The Unconsoled

KIWhen we moved in here on December 19th last year, a very hot day, I tried and failed to set up the TV. It stood for weeks like a black window, a door into infinity, on the wine rack next to the corridor that goes down to the bathroom. TBQH the only time I missed it was the day I invited a friend around to watch the cricket and found I could not get a signal. He had brought oranges and put them in the fridge, as if for half time, and when he left, in a bit of a huff, he took them with him. A couple of weeks ago a very nice fellow called Ahmet, a retired aerial guy from Indonesia, came round to look at it and, after a couple of false starts, worked out that the connection I had the set hooked up to didn’t in fact go to the aerial on the roof. We moved it to another corner of the sitting room, where the black box (actually white) that is the internet connection sits, hooked up there and immediately it worked fine. Since then I have watched two sports games, neither of which kept me engaged until the end—and nothing else. The thought of seeing TV news, of whatever stripe, nauseates me. All other programs, including movies, ditto. It isn’t just the advertisements, it’s more visceral than that, something to do with the acidulous colours and the flickering light. Perhaps then not visceral but psychological. Or even psychic. Anyway, as usual, the house is full of piles of books, because I generally have several on the go at any one time. But even here my habits are changing. Long before I moved out of Summer Hill, back in October 2019, Lisa gave me a copy of Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. It’s a Penguin that has lost both its front and back covers and was published in 1981, the year after it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but lost out to William Golding’s Rites of Passage. It’s massive and, in order to fit between the absent covers, printed in very small type. Lisa gave it to me because she’d found it while clearing out her study, opened it up and read again the famous first sentence: It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. She thought it might amuse me; and it does. I knew that sentence already, had alluded to it, via a quotation from an Oxford don, in my 2017 book The Expatriates; but the publishers got scared and made me take it out. They thought the catamite in question, a real person, might still be alive; although I was sure he had already died. In Italy, as it happened. Anyway Earthly Powers has been on the bedside table ever since and I am presently up to p. 508 of 649; and enjoying it immensely, even though days and even weeks go by when I don’t open it. Somehow, as soon as I do, I instantly re-enter the world of the book; which is to say, I hear again the voice of that first sentence, as Kenneth Toomey describes his eventful and largely degenerate and often despicable progress through the twentieth century. Another book I have so far been unable to finish is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which I bought in Kinokuniya in Tokyo back in January because I had just about finished reading his When We Were Orphans and was afraid, when we went up into the mountains, that I would have nothing to read. This is a fear recurrent since childhood and clearly irrational: wherever I go I find books or books find me. Nevertheless The Unconsoled may be the most anxiety-ridden reading experience I have ever had. It concerns the days and nights before a pianist gives a recital in an unnamed eastern European city and in its circumlocutions, its dream-like divagations, its non-sequiturs, perfectly describes the sense of dread, verging upon panic, that many if not most performers feel before they go on stage. I was doing quite a lot of travel back then (not any more) and found the only place I could read it was on a plane, where the enforced idleness, the lack of an internet connection, the inability to move around much or to concentrate upon a screen, left me no option but to read a book. I haven’t been on a plane since coming back from Auckland on March 2, as I discovered just now when I picked up The Unconsoled again and found I’d tucked my boarding pass in the back of it. I read two chapters (Part 4, 28 & 29) before stalling again as waves of anxiety and frustration washed over me. I’m on p 435 of 535 and there’s no question (as with Earthly Powers) that I will get through to the end eventually. This however has now been given urgency because of another book I’m reading, bought for ten dollars at Jason Books in Auckland: A House of Air by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s sub-titled Selected Writings and includes her book reviews, her introductions and after-words, her autobiographical and travel pieces and is an absolute delight from start to finish. Not that I’ve finished it yet. I find her writing seductive in every particular and have been reading the book (p. 385 of 532) from the beginning, skipping nothing and not reading ahead either. Alas, in the section coming up soon (p. 420) she reviews The Unconsoled and I feel unable to read that review before I finish Ishiguro’s book. That is why I picked it up again today. Damn, I thought, if only I could get on a plane to somewhere. Even if we just flew around in circles for a few hours. My other current reading is The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli, a copy of which I picked up from the free library outside of Marrickville Metro the other day. I’ve read vol. 1, Don’t point that thing at me and it’s hilarious and addictive and startling too; but I’m denying myself the reading of vols. 2 and 3 until I can get The Unconsoled out of the way. The hero, the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai, is an alcoholic London art dealer who is trying, with the aid of his manservant Jock Strapp, to dispose of a stolen Goya . . . all (bar one, which is fraudulent) of the epigraphs to the chapters of vol. 1 are from Robert Browning and there are many other recondite, often obscene, and not always (to me) entirely comprehensible pleasures to be had along the way. Bonfiglioli is as good, though not as polite, as Chandler; and that’s saying something. Lastly I have a rather nice hardback of David Crystal’s 2011 book The Story of English in 100 Words which I bought for $2.00 from the Salvation Army shop on Marrickville Road last week. It’s lost its dust jacket but is otherwise in good condition. I allow myself a word here and there, currently I’m on p. 76, about to read about word 28, which is ‘Valentine’. I’m supposed to be a writer too but find myself, I don’t know why, incapable of doing any sustained work at the moment. Instead I have various documents on my desktop which I add to intermittently. Well, in two cases, not exactly intermittently. On New Year’s Eve 2019 I found in one of my folders a Word doc. with the title Dark Memoir. I didn’t remember creating it, nor for what purpose, and when I opened it up it was empty; so I thought, why not, I’ll keep a diary of 2020 which seemed, even then, likely to become an epochal year; and have done so, making an entry of some kind every day so far. Currently 75 days, 35 pages, 10,000+ words. I hate keeping a diary and have failed to do so for very long on every previous attempt; but I’m sticking with this one. The trick is never to read back over what you’ve written before; then you don’t become disgusted with the sound of your own voice and so delete it. The other thing I’m doing daily, or nightly, as the case may be, is writing some unknown thing on Twitter. I don’t know where this came from, nor do I know where it will lead; it’s probably not going to be very long and I am alternately infuriated and relieved that everybody in the Twitterverse, with one or two exceptions, is ignoring it. Finally, there’s a book (what I thought would be a book) I started over a year ago now which I appear to be able to add to late at night when my mind is usually fairly addled; and then only sometimes. This ‘book’ (27 pages, about 5000 words) is online but I haven’t shared the link with anyone and I’m not going to yet. I thought of writing in public, as it were, so people who were interested could read as I wrote; if I felt more confident about continuing, I would, but at the moment, though it’s not quite dead, it’s certainly in need of life support. You’d think this would be a perfect time to write a dystopian fantasy about the near future but no; or not for me. It isn’t about the virus, it’s about psychic evolution and the synergies our immediate descendants make with other life-forms. Octopi, Medusae. In other news I have (or perhaps had, it’s hard to know) three books coming out this year; but I’ll leave an account of them for another time.

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