Wednesday 28 December 2022


In 1944 Natalia Ginzburg published an essay about women in the short-lived Italian journal Mercurio. This was recently republished by The New York Review of Books together with a letter from the journal's editor, Alba de Céspedes. These are women of my mother's generation, or a little older, and, while I can more easily read Natalia Ginzburg's novels as independent of era, an essay plants itself in its time, speaks clearly from my mother's generation despite the fact I never heard my mother talk of the position of women, except insofar as she provided a foil, a milder cushion for the views of her friend Gertie, who never married or had children and was vehement on the subject of men.  

The image that dominates Natalia Ginzburg's essay and her friend's response is the well of melancholy into which women fall, which accounts both for their pain and for their complicity.

The truth is two women will understand each other thoroughly when they start to talk about the dark well they fall into, and they can exchange many impressions about wells and the absolute impossibility of communicating with others, of accomplishing something worthwhile, no matter how hard they try, and about the floundering to get back to the surface.

Her friend Alba responds warmly to the essay, but adds a note of disagreement.

But—unlike you—I think these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall into the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men—who never fall into the well—will never understand.

The gender porosity of our era may dull the force of their debate. The well is open to all these days. Which is probably a good thing, even if an unwieldy means to achieve the privilege of melancholy.

I would like to speak to you at length about the suffering (women) experience in the well, because all suffering is in a woman's life; but then, to be perfectly honest, I should also talk about the joy they find there. 

But I can't talk to you about that today because I find myself—as is so often the case— in the well.

Thursday 22 December 2022


After a week of flu and some desultory reading, mostly of New Yorkers and New York Review of Books, I picked up Eudora Welty's stories from the shelves and started from where I'd left a bookmark whenever I last read it, at a story called 'Clytie'. 

Clytie Farr and her brother and sister and bedridden father live in a large house in a very small town called Farr's Gin.

Anyone could have told you that there were not more than 150 people in Farr's Gin, counting Negroes. Yet the number of faces seemed to Clytie almost infinite. She knew now to look slowly and carefully at a face; she was convinced that it was impossible to see it all at once. The first thing she discovered about a face was always that she had never seen it before. When she began to look at people's actual countenances there was no more familiarity in the world for her. The most profound, the most moving sight in the whole world must be a face.

There was a face, a vision, she does not know exactly when she saw it, and she is looking for it once again. But all the faces of the townsfolk come between her and her vision. Like the captain of the barge in Jean Vigo's film l'Atalante who has lost his wife and looks for her in a bucket of water, according to the folk tale that you can find the face of your lost love reflected in the water. When he doesn't see her in the bucket of water, he dives into the river.

It was purely for a resemblance to a vision that she examined the secret, mysterious, unrepeated faces she met in the street of Farr's Gin.

At the end of the story, on an errand for rainwater for her father's weekly shave, she stands by the rain barrel.

Clytie did the only thing she could think of to do. She bent her angular body further, and thrust her head into the barrel, under the water, through its glittering surface into the kind, featureless depth, and held it there.

So later she is found 'with her poor ladylike black-stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a pair of tongs.'

As a return to the human world after several days of illness, the 'kind, featureless depth' is as comforting as reading can get.

Sunday 11 December 2022


I've read Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout one and a half times in the past week. I was so uncomfortable with its contemporaneity that I had to start it again to see why. It's an almost invisible read, being set in the pandemic, its family narrative absorbed even as I read into the fabric of what I remember of those years. Maybe that's what I don't like about reading fiction set now. It disappears as you read it, merges with your own memory. Maybe that's exactly what most people like about it. 

That said, I have liked Elizabeth Strout from her earliest books. The level way she has of making her way through her characters' situations, the ordinary intimacy of it. Most of the characters' preoccupations concern loss and recovery of relations with family, and the warmth the crosses people's faces, masked or not, when they show understanding of other people. There's no malice and little hard feeling of any kind, except the narrator's own, and that's fairly mild by most standards. Her characters are her extensive life.

Some of her tics annoy me, like the tag, after some remark, 'is what I'm saying', or, 'I'm only saying', or 'what I mean is', all of which serve to make the narrator approachable, neighbourly. But I prefer not to be approached in this way. And even as I write that I'm writing something she would write. 

Reading a book like this constitutes an examination of the reader. How much empathy does she have for these people, or in general, for that matter?

Elizabeth Strout is an empathetic writer. She considers a policeman, watching him carefully.

I need to say: This is the question that made me a writer, always the deep desire to know what it feels like to be a different person. .... It sounds very strange, but it is almost as though I could feel my molecules go into him and his come into me.
As Emma Thompson is, to the fullest extent, an empathetic actor, as I read in a New Yorker piece about her.
You're like a piece of blotting paper that has been put into a bowl of water. You cannot absorb anything else. If you're really having to create a different person you're tricking your subconscious. It's a big, fat magic trick. The hat you're pulling the rabbit out of is your own psyche. That's extremely demanding and weird, because you are in a sense no longer yourself.
The novelist Lydia Millet once told an interviewer that when she first moved to New York, in 1996, she was 'amazed' by how people were 'relentlessly interested in exclusively the human self'/ This myopia—a sort of 'inarticulate, ambient smugness about everything' —wasn't her creed. .... Millet is energised, instead, by how feelings are 'intermeshed with abstract thought,' with 'our place in the wider landscape'.

I read this by chance, in The New Yorker. I've also been looking at Nathalie Sarraute's Tropismes. No empathy there, for sure. The wider landscape emptier than ever.

Monday 5 December 2022


We were painting the living room and my role was to review, revisit, shift, dust and generally aerate the bookshelf wall, the fourth wall. I began at the bottom right, through old telephone books, radio manuals, gardening, food, and pond life. To poetry and drama, ancient and modern; and thinking, ideas, science, Gödel Escher Bach. To autobiography, biography, memoirs and diaries. To fiction, twentieth century and onward. 

I got stuck at John Cowper Powys. I was supposed to be reducing the volume of the shelves, getting the horizontal books into the vertical. Tidying. Dusting. Reviewing. Wolf Solent was my first John Cowper Powys. They are broad books, nearly half a shelf. Would they stay or would they go? 

I went back up to the top left, under the blue cornicing. 19th century novels. Russian fiction. Red miniature editions, some vellum, some gilded. Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures, for example. Dickens, Michael Fairless, The Roadmender. Michael Fairless is Margaret Barber. S/He was a wild success in the early part of the twentieth century.

I have attained my ideal: I am a road mender, some say stone breaker. Both titles are correct, but the one is more pregnant than the other.

I moved the red miniature books around. Left some where they had been. Others went upstairs, under the eaves. A swatch of red vellum upstairs and downstairs. 

So I came back to John Cowper Powys from above, via Kathy Acker and everyone back to the letter p. There were some interesting bookmarks. And a lot of dust. It was good to get Svetlana Alexeivitch comfortable on the shelves. And Olga Tokarczuk. On the title pages of Rowan Hewison's Salt Pan, I found a long dedication across the title pages about our small literary moment in Paradiso, Amsterdam, circa 1981.

All this comfort was made possible by packing into a cardboard box an entire set of french and other study books, as Claire would call them, Genette, Sarraute, Barthes etc. Reshelving your library. Resetting your vertebrae. Dusting as you go. Books and shelves. Lives. Soul. It was altogether an emotional affair, and the tidied books, with some space for new ones, looked less like mine than before.

Monday 28 November 2022

Barbara Comyns and Virginia Woolf

The Vet's Daughter meets Mrs Dalloway on Clapham Common and in The New York Review of Books. Barbara Comyns and Virginia Woolf rub shoulders. 'Life, Death. This Moment of June.'

The eponymous vet is a terrible man, cruel, self-seeking. He wants nothing of his dead wife or her, his, daughter, who dodges through her childhood as best she can, knowing all along no good can come of being peculiar. No wonder she has the gift of levitation. 

Mrs Dalloway has her party to organise. Ordering flowers. Introducing people. Becoming Lady Bexborough. Yes. And no. Becoming Septimus Warren, the soldier who chose death in the civilised world, whose soul had been forced by the war and obscurely evil doctors. 

Clarissa Dalloway, after a spell in the little room, away from everyone, goes back to the party.

She lives, but the death that she escaped remains in the book as an almost invisible trace of an ending that might have been.

At the end, after long travails, the vet's daughter levitates from Clapham Common and is trampled by the crowd when she comes back down, in her long white dress. So this is it, this is what dying is. 

The inquest was held today on the three people recently trampled to death by a crowd on Clapham Common. The victims were Alice Rowlands and Rosa Fisher, both of Battersea, and a man so far unidentified.

At the end of The Waves, Bernard exclaims, inwardly, "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!' This is what Mrs Dalloway says.

Sunday 20 November 2022

Counting Backwards from 100, Judy Kravis

In many insomniac nights I have started counting backwards from one hundred, looking for associations, counting my way through my life. Addresses, bus numbers, years, dates, Now that I have written down a version, I don't do it at night any more. I don't count backwards.  I sleep better. There's more room for dreams.

Here's the current end of Counting Backwards from 100

There are no number thirteen buses, I imagine

Twelve years a slave. Twelve years free 

Eleven pipers piping. If you like piping

Ten. One Oh. Forget it 

Dorothy L. Sayers' Nine Tailors were bells

Eight and a half. Fellini. Mastroianni over Roma 

Seven Years in Tibet

Now we are six 

Five Go Mad in Dorset

Four-minute warning before the world ends 

Three is not a crowd

Two of a kind is kindness itself 

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so

Thursday 17 November 2022

Pig Earth, Once in Europa, by John Berger

A visit from Christina, who spent the summer milking goats and making cheese in the Swiss alps, made me think of John Berger who wrote about peasant life in the French alps in the 1970s and 80s. Peasant has its meaning still in French. Paysan, paysanne, creature of this land, knowing its habits and its ferocity, the shrill call of the goat:

The lament of breath issuing from a skin bag. The Greeks called the cry of the he-goat tragos, from which they derived tragedy.

In English a peasant is an idiot with a misfortunate past and a regrettable future. At best a lifestyle, a brand, a silhouette. A French boyfriend I had in my early twenties saw me bent double from the waist, picking a lettuce in my parents' garden. Tu es paysanne, he said, and I was pleased. 

For many years I have not looked at John Berger's books because I could hear his voice as I read. All the goat and shit and the wholesome authority were too clearly defined, whatever narrative or essayist voice he takes on. But it is many years since I read him, he has since died and the world has become noisier, and his voice, his insistence have grown quieter.

The stories in Pig Earth get longer as the book progresses and the writer's confidence in his own storytelling grows. In the last and longest story, John Berger becomes Jean, the narrator of  'The three lives of Lucie Cabrol'. 

Lucie Cabrol, known as the Cocadrille, a creature sprung from a cock's egg, a dwarfish wrong'un whose universe rose and fell and rose again, expanded to the zone she foraged. Jean the narrator finds the biggest cep he's ever seen and she seizes it. Everything on her alp she owns, she says, except the title. She dies of the fortune she reputedly gathered from foraging, axed through her skull. The money and the murderer were never found.

John Berger writes himself into a village in the alps. He shovels shit and herds goats, drinks gnôle, but the real participation is on the page, in the stories he wrote about the people he knew who'd lived there for generations. 

Pig Earth is first of the 'Into our labours' trilogy, published in 1979. In Once in Europa, the second volume published ten years later, the alp connects to the rest of the world in several painful ways. There is migration to factories, tanneries, chimneys to be swept in Paris. Men return triumphant and then fall. Women are temptresses and milkers, sustainers, or dead, or unknown. The title story 'Once in Europa' is about a factory that produces ferromanganese in blast furnaces. Workers are burned, maimed and killed, the surrounding landscape is poisoned. 

At the end of Pig Earth, John Berger wrote a historical afterword about the threat of extinction of peasants. Ten years later, when he published Once in Europa, one or two peasants had tractors and looked after land and animals on their own. By the end of the 20th century, in Western Europe, the extinction of peasants had effectively been achieved. There are some who, nostalgic for an imagined past, want to become peasants, to survive from the land with only a minimum of saleable product. But the pressures are immense.

As I learned a few weeks ago, the Ford factory in Cork was the first manufacturer in Europe of tractors. Mechanized agriculture and all that goes with it, started here, in 1919.

Saturday 5 November 2022


Ivy and Stevie is an intermezzo for a wet autumn. Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith interviewed by Kay Dick, published by Allison & Busby in 1971. Stevie was easier on the psyche than Ivy, when I first read them, a merry outcast living with aunt, the Lion, endearingly strange in Palmer's Green. Ivy needed to situate herself in the civilised world, as she called it. She knew what it was. She was a stern observer. 

And her hair. The forward roll around a black velvet band. I've only known two women who did their hair like that: my aunt Lily, who read Alice in Wonderland upside down on festive occasions; and Vanessa's mother, who was South African, and kept a stern house, sheets sides to middle and stewed apple. 

Ivy Compton-Burnett partakes of both. 

Maybe I can't grow into Ivy because I can't accommodate the overarching family, the constant interaction. I can read her in small, detached doses. Less concerned with who is doing what to whom than taking a print in the void, the way my mother picked up Walter Scott in the middle of the night, and read any page or two. Ivy said to Kay that a plot was a washing line on which to hang her dialogue. Which suits my reading style. Dipping in, taking the temperature. Then returning to myself. 

I have been dipping into A House and its Head this week. Spending time with Ivy. Closing the book when I'd had enough conversation, enough intimation. When I wanted to sleep.

"Is anything serious the matter?"

"Well, we use words like "serious". But words do not make much difference do they?"


Monday 31 October 2022


On the first page of Barbara Comyns' Who was changed and Who was dead the river floods and ducks sail in through the drawing room windows of Willoweed House, setting the scene for radical disorder, in the family and in the village. Flood followed by pestilence and at the last a certain calm cut through with irony. 

Barbara Comyns' creatures are soaked in a kind of schoolgirl wickedness. The back flap of the book tells us that Barbara and her siblings were brought up by governesses and allowed to run wild. Ebin Willoweed, a former journalist, his children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, his mother, Grandmother Willoweed, plus Old Ives the gardener, and a couple of maids, Eunice and Norah, make up the household, whose disarray marks it off from the rest of the village. 

There are two deaths by the end of chapter three, one in the flood, the other the doctor's wife who has an unstoppable nosebleed. In chapter four, the baker, Horace Emblyn, already distressed by an ulcer and the infidelities of his wife, decides to experiment with rye bread, and makes a small loaf to go out with all the bread orders in the village. People seem to like it; they order more and the baker employs a new man, Old Toby, who had been disfigured by quicklime in his youth. 

The miller is the first to go. He drowns himself. Then the baker's wife, then the village butcher, who slices open his throat into a wound that looks like a smile; as well as the Willoweed grandson, Dennis, who fades out in great detail about halfway through the novel. 

There was ergot in the rye flour. Ergot is one of the bases for lysergic acid. It thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The village is burning from within. Some are changed and some are dead.

The miller, the baker and the rye flour are but the backdrop to the dreadful Grandmother Willoweed who likes eating and hitting out and stamping her feet. She does not like to walk on land she does not own. 

The book gives us a middle-class shakedown in large gardens, by a river, with early motor cars and superstition. If you die giving birth you have a black baby. Ebin Willoweed's wife Jenny died giving birth to Hattie, who is black, and named for the doctor who delivered her, Dr Hatt. As the shakedown settles she's have a pony, and a dog, and go to a regular school, where they christen her AP, (African Princess). Everything turns out well for the ones who are changed, not dead; and maybe also for those who are dead. 

Grandmother Willoweed has had enough of being a caricature. Willoweed life will go on without her. Ebin, the father, does not go to London with Hattie in order to get away from his mother. He grows a big red beard, buys a boat and is known as Old Captain Willoweed. Emma marries a young doctor and becomes civilised, exemplary, alien. She produces a son who is wheeled round Kensington Gardens, heir to the Willoweed lands and money, according to the dictates of her grandmother. 

Savagery in the English countryside among the relatively well-born, drawn with a caustic humour, is a genre in itself in the early twentieth century. Barbara Comyns, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm), Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Nancy Mitford, all of them born around the same time, have in common a sense of social and family structure and a need to tear at it from within, to slice it through and chop it about, make fun of it while demonstrating its invulnerability. 

Monday 24 October 2022

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton Burnitt,

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton-Burnitt, was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, one of twelve children to a homeopath by two different wives. None of the twelve children had issue. As if each generation were a set of library books kept within family walls. 

Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels are almost entirely dialogue. Such as you might get in a large family, divided down the middle by two senior wives in the early years of the twentieth century. The youngest, in The Mighty and their Fall, are about twelve, plus a girl aged 14, then a pair of older siblings aged about twenty, their father, Ninian, his mother Selina, daughter Lavinia, a nebulous Uncle Hugo, absent Uncle Ransom, plus Cook, and Ainger. This was the era of servants, and doors at which to listen to the flow of dialogue. This was the era of names like Hengist and Egbert. And Lavinia. Ninian. Selina, his mother.

Did Ivy C-B contribute to the dialogue in her own family, or are her novels projections of the way large families might work if people talked directly out of their inner lives? The truth coming out in dribs and drabs and almost immediately degrading nearly everyone in the house. Are these the conversations, the turns of reflection that Ivy knew from experience or is she filling in silences? She claims her life was uninteresting. So she writes to set it humming. She brings out in unlikely but compelling dialogue the process of a family. This is fiction, but wouldn't you like to have been in on the conversation?

"Well, that is her offer," said Selina." So you may have what is left."

"It has its own quality," said Lavinia. "She has little to give, and so offered little. She does not evade the truth."

"It seems a shadow of a letter, Father. It somehow has no substance."

"It means what it does, as you have said."

Everyone talks the same way in her books, age four or fourteen or fifty or eighty, the way people talk when you imagine them, when you project them into your own experience, out of your age-old reality into something with multiple manoeuvres and a last page. 

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Rivka Galchen's father

In the New Yorker I read Rivka Galchen's personal history of her father, her happy childhood.  How do you get over a happy childhood? she asks. Most of us are stopped in our tracks by this. A happy childhood is a tough act to follow, she says. In her Wikipedia photo she does not look like a woman with a happy childhood. Then again I don't know if I'd recognise a happy childhood if I bumped into one. Her piece about her father was onward and urgent. Her mother was perhaps a dishrag. Happy childhood deals with less than you think.

On tv I saw Ralph Fiennes' Four Quartets. I read them anew in his performance. In the New York Review of Books I read about Piet Mondriaan, and Gilgamesh, and Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks, the dances of Pam Tanovitz. By my stove at the start of the evening, I read Fergal Gaynor's cubist portrait of Hippolytus, his dismemberment and reinstatement. A shake-up of the inheritance, every way you look. At my computer I read Counting Backwards from 100, my insomnia exercise made into a small book, a ramification of number memory and loose association.

We are into the rainy season. Mushrooms are good this year. The pond has started to flow after five months. 

Sunday 9 October 2022


I have two copies of Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, one a British wartime edition, thin paper but clear printing, from 1942, the other a Knopf edition from 1923, the year after the stories were first published. The Knopf edition has wonderful endpapers, close relatives of the Omega workshop of Bloomsbury, as well as thick furry paper that tells you, before you've read a word, that you will be comfortable here. 

I re-read the Knopf edition, and I was comfortable, so much so that I came to the end of each story as you might come to the end of a nap. I have read Katherine Mansfield many times, and always found myself pleased with each story and then the next, till there were no more to read, and the leap to a book by someone else inconceivable for a while. 

Virginia Woolf, who knew KM quite well, envied a little her rise to fame, and distrusted her.

Ah, I have found a fine way of putting her in her place. The more she is praised the more I am convinced she is bad. After all, there's some truth in this. She touches the spot too universally for that spot to be of bluest blood.

This diary entry is from March 1922. Am I a Snob? was an essay she wrote in 1932. Yes, you might say. In another diary entry, from September 1921, we find VW dabbling in KM's stories and then needing to rinse her mind. In Dryden? she wonders. Still, if she were not so clever she could not be so disagreeable, she goes on.

There's an easy seduction to the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Her canvas is broad. VW stays in her own social stratum. The death of a cottager in KM's story The Garden Party is not equal to the death of the shell-shocked soldier in Mrs Dalloway. The soldier is also a poet. 

I will not read Dryden to rinse my mind after reading Katherine Mansfield. I might read Nietzsche.

Sunday 2 October 2022

NO PLACE WORSE THAN HOME: Katherine Mansfield Kirsty Gunn George Balanchine & Mozart

For many years after I moved to Ireland, people would ask was I going home in the holidays, and I said, this is home, here, where I live now. Where I grew up may be a backdrop, a scrim across my psyche, but it isn't home. Maldon, Essex, England, the World,  has not evolved into writing material. Not as such. Not as prose. Poetry makes do with less.

Katherine Mansfield writes stories from London and Paris, about her childhood in Wellington, New Zealand, which she left in 1903. Kirsty Gunn, who grew up in the same part of Wellington, fifty or more years later, now living in London and Scotland, spends a winter back in Wellington. Rereads Katherine Mansfield. Writes some new stories herself. Lives in the old neighbourhood. Walks the walk. With her two daughters. Opens the front door and sees the lamp within.

How can we talk about exile when we wanted to leave in the first place? Home is where you no longer are. Maybe there's no place worse than home, as Bruce from Glasgow said, in Brittany. 


While I was reading My Katherine Mansfield Project, by Kirsty Gunn, I read in the New Yorker about George Balanchine going back to Russia in 1962, after fleeing the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1924. On his return, with the ballet company he'd formed in New York, he was dispirited and depressed. He said, that's not Russia. That's a completely different country, which happens to speak Russian.

There was no more place to be exiled from. Exile was no longer a state of being; it was a flight—a flight into the pure glass-and-mirrored realm of the imagination, its own kind of home. 

Kirsty Gunn doesn't find her former self in Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand, she finds Katherine Mansfield, who has been fixed forever in her stories. George Balanchine is fixed in the repertoire he created for his New York City Ballet, an angelic world of abstraction and relief. I read, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, or Jennifer Homans writing about Balanchine going back to Russia, and know once more that home is not where I grew up, it's not the place where, as Robert Frost said, they have to take you in. It's Mozart, for me, at the end of the day. That's home. Among these books and that music. With the view of the meadow and the trees. A place that I've made, dug and planted and let live, as far as possible.

Monday 26 September 2022

Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Elizabeth Hardwick said that one's life, one's autobiography, is nothing other than what one has read. She liked to warm up before writing by reading Heine. 

My life, for the past couple of weeks, has been embedded in the novels of Turgenev: Fathers and Sons (twice), Smoke, in a beautiful edition with leather cover and gilded pages, and half of Liza. The New Yorker had a piece recently about a new translation of Fathers and Sons, which took me back to the top of my bookshelves (my life) where 19th century Russian writers live.

I have also had a cracking cold/cough, complete with a day of sneezing suited to empty a chest cavity more voluminous than I actually have. So I needed something substantial, distant and capacious. Turgenev was there on my parents' bookshelves too, and I can see why. His novels are full of discussion, and at about the level my parents would have related to: a flush of socialism, some music, literature, debate about all of these with, eventually, very few hard feelings.

These are men's books. There are no mothers and daughters, or not in the same household. Women are mothers (married to fathers) or they are aunts, sisters, widows or divorcees. They are introduced to others with their patronymic, their father's name, without which they are deemed incomplete or unknown. Fathers and son hold the floor, even, or especially, when the woman is strong-minded, like Madame Odintsov (Anna Sergyevna) who draws the two friends, the eponymous sons, into her net for a while.

One son, Arkady, is a romantic, happy to lie on his back and gaze at the sky. He is eventually attracted to Anna Sergyevna's sister Katya, who is quiet and young and plays the piano. Arkady and Katya meet in the cool of an ornamental temple.

Here, in the midst of the shade and coolness, she used to read and work, or to give herself up to that sensation of perfect peace, known, doubtless, to each of us, the charms of which consists in the half-unconscious, silent listening to the vast current of life that flows forever both around us and within us.

The other son, of a different family, Bazarov,  has no time for this kind of fancy talk. He is a nihilist, so-called, a radical, a sceptic, just as a susceptible to love but revealing it in short bursts and then dismissing it. He is training to be a doctor and is likely to recommend chemistry textbooks rather than literature, and to view the beauty of a woman's body as material for the dissecting table.

The two friends clash usefully, for the propagation of ideas. Conversation moves on the world as well as their friendship. One hates no one, the other hates so many. Arkady is timid, says Bazarov, he doesn't rely on himself much. He has ideals. He thinks Russia will come to perfection when every peasant has a nice clean house to live in. 

I look around my mental Irish landscape in 2022, full of nice clean houses and resplendent cars. And take refuge in the Bazarov's mother.

Anna Vlasyevna was a genuine Russian gentlewoman of the olden times; she might have lived two centuries before, in the old Moscow days. She was very devout and emotional; she believed in fortune-telling, charms, dreams, and omens of every possible kind; she believed in the prophecies of crazy people, in house-spirits, in wood-spirit, in unlucky meets, in the evil eye... 

My favourite among her beliefs is that a mushroom will not grow if it has been looked on by the eye of man. (We are in full mushroom season here.) (Is the eye of woman equally paralysing?)

Thursday 15 September 2022

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

A wet, warm afternoon in September, the stove going, nonetheless, and a Tove Jansson novel, The True Deceiver, about a young woman and her younger brother who is thought simple, about the machinations of a village during the northern winter, and how the sister contrives to move with her brother into the Rabbit House, home of wealthy artist Anna Aemelin. who makes books for children. 

I came to Tove Jansson through The Summer Book, which I first read in Bill and Katy's spare bedroom in Brampton, where I stayed while I was clearing out my father's house after he had died. With my brother. My brother and sister story resides there, if anywhere. The Summer Book was a rescue book. No plot, just situations on an island, in a family, the fragility of moss, the etiquette of islands. 

I didn't read the Moomin books until it was too late. There's only one chance to read children's books. Only one first time on a clean plate. The Moomins read at thirty or forty are too coy to be poetry, too cosy to be true. Maybe Tove Jansson thought so too, by the time she started writing for adults. Which is to say replacing one set of symbols for another.

Katri Kling, the unwilling, maybe sullen, maybe witching, viewpoint of The True Deceiver, has yellow eyes and so has her dog. Her dog has no name. Everything is with a view to further reversals or revelations in the snowiest winter anyone can remember. By the end it seems as if Anna Aemelin is the winner. Released by the yellow-eyed woman and her brother from the need to add rabbits to the ground she painted for her children's books.

Tarjei Vesaas' brother and sister in The Birds revolved around the simplicity of the brother. Tove Jansson has not fully entered Katri Kling. She is observing her. She's not sure why Katri Kling sets her sights on Anna Aemelin's Rabbit House. I'm not sure either. 

Tuesday 6 September 2022

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

I started Delta Wedding on Castle Island last week. In that wide-open space, with only singular lives barely intersecting—a fat gull, a slim moon, a hare, and four seals—a vast plantation family in the Mississippi delta full tilt towards a wedding, is too much. 

Back home, looking out on the cut field, or awake at night, I can manage a crowded family with names running out at all angles: Battle, India, Shelley, Dabney, Troy, Man Son, Partheny, Roxie, Ranny, Bluet and Pinck, a flurry of aunts to rival P.G. Wodehouse, some with men's names, all with culinary specialities and other quirks. I can't have anyone in the kitchen while I'm making the cornucopias, I can't have anyone making beaten biscuits. around me, says one of them, Studney, Tempe, Primrose or Jim Allen.

This is a plantation organism, a family and its town, Fairchilds, its houses, servants, climate, seasons, its fair children humming underfoot. Space to reflect is hardwon. As we know. Here is Robbie, married to George, the Fairchild darling, who causes the moon to hang in the sky, striking out on her own. 

Here she was—Robbie, making her way, stamping her feet in the pink Fairchild dust, at a very foolish time of day to be out unprotected. There was not one soul to know she was desperate and angry.

The wedding itself almost vanishes under the tide of people it supports and the preparations they have all made. After the wedding of her second daughter, Ellen Fairchild, wife of Battle Fairchild, reflects on the rarity of time for reflection. She watches the dancing. She tries to encompass the family before her. 

She saw George among the dancers, walking though, looking for somebody too. Suddenly she wished she might talk to George. It was the wrong time—she never actually had time to sit down and fill her eyes with people and hear what they said, in any civilised way. Now he was dancing, even a little drunk, she believed—this was a time for celebration, or regret, not for talk, not ever for talk.

Aunt Ellen is Burt Lancaster as the Leopard, il gattopardo, walking away from the wedding feast of his two fine young people, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. And then, in a deft and glorious pursuit of family exactitude, she continues:

As he looked in her direction, all at once she saw into his mind as if he had come dancing out it leaving it unlocked, laughingly inviting here to the unexpected intimacy. She saw his mind—as if it too were inversely lighted up by the failing paper lanterns— lucid and tortuous: so that any act on his part might be startling, isolated in its very subtlety from the action of all those around him, springing from long, dark, previous, abstract thought and direct apprehension, instead of explainable, Fairchild impulse.

Wednesday 31 August 2022

Jackson Mississippi is my Castle Island

Last year I read Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, on Castle Island, camping at our old spot, in view of the Fastnet rock, seals singing on East Carthy island, a couple of wagtails skimming the rocks, a young gannet under instruction. 

This year I brought Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter. For a few days, her Mississippi is my Castle Island. She spent almost all her life in Jackson, Mississippi. I have spent three days maybe six times camping on the same spot on Castle Island. Nonetheless I live there and I've never left. When I can't sleep I remember the sound of waves at night on Castle Island.  

I wrote the yellow horned poppies on the beach and the sound of one church bell, the first time we came here. One year we were here in a thick August mist, bumping into things like the family in Amarcord. Once we had to haul the canoe over the island waist—Fitzcarraldo comes to Roaringwater Bay—because the wind was too strong. 

We have walked the sheep paths, reconstructed the donkey paths, picked up plastic, timed the Fastnet light, when it comes on and how frequently after that, picked mint outside one of the ruined houses, imagined the island's past and future.

Seals in the bay come to visit. On the last morning, a hare found our tent and stood up in periscope to consider it. The airstream is easterly, like last year. The ground is hard after a dry summer, a hard spring. The first night we sleep badly, then better the second, and better than at home, the third.

Before we started coming to Castle Island we went to the Upper Lake, Killarney, and before that, Derrynane. We left a 5p coin under a stone, as pledge of next year's visit. These have been our summer places for the past 35 years. Living on the ground and staring at the sky, the horizon, cooking on a fire.

The optimist's daughter is a meditation on daughterhood and belonging. Laurel revisits her home turf after the death of her father. She faces his insensitive new young wife of only a year or two. She is met at the station by her six bridesmaids, as they still are although her husband was killed in the war. Six bridesmaids who go on through death and divorce, bridesmaids till death. And the house full of her past.

Firelight and warmth—that was what her memory gave her. Where the secretary was now there had been her small bed, with its railed sides that could be raised as tall as she was when she stood up in bed, arms up to be lifted out.

Her father's new wife has left dribbles of nail varnish on her father's desk. She has emptied drawers. Taken over. The house is hers now. Laurel follows suit, burning letters, abandoning mementoes. The novel is a slow song of taking leave from your old life. Before she leaves, a chimney swift flies from room to room, knocking into things.

It is true that the starkest sense of home is the one you've left. Laurel's mother's 'up home', in the mountains of West Virginia, is the one you live in but hardly know.

A bit like Castle Island.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Stream of sentences: Gerald Murnane

In his introduction to the second edition of Tamarisk Row, Gerald Murnane sets to rights those readers who told him that the chapter 'The Gold Cup is run' is stream of consciousness. It is no such thing, he says.

What is now the last section of the book consists of five very long compound sentences, each comprising a main clause and numerous subordinate clauses, together with a description of part of a horse race.

He writes as a clockmaker, says J.M. Coetzee, a mapmaker, himself; he gives himself up to fiction. 

If you read Gerald Murnane at the right moment, his exactitude becomes dreamlike. There he is, giving himself up to a fiction of 1940s small town Australia, a boy age eight or ten, preoccupied by horse racing, racecourses, jockey colours, marbles, seeing up girls' pants behind tamarisk trees. 

The last time I read Gerald Murnane I was impatient with it. This time, more exténuée, I can keep restarting the race and the betting, Feel the flux of staying in one place. The depth charge. The adult writer reading and re-reading Proust.  

Proustian Australia is poignant. The broken pavé is a milkstone. Discuss. 

Tuesday 16 August 2022

The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter

A flying black beetle got in and stunned itself on the light bulb, then lay on the floor scrambling and unscrambling its legs, as I was reading in the middle of the night. The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter is a coming-of-age tale from the mid nineteenth century. Victor, an orphan, fostered by a sweet woman in a country cottage, at his uncle's command walks to visit him, several days across the land of orchards and mountains, under achingly blue skies, to the island in a lake where his uncle has lived as a recluse for many years, and our young man stays for several weeks as a virtual prisoner. The story unfolds like a state of familial siege from which one slowly breaks free. You know the crusty uncle will relent, and the clean young man will stay clean through thick and thin, grow every day more honorable and fit, and marry sweetly when the time comes, as his uncle had not been able. Adalbert Stifter died by his own hand (a razor to his throat) when he was sixty-three. He was not able either. Which makes The Bachelors an even sweeter, more impossible and desirable book.

Wednesday 10 August 2022

The Birds, Tarjei Vesaas

A book you finish and immediately want to start again is rare. The Birds, by Tarjei Vesaas, is one such. A story from inside Mattis, who lives with his sister Hege beside a lake in Norway, and asks questions. What am I? Why are things the way they are? Why don't you understand what's important, like the flight of the woodcock over the house, the storm that's coming, which tree has been struck by lightning? But can you understand it Hege? 

Hege carries on with her knitting, her lightning fingers working the eight-petalled rose. Her knitting kept them, Kept him. Mattis knew. Mattis and work did not go together. Mattis and Hege, went together. A pair of aspens by a lake. Then Hege and Jørgen. They were the strong and clever ones.

A woodcock flying over the house means change. Mattis knew that. He read their beak marks in the mud. He wrote back. He knew what lightning was, and thunder. The privy was the safe place. Maybe he couldn't thin turnips but he knew where to hide from storms, and he could row straight. 

Mattis becomes a ferryman. A regular job at last. Hege makes him sandwiches. He rows his leaky boat to and fro across the lake. Without passengers.  The boat is so rotten it could hardly take a passenger, but he waits, as Hege instructed, a ferryman must wait.

The only passenger Mattis finds is Jørgen, a lumberjack looking for work. Soon Hege and Jørgen, two of the strong, clever ones, are sweethearts, and Mattis has to look for a solution. The woodcock is dead under a stone, killed by a cocky young hunter. One of the two dead aspen trees in front of the cottage, called Mattis-and-Hege by the locals, is struck by lightning. The question is, which one is Mattis and which one is Hege? Jørgen tries to teach Mattis lumberjacking. Mattis has a dose of amanita mushrooms, so he's flying. The lake is threatened by thunderstorms. The lake, the leaky boat, an unfinished pair of oars, the farther shore, the depths of the lake, a fresh storm, are the answer.

I like reading writers who have stayed put. Tarjei Vesaas spent almost all his life in the same village, in Telemark, southern Norway,  For the cover of The Birds he's pictured with a tabby on his shoulder, and then, for the cover of The Boat in the Evening, which I read next, up at the pond in our next heatwave, he's in low-light profile, with his wife. The Boat in the Evening, the last book Tarjei Vesaas published, has all the understanding he gives Mattis, all the depth and focus, the world stripped down to these and those things, lake, trees, stillness, storms. He needed a simple creature, a simple Simon, to carry a man who is absorbed in his landscape and cannot understand anything beyond it.

All those who now seek to be in the moment, read on. 

Wednesday 27 July 2022


Dear Reader,

I started this blog eight years ago, which makes it mature, even ancient, for a blog. I started because I was curious to know, after thirty years of teaching literature, what I had to say about the books I read now, according to whim, week by week, chosen along my own bookshelves, in bookshops, in my own time. What do I have to say, why do I have to say, now there is no one to say it to? 

As an adolescent, when my diary was young, I listed all the books I read, with a brief comment, like Good, Very Good, Incomprehensible, or Rubbish. A blog —  a resigned, persistent word, like slog, and bog — is a public place with stats and labels and search descriptions, putative readers and pliant, zealous bots from all over, going about their obedient, astral business, day and night. A blog is a format. The diary book, on the other hand, is only what it is, a book, with blank and then written pages. No passwords. No secret language. No algorithm. No one reads it except me. When I was fourteen I wrote with an awareness that someone might read it—my mother, my sister—and created a diligent schoolgirl worried about maths tests. Now I write with only an awareness, if any, of my own re-reading.

I'm aware of who some of my blog readers are, aware of which countries are most active, bots or humans, (USA and Ireland, forays into middle Europe) and that changes things again. Some readers have said that the shifts from one book to another are hard if you don't know the books or the writers. I have a past, I'm liable to change. My bookshelves are many-voiced. I walk up and down waiting for something to strike me. If you had a TV, said a carpenter many years ago, looking at my bookshelves, my records, my esoteric loudspeakers, you wouldn't need any of that. 

I am a creature of habit. I have kept a diary since I was fourteen. Once I have started something (making kefir, making bread, growing vegetables, doing yoga, writing a blog), I find it hard to stop. I read what catches my eye on the bookshelves — this week it was Robert Musil stories—what I come upon in Waterstones—They, by Kay Dick, for example, was prominent last time I looked. I met Kay Dick in Brighton once. I was reading William Gerhardie at the time, bad literature I loved to read after the years I spent with Mallarmé. William Gerhardie is a great writer, said Kay Dick, indignant. Bad is good, I said. 

A review in the New Yorker of a new biography of Jean Rhys makes me want to read her again. Inn the New York Review of Books I read about Henry James returning to America after many years in England, and the waste and vacuity he found there. A sentence from Henry James puts manners and mystery on you. 

There's a swirl of writers in my head at all times, whatever I am doing, going upstairs, picking sugar peas, walking the land, looking out of the window, and that has been the case since my adolescence when I was up to the town library two or three times a week. Reading is like closing your eyes, opening your eyes. You find the book and find your state of mind, a northwest breeze blowing through, whitening the meadow in a dry late summer. 

It's hard to pause a blog, to stay a fermentation. A diary pauses when you finish one and start another, this is a moment all its own, a moment with no momentum, a pause between a set of full pages and a set of empty ones. There's a certain discomfiture in putting pen to paper on the first of a set of empty ones. You can't just dash off your day, you need a few easements, a Mozart piano concerto, the same movement over and over. Proust did that with music, paid a string quartet to play over and over the same air, looking for whatever the music held for him. 

Hermès, once messenger of the gods, now guarantor of lifestyle, has taken out an arcane ad on the back cover of the New Yorker. A prone woman in a swimsuit, bits of sand clinging to her arm, shades most of her face with a tan leather disc in one hand, the other hand under her hair, her lips and chin in the sun, her face averted towards a wooden bowl. These are the Objects for Interior life— and if you understand that, you may well be suffering brain-melt.

It is late afternoon. The Hermès business plan for Interior life meets up, in Inniscarra, with Objects for Exterior life, for example blackcurrants, caterpillars, beetles and lacewings, tiny white moths rising out of the long grass, with kittens running through, then a heavy shower over the meadow in a dry summer. Phew.  

Today, five of us picked and cleaned some twenty pounds of blackcurrants. It was a July day, uncertain and cool. We talked the twenty poundsworth, sorted them into rumtopf best and the rest for jam, wine, blackcurrant cheese or frangipani, observed their quirks and their caterpillars, ate a royal lunch out front, with salad, sushi, beet, the first cucumber, then went for a swim in the reservoir. 

I usually write while listening to music. The music picks up the white July meadow, the shower of rain. The shape of a piano concerto or a string quartet. 

Reading I do in silence. Up at the pond, on the sofa in the new room, before I go to sleep. If I go to sleep, with all this rattling and stretching in my head. 

yrs, etc.


Sunday 17 July 2022

Entangled Reading, Part Two.

Up at the pond in our heatwave, here on the edge of europe, where heatwaves are like harvests, never quite the business, with the intention of reading some pages I wrote about my history of reading, how it came out and what it led to, and reading instead an article in the New Yorker about Making America Hungary Again, at a CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) meeting in Orlando, Florida, followed by another in Hungary. 

I swim now and then, fishing out clumps of parrotweed which have a curious warmth that all healthy predators give off. Then back to Victor Orbán and his useful friends, Finkelbach and O'Sullivan, to name but two, and still more useful enemies, like George Soros. 

It is a sad story of manipulation and contempt, the mythifying of nationhood in the face of oppression, real or endemic. A disturbing picture of what is going on when you think everything (Trumpish) has gone quiet.

My history of reading, rife with privacy and intimacy, with library books and french literature, is suddenly unreadable. 

I rescue a grasshopper from the pond — yesterday a bee. 

Sunday 10 July 2022

Reading in the right place

Reading SHYNESS & DIGNITY by DAG SOLSTAD by a river, on our own, by a bridge, on a perfect July afternoon, watching the small fish swarm and the slightly larger ones face the current, could be in France, could be anywhere by a river in the sunshine with a norwegian book you didn't get into till now, though you gave night room to this teacher of norwegian literature who quit his job and then told his own story, in the framework of Ibsen, his speciality.

On page 56, leaning against the rock, in the flicker of light from the river and the sun speckling the underside of the bridge, I read the narrator's account of his best friend's conversation, his plainspeak which ends up revealing his shyness and his dignity:

Johan Corneliussen expressed his great love of simple sentences, which said no more than they said and where the first segment was identical with the last, and of the revelation he sometimes experienced when time and place panned out in such a way that it was possible to pronounce, with the greatest inevitability and beauty, a sentence such as an open door is an open door.

Saturday 2 July 2022

Knowing what you need to read

Do you need to quit your own life for a while and occupy someone else's, Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, Mrs Brown, Laura? Or do you need to cut through to the frozen sea within, selon Kafka? 

If you ask these questions, you need to read Henri Michaux. 

He takes his words, now yours, to the edge of what you want to say. You read a page or two and put it down, Henri's face staring up at you, égaré, on the front cover of Tent Posts. 

Words have always taken you to the brink. At the brink it's best to weaken and to idle, to know nothing. Michaux pulls back from certitudes even as he seems to set them up. You're contagious to yourself, remember. 

Michaux intensifies. And you, the reader, intensify alongside. 

At the brink there is landscape. Mozart and a meadow late in the day. 

Sunday 26 June 2022

Four loaves, Three lives, Two pairs, One continuum

I made four loaves on a turbulent June day. 

Read The Hours by Michael Cunningham while the loaves proved and then baked. 

Finished it in the afternoon, between half-naps and assorted dreamtimes. 

Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, arranges a party for her dying poet friend. 1990s

Mrs Brown, Laura, makes a birthday cake for her husband, with Bug, her three year-old son. 1940s

Virginia Woolf walks into the river with a large stone in her pocket. 1940s

1920s. Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway. 'The Hours' was the working title. 

Four loaves, four hours. Four nervous showers of rain.

Three lives. Three women. Three eras.

Two pairs. Love and loss. Madness and the ordinary. 

One continuum.

Monday 20 June 2022

Barbara Pym and Natalia Ginzburg in a railway compartment.

Barbara Pym was a girl from Oswestry, Shropshire, of careful decent people, but she roamed Europe in her day, and laid the plans for future novels, before settling in England. Natalia Ginzburg was a girl from Turin, of art/political/activist antecedents; she had several brothers who, she said, didn't leave much room for her to talk, so she learned to be brief. 

I can see them opposite each other in a railway compartment circa 1960.

Barbara would look at Natalia Ginzburg and situate her in the rich tapestry of human life. Maybe too european for one of her characters, sitting by the window looking out, frowning a little, too harsh, or dry, riven by continental truths. Might not see Barbara Pym at all, a cosy Englishwoman abroad. A bullet between the eyes, is Natalia's style. And then hang out the washing. 

Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, Norman and Edwin, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, have lunch in different places, live alone, tend toward mania and avoidance, dye their hair, or not, exhaust their own attention to where they are now, in the autumn of their lives, in the zone of social workers and luncheon vouchers. They end as they began, separately, quietly. 

The Sweet Dove Died is quiet too, elegant, sad, nonchalant, and onward. There's a belief in this english continuum. Cloying and attractive, by turns. The elegant older woman, Leonora, the antique dealer Humphrey and his sweet nephew, James, whom Leonora wishes to trap with silken threads, James's love life, the gentle pursuit of antiques, objects that contain so much more than themselves.

A Few Green Leaves is a portrait of a village in the second half of the twentieth century, the balance tender and amused. Playing a village like an instrument, out of curiosity and kindness. Always a vicar, and several unmarried Misses, an academic couple, a DMV (deserted mediaeval village), jumble sales and flower festivals. 

Barbara Pym is comfortable in her settings, with no difficult questions; this world should continue, there is good will, eventually, through every turn, forgiveness and resignation in equal parts. Natalia Ginzburg is terse, passionate, direct; not inviting any future nor invoking any past. 

I read Barbara Pym on the rocks down at Howe's Strand on a sunny Monday. Last time we went to Howe's Strand I was reading Virginia Woolf, and a group of girls on the little beach in front of us talked loudly and ate Pringles sandwiches, saying they'd go vegan, if anything. This time there was no one, except two plump brothers who came through silently, turned around and went back.

Monday 13 June 2022

Natalia Ginzburg

I've been reading Natalia Ginzburg. The Dry Heart and The Road to the City. Short novels of northern Italy in the nineteen fifties, young women on a cusp, thinking to be loved and maybe to love, to have a house in the city, a man, a baby, some furnishings, gadgets, an embroidery basket. Natalia Ginzburg is dry and quick. I like her sentences. They anchor you drily in a blustery week.

My father has been a country doctor at Maona for over twenty years. He is a tall, stout, slightly lame old man who uses a cherry-wood cane for walking. In summer he wears a straw hat with black ribbon around it and in winter a beaver cap and overcoat with a beaver collar. My mother is a tiny woman with a thick mass of white hair.  

I like her seventeen year-old girl walking the road to the city, coming to terms with how it is, how all along you have loved Nini your half-cousin who will die, and there you'll be, suddenly, in this unexpected life, with or without a husband or a child, none of your expectations come to fruition, just this onwardness and silence. Vous êtes sur terre, c'est sans remède.

For a girl at seventeen in the nineteen-fifties there was no interlude in which you might study, or travel, there was only life ahead, a version of the lives around, and the question of love, whether you would or anyone would love you, this bare, unattractive you who is suddenly, every day, unleashed on the world. 

On page one of The Dry Heart, a teacher/mother/wife shoots her husband between the eyes; she narrates it as if about to hang out the washing. When her baby dies of meningitis, she throws out all the baby's things. 

We're stupid and don't know what we really want when we're young. Life runs away with us before we know what it's all about.

When I was 17 or 23 life was not running away with me. Au contraire. Life hadn't arrived at all. I was still reading the label on the honey jar as I ate my toast in the morning. I was not thinking of a husband, a house or children. I was thinking of the obverse of all that, whatever it turned out to be. I had no expectations. No image. There's a freedom in hardly seeing past the end of your nose, in either direction. 

Saturday 4 June 2022

Search Description for QUICK SERVICE by P.G.WODEHOUSE

Quick Service by P.G. Wodehouse is in a world of its own, mid-Atlantic, mid-twentieth century, English country houses and butlers, a choice of cars if you wanted to go to London, a choice of crass and crusty older men and unexpectedly lively young men, the English class system in operation, the shift of money from one generation to the next, a few steps sideways, a meeting by the moat, or in The Gardenia Tea Shoppe for a dozen strategic teas and buns, add an imperious mid-atlantic matron, a few games of craps with the stable boys, a slip of a thing, a poor relation, Miss Fairmile who goes the country mile to the future head of the Art Department at J.B Duff's Magnificent Hams, currently J.B. Duff's valet, yours truly Joss Weatherby, artist, who, lovely as it is beside the moated manor house in perpetual summer, would be happy with a gasworks in Jersey City, if only Miss Fairmile, Sally, were beside him, she was the blossom along the bough.

Nothing better to read if you feel in any way fragile or uncertain. 

Tuesday 31 May 2022

Virginia Woolf in Whitechapel: writing about dogs

 J.R. Ackerley's Tulip led me to Virginia Woolf's Flush, A Biography, which I can nearly imagine her taking up on a whim after the ardours of The Waves. Elizabeth Barrett's dog Flush, who drank from a purple dish and slept on a sofa at Miss Barrett's feet, kept Virginia Woolf in her own territory, if a hundred years earlier. Flush lived in Wimpole Street, and, as we learn, 'as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilisation is secure'. However, Flush is not secure if he is not on a chain when Miss Barrett goes shopping. And one day, on an errand in Vere Street, she forgot. 

In the 1840s, Mr Taylor and his society of thieves made a living from Wimpole Street dogs and other valuables. Flush was a pedigree spaniel, with all the right points on top of his head and around his paws. If the Barretts did not pay six guineas, this pedigree head and these pedigree paws would arrive in Wimpole street in a bloody package the very next day.

The description of Flush's days in Whitechapel occupies about one fifth of this short book. He is in a chill, damp, low, dark room, with broken chairs and a tumbled mattress.

Great boots and draggled skirts kept stumbling in and out. Flies buzzed on scraps of old meat that were decaying on the floor. Children crawled out from dark corners and pinched his ears. He whined, and heavy hand beat him over the head. He cowered down on the few inches of damp brick against the wall. Now he could see that the floor was crowded with animals of different kinds. Dogs tore and worried a festering bone that they had got between them. Their ribs stood out from their coats — they were half famished, dirty, diseased, uncombed, brushed; yet all of them, Flush could see, were dogs of the highest breeding, chained dogs, footmen's dogs, like himself.

Rebecca West wrote that this was not one of VW's best books, and it isn't. But here is Virginia Woolf, who walked London, who went to live in Bloomsbury from Hyde Park Gate, which was a déclassé move in the 1920s, writing from her walks in still less salubrious parts of London in a still less salubrious era nearly a hundred years earlier. I wonder what she read for her picture of teeming people living above cattle and pigs. Mayhew's London, perhaps. 

Flush ends his days in Italy. The worst he suffers is mange, and a lion cut to relieve his itching in the heat. 

Six months after the publication of Flush she and Leonard take a trip to Ireland, 'this downtrodden land'. Galway, for example, had two great bookshops and is 'otherwise wild, poor, sordid'. Wherever they go they tend to meet people who accept them as 'their sort', some indeed who encourage the Woolfs to come and live in Ireland.

No, it wouldn't do living in Ireland, in spite of the rocks & the desolate bays. It would lower the pulse of the heart;: & all one's mind wd. run out in talk.
We (P & I) have lately become citizens of Ireland, after very long sojourns and quite a bit of talk, as well as swathes of private silence in the oasis we have created. 'This downtrodden land' is today the 4th richest by GDP in the OECD, richer than America, technically. As unequal as ever, but in new ways. Still talking roundly. 

VW is much taken with Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 
However I can give no notion of the flowing, yet formed sentences, the richness & ease of the language; the lay out, dexterity & adroitness of the arrangement ... Talk is to her an intoxicant, but there is ... something heartless about the I(rish); quite cold indifferent sarcastic, for all their melody, their fluency, their adorable ease and forthcomingness. She was very much on the spot, accurate, managing, shrewd, hard headed, analytic. Why aren't these people the greatest novelists in the world?
'Everything is the proper stuff of fiction' said Virginia Woolf. Flush, a pedigree spaniel, as much as Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 

Thursday 26 May 2022

My father and myself, My dog Tulip, J.R. Ackerley,

J.R. Ackerley, as he appears in My father and myself, is a polite and questing son, investigating the complicated lives of his father, known as the Banana King. It took him half a lifetime to piece together his father's exploits, his relationships, his children, his early life with louche semi-aristocrats. J.R. Ackerley devotes many pages to his own awkward and unsatisfied love life, (even the phrase, 'love life'  has an optimism his life didn't match). He was a homosexual who didn't like the word, who never found his Ideal Friend, his formulation for the boy (beautiful, working-class) he sought through hundreds in his life (1896 - 1968), at least not until he stopped sifting through boys and acquired a pedigree Alsatian bitch he called Queenie in life, and Tulip in the extraordinary book he wrote about her.

Where he might appear circumspect and even prudish in his trawl through his father's life and his own, when it came to Tulip, he said it all. The politeness of his writing style, echoing his social style, allowed him to investigate this Ideal Friend, to provide for her happiness in any way he could, most particularly her sex life. He wanted her to mate, with the right dog, to know (as he hadn't, we suppose) the joy of sex, and procreation, which he certainly didn't. He follows each coming into heat, twice a year, evokes the opening of the vagina, the heating of the vulva. 

In the event, canine relations were already denatured in the 1950s and 1960s, as now, pedigree did not easily mate with pedigree. Quite how complex it is you may not want to know, but Joe Ackerley spells it out. A mongrel made it through to Tulip/Queenie who had a litter of eight puppies, not the triumph of pedigree and cherishing he had imagined, but he gave them every care, at the expense of his bourgeois flat in Putney. 

I am not at all a dog person. But I was riveted. Here was fulfilment. Not to be denied. Tulip draws from Joe a lyricism that nothing in his own life could match. I read both books in a few days, labouring under a cold following a party last weekend in a chilly May breeze, dozing now and then in the new room, the dozing room. 

The opening sentence of My father and myself, 'I was born in 1896 and my parents were married 1919' sets the frame for Joe's investigations into his family, conducted with a graciousness neither apologetic nor judgemental, nor even exactly sad. It is a gift to tell a history how you have found it, with the language you have learned to use for other purposes, ( J. R. Ackerley was for many years literary editor of The Listener).

Whatever sadness and desolation follows on from his quest to know the history of his father, and his family, Queenie/Tulip redresses all. Not many can do as much.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Dime-Store Alchemy

A relief to read Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic. Each page a box. Bottomless. Yet you move on. There are other boxes, other pages to be composed. Other objects waiting to come together. Joseph Cornell compiled his boxes over years, the compositions reducing as he reduced, less and less taking on more and more space. A box, a page, a resting place, Hôtel Beau-Séjour, Hôtel des Etrangers, Hotel du Nord. "You have no secrets from your insomnia," says the sign at the entrance to the hotel at the end of the world.

Charles Simic has a feeling for Joseph Cornell's boxes, and writes as a friend would. He was walking the streets of New York, he says, at around the same time Joseph Cornell did. They could have passed each other. Certain artists, certain writers, inspire this kind of affectionate co-identity. If you like what someone makes or writes, you feel you know them intimately, even, for the time of looking, or the time of reading, you have become that person. Each page of this book is either in direct reference to Joseph Cornell or in the spirit of his serendipity, his assemblages.

New Yorkers assemble their own New York. Londoners their own London. All of us assemble, and disassemble, the pages of our past. I have always had a liking for glass jars, the larger ones became repositories for the small treasures of my youth; they are still intact in the attic. The artist Robin Winters had a collection of hatboxes; and a collection of glass jars. Artists and writers feel a need to contain things, and for those things, in many cases, to take a long time to come together. 

The intimacy and charm of a Joseph Cornell box and a Charles Simic page is that you engage with their choices and supplement them with your own. He suggests that perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes is to place them on the floor and lie down beside them.

It is not surprising that child faces stare out of the boxes and that they have the dreamy look of children at play. Theirs in the happy solitude of a time without clocks when children are masters of their world. Cornell's boxes are reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. They are inviting us, of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again.

His final boxes, Charles Simic remarks, are nearly empty, as final boxes should be. 

Emptiness, this divine condition, this school of metaphysics. 
A small white ball 
In a bare, whitewashed room 
With a QUIET sign.

Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no.  Says Charles Simic. 

Friday 13 May 2022

Reading in hospital: E.M.Forster and Virginia Woolf

In Room 19 at the Bon Secours hospital, known as the Bons, with a large magnolia outside the window—one of the oldest trees in Cork, said the woman who came to disinfect the room—over a hundred years old, it's fablous isn't it, fablous—I have two books, The Collected Short Stories of E.M. Forster and The Haunted House, stories by Virginia Woolf. 

I started E.M. Forster in the Medical Assessment Unit, amid bleepers out of sync with each other, cubicle to cubicle, interruptions and diagnoses in the offing. I couldn't read, but needed to be turning the pages. Next day, I read them again, sitting by the window, young magnolia leaves run through with weather I couldn't see, with the road I couldn't see either, only people's feet as they walked by, and a fly on the outside I'd let in if I could, for a bit of life, but the window doesn't open. No flies in the horsepiddle, please.

But I can have fauns and sirens, other kingdoms, hollow trees, the other side of the hedge. I can ride a celestial omnibus driven by Sir Thomas Browne for the journey before dawn, Dante for the journey after sunset. A young boy who believes in dreams and signposts To Heaven  until he's whacked back into nursery tea and common sense. Fellow-traveller is Mr Bons, of this hospital, perhaps, who was found dead next day in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works.

E.M. Forster wants his systems and dichotomies, his frustration, his Table of Precedency. Underlying all that he wants a Sicilian diver naked on a rock, crossing himself before diving into the blue waters of Capri to rescue a precious notebook on the Deist Controversy.

Few things have been more beautiful than my notebook on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge.

All this makes me want Virginia Woolf who wants a quiet chair and a mark on the wall. From there she contemplates 'those real standard things'. 'What an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses. Nothing is proved. Nothing is known.' The real standard things, she offers, are men. 

Men, perhaps, should you be a woman: the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which established Whitaker's Table of Precedency, which has become, I suppose, since the war, half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin, where the phantoms go, the mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell, and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom — if freedom exists ...

Near the beginning of 'The Mark on the Wall', freedom exists, exults. 

Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour —landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one's hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels, in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse.

E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries. I find myself in hospital with one each of their books. I read Virgnia Woolf often, she is . E.M. Forster very rarely, and then usually 'The Celestial Omnibus'. I get on a bus at sunrise or sunset, talk to Dante and Sir Thomas Browne. I have a return ticket after all. Virginia Woolf is there when I get back.

The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane ... I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interpreted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with is hard separate facts. To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes ...

Signed: Virginia Woolf, and me.

Friday 6 May 2022

The woman in the dunes, Kobo Abe

Up at the pond, reading Woman in the dunes by Kobo Abe, and, a while before I've finished, the book comes back already in the series of stances, defences you need in the face of moving sand. You have to read according to the philosophy of sand and holes. An entomologist, Niki Jumpei, finds himself trapped in a house with a woman, unnamed, who spends all night shovelling sand, to protect her house and the village. The rope ladder he descended when he first arrived, looking for somewhere to stay for the night, is removed. He's a prisoner who must shovel sand at the bottom of a shifting dune.

Up at the pond I sing the song of the sands. A leaf with new life propels itself along the bottom of the pond. A caddis fly larva wrapped in a hawthorn leaf moves through the pond forest. 

I'm turning Japanese I really think so.

A story set in sand is a philosophy, like Camus or Kafka, you can read it anywhere and in any order. The ground, the walls, shift constantly. Find a sand dune up at the pond. Spit out sand. Bathe your sand fever. Take a short dip. Check the tadpoles. Plan your escape. Fail again. Fail better. Dance an internal tango of the sand dune and the pond.

Around page 183 a piece of paper fell out of my new-last-week copy, published by Penguin Modern Classics, with a message:

Life itself is the Supreme Guru; be attentive to its lesson and obedient to its commands. Monday JUNE 1st.

Is there someone who goes around bookshops inserting short texts into random volumes? Now there's an idea. From Woman in the dunes I could select my texts. Less supreme guru, more sand. More down to earth eternity. For example:

The beauty of sand, in other words, belonged to death. It was the beauty of death that ran through the magnificence of its ruins and its great power of destruction.


Sand not only flows, but this very flow is the sand. 

You yourself become sand. You see with the eyes of the sand. Once you're dead you don't have to worry about dying any more. 
I saw the film of Woman in the dunes when I was twenty, the grain of the film the sand of its subject, the erotics of sand, the dampness at the heart of the desert, on the edge of town. A one way ticket to the blues. Escape is the same as staying put, once you've found fresh water deep in the sand. When the rope ladder is let down again, he doesn't escape.

Only the man who obstinately hangs on to a round-trip ticket can hum with real sorrow a song of the one-way ticket.

Wednesday 27 April 2022

The Illiterate, Agota Kristof

The start of The Illiterate by Agota Kristof fits my case.

I read. It is like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children's books. Everything in print.

Growing up I read the back of the cornflakes packet, the fru grain tin, insects in the long grass, the back of my hand.

I am four years old. The war has just begun.

 How do you become a writer? she asks. 

First of all, naturally, you must write. Then, you must continue to write. Even when it doesn't interest anyone.

A slim book in the Spring is worth double. Birch are in their early green. The dark night of the soul is over. 

If ever.

There's room in a spare tale for all of us. Reading Agota Kristof makes me write as she does. There are a thousand entrances on every page. We can all settle in with our own bare bones. 

One kind of writing exists because, for various reasons, there is no one to say it to. ( Ruskin)

Friday 22 April 2022

Anne Redmon, Music and Silence

Music and Silence I bought for its title in 1980. A ticket to Talking Heads in Radio City Music Hall, Sunday Nov O2 1980, was left between the pages. Anne Redmon, the author, is not available on google except for a few copies of her books from the usual sources. One Kirkus Review about a promising writer in 1978. Somewhere I found a photo of a large, smiling woman, and could see her in a shabby but warm flat near Victoria, which is where much of the novel is set.

The novel is a women's two-hander, one Music and the other, Silence, with a lurking religious fanatic, a maestro of the cello and his handsome wife and a couple of other small male parts, plus Italian and Spanish outreach and social chill. Duty, patience, not quite regret. Polite disquiet. Walking into your plot with your umbrella furled. There are alternating chapters, silence then music, with the religious fanatic waiting in the wings and the cello maestro, Alba, listening to music and occasionally playing.

This time, Alba sat back and well and truly listened. I cannot describe how he did this—I only know that the effect was extraordinary. It was as if his ear was firmly braced down under me; it was as if all my life I had been a trapeze dancer without a net; he spread his consciousness low to catch me. 

The music pages sang. The structure ached a bit, like an old bed in Casa Grande, Portugal, the Blue Room. The ending will have to be surprising and hence not surprising at all. The novel travels on her own two feet. 

I prefer dreams, which are inconsequential and relentless. It all turns on a blush and a pile of photographs, a tumble drier and a coffee cup left in a broken wall at the bottom of the hill. You wake up and bask all over again. 

Saturday 16 April 2022

Reading in Portugal

For the first few days in Portugal I read nothing, stunned by being in another country after three years. All I could do was read the flowers, the orchids on the coastal path, the waves on the beach, the surfers on and under and among, long-legged dogs digging holes in the sand and then lying in them, a five year-old girl playing ringmaster with her younger brother who is now a cat, now a tiger. 

I brought Bohumil Hrabal but he is not good for beaches. I read, on the first page of Too Loud A Solitude, his wonderful sentences about how books spread through the sensibility of reader, and that was enough.

Because when I read I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

I turned to Anne Carson. Poetry is easier, slighter and deeper. The poem arrives from nowhere and disappears without trace. Understanding also disappears without trace, into the sand, into the sea. Everything, by then, is between the lines.

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to be to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you. Candor is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has to get itself woven out somewhere.

In the local supermarket I picked up a few cards. I read them over and over and absorbed the social and animal needs of southwestern anglo Portugal in 2022.

Carole Perrin, Magnetizer/Energetician. Quantum Therapy. Energy Treatment.

Wild Soul Alice, Wild Soul Healing, Reiki, Sound Healing, Yin Yoga. 100% Pure Oils.

Else, Private Chef, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. Fingerfood & Cocktails, a unique culinary experience in the comfort of your (holiday) home.

Svenja, Happy Buddy Dog Therapist, following the principles of living in a pack. Sensibility, Communication, Understanding, Positive Intensification. The key for a happy relationship.

Noah Balulis, Creative Writer.

Along the way, mostly at night, I read John Williams' Nothing but the night, trying to overlook the overwriting. A young person's book can be fresh, but this one is laboured, all descriptions are multiple. I only have to see an 'and' between epithets and I start to groan.

From the orchestra stalls at a rare surfer-less beach, I started reading Fleur Jaeggy again. I am the brother of XX. The stories are short. The sentences are sharp. We're always being jolted to a stop. There's no satisfaction to be had. That's fine by me. The satisfaction is all out there, in the waves & the sun. There is calm amid a vague stealthy disquietude. 
It's nice to sit on a bench and think, with a feeling of reciprocity, of the void.
Fleur Jaeggy knows the void like the back of her hand, like her pocket. She drops the start of a story like a small bomb.

The pain her son had caused her by choosing to die on a day in spring was less than she had expected. He is happy now, she said. And she herself felt almost relived. She would have liked to die that way. 
This story is called 'The Perfect Choice'. The son in question was sickly and suffered from insomnia.
The only son had become so tired he no longer cared about insomnia. He didn't even notice. He stayed up all night, it seemed to him that he had a great deal to do, in the doing of nothing.

The beach is like that. There is a great deal of nothing to do, watching walls of water best each other like children. A kite man is high above the beach, sitting under his sail like an early aviator. He has no mission except staying up there and then coming down when he chooses and moving to another beach.

Sunday 27 March 2022

Together and Apart, Virginia Woolf

A writer sketching a recent encounter, weighing it, palping it, taking a print. That's where I want to be at the end of the day. With Virginia Woolf at her writing board, thinking through recent moments. That's what grounds me in the middle of the night. Moments of Being. No candles lit. Conversations and their mycelium.

Mrs Dalloway introduced them, saying you will like him. The conversation began some minutes before anything was said, for both Mr Serle and Miss Anning were looking at the sky and in both of their minds the sky went on pouring its meaning ...

Everything pours its meaning before a departure. I have been more focused on what to read in Portugal than on what I'm reading here. Bohumil Hrabal, Fleur Jaeggy and one of the Penguin Modern Poets have made it to the pile so far.

Monday 21 March 2022

Virginia Woolf & Jim Jarmusch

An unwritten novel suits my moment. We are talking to people in Tramore Valley Park, where the city dump used to be. We are professional conversationalists in a sharp March wind, putting a pause in the day. 

Virginia Woolf on the train between Victoria and Rodmell, observes her fellow passenger and sketches the novel they might become. Minnie Marsh and James Moggridge. The creatures who grow out of her carriage companions.

If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, It's you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it's you I embrace, you I draw to me — adorable world!

Virginia Woolf with her folded newspaper on the train, imagining the world, imagining a novel. Compassionate, fascinated, human scrutiny. Fellow-travellers in every sense. Maybe the breath of something larger than their own circle.

Inside Virginia Woolf. On a train between London and Sussex. Sitting with her writing board in the evening, smoking roll-ups and pulling the day into focus. She wrote a diary, and letters, she wrote novels and sketches of novels. Sitting on the train with a newspaper to protect you, you can try out whoever is in your carriages. Imagine them. Move them on at your own whim. If this isn't a story it is a trial of the novel-bearing muscle.

Jim Jarmusch, criticised by Nicholas Ray for his film being uneventful, went away and made it even less eventful. Nicholas Ray praised him for being so obstinate.

Saturday 12 March 2022

James Salter is out on a limb

Everyone is out on a limb if it comes to that. James Salter writes about people who spend a lot of time in restaurants, in apartments. Hardly anyone is outdoors. Relationships are there to be undermined, and indoors is better for that. His writing is male and white and suave and heartbroken, stylish and succinct. Every crevasse is slim and bottomless. I read him when in need of that kind of calm. Vivian Gornick said he was writing the same stories at the end of his life as he had at the beginning and that he wrote about people remote from most lives; and all that is true. 

The story of M, who has worked down at the city dump—now recycling—for 40 years, his norrie aggression, his tribal/territorial stance, is also remote from most lives, even though, as they throw out hoovers and microwaves and soft toys, they are part of it, unwritten. They know their roles and they go home pleased. They have done the right thing. They are insiders even as they discard.

The stories of James Salter, born James Arnold Horowitz, hypnotised by the social unease beneath social ease, by the ease of silky flesh, especially in the small of the back, his caviar with silver spoons, expensive wine and extra vodka, his pugs and deerhounds, his starry skies and silky flesh, his female characters' silky flesh, his community is exclusive and fragile, and, in truth, not even his. 

The city dump is now a park. Good citizens discard microwaves and hoovers, cables cut so that no one can claim malfunction if they take a machine away. It's all about insurance, says M. He's defiant and fatalistic and triumphant. He has a community and they'll back him up. Along the perimeter fence of the recycling, M and the others have attached teddy bears. They have a sign up: THE CUDDLY TOY HEAVEN WALK. Children are terrified, apparently, all these soft toys pinioned to the fence with plastic ties. 

Friday 4 March 2022

Odessa Stories, Isaac Babel

I can barely read Isaac Babel. I am turning the pages but only certain words are coming forward, action words like bleeding, shouting, pleading, running, tearing, choking, blowing, boiling, like the sunset. 

I picked up the book because of Putin, because of my history, because I remember at Liverpool Street Station late at night in the 1960s, Ukrainian nationalists would meet and shout. 

What can you do when someone starts a war? You can read something from the history of that place. 

I've tried to read Isaac Babel before, jewish street life in Odessa in 1905, the year Einstein, in Bern, thought up his theory of relativity. He was well placed, well displaced, Einstein, for relativity. Isaac Babel was well-placed for fiction, at a distance from the life of his stories.

The streets, the tribe, was the real life, that's to say, fiction. But at the same time you had to pass exams, you had to excel if you were a jew. Fight or excel. Scamp or scholar. Stories were the currency of the life you didn't quite live. 

It was only when I started the second half of Odessa Stories that I started reading: a wider sweep than these here pages.  

'The Story of my Dovecote' opens the Childhood and Youth section. A nine-year-old wants a dovecot. He must earn it by passing exams. By excelling at exams. Since there are only two places for jews at secondary school. He excels, his uncle makes a dovecot, he goes into town for the doves. A pogrom is in progress. The nine year-old is beaten with his own doves, who die. 

I walked down an unfamiliar street cluttered with white boxes, walked alone, adorned in bloody feathers, down pavements swept as clean as if it were Sunday, and wept more bitterly, fully and joyously than I ever would weep again in all my life. 

Thursday 24 February 2022

Anne Carson, The H of H Playbook

For some years I have bought anything Anne Carson produces. Slow burners all. For a while the book is around, opened and closed. Examined but not read. Atoms are exchanged. Float, her box of leaflets, and red.doc, whose columns of text were originally a keyboard misstep. The afterlife of reading them echoed by the pre-life of having them in the room.

The H of H Playbook reminds me of my early presentation of my own poems, roughly chopped up typed text badly stuck into a supermarket school exercise book, lined, what's more. It doesn't show much respect for your own work, someone said. All of which was dizzying. 

Anne Carson's varying sizes of cut-out text on distressed backgrounds with bloody memories, line drawings (her own) and some torn pages. A triumph of disrespect, hardback, printed in China, full of dissonance and anachronism. Her second translation of Euripides' play, if translation is still the right word this far out from land, leaves a reader as embattled as Heracles during his Labours, and as wearied. Have two and half thousand years of histories brought us to this?

You look weary, I said to the lad at the checkout the other day. You mean tired? he asked. 

We are so weary we have all but lost the word.

As I turned the pages of the H of H Playbook, the collage of cut-outs and drawings and blotches, finely smoothed with classy creamy paper, an experience of turning pages for its own sake, interspersed with some turns of phrase I'd read off any page, at any time.

After an event like a killing he always needs to go to sleep, then he'll wake up feeling that cold clear thing he hates and it will be strange for a while and then he'll see. 

What Anne Carson has translated from Euripides is how we talk about seeming-inevitabilities. Some distressing silences. As she says, a glacier is silence until it snaps. How we dismiss the heroic and press NORMAL on the washing machine for the nth time. Have a sandwich. Take over from Atlas holding up the sky while he has a sandwich. If he doesn't come back, we'll just let go.

Thursday 17 February 2022

Entangled Reading

I sleep so badly that the night has become a poorly cropped field with tangled patches of woodland where, if the gods are good and the leaf-fall honest, I might enter a glade of a dream with a cabin in it and maybe a stream and a semblance of lightly-gardened order. The reading I do during the day is a diurnal version of that field, those tangles and glades and maybe a cabin if I turn the page. I can't stay long with any book; the cabin is elusive and maybe the door is locked and the garden grown over. The pages of Books of Jacob, back in 18th century central europe in the murky jewish soul; and Entangled Life, the study of mycelium by the wonderfully-named Merlin Sheldrake, who maybe should be writing about dragons—or maybe is—intermingle and coalesce into a cracky exhaustion. 

In the afternoon I lie down on the floor and look at random pages of The Red Shoes by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, a series of fragments from putative tales, an unbuttoned lexicon, as tattered as my consciousness. None of it takes. I do not sleep. The pages are the undergrowth. Already brambles are poking out and rooting anew.

For all this fragmentation there is a strange, tight identity to these days, the push of an emotional mycelium that, on encountering an obstacle, simply bifurcates and continues on its way. Even the new shoot of a bramble splits into two before seizing the next bit of ground.

Sunday 6 February 2022

Bambi, Felix Salten, Walt Disney

Most people over a certain age do not need to be reminded of what happens in Bambi, Walt Disney's film of 1942, voted 20 in the list of all-time horrors. The death of Bambi's mother. The hunter hunted. Blood in woodland glades. 'We were all there bawling, me and my mum and brothers and sisters.'

I haven't seen the film but the book by Felix Salten was given to me on my seventh birthday, along with Wind in the Willows and Fairy Tales From the Balkans; seven was the start of books with more words than pictures. Felix Salten was a strange name, I thought, even then. Something uncomfortable. The stopped leap of a deer in a meadow.

Bambi in its English translation has come out of a difficult copyright history and been re-translated. I read a New Yorker story about the Bambi complex and Walt Disney's film, who Felix Salten was and what his story meant. 

Bambi was banned in Nazi Germany. Was it a the tale of precious deer and woodland glades He stalked with his third arm? Or a tale of Jews and fascism in the early twentieth century? 

Felix Salten was born Siegfried Satzmann, a new Viennese jew out of Austro-Hungary. He is now most famous for a porn novel he wrote, Josefine Mutzenbacher; or, The Story of Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, which has never been out of print. It occupies 'much the same place in the Salten oeuvre as his homage to carpets: the one that lies at the intersection of ambition, graphomania, and penury', says the New Yorker.

All this was new to me. Felix Salten came down from the bedroom bookshelf, his strange name intact. He will go back altered. I read it in two days, the thick soft pages interspersed with Colour Plates. There are no chapters in Bambi, only line drawings and Colour Plates, with titles such as ' The sweet smell of the meadow made Bambi wildly happy', and, 'For a while Bambi and old stag walked together in silence'. A rhythm of its own. Ecstasy and companionship. 

Phrases like 'Can't you stay by yourself' became the entire bent of my early youth. Images of nature and seasons I plundered for an essay competition organised by Maldon Town Council when I was fourteen: seed pods perched innumerable on the fine tips of the branches, tender and firm and resolute. I learned the intimacy of a woodland glade, the crackle of dead leaves and twigs, the brushing of grasses, dappled light, myriad voices, buds stretched like fists into the sky.

I won a book token for fourteen and six for my essay on A Walk in Maldon.

Why would I be interested in someone else's story? said Johan, his own unsaid story bristling out of him. We bumped into him and Ellie outside Atkins' Farm Shop. We were buying hen food and Ellie was going back to Holland, after ten years in Ireland.

Because in someone else's story you can find whatever Bono was looking for. You can recognise yourself.