JUDY KRAVIS

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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.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Degenerate reading can be achieved in a number of situations.

In her last years my mother said she would take any book that was to hand at 4 a.m. or so and read the page she opened at, then try to go to sleep again. Could be Walter Scott. Could be The Paston Letters. Reading because she knew how to, because she had a book to hand and she was awake.

I used to keep Boswell's Life of Johnson in the car to read at traffic lights. It was comfortable, warm, remote, and, inevitably, sporadic. I wasn't reading my way through it, it was just to catch the tone and then the lights would go green. If that volume went to the great carpark in the sky with the aged Morris, so be it.

Recently I have read a few lines at a time, usually in the early evening, from a tiny copy of Eugène Sue's Mysteries of Paris, which is sensational in the 19th century manner, stiffly translated, serial in the way Dickens was; unreadable.
                        CHAPTER XXV1 
               THE ISLE OF RAVAGEURS 
The individuals now introduced to the reader's notice were a bloodthirsty and cruel race, with one exception, the eldest son. The head of the family had suffered on the scaffold, as his father had done. Their residence was well situated for the perpetration of any crime......

I have also dipped about in the catalogue at the back of the book. A portrait of reading in the mid-late 19th century. Series include THE NEW, NOVELIST'S LIBRARY, POETICAL SERIES, MISCELLANEOUS, PENNY GUIDES TO GAMES, and THE JUVENILE SERIES, in a variety of sizes and finishes, with or without vignette.

I had a phase of reading bad novels, after A levels and again after university. Victorian and Edwardian novels. I don't know now what I was trying to find out but degeneracy may have come into it.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Up at the reservoir on a warm morning it's easy to move from rural Suffolk a hundred years ago to the Brooklyn Public Library last week where a philosopher chews over some big questions with a group of third-graders.

This is reading as flexing, during which certain things fall away and others stand in soft relief, like an old tree stump in the water, down to its lineaments. Reading as part of the landscape.

George Ewart Evans published Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay in 1956. He's a plain reporting shy kind of writer, not at ease but keen to convey. There are chapters on bread, sheep, cheese, pigs and stonepicking, the dialect, the tales, the names of fields, the social structure: how far you had to go 'to go away foreign' (not very far).
...people rarely went out to buy things in the town, the village was almost entirely self supporting, most families living on what they grew or reared on their yards or allotments
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn Public Library, the big questions involve foxes, mushrooms, chewing gum and the soul and where it is. Third-graders have a great sense of reality.
What if we're not really here? What if we're in someone else's dream?
What if it's an object, and it's gum—but it's not, because those are just words we use for things?
The coconut scent of gorse runs through an inadvertent garden by the reservoir, sheltered from the light northerly air: ladies smock, foxglove, ragweed, hypericum, dandelion, willow herb, self-heal, eyebright.

I walked back along the lake very slowly, looking at air bubbles on underwater stones, negotiating gorse bushes—the water is high in the reservoir—noting plants and rescuing insects from shallow water.

One tree stump from 1951 when the reservoir was created, stood at the water's edge. I sat on it, but  I didn't sit on it, it's an object but it's not, because those are just words we use for things.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The early pages of Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond usher in such a sweeping and tribal first person plural I'm not sure I want to read on, but, a few pages later, as our gender-loose narrator and Aunt Dot and the Reverend Father Chantry-Pigg set off with a camel to the Black Sea, in order, perhaps, to set up an Anglican mission in Trebizond, it sounds like English Eccentrics Go East, a mission with a pinch of salt, imperious and modest, ingenious and adaptive, happy to set up camp, to muster some Turkish out of a wrong-minded phrase book, and, later, to wait out the disappearance of Aunt Dot and The Reverend Father Chantry-Pigg behind the (Iron) curtain.

As s/he, our narrator, waits in Trebizond, s/he imagines what the English would do with the place. having spoiled anywhere they'd occupied, like Gibraltar and Cyprus
....with barracks and dull villas and pre-fabs. Actually, if we took Trebizond, we should probably clear away the Turkish houses and gardens and alleys from the citadel and cut away the trees and shrubs and leave it all stark and bare like a historical monument, and we should build a large harbour and fill it with cargo ships, and a few battleships, and there would be a golf club and a bathing beach and several smart hotels and a casino and a cinema and a dance hall and a new brothel, and several policemen, and a hospital, and a colony of villas, and soldiers and sailors would crowd about the streets and call it Trab, and large steamers would ply every day to and from Istanbul bring tourists, and the place would prosper once more, not as it used to in the great days when the trade from Persia and Arabia flowed into it by sea and caravan, and gold and jewels glittered like the sun and moon and stars within the palace, for no place can prosper like that, but it would be prosperous, it would have trade, it would have communications, inventions, luxury, it would have great warehouses on the quays and a great coming and going.
Our narrator heads south on the camel, through Palmyra, Aleppo, Homs, to Jerusalem, where s/he has a vision of Trebizond.
Then, between sleeping and waking, there rose before me a vision of Trebizond: not Trebizond as I had seen it, but the Trebizond of the world's dreams, of my own dreams, shining towers and domes shimmering on a far horizon, yet close at hand, luminously enspelled in the most fantastic unreality, yet the only reality, a walled and gated city, magic and mystical, standing beyond my reach yet I had to be inside, an alien wanderer yet at home....
An alien wanderer yet at home. And now? Now that aliens are science fiction and wanderers are refugees?

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Unsure exactly who, among my selves, read Another Country, I'm now reading Giovanni's Room, another Corgi book with a blocky blue/red on black cover, to see if anything comes clear.

I cannot read James Baldwin novels without encountering my seventeen year-old self. That is how embedded I am in all I've ever read. Reading James Baldwin also involves reading my old diary. I cannot even look at the author photo on the back of the book without becoming the diarist I was. The diarist I am? The incomprehension and impatience of yesteryear are fresh.

Around the time I was reading James Baldwin I also read Alexander Trocchi, as recommended by a boy I fancied who worked in the market. Cain's Book was my first plotless experience; I still prefer plotless. Experiential. Another kind of page-turner.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

I bought Another Country by James Baldwin on Saturday 3rd April, 1965. I wrote the date on the flyleaf the next day. Into my life of applying for university, working for A levels, digesting my family, came James Baldwin. The same day I bought The Magic Mountain, all 650 pages of it, for later. And on Tuesday 13th April, after a detailed account of my (paternal) grandparents' fugues from diverse hospitals, I quoted Thom Gunn, who was on the A level English syllabus: One is always nearer by not keeping still. This is the kind of civilised being I was.

And now? Bring James Baldwin into my life of reading writing composting planting, etcaetera, in Ireland, and what happens? I become the person who read it in 1965 and have no notion what this life, James Baldwin's, with its sharp poignant divisions, means to me, or meant.

I resist for a while then give in. Halfway through Another Country this time I start to read, the way a horse that gallops can be said, at a certain point, to break into a run.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Reviews of a new biography of Angela Carter sent me back to her books, all of which I have, I think, in their Picador/King Penguin/Virago editions of the 1970s and 80s. It wasn't until I'd finished Black Venus and started The Bloody Chamber that I remembered why I'd felt at home with them when they came out; and why I haven't re-read them. Certain books are absorbed by the life into which they fed. They do not teleport. Angela Carter came out of a reading culture I knew — from Baudelaire to fairy stories — and she was older than I was, with a will to shake off any chattels that didn't suit her.  I knew her, or wanted to know her.
His library seemed the source of his habitual odour of Russian leather. Row upon row of calf-bound volumes, brown and olive, with gilt entering on their spines, the octavo in brilliant scarlet morocco. A deep-buttoned leather sofa to recline on. A lectern, carved like a spread eagle, that held open upon it an edition of Huysmans's Là-bas...
This was a scenario I knew. What happened was secondary.  Standing at the lectern and reading, as interloper, as greedy thief, as innocent. That was as much as I could understand. The bloody chamber, the murdered wives, the gothic gore, were beyond me.

What did I make of the ruby choker that saves our fragile but resilient heroine? How did I wear it in 1979? With defiance, fear, quiet assurance or absolute refusal? Where did I stand, exactly, in my own  life, at what distance from it?  How much mythic could I stomach? How many prototypes? Then? Now?

Angela Carter leaves with more questions than she arrived.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

It may be that a completely new wraparound reality (Puerto Banus) is ideal for reading poetry. On the early spring beach, almost deserted, with two mountains of sand ready to spread for the coming season, I'm ready to renew too. Sharon Olds in Penguin Modern Poets Three (Your Family, Your Body) had me reading and re-reading. Residing, in fact. And while I sat, the beach changed under energetic waves. What was a glorious black wet landmark stone over to the left has vanished, and the flotsam that could have been a dead dog or a camera bag, has not landed. I like to think all this has an exact counterpart in my reading: things have moved, vanished, swallowed, shifted like the smashed tomato box once right in front of me, now some way to the left in several more pieces, in my mind too.

On the way back in the plane, the stag party to whom, on the way out, the pilot read the riot act while matron confiscated their gin, are now exhausted revellers, children with their mouths open, ears red, all bounce exhaled, stripes hold up nothing, porkpie hat sans ketchup, trackless tracksuit, asleep on their tray-tables, under their tattoos.

While they slept I perused Penguin Poets Two (Controlled Explosions) which felt too chilly and tense for in-flight mode. There will be blood, but not here. In my head, but not here, not now. There will be explosions, but not here, not now.

Perusal is reading, after all. You slip about the pages like a pig after truffles, or the customs dog at work among our legs and luggage when we came off the plane.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The last few days, or rather, nights, I have read Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man and Prater Violet. This is reading as eavesdropping, as just dropping in to Christopher's in L.A. or in London. Intimate yet formal. On page 90 of Prater Violet, the London film-making novel, he has a scene where Lawrence, the film's master cutter, discourses on film-making.
If you so-called artists would behave like technicians and get together, and stop playing at being democrats, you'd make the public take the kind of picture you wanted. This business about the box office is just a sentimental democratic fiction. If you stuck together and refused to make anything but, say, abstract films, the public would have to go and see them, and like them....
So right. This was the 1930s. Hitler was on the rise. Abstraction the safest place to be. Prater Violet is  the name of the film they're making, set in Vienna, with an Austrian director. The presence of the film in the novel is pleasantly spectral, a plot ideally keeping well into the background, about which you don't have to care; unlike Lawrence the Master Cutter, who always cares.