JUDY KRAVIS

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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 June 2017

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

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 June 2017

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 May 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Diary of a Nobody, 1892
Diary of JK, 1961

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 May 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Degenerate reading can be achieved in a number of situations.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 April 2017

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

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

Sunday, 9 April 2017

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 March 2017

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

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

Angela Carter leaves with more questions than she arrived.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 March 2017

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

Monday, 27 February 2017

At the beginning of Pop Quiz 9, last section of Octet, in David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, his frighteningly extensive language turns abruptly on the reader.
How exactly the cycle's short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they're supposed to compose a certain sort of 'interrogation' of the person reading them, somehow—i.e. palpitations, feelers, into the interstices of something, etc... though what that 'something' is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you're working on the pieces.
There we are, readers, with all our interstices suddenly exposed. It's uncomfortable and pleasurable. His excesses are never far from pain. His writerly frenzy is almost sacrificial: he could torture for ever the least rustle of human life. He's writing but also doing something else less clear, something exhaustive. His words will never say it all, but they might insinuate themselves into the reader's equilibrium. There's no redemption unless we readers are redemptive, not just chewing on David Foster Wallace's frenzy but meeting it with a freshly minted frenzy of our own.

You have to read him while holding your breath, in order to stay clear, until after you stop reading, of this interrogation he's holding. How much of this can you, the reader, bear at one sitting? I like to imagine being on a train with only this book to read, maybe a stopped train on a branch line in the middle of Ireland for half a day or more, and how I'd stay with all the footnotes, which, as with Oliver Sacks, sometimes occupy more pages than the text itself, unspool all the possibilities to emerge eventually at my destination a fully interrogated, fully exposed human being.

In fact I am at home, a somewhat exposed human being listening to Shostakovich and watching a stormy sunset, reading David Foster Wallace, badly. As he fears he wrote, badly. Pop Quiz 9 doubts what any of the Pop Quizzes have managed to communicate.
At any rate it's not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they're reading is when they sit down to try and escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of prearranged meaning. Rather it's going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened about whether to trust even your fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do.
Like a thirteen year-old on the high diving board for the first time.

Friday, 17 February 2017

I dreamed I went to prison, sans crime, sans trial, sans anything. In a communal room I leafed quickly through layers of magazines in a large bowl. The last layer was all porn, and the circle sitting around me were all men. Everything calm. No guards around. Was I there as an experiment and I'd be out in a month or so? Who would plant the tomatoes this year? That was a worry.

And this was before I started reading Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. 

Back from our travels I read such a glut of New Yorkers and NYRBs, to say nothing of Triple Canopy emails, that even without listening to the news I feel saturated with the geist of the zeit. Philip K. Dick, in overprinted smudgy black print, is about right.

At first I'm impatient with the technicalities, like how someone called Jason Taverner, a TV celebrity with his own show, can slip into a parallel zone where he no longer exists, and all his data has vanished. No one knows him any more. The hit records he has made are now blank. Halfway through the book all these spiky, separate people who exist thanks to remote decisions on the part of some techie chemist with a world view, become fragile. We, reading, become fragile too, unseated, unhappy. We are so obscurely constructed. So hollow. A handmade blue vase is the carrier of most emotion in the novel. How many time zones do you have to cross to feel grief?

The policeman does not cry until Chapter Twenty-four.
He felt something on his face; putting up his hand, he found that his chin was wet. 
By Chapter Twenty-seven, he's in free fall.
His tears became each moment denser and faster and deeper. I'm going the wrong way, he thought ... All I can do now is witness something I can no longer control. I am painted on, like a fresco. Dwelling in only two dimensions, I and Jason Taverner are figures in an old child's drawing. Lost in dust.
Looking through other Philip K. Dick titles, I'm tempted by The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike and Puttering About in a Small Land.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

I began Middle C by William Gass on the plane, at thirty-eight thousand feet.
... it repented Jehovah that he had made man... 
I continued on a rooftop in Garachico on the north coast of Teneriffa, under the volcano. Lava flow & sea vapours, backlit yuccas and birdsong, the least murmur of human life. Church bell somewhere short of twelve. I was ready to embrace uncertainty in that back and forth, jewish/not jewish way. The part of jewishness that is also not jewishness, as part of identity is having none. Wrestling with William Gass wrestling with how to phrase the human race.
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.
I read William Gass with the greatest pleasure in the sun, his shifts and his emphases, his tries and retries, fitted my disponibilité. This is someone I know.
First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might not.
He had a feeling of great relief before he wondered what he might do with his wayward thoughts if he had no sentence to focus on.
And then the music.
Olive Fremstad and her sound—Calvé's, Caruso's sound—sounds—hollow, odd, remote,—that created a past from which ghosts could not only speak to admonish and astound, they could sing again almost as they once sang, sang as singing would never be heard sung again, songs and a singing from somewhere outside the earth where not an outstretched arm, not a single finger, could reach or beckon, request or threaten or connive.
Anywhere this would stop me in my tracks; in the sun on a rooftop in Garachico, it was glorious.

Later, on a beach in La Gomera, putting Middle C down after a few chapters, it seemed possible that all reading, as well as all hopes and fears and curiosity, could come together between two covers. Then I closed my eyes.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Platonov's The Foundation Pit is a violent, disturbing read. The violence is embedded in the language, not in the action. Having laboured and lying down, often not getting up again, are the dominant modes. Consciousness and the state are totalitarian. There is talk of socialised property and liquidation of illiteracy. The larger the words the emptier the minds of those who try to rest, the more excruciated their grasp on what is happening to them. Humans and their being in the world are constantly threatened if not already severed.

The difference between reading Platonov and reading Kafka or Beckett is that Platonov's creatures flail and sink inside a distinct historical reality. However little the reader might know about Stalin's Russia, the fact of it is there. Post-truth. Pre-truth. During truth.

I read The Foundation Pit badly, often in the middle of the night. Perhaps you have to read it badly, in short bursts, when the reading of the night before has all but vanished, as for Platonov's creatures the day before has all but vanished, along with the day to come. This is despair, after all, Russian despair. Everything vast. And hopeless. The foundation pit is a graveyard. A collective farm is a collection of bones. Barren hens quietly groan in people's arms.

Platonov's creatures feel at home as long as they can see limits of any kind, any form of endgame, any depth of absurdity. Some of my psyche feeds on this, I have to conclude. I might sleep better for it, and even if I don't, there'll be comfort and reflection in the wakefulness, the extenuated humour.
But why, Nikita, do the fields lie there so boringly? Is there really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there's a five-year plan?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

I bought a different translation of the Duino Elegies. As with a new recording of Beethoven late quartets, I was nervous and curious as I began. My original copy, bought when I was a student, is the dual language JB Leishman & Stephen Spender translation, hardcover, with nearly intact dust jacket, Hogarth Press, soft chalky paper, comfortable layout. The new book is a Vintage paperback, thin rough paper, pinched layout, over inked, also dual language, with translation and editing by Stephen Mitchell.

The new recordings of Beethoven (the Takacs quartet) I have been listening to this winter have easily overtaken the old ones, though I notice quieter transitions or unusual accents. Old involvement with a recording (the Budapest quartet), old investment in quality of sound with ambient associations, holds from one recording to another.

Not so on the page. In visceral, childish fashion I only want these words on this paper. I want my pencil marks, confirmation of my innerness then, the most reliable crux of life.  In order to read the Duino Elegies I have to be able to turn into the person I was when I first read them, and for that I need the paper, the marks, the page layout, the deep W at the start of the first elegy.
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength
of his
stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing
but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I repress myself, and swallow the call-note
of depth-dark sobbing. Alas, who is there
we can make use of? Not angels, not men;
and even the noticing beasts are aware
that we don't feel very securely at home
in this interpreted world.
I like the awkwardness and sometimes impermeability of this translation. I want to be as luxuriously bemused as I was when I was 22. Deep inside what I didn't understand, I did understand.

I heard on the radio this morning that ten percent of people in the UK do not have a book in their house. Ninety percent have a cook book or a self help or a manual or a novel. No mention of a bible, not even for smashing a ganglion.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The front cover of my copy of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland has faded to shades of light- and mid-blue, the colours of a lost morning. The reds are the first to go in colour printing. The Pontiac, if it's not a Chevy, on the front cover should be red, the office and its sign should be cerise. No champagne hour chez Philip K Dick. Everyone is too sad and unsuccessful, the view too veiled, too confused.

The last few chapters are best read in the bath, where a general softening of outlook allows Humpty Dumpty and his acquaintance fall down and pick themselves up over and over again, till by the last page you know this does not stop, a used car lot closes and another opens up, some die and some relocate, a record company called Teach is always looking for a new motif.

This is like Dashiell Hammett without the latent heroism. His detectives are laconic but they are heroes. Chez Philip K Dick, our used car salesman, our garage mechanic, our record company, our wives (who are Greek if not educated), strain for some kind of buoyancy. No heroes. No resolution. Prose is discarded talk. Plot is obfusc and fickle. Death tidier than most other states.

The used car salesman and the garage mechanic have lost all certainty of understanding the world in which they try to make their way, butting into obstacles that look like opportunity. They acknowledge no code of behaviour, no code at all, except, without conviction, a vaguely self-serving behaviour. If you make the right decision you'll probably die before you know it.

I don't get on well with Philip K Dick's science fiction. I find it hard enough to consider the world as it is, without taking on the world as it might have been. I have no room for imagined horrors. The novels contemporaneous with his Bay Area, Marin County, Sonoma/Petaluma experience I enjoy. They are discomfiting as Platonov's Central Asia or Walser's Middle Europe, if less poignant, or poignant without poetry, or rejecting the comfort that poignancy might bring.

The puff on the back cover from the Times Literary Supplement of the 80s includes words like Nescience and Anomie, which look quaint in today's strictly easy-peasy strain of enthusiasm. When my fellow students were reading Durkheim, Marx and Weber, I was reading Rimbaud, Rilke and Virginia Woolf. Anomie is a likeable word, secretive, detached yet warm, redolent of plant life, light winds, secure alienation. Nescience sounds like something George Clooney could sell.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Reading John Cage's diary does not preempt cleaning out and patching the pond, which is what we did today.
Diary: How to
Improve the World (you will
Only Make Matters Worse)
Up at the pond, we pull out our parrot weed and limit our bogbean, we squeeze out our Tec 7 onto prepared ovals of black plastic and cover over holes caused by, perhaps, slipping a coracle into the pond and pulling it out, or by shifting of substrate, revealing of small stones cracked into this shape by ancient fires, and rubbing of black plastic against same, we sharpen our awareness as to the limitations of our efforts. We might just as well, like John Cage, pluck our patches from our local beyond, juxtapose our bogbean prunings on the compost heap like cavaliers on holiday, throw muddy great diving beetles over the fence, leave this year's frogs back into the slime if that's where they want to go.
Old reasons for doing things no
longer exist. (Sleep whenever/ Your
work goes on being done. You and it no
longer have a means of separation.)
Some kinds of reading—of the pond and John Cage—meet and draw breath. What is a very small frog doing out and about at this time of year? Older bullfrogs are nearly ready for the season of singing and procreation. We pondworkers are entirely superfluous. With our waterlilies and our management and even our good will.
Do nothing for one reason only. Think
it with respect to a large number of
other reasons, preferably reasons
that seem contradictory.
A small spider climbing between the page and the desk light. John Cage would like that. Covert operations of chance and nature. The need for a skein to an upper level, and a quick escape back down. Hanging in the balance when I open the window for a taste of night air alongside Mozart (played by Mitsuko Uchida).
The
monks take turns: one of them reads out
loud while the others are eating.
They call it "the greater silence."