The reader’s share; the reading shared

Readers-share

‘I hope you will bring some books along’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Frani Blough in 1936, adding: ‘The books I really like to read best are always those I take away from someone else who is halfway through them. . . ’[1]

We manage to avoid that problem here for the most part: priority, though occasionally resented, is generally accepted once the bid is in. Still, I remember offering half a dozen reminders over several months before Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was grudgingly disinterred from the Librarian’s work locker (one of them: there seemed to be several). Since then, our tastes haven’t converged too much. Last month, reading Penguin translations of Georges Simenon downstairs—and Hugh Kenner upstairs—I was safe enough from territorial encroachment. More recently, when I’d happened upon the fact that reading a novel on the one hand and, say, a book of modern classic travel on the other stimulates the appetite for both, I could feel reasonably secure, since the Librarian had read my downstairs book, Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, years ago, and was some distance further back in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy than my upstairs book, The Mirror & the Light. Now Eric Newby has perfectly happily shared reading space with Kamila Shamsie in peaceful co-existence, the Librarian having already read both of these.

Day 142—is it?—of lockdown. I realise some people are not locked down at all; in fact, if you have 50,000 close friends, you can all go to the beach together. But I don’t know that many people and though I’d like to go to the beach. . . not like that.

And, picking our way through the shambles of the government’s scattergun responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, we find, of course, that risk assessments are to be undertaken, in all practical senses, by us. My personal risk assessment is that some of my fellow-citizens have done no risk assessments at all, so interactions remain on the cautious side: my elder daughter a couple of times so far; and the Librarian’s parents, also a couple of times. We shall take a trip soon, though – somewhere, definitely, probably, more than likely – once the Librarian’s mastery of the hairdressing arts is complete.

Next: possibly another Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor, to go with Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses and Ali Smith’s Summer (if I can prise that away) or—not a novel but worth breaking the sequence for—Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, once that arrives, should I get to the door first.
Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 44.

A plague on all your books – or some of them

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Tenth Plague of Egypt

(J. M. W. Turner, Tenth Plague of Egypt: Tate Britain)

I’ve seen several reading lists of pandemic- or virus-related books lately, some of the titles familiar to me, if not already sitting in the pile on the nearby chest of drawers: Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Boccaccio’s Decameron, a couple of books by John Christopher, Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, written in the 1930s—she herself, hospitalised with Spanish flu in the 1918-19 pandemic, had almost died—and, of course, Camus’ The Plague. They’re ready and waiting just in case I want to read all about it – again.

I haven’t done so yet. I know a lot of people have found it hard to concentrate on reading in the current circumstances. I don’t have that exact problem but I am reading pretty erratically, dipping into things, sampling anthologies, drifting onto other things, attention or stamina flagging too quickly. And, in the course of that grazing, I’ve stumbled over a striking number of instances of plague or reminders of things I’ve come across before.

I did remember that the Black Death ‘came in a ship through the Dorset port of Melcombe Regis’, on 24 June 1348—which seems remarkably precise[1]—and I’d recently come across Llewellyn Powys’ remark, in ‘A Montacute Field’, that my current home, Bristol, ‘was in the fourteenth century the second city of England, and, with the exception perhaps of Norwich, it became more plague-stricken than any other town of the realm.’[2] I also knew that Michel de Montaigne, who began a four-year term as Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581, ‘escaped the plague, which killed nearly half the inhabitants of the city.’[3]

Montaigne

Then, a couple of weeks ago, turning the pages of a history of Tudor England, I found: ‘In 1485 a new and terrifying epidemic had swept through England, and only England. This was the sweating sickness; sudor Anglicus, the “English sweat”.’[4]

The sixteenth century’s sufferings are generally better-known, probably because of Mr Shakespeare in the later part of it. Not that the earlier part was all gas and gingerbread. ‘The years 1527 and 1528’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘were the wettest anyone could remember, with sodden spring fields jeopardizing crops and breeding illness. The sweating sickness arrived in the summers, apparently unleashed by the warmth; it reached epidemic proportions in 1528, inflicting hellish microclimates on its victims in their final hours.’[5]

‘If not technically endemic,’ Susan Brigden notes, ‘plague was recurrent in Tudor England’.[6] Certainly, in Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, Hamnet, plague is tragically central to the family of a literary man working in the London playhouses while they remain in Stratford-on-Avon. ‘For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.’[7]  They did. They do.

But I’ve also been dipping into an anthology of English ghost stories – and here was Arthur Gray, in ‘The True History of Anthony Ffryar’: ‘The summer of 1551 was a sad time in Cambridge. It was marked by a more than usually fatal outbreak of the epidemic called “the sweat”, when, as Fuller says, “patients ended or mended in twenty-four hours.”’ A little further on and Edith Wharton’s ‘Mr Jones’ has a plaque appended to a sarcophagus in a country chapel, ‘“Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828.”’[8]

One more: R. H. Mottram’s Geoffrey Skene who, arriving at Dunkirk, ‘enquired for Uncle. It took him all the afternoon. By accident he heard that he was in that Canadian hospital on the dunes where hundreds lay, stricken by influenza, while they waited for the boat to take them home.’[9]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

If the virus is everywhere in the world now, viruses have been just about everywhere in literature too, an element in a great many people’s history and in many writers’ real and imagined nightmares. As the current English government eases the lockdown—very prematurely, in many people’s view—I notice this in Samuel Pepys’ diary: ‘Then comes Mr Caesar, my boy’s lute-master, whom I have not seen since the plague before, but he hath been in Westminster all this while very well – and tells me how, in the heighth of it, how bold people there were to go in sport to one another’s burials. And in spite to well people, would breathe in the faces (out of their windows) of well people going by.’[10] Something unpleasantly familiar there.

So end with Flannery O’Connor, writing to Elizabeth Bishop, 1 June 1958.’We went to Europe and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life.’[11]

You may be on to something there, Ms O’Connor.

 
Notes

[1] Michael Wood, In Search of England (London: Viking, 1999), 239.

[2] A Baker’s Dozen, with an introduction by John Cowper Powys and decorations by Gertrude Mary Powys (1941; London: Village Press, 1974), 86.

[3] Stuart Hampshire, introduction to Montaigne’s The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, translated by Donald Frame (New York: Everyman, 2003), xvi.

[4] Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 26.

[5] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 90.

[6] Brigden, New Worlds, 298.

[7] Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (London: Tinder Press, 2020), 166.

[8] The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 278, 355.

[9] R. H. Mottram, The Spanish Farm Trilogy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927), 547.

[10] Samuel Pepys, entry for 12 February 1666, in The Shorter Pepys, edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 582-583.

[11] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1073.

 

Locked down – and down

Organic-Forms-2

(Walter Poole, Organic Forms 2: private collection)

The combination of lockdown and a crocked back contrives to make whole weeks drain away before you can get a grip on them. My trouble has an eye on the calendar and nips in smartly in case I think it’s waiting for the anniversary of the last bout. So I’ve been spending a good deal of time on the floor lately, wondering why the painkillers seem not to be killing the pain and the various gels are proving themselves laughably ineffective. Perhaps ‘laughably’ is not the word I want.

Every so often, a passing Librarian puts the cat’s dish down in the kitchen, picks up the mail from the mat, ties my shoelaces for me. What if you don’t have a passing Librarian to offer such assistance? Wear slip-ons, I suppose. I’m thankful at least that there’s no visual record of me putting on a pair of socks. I try five or six positions, none of them elegant, because I can never remember which one finally worked last time. The soundtrack too is distressing.

So the floor, yes, on a folded duvet cover which, unfortunately, the cat has taken a liking to. There have been one or two undignified run-ins. At this level, anyway, I can see—and reach— Modern Women’s Stories, an anthology edited by Patricia Craig; Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914, edited by Anna Greutzer Robins; and the Handheld Press edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: ‘“Surely she has grown smaller,” thought the baker. “Or do my eyes deceive me?” Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.’[1] Further off, there’s a shockingly miscellaneous pile that I can just about ignore; and closer, the state of the carpet, which I can’t ignore for much longer.

Cats-and-Elfins

It’s a few days now since I attempted the early morning walk. We moved at very different speeds. At one stage, the Librarian paused to photograph something—chalk drawings on the path, a squirrel, an abandoned child’s jacket caught in a bush—until she was a good hundred and fifty metres behind. She ran past me, murmuring ‘Dutch study! Dutch study!’ to which I could offer no adequate response.

So the latest misjudgement in our government’s catalogue of misjudgements has made no difference to me: locked down physically at present as well as by choice. There was already visible evidence of other choices in the park at the weekend: the sort of people who never take their rubbish home with them had been out in force, so bottles, ‘Disposable Barbecue’ packaging, cans, balls of greasy paper and cardboard scraps were scattered everywhere across the grass.

‘Odd’, Edward Dahlberg remarked, ‘one cannot hold onto pleasure but pain stays with you until it has given up its last breath.’[2]

Thanks, Ed.

 
Notes

[1] ‘Bread for the Castle’, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies (Bath: Handheld Press, 2020), 188.

[2] Edward Dahlberg, The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 176.

 

Visits from The Strange

Allan, Andrew, 1863-1942; Thistledown

(Andrew Allan, Thistledown: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)

Yesterday, two goldfinches in a tree beside the uphill path through the park. Gulls, pigeons, starlings, sparrows and blackbirds also, singing in a purer air among the hawthorn. ‘Dutch study’, the Librarian murmured once as a cyclist moved along a parallel path, referring to the joint Belgian-Dutch research project which concluded ‘that for walking the distance of people moving in the same direction in 1 line should be at least 4–5 meters, for running and slow biking it should be 10 meters and for hard biking at least 20 meters. Also, when passing someone it is advised to already be in different lane at a considerable distance e.g. 20 meters for biking.’
https://medium.com/@jurgenthoelen/belgian-dutch-study-why-in-times-of-covid-19-you-can-not-walk-run-bike-close-to-each-other-a5df19c77d08

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; The Beguiling of Merlin

(Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin: photo credit, Lady Lever Art Gallery)

My current social distance is 25 metres, to be on the safe side. Beyond the early morning walk, age and circumstances mean that the only contribution I can realistically make is to stay at home, out of the health professionals’ way, and take no chances. With a small back garden and the wider expanse of the park nearby, I have the luxury of making such choices. Many don’t, as is clearer every day, the fault lines of social and economic inequality—the gaping holes that ten years of austerity, cuts and closures and underfunding, have left in the social structure—painfully apparent. The blunders made by the government in the early stages of its response to the crisis are also increasingly clear.
https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/04/eleven-days-may-have-tragically-cost-uk-fight-against-coronavirus

Today: steady rain. But a parcel arrives, sensibly placed on the doorstep by the postman, who knocks and retreats. My order has arrived from the excellent Handheld Press, started a few years back by the writer and academic Kate MacDonald. Beautifully designed books, superbly packaged and received in two working days from my placing the order: post free too.
https://www.handheldpress.co.uk/

Handheld-titles

And we go on. ‘Nothing, perhaps, is strange’, Rose Macaulay wrote, ‘once you have accepted life itself, the great strange business which includes all lesser strangenesses.’[1] Jonathan Williams was more proactive: ‘I love to visit The Strange like some people love to visit The Country, as I say over and over again.’[2]

Now The Strange has ferociously visited all of us, is mutating into many forms, some of them mimicking the ordinary, habits of strangeness bedding down, the same people in the park at six in the morning, that couple, that runner with her dog, the spaniel man, the man who picks up rubbish as he tours the perimeter. Some days, some moments, are stranger than others. Every so often, taking what have now become the habitual precautions, washing your hands yet again, wiping down door handles, quarantining envelopes, packages, food wrapped in plastic, you catch your own eye in the mirror and ask what the hell you’re doing and what you’ve become.

Probably more disturbing is the widespread evidence that a great many people not only expect things to ‘go back to how they were before’ but believe that to be a desirable outcome. Are we so lacking in ambition? Are those tens of thousands of lost lives, including many medical and other frontline staff, not worth more than that? Might it not be an opportunity to begin repairing and rebuilding the country? Or do we simply not have any contemporary politicians with the necessary qualities?

‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell’, Hamlet says, ‘and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ (Hamlet, II, ii).

Hacker, Arthur, 1858-1919; Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944), as 'Hamlet'

(Arthur Hacker, Sir John Martin-Harvey as ‘Hamlet’: Museum of London)

Infinite space is itself a dream just lately – and yes, I’ve been having a few bad ones myself, probably in the company of at least twenty or thirty million other people in this country and who knows how many more worldwide. Tens of millions of bad dreams, not so much nightmares as creeping unease, unsettling encroachments, an impermeable sense of threat, figures in doorways, dark cars waiting where they really shouldn’t be. ‘There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable’, Sigmund Freud wrote, ‘a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.’[3] At least one, yes. And all those dreams must add up to a lot of negative energy. Or is the arithmetic quite different? Does it account in part for the immense weariness that seems to be affecting so many people now, even the ones working from home? Or is that down to their online meetings, ten times as tiring as those old face-to-face ones?

Goya-Los-caprichos.jpgDuendecitos-

(Francisco de Goya, Los caprichos: Duendecitos)

After a visit to an injured colleague, feeling unsettled, Inspector Maigret ‘did not go home, although he lived only 500 metres from there, in Boulevard Richard Lenoir. He began walking, because he needed to walk, needed to feel the indifferent crowd brush against him.’[4]

Yes, that is familiar, less so recently but for years, the desire to be one of a crowd, any crowd, the mass, the many, included, immersed, incorporated and invisible. Less keen these days, unsurprisingly, on crowds and certainly on being brushed against by anyone that I can’t personally vouch for, currently one woman and one cat.

 
Notes

[1] Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (1926; New York, Carroll & Graf, 1986), 30.

[2] Jonathan Williams, ‘“Who Knows the Fate of His Bones?”’, in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 189.

[3] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by James Strachey, edited by Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976)  186, fn2.

[4] Georges Simenon, A Man’s Head (1931; translated by David Coward, London: Penguin Books, 2014), 51.

Tales of reconstruction

FMF-No-Enemy Kipling-Traffics

The latest Times Literary Supplement (3 January 2020) has a feature in which various writers select a book currently unavailable that they believe warrants reissuing: ‘Some nominations for out-of-print books that deserve to be rediscovered and republished’. Some interesting choices, a few of them enlightening, one or two slightly puzzling in the way they’re presented. Some, though not all, comment briefly on the recent publication history of their selected title. Internet searches have made tracking down secondhand copies a much less strenuous affair, while an increasing number of books now are available, or at least can be ordered, in rather disgusting print on demand versions, the older ones often simply scanned in, so with texts ranging from unreliable to unreadable.

Several books I’d not heard of at all—which was presumably the point, or one of them—and some are triumphantly on the money. Ruth Scurr, for one, with her highlighting of the wonderful Alethea Hayter; and Elizabeth Lowry chooses Kipling’s Traffics and Discoveries, which is a fine collection: she quite rightly mentions ‘They’ and ‘Mrs Bathurst’ and I assumed that they at least would be included in the intriguingly titled Collected Stories from Everyman. The second one is but, bafflingly, while ‘A Sahib’s War’ and ‘“Wireless”’ are, ‘They’ is not. The Everyman is a handsome volume but even 900 pages is not enough to gather up all the best, or a wholly representative range, of Kipling’s stories, as several editors have no doubt discovered.

Still, the main points of interest for this reader were, firstly, the title of the piece: ‘Tales of reconstruction’; and secondly, the book whose subtitle provides the TLS heading: Ford Madox Ford’s No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction. It’s chosen by the estimable Alexandra Harris: it was published, as she says, in 1929, and mostly written ten years earlier.

It’s of particular interest because, firstly, that’s where the name of this blog comes from; secondly, because while some of the contributors mention recent reprints, Harris doesn’t add anything to that ‘1929’. There was, though, a 1984 Ecco Press edition, a straight reprint of the original Macaulay edition; then the first UK edition, which I edited for Carcanet Press in 2002. It went out of print a few years back and Carcanet haven’t reprinted it but, after a couple of years when secondhand copies advertised on the ABE website were offered at ridiculous prices, there are several copies currently available for quite reasonable sums.

The Carcanet volume didn’t attract much attention when it appeared, less than I’d expected for the first British edition of a book by a major British writer, after a gap of more than seventy years. A short but invaluable notice from Alan Judd, eminent novelist and biographer of Ford; and a very brief review in the Guardian by someone who seemed to have read the first dozen pages and left it at that. For Alexandra Harris, it is ‘one of the most arrestingly original books I know about the experience of landscape.’ She adds that Ford ‘finds a language of numbness and revelation that anticipates Woolf’s “moments of being”; he works through layers and collages that we might now associate more readily with Sebald.’

That’s well said: though I may be biased, having mentioned Sebald in my 2002 introduction. A very interesting feature anyway: and a few titles I’ll certainly look out for. Perhaps not the Ford though: I seem to have several copies already.

 

The sneezer as hero – is it ok?

Greek-chorus

(The Bacchai at the National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton via The Guardian)

The back page ‘N.B.’ column in last week’s Times Literary Supplement (2 August 2019) discussed, not without irony, the question of what is ‘ok’ to read in these days of widespread outrage, citing the recent report that a Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London had refused to teach in the lecture theatre named after Francis Galton, whose name is ‘linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies’. Galton was indeed a pioneer in eugenics and psychometrics. He also developed a method of classifying fingerprints, initiated scientific meteorology, devised the first weather map and invented a means of testing differential hearing ability. He died in 1911. The First International Eugenics Congress, held in London the following year, was dedicated to Galton. Attendees included the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Chief Justice, the ambassadors of France, Greece and Norway, and Winston Churchill who, two years earlier, had written to the Prime Minister: ‘I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race.’

Is it ok, J. C. goes on to ask, to read Vladimir Nabokov (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape has said that he wouldn’t publish Lolita now)? Or T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, William Faulkner? Burroughs, Chester Himes, Mailer, Miller? Mention is made of a recent (very good) TLS piece by Claire Lowdon, which concluded that yes, it is okay to read Updike and, ‘in the course of the article, also cast forgiving glances in the direction of Bellow, Roth and other big male beasts.’ Then how about Maupassant, Flaubert, Kipling, Camus? Céline could certainly have been added, probably Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis too. ‘Perhaps it’s safer not to read at all’, J. C. concludes, ‘which is what lots of people are doing anyway.’

I know there are some complex questions about commemoration, statuary, flags, the names of buildings, the placement of pictures and poems. Our local example is the Colston Hall, named (but not for much longer) after the philanthropist and member of parliament – who was also a slave trader. But pulling down statues, changing names, I’ve always been uneasy with, preferring less ignorance to more. If it’s really news that human beings do both good and bad things and that people in earlier historical periods seem, from our perspective, to have done more bad things than good, then add plaques and placards, pile on the contextual information, enlighten, educate.

When it comes to policing reading – then no, I have a more definite line and it’s not a complex question. I’ve had my share of people rolling their eyes at my reading Ezra Pound. ‘How can you–?’ Well, I’d think, with a good deal of effort and concentration, reference works and, frankly, cribs of various kinds. But that may not be what they meant.

It’s okay for me to read absolutely anything and anyone I want to since, being an adult, I can make up my own mind about such matters. I don’t read modern literature for political pointers or an ethical framework or tips on manners. And, alas, perhaps a hangover from younger days, any suggestion that it might not be ‘ok’ to read certain authors sends me straight back to them, most recently Philip Roth, whom I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition. Whenever I don’t read Roth for a while, I forget how funny he is. Today, I enjoyed again The Anatomy Lesson’s Dr Kotler, formerly of Newark, now living in retirement in New York, detailing his current activities to Nathan Zuckerman in the bank queue, beginning with his study of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, ‘a foot at a time’:

Anatomy-Lesson-DrNicolaesTulp

(Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: Mauritshuis, The Hague)

‘Also studying Holy Scriptures. Delving into all the translations. Amazing what’s in there. Yet the writing I don’t like. The Jews in the Bible were always involved in highly dramatic moments, but they never learned to write good drama. Not like the Greeks, in my estimation. The Greeks heard a sneeze and they took off. The sneezer becomes the hero, the one who reported the sneeze becomes the messenger, the ones who overheard the sneeze, they became the chorus. Lots of pity, lots of terror, lots of cliff-hanging and suspense. You don’t get that with the Jews in the Bible. There it’s all round-the-clock negotiation with God.’

The ones who overheard the sneeze becoming the chorus. Yes, a pretty neat summary of Greek drama, I thought.

Perhaps one more: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’

In a world of perplexed and infuriated people, imaginative writing may not be the only culprit, of course.

 

 

Ending up or ending down

Crows

Do the crows know something that we don’t? Maybe –­ or perhaps we all know the same damned thing.

‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose.’—Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell, 31 December 1975.

Almost there – and yet there’s no great feeling of relief as there often has been in the past when we’re finally shot of a dreadful year. It’s as if, when Philippides arrived at the assembly with news of the Battle of Marathon, he wasn’t even given time to collapse and die but told: ‘Sorry, mate, didn’t we tell you? You have to turn round and run all the way back again now.’

As for the next one, there’s little likelihood of it being any better, a strong chance of it being measurably worse, given the levels of mendacity and cowardice among our leading politicians. I suspect that the recent case of the lucrative ferry contract given to a company that has never run a ferry service and has, in fact, no ships is accurately representative of the levels of intelligence and competence among the governmental ranks.
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/30/no-deal-brexit-ferry-company-owns-no-ships-and-has-never-run-ferry-service

I was reading about Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson, finally translated – by Damion Searls – in its entirety, two volumes totalling 2000 pages.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/30/uwe-johnson-anniversaries-review

The only book by Johnson that I’ve read, forty years ago, is An Absence, which was a novella, short enough, I think, to appear in the small, pocket-sized Cape editions. Anniversaries sounds fascinating but I’ve not yet finished navigating my current two-volume, 2000-page opus, Questioning Minds, Edward Burns’ superb edition of the Kenner-Davenport letters, let alone two or three other colossi, longer-term tenants, combining to crowd Johnson out of my particular landscape.

HighlandSteer copy

(Highland Steer by Walter G. Poole)

I seem to be constitutionally opposed to the whole idea of New Year resolutions – if it’s really worth doing or changing, you’ll probably do it or change it anyway – but I do entertain reading intentions, probably because I just like making booklists. More poetry for sure, now that I have the books up on shelves and can actually see what we have. The Patrick White and Penelope Fitzgerald re-reads were such a blast that I’ll have a couple more next year: Henry Green definitely; Eudora Welty and Olivia Manning are certainly in the frame; and, of course, I have some Ford Madox Fords to revisit. Then too, some history—a more widespread ability to distinguish history from myth might have saved us all some pain—and particularly local history, this city. Read, walk, ask, listen.

2019’s pleasures, positives and signs of intelligent life will, I think, be firmly located in private, personal spaces. But – always – there just might turn out to be cracks in the wall. O optimist!

No one’s reading

Routledge-Companion small  Melmoth

I saw a recent Guardian interview with Robin Robertson, the poet whose The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and also won the Goldsmiths prize. Asked, ‘What was the last great book you read?’, he replied: ‘There are so few great books. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to mention one of my authors [Robertson works for the publisher Jonathan Cape], but Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is extraordinary. I love Patrick White, but no one reads him these days. He’s very politically incorrect.’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/08/poet-robin-robertson-interview-the-long-take
I too thought Warlight was tremendously good but it was a little odd to see that comment on Patrick White in a year when I read or reread eighteen of White’s books plus a 600-page biography of him. ‘No one reads him’ – I must then be no one, ου τις, ou tis, the name Odysseus gave himself in the Cyclops’ cave, so that Polyphemus, when his neighbours asked why he cried out, answered, ‘No one is hurting me!’ The ghost of Patrick White can now exclaim: ‘No one is reading me!’

I’ve browsed or skipped briskly through at least half a dozen selections of ‘Books of the Year’ already. Geared almost exclusively towards new books—some not even published yet—such lists always used to look utterly unlike my own because I’d often read nothing at all published that year. In 2018 I did actually read titles published in 2018, about a dozen of them. Some have dropped out of my head already, others seem in no particular hurry to leave. But to summarise a whole year’s travelling through books? ‘There is no end to what I have to say’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in December 1989, ‘but then you would have to read it.’

SignsForLostChildren

So apart from White – and my other major re-read, the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald – and a few of the usual suspects that cropped up in many lists, I’d pick out Melissa Harrison, whose novel All Among the Barley, as well as her short book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, greatly impressed me, and Sarah Moss, whose The Tidal Zone I read last year but whose other books, six of them, I’ve read in the last few months, all novels apart from Names for the Sea, which is about her family’s year in Iceland. She writes beautifully, accurately and inventively about place, about human relations, particularly about young women confronted by prejudices, constraints and barriers, in this and earlier ages, being an expert and seasoned traveller in both time and space. Ghost Wall is the latest novel, a short, concentrated and powerful book. The others, all accomplished and hard to choose between, are Bodies of Light, Cold Earth, Night Waking and, perhaps a personal favourite by a narrow margin, Signs for Lost Children. Then, after the notable sureness and confidence of Sarah Perry’s first two books—After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent—I am being impressed all over again by her Melmoth. I’m also halfway through the big new Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford—but it’s hardly surprising that I should be.

 

Hugging the alphabetical

Shelves Shelves.2

‘No person with an avocational or professional interest in books seems immune to the joys of developing his or her own classification scheme. Paul Banks reports that on a recent trip to New Orleans, he visited a bookshop which shelved Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History in the Mythology section; while in the section on Skilled Arts and Crafts could be found a book entitled Sex After Sixty. Patricia Flavin was once in a bookshop which shelved a copy of The Voyages of Magellan under Yachting. And Robert Nikirk reminds me that, in touring Dr. Martin Bodmer’s great library in Geneva in the early 1970s, members of the Grolier Club discovered copies of Alice in Wonderland and Das Kapital shelved in close juxtaposition. These books were grouped together, Dr. Bodmer explained, “because they are both fantasies.”’—Terry Belanger, Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2003), 12-13.

The Librarian’s father is a dab hand at building bookshelves; the Librarian herself a dab hand at painting them. A fervent admirer of those who build and paint them, I’m also well-practised at arranging books on shelves, once they’re ready to receive them. As to their order, radically, they hug the alphabetical in a loving embrace.

 

Fizz – or beer?

Moet

There’s a bottle of fizz in the fridge and discussions are ongoing about whether there’s any justification for opening it this evening. There are, after all, three bottles of beer sharing those chilled quarters. Pros and – what cons? Item: two successful trips to the Household Waste Recycling Centre yesterday to clear the pavement outside our house – and avoid possible reputational damage among the neighbours – of the stuff left after the recent installation of a new gas stove. Item: the Librarian finished painting the new shelves on Thursday and last night they were dry enough for me to spend two or three carefree hours filling them up. Are we there yet? Taken together, this seems a solid basis but maybe something more is needed to clinch it.

‘Hang ideas! They are tramps, vagabonds, knocking at the back-door of your mind’, Conrad wrote in Lord Jim. But wait – this encouraging noise was at the front door. The postman hands me a package. I scrabble at sticky tape and cardboard. Yes! Should I declare an interest? I’m tremendously interested.

Routledge-Companion small

The Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford is, as they say, ‘an invaluable resource for students and scholars in Ford Studies, in modernism, and in the literary world that Ford helped shape in the early years of the twentieth century.’ Is it expensive? Lord, yes. Still, more than two dozen contributors cover the entire range of Ford’s work, both fictional and non-fictional, and the relevant contextual and critical areas, including reception history, life-writing, literary histories, gender and comedy. And it has, after all, been coming for quite some time.

Fizz, then.