it is Deep Story, with its two sequels, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. A strung-out tale of Orphans of the Raj and other rootless internationals with a fair measure of success among them, mostly in law. For British children born in India in the twenties and thirties, Home was England, where they were sent to school. The capital letter of Home gave rise to other capitals, similarly uncertain, brave, circumspect, but never ironic.

At the end of each book, Jane Gardam gives full revelation about her sources. She is married to a QC who spent time in the Far East, where all the characters spend much of their lives, before retiring to Deep England to live out their days.

I have read several reviews lately of the biography of W.G. Sebald, which appears to focus on Sebald's unreliability as a writer, and as a person. After years of readers' relishing of what they take in his writing to be the scent of truth, the biographer, Carole Angier, enjoys exposing Sebald as a liar, or at least this is what most of the reviews focus on. He conveys the sadness of truth. How he does it, what conversions and inventions he uses — is academic.

Jane Gardam's very correct and polite Acknowledgements of books she read and people she knows or knew, who were once Raj Orphans and who set off in Wartime convoys to the East, could not be more different from Sebald, or Max, as he preferred to be called (what is it about men who prefer to be called Max?), who says nothing. He is dreaming, as writers do, he does not commit. That's what novels are for. What you read is what you get and what you feel is yours to absorb, or dream on, as you please. The truth is also what you get, if that's what you want. And that's the catch (in the throat), the ping (of life) as the writer creates it, out of long absorption.

Jane Gardam could have made one large volume out of her knowledge and research. It would have saved her some repetition. By the time I reached the end of the last volume I was chiefly curious as to which half-forgotten threads she would revive. Nonetheless, for the coldest week of the autumn, it was perfect.

Sunday 21 November 2021

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

I have read most of Elizabeth Strout, most of Jane Gardam, some Elizabeth Taylor, these intricate, domestic women in their recessive worlds, their talking tone, their willingness to tell and their ability to avoid telling. Sometimes this is just what I need.

I read Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout this week. Every few pages there's a long moment during which Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout's familiar, talks to us from the page — 'Oh, I cannot say any more right now'. Or:

But I have always remembered that. At the time I thought, Well, at least he is being honest.

But we had these surprises and disappointments with each other, is what I mean.

Social understanding, intimacy real or imagined—what does it matter—social observation, the pools and sharps of our history with each other, Elizabeth Strout is insistent. I don't often want to be this clearly in any world, invented or otherwise. I don't want to be in our culture of domesticity and lineage. Of the blood. The platitudes. The parentage. The losses.

Oh, to panic!

Elizabeth Strout has the art of slowly ravelling our lives in full view of each other.  

I could read Jane Gardam next, for the English version. Though Elizabeth Strout is English enough, Puritan. Gardam and Strout are a fine pair. They could sell groceries or mend shoes. 

Sunday 14 November 2021

The Emperor's Tomb, Joseph Roth,

Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis in Istanbul between the wars, at the eastern edge of Europe, without many of the books he was writing about. Though nothing is that simple and there's probably a very good library and a talky literate café down the street in Istanbul in the 1930s. This image of a man writing about books he read in the past, who has incorporated European Literature, can consult at will Emma Bovary and The Idiot, Odyssey and Thebeiad, perhaps even more vividly when he has been pushed to the edge of Europe through one of those geopolitical bumps we must all learn to accommodate.

I have just finished reading Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb in my room in Inniscarra, at the western edge of Europe. There isn't a very good library, or a talky café, down the street. Erich Auerbach might have felt at home in Istanbul. I might feel at home in Inniscarra. 

This is how at home Joseph Roth feels, writing in Paris in the 1930s. 

My people's roots are in Sipolje, in Slovenia. Sipolje no longer exists, hasn't for a long time. It's been assimilated with several other villages to form a middle-sized town. As everyone knows, that's the trend nowadays. People are no longer capable of staying on their own. They form into nonsensical groups, and it's the same way with the villages. Nonsensical structures come into being. The farmers move into the cities, and the villages themselves — they want to be cities.

Everything that starts—a life, a marriage, a war—every nonsensical structure has the kiss of death. In Paris. Istanbul. Inniscarra.

I kissed my mother's hand, as I always did. Her hand — how could I ever forget it — was slender and delicate and veined with blue. The morning light swept into the room, a little dimmed by the dark red silk curtains, like a well-behaved guest dressed in formal attire. 

Joseph Roth tells his tale and takes it away in the same breath. The narrator signs up for World War One and soon is a prisoner of war. Around chapter XXII the narrator escapes from prison camp to a safe house and a new life. A prisoner in Siberia was where he felt most at home.

Our host belonged to the long-established community of Siberian Poles. He was a trapper by profession. He lived on his own, with a dog of no certifiable breed, a couple of hunting rifles, a number of home-made pipes in two spacious rooms full of scruffy furs. His name was Baranovich, first name of Jan. He hardly spoke. A full black beard enjoined him to silence.

In Siberia there is peace. Eventually the narrator and his friends are sent back to prison camp, for arguing. You can't argue in a safe house. This is how the new life ends. Until, after the war, the next one begins. And the one after that.

But from the moment I held my son in my arms, I experienced a dim version of that incomprehensibly lofty satisfaction that the Creator of the world must have felt when he saw his incomplete work nevertheless as done. 

Two chapters later the narrator no longer has a house or a home. His mother is dead. His wife has gone to Hollywood to be an actress. He sends his son away to a friend in Paris and spends his days waiting for his dearly loved evenings, in which he can stretch the story this way or that in short order; and then die of it.

Towards the end of The Emperor's Tomb the tale starts to limp. He repeats himself, especially on the subject of his mother; he is weakening. It doesn't matter what he plucks from his tale now that his tale is ready to pluck him. 

Monday 8 November 2021

Job, Joseph Roth: in Tuosist

I chose Job by Joseph Roth to take to Tuosist last week. A spontaneous outing to the land, to other lands than here, demands spontaneous choice of reading. I last read Job five years ago. Once every five years is often enough for the deep sources, the temperature of the years before I was born. A small, complete woodland in Tuosist, facing northwest along the bay, is a deep source too.

We walk and stumble and pause among trees that have been growing and decaying for about a hundred years. Out of sheer, fruitful, lassitude. Weaving their way. Falling down, waiting, renewing and regrowing, out of the moss of ages and the soakage of leaves, of the southwestern edge of this island. Oak, hazel, holly and moss, with clearings. A venerable crabapple. That softness of consolidation. The sight of next year's primroses, a stack of rock inside trees. Druidic. Lost. Then a clearing. And again. Several magisterial oaks. Holly of all ages. Hazel throughout. Sika deer upending through the dark afternoon. Streams spreading into a boggy patch in front of the sea, with tough tussocky grass and bog asphodel.

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, an ordinary Russian Jew, the way Jews assert their ordinariness with such conviction and resignation that it is extraordinary: he teaches, he prays, his family takes its course, towards extinction, he supposes. Russia, New York, it is the same, children betraying, dying and going insane, all narratives half-understood, but onward. Before, during and after World War 1.

But there is a happy ending. Menuchim, the last child, the cripple, the idiot, the silent, was left behind when his family moved to America. His mother would have taken him on the boat in a bag, but feared that immigration might lance all the bags to check the contents, and kill him. Menuchim, epileptic, crippled, vanishes from the story, thought dead.  

At the start of World War 1, Mendel Singer's home town, and Joseph Roth's, on the borders of Austria-Hungary and Russia, is sacked and burned. Menuchim is helped from a burning house, and shouts Fire, his second word. Mama was his first. He is taken to a hospital where a doctor cures him, then shelters him in his own home; thus, after long travail and discovery, Menuchim is reborn. Through music. He sits at a piano and finds he can play anything that is in his head.

He has brought his song from the home village to his father in New York. A future spun out of long silence. Ancient woodland regenerates. Out of abandonment grows a song.  

America can produce miracles of this kind. 

So can Tuosist.