Solitude and Rain-Soaked Walks

‘Who are the good people of the book?’ asks Nabokov in his dissection of Madame Bovary, a question you may well ask of Anita Brookner’s Altered States. Alan’s mother, perhaps, and more convincingly his business partner’s wife, Felicity. Brookner’s polished sentences soften the force of vengeance she brings to bear on her carefully hewn characters. After the autopsy comes the mourning that is this book’s subject.

I am pleased to read that Hermione Lee is currently working on a biography of Anita Brookner.

Small Landmarks

Quote

I now feel that this interval, which I describe to others as a holiday, is peculiarly suited to one of my temperament, which is stolid, and my history, which is not. I accept the solitude, the routines, as old people do, and although not old—fifty-five is not old these days—I being to anticipate a time when small landmarks, such as my mid-morning coffee at the Grand Café de la Place, and my walk to the station to pick up the English papers, will be appreciated, My old age will come as no surprise to me, and something tells me that I might spend it here, in this little town of Vif—a misnomer, for no place could be more somnolent—on the Franco-Swiss border.

—Anita Brookner,  Altered States, p. 8

The True Fool

These Yale editions bring a simple joy. Glad to start the year off with Twelfth Night. I am squarely in the category of those who prefer to read Shakespeare in the book. The roars of laughter that spill over from those in an audience eager to signal that they understand the jokes are as irritating at a Shakespeare performance as they are at Beckett’s plays. As Virginia Woolf writes in her essay on Twelfth Night, there will be little in common between a performance of Malvolio and the fantastic, complex creature we have conjured ourselves.

From the Yale notes we get the following: ‘198 Like aqua-vite with a midwife There is no certain explanation of the phrase. Either midwives used distilled liquor to induce labour, or midwives by tradition drank excessively.’

Life, Life, Life!

We create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry, and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.

When I was at junior school in London, my English teacher lent me a illustrated volume of poems that he had brought back from a trip to the United States. I read the book cover to cover as though it was a single continuous piece of prose. I have no recollection of the title of the book, though its cover is still retained in memory. That it was American gave the book an exotic air that seems risible now, but was common at the time with the emergence of films and comics from that country.

I read that book under the covers by torchlight discovering Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll for the first time. Children read poetry effortlessly and, of course, six or so years after discovering that I loved to read poetry I began writing poems too. Most of those poems have mercifully disappeared with only a single, painfully self-conscious example from my teenage years still surviving.

Virginia Woolf was not a poet, but I can sympatthise with the sentiment quoted above. These last few years I’ve read poetry with the seriousness that attended my childhood reading of Lear and Carroll, though these days I’ll more likely be reading Geoffrey Hill, Friedrike Mayröcker or Anne Carson, rereading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth, or scouring sixteenth and seventeenth century anthologies to chase down Geoffrey Hill references.

I resist the urge to write poems, but I almost feel able and I’m not certain that I’ll be able to hold out indefinitely. In 1945, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson edited an anthology of their favourite poems, including the following piece in the July section:

Let us go, then, exploring
This summer morning
When all are adoring
The plum-blossom and the bee.
And humming and hawing
Let us ask of the starling
What he may think
On the brink
Of the dust-bin whence he picks
Among the sticks
Combings of scullion’s hair.
What’s life, we ask;
Life, Life, Life! cries the bird
As if he had heard

No mention is made in the book of the poem’s origin, but the editors offer a thank you to Mr. Leonard Woolf for permission to include a passage from the works of Virginia Woolf. Although the poem did not appear in print as a poem before 1945, a remarkably similar prose version opens Orlando, published in 1928.

Gasping for Air

Echoes of D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies, ‘Darkness submerges the stones’ in the twlight thick underdusk in apprehension of being submerged under one’s books. Peter Kien also appears, cocooned from others by his library. I’ve never been able to finish that novel, equally beguiled and repulsed. A shared thought that arrived during the first lockdown when I began packing up books, some to go to friends, others to my local secondhand bookshop, my library almost halved in volume over the last two and a half years. Not yet old but ageing, and wishing to carry less weight; my mind more likely to weave itself warmly into a cocoon of its own thoughts than require another’s associations.

Reading A Horse at Night, in which Amina Cain writes, “What is it that happens when a narrative allows us to look at an image longer than we are ‘supposed’ to?” Echoes from the evocation of how and why she reads. The network of lines that link two places on the map interest me less than the landscape around the plotline. Voice, images, sense of place, atmosphere. For me these are the echoes long after the memory of the chain is dissolved. The vigorously evoked image of the young lady pricking her finger with a needle is almost all that remains of Byron’s comic cantos. Mariana appears, possibly that shade of blue on the cover of A Horse at Night, or just because this book chimes so well with my sense of autumn, or Keats’, ‘They could not sit at meals but feel how well / It soothed each other to be the other by’. Amina Cain: ‘It means a different kind of peace when he is here with me. It is not pure solitude, but I am not, it turns out, a purist.’

When Paul Theroux visited Borges in his dark Maipú flat, he noted ‘prints by Piranesi and books, a collection of Everyman classics and shelves of poetry in no particular order, all battered and sprouting paper page markers, with “the look of having been read”‘. Borges’ library though was small, his memory carrying what seemed an infinite memory of books.