Be afraid. Be very afraid.

If you haven’t known trepidation (a disquieting fear, not the terror found in a book like The Shining) while reading, then you might want to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while only halfway through it, but I am reading it so slowly that I’m not sure I’ll even finish anytime soon.

I’m not even sure it’s a novel. It is, rather, a meditation on inner and outer decay, on decline, loss, memory, and the gradual effacement of even the most extraordinary of things. I half expect the book itself to vanish or crumble between my fingers while I’m reading. Certainly it reminds me of a book I read earlier this year — Teju Cole’s Open City. Published a decade earlier, Austerlitz (so far) greets us in Belgium as Cole’s novel does, and also in Wales and in London. The settings are intensely and intimately described, yet the novel also seems to take place within Sebald’s memory. There’s a term I’m reminded of: “umwelt” — a German word often translated as “a self-centered world”. Weirdly, I began a short story titled “Umwelt”, also set in London, which has dragged on and on…

And it’s the passages about the inner workings of our selves that seem most familiar. Here, at length, is Austerlitz describing the process of writing and reading:

But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed….However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.

As always, things seem connected. Between readings I’ve been listening repeatedly to the first track on what I think what may end up being one of 2011’s more under-appreciated break-up records. The same disquiet stirs.

Go ahead and be my world, and everything will be ok. Just hide there in plain sight, too big to see.

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Winter Winds

Fifteen inches of snow on the ground is enough to bury me in blankets, itching to get out.  So while browsing the bookshelves of the world wide web I was reminded of my favorite band this year — Mumford and Sons (video below).  I took in three of their shows in London.  The first up in Camden Town, among barrels of 18-yer-olds who were waiting to see the opening act.  In my old age I consoled myself with a beer before remembering that 18-year-olds can drink in the UK at that age anyway.   The band only had a repertoire of eight or nine songs, but they struck me with their updated folk sound and their enthusiasm.

Post-show I walked with the only donor kebab I purchased in a year in London all the way around regent’s Park to my home.  I still recall the taste of the kebab, the shredded roughage and the hot sauce, and my fingers warmed through the tissue wrapping that I carefully peeled away as I ate.  During later shows I saw them again, though I was with friends.  There’s a difference between watching concerts alone and in the company of friends, and I always made sure to walk home afterwords by myself, I think so as not to spoil the memory of the music.  It strikes me that London, being such an expansive city, is so appealing because of the multitude of simultaneous stories in it.  Sometimes I see myself from a far off distance, walking in the shallow darkness of Camden and Marylebone, and I see all the others moving about as well.  Some have grabbed onto a life, while others unknowingly wait to grab on.  They are all connected and yet disconnected, and I am unclear on how to make sense of that.  Perhaps this is why the beginning words of this song always strike me:

As the winter winds litter London with lonely hearts…

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Weather Thoughts

In Washington DC, Fall has arrived.

The seasons were more similar than different in London. With the more frequent, but not overwhelming, occurrence of rain there, I began thinking more about shoes (for some reason, I rarely notice dress shoes in the U.S.).  Specifically, I concerned myself with the likelihood of my shoes getting wet and perhaps damaged during my walks to and from work.  One pair of casual boots I’d purchased weathered the rain well, their surface dusking over time like an aging human being.

I don’t remember winter’s approach.  The temperatures cooled somewhat, but not intolerably so.  London sits at a favorable position in the jet stream current — the winds dip down from the north and west and across the city as they make their way towards the European continent.  As a result, the city is actually much warmer than you’d expect.

In late January, the city fell beneath the spell of a rare heavy snowfall.  I took off to Islington in the north of the city and met two friends at a wine shop called The Sampler.  We topped up a pre-paid card with about 15 quid each and set about the roomy shop sampling quarter and half glasses of wine.  Mostly whites. IMG_0191 Warmed significantly after 45 minutes, we walked to a nearby Italian restaurant and watched through the steam rising from our bowls of pasta as the snow begin to fall in cottony flakes.  I skated on streets near my home , knowing what the next day would look like.IMG_0193 And I prayed that work would be closed as I turned on the television to watch the Super Bowl.

A Better Snooze Button

I woke up briefly this morning with the Railway Children’s A Pleasure in my head (this is what happens when you go to the Field Day festival the day before?).  And one Sunday morning pleasure — to fill the gap left by the unavailbility of CBS’ Sunday Morning here — is streaming NPR on the laptop and falling back to sleep.

You Can Have It All

The weekend was 1) f—–g cold, and 2) tiring. I met a friend of a friend for a drink after work, then met D coming in from Brussels at the champagne bar at St. Pancras station (heated seats!) and then went off to meet someone else at a concert which turned out to be at least one awful band.  Saturday was spent on a trip to find a bookstore called John Sandoe near Sloan Sq, and being slightly disappointed by it, but eating a nice brie and cranberry jam sandwich and vowing not to shop in London on weekends during Xmas.  Back to the apt. for a nap, being woken up by Angeline’s sister who stopped by for a glass of wine and some convo, and then going to a “shiny” party hosted by a young diplomats association.

Sunday, needless to say, was somewhat of a haze which involved Skypeing with the boys in the morning and making up a story for Q’ool with two small stuffed elephants I have from Rwanda to keep his attention.  Then reading the awful newspaper over Thai food at a local pub but not getting warm enough, and having D come over for the evening and going for tapas and wine on the High Street and realizing that I was still exhausted at the end of the weekend.

Yes. It is ridiculous.  I went and saw Malcolm Gladwell speak this evening at the Lyceum Theater. I enjoyed his talk. I equally enjoyed the McDonald’s two cheeseburger meal I ate on the walk to the Tube station.

Two days of relative non-activity except that I have to rent a tuxedo somewhere, then A arrives on Thurs morning until Sunday. And people ask me if I’m going to cook a turkey this year. Incredible.