150+ essays on literary topics
I have been reading, very slowly, the short stories of Bruno Schulz, all of which have been collected into one slim paperback. He is one of those 20th century writers who would have written more if it had not been for one or other of the world wars. Schulz, a Polish Jew, was shot dead by a Nazi officer. His stories demand to be read slowly because they are so short. To read them one after another would be like seeing the sights of Rome in a morning. After I had read two or three, I began to think of them as prose poems. Baudelaire’s Spleen de Paris should not be rushed either. I have been reading it now for nearly six months and am less than halfway through. Each of the poems and each of the stories deserves at least as much time to be devoted to it as, say, the Trevi Fountain or the Sistine Chapel. Schulz’s stories take place in a small town that exists partly in Poland and partly in Schulz’s imagination. There is no one word capable of describing them (not an English word anyway: there may be a Polish one). It would have to be something like Polonius’s ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited’ to come anywhere near it. He could be compared to Leskov or Kafka or Hašek, but only in the way that someone sometimes reminds you of someone else. A passing resemblance, nothing more. He is unique.
(Note: dead writers should always be spoken of in the present tense, as a gesture of defiance against SS officers and others like them who don’t realise that writers are immortal.)
I have finished reading Cobbett’s Rural Rides, which has for the last few weeks been my bedtime reading. It is mainly about the price of turnips. ‘The fog prevented me from seeing much of the fields as I came along yesterday; but the fields of swedish turnips that I did see were good; pretty good; though not clean and neat like those in Norfolk.’ There is a sentence like this on nearly every page, which makes it ideal reading at the end of the day. Then you come across something that wakes you up. One of his themes is self-sufficiency and the gradual change from the production of food to feed the people who produce it to the marketing of food to feed other people, leaving the labourers to starve. It is worth quoting one paragraph which begins by regretting the loss of fish-ponds and ends by anticipating surrogate mothers.
‘Mr Chamberlayne has caused the ancient fish-ponds, at Nestley Abbey, to be “reclaimed” as they call it. What a loss, what a national loss, there has been in this way, and in the article of water fowl! I am quite satisfied that, in these two articles and in that of rabbits, the nation has lost, has had annihilated (within the last 250 years) food sufficient for two days in the week, on an average, taking the year throughout. These are things too which cost so little labour! You can see the marks of old fish-ponds in thousands and thousands of places. I have noticed, I dare say, five hundred, since I left home. A trifling expense would, in most cases, restore them; but, now-a-days, all is looked for at shops: all is to be had by trafficking: scarcely anyone thinks of providing for his own wants out of his own land and other his own domestic means. To buy the thing, ready made, is the taste of the day; thousands, who are housekeepers, buy their dinners ready cooked: nothing is so common as to rent breasts for children to suck: a man actually advertised, in the London papers, about two months ago, to supply childless husbands with heirs! In this case, the articles were, of course, to be ready made; for to make them “to order” would be the devil of a business; though, in desperate cases, even this is, I believe, sometimes resorted to.’
Cobbett wrote that in October 1826. I wish I had made a note too of the passage in which he laments the growing fashion for speed. Travelling slowly, he says, is an aid to thought. It made me wonder whether a plausible link could be made between the characteristic prose style of a given period and speed of travel. Cobbett’s style, which could be described as ambulatory, is a joy compared, say, to this by the philosopher Galen Strawson in Volume 35 Number 18 of the London Review of Books.
‘One way to characterise this is to start from the Locke-Hume idea that when we observe causation, we can only ever observe regularity, not causal power as such. One can plausibly extend this into the – broadly speaking – Kantian view that when we make epistemic contact with any concrete reality X other than our own current experience, we can only ever have access to an appearance of X, an appearance that is necessarily a function not only of how X is, in itself, but also of how X affects us given how we are in ourselves, given, in particular, our sensory-intellectual constitution.’
The next time anyone asks me how I feel in myself, I will know what to say.
Coming soon – Samuel Beckett’s Debt to Maurice Maeterlinck – read it here on 16 October.
Fortnightly essays alternate with the Reader’s Diary.
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