I have an ambivalent attitude towards nature writing. Yet when I had a message from Joanna Walsh yesterday morning – as the full impact of the Conservative victory in the British general election began to sink in – asking me if I wanted to contribute to a series of fictional and creative responses to the news in 3am Magazine, it was landscape that suggested itself to me. This is how it started:
The fields are blue, the woods are blue, the hills are blue, the meadows and fens and floodplains are blue. Open your window and the chances are that what lies before you, as far as the eye can see, is blue. The grass is blue, the trees are blue, the lanes and motorway verges are blue, the hedges and edgelands blue, the greenbelt and brownfield blue. The view is blue. Click here to read the whole thing (it’s not long!)
It was the political map that did it. So blue, and such an ugly, saturated, inexorable blue at that. At the time of writing the piece, the very tip of Cornwall (the St Ives constituency) hadn’t declared, as it has to wait for votes to be flown in from the Scilly Isles before it can start counting. But still it occurred to me that you could start in Cornwall and walk a long, long way through the country before you saw any red, or yellow, or green. I voted Green, in the city, and of course we think of England as green – the hedges and fields, the full-to-bursting meadows and cool rolling hills, when in fact much of that blue map, that should be the countryside – should be green, if not Green – is nothing of the sort, is an arable wasteland.
It was that disjunction that set me writing, my revulsion at the blue of the country I should love, and the fact that, truly, the countryside is being de-greened, de-countryfied, de-natured, year on year. The tight little bursts of red on the political map of England are alive, vivid, angry; the vast swathes of blue are empty, dead, sprayed with the pesticide of conformity, industrialisation and conservatism. So I wrote an angry piece of nature writing, coating everything that should be vivid, individual, dappled and various with a thick slick of monotone blue. And this got me wondering about what it is about nature writing that I find problematic. Continue reading
Well, I can now reveal that the book I’m reading as the new year turns is… again, The Magic Mountain. Or, rather, still The Magic Mountain.
This wasn’t a reread, oh no. This was the same, first read. I just hadn’t finished it yet. Other books had been read in the meantime, of course, and for most of the year I wasn’t reading it at all. But I picked it back up, in November, turned back 50 or so pages, and pressed on.
It’s a slow, hard read, this book, a slow, hard climb. But the views, when you pause and turn and take stock, are jaw-dropping, the flora underfoot often charming, and the intellectual air bracing to say the least.
Set in the years before the First World War, Mann’s novel opens with young, healthy (in body and mind) engineer Hans Castorp visiting his soldier cousin Joachim in a Swiss sanatorium, where the latter is being treated for tuberculosis. The three week visit turns into a temporary and then indefinite stay when he develops first a temperature, and then is found to have “a moist spot” in his chest.
The narration of these three weeks, I feel it must be said – and the author feels it needs pointing out too – takes up over 200 pages, during which there is a lot of talk, a lot of ideas tossed artfully around, much of which is intriguing enough when it occurs, but little of which I could safely summarise for you now. Does this matter? I’m not sure that it does. There has been no point in this book at which I have not wanted to read on; as Mann puts it in his foreword, “only thoroughness can be truly entertaining.”
Foremost among the brilliancies of the book is that Mann is especially alert to the fact and activity of reading; he is constantly concerned with how the novel will appear from the far side of the textual abyss. In the foreword he warns that the story is going to take more than a moment or two to tell. “The seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months […] For God’s sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!”
After those three weeks, easily demarcated in the text, time starts to act weirdly, and how long the events of the rest of the narrative are supposed take is never quite clear. Which in fact makes it perfect for this kind of uncertain and extended reading that I have been giving it: reading, in fact, that becomes as cyclical and seasonal as Hans Castorp’s stay in the sanatorium. Up there in the Swiss Alps, in that strange pre-war time (when Weimar Berlin, for instance, was being highly temporally specific) time expands and contracts; it exists in a very different to way to the time in Proust. There, the past is something gone, that must be sought out to be retrieved. Here, the past is never truly past, it floods up and engulfs the present. Time (and illness) is something to be escaped, not found again. Continue reading