I’ve been thinking recently about ponds. Or about one pond in particular. Let me describe it for you. It’s a pond in a field – an agricultural field, mostly wheat from memory; I remember the stickiness of brushing my hands through the corn heads as I walked the footpath across it during summer.
The pond was situated maybe ten minutes’ walk from my home, when I was growing up. It was just there, in the middle of the field, with no stream leading into it, no stream from it; there in the same way that stands of trees, or small copses, would be there. The farmer, you feel, would have happily filled it in, or cut them down, but it, they, were somehow protected.
The pond was of a decent size – a bit bigger, let’s say, than the garden of our house – and was surrounded by vegetation, trees and shrubs, that grew where the tractors and combines couldn’t reach, and formed a protective barrier, so that, from a distance, it might have looked rather like one of those copses or stands of trees, equally marooned in the sea of wheat. The difference being that the trees marked only themselves, whereas the trees around the pond at once hid it from view, and marked it presence. Continue reading
Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Future (translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller and published by Dalkey Archive) does something so simple with its prose, yet so groundbreaking, that I can’t believe it’s not been done before. If it has, please let me know.
Here’s a longish extract, that shows what I mean. (The man has just run to catch a bus, and caught it just in time.)
The driver is wearing a leather jacket and seems very robust. Between us is a kind of glass pane held in place by aluminium bars, and between the glass and the bar on the far right is a space where my voice can get through to him.
“Please go faster, I don’t want to miss my train. You see, I took my bags there earlier in a friend’s car—he left this morning heading in a different direction. So, I’ve still got to pick my bags up from the luggage office. I didn’t leave this morning because I still had a few things to do: I had to visit someone (there was no point mentioning Maria’s name, as he wouldn’t have known who I meant, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know Magda either)—anyway, to visit a woman.” The driver didn’t say a word, as if he were deaf and dumb. At some point a woman with an incredibly large stomach got on the bus; maybe she had a pillow under her dress . . .
It was warm and he felt good. He adjusted the pillow and turned over again, feeling himself begin to fall back asleep. He didn’t try to resist, although he knew that in the end he wouldn’t be able to stay in bed.
“Get up, you mustn’t be late,” Maria said, but he kept quiet and turned again to watch her dressing. Then they both went out onto the veranda, where she placed herself right in front of him. With a maternal gesture she adjusted the knot of his tie, smoothed the lapels of his jacket and kissed him on the cheeks. He wanted to kiss her too, but she darted away and descended the few steps to the garden. The gravel crunched beneath her feet. He took the bunch of flowers from the table on the veranda and said, you’re right, I should get going. Maria walked with him to the green-painted door: go then, and he left without looking back. A dog with the mouth of a fox stood in his way. In a courtyard a fat man was killing a pig, watched by several women in pink silk dresses, and blood was gushing onto the stone slabs; strangely, the pig made no sound. He didn’t stop. He walked on faster and faster, even though he could feel Maria watching him with her fingers still tight on the bars. He didn’t look back. He turned the corner onto a street where a cyclist in a top hat and striped jersey was pedalling furiously but not making any progress. A string bag with some fish was behind the cyclist on the saddle rack; he’d probably just been fishing.
Now he saw the stop and broke into a run. He managed to catch the bus right at the last moment.
After giving up one of my tickets, I went to sit behind the driver. “I’m in a real hurry,” I said.
This is quite near the beginning of the book. The central character has already caught for the bus once before it, slipped back to the house once before, too. He will go on to catch the bus again another, what – dozen, twenty times? (She will warn him not to be late another dozen times, too, although sometimes she’ll be Magda, not Maria, sometimes just M.) Continue reading
Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.
In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.
That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.
The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.
Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.
The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.
But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers. Continue reading