You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2009.

At the moment i think my most treasured possession is my Pelikan fountain pen – a new one is about 200 sterling; i found a 50s vintage one on Ebay for 80 quid and have found it reliable and excellent. German technology, you see. After the Pelikan, my ipod, which cost about as much as a new Pelikan. They are both wonders of human ingenuity and technology, but in both cases they were created by the human imagination; and in both cases, their function is to deliver works of the human imagination – the Pelikan, my thoughts, and the ipod Bach and Kate & Anna McGarrigle (today). Without the human imagination, they are simply pretty pieces of metal and plastic.

To be a creator is to be influenced by one’s creation. But influence should only go so far. The master remains master, though he love his workings and has care of his servants; and though they care for him also.


They made gods out of wood and stone, and they worshipped them. Later, they made machines and worshipped them instead; and just as they had once desired to be gods, so they now desired to be machines; and they thought their ancestors primitive and deluded.

Seagulls everywhere here. There is something of the sea about them – especially in their cry and the white brightness. i saw them in Durham but only from afar – i have bad eyes so all i would see is a flash of white in the clouds, a shard of sun; then that cry. The opening of Hart Crane’s great poem to Brooklyn Bridge:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest

The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,

Shedding white rings of tumult, building high

Over the chained bay waters Liberty –

He succumbed to booze and despair in the end. His work was steadily despised by the literary establishment, as one would expect, and by the time he died, the day after Wittgenstein’s birthday, he believed he had lost his talent. He had just written ‘The Broken Tower’, but i suppose if enough people say your work is no good you end up thinking them right. A stanza:

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

He was my age when he committed suicide, jumping overboard into the sea – a fitting end for a poet in love with the dissolution of self. In an earthly sense it was a way of saying his life had failed; but i see it otherwise – not as an act of despair but of fulfilment. He did not so much end his life as complete it, entering the greater world.

Yesterday a Bosche word appeared in my mind – ungemeinschaft. i didn’t recognise it, nor does it appear in my (small) dictionary but gemeinschaft is community so i guess my word would mean “the opposite of a community” or “no-community”. Perhaps i heard it on the radio though i suspect bits of my forgotten Germanness are, bit by bit, responding to the sounds i hear about me here in K___. It’s an appropriate word for a vagabond Elberry (there is no other kind), perhaps my subconscious commenting on my Gebo post.

i was also amused and annoyed to find my Hugo’s “Learn German in 3 Months” (yeah, sure) omits the “du” form – so i only know how to address people with Sie, formally. The book is 40 years old but it still seems kind of strange to completely omit the informal mode of address. It is, however, appropriate for an ungemeinschaft person such as myself.

i can sometimes understand bits of written German now, but i can’t understand spoken Bosche, let alone speak it myself. My pronunciation is a little better than in September, but still appalling, comical even to myself.

you must suppose no end in it

no applause

you will continue to die

until there is nothing left to die

i’ve been pondering the Old English rune poem for Gebo, which i think Thorsson translates thus:

Gift is for every man pride and praise,

help and worthiness, and for every homeless adventurer,

it is estate and substance for those who have nothing else.

i thought i already was something of a homeless adventurer, back in 2007; i had no idea i would one day take it to these extremes. i am appalled at the amount of money i owe my bank – the inevitable consequence of moving to a new country and then finding oneself unemployed and, it seems, unemployable.

However, the situation is of psychological interest. i’ve long veered between a Satanic self-sufficiency (or rather, misanthropy) and a gregarious narcissism, the former usually a disgusted reaction to the latter. Perhaps now i am close to being a literally homeless adventurer, i can find a middle position between eremitical misanthropy and foolish conviviality.

The form of Gebo is simple – X – there is something architectural in it, two staves crossing, joining, becoming a new stave – the tension of difference becomes a greater strength, vibrant, enduring. i think i need something like this balance, a way of escaping the closed circle of my self, without dissipation and loss. i just don’t know how. But i think in this state – the homeless adventurer, having nothing, being nothing – i can perhaps consider matters with unusual clarity. As long as i had some earthly security, i had no reason to really examine my way of being (or rather, not being) with other human beings. But something about almost total uncertainty, material destitution, my very mortal weakness, emphasises the essential lineaments of my solitude, my failure as a human being. And since my only hope of earning any money at all is by teaching, i cannot simply recede into my aloneness, as i did in my office jobs. My failure as a teacher is also my failure as a human being; perhaps i will, by some miracle, manage to amend my old error.

K___’s library has a small but rewarding stock of English books. i like the very smallness – i see the books change every time i go. i’ve taken out Jane Austen’s complete novels, half of which are new to me. i read Sense and Sensibility over the weekend, what a joy, one of the very best English stylists, i feel.

i was reminded at times of Kierkegaard and Philip Roth; i’d read the latter’s I Married a Communist a fortnight ago, with similar pleasure and admiration. Austen and Roth both make it look easy; it all seems so effortless, casual, till you reach the end and look back, with wonder. It’s not just technique – the achievement is of maturity, understanding, good sense. Hence my own novel’s limitations – although i’ve been obsessively tinkering with it since 2004, its essential form is a fossil of my 26-year old self – at the moment it began, that was all it could ever be – and i lacked understanding, and sense. It may be possible to be a great chess master, or logician, or mathematician, without being a half-way decent human being, but it’s certainly not so for novelists. While many novelists have been monsters, i feel that even with a narcissist like Thomas Mann there is some fineness of character – even if it was only deployed in his novels.

The Roth and Austen novels both privilege an ordinary, everday goodness, common sense as against the fiery idealism, and often the inhumanity and stupidity, of the revolutionary and the romantic. The Willoughbys and Mariannes, the Ira Ringolds, are mesmerising in their folly and hubris, while the Elinors and Murray Ringolds seem so drably sane and decent – but i think goodness really lies with the apparently dull common sense of the latter. It has been the misfortune of the human race to be so readily susceptible to the Messianic, the utopian, to monsters of vanity and cruelty.

Roth and Austen could have depicted Elinor and Murray as wise, stay-at-home saints, and Ira and Willoughby as sadistic monsters. But it is fitting that both Roth and Austen, precisely because they prefer common sense decency to romantic ideals, also create fully-lit, shaded, rounded characters, as resistant to definition as are all human beings. So the switchbacks and revelations of Austen’s novel, as each character is differently spotlit, angled, becoming deeper, more mysterious, and so more human. Murray and Elinor are evidently good human beings – but the word i want is not the religiously-tinged ‘good’ – they are decent. They would not think of themselves as ‘good’, i guess, but as being decent, proper, of “doing the right thing”. It seems dull indeed next to Ira’s socialist rants, his (empty) rhetoric, or Willoughby’s Byronic zest and elan, but then one need only consider the awfulness of both Ira and Willoughby to consider the matter aright.

i think both Austen and Roth, as great novelists, see that human goodness (in all senses of the word) lies in the particular, the local; for a great artist, the local is the general. Stray from the warmth of human contact, from face to face encounter, and you open the door to the inflation and emptiness of rhetoric, to the endless deceit of human vanity. Barter rather than banking.

i have, in the past, been susceptible to precisely this rhetoric, to the Utopian, to idealism. i think, in this life, i’ve moved away from such grandiosities to the human, to the particular, to individuals; and this is part of why i am a novelist of sorts. It is when you consider people as a mass that you must lose all subtlety, gradation, all sense of what is good about humanity. The idealist’s temptation is to take up a loudspeaker, so he can address crowds; but too much is lost, the human voice loses its warmth, its very humanity, it becomes coarse and unfeeling, and, in the end, opens the door to any wickedness.

Wordsworth’s lines here:  “little, nameless, unremembered acts/Of kindness and of love”. One should try to be kind and decent – not as a grand, Messianic spectacle, the revolutionary storming the barricades and casting down the ruling class, while everyone applauds, etc. etc. (then, La Peur) – but habitually, as a part of one’s life – as an ordinary, everyday, human thing.

i don’t normally reproduce emails etc. but i thought this might interest someone, an extract from my email to the art historian:

Klimt reminds me of William Blake a little – he’s somehow both factual and visionary. Although Klimt’s backgrounds (the gold and so on) are very vivid, they don’t distract from his ladies – it’s as if the women emerge from the background (as a cat comes out of a bush), or dissolve into it – they are, in some way, a part of the background, a part of their clothes. i think the backgrounds, however surreal & strange, are another way of seeing his women – it’s as if he painted the woman’s body in the centre, then for the background painted her soul.

It’s interesting to look at Gretl’s portrait, at the background, as if it were her soul, her essential being. Up to the thighs she’s a sea green, powerful and living; but from the thighs to the collarbone (i.e. the bit Klimt would have been interested in) she’s a strange, reluctant grey, almost lifeless; then from the collarbone up she’s a complex of segregated rooms, doors, each kept carefully apart from the others. Around her head there’s a kind of miniature hall full of coloured circles and dots – perhaps this is how he saw her mind – it’s very orderly, too orderly, a little tame – but coloured, as if there IS real life there, just restrained and held in check. And around that little hall there’s an enclosing grey, as if to say her mind, her cognitive faculty, is encased in the same deadness as her sexual body. i’d love to see the original painting, before she had the mouth changed (a typically arrogant act). In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, a character says the mouth gives character away, more than the eyes. Perhaps the original mouth was too true for her.

It’s hard to find online (or print) versions that are much good, but here’s a fairly big one. i think the original is now in Munich, perhaps i’ll somehow get a chance to see it one day.


i’m certainly no poet but here are two poems i wrote, which i’d like to preserve. The first is about my Finnish friend Minna, who was my eldest sister in my last life. The second is about a Bosche girl who, i think, was another sister from back then.


perhaps you were born in the snow

and lost

and so never learnt the art of summer

the quiet ways of pleasure



oh frowning black cat

my worrier, my anxious one

my kindly vampire

in love with the sun

And a translation of the first poem, by the frowning black cat herself:

vielleicht wurdest du im schnee geboren

und verloren

und lerntest drum nie des sommers kunst

die stillen wege der wonne

i feel they all belong together.

The joys of internet cafes. A scrofulous whigga has just sat opposite, sniffling from junk sickness, listening to loud and bad German techno, and periodically gasping and moaning, perhaps from the badness of his German techno. Yesterday a girl sat by me, couldn’t get her computer to work, and asked me something in Boschesprache. i replied with my standard “ich spreche kein deutsch” and she said, brightly, in a strong American accent, “oh, do you know if we have to switch these things on?”

i fumbled about and found the on switch for her; we talked a little, my accent becoming, inexplicably, thickly Yorkshire. In my home county of West Yorkshire, and in nearby Manchester, i talked in my usual bland, university-educated Queen’s English – except with dogs. With dogs, and in London, and now, i find, in Germany, i talk like a tweed-clad Yorkshire farmer, a surly, shotgun-bearing man of the land, with sheep blood on his hands and pork pie in his gut, the kind of man who knows how to repair a drystone wall. i had to remind myself, in lessons, to stick to the Queen’s English, though it would have been a worthwhile experiment, to teach the Bundeswehr (army) and Arbeitsamt (JobCentre) groups to speak English with an impenetrable Yorkshire accent, and of course lots of good Yorkshire expressions, curses, and sayings, e.g.:

“It’s no use for man nor beast!”

“By ‘eck it wants chuckin’ it does, and killin’.”

“I don’t want no fancy foreign muck. I just want fish and chips. If yer can’t give me fish and chips be off wi’ yer.”

And so on.

Still no students, no money, seemingly no hope of employment or even survival. i am peculiarly enjoying this. i’m 33 and have never lived as precariously as now. Everything is bright and sharp, and the sun a little cruel in its beauty. No better life could be.

wordpress hit counter