Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

There are moments in reading that catch you just so, that transform a book into an experience. Perhaps it is just a matter of timing, that you’ve achieved just the right blend of vulnerability, receptiveness and desire and the writer has put together the words in just the right order, with the right emphasis and tone that it simply resonates and you have to break for a moment to recover from the wonderful shock then read it again, tentatively in case it doesn’t work on second reading, or in case it does. And if it does you know you’re onto something, though you might not know what, and you read it again and go back and feel that delicious stirring thrill each time and you know that book will live with you for forever. Perhaps my still slightly sickly state has been an influence, but I had that experience on reading a passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and I make no apology for quoting it in full now:

“I am absolutely alone. There are no other customers. The road is vacant, the interstate is out of sight and out of earshot. I have hazarded into a new corner of the world, an unknown spot, a Brigadoon. Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of cloud dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.

My hand works automatically over the puppy’s fur, following the line of hair under his ears, down his neck, inside his forelegs, along his hot-skinned belly.

Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleaded forest and rumpled rick in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow. These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like a running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.

This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalise this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt.  But at the same second, the second I know I’ve lost it, I also realize the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him. He draws his legs down to stretch the skin taut so he feels very fingertip’s stroke along his furred and arched side, his flank, his flung-back throat.

I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your love in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feelings save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognise as separating us from our creator – our very self-consciousness – is also the one thing that divides us from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. I get in the car and drive home.

Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone.”

I’ve tried to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek before. I’ve read that passage before, it must have stirred me last time because the page was already marked. Last time I gave up before the end. It is a dense book: intricate, wild, vivid. It is intense, not something which is an easy read. Last time it was too much. It is a book which demands slow reading. I found it was best to only read one chapter in a sitting.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Dillard’s response to her time spent living next to Tinker Creek. It is, perhaps, an alternative, a modernised, Walden (though I have not yet read Walden, so I can’t say for sure). But it is so much more than that. It is Dillard’s forensic curiosity let wild.  During her time at the creek, Dillard aims to see to see and think and learn about the world. Her attention is both broad and singular; she stalks muskrats and bluegills, inspects creek water under the microscope, collects the eggs of the praying mantis, observes the stars and looks for the ‘lights in the tree’ that reveal to her the presence of God in the world. She is both a naturalist and a spiritualist. She is open to all-comers. Her time at the creek is one of connection, of intersection, of openness and investigation. She seeks to set aside her desires, the quibbling voices in her mind, and really see. As she describes here:

“All I can aim foImage result for pilgrim at tinker creekr is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle, it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely without utterance. ‘Launch into the deep,’ says Jacques Ellul, ‘and you shall see.’”

The book is split into chapters, each focused on a particular subject. Things like: Seeing, Fecundity, Spring and Flood. But whilst the book is segmented in this way, there is a thread which runs through it connected by Dillard’s interest in everything around her, her response to it, the marvellous complexity and detail and a singular search for some kind of truth or meaning. She examines and questions, she observes but she does not conclude. It is a book which is searching and seeing and extremely beautiful. I found in it an affirmation, a resonance, a connection. What Dillard seeks, I seek and somehow both our seekings, in our own way, are connected to, or inspired by, the idea of North. As usual, Dillard says it best:

“A kind of northing is what I wish to accomplish, a single-minded trek towards that place where any shutter left open to the zenith at night will record the wheeling of all the sky’s stars as a pattern pf perfect concentric circles. I seek a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off.

At the seashore you often see a shell, or a fragment of a shell, that sharp sands and surf have thinned to a wisp. There is no way you can tell what kind of shell it had been, what creature it had housed; it could have been a whelk or a scallop, a cowrie, limpet or conch. The animal is long since dissolved and its blood spread and thinned in the general sea. All you hold in your hand is a cool shred of shell, an inch long, pared so thin it passes a faint pink light and almost as flexible as a straight razor. It is an essence, a smooth condensation of the air, a curve. I long for the North where unimpeded winds would hone me to such a pure slip of bone.”

I finished reading Tinker Creek yesterday and for a while afterwards I lay in stunned silence, not speaking, not thinking, just lying and being in the world. I could not do anything ordinary, tasks like arranging the car insurance felt like an alien concept. Just being was enough, it was huge and all encompassing. What Dillard reminded me of was a childhood spent investigating creeks of my own, lying amongst sheep-poo strewn heather on a hillside watching the clouds make shadows on the purple hills opposite and listening to the wind ruffle the harsh grass. I was jealous of Dillard’s time at the creek, but also grateful. Jealous that I have no longer the time to live in such a simple way, though much of my current thinking is edging me in that direction. I guess I will find a way. Grateful because her time there led to this wonder-filled book, full of grubs and egg casings, muskrats and snakes and mosquitos and all the inconceivable forms of life that surround us daily, which we don’t see because our minds are focused on the newspaper. Dillard reminds us to see, and not only to see but to question and she does this without force or didactics but rather with an infectious and irrepressible curiosity that opens the world like a book, points at a page and says ‘see, see, look how extraordinary it is.

Posted in Classics, nature, non-fiction, outwith | 6 Comments

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

I recently spent a week working very intensely away from home, 8am to 7pm working days, with a half-hour break for lunch and all that time spend holed up in a room reading boring files. Reading anything else, not surprisingly, was almost impossible and I found myself reading something which became just words on a page to me, nothing going in, no attachment, no interest, like reading the dictionary but less interesting than that. I was already thinking about setting it aside when one morning I woke with a head fogged with fever and the words “Schwan Stabilo” circling in a technicolour loop in my mind. It is perhaps not the best idea to pay such close attention to aural hallucinations at the onset of what would be yet another bad cold, but their repetitive and insistent nature had me in their grip and it’s fair to say I wasn’t in the best condition for making rational, well-reasoned choices and this, in brief, is the story of how I ended up discarding my existing book and reading The Last Samurai again. Well, it was about time for a re-read anyway.

Given that I’ve read The Last Samurai an actual gazillion times before, it’s perhaps not too surprising that I’ve both reviewed it and written about it before and I’d like to say there’s not a great deal more for me to say about it, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a complex book, a clever book and a very entertaining book and in any one review it has been possible to touch on only a part of it so I could quite easily reintroduce you to the story…

Which is about a woman, Sybilla, and her son, Ludo or David or Stephen, and the realisation that in the absence of a male role model in his young life he could easily turn into one of those Argentinian soldiers with sufficient lack of empathy that, if ordered, would happily throw a dissident from a moving aeroplane, a concern which troubles Sybilla so greatly that she sets out to give him not one but eight male role models, an approach Ludo or David or Stephen follows in the search of his own father….

Or it’s themes…

Which are many and complex and include language, art, language, genius, music, following your dream or not, young people trapped in economic subjugation to the persons into whose keeping they just happen to have fallen, adventure, exploration, the magic of words (in case saying language twice wasn’t sufficient), miracles of obstinacy, letting blue = blue, the merits of the Circle Line, aerodynamics, Liberace (no, not the), parenthood, suicide and that masterpiece of modern cinema Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai….

Or the marvellous way in which it is written….

Being both funny, droll, extraordinarily intelligent (which, by the reading, confers intelligence upon the reader), at times weird and frustrating and often very disjointed but bear with it, it has an interesting thread which flows through it and it is all worth it in the end

Or the things you will learn by reading it…

Such as the plethora of names for multi-syllabaric words, the mathematics of Gauss, the atom, how to write Odysseus in Greek, Mr. Ma’s system of learning, the hiragana, the plot of Seven Samurai, how to give the other side a fair chance, the Kutta-Joukowski principle of aerodynamics, algebra, why never to read Roemer’s Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik, that there are people who believe death a fate worse than boredom, lots of classical music that is beautiful and well worth listening to, the brilliance of Carling Black Label Adverts and the absolute necessity of Idaho Fried Chicken

Or I could tell you…

That it is quite possibly my most favourite book ever, which is quite a recommendation because I do not have favourites nor believe in having favourites in anything

That it is never dull, that it never grows old, and every reading, even if you finish and go straight around again, is as fresh as the last

That it is a masterpiece of modern literature

Or I could just let you read it for yourself. Oh go on.

Posted in comfort books, personal reflection, re-read | 4 Comments

Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki by Kenkō and Chōmei (translated by Meredith McKinney)

“Where can one be, what can one do, to find a little safe shelter in this world, and a little peace of mind?”

February has been a patchy reading month, it has been interesting and a bit wild, and I’ve read less than ever but as I approached the end of the month I realised that there hadn’t been anything which had really punched me in the gut, and after the soulfulness of January it felt a bit lacking. One of the last books I bought before I stopped routinely buying books was this collection of ancient Japanese texts Essays in Idleness by Kenkō  and Hōjōki  by Chōmei. Both writers were reclusive figures living in thirteenth century Japan, and both writers are key figures in the Japanese philosophy of impermanence – the idea that life is mere illusion, that it is temporary however much we try to fool ourselves that it is otherwise. It is both a philosophical and aesthetic concept, finding beauty in imperfection and spiritual happiness in the pursuit of truth, humility and the Buddhist faith.

The book opens with the Hōjōki, which is a mere eighteen pages long and reflects the life and thinkings of Chōmei who has retreated from the world to live in a small hut away from society. Despite its brevity, the text is quietly powerful reflecting on the transience of existence, of cities, of the benevolence (or otherwise) of leaders, and the events which led him to retreat to his small hut away from the trappings of society. Chōmei reflects upon the simplicity that arises from his unencumbered life, the focus on daily necessities without the need to adjust behaviour for social graces. Yet even this simplicity Chōmei questions, his attachment to his little hut and simple life he sees as another way in which he has failed to let go of his attachments to the world.

Essays in Idleness is a longer, more detailed work which has greater scope and depth. Comprising 243 short pieces, the subjects range from the Buddhist ideals, to the moral codes and conventions of life, life’s brevity and distractions, social refinements, matters of love and grief and beauty. It is a strange blend. At times it is reminiscent of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in fact Kenkō makes reference to The Pillow Book in a number of places, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well as that text lacking a unifying theme or tone. Extracts such as this passage are strongly redolent of The Pillow Book:

“Rather than gazing on a clear full moon that shines over a thousand leagues, it is infinitely more moving to see the moon near dawn and after long anticipation, tinged with the most beautiful palest blue, a moon glimpsed among cedar branches deep in the mountains, its light now hidden again by the gathering clouds of an autumn shower. The moist glint of moonlight on the glossy leaves of the forest shii oak or the white oak pierces the heart, and makes you yearn for the distant capital and a friend of true sensibility to share the moment with you.”

In other respects it reminded me of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, particularly in the short observations and focus on a moral and philosophically stoical approach to life, like here when Kenkō reminds us of the basic necessities of human existence beyond which all is effectively luxury;

“Anyone who wastes time in worthless pursuits must be called a fool or a villain. Obligation compels us to do many things for the sake of lord and nation, and we have little enough time for ourselves. Think of it like this: we have an inescapable need, first, to acquire food, second, clothes, and third, a place to live. These and these alone are the three great necessities of human life. To live without hunger or cold, sheltered from the elements and at peace – this is happiness.”

It is a passage which could easily have been lifted from the Meditations, or any one of the stoic school of Western philosophy. I find it interesting that two thinkers, centuries and half a world apart, land on the same kind of wisdom, and it’s reassuring in a way that there are universals which transcend individual experience. And perhaps it is good to remember that often the things we think we need are nothing more than desires, motivated by social expectation, one-upmanship, or greed.

For me, Essays in Idleness was a timely read. As I mentioned in my jumble of thoughts over the weekend, I have found February a strange challenge because I had lost focus on what it was I wanted to achieve, the reason why I started this journey in the first place. I was slipping back into my old, bad habits: thinking about buying this, that or the other; researching holiday destinations; wasting my time aimlessly surfing the internet, unfocused and directionless, burning hours on nothing. I had forgotten than what I wanted was focus, deliberateness, that I wanted to dive deeply into things instead of skimming the surface. I hadn’t achieved that at all in February, I am finding that deep engagement is much more difficult to attain than I had anticipated, though perhaps I should have been expecting it and my failure to do so was nothing more than arrogance or complacency. Essays in Idleness, particularly, helped me to refocus my thoughts and energy in the direction I intended. As Kenkō writes:

Thus, you should carefully consider which among the main things you want in life is the most important, and renounce all the others to dedicate yourself to that thing alone. Among the many matters that press in on us on any day, at any given moment, we must give ourselves to the most productive, by no matter how little – ignore the rest, and devote yourself entirely to the most important thing. If you find yourself reluctant to abandon the others, you will never achieve your primary aim.”

This struck me as sound advice, though I still feel as though I am at the start just figuring out what are the main things I want in life independently of the things I have been conditioned, allowed myself to be conditioned, into believing I want. Strange to think I have reached the grand old age of 42 without having really ever understood what this is. Or perhaps I did, once, but life has caused me to let go of those aims which were silly or unrealistic, those things which didn’t really matter at all, and only now am I beginning to understand how much time, energy and money I have squandered. But perhaps that, too, is simply what I needed to do to get here, and instead of lingering on the past all I can do is find a good way to move forward. As Kenkō points out:

“While we are young, we have all manner of ambitious plans for the future – to make a success of ourselves in life, achieve grand things, learn skills, study. But there seems plenty of time to fulfil our wishes, and we dawdle on the way, letting ourselves be distracted by the passing concerns of everyday life, so that we grow old having in fact done nothing much. Regret them as we might, there is no regaining our lost years, and, like a wheel running ever faster downhill, debility overtakes us, while we have succeeded in learning no skill and never achieving the success we dreamed of in life.

Well I have learned some skills, for what it’s worth, and I am not so concerned about success, or rather I have a different view of success than my younger self did. My ambition has changed, but in a way which I think gives me a more positive road map for the future, one which engenders connection and respect and decency, which grounds me in my environment and fulfils me in a way no amount of book buying ever could. The writings of Kenkō and, to a lesser extent, Chōmei have inspired me to maintain my focus, to not give up or slip back, because time is short and this, impermanent and distracting world, can be over in a missed heart-beat. There’s no time to waste, all other thinking is mere illusion. This beautiful, profound and affecting work is one I think I will easily dip into and out of in the future, whenever I lose my way or wish to be reminded of the simple wonder of the autumn moon at dawn.

Posted in Classics, Japanese, outwith, philosophy | 4 Comments

Link: what writers really do when they write

This article by George Saunders is sublime: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A jumble of thinking

February has passed and March has begun, the world continues to turn, angling closer or further away from the sun depending on where you live. It is cold or not cold. Rainy or not rainy. Time passes, and somehow the desire to mark its passing asserts itself even when you know that minutes only matter to those that have clocks and calendars don’t change what happens outside your door one bit at all.

February has been a strange reading month.

I continue to read fewer books, and I continue to be glad I have done so. I have read, in total, three books in February. It has not all been intentional. Work has asserted itself, eating into the time when I would usually read and I have felt it. I have read fewer books but the focus hasn’t been there, and I have felt myself losing the thread of what I’m trying to achieve here. This, I think, is the usual arc of changing a habit into something more intentioned. Somehow the old habits reassert themselves, it is as though the mind senses a weakness, the degradation of good intention into something else: certainty, arrogance, complacency. It takes its opportunity to revert back to its old, comfortable ways. The nerve paths most travelled. The certainty of what we know, over the reward of breaking new ground, of making an intentioned choice.

I have had to remind myself, often, of why I have made this choice. I have discovered the challenge of declining the temptations of daily life, the things we are supposed to want, the sweet sting of desire whether it is for a novel experience or a novel writer, for the daily coffee hit or the annual holiday. When I’m harried or tired it is easy to think that a week away in a cottage somewhere would be just the thing I require, and yet I remind myself that what I want more than anything is to feel connection to the here and now, the house in which I live and the people and creatures that accompany me, whose lives and precious and unique and extraordinary, and who I am privileged to share a space and time with. Perhaps going away to a cottage, or a hotel, or a city or a country simply make it easier to appreciate who those people are, to spend time with them, but there is no reason why I can’t do so right now. Perhaps instead of sitting and writing this.

I write this to remind myself. I need to read, but I do not need to read everything. I enjoy books, but they don’t always have to be new ones. It would be so easy to slip back into old habits, but my new pathways are burning with purpose and I feel, for certain, that these new pathways will bring me closer to the world instead of shielding me from it.

In February I bought 2 books. I thought long and hard about doing so for the first one and the second was more of an impulse and I was disappointed in myself for submitting to it. When I bought my first book I thought about it for over a week and I explored possibilities for accessing it in other ways: library or borrowing. It was not available. When I decided to buy it, I decided that I would do two things: 1) I would support my local, independent bookshop and 2) that I would pay full price for it. Paying full price was a test. If I wasn’t prepared to pay full price, then I didn’t really want it. Discounts, multi-buy deals they cheapen things and books are not really expensive, though I know that is only really true for those with expendable income which I am fortunate enough to be. I ordered it via my local bookshop and on the Saturday I picked it up and by the window they had a display of the loveliest books – Pan MacMillan’s Collectors’ Library. My daughter and I looked at them for a long time, then left the shop. Then, later, my daughter asked for the copy of Peter Pan, which I was pleased to buy for her (she is not a reader) and this enabled me, permitted me, excused me, to buy the lovely copy of Walden which fits quite neatly with my reading intentions but which I already owned. I allowed the collector in me, the acquisitive person, to assert itself. The old pathways buzzed. I paid full price.

I have bought books, but I still don’t feel at the mercy of it. Something is beginning to change. I am not sure I am yet in the place I want to be, my focus is not where I would like it, but I am beginning to find it easier to challenge my habits, to not permit myself to relax back into my old ways, and I my mind is clearer for it. It is not always the case, and I still have much work to do, but I remain sure I’m heading in the right direction.

It is not just about books anymore, it is about becoming a fully present human being, not poked in directions by social convention or expectations, by advertising or habitual thinking. I no longer want to behave in a way which is determined by factors outside of me or by laziness. By this I don’t mean that I won’t be responsive to my children or husband, or that I won’t meet the demands of my work, but I no longer want to be driven by image or a desire for admiration or acceptance, because it is easy, the usual trappings of daily life. I read because I want to read, because I love it, but what I read has to be chosen be me, in a deliberate and intentioned way, and not because I am tempted by other people’s books, because I feel left out or out on a limb.

It has been a strange reading month, that’s for sure. I am not sure if I am satisfied or dissatisfied by it, but I am learning every week and as long as I continue to do so, it will all be worth it.


Posted in personal reflection | 4 Comments

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

I’ve taken a brief break from the cold, barren landscapes of Arctic literature, needing somImage result for nights at the circus angela carter viragoething a bit more meaty and lively, and saw that the Guardian book club were reading Nights at the Circus as their February read. I’m not a member of the Guardian book club, I don’t participate, but I do love Carter and Nights is one of her books that I’ve never quite got around to, or tried and failed in the past, and it felt like time. I adore Angela Carter. I still remember the shiver of encounter back when I was doing my A level in English Literature and we had a trainee teacher who came in one week and tested her skills on us, and she chose The Lady of the House of Love from Carter’s unworldly short story collection The Bloody Chamber, and it was so visceral and real, so gory and dark and physical, that I still, even all these years later, remember how it made me feel. Shortly afterwards I sought out more Carter for myself discovering first The Magic Toyshop and from there I’ve never looked back. There is something so unique about Carter. She digs out life’s entrails and uses them to auger such extraordinary visions – packed with incomprehensible events and the most marvellous metaphors and similes – that the whole glorious spectacle assembles itself into some curdled vision of life that crawls over on its tangled limbs and smacks you lustily in the mouth leaving a smear of yesterday’s fish pie on your cheek. That’s Carter: writing so bloody it leaves you feeling a little sticky.

Nights, I’m glad to say, fulfils all Carter’s usual promise. This is the story of Sophie Fevvers, a winged-woman circus performer, Helen of the high-wire, hatched not born, a woman who is as much myth as reality and who is under the scrutiny of Jack Walser, a young American journalist, who takes a break from his usual war stories to debunk the myth, to untangle the real woman from the fictional winged-Victory. He meets with Fevvers after the show, finding her in the company of ex-whore and adoptive mother Lizzie who is as eloquent and mysterious as the winged woman is. Walser soon finds himself out of his depth:

“With that, she b
atted her eyelashes at Walser in the mirror. From the pale length of those eyelashes, a good three inches, he might have thought she had not taken her false ones off had he not been able to see them lolling, hairy as gooseberries, among the formidable refuse of the dressing-table. He continued to take notes in a mechanical fashion but, as the women unfolded the convolutions of their joint stories together, he felt more and more like a kitten tangling up in a ball of wool it had never intended to unravel in the first place; or a sultan faced with not one but two Scheherezades, both intent on impacting a thousand stories into a single night.”

Hairy as gooseberries indeed! Fevvers leaps into existence, sharing her story with a sceptical and confused Walser. She spins him the yarn of her history, her years growing up in Ma Nelson’s whorehouse, the growing of her wings, her discovery of flight. After Ma Nelson’s death, she and Lizzie – of Italian extraction – move to live with Lizzie’s relatives in their ice cream parlour, but this idyll doesn’t last long and poverty forces Fevvers to sell herself again, this time to Madame Schreck who runs a subterranean freakshow-come-whorehouse from which Fevvers is again sold, this time to a creepy penis-worshipping recluse who hopes to capture ‘Azrael’s’ powers in his quest for eternal life. Fevvers escapes him and returns back to Lizzie and her family, where the circus and the mythology of the winged aeraliste begins to form around her.

Walser is sceptical but also entranced and overwhelmed by everything that Fevvers is. Despite aiming to debunk her (are the wings real? Walser is not the only one to wonder) be becomes a follower, an acolyte of sorts, convincing his editor to abandon the gritty, realist work he’d been writing to date and switch his focus to the fanciful life of Fevvers, ostensibly to dig out the truth of her story. Thus Walser joins the circus, in secret, and follows Fevvers to St. Petersburg where he becomes a clown, is attacked by a tiger and falls in love, though doesn’t recognise it. Fevvers for her own part continues to have her own adventures and ruthlessly follows the money where it takes her. For Fevvers is mercenary in spirit, whilst soft of heart, and ever aware of her extraordinary nature and her mythical appeal she trades herself for advantage, though it doesn’t always go as she hopes. The story culminates in a train wreck, a kidnapping, shamanism and the power and debilitating joys of love. As Fevvers ruefully acknowledges:

“The Cockney Venus! she thought bitterly. Now she looks more like one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit. Helen, formerly of the high-wire, now permanently grounded. Pity the New Woman if she turns out to be as easily demolished as me.”

Sometimes we have to spin ourselves in a yarn to believe we’re extraordinary.

The story of Nights at the Circus whirls and dips and floats around like Fevvers on the trapeze and it’s crazy and unbelievable, grotesque and florid and dazzling. It reminded me of all the manic promise of The Master and Margarita, but without the incomprehensibility or the underpinning ideology which made it so impenetrable. Instead Nights at the Circus is all heart, all bloodied and messy and beating wildly in your hands and as fragile and glorious and as beautiful. Carter has an extraordinarily sensuous way of writing, she appeals and appals in equal measure, not least of which in the character of Fevvers which is so three dimensional at times you can even taste her. Fevvers is a work of genius. She is vulgar and enormous, beautiful and disgusting all at once. She is the after-smell of last night’s dirty socks and underwear and she has terrible taste and a core of avarice that guides her into riches and peril in equal measure. She has the mouth of an educated whore, yet insists she is virga intacta and the feathers and her story are real. I find it hard to recall any more magnificent and tawdry a character, and yet one so oppressively powerful. For Fevvers is a powerful woman, she is a woman unapologetic about her appetites and her desires, she doesn’t care if she smells or belches, she doesn’t care what people think of her even if they doubt her, believe her a fraud. The only time she begins to deteriorate is when she begins to doubt herself, when she loses her confidence and her ability to sustain the myth. But like anything with Fevvers it isn’t long-lasting and she emerges, forceful and proud and triumphant: the winged Victory after all. I could go on, but instead I’ll defer to Carter’s greater capability:

 “What made her remarkable as an aerialiste, however, was the speed – or, rather, the lack of it – with which she performed even the climatic triple somersault. When the hack aerialiste, the everyday, wingless variety, performs the triple somersault, he or she travels through the air at a cool sixty miles an hour; Fevvers, however, contrived a contemplative and leisurely twenty-five, so that the packed theatre could enjoy the spectacle, as in slow motion, of every tense muscle straining in her Rubeneseque form. The music went much faster than she did; she dawdled. Indeed, she did defy the law of projectiles, because a projectile cannot mooch along its trajectory; if it slackens its speed in mid-air, down it falls. But Fevvers, apparently, pottered along the invisible gangway between her trapezes with the portly dignity of a Trafalgar Square pigeon flapping from one proffered handful of corn to another, and then she turned head over heels three times, lazily enough to show off the crack in her bum.”

And that, to me, is what makes Carter so amazing. She can take you from awe to disgust in the space of 10 words, and yet what emerges is something so tangible that the characters, and their situation however grotesque, become oppressively real. Nights at the Circus is a fun, disturbing and mad read that grabs you by the goolies and squeezes mercilessly, laughing in your face and daring you not to enjoy it.

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Onward goes the new Fram!

In a fascinating twist of serendipity, I was astonished to read in the news today that the Mosaic expedition will repeat the landmark journey undertaken by the Fram, which I recently read about in Fridtjof Nansen’s book Farthest North. The expedition aims to learn more about the impact of climate change on the Arctic region, in particular the Arctic sea ice which is in retreat, and expects to complete the drift within a year, significantly more quickly than the three years it took Nansen and his crew. I will be watching the expedition with very great interest indeed.

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