Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

a frog this time

November 16, 2010

from Russell Hoban The Mouse and His Child (1967 ), p.35

‘What do you see?’ said Ralphie.
‘A journey,’ said the Frog, having noted the bag carried by the mouse and his child, ‘a long journey.’
‘You’re wrong there,’ said Ralphie. ‘It’s a short one.’
‘One never knows about journeys,’ said Frog. ‘It may seem long.’

as far as I know, Gerhard Richter is still alive and working

November 8, 2010

In Edge of the Orison, Iain Sinclair tells us that “Gerhard Richter kept photographs, potential art works for years . . . under the heading of ‘unfinished business’.”  p.166

 I feel apologetic about mentioning (death) – but I know now that it is my subject.  [Significantly, though, when I was drafting this piece I forgot to write the very word that I am always writing, always thinking.  There was an insertion, which typing doesn’t quite show.]

The students saw through me – they smelt me out, all right.  She’s always talking about death, Alice complained.  (Am I?  I hadn’t noticed.  No more than anyone, surely.  No more than normal.)  But that defence won’t wash.  They saw that this was all there is for me: all that’s real.  How did they sense that this is the one topic that holds firm, that holds in three dimensions, while all the others fade and dissolve away?  The only topic with lively intensity.  They felt it perhaps through that dynamic – a magnetism that draws, and draws on, over and over, powerfully returning always.  

How could Richter have the gall to keep things?  To mature ideas?  What confidence, what effrontery in the face of death and its sudden, arbitrary strike.

How dare we believe that we will live to be old?  How behave as if we are not about to leave?  How can we ever not be dying?


October 31, 2010

The Leamington Bach Choir regularly holds a book ‘bring and buy’ as a fundraiser.  I have just finished another wonderful novel from there: Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill.  It’s marvellously complex and moving, as well as interesting as it follows up a kind of genetic version of the ‘we are all connected’ theme.  I am constantly amazed (and pleased) by the sheer number of good writers who are out there, and whom I just haven’t noticed.  Do you remember how, when you were small, it was truly painful  to realise that you had finished reading all of a favourite author’s work?  And you knew that there were no new ones to be had?  It was hard to believe, then, that any other writer could be as good, and that the world hadn’t died a little, even as you  turned pages faster and faster to find out the ending.  These writers – so many of them, and so good at what they do – show that that fear was baseless.

Another book from the sale, Bel Canto by  Ann Patchett, is brilliant and thoughtful about the nature of being human, but in a different way.  It observes a hostage-taking, and through the gradual passage of time, documents infinitesimal shifts in relationships, which gradually accrete to become larger and larger changes. 

I suppose I chose The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser because of the dog in the title, and because she is an Australian writer – but here again was a stunner of a book.  Themes of anxiety and loss, of patriotism and deracination jostle together with a kind of poignant tenderness, and all exist within wonderfully realised landscapes.

I wonder whether these books were all brought to choir by the same person.  I like to think so.  How to find out who it was? – because her/his taste in books is itself full of insight and subtlety.  I would love to greet them as a fellow reader, and thank them for giving away such lovely books.

poem by Fleur Adcock

August 15, 2010

Robert Harington, 1558

Get you, with your almain rivetts (latest
fad from Germany), and your corselet,
and your two coats of plate! How much harness

does a man need?  None, when he’s in his grave.
Your sons may have it, together with your
damask and satin gowns to show off in;

while you go to lie down in Witham church,
and the most armour I’ve seen in a will
rusts or turns ridiculous in this world.

(published in the TLS 13th August 2010)



and – now that you’re here – a wonderful comment on music by Eric Griffiths, also from that TLS:

“After all, some pieces of music . . . by virtue of what Samuel Beckett called ‘the beautiful convention of the da capo ‘. . . seem to have a point of vantage on time, not because they escape it, but because they undergo it, how resolutely, with what forbearance.”

Reading “Anna Karenina”

August 13, 2010

I’m still ploughing through Anna Karenina, and have just noticed that each of the men is lacking in some key aspect – almost like an analysis of masculinity.  This idea could seem a little reductive – as if they were characters in The Wizard of Oz – but actually it is much more complex, since the beautiful gem-like quality of the novel is that one of the other men gives you a clue about what each lacks.  Furthermore, each discovers the nature of his lack when it is tragically too late to compensate for it.  And one might go on to say that their attempts to make good their lack are utterly in character, and create their own turbulent dynamic within their trajectory. 

Karenin himself, for example, clearly lacks humanity and warmth (and charm) – precisely the qualities that Oblonsky and Vronsky both have.  But Karenin does have gravitas: an intellectual weight, and competence in politics.  At least, that remains so as long as his domestic life stays on an even keel – it depends on him never noticing that he is a destructive husband and father.  Perhaps even more sinisterly, that in turn depends on the total suppression of the effects of his destructive behaviour.  Karenin never notices that he has created his own situation (though Tolstoy makes it clear to us from the very start that his coldness makes Anna vulnerable to meretricious charm.)  The disruption to his world begins early, when he is out-manoeuvred over the ‘subject races’ bill.  It is Karenin’s tragedy that he discovers too late how much his wife (and home life) mean to him – that the emotional qualities they held were a fly-wheel keeping more than just his political life running smoothly.  As with Tolstoy’s train metaphor, the efficient engine can easily become terrifyingly lethal. 

Vronsky, of course, has charm and sensuality, but little depth, and initially little warmth, just a kind of terrifying power.  As the playboy and glamour-soldier he cares about his career only as it allows him to measure himself against his fellow-officers.  All of life is a horse race to him.  To that extent he is as narcissistic as Karenin.  He is also superficial and rather hopeless with money: his all-or-nothing solution to debt is indicative of his extremist optimism.  (Levin has shown us that Europe is irrelevant, and Vronsky’s trajectory into Italy takes him into absolute play, and away from the seriousness that is Russia.  Through this he learns that endless play (and endless domesticity) cannot nourish his deeper (Russian) self.

Oblonsky has so much – charm and sociability – he even has some intellectual weight, though he’s not up to Karenin’s standard. Deep down, Oblonsky shares Karenin’s lack of uxoriousness (or even domesticity), covering that lack with his virtuoso manipulation of social conventions, and his insights into what makes people tick.  (Oblonsky would never make Karenin’s misjudgement of his political opponents.)  Oblonsky appears to be in the novel as the masculine equivalent of his sister Anna – pointing up how profoundly gendered are the social effects of infidelity.  But that’s too simple.  His absence is not so much a moral deficiency, as a failure to imagine what love might be.  A flawed capacity to distinguish the meretricious from the valuable.  Appropriately, his main skill is to keep the surface of life polished and shining: to oil the social machine of the Muscovite social classes, who make nothing and who do nothing of value.  Yet this chorus of socialites defines a world, outside of which (for the Oblonskys and the Karenins, if not for Levin) there is nothingness.  Yet the novel shows clearly that this world is crumbling.  (But that’s a separate discussion.)

Vronsky, too, is part of the crumbling world.  For all that he has some of the old-world socialite triviality, what overwhelms him (and destroys him, really) is an intensity that comes straight out of European modernity – the passion that shatters structures and conventions, that counts the old society as meaningless.

This, I suppose is where Levin comes in.  He is struggling to comprehend this crumbling world and to oversee its passage into the new Russia.  But Levin pays attention to the old forms as well, even though that causes him pain (for example in his pre-marriage confession).  Although he foregoes bear-hunting in order to be married, we feel optimistic that Kitty will let him hunt bear again at some future time, if that’s what he wants. Levin and Kitty, setting out, look as if they can integrate mind, heart, society, family and Russian-ness: that they can do both joy and seriousness. 

But of course, I haven’t finished reading it yet – finding out what happens to this couple seems the most important issue right now, and I can’t wait to get back to it

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