Tuesday, November 17, 2020

No blame should attach to telling the truth.

    'You are a good girl; a very good girl. And you are doing everything you ought to do.'
    Lydia turned on him a look of such gratitude that he was abashed to receive so much for so little. They continued to pace the terrace in silence, very comfortably.
    'I wish Mother would get better,' said Lydia, with such a forlorn note that Noel's heart was wrenched.
    'So do I,' he said. 'And if you need me you will let me know, won't you. I could probably manage to get over any time if you needed a bit of comforting.'
    'I'd like it more than anything in the world,' said Lydia, 'but I wouldn't ever, ever ask you, however much I wanted it. Thank you most awfully though.'
    She slipped her hand into Noel's as they walked.

--Angela Thirkell, Cheerfulness Breaks In, 1940  

I forbid myself to remember that it has not always been easy, and I never, ever, blame my parents: that sort of thing is so old hat. I pass lightly through life, without anguished attachments, and this was nearly always the way I intended it to be. I say nearly always because I do sometimes have these odd dreams. The dreams are of no interest in themselves, but they leave me wondering where they came from. In dreams I bear children, sink smiling into loving arms, fight my way out of empty rooms, and regularly drown. I wake up in a state of astonishment, and sometimes of fear, but I banish the memory of the dreams, of which no one knows anything. Telling dreams, like blaming one's parents, or falling in love and making a fool of oneself, comes into my category of forbidden things. And yet ghastly Teddy, who was obviously even more used to this kind of thing than I was, but fortunately rather out of date, had singled me out. I felt almost ashamed until I realized that he was one of those old-fashioned men who think that a liberated woman is fair game and that she will only want a little masculine attention in order to turn back thankfully into the unreconstructed model. He probably thought he was being rather kind. Had I accepted his invitation I should no doubt have been subjected to a certain amount of propaganda, the same propaganda he had been using all his life in order to get women to change their minds, but virtuously backed up by a desire to make me see the light. Seduction to him would always be disguised as conversion, and I had no doubt that somewhere along the primrose path he would utter the words, 'There's a good girl!'

--Anita Brookner, A Friend from England, 1987 

Brookner's narrator, Rachel Kennedy, is an unreliable narrator in the Henry James sense: she is building a web of deceit, but the target of her deception is none but herself. I did not see this clearly until the story moved, in the final chapter, to Venice, which is very much a Jamesian landscape built almost entirely of symbolism and unmasking.

Friday, November 6, 2020

autumn leaves

Today it's overcast and a cold wind is ripping the trees apart, tearing brown and yellow leaves into the air and casting them all over the city. The branches of the ornamentals outside the kitchen windows whip to and fro in an autumnal St Vitus dance, and I can hear the overgrown camellia by the front door beating it's limbs against the porch and scraping away at the siding. The urban animal life--the squirrels and birds and one lone rat we spotted yesterday afternoon--are fighting a protracted war over whatever's edible in the yard. This morning I chased away a squirrel from the flower box outside the window over the kitchen sink, because the burly rodent was drinking all the sugar water from the hummingbird feeder. He is lucky, is Mr Squirrel, that our pugnacious hummingbirds didn't descend on him and poke out his eyes. The annas get pretty shirty when their feeder is encroached upon.

I've been listening to a lot of Bill Evans these last couple of days, mostly stuff from the early 1960s like "Undercurrent," "Waltz for Debby," or "Live at the Village Vanguard." All masterpieces, but there are at least a dozen other albums of Evans and his various combos that are equally great. I don't know what it is about Evans' music that I find so appealing, but possibly it's that no matter the tempo, mood, or volume of the tune, it's always simultaneously complex, highly-organized playing but also beautiful and intimate, as if the world's smartest poet was talking to you and you alone. You should find the documentary on his improvisational process ("The Universal Mind of Bill Evans") on youtube and give it a watch. Good stuff.

Meanwhile I'm working away ever so slowly on revisions to my latest novel, the one about Antarctica that I've been rabbiting away at for the last couple of years. I'm going over the whole thing sentence-by-sentence to see about the language and the clarity of the ideas and expression, but also still working on large-scale issues like character development, fleshing out scenes and writing new scenes. This will be a quite long work when it's done. I do not expect anyone to publish it, but I just need to take care of the writing, take care of the novel itself, and the rest of the publishing world be damned. It will be a good book, even if only a handful of people ever see it.

My violin teacher chided me earlier this week about how I've been failing to work on the technical challenges of one of the pieces she's assigned, and she was right to do so and I am properly chagrined. I had more or less given up trying to improve how I play the piece on a basic mechanical level and had switched my focus to expression. My teacher pointed out that no matter how nice my phrasing and vibrato, I still needed to work on intonation and rhythm. Craft, in other words. I understand craft, I understand working in small sections and making incremental improvement; it's what I spend years doing to my novels, after all. I also continue to work on the Schubert sonatinas, which are very fine pieces, and if someday it's possible to play with other musicians in person again, I may see about a performance. There are some fine Dvorak pieces for violin and piano as well. The "romantic pieces" for example, are well worth playing and hearing.