JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Tuesday 26 December 2023

NEW DOWN PILLOWS

We bought new down pillows about a month ago, after years in a pillow desert, and since then, uniquely I think, I have read all the novels of Elizabeth Strout that I have, which is all she has written bar about two, with my head resting on these soft, minimal yet full, pillows, either before I go to sleep or by way of interlude during the night. She has inhabited her people and I inhabit them in turn, buoyed by the new pillow and the sleep it will surely bring. It is only now I am on the most recent novel Lucy by the Sea, which is very much about the pandemic time, that I'm getting impatient, as I think I did when I first read it: this is too close to what I know, it doesn't matter that it's Maine or New York. In fact, knowing the characters from earlier books adds to the sense of familiarity: these are people I know, neighbours almost, and their story has become too familiar. Yes we were all united by the pandemic but I didn't want to be. I dislike the feeling of being united by anything. I prefer the condition of detachment. This is what I am saying, as Elizabeth Strout would say — she likes these little emphases, this disarming writerly presence which is both insistent and apologetic. Detachment is easier if the stories are of the past, like LP Hartley, whom I also re-read often in large doses, or Elizabeth Taylor, a more recent minor addiction, both of them early to mid-twentieth century. If I want to feel united, it is not with a society, it is with those strange and already themselves detached creatures like Virginia Woolf or Clarice Lispector. With them, not with the society they might depict along the way, I feel at one.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Aghia Galini, 1966

Lynne Tillman's Motion Sickness by page nine pauses at a hotel in Aghia Gallini in Crete. I stayed in a hotel in Aghia Gallini in 1966, it was two and six for a room with a bed, one and six for a mattress on the terrace, one shilling for a space on the terrace. Thin old women in black came down from the hills with sticks and cheese. I thought I'd rent a tiny cottage and look over the sea for a winter, write in a rocky landscape. There was a lot to absorb that year and far away by a sea the place for that, in a language I didn't understand. Sea urchins among the rocks. 

Lynne Tillman, thirty or so years later, stays on her shady balcony in Aghia Gallini, for fear of the Cretan sun. She is aware of her neighbours, Australians, and a New Zealander.

The New Zealander yells down that we should have a drink. He has a bottle, he says. Of what, I wonder, but don't ask. I say, I'm reading but all right. I don't know why I put it that way— 'reading but all right'. Perhaps I meant to suggest that his visit ought to be short.

Online now Aghia Gallini  looks like average tourists in shorts viewing the merchandise as they go down to the harbour. 

Lynne Tillman is in Bologna Paris Venice London Amsterdam and Agia Gallini. I am there too, passingly, by proxy and in my own right. We share the same motion sickness, or at least some of the same comforts.

I feel out of place and know that I'm right to feel out of place. Travel unsettles the appropriate. You're bound to be inappropriate. Which is probably why I don't feel the intense embarrassment some do at not being able to speak foreign languages correctly. It seems to me that one of the privileges of travel is never to fit in. And not to fit in, not to be able to, is a kind of freedom.


Sunday 10 December 2023

MYLES AND STROUT

I've read, for now, I've read chelsea girls and "working life", I've read the life of Eileen Myles these past weeks, a saturation that sounds like her truth and therefore nearly mine, while I'm reading her, or just after. 

In the middle of the night I read Eliz. Strout. I'm on Anything is Possible which is what you need to hear in the middle of the night.

Monday 4 December 2023

STROUT AND MYLES

Strout at night and Myles by day, Elizabeth and Eileen, my two companions as we trumpet into winter in a strong northerly wind, sun barely up, ever, neighbours on the rampage, other airborne infections breeding fast.

Elizabeth Strout probably too young for Woodstock. Eileen was there, witnessing the end of America. 

But Jimi Hendrix was the best. It spelled destruction. it was so sour and noble. His Star Spangled Banner was the end of America for me. We were through with it. It was the most ironic end of an empire song any culture ever played for itself. I was so glad to be there to hear it. To know it was over.

It's important to feel when you're young that something is over. If something, everything, is over then you can do anything. Elizabeth aka Olive Kitteridge aka Lucy Barton has less an end-sense than a slow, not-even-rueful backwards look and coming to terms. Eileen is always in an endgame. A drinker and a brinkster.

I always heard a little voice yell my name just before I lost consciousness. I thought my death would be this way.  I loved it.

Elizabeth constructs herself among the stories of others' woes. Whether or not you can say you're trash. Why your brother paraded in women's underwear over his clothes. Now and then you — I — feel you've touched base. With Eileen you touch base every ten lines. With Elizabeth it's deferred, deflected into the lives of others. Eileen is onto it.

You can't force a story that doesn't want to be told. It was that kind of year .... I couldn't have handled anything less. I was going down to get some coffee and the Boston Globe to make me be something. Everything I did was something to fix me. With all my heart I was trying to be dead.

Lucy Barton is in hospital. Her mother has come to stay. There are startling revelations and long pauses in their conversation. Subtle, careful sentences. Where Eileen barks, bites into epiphany, Elizabeth moves quietly, and the devastation, for being hidden, is acute.

This is the rhythm that suits as we head into the winter solstice. I would like to be out more but it's freezing. 

Saturday 2 December 2023

WINTER

I've read Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout before going to sleep for a couple of weeks now. Olive taking residence at the back of my brain through new pillows, inside and out. I might ask, why is it comforting to give residence to Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's creature of contrasts. Her confrontational empathy and plainness of thought. After Olive there is Lucy Barton, and Lucy Barton's Mom. 

This is my nighttime occupation.  I need to replace the current contents of my head with someone else's dramatic personae, their doppelgänger, my repository. 

Last night, after a sweet/sour night away in Kerry, I read a chapter of My Name is Lucy Barton and next morning read it again. Elizabeth Strout's narrator cannot bear the sound of a child crying in desperation. She can read the levels of children crying: tiredness, crabbiness, and desperation. 

It helps me to sleep, knowing that someone else can distinguish between the levels of crying in children, and will change carriages in the subway to get away from desperation. 

Tuesday 21 November 2023

TANGO - FLEUR JAEGGY AND EILEEN MYLES

Fleur Jaeggy, swiss smooth and chilled, now partner on my private dance floor to Eileen Myles, open american and rough, both writers of hyper-aware short books. I bought The Water Statues and For Now in London, two short neat books, almost the same size. My favourite kind of reading. You read them once you read them twice, you look over them again for sentences that correspond to you in your inner receptive spaces.

I hadn't read Eileen Myles before. For Now is a talk she gave at Yale in 2019, who bought her archive. She is conversationally endearingly blunt. 'I have a very definite feeling that I am simply living ...' Living, thinking, copying is what she does. She is blunter than Fleur Jaeggy and blunter than me by a poet's mile. She talks and she talks and meanders with intent.

If you ask me to tell you why I write it probably has to do with this deep comfort/discomfort of being in the world and this option of devotion. If I want to sit here and copy all day that might be the best option available to me, it's not an anti-depressant and it's not exhilarating and it's not aerobic but it is a form of chanting and I do do it for religious reasons. I mean it's my default position.

Fleur Jaeggy's comfort/discomfort is far more processed. The eponymous water statues, collected in a flooded basement, are the carriers of her history. This is an intense, prickly, non-linear book of terse little chapters, often only a page, unheaded, beheaded. If a tale is told it's told in ice and avoidance, as in certain families, where the only alternative to ice is the slush or marshiness after a slight thaw. 

Beeklam, her main character, as a child wished to live as though he'd drowned. 

He was once again persuaded that his life was passing, had passed, and this made him rejoice while admiring the efforts of his fellow creatures, of the Dutch population with their firmness regarding the radiant pinnacles of domestic comfort —such home-sweet-home settings made his heart sink, so much happiness he was happier living without.

How writers try to characterise their own strangeness. This is the tango's turn and poise. These are defiantly singular writers, with what Fleur Jaeggy calls a theological ability to live alone. 

Eileen Myles would say it differently. She returns often to the question of 'my writing', 'that fuzzy category', what it is and when she is doing it, like now, writing a talk to be given at Yale, and if not how to say what it is. About thirty pages into the book, the talk, in a long sentence of a page and a half, she does what sometimes a writer of our ilk has to do, she says what writing feels like, how it is never ease, how it is perched in relation to this other thing called living.

Thursday 16 November 2023

I was ready to write a tango of Fleur Jaeggy and Eileen Myles, a splendid non-pair, I thought, to share a dance floor, when a chance re-reading of an unfinished piece about a radio programme called 'Monday Night at Home' from 2008 made me think how I might finish it, and, into my mind fresh from a long sleep on the bookshelves outside the bedroom, came a book I bought in Paris called Sur Un Air de Scarlatti. I may not have read it for decades but I often think of the title and occasionally notice the book on which I put an orange cover since its own was decrepit, using paper with which I made chinese lantern lampshades for my otherwise charmless flat in Paris. 

Sur Un Air de Scarlatti by Edmond Jaloux is from 1928, printed on soft watermarked paper with uneven edges, dark woodcuts settled into the page and dropped capitals in orangey red at the start of each section. I have always known, without looking inside the book to remind myself, that it was a tale that had slipped effortlessly into my state of mind after I found it in a box outside a secondhand bookshop further along the rue Durantin where I lived. Yes, I thought the other day, the radio programme in my story could somehow end with that. The narrator, who already shares a number of my tastes, could have this one too, whatever it was.

Something to do with the french language, with being a young and dream-filled passionate reader looking for as many truths as possible on the page rather than on the street — though this being Paris the street had truths of its own — I was in a nearly constant state of heightened receptivity, devoured by my own emotions, like the narrator of this tale who goes to Venice in search of more indifference, greater calm, less involvement, and feels he's succeeding until, on one of his nocturnal walks he finds a garden where a a violinist is playing the Scarlatti sonata, a mysterious young woman accompanied by visions that he too can see, visions of a century before, 'cette nostalgie d'un Paradis de verre filé dispersé depuis le Déluge', and finds himself ensnared as never before.

So, shall I leave my radio announcer, Thom Katch, happily stranded in Edmond Jaloux's Venice, chasing visions and the light dream of a happiness without intoxication and without tomorrow?

Friday 10 November 2023

Junk Percussion, Roger Turner

1966 or 7, in the vast social space Sussex University had in its early days, Ginger Baker was doing a drum solo and I was right in front of him with Roger Turner who was right in with Ginger Baker's long frame, swift arms and hollow cheeks, the shifts and witching of the drum kit registering in his head with a precision and a passion he has spent the last half century refining and expanding. He was reading Ginger Baker and I was reading him.

And now I've read his book, Junk Percussion, an illustrated inventory of some of his instruments, and a reflection on the musical possibilities of junk, as well as, in the epilogue, a brief history of how sound exploration entered his bloodstream, via the Goon Show, via a mother who'd grown up in Palestine and sang Arab songs, and a wide array of jazz records brought home by an older brother. The first concert he went to was the Coltrane Quartet with Eric Dolphy, and Elvin Jones' drumming 'started to occupy my senses like rays from the planets'.

I remember going to a car salvage yard with Roger in the eighties. I was focused on whatever part my car needed, while Roger was darting about looking and tapping things lightly with his long reach, within and without, his eyes lighting up at the myriad prospects of half-dismantled cars and their viscera spread about on the ground, getting the antennae focused and spotting the future territory. 

His assemblage of instruments is a delight. The reader slips into the pleasure of using what others have discarded, finding the multiple musics of rubbish, chains, forks, bicycle bells, saucepan lids etc, slipping the unpitched into the pitch of manufactured instruments, 'playing inside the detail of the music'. I like that phrase for its sudden insight into the way percussion works with voice, other instruments, or melody, as if an inner voice were coming through, one that could bring flurries of electricity, send a light shock through what's there, or give an interlude of nearly pure interiority.

There's an episode late in the book, the last piece in the inventory, on the subject of the charms of paper and the like, one of the most ubiquitous forms of rubbish we create. Roger and a saxophonist were on their way by ferry and car to a concert in Brussels, when they were stopped by border police and Roger was asked, on a bright windy day, to empty his drum case, which contained 

...  masses of different kinds of paper of different lengths, colours and qualities. There were crumpled foils in silver and gold, and rectangles of silver paper, mirror-like, a dozen or more different kinds of poly-bags, with supermarket and specialist shop labels in various languages, winking at us all, some filled with polystyrene packing-beans blowing around, escaping into the air, gift-wrappers scrunched or rolled ... The paper was performing, blowing up in festoons of waves and the poly-bags filling with air, swirling and trying to get airborne ... The two policemen stood staring at the action. What was going on? ... We are musicians playing a concert tomorrow at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels,' we declared, 'This is all percussion, I added, waving my arm around generously to include the fields and trees. 'Just listen...'



Monday 6 November 2023

The right moment to read Adalbert Stifter

Back from London, ill in bed, of all the books I bought I chose Adalbert Stifter, Motley Stones, in order to occupy on the page what I could not occupy outside. I read it in two or three days and then read it again, the fixity of the view outside my window expanded into Stifter's scrupulously described landscapes in 19th century Austria, one pulsing after another, along with snowstorms, hailstorms, fires and floods. 

The stories are embedded in the landscape, people are participants in their landscape, their work is elemental, they are shoemakers, dyers, tanners, fullers, they grow food and keep bees, they walk everywhere, know their rocks and their mountains, which streams overflow in a storm. Principal characters often show halfway through the story, or later, as dark interruptions to the Biedermeier charms of the narrators and their families, hairline cracks that turn into full-blown disaster.

Stifter doesn't like commas, nouns run along the rill of the line as if their togetherness matters more than their particularity. He repeats himself often, as if addressing children. Maybe this is comforting to the reduced reader. And peaceful. All is as it should be in the burgeoning bourgeois world, in the manor house, the castle and the trades folk's comfortable houses. At the same time all is not all right. In almost every story there are stranded, shy, reclusive stray folk who cross these lives and send shivers through them. In Stifter's life too, there are dark corners, we assume, a large unhappy man who lived too well after early writing success, who did not achieve anything like the gemütlich family life he often described, and cut his own throat with a razor. 

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Clarice Again

Last week I made for Clarice Lispector like a homing pigeon. Hour of the Star has fed my inner writerliness for many years. I read it every year or two, when I want to situate myself between the beginnings of a story, with its thin, rachitic main character, and the eager, awkward writer, not entirely sure what she's doing but doing it anyway.   

It's peaceful to read stories like those of Rachel Ingalls or Elizabeth Taylor, and sometimes sleep inducing, which is a boon, but the possibility of sharing pages with a writer who writes from way back inside the fount of things may calm me even more by making me feel less alone.

A book is not just its pages, it's also the writer and her presence, even her face. Clarice Lispector, with her wonderful name, has for me an aura as powerful as Beckett or Kafka.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Mrs Caliban

In the context of Rachel Ingall's Mrs Caliban, very few mention Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest, scion of the witch Sycorax, a sad monster endowed with some of Shakespeare's best moments:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.

Mrs Caliban is Dorothy's married name. Or is it? Her husband is hardly Fred Caliban, no monster he, only ever referred to as Fred either going out the door or, briefly, coming back in. Their marriage is shaky en permanence. 'I think we're too unhappy to get a divorce', says Dorothy to her friend Estelle, divorced herself.   

This is not Beauty and the Beast. It's the unhappy wife, grieving lost children and much else, who finds an equal soul in Larry, a 6' 7'' man like a frog escaped from a brutal institute where scientists  purported to study him. Dorothy and Larry come together very soon after they have met, in the way of dreams. He comes in through the back door, 'a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face'.

Larry and Dorothy adapt rapidly to their secret life, as we adapt to dreams, sounds and sweet airs. Whether it is or we want it and so it is, or it is only as long as we want it and then the frog-like creature goes back to the Gulf of Mexico, or it never was, except —

I started the book again after I had finished it, to see where, how, in the housewifely life, you cross from unhappiness to dream.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Narratives, stories, tales

The word narrative has something controlling about it; story is cosy; a tale is recessive, mossy. 

We live in an era of narrative. Narrative sells. We all have one, whether or not we know it. These are the structures that shape our ends. Though actually, reading Elizabeth Taylor in the middle of the night, shaping sleep is what I'm trying for. The fascination of the weave should put me out, I hope.

In town today I sought out Elizabeth Taylor and Rachel Ingalls, both writers who have been resting for many decades, as actors used to say, 

I choose old narratives and their trappings because it's more peaceful. I do not want to read narratives of now, of Ireland. Why? To read its current fiction is to take on its history, the assumptions that underly it. 

The assumptions that lie beneath Elizabeth Taylor or Rachel Ingalls I grew up with. I didn't' know them, they were absorbed through the young soles of my shoes up and down Maldon High Street. I have no desire to write the fabric of Maldon High Street; or of Inniscarra, County Cork. I want to island myself on this island. 

Wednesday 27 September 2023

READING IN THE BATH

I  read the New Yorker in the bath for the plaisir de luxe, today the story by Lore Segal, 'On the Agenda', a few women friends who meet, or not, and go some way towards structuring their encounters—shall we talk about forgetting? and then abandon, disperse. Lore Segal is ninety-five. Different rhythm and weave, but the same bumpy-jolty as other moments of life, different uncertainties, varieties of diffidence, deeper perhaps with age, and warmer.

It turned out to be easier to stay at home—not to have to leave the house. Then, one day, Ruth e-mailed everybody to ask if anyone would mind if they took a hiatus. Nobody minded, and it has become easier to not have Ladies Lunch. For now?

I have no idea, in truth, of this kind of late-stage camaraderie, the ability to condone, to commune and then withdraw. But I like reading about it. Grace Paley, she who occupies several of the steps up to my room, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, they all give me this feeling. The steps up to my room are well-occupied, slightly worn. 

Storm Agnes came through and had me running for shelter. 

 

Sunday 24 September 2023

A CHANGED SEASON

Junot Diaz wrote a chopped-about page about a chopped-about life, his Dominican-American languages knifing through the lines. Drown, his first book, is 160 chopped-about pages. At first you want to check his glossary for the words you don't know, then eventually you go along with these holes in the text. There's an honesty in a hole. We all have these penetrable/impenetrable words, rocker words, rocking chair words, cushions, pauses, old words so full of meaning they might just as well have none.

I have had his book for twenty-five years but not re-read it till now. Timeliness is all. The chance of a glance along the bookshelves in a changed season. 

Monday 18 September 2023

THE READING DIET

When fully preoccupied with my own words, I seek out the words of others in strangely precise and precisely strange doses. More stories than usual. A plot is relaxing, after all, an end is an end. Rachel Ingalls does me well for that. She weaves tales, and the tired head is susceptible. One day, floored by a heavy head, I read all of Binstead's Safari and marvelled at her persistence with the lion theme, wondered if she'd been on safari herself or just read/seen Out of Africa.  

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World —the title surely editorial, opportunistic— Barry Lopez' essays arrived and I scanned them for recognition moments. Did not quite find them. I was put off by the devoutness, the prayer—killer words. Flatteners, anyway. I haven't much liked travel writing unless very old, like Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey or Arabia Deserta, that glorious piece of desert English written and lived by Charles Montagu Doughty at the end of the nineteenth century.

Barry Lopez getting in wood for heating, choosing those he works with, growing old, pacing himself, writing himself into his life, and out of it, that I can read. Part of the reading diet is this flat speak, days of my life, very managed, convinced, less a confession than a table of contents.

In the bath I read an article in The New York Review of Books about Jean Eustache. More than Binstead's Safari or Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, I felt at home. By proxy. I have read more about Jean Eustache than seen his films. I cannot distinguish the two. 


Monday 11 September 2023

Utopia, or Anything is Possible, Steven Millhauser, Richard Jefferies

The background of my reading for the last while is the sequence of eight wall panels we have been constructing on the subject of Utopia. People wrote, or didn't write, their idea of an ideal society, and I edited, jiggled and conjured a series of texts out of their imaginings. 

At the same time, mostly before or during sleep interludes, I was reading Steven Millhauser and Richard Jefferies, nearly a century apart. Steven Millhauser's story 'The Dream of the Consortium', the department store story, has an ending that pleased me. When you have exited the nearly infinite store, you are still not out of it.

Overhead, the avenue-wide strip of sky is brilliant blue. As we hurry along the sidewalk, we have the absurd sensation that we have entered still another department, composed of ingeniously lifelike streets with artful shadows and reflections—that our destinations lie in a far corner of the same department—that we are condemned to hurry forever through these artificial halls, bright with late afternoon light, in search of a way out.

Richard Jefferies, nearly a century earlier, I came to via the Faber Book of Utopias. The editor took Utopia at face value: no place, including good and bad. Richard Jefferies battled with good and bad. Just as William Morris did. 

Amaryllis at the Fair, the second piece in my Everyman Library edition, stems from a desire to set down his early life, good and bad, without regard for narrative. Every chapter is static. And on the last page he leaves his creatures as he made them, idle in their rural circumstances, with all their charms and yearning on display. 'I'll leave them there', he says.



Monday 28 August 2023

Cathay, Steven Millhauser, Borges, Summer

Borges, Steven Millhauser, Utopia. Recent reading at the end of a summer that was so little summer so long ago. I read a review of a new collection of Steven Millhauser and went back to the ones I already have, In the penny arcade, 1999. The first story, 'August Eschenberg', and the last 'Cathay', both had me. Especially the last. August Eschenberg, a builder of mechanical universes so finely differentiated from the real that you would be dead to think of it, like Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman, Borges' dreamers. These perfectly calibrated tiny worlds. 

The twelve singing birds in the throne room of the Imperial Palace are made of beaten gold, except for the throats, which are of silver, and the eyes, which are of transparent emerald-green jade.

And The Knife Thrower, 1998. Which I'll read next.  

Sunday 20 August 2023

Borges

I first read Borges' stories fifty years ago, slowly, one at a time, stopping so as to have more to read. Another one tomorrow. Savouring your goodies, your fictions, tales he has made, fashioned, fabricated, woven, in the manner of life, history and matters of fact, affairs of the mind and the book. Borges was a portal. I have lived there ever since.

No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sink into the sacred mud, but in a few days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man came from the South and that his home had been one of those numberless villages upstream in the deeply cleft side of the mountain, where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek, and where leprosy is infrequent.

I read Borges in my early twenties. I was the grey man from the South, the bamboo canoe and the unanimous night. I wrote the Zend language, I lived in the circular ruins. I dreamed and was dreamed. 

At first his dreams were chaotic; then in a short while they became dialectic in nature. The stranger dreamed that he was in the centre of a circular amphitheatre .... clouds of taciturn students filled the tiers of the seats.  .... Asleep or awake, the man thought over the angers of this phantoms, ... He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe.

Worthy of participating in the universe. If you value the universe. The grey man dreamed a man — I was not, am not, bothered it was a man, not a woman or any other combination—dreamed with misgivings—without birds, in sheets of flame—every dream ends abruptly. He dreamed a man limb by limb, a man capable of walking thought fire without being burned.

For a moment, he thought of taking refuge in the water, but then he understood that death coming to crown his old age and absolve him from his labours. .... With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone was dreaming him.


Tuesday 15 August 2023

PONDWORKS 2023

I was up at the pond today as soon as I saw a sunny period unfold from the northwest. Two sunny periods, in fact, separated by slow-moving cloud, in which I wrote up two complex dreams in my diary, read the surface of the water, dragonfly reflections and water skaters, plus a story by Cynthia Ozick, The French Doll, in the New Yorker, a review of the film Oppenheimer and an article about Ultra Processed Food and how Nestlé sent a boat down the Amazon to bring junk food to indigenous children who then developed diet-related diabetes as well as more lethal covid; and closed my eyes, lay flat on my back. The sun was out again. The heating was on.  

Tuesday 8 August 2023

POCKETBOOK SUMMER EDITORIAL, 2023

A July New Yorker piece called Tell No Tales offered the case for stories and the case for the dark matter that makes up so much of life, swarm not story, frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments Elena Ferrante called it. All the carrying that stories do, whether to satisfy the sense of belonging to a culture, staving off death, like Scheherazade, or simply putting a shape on the magma for a while, if not a a piece of laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time, as Lorrie Moore said.

August is a good month for reading, and slipping off into thinking about it, thinking out from it, engrossed for a short time, numbed, and then, back to the place in which you read, the pillow as it often is, or staring into the view out of the window, the shaping to be done out there, the sycamore basal growth trimmed, the euphorbia dead bits cut off, the state of compost heaps, frantumaglia of the garden.

I have been reading William Morris again, and his ancient forebears, Plutarch etc, browsing the Faber Book of Utopias from the front and from the back.  

Then he sat down beside me and said he'd been spending the morning wrestling with the problem of speaking the truth in books; so I said, haven't you always spoken it? because that seemed to me the chief point of M's books. But he said, not much, because most of it was quite unspeakable in our world, as we found it too shocking and humiliating.

Aldous Huxley in 1930, a long short story called 'After the Fireworks'. 

Clarice Lispector, in Agua Viva, 1973, does not need the word for truth.

This is not a story because I don't know any stories like this but all I know how to do is go along saying and doing: it is the story of instants that flee like fugitive tracks seen from the window of a train. 

Clarice Lispector is a continuum under my reading. Like Virginia Woolf. Like thinning out young turnips, leaving the spare seedlings beside the row. As all our fellow-travellers go too far sometimes, it is by this excess we find ourselves.

I read Aldous Huxley because I saw a lad called Florian in Sneem with a copy of Island in his hand, which he'd got from the village book box, read, then  gave to a young Portuguese woman working in the hotel for the summer. We talked for a while about utopia and dystopia. I have never been tempted to reread Aldous Huxley: something pinched and fussy, his language reflecting the machines he feared. Always harping on humiliation. Some other story there. 


Friday 28 July 2023

Circus Train by Joan Selby-Lowndes

Gertie gave me Circus Train by Joan Selby-Lowndes for Christmas, 1958. I wrote my name on the flyleaf. I was impressed someone had thought about me enough to choose this, and read with respect and eagerness the story of running away to sea and then travelling with the circus, being chinese and having acrobatics bred into you, the fluidity and the stillness. From very young they can all hold and then flip their bodies with grace, it's natural, it's a way of dealing with world wars and starvation. Balance and interdependence. Onwardness and otherness. Encountering that at age eleven was electric.

Joan Selby-Lowndes has little online life except for several portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. Her writing too, is pre-motor car. She could have trusted more the tale recounted live to her. Kai Yong from China, who went to sea, then learned how to spin plates, entered the circus life, married Joanna from Germany, and had children who later formed a troupe of artistes, the Yong Sisters and Brothers, spanning China, Germany, France, England, America. There were long separations, deep privations. Joan Selby-Lowndes filled in the history around the tale of Kai Yong and his family like blue poster paint for the sky and black for world wars. 

 

Tuesday 25 July 2023

The Greek Sources

My friend Noreen back in the day liked to get up at six, have a glass of grape juice and check the Greek sources. She said it with intensity and conviction. I felt excluded but pleased. That anyone should do this, say this.

Reading bits of Plutarch in the early evening recalls Noreen. I start to know what a source might be. The speech of a society two thousand years ago. In the infancy of looking at yourself. Plutarch's Lives are Parallel Lives. Greece and Rome. The glory that was Greece, the splendour that was Rome. I read all of the life of Lycurgus and the beginning of Demetrius. Simple moral certitudes which don't follow through any more. 

I read the beginning of the life of Demetrius, only because my boyfriend was Demetrius in the school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (I was Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, my brother was Puck). The art of medicine, the art of music, must consider disease and noise. 

These arts below no praise on that innocence which boasts an entire ignorance of vice. In their reckoning, it is rather an absurd simplicity to be ignorant of these things, which every man that is disposed to live virtuously should make it his particular care to know.

I get up at eight, after mint tea, and check the Inniscarra sources. 

One of the big aspens fell up at the pond though there was little wind, knocking into a myrtle and a smaller aspen, happily missing the eucryphia and the snowdrop tree. The builders, Finbarr, Mick, Will and Nathan from Normandy, plus Ambrose, heritage joiner, occasionally, are renewing the new room twenty-seven years on. And the greenhouse. Talk runs around lead troughs and glazing bars. I spray the dust off the tomatoes after they've gone. 

Sunday 23 July 2023

Plutarch's Lives — Lycurgus

'Of Lycurgus, the lawgiver, we have nothing to relate that is certain and uncontroverted', wrote Plutarch two thousand years ago. My edition of Plutarch, marbled and leather-bound, translated by the Langhorne brothers in England in the eighteenth century, has a simplicity, a clarity born, perhaps of something similar to a novelist's wishful thinking. Lycurgus was a designer of ancient Sparta. The education of youth was the greatest and most glorious work of a lawgiver, he said. He went to strenuous lengths.

A second and bolder political enterprise of Lycurgus was a new division of the lands. For he found a prodigious inequality, the city overcharged with many indigent persons who had no land, and the wealth centred in the hands of the few. Determined, therefore, to root out the evils of insolence, envy, avarice, and luxury, and those distempers of a state still more inveterate and fatal—I mean poverty and riches—he persuaded them to cancel all former divisions of land and to make new ones, in such manner that they might be perfectly equal in their possessions and way of living. 

In the late nineteenth century, William Morris read Plutarch. News From Nowhere is saturated with  ancient greece. In the early twenty-first century, where News From Nowhere was set, where we now are, stressing and steaming in late capitalism when William Morris had us bucolic along the river by now, gathering for haymaking with comely folk in well-wrought clothes, having done away with money and politics.

Lycurgus minted iron money and luxury died away of itself, replaced by simple food and lots of exercise. No unnecessary production. Joy in workmanship. Les arts décoratifs. Healthy activity in leisure time. Reading and conversation. Common sense in 1930s Europe. Lycurgus as written by Plutarch, translated in the late eighteenth century, read by William Morris in the late nineteenth century, feeds into my history. As well as a child of Hitler I am a child of common sense. 

It was not, however, the principal design of Lycurgus that this city should govern others, but he considered its happiness, like that of a private man, as flowing from virtue and self-consistency; he therefore so ordered and disposed it, that by the freedom and sobriety of its inhabitants, and their having a sufficiency within themselves, its continuance might be the more secure.

Saturday 15 July 2023

Agua Viva: Taylor Swift, Natalia Ginzburg, Clarice Lispector

This week I read a piece in the New Yorker about a Taylor Swift concert in a football stadium and how each of the audience felt she was personally in touch with their lives, each with her twinkling bracelet, her individual sparkle that came with the entrance ticket. 

I started Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. The Brazilian singer Cazuza read Agua Viva as Bob Dylan read Rimbaud's Illuminations. One hundred and eleven times. Though Bob Dylan probably wasn't counting.

Agua Viva sounds like lively water, living water, water of life. In Brazil agua viva first of all means jellyfish. Jelly is the living agua in the water, less a fish than a shape to catch the light. And this is what Clarice Lispector wanted to capture. Her word, I think. To capture the present. She worked on Agua Viva for several years, under different titles (Beyond Thought: Monologue with Life and Loud Object) trying to get her writing in step with her life. Proceeding by accretion, boredom, urgency. breathing. 

Jellyfish are one of the fastest-growing species left to us, multiplied by our pillage and pollution of the waters around us, from which we once crawled. Jellyfish have few predators left. We have eaten them all.

Monday 10 July 2023

Inside Outside

On Sunday morning, at the little church in Sneem, the day after the launch of our video, five people came into the church, a husband and wife, her brother and a small woman. The funeral of a son had been held there some years before. He was twenty-nine. One or two of them were bikers. There was conversation around Royal Enfield Bullets and Interceptors. We encouraged them to sit down and watch Inside  Outside, with music from La Traviata. They sat quiet, absorbing the filling and pausing of the purple net curtain, the doom and despair of Alfredo and Violetta. It's peaceful, said the small woman. Purple is a good colour for communication. Soul to soul, she meant. All of them.

Monday 3 July 2023

A pile of books

I dreamed someone gave me a pile of books I would want to read but would not find so easily, he said, he knew how to choose for me because he had read my books, this forceful spectral reader I know so well. I looked at the pile of books and they were so right. He was right, I would not find these books otherwise. The books were right. How did I know, looking up and down the spines? Like going to a discerning bookshop every five years, lustral, you read the bookshop as you go, pausing with certitude on some half-familiar writer, moving on, kneeling down, climbing the bookshop ladder, leaving your bag on the armchair. 

All this was at my elbow without leaving my room. Suddenly the other night.

Saturday 1 July 2023

Valentino, 62 pages by Natalia Ginzburg

Up at the pond I read the whole of Valentino, by Natalia Ginzburg, 62 pages of bare story on the edge of an Italian city in the middle of the twentieth century. The story feels bare, in the sense of relentless yet gentle. People are evenly presented, in a narrative without judgement but not without feeling. At the end you feel as much for all of them, even the feckless eponymous Valentino, who was meant, his parents thought, to become a man of consequence, a doctor who would discover things and be remembered. As it was, after a flurry of schoolgirls, he marries a rich unattractive woman and has three children with her. 

His sister Caterina, our narrator, goes to live in this ménage. Her room has a pale blue carpet. She is even-handed, a schoolteacher, modest, going along with love and death enacted by others, liking the idea of sharing in the lives of others, patient as regards her own, accepting of what happens. She might marry her sister-in-law's cousin, they have an agreeable day out in the country, he drove, he wore Valentino's gloves, a woman threw a shoe at them, they ate tiny pears. A few weeks later he says he can't marry her after all, and within the year he has killed himself. His room is filled with pictures of Valentino.

Like the films of same era, it only takes a pair of gloves and a few small pears. Drawers full of letters. Walls full of pictures.      

Thursday 29 June 2023

Henry James, The Europeans

Eugenia and Felix are the eponymous europeans in Henry James' novel, siblings born in France and Vienna, but Americans, nonetheless. Europe is a dangerous spice. Eugenia and Felix stir things up when they go to visit their American cousins, Charlotte, Gertrude and Clifford in New England at the beginning of the twentieth century..

Henry James liked to deal with the crème de la leisurely crème, in New England, whence he came, or Old England, which he occupied for many years in his comfortable observer role. 

Comfortable observer is no longer comfortable.  I read Henry James when I want to be in observer mode. With pleasure and unease. As if I'm being judged by a clamorous generation in its thereness, nowness, and grievance.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Plot

I read L P. Hartley's A Perfect Woman, without any notion, or concern, along the way, about which of his female characters was building most towards perfection. As well as a certain impatience with all this plotting, this godlike holding in reserve. Resolution is a decoy. My students sometimes thought that the kind of strange literature I wanted them to read had an answer that I was withholding. It must have seemed like obstinacy on my part. But actually it was desire for them to participate.

The veg plot will tell you that. A veg plot is a patch of land you have to dig and tend in order to know. Not a complot, nor a narrative, not a story but the ground of all stories. Mythic if you like. Aristotle thought that plot was myth, and he was half-right. Aristotle needed to do more gardening.

In The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley was passionate as a shy man is; he knew it from inside. You can be passionate about uncertainty when you are twelve. It doesn't read so well in A Perfect Woman.  Uncertainty is now plot. Earning laurels as a novelist. Keeping yourself and others in suspense.

L.P. Hartley should have done more gardening too. In Losey/Pinter's film of The Go-Between, Michael Redgrave as Leo aged sixty, revisits the scene of his adolescence at Brandham Hall. He is dry, detached and sad in a gentlemanly way. This is far more garden patch, veg plot than complot, plan or conspiracy. This is the old terroir, and terror, of his very being. 

When I read about Alexander Goodrich the novelist in A Perfect Woman, I see an upbeat version of Michael Redgrave in his latter years, as novelist, detached, spinning plots that represent him more or less. I find novels uncomfortable. I don't want to have done with a book. I want to want to start reading it again. 

Tuesday 13 June 2023

The Go-Between, LP Hartley

This time reading The Go-Between it was the knowledge of the 12 year-old narrator that struck me: he knew french, he knew the zodiac, he had some spells up his sleeve, he had absorbed the Rather Wrong and the Very Wrong, from his mother and his school. He was, by today's lights, a learned child. Sensitive to what was correct. Fatherless. Nothing so fearful as a fatherless child. 

Leo's passage to knowledge left him scarred. He witnessed Very Wrong in the outhouse. The landed beauty, Marian Maudsley, and the tenant farmer, Ted Burgess. Two bodies moving like one. He was dragged to the scene by Marian's mother, intent as she was on a match between Marian and Lord Trimingham.

I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs Maudsley's repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella

L.P. Hartley wrote The Go-Between out of his own needs and memories, a painful crooked truth he could only tell this way. Leo's breakdown happened on his 13th birthday.

During my breakdown I was like a train going through a series of tunnels, sometimes in the daylight, sometimes in the dark, sometimes knowing who and where I was, sometimes not knowing. Little by little the periods of daylight grew more continuous and at last I was running in the open; by the middle of September I was considered fit to go back to school.

After The Go-Between I started A Perfect Woman, also by L.P. Hartley, something to read at night or up at the pond. A lesser book, a pot-boiler perhaps. But I enjoy this grown-up Leo, L.P. Hartley, taking on suburban England: an accountant and his wife and their two tidy children, Jeremy and Janice, who play at farmer and trespasser in the back garden. Trespass: Rather Wrong. The accountant's wife, Isabel, is up against Irma, the Austrian barmaid. 1950s repression its painful. 

Here on the hill in Inniscarra, the weather is as hot as it was in Norfolk where Leo was checking the temperature daily. He sometimes met Mr Maudsley there. They would converse about expected temperatures. If you wanted to know about things like spooning, you asked Ted Burgess That was not what Ted and Marian were doing. It couldn't be. Spooning was not intrinsically Very Wrong. And yet it was.

.... the tidings of Ted's suicide came to me voicelessly, like a communication in a dream.

His fate I did know, and it was for him I grieved. He haunted me. Not only in the most dreadful way, by his blood and brains stuck to the kitchen walls, but by a persistent picture of him cleaning his gun. The idea that he had cleaned it to shoot himself with was a special torment to me; of all the thoughts he might have had while cleaning it, the thought that he was going to use it against himself must have been the one furthest from his mind. The irony of this was like an arrow to my spirit.




Saturday 3 June 2023

Unfair reading

I went up to the pond on yet another clear sunny day with a book that P bought recently, a writer on writing, and one of Maurice Scully's vols of poetry. The writer on writing I'd never heard of, Amina Memory Cain. Maurice Scully I knew for maybe twenty-five years. He died earlier this year, so I have been reading him again to find him on the page. Amina Cain has read a number of writers I have read and liked, but I could not find any echoes of their power or indeed any echoes of anything much. My reading started picking up the kind of speed that bespeaks giving up. 

I turned to Maurice Scully's Tig, which means house in irish. And in that house, the pages of that house, I splashed about. The less there is on the page the more gymnastic the reader. Making shapes out of what isn't there. Making games of what is there. Household games. Games of where you are right now.

it's a game in hide & seek/or dip & pursuit/quite formal/ too /  see/saw

The best I could find in Amina Cain is that she had a cat called Trout, as we did also. 

We have complex patterns of affiliation. This much I understand.

Etel Adnan (1925 - 2021} ( Lebanon, Paris, California) explored the same zone. She sat in Paris cafés and kept reflecting, pushing here and there. She wrote and painted and corresponded. 'Her childhood in Lebanon had been so fractured that there was no single audience, no way of communicating fluently, freely.' (NYRB, 'A Life of Sheer Will', Yasmine El Rashidi), and when she went back there in later life she felt exiled from her exile.

I am always away from something and somewhere. My senses left me one by one to have a life of their own. If you meet me in the street, don't be sure it is me.

I'm sure it's her on the page. As Maurice Scully is there on his pages, wanting to exchange his days for ours, and ours for his.

There are prodigious absences on his pages, on hers. These are the places that the reader resides. In the white around the black of the letters. 

The morning after/my death / we will sit in cafés/  but I will not / be there / I will not be.


Monday 29 May 2023

Reading the beach

The day I go to the beach without a book is the day I read the shallows. After all the dogs and most of the people have gone home for lunch, we move down from our grassy spot onto the beach. P goes off to look for a stick and I stare into the shallows, prop my feet up on the awkward yellow stones. There are spectral young shrimp or prawn amid new growth seaweed. It's a rough stone beach you have to clamber as much as walk. The best is propped up on a rock staring into shallow water.

Do I read a beach near Kilmacaloge as Fleur Jaeggy, as Ingeborg Bachmann? They are company, for sure. 

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Ingeborg Bachmann, suite et fin + Fleur Jaeggy

Ingeborg Bachmann leaves a reader uneasy, unended, upended, suspended. I didn't want to get to the end and I did, early this morning. Almost immediately the question is what to read next. Fleur Jaeggy was Ingeborg's friend. They spent time together. I'll re-read Brother of XX

Fleur Jaeggy leaves you frozen. She is Swiss. But relieved. She writes these short, fleshless pieces and then she is relieved. For now. 

Once with Ingeborg we talked about old age, she smiled at that word, but that word was accompanied neither by the heart nor by a real smile. I imagined a longevity without death, a house in the country, a wall. I described to her the external architecture and I bound her with a rope. And a garden within the walls and again I said to her the two of us. I was terribly convinced. A headstrong conviction about what doesn't come true.

Up at the pond, Fleur Jaeggy reads as a substrate of pond life. Pond skaters on the surface tension, caddis fly larvae in their pine needle cigars, tadpoles with spectral legs, dust of millions. The dancing flies are dancing low over the water today. You can't follow any one of them for more than about five seconds. 

On the 31st July, we left Rome by car, an Alfa Romeo 2600, for Poveromo-Forte dei Marmi. Ingeborg Bachmann manned the road maps. It seemed like a great voyage, with Poveremo  further away than Vienna and Klagenfurt, where we had already been. But now we were to spend a month together. Already that could be a mental voyage: cohabitation, prefiguring. The house we had rented was vast, with a garden. But the water was salty. Our first pot of tea was disgusting. 

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Ingeborg Bachmann, continued

I read Part Two of Malina with bated breath. This was the hinterland of a woman and her father, every page or two a new, sharper, worse image to absorb. I read a few pages at a time. Homeopathic treatment in the middle of the night. Treat like with like. Father with Mother. War with Peace. Everywhere with Nowhere. 

Ingeborg Bachmann asks a lot of her words, her sentences, her readers. We have to be ready for her dreams. For her father. 

Malina shall know everything. But I decide: they shall be the dreams of this night.

 Part Two of Malina reads like a long night of the soul, born in Carinthia, raised in Vienna, shifted to Italy, smouldered and expired there. 

Suddenly, atop a polar summit from which there's no return, I am able to shout: a book about Hell. A book about Hell!

Rachel Kushner in her introduction says:

Once you're in, you're in. You're not decoding. Towards the end you're racing along, deep in the rhythms of the narrator's thoughts, which are bone-true and demonically intelligent—and I mean it would be a real burden to be that mentally acute, it can't go well for a person to know that much  ...

When I was about thirteen or fourteen I had a system to induce sleep. When I shut my eyes there was an afterimage, often black and white, jagged in a fifties way, which was War. If I was to get to sleep I had to replace War with Cream, which was silky and slow.   

Part Three I read up at the pond on a sunny, unslept, afternoon. I paid great attention to the tadpoles, fishing out one or two in my palm to see the tiny legs emerging. Part Three, back in daily life with Malina, who is particular about how his egg is cooked for breakfast, concludes that she was murdered by her father, in a manner of speaking. Whether or not she told Malina is irrelevant.

I like books that I can inhabit, without judgement or comparison. This is my society, my hinterland.

Monday 8 May 2023

Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina

I came to Ingeborg Bachmann through reading Fleur Jaeggy. 

On the 31st of July, 1971, we left Rome by car, an Alfa Romeo 2600, for Poveremo-Forte dei Marmi. Ingeborg Bachmann manned the road maps. It seemed like a great voyage, with Poveremo further away than Vienna and Klagenfurt, where we had already been. But now we were to spend a month together. Already that could be a mental voyage: cohabitation, prefiguring. The house we had rented was vast, with a garden. But the water was salty.

Though we cannot know what it is to be a bat, as Thomas Nagel said, we can imagine what it is to be part of a culture, the two of them meshed in the Italian afternoon, with the rest of Europe behind them. Ingeborg and Fleur in Liguria. But the water was salty. Tilda Swinton striding through as Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Jacob Taubes in Vienna, sucking on his pipe, his philosophies. Me in Paris, in 1968, learning how to yearn in french.

On page 40 of Malina, there is a piece of young writing ecstasy.

A storm of words starts in my head, then an incandescence, a few syllables begin to glow, and brightly coloured commas fly out of all the dependent clauses and the periods which were once black have swollen into balloons and float up to my cranium, for everything will be like EXULTATE JUBILATE in that glorious book

One night in Paris, May, 1968, I got up in the middle of the night, washed, dressed, put on earrings, got out my diary and wrote six or seven visionary pages.

That night I knew what it was to be Ingeborg Bachmann, though at the time I did not know of her existence. 


Monday 1 May 2023

Literary Taste and how to form it, Arnold Bennett at Blarney Car Boot Sale

After walking up and down a few rows at the car boot sale at Blarney GAA grounds, this May Day morning, already in a stupor of looking, I decided on a plan. I would find a book and go home and read it, preferably up at the pond. 

I could have bought Beach Reading, Sport, True Crime or Sebastian Barry. A Farmers Journal from 1965.  Literary Taste And How To Form It, With Detailed Instructions For Collecting A Complete Library Of English Literature, by Arnold Bennett. This was the only real possibility by halftime.

It's exhausting isn't it, I said to our neighbour in the clubhouse, tea and a fairy cake, a ham sandwich, strip lighting, photos of the teams. You'd need it, we agreed. There's more than buying and selling going on here. There's wholesale extrusion of lives, coins, ashtrays, 40-pack toilet paper, set of ware two euros, a lawnmower to try out, record player to play. A rusty saw, Pointless. Must be art. A boy with a blue trumpet blasting his way down the rows. Plates of chips slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise, A plastic dog rotating, a joyless buzz of pink on damp grass. Oil painting with a hole in it, of two apples. Now at our kitchen table.


Monday 24 April 2023

Dandelions Kawabata

 I'd forgotten April could run as deep as this, in an easterly that picks up in the afternoon, so the first attempt at reading up at the pond — Kawabata's Dandelions — was an uncertain affair. I saw two whirligig beetles. Pete is cutting paths in the woodland. The meadow hardly needs a path. Yellow rattle is established more and more.

We're struggling with our stewardship in the season of dandelions. Trying to fix roofs and making mistakes. Living with them. The roofs and the mistakes. Rough and Roof are kissing cousins. 

Kawabata's dandelions grow around the Ikuta Institute where Ineko has been committed. As her mother and her fiancé leave the Institute, they are told that when they hear the 3 o'clock bell Ineko will be ringing it and that they'll hear her through the bell.

Her fiancé and her mother discuss her case. They are staying nearby in an old inn, in the season of dandelions. They have heard that dandelions open in the sunlight and close at night, but they aren't sure that's the case. 

It is. 

Ineko's illness, somagnosia, is the centre of Dandelions, plays out off-stage, acknowledged by a temple bell. The novel wasn't finished, or has no finish. Two people are talking about the condition of a third, Ineko, who plays ping pong and sometimes loses sight of the ball, makes love with her fiancé and sometimes loses sight of his body. 

This is a time to read books that have no centre of gravity.


Friday 14 April 2023

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

A hundred and forty pages into Paul Bowles'  The Sheltering Sky, Port Moresby — his name takes a long time to say — is taken to the best place in Aïn Krorfa, a village — wrong word — in southern Algeria, where he and his wife Kit would stay a few days. 

If in doubt go south. There's always doubt.

There's a blind dancer at the café that night, a woman of perfect proportions, supremely impersonal. 

A dance is being done. I do not dance because I am not here. But it is my dance.

Port Moresby is an American going south in the Sahara after the war, with Kit and their many valises, her lizard-skin shoes, evening gowns, her Helena Rubinstein. Their relationship with luggage under the sheltering sky is the basso continuo of this tale. Under the sheltering sky there are patches of fur in the rabbit stew and other nightmares. Mosquitoes and flayed babies. 

I know, said Port absently, 'I hate it as much as you.'

'No, you don't. But I think you would if you didn't have me along to do your suffering for you.

They went to North Africa after World War Two, from New York. This is what restless existentials were doing around the time I was born. I liked deserts as soon as I was in one. The emptiness, the expanse, the sky, the music, languages I didn't understand, the silence, real and imagined. 

For many years I confused The Sheltering Sky with Reach For the Sky by Paul Brickhill, he of the great escape and the dam busters. Port Moresby is named for the capital of Papua, New Guinea, a creature of the existential era, fellow of Camus and Sartre, sentient in a pool of inertia and restlessness after the Second World War, an American in Africa, horrified by cockroaches and filth, pressing on into the desert. 

'You know, said Port, and his voice sounded unreal, as voices are likely to do after a long pause in an utterly silent spot, 'the sky here's very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it's a solid thing up there, protecting us from what's behind.'

Kit shuddered slightly as she said: 'From what's behind?'

'Yes.'

'But what is behind?' Her voice was very small.

'Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night.'

 In absolute night, eventually everything would happen. Port would die of typhoid fever, slowly, on the floor of a room in a fort. Kit would lock him in, to die his own death, and she'd go south into the desert she feared, with all kinds of adventures with natives, as she and Port called them, as if she were appeasing his death, or her own.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

Weights and Measures, Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth's novels happen on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where people live by accident, almost; they hadn't meant to come here, or were on their way somewhere else. In Weights and Measures, Anselm Eibenschütz, formerly of the eleventh artillery regiment, is sent to a small municipality next to the Russian border as Inspector of Weights and Measures. He wanted to stay in the army but his wife, also accidental, wouldn't hear of it. 

The Inspector spends much of his time in a border tavern frequented by vagrants, thieves and Russian deserters who drink mead and 99% schnapps, which is illegal, and eat sausage, horseradish and plates of salted peas, occasionally bursting into songs that, far from celebrating their new freedom, bewail instead their lost country, as they drink themselves into a stupor. 'Ja lubyl tibia', is their favourite. 

I googled the song and found a rendition by Alexandra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEZ3WCYCxCc. Here, suddenly, was the music, the hopelessness and diffuse yearning of my forbears, I recognised all the shifts in pace, the scoops of emotion; the border country of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was pulled back from its remoteness into my rarely revived sense of origin. 

I read most of the book in a single day, in refuge from bad weather and insomnia, sinking slowly with Anselm Eibenschütz into the decay of his marriage, the vanity of his job, his infatuation with Euphemia, the gypsy girl, his decline into drink and eventual death.

Joseph Roth died of drink, in Paris, in his forties. He writes with a warm cynicism. Of the origins of the wiliest character in the story, Leibusch Jadlowker, owner of the border tavern, he says:

Rumour had it that Jadlowker had fled from Odessa because he had slain a man with a sugar-loaf. As a matter of fact it was hardly a rumour, it was almost a truth.

This is where a life is lived, between rumour and truth, in countries whose borders are permanently in a state of deliquescence. Anselm Eibenschütz wishes he'd never left the cavalry. The order of the army is such that one doesn't have to face the central void. Whereas the Inspector of Weights and Measures constantly faces the fact that no one's weights and measures are correct. The central void is everywhere.


Monday 27 March 2023

Affinities, Brian Dillon

If I had gone the way of writing thinking books instead of poetic/creative books, I'd write like Brian Dillon in Affinities — and most of his other books — informed by the same impulses, not critical but digressive, sympathetic, reaching for those images and words that have impinged on him and fed him, many of which, especially the words, have also fed me: William H. Gass, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum. 

I start to compile my own book of affinities. Jean-Pierre Richard on Baudelaire's taste, for example. Virginia Woolf. Certain humans, bereft somewhere, bring certain sensations, phenomena, to bear on their creative lives, and are at least momentarily replete. There would be more music, more landscape, in my list.

On holiday in Portugal, as I read Brian Dillon, on this or that bed or beach, P. read The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abrams, which I glanced at, read a sentence or two, and felt that people like him, like David Abrams, academics and professional intellectuals, create a professional distance.  

Brian Dillon inhabits what he is writing about. There is no problem. Images and words compose him: affinities are what he's made of, instances of himself-in-others that he can recognise.  

There are ten short essays on affinity, in among pieces on writers, photographers, and the more personal affinities, not all of them understood with gratitude. Eccentric aunts. Family in general. Wayne Koestenbaum's 'ruinous attachment to the opening theme of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15.'

This affinity, says Koestenbaum, is a kind of crush, and like a crush it tends to mark one out for the moment as faintly mad. The one who feels an affinity embraces knowingly, eagerly, his or her own madness and stupidity, idiocy. Affinity exiles us from consensus, from community.

Like Brian Dillon, I write for as long as the mood is on me, stop when it shifts or vanishes. No sense of a structure or a goal, or even that I've said all there is to say. Impossible, she says. Like the streets of Olhão, wriggling behind the waterfront, now crumbling, now wedding-cake, there is only an end when you give up looking for one.

'I'll side with what I can't understand'

Saturday 25 March 2023

Natalia Ginzburg, All Our Yesterdays

 I finished Natalia Ginzburg, All Our Yesterdays, on the last day of our holiday in Portugal, and was left wondering how she gave us a sense of intimacy with these people, and the war, and the land, without ever seeming to dwell long enough for us to know them, the people, the war, and the land. Yet there is an insistence, as people appear and disappear, marry unsuitably or oddly or not at all, grow old or die or think about how dying would be all right if it happened. We don't need to be told what people's feelings are because the onwardness of events takes the place of individuals and the feelings they might have. Or feelings are not the point. Onwardness, history, the interleaving of people, not even families particularly, any mesh of friends, neighbours, acquaintances. There's a coolness, distance, a looking outward at the broad flow of events, marriage, a baby here or there. Writing is a way of keeping going, not involving, urged by detail, little teeth like a wolf, a mother who works in a cake shop, or arrives from foreign parts with chocolates, goes away to school.

The quietly main character, Anna, becomes pregnant at 16, and marries an older man, a friend of her father's, who tells her a number of times, as most descriptive things like the little teeth of a wolf or a crooked smile or hair like chicken feathers, are said a number of times, that she is an insect and he just a big leaf on which she rests. He hoped she would become a strong woman but she was still an insect who didn't know how to do anything except perch on a big leaf. He is killed at the end of the book, at the end of the war, by the Germans. So, her big leaf gone, with one of her brothers and one of the family from across the road, she considers the long war and the sorrow and noise and confusion, and the long difficult life which they saw in front of them now, full of all the things they did not know how to do.

The chapter when Anna is dealing with, or ignoring, the fact that she is pregnant, about halfway through the book, is one of the few internal moments.

She thought how she had neither father nor mother, and how she had found her brother dead on a seat and how she had a baby inside her. But she had not the courage to tell anybody about the baby, nor had she the courage to go and look for a midwife in the town. It seemed to her that she would have courage only for starting a revolution.

The internal shifts quickly to the external. From the baby inside her to the revolution she might start. This is how we determine what is important. Abruptly. At times you'd least expect.

Our holiday went into a third week because we missed the plane home. There was a strike at the airport. The next day I started reading Natalia Ginzburg again, at first just sentences or paragraphs here and there, then outright I was reading the whole of the second half again, unwilling to leave these people behind, finding the emphases with pleasure, the insect face, the crooked smile and the little wolf teeth, threading the book like pearls.

Friday 3 March 2023

READING AS WAITING

Two books, by Natalia Ginzburg and Brian Dillon, sit untouched on the windowsill downstairs. I bought them for our trip to Portugal and have kept them unopened. Meanwhile, a Raymond Chandler story, Goldfish, a few (unsatisfying) stories by Graham Swift. Most compelling might be the Rough Guide to Portugal, well out of date by now, but full of the charms of the partially unknown: town squares we'll sit in and vistas we'll absorb from hilltops and balconies. 

Graham Swift's Learning to Swim & Other Stories must have been the follow-up to Waterland, which I liked back then for its wet fenland intrigue. These days, his language seems flat and over-expansive. The undertow is on view. There's a completion I don't want and often don't wait for.

'Goldfish' I read by the stove upstairs, published for the 60th anniversary of Penguin, 60p for 60 pages, written by Chandler whose work is so filmed that his words leap off the page and into the stance of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, words for actions, and then the laconic pause that marks the end of one story and the start of another.

Natalia Ginzburg, whom I have been reading on and off for the last number of years, has no completion. You get in, stay a while and get off at what might be the stop at which you began your trip, yet you have travelled a long way to get here.

Brian Dillon's new book Affinities I imagine reading in the Hotel de Moura, a blue and white convent at the foot of the Great Lake; then later in front of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in southeastern Portugal, lying on a sandbank, facing south.

Thursday 23 February 2023

TROPISMES

Tropismes by Nathalie Sarraute has been on the floor near the stove for some months. I read one or two, puzzled, my knowledge of the french language functional but unhelpful. I read in the passing way of the insomniac, uncomprehending and and sometimes content, sometimes irrritated. Then, one evening, I read one or two pieces and recognise something. Clic. Déclic. Myself, namely. The rage—or is it relief?—of Caliban seeing himself in the mirror. 

Nathalie Sarraute writes in a silence broken by the light scratching of her creatures, nameless and close by at all times. People on the side of themselves. To the side. Recounting the little they can say, she can say, as they grow. It only takes a couple of pages. 

Quand il était petit, la nuit il se dressait sur son lit, il appelait. Elles accouraient, allumaient la lumière, elles prenaient dans leurs mains les linges blancs, les serviettes de toilette, les vêtements, et elles les lui montraient. Il n'y avait rien. Les linges entre leurs mains devenaient figés et morts dans la lumière.

Maintenant qu'il était grand, il les faisait encore venir pour regarder partout, chercher en lui, bien voir et prendre entre leurs mains les peurs blotties en lui dans les recoins et les examiner à la lumière.


Monday 20 February 2023

I AM WHERE I THINK

"I am where I think." Elif Batuman explains.

Literature, in short, looks different depending on where you read it: a subject I found myself discussing one afternoon over lunch, in a garden overlooking Tblisi ...

Elif Batuman is american of turkish origin. She is reading russian literature in 2022 in Ukraine and Georgia. 

Gogol's story 'The Nose', in which a nose detaches from its face and becomes an independent being, takes on a glaring meaning in the context of Putin's Russia. Gogol was from Ukraine but wrote in Russia, in russian. Ukraine is the nose on the face of Russia.

My grandparents came from Ukraine, Moldova and Latvia. I grew up in England. I identify with no country, only the patch that I tend and the books I read and write. I live in Ireland, an island at the western extremity of Europe, at the edge of the known world, which spills off the left-hand side of old maps and feeds my innate detachment. 

I read Elif Batuman's article in the bath. Descartes is upended. Afloat. I think therefore I am, becomes, I am where I think.

We need to find new, "contrapuntal ways of reading", she says, and I think of the many tangoes I have experienced reading a couple of books at a time. 

There is no better place than the bath for taking on new ideas.

You are so comfortable they are immediately ideas you've always known.

Friday 17 February 2023

The Middle Voice by Han Kang

I read The Middle Voice, a story by Han Kang, mostly in the middle of the night, where the middle voice speaks.  The middle voice is a greek third voice, reflexive, as in the english 'he hanged himself'. 

Perhaps insomnia is a method. Learn and suffer are nearly the same in greek. What I read in the middle of the night I read exclusively. Nothing else is going on. The world is mute and you are humming peacefully.

The woman in Han Kang's story has long episodes of being unable to move her lips, speak, She writes. Or someone writes. Her son calls her Thickly Falling Snow's Sorrow. His name is Sparkling Forest. 

A korean woman learns classical greek in order to take refuge in another language. To learn its economies and poignancy. To test her own speech. 

No, she says, it isn't that simple.




Wednesday 8 February 2023

VERTICAL READING

Not long after I started a diary, I changed my handwriting to something less schoolgirl, more monk. It made my life feel more vertical, more intense. The onward flow of days was matched by the downward pull of calligraphy. This was where I lived. For sure. 

Casey Cep in The New Yorker reviewed The Wandering Mind by Jamie Kreiner, a study of monkish attention in mediaeval times. Their efforts look both 'riotously strange, yet ....  annoyingly familiar'. How far do you have to go to concentrate properly? 

Thirty-five years on top of a pillar. Twenty days without sleeping. Sixty years living next to a river and never once looking at it. 

What does it take and what are we looking for? Something worthy of our attention, somewhere to rest.


Monday 30 January 2023

SKIMMING

What's wrong with skimming, with being superficial? says Rosalie in Yiyun Li's story, 'Wednesday's Child'?, as she waits for a train in Amsterdam. She has other radical ideas about reading. Couldn't we excise books, like unwanted DNA, she asks. Wanting another opinion, she gave Agota Kristof's Trilogy to her fifteen year-old daughter, Marcie, who soon afterwards walked under a train.

She wished there had been more time for Marcie to skim on the surface of her life. What's wrong with being superficial? With depth always comes pain.
That's why we go on holiday, where the greatest depth you can have is to sit on a rock by the Meeting of the Waters, on a still, quiet day, drinking liquorice tea looking down through the water at coins thrown in for luck or protection, and across the water to the elegant little bridge and the weir we came through with the canoe circa 1992, holding onto a rope to slow our passage through the rushing water. 

The difficulty with waiting, Rosalie thought, is that one can rarely wait in absolute stillness. Absolute stillness?—that part of herself which was in the habit of questioning her own thoughts as they occurred, raised a mental eyebrow. No one waits in absolute stillness, absolute stillness is death; and when you're dead you no longer wait for anything.

The day before I read 'Wednesday's Child', I spent an hour or so skimming Faces in the Water by Janet Frame, a slightly fictionalised account of the years spent in mental institutions. Skimming was all I felt like doing that day. I didn't want to go any deeper or take any longer than that. Which is perhaps why Yiyun Li's story made its impact.

Monday 23 January 2023

JANET FRAME'S CREATURES

The fourth misty day. Reading Janet Frame's stories. How she made short melodies of her childhood stories. Songs in the morning and poems in the afternoon. Naive teaching suits the introspective in the class. Words made music of your awkwardness. Her early stories are tiny sketches of girls with different names but the same, frame, sorry. The story called Dossy stopped me in my insomniac tracks. A story of an imaginary friend, a way-station friend, with whom you can giggle.

The nuns heard someone laughing and they stopped at the gate to see who it was. They say a little girl playing ball by herself on the footpath. It's little Dossy Park, they said. With no mother and living in that poky little house in Hart Street and playing by herself all the time, goodness knows what she'll turn out to be.

 She turned out to be a writer, which she was all along.

Thursday 19 January 2023

Edmund White and Janet Frame: TANGO

When you are confined to quarters in January, even snowed in, nothing better than A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty, by Edmund White, a climate in their own right. 

Like a blind man's hands exploring a face, the memory lingers over an identifying or beloved feature but dismisses the rest as just a curse, a bump, an expanse. Only this feature—these lashes tickling the palm like a firefly or this breath pulsing hot on a knuckle or this vibrating Adam's apple—only this feature seems lovable, sexy. But in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one's improvisations into a quiet new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. ....  I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I've made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something—may even mean something particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader.

I interviewed Edmund White in the 1990s in my office, top floor, number 3 Brighton Villas, on the Western Road. His way of sitting, half-slung and warm, permeates my reading now. A Boy's Own Story has the language of the gods. There's something he needs to create through words that is never quite there when you need it. So you must write.

Because a novel — these words — is a shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living. There is something so insipid about living that to do it at tall requires heroism or stupidity, probably both. Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added.

Last night we watched Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table, from Janet Frame's autobiography. Janet Frame had to write, to keep watch, to touch base, nearly all the time. The world out there, family, friends, society, was not to be trusted. She felt ungainly, unlikely, unlikeable. She had big red hair. An awkward gait. After the death of her father, going through his things, she put on his boots and relived his stance, in low light. Curly, he was called. 

A tango with Edmund White and Janet Frame is the flavour of the week. The strangest tango is the strongest. Edmund White could not keep away from the world. Janet Frame had difficulty being in it.

When I was sixteen, I took out from the library Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame's first novel. In the list at the back of my diary of the books I'd read that year, it came after John Bratby's Breakdown and before Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. That year I read 128 books, though some were followed by NF, for not finished. Owls Do Cry was labelled F, for fair, which meant I didn't get it. John Bratby got A, for awful, and Carlo Levi G for good.

Edmund White said his plots were scrapbooks. Janet Frame might say hers are plucked reconfigurations of the family tapestry. Different names. Different selections. In Owls Do Cry her name is Daphne, her brother is Toby, who takes fits, her sisters Francie and Chicks, their parents Amy and Bob. 

I don't wanner go to school, Toby said. I wanner go to the rubbish dump an' find things.

The lost lives of tyres and hoovers and books. They'd found Grimm's Fairy Tales the last time. Francie dies in a fire at the dump. Chicks, now Teresa, twenty years later has a house built on the dump. While Daphne spends years in a distant dump of her own, a seacliff of lunatics dressed in red flannel sacks and electro petrified every week or two. 'It's up to you to co-operate and pull yourself together.'

Edmund White, Bunny, Dumpling, so comfortable/pained with where he is, always disarmingly in flood, weaving his own tapestry. And then, back on high ground, the freedom of his (perceived) perversity. If it wasn't perverse he might not feel so free. Edmund Valentine White 111.







Tuesday 10 January 2023

READING NOTES HOME AND ABROAD

In northeast London, after reading too much crap, P goes back to Henry James and Joseph Conrad, back to the books he read at college where you had to pay attention to know what was going on. In Brighton, M is reading The Trial and The Waves, in respite from academe and other speaks. In a gallery in Cork, A is reading The True Story of the Brooklyn Bridge UFO Sightings by Budd Hopkins, under plain cover. In a café in Macroom, a woman is reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is somehow invigorating, especially in January. 

Friday 6 January 2023

PSYCHOTHERAPY, the diary

Setting up psychotherapy is the hard part, said Rudy Wurlitzer in New York, Easter 1984. He gave me a copy of Alice Miller The Drama of the Gifted Child which I read on the plane home, thinking that if any of it applied to me I'd have a hard time accepting it.

A conversation last week with C sent me back to my diary of 1984/5. She wanted to know was there a moment in psychotherapy when it all came clear, when you thought, that's it, now I see. It's not quite like that. There aren't revelations, or at least you don't know they're revelations until some time afterwards, when you're starting to learn to live with their truth.

After maybe four or five sessions in which I responded to the questions of M the therapist with what seemed even to me to be neat cameos of my life, she said:

What can I ask you that will make you react? I started to go numb, it began in my chest and into my throat. What conditions do you lay down for my having access to you? Tell me three conditions. I stared out of the window at the cement between the ridge tiles on the garage roof. 'That you be interested', I said weakly, 'that you feel for me'. I couldn't think of more, I couldn't think. I was crying. Leave the tears, said M, don't wipe them away.

It was the start of a very long, slow wash, all the atoms of the fabric of me battered and opened. 

Opening up, what do you think of in that phrase? A void, a huge gaping space, a wound, raw open flesh, I replied.

A year of thinking dangerously. Doing M's homework each week. Making bread. Making mud. Seeking shelter. Asking for things. Thinking about punishment. Writing unsent letters to my parents. You could get it from a book, said M, I'm helping you manage the emotions, so that everyday life can continue, teaching, etc. 

Several months later came another moment.

What do you see when you think of yourself as a small child?

A small lump beneath high-tension cables with an electric pole on either side.

The first image that comes to mind is the most accurate. That small lump between electric poles was one I came to know in the way of rare astounding knowledge that shapes a life. I was an image maker by inclination. Sometimes I could see nothing else. I saw my family in a waste land, on waste ground between houses, among those weeds I've always been drawn to. In dreams I was often on see-through bridges, terrified of the fast black river rushing below.

I wrote four volumes of diary a year back then. As a cast of characters and emotions reels through my life and my diary, my neat, monkish handwriting bursts into capitals and different coloured felt tips, with scribbles that evolve, by mid-late 1985, into drawings. For much of of the duration of therapy I'd lost the ability to listen to music. Now my diary was losing its language. I was scribbling in paint.

The words and the music came back. My solitary life became a life in partnership. Many years later I met M by chance in town and told her she'd turned my life around, and she glowed. 


Tuesday 3 January 2023

PLAGIARISM: the further reaches

I read Kathy Acker and think of Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which I loved in 1978. Reading a few pages brings back all the unsayable,  all the oversaid of that era. Pain can be cloying. These days I am brought to a halt on page 26 by an embedded line of Rilke. Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders? And read no more. In reading Elizabeth Smart I am reading Rilke, Rimbaud, and the Old Testament, to name a few.

Kathy Acker was born a few months after I was. The last section of Tarantula is 'The Story of My Life', September 1973.

1947. I'm born April 18th; my family thinks of itself as aristocratic, though it isn't, since my grandmother (mother's mother) came from Alsace-Lorraine to U.S.A. poor and in her later life married a wealthy man. They properly worship money as do all good Americans. They assure me that only the unworthy work. I will never have to work since I'm rich and will marry rich, that if I ever have to think about money it's because I've come down in the world. They're incredibly stingy with me. These conflicting early trainings make me proud and shy, confident that I'm by nature above other people and aware that everyone, especially my parents, hates me. .... As a baby I spit at whoever I feel like ....

As a writer she spits. She is thrown in prison for trying to figure out her desires. Or is that the Marquis de Sade? She has read Alexander Trocchi, Lesley Blanch, author of The Wilder Shores of Love (and, my first cookbook, Around the World in Eighty Dishes) WB Yeats, Dickens.

This is writing through your reading. Kathy Acker has a lot more starting torque than Elizabeth Smart. A lot more hatred.

My mother wanted to make me exactly like her. I look like her; we both have large eyes, same bone structure, thick child's skin, dark brown hair, purple lips. We're fond of our bodies and wilful. From the first day I was born and hypocritically smiling, pretending I was happy, I opposed her: I set myself against her so that I should become someone else. She began outwardly to hate me when I began to menstruate. She wanted me to be nothing, like her.

Her autobiography segues into that of the Marquis de Sade. As, in earlier chapters, she copies events from other writers and in copying becomes their characters. Language creates her, not necessarily her own language. It is compelling to write down the words of others. If by reading you become the characters you're reading about, by copying other writers' words you embody them, inhabit them, and so release yourself from yourself. Which was maybe what she, like many writers, especially poets, was trying to do all along.