Inland Sea

The Inland Sea of Japan doesn’t sound like a place that one can actually visit: too distant, perhaps even not quite real. I have long known its name thanks to Donald Richie’s marvellous book, The Inland Sea (1971), and know people who have been there, but never thought I would see it myself. It is a romantic idea, an Inland Sea, and Japan has the only one, as far as I know. It lies between three of the four large islands that make up the country, and contains many small islands of its own. Richie travelled the whole length of it, in search as much of himself as the Sea, and wrote about it so beautifully that no-one else ever need try.

            I am still quite surprised to have found myself there, last month, not only on its shores but on three of the small islands, two of which, Miyajima and Naoshima, are described by Richie. They have changed since he was there, especially Naoshima, then “a small, beautiful, somehow sad little island,” now an “art island” with a good hotel and a museum designed by Andō Tadao, and a number of other art sites. Knowing beforehand that these buildings were there, and that they were made of unadorned concrete (except the part of the hotel I stayed in, which was made of friendly wood), didn’t help with finding one’s way around them, as they sometimes seemed intended more to be looked at than to be in. At one museum I rounded a corner to find a group of people standing in semi-darkness in front of a closed door with a red light beside it, waiting to be allowed in. Two Japanese women arrived and sorted things out immediately: the light was the fire alarm and the door didn’t open, we had simply taken the wrong turning. One man told me how embarassed he was as this was his second time there and he had got lost the first time too.

            Reaching an actual door, with more people waiting outside, I think for Monet’s Waterlilies, and hearing that only eight persons, shoeless, were allowed in at a time, I gave up, retrieved my lovely transparent Japanese umbrella (exactly like the ones held over politicians in photos in the Japan Times) and blundered back out into the rain. It rained heavily on Naoshima, but the next day, when I set off for the next island, Teshima, the weather was glorious.

            There is art on Teshima too, and what I wanted to see was by Christian Boltanski, his Archives du Coeur and Forêt des Murmures. I also hoped to see a Shintō temple in the countryside, a sight someone had told me was not to be missed. Transport was a bit tricky on Teshima; the bus was so full that the driver rejected some of the passengers. I went to a little harbour at one end of the island and walked further, feeling as if I were alone in the world. It was an adventure, going from one small island to another one yet smaller, so very far from home. The sun shone, nature was all around me, there was nobody about, but there were signs to the Archives du Coeur, one of them beside a torii indicating a Shintō temple. It was part of the triennal Inland Sea art show, for which one must be grateful, but for romance an absence of signs would have been better.

            The temple was wonderful (on the way back there was an even more beautiful one), and eventually I came to the beach, which really did feel like the edge of the world, and was also where, in the words of Donald Richie, “I wanted to spend the rest of my life”. There, half hidden among the trees, was a little building where you could record your heartbeat and add it to many thousands of others. I didn’t do that; I had come to write Rudy’s name on a sheet of paper which would be transferred onto a metal label and be hung up with others on a tree in the Forêt des Murmures, to be blown about by the winds of the Inland Sea, and rained upon, and for ever be part of this extraordinary and incomprehensible place, where everything is alive and everything has a soul.

On the road again

In his memoir Iris John Bayley describes the “sense of high achievement” he and Iris Murdoch felt after seeing the Resurrection by Piero della Francesca in Sansepolcro: “for who can see a great picture or read a great book without taking some of the credit for it himself?” I know just what he means, and if the great picture is difficult to get at, the achievement feels all the higher.

            I was in Parma in October, where there are great paintings in churches and museums, easy to get at, sometimes even free. You couldn’t always see them very well; I should have brought binoculars, as the best Correggios are on domes (how could he see what he was doing? How could anybody see them at all before electric light?). At the tourist office I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition in an art museum outside the city, Fashion Posters in Italy from 1850 to 1950, not the most inspiring subject in the city of Correggio and Stendhal; it was also half an hour away by bus. The museum itself was interesting too, they said, and gave me a bus timetable which showed one bus every two hours, then advised against it: too complicated, all country roads, too far for a taxi.

            After two years of not being able to travel one becomes wary of things going wrong. So far nothing had, but this seemed an invitation for disaster: I saw myself out in the countryside, alone, beside an empty road, as darkness fell and all the buses in Emilia Romagna had ground to a halt. Still, it was a fine looking timetable, and this was my last day in Parma; I decided to go, partly because the tourist office thought I couldn’t. I was at the bus stop so early that I had time to look at the flea market beside it, and spotted a souvenir plate from Atlantic City, New Jersey. A friend of mine’s husband spent his summers there as a child; I took a picture of it and sent it to her.

                        At the bus stop I found that one could follow the bus on an app as it approached; I stood in brilliant sunshine – it was a very warm October – and watched the no. 12 arriving, stop by stop, almost exactly on time. No difficulty in getting out at the right place, I could see myself on the app, always slightly ahead of the bus, presumably with superior GPS.

The driver let me out by a ditch, nothing was visible but trees, a ploughed field and in the far distance a coach. But there, hidden behind the trees, was the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, a villa full of wonderful paintings, one man’s collection, his Goya, his Titian, his Morandis, a whole private museum.

            The fashion posters were striking, the women more mature than models today, their outfits often set off by elegant hounds. These are still in fashion in Italy, I saw several real ones in the city. Between them and the Titian I bumped into a couple whom I had seen the previous day in Parma, who had clearly cheated and come by car. Like Bayley and Murdoch I too saw the Resurrection in Sansepolcro before it was part of the Piero della Francesca Trail, and I have never forgotten its effect; you stepped into an unassuming building, I remember it as a kind of shed, and were immediately floored, struck dumb, by the painting. Here, just outside Parma, the effect was cumulative: almost alone in the museum I went from one wonderful painting to the next, hardly able to believe I was really there, or that they were real. Not having known what to expect was part of it, also that it was one person’s collection, and of course the journey there, an adventure on a glorious day, for which I take all the credit.

            On the way back the app showed the little picture of the bus at the end of the line, about to set off towards me, then the picture vanished. A moment of doubt, but then the bus came, nothing was going to go wrong now. Just before I reached Parma my friend messaged me from America about the plate: Buy it! I tracked down the stall, the plate had been packed up, was retrieved, it was mine for fifteen euros. I got it for ten.

A Time in Rome

In Rome a few days ago, I went, as I almost always do, to the Protestant Cemetery. It is one of my favorite walks, starting with getting lost in the streets around the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere which all lead you away from the church, thinking of how Anthony Burgess lived in the square opposite the church, dodging the traffic to get to the other side of the Tiber and each time wondering if there isn’t a safer way of getting there. Once across you pass two small temples, one round, one rectangular, that look as if they have washed up from somewhere else, and the queue of Japanese schoolgirls waiting to stick their hands into the Bocca della Verità (not so many of them this year), and then finally, on the left, is the steep alleyway up the Aventine Hill: one hairpin bend halfway up and then, panting, you emerge beside the Garden of the Oranges.

            This was, I read somewhere, Elizabeth Bowen’s favorite place in Rome: a garden filled with pine trees, umbrella pines blocking the sky, casting shade very welcome in the summer, and orange trees. There is also a fountain for drinking water, some benches with backs and some without (very uncomfortable) and a constant stream of people walking through the garden to look at the panoramic view of Rome from the terrace at the end. Sometimes there is someone playing music, in the winter by the entrance a man sells roasted chestnuts, there are a few small children but no swings or anything to play on; it is a strange kind of garden, an antichamber to the view: people queue up to see it and then walk away again. But you can also sit still and imagine Elizabeth Bowen on the next bench and – in my case – feel ashamed that, although I admire her immensely, of all the books about Rome that I know I like hers the least.

            Past the Garden of the Oranges is the church of Santa Sabina, “this splendid building”, as Georgina Masson calls it in her Companion Guide to Rome, a church for those who have seen enough Baroque, all straight lines and matching columns, quiet and peaceful. There is a school here, parents wait outside, and further on the place where people stand in yet another queue to look at the dome of St Peter’s through a keyhole. I took the road down the hill, which in April was lined with almost excessive amounts of wisteria, every house was draped in it; the air was still and the scent was everywhere.

            I had a mission at the cemetery, a grave I wanted to visit. Visiting graves was a favorite occupation of Rudy’s; I have photos of him standing beside writers’ graves – Brodsky, Topor, Raymond Roussel, even one of him with clenched fist beside Karl Marx – and I do it myself too. But this one was rather more obscure, with a connection to D.H. Lawrence (I did, on a very hot day, search the whole cemetery of Vence to find the small plaque marking the place where he was temporarily buried, and found it too); it was the grave of the mother of Maurice Magnus, the man about whom Lawrence wrote an extraordinary memoir, which was, “his critics agree, the best single piece of writing as writing that he had ever done” (Frances Wilson, in Burning Man: The Ascent of D.H. Lawrence).

            Maurice Magnus was a friend of Norman Douglas’s, who turned up from time to time, borrowed money from Lawrence, who hardly ever had any himself, and didn’t pay it back; Lawrence put him in several books, and he made Lawrence, according to Frieda, “deeply disturbed”. All the details are in the memoir, where Lawrence tries to understand why he treated Magnus as he did, and how he felt he owed it to him to write it. At the end Lawrence mentions that Maurice Magnus’s mother claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I: “She lies buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where she died in 1912, with the words Filia Regis on her tomb.”

I had just read the memoir and was going to Rome, it was impossible not to visit her grave. I found it, and saw that the words are there, and her name, Hedwigis Rosamunda Liebetrau Magnus. I cleared away a few twigs, took a photo, and thought how strange it was

to be standing at the grave of the mother of someone who is practically a fictional character: what was I doing there? It was not to see if the grave really existed, I trusted Lawrence on that; but now that I am home again, rereading parts of the memoir, I think it was simply a tribute to the power of Lawrence’s writing. As good a reason to do anything, really.

The “Memoir of Maurice Magnus”, long out of print, is included in The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays, edited by Geoff Dyer, New York Review Books, 2019.


Sometimes when I can’t sleep I retrace the route I used to take to school. I went by bicycle (on my brother’s bicycle for some reason, a dark green one with a crossbar; I don’t know why I didn’t have one of my own, but he was away at school so his was unused), preceded on the same route by my father, who walked into town to get the train to London. Our house was old, had originally been a farm and must at some time have stood alone on the edge of the hill, by Hogback Wood. By the time we lived there a housing estate had been built behind it, and during our time another one was built between that one and the main road. Our path to the town was a remnant of the olden days, perhaps an ancient right-of-way miraculously protected from the builders.

            My route started between our house and the Somervells’ (Andrew Somervell, who joined the army and was killed in Northern Ireland, was my brother’s best friend), through part of the older estate – early 60s red brick – past the houses of people we didn’t know and some we did, like Dave, whose mother let us watch their television. We didn’t have one ourselves so could only keep up with I Love Lucy and the Dick van Dyke Show in Dave’s house. Next was the Muirs’ house, with whose two children, Robert and Penelope, we sometimes played Monopoly, whole afternoons with biscuits and orange squash. Robert always won. They had an original set, which confused me terribly; it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that it was not based on New York, but Atlantic City, and Boardwalk wasn’t the same as Broadway. Eventually my parents did buy a television, and a Monopoly set, but, always different, they went to a lot of trouble to get the Dublin version (Shrewsbury Road, Kimmage and Crumlin).

            On I would go, taking a road to the left, at the end of which was the join between the two estates, and the footpath. It ran between fences and hedges, with overhanging trees, and it was silent, a world of its own between the other worlds of houses, roads and cars. You wouldn’t know anyone who lived there, this was foreign territory, the backs of houses, the bottoms of gardens. The path wasn’t paved, you made no sound on it, although if I think hard I can remember rattling sounds coming from the stuff in my school case on the back of the bike. In my memory I was always alone on that path.

            At the end you turned left and came into a kind of glade, quite wide, with dark trees, yews, I suppose, and the ground covered with moss. This was straight from a book, a secret space, forgotten by the urban planners. There were old fences on one side, the backs of more houses, and modern fortifications (that estate was definitely for the nouveaux-riches) on the other, but in between these was this magical space, where time felt as it were about to slip, where you might suddenly find yourself in another era. It was dark and, despite the occasional shaft of sunlight on the moss (many years later I found this in a Chinese poem: ‘Where sunlight, entering a grove,/ shines back to me from the green moss’), very slightly creepy: I did not linger.

            At the end was a concrete path going up to the right which deposited me back in the real world of pavements and front gardens: this was Reynolds Road, and opposite was Beaconsfield library, where I had my first job, stamping the books and answering silly questions from readers on Saturday mornings. To reach my school I turned left, but I didn’t usually get that far, with any luck I would be asleep by then.

            Some time ago I discovered that Robert Frost lived in Beaconsfield, for a few years between 1912 and 1914, and it was while he was there that he met Edward Thomas and encouraged Thomas to write poetry. This has always struck me as a miracle: Thomas was a writer, struggling to survive on prose, he wrote biographies, books on nature, guides and reviews, and then he met Frost and asked his advice about writing poetry. And Frost said that he should, that in fact he already was: ‘he was writing as good a poetry as anybody alive but in prose form where it didnt declare itself and gain him recognition’ (Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, 2011). This was in 1914, Edward Thomas was killed in France in 1917; his Poems came out at the end of that year.

            Whatever growing up in semi-rural England is good for, even in a part of it that was rapidly being built over, it certainly gives one a direct line to Edward Thomas: rereading his long pastoral poem ‘Lob’ I find that it even has a footpath and a Hog’s Back. And bursting out from that mossy grove onto Reynolds Road turns out to be even more significant than I thought: it was actually the street on which Robert Frost lived. His bungalow, on the right, must have been behind those old fences in the grove, on the other side of which were cherry orchards, which were later built over and became the estate behind our house. But now I know too much to fall asleep: there I stand on Reynolds Road and the world has opened up, instead of closing off.

The shape of Paris

I had somehow got behind with the wonderful graphic versions of Proust by Stéphane Heuet, and only discovered it when I bought the latest one – Autour de Madame Swann, tome 2 – and saw in the list of titles that I had missed two. This is the kind of thing that happens when the only bookshop in town with French books closes down. I ordered the missing volumes, and when I opened the first one Du côté de chez Swann, Noms de pays: le nom, felt an almost physical blow: the endpaper consists of a map of Paris, the classic one, the Seine in blue, buildings grey and the rest pink with green all around the outside. There are little vignettes with drawings of the places that are important in the book, but it is the shape of the city that affected me so, a shape that I know as well as the layout of my own house, and probably love a great deal more.

            It is a shape that you can see in the map of the métro, or at least in the old one as it appears, also on the endpaper, in my original little red guide, Paris par Arrondissement, published by Editions L’Indispensable (who else). You would not be able to guess the shape of London from the map of the Underground, but Paris is much simpler to read. To make it even easier the frontiers are clearly delineated as having Portes, and once you have realised – which took me some time as I hardly ever went near them – that these are situated on the boulevards extérieurs, or boulevards des Maréchaux (named after Napoleon’s marshals: Ney, Lannes, Jourdan, etc), which are now the inner ring road, and used to be the outer fortifications, you can see how extraordinarily compact and well organised Paris is.

            And how extraordinary too that my love for it, which started fifty years ago, still endures, and so powerfully as to produce actual physical symptoms. I hardly dare read the book, although it is suitable that it should contain the passages about names, the names of the cities where the narrator dreams of going: Balbec, Florence, Venice. Balbec is the name Proust gave to Cabourg, where we once had dinner at the Grand Hôtel and watched the common people passing by outside, as Proust describes the narrator doing. This is something like walking through Dublin in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom; some writers create a world so much better than the real one that you want to get into it too. In the small town of Illiers, Proust’s Combray – now rechristened Illiers-Combray – the confusion is total: the bakery near the church proudly claims that it is where Françoise bought her madeleines.

            Proust, like Joyce, can be reduced to his essence without too much loss, hence the success of these graphic versions, which are a lot less tiring to read than the book itself. Similarly, walking the streets of Dublin for a day is a considerably smaller investment of time and energy than reading Ulysses. The places are the story, just as they are for one’s own life. I had a shock similar to the one caused by the map of Paris when I went to London for the first time in years, came out of the Underground at Earls Court and stepped right back into my childhood: those London pavements, remembered in the abstract but now suddenly real under my feet, which themselves remembered not to step on the lines (otherwise you get eaten by a bear).

            My Paris isn’t the same as Proust’s, he is associated with the richer parts of the city, where people like myself could only live in maids’ rooms on the 6th floor. The last few times I was there on my own I became rather depressed: so many memories, my whole young adult life, all compressed within those outer boulevards; I seem to manage better with them safely confined to paper. The rue Chaptal shooting straight off from the rue Blanche, the little triangle beside the chemist on the rue des Ecoles, with behind it, lower down, the rue St Victor, the square chunk cut out of the rue de Rivoli by the rue des Pyramides: they are all still there on the map, on all the maps of Paris.

The River

I have been away from France for so long that I didn’t know they have Oxfam shops there now. There was one in Lille, Oxfam La Bouquinerie, the best organised charity shop I have ever seen. I went in because of a book I saw in the window – of course I would have gone in anyway – and was so thrilled by the sight of it that I forgot to put my mask on and only after leaving the shop realised why the woman had been so jittery. The book is a series of black and white photos: A Picture Book of the Thames by Theo Bergstrom, published in 1975. At various times in my life I have been in, on and beside the Thames, far more times than I would have realised if I hadn’t studied this book, which traces the river from its symbolic beginning, the Thames Head, by ‘the grey ash-tree in Trewsbury Mead’, to the sea beyond Gravesend.

            When I was small we lived in Richmond and used to walk along the river; once, when my brother was a baby and my grandmother was staying with us, we were caught by a flood, I suppose from a particularly high tide, and had to climb over a wall to safety. The story became part of family legend: my mother tied the pram to a bench with the belt of her raincoat, and went back to fetch it the next day. I can still hear her telling the story, pleased with her own quick thinking, and see the place where it happened, which is not, sadly, pictured in the book. The photos are taken from water level, which is not how one usually sees the Thames, unless one is actually in it.

            I fell into it once, as a slightly larger child, opposite Syon House, between Richmond and Kew, was fished out immediately, and brought home dripping in a taxi, which was almost as exciting as falling in the river; we had no car at that time and usually travelled by bus. I can’t have fallen in over my head as it was said that then you had to have your stomach pumped. We often went to Ham House, on the other side of the river, a journey that involved a bus ride and a ferry, a rowing boat operated in complete silence by a man who was like Seth from Cold Comfort Farm: shirtsleeves, strong brown arms pulling at the oars, hat – in those days men still wore hats – I don’t know why he should have so stuck in my memory but there he is, endlessly rowing, never speaking. Descending to the jetty and into the boat was also exciting, then the passage across, silent, on still water, at the end of a Sunday afternoon. I do not remember the arrival at the other side at all.

            Once my mother took us to Runnymede, to see the Air Forces Memorial and read the name of my never-uncle, my father’s brother and mother’s first husband, Flying Officer Edward Hart, RAF Volunteer Reserve, died 15 September 1943. The monument to Magna Carta is there too but I remember that less well than the Memorial, both of which are indicated in the Thames book by a half-hidden sign from the National Trust on the riverbank, of which the only legible word is NO.

            But the best place on the Thames was where we sometimes went swimming, a magical place, which I had never been able to identify since; its name forgotten, everybody who would have known it also gone, after so many years away from England I had given up hope of ever finding it. It is the real reason why I bought the book. I remembered the wonder of swimming in a river, the River, the soft feel of the water, its stillness, so different from the sea, the slipperiness of wet grass when one got out, and the sight of one’s muddy feet on the grass. Ordinary swimming was in indoor baths or the chilly seas around Ireland; this was a pastoral delight, an English idyll (also far enough upstream that we didn’t need our stomachs pumped). We only went there a few times, it was quite far from home and swimming there probably forbidden by some mediaeval byelaw.

            I found it in the Thames book: it is Hurley Lock, between Henley and Marlow. I might have thought I had imagined it, or read about it somewhere, but it is real, people still swim there, although now they call it wild swimming. The photos of its vicinity in the Thames book have the dreamlike quality I remembered, and from water-level too. In the map at the back of the book you can see the long and winding course of the Thames, it meanders about from one English name to another, like my path, and the book’s, from England to a charity bookshop in Lille. I did a lot more walking around in Lille but I never came across that Oxfam bookshop again.


Reading Maria Stepanova (in In Memory of Memory) on how she remembers the pictures on the transfers she used to stick on the base of a lamp when she was ten, I clearly remembered having such transfers myself, how you soaked them in water, then carefully spread them out without creases, but I couldn’t remember a single picture on any of them. What were they? Farm animals? Cartoon characters? Perhaps it was the soaking and spreading that were the point, not the pictures. Remembering things from one’s childhood is supposed to be a reward of growing old, but when you only remember parts of it, and other people write in such detail about what they do remember, it seems less reward than punishment. Or a particularly refined kind of torture, which leaves you soaking and spreading precisely nothing.

            It sometimes seems to me that when my brother died he took a lot of my childhood with him, but perhaps this is only true to the extent that I can no longer be reminded of things by him, or check them with him. Having mislaid my password on a website this morning I had to fill in the answers to the security questions, one of which was ‘Which town did your youngest brother/sister last live in?’ At first it was upsetting, as if the website should have known: I only had one brother and he is dead. Worse, I could not answer it: where was he living when I filled in the answers to those questions? I have to start all over again on the site to prove my identity; the man at the helpdesk said I should choose questions to which I knew the answers.

            Thinking of those transfers I tried to summon up the actual material proofs that I had a childhood at all. There is one photo album and a few slides, there used to be some stuffed toys – but where are they now? – and amongst my brother’s things was the inventory of the objects in my dolls’ house that I made three days after my birthday in 1960, the year I got a date stamp. But fortunately, apart from this random and not entirely convincing collection, there is the overpowering glory of my childhood books, not all of them but the best, saved from when my parents moved house and jealously guarded since.

            Quite a few of them also have that date stamp; when I was ten I wanted not only to write books but also to stamp them, as they did at the library. All the Arthur Ransomes are there, many of them with the drawings coloured in; the E. Nesbits, the lesser known ones in hardback, others in paperback; M. Pardoe’s Bunkle series, some of them sold off from Boots  Booklovers Library, I remember the excitement when we found them, rare even then; The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett – I thought I was the only person to have read this until I discovered that Annie M.G. Schmidt translated it – and Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, a Puffin paperback that has fallen apart.

            I reread all of these regularly, except the Eve Garnett, which is missing its last page. They are battered, dog-eared and defaced, but I am sure that even without them I would still remember the illustrations (some by the authors, like Arthur Ransome and Eve Garnett, others by artists like Julie Neild and H.R. Millar) just as well as Maria Stepanova remembers her transfers. She writes that cataloguing those transfers seems to be her life’s work: ‘As if that is what I grew up to do.’ Her transfers have disappeared but I still have the illustrations in my books. It sometimes feels as if the last part of life is there to make sense of the first part; when I look at those books I am back in the time when I knew the answers to all my security questions, when everything was still all right.


My parents had a friend called Coralie, who was the kind of fussy older lady one looks at and shudders. Everything in her house was perfect and matched everything else, and once, at one of her exquisite tea parties, she said that she no longer read fiction, only memoirs and biographies. That sounded like living death, I thought; imagine never wanting to read novels any more. And then it happened to me: that endless supply of good novels that I had seen stretching far into the future turned out not to exist. I have become Coralie. Recent novels are either bad, too long, or both; I pick them up in the bookshop or order a sample on Kindle, read a few pages and reject them. There is the odd exception, the last one being Summerwater by Sarah Moss, quite recent but both good and short.

            Sybille Bedford is one of my favorite authors, I have given copies of Jigsaw, her masterpiece, to almost everyone I know. So when I saw that there was a biography of her by Selina Hastings, who wrote an excellent one of Evelyn Waugh, I ordered it at once. The day after my copy got here Private Eye did a hatchet job on it; I left it lying around a bit before I dared start on it. Sadly, Private Eye was right; it is a terrible book, far too much of it about Bedford’s conquests, all called Esther, Evelyn and Eda, all falling in love with each other, and apparently obliged to support Bedford financially long after their affair with her was over. That men in such biographies are referred to by their surnames and women by their first names is also irritating, as is Hastings’s characterisation of the occasional woman who resisted Bedford’s advances as ‘a man’s woman’. The reason one reads authors’ biographies at all is to get a glimpse of how it could be that this real person wrote that marvellous book, but no hint of that is to be found here. The only remedy is to read something by Bedford herself again, anything, even the travel pieces.

            And then I picked up Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I am Dynamite!, which I bought some time ago because of the wonderful reviews, with very little expectation of actually reading it (my father was the only person I have ever known who would come home with a new book and immediately start on it). Here too the reviews were right; it is an amazing book, wonderfully well written, clever, witty and exhilarating to read. The story of Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner alone is fascinating, the early parts of it described with the perfect balance between seriousness and gentle mockery. You don’t quite learn how Nietzsche wrote what he did, but certainly that he could do nothing else, and the tragic story of his final years and what happened to his legacy in the hands of his ghastly sister is most affecting.

            In France they used to say, probably still do, that the biography is irrelevant, it is the work that counts. This is true in the case of Sybille Bedford, and it also means that I must now actually read Nietzsche. But in the meantime I find that Sue Prideaux has written biographies of Munch and Strindberg, both of whom were influenced by Nietzsche, and I have ordered them. These are probably not the kind of biography Coralie meant; so I won’t despair yet about becoming old and fussy, it could be worse.

Hearing voices

I have been watching films from the Amsterdam Documentary Festival online, it is a heavy and varied diet; they are all very different, with so many languages and so many subtitles, some of the latter illegible on the small screen.

            The best film so far was Iranian, with a voiceover so clear that I actually understood some of it, as well as little snatches of French. It was called Radiograph of a Family, directed by Firouzeh Khosrovani, and it is the story of her parents’ marriage, told with family photos and extracts from films, some documentary, some home movies. Her father was a radiographer who worked in Switzerland and would have liked to stay there, but returned to Tehran for the sake of her mother who, once she was home, became more and more pious, even fanatic. Khosrovani tells their story without taking sides, returning over and over again to changing images of a house to indicate the different stages of the lives of these two very different people. She avoids describing clashes between them; she just tells how they lived, how she grew up, and how what was going on in Iran in that time affected them. Actors voice the parents, and the father’s voice saying her name is so tender that you wish you were called Firouzeh too; ‘I never understood the words of my mother’s prayers,’ Khosrovani says, and at the end of the film her mother reads – without subtitles – from the Qur’an.

            Another good film was Le temps perdu, about the Proust book club in Buenos Aires: mostly older people, sitting in a café, silently watched over by a waiter, who have been reading Proust for 17 years. When they finish they start again. One man had read it four times, he also, suitably considering the theme, said this at least four times. They read the text in Spanish, there were English subtitles, and my fruitless attempts to reconstitute the the French text beneath the Spanish made it sometimes hard to follow (one of the characters being referred to as Albertina was also a little estranging). But the film had a kind of intimacy, as if one were looking into these people’s lives, which made it quite fascinating.

            It was also inspiring; there is something about Proust makes one want to read him again, or perhaps just never stop reading him, and a lockdown winter seems to me the ideal occasion, this time skipping the dullest bits (as one of the readers said, ‘Proust can be very boring.’). I have tried it before and read the first parts several times, so I started now with A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, and read myself straight into a tiny bit of lost time.

            It was the voice of an old friend, dead for many years, who also, on retirement, reread Proust. He spoke excellent French and, having lived in Cairo, could also imitate the Egyptian accent in French; whenever I hear such an accent I hear him explaining that one had to use the word ‘vraiment’ a lot, as in ‘vraiment très souvent’. But what he said now, as clearly as if he had been in the room with me, was, ‘Vous avez un chef de tout premier ordre, madame.’ Words from dinner parties, long ago: he was quoting M. de Norpois, the diplomat, whose every long-winded pronouncement the narrator’s parents believe. Having been a diplomat himself he particularly appreciated M. de Norpois; I had remembered that, but I had forgotten these words. He spoke them, as I read them, with a characteristic laugh in his voice, partly delight in the absurdity of the character, partly pleasure in saying exactly the right thing to one’s hostess. There are other sounds from the past I would like to hear again, but this one will do very well for the moment.

White clouds

It is a fine irony that after all those years of studying Chinese the first calligraphy scroll I have bought should be Japanese. But its sentiment is Chinese; it is the last line of a poem by a Tang dynasty poet, Wang Wei (699-759), and the characters are Chinese. It happens to have been written by a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, but that is just a detail, particularly in the light of its tremendous energy and its direct path to my heart strings.

            I thought that I would spend my life reading Chinese, translating poetry and doing research, but things turned out differently. So now the time when I still expected that seems like a kind of golden age, which can be very precisely pinpointed to the years of Donald Holzman’s poetry seminars in the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme on boulevard Raspail. These were on Wednesday afternoons, and afterwards we would go to the Hôtel Lutétia for tea. It was an expensive hotel, the waiters were very polite, but they didn’t know how to make tea – two of us came from countries that do know how to make tea – so we would order two pots of tea and three of hot water, and stay there, topping up, almost as long as the seminar had lasted. Later, and that was when two of my fellow students began to call him Sensei, ‘master’, Holzman started a class of Japanese for sinologists, also followed by tea, the European kind; no doubt the Lutétia has Japanese tea nowadays but it didn’t then, and we probably wouldn’t have ordered it anyway.

            A lot of Chinese poetry is about parting: the poets were often civil servants and were sent off to distant parts of the empire, or withdrew from public life to become recluses. The line of poetry on my scroll comes from such a poem, its title is ‘Farewell’: Where are you going? One poet asks the other. I didn’t achieve my ambition, comes the answer, I’m going to rest in the southern mountains. And the last line: ‘There’s no end to white clouds there.’ Five Chinese characters written in one flourish, the brush hardly taken off the paper, the ink itself streaky as a cloud with the white paper visible through it, the scroll is taller than I am: one glance at it and I am the person I was then, with my old ambition.

            It seems that I am not the only person who has bought a Japanese object to make up for a missed trip to Japan, but I may well be the only one who did it because the object is to all intents and purposes Chinese. But it does come enclosed in the Japanese way in not one but two wooden boxes, with an inscription on one of the lids by the abbot about his sensei, his master, the calligrapher. And of course if a Japanese were to read it out loud it would sound very different (just as Chinese characters pronounced in Korean so surprisingly do in the film House of Hummingbird).

            Almost everyone who was at those classes and drank tea at the Lutétia is dead now. Donald Holzman, who was the best teacher I ever had, was twenty-four years older than me (I know this only because he too was born in a year of the tiger), and died last year, as did my fellow expert tea-drinker. Last time I was in Paris I walked past the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, which looked just the same. The Lutétia, on the other hand, has been so spiffingly renovated that I would no longer dare go in.