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 #28

This 1936 novel is so bloody annoying it has not one but two introductions by TS Eliot, which should have been all the warning I needed.

Apparently it is “a remarkable poetic novel about the life of Americans and Europeans in Paris in the 1920s”…”a great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation…” Eliot claimed he felt it “an impertinence to introduce” such a book, one that would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry”.

I found it largely incomprehensible, not in the ego-blasting way of something like Finnegan’s Wake, more something that had been cobbled together from a bunch of scattergun phrases and bon mots whispered aside, which if you say them quickly and assertively enough, will fool some into thinking it profound. True there are occasionally passages of a rare and lucid beauty such as during Nora’s search for her wayward lover Robin – she decides to habituate the places and take on the ‘defilements’ that Robin has wallowed in, in order to be able to ‘find’ her:

In the narrow streets of Naples, ivies and flowers were growing over broken-down walls. Under enormous staircases, rising open to the streets, beggars lay sleeping beside images of St Gennaro; girls going into churches to pray were calling out to boys in the squares. In open doorways night-lights were burning all day before gaudy prints of the Virgin. In one room that lay open to the alley, before a bed covered with a cheap heavy satin comforter, in the semi-darkness, a young girl sat on a chair, leaning over its back, one arm across it, the other hanging at her side, as if half of her slept; and half of her suffered. When she saw me she laughed, as children often do…”

Or when, having enlightened us as to the meaning of “a tuppenny-upright“, Nora enters a church where, “All the candles were burning steadily for the troubles that people had entrusted to them, and I was almost alone, only in a far corner an old peasant woman saying her beads.

But mostly, these purple patches stand out because they stand alone; I could open the novel randomly at any one of its 140 pages, and find something unintelligible:

“I put my hand on the poor bitch of a cow and her hide was running water under my hand, like water tumbling down from Lahore, jerking against my hand as if she wanted to go, standing still in one spot; and I thought, there are directions and speeds that no one has calculated, for believe it or not that cow has gone somewhere very fast that we didn’t know of, and yet was still standing there.” (21)

“Their very lack of identity makes them ourselves. For by a street number, by a house, by a name, we cease to accuse ourselves. Sleep demands of us a guilty immunity.” (79)

“His sanity is an unknown room: a known room is always smaller than an unknown…He feeds on odd remnants that we have not priced; he eats a sleep that is not our sleep. There is more in sickness than the name of that sickness.” (108)

All of which is a shame, because it is hailed as one of the first and also one of the great, novels to openly portray homosexual love between women and so must be given its dues as groundbreaking.

Let’s finish by returning to the twice-sown flatulence of Eliot’s prefaces: when he said it is a novel for readers of poetry he meant, not that “… Miss Barnes’s style is ‘poetic prose’. But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of the novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose that is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give…(Nightwood) is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”

Thus, in Eliot’s eyes, I do not appreciate it because I am not trained in poetry, something I feely admit, but it seems to me more likely that it is simply difficult to enjoy a book that is this obtuse, so wrapped up in being ‘wonderful’ and ‘literary’ that it forgets to have a door marked entrance: even The Labyrinth had a way in.




Isolation Read #27

Did I ever mention that I had to take a crash course in English A-level, do it in a year, because I was stupid enough (Even then. Still then.) to start my sixth form studying Physics.

The Rainbow was one of the set texts. It was the first Lawrence I read and I loved it; it was a launch into a deep sensuous pool. I haven’t read it since. But now 35 years later I am reading it much more slowly and loving it even more. There is a tendency to step delicately around Lawrence, to not draw attention to him too much, like the old sot of an uncle about whom salacious histories are whispered but never spoken of in polite company. But he is a fine, fine writer…full stop. He is exceptionally fine on the human, on the inner life of desires that makes us human. And he does this in such as way as to make us still part of the rhythm and pulse of nature. I think part of the reason for his being ‘disappeared’ a little from the cannon is that his people living these passionate, heart-felt, yearning lives were often ‘ordinary’ people, people we are told don’t have such sensitivities, which David Herbert clearly knew for nonsense. This novel is an extraordinarily immersive experience when you let it take you.

The story of three generations of the Brangwen family, growing as the industry of the area (Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire borders, near Ilkeston) grows through the Victorian era and into the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. Through Fred and Tom, and the Polish ex-patriot widow, Anna to Gudrun, living on the farm as urban living sprawls towards them, as the canal and the railway cut through and as they begin to see the pits and the industry and the filth (and the wealth) it generates. The pulsating centre of the book however is Ursula Brangwen: eldest child of Anna and William: headstrong, vain and utterly assured of the importance of her own life and her place in the world. Other people, including parents and siblings, are sources of annoyance and ultimately disappointment to her. The book was banned on publication, there are some graphic (for the time, 1915) sexual passages, a lot of sexual tension and preoccupation, although the likely main reason for the ban was the depiction of a brief but loving affair between 17 year old Ursula and her teacher Winifred:

“…there sprang up between the mistress and the girl that strange awareness, then the unspoken intimacy that sometimes connects two people…”

They spend weekends together, skinny-dip, discuss politics – the women’s movement – “took the dogmas out of religion” and for a while Ursula is in awe of the hard sporting body of her lover. But as Winifred moves away for the summer, to London, a bereft Ursula begins a quick and unflattering reappraisal, what had been sporty became lumpen, “a heavy clogged sense of deadness began to gather upon her…her female hips seemed big and earthy, her ankles and arms were too thick”. Ursula quickly manufactures an engagement between Winifred and Ursula’s uncle Tom, who the two women visit in the new mining town where he now lives, a place “where only the pit matters”, a place that “had the strange desolation of a ruin” or spreading about the place “like a skin disease.”  

As always, Lawrence reveres nature over industry and worries that some essential part of humanity will be lost in the face of the unstoppable rise of industry – and it may be that this Covid-19 forced pause in the headlong rush to ‘development’ and wealth production is the first time since the heady days of the Industrial Revolution that the engine has been put in neutral and we can all take stock – he did not see humans as machine parts, their lot only to perform as a cog, but as individuals glorious and worthy of being cherished in their own right.

In her bid to break free from the strictures of home life and village life, Ursula dreams of starting out as a teacher, how she will take the small minds of children and show them the beauties of the world, how they will love her in return. She lands a position at a primary school in Ilkeston, where the kids are rough and education has to beaten into them, to paraphrase a fellow teacher. After several abject weeks of trying to assert enough authority to begin teaching, Ursula’s resolve is defeated and she gives one boy a savage thrashing. That no one stops her and that this wins her the respect and silent attention in class that she has craved, crushes her.

A young man of ‘noble descent’ re-enters her life. Anton Skrebensky, son of a Polish baron, had been a friend of the family a few years ago and he made a huge impression on Ursula, before going away to fight in South African Boer War. He was now an officer and “well-grown” into being a young man. Ursula and Anton embark on a passionate affair taking in travel across Europe, as Anton awaits his next posting, which he knows will be to India – at this point he prevails upon Ursula with his hope that he will be a good colonial master to the natives he will find there. They get engaged. Ursula begins to make accommodation in her thinking to being an army wife and ex-pat out in India, when on a final few days together at a large house on the Lincolnshire coast, hosted by some of Anton’s circle of friends, they have a final passionate disagreement and they break:

“‘Have you done with me?’ he asked her at length, lifting his head.

‘it isn’t me,’ she said. ‘You have done with me – we have done with each other.’

He looked at her, at the closed face, which he thought so cruel. And he knew he could never touch her again. His will was broken..

‘Well, what have I done?’, he asked, in a rather querulous voice.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, in the same, dull, feelingless voice, ‘It is finished. It has been a failure.'” 

Ursula is left, repentant and lost, briefly believing herself to be pregnant with Anton’s child, she writes to him offering all apologies and that she would be a dutiful wife if only he would have her back. Anton replies “I am married.” He has already left, he married a Colonel’s daughter in haste and they headed out to India as man and wife.

The final short stunning chapter, has Ursula walking out on a common in heavy rain, that became a storm, but “there was something else. Some horses were looming in the rain, not near yet. But they were going to be near…She knew the heaviness on her heart. It was the weight of the horses…she would bear their weight…Suddenly the weight deepened and her heart grew tense…they were near” …and this passage goes on as the beasts mill around and the storm grows heavier, “She knew they had not gone…she was aware of their red nostrils flaming with long endurance, of their haunches, so rounded, so massive, pressing, pressing, pressing…pressing forever until they went mad, running against walls of time and never breaking free…the wetness of the rain could never put out that hard, urgent, massive fire that was locked within these flanks…” Until, “The thunder of the horses galloping down the path behind her, shook her, the weight came down upon her, down to the moment of extinction.”

At the last breathless moment, the horses swerve to avoid Ursula, the storm breaks and she rises to see the biblical Rainbow cast across the land of the old family farm and she takes hope from that.

The book is stunning, sensual, urgent, rooted while pushing into modernity.


Isolation Read #26

This has, I fear, become my poetry comfort read. I can open any page, read for a while, close it again and feel refreshed. I don’t necessarily feel the need to ‘finish it’, although I have several times. It is more the experience of being in it – as if the words were warm sunlight and the air was mainly still, there was birdsong and nothing was troublesome. Odd then, that it is concerned with Aeneas entering the underworld to speak one last time with his dead father: not even ‘the father’, but the ‘shade of the father’.

All that you need to know about the why of writing it is in Heaney’s own introduction: it was an act of love and of remembering. He describes it as “…more like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey…” but that it was the arrival of his first granddaughter that finally impelled him to get to it.

Deaths dark door stands open day and night. / But to retrace your steps and get back to the upper air, / That is the task, that is the undertaking.

And beside these flowing streams and flooded wastes /  A ferryman keeps watch, surly, filthy and bedraggled / Charon. His chin is bearded with unclean white shag; / The eyes stand in his head and glow; a grimy cloak / Flaps out from a knot tied at the shoulder. / All by himself he poles the boat, hoists sail / And ferries dead souls in his rusted craft, / Old but still a god…

And, on finally meeting with his father’s shade:

Three times he tried to reach his arms round that neck. / Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped / Like a breeze between his hands… 

This short book is the soft rendering of a dream, in which there is blood and death all around.

Isolation Read #25

(translated by Ann Goldstein)

I haven’t read any of the novels that make up the Neopolitan quartet that made this famously pseudonymous writer a literary superstar: my sister has them, tells me they’re good but she hasn’t finished them yet. This novel is well-written and furious. From the first line, “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table…” the book rockets through its 180 pages in a tight, self-flaggellating fury, at times you can almost hear the screaming.

Olga, the ‘abandoned’ wife and Mario, the husband, have two children and a big soppy dog called Otto. They live a comfortable early middle-age, middle-class life in Turin, where they have settled after several peripatetic years following Mario’s work around Europe, something which does, fortunately for Olga, leave her ‘more or less fluent‘ in four languages.

Olga was born and raised in Naples from where she dredges the memory of la poverella, local slang for “that poor woman”: a neighbour Olga remembers from when she was 8 years old. This woman’s husband left her, there was screaming and shouting but he left, and it broke this woman, who had formerly been a well-known and well-liked figure. She notes that her took ‘even her name‘, she was only ever referred as la poverella thereafter, when she was discussed or mentioned by neighbours. Olga becomes obsessed that this is to be her future.

The novel charts the weeks following Mario’s announcement: Olga is initially in denial and believes the infidelity to be a passing thing, consequently she tries to be ‘nice and calm’ when he calls, she tries to mollify him; then there is the admission from Mario that he is moving in with the much younger – and more beautiful, according to Olga – Carla, with whom he had been sleeping for around 5 years – which given that she is described as only being in her early 20s raises more anger in Olga; her spiralling into a full-blown breakdown in which she ceases to care for herself, the kids, the house or Otto; the boy and the dog fall seriously ill – there is a lot of bodily fluid, and cleaning up, before more fluid returns in her exaggerated ‘stink of motherhood’ – while her daughter castigates her repeatedly for being inattentive and a bad mother, and simultaneously, not nearly as beautiful or as much fun as Carla; to its nadir, when, after much fantasising about what the husband ‘does to‘ Carla which he never ‘did to’ her, she goes round to an older neighbour’s apartment, armed with a bottle of wine, the sole aim of the visit seems to be to debase herself sexually with this bachelor, with whom she has had almost no contact previously and with whom there has never been any flirtation – the evening ends predictably badly.

The fear of the loss of self, not just the fear of losing her name, is as much a theme of the book as the loss of ‘her man‘, and is cleverly illustrated when two-thirds of the way through, she does just that in a paragraph, mixing the first person and the third, naming herself, over again as if to reassert herself, before finally chastising herself, through the pain of a clip she has fixed to her arm, to reorientate herself as the “I” who has narrated the story thus far.

I got up, I hurried out of the room, closing the door behind me. I would have liked to have giant strides that would not allow me to stop for anything. Olga marches down the hall, through the living room. She is decisive now, she will remedy things…Yet I slowed down immediately, I couldn’t tolerate excitement, if the world around me accelerated, I decelerated. Olga has a terror of the frenzy of doing…she can’t tolerate the inner roar that will assault her, the pounding temples, the nausea, the cold sweat, the craze to be faster and faster, faster and faster. So no hurry, take your time, walk slowly, shuffle, even. Reset the bite of the clip on my arm to get me to abandon the third person, the Olga who wanted to run and return to the I, I who go to the metal door, I know who I am, control what I do.

Ferrante is clearly an author of no small talent: you see the characters and the settings clearly, the story bolts along – there is almost no slack in this short, unsettling novel. All the while, there is the underlying question of the identity of the woman as an individual; how does she avoid getting swallowed up as “mother” or “wife” or “la poverella“.

There will come a time when I sit down with My Brilliant Friend, probably on a sun lounger somewhere with a glass of red wine close at hand, and I look forward to that.


Isolation Read #24

(Translated by John Minsford)

“The most influential book of strategy in the world”

Master Sun said: ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.

This, and hundreds more aphorisms from over 2000 years ago are what has earned this book its fearsome reputation. It is telling that there are no literary reviews on the back, but several from business types / correspondents.

“The essential guide to winning, shows you how to:

  • become an effective leader
  • gain advantage in your market
  • create unbeatable strategies
  • understand your competitors
  • know when to attack – and retreat”

I found it odd. It looks like the Basho, or any other haiku-type poet, but these are instructions; cautionary tales; preemptive admonishments (for not listening to Master Sun). You can imagine them being barked at you.

“War / Is founded / On deception; / Movement is determined / By advantage; / Division and unity / Are its elements / Of Change.”

Some remind you of today’s politicians:

“He advances / Irresistibly, / Attacking emptiness.”

…some remain pertinent:

“The killing of an enemy / Stems from / Wrath; / The fighting for booty / Stems from / A desire for reward.”

“The wise leader / In his deliberations / Always blends consideration / of gain / And harm/

By tempering thoughts of / Gain, / He can accomplish / His goal; 

By tempering thoughts of / Harm, / He can extricate himself / From calamity.”

I’m not sure I learned much about strategy from this, perhaps I should pass it on to our marketing department.


Isolation Read #23

Two pamphlets from the poet who made me think so much about the art form before I really knew that I wanted anything to do with it. I have Paul Weller and Jim Morrison to thank for an early interest in words, self-expression through words, but they wrote songs, words to go with music, Harrison wrote words to exist on their own, words that had to fend for themselves, no props, no crutches, no searing guitar riffs, no leather pants and shirt-less photos to help them get noticed. Just beautiful, playful, ugly, disgraceful, truth-telling words. And he comes from Leeds and he writes of Leeds, ten miles from where I grew up. This, to me, was (and remains) revolutionary.

I first came to Harrison through the celebrated “V”, as did so many, and through the television broadcast of his Oresteian Trilogy, which I remember watching as a teenager on a small old black and white portable in my bedroom. It was summer and I could lie on the long narrow windowsill of my room, which caught the late evening sun and I stayed there three nights straight, captivated: this was utterly something else. The nearest reference I had at the time to this Delphi-staged wonder, was the poetic borrowings of The Doors with their Crystal Ships and Moonlight Drives and of course the Oedipal drama of The End (a song that has its own Wikipedia page!), except Harrison is from Beeston, not Venice Beach.

Newcastle is Peru dates from 1969, a reading at Newcastle University: the pamphlet contains a brief author-penned introduction, described as a transcript of the introduction to that reading at Newcastle. In this introduction, Harrison tells us that the line from John Cleveland, “Correct your maps: Newcastle is Peru” summed up for him something ‘he was trying to do in his poetry’, before introducing some of the themes of the 21-stanzas. The poem is essentially a map of his journey from adolescence to adulthood; from Hunslet Feast to Newcastle, via Prague and the growing up he did along the way.

Polygons, published in 2017, is a collection of poems previously published singly, in a variety of places, although mostly in The London Review of Books. I had in the past, briefly flicked at it without really finding much to hold my attention, but now, with time in abundance, I settled in and I soaked. That these poems were not apparently conceived as a collection does lend a certain disjointedness to the pamphlet, it rises and falls away again, but there are individual moments of joy, of reading someone so ingrained in his craft that anything less than whole-hearted admiration is unavoidable.

The pamphlet opens with the four line Diary, which demonstrates Harrison’s flat wit and  brevity, perfectly:

I’ve always been aware that one day I’ll die / but I felt my real mortality begin / when this year, for the first time, I’ve filled in / the ‘in case of emergency please notify’:

The subsequent poems are soaked in Greek sun (and wine) and filled with Harrison’s trade mark Classical cast: drawing on minor deities, heroes, battles and battle sites. Some poems fling these characters, with some rage, into the (then) contemporary scenes of Bosnia (where he accompanied British forces for a while), with no attempt to disguise his contempt for the players at the time; from Remembering Rhamnous:

…now our despised PM’s once more gung-ho / I remember Rhamnous glad if cartoons show / the new Prez’s well-lubed petrol pump / gushing up Blair’s crouching poodle rump… 

There are a couple of poems that are warm, tender and might be described as minor ‘holiday love poems’, but how often do we read love poems that celebrate the “dark freckle marks /  my grandpa called his ‘grave-spots’…” on the ageing poet’s, ageing lover’s thigh.

It is the title poem, that is truly the poem to celebrate here. When I first read it, it seemed maudlin, to wallow in itself, but on re-reading and slowing down in my reading, I think I see a much more considered melancholy at work: it is about the loss of words over time (and in this it has echoes of Black Daisies for the Bride, Harrison’s difficult poem / film about his mother’s Alzheimer’s and her declining days in the High Royds Hospital), the loss over time of the physical presence of words, the loss of arch manipulators of words (Byron, Hughes and Heaney) And of course, the loss of words is the end point of any writer’s career and perhaps life. Harrison is doing a lot of thinking about his own mortality here, hoping that his survivors can sneak a way in to the stadium to scatter his ashes, “...say, ten years from now / if I manage to last another decade.

Harrison begins with a contemplation of the great blocks that make up the wall beneath Apollo’s temple, in Delphi, where “Unspaced Greek capitals cross all the cracks / keeping blocks bonded with alphabet tack-stitch” and before long we’re at the column “where each year I’ve been / to run my pen finger over Byron’s graffito…“, but each year it “gets harder to find and decipher / illegible nearly from decades of neglect…” To remedy this, to make the letters glisten again, however briefly, our guide pours water from the Castalian spring over the face of the column.

The Castalian spring is where Harrison tells us he fills his water bottles when out in Delphi and according to legend and Dodwell, “one draught can convert its drinkers to poets.” It is also where pilgrims came to consult the Delphic Oracle. Clearly a place for refreshment both physiological and literary, in more than just Harrison’s eyes.

He takes inspiration from the epitaph of the Greek writer, Kazantzakis, with “I hope for nothing: I fear nothing: I am free” stitched into Harrison’s black t-shirt, of which he has at least five and when he hangs them “up to dry / on the rack I hang washing on over the stove / all of them folded so the ‘I am free’ shows.”

He picks up on Byron’s Darkness and plays it alongside Prometheus and his theft of fire from the gods – yet more illumination. Before, when walking through the town, he spots a headline announcing the death of ‘SEIMOUS XINI’ and immediately reminisces on a dinner shared with the poet, in this town, several years back where each had gifted the other a manuscript of some of their Greek translations – poets literally sharing their words. And he thinks on about Heaney and Ted Hughes, “Both those I’ve read with have been in this kitchen” (at Harrison’s house). And back in that kitchen, “Always when cooking I go on composing / I cook. I compose. I remember lamenting, / I’m cooking a rabbit like I’ve eaten in Delphi.

This, the final poem in the pamphlet, reiterates the primacy of words to the life of Tony Harrison, they have been and remain, his sustenance. He is in Greece, among his peers. And there is sun and there is wine. And everywhere he looks, he sees stories.




Isolation Read #22

In 1963 Baldwin wrote, “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.

Blistering. Righteous. Prophetic.

Any book that notes, in passing, “Negros in this country – and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking exist in any other…” is taking on history, language, education and America, in its slim 85 or so, pages.

A book in two parts: the first, an 11 page letter addressed to his nephew, also called James, entitled “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” ; and “Down at the Cross” described as a “letter from a region in my mind.”

The letter to his nephew uses the examples of Baldwin’s father and brother (the father of the younger James) to demonstrate the way that America uses race to subjugate and ‘destroy’ black people.

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity…the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.

This part concludes: You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

The second part involves Baldwin’s thoughts on the experiences of religion in America and how they work to the detriment of the black population – Baldwin himself had been a celebrated young preacher in Harlem as a teenager. He later met with Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam in America, and some of his congregation: he left feeling that he had somehow ‘failed the test.’

Discussing real and lasting revolution, Baldwin says, “Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves onto the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go.” 

The essential question for Black America: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house? (Baldwin’s emphasis). His point being not the seperationist ideology of the Nation of Islam but that the current ‘idea of America’ that America has of itself, is not good enough and for the good of all Americans, they need to raise their game and be something better.

A morning’s reading which leads to a lifetime’s thinking.

Isolation Read #21

Essentially a love story set against the horrific siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) as the Nazis tried to move through Russia in the winter of 1941.

Anna, a teaching assistant, lives with her father and much younger brother Kolya, her mother, a nurse, died in giving birth to Kolya. The father, Mikhail was formerly a successful writer but his ‘style’ of writing has fallen foul of the new standards demanded by the Party under Stalin. They have retreated to their dacha, some 30 miles outside of Leningrad where Anna is commissioned by a reclusive former actress Marina, another who has fallen foul of the new regime and their correct modes of thinking, to draw her likeness.

As the Nazis approach Leningrad, Mikhail volunteers for the civil defence force despite being in his 50s. Anna and Kolya move into the city with him. Anna is enlisted in the  civil labour force, made up of women, digging trenches just behind the army’s front lines. Mikhail is injured and takes to his bed, Anna grows ever weaker and cannot keep up with the work – although she meets the handsome young doctor Andrei who is working all hours in the city’s hospital. Eventually all the main characters end up living in same small apartment, freezing and slowly starving through the winter where it is minus twenty inside during the day.

The main purpose of the novel is to describe in minute, demeaning detail the deprivations and hardships suffered by the populace, and that is well done – the joy at finding a small onion thought lost down the back of a cupboard weeks ago; or the weighing up of the quality of leather used to make a wallet and whether that could be cuts to strips, boiled to make a stew and the strips used again for people to chew on to sate the hunger. The absolute cold, which brought its own hardship and which in combination with the food and fuel shortages was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, also proved a lifeline, in that the frozen Lake Ladoga could be crossed by trucks, bringing in desperately needed supplies from mainland Russia, just enough to keep the city alive and therefore able to fend off the Germans.

The love stories (Anna and Andrei, but also Marina and Mikhail) are well-enough done, albeit in a prosaic and well laid-out path. The small moments of these relationships, the details, while being smothered by the cold within the apartment are one of the best aspects of the story: the other being the city’s inability to cope with its own dead – ideas like walking at night between walls of frozen dead bodies piled up because there was simply nothing else to do with them, are affecting. There is precious little interaction with other citizens. Although, in a city of 3 million Anna seems to ‘run into’ her friend and oft-time saviour Evgenia, with remarkable regularity and fortuitous timing. There is little about the politics of the event or the wider politics of the time.

Within its own parameters it is an efficiently told narrative with some interesting turns of phrase, but it seems to have settled for an oddly limiting and unsatisfactory set of parameters at the outset leaving the completed whole, unsatisfactory, unless what you wanted was a love story set against severe privation.


Isolation Read #20

I first heard of Welch last week and I ordered this book the same day. I am glad I did. Born in Montana in 1940 to Native American parents, his father was of the Blackfeet people while his mother was Gros Ventre or A’aninin. When describing his own background Welch apparently liked to add, “with a small amount of Irish thrown in”.

The book was published in 1974 and in that year the Pulitzer declined to award a prize in its fiction category, something Louise Erdrich in her introduction, says was a mistake, that it should have gone to this slim (135 page) volume. She concludes her introduction with the following, which may also help explain why it won nothing:

“To be loyal… and write from your own direct core, is not ever in fashion. But it is always the right thing to do. Truth wears well, and Winter in the Blood is a true book.”

It is the sparse story a young Native American man moving between his life on the reservation and his work off it. The sentences are terse and clear. The story told is without fuss or elaboration. There’s something here that Edward Hopper paintings or early Tom Waits songs also captured: a central loneliness of existence. Not that the unnamed protagonist agonises over these matters, he just moves from home to bar, out to the horses – one old horse, Bird, in particular – that he works on. And sometimes he remembers his older brother and his father, both dead now.

Contained in single paragraphs, there is enough for some writers to fill a short story:

Long Knife came from a long line of cowboys. Even his mother, perhaps the best of them all, rode all day, every day, when it came time to round up the cattle for branding. In the makeshift pen, she wrestled calves, castrated them, the threw the balls into the ashes of the branding fire. She made a point of eating the roast balls, while glaring at one man, then another – even her sons, who, like the rest of us, stared at the brown hills until she was done.


Ten years had passed since that winter day his wandering ended, but nothing of any consequence had happened to me. I had had my opportunity, a chance to work in the rehabilitation clinic in Tacoma. They liked me because I was smarter than practically anybody else they had ever seen. That’s what they said and I believed them. It took a nurse who hated Indians to tell me the truth, that they needed a grant to build another wing and I was to be the first of the male Indians they needed to employ in order to get the grant. She turned out to be my benefactor. So I came home.

The writer I am most reminded of by Welch is Denis Johnson, in his short stories: language pared right back. Effective because of its economy. This is a fine novel.

Welch died at the age of 62 by which time he had won many awards, including in 1997 Welch received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas and taught English at Cornell and Washington Universities.


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