retrieval, a poem

This is not a book review but a poem, for a change.

These are the vignettes that have inspired it:

In one of his daily poetry readings, Billy Collins read a poem recently that begins by setting a specific scene and therefore, as he put it, creates the impression that all the things it speaks of have truly happened. I have forgotten whose poem it was but it was beautiful; it contained a sunset, maybe an animal, as well. Billy Collins also has a poem called Forgetfulness and it ends with the moon. ‘Poetry and the Moon’ is a lecture by Mary Ruefle that I have been reading; it’s in the collection Madness, Rack, and Honey, which I was incredibly lucky to receive as a present and which is taking my mind to all the nooks and crannies it had forgotten existed. I am listening again.

Pot-Bouille is a novel by Émile Zola I once studied for a literature course (I even played The Sims with an Octave Mouret character), and that I now barely remember. The title is notoriously hard to translate. I looked back at some of my notes from that year, trying to find what I thought of it back then, and found so many other essay files: final, final FINAL, final (1), really FINAL, check biblio and print, etc., as if at some point thinking ends and the conclusion becomes definitive rather than just tired of its own nuances, exhausted from being revised over and over again. 

I had forgotten where Bulgarian poetry takes me. This reminded me that sometimes, if we’re lucky, we see things, or can wait and wait until we actually come across, the way we want to see them.

I know Luxembourg in vignettes only, through the lens of my camera: the hues of the sky as seen from my window, the brief touristy snap, the sudden art out of nowhere on the side of the abandoned house. But it is also the place where I am listening again:

And finally: waltz music is in 3/4 time, this I vaguely remember from school (but still, I had to double check). Yet when I think of a waltz, I think of Jesse and Céline, and how, when the clock struck midnight on 31 December, I saw those in Vienna who can – and also those who cannot –  literally waltz into the New Year, and also how I have never listened to this in Paris, because I only just discovered the song, but I think that, whatever corner of my mind I invite it to stay in, it will come and go as it pleases, for years, until it decides that it’s time to leave forever, quietly dancing itself out.

This is the poem:

retrieval

memory
like a poem
is never truly finished
like a lifeline 
never really feels completed
even when it seems that way
even when the gaps between its breaks
are stuffed with revelation
milestones
beauty

in some book or other
I can’t recall precisely 
yet it was recent
something or other pleasant
was constantly compared with
champagne bubble lightness
but that is only lovely 
when measured out in thirst
for stimuli without the blues

I’d like to warn against the fate
of Funes the Memorious 
but I don’t remember:
was it a curse or blessing
what Borges gave him?

so in the end 
this memory of ours
it is this:
a thing you sever
push outside yourself 
and think of as a stranger. 
and: 
are you kind to strangers? 
and: 
do you speak to them at all?

but memory is only this right now
because a poem
that is the child of all I have forgotten
and all that I can conjure up
today – or even just this second
compels me to believe:

it is a place 
that’s full of tiny little flowers
so delicate
so gentle
and so many
you almost cannot see
the thieves

Fermata, ed. by Eva Bourke and Vincent Woods (Dublin, Ireland)

And so, it has been years since I wrote a review here, old concept or new one. Right now, it feels like a strange but fitting time to do so, stuck in one place with just books and records and Éric Rohmer films for company. 

In the last few years, I largely neglected novels, finding time for them only occasionally, a brief spurt of summer voracity here, a couple of stolen evenings there. In that time, though, I made a resolution of sorts, to actively immerse myself in both poetry and music (after all, ‘all poetry aspires to the condition of music’), and not just old favourites but new stories told in lines and rhythms. Beyond that: I decided to make an effort to seek out beauty in the mundane, to remember how to observe and savour, linger in a moment. It can be daunting, searching for these ‘sparuti incostanti sprazzi di bellezza‘ on grey cloudy mornings or endless afternoons, and so they are all the more precious when they come unexpected: bus drivers raising a hand to greet each other as they drive past on the serpentine roads of Luxembourg; the stained glass window of someone’s living room; the way light shimmers in a stranger’s curls; the haunting voice of Billie Eilish, her song carrying over Portobello Road Market, amplified as a young girl plays her CD – and all around, dusk alighting on the city I love(d), unchanged but drifting off to someone else’s soundtrack now. And sometimes, it’s the conjuring of beauty out of nothing that does the trick, simply so that it can be passed along as acts of kindness and vulnerability.  

How I remember times in my life when I most felt myself is in snippets of music and words while moving through space, up in the sky, in buses across the continent, commuter trains, the delicate balance of the morning rush hour. It’s that sense of being fully aware of the act of travelling, its fleetingness and preciousness, the endless skin-and-bones-fragility of it all; its inevitable end that is postponed, deferred, then cherished, missed all the more in its absence. The closest my permanently coffee-drenched mind has ever come to a meditative state was when my plane touched down at Sofia Airport five years ago as the sounds of ‘Scarborough Fair’ took me someplace else.

In a way, I want to come back to the original idea behind this blog, which was to slow down with all the garish must-reads and must-sees, the feeling of never catching up to some imaginary canon, and to really pay attention to the words, bring back the pleasure of their sounds, like spells of self-preservation.

This is what I decided I would recapture, in the last few months, and as luck would have it, before the cancellations of the coming days and weeks and maybe months, I managed to make a quick stop in Dublin to visit a friend, and stumble upon, in between windy beaches and heartachingly beautiful light, this collection of poetry inspired by music, hiding in Books Upstairs.

The term ‘fermata’ from the title is explained in the foreword: ‘… the performers must hold the note and stop any metrical measurement of musical time until the conductor or director indicates the reinstatement of the meter. The effect can be extraordinary. If the conductor holds for too long, a point rapidly comes when the tension in the music starts to lose power and the effect is one of anti-climax. If the hold is too short, there can be a sense of disappointment at an emotional opportunity lost.’ It is that singular effervescent moment of tension, missed in a second, the right feeling for a perfect timing. It reminds me of writing, too, of hovering in that space between barely-there meaning and obvious, sentimental kitsch, and how the best poems – or at least the ones I like best – play with both the rich and the sparse, the pale and the saturated.

The book is divided into six chapters, each one with its own theme, so I decided to select six poems, one from each chapter, that resonated with me, to include here:

From Chapter I, inspired by the soundtracks of nature:
Eamon Grennan, Untitled, which is called Starlings in October here

From Chapter II, focusing on the tools of the art: 
John F. Deane, The Upright Piano

From Chapter III, devoted to laments and elegies:
Leontia Flynn, Country Songs

From Chapter IV, which focusses on youth, mostly: 
Ciaran O’Driscoll, Wasps in the Session

Chapter V showcases personal encounters, and this poem is one of the most stunning things I have read lately, and needs to be accompanied by this and this
Mary Noonan, But I should never think of spring 

And finally, from Chapter VI, which includes poems dedicated to musicians:
Sinead Morrissey, Shostakovich

Recently, I read a beautifully written article about Leonard Cohen, suggesting that the real power of his music and words is in their hidden pulse, in the bigger things beyond the lyrics and melody. It’s that someplace else I know too well. In writing, speaking, dreaming out loud about poetry and music, you reach a limit of what you can say, run out of moonbeams to silver your coherence. But the imagery that they evoke goes on, boundless in its combinatory potentialities. It lingers, splattered on the page, lodged in the mind and ears. And around it, this weird, wild world bursts open, shedding its fragility for the briefest of moments, ripe with dandelions in flight, zephyr currents on bare skin, the creamy notes of jazz lifting in a frosty air; that bittersweet ache of pressing down on the future tense of dreams, 

holding, 

holding, 

then letting go, not a second too late, not a second too soon.

Montedidio by Erri de Luca (Berlin, Germany)

And so it is, more than a year later, that I finally find the inspiration to write this, months after reading the book. The urge comes relatively soon after another trip to Berlin, at the end of this February. There is something that calms me down in that city, maybe it’s the tangle of frayed memories that evoke that first trip abroad, the spark that lit up my restlessness. The transition from Cambridge back to London now made, less smoothly than expected, the settling into a routine and the daily rubbing of shoulders with strangers relearned, there is time for the ‘hundred indecisions’ which are part of my writing and reading.

I have the book open next to me, a copy that has made the journey from Berlin to Sofia to Montana to Cambridge to London where it finally has the attention of concentrated thought. There have been a number of journeys in between, a multitude of train rides, issues of the LRB consumed greedily, quite a few actual flights and then some fanciful displacements of the mind. Berlin of last March is ages ago, in a different life, a season of confusion and limbo. So let me step away from any previous style of writing. Let me draw the threads of disorder together.

This story begins with a closed bookshop and a cold unfolding March. It is set in Berlin, that city of grey, of friendship and rest, a pit stop for when London and coffee blur me up so the image in the mirror is strange. There was once this closed bookshop that only opened up its gates if you sought it out on the next day, second time’s the charm. There was once the me who used spontaneity as an anchor and who thought pursuing the random was calming, a shield against anxiety. In the clean bookshop with its dimmed lights and aspiring wooden floors, between the white shelves, there was the air of things being bared to the core, the shifting layers stripped away. Like a promise for something static and immutable that’s there for the taking, like the fulfilment of the happily ever after without the vague prolonged unknown that follows the last sentence…

And there was once this book.

The narrator of Erri de Luca’s Montedidio is a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. He lives with his father and sick mother in Montedidio, a neighbourhood of Naples. In that poor city, he helps out in the workshop of Master Errico, falls in love with Maria who lives nearby, learns to metamorphose his body through the boomerang his father gives him. An unremarkable story, perhaps, but it’s the language that makes it one that’s worth tasting. The pleasure here is woven into words and story, and how the sentences shape feeling as the pages progress.

This version is the German translation; of course, reading it in the original Italian, the most beautiful sounds that my ears can imagine, would have been more fitting. Especially since Neapolitan dialect crops up so often. The narrator explains how the dialect, unlike Italian itself, doesn’t have two words for ‘sleep’ and ‘dream’ – instead of ‘sonno’ and ‘sogno’, there is only ‘suonno’. Italian, on the other hand, is (an)other language – ‘eine ruhige Sprache, die brav in den Büchern bleibt’ (‘a calm language that dutifully stays in the books’).

It is a novel about growing up, but at times it feels more like growing old, maybe because it has to happen so fast – the painful attempts of getting used to movement and change. Muscles grow and the fabric of clothes stretches, the violence of tissue can be felt in the skin thickened from boomerang practice. The narrator does not actually throw the boomerang, he just repeats the movements, cultivates the strength, all the while stuck in the nowhere place between child and adult.

In this grown-up world, poverty is the ghost lurking behind many things. On a rare outing together, the father laughs at the boy’s burnt trousers, then quickly stops as he remembers that it is his sick wife who will have to mend them. The day is ‘un muorzo’, says Master Errico, a bite – it is eaten fast. The food is almost always modest – bread, tomatoes, some coffee, and so is the day. All the daylight needs to be bitten and chewed out of it, so that it does not go to waste.

And just as it often contains the painfully real, the novel also harbours the foreign and the strange. Don Rafaniello, the cobbler who works in the same workshop, has arrived out of nowhere, with his red hair, green eyes and the always present, always understated ghost of trauma tagging along. An ageless man, he sings in a foreign language and when he smiles, ‘die Falten und Sonnensprossen bewegen sich, es sieht aus wie das Meer, wenn es drauf regnet’ (‘the wrinkles and freckles move, it looks like the sea when the rain falls on it‘). Don Rafaniello is waiting for the wings to sprout from his hunchback so that he can fly to Jerusalem, an incredible journey he prepares for throughout the book.

The disillusionment of youth, a disenchantment with the world is not that unusual a story. But what words do with such stories is always different, always interesting. Here the language shifts between light and heavy. The heavy is the passing of time and the resignation that comes with it, the pain of the body dealing with the accumulating hours, the mind struggling to catch up. The light is the open-air rooftop, the old house where ghosts wander in the staircase, searching for the salt of sweat, for the closeness of bloodwarmth. Air currents caress gently, barely. Sunlight floats, skims eyelashes. Rain feels like laughter. There was once a weightless life.

There was, once, a weightless life.

Die dreizehn Monate by Erich Kästner (Berlin, Germany)

It was March, and it was cold, and I found myself in Berlin, yet again. During the course of my stay, I drank an outrageous amount of coffee and had way too much popcorn in the Potsdamer Platz cinema, which also became a bit like a second home. Tentative plans were made, as usual, to visit the Dalí exhibition, that unfortunately did not come to fruition, primarily because opening times do not agree with the habits of a postgrad night owl.

This was actually the second bookshop I had my eye on during that week. The first one I came across was only opening on the following day (and will feature here soon), so on that very first evening, to the sound of my friend’s protestations, I wandered down the road to this place. As you can see, it has an impressive variety of not only books but all sorts of paraphernalia such as postcards and maps. But then again, a book addict and a lover of clutter will always enjoy the sight of volumes in disarray, ladders leading to heights of plenty. And, very importantly, even though it was almost closing time, I suspect the bookseller stayed longer, an enabler of dawdlers and slow browsers.

Before I go into detail about which book I picked up, I have to confess my affection for the German language. I have been working on German fiction this year, almost exclusively. In the process, I rediscovered the pleasure of reading the original, of inhabiting those strange at first, then slowly more and more familiar words, dots adorning some of the vowels. In tracing the history of fairy tales, I marvelled at stories that travel, from version to version, changing shapes. But here, with originals, I found myself alone with the tale of my own linguistic journeys. Adalbert Stifter wrote in a letter I came across in a biography of his: ‘da brach mich fast buchstäblich das Herz’, and the first thing that popped in my head, instead of the, well, literal translation, ‘my heart literally broke’, was a heart being spelled out (from the verb ‘buchstabieren’),  H e r z / h e a r t, each gap a break, and then instantly after that, of a book (‘Buch’) as a pole or stick (‘Stab’) in the heart,  or as a stake, or a wand, they could equally splinter or spill out a heart. In Arnim’s Isabella von Ägypten, there are trees on which people ‘wie seltsame Früchte hingen’, ‘hung like strange fruit’, and it is in that r, followed by the ‘ü’, that ripeness and weirdness and juiciness mingle.

And so I bought Erich Kästner’s ‘Die dreizehn Monate’ (‘The thirteen months’), a collection of poems, one for each month, with an extra, the thirteenth. I remember I leafed through the pages in the bookshop and something caught my eye, a turn of a phrase or a line, and I felt the pull of possibility, a twinge of excitement. That feeling of: here is something new and strange and good, something to be saved for later, for solitude and loose lips. Of course, I had no idea how those plans would change. I ended up taking this slim thing with me on a month-long daily commute to London and I would sample each poem, a bite at a time, in between snatches of thesis reading, finally abandoned for staring out the window. As hedges and fences and empty fields growing with green swooshed past, day by day, for more than a month, I found pleasure in being busy to the point of dark circles and caffeine roller coasters. I was eating up time, awake and observant, taking in the birth of spring without really needing a language for the occasion. And yet the poems persisted. First, the lightness, their ease, fizzy and unruly like champagne sprites, bubbled to the surface. And then sometimes they could siphon off the colours, rumbling like hints of thunderclouds in the distance or like hungry stomachs.

To give you an idea of the imagery, I offer some of it here (reproduced and translated by me with the kind permission of  Verlag Friedrich Oetinger). In March, ‘Kätzchen blühn silbergrau./ Schimmern wie Perlen’ (‘Kittens glow silvergrey./ Shimmer like pearls’). People often complain about long German words that go on for miles, but I’ve never considered this a problem. Instead, there’s an opportunity to invent things as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, because if flower scepters/‘Blumenzeptern’ (‘Der Mai’) exist, then why not an ‘Elfember’ (‘Der dreizehnte Monat’/’The thirteenth month’). Or better yet, what this sometimes facilitates is looking at a word and unwittingly transforming it into something else. I had no idea what ‘Blaumeise’ (from ‘Der Mai’) meant in German (it’s the bird blue tit, as I now know), but my first thought was that it’s probably a word play, combining ‘blaue’ and ‘Ameisen’ to form ‘blue ants’. Sometimes those words give the world a different meaning – and so, it gets airy and sparkly when ‘es überblüht sich’ (‘it overblooms itself’ – oh, not just to overbloom, but to do it to one’s own self!) (from ‘Der Mai’). ‘Sterneschnuppen’ appear (‘star flakes’) (from ‘Der August’), and you could just imagine flimsy golden shavings off the stars’ edges floating down, soot after a fire. ‘Standarte/ aus Pflaumenblau und Apfelgrün‘ (from ‘Der September‘) could be both ‘flags of peacock blue and apple green’, but also standards (the word ‘Standar(t)d’ can mean – or rather sound like, the false friend that it is – both), as if you could measure and judge the world by how it complies with those hues. And then there’s the tenderness of trees as they become ‘Buketts für sanfte Riesen’ (‘bouquets for gentle giants’) (from ‘Der Oktober’), and the world expands as you’re now someone dwarfed by oak-and-fir-clutching giants.

What Kästner’s verses gave me was the chance to step back from the days of rapid and overwhelming assault of spring. They provided masts against the siren songs of a warm day dressed up in the soft pink garlands of trees. They contained a certainty, offered protection: skin may age and overbloom itself and memory slips and slides, but seasons never happen all at once. Their colours are only felt in words.

And then, there’s the sadness. It is in many of those poems, felt as time passing, even in the loudest of months: ‘Auch Glück kann weh tun. /Auch der Mai tut weh.‘ (‘Happiness, too, can hurt. May, too, hurts.‘) (from ‚Der Mai‘). Time runs on, as you read, first a line, then a stanza, then the whole, then each and every one of the poems, until you have them covered and consumed. And within these poems, time has already passed through once, as they were being written. Or else, the ink of Kästner’s pen whirled chronology around as this word was exchanged for that, as the muse descended with more appropriate rhymes or rhythms. So there it is, time, caught, subdued, just for you, behind the bars of human words for melancholy and for festive coaches and for indolent summer evenings of stars and fireflies.

My words, stymied by spring, cannot do justice to these poems. What’s left to say is: I would learn German all over again, just for them.

Copyright of the quoted verses and phrases: Erich Kästner, Die dreizehn Monate (c) Atrium Verlag, Zürich 1955 und Thomas Kästner

Once Upon a Time (Cambridge, United Kingdom)

And so it goes. Finally, after months spent in Cambridge, I made it inside Heffers. It is only seconds away from my college, but as is usually the case, what is right on your doorstep is constantly pushed off into the indefinite future. Time waits until it runs out.

The bookshop has apparently been around for more than a century, and in 1999, was acquired by Blackwell. It is luminous and spacious, has all sorts of books, including a second-hand section on the underground level, where you’re in for a wonderfully random treat of titles.

My favourite nook at the moment comprises three cases worth of literary criticism. A research degree in Literature can do this to you – all sorts of disparate topics draw you in, titles and titles get added to an endless mental list, which if tangible would unravel like a parchment, trailing onto the floor. In my case, it has also caused a serious addiction to the London Review of Books website and in particular to Marina Warner’s articles. Which is why when I spotted Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tales, the combination of her enticing writing and the topic itself triggered that indescribable certainty: ‘this is it’.

The book may look small, but it contains a multitude of stories, both history and tale. It is the perfect chest of treasured promises for those who want to wander further into the land of wonder and amazement and ensnaring narratives. It bursts with characters of the imagination, be it Cinderella in her many guises, Keats’ unmerciful lady (‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’) or Goethe’s death king in the forest (‘Der Erlkönig’). But the book does more than just list stories – it puts them in the historical contexts in which they were created or recast, and also examines the why of it all. It finds in them the tragedies of human life, the ones that never truly go away, even if the improved standard of living has eliminated food shortage and death in childbirth (in places only, that is). It is time that’s on my mind as I read the epigraph to one of the chapters (‘Now I always knew/Fairy tales could come true/ Today’s hard fact was once a fairy tale’, Velimir Khlebnikov), and also how some of the vagaries of life as we know it today may hopefully fall victim to the future. In the now, though, it is in imagination that wounds can close and meaning can be gained, and it is through make-believe that narrative can overcome this trickster of a world.

Ambiguity is a major presence in fairy tales. Simple interpretations are too easy, not very interesting. They will not survive even the test of a single life, drowning in its shifting world-time. Warner talks about the power these stories have to challenge us to understand ourselves, the ones who amend and repeat them. And throughout the book, you’ll find many meanings injected in the receptacle of fairy tale – Wilhelm Grimm’s revisions; Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytical extractions of the subconscious hidden in the woods; Angela Carter’s reimagining of sexual desire in The Bloody Chamber. And more could be added – I have spent hours reading the comments on the IMDB board for the film adaptation of Into the Woods. Stories are at their best when they travel. Not in sparkling coaches and full regalia, but at their most tattered, skin and bones. When they arrive, we feast them with our food and dress them up in our own clothes, but if we touch that old bone underneath, all greedy anticipation like that witch of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, we may just feel how real those who came before us were.

On that very recent afternoon when I learned about Terry Pratchett’s death, I sank for the millionth time into his Witches Abroad. I relived that first day when I pictured in my mind Granny Weatherwax’s encounter with the werewolf, and her saying ‘Not capable of acting human, and not able to be a wolf. You can’t imagine how that feels’. That day, years ago, there were the smells of the car around me, that wonderful whiff of ink and pages, but there was the forest, too, and underneath the humour and puns, the incredible sadness of looking in the eye that which we cannot control. Pratchett knew how heavy things can be, how angry powerful witches who cannot undo the irreversible can get.

Unlike a lot of modern versions, the ‘original’ fairy tales present things as they happen – they do not psychologise. Warner quotes Philip Pullman here: ‘The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt, or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely.’ And yet, I hope that this impossibility to see through the façade of events, coupled with the randomness of chance, can also push towards empathy. As focussed as you may be on your own aching transformations, on your personalised wear and tear as you shift between man and wolf, there is always another messiness beyond the known – not just that of life with its implacable nonchalance, but the scrambled tales of others.

As closed up as you are, there is a longing that is not just within you, this singular consciousness roaming the pages of a world. There are stories to be found everywhere – behind the big eyes of wolves and the blue beard of a villain. And the beauty of fairy tales is that they leave the canvas partly blank, for each age to splatter with its hues and dreams.

При входа на морето/At the Sea’s Entrance by Emiliya Dvoryanova (Burgas, Bulgaria)

This time, I expected it would take me a month or two to write this. There were too many pages to explore in the meantime, and I managed to collect quite a few tidbits, some of which I now offer. Number 1: The wonderful Yordan Radichkov has been translated into Italian. Number 2: Magdalen College Cambridge definitely knows how to hold a grudge (for centuries). And number 3: A recommendation to read Truman Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory” is the best virtual gift I can manage this holiday season.

The bookshop I visited in September and the overall mood of that trip definitely had the opposite of a festive snowy feel. I spent a week in Burgas, a city on the Southern coast of the Black Sea (in Bulgaria). I have been there many a time, and there is always a little window of memory opening up to a scene –  discovering Baricco’s Ocean Sea for the very first time in a now vanished café; spending a night on a friend’s floor watching “Almost Famous” for the millionth time; attempting to see it all through the words of Hristo Fotev, a poet forever in love with that city.

This particular bookshop was no stranger. Helikon is a chain so any hipsters out there who have to have it indie might want to shiver now. I didn’t manage to get a good perspective – the square behind was being renovated, so try as I might, I could only step back as far as this. Inside, it is slightly impersonal, like most chains, but the black-and-white photos of staff and customers that line the walls by the stairs to the second floor are a lovely touch.

The title I chose translates as “At the Sea’s Entrance.” The reason I picked Emiliya Dvoryanova’s book was mostly due to the combination of the title and where I was. The Black Sea has something about it, or something that I keep bringing to it and expecting from it. It promises myths and reinvention and a conversation with its depths in a language without pesky grammar or pronunciation tricks. Its waves crash like an invitation.

I was still reading Primo Levi then.

In the book, Anastasia goes to a sanatorium to heal and hopefully have the cast on her arm removed. She’s been in a car accident in which she miraculously only broke a finger. She brings The Magic Mountain with her, and just like in that book, she meets all sorts of people. They are customers rather than patients, though – departure is possible at any time, but then again, none of them wishes to leave. The doctor is a mysterious character who holds everyone in thrall and access to whom is strictly limited. The two most interesting people are Hanna and Ada. Hanna wears a colourful turban on her head from time to time, listens to Schubert when she can’t go to sleep, and so Anastasia eavesdrops and then dreams a green dream. Ada is an artist, and one day she will draw an angel, if she can only get the arm right. (In Bulgarian, her name is written and therefore pronounced like that of Nabokov’s heroine, i.e. “She pronounced it the Russian way with two deep, dark ‘a’s, making it sound rather like ‘ardor’.” “Ada or Ardor”)

I was curious about the religious elements of the book. Anastasia’s excuse/alibi for being in the sanatorium is that she wants to write a book about St Teresa of Avila, after all. I found an interview online where the author explains that her intentions were to weave the Christian motif within the story itself, as a metaphor. But also, to my delight, she acknowledges the reader’s role in creating other meanings that will be different from the writer’s illusions (her words). It wasn’t the religious references and allusions as such that made a lasting impression on me. The stream of consciousness here is a slow trickle, and yet, once away from the book, the garden around the sanatorium, the bowls of fruit in the restaurant, the mud and the air of the sea, that space within the bigger but abandoned world, all spring up vividly. Towards the end, the words disturb a long buried confusion, bound up with the inevitability of making a choice. Dvoryanova talks of the constant relentless expectation in the Now, relating this to its religious significance. In the sanatorium there is, there could be, something else, too – a desire to recover from infinity, from the need to answer questions that the world poses, that sometimes the self repeats, automatically – who am I, am I what I want to be, what do I think of this person, what do I want from this day? Why am I asking these questions? Why am I anywhere? This world apart is full of time that is gifted, unhurried, permitting contradictions.

“ignorance [(or not-knowing), depending on how you want to translate it] is a time for stories…,” so goes the book. Away from the pages, I know the sharp chime when some rudimentary, vague self registers that this, this butterfly of a breath, this takeoff of the pulse, is incoherent with everything else that the sum of the parts has ever been. But back between the covers, there’s mostly the tick, the tock, the slow dripping of the sea, all the way to the horizon.

A Tranquil Star by Primo Levi (Berlin, Germany)

Berlin is a wonderful city, and I am not only saying this because I have an unhealthy Brezel addiction, facilitated by my best friend who lives there. I have been to Berlin five times now, and it was the first place that I ever travelled to outside of Bulgaria, so it holds a certain esteemed place in my heart. It feels familiar, and yet there’s always something to make it just a little bit different from the previous time (and of course, looking for new Brezel fillings to try also helps).

My most recent foray was in June, in part to catch an Angus & Julia Stone concert, in part to finally see Berlin in the summer (and naturally, it rained all throughout!) With a concert in Neukölnn and a bookshop in Kreuzberg, I spent a considerable amount of time on the U7.  Now, I confess that Another Country was not a random discovery – I deliberately picked it among the results of an Internet search, which informed me that in 2010, Lonely Planet had placed it in the top 10 bookshops in the world.

The inside, though, surpassed my expectations of quirky/alternative/hipster. I have seen the inside of quite a few unusual second-hand bookshops, but this one was on a completely different level. You could buy beer from a fridge to sip on whilst looking around. Packages of toast bread randomly decorated the place. A sort of back room sported crates and a slightly eerie figurine (as pictured). Downstairs was the domain of more books (of course!), but it also served as a space where events and meetings are occasionally held. It is an English-language bookshop, and you can borrow some of the books for a price, and then get it partly refunded when/if you return it. The owner is Sophia, a British expat who changed gender around 2008/9; throughout my visit, she sat behind the counter, intently listening to a young American talking about his struggles in Berlin. I felt as if I had stepped into a film – anything could happen.

And it did happen. I discovered Primo Levi’s short stories. Again, I wish I could have read them in Italian, but alas. The foreword notes that Levi is primarily known for his Holocaust writings, whereas the ones in A Tranquil Star venture into other topics. These stories are exquisite, and they will bring particular pleasure to those who, like me, cherish ambiguity, multiple meanings, and are curious about readers’ response to fiction. In the foreword, Levi is quoted: “In my opinion, a story has as many meanings as there are keys in which it can be read, and so all interpretations are true, in fact the more interpretations a story can give, the more ambiguous it is.” A man after my own heart…

Levi was a chemist and this influence is more or less obvious in stories like “The Magic Paint” and “The Molecule’s Defiance,” but, of course, they reach beyond the specificity of chemical make-up. There is something slightly dystopian about them, and “Knall”, with its strange killing contraption, reminded me of both Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.

“In the Park,” a story about a self-contained ‘village’ where fictional characters live, best exemplifies why Levi’s style appeals to me: he combines an exciting plot with expressive words. The story is so particular and alive with details that it sucks you right in, not just in that specific little world, but in anything Levi might have ever written. It is the sophistication of inventiveness that charms, with its seemingly effortless meticulousness –  in a way that is less verbose than the craftsman on my pedestal, Nabokov, but equally captivating.

My two personal favourites are “The Fugitive,” in which a poem escapes from a piece of paper despite the poet’s best efforts to literally pin it down, and “The Girl in The Book”. This latter story charmed my thoughts away from the plot, and directed them beyond, to my own love for fiction, for its ambiguity and the life it can acquire on its own, irrespective of original inspiration. A woman’s confrontation with the fictionalised portrait of her youth struck me as both tragic and poignantly beautiful. To hear yourself as the construction of someone else’s mind and to juxtapose this with the subjective experience of your own life, inseverable and inalienable, could quite possibly create a rift, filled with sadness, a feeling of failed correspondence. Such regrets may remain couched in other words, less to the point, and so will be felt even more acutely. The sentences we concoct, not just in fiction, but also during our daily errands, are the bits and pieces which help erect someone else’s (sense of) self. Some would say life is always more real than fiction; some that fiction makes life appear more beautiful than it is. “You choose,” is what Levi’s story offers, before it shows that spillages between our decisive, programmatic worlds could always break through, break us, all of a sudden.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Cardiff, United Kingdom)

A day and a half after I arrived in Wales, I was already enchanted by Caerleon, with its green grass and secret – at least to me – garden, its history of harbouring Alfred, Lord Tennyson who began writing his Idylls of the King there. Almost a decade earlier, I’d spent a summer sighing and shivering over Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, on which Tennyson based his cycle of poems. I should have known then…

“Any man can lose his hat in a fairy-wind.” Any woman, too… In Cardiff, I finally gave up and let go of it in a bookshop called Troutmark. And if there is one thing better than a solitary browse, it is a browse with a friend equally in love with books, one who also roams around the aisles searching for surprises.

Shelves and shelves later, I left with some old favourites (I could not resist) and this new-found inspiration – Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

I picked it up from the shelf because of the light green of the cover, surrounded by sharp grass stalks, and the blurb which mentions enchantment and wood clearings. The first sentence sucked me in straight away. “In the deepest heart of England there is a place where everything is at fault.” There is something in such magical first sentences which promises that whatever happens later was always meant to flow exactly like this, like a spell that repeats itself, in a resolved circle.

Graham Joyce’s fiction is speculative and has been hard to fit into a specific genre. Some Kind of Fairy Tale tells of Tara, who, twenty years earlier, vanished in the woods of Leicestershire, in the bluebell season, after quarrelling with her boyfriend Richie. Thin and strange-eyed, she returns, claiming that she lived with the fairies for six months only, that she is still a teenager. Some chapters recount her time in that other kingdom, where Hiero (pronounced Yarrow) took her and never stopped yearning for her. Then others centre around her brother, Peter, his wife Genevieve, and their children, or around Richie. With Tara’s return, the distant and unusual mingles with daily family life … Jack, the son of Peter and Genevieve, searches for a way to make it up to the old lady who has lost her cat, and in the meantime, Tara charms mice away from Richie’s house. And yet, the most haunting of all is the havoc she wreaks in the hearts of her brother and ex-boyfriend. It’s the slow aching realisation that loss reversed is no less a loss. When I was little, lost in the magic of stories, I longed to be taken, to escape to some place like Avalon. Then one day, I chanced upon Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Now I think of literary fairies as neither good nor bad, regardless of their portrayal. The space they inhabit is just different. I still long for it, but I know the only way of reaching it is with human strokes.

Joyce’s language is a thing of beauty, words that spring scenes at you. The bluebells beckon and their perfume lingers, conjured. With it, some ancient, handed-down magic dissolves in the air. Could be the hooves of Hiero’s steed, could be the threads invisibly spun by a masterful storyteller.

Inside the daily, there are things that pop up, defying order established by repetition. Some of those things are ours for the taking. But there is also a kind of strangeness that needs a special understanding, which all of us, or I hope just most of us, are doomed never to find. It’s a lack of a common code. It’s the impossibility of searching for one together.

To live with the fairies is to let in a longing and never stop feeding it, until there’s no erasure, until it becomes like time passing, a necessity. Go with them once, and six months become twenty years, if you ever return to that previous world.

This is just a story. It wags no cautionary fingers. But still… It would be wise to time your adventures. Be careful how long you spend in worlds spun by strangers. They sound so fine, like a daydream sprung to life. It must come alive only through me, as I choose to go, as I read the second sentence… But then again, this wind…

Graham Joyce died on 9 September 2014. May his world(s) last in the memories of his family and in the books we carry with us.

The Cherry Tree, edited by Geoffrey Grigson (London, United Kingdom)

A ‘previous concept’ post.

Gary Jules has this one song, “No Poetry”, where verse fails to bring together pen and paper. Unfortunately, this was a case of a whole lot of poetry coming between me and the keyboard. In the time it has taken me to finally write this, I have ventured to both Wales and Germany in search of old friends, stomach muscles cramped with laughter, and books (which I have even finished now). The reason it has taken me so long to get round to writing this particular review is that I made the choice to pick up, from the dimly lit bowels of Quinto & Francis Edwards Books, a time-warping compendium of poetry.

Soho, the location of the bookshop, is a nightmare of a place for the indecisive book lover. Too many doors to strange paper-locked lands everywhere, all equally alluring. Quinto & Francis Edwards was as random a possibility as any of the others. Nothing in particular led me to it, except maybe a whole heap of historical unanalysable choices. The bookshop is a wonderful place for the collector of antiquarian books (the Francis Edwards branch on the ground floor), but none of those fit my hand with that enchanting poof of dust. I had to make my way downstairs, to the old and more modestly priced stock of Quinto, to find what I didn’t know I was looking for.

The thing with poetry is that to me, it is always as sweet as Turkish delight, and needs to be measured out. As you can see from my copy of The Cherry Tree, it is very lovingly battered. Not that it was lustrous and shiny in the first place, but all the lugging around certainly hasn’t helped. Geoffrey Grigson, the wonderful poet and critic who has collected the poems, also didn’t contribute to me whizzing through the book, as he urges in the foreword: “Being read – yes, by yourself, and aloud. After all, poems are made aloud. They are read over and over by the poets who are making them, and using that apparatus by which words are announced and pronounced.”

In my life of weird habits and obsessions, I have read so many things out loud – including all five A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and I did not need to be told twice that these poems were to be discovered in solitude, by my own vocal chords. And yet, I would also take The Cherry Tree with me everywhere, sometimes mouthing words in the incidental moments of quiet during the day, more often getting frustrated with the social conventions forcing me to keep a good poem behind teeth bars, suffocating on beauty in the morning suit-riddled carriages of the London Tube.

The book is divided in sections of moods and subjects, and many of those begin with a reproduction of a beautiful woodcut.

As an example, this one is from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance by Francesco de Colonna, printed in 1488/89 by the Aldine Press in Venice. Seeing these transported me to Mo and Meggie Folchart’s Inkheart world, where an Old Europe feel, the craft of bookbinding, and poems preceding the chapters combined to shape my dreams for life.

Another thing that made it hard for me to read this book in a linear manner was the coincidences that accompanied its lines. This left me stunned for a good few minutes: “For many an honest Indian ass/Goes for a unicorn.” Indeed it does, as I recently discovered myself, but I did not expect to be told again so soon, and definitely not in a poem.

A few hundred pages later, Edmund Spencer’s Prothalamion appeared, at I time that I’d been reading T.S. Eliot’s interviews, and rereading The Wasteland. “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” became a constant accompaniment in my head whenever I saw the river in real life, wondering what songs the Thames has succumbed to now, for mine seemed only to be a mash-up of the lines of others.

Geoffrey Grigson continues: “Reading them by yourself […] until, at any rate, we can share them with someone we love.” I have chosen three poems to share, hoping that the vocal c(h)ords of strangers and friends will cut them loose in new air, in fresh momentary solitudes. They all have something to do with that fear which makes me hunger for poetry in the first place, for lines that burst open the raw core of that desperate beauty which lies dormant in the busy daily rituals.

On the Beach at Night by Walt Whitman, “something there is more immortal even than the stars”.

We’ll Go to Sea No More by unknown author, “An’ in your tales and sangs we’ll tell/How weel the boat ye row”.

Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost, “One luminary clock against the sky,/ Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.”

It is shameful, really, this delay of mine, slipping into old habits of enthusiastic beginnings and lazy follow-ups. And yet, what can you do against the insistent feeling of not wanting to let go of these poems, because they are like paperweights, holding you down against the blowing away, reminders that touching the poetic pulse of life makes it that much sweeter and yet that much harder to do anything at all.

And because I can, and because it is becoming something of a tradition, here goes Billy Collins on the moment of sighs that incapacitates me so.

The Honey Siege by Gil Buhet (London, United Kingdom)

A ‘previous concept’ post.

Someplace else, people are rushing past each other with that awful dog-eat-dog cadence of Waterloo Station. In Hyde Park, tourists snap photographs of Peter Pan’s statue, and only a couple of children run around and irreverently stand on the plaque. London is basking in the May sunshine, gently slurping at it, and you can feel the pleasure of its drunkenness.

Gloucester Road is bustling with people headed to the museums, children in tow. Only a little bit further down the road, Slightly Foxed lies in plain sight, undisturbed, better than a museum, books overflowing onto the sidewalk.

As I walk in, I think of a world where it’d be just as dangerous to leave books unsupervised as it would be to do so with diamonds. It’s intimate and hot inside, the sun refusing to be kept out.  A “More books downstairs” sign points to a dark and cavernous basement. I love those signs – they remind me of books clamouring for attention, eager to not be overlooked, to be given a chance.

I failed this appeal, though. I went for an upstairs book, since that’s where most of the second-hand ones are. My choice this time was The Honey Siege, by Gil Buhet. I wish I could have found it in French, but the blurb was irresistible. And luckily so – later, an Internet search revealed that detailed information about the book or the author, in either language, was lacking. A fortunate find, and a reminder that there are literary worlds out there to pick out for ourselves.

I remember that a few years ago, paraphrasing Gandalf, I declared that I had been meddling in the affairs of adults. Now, in retrospect, at the time, that meddling really was only that – a peripheral incursion, a slight stirring with the finger of the pot of things that come with being a “grown-up”. Spending days and days of accomplishing utterly reasonable things, as I am undoubtedly supposed to know, makes the world go round, and saps the strength of those intolerable beasts called idleness and nonsense.

The Honey Siege is the story of six boys in the imaginary French town of Casteilcorbon. There’s Pierrot Daranluz, the popular leader who brightens everyone’s day (the original French title of the book is Le Chevalier Pierrot) and whose parents own the town’s inn; Gustave (Tatave) Grosbelhomme, who lives with his widowed herbalist mother; Riquet Martelot, the inventive son of the blacksmith; Francisco Guartorella, who often accompanies his Spanish father on poaching forays; Victorin Muche, the older (and apparently not too bright) son of the mayor; and Georget Grillon, the teacher’s son. The drama unfolds precisely around M. Grillon’s beloved bees. One day, he discovers the hives ransacked, the honey stolen, and the bees in starved distress. But when he decides to punish the stubbornly unconfessing boys by giving them an extra weekend class, oh, how they rebel. The historic fortress of Casteilcorbon is chosen as the perfect place to teach adults a lesson of honour and solidarity and just what offended children can accomplish. Portcullis drawn in and some fouaces stolen, the knights even take a prisoner and welcome a noteworthy guest.

Reading The Honey Siege is like being stuck in that specific moment when you suddenly discover that the childhood spirit has been packing its bags for quite some time in the spare room you hardly ever visit. There’s that shadowy age period when escapades and irresponsibility are still well within the realm of the possible, but when it comes right down to it, acting like a child – well, it’s just inappropriate. It could be the fatigue, the weary familiarity of this world, a simple overabundance of the past tense. After all, as the book says, “The despair of a child is complete and absolute, for he has no experience by which to measure it.”

The boys’ parents are some of the most interestingly imperfect I have come across in this type of fiction. M. Mouche is a loud and offensive authority figure. The blacksmith often hits Riquet. M. Grillon can’t talk to his son about the death of his mother. Cisco has drunkards for parents, and it is his sister who takes care of the baby. Mme. Grosbelhomme’s love is stifling and over-protective. Pierrot darts between the inn’s customers, a pet mouse in his pocket – still, his parents seem to be the only ones who have, if not necessarily admirable traits, at least no disconcerting ones. And as if that weren’t enough – Tatave’s mother and the teacher are secretly conspiring to marry. What is to be done when faced with such grown-ups? Nothing. “Not for the present. Later on, when they were parents themselves, things would be different; but until that golden age arrived you had to admit the imperfections of existence.” This is the child’s conviction of the power of young imagination, of its rightful dominion that would reign supreme if only it weren’t checked by adult forces. Often this conviction gets lost with the passage of time. Later, the newly acquired freedom might find its expression in indulgence in material things, and the feeling of being freed from powerlessness becomes the duty to take up the well-earned place in the ranks of the status quo.

The Honey Siege offers a consolation of sorts, though. If children, the masters of unravelling the mysteries of so many things, are helpless before that indomitable rock called adulthood, then the following conclusion can be drawn – adults themselves are way too unreasonable to be deemed reasonable. You can test this – stick your (well-washed!) fingers in the honey jar, lick them over well, and no doubt – you’ll get a stern look from a grown-up. That ridiculous consternation itself is silliness. So, maybe there’s still hope that what makes us children, curious, naughty, nonsensical children, is also what makes us people, a whole lifetime over.

P.S. A registered recurrence: my love for Billy Collins’s poems, once mentioned, will be indulged in again.

(Note, 15 April 2018: In early 2016, Slightly Foxed had to close its Gloucester Road premises. Currently, the bookshop resides at 53 Hoxton Square in Shoreditch.)