Wednesday, June 29, 2011

a mouse would hardly find a foothold

Despair, despair: among other things I've been trying to find a way to segue, on this blog, into the book of Faroese short stories I found in the library two weeks ago, and so far no luck, I can find no doorway into the subject, no guiding loving star, no mineshaft, and it feels as if I might as well be trying to climb up the cliffs that, I am told, rise from the sea around the shores of the Faroe Islands where all of these stories are set.

The Faroese writers associate the subject of cliffs so naturally with the subject of birds that I assume that it is normal for all of the other islanders to think like this as well, first cliffs and then birds, birds and then cliffs, specifically nesting birds. Characters go "fowling in the cliffs." A man who wants to kill a pair of ravens ("black as pitch and shiny as steel") in Sverri Patursson's Winning of the Bounty first acquires his bait in the shape of a dead lamb and then tosses it down a scarp. "Then he went all the way out to the edge of the bluff where the ravens were nesting lower down. He dropped the lamb so that it went rushing right past the nest and didn't stop until it reached a shelf below it. The birds were at the nest with their young, and when the carcass came tumbling down past them, they both flew out and began to circle close to the cliff."

The hero of one of the other stories, M.A. Winthers' To Catch a Thief, is a bird-poacher, one of those cunning but poor folk tale characters who outwit the rich and powerful. When he wants to trap himself some birds he goes to "one of the best of the Lað farmers' fowling places. It was impossible to walk down to the ledges in the face of the cliff here, and anyone who wanted to get to them had to use a line -- about twenty fathoms of it. The cliff was sheer from the edge down to the ledges, so sheer and smooth that a mouse would hardly find a foothold."

The Lað farmers try to catch him but he turns the tables on them and by the last paragraph of the story they're paying him to do their fowling.

I realise that I've found my way in. Here is my doorway: cliffs and birds. But before this, trust me, I was sitting here like Mr Toots in Dombey and Son, who never can work out how to tell Florence Dombey that he loves her. Instead he flails at the topic, hesitates, helplessly sabotages himself, "goes home to his Hotel in a state of desperation, locks himself into his bedroom, flings himself upon his bed, and lies there for a long time," moving the heart of the reader, who sees that he is a poor fool. Chesterton calls him "this little dunce and cad." Yet "Toots," he says, "expresses certain permanent dignities in human nature more than any of Dickens's more dignified characters can do it. For instance, Toots expresses admirably the enduring fear, which is the very essence of falling in love. When Toots is invited by Florence to come in, when he longs to come in, but still stays out, he is embodying a sort of insane and perverse humility which is elementary in the lover."

When Nicholson Baker perceived this love and humility in himself he wrote about it in U and I, a book which is both a memoir and a record of being haunted by thoughts of John Updike. Updike is the U. As he reaches the end of the book Baker the admirer meets Updike in the flesh -- twice -- and blurts at him -- maladroitly -- trying to be suave -- and goes away feeling that he has made the older writer dislike him. He stammers, he lies, he makes a gawky reference to The New Yorker. "I would never have done it either -- drag in The New Yorker name so obviously to get his attention -- except that life was too short not to. Those ticking seconds of signature might be the only chance I would ever get to embarrass myself in his presence.

When the excessively shy force themselves to be forward, they are frequently surprisingly unsubtle and overdirect and even rude: they have entered an extreme region beyond their normal personality where gradations don't count."

But Toots is very delicate, he doesn't blurt enough, that's one of his problems. And me, I hesitate, I think, "That doesn't work." I am Tootsish, though I do not express certain permanent dignities of human nature. Baker says that a writer who wants to introduce a new topic should be bold and charge in -- take command, change it, make it change. Chutzpah is vital. In February and March after VIDA put out that report about the low number of women who published reviews, articles in magazines, and so on, some magazine editors said, well, women lack confidence, they don't stand up and propose articles on subjects they know almost nothing about, as men do; they don't volunteer.

More maladroit blurting may be the answer, or else women will be condemned to go home to their hotels in states of desperation, fling themselves on their beds, and lie there for a very long time, never embarking on blog posts about the Faroe Islands, and knowing that they are not as brave as that utter lunatic in the M.A. Winthers story who climbs down twenty fathoms of rope and risks his life above a peeling sea to trap a few birds when nowadays he could just take himself off to the SMS Mall in the capital Tórshavn and buy off the menu at Burger King instead. But the Lað farmers are not going to employ him for doing that.

Faroese Short Stories was translated by Hedin Brønner. Photographs of those cliffs "so sheer and smooth that a mouse would hardly find a foothold" are not difficult to find online, and here is one of them. Here are some birds sitting on tiny ledges on the cliff-face. Here are people lying on the ground at the top of a Faroese cliff as if they're at a picnic. Here is a waterfall coming off a cliff into the sea near the village of Gásadalur. "In 2002 there were only sixteen people living in Gásadalur, and several of the houses stand empty today," reports Wikipedia. Two bucks and I'd move there. I should point out that the book was published in 1972 so the cliff plus bird combination may not have the grip on the Faroese imagination that it once did.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

after you move your eye

A hallway runs through this flat from the front door to the room at the back, and as I was walking down that hallway yesterday I thought of the word telescope in my last post and gradually I felt worried. It seemed important that I should turn on the computer and change telescope to magnifying glass straight away, otherwise people would think that I didn't know what I was talking about, I thought.

But reading the post I saw that it was not telescope I had written but telescoping, and so magnifying glass would not be able to replace it, because the word I needed, which would have been magnifying-glassing, did not exist, and even if I had claimed my right to domination over my own small bit of language and invented the word I wanted, the sentence as a whole would have become obscured by this distracting showboat of a phrase, doing me no good and doing it no good either, and not helping anyone who tried to make sense out of me, in fact ruining everything. I had been reading several books of poetry by the American poet Louise Glück, and for a 2006 collection named Averno I remembered that she had written a poem called Telescope, in which the poem's "you" takes a telescope away from their eye and feels a vertiginous unreality. "There is a moment after you move your eye away / when you forget where you are / because you've been living, it seems, / somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky," she writes.

The telescope has given you a sense of closeness, she says, but that closeness is false; you do not live in the night sky with the planetary bodies; you are not "participating in their stillness, their immensity" as you imagined. Gradually the you realises that its sense of identification and unity was false, and as it achieves its quietude the poet concludes like this: "You see again how far away / each thing is from every other thing."

But as long as you had the telescope to your eye you had an equivalent of metaphor: disparate objects had been persuaded to unite, or to exist in the same place. We cannot live in metaphor, we are apart, every poor metaphor is fighting against the separating powers of the universe, all microscopic pinpoints snubbing one another and rolling around like grapes on a tray. Two of the writers I've read recently have gone out of their way to say that metaphor is important to poetry. One was Jorge Luis Borges and the other was Susan Sontag, and their examples were so similar that I wondered if Sontag, whose speech (she was accepting the Jerusalem Prize) was published decades after the Argentinian died, had found the idea in the same place that I did, the 1967-8 Norton lectures that came out with Borges' photograph on the cover over the title, This Craft of Verse.

But perhaps that is impossible, because the lectures were left in a recorded form for "more than thirty years" said Calin-André Mihailescu, the man who arranged the publication, "the tapes gathering dust in the quiet ever-after of a library vault" and so Verse didn't come out until 2002, one year after Sontag received her prize. The similarity seemed so great while I was reading it, however, that I wanted to believe she had somehow known, a message getting through, maybe a verbal report, but why would anyone bother to hold onto that nugget of information for thirty years, "Borges said that metaphor was essential to poetry, and he used such and such specific examples"? Or was she there in the audience, her mind clinging to this part of the lecture for decades before she found a use for it?

"One difference [between poetry and prose] lies in the role of metaphor," she wrote, "which, I would argue, is necessary to poetry. Indeed, in my view, it is the task -- one of the tasks -- of the poet, to invent metaphors." Borges says more or less the same thing but he comes to it out of a discussion of Leopoldo Lugones an Argentine poet who composed hundreds of new metaphors for writers to use when they referred to the moon.

Sontag also refers to the moon. I would like to bring out examples to prove my point about their similarity but both books were due back at the library about a week ago.

It's probably a coincidence and I don't want to use that as an excuse to dismiss it. What a strange thing. (But I know from past experiences that if I borrowed the two books again and tried to find the similarities I would be left wondering what I thought I had seen -- "These aren't alike; this is tenuous.")

Emily Dickinson's metaphors conduct the shrinking and growing effect that I was trying to get at with my telescoping and magnifying glass. Now I try to approach the idea of violence in her work, my impression that her metaphors, which jam objects together in startling ways, are violent towards their material, sadistic even, and I tell myself that if she could speak to the Abbey in He parts Himself -- like Leaves she would say, "You want to be strong stone because you are an abbey, but I will maintain a grip on you and with my powers I will turn you into quaintest Floss." She is sadistic with whimsy, I decided. What can I compare that to? A burning giraffe entered my head. Surrealism! What is an Abbey made of Floss? It is as weird as "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," Lautréamont's phrase that was borrowed with honours by André Breton, the strangeness of that, and the threat inherent in those ridiculous objects, the sewing machine with its stabbing needles, and the dissection table, which is, after all, a table where things are dissected. Surrealist whimsy is not kind, it loves to startle you with its viciousness, it takes a man and replaces his face with an apple, or it teases the Mona Lisa with a moustache, it dares you to underestimate it and call it childish, ludicrous, and silly, and so does Emily Dickinson, who sometimes seems to be a girl of about six exclaiming, "How happy is the little stone / That rambles in the road alone." In his introduction to her Complete Works, Thomas H. Johnson tells me that her famous correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson "was never convinced that she wrote poetry. As he phrased his opinion to a friend, her verses were 'remarkable, though odd … too delicate -- not strong enough to publish.'"

Sunday, June 19, 2011

of quaintest Floss

There were no libraries close to us in Arizona and for six months I borrowed nothing, but now we're within walking distance of the Clark County Library System, one outlet of, and they have books upon books, three copies of the Purgatorio, three Complete Shakespeares, two Anita Brookners that I hadn't read, two Hannah Arendts that I hadn't read, two translations of Murasaki Shikibu's Diary, ("As autumn advances, the Tsuchimikado mansion looks unutterably beautiful"), Helen Garner's First Stone, which was unexpected (and more than one Richard Flanagan, and strange, strange, finding those Australian names here, and what do they make of Robert Drewe's Shark Net I wonder, and then I wonder why I wonder), and the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the poet slipping through telescopic hallucinations small and large with Alice in Wonderland quickness. The Sun is huge, the Daisy is small, she has them both, she puts them together with a dash for handcuffs. The Frost that possesses the World is a respectable and dark Sepulchre, but the Sepulchre is made of quaintest Floss, and the Abbey is a small Cocoon. The sea will overwhelm her as though she be Dew, but she will stare it down with the force of her small nouns. What does it conquer? An apron. A belt. Sea be not proud. It will fill her shoe with pearl. The world is animate and full of intentions. The Sun has a Whip to drive away the Fog, and the ship that walks on water must have feet. This is an uncracked logic.

Such will to power transmitted through so many tiny Bees.

That line of Murasaki was translated by Richard Bowring and published in the Penguin Classics version of the Diary. She goes on with this sentence: "Every branch on every tree by the lake and each tuft of grass on the banks of the stream takes on its own particular colour, which is then intensified by the evening light." Yes, answers Thoreau. "Was there ever such an autumn?" (The Journal, Oct 14, 1857) Both Murasaki and Thoreau were awkward around people, I notice, or both thought they were. Both of them wonder if they seem cold.

The Dickinson poems I've mentioned here are, He parts Himself—like Leaves—, I started Early – Took my Dog –, The Sun and Fog contested, and There is strength in proving that it can be borne.

Looking at it from the outside, the library branch near us falls somewhere between ZMKC's library in Budapest and her library in Canberra. Not so many knobs as the first one. Not so low as the second one. You enter it from the car park and not the street. If you walk into the building from the street entrance you come into a small round foyer with a flight of stairs at the back and signs saying Theatre.

Friday, June 17, 2011

and then a boulder of granite

On the fifth of June a poster named George left a note in the comments section at Whispering Gums, saying that he couldn't think of "poetry involving rocks," and it hit me as I read this that John Kinsella's Divine Comedy had very few rocks in it. "Which is strange," I thought, "because Kinsella is writing about a small area of country Western Australia, and there is a mountain nearby, which he mentions, (it is "the tallest hill/mountain in the wheatbelt -- Walwalinj, or Mount Bakewell") and yet I can't remember him writing about the rocks."

I went and checked. He discusses the mountain as a whole mass, and he mentions "granite" in a number of places as a casual feature of the backdrop, and at least once he turns the granite into a liberated rock, and invents a "boulder of granite" --

They hesitated,
then, without opening their beaks,
ventriloquised, a jam tree speaking

and then a boulder of granite,
I couldn't separate the voices

-- and then there are some stones, "rose quartz chunks," but he doesn't concentrate on rocks, on any rock, in the way that he concentrates on animals and plants, on living creatures, on mushrooms in Sub-Paradiso: Mushrooms, or on a white-faced heron in Canto of the Uncanny, or on snakes in the Canto of Serpents and Theft. "You lift snakes from roads -- / before compression -- drivers / swerving 'to take them out'" he writes, and H. in Arizona did this too, she swerved her car to hit snakes. "Is that a snake?" she would wonder, and it was only a poor black stick lying patient by the side of the road in the twilight; and when I was in Thailand I met a university professor who told us that he did the same with his car for dogs, though Arizona snakes are probably in better physical and mental shape than Thailand's stray dogs, with their ribs like cage bars containing the heart in a basket, their sores like trapped lava bubbles, the skin running in concave descents off the spine, and the ears and legs that aren't there, limbs in absentia and the senses diminished, sight stripped to half with the loss of an eye, and there is such a mass of these dogs in that country, such a mob of these damned-looking creatures, Pestilence and Plague, War and Rape (you can see this as you are sitting outdoors at a restaurant, two of them under the table next to you), trotting in herds at night behind you, so that you look back, or not you but I, I looked back, as I was walking along a road in the warm early night after the evening thunderstorm which used to arrive regularly at six o'clock, and there were the discs of the eyes, marking time about two feet off the road, a line of them, so quietly, a fleet of horrors and ghost-lights -- and in a fantasy I see their missing legs vanished into the same hinterworld as John Kinsella's rocks, present once but now gone, gone, and never thought about by anyone again, as if the dogs had never had legs, and the countryside by a mountain had never had rocks.

Teejay in the comments section points out the existence of James McAuley's poem, Granite Boulder.

And Freddy (also in the comments) posts a Kinsella poem called Negation of Granite.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

think it pretty

Evelyne Bloch-Dano's Madame Proust: a Biography opens with a young Jeanne Weil preparing to marry Adrien Proust, and for the length of a few chapters I was sorrowful, thinking, "It's Penne Hackforth-Jones and Barbara Baynton all over again," because Bloch-Dano, for her own convenience, turns these people into fictional characters and has them fall silent ("Jeanne fell silent") and stare at plates ("She lowered her eyes and stared at the plate") in ways absolutely undocumented by evidence. She does not seem to be doing this out of energy and inspiration, as Peter Ackroyd does when he puts lines in Charles Dickens' mouth during Dickens, but because she worries that we, the readers, will lose interest in bits about plates and families if we don't have a friendly face there, smiling and staring like a piece of cardboard with a curve drawn on it, and two dots for eyes. Or the dots are cut out, and the author peeps through.

Ackroyd's inventions are phantasmagoria; they make Dickens seem stranger, larger, and less explicable; but Bloch-Dano's inventions shrink Jeanne down to the size of a schematised heroine whose brain tinkles its thoughts out neatly and in a logical order, as the brains of human beings do not do.* "Jeanne was ready to admit that she didn't dislike Adrien Proust. She even felt she might be able to love this quiet man with his gentle ways. He was serious, hard-working. But she knew so little about him," writes the biographer, mind-reading ghoulishly; the mind is dead, the brain is decayed, and it leaves no documents to support her.

It is a distraction rather than an addition and I wonder what else the author might be fabricating. I doubt her.

But then Jeanne Proust gives birth to her first son, Marcel, who is destined to be researched in the future, and the author acquires so many facts that she can abandon the padding. Now she can start to strike facts together like flints and make sparks. My favourite spark comes on the last page, after Bloch-Dano has been telling us how Jeanne and her son would argue over his bedtime. He would go to bed late. But the first sentence in Lost Time is, "For a long time I used to go to bed early." "Jeanne would have loved those words," writes Bloch-Dano, and for the first time I saw that sentence as an in-joke aimed at a mother who was dead by the time it was published, and would never respond -- this joke, generated, born, and left to shoot off into the darkness, like the Voyager probe that represents a desire to say hello to an alien rather than a realistic plan for actually meeting one.

Whether the line was meant that way or not Bloch-Dano doesn't know and nor do I, but when I saw that this thought had occurred to her, I realised that she had experienced in Lost Time the kind of window-quality that Borges saw in all books, the Narnian-wardrobe, a series of doors opening into possibilities -- a book not as an end in itself, but as an epicentre.

And I thought: "Any book could be like that, if we could look at it like that, but how do you look at it like that?"

You love it, I think; you have to love it first, you have to love it so much that you trust it to become an epicentre, and so it becomes one. It responds to your wish. "Fall in love with a dog’s bum / And thou’ll think it pretty as a plum," Françoise says in Swann's Way. Lydia Davis translates. Qui du cul d'un chien s'amourose, / Il lui paraît une rose. But it is both things at once, an epicentre and a book, and an arse and a rose or plum. There is the book, or the arse, you look at it, you concentrate, and there is your focus. Henri Raczymow looked at a single one of Proust's characters and wrote a book of one hundred and forty-eight pages about the relationship between this character and one of the living people who inspired him. Proust was jealous of this man, says Raczymow, and he was glad to kill the character. That line of thought gets him, Raczymow, onto the subject of Judaism, and is it not significant, he asks, that the Jewish character Albert Bloch decides to give himself the pen name Jacques du Rozier, when the Parisian Judegasse mentioned by the character Baron de Charlus is the Rue de Rosiers, and the letter Z, as we all know (now he is referring to Roland Barthes' S/Z) is "the letter of mutilation"? "By incorporating this z in du Rozier, Bloch mutilates and chastises himself. He effaces and censures his Judaism." Also! Charles Swann's daughter Gilberte (Swann is the character who gave Raczymow the idea for this book in the first place) drags the tail of her S across the letter G when she signs her name, G.S. Forcheville, the 'Forcheville' coming from her stepfather, after her father's, Swann's, death. "Of course this S isn't exactly a Z," says Raczymow, "but it's close enough. And doesn't it belong to Barthes' paired S/Z? For it served the same purpose of "cutting, crossing, and slashing.""

Raczymow, who leaps between thoughts too abruptly, is as convincing as a man who tells you that a butterfly is a species of bat because they both have wings; his focus on Swann and his real-life part-counterpart has overwhelmed him, but still, a focus puts the mind in a seed and invites it to sprout; it makes the mind a seed or bud or nut, and a famous book is a prime focus: look at all of the essays that have come out of famous books, look at John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu -- six hundred and forty-eight pages out of a poem of six hundred and twenty-five lines. Books give birth to books, it's miraculous. Focus is the thing. And not only books, but anything. What else? Cees Nooteboom decided that the way to acquaint himself with Gambia was to interview the president. "So on that Friday morning I take my first steps toward a president who, in the end, I do not manage to reach, but that was not the point anyway." Hannah Arendt often liked to orient her thought by touching on Romans and Greeks. In The Promise of Politics she thinks of The Iliad next to The Aeneid and uses the word amazing twice on one page. Thoreau wonders about the origin of his surname and ends up with mead --

Feb. 15. 1852. Perhaps I am descended from that Northman named "Thorer the Dog-footed." Thorer Hund …

Feb 16. Snorro Sturleson says, "From Thor's name comes Thorer, also Thorarinn." Again: "Earl Rogenvald was King Harald's dearest friend, and the king had great regard for him. He was married to Hilda, a daughter of Rolf Naefia, and their sons were Rolf and Thorer … Rolf became a great viking, and was of so stout a growth that no horse could carry him, and wheresoever he went he must go on foot; and therefore he was called Grange-Rolf.


King Harald "set Earl Rogenvald's son Thorer over More and gave him his daughter Alof in marriage. Thorer called the Silent, got the same territory from his father Rognvald had possessed." His brother Einar, going into battle to take vegeance on his father's murderers, sang a kind of reproach against his brothers Rollang and Rolf for their slowness and concludes,--

"And silent Thorer sits and dreams
At home, beside the mead-bowl's streams."

And stereotypes are a focus and a way of grasping. Stuart MacIntyre finishes off his Concise History of Australia by telling you that Australians are "a largely undemonstrative people" who "rally in misfortune; fire and flood brings out the best in them," and, oh, see, this is why I am never at my best, having never encountered fire or flood and instead proceeding undemonstratively and feebly and when the American at the library spoke to me yesterday I did not understand her accent, and instead of asking her what she meant I grinned and went away and almost left the building without finding out how to open the cases of the DVDs I'd borrowed.

Focus is the one magic force. The words of a spell are the focus for a wish. A witch or a wizard is only the Don Bradman of wishing.

* This is key for me, although I don't know if I've explained it very well. It's not the fictionalisation of real people that bothers me, it's the way that Bloch-Dano uses it to make her subject tidy and small. I go to a biography to see the person made bigger, and more detailed, and more interesting. Not smaller, and less detailed, and less interesting.

Bloch-Dano is French and her book has been translated into English by Alice Kaplan. Raczymow's book is known as Swan's Way, or, originally, La Cygne de Proust, and it was translated by Robert Bononno. Nooteboom goes to Gambia in his essay Lady Wright and Sir Jawara: a Boat Trip Up the Gambia, published in Nomad's Hotel, a book of his travel essays. It was translated out of Dutch and into English by Ann Kelland. Thoreau was writing in his journal.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

suddenly protruding with animation

Somewhere in this Diary: Volume 1, on a page that I can't find any more, Virginia Woolf is thinking about the incongruity of two people kept below in the kitchen so that the lives of two people upstairs can be smoother and easier. (Here it is, and not as I've described it: "But the fault is more in the system of keeping two young women chained in a kitchen to laze & work & suck their life from two in the drawing room than in her [the servant's] character or in mine.") She is self-conscious about her servants, Virginia Woolf, as I would be too, I think, and so I would not have servants even if I could afford them, because the idea of people waiting around in far corners of the house making fretting noises (if I lived in a house), would worry me so much that it would be less stressful to do the job myself, whatever it is, eg, cooking an egg or wiping the bathroom sink.

Although if I had a house I might also have a garden, a large garden, and I could put my servants in a small house at the end of this garden, and pay them to leave me alone and keep burglars away while they're at it, and yet in that case it would be cheaper possibly to buy a dog.

And if I could not afford a servant I would not want to be one either; I would hate whoever hired me. I'm bad with flatmates. But Marcel Proust's mother was good with servants and once ran out before breakfast to buy one of them a blouse. Her son would go to to his friends' houses and give the servants generous tips, and the same in restaurants. Servants liked him. So Evelyne Bloch-Dano writes in Madame Proust. I have never come across a Proust biography that contradicted this point of view. It is one of the accepted facts about Proust. And in Lost Time he makes the cook and the kitchen maid as heraldic as the aristocrats. They are all Ancient France.

(The cleaning women in the middle of Woolf's To the Lighthouse are like Fates or embodied Time, but their creator doesn't dwell on them and extrapolate and love, as Proust extrapolates Françoise the cook; he is enthralled and horrified by her who kills the chicken and cries, "Filthy creature!" as she slits its throat below the ear and then cooks it so beautifully, presenting it "in a skin gold-embroidered, like a chasuble." (Moncrieff))

In her fiction Woolf unites everyone, pointing out that they all live under the same sun and the same sky, the same weather, or the same music in The Years, "From behind crimson curtains, rendered semi-transparent and sometimes blowing wide came the sound of the eternal waltz -- After the ball is over, after the dance is done -- like a serpent that swallowed its own tail, since the ring was complete from Hammersmith to Shoreditch. Over and over again it was repeated by trombones outside public houses; errand boys whistled it; bands inside private rooms where people were dancing played it. There they sat at little tables at Wapping in the romantic Inn that overhung the river, between timber warehouses where barges were moored; and here again in Mayfair," -- and she unites them too by sealing them all inside one stomach of the serpent prose, roaming from one character to the other in The Waves, for example, and yet the tones of those characters, and their thoughts, are brisk and separate, they are together and yet alone, some in Hammersmith, some in Shoreditch, all united and yet also set apart by circumstances, which tear at them, making them ecstatic and lonely.

In the Diary she unites her characters (who here have the names of real people and are less dimensional than the ones in the Waves) with a new tactic: her own automatic sense of repulsion, touching people with her mind the way others touch slugs with their thumbs, and in this she is like Christina Stead's Henny, who in her hatred compulsively transforms people into animals or food, bearing witness to "a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression … and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye … silly old roosters, creatures like a dying duck in a thunderstorm, filthy old pawers, and YMCA sick chickens, and women thin as a rail and men fat as a pork barrel."

Woolf isn't as monomaniacal as Henny but she has her own good menagerie, "a ridiculous figure" of a man "precisely like the false Mandrill," another man who "drank a whole bottle, bubbled like a tipsy nightingale,"a "stout widow" who "chose 10 novels; taking them from the hand of Mudies man, like a lapdog," and "Mrs Hamilton, who strains at her collar like a spaniel dog, & has indeed the large staring hazel eyes of one of them." "How pale these elderly women get! The rough pale skin of toads." Or she sees inanimate objects in people, one man "stiff as a clod; you can almost see the docks & nettles sprouting out of his mind," and a woman who "is pasty & podgy, with the eyes of a currant bun, suddenly protruding with animation." Woolf modifies her judgments. "But her animation is the product of a highly trained mind." Yet the annoyed and the negative judgments often come first and sound more inventive than the kinder ones, which tend to come slower -- cruelty gives her the gift of vivid inventions, and kindness takes patience, and patience of course doesn't have the strict flash of the immediate response, which is also the strict flash of cruelty, those docks and nettles growing out of a man's head;, sprouting and living; her patience doesn't spring to life in the surreal and clashing way that hands her that lovely description, "bubbled like a tipsy nightingale."

By the end of this volume of the Diary she is primed to write a great Epic of Disgust, filled with people, clods, buns, and animals, and in fact if you'd read nothing else by Virginia Woolf but this diary then you might expect her to do absolutely that very thing. "Her strength," you'd think, "is this power of metamorphosis." You'd narrow her down to that one quality as though you were Dickens. You wouldn't expect her to write Jacob's Room and yet she wrote Jacob's Room. Why did she write that, you would ask. Where did it come from? And you would have to synthesise her all over again, and mourn for your beautiful lost Disgust.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

the rapidity of the flash, and other circumstances

Sleepy and delirious with a head cold I've been reading Paul Muldoon's long poem Madoc with its puns, riddles, and historical, philosophical allusions, and always at least two things going on at once. In the section headed [Davy] he quotes one of Coleridge's footnotes to Lines Written at Shurton Bars --

In Sweden a very curious phenomenon has been observed on certain flowers, by M. Haggern, lecturer in natural history. One evening he perceived a faint flash of light repeatedly dart from a marigold. From the rapidity of the flash, and other circumstances, it may be conjectured that there is something of electricity in this phenomenon.

Shurton Bars is a reflection on marriage, and it is relevant to Madoc because Coleridge was preparing not only to marry but also to go on a journey that he never took, a trip to North America with Robert Southey. Madoc is a version of that imaginary trip. It opens with Coleridge being shot by Geckoes. In Shurton he addresses his fiancée, Sarah Fricker. "With eager speed I dart! -- / I seize you in the vacant air, / And fancy, with a husband's care / I press you to my heart!" The marigold comes a moment later: "'Tis said, in Summer's evening hour / Flashes the golden-colour'd flower / A fair electric flame: / And so shall flash my love-charg'd eye / When all the heart's big ecstasy / Shoots rapid through the flame!" -- science and literature uniting in one excited whirl of invention, invention and invention saying hello in different languages, as they do when Dickens has his Megalosaurus "forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill," or as George Eliot does in Middlemarch,* or when Thomas Hardy's Knight sees a trilobite "standing forth in low relief from the rock"; and George Steiner delivering a series of T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures in 1970 at the University of Kent, didn't see how any serious reader could avoid being also a mathematician. "The notion that one can exercise a rational literacy in the latter part of the twentieth century without a knowledge of calculus, without some preliminary access to topology or algebraic analysis, will soon seem a bizarre anachronism." This is reported in Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture. Steiner was sad to see that students in 1970 were not learning about the Ancient World, and that footnotes were becoming necessary where they had not been necessary before.

How is Pope's Essay on Man to register its delicate precision and sinew when each proposition reaches us, as it were, on stilts, at the top of a page crowded with elementary comment? What presence in personal delight can Endymion have when recent editions annotate "Venus" as signifying "pagan goddess of love"?

But Borges, delivering a different set of lectures a few years earlier at Harvard (the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1967-1968), is intrigued by footnotes, and loves to follow them, he chases through dictionaries after words, he enjoys translations for their differences, and believes that not-knowing or half-knowing can turn a poem or book into a marvellous dream or riddle. The fact that he sees possibilities expanding where Steiner sees them closing and contracting makes him seem, to me anyway, wiser and more thoughtful than the other lecturer, more exploratory and adventurous, in spite of the fact that he doesn't appear to know topology or calculus or any maths at all; and I come away thinking that it is not always mastery of things that makes a person seem astute, but rather an advanced way of wondering about them.**

His answer to Steiner's rhetorical question about Endymion might be, "Because the student finds the lines beautiful," or "Because it is sonorous," which is the word he uses to praise a sonnet by "that too-forgotten Bolivian poet Ricardo Jaimes Freire." Freire's lines "do not mean anything, they are not meant to mean anything; and yet they stand. They stand as a thing of beauty."

Peregrina paloma imaginaria
Que enardeces los últimos amores
Alma de luz, de música y de flores
Peregrina paloma imaginaria

Meanwhile Virginia Woolf in her Diary has discovered items other than Endymion or dreams to worry about, and her juxtapositions of two things are not, like Muldoon's, fun. She is thinking about her servants in the kitchen.

* For example, at the start of chapter twenty-seven:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable.

** Madoc is a poem for the Steiner-people rather than the Borges-people, since so many of its puns, etc, depend on the reader's familiarity with philosophers, writers, American history, and so on -- see, for example, here's the whole section named [Camus]:


June 16th, 1837. The Mandan villages are ravaged by smallpox.

The Plague says the reader. La Peste! Oh, that Muldoon.

And yet, I think I'm wrong about that Steiner-people, Borges-people split, because Borges' dreaminess, aside from the dreaminess that he describes as a recognition of "beauty" in a poem like Freire's, is the dreaminess of erudition, of the footnote as the entrance to a labyrinth, a Narnian wardrobe door leading to other Narnian wardrobe doors, of an artificial infinity, the infinity of literature, and you could argue that Muldoon's poem points back and forth in that way, one bit of knowledge leading to another. And yet, again, and yet, is there something stage-managed about this poem, in the fact that the reader is ushered very insistently through these wardrobe doors -- there's no other way to make sense of it, you have to jump -- which seems to be the Steiner approach -- one must know Venus -- not the Borges approach -- which could be summed up as: one loves what one sees, and may proceed further into it if one wishes, and look up the old Norse meaning of the word dreary ("the word 'dreary' meant 'bloodstained'"), and whatever else you like, with no coercion?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

by the time you have finished, forgotten

That Woolf quote in my last post, "We went on to the London Library --", came from her Diary: Volume One 1915-1919, which ends after she has published Night and Day and before she began Jacob's Room, which was going to be her next book, published in 1922 -- and long before she had begun to imagine any of the other books, Orlando, Mrs Dalloway; she doesn't seem to have an idea of them, they were so far hidden in the future, which makes me think about those future people who will look back and see that everything we are doing now is only the preface to the more amazing event that is about to happen -- and in, I recall, the newspaper that was published the night before the American mass murder of September 11th, 2001, there was a report of a man, also in the US, who had shot a group of people and committed suicide, and when I came across the paper the next day I wondered if he had gone into the land of the dead imagining that people would talk about him afterwards, and ask, "Why did he commit this massacre?" but of course the wider world forgot him immediately. The universe is made of Action, Carlyle tells us: "the All of Things is an infinite conjunction of the verb To do."

Night and Day isn't a terrible book, but you know that the wider world would have forgotten it, too, if she hadn't gone on to publish others, though at the time it was praised, and she must have thought that it was done as well as she could do it, within her limited human capacities. "I see what I'm aiming at; what I feel is that this time I've had a fair chance & done my best; so that I can be philosophic & lay the blame on God," she writes on October 21st, 1919, waiting for the reviews to come in. On the first of November she adds, "Happily the book begins to recede from the front of my mind, & I begin to be a little surprised if people speak of it (not that anyone has -- but meeting Mde Champcomunal yesterday, I was glad she'd not heard of it)" -- shyness, shyness, and an awareness of something not completely triumphant, of work not finished. "You are wrong if you think you can fill in the vision," says Annie Dillard in The Writing Life.

You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.

Your book is "a golem," she says, "a simulacrum and a replacement" of your original idea. "You try -- you try every time -- to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine among men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it." Dillard tells us that she has written her books in sheds, in hallways, and on islands. "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark." Roald Dahl wrote in a garden shed and Melville wrote Moby-Dick facing into an attic corner. Finding herself tempted outside by a baseball game when she wanted to be writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard drew a picture of the view, fastened shut the blind in the room's one window, and taped the picture to the blind. "I drew the cows, for they were made interestingly; they hung in catenary curves from their skeletons, like two-man tents."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

laden with an infinitely shabby portmanteau

Abandoning the machine in Arizona with its rush and mush we've moved to Las Vegas, "The Meadows," where I open the windows and the sounds of machinery outside, cars and planes, irregular rumbles or hisses, take their chances with the songs of birds in the tree exterior. (One branch ends only a few feet from the glass. It's almost knocking. In storms I will try not to remember Poltergeist, the scared boy in the bedroom, rain, lightning, the tree outside gone mad and beating its branches through the wall, water thrashing in, the stuffed clown disappearing from the wooden chair -- arms around the throat -- screaming boy -- etc.)

I went to the library and found Virginia Woolf, who had also gone to the library. "We went on to the London Library; & as we walked down the steep street someone came ambling and crouching up to us -- Bob. T. -- laden with an infinitely shabby portmanteau -- full of books, I think" -- and my mind goes to Coleridge, coming into the Wordsworths' cottage with "a sack full of Books, Etc., and a branch of mountain ash." There are many homeless people in Vegas, ambling and crouching, and M. has spoken to one named Charles, who wears a crown and a macramé owl, and says that poor folk don't like him, but lawyers do; also, young men today are ignoble; he divides the world, and could hold a conversation about it with Ruskin. "All grief that convulses the features is ignoble," says Ruskin to Charles, who points out that the imitation Roman statues at Ceasars are serene. "The sorrow of mortified vanity or avarice is simply disgusting," adds the Englishman, and walks up and down the Strip, turning down the offer of a free margarita, a six-foot lobster, and a coupon to see the Mac King Magic Show at Harrah's. "The use and value of passion is not as a subject of contemplation in itself, but as it breaks up the fountains of the great deep of the human mind," he declares to the men who hand out illustrations of naked women on those little cards that are slightly smaller and thinner than the cards in a playing deck. A carload of frat boys from California go by screaming, "Vay-gaas! Aow!" at the casinos and palm trees, but this is a normal event and everybody ignores them.

The Barking Dog Man and his shopping cart seem to have disappeared. We used to see him here years ago, but now no sign.

Coleridge enters from Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals. "He had been attacked by a cow."