Shelter from the Storm

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Wet bougainvillea, fallen trumpet vine, marble floor, Zakynthos, 26 June

While England bakes, Zakynthos bathes…

Storm started yesterday and has been going for more than 24 hours – feel like a character in Wide Sargasso Sea, though can’t actually remember if there is a monsoon-like storm in that book. It’s the heat and tropical greenery that is reminding me of the atmosphere of a novel I’ve not read for 40 years. Maybe also the shutters, which make the house dark.

Yesterday evening the electricity went off for a few hours and our kindly host walked round from his house to check we were ok. Sure, it’s just a storm, I said, ‘No, no, is no storm,’ he assured me. ‘Just a little rain…’ The thunder sounded like Greek Gods throwing mountains in the dark of the night. This morning he brought us that most English of gifts, an umbrella.

Like all people living on small islands, these Zakynthiots understand rough weather. The tiny white church on the rocky promontory on the far side of the bay was built, our host tells us, for sailors to head for when the seas were rough. Did those storm-tossed sailors pray there or find shelter from the storm, or are they the same thing? Light-house, bunk-house, sanctuary.

With rain driving in through the shutters before breakfast, we watched an episode of The Leftovers. That’s a holiday for you! A stunning box-set in bed, with Greek coffee. Stunning, as in hit on forehead with hammer.

Also watched an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel from which the series has grown. Tom co-developed the scripts with  Damon Lindelof  of Lost fame. They make a great team, if the first one and a half series of The Leftovers is anything to go by. I didn’t know about Tom Perrotta before I stumbled across the series by googling ‘best box sets for 2018’, in preparation for my holiday, but I am glad I’ve found him. Comes from the Syracuse school of writing and has been around a long time. In the interview Tom says he hopes people who find the story through the TV series will go on to read the novel.

Say but the word, Tom. After ordering his entire oeuvre online via Amazon, all now waiting for me when I get home, I cooked eggs which I bought up on the hillside yesterday in a tiny everything-sold-here-Super Market.

Giant inflatable pink flamingo pool-floats, anti-mosquito plugs, UHT milk, Buckfast Wine (Bucky! Here! Those monks have something to answer for…) drain plungers, jars of touristic honey, jars of marmite, The Harvard Business Review at nearly E17 a pop and many, many books by Victoria Coren, all in Italian. What more could a holidaying tourist want? Oh, billions of stuffed soft toys in green velour. This shop is one of the world centres for stuffed soft toys in green velour. The other centres are all the other Super Markets in the Vasilikos area of Zakynthos.

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The HBR I could not bring myself to buy in the Super Market

The eggs were of fine quality, and had seemed an anomaly in that Super Market, small and farmyard dirty, they had been collected from the olive grove outside, where some of the olive trees had trunks a couple of metres round. I thought, those olives must have been planted by the Venetians four hundred years ago. Across the way a little from the Super Market, Dopia’s House sold home-cooked food including possibly the best Zucchini Balls civilisation has ever known. These, like the soft toys, were green and roundish and of variable size, but to my mind, a better buy than the velour turtles. (Only later did I read the sign helpfully placed by the Dopia House family. My ‘guess the age of the trees’ was way out).

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But to return to Tom Perrotta and The Leftovers.  My fellow viewer and I watch an episode and turn to stare at each other in the opposite of a high-five, clutching hands, our eyes locked in shared amazement or mock terror. How they can make a box set that is so painful!

And later I ask myself – why am I looking for this stuff, un-answerable questions, in novels and poetry and boxsets? Is this what I read for? And mostly, it is. I want literature (and stories I may find in other media) to help me formulate these questions even if no answers are forthcoming: What are we? Why are we? How are we?

I don’t want escapism. Or if I do, I want to escape the storm by being somewhere where I can see the storm, really know it. I want lighthouse, bunk-house and sanctuary. I want stories, novels, poems, plays, box-sets to give me language and thoughts and lives about this difficult and troubling real life I live. What I am loving about The Leftovers is its unremitting insistence: there are storms and there are moments of calm, there is terror and there is love. And that’s all, folks!

There’s not much writing like this going on anywhere, and I’m happy to find it in any format. When can we watch the next episode?

And when can I have my next installment of Dopia’s Courgette Balls?

Currently reading : 

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean,  The Humourist by Russell Kane

 

 

 

 

Morning Incense…Paradise Lost off-piste

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Welsh Poppies greeting the Sun

These sunny mornings I can’t bear to read and write and am instead out in the garden, watering, propping, pruning and thinking of some lines from Paradise Lost (sorry to jump so far ahead, this is from Book 9

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—for much their work outgrew
The hands’ dispatch of two gardening so wide:
And Eve first to her husband thus began:—
“Adam, well may we labour still to dress
This Garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Someone asked me at the weekend what I would do if I didn’t work at The Reader, and I replied that I would garden, imagining not working  as retirement. If I had to have another job? I’d like a junk-shop or to work in small town general auction house. but if I didn’t  work at all? I’d be gardening.  Mine is a smallish plot –  I mean, compared to people with an acre or so – two gardens, one back, one from, each measuring  – according to my old notes 10 metres wide by 18 long.  You have to go through the house to get from one to the other,  we’re a terrace and there’s no side gate.  No greenhouse (I did have one once but West Kirby’s wild winter winds blew it flat) so everything is bought in or needs to be easily propagated.  I do roses (lovely Albertine, mainly) from cuttings and  any other things you can stick in the ground to sprout roots. I grow perennials, lots of geraniums,  Bowles Mauve wallflowers, poppies… but mainly I grow couch grass.  It is a natural for my sandy soil and I can’t defeat it – the opposite in fact: it often defeats me. Still a garden is agreat teacher, as Gertrude Jekyll said:

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

(I got this quote from the twitter account of a gardener I follow –  Alison Levey (http://www.blackberrygarden.co.uk/).)

I go out in the sunny morning and so exactly what Milton describes:

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—

I breathe, and look and  feel grateful and glad, and work out what needs doing next. It’s all tending to wild, and the couch grass is rampant, and though I can’t love that, and no, not those red lily beetles either,  I do love the assertion of nature, the force and energy of the planet and the plants, even though

the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

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Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.

 

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The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

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Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park

 

If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!

 

Stop Getting Sold Stuff, Start Asking Questions

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I’m still reading The World-Ending Fire, The Essential Wendell Berry.  This morning it was a very short essay, ‘In Defense of Literacy’, written in 1970, when literacy was in a better state than it is now. Even so, the writing, so to speak, was on the wall. It’s more or less over now. We’re losing it. Got a fight on.

Of course, there are noble exceptions. I was also reading George Saunders this morning. Probably the best writer alive in the  English-speaking world, I think I read that somewhere around the time  he was winning the Book prize with Lincoln in the Bardo – ha hard read, not a starting place. You gotta take the language,  the slippery argot, dangerous internal monologues, the manic self-talk, the truths. The swearing. But if you can stand the  rude, the real, the revealing, George is your man. Read his short stories in the collections Civil War Land in Bad Decline,  PastoraliaThe Tenth of December.  Read ‘Sea Oak’.  Read ‘Pastoralia’.

But to return to Wendell Berry. He quotes Edwin Muir’s, ‘The Island’ , a poem I’ve not read but will find later today, and mentions Thoreau and Ezra Pound, writing of them,

These men spoke of a truth that no society can afford to shirk for long: we are dependent, for understanding, and for consolation and hope, upon what we learn of ourselves from songs and stories. This has always been so, and it will not change.

What touched me here was Berry’s imperturbable belief in the necessity of song and story, a necessity which demands survival, ‘this has always been so, and it will not change.’  It is not always easy to see necessity, to spot it, to identify its pressures and demands, though they are there, pressing.  (Read The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing).  I read again. It is our dependency that ‘will not change’ in Berry’s careful sentences.  What happens to us when we don’t have the stuff we depend on? We get sick, we don’t work right.

Berry’s short essay warns that practical language, the quick, slick language of selling you stuff, including books, language ‘to be read once and thrown away’, won’t feed us. There are no nutrients!  For that we need a richer diet, ‘works that have proved worthy of devoted attention’.

This used to be the basis of Eng. Lit courses and one way the guys who ran them justified their selections.  I met a few really heart-wise men in my English degree days and I’m glad of them,  but also (to use the language of Mr Saunders) I found some of those guys were lazy copiers who just did what everyone else did. Some of those people were not brave.  Some could not think. Some did not love literature. Some seemed to have no hearts! For an antidote to all that dead academic Eng Lit stuff  (which unfortunately is still alive and kicking the reality of reading out of class)  you need Joseph Gold’s The Story Species, which I’ve also been rereading lately. He talks about his early life in Eng Lit departments:

I began by asking questions about Literature, this certain form of language, half a century ago. They  fell on ears so deaf that I gave up asking for a couple of decades.

What is story? What role does Literature play in human evolution and in individual lives? What role do transferred words play in the biological and social life of readers? How is the product of reading stored in the body of the reader? What has taken place in the event that you take a novel off the shelf, read it and return it? where does the power of a book lie?

 

Ah, time up, got to go to have a swim, no time to proffread. forgive my pselling mitaskes.