Digressive Interior Journeys

It isn’t often that a writer’s voice and concerns register deep enough that I end up scouring second-hand sources for first editions of their work. Jenny Diski becomes the thirty-first writer housed in that hallowed subsection of my library reserved for those I will likely read and reread in their entirety. My old chestnuts, listed here, are an idiosyncratic bunch that will match no other reader’s list of favourite writers, but are each, in different ways, as integral to my central nervous system as my spinal cord. My slowly expanding Jenny Diski collection breaks up the fairly long-term on-shelf relation of Clarice Lispector and Simon Critchley.

I read Diski’s début novel Nothing Natural when it was first published in the late eighties and recall little beyond its potency. Almost thirty years later, it is Diski’s essay on her recent cancer diagnosis that drew me back to her writing with all the force of a rare-earth magnet. This is the first instalment of a memoir to be published in parts in the LRB (which also persuaded me to resubscribe to the LRB).

Disk’s piece encouraged me to buy On Trying to Keep Stilla series of elegantly crafted and very funny essays narrating Diski’s intense desire for inertia-within the confines of writing a travel journal. These are the sort of digressive, meandering essays in which I take great pleasure, no less because of Diski’s even greater commitment to seeking silence and solitude.

Diski’s collection of essays and reviews in A View from the Bed confirms my first sense that I’m reading someone cut from a similar mould in the pursuit of inner space and silence. Glimpsing the world retracted through Diski’s eyes is a vivid and rewarding experience. This is equally clear on reading What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski’s exploration of our relationship with animals, which probes their minds with similar intentions to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (which Diski also explores in her book). She writes with precision and elegance, exploring her chosen subjects with honesty and clarity. My intention is to read the non-fiction and work towards the novels.

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

Hannah Arendt’s Thesis

[Hannah Arendt’s] thesis that Nazism and Communism were of the same stock has been well remembered. However, many forget that she also held the “terrible massacres” and “wild murdering” of European imperialists responsible for the “triumphant introduction of such means of pacification into ordinary, respectable foreign policies,” thereby fathering totalitarianism and its genocides.

‘Exterminate All the Brutes’
Sven Lindqvist

Need Need Need

Below is an extended quotation from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The book is a beautifully written, lovingly researched, fascinating account of why writers drink. It is one of those discursive, genre-busting books that I enjoy so much. Laing succeeds in offering an alternative way of reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cheever. This passage concerns John Berryman, whom I must read sometime soon.I quote without further comment a passage that continues to play on my mind.

A line came into my head then. It was from another Dream Song. What was it? Something about pieces. ‘The pieces sat up and wrote’? Yes.

Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up and wrote.

The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation – for love, for nourishment, for security – with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.

There are the terrors of the infant waiting for the breast, or they are if you read Freud and Melanie Klein; and these are the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world. Hardly any wonder that the Dream Songs are so obsessively interested in the state of being skinless or having one’s pelt ripped off or stripped away. Indeed, Berryman once joshed bleakly to his editor about having them bound ‘blue-black’ in scraps of his own skin.

Desert Enchantment

Sunset in Rub' al Khali (2013)

Sunset in Rub’ al Khali (2013)

 

‘The more light the desert receives, the darker it seems to become,’ writes Eugène Fromentin.

Desert romanticism exists in that kind of paradox. Otherwise one must ask what a romantic is doing in the desert at all. The desert has no leafy groves, fragrant meadows, deep-soughing forests, or anything else which usually evokes in the romantic the right emotions. Desert romanticism already appears incomprehensible at a distance. Up close, it becomes absurd. What is romantic about an endless gravel pit?

This passage is from Sven Lindqvist’s evocative Desert Divers. I wrote recently about an expedition into the Rub’ al Khali, but never thought to question the aesthetic potency of the desert. Capitalised or otherwise, I don’t identify with romanticism, more with a form of enchanted materialism. The desert has the power to enchant me with an affective force that, I believe, helps to ease that hell-hound of depression. The desert offers a temporary suspension of time, a ‘moment of pure presence’.

[Thanks, Michelle, for the recommendation.]

Hourglass Sand of Rub’ al Khali

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

There is but one word in Arabic for sand رمل (raml). The sand in the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter could be defined with greater precision as raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah or hourglass sand. I have spent the last week photographing sand.

There is a secret in every grain of sand. This sand is not an inert substance. It is so rich in nutrients and calcium that anything could grow, despite the high salt content, but growth is limited by the density of the sand and, of course, the availability of water. A metre or so below the surface of this sand-sea is another sea, a thin mantle of salt-water, hence the frequent olive-green blazes of nasi (or desert grass) and calligonum shrub. Fresh water is deeper, making another sea, perhaps ten metres below the sand-sea I walked over.

How many colours does sand wear? I counted fourteen, most commonly the dusky camel-tan of blazing midday, to the glorious reddish-orange colour that indicates the presence of feldspar, but also, less commonly flights of blues, purples, and greens.

Each night I climbed the highest dune to await sunset. As the day ended, the sun’s nebulous glow faded to become a golden glowing wafer that dropped quickly behind the highest dune on the horizon. You appreciate why the sun was one of the main deities in most polytheistic cultures.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

In camp I read Martin Ling’s Muhammad, an account of his life based on the earliest sources. Lings’ magnificent book holds and hides memories of the desert throughout its pages. He writes of the custom of all great families of Arab towns to send their sons into the desert to be suckled and weaned among the Bedouin tribes: so the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation-fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul.

It is impossible not to be humble when standing, sleeping, walking on a surface that, in Pleistocene times, was an ancient sea-bed. It is also impossible not to be drawn into the realm of the ineffable. There is a longing in the desert, for enchantment, for a beginning. Longing as defined by Mahmoud Darwish: longing is not memory, but rather what is selected from memory’s museum. Longing is selective, like an adept gardener. It is the replaying of a memory after its blemishes have been removed.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

Why do I come to Rub’ al Khali? This is my second crossing and I am planning a third, longer trek. Of course I question my reasons for coming here, obsessing that it is misplaced Orientalism, a pursuit of what is exotic and inscrutable. The desert speaks to that longing inside my heart. Rub’ al Khali is contagious, an invitation to what was before. Final word to Wilfred Thesiger: No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will carry within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear

Assembling even a small collection of essays is a performance. A single essay may sparkle with brilliance and wit-particularly dangerous if the first in a collection-but a collection risks being abased by its weakest part. A coherent collection that manages to avoid the danger of redundancy is a rare and thrilling performance.

Reading Duncan Fallowell’s essay collection How to Disappear is to play for high stakes. His earlier To Noto: London to Sicily in a Ford is a touchstone book for me, an exemplar of modern travel literature. Like Geoff Dyer, Fallowell writes idiosyncratic non-fiction where he is as present as the subject of his essays.

There are but five essays in How to Disappear connected thematically by the notion of disappearance, whether by reclusion, death or disregard. Fallowell’s fondness for his subjects is evident in his obsessive research and tender portrayals, in particular of social climber Bapsy Pavry and Alastair Graham, Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited.

How to Disappear equals the charm and discursiveness of Fallowell’s To Noto and is enlivened by its chosen subjects. With the exception of the subject of the final essay-Diana, Princess of Wales-each subject had me googling to learn more about their lives. Besides the final, thankfully short essay, the collection is a performance of sustained pleasure.

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.

Roger Deakin and the Natural History Section

I’ve reread Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, not cover to cover but leafed through and read the chapters that snag my attention. Deakin died five years ago, his literary legacy being three incandescent books normally shelved in the natural history section.

An urbanite by disposition, I’m not instinctively drawn to nature writing, but I became intrigued by Deakin’s Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (1999). Inspired by John Cheever’s sad, little short story The Swimmer, Deakin decided to swim the length of Britain, using whatever lake, river, rock pool, tarn or swimming pool was available. The concept was sufficiently idiosyncratic to persuade me to read the book, and to introduce me to the burgeoning open-air swimming community, greatly enthused by the attention gained from the success of Deakin’s book.

Frankly I’d read Deakin whatever his subject, for the man’s fierce, self-deprecating wit is the magnet. After Waterlog I read Wildwood , a stunning homage to the ‘fifth element’ of wood. Deakin travels through Britain and across Europe, Central Asia and Australia, unpicking our enchantment with woods and with trees. It is a remarkable book, my favourite chapters being those about his house and land in Suffolk.

It is Deakin’s posthumous Notes from Walnut Tree Farm that is his most personal book, and my favourite. Pieced together from his journals of the last six years of his life, it is an attentive and intense collection of observations about nature and conservancy.

Without Deakin’s incitement I’d never have explored the natural history section of my local bookshop. It is a section surprisingly rich in beautifully written, lucid books about nature and the wild. Two discoveries I recommend highly are Kathleen Jamie (with a recently published second book of essays: Sightlines), and Robert Macfarlane (his latest, The Old Ways, due soon).

Paddy Leigh Fermor

With a few hours to spare I indulged one of my favourite pursuits, scouring the shelves of secondhand bookshops for surprises. My targets were Slightly Foxed and Heywood Hill. I stumbled upon 3 first editions: The Woman Who Was God by Francis King, The Haunt by A. L. Barker (both writers advocated by Rebecca West) and a rare Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

A few hours later, to my surprise, I learnt of Leigh Fermor’s death. His travel books are outstanding examples of the genre. We shall see if there is a third volume, long promised, of his legendary walk, as a teenager, from Holland to Constantinople.