JUDY KRAVIS

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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.