Sunday 30 January 2022

The Books of Jacob

A very long book sits in your life like an accidental landscape you inhabit when you choose. I inhabit The Books of Jacob, its pages numbered backward, in homage to hebrew, every day or two. There are good reading days and poor, distracted ones. Either way the reader joins the mesh of the book, which is as variously produced as the bible: voices upon voices, suppositions, myths, reports, enquiries, responses, with a few illustration pauses, as with Sebald and others. 

Reading the books of Jacob meshes with the rest of my life. I am an onlooker, commentator, an unwitting, hoodwinked member of the tribe. I enjoy the digressive testimonials of people. I'm not sure who they are, and they don't know me either. I like the polysyllabic names; clutches of consonants have a way of settling the nerves, especially in winter. 

Today I read an exchange of letters between Elżbieta Drużbacka and Father Chmielowski. Elżbieta writes of bread and mushrooms, querns and looms. Father Chmielowski writes of learning and freedom.

You, my Friend, are completely free in what You write, while I must stand on the Foundations of that which has already been written. You draw from the Imagination and the Heart, scrupulously reach into Your Feelings and Your Fantasies as tho' into a purse, and scatter gold Coins all around You, where they gleam, luring the Masses. I contribute Nothing of my own, merely citing and compelling. I mark my sources very carefully, which is why I place throughout a sort of 'Teste', which advises the Reader to go and see for himself in the Mother Book, to note how Information weaves together, gathering across the Centuries.

Sunday 23 January 2022

The Gate of Horn & The Gate of Ivory, Bessie Golding,

I've been reading The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, which is, as its 900 pages suggest, a major investment both of time and memory. Even to say I remember the vast zone of jewishness that the book explores, is inaccurate. Rather it pulls into one volume everything I've ever absorbed, whether it might be my father saying he would take The Jewish War by Josephus as his chosen book for the desert island (I suspected he was showing off); or some of the stories of Borges in which he draws on aspects of jewish mysticism; as well as a general mist of wailing and wryness that constitutes my rarely exercised sense of being jewish. 

All this, while compelling and mind-stretching, leaves this reader in need of something way shorter and quieter, a compass for a moment in the afternoon, no more. I read the first line of Bessie Golding's poem 'The Gate of Horn & The Gate of Ivory' in The New Yorker, and I was immediately where I wanted to be. 'Somewhere I read that music was invented to confirm human loneliness'. The second line, even more so. 'But from the same source I learned that truth disappears in the telling of it.' And the fourth and fifth lines: '–the same way a mad raving/might come in through the same door of the mind as a profound equilibrium'.

And there I was, in January, famously difficult northern hemisphere January, month of our birthdays and at best an eerie gentleness with almost no weather at all, reading a short piece of writing that led me along a well-known but rare version of myself and my reading. With each line, each thought in the poem, I found confirmation, yes, this is where I live too, in a bottomless rush of what Bessie Golding calls pathological sourcing, trying to establish where things come from, which door they came through in the first place, the door of fulfilment or the door of deception. As she says, nothing just comes in and sits down. Except the reader, one January afternoon. 

Friday 14 January 2022

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead,

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a story of a crone alone in the countryside, barrelling the world along in her own way, with her own crone certainties. Olga Tokarczuk's Creature, Mrs Duszejko,  follows the movements of planets, observes her patch as a countrywoman should. Her neighbours are Bigfoot and Oddball, her friends are Goodnews and Dizzy. She teaches, sometimes, English. She mourns the loss of her Little Girls, her two dogs, whom the hunters have killed. She weeps often. And she says what she pleases to whom she pleases. She likes her capital letters, her freedom and her William Blake (from whose writing the title of the book comes).  

Mrs Duszejko lives in northwest Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, in a village where the local saint is commemorated by hunters. The priest, Father Rustle, is a hunter too. The Animals will make their voices heard, she says. Mrs Duszejko is listening out for the Animals. And weeping for her two dogs. She makes her voice heard against the hunters, against ownership and insensitivity. She speaks out to the priest.

'Why do you weep?' he asked in that strange impersonal priest's slang, in which they say 'trepidation' instead of 'fear', 'attend' instead of 'take notice', 'enrich' instead of 'learn' and so on. But not even that could stop me. I went on crying. /My Dogs have gone missing', I said at last. /It was a winter afternoon. Gloom was already pouring into the dayroom through the small windows, and I couldn't see the expression on his face./' I understand your pain', he said after a pause. 'But they were just animals.'/ 'They were my loved ones. My family. My daughters.'/ Please do not blaspheme', he bristled. ' You cannot speak of dogs as daughters. Don't weep any more. It's better to pray — that brings relief in suffering.'

Later she derides the priest's sermon, in which he blesses the hunters and all their works, as nonsense and not fit for the ears of children. 'Hey you, she says, get down from there'. She is ejected from the chapel. The pleasure and fury of Olga Tokarczuk, as agent of the intimate fiction of Mrs Duszejko, is palpable. She is having her say. She makes me think of various women I know, including myself, especially at this time of day, nearly dark, a bird outside hitting the pitch for the end of the day, with Chopin Nocturnes on the Stereo. I will read some William Blake. Have a look at Moby Dick. The right-hand pages only. 

Thursday 6 January 2022

Deborah Levy and Fay Weldon

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Real Estate is a living autobiography (what is a dead autobiography?) Deborah Levy has read her Bachelard and her Duras, she has seen her Godard and her Bergman. If you are going to glide by Rilke and Eluard, Bachelard, Heidegger and André Breton, in London, India, Paris and Greece, you need a carefully made hardback book with the right weight of paper and large type, a slightly rounded spine, red cover, very matte. The eponymous real estate turns out to be her own books, after much thought and cross-reference in great locations deftly described and dreamed of. Well-managed anxieties. Well-phrased questions. Is a woman steering her high horse, with desires of her own, likeable? Brave statements about pain. Well-placed quotation towards eventual uplift.

Puffball by Fay Weldon

I need to look at Fay Weldon after Deborah Levy. A paperback, her pages ready to be bent back as you read on the train, or with a cup of coffee in the kitchen. In Puffball, the only woman steering her high horse is Fay Weldon, the author, and she isn't likeable. In the seventies and eighties being unlikeable, especially if you were in advertising, was the way forward. Fay Weldon chivvies her characters into the story she has devised for them. She's brash and sardonic, gruffly compassionate at the last, an ineffectual witch after all.

Liffey was a candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner's shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.

Deborah Levy grew up in South Africa. Fay Weldon in New Zealand. Both settled in England. One placating the English, the other spitting at them. One generation apart. I am between the two of them. If it matters. And one step to the left, in Ireland. 

Sunday 2 January 2022

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights 2, What the Shrouded Runaway was Saying

In the middle of  Olga Tokarczuk's Flights we meet a shrouded runaway, a woman dressed in many layers who stands in the street cursing the world hoarse. Enter Annushka who is wandering the city, looking for a good place to cry, with maybe one or two observers, is best in her view.  'I can't go home', she says to the shrouded woman. 'Do you have an address?' asks the shrouded woman. Annushka recites her address. 'So just forget it,' blurts the shrouded woman.

Some reading confirms one's own existence, and some contradicts it so vehemently that the words come on like a strong wind blowing through. So just forget it, she says. I am the converse of the shrouded woman in her quilts and boots. I have lived in the same place for forty-five years. I do not readily take flight, shift, sway, move, except in my mind's eye. The counterbalance to the swaying moving populace in Flights, is the procession of foetuses and body parts in jars, helpless ocnophils ready to be studied. 

In the 1980s I learned a pair of words, ocnophil and philobat. An ocnophil is attached to things and places.  If an ocnophil travels, she has a teddy hanging from her rucksac. A philobat has a desire for open spaces. Olga Tokarczuk is a philobat. Sway, go on, move, says the shrouded woman. That's the only way to get away from whatever tyrant is persecuting you. Antichrist or husband.

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such a hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

Some of the narratives are extensive, like the one about the shrouded woman, others might be only a page or a paragraph. The structure is an example of what the book is about, running in all directions, in all centuries. In Polish the words for past and future differ by only one letter. Surely this gives the Polish speaker an altered perspective on past and future, with just that one dip of difference between a y and an e. 

The title, Flights, suggests airports to the anglophone — and there are plenty of airports, various — whereas the Polish title, Bieguni, means something more like wanderers or runaways, and refers to a sect, possibly real, possibly not, whose members wandered the earth like yogi. 

The reader wanders this book as yogi wandered the earth. It's the kind of book that spoils you for other books for a while, before the old roving curiosity kicks back in and you ride out on the back of your reading, like the Youngest Prince rising out of the poppy fields on the back of an albatross over the marshes and forests of the kingdom of Thrice Nine, towards the empire of Thrice Ten. 

Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling.