Monday, May 27, 2019

The souls of the damned falling upwards

A year — actually, much more than that — passing. Do I read? Yes, but not always fiction. Why is it, when reading fiction, that I am so prone to that overly quick reaction to a certain kind of writerly tone — my gullet shutting off in a rippling action that goes all the way up to my mouth, practically to a choke? It’s peculiar, because I don’t seem to have the same viscerally-based problem with the sort of writing that doesn’t call itself fiction — which just stays on the bench, as it were, where it belongs (or so I think). But what is it, specifically, that I’m so fearful of letting into me — of letting past that hyper-alert epiglottal response to what might only be a messily roiling pit below? I can’t answer any of this just yet. All I can do now is to describe a book that manages not only to get past that annoyingly over-responsive guard in my neck, but — more importantly — also manages to quicken a wonderful liveliness in me: Ian Alexander’s long awaited second short novel, Saving the Fire, which is — or at least used to be — so difficult to find through the usual google title and author search function that I will put the link to its Amazon page once more, in a prominent place, at the end of this paragraph, here.

I’ll start with the end of the first section of the book, where we read how the narrator-protagonist, James, after the collapse of his albeit surprising marriage, sits in a newly rented room in a share house in Denison Street (which is somewhere — I can tell you now — downhill from the crooked ridge-line of King Street Newtown in Sydney):

trying to make sense of things, scratching out pale little sentences on the backs of flyers from cafe pinboards advertising gigs and garage sales that had already drifted off into the past. Pale, scratchy little sentences that failed to get to thing itself. Nothing ever seemed to happen in those sentences; there was no feeling of movement, of starting somewhere and setting off for somewhere different.

If I’d read this collection of sentences out of context, I am fairly sure I would have taken it for what it looks like at a hasty reading: as the kind of assessment of supposedly good writing that has always made me despair of ever being interested enough in fiction to spend any time with it at all. I might have understood the “somewhere different” to be the sort of wholesome-sounding thematic-emotional location that I have tended to resist getting to for much of my life. Ian Alexander’s novel as a whole, however, unsettles this easy reading, because if the “thing itself”, for James, is so noticeable for not being got to, we soon come to wonder whether it is really for a want of any ordinary understanding of that “feeling of movement”, the sense that somewhere new has been reached, or that the place — as he tells us — the field of the book — has been shifted for us by the integrity and knowing-how-to-get-to-things agency of other sorts of sentences.

Soon after this section, we are offered what the narrator calls “careful little scabs of bitterly lyrical prose, as if the wounds themselves — and the falls and blows that had caused them — could somehow be divined and pacified through words” (the criticised specimen of this not-itself thing, if you like):

I found some clothes one night near the pool in Victoria Park: two canvas bags with new shirts and trousers, underwear, socks, pyjamas, handkerchiefs, an unused toothbrush and a hand towel. One of the bags had a boy’s name written on it in a large, neat hand, and I had a vision of a teenager just moved to the city to start his first job, being robbed by some streetwise city kids who laugh at his daggy work clothes as they go through his bags then dump them. Playing at being a streetwise city kid, I took the toothbrush and the towel, because they would be useful. I took the tube of toothpaste too, but for some reason I changed my mind and threw it back towards the bags. It landed on the path and skidded, and I felt like going back to put it gently where it belonged, but I was too lazy and Sandra was cold, wanting to go. Later, the vision came back, and I wondered who this boy was, this someone’s son, this someone’s brother: where he was staying, whether he had any friends who would comfort him, how he would face the people at his new job. I was sad that I had stolen from him and treated his toothpaste with contempt, for it is an unsettling thing to be young and far from home, sleeping in spare rooms in strange houses among unfamiliar people, and I hoped there was someone who would hug him and respect his tears.

And so, here we read of an extraordinary and even stupid tenderness, on the part of “Jamie” — as Sandra, the one-day-to-be-ex-wife calls him — for the unknown owner of a stolen and discarded bag, a patient attentiveness to the smallest physical detail, an uneven but new unfurling interest in an existence beyond his or Sandra’s claustrophobic own, and then the sudden break, as Jamie’s confessed laziness and his vulnerability to an imperious but emotionally blank Sandra drops a hundred metre hole through the sequence of what he is doing; when we have a sense that the whole of the exchange and the reflection afterwards might be functioning as a displaced gesture of tenderness for the self that Jamie is unable to take care of. But then the narrator-James immediately reflects in the paragraph that follows it:

When Jean Cocteau – who died on the day I was born – was asked what single item he would save if his house were burning down, he reportedly said J’emporterais le feu. That’s what I was doing: I was trying to save the fire.

And so: it is here with a jolt that we might see that the supposedly scabby writing is actually working for us in a fascinating way — when we might start to realise that we are going to need to be reading this novel in another way entirely. Because it soon seems that if we accept that the thing-itself — the heart of any good piece of writing — is something that we can only get to when the writer adheres to the most obviously accepted method of getting anywhere at all — that is, “of starting somewhere and setting off for somewhere different” — we will find ourselves no longer facing forwards on the bus we thought we had just got onto but, rather, hanging underneath it and watching the exhaust. When we begin to suspect that what we are reading is not a Bildungsroman at all, but instead, some sort of collection of the force that is attempting to stop such a thing from being written in the first place. Which means that, while the thing-itself is not, as we just understood from the supposed commentary, that earlier bit of writing, neither is it what the narrator is ostensibly wanting us to expect to be reading in its place. Rather it is something closer to an attempt to account for the saving of a fire that not only consumes the “scabs” of the narrator’s earlier writings but also flips right around and burns to a charred nothingness the knowing assessment of his supposedly older and wiser writerly self. If this is so, we might come to understand that it is not the journey, or even getting to anywhere else at all — anywhere different in a conventional sense — that brings the writing alive in this remarkable novel, but instead the entire commitment of the piece to what the protagonist intuits in his earlier quoted piece: when the narrator is following his own futile and destructive acts — noting his own laziness, along with the dull, mute force of that someone else who is both essential — even vital to him — and yet also “cold”, radically removed, a resounding blank. In other words, the movement is actually the shift itself — the liveliness of the unsettling, the turning, the looking again; the text, somehow, astonishing now, since uneasy and alive. And so we learn that, along with the eruptive fleshiness of a body that both frightens and confuses the narrator, and an astonishingly facility with producing the aptest words possible for almost any material interests other than his own — for Sandra’s French major essay on the topic of Barthes and quests, for instance, which she only has to translate word for word to gain a High Distinction for it in her university course — or for the germ of an idea that becomes that astoundingly defeatist suggestion of the two of them leaving behind everything they own by the side of the road in Tasmania — that along with all this facility and verbal brilliance, Jamie is most compellingly his own self when he is trying to make sense of how difficult it is to be present as himself at all.

In fact, here in this novel, at it might seem to us, we have a figure that we later learn to be called James Dent — whose surname, if we had known it earlier, might have lulled us into believing him little more capable of keeping any sort of perspective on the immensity of his calamity than the fusty, hapless, dressing-gowned hero of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — this oddly wrong-footed being who, as he tries to make sense of how on earth he ever got himself entangled in, and obsessed with making right, his marriage to Sandra, avows in a very Proustian moment that “one of the greatest ironies of those early months of our marriage was not that Sandra seemed relatively uninterested in sex, but that I had never really found her sexually attractive in the first place”.

But if he is not quite Arthur Dent’s brother, or even Swann’s, he might be Job’s. Like Ian Alexander’s earlier novel, Second Son, Saving the Fire takes something of its sureness from the meticulous husbanding of the rubble-ruins of the old and new testaments. The centrepiece is a perfectly paced reworking of the story of Job (James), in which Satan comes off rather less disturbingly mischievous than his maker, and the text as a whole stands out as a honed triptych, whose three subtitles — The Book of Poverty, The Book of Chastity and The Book of Obedience — give a solid wood backing to the often luridly medieval tortures that James depicts himself submitting to.

Indeed, like James as he attempts to describe, later, to Terri, the most exhilarating artwork he can think of — the saxophone in the second half of the Laughing Clowns’ “Eternally Yours” — I have come to see that it might well be the clustering of the damned at the bottom of his artwork that, in loading down the most exhilarating of its imagery — the leaping of flames, the wheeling headiness of Jamie’s flights — makes the work as a whole all the more miraculous:

After words have said all that words seem able to say, after the dialogue of music has pushed rational discussion as far as it can go, the sax breaks away and starts to soar, not like an angel or an eagle, but humanly, awkwardly, struggling to maintain itself in flight, pushing out beyond what had seemed to be its limits, towards something that could easily be pure freedom or pure isolation or pure exhaustion – a total breaking away from communion, from society – and yet throughout this staggering flight the dialogue continues, the other instruments maintain their gravity, maintain their empathy, waiting until that reedy, metallic voice is finally spent and flutters back down to rest. I wanted to try and explain to her that, if there were actually some way for redemption to exist, it would have to sound like that: like a hope held in common, like a tentative balance between liberty and embrace, like the souls of the damned falling upwards into that blue in the Sistine Chapel.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Desire corresponds to the condition of water

I finished Maureen O'Shaughnessy's The Truth about A faster than I thought I would, reading through her bright red-bound collection of poems as I would a novel. It took me little more than a day. But all this is only to admit that what -- to anyone else -- would be nothing to boast about at all (the reading through of a book from beginning to end in a single sitting, or even in several sittings), is becoming increasingly rare for me. The more I gain from what I am reading (as it seems), the more I become fearful of losing it -- and this is enough to precipitate a sudden reluctance to finish the reading. Which turns the book into yet another salted pillar that I stack in precarious piles on my side of the bed. Robert Walser might have been describing something like this when he writes about what "little children do with their delicacies, which in their desire to eat they are unable to eat" -- yes, Walser, of that long, institutionalised, writing-less end.

The small euphoria, then, of getting to the last pages of The Truth about A and still, somehow, in possession of something.

(And yet, see the way that my mind intervenes on it all the same: being prompted here to write about how the A of O'Shaughnessy's title -- the Antigone of myth -- had obsessed me for a time when I was a teenager. I still don't know why I had decided to spend days -- week -- months -- preparing a series of drawings at school for a staging (possibly) of the Sophocles play which, of course, never saw any kind of fruition, except that I know that it was intended to be in fulfilment of an assessment task, and that there had even been an obscure but intensely felt meaning in my choice of Antigone for this project -- a meaning that I associate, for some reason, with the shadowy end of the long ceramic room in my high school, and particularly, the section with a huddling of kilns in it and a set of open-backed shelves of crude orange pots that had been dunked in pastel glazes, ready for the fire. Perhaps it was only that I was ambitious for these drawings. I think I was wanting to suggest an immense but unfamiliar world with them -- and one that would swallow me whole. But of course, I also remember how I had soon grown bored and annoyed with what I was doing, because instead of being able to summon something large and strange with the drawings, I had become caught in the supposedly necessary task of shading in the folds of each of the characters' floor length robes with a 2B pencil I was holding, carefully, on its side.)

And so, to celebrate the way that O'Shaughnessy keeps so expertly to the single, gleaming thread she casts into the dark of the paradoxically "over-lit" rooms of Palis in Oyster Bay, Sydney: first pulling Antigone into view, and then taking us through the fluorescent memories of trips to an unlovely office in the city, to the chilled haven of shopping arcades during the fierce heat of summer, when Oedipus, charmed to silliness in the company of his daughter, smiles and smiles at her, "forgetting to hide his teeth". Then the cataclysm of Teresias's text on the evening of the Spring Carnival in 2015, and the brothers' brutal "usurping" in a basement, with a blinded cctv camera failing to record the blood. In a subsequent session with her analyst, we are faced with what might have been the supreme disappointment of a contemporary Antigone: a rich young woman who parries questions about happiness -- whose most bitter complaint against her father is that her life is a "Letdown". And yet, like the plethora of "pets" that surround her in Palis -- the finches, the cats, the dogs -- when "the brightness, the balmy air, gave them an extraordinary summer-afternoon weightiness" -- the strength at the core of Antigone's indolence soon uncoils, "a hole of negativity so vast it becomes a positive space,/ spreading;/it expanded in her body, like smoke unrolling across a bushfire sky".

When Antigone takes Haemon to see the snakes -- those "shadows looping in the dark" -- after the mutual homicides of Polyneices and Eteokles, he is struck by one, called Sylvester Stallone
holding a mouse carcass in its throat,
and the slick blond-brownish twists of its body, and a spook of a
mouth hinged with teeth like a picket fence along its jaw.
Haemon might well have been disturbed by this image of familial menace reduced to the domesticity of a "picket fence", since he tries to goad Antigone into admitting to her complicity in the bloodshed. Her response by now, however, is sharp: "Listen, you're hardly the RSPCA". After Creon arrives "[s]crewing coloured cables into white wall mountings with deadly speed" -- and after Jocasta "falls forward over the ledge into the white window of air" -- Antigone orders her father to pack, and then takes him out onto the wide, open ocean in the family yacht, managing the entirety of their precarious, bitter survival herself. Hence it is that, by the end of the book, even the vulnerability of her "foal-like body" that her father still sees in her is entirely adequate to hauling him -- the most burdensome of the remnants of her family -- as the "hours disappear over the hills and the ocean" -- into something like safety. Because, it is the determination of Antigone that we are left with: her determination to resist anyone else's take on her -- even and especially that of her mother, who preferred Antigone to sing on X-factor, no matter than her own face grew "rigid" whenever she saw the younger woman "getting attention".

Although we had learned earlier from Teresias that Antigone "wants to play every part on her stage in order to find the part that is truly her", in that same poem we are also reminded that "[d]esire corresponds to the condition of water". It flows, as we might say, downwards only. And yet it is here, at the bottoming out of her ironbarked and "duney" forested world at the edge of the ocean, with her father "like a crackpot", her head "full of bleak thoughts", that we discover that Antigone is also inscribing, "in the margins of her postcards to her analyst", how she is now "writing songs". And that "the songs are alive".

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The cowardly temptation of rereading

As it has been well over a year since I last posted here, it's probably not surprising that I feel the weight of it immediately at my neck as I dare, now, to write in this place again. And yet it's not as if I haven't been typing onto my computer screen the whole time -- typing material that fails to end up here. But let's break the imagery into bits: I'm not exactly typing onto this tilted white slab even now, because in the same moment that rigid little banners of words are shifting themselves into parallel rows as I drum on the plastic squares below them, I can also sort-of believe that somebody else, really, is stitching them into place... how easy it is to trick the self out of its fears through this sense that somebody else is furtling around in the glazed box of the internet instead.

Meanwhile, outside that box, I have succumbed to the comfort and (I should admit) cowardly temptation of rereading -- and so have come across what I might have been looking for all along: the section in which the narrator, in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, describes the exact same "torpor" of the mind I have been fighting with -- a torpor that the narrator's acquaintance (can we ever call them friends?) had fallen into when, after years of following minutely obsessive paths, his inner and then outer voice sank into an airlessness and then stopped being able to stir. I've often thought of Sebald as the champion of such voiceless voices: of the kinds of voices that disintegrate into the brown-edged pages of the books that survive him -- and (further) into the grains of the images he sets among the overly spaced out lines of his prose and which look, especially now, so entirely appropriate to my no-longer-so-crisp, early millennial editions of his works that have dust furring their upper edges (which is an only apparently sad predicament for them since, as the character Max Ferber tells the narrator of The Emigrants, a soft enveloping in dust is something utterly desirable for inner things -- and how I would love to believe him!).

And yet what of Sebald himself? What of the writer-narrator, who wraps the outer casing of the telescope -- or, for him, the more furtive periscope -- of his writing around the infinitely receding periscoping of multiple voicings? James R. Martin has reminded us of the other Sebald-writer-narrator -- the one who, in his early academic work on the fatal connection between the bourgeois framing of the assimilation of the Jews during the Enlightenment and the genocide of the Holocaust, used to be criticised for his crudely combative polemic. All of which makes me want to ask: is it this irascible figure's exhausted and, usually, pain-ridden ghost whose cuffs I've been trying to catch onto each time it slides out of the rooms of the later prose works? The narrative persists in pulling us away from this figure (no -- not there -- over here it keeps saying), and yet, in the course of my rereading, I've found myself all the more fascinated by the mostly unnarrated chasm that seems to be propelling this figure around and in past the edges of its subjects. In fact, I have been wondering whether it is just the bakelite-era translucence of the narrator-voice -- its readiness to receive and imprint onwards whatever shadow it receives -- that succeeds in turning the dense not-to-be-spoken-about nothingness of its individual pain into that characteristic but deceptive glow of empathic distraction.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of a strained and outer edge of Turkey

I haven't been to Ani for more than twenty five years now, but when I did go it had only recently been opened to visitors with cameras. A few months earlier, as we had heard from some friends who had gone there before the Berlin Wall came down, you could walk through the grass and the ruins, and even look out very briefly (if you dared) over the river towards the isolated Soviet military towers on the hills beyond. But you couldn't take photographs of anything you saw -- whether of the hills across the river or of the stones in the abandoned city -- because of the likelihood of being shot at by border guards. Of course, I took lots of photographs when I went there -- or at least as many as I thought I could afford to take, given the cost of film to such parsimonious travellers as we were then. And yet even so -- despite the sense that I had, at the time, of the ruins and the river and the hills and the stones being somehow camera virgins -- and hence abundantly fresh to this sort of gaze -- I can see now that this freshness hasn't dissipated -- that there is nothing in terms of freshness that differentiates my much earlier and but otherwise undistinguished photographs from the bleakly beautiful images in Francis Alÿs's 2015 film, The Silence of Ani. The haunted gap that is Ani, and lies between what Ani had been once and might yet still be, seems very much the same.

In Alÿs's film, we learn that probably local, and very much private or privileged -- that is, Özel -- school children -- children with noticeably Turkish-sounding names, like Ayşegül and Gürkhan and Turğçe -- had been invited to participate in a work that attempts to bring some sort of life to the once thriving city that was abandoned after repeated invasions in the eleventh century by Seljuk warriors from the east. Some minutes into the film, the eerie stirring of wind in the tree-less hills is interrupted by the intermittent sounds of what could be the calls of isolated birds, but which turn out to be the curiously hollow notes of whistles, played by those Turkish teenagers, in imitation of the birds that are no longer there. As I continued to watch this film, I couldn't help thinking of some very different teenagers that I had once seen among those ruins -- jumping over the boulders and hiding in the grass, just as the kids in the film were doing -- even though those earlier kids weren't ethnically Turkish -- and hardly Özel -- school-going teenagers -- but rather colourfully, if shabbily dressed, Kurds whose main interest had been cadging a few coins from us or any other foreigner. And, for some reason, this small note of difference between the film and my memories disturbed me. Where were the Kurdish children now? Did they no longer hang around so hopefully in this ghost town? And I began to remember how confusing both the identity and feel of Ani had been even then, at the turn of the last decade of the twentieth century: for instance, how, at the gates of the site, the official signs had described the place as a ruin of a Turkish rather than an Armenian city, as if the clearly church-like buildings that we could see had somehow been built by the Seljuk themselves. And I remembered how this sort of Turkifying signage had been visible here and there throughout the whole of the east of Turkey, at least wherever any remnants of the distinctly reddish-bricked ruins of ancient Armenian buildings could be found nestled among the long grasses of the yayla, or high plateau.

Kars, the city that is closest to the ruins -- and from which most expeditions to Ani begin -- was a city, then, that closed early under curfew. It was a city, too, where my partner and I were categorically refused accommodation together in the Teachers' House because we did not have what was then known as a marriage passport even though we had been legally married for years; a city where, the instant we had stepped out with some new acquaintances from the bus that had brought us there from the garrison town of Van, we were dispersed by the terrifyingly hoarse cries of a man who was chasing another with a foot-long butcher's knife through the crowds. This was a city where my partner and I bargained in a basement with what felt, at the time, to be our scrawny-necked lives and for what might have looked, to anyone else, to be little more than a dull bit of rug that had been woven, merely, from the differing natural tones of wool from the local sheep -- a bargaining event that ended, surprisingly, with a cheer; a city whose taut and muffled ambiance accompanies a memory of being wordlessly dragged away from my partner as we emerged from buying nuts and fruit in a tiny shop -- after the curfew, as we later discovered. This subdued ambiance is what Orhan Pamuk presses carefully -- from the perspective of the exiled Turkish loner, Ka -- into the darkened corners of an evocation, in his novel Kar or Snow, of a strained and outer edge of Turkey; a feeling or state that elsewhere he calls hüzün. In what other way, he seems to be asking in Snow, can anyone possibly even begin to make sense of a place like this if not through a protagonist who, himself, is a little alien, and who continues to stumble around among the many differing claims and contradictions of this part of the world, most of the time confused?

From this perspective, I can see that when these several Özel school-aged Turkish "bird" callers participate in a film about Ani and its lost liveliness -- a film that is leached of any distinguishing colours -- leached, therefore, of any problematic colours -- they stand in, in fact, for so much more than a few once-citified birds.

Friday, January 22, 2016

This might be how writing fulfils itself

I first came across Stephen Mitchelmore's blog This Space on one of those long, anxious evenings, when the only thing that was going to settle me was to read something new about one of my favourite writers. This was also around the time when I had become tired of being the only one I knew who liked the books that I liked. As soon as I tried to explain to my good friends that a particular book didn't interest me at all, no matter that it was 'profoundly moving' or 'fascinating', it would always seem, in contrast to what they had just said, that I was also admitting to my own pathetic diminution as a person, and I started to think that the little corner of my room where I stacked my favourite books (which were mostly written by dead people -- even I could see that) was a kind of morbid, crusted-over lair.

And yet this same corner was where I sat and wrote -- and where I still sit and write -- since it takes time to begin to know, to describe and hence to know a bit better, why it might be that some of us are wary of all these too easily proffered signs of affective or 'solid' meaning in novels. This realisation is hardly a new phenomenon in the world: after all, hadn't Kafka noted the heartlessness behind the overflowing sentimentality of Dickens (although, yes, Kafka is another of those dead writers...)?

It's become clear to me that any very patient, generous and creatively intelligent attempt to write about any of this, in the way that Stephen Mitchelmore has done in his blog and now in his recently published book This Space of Writing, enlivens the world that we live in so much more brilliantly and immediately than many of these apparently 'moving' or 'hard-hitting' or 'fascinating' novels. But how can that be? Perhaps it's the work of the writing that does it: the very process and experience of writing that demands that we stay attentive -- not only to the words themselves (which are so often at the point of escaping us) but, as with so many inexplicable aspects of our existence (our dreams, impressions, fleeting thoughts), also to exactly how the writing has affected us. Our whole being reacts to it. After all, as Mitchelmore tells us in a piece about V. S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival, for the writer, 'whether positive or negative, the encounter demands a response. He becomes a writer in order to respond'.

As I write this, now, in this same darkened corner of my room on a day of incredible humidity, I have been remembering that, despite my seemingly dismissive exterior, I was no doubt intimidated for quite a long time by the way that truth and authenticity seemed the exclusive preserve of emotionally replete and satisfyingly fact-stuffed fiction. After all, aren't such qualities the essential building material of so many prize-winning novels, as well as the very criticism that awards those prizes in the first place? If this is literature, I would think, what did I know or feel that might allow me to dare to do anything with it? Precious little. For one thing, I knew almost nothing about most facts and objects in the world around me: I didn't know one eucalyptus from another, and for some plants I only knew the embarrassingly racist common name (this was before I had become so dependent on Google). I also had no patience whatsoever for heart-swelling moments of revelation and 'closure', and particularly not for that celebrated third person writerly tone that, as Mitchelmore notes, is so wittily, and often wistfully, masterful -- so infused with knowingness. Simply put: I was bored and irritated, or rather too dully and too slavishly impressed to do much more than doodle at pieces when I sat at my desk. These were the years when I read about salt and Danish snow and the making of glass and knots and photographic plates -- when I swung from wishing I owned the whole of The World Book Encyclopedia, just so I could bone up on the right bits of fascinating details of unadorned 'reality' to stick in my paragraphs, to being caught up in the anxiety of how I could ever hope to participate in what Mitchelmore calls 'the prissy connoisseurship of fine prose in literary fiction' (since I never seemed to feel the expected way of feeling, and had neither patience nor interest in acquainting myself any further with the particularly fine textures of raffia, silk or maiden hair ferns). The end of writing, it so often seemed, was that we might all 'bury ourselves in dentrology', as Mitchemore puts it so astutely. What were we, otherwise, to do?

It has occurred to me that the mostly unquestioned dominance of these two organising principles in so much 'literary fiction' -- the supposed 'reality hunger' and 'prissy connoisseurship' that Mitchelmore describes for us -- are fundamentally wrong-footed misunderstandings of what Susan Sontag, in her brief but important 1966 essay 'Against Interpretation', calls for when she states that in 'place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art'. Art works are art works, she wants to tell us. We can only know them through our senses -- they are above all objects in their own right -- and when we try to get 'behind' them, to decode what they might be 'about', we're missing something fundamentally important about them. But then, as established writing culture might counter: aren't the extensive catalogues of 'unprocessed' reality (the ones that present us with details about shellac glazing, metereological codes, cocaine consumption, ritualised death), as well as the very sensory evocations of beautiful beautiful prose that enact a sensitive appreciation of all the objects in the world about us -- aren't these eminently important foci in works of writing keeping us busy with these objects as objects, the world as the world? Isn't this an erotics of art par excellence?

Peter Brooks had answered her call in his own way, too: he uses a reading of Freud to celebrate, and promote anew, the emotional and sexual pneumatics of teleological plot, of the 'right' ending: Lizzy marries Mr Darcy in the end, not Mr Collins, after all. This, surely, is an erotics of art. Or is it? In her essay, Sontag calls some novels and theatre pieces 'the literary equivalent of program music'. What can she possibly mean? And why is she so keen to draw our attention to form?

Of course, if we really look hard, we should be able to see that, in a novel or a story, we are not actually looking at the shellac, or touching the powdery cocaine: there is writing in between us and these supposedly very tangible objects. Writing is the only object in front of us -- it is the object that has us hankering after Mr Darcy. Without an awareness of the mediating shape or thing of the writing itself -- what she calls 'transparence' -- Sontag seems to be suggesting that no matter that we might feel this close to the astonishing textures of Danish snow or a-bed at Pemberley, we might be no more connected to the shivering strangeness of existence and the work that is made in that existence, than those of us who, last Christmas, succumbed to the exhilarating promise of 'mindful' colouring in. 'The world, our world', she writes, 'is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have'.

As I read through the collection of pieces in This Space of Writing, many of which are, but not confined to, reviews of works by Naipaul, Knausgaard, Josipovici, Munro, Bernhard, Kafka, Ford, Beckett, Lin (since they are also extensive meditations -- long trajectories of thought -- that hold all of these works in their widely crossed netting and transparency), I could see that, above all, Mitchelmore is particularly attuned to the form, the feel and the voice of a piece of writing -- the form/feel of its voice -- and that the sum of all these encounters makes his own writing here as tremulously alive and clear as so many of the works he writes about. After all, as Mitchelmore admits, 'sentences affect my experience of the world'. Instead of fumbling around for the feather and bolt contents in the plastic box of a book, whose clear sides we might all take for granted, Mitchelmore takes the whole box in hand and, like Nabokov, relies on the surer sense of his spine to know what it is he is holding.

It is the book itself, then. Literature. Writing. We learn that 'the only way to go is through literature, by becoming apparently more literary, to provoke perhaps even more anxiety...'. And this is why I am so glad that Mitchelmore has made a book out of these selections from his blog. It perhaps makes no sense that the book is valuable in a way that is different from the blog, if many of the pieces are more or less the same, and the book has so many fewer pieces in it anyway, but it is valuable. The book is its own very particular object. I would also add that the blogosphere itself is productive of anxiety -- and even more, I would say, that the notional idea of 'even more anxiety' that Mitchelmore hints at. In fact, for the last long while, I've been so taken up with several large projects that I have become very aware that the blogs I follow are churning their silent scintillations all around me and yet without me, and my knowing this is the case -- and even knowing that blogs are, essentially, a loose and varied form that carry on with their own momentum, whether we check in with them or not -- doesn't make it one whit easier to click into the space of the net to see what has grown here since last I looked. Hence I am so very glad to have this physical copy of This Space of Writing. It sits where it sits in my room and never gets any larger or looser than it already is. A book is contained -- the parts have been selected from the much larger work of the blog -- and I can enjoy all the complex trajectories and connections and echoes in it for the way they won't escape me -- at least not until the effect of reading moves beyond my capacity to track it.

So: there is, simply, the now. The process of it (the reading and the writing). As Mitchelmore concludes at the end of what might be one of the most luminously spare pieces in his collection: 'Reading, breathing, walking, clearing. This might be how writing fulfils itself'.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

In Lakeland

I'd started Maureen O'Shaughnessy's Lakeland the night after my father died -- when I didn't know what else to do with myself. Even though I rarely read poetry, I'd pulled this slender hybrid novel from the pile by my bed and began reading the poems that open it -- one after another -- the transparent couplings that soon become interleaved with prose -- reading on and on like a madwoman into the flat, black hours of the morning.

I can see now, as I flick back through it, that one of the reasons I kept reading this book that night of all nights was that I was so entirely transfixed by its voice -- the way it seemed to hold the key to all the specific strangeness of the day I'd just experienced: the corpse that had been my father, everything about his ordinary leavings that had been lost irretrievably, not only at the moment of his death, which I'd missed, but in the many years beforehand as he was becoming caught, simultaneously, in anxiety and degenerative illness.

The narrator's own father's dying comes in early -- the way he:

... who left this world astonishingly often,

was coming and going continuously,
like someone opening a door and looking through
and shutting it and opening and looking through.

The father turning up again in small and dazzling places, such as in the garden where the narrator is watering her vegetables; among the "unweeded runnels" she glimpses:

...dots of decay --
grubs, rot, and think how behind any façade
lie the small betrayals: those brownish-purple lines
on your father's poled legs, for instance, his winter hands,
faint crystalline ridges streaking his chest
like an oar on the lake's surface, the thin wing of his collarbone.

In the very opening piece about an arrival in Sydney Harbour in the early sixties, the father is only implicitly present at the side of what turns out to be an even more elusive figure -- the mother Sieglinde -- whose thoughts are already churned, on their insides, with the violent agitation of events from the other side of the world -- events that, in the book, we will soon feel for ourselves:

Once bent winds chiselled the water in bluish spirals
quiet as gloves.
She thought, now I'm going to be held
And the wind stayed with them, blazing on the deck
and blazing, and it didn't go away.

There is so much in this book: a multitude of voices that tell of hanged, frightened boys; boys and men that shoot, maim, cower and rig up hurried, desperate nooses out of inadequate cloth; a woman who betrays and is betrayed; a woman who keeps a book and songs by her side so that she might make sense out of her desire.

And then there is the masterful final section of Lakeland, where the narrator, M, and her mother travel to Poland in a highly practical effort -- among other things, there are the mother's frequent flyer points to use up -- this effort to get closer, as much to Sieglinde's state of mind as to remnants of the complex chain of inter-generational evasions and quests that drove a family from their large house in Walcz during the war, and from the lake where Sieglinde had nearly drowned (she was rescued by her father). In this section, there is a moment when M expects her mother to cry from overwhelming emotion -- from an intense recognition of loss. But instead, Sieglinde turns around from where she has been standing at a window and is "smiling, her cheeks flushed. Her hands were cupped around her face".

M is reading Katherine Mansfield. This helps M to keep the line taut between the two hemispheres of the world as, when in Poland, she remembers her own father's patients in Malvern, a suburb of Melbourne -- all the Ms stitching over the gaps between the fragments. During the whole of the book -- and behind the quiet of M's contented childhood journeys accompanying her father on his medical rounds (to see people whose muted success after the war in Australia might be have been described by her mother as "wonderful taste") there's a great effort to address what cannot be addressed directly: "through the waves of pain and sickness and under the clattering chrome-edged light they're feeling the relief of impersonal tenderness".

Obviously, from the state I was in while I was reading Lakeland I was never not going to notice how the Australian father pads in this quiet, pale way behind the dark extremities of the German family. He was too old, perhaps, to have attempted to look after so many children -- seven ("as many offspring" as "a Bruckner symphony") -- children that he nonetheless loves ("even the way he responded more readily to me than the appeals of 'Dr --'"), as my own father loved. This father steps softly in the long aftermath of the consequences of so many fierce choices and omissions in Sieglinde's land, attending where he can, but also, paradoxically, leaving all of it too soon for there to be an aftermath that includes him; the way he has become estranged already from his family, his wife; lying as he does both among and not among:

... the rest of the papers, photos, tickets, cufflinks...
God there's a lot of stuff in this place.
The beauty of this book. Such a tenderness for objects, landscape -- for a myriad of trees, clods, "marks of habit in brick" -- and the bewildered voices themselves. And yet it is the clear, hollowing honesty of Lakeland that I treasure the most:

...M leant across, took her mother's hand in hers, felt the joy of movement and the pleasure of watching two birds blaze a trail across a blue, blue sky. And then the panic returned.