That pile of books looks more impressive than it should. I didn’t read all of the books there cover to cover. The two MacNeice books arrived only at the end of the month, and so far I’ve only read them scavenger-wise, mining them for the parts about the writing of ‘Autumn Journal’, MacNeice’s book-length poem that I’ve been using as a model for a poem I’m writing on our current Covid-times, called ‘Spring Journal’, that you can read here. I also wrote about Ana María Matute’s excellent novel, The Island, here.
The essays (Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg) I’ve been dipping in and out of, as you should with essays. Reading the Davis is perhaps the odder experience. She is so marked by her style, so wedded to it, you might say, and that style across all her writing is so essaystic anyway, or bellelettristic – and on occasion faux-essayistic, faux-bellelettristic – that the essays themselves seem to almost dissolve in their own solution.
Her stories often read like boiled-down or reduced essays, like you reduce a sauce – but reduced to the level of density and taste that Heston Blumenthal would approve of – but they also often seem to be poking fun at the idea of essays, of the gap between their confidence of delivery and the meaning of what is delivered.
None of the essays in the book are as outright enjoyable as the best of her stories, and the very placidity of her voice – placidly arch, you might say – means I kind of drifted through them. Some of them I must have read three or four times now, without them becoming fixed in my mind, good though they are.
(The essay about fragments, for example: how perfect, how useful, how now, how me: I love fragments! And she is interesting and useful about fragments, and she carefully considers various people who write in fragments, or forms that are akin to fragments, but at the end of it I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning.)
Perhaps she is trying hard not to be showy in her writing, which is good, in a way, but in another way it is not good. Certainly she is never aphoristic. She is only aphoristic in her stories, where she is lampooning aphoristic writing, with its idea that you can boil down wisdom into apercus:
‘Examples of Remember’
Remember that thou art but dust.
I shall try to bear it in mind.
Natalia Ginzburg is, on the face of it, a very different kind of essayist. (For those that don’t know, she was a prolific Italian writer and political activist who lived through the second world war, though her husband was murdered by the government, and lived to the early 90s.) She is not primarily writing about literature, and so about things thought, but about life, and lived experience.
(Davis seems to give the sense in her writing that she has not experienced anything in her life that has not been thoroughly, even entirely mediated by words. If you walked up to her and tweaked her nose, she would be thinking about the word ‘tweak’ before the sense-impression of the physical act had even reached her brain.)
The Little Virtues (published by Daunt Books) is another book that I have picked up more than once, and read bits of, and probably reread some bits of multiple times. Perhaps it took reading it under lockdown to really make it stick. Ginzburg is a simple writer, rather in the way that Davis is a simple writer, but the difference is that I am reading Ginzburg in translation, whereas Davis always reads like I am reading her in translation. Continue reading
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’. 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
Two scenes from books I’ve read and now can’t place, and which niggle me for that reason. I write them down in the hope that someone can identify them for me – or that, if no one does, I can claim them for myself.
1. A scene in a stationery shop. We are in Europe, early or mid 20th Century, or perhaps that part of Midwest or northeastern America which once was Europe. The narrator, or protagonist, is on a return visit to the small town he has otherwise left behind. He is a young man now, or perhaps still just about a boy, in the last years of his teens. But probably a young man. The shop is old-fashioned, with a counter and shelves behind it. I don’t know what he is after: ink, or printer ribbons, but the girl, or young woman, behind the counter has to go up a ladder to reach it down for him. A step ladder. Shelves packed tight with the materials of writing – the protagonist must be a writer – that must be the point of the story. But, in truth, it is the girl or woman he has come to see. She was either his girlfriend, when he lived in the town, or his friend, or the object of his desire. She is what he might have aspired to, had he stayed – had he not left town to ‘become a writer’. Her father owns the shop. I don’t know if he is physically present in the scene, or only in spirit. I don’t know if the young woman, recognises the young man. I get the sense that he has come back half-hoping she will recognise him, that he can ‘take her away from here’, but also half-fearing the sight of what might have been, had he stayed – that his own doppelganger will be stood alongside her behind the counter. Will lay his hand on her arm, stare him out. I think I might be going beyond the bounds of the scene into my own concerns. In any case, it is an old story – the boy writing himself out of the ghetto, the woman as symbol of domestication. Here’s what you could have won. When what you have won is the endless loss of ‘being an artist’. I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.
2. This isn’t so much a scene as the whole premise or conceit of the story. A man is sent to prison. The prison is circular, like a wheel. It is built of stone, with stone walls radiating from the centre like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Each cell a segment, capped at its far end by the exterior wall. The spokes, however, turn, rotating clockwise above the stone floor. They turn slowly, moving millimetre by millimetre as they are pushed by the inmates. Soon after entering, they have moved enough that daylight is lost. This is their punishment, that their jail term is fixed by their communal efforts to push the walls until the wheel has come full circle and they can leave the way they came in. They never see another inmate, but can hear them. It sounds like bad Kafka, or Borges, but I can’t find it in them, and I don’t want to Google it, for fear of what I might find.