I’m coming out of a hectic and not entirely satisfying couple of weeks of reading. I finished the third volume of Proust on holiday, but didn’t have the fourth with me, which lost me impetus. Then the Booker longlist was announced and this sent me back to Ducks, Newburyport, which I had only dipped into but wanted very much to read. Then there was reading for work (variously, and for various reasons, Nick Harkaway, Don DeLillo) and then I read some short stories from the new editions of Granta and Lighthouse, and then one night I couldn’t work out what to read, so turned to Borges, which is my usual response to this problem, and that kept me going for a couple of nights. An unread secondhand copy of a Herman Hesse book, Klingsor’s Last Summer, beckoned when I wanted something to read in the bath, and I found a Hollinghurst in a charity shop I hadn’t read (The Sparsholt Affair) and read the opening pages of that on the train home. There’s a Penelope Fitzgerald re-read face-down and spine-open somewhere in the house. Then, yesterday, Toni Morrison died, so of course I picked up Beloved for the train home. Honestly, it’s a miracle I finish any books at all.
Here’s what I did read in July, however: three short novels by Mario Benedetti, a Uruguayan writer and poet who died in 2009 and is only now being translated into English. So far Penguin Modern Classics have given us Who Among Us?, The Truce and Springtime in a Broken Mirror. These were all wonderful, three broken-hearted love stories of one kind or another, two of them based around love triangles in which a woman leaves her husband for another man, the other featuring a middle-aged divorcee falling in love with a twenty-something woman working in his office.
So, yes, the vibe is melancholic-masculine, with not all but most of the telling coming from the men’s points of view, giving us the sort of pained, elegiac, romantic narrative that men might sneer at in a similar book written by a woman, and women might roll their eyes at when they read in a book written like this by a man. So there’s a risk that they are overly male-gazey, not a million miles from the kind of thing James Salter wrote at his best, though hopefully in a benign kind of way. (The casual homophobia in The Truce, in which the main character despairs when he learns one of his sons is gay, is harder to squint at.)
I certainly found all three books quite lovely and compelling and drank them down like long cold drinks on a hot day. (I reviewed one of them, Who Among Us?, for The Guardian.) In the review I point out that at least two of the books – Who Among Us? and Springtime in a Broken Mirror – make use of subtly destabilising narrative structures, giving the main characters opportunities to reframe and sometimes retell the events of the story in ways that are effective without being aggravatingly demonstrative. In terms of mood I’d perhaps also say that they have something of the at-a-distance melancholy of Yuko Tsushima’s slim books. I’d definitely recommend them – start with any of them, but why not Who Among Us? It’s the slimmest of the three, and the most seductive in its narrative play.
I absolutely loved Nan Shepherd’s influential nature-writing book The Living Mountain, about her lifelong love for – and built out of her lifelong knowledge of – the Cairngorms. The book was written during the second world war, but not published until 1973. Calling it ‘nature writing’ is somehow reductive, however, despite the beautiful descriptions of animals and especially birds: it seems clear that for her the Cairngorms transcend ‘nature’. Nor, really, is it ‘place writing’. The Cairngorms aren’t a “place”. When she is in them, the mountains become her whole world, so perhaps it should be called ‘world writing’.
It is a great book because it is written with a poet’s understanding of form and precision, and because it is written from a place of deep understanding of her subject matter. The mountains are outside of her, but she has internalised them, remembered them, reproduced them. You get the sense that there are a thousand forgotten and unremarked moments in her life in the mountains that never made it to the page, but those that do are confirmed in their necessity and their perfection by the process of selection. Some of the experiences she writes about are ordinary (or ordinary by her measure – i.e. we could hope to experience something similar if we spent a day or a week in the mountains) and some are extraordinary, but all of them are characteristic of the mountain.
She had to go out into it to be able to write the book, but she did not go out to write it. The book is the distillation, the crystallisation, of many, many hundreds of days doing nothing but walking, climbing, not writing. That’s how you write, by not writing. You don’t have to climb mountains, but you have to observe, to notice, to wait, to turn away, to go on. If you can’t see the world, you won’t write anything worth reading.
Flicking through to find two particular passages, I instead find this:
Birch trees are least beautiful when fully clothed.
Here’s what I wanted to quote, about seeing a swift, unexpectedly:
Something dark swished past the side of my head at a speed that made me giddy. Hardly had I got back my balance when it came again, whistling through the windless air, which eddied round me with the motion. This time my eyes were ready, and I realised that a swift was sweeping in mighty curves over the edge of the plateau, plunging down the face of the rock and rising again like a jet of water. No one had told me I should find swifts on the mountain. Eagles and ptarmigan, yes: but that first sight of the mad, joyous abandon of the swift over and over the very edge of the precipice shocked me with a thrill of elation. All that volley of speed, those convolutions of delight, to catch a few flies!
An extraordinary moment, yes, but captured with a poet’s precision.
On the next page:
The flight of the eagle, if less immediately exciting than that of the swifts, is more profoundly satisfying. The great spiral of his ascent, rising coil over coil in slow symmetry, has in its movement all the amplitude of space. And when he has soared to the top of his bent, there comes the level flight as far the eye can follow, straight, clean and effortless as breathing. The wings hardly move, now and then perhaps a lazy flap as though a cyclist, free-wheeling on a gentle slope, turned the crank a time or two.
How beautiful is that simile! How homely, how familiar. See how she brings the exceptional thing close to us.
Another highly interesting read was Lewis Hyde’s new book, A Primer for Forgetting. I read and very much enjoyed his earlier book, The Gift, about what artists and others give us, and how that is valued, by them and by us. As he points out in his introduction to this book, it is a very different beast, made up of fragments, rather than woven into a complete, rhetorically-activated argument.
Its subject is the relationship between memory and forgetting, how the latter is bound up with the former. He tackles his subject through a mixture of allusion, reference and memoir, mixing ideas taken from literature, anthropology, mythology and science with observations and memories of his own, so you get the Oresteia followed by the southern American racism of his youth, followed by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation programme, followed by John Cage. Unsurprisingly, a key example of the function of oblivion in building the self is Borges’s story ‘Funes the Memorious’, about a man cursed with the inability to forget anything at all.
The book is a pleasure and a fascination to read, but because it is made up of fragments, it will need to be gone back to. The synthesising work of argument-building is left to the reader. There’s a fair amount of blank space in its pages, and it would seem to lend itself to annotation. In a way it’s a commonplace book, a vade mecum, and seems intended for the reader to use as their own commonplace book, too. I’ve lent my copy to someone already, and in fact wouldn’t it be lovely it they started to annotate it.
(A book that gets passed around, annotated by various people, that would be an interesting project…)
I was pleased to find, in Hyde’s book, a reference to David Markson:
and there’s a connection here to Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, published by my own publisher, the indefatigable and brilliant Galley Beggar Press.
I am about 100 pages into Ducks. Reading it, I was reminded of Markson, for the way both writers build their (broadly) stream-of-consciousness narrative in part out of facts, as if facts are the building blocks of the world. (“The world is the totality of facts, not of things” – Wittgenstein. See what’s happening here!)
How about this as a line from Ducks that could easily be from Wittgenstein’s Mistress or This is Not a Novel:
the fact that Ingres and Liszt knew each other, the fact that Liszt sounds awfully ambitious, a bit of a showoff really, the fact that you can tell by the music, whack job, rinky-dink, your teeming shore
(It’s very hard to quote from Ducks, for obvious reasons! One stark difference, I suppose, between it and Markson, which is aggressively aphoristic, if ‘aggressive’ is the word.)
And, funnily enough, there are sections of Ducks that could quite easily sit in Hyde’s book. Ellmann’s narrator is convinced she has a terrible memory, and has forgotten many important things, even as her narrative repudiates this by building itself out of memory, just as much if not more than out of the perceptions of the moment her narrator is living in and through, i.e. the cinnamon rolls she is baking, and the party she is planning, take second place behind the personal and family history she rebuilds for herself, and us, brick by brick (fact by fact).
How about this, then, which is three extracts run together from across two pages:
The fact that Elizabeth Bennet recommends only remembering things that please you, but that’s not so easy, the fact that I don’t remember much, and everything I do remember makes me sad, Resurfacing Announced, mindfulness, the fact that my memory is so intermittent that sometimes I just tell people I’m living in the Now, man, but they don’t always fall for it, the fact that I don’t know what mindfulness is, the fact that if you have no memory, you get bulldozed by people with better memories than you, like my whole family for instance […] the fact that you can overdoremembering stuff, you really can […] the fact that it’s just that it’s the past, that’s all, and there’s nothing I can do about any of it anymore, so why go there […] the fact that, still, just about every memory somehow takes me back to something I don’t much want to think about
I do very much want to go on with Ducks. Thus far I’m finding it hugely rewarding and impressive – especially in the way it builds the general out of the local and specific, the way it builds a sense of narrative cohesion while avoiding the usual ways of doing so – and funny and clever and moving, and if it goes on like this I am sure it will be one of my books of the year.
The Mario Benedetti, Lewis Hyde and Lucy Ellmann books were all review copies, so many thanks to Penguin, Canongate and Galley Beggar. The Nan Shepherd was won in a Twitter book giveaway, so thank you also to Canongate for that. The Taiga Syndrome by Christina Rivera Garza I haven’t written about here as I am marshalling my thoughts and hope to write something elsewhere. That’s a review copy also, with thanks to And Other Stories. The Harkaway is my own copy.