JUDY KRAVIS

www.roadbooks.ie

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Henry Green's Party Going (the gathering prior to departure rather than the habit of going to parties) revolves around a London station in a fog so dense a pigeon flew into a balustrade and fell down dead in front of a Miss Fellowes, who, wondering about fleas, washed it, wrapped it in brown paper and carried it to the rendezvous.

Henry Green avoids the definite article. He avoids the departure. He swirls with that fog inside and outside a London station. By page thirty-nine everyone is there, though people come and go, and some may not have come across others yet. This, says our narrator, was the beginning of a time for our party.

A time of double-postmarked letters, and divine tea and crumpets. As well as a nervousness—this was late nineteen thirties—fog went far beyond this London station, an old-fashioned station where travel was momentous, people could gather or fail to gather for hours on end, waiting for a boat train, for any train at all, piles of luggage around them. While you wait you might open a case.
If she had no memory for words she could always tell what she had worn each time she met him. Turning over her clothes as they had been packed she was turning over days. 
The station is thronging with travellers who are not travelling. Everyone, says our narrator, looks as if they've had enough. There's a blankness punctuated by tiny satisfactions—when going to sit by a bar was an idea—crossing the Channel in the company of other people was an idea too, if there were any trains.

Read a chapter of this supple disquiet in the middle of the night, reader, traveller, old thing, and you're made, like a mobster, like a nannie, you're swirling with your people in a fog of your own making.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

For the pit of the year, south of one storm, north or west of many others, I have been reading my address book at the kitchen table, The New Yorker in front of the stove, Hortus in the bath, and at my desk I have read and reread and rearranged the 20-word summaries of 9 o'clock movies typed out with a view to reading and re-reading and rearranging and understanding what's with these zombies, parasites, these demons, these aliens who are taking over, like predator, like prey, at 9 o'clock on a channel near you.

If everything we dream is us, so is every ravenous zombie, parasite, demon, alien. Every imminent invasion has already taken place and continues to take place all around us. We live in the anthropocene. A wafer of destruction on top of eras of consolidation. Have we always felt this perilous?

As long as we've been saying so. As long as we've been watching movies.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A wet night in December and Mahler songs sung by Janet Baker bring a line or two of a Joseph O'Neill story into literal relief. 'Pardon Edward Snowden' is ridiculously of the moment; as well as the petition, or poetition, to pardon Edward Snowden, and Bob Dylan's Nobel prize, there's this perilous poet confession: You become aware that what you're doing is almost nothing. That it's just a few atoms away from nothing.

Read that in the bath and you have your night's sleep in hand.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Float is 'a collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various. Reading can be freefall'. This assembly of a book corresponds to a dream sense of what it is to read, to allow the loop and whirl of our attention, the sound of synapses scraping, the shape of a topic floating by.

Whatever the sequence of pages, the lure of exposition, it is pleasing and homely to read as your attention allows. Now and then you stop in your tracks. Other times you know you've lost it—through ignorance, exhaustion or absentmindedness—but you're pleased to be back in whenever you choose.

These pages can scatter across the floor, across whatever you've already read, what you know and what you don't know. I do not read or speak Greek, but I like the leisure of languages I do not understand, as well as others, like Latin, of which I have shards and some backbone.

Today I looked at Stacks, Possessive Used as Drink (Me), A Lecture on Pronouns in the Form of 15 Sonnets, Contempts, How I like "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso" by Gertrude Stein, and Cassandra Float Can. And when I say 'looked at' I mean 'read', as you read a stripped log or a forest floor. The reading of logs and forest floors is fine preparation for Anne Carson.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Anne Carson's Float box of dark blue leaflets, in the hour entre chien et loup, is an energiser. Our language is our brain our gut. Our nine o'clock movie. Read it as it falls. The staples are dark blue. Like the sky entre chien et loup. 

There is great liberty at work in a box of disparate leaflets. Today's leaflet was called Candor. I worked in the vegetable plot then came and read about Helen who sprinkled contests into the cloth she wove. Candor—my Preceptor—is the only wile (Emily Dickinson).
Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper. She takes her pen and writes on it some marks no one else will ever see, she bestows on it a kind of surplus, she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name. (Anne Carson.)

Monday, 28 November 2016

Robert Walser is good at 3 a.m. Estranged and joyous.
John Cage's diary, 3 p.m. A snatch in the afternoon.
Everything we come across is to the point.
This is how we configure a day.
A night.

Friday, 25 November 2016

As soon as I read anything that smacks of my family's origins, I wriggle or turn away. In the middle of last night, awake at an even more ludicrous hour than usual, I read one of the Odessa stories by Isaac Babel and suddenly saw what I was reading: between Dashiell Hammett and my grandparents. I have been ill lately. My defences are lowered. I couldn't read Babel or his like while my parents were alive. Three of their parents came from north-east of Odessa, Bessarabia, as Babel calls it, as I did before I called it Russia, or Romania, or Moldova.

The name, elusive as Bessarabia/Romania/Moldova, is everything. If Odessa is a summary of whatever I wriggle from, so be it. I was pleased once to be described by a fellow jew as 'one of the Odessa crowd'.

In its tribal regalia, Odessa defeats me. I have no aptitude for the dense colours of these stories. Quickly I feel overwhelmed by rich tapestries of people strutting their noms de guerre. Social fabric I don't know how to weave, how to believe. I wriggle and turn away. Glimpses are all I can manage. I prefer Joseph Roth's Job: internal, uncomprehending, bottomlessly sad, engaged with a room and its outside, a family—if that—and its fragility.

I am happy to learn that in Odessa there were kefir makers, and that Bessarabia was a lush place with wine that smelled of sun and bedbugs. And I am always pleased to see the Yiddish term of endearment, bubbeleh, on the page. Babel's Odessa, up to almost including the pogrom, is linguistically riotous, seductive and vivid. Boris Dralyuk, the Pushkin Press translator, grew up there.

This language has lain mostly undisturbed all my life, just beneath my awareness; and my will. Inflections, inversions, a tone of complaint and triumph, a patois I could not accept as my father would have wanted. I had to invent my own. That was, and is still, the thing.

Thursday, 17 November 2016


Job, The Story of a Simple Man, by Joseph Roth

Why do I need the unshed tears of this Roth creature in his Russian village, in New York? My predecessors are not my own. Or they are. Crouched by the stove.

Roth's boss at the Frankfurter Zeitung said that the sadder Roth was the better he wrote. Job was written in 1930, which was a sad time in general in Europe. Like now.

Do other readers like to take a rest in the sadness of long ago? Or would they rather raise their voices at the iniquities of now? Are these two sides of the same coin?

Sadness is slower than anger, that's all I know. Wind in the aspens, for some time before the leaves fall. Last leaves, last prayers. I have never prayed, I can say.

If sadness and anger are two sides of the same, the same, coin, then we are all closer than we think. If sadness is godless prayer. Then I have prayed.

Many pages into Google, Job is ancient poetry and sadness, not employment. Google is one reliable assessor of where we stand. Where we float.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

I started reading before a trip to London and finished when I came back, by which time our autumnal eco-patch and any sympathetic reading I might do in that direction were rendered even more poignant by the disastrous turn in American politics. Behind such noisy manipulation it's hard to hear yourself think.
Autumn sunlight through
such leaves as remain a sad—
ness unrequited
Fukuoka did not deviate from his way of farming, or his way of living, which were one and the same: no ploughing, no fertilising, no machines at all, growing crops as wild plants among other wild plants, living off his produce, knowing his trees and his plants, buying only soy sauce and vegetable oil; no wonder he lived to the age of 95.

Looming behind such lucidity and humaneness, is the agro-petro-chemical dependency machine that makes the farmer busier, the CEOs richer and the politics noisier. Better to have zero chemicals, zero machinery, zero economic growth and a population of 100% farmers who, in the slack winter season have the leisure to write haikus, says Fukuoka. Under 5% of the Irish population are farmers. No statistics on how many write haikus, or sonnets.

People are the way their land and air is, as Gertrude Stein said.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

John Hutchinson's The Tree pauses on note after note that resonates with me. Together they sound a diapason I don't want to forget.  Quietness. Wilderness. Vulnerability. Undifferentiated emptiness. And the ten thousand things that arise spontaneously from emptiness. A healthy wilderness of mind.

We are, as John Hutchinson says, culturally so averse to quiet.

This book is a goodbye to directing a gallery in Dublin and a hallo to whatever form of withdrawal the author might choose, whatever essay in idleness turns out to be his, on whatever mountain top. His last chapter is on Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution.

Maybe John Hutchinson's withdrawal from the gallery will involve the kind of farming that can coexist with the understanding that in this world there is nothing at all.

Well, there is Schubert.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

It is one thing to read News from Nowhere on holiday in Portugal, another to read it at home and interrogate your own reading with a view to creating a book. Leonard Cohen could take ten years to write a song. Bob Dylan was closer to ten minutes. We took about two weeks.

My sympathies are with utopia, with nowhere. I can relate to yearning. I am all for idealism. If you can't dream ahead what's the point of walking? As William Morris makes his way up the Thames in his post-Revolution utopian reverie, I can follow.

Conversations about utopia have plenty of brick walls and blind alleys, many a gaping void. It's a question of how long you can suspend disbelief. How much you desire. A question of who you are. For whatever reason. And there are always volumes of reasons.

William Morris's News from Nowhere is poignant in its excess. I want him to describe his ideal society, after the revolution, I lament its unreality. For him in 1890 as for us in 2016.

Out of these thoughts, these considerations, came this book.

Friday, 14 October 2016

News from Nowhere by William Morris, a utopian romance first published in 1890, is a defiant choice of reading for a holiday that starts on a ryanair flight. I am one row in front of a two year-old screaming No to everything, and beside a plump woman whose breasts quiver as we go through turbulence. On the seat panel in front of us we read instructions for infant flotation devices and emergency landings of several kinds.

I read most of News from Nowhere on the beach in Tavira, sailing between recliners out to the open sea, half Atlantic, half Mediterranean. At home I would listen to a Mozart piano concerto. In creating his utopia, William Morris remembered his childhood in rural Walthamstow Chingford Woodford and Epping, where, in different mode, my earliest years also were spent, all meadow and haymaking and happiness. His, that is. In mine, there were lurking men in Epping Forest; you did not wander there, you read fairy tales, avoiding some, waiting for the penultimate upsurge when you'd be safe. William Morris was safe; or he badly wanted to be. He wanted an epoch of rest in his head, and he placed in the 21st century.

And here we are in October, 2016, in Portugal, finding our view, getting used to our neighbours, overhearing their conversations. On the beach your neighbours are your society, but you're also going up the Thames with William Morris, from meadow to cottage to harvest, your idealism stretched but not under strain. 'Here I am loving you and you haven't learned a fucking thing', my neighbour (leopardskin bikini bottom and gold hoop earrings) is saying over a mojito and pringles and lover boy.

News from Nowhere comes from Ilha da Tavira, for now, from the beach on the Ria Formosa, sandbank of the gods, a holiday not a utopia. A utopia is when everyone agrees. The water is better far than the water of my childhood, glassy and warm, a caress not a challenge. And lover boy, unchastened, did sing his way back into favour.

My mother's brother Phil, with another chemist friend published Money Must Go in 1943. I have idealism in my veins. What is flowing in your veins isn't yours until you have entirely reconstructed it. Until you have read around it and gone in swimming.

My favourite chapter of News from Nowhere is about nine lines long: Concerning Politics.
Said I: 'How do you manage with politics?'
     Said Hammond, smiling: '…I will answer your question briefly by saying that we are very well off as to politics, —because we have none.'
'We need people like you to remind us what we're working towards,' a politico said to me when I was about twenty-five, which was obscure and warming, kinder than my earlier sense of myself vis-à-vis the Revolution (first in line for the firing squad). Mao's little red book had no poetry. I'd better keep my mouth shut.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

In a New York bar (1 Fifth Avenue) in the early eighties, I met a young Cuban who was looking at his future in Arizona, his lone ecstatic house with a wall of screens so he could watch several films at once, and a machine that would read books for him and tell him what he needed to know. His preferred face—serious, downward, withdrawn, nearly petulant—he produced as needed. This was the face the machine would read to know what he needed to know.

News From Nowhere by William Morris, 1890. Money Must Go: see the world from a new angle by Philoren, 1943. Ruskin, passim. Marx, Blake, Keats, Yeats, Hesiod and Catullus. Kafka, throughout, for his upside down handbook to self-regard in the machine age.

This is what I would like the machine to read off my preferred face today. No pleading notes as yet. Naivete still possible. A cross of beauty, nature, despair and impossibilism. Money Must Go. There are always new angles. Philoren (pseudonym of two chemists) regrets the innocence of earlier idealists. We will always regret lost innocence, but the news from nowhere according to William Morris is full of hope. That's the advantage of literature. Write it and it's yours, for a while.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Every book has a pedigree. Some books are more pedigree than book. I have been reading a novella by John Donovan, who was a neighbour and friend of my parents when I was growing up. When I was 17 he was 32, a wind from other planets blowing in Maldon, Essex; I first had couscous in his house, for example. We had first read and he second, of last week's New Statesman (?) from the library (at the end of the week they gave them away). He came on all the Ban the Bomb marches; he looked after the bric-à-brac stall at CND jumble sales in the Quaker meeting house (I did the book stall), and went to WEA lectures there, which may have been where he and my parents met. They had a troubled education in common, a desire to understand and to protest injustice and their horror. I didn't know he wrote; I knew he taught art. Whenever he came round I seemed to be washing my hair, he said.

In 1971 he published Anne in a Calder and Boyars new writers volume. His expression on the cover photo is intense, concerned, a slight frown, three-quarter view: everything matters. I took the book from my parents' house after my father died a few years ago; I have also had on my shelves for as long as I can remember, The Worst Journey in the World, whose flyleaf is inscribed with a large mid-blue italic signature: Donovan. Now I learn that John Donovan died last year.

When I read him now I retrieve a fresh calque of my 16 or 17 year-old self. There was John Donovan, walking along the Prom in Maldon, as I was around the same time, flailing about in doubts and desperate distances, as I did, embedding them in everything he saw, as I did. I was writing my diary and he was writing a novella, if he called it that, if he called it anything, if he could extract from the morass of everyday life what happened with Anne. Did she go on Ban the Bomb marches, or was this a girl of a different ilk? Why did he feel guilty? So responsible yet unclear? A difficult relationship to everyday life. In fact no such thing as the everyday. Every thought up for knocking down.
— Why? Harmless enough in itself. Anyway it's preferable to feeling nothing at all isn't it? A quick switch back to the horror of all that makes such dull moments seem not merely acceptable but positively good and desirable, however much the innocent over-sensitive part of oneself protests against it.
Had he missed reality altogether? Had I? Anne is made of burials and silences, hesitation and frustration. Many sentences stop before they've started. There is no explanation, no, nothing that will hold, only openings. Fragments and riffs. Opening one discussion, one philosophy, after another, and then stopping, picking up the everyday, loose hay spread around Platform Nine, the virtue of the Blenheim Orange apple.
'—"justify" eh? That's got a nice sort of something about it. "justify"…'
What would they be using a word like that for nowadays Bert?''
I've no idea Jack.'

Thursday, 15 September 2016

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you.
So says Anne Carson. Fellow of Clarice Lispector. And Elizabeth Strout. I have been reading a crisp new hardback copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. In fact I read it once and started it again immediately. One immersion was not enough. Enough for what, I wonder, when I understood it on the first reading?

Elizabeth Strout and Clarice Lispector. They sit together in my head along with other forceful internal women who chose to write. Elizabeth Strout tentative/ apologetic/ unable/ determined, Clarice Lispector wilder, more stridently tender. If I can bring them together in my mind, the north-american/tender/careful mayflowerish Strout and the ukrainian/ jewish/ brazilian Lispector, they could surely sit together in a quiet place and talk over the desire for some view of truth, Elizabeth coming in on the transverse, Clarice, fiercer by far, preferring anecdote to narrative. Elizabeth ghosting a story obscurely hers, of terror and deprivation and much left unsaid.

Anne Carson, meanwhile, responding to a Roni Horn sculpture, covers the territory.
Candor is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader, the point is the telling itself.
I read Anne Carson in the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets (orange) (three women).
Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper. Nothing else exists. She takes her pen and writes on air some marks no one else will ever see, she bestows on it a kind of surplus, she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

From the bedroom bookshelves I read three Daphne du Maurier novels this week in some southeast asian weather followed by gales. Daphne du Maurier is good for insomnia and this has been a week of that. At three in the morning you can pick up where you left off at eleven at night, and, heartily manipulated by so much plot and character, maybe sleep.

The Parasites hauls you into the lives of three siblings—an actress, a musician and an artist—their Pappy (a singer)—and their Mama (a dancer). Overwrought and entrancing, their vicissitudes are compelling in a void, like Hello magazine or Netflix series. You can be interested if you feel like it. The story leaves no residue. The siblings are indeed parasites, crawling all over our attention. If only Daphne du Maurier could have desisted from calling the father Pappy. I choked every time, in sheer irritation, which, with luck, might hasten sleep.

My cousin Rachel is even more overwrought. Is Rachel a devil or a saint? Anyone who intrudes on an English Great Estate, who interrupts the order of things in rural England, a foreigner and adventurer, will meet her death on the penultimate page as the order of things resumes; dogs settle by the fire with their master whose delusions have now passed.

Frenchman's Creek was the third du Maurier of the week, in a wartime economy edition (tight cloth binding, dull blue, with yellow-brown pages, thin and rough). The Frenchman anchored in the creek, sensitive and philosophical, a gentleman who pirates for the style of the thing, at the end lets the heroine, briefly his cabin boy, go back to her life, to the order of things, her ringlets in place, her adventure safe in her memory.

Why do I choose to read popular fiction from the era of my parents' youth? Popular fiction of now I hardly read at all. (Something grating or ingratiating about styles you can situate too exactly.) I have also had periods of reading popular fiction closer to the era of my grandparents, who were illiterate.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Unique among sympathetic remedies, reading lets you go where you please. After Antarctica, something warmer, less heroic and differently fraught. The Starship and the Canoe, Kenneth Brower's double biography of the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson and his son George, describes two senses of wilderness and frontier. Freeman wants to go live on an asteroid (wants his estranged son to go?) propelled by a series of nuclear explosions. George lives 95 feet up a Douglas fir near Vancouver, and builds kayaks, far from Princeton, where his father lives; his is the last tree before you get to the ocean.
It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilisation that small groups of men can escape from their neighbours and from their governments, to go and live as they please in the wilderness.
Says Freeman in defence of going to live on an asteroid; but not yet in defence of his son high up in a tree.

George needs to spend time in his tree house, he needs to be sequestered to see what kind of mind he has—not unlike his father's, as it turns out, they have the same eyes, the same face, the same laugh. It's the similarities that are the most painful to absorb. After rebelling against his father, George rebels against George in the tree house, he cuts his hair and moves closer to the rest of society.

You don't have to rebel for ever. And you don't have to join (your father). You can find your own way. Build your canoes. Listen to your whales. Googling reveals that present-day Freeman is a climate change sceptic and George sells canoes. Freeman thinks humans have been kind to the planet. He lives on hamburgers and coke. Kenneth Brower can't think how anyone can be so stupid. His sympathies are with George. He has a refreshing chapter called My Opinion.
Resting in the wan sunlight, I thought about the Dysons, father and son.
Sometimes it seemed to me that both were caught up in a kind of ghost dance. Both were hoping, like the plains Indians of the 1890s, for resurrections of ways of life that are past recall. George hadn't realised that the day of the Indians was over; Freeman hadn't seen that the white man's day was in its twilight.
The first time I read The Starship and the Canoe was pre-internet. The starship was the starship and the canoe was the canoe. The father and the son, asteroid and ocean. I understood the son and his habitat, his slow move into companionship in wild places; I had grudging patience for the father, looking out from his astrophysics, eating his hamburgers. So painstaking is Kenneth Brower's observation of a father-son dancing party in British Columbia and beyond. He interprets and makes it feel like a luxury we can ill afford to miss.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

  We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
TS Eliot at the end of Four Quartets.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard on The worst journey in the world.
The man with the nerves goes farthest. What is the ratio between nervous and physical energy? What is vitality? Why do some things terrify you at one time and not at others? What is this early morning courage? What is the influence of imagination? How far can a man draw on his own capital?  …
There are many reasons which send men to the Poles, and the Intellectual Force uses them all. …
Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.
Eliot published Four Quartets in 1944. Cherry-Garrard, who spent several years in the Antarctic, published The worst journey in the world in 1922. Guy Davenport taught a course on the year 1922. How would you teach 1944?
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
Eliot is glorious for your elliptical youth. While explorers sledge on, dodging crevasses and hauling out ponies and later eating them. They dream of food.
Night after night I bought big buns and chocolate at a stall on the island platform at Hatfield station, but always woke before I got a mouthful to my lips; some companions who were not so highly strung were more fortunate, and ate their phantom meals.
A séjour in the Antarctic brought about in these explorers a species of lectio divina. They had few books and they read them well. Scott favoured Darwin's Origin of Species as a sledging book, excellent for reflection and discussion. An encyclopaedia, plus Greek and Latin dictionaries were essential for settling disputes. Dante's Inferno did the rounds among the men, as well as several Histories, Browning, Tennyson and Bleak House.

The Worst Journey in the World has been on my shelves for a long time but I haven't read it till now. I wonder why.
     You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance,
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession
In order to arrive at what you are not
...
Books you choose but do not read are a niche category. During the years I did not embark upon The Worst Journey in the World, I read Four Quartets back to front, front to back, settling eventually on short sections— about dance, garlic, simplicity, exploration—that I read over and over the way I listened to short sections of Schubert or Beethoven, intently, in relief and in gratitude.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

If you want to relate to the writing of Witold Gombrowicz, it is advisable first to spend a day of sullen close weather dealing with Revenue and Felling Licences and Gmail accounts and the right amplifier for Quad speakers (Quad). Pornografia, a philosophical novel, crime novel and a state of general disarray and despair and absurdity in Occupied Poland circa 1943, is a marvellous fit.

Bacacay, a collection of early stories named for a side street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived (in exile), is good for the day after, with light winds, nebulous rain and occasional brightening of the sky. Early stories are looser and more naked. You can see more clearly why he needed to write in leaps, bounds and lacunae. Things are laid out like hammer blows once a story has a title and a main character, like 'The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki'.
I was born and raised in a most respectable home. It is with great emotion that I run toward you, my childhood! I see my father, a handsome man of lofty stature, with a face in which everything—gaze, features, and gray-tinged hair —all combined into the very image of perfect noble breeding. I see you too, mother, in spotless black, with no other adornment than a pair of antique diamond earrings. And I see myself, a small, solemn, thoughtful lad, and I feel like weeping at those shattered hopes. Perhaps the only imperfection in our family life was the fact that my father hated my mother.
Once you have found yourself a way to stay at a safe distance from the horrors, pushing and jabbing, you're on your way, you write on and on. Savagely. Stories, novels, plays. Gombrowicz's published diary runs to seven hundred pages. Seven hundred pages is a drop in the ocean. Monday—me. Tuesday—me. Wednesday—me.

Shadowy stories thrash about chez Gombrowicz. It is not his life with which we acquaint, it's his sound and his fury.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet makes a fine retreat on windy, sinusbound afternoon. I wanted something short and open, with suggestion. I also wanted to fall asleep for some time in the middle of reading, which I did.

I first read Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books, where already I realised that, given a slight tweak of history, I might have known him. Same age, same background, same weft and warp, more history, more discussion, a voluble rather than a silent family.

My young sense of kin was built on people like him I knew existed, probably in London, later in New York. When I did meet them I had a sense of recognition and discomfort, like an evening meal en famille, minus the black holes. I wasn't used to feeling at home.

He wrote or built The Memory Chalet during the later stages of motor neurone disease, in which limbs and functions drop away but the mind races on, nightlong. He's a historian, so his nightlong is full of structure, the only itch he can scratch till morning and assistance come. Harold Brodkey did something similar in 1996 when he was in hospital dying of AIDS: 'I am practicing making entries in my journal to record my passage into non-existence'. Tony Judt takes his cue from an Italian traveller to medieval China: The memory palace of Matteo Ricci. The building is a mnemonic device and a container to leave in trust.

Much of what I recognise in Tony Judt lies in his unease about identity labels such as English or Jew, his preference for edge people, as well as a shared era of Green Line buses and Paris événements. It's a relief to consolidate my own sense of being (happily) on the edge. Sometimes I forget how appealing that is, how fundamental to so much of life. Then there are moments when, for example, walking down the Coal Quay in Cork City on a Saturday morning, I realise among the organic veg stalls that I have skeetered back from the edge into a brief sense of the middle.

Monday, 8 August 2016

David Jones' In Parenthesis is as visceral a long piece of language as you could find anywhere. As impenetrable as war itself. He called his poem Rosi when he was writing it in the 1920s, from the heart of NeuRosiS. Did it help to medicalise war? Did it help to write it, to rebuild the paraphernalia, the accents, glimpses of french farm life, violation of landscape, clouds, how firm the mist holds in low places? Is helping even a word?
 How piteous the torn small twigs. Thin blue smoke rises straight, like robber-fire,
The immediacy is too dire. I have to stare out at my own surroundings, the windy summer day. And then I can read it. This intimacy and pliancy. For a short time.

Likewise I can't take too much news (about Syria). I heard on the radio about a bookshop or book club in, I think, Aleppo. Isn't it dangerous to be going out getting books here? asked the reporter. It's dangerous everywhere, said a man who was reading Hamlet: I've read half and before the end of the year I hope to read the other half.

What was David Jones reading in the trenches? He must have been writing when he could, holding on to the landscape the moonlight and the soldierspeak, as well as all the reading he'd done, all the words he'd absorbed. In Parenthesis is saturated with The Golden Bough, Malory, the Old Testament, Plato, Shakespeare, the songs the Welsh sang at rugby matches. Ransacking for comfort in the era of footnotes. David Jones footnoted in gentlemanly fashion. I read them, mostly, even when I don't need to. To step outside the trenches.

I read part 4 up at the pond this afternoon. Neither sunny nor not. Fished out lemna betimes. Two buzzards out, one bathing in the feeder pond when I went up. The savagery of David Jones' language next to a whirr of whirligig beetles in the middle of the pond. One intimacy for another. One routine. Lemna watch. Rat watch.
When it's all quiet you can hear them:
scrut scrut scrut
when it's as quiet as this is.
It's so very still.
Your body fits the crevice of the bay in the most comfortable fashion imaginable.
It's cushy enough. 
The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? — bugger all to report?—kipping made? christ, mate—you'll 'ave 'em all over.
If trenches in France you can't comprehend, if the big picture is crooked once you're inside it, absorb what's closest—in a trench everything is close—including death, life and lukewarm tea, populate with Welsh myth and legend, Morte d'Arthur and sundry heroes, fools and dreamers.
Roll on duration—
  we're drawing pith-helmets for the Macedonian war—they camel-corps won't have platoon drill anyway—deux grenadine ma'm'selle—this is mine, Alphonso—here's the lucky Alphonse, the genuine lion heart, back in time for the 'bus to Jaffa and the Blackamoor delectations.
  He swayed his pelvis like a corner-boy.
 In Parenthesis is a diary written afterwards, an onward rush through a year or so of World War 1. You have to read it as he wrote it. Is that an obvious thing to say? Or does certain writing present as the only way to say it, no compromise, no cliché, no long list for literary award, no list at all?

Monday, 1 August 2016

The humanity of Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind by Arthur Zajonc (a great watery roving Slav name) is what makes it hard to read except glidingly. I have always read science books for whatever briefly made sense, and for whatever decisively didn't. I like being bemused. I can rest across paragraphs and sentences I don't understand. Arthur Zajonc's history of light and mind is history, illuminated, orderly. I have to rewrite it as I read, take off where I can. A phrase about looking through a vacuum to the other side, another about the tenderness you learn in childhood—a quick dash through my childhood reveals none, except in the music of Schubert.

Reading science in my twenties I learned to open a book at random and rove around till I lit on a phrase I didn't understand in a pleasurable way. Douglas Hofstadter. Richard Feynman. Paracelsus. Lucretius. I preferred reading that was beyond me. And so learned to live there.

As my onetime neighbour in Sussex, Sally Corbett  (SNEC) asked, when I enthused about Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, my reading of the moment, I don't read much, she said, I need to know before I start do I need to read this? Yes, I said. Everyone needs to understand a tailor retailored.

The quality of thought is concurrent with the quality of light. The way I might read Catching the Light, or Sartor Resartus, in summer differs from the way I'd read in winter; or next week, or half an hour from now, after I have released a blackbird from the greenhouse, a juvenile I think, with young, anxious feathers.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Having another language, another landscape and relation of one word to another, a faint impenetrability even when you're fluent, just the edge that language ideally has, being language after all, not life. If it has no edge you know you're drowned.

For just such uncertain observations, Henri Michaux is the thing. One of a number of writers who have remained fresh and testing from day one.
Il faut un obstacle nouveau pour un savoir nouveau. Veille périodiquement à te susciter des obstacles, 
A new obstacle requires new knowledge. See about periodically stirring up obstacles,
In the Green Integer edition of Tent Posts (Poteaux d'angle) of a humid evening, I veer about in french and in english. I would translate it the other way around.
For new knowledge you need a new obstacle. Make sure you stir up obstacles on a regular basis,
Maybe they are one and the same. Between the french and the english I get the gist. Ezra Pound thought poetry should be gists and piths. If you periodically skate between languages, gists and piths are your country and you will get on well with Henri Michaux. And Heraclitus. Lucretius. Short paragraphs that begin and end at the same time. Not so much lapidary as pulmonary. The breath of our attention to our life.
La vie, aussi vite que tu l'utilises, s'écroule, s'en va, longue seulement à qui sait errer, paresser.
Life, as quickly as you use it, melts away, disappears, long only to someone who knows how to drift, loaf. 
You can read any paragraph of Michaux and, if you can take all that syntax, you move on wonderfully in your head. In brittle times you need to keep agile. People are axing people in trains, knifing people, battering and ramming people in their rage. You have to be very agile in your responses. There is no safe place, even when listening to Alfred Brendel play Beethoven, Opus 31 number 2.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Teju Cole comes into his own as nocturnal reading.

If you want to sleep you don't want too much story or linguistic brinkishness of any kind, you want consequential memories and observations sombrely presented: the ventilation system in the New York subway, a mugging in Morningside Park, your father's funeral in Lagos when you were fourteen, scratchy in ceremonial robes, a freedom that exhausts itself into sentences.

You want to sleep but need to be led there.

Friday, 15 July 2016

My desk is renewed, cleared and cleaned back to an older self; as if I moved house but the view didn't change.

I've been reading Teju Cole's Open City, a week or two after Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. I read about both books in magazines (Fence) (New York Review of Books) (New Yorker). I like their literacy, their Wittgenstein their Mahler and their Winnicott, but it is theirs, they remind me I have my own shout to look after, my own sentences.

I would have expected to like Teju Cole, with his echoes of Sebald if not Baudelaire and even Walser, more than Maggie Nelson's abrasive account of herself and her partner and her baby. But this old-fashioned summer, mixed, warm in corners, damp some days, desultory then splendid, is nest enough for the abrasive to win.

Teju Cole is embedded in Western culture as much as in his own life. The veiled male. Maggie Nelson is a better Open City—her plainspeak, plainsong—than Teju Cole; and he is more of a wanderer in the manner of the Argonauts. Open City, High Seas, Race, Gender, Embodiment, Embeddedment.

Ireland is under a blight cloud; they should have that on the news. The truck that ploughed through the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Revolution Day; and the blight cloud. Teju Cole in rainstorms in Brussels. Maggie Nelson injecting her partner with T (testosterone). Four new swallows in the woodshed.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Robert Walser responding to paintings and faits divers and Clarice Lispector writing out of her own dailiness were published in newspapers and magazines, he in the twenties and thirties in Berlin, she in the sixties and seventies in Brazil. Now that we all do faits divers in all formats all the time, publishing idiosyncratic prose pieces in national newspapers and monthlies isn't an option; even if you put on your prose piece suit, no one will see.

What does Robert Walser see when he inhabits a picture? He speaks as the picture, he enters its lives, empathises with the painter, runs a few possible narratives, anachronisms and suppositions up the flagpole, and then excuses himself.
For hours and days on end he [Cézanne] sought out ways to make the unintelligible the obvious, and to find for things easily understood an inexplicable basis. As time went by, a secret watchfulness settled in his eyes from so much precise circling of contours that became for him edges of a mystery.
Clarice, without mediation of any kind, or medication, for that matter, except the typewriter, reflects on her knowing sensibility.
I daresay this kind of sensibility, which is capable of stirring emotions and making one think even without using the mind, is a gift. And a gift which can be diminished with neglect or perfected if exercised to the full.
Walser, in 'Portrait of a Lady', enters the head of the young lady sitting in a chair and reading, painted by his brother Karl.
In painting the portrait of the young lady, he is also painting her amiable secret reveries, her thoughts and daydreams, her lovely, happy imagination, since, directly above the reader's head, or brain, in a softer, more delicate distance, as though it were the construction of a fantasy, he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Knut Hamsun's Victoria and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, overlaid with Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts and a dash of Baryshnikov as Nijinsky (in review only, malheureusement), this week's cultural sandwich is served on a plate of summer field. A love story and a love story and a love story and another about madness and the rite of spring. Life's dire capacity for loss and misadventure, if not despair, if not theory.

Jules et Jim was the first European film I saw, at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead when I was about 17; here was an early european lightness of being, a fluidity that life up till then conspicuously lacked, with a seductive voiceover, almost languorous matter of fact, unpassionate romantic; in the coy mode of the 1960s Jeanne Moreau says goodnight to Jules and Jim outside a rural hotel, holding the neatly wrapped package of her white pajamas as she is about to découche with Alberto; Oskar Werner's german french, his helpless generosity; two scenes of the three of them going downhill on bikes, the temporary joy of it, the participation thereafter in every downhill run; Jeanne Moreau singing Le Tourbillon, her exact, unaccustomed delivery: she can smile, she can sing, we are captivated.

In the penultimate scene she drives off half a bridge with Jim (pronounced as in english). She's wearing a cloche hat and there's a wicked smile on her face: look at me now, look what I'm going to do next. I was dumbstruck. No one as beautiful and decided as Jeanne Moreau should drive into the river with one of her men; yet why not? I hoped this would all come clear when I went to university.

In the last scene Jules, Oskar Werner, is alone at the funeral of his wife and his friend, which at seventeen probably didn't strike me as strange, particularly as in my family women and children didn't go to funerals; this time I thought maybe the budget didn't stretch to another actress to play the daughter, older, or that verisimilitude would just create visual clutter. I still wonder why a german should have so french a name, and Jim, a frenchman, so english.

Knut Hamsun's Victoria, the first time I read it, seemed a weary trope: impossible love in a pastoral setting; rich girl, poor boy. Give me Hunger and Mysteries, the strangeness that walks the streets, poses in the alps and then drives off a bridge, not this opera of weak chests in rural Norway. This time Victoria was entirely consonant with Hunger, Mysteries and even Maggie Nelson's Argonauts. Am I more generous now? More equal? Ready for a simple tale. Or nostalgic. Life is a walk across an open field. Maybe. Would that.

Romance is not a success in Jules et Jim but friendship is, Jules the german and Jim the frenchman, across the trenches. In Victoria the only winner is poetry; the rich girl dies and the poor boy, the miller's son, becomes a famous poet in the manner of men who write poetry: everything else is impossible or unimportant. Maggie Nelson's Argonauts in the early twenty-first century do not recognize the impossible or the unimportant, rich or poor, yes or no; with the right surgery and injections a woman can become very male indeed; she can write her own vows, on her body or elsewhere, she can have a child in one of a number of ways.

This is not a trope, or a meme, or a hashtag. Birth is always a number of accidents. Act accordingly. Uncage John Cage. Follow Nijinsky's left arm. Mix your influences and gaze across an open field.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Robert Walser's Microscripts are just the thing for desperate days. They were written in pencil, each phrase a tiny flick of (dis)quiet. Let's not think failure of nerve; in our great, unnoticed sorrow we are nerveless. These are tiny scripts on fragments of paper often already printed with something else. This is the density of the creature, inner convolution brought out as far as it will go, and then cut; off goes Herr Walser, invisible once again. Tiny text lies unread longest, on the borderlands of legibility and despair, hardly worthy of secrecy, he'd say, humble Herr Walser, that divinely gifted layabout.

In order to start writing Walser puts on a prose piece jacket. Some writers have to be dressed correctly; this is a formal moment after all; you are here to choose such of your day as deserves to be hidden, which may involve other people you have passed by on your walk, or dogs, paintings, joy-deficient cliffs. You absorb such of the world as you see, ferret away your day, make a stab at what comes your way and try not to comment, not to be rude or to disturb. You're far from the world, though eagerly in it; burrowing in is one way to slip out. In is out, and out is in, especially when snow is falling.

All observations are fully charged. All that you say is also all that you don't say. This isn't false modesty. There isn't a false feather in Herr Walser's apparel. He writes about everything equally, leaves it there to be (un)read.
That I listened to the radio for the first time yesterday fills me with a feeling of internationality, though this remark I've made is, to be sure, anything but modest.
The absence of a feeling of internationality is what underlies my despair ninety years later and sends me to Robert Walser for comfort.
All his longing, how he longed for it again!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Gusty unsummer weather reached my soul too fast today. Started reading Knut Hamsun again. Hunger. Required reading in the seventies, like many Picador editions, runkled in rucksacks from Brighton to Kathmandu, handed on like spiritual currency, pages softening, spine creased: Knut Hamsun, Herman Hesse, Rimbaud, Blake. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Knut Hamsun's excesses are a perfect fit. Once you are lurching about in his borderline existence, it is your borderline existence too, though you might not be trying to pawn the buttons off your jacket to buy a loaf of bread or a glass of milk, you're starving in some other way and life repeats itself alarmingly, even in Kathmandu.

I've never been to Kathmandu, I read Knut Hamsun in Ireland. His Oslo, or Christiana, was my Cork. I was ready to be lost. I was lost. Being lost was my profession. And now? How does it look now? Am I inside the palace of wisdom? A gusty day knocks me down. I'm not inside anything.

Mysteries, a few days later, is just that: one inexplicable turn of events after another. Yesterday I read in a review of a new Paul Celan translation that it may be best, confronted by the inexplicable, even the unreadable, just to keep reading, fast, to ride the storm of images, of mysteries, to keep going: you will never get to the bottom of this so you might as well exercise your deepest freedom and gallop off into the sunset with Paul Celan, Knut Hamsun, or life itself.

Monday, 13 June 2016

I was looking for books to throw out (the bookshelves are once again full) and found a novella by Martin Walser that I bought in New York in the early eighties thinking this was Robert Walser, whom I'd lately heard of but only remembered the surname and a promise of something strange, which the Martin Walser book wasn't. I couldn't throw out a case of mistaken identity without giving it a second chance. Runaway Horse came out in English in 1980. The author's photo takes up the whole of the back cover; his glasses are very seventies. More recent photos show a truly phenomenal pair of eyebrows, beetling if not mossy.

I'm on the brink of recounting the novel's set-up: these people in that place with those key events as well as a circular ending. If I were on holiday I would look at them at a next-door table outside a café by a lake, which is where the story begins and ends, and never guess that the two men had been friends at school and now one of them taught philosophy and was reading Kierkegaard's diaries, while the other was an aggressively vital figment of his imagination. Or maybe I would. Sometimes you get it right. The mood-setting quote a page or two from the start of the novella is from Kierkegaard's Either/Or, and, like most prefaces, best read afterward.
From time to time one comes across novellas in which certain persons expound opposing philosophies. A preferred ending is for one of these persons to convince the other. Thus, instead of the philosophy having to speak for itself, the reader is favoured with the historical result that the other person has been convinced. I regard it as a blessing that in this respect these papers afford no enlightenment.
Is it disingenuous to be blessed by a lack of enlightenment? The other Walser, Robert, would not have been troubled by this kind of pancake. He would go for a walk and see what he saw.
A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

I ought to like Frederic Tuten (Self Portraits: Fictions), a second-generation american as I am second-generation english, but the music isn't there; he moves between romance and cultural icons as in an amusement park under a layer of volcanic ash. Last Year at Marienbad is one of his favourites, and indeed mine. Finding someone else under the sway of Delphine Seyrig is not as reassuring as I would have thought; he would like to meet a woman who has her weariness and detachment; leave her at the hotel in Marienbad, I say, with that bit of chiffon about her throat.

One way of clarifying why a writer doesn't do it for me is to read another in the same breath.  Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky for example, the story 'Thirty Pieces of Silver', a fantastical history of the common era, so-called, through the metaphorical yet obstinately real thirty pieces of silver, one of which could turn up in your weekly pay packet, dear reader. And 'Postmark: Moscow', a series of letters to no one in particular. (I used to write those.) These are dry, long-legged sketches, savage yet polite, a riff more than a story, written in Moscow of the 1920s and 30s by a Ukrainian in a state of perpetual bewilderment and ever-narrowing focus; he pays fine attention to walls and windows, the lay-out of streets.

Frederic Tuten inhabits a cosier world of women, films and nostalgia. He cruises about in his cultural Luna Park. Krzhizhanovksy is edgily, defiantly, darkly closer to his (subfusc) meaning. Tuten, whose family is from Sicily via the Bronx, doesn't need meaning, when he quotes Marx it is to bask in old ideals before returning to a park on fire. Dreamlike but not dreamy.

What is the difference between the fire of state-repressed writing, the habit of concealment and the word-image-bath of the second-generation migrant to the free world? The prisoner who paces about Moscow is largely on his own; the free man has the companionship of an entire culture. Frederic Tuten dedicates this book to his friend Alain Resnais. The writings of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, on the other hand, were not published until 40 years after his death.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Up at the pond on a fine day I think I can't get any quieter than this and then I know there's a ways to go. This is a dipping pond, and I read in the same way. Fence magazine is just the thing. Other people's bumpy jolty. I know myself there, stippled and onward like the sound of aspens in a light easterly wind, crossed by pigeon flaps, blackbirds going to ground and small brown birds whose intimate flight between bushes and ponds renders them modestly nameless.
Read this journal. It is not the news, but it is the news as reported through the lens of a collection of contemporary artists who approach the world like boundless governmental wiretaps: investigating all of humanity.
I'm not sure how come I receive Fence; somewhere along the line I moved towards it and, after several issues, I have grown into it. Reading it I have some sense how people might read me. And that's a rare aperçu. Here are people moving around in just as much language as they can muster, if not less. As well as what they've written we know what they're reading. This is a more complete sense of a person than you can get after several days spent together. In some cases, a lifetime.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

I read in The New Yorker about the artist, Thomas Thwaites, who got a Wellcome Trust grant to learn how to be a goat, and his fellow-traveller who at the same time was learning badger. This was in England. It would be poignant anywhere, once you get into the nitty-gritty of prosthetic goat legs and a goat digestive system, or when the badger sett is riddled with worms after heavy rain. You have to take radical measures to get away from the ravages, the absurdity, of human life.

Thomas Thwaites spent time with goats, practised with his prosthetic legs, read Heidegger, learned to react to his surroundings in a goatlike way. He would have achieved goathood, he thought, when he could see a word without reading it (I'd like to try that), or look at a chair without thinking about sitting on it, or, more important, look at a goat and think of it as another person, like him.

David Garnett's Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo from 1922 and 1924, Bloomsbury, explored similar preoccupations, from the point of view of the human trying to hang on to his humanness. David Garnett makes much slower and sadder, fraught progress towards foxhood. One day Mr Tebrick looks round and sees that Mrs Tebrick has turned into a vixen, just like that, complete, no Heidegger, no prosthetics, only suspension of disbelief. He remains in love with his vixen, with his Sylvia, at first he dresses her and plays cards with her, later he's horrified when she kills and devours a rabbit, and jealous when she produces cubs. She has prostituted herself with a fox. How is he going to deal with that? It is only near the end of the tale that he finds his way past his horror of, guilt at, desire for, the bestial.
At that moment all human customs and institutions seemed to him nothing but folly, 'for said he, 'I would exchange all my life as a man for my happiness now, and even now I retain almost all of the ridiculous conceptions of a man. The beasts are happier and I will deserve that happiness as best I can.
David Garnett, known as Bunny, was calming a private mind here. Men sin because they cannot be animals, he concludes. There is always something to overcome, even in Bloomsbury. His man in a zoo, labelled and on show, is another species, mauled by an orang-utan, befriended by a caracal. Tilda Swinton on show in the Serpentine, asleep, is somehow comparable. A zoo, a gallery, an audience.

David Garnett is labouring compared with Thomas Thwaites, who is, according to the subtitle of the book he wrote about being a goat, on holiday from being human. The 21st century manifests a refreshing directness in the face of lunacy. After talking to a shaman about animism and totemism, he concludes
Really, to want to become a goat is pretty standard. In fact, historically speaking it's almost odder to not want to become a goat.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Reading the stories of Robert Musil, either too slowly or too fast, disquieted as I can be when I read what I like to call my diary's desert years, my early twenties, when everything was bottomless, especially words and the sentiments they tried to track. Fractals they turned out to be. A Musil narrator lost in her own finesse was just what I needed to read then. Not now. I'm impatient with my younger self, struggling to accommodate my older self. The Musil introspection overwhelms. Perhaps it's the translation. Or the translatedness of everything, German into English and future into past, what might happen into what has not happened. I want something swifter, like two swallows whizzing through a dark shed and out into the air.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Wanting to read is a condition of early evening, in playful combat with wanting to write. I was thinking of Rilke and opened instead Robert Creeley's Autobiography, published by Hanuman Books and printed in India in tiny format—70 x 104 mm—with uncertain inking and page trim, from among the (small) books that live on my desk. To judy from J.D. says the dedication, as if I'd given it to myself, which I thought I had. The life within an Autobiography this small is brought down to size; to say nothing of judy and J.D. He—we—have parents and went fishing, we read books, fell in love, we regard the sky, 'this shifting massive place of light and weather', 'an old blue place', refer to our friends, gauge our displacement.
Wittgenstein proposes that it is the "I" that is "deeply mysterious," not "you" or "them." What cannot be objectified is oneself. Yet the fiction, finally for real, is attractive—that the Walt Whitman of Song of Myself is, as Borges says, one of the consummate literary fictions of all time.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

A review of Bohumil Hrabal by Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books had me pondering a Russian proverb: 'In the vegetable garden grows the elder tree, and uncle is in Kiev'. The inconsequence plus the elements of vegetable garden, elder tree, uncle and Kiev, gave me a feeling of intense familiarity and contentment. I understood or recognised without understanding or recognition. The small leaps between vegetable garden, elder tree, uncle and Kiev, the dislocation and the warmth, the lightness of being, swam delightfully together.
(Hrabal) said he always had the impression that people who kept rabbits, hoed their own potatoes, and butchered animals lived more intensely. In the midst of some ordinary story they'd surprise you by saying something extraordinary.
I keep hens but butcher them with circumspection, if at all. I endeavour to keep rabbits away from young trees and indeed the vegetable garden. Talk around hens, live or dead, around potatoes and rabbits is vivid enough for six in the era of digital treasure.

Thus primed I return to Too Loud A Solitude and relish it so much I have to stop after only a few pages. Yes, yes and yes. Hrabal is a hectic writer. He sucks on sentences like sweets, drinks in order to think better, to read better, to go to the heart of what he reads. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by a book-compactor. All day he compacts books in a hydraulic press, rescuing and reading volumes here and there, learning the joys of devastation, the pleasures of the wrecking ball.
I can be by myself because I'm never lonely, I'm simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harm-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to have taken a liking to the likes of me.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Candido or A Dream Dreamed in Sicily by Leonardo Sciascia becomes A Dream Dreamed in Inniscarra as the season of reading outdoors begins. Sicily is easily Italy and then slips out to be part of North Africa. Or Inniscarra.

Leonardo Sciascia is another Italian writer of the mid-twentieth century with a clean receding hairline.
Time was when you couldn't google an Italian writer's hairline. You could only read his books and peruse his name: Scia Scia.

Sciascia's Candido is facile and touching, clean-run and impervious. You don't feel for him but you feel for his trajectory, his will to truth, which looks like blindness or naiveté, idiocy in the old sense, silly in the old sense too: of the soul.

All this under a clean plain hairline. Of all the Italian writers I've read recently, Bassani is probably best on women (although that could be De Sica speaking). Sciascia is like Moravia: his forthrightness on housekeepers and whores is defensive and chilly.

But there are ideals. Candido wants to give away land in order that a hospital be built by the town gates. You do not give away land, says the gombeen man, that cuts out the swathe of intrigue and profit on which politics is built, Candido learns.

Reading about Sicily in Ireland is about right. Within the last half-century. Apart from fascism and communism. We're not talking Fine Fail and Fine Gael. We're talking Voltaire. Vol Taire. Flight silenced, as Mallarmé noticed.

'Then it was clear to him that perhaps he had indeed not known how to read many things, but others he had not understood precisely because he had understood them; that is, he had denied that Marx had meant to say and had said precisely what he had said.'

And: 'the very people who preferred to talk little, whose family and social life was made up of silences more than of words, loved long preachments and speakers who made themselves least understood. "My soul understands him", a little old woman said.'

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis I knew first as De Sica's film, and then, for decades in my memory, as a vast garden with a tennis court and a brother and sister separated from the town of Ferrara by a high wall. The two young actors (Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger) have an internal nordic complicity or likeness that deflects from the Sephardi identity they have in the book; they don't so much act as lie in wait for our responses. If that is a condition of haute jewishness in late nineteen thirties Italy, then De Sica is eloquent.

There are three generations of Finzi-Continis; the house has a library; there's a constant and again nordic great dane dog called Jor. If this were Visconti rather than De Sica the house and garden would be more voluptuous, more lingering. There would be more politics, if gentlemanly and gracious. The tennis is awkward, as if, despite or because of Skiwasser (water with raspberry syrup, a slice of lemon and a few grapes) and very distinguished canapés from the kosher shop in Ferrara, every match is doomed.

Bassani's book is less rhapsodic than De Sica's film. Here is a young man in love, reflection and confusion about when to kiss, when to stay away, about missed opportunities, bungled moments, conversations about politics, choice of thesis topic; and then Hitler obliterates everything; fascism and communism are both relegated. There are no more conversations.

The story is better than the writing. The translation could be more involving. The printing of the edition I bought is repro, too thick and too black, which adds to the discomfort, the feeling that you're reading for the tale, for the narrator's loss, the jewish loss, and in honour of the Finzi-Contini garden, those tennis afternoons and their refreshments, as well as your responsive twenty-five year-old self.

The title, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, like, The Beautiful Room is Empty, or, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, is everything.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Reading by turns Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend and Italo Svevo As a man grows older on a savage April afternoon, January and May blowing out of the northwest onto the same field, young birch leaves catching the light, Ferrante savage too, cold and angry, ruthless with herself and her past in Naples, she has to find her own fluid, flat and engaging style, she has to have a pen name since she is literally writing herself into existence: full disclosure, total data. And she's furious. Controlled. Determined. Sometimes amazed, like the first time she sees the sea (aged twelve or so). You don't remember this much unless you're furious. Every knowledge is a knowledge won and recorded.

Svevo, the bourgeois in Trieste half a century earlier, constructs his his love life over and over; he's not angry he's anxious and he has a code of behaviour, a dubious ethics that marries well with literature. They are made for each other. The status is quo and the beloved is an angel and a whore.

I feel uneasy with both writers; I want my tales more skeletal. My Brilliant Friend has something of the books you stare at while waiting in the queue at the Post Office: 'My mother sold me for a box of matches', except the fury is scrupulous and poignant. Elena Ferrante is in high demand throughout the branches of Cork County Library. Took me four months to get it, my first library book in decades. Inside the laminated plastic paperback I'm aware of other readers' marks as they've read while drinking tea or eating risotto. My A level french teacher said she never took books out of the library because you might find other people's hairs between the pages.

Svevo, on the other hand, is hardly read at all now. Nothing between his pages except that old Penguin vanilla smell. He is very old male, self-owning, impassioned (within the codes of his day, which are made to increase passion) and sexist (other codes also made to increase passion). Elena Ferrante is very female, very Karl Ove Knausgaard, relentless: nothing will escape, I will spare no blood, I need to structure this, the shoe must fit I will be plain and you will listen, you have lived through your version of this but you haven't got around to finding your own fluid and engaging style.

If I interrupted a reading of Svevo to see what Ferrante was like, it was because Svevo was getting relentless too, fluid and engaging in an earlier way, jostling his inamorata and his sister, his friends and his standing in Trieste into position and getting older in the process.

Anger or anxiety. The choice is yours.

Do I read all these narratives in order to cut them short, in order to irritate myself back into poetry?

Monday, 25 April 2016

Reading in Andalucia for a week, inland, in the mountains, and lastly by the sea, demands a book with old-fashioned largesse and a leading rein. Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo, since I'm in Italian mode lately, should take me through. He's beguiling enough, a chirpy depressive of nearly a century ago, and I bop along his pages on the beach, in bed, at night, his confessions, as he calls them, less intimate than expansive and headlong, sardonic. If this is what his shrink recommends, as per the book's central conceit, then none of us are having any of it.

We have a beach to lie on and look at the sea for hours on end, suspending the waves then rattling the shingle. Sweeps of light mackerel cloud across the sky; very quiet swimming up there too. Read Svevo and doze off, as if bourgeois Trieste of a hundred years ago were softly and forgettably adjacent behind these hills, this paraje naturel or natural spot patrolled, unaccountably, by a small Spanish navy vessel moving from right to left and left to right; while two art students experiment with a mirror but fall into the sea nymph fallacy, unbuttoning their long red-blonde hair.

How long can you watch the sea, clear water over stones, without feeling so far in you need rescuing?

The last day on the beach I finished Svevo, which, by the end, was as odd and tiring as the shifts of travel. Book and circumstance intertwine, irrevocably: the soul on holiday is the soul at home. Always modern. Svevo was modern in Trieste a hundred years ago, along with James Joyce, who was there too. He was modern, that is, ironical, in relation to the Oedipus complex a psychiatrist was determined to give him; and ancient in his attitude to women, about which his psychiatrist had nothing to say.

For the journey home I found a Patricia Highsmith among the disposable fiction on the stairs at our apartment, and read it on the plane and the day after, tearing along, flailing for the end. But in Patricia Highsmith there are always a few resting places.
Rydal walked into a café and had a cup of coffee. It was a dull town, Chania, but Rydal rather liked dull towns, because they forced one to look at things—for want of anything else to do—that one might not otherwise notice. Like the number of flowerpots on windowsills as compared with the number in Athens or in other small towns he had been in on the mainland; the number of cripples on the street; the quality of building materials used in the houses; the variety or lack of variety of the foodstuffs in the market.
At Malaga airport I noticed ugly women and the pathos of families, happy and fat and clinging together, looking over their till receipts, following daddy and striking out for the loo.

Friday, 15 April 2016

In the wakeful middle of the night I'm reading Moravia again. Intense short bursts, maybe fifteen minutes. For fifteen minutes I'm a shy law student in a pensione in Rome, or a boy at a sanatorium trying to be bad.  I've become accustomed to Italy in the forties and fifties, the Italy that predates my first visits in the sixties, during my dreamy adolescence. Italy allows a dreamer to flourish, sustains her during winters further north where she can read Moravia, and Bassani, and Svevo in almost total ignorance of the history or the politics, with just the jewishness, the obscure threat and the sunlight, the remote thud of a tennis ball (Bassani), the saturation of an awkward youth (Moravia), the last cigarette (Svevo). In their author pictures they look very similar. Dark hair brushed back. Intensity and formality meet seduction. I was never convinced by Italian men, even during the dreamy parts of my adolescence.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The name of Mallarmé sprang from The New Yorker today and in I went. This is prepared ground. I spent four or five years with Mallarmé in my twenties, working on a PhD, the most comfortable/uncomfortable fit of my young life. 'After only a few lines of Mallarmé, you are engulfed in a fine mist, and terror sets in,' writes Alex Ross. To me it wasn't terror, unless the terror that underlies ecstasy. Most other reading after that was akin to a long hot bath or an afternoon in the sun. My immersion in Mallarmé prepared me in an absolute way for the long business of not understanding. Any correlation between words and life was silently shattered. I was more at home among words that were, you could say, talking among themselves, than among people. I could move among words as among trees or clouds. Especially French words, with their greater, plausible, unknowability. For a number of years I wrote my diary in Mallarméan encryption from which I only emerged by going to live in another country and becoming a teacher. For years after my thesis, and the book I made from it, the name of Mallarmé was unbearable. What kind of creature could read Mallarmé with such fellow feeling? Become Mallarmé when left to herself? I didn't wait around to hear the answer.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

For the last two nights there has been a direct line from my reading to my dreams.

The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia, 'this powerful modern novel' as the 1950s Penguin blurb has it, is 'told entirely in the first person' by a young prostitute. Moravia sees off criticism with a brief note at the beginning; he knows a young (or old) prostitute is unlikely to be able to articulate her acceptance or her bewilderment. Her life is not her own; it belongs to the composite lover, the author.

Italian novels often involve prostitutes. Giorgio Bassani's young, thoughtful, male characters visit them. Moravia has no note on why he chose to narrate as a prostitute. I have gone rapidly past this book on my shelves ever since I first bought it, as if its modernity (and indeed its translation) were long past their moment.
The scene is Mussolini's Rome, and against this background of squalor and cynicism the novelist has painted the figure of a dauntless, fascinating personality.
At the start of the novel she is an artist's model. At the beginning of Part Two she meets a young intellectual and falls in love. The nakedness of her body and then her soul prompted my two dreams. In the first I went out with no clothes on, thinking, it doesn't matter, no one will notice, or maybe they will, maybe I should put on a t shirt. In the second I was talking to a young soldier, so close up I could overlook his uniform. Twin souls we were, such as I imagined when I was about 17, which is roughly when I first read The Woman of Rome. I don't know what we talked about but at the end I said, 'that was one of the best conversations of my entire life', and woke up feeling enlightened and refreshed.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

I mostly read books by writers who are dead and from countries I don't live in but have visited, like France, America and Italy. I read them two or three times, or more. It's a pleasure to find one that has been forgotten for years. An old Penguin like The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani, 136 pages of big type and short chapters, soft yellowed paper. I choose fascism and homophobia in Ferrara, 1937, over any tale of Ireland or Britain in 2016. Distance is endemic, it seems. Not sure where that is in the genome sequence, or what pruning of the synapses in my tumultuous youth brought about the need to see things from far away.

If they are as far away as all that. In my mind the decades before I was born take place primarily in Europe. That's my preferred version. I like to read about Europe of that time, to ride my bike round the wall that bounds the garden of the Finzi-Continis in Ferrara, hear the sound of tennis, the golden afternoon from which I'm banished—if I ever went in.

This is also Modiano land. Another outsider on his bike, on patrol around the periphery, anxious, distracted, too literate for his own good.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

I can't easily find myself in any family, institution or society. Easier to sit with a pack of magpies in a sycamore tree. I'm an avid borrower though. This week I watched Visconti's The Leopard and read the book by Guiseppe di Lampedusa. The leopard in his territory in 1860 is a character but not a fiction, unless a fiction is someone we do not know how to be in a place we do not inhabit. Lampedusa knows. He's writing about his grandparents; rueful, reverent, suffused with the weather in Sicily, the smell of the land, the readiness of peaches in the garden.

Burt Lancaster is the leopard prince who graciously cedes to jackals and hyenas as Italy begins to unify.  Lampedusa, the writer, gives his grandfather a benevolence he hopes is true. Visconti, through Burt Lancaster, confirms it. Alain Delon is the Leopard's nephew; he has popped straight and lively out of the novel, give or take a moustache. Claudia Cardinale is the daughter of new money, sumptuous in the garb of the era: all entrances and composure but a stableyard laugh. Waltzes by Nino Rota. An endless palace with a radiant ballroom.

There's nothing more wonderful than our two young people, says Burt Lancaster as Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale waltz around the centre of our picture.

Cinema can't resist large sweeps of land, a pan around chandeliers, a voyage through a hundred palace rooms as Garibaldi lands in Sicily. But it is the novel that focuses on the activities of ants, and thus, between the ants and history, weighs a prince's responsibility.

I can't imagine knowing this much this clearly about the society that brought me where I am today. I can only see ancestors in a miasma of discontent and departure. I can't reckon, as Lampedusa does, eighteen hundred years back to quasi mythical queens and princes. I know more about those magpies in the sycamore and the equinox which comes to rest, if the cloud thins, in that there pack of pine trees up the hill.

A book or a film becomes another layer through which I look at the view outside my window. No view is innocent or I am not a zen mistress, just a woman with an associative affliction and an unwillingness to find herself in any history at all.

Friday, 18 March 2016

What a film has to do to render a person's interiority. The actor's face has to answer for most of it. I have been re-reading The Talented Mr Ripley after re-viewing the film. Books are better at rendering psychosis. The absolute flatness and purity of it, the certainty. In a film two men have to fight as they play and play as they fight. Later there has to be an argument for one to be inflamed enough to kill the other. In a book it comes out of nowhere, no argument, no reason, no premeditation. From then on you know you have entered an abyss. In the film you have rumbles and nudges. Matt Damon stares at Jude Law in the train, learning how to be him. The second half of the film, and the book, is Tom Ripley as Dickie Greenleaf, keeping Tom Ripley in reserve till he's allowed out again.
Yet he felt absolutely confident he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be better played by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made.


Saturday, 12 March 2016

Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories startle most if chosen at random during an idle moment. This afternoon, waiting for Pat the fox Kelleher to come round and walk the field, I read 'Boy in Pen and Ink', a perplexed investigation of a little boy sitting on the ground, resembling thirty thousand other little boys sitting on the ground at that moment. Then the little boy has a triumph: he reproduces the sound of traffic outside, beep beep, and his mother is proud.  So little in this little boy that can be known; and then everything.

The story about the little boy sitting on the ground is followed by a story about a girl who observed, and eventually ate, chickens. The less a story seems to be about, the more I am ready to like it. Like looking at a nearby stranger, looking for the kernel even in one glance, which you can only do by becoming that person. Involuntary incarnation, Clarice Lispector calls it; she cannot help becoming the stranger she is observing, like the missionary she sits next to on the plane for three hours, whom she will become, she realises with a certain regret, for at least the next three days.

Will I incarnate Pat the fox Kelleher after walking round the field with him for half an hour? Or will we both incarnate the fox he's going to call some evening soon, with polystyrene rubbed on glass which sounds like a rabbit in distress, will we both become the fox he's going to dazzle and shoot?


Thursday, 3 March 2016

A cold storm called Jake came out of the north-northwest today, so I was in, by the stove, with two unread books by Krzhizhanovsky and Lispector, who are adjacent in the alphabet and both born in Ukraine, if thirty-three years apart. He moved to Moscow in 1922, age thirty-five; she, age two, had already been moved to Brazil. There is nothing similar about their subsequent lives, probably nothing similar about their Ukraines either, but wheresoever they gathered it up, they wrestle with reality as the only way to be sure it's there. Krzhizhanovsky is more analytical, more parallel universe and absolute reversal, subject to forces he doesn't name, mysterious strangers, gods and philosophers. Lispector is more emotionally brazen, her reality streams out strange and ordinary, overtaking people on trains, in cities, mingling and separating, prone to enormous changes at the last minute.

I read one then the other for the afternoon and gradually the two writers came together, their soul storm and soul seepage as one by evening.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

I must have had three tries at Don Delillo, each book read once and then shelved. Last week I read a story of his in The New Yorker called Sine Cosine Tangent, and liked it, and started to re-read Point Omega, the shortest of the three novels I have. The moment I knew I'd read it before came on page 21.
His life happened, he said, when he sat staring at a blank wall, thinking about dinner.
I like his name. Why do I find Don Delillo so uncomfortable?  Are these men talking to each other in order to display their thoughts?  One is a retired war adviser, the other a film-maker. They are functional rather than intimate in a house in a desert, they eat omelettes and time passes, the war adviser's daughter comes to stay. Not long after that she disappears, which may have been the only thing to do.

What does Don Delillo think about humans, I wonder? Would he rather do without? There is enough room between words to ride a bicycle through this book, enough room for a small dust storm.

Saturday, 20 February 2016


Some reading is more like swimming. On the second page of the latest New York Review of Books, I found and immediately read a piece by Anne Carson:
WHAT TO SAY OF
THE ENTIRETY
I swam down the square text like a a salmon to the spawning ground. I swam up. Every time I read it I paused at different moments. It came and went. I hung around the punctuation. The information. I lay still on the questions.
Do we really need to make it worse? Do you think of yourself as a well-loved person?
There are few writers who make me stay with them as Anne Carson does. I don't want to leave. As with the mastermoments of Schubert or Mozart. They are there long after they stop.
Where to start? Start in the middle (and why?) so as not to end up there,
Weaving through the world and its meanings, offering advice, kindly meant, polite.
You have to know what you want, know what you think, know where to go.
The text is in a square box in the middle of the lower middle of the page. The satisfaction of this is enormous. I cut it out and put it on my desk where I'd see it often.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Since the nineteen seventies Adorno has occupied my life only as the voice of a young man, an acquaintance I met once in Patrick Street, Daunt Square, to be precise, with a serious, crepuscular voice dropping down with his glance in the middle syllable of Adorno's name. From that moment Adorno, along with Habermas and Althusser and Heidegger, lay in other people's seriousness. I read none of them, as later I read none, or, worse, a bit of, Derrida, Lacan and the lads. It was enough to know their surnames. Nietzsche is the only philosopher I ever read with pleasure.

Adorno's Dream Notes is the first of his writing I have read. I have been writing down my dreams since I was a teenager, more recently trying to find a form(lessness) that rattles rather than soothes their strangeness. Dreams make great re-reading. You do not read the same dream twice. I prefer to write a dream fasting rather than after breakfast; or at least, later in the day, to recover the fasting state into which dreams fall. Adorno reads more like an after-breakfast man.

What did Adorno dream about? He dreamed about brothels more than you'd think (as harlots figure in the dreams of his friend Walter Benjamin) and several different forms of death (plunged in boiling water like a pig, decapitation, drowning); he had conversations with characters in Proust; he dreamed about Trotsky and Hitler and an alter ego called Louische.
'Louische, would you like a glass of water?'—'No, thank you, I shall be drowned this evening anyway.' Woke up laughing. 
He sets out his dreams as a botanist would, qualifying, contextualising; and as a chronicler, conferring solidity via the reasonableness of grammar, as if this were a novel in waiting, or a Hollywood movie. It's a relief when he allows a dream its rapidity, its slipperiness. When he laughs.

Here he is in Los Angeles in 1944.
In an arena, under my command, a large number of Nazis were to be executed. They were to be beheaded. There was a hitch for some reason or other. To simplify matters it was decided to smash the skulls of each of the delinquents individually with a pickaxe. I was then informed that the victims had been overwhelmed by an indescribable terror at the prospect of this uncertain and excruciating form of execution. I was myself so disgusted by this atrocity that I awoke feeling physically sick.
What does a philosopher/sociologist/composer do with his dreams once he's written them down? Does he enjoy their resilience, their opacity, their insanity? Does he see himself and run like mad? We don't know, he doesn't say. I imagine he sees them as a climbing wall but not the real mountain.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Joy Williams is new to me, so I start reading too quickly, to see what kind of thing this is. The first story in The Visiting Privilege is over before I've begun. The end is nowhere, I'm looking back and can't see it. There are many ways in which stories are like life and Joy Williams has cornered her own. Her stories end as they began, just a little further on. Though having gone this far with these people, the silence at the end is not a disappointment, it feels optimistic, in the manner of a fable. You find substance and then almost immediately it has gone and you're not sure what you have lost. The next story, like the next day, is the same except perhaps it's a German Shepherd not a collie. A phrase that stops you in your tracks. Another curious situation involving a car or a dinner party. A man with a different girlfriend every weekend.

In the middle of the night I continue my sojourn with P.G.Wodehouse. More likely a pig than a collie there. No divorce. No single parents. Hardly any mothers and fathers or children unless dreadful. A different girlfriend every weekend, perhaps. Except in the land of Wodehouse there are no weekends, only intricate manoeuvres in otherwise idle days. The story rolls along its own temporal zone and the sun is shining at the end. The next night I usually remember where I was in the story and if I don't it doesn't matter.

I read Joy Williams often in the afternoon, in front of the stove. I like to be unnerved by a book, to put it down after each story, go outside even and walk around, move a rose bush and come back in, ready to be unnerved again. Her plain American sentences are without temperature, without accent, like strong currents under water. Where do such sentences leave the lives they have evoked? Where do they leave the reader's life? Like the book, opened, for a time.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Sam Shepard says in Motel Chronicles that he'd live on a train if someone gave him one. He feels, he says, a heart-breaking hunger for the land out the window. On the train to Dublin I look at fields in the heartless heart of Ireland in January and long to know each one as closely as I know the one out the back where I live. The longing is the thing. For the sense of destination and for the absence of destination, for the slant of trees on open land and the multiple rise of birds on a windy day, for the semi-darkness through grubby windows, the untidiness of the rail-side world, for the rise and fall of hedges and the black outlines of ivy-weighted trees, for the whitened grass and the poached fields and the mysterious razor-fenced small buildings in obscure railway use, for the nothing you've left and the nothing you haven't yet arrived at. Sam Shepard's father liked to live in the desert because he didn't fit with people, he said.

It's hard to read Sam Shepard without seeing his Americanness in your mind's eye, the way he stands, the way his hair goes front to back in one go. Most of the photographs in Motel Chronicles show Sam and a car or a truck or a bus, unsmiling. There's one with his father in which he, the son, echoing the expression on his father's face, is almost smiling. A smile in the desert is worth at least double.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Exactly what turns me towards Two Lives on a sullen day in January is as unknowable as humans will always be, however prolix our musing. The lives are those of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, weighed half a century later by Janet Malcolm in their complicated voices, their bad and unforgivable behaviours, with attendant Gertrude obsessives and Alice sympathisers all tight in their chairs, holding onto their manuscripts before the memory of large, warm-faced, egomaniacal Gertrude.

There is, as Janet Malcolm observes, no Gertrude Stein school of writers. She may not have a school, (whew), but many have passed through, often without finishing the book, and come out altered. In Everybody's Autobiography, the book that followed the much more popular Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, 'she reverts to her old way of writing as if the reader were an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at a dark house'. To make your way through The Making of Americans, all close-spaced 900 pages of it, by cutting it up into sections with a kitchen knife, as Janet Malcolm did, is the behaviour of an assailant, not a guest, invited or otherwise.

I have always liked writing that repels. My years with Mallarmé attest to this. You look at this language and you almost have to fight it off even as you press on, but you don't forget it. And one day you go back for another look. Gertrude Stein always repays another look, however short, she overwhelms in minutes. Alice Toklas over there, hiding in her chair. The soft, irregularly cut pages of this Yale University Press edition hold giant egos and suppressed rage tenderly.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

In an interview in The Paris Review William H. Gass says he changed his handwriting, letter by letter through the alphabet, when he was twenty, to set himself at a remove, to start again. I smile in recognition. He would get asked to write wedding invitations in his new ceremonial hand, he says. I smile again. I changed my writing, likewise, with intent, at fourteen not long after I started keeping a diary: new writing, new self, deep gulfs on every side, reliable defences. I did wedding invitations too, in my ceremonial hand, with a certain artificial elegance, so much like strands of barbed wire, as William Gass says.
Descartes, examining a piece of beeswax fresh from the hive, brought it near a flame and observed all of its sensible qualities change. He wondered why he should believe that wax remained. Couldn't he give that puddle in his hand another name?
I used to read Fiction and the Figures of Life to students; this flexibility as writer, as philosopher, as respondent to the immediate world, put me on my home ground as a teacher, rescued me from academe while covering my back. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife was another early purchase: I liked the fonts and the playfulness, the search for a way to say; I liked less the tits and ass. I chose William Gass off displays in St Marks Bookstore et al in the 1970s and early 80s. In the heart of the heart of the country. On being blueThe world within the word. Whatever it is that makes you pick up this book or that. A few lines about beeswax. The playfulness, the ambiguity, the overreach, the pendulum experiencing a rush and then settling: tock tick, tick tock.

eyes, his new book, finds me ready and up to date with William H. Gass though I haven't read him for years. The novella called In Camera, the first piece in eyes, is home turf. Two isolated people and a shop full of old photographs that may have been stolen. What further twist or sideways move can we manage? How far can we extend—our remit—our patois—ourselves? What is going on here? There's no saying. You get to the end of the story and then what you see around you is the the outside world upside down, as it should be, coming in, as you have never seen it (because you haven't been outside), as it is. All your photographs have been taken away but you are living in a pinhole camera.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Eudora Welty's southern speech makes me wonder what my speech is and who else speaks it.

On New Year's Day, which was wet, as usual, I read The Robber Bridegroom start to finish, with a sleep in the middle. This being a fairy tale in old-time Mississippi, they do a lot of sleeping too, a lot of thieving and hiding and disguising which adds up to justice in the end. Then I watched the 1958 film Cat on a hot tin roof, also a southern tale but with sarcasm, self-hatred and a powerful smell of mendacity. Two days later I read Delta Wedding, Eudora Welty's second book. This southernness can wrap you or rend you. Eudora Welty wraps you.

Tennessee Williams happened to be born in Mississippi and Eudora Welty spent her whole life there. She has a full sense of place, of the small towns around the Old Natchez Trace; he inhabits his family's and his own dysfunction, which you can do anywhere. Both worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the late 1930s, he in New Orleans, she across the state of Mississippi.

Welty and Williams make a fine team. Comfort and anguish in a southern climate. Delta Wedding is luxuriant even when its characters are momentarily having a hard time, though Welty's people do not seem to sweat. Cat on a hot tin roof is so savage, so sweaty, the luxury is seeing it enacted and knowing it isn't you.