JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 10 December 2017

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani, Within the Walls, on wartime, Jewish, Ferrara, and, weary, complexed, found myself unable to follow all those names of streets and squares, along city walls where sometimes the country leaked in. Ferrara is an island in my mind, hardly close to anything, not even Bologna which is geographically not far down the road, or Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. My auntie Fay sent us a postcard from Rimini in the 1950s. That's as close as I can get. Why am I reading about Ferrara? Why not Ballincollig? Ferrara had Jews. Why not Cork? Cork had Jewtown. Which sounds blunt and jeering. Ghetto sounds fine in Italian. David Marcus grew up in Jewtown, and he is one of one or two Jews in Ireland who noticed I am Jewish too.

When I examine my take on the politics and the idea of the tribe, I think the first was the truest. My adolescent uncertainty as to who was fighting whom and why, persists. Atrocity, betrayal, and fear, do not alter. Tribes do not alter. None of this do I understand. Fascists and Communists. These are boiling words. Berets and beards. Rallies and manifestoes.

On a cold and sleety afternoon I read Giorgio Bassani and wander about like the half-dead in wartime Ferrara, along the Corso, across the Piazza, wearing the mantle of a confusion not entirely mine.

Friday, 1 December 2017

I read Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter once, and then, pleased with its spare, close focus, and haunted by an idea of home, I started again almost immediately. A few pages into the second reading I found a couple of sentences that brought a strange mix of comfort—the detail, the bottomless familiar—and disquiet that this novel, like all Eudora Welty's writing, arises out of a rootedness of which I have no notion. Laurel, and her father, and his new young wife, and the doctor, are in a hospital in New Orleans, which is out of town for all of them.
Laurel looked for a moment into the experienced face, so guileless. The Mississippi country that lay behind him was all in it.
The Mississippi country that lay behind his face also lay behind Eudora Welty. The country that lies behind my face, experienced but not guileless, behind my words, is a murky, jangling, evasive, uncomfortable, mostly northern European terrain, focused for the past forty years on a patch of ground in County Cork, way over west from anything that would pass for a place of origin, a patch that now holds all my underpopulated culture, though full of tree-planting and gardening.

Eudora Welty was a gardener too. Species names, as well as familiars, like the rose known as Miss Becky's Climber, confirm her sense of belonging.

Some forty pages in, Laurel's father dies, and the doctor treating him, who's from 'up home' too, says to Laurel, ' there's nobody from home with you. Would you care to put up with us for the rest of the night?' When, after her father's death, she accompanies his body 'up home', the friends who gather around her are the six bridesmaids, as she still calls them, years after her marriage, years into her widowhood, and a cast of local characters who all knew her and her family's history. She has even remembered to bring clothes appropriate to a little garden work among the irises. The only stranger is her father's second wife, the selfish young Texan, Wanda Fay, and a chimney swift that flies through the house from room to room.

We readers are all stabbed by different words, different expressions, with pleasure, with pain, with longing or with regret. We read to remember home or to realise that we don't know what or where it is.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

On the train up to Dublin and back I read the rest of The Country Child, which found its time and place on the crowded train coming back amid debates about reserved seats not showing on the display and who if anyone would be turfing out OAPs who had sat down in all innocence—the peace, the detail, the relish of rural life in Derbyshire in the early twentieth century, the language of it, the detail, are the balm you need, they need, these travellers, from Donegal towards their demented mother in Cork, their other mother or wife in Macroom after a week engineering in Blanchardstown, the match tomorrow over in Tralee and the need for team bonding on the train in adjacent seats, the contract entered into with Iarnrod Eireann as the coach, no slouch he, said.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

I rarely read a book I want to get done with. I rarely give up. I gave up on Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth a few months ago, I am glad she wrote it, but I couldn't absorb the detail. Information is emotional. I can only take so much.

These days I am giving up on The Chinese Room, a novel by Vivian Connell, 1943, Penguin number 809. Vivian Connell was born in Cork, his novel was made into a film in 1968. From page one I couldn't find the way, and, after multiple late-night and bath sessions I can only fast forward to the last pages where various lustful imaginings in opium clouds not far from London clubs find their resolution. The novel's best feature is that people write letters to themselves.

Rather than read the rest of the book I think I'll go off and write myself a series of letters.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Inside all day, half unwell half retreating. November, yes, and three weeks after the hurricane, the sequence of events churned about, as if the room you live in had dropped down with crashes and groans into someone else's bedlam and you're staring at your stuff as magma, breaking off and almost glowing, from their floorboards, then going back to an Elias Canetti essay called Dialogue with the Cruel Partner.
The sentence is always something different from the man writing it. It stands before him as something alien, a sudden solid wall which cannot be leaped over.
Then, as the day wanes, add logs to the fire and move on to Fence Magazine where sentences, lines, half-lines and spaces arise and puncture, stop short and relaunch in ways Elias Canetti could not conceive, as he could hardly conceive a writer who was a woman, unless many centuries earlier, like Sei Shonagon. Elias Canetti was Bulgarian Sephardic German English, but none of these got so far as to rupture his language.

The Fence contributors are ruptured throughout, they are perilous in this world. At the back of the magazine they tell us what they're reading. Many writers I haven't heard of, which is peaceful. There's a spread of publishing behind this writing, an irruption, a flood plain, an inland sea. Some contributors are very specific: there are books for the morning, for the evening, books carried around and books dipped into. It is a condition devoutly to be wished.

Friday, 3 November 2017

This week I bought a Peacock Edition from 1963 of Alison Uttley's The Country Child. The writer and her book are one in my memory, in the same cloth bag as Henry Williamson and his Tarka the Otter, and Salar the Salmon. I was a country child too, a generation later than Alison Uttley. As she read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, I read Alison Uttley, Henry Williamson, and Mary Webb's Gone to Earth and Precious Bane. My rural life was coloured by theirs. They deepened the view, lived in the thickets, trod the corn, knew the lairs, named the animals and the birds and lengthened my childhood.

Alison Uttley's country child is nine. Was that the age of romance in literary children then? The age when you might want to hide in a glade or join the circus? The age, too, that her country child started school. Helping on the farm, lying out on the fields on sunny days, counting stars at night, reading two or three books over and over, is school enough till then and possibly for ever.

Talk about the last child in the wood.

Now Alison Uttley feels like a stilted read. I shouldn't have read her Wikipedia entry, which was enough to stilt the most resilient writer. She was a controlling woman, not at all charming, it seems, one of a covey of children's writers that included Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter. I don't think Enid Blyton was charming either. Alison Uttley was only the second female graduate from Manchester university. That's what going to school was for.

I try to read her as I would have when I was nine. Talk about walking with ghosts. The walk, as I think of it now, begins at the end of Downs Road where our hairdresser, the daughter of Henry Williamson, lived. That was already ghostly and thrilling, the daughter of a writer whose books I had read. She, the hairdresser, paid it no heed. I was already miles away along the river bank.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

I feel like reading Kafka's story The Great Wall of China for its irremediable joy and remove. Why are we building this wall? Does anyone know? There is, they say, a director far away. Instead I am reading Rosamond Lehmann's The Swan in the Evening, english literary memoir circa 1960, cushioning myself in an era just before mine, the one to which my parents aspired. I am always one step ahead or behind.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter would not come amiss right now. I like to imagine Madame en carosse through France in the seventeenth century, always a long way from her daughter. My copy, leather-bound and marbled, second in the series "L'âme de la femme" published in 1927, came to me from a woman who invited me to tea when I was newly arrived in Paris in 1968; she lived in the rue de Vaugirard, the longest road in Paris, for many years. Along with the letters of Madame de Sévigné, I inherited ten years later three white linen cushion covers. I don't often read french any more, but when I do there's a clarity like late Mozart, with a dose of Proust, who adored Madame de Sévigné, and the length of the rue de Vaugirard, as I walked toward tea. Open Madame de Sévigné anywhere and there's her daughter.
A Vichy, dimanche 24 mai 1676 
Je suis ravie, en vérité, quand je reçois de vos lettres, ma chère enfant: elles sont si aimables, que je ne puis me résoudre à jouir toute seule du plaisir de les lire
Rosamond Lehmann had a daughter who died of polio in Java aged 24. After that she everything she wrote was a form of resurrection. I can go along with that in the middle of the night, for a night or two, but not in the afternoon.
Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak: "I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God we would be as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Saturday, 21 October 2017


De luxe hurricane blog post

Puerto Banus is not for poets. That's why I read poetry here. John Berryman. Anne Carson. As if being alone were not enough I'm sitting on the beach reading these utterly separating turns of phrase; the Thai masseuse passes offering neck and shoulders or full back, unconvinced; the African bag sellers defer to my solitude. A beached jellyfish the size of a transparent sombrero quivers slightly. A large catamaran opens the near horizon. We are all guarded by Señor Banus on his pillar like Napoleon. Bathers, readers, lovers, investors and lapdogs. Small flightless shrieks from gulls at water's edge as the midday tideless rises over countless pebbles. In the pleasure harbour tall masts quiver; a Bentley nudges the gangplank of a giant motor yacht; downwind of a famous buffet lunch—think Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot—where smart lunchers range along, choosing like the damned from vastitudes of salads, meats, desserts and cocktails by design. Later you can do a wellness spa w/personalized detox-style cuisine, Welcome Juice as well as detailed Body Composition Status & Progress Report.
Figurez-vous, a time swarms when the word
'happy' sheds its whole meaning
Three children under twelve spend twenty minutes under the beach shower, de-sanding; I want to tell them clean water is precious and they do not need to be this anxious about sand but instead I glare as they head off along the beach towards, doubtless, a hot shower back at the de luxe apartment. Water can be very drying, I learn from the wellness persons as they pass.
When worst got things, how was you? Steady on?
I move from John Berryman/gentle friendly Henry Pussy-cat to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red: careful strides of language and fancy footwork to please the most demanding holiday mind. So I am leaping and retracting all over Anne Carson's pages, keeping safe on a Spanish beach, looking after my language, making a cocoon for myself with some difficult poets and a towel beside the tideless sea, while, two thousand miles northnorthwest, Storm Ophelia is having her way with the home patch.
Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling.
 That night, despite a 600 thread count on sheets and Hungarian goose down in the pillows, I'm at home on the hill in Ireland. I want to see the angles at which the torn trees fall. I have to place every ripped limb, every stick and leaf as if blown way across the hot Atlantic to land in a lush, strangulating dip, in our patch. A hurricane is most particularly where you are, even if you're not there. Your oak your ash your beech your willow your will.  Señor Banus does not speak back. Storm Ophelia is barely a rustle in our tourist pelt. This is not a wellness issue.

Friday, 13 October 2017

A few drop-in reads of Compulsion by Meyer Levin, a paragraph here and there, and eventually I read the whole thing. The frightful fifties Corgi book cover has lost its power and I relish the psychiatry 101 aspect of the trial that forms the second half of the book, I take on the jewishness and the readings of Nietzsche, the transcendence and the isolation.  The story inspired plays and films from Hitchcock to Michael Haneke. Why did two wealthy young men randomly choose and murder a boy of their acquaintance, their social circle? How often do we get around to asking why? When did a defence lawyer's summation last for twelve hours and get played, in the 1957 film version, by Orson Welles?

Known as alienists then, commissioned to investigate the penumbra of these two wealthy young men, the psychiatrists in the trial are fresh from encounters—never mind readings—of Jung and Freud. The narrator's excitement at the procedure of word association tests, feelings about mothers and fathers, childhood behaviours, fantasies, relationships with teddy bears, etc, is compulsive too, fascinated. The perfect crime engenders its own style, its own fantasies, emotional, intellectual and forensic, its own truth and its own derangement.
I wonder whether in all courtroom history the speaking effort of one man was ever awaited as was the speech of Jonathan Wilk for the defence of Steiner and Straus. Perhaps there was in this anticipation the sense that all the probings, all the expert testimony, had still fallen short of an explanation, and that only the ultimate effort of a great man could lift the meaning before us.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

As the season turns so do the reading tables: I read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, dip into Compulsion by Meyer Levin, read an article about Erich Auerbach, who wrote Mimesis in Istanbul, in exile during the war, with very few books around him; and they read me, they take a print, mark out a zone of my current self as they pass through.

The first time I read Pessoa I stopped after 75 pages. This time I read more, in odd jerky moments, when the day can take a taste of the Pessoa flavour, but not for too long. For someone who doesn't want to be there he insists mightily. The misery of solipsism. The need for aphorism. For words to tie it up sharpish. Open the book and  you'll find one.
Why shouldn't the truth turn out to be something utterly different from anything we imagine, with no gods or men or reasons why?
How would I have liked this at 14? Which is when I first read Compulsion. I hated the cover, the jagged title print, blocky with sensation, and the two young men as if fried alive, in a pre-Eraserhead state of dumb shock and ghastly fear. Crime of the century meant something in the middle of that century.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Orlando led me, by who knows what mycelium, to the first novel I wrote, circa 1978: on foot the velvet odyssey. The only copy I could find was a carbon copy sent to a friend who politely returned it. The blurred print is appropriate to the remoteness of the writer—me—a few years out of England with an English topography and an English idiom, her hesitations and her festivities, a lively step, several removes and a lot of inward turns. This is a distinct reading experience, a novel suspension of disbelief: is/was this one of my beings, aka me, who willed her words thus? If not, who?

I'm a reader amazed. This was how I ran on then. Oh, and I ran. Lush but obscure. Mouvementé. Accidenté. Apologetic. Too many adverbs. A genuine questing and wresting. Volume on the slow increase. Using all my language.  All my characters. Une doctrine en même temps qu'une contrée. A kinetic experience, like driving in a desert.

A carbon copy on thin bank paper, so, in order to read it, you have to detach a page into free air so that the next doesn't show through. Some letters didn't print, not enough pressure on the keys; and you have to travel the xxxx where you changed your mind.

How would this read if it were in focus?

The narrative is already soft: drift and perversity in England in the mid-20th century. A lot of sensing and longing for sleep and the sea, for a spectacle in which you were, briefly, a performer.

A carbon copy on bank paper could be the ideal state.

Friday, 22 September 2017

When I read Virginia Woolf I don't know why I read anyone else; even in the coarse wrap of Ryanair, en route for Italy/Switzerland, this is home. A man in the seat in front of me is doing a tarot reading on a mobile device. Does tarot read accurately at 33,000 feet?

I read Orlando for the week I was away, unwilling to read too much because I wanted it to last, I wanted to have this to come back to while taking a break from the book fair, I needed to feel safe before falling asleep. I wanted to occupy the sentences and their aftermath, to know there would be more to read next day, that frozen London in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First would give way to Anatolian gipsies, eighteenth century English wits and poets, and even marriage, in the dampened nineteenth century, to Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine.

It was going to end in the present time, and this reader wouldn't reach hers until she got home. For now, in Lecco, Lugano, Gandria, Castello and the lower eastern edge of Lake Como, I needed Orlando to keep moving, as I needed his/her idle moments, when his/her chief resource, like mine, was looking out of the window, when snails and starlings are enough for narrative, when all you should want is to lie at peace with only the sky above, when you can arrive at ecstasy watching a toy boat on the Serpentine.

Shades of Rimbaud. Shades of Proust. All my readerly antennae are met.
So it was, and Orlando would sit by himself, reading, a naked man.
And again:
The pith of his phrases was that while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is at peace. And so he sank into a quiet mood, under the oak tree, the hardness of whose roots, exposed above the ground, seemed to him rather comfortable than otherwise.
And again.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

— What are you reading? she asked.

— Karl Čapek's stories at night, I said. Early evening I have been reading my mother's first book, given to her when she was seven. A fairy tale by Charles Nodier. And all that magic and good fortune, those transformations of creature and size, made me think of re-reading Orlando. Which I have now started, at various times of day, with delight. Now and then I read a few lines of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. I like a good weave of reading. Virginia Woolf reviews her England through the androgynous Orlando, whom I can't help confusing with Tilda Swinton, who played Orlando in Sally Potter's film; Fernando Pessoa follows the journey in his head; Karl Čapek works around the streets of Prague, exploring justice.

— I gave up reading for sociability, she said, rueful but pleased. There we were talking, after all;  strangers, engrossed. What was the book your mother read when she was seven?

— The Luck of the Bean Rows. A foundling among the bean rows so merry and worthy that his beans flourish and his land expands without taking any from the neighbours. Eventually he goes out into the world and meets a princess in a chick pea coach who gives him three magic peas to plant. Orlando exists thanks to Virginia Woolf; he/she walks through one woman's knowledge of England's history and literature. Orlando transforms not by magic, but in a long walk across the centuries through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. I dreamed once that I met Virginia Woolf and talked to her about my writing and what would or wouldn't happen. It will be all right, she said. I was reassured.

— Who is Fernando Pessoa? Why is he disquieted?

— He is a diarist. Portuguese. Anyone would be disquieted if they daily followed the journey in their head. Oh. I do too. I'm not always disquieted though; sometimes I'm exhilarated. Must be all that planting I do.

— Legacy of Luck of the Bean Rows.
— Yes. And Virginia Woolf.
— Karl Čapek popularised the word robot, didn't he.
— No robots in his stories; only a pursuit of justice such as would be beyond a robot, then or now.
— Robot means a slave, a drudge.
— I'm glad he was pursuing justice.
— For robots?

Monday, 4 September 2017

A friend offered to lend me a book and I planted it under a willow tree beside a river.

Perhaps this charming dream arose out of reading yesterday my mother's first book, The Luck of the Bean-Rows, in which Princess Pea Blossom, who travels in a chick pea coach, gives Luck three peas to plant whenever he needs rescue or relocation, which he does, three times, before marrying Pea Blossom (or discovering he has been married to her six years already, since he was twelve).

The Luck of the Bean-Rows, (translated anonymously from Trésor des fèves, a fairy tale by Charles Nodier, with illustrations by Claud Lovat Fraser) was given to my mother on her 7th birthday:
To dear Dinah Feldstein with love From Miss M. Rojansky London, 26/6/24
My mother wrapped the book in brown sugar paper and wrote in her fresh young printing on the page opposite ONCE UPON A TIME:
This book belongs to Dinah Feldstein and anybody is quite welcome to read it
Miss M. Rojansky might have been a neighbour. My mother was an engaging little girl. A pleaser. She'd smile, she could be coy. She watched and she learned. She liked to say things as they were;  and, once she knew the parameters, she was generous. The 'quite' is entirely Dinah. Many years later she would explain to europeans at the european space agency the various registers of the word 'quite'. She is the only person I know who pronounced the f in twelfth.

So what did this, maybe the first book she owned, contribute to my mother's formation, as the french like to say, and to mine? I have the book on my shelves for many years. I don't think I read it till now. A fairy tale is the original Heraclitean river: you do not step into the same tale twice. You do not meet the same mother twice. My mother didn't give the book to me but she said I could take it. Maybe she'd want it back some day, but probably not.

Here is a future mother I never met: the 7 year-old making her way through the tale of the bean row foundling, his charm, his luck, his bonny success. He traverses the world, he is kind, he gives away his beans, he will be rewarded. In time of war his second planted pea brings him a refuge with a library.
The finest works in literature, the most useful in science had been gathered together for the entertainment and instruction of a long life—among them the Adventures of ingenious Don Quixote; fairy tales of evey kind, with beautiful engravings; a collection of curious and musing travels and voyages (those of Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe so far the most authentic); capital almanacks, full of diverting anecdotes and infallible information as to the phases of the moon and the best times for sowing and planting; numberless treatises, very simply and clearly written, on agriculture, gardening, angling, netting game and the art of taming nightingales—in short, all one can wish for when one has learned to value books and the spirit of their authors. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Reading a live manuscript is so much more flexible, open to the four winds, than reading a publication, hardback, with author photo. Live, you are let in by unusual permission, and can disport yourself among these not-yet-pages from The Domestic Godless: Brandes, O'Shea and Murphy with an entourage of the admired, the tolerated, the invented and the cheerfully despised.

Culinary dada meets local assurance and universal defiance. They may be godless but they're not turfless; they roam around their terroir, polluted, no bother, helping out the farmers, processing invaders, taking the tests and undermining them at the same time, converting their spoils into barely imaginable feasts.

This is way beyond cooking, or deep inside it. Mockery and jaggery hold hands. There's plenty of science, and latin, a séance in a hurricane, a burning caravan, some non-Irish yearning and nostalgia, a jag or two of revulsion, some dispiriting memories.

At the outer edge of your food awareness, the inner edge of your fears, your credulity, Domestic Godless lead you further into the kitchen than you've been in a while. Welcome, I say.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Lately I have been reading without reading. What's that in Finnish? The Finnish abessive case is for things that aren't there, for doing things without doing them. In generous, egalitarian, Scandinavian manner, reading without reading focusses on the book being without a reader despite the appearance of one, rather than on the reader's helpless inattention. Either way, I have been reading without reading in this uncertain August weather. I have chosen books and held them up and turned a few pages. I have noticed sentences and then lost them, in Henry Green and Karel Čapek, in The New Yorker and Hortus. Menus and tattoos. Quickies in the The Guardian Weekly. I have scooped remarks from long ago diaries and then dropped the book on the floor, unable to take a word more. Those metaphors; their reach ever more diaphanous.

Polichinelle cache à la foule curieuse le fil conducteur de son bras.

I have not, at the moment, the generosity that reading needs. Or the needs that reading generates. Or the generous reads I need. Or the reads I dreamed. The dreams generated. I lose my red jumper out of a car. My teeth fall out in quantity yet in my mouth there are none missing.

Monday, 14 August 2017


Day One
On a pale grey warm day at the reservoir, close to the end of Eliz. Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, her reading of her past the template now, extensive on the light ripple of the water, for mine.

Undifferentiated remembering is easier looking over water. Certain muscles relax, others tense.

Eliz. Hardwick is unified by New York, with a little Boston and Maine and an undertow of the South. I am not, in like manner, unified by Maldon Brighton Paris or Cork. Or if I am, I cannot see it. I am unified by wherever I am now.


Day Two
I'd like to be back in Eliz. Hardwick, watching the light change on the pond, the whirligig beetles idle in the hush. Instead I'm in last night's dream in which my sister, who died last week, came over here on a stretcher, from which she got up now and then, leapt, in fact. So she was alive. Outside I saw a van with its back doors open and got in and stayed in till the van reached the next town and everything had fallen away, including all names.

Undifferentiated sorrow is the most noble I can imagine. And a slow, flat spin, like the whirligig beetles.

A woman writer doesn't need a plot, sensibility is structure.


Day Three
So Elizabeth Hardwick—now The New York Stories—is guardian of sorrows and inadequacies this August. She too, in her youth, struggled with judgement and keeping her distance. In an early story, 'Yes and No', she is discomfited to find her family normal, she who had gone off wanting to be a New York Jew. I who do not find my family normal, went off (to Paris, to Cork) already a jew with the smallest j, an english french irish jew of no conviction other than the words to say it.

I read Sleepless Nights during the day, and now The New York Stories by night, one or two at a time. They are arranged chronologically. I move through her youth with the same impatience as I move through my own when I re-read my diary.


Day Four
In a story called 'The Classless Society', a woman called Dodo is wistful.
She was incorrigibly reminiscent. The disposition came upon her with the regularity of a stutter.
Me too. And usually welcome. Whereas now I no more want to reminisce than a woodlouse does. I want to get under a log and keep very warm, dry and stumm.


Friday, 4 August 2017

It takes a chapter or two of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave for this reader to enter his angry, depressive, diary mode, to take on board his nostalgia, his obesity, his mother and his idealism. He uses the persona of Palinurus, helmsman to Aeneas, who falls overboard and dies, in order to pursue his own introspection. Connolly's reading list has been mine, too; I have a sizeable, half-submerged, Franco-European peninsula in my head. World War Two prevented him going to France. He wanted to proclaim his faith in the unity and continuity of Western culture. And now, when it's all robotics and economics and Brexit, how can I not lap up the back thoughts of Cyril Connolly, another diarist?
Working on the manuscript for another year, Palinurus began to see that there was a pattern to be brought out; in the diaries an art-form slumbered,—an initiation, a descent into hell, a purification and cure.
Palinurus, Cyril Connolly, and me.
While we re-live the horrors of the Dark Ages, of absolute States and ideological wars, the old platitudes of liberalism loom up in all their glory, familiar streets as we reel home furious in the dawn.
Among his recollections of France, one rang startlingly clear. In February 1929, Connolly went to the premiere of Un Chien Andalou at Studio 28 on the rue Tholozé, in Paris. There was a surrealist book stall in the foyer and a gramophone played Ombres Blanches.
The picture was received with shouts and boos and when a pale young man tried to make a speech, hats and sticks were flung at the screen. In one corner a woman was chanting 'Salopes, salopes, salopes!' and soon the audience began to join in. With the impression of having witnessed some infinitely ancient horror, Saturn swallowing his sons, we made our way out into the cold of February 1929, that unique and dazzling cold.
At the end of May 1968, I went to Studio 28, my neighbie art cinema to see Polanski's Dance of the Vampires. I lived on rue Durantin, round the corner, I was recovering from foot and mouth disease, Paris was at a standstill but I was awash and my diary with me, thanks to the Justabovit pills the doctor had given me: Paris on strike was running with cherries.
Slowly, from doubtful beginnings, the day turned into a holiday, so it was all dandy and shining to eat cherries and go to the little purple cinema down the road to see Polanski's Le Bal des Vampires the audience at one with catcalls and laughter, the boy in front of me chewing a cigar, then three of them as we came out, talking quite warm and young as if we were all staying on the same holiday island. I felt I should be suntanned, there should be grains of sand between my toes. On the corner of rue Tholozé and rue Durantin, some kids were singing loud and warm in an unknown language. How enormous, you can't help thinking, how deliriously enormous it all must be..
Justabovit, as I now learn, was an anabolic steroid; just what you need for the revolution.

What Cyril Connolly needed for World War Two:
May 1st: Today we begin a new pincer movement against Angst, Melancholia and Memory's ever-festering wound: a sleeping-pill to pass the night and a Benzedrine to get through the day. The sleeping-pill produces a thick sleep, rich in dreams that are not so much dreams as tangible experiences, the Benzedrine a kind of gluttonous mental anger through which the sadness persists —O how sad,— but very much farther off. Whether they can ever combine in the mind to produce a new energy remains to be proven. 
Sadness and War. The Sadness of War. The War of Sadness. Sadness during and after War. Read your way out of and into everything, over these years, over a lifetime, of darkness.
And what illness performs for the individual, war accomplishes for the mass, until total war succeeds in plunging the two thousand million inhabitants of the globe into a common nightmare. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Maggie Nelson on the colour blue (Bluets), Cyril Connolly as Palinurus (The Unquiet Grave), and recently Brian Dillon's Essayism, summer reading of the contemplative kind, not seeking to enlace with narrative but to convey a sense of questing wherever it may lead, with varying tones of scholarship and unhappiness. Good for daytime or nighttime, beach or bed. Reading that liberates by stating and leaving the reader to ponder, to ruminate.

Like Maggie Nelson on the Tuareg, or blue tribe of North Africa, who wear blue robes and are imbued with blue. Their name means 'abandoned by God' but the Tuareg do not call themselves Tuareg, they call themselves Imohag, which means 'free men'. I need to pause around this, and to throw private scorn on Volkswagen, for example, who call one of their models Tuareg, which we, in our late-onset diggers-pokery contort into Toe-rag. I always notice what names car manufacturers give their new models, as, in childhood, at breakfast, I would obsessively read the cereal packet, and any other printed words, safe residua, I walked past or sat beside during the day.
Perhaps writing is not really pharmakon, but more of a mordant—a means of binding colour to its object—or of feeding it into it, like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin. But "mordant" too has a double edge: it derives from mordēre, to bite—so it is not just a fixative or preserver, but also an acid, a corrosive.
I like the detail, it revives the teacher in me, each turn of the mind a body blow.

Maggie Nelson wonders if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue could alter you irrevocably, if the memory, once sited in the brain, remains constant or is replaced at each remembering by a new trace. My mother had a number of blue dresses, all of which she made herself. I have one of them in my wardrobe, though I can't wear it, the shoulders are too narrow and quite possibly the fit of another kind too uncomfortable. The one I have is aquamarine silk, there is another I remember which was deep blue velvet, with a pattern of various squares in a darker blue or black. I was astonished by the depth of that blue, and how it confirmed the special occasion for which she had made it. I think, now Maggie Nelson has encouraged me to do so, that each time I remember the blue velvet dress it forms a new trace in my brain.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Walks With Robert Walser by Carl Seelig is an uncanny read, a private view you hadn't imagined, of a writer whose essence is modesty, withdrawal, and, of course, walking. Yet here is Carl Seelig, a  younger friend, later literary executor, who walked with him about twice a year for twenty years, and, tactfully, respectfully, with an eye to the future, recorded the day: where they went, what they ate and drank, what Robert, as he now is, said, what he wore, how he looked. None of this did we think we'd ever know.

At first, while we get used to the idea of reading mediated Walser, it resembles the back of the back of the tapestry, ghostly but blunt. Here is Walserland with place names, train rides and menus. Here is Robert without overcoat or umbrella, in the rain. Here he is wanting to do his tasks in the asylum, to be enfolded in that structure, not wanting to be seen to shirk, not wanting privilege, ready every day to serve his own madness, if that's what it was. All his oeuvre underlies these walks. We feel we're reading his books all over again without having one of them in front of us.

We Walser readers, Walser walkers, modest seekers.
We settle down at the Bären for veal with mushroom sauce, Rösti, beans and caramel crème. Nearby a group of holidaymakers gently sings "In Aargäu warr two loverss"; a few village children pass by on the street with accordions. The littlest one wears a long veil of St. Gallen lace on her back like bride. We sit for nearly two hours.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

There can be, now and then, a perfect, almost painful, fit of book to reader, something too close to the bone, intently inhabited as much as read. Brian Dillon's Essayism, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is one such. The essay, he says, in one of many moments when he wrestles with what draws him, is 'something so artful it can be taken for disarray', 'at once the wound and a piercing act of precision', a 'combination of exactitude and evasion', 'her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all'. I read with a pencil to hand, wanting to to be able find certain passages again, to abandon myself to the relief of finding kin.

I was talking to my neighbour, M, recently, about tribes and whether or not I had one. Your tribe is Jewish people, she said, and I couldn't agree. My tribe is writers I have read and felt at home with. As  Brian Dillon makes his way through and around writers like Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, William Gass, Thomas Browne, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, as well as his own writing, I read with such a surfeit of an ancient, ardent, secret life that I have to stop often and look away, which is what you do with tribes, isn't it?

Does this make reading into an indulgence of a cerebral/emotional kind. You do not have to apologise (I tell myself). Well, for years I did. I learned to circumambulate, to sense the core of reading and writing, but not to be there, not to know what it was nor how to talk about it, as if talking destroyed it, the way certain physical phenomena disappear or irrevocably change under scrutiny. In my twenties I was addicted to a secrecy and exclusivity of reading that could hardly be borne. I never wrote, believing I did, as Marguerite Duras said. Words identified the absent middle of my life and one person, a teacher, who lived there too, who mirrored me in a way I had not experienced before. Breathless, I struggled to connect the depth of language with human love. It floored me, in fact. My teacher was not the same person as I was. He had an état civil. A what?

Brian Dillon in and among his essayism struggles with the connection between what he is drawn to in certain writers, and his beleaguered life.
What exactly do I mean, even, by 'style'? Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush. On what? The very idea. Form and texture rescued from chaos, the precision and extravagance of it, the daring, in the end the distance, such as I think I could never attain. As much in a person, in a body, as in prose: those people who can keep it together. 'I like your style' means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness. I'm a fan, too much a fan, of your rising above. What is it I want from you? Not quite comforting. Consolation. Is it consolation? A model of how to survive? The worst, most painful truth spoken as eloquently — or is it as strangely — as possible.
Yes, I reply, yes, yes.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

I started re-reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen among two days of gales. What is she doing, Eva Trout, why is she always escaping, to another household, another hotel, another country, and who are her allies, if any? Lashings of plot are bathed in onward uncertainty.  Elizabeth Bowen, and Eva, do not give much away. The sentences are tight and loose, nervous and lax. You can avoid saying by saying a lot as well by saying a little. You can fall into the abyss almost anywhere.

Twinges of recognition impel me on. I'm glad someone else has written this. I continue reading on flights to and from London, on trains to and from Gatwick. Eva Trout comes into her own when I'm on the move, all antennae out.

Life is an anti-novel, I read on page 211 of my Avon edition, 1978. The front cover has a woman in an unrealistically long blue satin dress, draped about on a sofa, also draped. The blue satin is at your own risk. 'Everything must be plausible, by tomorrow', on page 261. But it isn't.
Anyhow, what a slippery fish is identity; and what is it, besides a slippery fish?... What is a person? Is it true, there is not more than one of each? If so, is it this singular forcefulness, or forcefulness arising from being singular, which occasionally causes a person to bite on history? All the more, in that case, what is a person?

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Elizabeth Bowen on 'that heady autumn of the first London air raids', has a freedom, a light-headedness, the intimacy of the besieged, which she must have had already in her Anglo-Irish blood. In the heat of the night, Chapter Five, I read in astonishment. Fear is my inherited sense of the Blitz, not privilege.
All through London, the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of street made islands of exalted if stricken silence, and people crowded against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side.
Something of that sunny emptiness lasted into my childhood, fifty miles from London, drifts of leaves, dazzling silences. I didn't know bomb sites on the ground but I knew them in my mind.
The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or to think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran to slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.
How much of this we take in with mother's milk is a conundrum.
That autumn of 1940 was to appear, by two autumns later, apocryphal, more far away than peace. No planetary round was to bring again that particular conjunction of life and death; that particular psychic London was to be gone for ever; more bombs would fall, but not on the same city.
Whence our sense of ruin.
The first generation of ruins, cleaned up, shored up, began to weather — in daylight they took their places as a norm of the scene; the dangerless nights of September two years later blotted them out. It was from this new insidious echoless propriety of ruins that you breathed in all that was most malarial.
I read this, not even at three a.m., and recognised everything.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen, a Reprint Society edition of 1966, sturdy hardback for these summer days.

The eponymous little girls are grandmothers at the start, mysteriously convoked by one of them. Part Two returns to their time at St Agatha's school, a coven of 11 year-olds who bury a box just before World War 1, a coffer of their secret, significant things, with a message written in blood.

We are dead, and all our fathers and mothers. You who find this, Take Care. These are our valuable treasures, and our fetters. They did not kill us, but could kill You. Her Bones, too. You need not imagine that they are ours, but Watch Out. No wonder you are puzzled. Truly Yours, the Buriers of This Box.

If I am drawn to the writing of the early-mid-twentieth century, it's because the psychic metronome was set then, the discomfort and the transparency. My own reunions going on fifty years are opaque, though I'm drawn to them. The nearest I can get to understanding female friendship and its angularities is via my mother and her friend Gertie, who bickered and sulked their way into old age; and the movie The Second Wives Club.
You know, a person's only a person when they have some really raging peculiarity—don't you notice that, Mrs Coral, with all your friends? 
So says Dinah. My mother was also called Dinah, always, (she disliked being mistaken for a Diana) unlike Elizabeth Bowen's principal Little Girl, who began as Diana, and was Dicey to her friends.
You are Dinah. One becomes, you've become. So look here, Dinah, try and have sense! Sad though it was we lost touch, you and I have got on perfectly well without one another for going on fifty years—
Up at the pond, I lean in on the uncomfortable prose, the frequent asides and italicised emphases, the unfinished sentences, so English, so chilly and sensible. The plot, the buried coffer, all turn out to be empty. Everything, home and reality, the blood of messages, has run away.
Everything has. Now it has, you see. Nothing's real any more ...  Nothing's left, out of going on fifty years.
Part Three draws into deepening disquiet as Dicey, Sheikie and Mumbo re-enter each other's lives. Nothing, of course, is resolved or revealed. Sentences lean into their hesitations, their uncertain clauses, exhaustive precisions, their long stories never quite told, the door to the cave, the new, expanded coffer for the future, is tied shut with thick, damp rope. 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The best read of the week was from Diane Arbus' student essay on Chaucer in 1940.
Chaucer seems to be very sure and whole and his attitude toward everything is so calm and tender because he was satisfied and glad that he was himself .... He seems to love physical things, even obscene ones, and from looking at them, he gets a contact with the other person. His way of looking at everything is like that of a newborn baby: he sees things and each one seems wonderful, not for its significance in relation to other things, but simply because it is unique and because it is there.
Wonderful what you can write when you don't quite know what you're saying, then go on saying it, through your work, for the rest of your life.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

I don't know why, yesterday, the phrase 'into their labours' came into my head, and John Berger with it. Maybe it was planting out the leeks, or re-heaping the compost. John Berger's spoken voice and tv/photo presence make me uneasy. I find it hard to start reading him again. I sympathise with his take on life, but his ego grates. He does his proselytising so quietly it hurts.

I can read anything in the bath. I can read the first story in Once in Europa, the middle volume of the trilogy, Into Their Labours. Peasants are on their way down the mountain, some of them dying as they go, not leaving heirs or moving heirs to the town. The expository style does not fool.

The voice disappears behind the pages, without style or emphasis, without humour, into our lap. As a transplant myself, I'm uneasy about why he wants to tell these tales of peasant life in the french alps. I'm uncomfortable with his Marxist regret. He tries to keep the emotion out of his voice. Sometimes the less you show the more you show.

He has good titles. Once in Europa. Europa is full of myth and idea, a name worth reviving in these fractured European days. John Berger likes to return to the idea of things, the idea of peasant life, as well as the labour of it, the idea of Europe, which the change of an e to an a, Europa, reinforces.

Friday, 2 June 2017

My copy of William Saroyan's Rock Wagram (1952), has, in addition to a sweet musty smell, a dedication and a date in code on the flyleaf, and the price, 16/=, mostly erased, and then, maybe half a century later, £1.00, written in large sloppy pencil. The code looks mathematical, with a lot of dashes between symbols. You can sense an intimacy, a friendship, between two men, I'd think. Good to remember that the gift of a book communicates before you've read a word.

Not a great novel, but if you like William Saroyan's stories, spend time in his company, as well as in the company of the two men whose friendship was in code. As Proust said somewhere, all great literature is in code; or did he say all great literature is a foreign language, which is maybe the same thing? All ordinary literature also, all ordinary life.

Actually, when I pulled the Saroyan off the shelves, I meant to look at William Sansom, who was adjacent, reminded of something he wrote about moving a table out into a garden in order to write, and how I didn't need a table, just somewhere flat with a backrest and preferably sun. The William Sansom book, a Penguin with the price, second-hand, 3P, slathered across the front cover in black felt-tip, was also published in 1952.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

You read to escape, says H, wanting to settle the matter.
No, I reply, equally urgent, reading is right at the heart of things.

I read Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible, or Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, and I am progressing my sense of humans on earth and how they do or might or should react or behave. I am not escaping, I am engaging, if engagement is going out and experiencing things you bring back to your nest and consider, which in turn enriches and deepens your nestedness as well as your precarity.

Doughnut Economics is possibly the first economics book I've ever read and only readable by me because it's as much off economics as on; all preconceived notions are turned around. We are here to refresh our preconceptions, said Gayatri Spivak at an otherwise dull conference I once went to. I am here, reading this book, in order to have more breadth and depth to draw on in conversation about the world, the planet, the universe and everything.

Elizabeth Strout, on the other hand, especially when read in the middle of the night, refreshes my sense of the subtle awfulness of families, friendships and their occasional redemptive moments, the way we retrieve something that allows us to continue. She is a spare, quiet writer, of the kind that makes me feel at home.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Diary of a Nobody, 1892
Diary of JK, 1961

The jovial Grossmiths, George and Weedon, created their diarist, Mr Pooter, who settles in a rented house in Holloway with his wife Carrie, his son Lupin and maid Sarah. His two friends Gowing and Cummings are always coming and going. Lupin falls in and out of love. Mr Pooter, aspiring to modest success, processes through a year of blameless mishaps and minor impatience with humour and domesticity. He is a clerk in the City, at a stockbrokers, to which none of the kudos of our era seems to pertain.

He is the invention of the Grossmiths, as JK was an invention of mine, a literate schoolgirl increasingly impatient with Maldon, Essex, processing through schooldays and family life, who at 14 envisaged becoming one day a secretary to someone interesting. 1961 was a year of first trips to Europe, to Austria and briefly Italy, then Paris. She's exclamatory about everything foreign. If she goes on later to do a degree, she ponders, the someone interesting to whom she might be secretary might also travel. Her social conscience is crisp for a teenager. Kruschev tests a 50 megaton bomb. She goes on CND marches. Will she ever be so serious again?

Mr Pooter and JK are in their first year of diary. He will stop when the Grossmiths tire of their creation, or Punch, the magazine where it was first serially published, says that's enough. JK will not stop at all. The diary is already embedded. The question of her next invention is moot. After the schoolgirl, the poet, after the poet, the citizen, the teacher, the gardener, and alongside all of them, the writer.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

For several days I tried to re-read John Hawkes. I rarely give up on a book, but I can read very badly, skimming unengaged through a chapter here and there, mixed with half an hour of attentive reading in the middle of the night, followed by a restart up at the pond. A sigh. This writer is going to a lot of self-conscious trouble, a lot of shifting about in his writerly seat before releasing another well-wrapped piece of plot.

Here is a character at home in his lodgings in the 1940s, the lavatory down the hall—there are a lot of lavatories, toilets and Gents in this book—here is a narrative, which, as today's Thought For the Day insisted, is the stuff of our lives, which is why many of us spend evenings with boxed sets, apparently.

The blurb on the back cover tells us this is a racing novel with a mystery horse and several mishaps, a thriller, a dream, a nightmare in meticulous detail, I don't see it. If it's a thriller it's also an exercise.

I was told once that I wrote as if I didn't want to write. John Hawkes likes to write. He likes being a writer. He has fun with the names of horses.
Just the evolution of a name—Apprentice out of Lithograph by Cobbler, Emperor's Hand by Apprentice out of Hand Maiden by Lord of the Land, Draftsman by Emperor's Hand out of Shallow Draft by Amulet, Castle Churl by Draftsman out of Likely Castle by Cold Masonry, Rock Castle by Castle Churl out of Words on Rock by Plebeian—and what's this name if not the very evolution of his life?
In the author photo on the back of the New Directions paperback, he is leaning sideways against a paperbark birch. He looks like a writer. He has round glasses, a pipe and tan lines where his watch strap would usually be. It's a side view and he's looking slightly downward, just above the angle of his pipe.