I hope you’ve been keeping up to speed, but we really do have to plunge onwards. In the event of death light the blue touch paper and retire. These particular fireworks are of the slow burn variety and may take many years to reach a satisfying conclusion. Did I say satisfying? There must be a more accurate word lying around in this mess of a toolbox. Raymond, bless his cotton socks, would have loved to be a not so secret fan of creative writing workshops . . . noodle head!! – what do you mean noodle head! Raymond – known to his friends as pasticcino. A name that was likely to have been a pointer to his ever expanding waistline, a past of doughy sweetness. These days, of course, if you happen to catch a glimpse of him flitting through some crepuscular evening, a shadow – perhaps of his former self – though it might be a shadow of somebody else entirely. Can we be sure we remain the same person? Possession can take many forms.
Not many realised but he had done the rounds of the postwar creative writing programmes, becoming an acolyte of the wonderfully named Wilbur Schramm. Though making a promising start and exciting no little interest amongst a number of unknown publishers, he found himself on the morning of his deathday peering at his dull reflection in his tiny but determinedly cream bathroom. A blustery and chilly Thursday halfway though the March of 1953. Spring, you might think, but Raymond was not thinking Spring thoughts.
He had noticed a few more grey hairs that morning, enjoyed a frisson of alarm, checked his yellowing fangs, briefly contemplated disgust and fell back into his habitual resentment of a world that promised so much and delivered so little. Brushing his teeth occurred to him but, really, why bother, with only a ghost-like Giulia flickering at the edge of his mind. The only thing holding me here, he thought, are those neatly stacked (and blank) sheets of paper on his desk. On a sudden impulse he turned the cold tap on full blast and bending low over the tiny basin splashed his face time and time again.
Wake up, wake up, he instructed himself, Giulia’s waiting for you, put on your suit, a clean shirt (if there is one), even a tie. Giulia would appreciate that. He checked his face once more in the mirror – dripping and reddened – why couldn’t he have been given blue eyes, cool and penetrating blue eyes, pale blue, forever seeing into the secrets of power. Not these muddy hesitant smudges, looking away, looking down, looking everywhere but where he was yearning to look. Sweeping his thinning (greying) sandy hair back, a grinning cadaver of a face and ignoring the two day stubble he was alerted to what must be inspiration agitating the flux of his bodily fluids, animating his soul, lighting up his spirit.
He might even be able to write a paragraph or two. If only he could bear to sit at the desk.
Visitors (we don’t get that many)! One thing our readers can be sure about is that our blog is not a work of fiction, and so, when two unexpected visitors turn up, we do have to take notice.
Now it is entirely possible that these two, who go by the name of Raymond and Giulia, blew in on the ether unintentionally, like those disembodied voices that sometimes spontaneously appear on the radio when we are listening (especially along the old analogue ‘long wave band’; will this continue, I ask myself anxiously, when all our radio is digital?). A background whine rises and falls on the radio so that we know the transmission has travelled a long way, and the voices speak to us in such emphatic and earnest tones cutting across whatever else was filling our mind at that moment so that we find ourselves listening in rapt attention to their conversation, despite it often being in a language of which we cannot understand one word, while we also try to construct the studio in which the agents of these voices are sat somewhere at this very moment, or rather the ‘just-past’ (the very recent present) to be more accurate, speaking together far away in a forest clearing under a large radio mast.
However, whatever the context for the arrival of Raymond and Giulia (and we are unlikely ever to know or be told), we cannot help ourselves listening to this intimate conversation between them, here skilfully transposed into what appear to be an exchange of letters, and simply be grateful that the two of them are speaking English and we can understand their words, while we patiently await developments. We cannot ask more of the situation, the communication is one-way, them to us.
Or is it? Can we on occasions also talk back to them? The answer is that we can. Surprised? No! As I said at the outset our blog is not a work of fiction. Take for instance the ‘posthumous conversations’ which Hans Magnus Enzensberger has in the Silences of the Hammersteins (Seagull Books 2008) with several of the dead. Enzensberger includes a long Postscript to the book under the title ‘Why this Book is not a Novel’, and it is with this passport, and in the spirit of the anecdote, that he can drop-in on and question several members of the Hammerstein family and other of the main characters involved with Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930’s (and excerpts of whose written and transcribed documentary evidence is also included in the main text).
Of course it takes practice to do this sort of thing (things like talking to the dead I mean). For a leading poet like Enzensberger, it is possible, but most people don’t develop the right skill for it, certainly not most fiction writers, nearly all of whom are lost in their ‘creative writing’ noodle heads. There are certain things you have to do in advance; much reading of the documentary evidence for a start, and then also developing a reliable method of notetaking (some prefer the historian Keith Thomas approach – see Diary for the London Review of Books 10th June 2010, others prefer the more scientific Zettelkasten system). But most of all it is about waiting. For instance, Enzensberger first heard about General von Hammerstein and his family in the 1950’s when we was young man working for German radio.
So we must learn to wait patiently to see if an opportunity to speak and question Raymond and Giulia will arise. I am encouraged to see how Raymond ends, and perhaps like secret agents (rather than the dead in this instance) they are about to flick the switch from transmit to receive –
I have made a decision: I will wait for the light to change.
I like your sexy black lining – so funereal – and I have to say, gossip columns are really my thing – the news is so tedious don’t you think. The multivalenced meanings slip with ease through the net of my mind. Do you know I never seem to have time to find a needle and cotton and repair it, you know, like the old fishermen on the beach at Viareggio. Words, like shoals of fish, come and go in a sort of darting ejaculation, a spasm, a shiver, perhaps a thrill of discovery. I know exactly what you mean, darling.
Yours ever hungrily
Is it you hiding behind that single letter G? Peeking through with your sexy brown eyes? You never did explain to me why we could not be lovers. And now we’re on opposite sides of the river in a world torn by indifference. I can hardly get out of bed these days. I thought I might be able to slow time but the results of my experiment remain unclear. In fact I suspect that it’s not so much that time has slowed, it’s rather that time has disappeared. Or at least it’s changed out of all recognition to what it used to be. Good old time, like an old friend, tick tock, tick tock – it used to be there to see me through the bad times (ha ha!!). But I can’t quite do without it – so much of our language is time based and it’s all part of our wonderful shared inherited culture. Is time a cultural construct? I do believe I should have insisted on a room with a window.
Yours in what I shall call desperation
Get a grip. My enduring memory of you will be a hands-in-pockets self-pitying wretch. It was for you that the phrase “get a life” was invented. Do you expect me to cross the river and rescue you? There are so many more important things that I have to do. If you need me you better get here pdq. I have it from a reliable source (a lover who also knows how to make money – unlike some I could mention) that one of the bridges is still standing. So take a hike, as the Californians like to say. It’s a fantastic gothic creation, crenellated, myriad towers and cupolas, caryatids and gargoyles. Perfect as a bridge to die from – if you can’t quite make it across.
I always loved you, darling
I almost got out of bed when I was half way through your cruel correspondence. But that was why I loved you – is loved the right word? – no I think the word might be addicted. Heroin would have been a more kindly indulgence. You, as soon as my eyes caught that first sight of you in the bar (the doppio zero, wasn’t it) in Naples, yes, you were the event of my life. How could I recover from that? Inside out, upside down – there was to be no going back. Do you remember I had to learn to speak all over again and it was much harder than the first time. Why isn’t all learning like the first time when we are embraced in the ardent love of mother? I have made a decision: I will wait for the light to change.
From Feuille (fr. Leaf, or sheet), like the brown coloured leaves spread out upon on the road in front of me, which the lens of my camera had looked down upon, almost inadvertently or mischieviously it seemed to me, while I was attempting to photograph the revolutionary encampment on the outskirts of the city of Via Reggio two weeks ago.
Spaziergänge was the original title for Joseph Roth’s feuilleton in the Berliner Börsen-Courier, May 24, 1921, translated as ‘Going for a Walk’ by Michael Hofmann (What I Saw. 2003, Granta Books, P23-27). It was one of his early masterpieces of the feuilleton, and perfectly demonstrates Roth’s method, including the essential characteristics of brevity (word count between 2,000 and 4,000 words), precise location “Unter dem Strich” (under the line) and thereby separated from all other forms of ‘legitimate’ writing by the thick horizontal band of ink printed accross page, and lastly his personal style. “Der Rahmen is der stil, bin ich” (the framework is the style, I am) wrote Roth elsewhere, in a sentence that happens to approximate quite closely to what Saramaga had also written in his own blog (published in The Notebook), In short, I learn as I go along, through the words I speak.
What I saw out bicycling, the encampment, and caught on camera, confronting the revolution that is never quite happening.
A possible politics?
According to Siegfried Kracauer (The Mass Ornament, tr. T Lewin. P 130), ‘It is less essential to go into historical problems than it is to elaborate the spiritual (seelische) situation in which the people at issue here find themselves in’, and he goes on to describe our experience of a kind of dispossession, or exile that is governed by a Horror Vacui (fear of emptiness). He then lists the main classes of attitude we energetically engage in order to fill the thoroughly unpleasant experience of this gap (including of course the political gap of the revolution which is never quite happening) including:
Messianic (Belief and Non-belief) people
Old humanist doctrinalist (fans of the Big Society etc…)
Skeptic as a matter of principle (such a cold and lonely existence!)
The ‘short-circuit people’ are a class perceptively identified by Kracauer as those who survive (and perhaps flourish, some may even achieve sainthood) through the exercise of the will, the ‘will to faith’ as he puts it.
Otherwise… on my travels from one encampment to the next… do I observe any other grouping which so far has been left out from the above list?
‘Perhaps the only remaining attitude is one of waiting’ Kracauer concludes (in his 1920’s essay entitled Those Who Wait)… on my travels upon a mechanical movement tool, or via the technology of translation if you prefer… I am - Der Rahmen (the framework) – upon a bicycle, such as:
Each of us (is) like one of those bicycles put together from old parts,
a rusty chain, racer handlebars, mudguards, an odd wheel.
When people see you their eyes say what a hybrid,
how weird, how cool, how funny,
awesome. They laugh. It may even have a rusty bell
or horn to warn people to get out of the way, look out.
Still it gets you where you are going. The wheels turn.
(Part of Recycling by Greg Delanty, a translation from the poem by Gregory of Corkus in the Greek Anthology, Book XVII [The Poetry Review, Summer 2010. Vol100:2, P 40])
And the camera? It is my Birthday soon. Ideally I would like something like a box brownie, with a between-the-wars German tele-photo lens attachment, and one of those exploding flash bulb devices which American reporters use in the old 'B' movies, along with an ancient and discontinued form of digital uploading software. I am sure you have got the general idea by now. Go to it. Click. Click. Waiting for the light to change.
You quote Saramago, ‘we learn as we go along, through the
words we speak.’ We might learn the words of the Temptations’ My Girl, we might
already know the lyrics and be singing them as we cycle along some quiet back
roads in Viareggio until confronted by the revolution that is never quite
happening – a promise of something else and as such always a betrayal.
We might even learn to speak italiano. But politics is about
managing power, sleight of hand, corruption, shuffling the pieces on the chess
board and smiling at the camera as those judged too feeble to fight back are
mashed once again. What is the nature of learning in this Colosseum of the
oppressed? Piles of bullshit tend to disgust us and I get a sense that there
are any number of people who currently hold this view of TB – the sort of
bacillus for which antibiotics are completely ineffective – and he’s made
enormous piles of dosh!! To add insult to injury. And to cap it all, did he
learn nothing? This must be what we call bitter disappointment.
Every now and again we are impressed by the bizarre and
contingent nature of this divine comedy. On Friday a week ago, I was due to
have lunch with a friend during which we would chat over the events of our
lives and whatever political shenanigans had come to our attention as well as
share the poems we had written since we last met. At about one o’clock I got a
phone call from her husband to say
that there had been an accident at Halwell blocking the road and she had
decided to return home. On Monday the Guardian had a report of an accident at
Halwell caused by a runaway strawbale that escaped a trailer, rolled down a
hill, smashed through a hedge and crushed a van, killing the cellist of the ELO
(in the seventies) Mike Edwards who until his demise had been continuing to
play his cello in the Devon Baroque Orchestra and delivering water. He is on
the cover of the current Totnes Festival brochure. A gentle Buddhist, a friend
commented as we chatted in a car park yesterday. Yes, we might be called away
at any moment!
The perennial philosophy must be so called because of the
infinite nature of this thing that we call life and the never ending failure of
our puny attempts to imagine an understanding of it – though, it has to be
said, we never give up despite our rasping breath and muscles on fire as we yet
again set out to climb the hill and in a very real sense we never learn.
‘Listening Station’? You will recall I had planned to find and speak with the Russians while I was in Italy, half expecting to come across a tall rusting metal radio tower in a secret clearing within some wood with a small concrete building beside it. On this occasion however, I was bicycling towards the outskirts of the Italian city of Via Reggio, and had passed beyond the old harbour with its fishing boats and superyacht construction yards, when I came upon this improbable but highly visible encampment which was located between the city's football stadium and the thickly wooded coastal area to the south -
With the flags of Cuba and the revolution, are these Latino or Russians, I asked myself, looking down at the brown colours of the dried leaves emerging against the tarmac deadness of the road, before raising my eyes again to look along the line of red flags hanging besides the road.
And then back to read the banner which proclaimed an appeal for the palliatus of the poor and weak, 'PROLETARI POPOLI OPPRESSI DI TUTTO IL MONDO UNIAM…'. Palliatus, that is both their protection and their covering, in challenge to those powers, who vie for their care: the health systems, the religious systems, the judicial and criminal systems, and, apparently, or was it simply improbably, the political systems. And are the people here Latino or Russian, I asked myself in the flickering shadows of this transition time from the place of the fashion shops, elegant arcades, and wide broadwalks of the city, and its polite and well behaved people – sur le plage sous les parés – besides the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.
And am I (are we), I was further asking, Against the System. It was 1968 during the year of Revolution that I had also spent part of the summer in Italy in Rome and Florence, but that was no feulliton, the beer and pizza parlours of those cities were the summit of my cultural selection, and I was unprepared for the actions of those who were trying to change the world in Paris and Bonn and London.
‘The world obligingly changed itself’ commented Tony Judt in his memoir (New York Review of Books blog – Revolutionaries) upon the false impression that any of us had done something to make it happen. But I am still unwilling to accept the fact of his death (see Obituaries) on August 7th
…And as equally unprepared as I was for José Saramaga’s last June. ‘Where is the Left?’ the Portuguese master had asked in his blog for 1st October 2008 (see The Notebook, which contains a year of his posts 2008/2009 ). ‘The left has no fucking idea of the world it's living in’, he had told a reporter from a South American newspaper not long before. That comment, like Judt’s, was not well received either.
During these confusing, and sometimes contradictory, transition times at the listening station – ‘In short,’ Saramaga added some time after, ‘We learn as we go along, through the words we speak.’