Reading at the kitchen table

June days. The opened back door at breakfast time now my choice as well as the cat’s. The butter in the dish more malleable; the heating never coming on because the temperature doesn’t drop below the thermostat setting. It seems only a short time since the postman emerged from determined rain to deposit a parcel at the front door: beautifully wrapped and containing attractive – ah, books, yes. The whole affair, including the books themselves, such a class act that it could only have been my order from Kate Macdonald’s Handheld Press. Three more then, to be steered firmly past beckoning flat surfaces and upstairs to the front bedroom, where the chest of drawers has three separate piles on top of it: five, ten and twenty-four volumes respectively. Other nearby piles total another thirty-one and there are more on the tops of the bookcases as well as in them. I am losing the battle here, several battles by the look of it, never mind the loft, which the occasional plumber or roofer will survey with odd and slightly strained expressions.

(I once saw a letter quoted from someone who said they never bought a new book unless they’d finished reading all the books they already had. I could see what the words in the letter meant—as defined in a dictionary—but couldn’t make any real sense of them put together in that way.)


The postal delivery coincided with my attempt to clear the kitchen table, finding, among the journals, catalogues, empty envelopes, papers left over from the local and mayoral elections last month, six books, in various stages of being-read: Peter Vansittart’s A Literary Companion to London (I’d been combing through this for any Ford Madox Ford-related details that I’d missed elsewhere); Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water (the sequel to A Time of Gifts); Jim Down’s fine, unsettling Life Support, which the Librarian was reading (I’d read it a couple of months ago); Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia (essays, interviews, letters); Derek Jarman’s Garden (the Librarian again, following up Olivia Laing’s essays); and Deborah Levy’s just-published Real Estate.

Another recent arrival is an expanded—and rather handsome—edition of Greg Gerke’s See What I See: Essays, issued by Zerogram Press of Los Angeles, with a prefatory piece by Steven Moore. There are six new essays, shared among the three sections in proportions commensurate with distribution over the whole volume: three essays in ‘The Writing Life’; two in ‘The Silver Screen’; and one in ‘Real Life’.

Moore’s ‘Foreword’ begins by describing Gerke’s collection as ‘a splendid example of the return of the personal in modern literary criticism’ and ends by terming it ‘a beguiling collection of belletristic essays meant for those of us for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life.’

Both of these judgements are well-observed. The reader does indeed get a sense of a mind and body behind the words: the ‘personal’ could easily be misconstrued in this context given that we often seem to be suffering from little else. Opinions batter us from all directions – many of them unimpeded by any knowledge of, or insight into, the things they pronounce upon. But that’s not the case here (indeed, Gerke has his own opinion of opinions paraded as something else).


See What I See: imperative or interrogative? Or collaborative? We are offered, in the main, enthusiasms: writers and painters and directors whom Gerke has thought about and responded to. Some, clearly, are of long standing, some newly discovered, some returned to, seen afresh in the light of changes, not least in the writer’s—or viewer’s—own life.

Moore’s second observation about those ‘for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life’, nicely points up the classic distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’. Gerke, a New York-based fiction writer as well as essayist, does indeed take this stuff seriously. The subjects of his essays—William Gass, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Geoffrey Hill, William Gaddis, Louise Glück, Henry James, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman—are not lightweights; but Gerke is never po-faced about them. He can be funny, odd, quirky, confiding (I’d say that all these terms can be applied to his short fiction too)—but his focus, for his readers as for himself is, ultimately, pleasure. And it is—for the reader and the viewer—something more thoroughgoing, more engaging of the senses than a quick kiss behind the bike sheds or a caress on the way upstairs: it is, rather, a full-on, grown-up affair.

In ‘On Influence’, he remarks: ‘If one hasn’t read a lot of Shakespeare, why hasn’t one read a lot of Shakespeare? If one doesn’t “get” Henry James, one must ask why one doesn’t “get” Henry James. While licks of love are sweet, little can compare with full immersion.’ Then: ‘And the connection between art and love is not some tenuous, new-age conceit; rather, it is as real as rain. Love takes time because we don’t know what we love until the bloom retires and we are left with a presence not endowed with a glow, but a cast-iron reality.’

I note again, in ‘A Year With Wallace Stevens’: ‘His answers were not easy—they weren’t even answers, but patterns, conquests of thought, of tomfoolery, with music and word motion contained inside swerving ideas both raw and cooked.’ And, in ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, ‘Everyone bellows how life is unfair, but does everyone know life is unfair and beautiful, often at the same time?’

They say—among the things they say—that one test of a writer’s quality is an ability to engage and hold your attention even when they’re discoursing on subjects of which you know little or nothing; and, sometimes, on subjects in which you have no acknowledged interest. Gerke’s knowledge of cinema, his passion for it, outstrips mine within a couple of sentences – but his discussions of Rohmer, Rossellini, Kubrick, Antonioni, are arresting not least because of the intimacy of that knowledge, the closeness of identification between writer and subject— the title of one piece is ‘Does Eric Rohmer Have the All of Me?’ while, in one of the recently added essays, he writes: ‘Yes, I took Antonioni into my life and he affected how I saw the world’, a statement which is immediately anatomised though not retreated from.

Again, some of his chosen writers are not exactly mine but I see one crucial affinity, highlighted in that phrase ‘total immersion’. While I frequently admire single books there’s just no substitute for a corpus—the mot juste—a body (not a limb, not an isolated feature, such eyes! such lips!) with all its imperfections, the failures and near-misses and try-outs that make sense of the triumphs, the personal oddities or traits or weaknesses that go to making the work of interest in the first place. I am not sympathetic to the voices that mutter or shout ‘if only’ – if only Lawrence hadn’t been in love with his mother, if only Pound hadn’t discovered economics or moved to Italy, if only Woolf hadn’t been a snob, if only Yeats hadn’t had those notions of aristocracy and spirit companions, if only James had had a satisfying sex life, if only Emily Dickinson had got out more – my strong conviction being that you would not then have had Lawrence or Pound or Woolf or Yeats or James or Dickinson at all, or rather some version of them rendered so innocuous and uninteresting as to surrender all claim to our attention anyway.

Gerke is certainly drawn to full immersion: ‘A Year with Wallace Stevens’, ‘Going Steady with Gertrude’ (Stein, of course), ‘The Patrick White Experience’, ‘Bergman’s Spell’—which asks, along the way: ‘How is a spiritual life possible in a techno-Gomorrah such as we inhabit?’—and ‘Nearer My Hong Sang-soo to Me’, an essay on the prolific South Korean film director and screenwriter, which ends with the reflection that: ‘As the years go by and Hong’s filmography swells, his biography [ . . . ] lessens. The work stands for the person—the goal for most artists.’

In his introduction, Steven Moore mentions Gerke’s two books of short fiction and also alludes to ‘a lengthy novel in the works’. I shall look out for updates on that news—and go on reading at the (oddly, if temporarily, tidy) kitchen table.

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