Tuesday, June 06, 2006

On Trying to Keep Still

Just finished reading Jenny Diski's latest book, On Trying to Keep Still (UK release only, as far as I can tell); it's not perfect, but it's that something almost better than perfect that her books so often are (intelligent, grumpy, always stimulating, extremely funny, flawed/human--she reminds me very much of Rebecca West).

For some reason Diski's writing creates in me the feeling of a special affinity, though I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it's just one of her talents & all her readers feel like that. In any case this book is just up my alley, travel writing by someone who prefers to stay at home reading in bed (and she goes to visit the Sami people in Lapland, my obsession; even her freezing-coldness--and, worse, her words of scorn for Swedish-tourism-for-rich-people & the ice hotel--cannot stop me from desperately wanting to go to the ice hotel, apparently if you get too cold you can move into a regular heated cabin though I feel that I would never forgive myself for copping out; Diski admits to feeling "a faint flutter of thrill" on these moonlit journeys over ice, although she claims that her sense of adventure is a segment of herself "as thin as a slice of proscuitto" and her description of the awfulness of having to go outside to pee when you are female and spending the night in a nightmarishly frigid and sort-of-open-to-the-air reindeer tent is truly horrifying).

(NB the next book I must read now has been sitting here for a while & has now jumped to top of queue on basis of Diski reindeer scenes, Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People.)

Anyway, here are some of my favorite passages from the book, which is a collection of linked essays (of somewhat variable quality--perhaps the one that works best as a self-standing piece is "On anatomy," they're all really rather captivating though) written during Diski's year of trying to keep still and mentally idle, a year in which the search for idleness and stillness nonetheless took her to New Zealand, Lapland and (almost more extreme than the others--two months in a cottage...) the English countryside.

On bungee-jumping:

For most of the history of the world, it has been the goal of humanity to attempt to get up into the air and stay there for as long as possible. Up was always the desired direction. The Babel builders wanted the heavens not the depths. Up. The big idea of Daedalus was to fly, not to fall. Up. Icarus may seem to be the patron saint of freefall, but at the time of his maiden flight he was a tragic failure. We looked at the birds with envy, longing to find a way to emulate them, not at the nasty mess under the tree that was all that remained of an incautious monkey that had been trying to make its way amongst the branches of the canopy. Apes were so pleased to get on to solid ground that they stood up on two feet and beame hominids capable of clapping their hands and dancing a jig of happiness. Only the desperate jumped from great heights, and they expected to do it just the once.

From an essay "On taking walks" (which might more aptly have been titled "On not going for walks"):

The exhortation of others works wonders of indolence on me. Fresh air, nature in its season or the adrenalin rush of the inner city, when pressed on me, though I don't doubt their charms and excitements, make me shrink in my chair, wishing the room smaller, the windows shaded, the chair deeper, the door locked. Leave me alone, was, I think, born with me, my invisible twin, before language, when company was nothing but an incoherent threat of alteration. Leave me alone must have been my embryonic remonstration with whom-or-what-ever it may concern about the whole damn bother and dislocation of being born, and it stuck. I was not born idle, I was foetally idle. I can imagine with a clarity far more piercing than memory the dreadful initial interruption that signalled the end of my perfect, timeless, still existence. I like small rooms; I love to float and hate to swim--I am temperamentally suited to uterine life.

Here's an opening salvo from the essay appealingly titled "On spiders and respect for sheep" (this one I totally sympathize with, I always feel like this though I know it's completely irrational):

Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned. A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead. Just a haircut, a hospital visit, a dinner party. Going out. The weight of the thing-that-is-going-to-happen sits on my heart and crushes the present into non-existence. My ability to live in the here and now depends on not having any plans, on there being no expected interruption. I have no other way to do it. How can you be alone, properly alone, if you know someone is going to knock at the door in five hours, or tomorrow morning, or you have to get ready and go out in three days' time? I can't abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future.

That last sentence is amazingly good, isn't it? "I can't abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future." Hmmm....

And I am left with the picture of Diski irritably giving in and sweeping (with a broom, dustpan and brush left int he corner) the autumn leaves off the flags of a "redundant" church in the countryside near that cottage:

I really hoped no one would come in and see me. It was an act of tidiness, but to someone coming through the door I would look like a devout parishioner dusting and arranging the flowers at her local church. It would appear to be an act for God whereas it was actually an act for neatness. Which was bad enough. A human taking a hand in the battle of nature versus indoors. Sweeping away the leaves in this redundant church was an obsessively human act. I wouldn't have wanted it either misunderstood or even simply witnessed. I would not have wanted anyone to think that I was either giving thanks or tidying up. I do so hate the idea of being good.

On an unrelated note, posting will probably be lightish round here in the next couple weeks; I've got a fiendishly huge amount of work-related reading to do, I firmly and puritanically plan on reading very few novels though I expect I will give in once or twice a week and read one anyway. Puritanical discipline will be needed; in fact I've got only twelve weeks or so to write all the rest of my book about breeding & nature & nurture in the eighteenth century and revise the manuscript for a mid-September submission date, which will mean working like a maniac all summer. Fortunately there is really nothing I enjoy more than reading and writing like a maniac; but I expect the blog will suffer. In any case I can't write about the real work stuff as I come to it, it takes the edge off the writing, but I expect I will come across various funny passages that can't get squeezed into the chapter (I've got about 15 eighteenth-century books about horse-breeding, for instance) and that accordingly may make an appearance here if I find them irresistible. So I'm not planning on vanishing, just more short posts with links and fewer long ones like this.