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.