Some blocks in West Portal are so solemnly tricked out and terraced so green that they achieve the impression of having been there forever, like Europe or the Federal Reserve. Then an avenue opens to the water and reminds you the whole thing is rooted in two feet of loam over the sands. Quiet and foggy, no shops open on Sunday, occasional car with its hunched, grayed driver coming to a careful halt at the stop signs. The offices are all advertising wills and trusts—sad corner of the city that made you rich, where you now wait to die.
Of course it doesn’t take long to walk up to the Sunset, which is more alive if cars are the measure of life. But here too, with the broad straight avenues, the theme-and-variations row houses and the sun a flickering light bulb in the moving fog, I always feel like I’m dreaming.
Signs of Fine Weather to Come
Then, with tight throats, the ravens repeat their clear caws three or four
times, and often in the high perches where they bed down at night,
happy with some odd, unaccustomed pleasure, cry
raucously among themselves amid the leaves. They delight,
storms over and gone, to see again their small broods and sweet nests.
I hardly believe that their instincts are indeed divinely given
or that Fate awarded them greater foreknowledge of things
but rather that when the weather and intermittent spring
rains alter course and Jupiter, soaked by the South Winds,
thickens what was just now thin and makes the thick loose,
the responses of their senses change, and their hearts receive
perceptions other than those left when the wind pursued
the clouds—hence that harmony of birdsong in the fields,
cattle lowing happily, and the ravens’ guttural exalting.
—Virgil, Georgics 1.410-423, tr. Janet Lembke
8 September 1934. What a relief the Mont Ste. Victoire after all the anthropomorphised landscape... Cézanne seems to have been the first to see landscape & state it as material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever... Ruysdael’s Entrance to the Forest—there is no entrance anymore nor any commerce with the forest, its dimensions are its secret & it has no communications to make.
16 September 1934. I do not see any possibility of relationship, friendly or unfriendly, with the unintelligible, and what I feel in Cézanne is precisely the absence of a rapport that was all right for Rosa or Ruysdael for whom the animising mode was valid, but would have been false for him, because he had the sense of incommensurability not only with life of such a different order as landscape but even with life of his own order, even with the life—one feels looking at the self-portrait in the Tate, not the Cézanne chauve but with the big hat—operative in himself.
—Beckett, letters to Thomas McGreevy
Dear College Preparatory School Alumni Newsletter
Sun in Cancer, and the nostalgic vapors and exhalations of spring all dried up for the scorched-grass season. I’d like to go slack under the hot sky, like my daughter, but we have tasks.
I published my book (and mouthed off about it elsewhere so I don’t have to do it here). I don’t want to make it out to be more than it was, and really don’t want to minimize the efforts of everyone who helped it along. I know what the next one will be, another novel (possibly I’m not cut out for anything but novels), but for the last few months I’ve been making sketches at the edge of the diving board rather than fish out a paragraph I could admit to.
Circumstances have abetted. Our little duplex by the train tracks got sold out from underneath us to a couple from Albany, who seem to have paid an actual million dollars for the privilege of being our new landlords. Why on earth? Apparently the answer is that they’re going to tear out the back and rebuild it on a more expensive scale. Everyone wants three bedrooms (only cowards stop at one child). But before the city permits get approved, we are fled, and after some very fast talking have landed three miles north at the extreme heliopause of BART service and KALX reception. We bought the place—a fact so fraught in this area, where it’s so depressingly certain that every time you meet someone new, the conversation will turn to the cost of housing within ten minutes. I always see it coming and I can never head it off. Anyhow, for my petty qualms I get a proper office at last, a yard overlooking a church parking lot where they're installing a preschool, on the other side a hill where the rooftops pile up like Cézanne’s views of Gardanne. In this neighborhood houses are priced by their “views,” and we don’t have one of those views, but our slope is high enough that when you go outside you find the wind tossing around tree canopies with great freedom.
(This is boring, the cult of the house is boring. Also satisfying, and therefore dangerous.)
So inside we decorate, filling it with ourselves—and just the other day I was complaining that the coastal metropolises are now enormous arenas in which to meet yourself over and over. You can’t be surprised. But in the house I do get surprised. After so many years packed in with everyone breathing on everyone else, it’s weird to lose track of the other organisms (now two humans, one cat) that share the larger space—they might have gone outside, or gone to sleep, or installed themselves in some new closet, without any of it showing up on sonar. The long, narrow interior corridor has no windows of its own, and I enter the dim space never quite confident of what I’ll find at the end.
I also went to Japan, but wait a moment.
Glistered shell upon the bedclothes,
weep not for the pink and larval
beauty you in sadness squandered:
time was yours, a wealth of rubble
transient to fret love, and envy
vivid to the world portioned.
Dappled heart inside a raincoat,
wet your eyes upon the verdure
of the puddled traffic signal.
All things human are admitted.
Generation floods, and licit
hunger, to be slantwise held.
I Had That Dream Too
Not all the tales are on this elevated level, however. Here is the entire text of Saouchi no Hijiri, “The Tale of the Immortal Beaten with Poles”:
The Immortal Beaten with Poles was a native of the province of Yamato. He had mastered the art of becoming an immortal, but his worldly bones were still heavy, and even the medicines used by immortals were powerless to alleviate this condition. He was able to take off from the earth and fly, but he never got more than seven or eight feet from the ground, and little children would all run after him brandishing poles with which to hit him. That is how he acquired his name. It is not known what happened to him afterward.
—Donald Keene, Seeds in the Heart
Moscú está helado—Moscú está helado— (Spain 1981, dark backward and abysm of time)
Winter fields all around Madison, stubbly, ice-rimmed. Deer among bare branches at the frozen pond. Yuki 雪, snow, and tsuki 月, moon, only appear to rhyme in the Roman alphabet. In his admiration for the winter moon Genji was singular. We flew out in a blizzard.
Started the year too sick to hold on to much, walked through the world as if through a garden, pausing at sprays of color without picking them, not mine to take. If I’d been well enough to go the zendo I would have tried to toss despair in the bonfire. A. in Madison, describing a bit of gambler’s theater she’s cooked up in which strangers are invited to wager away some part of themselves they’d be rid of, at least ambivalently. My fear of birds, a woman says. Fear of... birds? Is there an advantage to that? Well, she says, it is educational, I’ve learned a lot about birds.
That Appears To Be What Is In The Book
It’s no spoiler to say that Murasaki dies two-thirds of the way through The Tale of Genji, and Genji soon after. The events may be compelled by poetic logic, but not by causative order of plot; one law of the novel’s world is that disaster will arrive indifferently, at any time. Sudden illness or possession by baneful spirits descends as summarily as the frequent asides that someone or other had to change residence because their house burned down.
One of many poems recurrent in the characters’ minds is Kokinshū 861, traditionally taken to be Ariwara no Narihira’s death poem:
tsui ni yuku
michi to wa kanete
kinō kyō to wa
Long ago I heard
that this is the road we must all
travel in the end,
but I never thought it might
be yesterday or today.
Donald Keene notes that this last line
presents a problem: would it not have been more natural to say instead “today or tomorrow”? Some scholars suggest that the line actually means “until yesterday I never thought it might be today”; others believe it was merely an elaborate way of saying “right about now.”
To me the line is saying something tragic about hindsight bias. We didn’t expect the unthinkable yesterday, because it was unthinkable, and of course our expectation was borne out. We didn’t expect the unthinkable today, because it was unthinkable.
The life of Genji serves to familiarize us with the world of the Heian court: that steep hierarchy of rank, horror of blunt statement, Buddhist aversion to worldly attachments alongside political intrigue and fathomless hedonism, exchanges conducted through intermediaries and allusive poems, women who never show their faces in daylight but converse through opaque screens and glance over the tops of fans. There’s wonderful opportunity for fiction in all of this; at the same time, Genji is an ideal of style, tact and worldly success, and that perfection bathes his story in otherworldly light, making it seem more distant than time and space would alone. His death clears room for what turns out to be an entirely new novel, wonderful in a starkly different way.
In the last third of Genji we meet two noblemen of the younger generation, both sympathetic in their way but badly flawed compared to their predecessor. The introduction of lesser figures suddenly extends the book into a dimension that we students of the European nineteenth century would think of as novelistic depth. Having familiarized us with its social conditions, it now seems to project a crystallography of that society in the way of Fanny Burney through Henry James; within that structure, we observe characters tracing paths mutually determined by their own flaws and the conflicting imperatives of their world. As in Burney and James, it’s women and the lesser-born who are most in danger; the noblemen certainly suffer, but their sorrows keep within what we might call aesthetic bounds. That is to say, tears wet their sleeves. But it is not they who weep so copiously that “sea folk might well have fished below her pillow,” not they who risk death from grief or shame.
The lesson of Genji as a whole is that everything passes and beauty is woven in that passing. But the specific lesson that the last third of Genji at least entertains, if not endorses, is that the wisest choice would be always to ignore that enchanting knock on the sliding door; and the second wisest, having erred, to shave your head and take the nun’s path out of the world the moment you find someone willing to open the way.
I’m reading an article by a noted essayist/polemicist who is complaining about contemporary fiction. I love it when they do that! A certain book, he says, is full of ponderous sentences about how a certain part of a certain city “produces inequality, poverty, differential health outcomes, and other social metrics taken straight from the generally accepted web content dad.” I understand generally accepted web content dad to be a sly way of referring to Wikipedia. Isn’t it apt? How cleverly this essayist/polemicist can turn a phrase! Why can’t I write like that?
Then it’s time to go to San Francisco and get a quart of vanilla ice cream for R., a quart of espresso ice cream for me, which will somehow stay frozen in my backpack the whole way home.
for the love of god don't google "web content dad" in quotes as i just did
If I’ve gotten nothing else from my long sojourn with the English Romantics, I now have this Wordsworth-plus-America-the-band mashup as a permanent tenant in my head:
Like to a pagan suckled
In a creed outworn,
In the distance hear the laughter
Of the last unicorn—
Hardcover books, nicely made, came from the printer on a wooden shipping pallet, which I got to keep. Perhaps every time I write a book I’m going to get a free pallet? I had the great privilege of signing them all, biking them around to where they belonged, setting up a little ship station in the basement. The official publication date will be May 1 (they think?), but for the time being it’s done with and the worst case from here is that nothing happens. Which I find a fairly advantageous state of affairs.
Maybe "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor" can chase the worms from your ears?