Saturday, October 8, 2011

Saturday commute xliii: A cab at the door

That night I heard the sound of the disco. The rave music. It was booming down from the Pavilion, a huge nightclub that stands above the beach. I passed a group of young people who were dancing on the esplanade. One of the boys had two neon sticks in his hands and was making fast coloured patterns against the dark water behind him .. "Look, he said. "It's thingmi - the priest."

Passing between them I noticed they were all sweating. Those without shaved heads had wet hair despite the cold night. Lisa emerged from a blue, peeling shelter. "Father," she said, "don't tell my dad you saw me. I'm supposed to be doing a sleepover at Julie's. You won't tell, sure you won't?" She had no notion of how powerless I had become since our friendship began, and listening to her, examining her worried face, I saw the depth of my Ayrshire folly. Lisa hadn't a clue. It had come too late to me as a piece of understanding; young people like her have no time for the weighing of priorities. I was facing some sort of ruin and Lisa faced being grounded and it all meant the same to her ..

"I can't speak to you, Lisa," I said.
"Whiddye mean?"
"I have to go. Please take care of yourself." 
"I've been sticking up for you," she said.
"I'm sure you have."
"You're my friend," she said. "We had some right good laughs. That time we went over tae the island."

I tried to stare past her and see my way to the road.
"Julie!" she said. "He's trying tae dizzy me. He willnae even talk. What have I ever done tae him?" She was shouting now and blubbing at the same time, as if the day's great occasion for hysteria had finally presented itself. I wanted to protect her but I didn't know how.
"Leave her alane," said the other girl.
"I can't speak to either of you," I said.
"Fucken homosexual," said Julie.

Like a person in a soap opera, Lisa grabbed her friend's cigarette and took two quick puffs. "I cannae handle this," she said. I moved around them and began striding across the grass to the main road, and then Lisa came around and pushed me in the chest. "You're just the same as everybody else," she said. "It was me that was yer friend. Nobody else gave a fuck about you. She looked at her chum. "Go and get McNuggets," she said. 

"Lisa. Please. Don't detain me here. I can't be seen talking to you. It's not my choice."

"It is your choice! The good times we had before the summer. You said you'd take me tae London. The drives we went on. The wedding. The nights out with me and McNuggets. What about London? You said. Now everything's fucken spoiled because of you and him."

Lisa grabbed me by the arm. "Whit is this new jack-shit attitude you're coming up with?" She plucked at her blouse and pointed her finger in my face. "Know what this is?" She nodded down at her blouse.

"Versace," she said. It was painful to listen to her, more painful than I would have expected.

"I'm sorry, Lisa. About everything."

"You're a fucken disappointment," she said. "And you know what? I'm finished with you."

The squall of young people receded further behind me on the grass .. I don't know how long I walked and how many useless thoughts disappeared into the shadows among the old kirks and causeways, but eventually I came to be standing in a lane next to an all-night kebab shop. The smell was of sweltering onions, and I slowly caught my breath, the dark of the lane beneficent. I tried to think of something clean, something fresh, and my mouth flooded with the taste of oranges, the ones, perhaps, that once glowed on the trees of Rome like orbs of infinite plenty. My heart beat quickly and I waited a while, fusing with the thought of these other places. Then I set off ..


Andrew O'Hagan
Be Near Me
Faber & Faber, Ltd., 2006©
Harcourt, 2006©


Friday, October 7, 2011

Captain that we are

  my classmates

The profound silence returned, and when I looked over my shoulder Ransome - the intelli-gent, serene Ransome - had vanished from my side. The intense loneliness of the sea acted like poison on my brain .. But in the end I went below, thinking I would be alone with the greatness of my trouble for a little while ..

The unfailing Ransome lighted the binnacle lamps and glided, all shadowy, up to me. "Will you go down and try to eat something, sir?" he suggested. His low voice startled me. I had been standing looking out over the rail, saying nothing, feeling nothing, not even the weariness of my limbs, overcome by the evil spell. 
His equable voice sounded mournful somehow .. He waited a bit, and then added: "It's the first time that it looks as if we were to have some rain." I noticed then the broad shadow of the horizon extinguishing the low stars completely, while those over-head, when I looked up, seemed to shine down on us through a veil of smoke.

Conrad wrote a little novel of testing. I ran into it again because I'm fortunate to have good readers, and to have grown up with such people. We grew up, with someone near us wishing to know someone near him, who knew that story; and now, when I can do what I want, it is what I want.

That is Bassani's story. Conrad, through language, placed the ship's mate on or above the level of his master. What is the effect of this genteel subversion, compounded as it is by candidest intimacy? The same as Melville's - to portray the instability of rôles at sea. Captain-cy is fungible with such tested mates. 

Joseph Conrad
The Shadow-Line
op. cit.

Giorgio Bassani
Behind the Door
op. cit.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


               Thick-skinned pomegranates, your rinds
               forced open by a rashness of seeds, you've led
               me to envisage the highest foreheads
               bursting with all that comes to mind.

               Should all these suns you suffer,
               O pomegranates with gaping sides,
               leave you so swollen with pride
               as to break down your ruby buffers,

               should the wizened gold of your skin
               give way to pressure from within
               and explode in red juice-gems,

               that light-shedding fracture
               might bring a soul such as I had to dream
               of its own hidden architecture.

Paul Muldoon
Moy Sand and Gravel
  Paul Valéry: Pomegranates
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002©

i  Rodrigo Calazans
ii Benjamin Eidem

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Annals of incongruity i

Pressed, Auguste,
the designer as-
serted, worldliness
knows no borders of
its habitat.

                      Worldliness, then, 
                      must not be very well
                      acquainted with life,

Ferrara, 1930: coming of age by not coming out

The offshore wind 
would begin 
to wrinkle the water 
in an hour, no sooner. 
If I wanted, there was 
enough time.

But, at that same moment when, looking at that wretched, naked back - suddenly pure, unreachable in its loneliness - I was giving in to these thoughts, something must already have been telling me that while he, Luciano Pulga, was surely able to look it in the face, the whole truth, I wasn't.

Slow to understand, incapable of a single action or a single word, locked to my cowardice and my rancor, I remained the same little, helpless assassin as always.

And as for the door behind which, once again, I was hiding (from him, Luciano, and from my mother as well), I would not find in myself, now or ever, the strength and the courage to fling it open.

I note that we have some brilliant readers, who are interested in "coming of age" stories, and I should imagine that they might even include parents. The subject is not a strong suit of this blog, but there's no blinking its undying power. We make exception, of course, for those who come of age without apparent contemplation of what they are doing; but they, too, are not a strong suit of this blog. What instigates this digression, is that I'm particularly indebted to The Diary of a Wandering Eye for raising the matter in connection with a film treatment of Forster's Maurice, whose publication was not even intended.

It's my unironic feeling that the fiction of Giorgio Bassani ranks with the cinema of his subtle translator, Vittorio de Sica, in likening resistances to coming out of the closet to those in the Jewish community of Ferrara, 1933-1943, to coming out of Italy. It is Bassani's genius to show how a suspension in aesthetics (not always reflecting an obsession with class) can be definitively common to both predicaments; and I have never heard of anybody who was not moved by de Sica's depiction of that debilitation.

In that light, possibly "coming of age" has been a strong suit of this blog since before it was intended. If this is the case, it can only be that coming of age and coming out are plainly not the same thing, even if they mark the same thing: an adjustment that's assimilated before it's embraced. This blog happens to wear illustrations connoting the one condition, for texts which address the other, because while anyone can read Melville, he's more interesting to read in his own lan-guage.


Giorgio Bassani
Behind the Door
William Weaver, translation

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ferrara, 1930

But I was so vain, obviously, that even religion was transformed, for me, into a source of family pride.

Giorgio Bassani
Behind the Door
Einaudi, 1964©
William Weaver, translation
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972©

Sean O'Pry, GQ Russia, 10/11

Monday, October 3, 2011

In the siege of Paris by the French, in 1871, a boy wrote this

    Tout le jour il suait d'obéissance; très
    Intelligent: pourtant des tics noirs, quelques traits,
    Semblaient prouver en lui d'âcres hypocrisies.
    Dans l'ombre des couloirs aux tentures moisies,
    En passant il tirait la langue, les deux poings
    À l'aine, et dans ses yeux fermés voyait des points.
    Une porte s'ouvrait sur le soir: à la lampe
    On le voyait, là-haut, qui râlait sur la rampe,
    Sous un golfe du jour pendant du toit. L'été
    Surtout, vaincu, stupide, il était entêté
    À se renfermer dans la fraîcheur des latrines:
    Il pensait là, tranquille, et livrant ses narines.
    Quant, lavé des odeurs du jour, le jardinet
    Derrière la maison, en hiver, s'illunait,
    Gisant au pied d'un mur, enterré dans la marne
    Et pour des visions écrasant son oeil darne,
    Il écoutait grouiller les galeux espaliers.

The survival of this poem, as Graham Robb makes plain in the biography with which I've finally caught up, is close to miraculous. The newspaper to which it would have been given, was bombed out. The boy lived in a dysfunctional domestic oasis surrounded by the untidy desolations of the Prussian firestorm, only to witness from outside the City the ensuing siege of Paris by the French and their slaughter of the Communards who'd won his rebellious heart. He was 17 years of age at the time, and it is not surprising that the biographer, summing up the convulsive if lurid brilliance of this poem, should cite it as an insider's view of puberty. But elsewhere he makes a sounder point: Beaudelaire's poetry had appeared under the smug, economically buoyant Second Empire. Rimbaud's .. would have to compete with a holocaust.

For all of the extravagances that such an agenda suggests, and for all of the extremes into which we know Arthur Rimbaud later pitched himself for the sake of it, adding 'cultural competition' to adolescent morbidity goes nowhere close to penetrating the artist's genius for the agitating paradox within the lyrical suspension, which is so vivid in this poem. I would suggest that what would set Rimbaud apart, was substantially consolidated in this wartime artifact. The poem portrays, as Robb would later note almost by chance, Rimbaud had always associated genius with bad smells and sly fermentations. But this may equally have made him a competent vigneron of Pinot Noir. The Poets of Seven Years has to be placed in its time; it is absorbed in one combat after another, in which he takes part by delectation.

I selected this extract - half of the second verse of a multi-verse poem - for non-readers of French to "sound out" the extreme euphony Rimbaud extracts from unexpected emotional turns upon disagreeable perceptions, which may be discovered in the translation linked above. Without denying the fact of scandalousness in his time, what survives are Rimbaud's musicality and his will to embody it through language. The most improbable juxtapositions are sequenced, often rhymed, as a sustained pastorale, so that the supervening response to this litany of splintered ghastliness is astonishment with a resilient harmony. This poetry is not audacious. It is brave.

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud
Selected Poems and Letters
  Les Poètes de sept ans
Jeremy Harding and
  John Sturrock, translation
op. cit.

Graham Robb
Norton, 2000©

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The shadow line of publishing

“Boogey,” I said quietly, glancing back from a corner of my eye. “You are a boogey boy.”

“I am a boogey boy,” he said back to me, head erect and calmly alert, through big, black eyes. Although we had not resorted to this particular honorific, before, he volleyed it back to me with a soundlessness implying both no objection, and that game geniality one expects of an English dog.

Such is a typical exchange between Whit and myself, as I might be wandering in an out of his visual range, between the study, the bedroom, the library and the kitchen - all linked, doorlessly in this simple farm building, filling a mug or toggling on the wi-fi, adjusting lamps and win-dows in expectation of the dawn. We will have gone out already, Whit at ease on a bed he has arranged for himself to survey these comings and goings, or doze - as he might like - a few feet from my desk. Forgetfully, I will usually have left the side porch light on, but he is accustomed to enjoying its illumination of the oak through his window overhead. Whit is nothing if not a creature of comforting quadrants.

“Boogey,” is nothing we can say, in particular. One’s language with a dog is often inflected with terms which emerge as sounds of an impression or a feeling, which is sort of what language must always have been, until it was necessary to link it to a negotiated antecedent. But an English dog, being the polyglot seer of feeling that he is, is enormously fluent in those organic neologisms which might be flung at him respect-fully, essentially acknowledging his presence. In short, he is a boogey boy, ratifying that he is here. We are unanimous in that and (what is much more typical of our discourse), we are spontaneous and harmless about it. 

Such are the circumstances which count for so much of the most in one’s life, that I keep this dossier more or less as Conrad’s young hero does in The Shadow Line, about an untried young man thrust into command of a sailing ship, who goes about his jottings more or less to keep in shape. The ship is becalmed and afflicted by malaria, a device for rural Virginia if ever there were one. But he knows he has actual, neo-grown-up things to do: get the ship into port, furnish medicine for his men, possibly indulge a change of linens. 

You might notice, we haven’t cobbled a shoe yet, or left instructions in the proper extraction of Pinot Noir. The skipper's dossier is not expected to outlast him, either. This shows, he says, that it was purely a personal need for intimate relief, and not a call of egotism - except, that the dossier figures within a publication Conrad committed to his London publishers in 1915, and subtitled, A confession. Doubleday got the book in 1922, the year of The Waste Land. The difference is, Conrad wrote his memoir late and gave it, as anyone might, his "undying regard." The web is too porous for such things. This is enough to make it decorative, but it does not strike me, as a very boogey boy. We shall see.

v  William Gedney photography
    Duke University Archives