Thursday, 30 May 2019

The compulsion of disgust

I am better, though still coughing. This morning I intended to resume my routine of meditation, breakfast and writing, but it was not to be. I was wiping the kitchen bench and the top of the cooker, for they were strewn with crumbs.


The crumbs were alive, they moved, they wriggled! Maggots, white squirming maggots!
Another fell onto the surface as I leant over examining them. It arrived from above: I looked up and backed away: more were dangling from the interstice between the light fitting and the ceiling itself,  about to fall. I stood further back, revolted. I didn't want a maggot to fall on me.

P normally sleeps till late but I went to wake him.
I told him he had to come, come and see, which he did.
He stood in front of the cooker in his dressing gown, his hands in his pockets, observing the maggots. After a while he said: "They're falling at a rate of three a minute."

We fetched our nice clean white dustpan and white brush and swept up the maggots, tossing them out of the adjacent window. More kept coming.We called our tall son for help.

He stood on the kitchen ladder and removed the light fitting, while I tutted and fretted below: in a cloud of dust (old insulation foam), among a myriad of blind writhing maggots, the corpse of a rat thudded onto the cooker . The men dealt with it, business like.
As for me, I was not business-like.
                                                                          * * *

It is past midday. We have been cleaning and cleaning. P has taken a long shower. My turn next.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Sick on the sofa

I have been too sick for the last two weeks to do any sensible writing. But today is better. Still on the sofa, but able to sit up and type.

I have been enticed away from Knausgaard and have not finished The End. He mentions writers I have not heard of whom I discover to be giants in their country of origin and I feel obliged to try them out. Have given up on Broch and his Virgil, the language too intemperate for my liking, endless neologisms which irritated in the long run, and the story stalling. I did finish a book by Peter Handke  The Moravian Night: A Story, (translated by Krishna Winston, 2016) which is a meander through parts of Eastern Europe, or rather the story of a man who used to write and is telling his friends, during a night on the river Morava, about his meander. Except that the title is not to be taken literally: yes, there are people on a boat moored on the Morava, during the night. But the tale is of the darkness and the disappearance and the horror and pain that happened there over the last century, if not earlier. This dawns on one gradually. I found  I had to stay with it until the bitter end, though not sure what was so compelling. I have known people from that area, damaged by their experiences, who have committed acts of evil - vengeance or is it retribution?

The book has won many prizes. I shall read more Handke if the opportunity presents itself. I tried to resume reading The End but either too much time had gone by or I am still not well enough: I was unwilling to do the work.

What delights me at the moment is re-reading Colm Toibin's The Master. Whole sentences had stayed in my mind from the first reading, some 12 years ago, and whole scenes too.

Meanwhile, my editor E has looked at my manuscript and critiqued it and inserted commas everywhere. I am not protesting: this is what I want her to do. She does not like my ending, quite rightly, because it reflects a withholding on my part.

I chose to end the story when a character we like is intensely alone and suffering. This is the unadorned lot of the exile and refugee, I thought:  a reader should not be allowed to believe all ends well, because it does not.

Though she did not use those words, E may have recognised my punitive intent. I caved in: I have already written material for the ending,which was not included in the MS because it requires more work. I have been sick now for 2 weeks, so things are at a standstill.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The burble of Virgil's mind

The last volume of The Struggle (by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker, 2018) is titled The End. I am reading it very slowly. It's practically a stand-alone book, even though it's the last in the series. I don't think one needs to have read the previous five volumes to understand this one. 

He roams all over the place. I am reminded of the way Talmudic scholars allow themselves the luxury of tangents: he explores to the right and to the left, wandering off to both sides of the path he is on before going forward, analysing Hitler's Mein Kampf on the one hand and Paul Celan's Death Fugue on the other.

I read at night when I'm tired so I don't read for long and I miss getting a sense of the broader sweep of his writing. I do feel that he writes without restraint, no shyness, no reserve, it is all on the page: I read to celebrate his courage hoping maybe to learn how to do something like that one day, though I do not have his intellect. I shall reread him in due course, I'm already looking forward to it.

In the course of his artful rambling, he mentions Hermann Broch, of whom I had never heard. Our wonderful Central Library - closed two days ago because the building has suddenly been deemed unsafe in an earthquake - our wonderful Central Library had duly produced their old (1946) and battered copy of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil for me, which I am now reading, alternately wanting to throw it across the room and becoming more and more enamoured of the characters. 

Yet another Jew forced to flee Germany. Broch's book was first published in the US in English rather than German, thanks to Eva Starr Untermeyer, a gifted translator who was also a poet. His language is florid, to say the least, his sentences long, one could say that he indulges in perseveration  - same words and terms repeated with slight variations as if they were being examined with care from all possible aspects - and yet.

Almost at random from the middle of p. 54 - the text flowing without a break, without paragraphs, one solid bloc on the paper -

'...the square patch of heaven stretched over the court now permitted the stars to be seen again, their breathing light once more visible though occasionally dimmed by the smoke-clouds trailing beneath them, but even these were permeated by the soft, drizzling tone-mist, sharing in the wandering-weaving misty murmur which impregnated the courtyard and shrouded each single thing, objects, odors and tones blended, mounting towards heaven in the stillness of the night...'

One has to work one's way through this - what does the 'breathing light' of the stars mean, or a 'drizzling tone-mist'mean? Until Virgil's thoughts become more interesting, such as the moment when, deathly tired, he enters the room which has been allocated to him courtesy of Augustus Caesar, and finds everything perfectly suited to his state of mind and his state of ill-health:

'Nothing was lacking, an armchair for contemplation stood near the bay-window and the commode stood in the corner of the room; the luggage was piled up in a way easy to handle, the manuscript-chest was pushed by special order near the bed, everything fitted so neatly, so noiselessly, exactly as an invalid could have desired it, but still this was no  longer the beneficence of Augustus, this was just the smooth planning of an irreproachable, fully equipped, royal household, there was no friendship in it.'
I understood that the extreme sensitivity and great attention to detail which characterise the previous descriptions are entirely Virgil's. (Another reader would probably have realised this sooner.) This one simple sentence: 'there was no friendship in it' stands alone and strong against all the previous burbling. The burbling is the burbling of Virgil's mind, his on-going response  to whatever happens around him, a burbling which, unsurprisingly, is different in quality, more precise, more focussed, more insightful, than that of an ordinary person's mind.

I am hooked. 

I want the opportunity to think about the way Broch writes in comparison with Knausgaard. I am only half-way through The End and find myself now immersed in The Death of Virgil. I shall reread what Knausgaard says about Broch, it may help me understand them both better.


I have been sending my MS to agents in the UK, and not being successful. No one has given any feedback so no idea why.

I am reading Knausgaard's My struggle, which is engrossing. I finished Vol 1  A death in the family quickly and moved onto Vol. 2 A man in love. He writes with a kind of abandon, every detail seems to be noted...The style of Emily Perkins' book The Forrests was similar - an intricately chiselled shell, beautiful but empty - lovely language, nothing to say. Ultimately  boring.

Knausgaard is different, first because he writes about himself, his family and his friends with searing honesty, and secondly because the reader is privy to his thoughts about issues which confront every one of us, love, life, death.