JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Sunday 14 July 2024

Sebald & Bone the Dancer

This is a Sebald summer, I'll reread everything. After The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants. One of Sebald's emigrants is Paul Bereyter, an ideal teacher, if you could have one, who brought his children on his own quest, outdoors as often as possible.The great thing about rereading books is how the complexities build, your own and the writer's, and some of them turn into music.   

... Paul told me that as a child he had once his summer holidays in Lindau, and had watched from the shore every day as the train trundled across from the mainland to the island and from the island to the mainland. The white clouds of stem in the blue air, the passengers waving from the windows, the reflection in the water — this spectacle, repeated at intervals, so absorbed him that he never once appeared on time at the dinner table all that holiday, a lapse that his aunt responded to with a shake of the head that a grew more resigned every time, and his uncle with the comment that he would end up on the railways.

Paul Bereyter ended up purposefully lying on the railway tracks, a good choice of death for a claustrophobic. Sebald is so good at partly redeemed sadness. 

Circa 1978 I wrote On Foot the Velvet Odyssey, the strange non-tale of Bone the dancer, his town, his being, and how he drew them, their voices, their footfall, all of them and their dead, into Wyse's Meadow for a grand finale. I looked at it again in 2022, and transcribed the first few pages onto the computer from a blurred carbon copy sent to a friend who kindly returned it, without comment, I think. What happened to the top copy I don't know. Then, in 2024,  Jack the dancer from Australia came here looking for earth; he brought some spare of his own, in case, and found he was already in a novel since before he was born, before his nickname was Bones or he knew about loss, or earth. He stayed in our cabin for two weeks and realised he'd been here all along. What happens in your novel, he asked. I've come ten thousand miles to find myself in a novel, I need to know. I have been looking, Jack, to see what happens. It may take some time.



Thursday 4 July 2024

SCHERRY SHI

There's an election in your country today, said M. with a certain sharpness.

It isn't my country, I said, and you can't decide for me. 

You're British and you always will be, she went on.

No, I never felt British. My country is the place where I've dug and planted. Where I've nested. 

Scherry Shi was born in China, lives in London, her parents are in New Zealand; she is thinking about these things in a more immediate way than I am. You could see it in the way she moved between the tables at the book fair where we met her.  She made a small book called departure, of softened photographs and some text. Departure /from air /from soil /from water

...  I could not stop thinking of my homes, which I depart from, which I return to, of those within me, of those away from me; of those above the earth, of those on the ground.

Home is where I was, where I am and where I may be in the future.

Reading Sebald in bed, talking to M in the morning, working in the veg plot in the afternoon, looking at Scherry Shi's book in the evening.

Sunday 23 June 2024

Herzog is the voice of Sebald

I was reading Sebald up at the pond  — I'm halfway into The Rings of Saturn, his journey down the east coast of england — and the voice of Werner Herzog came through. We watched his film about the practice, the business, in Japan of actors standing in for missing relatives, a father, for example. So Werner and Max (Sebald was Max to his friends) meet up at the pond on the warmest afternoon this year. In the half-light of East Anglia, where I grew up, Max is plugging for home, but along the way he excursions with Conrad to the Congo, second-longest river in the world, and to China with a miniature railway engine fetched up in Lowestoft, Suffolk, and lastly the propeller plane from Amsterdam back to Norwich. Werner lives in Los Angeles. He is all over the world, as far away as mind and body can go, he is up on deck, a slight smile on his face, interrogative, explanatory, quiet. In both voices, Werner's and Max's, there is the soft german sense of offering, of willingness, Max's more learned, yet quizzical, as he makes his way down the east coast of England, Werner's — and this is film, not the page — more benign compère. The modern german voice does not want to impose, but is so pleased to reveal. I was reading Max and I could hear Werner. The hawker dragonfly is here again. And the electric blue darter. Small frogs are assimilating into the pondside and beyond.

Sunday 16 June 2024

A COMMON PARADISE

The Garden Against Time, IN SEARCH OF A COMMON PARADISE by Olivia Laing, who is restoring a garden in Suffolk, reading Thomas More, Thomas Browne, John Clare, W.G. Sebald, William Morris, Derek Jarman, and making an argument for the commons, for the commonality of land, the primacy of land in our lives. 

I read the first half very fast, then a pause, then the last two sections up at the pond today, with intermittent sun and very small frogs, much smaller than their late tadpole state, it seemed, hopping in and out of the pond. 

Olivia Laing's book made me think about what we're doing here, our moves towards commonality. People come here and walk about and help. 'It's almost offensively stunning', said Jack the dancer from Australia, who's staying in the cabin, after his first walkabout last week at the champagne hour, early evening. 'It's like a dream', said Jyeung from South Korea. Inspiring. Paradise. Several people  have said.  Paradise is offensively stunning. Why? 

Olivia Laing answers that question to some degree.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

RUNNING WITH THE RAMSAYS

I read To the lighthouse for epiphanies, up at the pond last week, for recognition and comfort, and then, unwilling to let it go, start reading the book again at night. Around and beneath the epiphanies, Mrs Ramsay wrestles with the question of rich and poor, Lily Briscoe, out in the garden with her easel and her painting—that reddish brown patch is Mrs Ramsay at the window knitting woollen stockings for the lighthouse keeper's boy— wrestles with Mr Ramsay's idea of reality which seems to be summed up by a plain deal table upside down in a tree. Mr Ramsay is a tyrant looking for sympathy. Mrs Ramsay can only rest when her youngest is asleep. Children remember everything, she says. An hour later, still awake, I try to remember the names of the eight Ramsay children, in pairs and singly, Jasper and Rose, Andrew and Prue, James and Cam. This borrowed family gathers other borrowed families as it goes along, other recessive guests, called Lily, William, Augustus, with their half-eaten internal dramas in the manner of Tchekov, Kurt Lippa for example, who grew up in Macau and played ferocious table tennis, loved Schubert and bel canto, an Austrian Jew who— 

Nocturnal reading is a parallel world, parallel and permeable. Reading Virginia Woolf up at the pond in June is not the same as reading her at night, a second time. Last week it was part of a bigger rhythm. The second time, every line is particular, my rest places are different: Mr and Mrs Ramsay, the eight children, the summer house on Skye. How Virginia Woolf refashioned her family into this book, ran with them again. This is what you have to do, what writing is for. 


Monday 3 June 2024

VIRGINIA WOOLF, summer

Yesterday in the New Yorker I read Anthony Lane on Blinkist, the app for people who don't want to read the whole book. Most of the books on Blinkist are on how to survive/make billions. So many books on self-improvement, how to deal with this or that. Maybe Blinkist is giving these books what they deserve. They also reduce Jane Austen, Wittgenstein, John Milton. What do they deserve?

Today I read Virginia Woolf up at the pond.  To the Lighthouse. This was where I wanted to be. Reading sentences and paragraphs as they were written at a particular time by a particular person, V. Woolf in the afternoon, with her roll-ups and her writing board, finding her Moments. By late afternoon, not quite sunny but warm, more than halfway through the book, I can read the way a horse can break into a run, the way a cat can while away the time on warm liscannor stones, what I'm reading is an equivalence of where I am. To the lighthouse and the surface of the pond, the plants around it, the changing sky, the dreams I had last night and the night before, Mrs Ramsay coming to herself after the children have gone to bed, Lily Briscoe in and out of her painting, Mr Ramsay tying the laces on his beautiful boots — he had a way of tying laces so they never came undone — his wife's astonishing beauty, beautiful phrases, beautiful pictures, shadows in the fruit bowl, as long as no one wanted a pear, the astonishing beauty of the pond.

But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything.

I asterisked that passage many years ago. What is the difference between a Blink and a Moment? Do you play your days like a piano or trust the algorithm? The blackbird has a bath in the pond. A couple of planes go over. North wind. They come this way when there's a wind from the north. 

Wednesday 29 May 2024

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF READING

 

                LETTER L

                Selborne, April 21st, 1780

DEAR SIR,

                The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property. I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing; and, packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises. The rattle and hurry so roused it that, when it turned out in a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden; however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried itself in the loose mould and continues still concealed.

I am nearing the end of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, my nocturnal book for the past few weeks. Apparently Gilbert White did not enjoy coach journeys, and took days afterwards to recover. Maybe the tortoise did too. The tortoise is more ancient than humanity. Sleep may be the key.

When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than half of its existence in joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.

Gilbert White was mainly interested in birds, but he also recounts other creatures, insects, the weather and labourers' wages, quotes latin and greek as among friends. Nature is his language; swallows, swifts and martins are his dialect, the letter his natural form. He was convinced that swallows did not go south in winter but withdrew some few hundred yards to a sheltered spot. A natural history always includes some wishful thinking.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

UNE IMAGE PEUT-ETRE VRAIE

I like the french title une image peut-être vraie better than the english, Alex Cléo Roubaud, a portrait in fragments. The english brings out frenchness, not french, nor Alex Cléo Roubaud — her full name, her photos, her notebooks and letters — more the neutral catalogue quality that Hélène Giannechini brings to her appraisal of a short life in words and pictures, like a laying out, a door closing in great detail.

I'm well-placed to read her on a changeable afternoon in May, but I don't want to. An old unwillingness to recognise what I know best, creeps over me on the sofa in the new room, the cat asleep not far away, a few heavy showers, thunder yesterday, peppers planted out, borlotti beans started. 

A penultimate page entitled (BLACK) shows a photograph of six window panes and a cord-pull with a driveway, lawns, a belt of trees.

Let's pull the cord, hide the last photograph from view. I'll leave Alix's memory there. I wanted to write between the pieces of evidence. An account has emerged. Memories are words, and archives are documents.

       Fleshing Alix out in fiction was not my intention; I worked in the interstices between the traces of her that remain.

        This is not a photograph of Allix's life, but fragments of her work; scattered shards.

        A picture that may be true.

The Sylph Editions translation by Thea Petrou, ends with a letter to Hélène Giannechini. 

Making then, not taking. Through your wandering into the lexical fields of memory, action painting, dance, bullfighting, medicine and eroticism, I have followed Alix's processes in the darkroom and observed the imposition of her own physicality — a performance — on the film. And now I see the pictures, what they are made of.

    Thank you, Hélène.



Tuesday 21 May 2024

SEASONAL

No month more than May pushes reading out of doors. Different books for different moments, different pockets of the garden. What to read where is the great question.

Alix Cleo Roubaud, a portrait in fragments by Hélène Giannecchini, translated by Thea Petrou, a young Canadian woman in France in the seventies and eighties, who took photographs, wrote letters and journals, had an affair with Jean Eustache, married Jacques Roubaud, died young, of a pulmonary embolism. Where do you read that?  

Not up at the pond on a sunny afternoon. Or up at the reservoir, with swims. Where Guy Davenport reigns, this year, or William Saroyan, for their intimate rhetoric, their matching of words to moments. Gilbert White for the small hours. Consideration of the swallow family and their variety, or why the cuckoo farms out her eggs. He hopes for a physiological explanation but there is none. He considers hedgehogs, witchcraft. He wants the swallow to hibernate in his village, though all the evidence is for winter migration. He loves the word, nidification. It is a pleasure to think of him in his house called The Wakes in the mid-late eighteenth century, observing his place, Selborne, in Hampshire, writing letters to like-minded scholars of the natural world, as I lie there, less interested in sleep than I was.

Sunday 12 May 2024

EXPLOSION IN A CATHEDRAL

Whoever I was who read Explosion in a Cathedral in the early nineteen seventies, I cannot imagine, it's hard to summon former selves, so I read fast now, looking for places to rest. 

Why did Alejo Carpentier choose to imagine the ripples of the French Revolution in the Caribbean, through a trio of young, stranded people. Orphans. What did he need from it?  In the early nineteen seventies, speaking for myself, maybe strangeness was enough. The strangeness of the world for orphans especially on Caribbean islands. Every new turn cuts through everything.

That's how I would have written in the early nineteen seventies.

In truth I can't read Alejo Carpentier now. 

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Car Boot Sale, Blarney,. Bank Holiday Monday

Car Boot Sale Blarney, Bank Holiday Monday, the GAA pitch, I had walked the line the night before, from 2.30 onwards into the a.m. so was in no fit state, I could only look for books, or maybe plates and glasses. The complete works of Henry Williamson, for example. I should have bought Tarka the Otter, and The Beautiful Years, I loved them when I was twelve or thirteen. Henry Williamson's daughter cut my hair around then. There were beautiful years if you were this deep in the countryside. There was more than one copy of Akenfield. Plus Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne. Which house clearance did this come from, I wondered. Who were these readers?  These owners? I was in no fit state to ask.

I bought Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, a 1970s Penguin edited by Richard Mabey; as you turn the pages there's a strong smell of mothballs. And a Mason's blue Regency dinner plate. Pete bought a cement White Rabbit in a red and black waistcoat, for his next performance. A girl with false eyelashes held a ruched pale blue satin against her thin body. It's a bit long, she said. It rides up when you walk, said the vendor, the vendeuse.

Gilbert White had the living of Selborne, as they used to say. His house was called The Wakes.You were left alone to be awake, to observe, if you were a parson in an English village in the mid-eighteenth century, you wrote letters full of your observations and queries. The beautiful years, indeed. Giving names to birds and listening to their song, imagining their migration. 

I met Davina the window cleaner in Ballincollig this morning, outside the Quay Coop. She had been at the Car Boot Sale. I told her about the blue silk dress riding up and she liked that. Her brother and sister-in-law had pitches there. Home made cakes and bric-à-brac, old tools, you know. 


Tuesday 30 April 2024

SOUTH AMERICA: CLARICE, ALEJO CARPENTIER

I have been in Brazil in the early evening, and the Colombian jungle at night, reading Clarice Lispector Too Much of Life and Alejo Carpentier The Lost Steps. Clarice is one of my familiars. Alejo Carpentier I have not read since the early 1970s, when I was reading and rereading A Hundred Years of Solitude and Borges' stories, 

I don't often sense a continent, even a half-continent through its literature. Europe I suppose I take for granted. People want to go to South America, I wanted to go to Macchu Picchu. I saw a picture and that the village I wanted to see, to be alone in a ruined, terraced village, looking out. Until I realised it was sold, there were queues, a problem with rubbish. I  read South America instead. Watched Fitzcarraldo. Read A Hundred Years of Solitude, again and again. Borges and Alejo Carpentier in my twenties and thirties

I liked the way they brought me on. I had a taste for what I didn't understand.

The narrator of The Lost Steps leaves City and Actor Wife, to go There, with mistress Mouche, the Colombian jungle, on a search for old musical instruments. Here. Mouche sickens in the jungle and Rosario comes forward, out of the earth. Your Woman. There. He goes further into the jungle, writing his bildungsroman, his threnody, on ever diminishing notebooks.He needs to go back to City for fresh supplies.

Clarice has enough paper. 

A work of art is an act of madness on the part of the creator. .... The madness of creators is different from the madness of the mentally ill. The latter, for reasons unknown to me, have chosen the wrong path. They are cases for doctors, while creators find fulfillment in their own act of madness.

 

Monday 22 April 2024

Shirley Jackson & Guy Davenport up at the pond

Into the clear space left by reading Platonov, walks Shirley Jackson. We watched a film about her in which Shirley was played by a surly, slovenly Elizabeth Moss, and so I re-read We Have Always Lived in the Castle with her face in mind, her malicious demeanour. So childish you want to slap her. I wanted to get to the end of the book in order to get away from her. 

For our first pond day since — October? —  I read an article in the New Yorker about a singer whose sudden fame so knocked her sideways she went to Harvard to do a masters in divinity. 

For the second day, Guy Davenport, Ten Stories. All your curiosity focussed on the here and now. The socks going off, the icelandic jumper, too big, going on. 

In 'Belinda's World Tour', Kafka writes letters to Lizaveta from her doll Belinda, which she lost in the park, the first tragedy of her life.

Belinda did not have time to tell you herself. While you were not looking, she met a little boy her own age, perhaps a doll, perhaps a little boy, I couldn't quite tell, who invited her to go with him around the world. But he was leaving immediately. There was no time to dally. She had to make up her mind then and there. Such things happen. Dolls, you know, are born in department stores, and have a more advanced knowledge than those of us who are brought to houses by storks. We have such limited knowledge of things.

Belinda marries her abductor, Rudolf, yes, at Niagara Falls, and they are en route for the Argentine.

You must come visit our ranch. I will remember you forever. Mrs Rudolph Hapsburg und Porzelan (your Belinda). 

 

Tuesday 16 April 2024

MEAGRE LIVES VAST LAND

Andrey Platonov's Chevengur is a large book about meagre lives in a vast land—southern Russia after the revolution. I read it in bed, during round two of a bad cold, at first put off by the size of it, in hardback too, but then grateful for the heft of the book, the chalky, well-designed pages that stay open if you put the book aside.  Most days, with rests between chapters, I found it beautiful. 

On the first page is a man alone who can fix or equip anything, who in summer lives out in the open with his tools in a sack. He treated people and fields with 'an indifferent tenderness, not infringing on their interests'. He is the first in a novel full of people adrift in some expectation of communism, which, according to one man 'might inadvertently have come about somewhere or other, since there was nothing people could do with themselves except join together out of fear of troubles and the strengthening of need.'

To call their lives meagre already seems wrong, as I lie in bed, under a duvet, with a cup of hot ginger to hand. Elemental? Desperate? No. Not any more than Beckett's characters are desperate. They are too far beyond. And, as with Beckett, therein lies the beauty. To say they live close to the land is an understatement. They are of the land and the land is of them. And the sky, the sun and the moon and the stars. They have nothing and expect nothing.

When property lies between people, they calmly expend their powers on concerns about that property, but when there is nothing between people, then they choose not to part from one another and to preserve one another from cold in their sleep.

Chevengur is a village in the steppes that has been cleared of its bourgeoisie and occupied by what one of the 'organisers' calls 'the proletariat and others'.

These others are simply others. Worse than proletariat—no one and nobody. .... They're fatherlessness. ... They were living nowhere. They wander.

They are wandering, one man suggests, if you want to put a word on it, to communism. And Chevengur has communism. This is stated as the vaguest and most definite of facts. These others had their first sense of the world in cold, in grass made moist by traces of their mother, and in aloneness. Not one of the others had ever seen their father. There are characters who read books, who fix things, mend roofs, collect plants for food, and so on, but the others sound like a barely perceptible human note. They are the disparate mass on the fringes of the masses, the proletariat, history's detritus. Here's one of them, thinking.

What first took place in him and his fellow others was not thought but a certain pressure of dark warmth. Then, one way or another, thought would speak its way out, cooling as it escaped.

I read Platonov for these depictions. For this slightness of life amid the vast spaces of the steppes. Since I was a child I have been bewitched by the phrase 'the steppes of Central Asia', the extent of them needing no support from the music of the same name by Borodin, nor the realisation from looking at a map, of their enormous extent, from Ukraine to China.

There is little difference between clear consciousness and the vision of dreams—what happens in dream is the same life, only its meaning laid bare.

Monday 8 April 2024

TRANSIT

Anna Seghers' Transit has been in transit on the floor for several months, beside my chair. When I bought it I read a paragraph and sensed a depth I wasn't in the mood for. Then the other day, now that it's Spring, I picked it up, read the first few pages and found that, despite the moment in history — Europe evacuating ahead of Hitler's armies— there was a lightness of touch, almost a casualness. The narrator, who's young, German, but not Jewish, makes his way to Marseille, the only open port in France, seething with refugees looking for exit visas, transit visas, boat tickets, friendly folk in consulates, lost husbands and wives, manuscripts in suitcases, trying to get to Colombia, Mexico, Martinique, America, via Spain or Casablanca or Lisbon, anywhere out of this world. Transit is a seething surface; depth is optional or a distraction in late 1940 in Europe. People meet in cafés, eat pizza, marvel at pizza, pluck coffee beans out of barley to have one real cup a week, drink rosé on the nights they serve alcohol, talk through where they are and where they might go, under which name, hide behind newspapers when they don't want to talk, change their mind and their name, if it suits. Every ship might be the last ship, and if you do get on, to Brazil or Mexico, it might sink, and then all there'd be, if you're fortunate, is this permeable story, persistently in flux, which you have told. As the narrator says to the American consul, 'all those writers who were in the concentration camp with me, who escaped with me, it seems to me that we lived through these most terrible stretches in our lives just so we could write about them: the camps, the war, escape and flight.'

There's a strange levity about this. Anna Seghers herself left Germany in 1933, then was interned in France because she was a communist and a jew; she escaped from the camp and left Europe with her husband and two children, from Marseille, in 1940. She went to Mexico where she wrote this book, framing it as a kind of thriller with a young male narrator who uses, by accident really, the identity of a writer who has committed suicide.

The narrative thread is what you need to wend your way through the bureaucratic flux of transit. Any story will do, there are as many stories as there are refugees, stories of escape and documentation, boats that sink and boats that don't leave. Less dark than Kafka, less esoteric than Borges, and far less dated than we would like, now, in 2024, when travel is closer to travail than ever, and the world is filled with displaced people, 110 million at the last count.


Tuesday 2 April 2024

WENDELL BERRY

I heard Pete's account of reading Wendell Berry's Stand by Me, a collection of his stories, while we were in Portugal. It was hard to get into, he said, old-fashioned, so many people you don't know if you should remember them all. It gets better, he said, as he went on, and eventually he was engrossed. 

Feeling ill and staying in bed for a day is a bit like being on holiday. The view is down to one window, it's quiet, there's nothing else you're capable of doing. Stand by Me is a substantial book, capable of seeing even a rapid reader like me through a day or two. I have liked Wendell Berry's essays, up to a point. He can be too earnest. But the stories in Stand by Me gather momentum. Perhaps there is no other way to persuade of the value of land, of community, than by weaving tales of the same group of people, involved in the same activities, interconnected, part of a membership, as one character, Burley Coulter, likes to say. The penultimate story, 'Fidelity', is about the death of Burley Coulter, and, debilitated as I was on Easter Monday, disinclined for much more than the smudge of a purple honesty flower outside the window, I was racing toward the end of the story. I had joined this small community of people gathered in the lawyer's office to bring about the defeat of a young detective who's trying to figure out how Burley Coulter was kidnapped from the hospital and taken to a reassuring death on land that he knew.

I read about this membership and their landedness and their mutual affection and support with awe. I have no experience of this. I never will. You can't buy this as real estate or gather it up in pots at a garden centre and plant it. Yet I know the attention to land. Mat Feltner in 'The Boundary', an old man going to check a fence down a stream he has known all his life, clambers in the company of the dead and, on the way back up, tired at the end of the day, all but joins them. I think I have practised this kind of attention since I was very young, claiming woods, fields and streams wherever I found them, adjacent to where I lived and even passingly, from a paused bus or train. I have that need to occupy land. Wendell Berry is the doyen of this kind of occupation. 

Saturday 30 March 2024

REREADING UTOPIA

Last year we invited people to write a few lines about utopia, their idea of a society in which they'd like to live. We talked to people in Cobh, County Cork, and emailed friends. We thanked everyone who gave it thought and wrote it down, as well as those whose silence made us wonder why it is so hard to think beyond the confines of the society we are in. 

Utopia? That isn't real 

Utopia? Cobh is a very historical place

Utopia? It never works out, I hear

Utopia is a cas limite. Hard to imagine beyond the reality that surrounds you and you imagine an ideal, though you may not like the word. Take a leap. You have the time, the freedom. 

You have a neck, use it, Tony O'H used to say. 

Tread softly for you tread on my dreams. Mr Yeats.

It's a privilege to bear witness to your ideals. Bernard Laughlin.

A plague mentality has overtaken us. A  state of ranting and whingeing. We only have time for opposition. Utopia isn't opposition, it's dreaming radically and convincingly beyond your current state. 

Friday 22 March 2024

HOLIDAY READING

Read the first chapter of Lynne Tillman on the plane, Haunted Houses. Too speedy at thirty-seven thousand feet. A quick whizz through the early lives of three girls,  Short sentences. All emotion kept to the full stops. I already had enough haunting of my own. I was impatient with Jane, Grace and Emily. I wanted to sleep. The cloud cover over southern Portugal was frayed underneath, shreds of it dangling in yellowish light as we approached the airport. 

On the communal bookshelf in the guest house in Tavira, on the main square, by the Ponta Romana, I found Graham Norton. 'Like sucking on sweets', said one of the puffs. I knew Graham Norton when he was twenty or so. He was defensive/derisive then. So I expected him to be wielding his material with some mix of his former self. But no. He was right in his small town mystery and the concoction of his plot. As advised I read  Forever Home at a gallop. It's a deepening puzzle, a domestic mystery plot, with wit, description, decisions and solutions in West Cork, a little emotion, not enough to be frightening, enough to affirm, in view of a positive outcome. Well, Graham, I would hardly have recognized you if you weren't so famous.

The next day we took a long walk along the beach, into the rising mist and the sun. Thinking about footprints and sand, how far we've come, how far to go, to the anchor cemetery where we learn the history of tuna fishing, its energy and then its demise. There's yellow broomrape in the marshes. Broomrape grows on the energy of other plants. Resplendent yellow flowers on a fat stem coming out of nowhere. The tuna do not run any more, straight in April into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, athwart in September, the other way around. Seventy men, fourteen boats that formed a circle in which the massive tuna were trapped. A whole summer of work back then.

On the beach by the tuna cemetery I read the first paragraph of 'The Umbrella' by Tove Ditlevsen, and stopped, so pleased by this quietude, this unpromise. Every usual situation undermined, under threat. The stories in The Trouble with Happiness are very short, no one comes out of them well. Something that was already underway has come to a head and the future will scarcely be different. Writing is more than redemptive. It is a lone signal of being alive. My nephew Tom was in a band called Redemption but did not know what the word meant.

Hallélujah, says the accordion on the Ponta Romana, Tavira, that evening.

There's a wooden hut with a rusty padlock we occupy most of the day on the beach. We have a table for lunch, an old plank. Bread, cheese, tomatoes, olive oil. I read a Tove Ditlevsen story and then lie back. 

On the plane home I am still not ready for Lynne Tillman. My neighbour is a large woman in red who is doing Tesco Sudoku puzzles and eating crackers and chocolate biscuits alternately..  


Saturday 9 March 2024

Greetings from the Countryside (Strong Emotions)

An exchange between Judy Kravis and Laura Fitzgerald 

Hi Laura,

I've been reading your Greetings from the Countryside (Strong Emotions).

Good to see it on the page, with time to mull over your version of land etc.

You are so much of the place, by birth and more, whereas we have come in and made a place our own.

Strong emotions in either case. You by birthright and we by no right, as some would say.

Our immediate neighbours, and we only have one lot, have told us that everyone around here hates us.

Which isn't true, but they'd just like company for their own hatred.

I asked another neighbour a mile or two away, from a small farm in west cork herself, why they hate us.

She said it's because we're english by birth and they think we're better than them.

Becoming irish is no answer. You have to have a couple of people in the ground to be irish, someone told us.

And if you do, it's just another set of problems isn't it ....

Hope the exhibition went well. Do come visit if you're coming this way,

all the best,

Judy xx

Hello Judy,

I think the above email is very much a thing in itself, a container story. It's complex isn't it ... we all do and don't belong. Sure I think I'm probably Norman given the Fitzgerald, who knows who plundered what if you go back far enough ...

Thanks so much for buying a copy of the publication. I'm very glad I was able to make the printed version, the gallery were very good to me.

I hope we can manage to meet up over the summer, yourself and Peter are very welcome to call to us in Inch also. I'm sure Dad would enjoy showing you around.

Thanks for the great email/short story!

Best wishes,

Laura

Friday 1 March 2024

LEAP DAY

Yesterday afternoon I nearly dozed reading Sleepless by Marie Darrieussecq, by the stove, entranced by these literate non-sleepers, Kafka, Proust, Duras and many fellows who wrote out of and into their sleeplessness. Nothing like other people's failure to sleep for making you sleepy. This a leap year so we should leap. With friends, if possible. 

Friday 23 February 2024

the oligarch's son, a harsh male predicament

A few pages into The Man from the Sea by Michael Innes, last of the old green penguin mysteries I've been reading at night, I found this:

Even as he stared at the other naked man he recognised within his own physical response a thrill of pleasure. What had risen from the sea was some harsh male predicament to which he responded as a release.

The one on the beach is naked because he is on, in, an assignation — the dark word still excited him — with the wife of local nouveau laird and scientist, Alex Blair. The man from the sea is a fugitive, a belt about his middle and a wisp of fabric round his loins, his secrets everywhere.

I read The Man from the Sea over a week or so, at night, without interest in the plot or its outcome, pausing where I paused, absorbing the costume and circumstance of new characters, then forgetting them. On the last page the man from the sea, a nuclear scientist with not long to live, walks back into sea in the clothes of the local nouveau laird and scientist, his daughter, not his wife, now the focus, as well as an Australian girl cousin called Georgiana, like someone out of Jane Austen gone walkabout. 

Dovetailed into this in my reading life, an article in the New Yorker called 'The Oligarch's Son', about a boy called Zac Brettler aged nineteen in London, who jumped off a posh balcony near Vauxhall Bridge, in order to live or in order to die, is unclear.  Another harsh male predicament. He changed his name, he was a not-quite from Maida Vale, he thought, a fabulist in a maelstrom of russian and arab rich kids.  He would rather be an oligarch's son, his mother in Dubai, everyone at a distance, various businesses on course. His actual parents in Maida Vale utterly perplexed and sad. 

At the end of The Man from the Sea I'd learned more about the author and his times than about the plot. A nineteen fifties fable. At the end of 'The Oligarch's Son' I've learned the fragility of whoever jumped off the posh balcony, to live or to die, the fabulist teenager in oligarchs' London laundry, in deeper than he could manage. Whether or not he was on heroin is immaterial, who he called and what he googled before jumping off the balcony towards the Thames. To live or to die. All part of the harsh male predicament.


Thursday 15 February 2024

INCURABLE

This afternoon I listened to Daniel Michael Kaiser's translation of incurable into music, a music of disappearing, almost a non-music, DK says. All rhythms were suddenly strange, every pause uncertain. The singing voice dancing over what I wrote and how I have read it out loud, to say nothing of how it took form in the first place. A manifestation of how DK made his way through it, what resonances he found and how the singer sings them.

The best part of listening is I have no words for it. I barely have words for what I write. I listened with bated breath on a broad plain. A thin fabric, translucent, seemingly improvised (although it is not). I wanted to focus on the resonance, he says. The reverb was recorded in an abandoned sugar factory tower.

Hard to listen on the computer, such thin sound. Brings you up short. I wanted to hear this sung version in all its literal resonance, this light incantation, translucent, yes. And all the time I was pulling on what I wrote seven years ago. incurable 'A tense and gnomic journey into the past as it resonates during a difficult long moment in the present, with personal photographs and influential images from the dangerous years of growing up', I said.

Thursday 8 February 2024

BLOG MYSTERIES

At night I have been reading mid-twentieth century mystery novels, the penguins with the green covers, by Margery Allingham, Josephine Bell, Carter Dickson. There was a moment in the 1970s when people I knew were reading mysteries, as well as a brief moment when a well-digger asked me what I wrote— mysteries? No, I said, I write about here, and waved an arm around.

Margery Allingham wrote in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, a few miles from where I grew up. Josephine Bell took medical tripos at Cambridge and poverty in Shadwell Basin. Carter Dickson, one of his names, writes a faux breezy pulp style.

Dream fodder. Expurgation. People running through. He Wouldn't Have Killed Patience? The Port of London Murders. Who wants to know? I, said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow. 

The solution is there. Any problem will do.

In a mystery there are so many people with attributes —looks, job, circumstance — in truth I have little patience, but to be led along the mystery of death or deaths is to ignore nearly everything else, which is the whole idea, and only incidentally or par hasard, find what you are looking for. 

Last night I dreamed I looked around at this line of people, that crowd, these few, who would all soon be dead, all of us, I knew — look again, dead again.

Sunday 28 January 2024

SELF-PORTRAITS, AGED THIRTY-ONE

When I was thirty-one I wrote a self-portrait every day for a year. I typed it out, a folder per month, a page or so a day. For example:

I like valleys, not wind, and sea and mountains only on royal days when I'm ready.

What I like best of all is a hand upon my forehead or the world somehow exactly equal to that as I watch from beside a tree.

I'm honestly selfish, and in lucid, plain moments think that others are mostly dishonestly unselfish.

I've always thought I'd never really been hurt. But sometimes I believe I've been hurt on a grand scale.

For a week in March I drew a self-portrait instead. Mostly patterns, one or two words. In July I went to visit my parents. Hand-written and noticeably blunt. I have been clearing out a filing cabinet and found these, among other files, manuscripts, clippings, photographs, envelopes—many envelopes. Hard to know what speed to take a dismantling of this kind. How much to read and how fast. Lecture notes on Pinget, Cocteau, Baudelaire. A story collection called Cacti and Succulents, three copies. Music notes for Monday Night At Home, a radio piece. An early artist book called Suckling Herd, hand-written on a blotting paper book, with tipped-in extracts from the Farmers' Journal.  

Dizzying.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

NOT READING BUT FLYING

I knew as I neared the end of Inland by Gerald Murnane, that I would immediately start reading it again now I was attune to the shifting forms and spaces, multiple identities and unfulfilled histories, now I was a fully-fledged reader, I wouldn't need to keep re-reading the beginning, as I did the first time, to settle, as I thought, questions of who was where and in what language, between which rivers, with a view of what kinds of grasslands, inner and outer. This time I would not need to settle anything. As I began, I found I was turning the pages with the joy of dream-flying, Look! no hands, on a bicycle, the glorious understatement of the moment when horses no longer gallop but are said to break into a run.

The boy-man between two streams, on the grasslands, the same and different grasslands, same and different girl-woman, many names, many plants, a science everywhere if you're looking, the more you look the more enraptured and uneasy you become. Gerald Murnane, like Proust, like Virginia Woolf, makes you inhabit your own thoughts in the guise of his. The hungarian puszta, the faux american prairie, the grasslands of Melbourne County, the grasslands beyond where you live, between two creeks that flow down the map but never join up. People live between them and are fashioned by them, they have been ousted and must resettle between another pair of creeks, the same and different. As every person is many people, every name many names, every word many words, every grassland multiple within and without. There is another world but it is inside this one. Gerald Murnane kneads this Eluard line across several pages, stays with it, plays with it in the middle of the book, and we, his readers, often invoked, stay and play too. The room in which we read splits slightly for a moment to show what's inside.

When we were driving around Australia I wrote down the name of every creek we crossed. When I drove round North America in 1980-1, south from New York, west from New Orleans, north from L.A,  east from northern California, I noted all those You Are Now Entering boards at the edge of towns with name, elevation and population. Entering Ideal, South Dakota, elevation 12, Population 57. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

LITTLE WOMEN KNOW THEIR FABRICS

On foot of seeing the last half hour of a film adaptation of Little Women the other day, I started reading the book for the first time since I was maybe ten or twelve. On page 37, a word leapt off the page: spandy. Not sure I've ever had the experience of a word coming to greet me in quite that way, sharp and clear after many many years. I must have liked it when I was twelve or so. I may not have seen it since. According to the OED it is American English and first appeared in 1830. Frequency: 0.01 in a million. Louisa May Alcott comes up as one of the prime users.

The two older girls are getting ready to go to a party. They'll have to wear their poplins, and be presentable.

"Girls, girls! have you both got nice pocket-handkerchiefs? "Yes, yes, spandy nice, and Meg has cologne on hers", cried Jo. "I do believe Marmee would ask that if were all running away from an earthquake."

The March family are poor (somewhat fallen, one gathers). There is much discussion of clothes, especially Meg, the oldest, and Amy, the youngest. Dresses are referred to by the fabric they're made of. The word tarlatan caught my eye later in the book, and my ear. Their poplins, or pops, are the older girls' best  dresses (they yearned after silk, Meg did anyway), there was tarlatan in summer and gingham with sashes. Always gloves. Jo is impatient with all this. As Louisa May was too. But you have to know your fabrics whether you're a little woman or an incipient boy, awkward and antic, always losing hairpins. Dresses were made by a dressmaker then, and mended by the owner. The fabric was the thing, not, as now, the label. There were no labels. If there was a burn or a tear at the back of your dress, you spent as much time as possible against the wall. If one glove was less than perfect, you wore one and carried the other.

By page 239, Meg has her first silk dress. The impossibly sweet Beth has recovered from scarlet fever, the absent father, who has also been ill, has returned from the war. It's a cloying tale. Too much principled goodness, too much Marmee in her corner, faithful servant Hannah, wonderful neighbours, Mr Laurence and grandson Laurie, many references to The Pilgrim's Progress. Goodness winning through, whatever you were wearing.

Louisa May Alcott, like many of her readers, took refuge in Jo, up in her attic, reading and eating apples, playing with the rats — yes. Whenever I have thought of Little Women since I first read it, I have thought of Jo reading and eating apples in the attic — I forgot the rats.


Thursday 4 January 2024

FOU T'SONG PLAYS SCARLATTI

Fou T'Song was the first Chinese pianist to become well known in Europe. In the eighties I saw him on tv playing Scarlatti with such gentleness, his face seraphic. I was new to tv and this was one of its early moments, along with the bbc adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl and The Old Grey Whistle Test.  Later I bought the Scarlatti CD and listen to it when I need to bring the days to size in the early evening. Fou  T'Song is good for managing your reading in deepest January, snowdrops nearly out, frog spawn beginning, lots of indoor time with upstairs reading, nighttime reading, reading in the bath. A great deal of my being is spread out over these books and New Yorkers, Hortus, the newspaper before you light the fire with it, to say nothing of the label on the organic milk, etc. Fou T'Song brings it all together, Eileen Myles' Working Life, mine, Elizabeth Strout's, Elizabeth Taylor's. Elizabeth Strout has said that when she meets people she absorbs their molecules and that is how she is able to write her characters. Elizabeth Taylor, half a century earlier, english rural middle class, does not have the concept of molecules. Eileen Myles does  not have the concept of character. She is on her own planet. I absorb their molecules, all of them. Often on the same day. That's where Fou T'Song and his seraphic smile come in.