Monday, May 16, 2011

then, from hour to hour, we rot

Now and then we have a chance to visit an art gallery, and I notice that when an Arizona artist decides to paint or photograph a desert plant, the plant they usually choose is a cactus, the bollards of the barrel cactus or the prickly pear, or the obvious saguaro, or, more rarely, the cholla. The two cholla that we see most often around here are cylindropuntia bigelovii, commonly called teddybear for the sake of its apparent, but false, fluffiness, and cylindropuntia fulgida also known as the jumping cactus, for the way knobs of it seem to leap and attach themselves to your clothes as you walk past. Early European-American artists had the same problem with unfamiliar terrain as early European-Australian artists, the hand with the paintbrush veering back into the shapes it had been taught in preference to the shapes that were in front of its eyes, and in a painting in the Phoenix Art Museum, you can see that one of those hands has turned the cholla into parasols, so that a river valley becomes a landscape of bushes and umbrellas.

Make me a painter, I said to M., and I'd ignore the cactus and paint the grass and branches, because the desert is full of brilliant spindles, those very long thin white arching growths that make fine lines across one another, streaks and sweeps of movement and monochrome Bridget Rileys, and then there's the way those small grasses have been moulded into waves, combed like hair in the directions of the washes (the rain must have run across them once and left them frozen in that position, Medusa rain) -- and that same small green grass is growing now across its ancestors from last year, all ash-grey as if struck with an apocalyptic blast, the bright green extraordinarily vivid over the withered and dead grey, as Proust, according to Tadié, grew over Ruskin: read him, translated him, absorbed him, and passed on, developing, sprouting, taking nourishment. (This is not a secret, but Tadié makes it sound vampiric.)

Perhaps they do paint those grasses, the artists, and then they don't exhibit them because they believe that grass won't sell, so they exhibit the cactus, and keep the unpopular subject matter at home in their studios, or give it away to friends. Look at you for example, I say to myself, if you only knew yourself from your public exhibition in this blog you'd think you read almost nothing but Proust and Stead and a few dead Britons, because you never mention the Kawabata you read in January, or the Canadian Margaret Laurence, or Three by Peter Handke. Ditto, perhaps, for the artists of Arizona: they keep their grasses back for reasons that they never consider, or their eyes skip past them and they go on to the cactus as naturally and lazily as you go on to Proust. Or not lazily: "This," they say to themselves, "is a subject worth extrapolating, the curve along the side of this barrel cactus ..."

Online there's only one sign that I've read Kawabata -- I submitted a sentence from the first chapter of Beauty and Sadness to the literary clock project in the Guardian. "At midnight his wife and daughter might still be bustling about, preparing holiday delicacies in the kitchen, straightening up the house, or perhaps getting their kimonos ready or arranging flowers." Searching for more literary time, I sketched out a hesitant theory: that almost everything in fiction happens on the hour or at half past, or maybe, more rarely, a quarter past or a quarter to (some Americans say, a quarter of) but never at an irregular time, six past two, or eleven thirty-seven. When Kevin Jackson put together an anthology of prose time, The Book of Hours, he discovered mainly rounded times, for example, Edith Wharton in her House of Mirth, "Four o'clock found her in the drawing room: she was sure that Sheldon would be punctual," and Shakespeare, in Act Two, Scene Seven, of As You Like It:

And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.'

In Jackson only the comedy writers use irregular time. Sarah Dunn in A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994 finds activities for 1.26 am and 2.42 pm.

3.14 pm. Leave the house and wander around aimlessly.

Ask me to search for for irregular times and I'd look in comic novels. Graham Greene's nonfictional In Search of a Character / Two African Journals, comes near irregularity once or twice, "At 2:10 pm at last away. Terribly hot. Uneasy siesta," but usually rounds things off: "Explosion in one ship at about 6 a.m. and a warning bell to the crew," "A rough day between 9 and 4 and a little before tea I was sick." Dorothy Wordsworth in her diary does the same, toying with irregularity but returning to roundedness: "I walked to Keswick. Set off at 5 minutes past 10 and arrived at 1/2 past 2." "We had not much sunshine or wind but no rain till about 7 o'clock when we had a slight shower."

In The Man Who Loved Children even the baby being born tries to adhere to a rounded schedule. "See what time it is, Looloo," Sam says.

It was six-thirty. When the baby's cry came, they could not pick it out, and Sam, eagerly thrusting his face amongst their ears, said, "Listen, there, there, that's the new baby." He was red with delight and success. They heard voices, and their mother groaning still, and then, quite free and separate, the long thin wailing, and voices again.

"Six-forty-five," said Louie.

Conclusion? People don't think in irregular times, they don't consider them, they shy away from them, they think they're funny or ridiculous, too precise and Puritan (they fix you down, perhaps, they say, "You are in this minute and no other," and life itself is so natively vague and many-sided that any kind of pinpoint seems wrong, it makes us a little frantic maybe; in that contrast lies Dunn's humour), they lack the rings of generosity that surround an o'clock or a half past. We spend most of our lives in time we don't want to think about. Things happen about 6 a.m. but never about 5:56. Five fifty-six is only five fifty-six. Five fifty-six is finite. Five fifty-six dies quickly. Six o'clock has a whole hour to play with before it turns into seven. Long-lived six o'clock, short-lived five fifty-six.

I'm inhabiting one of the ridiculous minutes right now. It's eight forty-eight in the morning.

The narrator of Handke's Short Letter, Long Farewell, which was the second novella in my Three is an Austrian man on holiday in the US. He visits several places in the east and south, which I had no mental references for -- and therefore they didn't interest me, they might as well have been Mordor -- but then he went to Tucson, south of us, and I lit up like a tour guide, ah! yes! Tucson! even though I have only been there once, briefly, when someone drove us through the downtown area. "There ain't a lot here," the driver observed, and then we went to a shopping mall, where there was even less. The only shop with any customers was a pet store where a Mexican woman with long nails was making a rattling noise on the glass cages to attract the attention of the puppies. All of the shopping centres -- malls -- I've seen in Arizona have been indoor urban ghost towns, with a few people sitting by a fountain, a family pushing a child in a stroller, a Macy's, and when you stand at one of the decorative palm trees and look upwards you can see two or three tiers of shops without customers.

These are called dead malls, says the internet, and they are an eerie experience, well-lit and expectant and inhabited by security guards who must get a lot of leisurely exercise, strolling and strolling, as we stroll up and down the dirt road outside this house, although in our case we see the footprints of animals impressed in the dust, lines of forks arranged heel to toe that mean quail, and the tiny clawed fleur de lys of the ground squirrel, all unknown to the guards of the dead malls, who see only goods behind windows and the open neanderthal caves of absent shops.*

Handke's narrator, landing in Tucson, notices desert around the runway. "The city is in the middle of a desert, a hot wind blows all day; sand clouds race across the runway, and on both sides of it there was cactus with white and yellow flowers." If there were flowers then he must have been here at this time of year, springtime. He sees an agave, a lawn, and a palm tree by a swimming pool; and I think those are the only plants he notices in Arizona before he buys a plane ticket and flies to Oregon. There he visits two places, first a logging town named Estacada, "Charred tree trunks, gashed hillsides, burned trash bins," in the forest south-east of Portland, and then Twin Rocks, "a town on the Pacific coast some seventy-five miles west of Estacada" (seventy-five miles: even alienated characters think in round zeroes and fives) where he stands by the sea until another person appears. "With rigid, graven faces we approached one another; suddenly she looked away and screamed," translates Ralph Manheim. Like Estacada, Twin Rocks has "burned-out trash bins."

We didn't go to those places but that was the Oregon we saw, a state made up of forest and coast. It's the rivers that haunt me though, running by the sides of the roads, and then rushing away into the trees, coming from somewhere and going to somewhere -- mysterious amber rivers, with no beginning and no end, like a point on Kant's line, a moment connected to time by the action of the observer, but ours were not connected, they were only the segment moments, and the beginnings and ends of the lines were invisible to us. My parents went through Oregon some years ago, on a train, at night, said my mother on the phone, and they saw nothing but darkness.

*While they're on duty, that is. Off-duty they might spend hours walking up and down dirt roads looking at quail prints for all I know.

Beauty and Sadness was translated by Howard Hibbett.


  1. I used to try to read Handke but his views on Serbia bother me now and get in between me and the page. I quite liked his very bare prose, as I remember it (is this right - is it very stripped down [1989 was when I read it and my memory is probably wrong]?) I also saw a wordless play by him in Vienna - hadn't realised it was wordless and had been hoping to improve my German, so was slightly disappointed. Those 'ghost malls' - is that because of the problems with the US economy (ie is it only recently that they've become deserted and how long can they survive like that - who is paying the guards and how are ends being met?)

  2. I think your memory is right. He works his way through facts in a rigorous voice and achieves a sort of flat, tense effect. "Long after midnight I walked back to the hotel where I sat at the Blue Bar and drank Kentucky whiskey. I drank slowly and didn't get drunk. I found some picture postcards of the hotel on a table and wrote to a lot of people, including some I had never written to before. I …" etc. I've only read four Austrian writers, I think (Musil, Jelinek, Bernhard, Handke), but it's left me wondering if weariness, sadness, alienation, anger, or disgust are the go for every Austrian who wants to pick up a pen.

    I have no idea how those malls stay open. They look so very incredibly dead, and the people wandering through them look so very aimless and casual and unlikely to buy anything. Nobody in that pet shop looked as if they were seriously thinking of paying for a dog, or a cat, or any animal at all, or a dog bed, or a hamster wheel, or a fish, or anything. They seemed to be there because it was Saturday afternoon and they had nothing else to do and someone said, "Let's go to the mall," and now that they were here the only things moving were the puppies. I remember that long-nailed woman in particular because there was a sign stuck to the glass not ten inches away from her hand that read, "Please don't tap the glass! It hurts our ears!" in English and Spanish, and I stood there hesitating and remembering the time when I worked as a volunteer at the Zoo, and managed to convince a man not to throw cheese sandwiches at the howler monkeys.

    The Wikipedia article on dead malls blames "socio-economic decline" or "a newer, larger mall [opening] nearby," and says that shopping trends in the US have moved away from malls -- "21st-century retailing trends favor open air lifestyle centers, which resemble elements of power centers, big box stores, and strip malls over indoor malls." I don't know any more about it than that. But the impression I get in Arizona, is that there are too many developers building shopping areas, and too few shops to fill them. That goes for strip malls too. We drive past dozens of these open-air rows of shop fronts -- arranged in horseshoe shapes around car parks -- and none of the horseshoes seem to be fully occupied. You'll have one or two large stores, then maybe a cafe attached to a supermarket, and a smaller store, and a chain restaurant, and then a place with a Gone Out Of Business sign on the window, and another place that has been empty since it was born. Some of the horseshoes have given up and gone under, and then you have chain link fences and broken windows and dereliction. I've never seen anything like it in Australia, I mean, nothing on this scale. Somewhere behind the scenes there must be people shouting, "Build it and they will come!" but they build it and they don't.

  3. I never finished the great big Musil, despite enjoying it until I put it down halfway and never picked it up again. Bernhardt is so strange and wonderful - if I were Austrian, I'd feel too awed to try writing after him. Although I suppose you could aim for a more cheerful kind of work instead - a sort of Austrian Wodehouse wouldn't go astray. Austria is such a beautiful country but a) the people keep each other pretty rigorously in check on behaviour which wears you down and b) the Austro-Hungarian empire under Franz-Josef may well have been the ideal of benevolent dictatorship and modern reality is not very comforting in comparison, so perhaps those two factors have something to do with the miserable tone you note. These further details about the shopping malls give me a mild sense of dread - I don't like being apocalyptic but I can't see how we get out of this mess we've made. Never mind - I'm off to Central Europe on Sunday, where you can temporarily forget that anything has changed at all.

  4. And I'm off to the front garden where the mesquite wants to be clipped. I wondered if the old empire had anything to do with it. The impression I've been receiving from the literature (and I know that my impressions are slave to the choices of translators and publishers; there might be a million Austrian Wodehouse out there but if they're not Englished then I won't know them) is that the authors are writing against a society built around your a). They're sarcastic, or bitter, or scornful, or in despair, but in every case it's as if they're trying to push away a massive force that wants to calm and stifle them. Bernhard wrote so many excellent and fierce variations on, "Everything is bad," that I thought, "He must have felt that someone was always trying to tell him that everything is good, why else would it have occurred to him to react?"