Day 1: the birthday

The plan: to note something for each of the next 365 days. May be something, may be garbage….may not last past June.

Today by “the pond” in Reykjavik in the sun a young girl feeding bread to ducks, gulls and geese. She was earring a Barcelona football shirt with the name Camilla on the back.  On her feet were purple glitter trainers.

Later we bought things from dead.

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Isolation Read #46

This really is the most extraordinary debut novel I have read in years.

Andrews tells the story of Lucy, from the ages of roughly 10 to roughly 30 years. It is fluid and hypnotic. It flows back and forth in time. The language is pure poetry at times (most of the time). It is dreamlike, revelatory – telling its secrets elliptically, and the worst ones, the most gently.

You can pretty much open the book at any page and find a passage that simply glories in language and telling:

(My grandfather) swam in the sea and picked seaweed from the rocks, drying it out on the roof of his shed so he could snack on it later, licking the sea from his lips. (90)

or

I no longer hunger for your hands on my skin. Now boys touch my body and decide if it is good or not. I am lucky. I have nice one. He kisses and sucks and licks and fucks but there is a mad, sad thing growing in my belly. I always want more. I do not want to be me for reasons I do not understand. I have read too much or seen too much or had too much of something. I cannot settle, I am itchy all the time behind my eyes and between my bones. I get so drunk that sometimes I pass out in spangly dresses, purpling headaches on chip-shop floors. (153)

or

Order seems to mean emptiness, or at least it does for me. I want coffee spilled on the carpet…(I want) evidence that people have eaten…I want to expand and leave traces of myself. I want evidence that am existing. (227)

Lucy grows up near Sunderland, with her younger brother, her mum and sometimes her dad. She heads to London for the college years, where there is drink and boys and drugs. And later still she is back on the west coast of Ireland, where she has family who they used to visit as kids in their summer holidays – the episode of her broken-hearted mum trying to drive them back up to the ferry, across to Scotland before finally stopping at Scotch Corner and asking the young girl if they should turn round, is outstanding. There are moments of stillness, sadness and heartbreak. But above all else you come out of it admiring Lucy for having the courage to live as she wants to which means, sometimes, taking the rough side and picking yourself up again.

The last two novels I’ve read have been outstanding, both by young female writers originally from the NE of England. They both tell first person narratives of unapologetic, mistake-making young women who refuse to be anything other than themselves. There’s something going on and it seems to be very good.

An absolute joy to read. I am in awe.

Isolation Read #45

(translated by Charlotte Collins)

This is a quiet book. And yet it contains an avalanche.

It is a deceptively simple, delightful read, full of clear-eyed truths.

The story of an Austrian orphan, moved to live with his uncle’s family on a farm in a small village, in a deep valley surrounded by soaring Alpine beauty. Andreas Egger grows to be a strong farmhand, invaluable to his uncle but nevertheless mistreated by him, regular beatings, deprived of food and love by all but the grandmother. He is taciturn, only interested in the things he can physically do that show his value: he carries, fetches, digs, plants, reaps almost inexhaustibly.

He helps with the work to build the first cable cars that will ferry passengers up the mountain side. He scales rock faces, drilling the holes and sinking the massive bolts that will anchor these things. One day his team is working amongst pine trees, when

…the tension in the world released itself with a sharp crack. A splinter the height of a man sprang from the trunk, ripping off the young lumberjack Gusti Grollerer’s right arm, which, as bad luck would have it, he had raised high above his head ready for the next blow of the axe. Grollerer collapsed to the ground and stared at him arm. It lay on the forest floor two metres away, still gripping the hatchet.

It is easy to see where comparisons with the sparse economy of Denis Johnson’s writing come from. Andreas falls in love…which he cannot articulate, but can demonstrate…and then his heart is broken.

Later he gets work cleaning the cables: that is hauling himself the length of the cables on a suspended pallet, high above the valley and the rocks, scouring the ice and rust of the cables and the mechanisms with sandpaper and wire brushes. This interlude gives rise to one the most beautiful paragraphs I can remember reading – it is long, so I will be selective:

One clear autumn day, when a roll of sandpaper slipped out of his hand and sprang down the slope like an impetuous young goat before eventually sailing out over a spur of rock and vanishing in the depths. Egger paused for the first time in years and contemplated his surroundings. The sun was low…Right beside him a lone sycamore burned yellow…A group of hikers was sitting beneath the canopy of a small calving shed. Egger could hear them talking and laughing amongst themselves…He thought of Marie’s voice and how much he liked to listen to it… he rolled slowly over to the next steel girder, climbed down, and went in search of the sandpaper.

He goes to war, when the time comes, and winds up alone and bemused on a distant outpost of the Nazi empire in the Caucasus mountains. He almost freezes to death before being captured and put to work in a prisoner camp. One of the abiding images from this period is that of the starved and then frozen bodies of all the animals lying at the roadside, in ditches, as the prisoners are transported across the land in cattle trucks. The cruelty and horror traumatising Andreas.

Eventually he finds his way home and picks up his life as farmhand / odd job man. His final unofficial role being that of a tour guide, taking walkers up and down the mountain trails he knows so well. Eventually tiring of their preening self-regard, he gives up even this work and retires to become the cave-dwelling hermit on the edge of town. Mirroring the opening of the story when a young Andreas tried to rescue the goatherd Horned Hannes, who he believed was dying in a snow storm.

Lyrical, gentle, quiet: a treasure of a book.

Isolation Read #44

90 pages long, chock full of compassion, reasoned thought and a dash of grandma’s old wisdom. With chapters headed: disillusionment and bewilderment; anxiety; anger; apathy; information, knowledge, wisdom.

This is the step back and take stock, take a breath, we all need to allow ourselves. And it is welcome.

It is strong on analysis of the symptoms and how we got here, less strong on the solutions beyond the plea for ‘conscious optimism‘, but it does have things to say that will help guard against getting dragged further into the mire: and being a story teller, Shafak puts a lot of weight behind swapping histories, hearing the stories of others and being open to the possibilities of learning from others.

All of which is best demonstrated by a few quotes:

How is it possible…in an era when social media was expected to give everyone an equal voice, so many continue to feel voiceless?

To be deprived of a voice means to be deprived of agency over our own lives.

Not to be able to tell your story…is to be dehumanised…it creates a profound, and existential anxiety in us.

Group narcissism…The shared illusion that we are the centre of the world…discussed by Adorno and Fromm who had witnessed first hand, the rise of nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia and totalitarianism. Their warnings are apposite today. Central to group narcissism in an inflated belief in the clear-cut distinctiveness and indisputable greatness of ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’…I will first doubt, then denigrate anyone who refuses to recognise our superiority.

And now we all stand and stare at a political system that churns out slogans like advertising copy…realising that underneath the polished veneer of rhetoric that we have been sold, there is – and always was – hollowness. No wonder, then, that we are deeply disillusioned.

We are exhausted by anxiety, consumed with anger, our minds and defences all too often overwhelmed.

She quotes Gramsci: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

She talks of the Turkish / Kurdish traditional wariness of thresholds, how they are regarded as the domain of elusiveness, obscurity, precariousness. And of group narcissism: the idea that individuals satisfy a personal self-regard by aligning themselves and identifying themselves with a group and robe themselves in whatever ‘virtues’ they see as being inherent in that group. She sees social media as accelerating this tendency, “Stuck in our whispering galleries we have become bad listeners and even worse learners” and notes that “democracy, which is essentially about compromise and negotiation…suffers from this constant tension and antagonism,” eventually labelling people who think or speak differently as “traitors“.

She moves onto questions that are on the surface simple, whereas in reality, they are not, they are complex, nuanced and because of this often brushed aside: “What is democracy?” “What is normal?” “What is happiness?” “What is selfishness?” “Who am I?” – landing back at the feet of Walt Whitman, with the last one, “I contain multitudes.

Back then revolution was not a noun. It was a verb.

Today the faith that tomorrow will be better than yesterday is simply no more…everything feels transient…what exactly does an education guarantee?

The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.

How do we turn our individual and collective anger into a force for good?

…progress is neither guaranteed or steady. Democracy is hard to achieve yet easy to lose

It starts with language.

Isolation Read #43

Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered. Who? Everyone, she said wearily…Other women mostly.

This quote comes from the epilogue, and are the final words said to Taddeo by her dying mum who is in hospital, riddled with cancer. The following quotes are also from the epilogue:

Even when women are being heard, it is often only the right types of women who are actively heard. White ones. Rich ones. Pretty ones. Young ones. Best to be all those things at once.

So many of the fears about desire seem to be things we should have overcome years ago. We can say we want to fuck indiscriminately, but we cannot exactly say we expect to be happy.

On the evenings in Indiana that I spent listening to the roomful of women, there was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of quiet concern. But when Lina came to the room happy, when she came in from just having seen Aidan, those were the nights when the other women drummed their fingers and tried to drown out her glee.

This book is important because of the research; because of the years of study; because of the dedication of the author to her study – moving house several times to be near her subjects; and because of the honesty of the stories told. These stories may sit uncomfortably with some, some may prefer that the stories were not so boldly told, or even told at all. And that is the point: allowing a voice.

It doesn’t matter that some of the choices would not necessarily be ‘our choices’ – they may well not have been the choices that some or any of these three women would have made, in their ideal world either, but each was dealing with the reality they had in front of them. No one here is asking for approval and no one is hiding, either. They are simply telling.

Maggie: her parents perennially drunk and arguing and struggling, so when she gets attention from an attractive teacher, while she is still his pupil… which leads to statutory rape;

or Lina: triple-raped one night while in high school, having been tricked into going to a ‘party’ by her then boyfriend. Her husband hardly ever touches her, when a married man ‘lavishes’ his lust upon her, whenever he is in town and when he is, she pushes her daily life off to one side, manically arranging afternoons off work, babysitters for her kids, desperate to see him..;

or Sloane: a successful restauranteur whose husband suggests she sleeps with other people so long as he can join in, or watch, or at least hear detailed reports back, with photos or videos.

The honest voice and the unblinking eye.

Oddly enough, it might be that the story that lives longest with me is that of Taddeo’s own mother. As she tells it, her mother worked on a fruit stall in the centre of town when she was in her late teens in Bologna, Italy just after the war. She would walk to work every day and on many of these days a middle-aged man would walk behind her down the street, openly masturbating as he followed this young woman. Day after day.

There is such a lot to think about in the book, whether on desire, the need for a voice/ to be heard, misogyny / patriarchy, the squalid business of ‘knowing your place’…all things I was expecting to hear about. The one thing I guess I was not prepared for was the disapproval of other women heaped on each of these three as their stories unfold, the uninhibited right to pass judgement, despite lacking so much information. That clearly says something about my expectations. And about how we live socially. We appear happy to have someone to step on; happiness (and judgement) in someone else’s misfortune.

Isolation Read #42

Satisfyingly deranged. This book is a brilliant, whacked out of shape debut – it probably needs trigger warnings about various forms of abuse, drug, drink, sex, violence, exploitation and ultimately, a little bit of death.

Irina, our utterly unreliable narrator, is nearing the end of her twenties, living back in her home town of Newcastle. She has been a fine art student, specialising in fetishised photography of ‘un-model-like’ men who she randomly picks up and gives her business card to. Those who turn up, and don’t bore her, get to be her model for the day, sometimes longer. She makes some money from her bar job, but she makes most of her money selling the dodgier end of her photography portfolio to ‘select’ clients.

She is also massively into drugs. Any drugs. Whatever she can get her hands on. A lot of the novel involves her trying to piece together what happened in the preceding hours, puking or generally zonked out on the couch trying to recover.

Predictably, it gets messy.

The sandwich I have already regurgitated once today works its way back up my gullet, escaping in full this time. It lands in the water with a splat…Carbs are a rarity for me, and, upon reflection, I should not be surprised that my body has rejected this floury Tesco baguette like a mismatched organ.

We’ve only got to page 6. As a whole it put me in mind of Helen Walsh’s Brass from 2004. Which is a good thing.

As her success as a photographic artist grows, so Irina’s (sex) life becomes increasingly violent; she blurs boundaries all over the place; she starts seeing things, whether they are hallucinations or flashbacks, is never really clear; her mind unravels, at an increasing pace as the book careers along. It is a quick read. But not for those with overly visual imaginations.

It would be wrong not to mention the utterly charming acknowledgements section, which concludes: “(my partner)…George’s unconditional love and support was imperative to the writing, editing and completion of this book, and will be to all further projects. Unless we split up, in which case, what a massive gaffe this will be, eh?

…or the opening dedication: “For my mother and father. Please don’t read this.

Isolation Read #41

Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question.

I’m not really a fan of that whole Amis / Barnes / McEwan thing: the smug self-satisfied cleverness thing. But I do seem to have a soft spot for Barnes’ later, shorter novels. (I except McEwan’s debut The Cement Garden from this sweeping and wholly subjective generalisation, as it was scorching.)

This novel, ultimately a reflection on time, memory, how time distorts our memories and also – crucially – how our memories of an event may be wildly at odds with the memories of others present at the time. The key point of this economical study, is that the main protagonist, Tony Webster, gets to relive some striking events from his early twenties, through the eyes of his girlfriend and a best friend at the time, 40 years later. It is a sobering experience, which in the end leads Tony to thoughts as to whether his whole life has been lived as a lie, or at least as a misapprehension.

At school, in their late teens, Tony and his two friends Colin and Alex, have their tight friendship, with their settled roles within that friendship, when Adrian arrives at school. A new boy, highly intelligent – taking the masters on at the their specialisms. Aloof, gangly and Camus-quoting, Adrian disrupts their order, without seeming to try. Early in the novel, in one class the news is broken that a previously unremarked classmate – Robson – has committed suicide by hanging. It is believed that he had ‘got a girl in trouble’: he left a note which read “Sorry, Mum.

The boys in the class deals with the news in their different ways: many focussing on the fact that one of their number has actually had penetrative sex with a female. Days later, Adrian uses the incident to illustrate the philosophical view that, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” An intervention that causes, “…a perceptible intake of breath and some reckless head turning.

The friends spend time together, including a day trip to London in the company of Tony’s girlfriend, Veronica. Portrayed as a stilted and difficult relationship in which Tony forever felt himself wrong-footed by the young woman. Never more so than a disastrous visit to her parents’ home in Chislehurst – where the father repeatedly puts him in his place, the superior older brother ignores him, while “the mother” as she is referred to, acts in a strangely disconnected manner before telling Tony not to let her daughter walk all over him.

Adrian goes to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol; Adrian and Veronica become lovers – after she has split with Tony; Adrian writes a formal letter to Tony explaining this new situation and hoping that it was not too upsetting for Tony. Tony replies bluntly.

The first part of the book ends with news of Adrian’s suicide, having weighed up his assessment of the value of his life, according to Camus’ edict, “…that suicide was the only true philosophical question.”

Having set the scene and introduced the main protagonists, the book then leaps forty years, to Tony’s reflections which are thrown completely by a surprise bequest from Veronica’s mother.

Barnes handles the plot’s devices and twists expertly, leaving the reader wrong-footed and checking back for the missed clues. It is a joy to read while not at all being easy or slight.

Tony reflects variously:

You get to a time when life’s variations seem pitifully limited.

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?

You get towards the end of life – no, not life itself, but of that something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life…There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

I suspect it says something about me, that this resonates. This is a novel based on introspection, anxiety and misunderstanding of fellow humans. And the fallibility of memory.

Isolation Read #40

I bought this book because I love the title poem. Except the title poem isn’t in the book. Bugger. I have included it at the bottom of this.

We are all being watched through peep-holes, one-way mirrors, security cameras, talked about on walkie-talkies, car ‘phones, Pye Pocketfones… (the opening to Intelligence)

As someone who has always read, and as someone who has been around long enough to do better than this, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this is first time I have held a book by Carson, let alone read one. And I think that is the first problem: I was raised through the English school system in the 1980s. We didn’t talk about Northern Ireland. Sometimes, we heard adults talk about it in hushed tones and euphemisms. And yes, sometimes it was on the news: almost always bad news. It seemed scarcely credible that this was part of the ‘our’ country: the only ‘good things’ that I can remember being associated with Northern Ireland were Mary Peters, The Undertones (predictably enough, sorry about that), when Armstrong scored that goal in the ’82 World Cup and the kids TV show We Are The Champions, which always seemed to come from Enniskillen. Even Heaney, I can’t remember hearing his name until long after the Good Friday agreement. In the early 2000s we drove all the way round the island of Ireland, heading into Derry, seeing those barbed wire, concrete bunkered watch towers and police stations was an unearthly, sobering and shocking moment: this is still notionally the same country as the one I grew up in. If this were a political tract this would be your starting point for investigating the complete lack of understanding in England of the fear caused by things like the laissez faire attitude to Brexit and the importance of borders and the complacency of peace: there is a wilful ignorance at work that is dangerous.

In Belfast Confetti Carson speaks of life in the six counties, concentrating mainly on Belfast, the detail and the streets and the people of his home city: I have recently seen an appreciation of his life and work which uses the word ‘encyclopaedic’ to describe his knowledge and descriptions of the city and its people and it is a good description. The cover to this edition has a schematic of central Belfast, centred on the Falls Road where the young Carson was schooled. We are unequivocally located.

The collection is in three parts; there are haiku scattered about the place, variously credited to Buson, Yasui or Basho, seemingly indicating shifts in tone, or moment, or perhaps they are just a quiet place, a pause for breath amidst the torrent of Carson’s overflowing verbosity. I love the fact that he writes lines that are too long, and his poems go on for several pages, and they are so unguarded, so undomesticated. He cannot stop himself. I’m sure that what I’ve just said might give the impression of the need for a good editor, that’s not the case, the words are not wrong or badly chosen…its just that he has so much to say. All of it worth listening to.

The book opens with Loaf; “I chewed it over, this whiff I got just now, but trying to pin down / That aroma – yeast, salt, flour, water – is like writing on the waxed sleeve / That its wrapped in: the nib keeps skidding off.” This poem like this collection, is about memory, tangible memories and what triggers the reappearance. Later, pondering over the lunchtime pint, ” The bitter edge of Guinness would cut through the bread and oxtail soup / Till bread and soup and stout became all one. We would talk with our mouths full…/ We made up affairs between / the bakers and the packers – bread and paper – then we wiped it all clean.

One of the shorter poems, Snow, on the wonderful by-ways of memory and the varying evocations of it, starts with a table-tennis ball (a ‘ping-pong’ ball) moving back and forth across a darkening bay window on the “extended leaves of the dining table” that bounces away lost in a corner, only to be found gain days later bringing with it…the “tacky pimples” on the bat, which becomes the rubber thimble used by the bank teller to count the cash, before moving to an auction and “the Thirties scuffed leather sofa I wanted to make a bid for / …I won’t say what I paid for it: anything’s too much when you have nothing” and when he looks under the cushions he finds “all the haberdashery of loss – cuff buttons, / broken ball-point pens and fluff, old pennies, pins and needles, and yes, / a ping-pong ball”. The poem is too deliberate to be called wistful, but there are shades of that, none the less.

Ambition, opens with memories of walking in hills, a crazy tale about a saint who walked seven miles with head cut off, “And the wise man said, The distance doesn’t matter, / Its the first step that was difficult” and the drive home from the walk, before it crashes into “The Troubles”:

And if time is a road, then you’re checked again and again / By a mobile checkpoint. One soldier holds a gun to your head. Another soldier / Asks you questions, and another checks the information on the head computer. / Your name. Your brothers’ names. Your father’s name. His occupation...”

Other poems continue this theme Queen’s Gambit; Gate (I see it’s got a bit of flak… The stopped clock of The Belfast Telegraph seems to indicate the time / of the explosion – or was that last week’s); Last Orders ( Squeeze the buzzer…like a trigger); Hairline Crack (a bullet neatly parted her permanent wave); Bloody Hand (My thumb is the hammer of a gun. The thumb goes up. The thumb goes down.); Jump Leads (The victim is his wedding photograph. He’s been spattered with confetti.); Punctuation; Yes; The Mouth; The Knee; Night Out (…we get a broken rhythm / Of machine-gun fire. A ragged chorus. So the sentence of the night / Is punctuated through and through by rounds of drink, of bullets, of applause.) The assault, the language, the language of assault, is relentless, as it must have been trying to live ordinary lives there.

None of this feels forced. It is story-telling, life-telling, such is the joy of language and the rhythm of speech that it flows without seeming at all unnatural, quite the opposite in fact.

So far I have only mentioned the poems. There are also 6 pieces of prose in the middle section of the book, they do not look to my eye that they are intended to be seen as prose poems, they seem solidly, small pieces of prose, and they are if anything the most fascinating pieces in the collection. They ponder language, the history of the naming of Belfast, they are truly encyclopaedic wandering through the names of streets, pubs and landmarks. How the naming of place matters, and how you name a place tells so much about you to others around you – but only to those who also know how contended some places and names are.

The central pice of these 6, seems to me the terrific – and terrifically frightening – Question Time, which relates when he was out for a bike ride one quiet Sunday and made a u-turn at the wrong place in the wrong street. Two men stop him, drag him from his bike, frisk him, press him to a wall:

You were seen coming from the Shankill / Why did you make a u-turn? / Who are you? / Where are you coming from? / … Where are you from? / Who lives next door? / Next door again?

The questions are snapped at me like photographs. The map is pieced together bit by bit…they check it for error, hesitation, accuracy.

Those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced this life in our country should count ourselves lucky, and should read this and similar books to get a grasp of the fuller history of nation. It is not what you have been taught it was.

 

Belfast Confetti

Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion
Itself—an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire…
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering.
All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.

I know this labyrinth so well—Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street—
Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated. Crimea Street. Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks.

Ciaran Carson, from Belfast Confetti (1989)

Isolation Read #39

Its probably time we talked about Robert McFarlane: author of several best-selling books, the subject of which were things I had no particular interest in when I started reading them but which by the end I was entranced by, albeit at a safe distance – mountains, glaciers, ridges, blizzards, walking out on tidal marshlands near Essex somewhere, and loads of extremely dangerous (and probably dank) tunnels and cavernous spots all over the place. He is an academic at Cambridge, handsome in a Chariots of Fire kind of way, clearly daring (probably beyond what most of us would deem sanity) and according to the one person I know who has spent time with him, one of the most lovely men you will ever meet. He writes some of the most lucid and loving appreciations of the world around us. “What a complete bastard” to quote Rik Young One.

This, one of MacFarlane’s first books, is like all of his others, deceptively easy to read yet it is rammed full of facts and information, such that you have come away learning things by stealth: the reverse of a light-fingered pickpocket, he leaves fascination and joy in his wake before you notice he’s gone.

I like mountains. I’ve walked near, around and close to some large hills – its difficult to be taken seriously talking about mountains if all you really know with certainty are things like the Lake District and bit of Scotland – yes, they can be dangerous as well as beautiful, people die on them – some of the dead were serious climbers who knew their business, but still got caught out – but they are also, in the main ‘manageable’. You can ‘do’ them in a day and be back for tea. I have seen, at a few miles distant, but still in the glacial foothills, Mt Cook on New Zealand’s South Island and recognised it as a place of a truly different order and I’ve walked on a couple of glaciers in Iceland. I also know that I could and probably would die if left to my own devices on them for any length of time. Macfarlane’s apparent alacrity on and need to repeatedly challenge himself by going to, various remote and high places is alien to me, but I’m glad he did, glad he got to report back and just glad he came back.

The book weaves the author’s own growing love for mountain landscapes – his grandparents’ stories of their travels and the various ‘tools of the trade’ kept around their house – with a wonderfully full history of mountaineering. It is not until someone points it out that it becomes obvious, but really it is obvious, that the desire and the ability to ascend these great rock formations is only a relatively recent thing in human history: prior to the last 300 years or so, mountains were great big things, best avoided, you probably circumnavigate them if at all possible – unless someone knew a really good pass through – they were useless for agriculture so no one save the odd unfortunate goat herd would go there. They were the legendary dwelling place of beasts and gods or a last place of refuge for hermits and outlaws.

Macfarlane makes them romantic, alluring places and as he does he quotes Keats, Shelley and references Turner and Ruskin – both of whom have some terrifically otherworldly art based on snow storms and glaciers. One of the main attractive qualities that he returns to is that of the light at altitude:

Nowhere but in the mountains do you become so aware of the incorrigible plurality of light…

Quoting George Mallory, “...here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.

He talks of the realisation of the sublime, something called Alpenglow and most alluringly the Broken Spectre: a trick of light on bright days, when the person is standing between the sun and a bank of mist or fog, that not only throws a long shadow but also as the light is refracted it produces halos of colour around the shadow. The possibility of seeing that would almost be enough to draw me up into one of those ridiculous altitudes. Almost.

The penultimate chapter on Everest is mainly a retelling of the story of George Mallory’s three attempts to climb the highest mountain (1921, 1922 & 1924). Presumably assembled from the copious letters he wrote to his wife Ruth, at home. Noting that she continued to receive these letters for months after the news of Mallory’s death on Everest had been telegrammed to her. It is an attractive and compelling history – and Macfarlane does not baulk at the gruesome cost in lives of the Sherpa guides to satisfy the vanity project (?), compulsion (?) of this white man and his entourage, nor does he pull back from considerations of what life was like for the family he left behind again and again.

Speaking of gruesome – how about the Russian mountaineer who, at the summit of a range in the old USSR, one cornea popped out, rendering him blind in one eye, shortly followed by the other. He sat down and died on the mountain, knowing that his colleagues had no hope of getting him down the 20-odd thousand feet.

I absolutely loved the short final chapter, recounting and encounter with a Snow Hare in a blizzard. Does the hare cross Macfarlane’s path, or is it Macfarlane crossing the hare’s.

In short it is another terrific book by Macfarlane, to put next to the several others of his on my bookshelves.

Isolation Read #38

Ever a sucker for brevity of expression, Hemingway seems a natural for my reading habits, however it is 30 years since I last picked up any of his works, and then the only one that stands out in immediate recollection is the short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber from The Snows of Kilimanjaro collection. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fiesta / The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon all in pretty rapid succession in my late teens, as well this novella. They left an overarching sense of ‘taking life by the horns’ machismo and death. I should probably go back an read them again to see what affect they have on a middle-aged reader, who knows that adrenalin and excitement are rare, unsustainable hiatuses in the unleavened monotony of everyday.

The Old Man and The Sea, is short and punchy, built on struggle, ultimately fruitless struggle: life as futility. You root for the old man, Santiago, as he tries to resurrect a fishing life that has grown barren – 84 days without a significant catch. How else is his life to be measured? He works, and he suffers as he tries to use all his guile to land the big fish that will save him. He puts up with hunger – eating raw some of the smaller fish he catches; thirst, eking out his one flask of water, despite being days far out at sea in glare of the tropical sun; injuries, as the line rips through the soft flesh of his hands. He talks to himself, he talks to the creatures of the sea, including the great marlin he wrestles with on the end of the line, to a small bird that lands improbably on his oar for a few moments and he talks to Joe DiMaggio, the baseball star he imagines as the greatest of men. He is a good guy trying to get by, in a difficult world but his ability to do so is fading.

I must hold his pain where it is, he thought. Mine does not matter. I can control mine. But his pain could drive him mad.

After a while the fish stopped beating at the wire and started circling slowly again. The old man was gaining line steadily now. But he felt faint again. He lifted some sea water with his left hand and put it on his head. Then he put more on and rubbed the back of his neck.

‘I have no cramps’ he said. ‘He’ll be up soon and I can last. You have to last. Don’t even speak of it.’

He becomes delirious and his mind wanders to recollections of his youth, to daydreams. He expresses fraternal respect and gratitude the great fish. And there are episodes of religiosity.

Hemingway’s prose propels the reader along: it is exhilarating but this is not casual running-off-at-the-mouth writing, nor is it a sort of journalism with ideas above its station, it is measured, honed writing of a high order. As in the quote above, there is some measure of Beckett in there as well.

Apparently it received a mixed reception on publication, it is now acknowledged as the last of Hemingway’s significant novels. In 1953, The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it was cited as contributing to the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to him in 1954.

You can read it in a couple of hours. What it says and how it says it, will stay with you a great deal longer.

(this edition has an awesome cover, as well)

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