Caught by the River

This summer Michael Smith will mostly be reading…

Michael Smith | 6th August 2018

… short, cerebral, lyrical pieces by old continental modernists, mostly about the spirit of place, that place being mostly the seaside, where I now live. With a young family and a bar to look after I rarely have the time or concentration span to read book-length writing these days, so I keep it short and sweet.

First on my list is The Sea Close By by Albert Camus, a pamphlet from Penguin collecting a couple of pieces about his feelings for the sea. This slender pamphlet is only two quid (!) and I strongly recommend it as a beach read. The writing is delicious. Pondering his childhood in Algiers, he opens with:

“They are often secret, the loves you share with a place. Cities like Paris, Prague, and even Florence are turned in upon themselves, and so limit the society which is natural to them. But Algiers, and with it certain privileged places, cities on the sea, open out into the sky like a mouth or a wound. The things one loves in Algiers are the things everyone lives by: the sea at every turning, a certain burden in the sunlight, the beauty of the people. And, as always in this shamelessness, this offering, there is an even more secret perfume.”

I’m also keen to dip into Walter Benjamin’s Reflections, a collection of his essays, if you can call them that – they’re as close to poetry as essays ever come: romantic, imaginative meanderings, trains of thought structured by a sharp, agile intelligence. It’s difficult to know what box to put Walter Benjamin in, but it works for me. I’d like to re-read his pieces on Marseilles and Naples (which I quote from here):

“What distinguishes Naples from other large cites is something it has in common with the African Kraal: each private act is is permeated by streams of communal life. To exist, for the Northern European the most private of affairs, is here a collective matter. So the house is far less the refuge into which people retreat than the inexhaustible reservoir from which they flood out. Life bursts not only from doors, not only into front yards, where people on chairs do their work. Housekeeping utensils hang from balconies like potted plants. From the widows of the top floors come baskets on ropes for mail, fruit, and cabbage. Just as the living room appears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so, only much more loudly, the street migrates into the living room. Even the poorest one is full of wax candles, biscuit saints, and sheaves of photos on the wall.”

Also on my list is the daddy of them all, Charles Baudelaire. Over the years I return again and again to the bitter-sweet prose-poems of Paris Spleen. Take, for example, the exquisitely poignant ennui of The Port (my translation):

The port is a lovely place to stay for a soul tired of life’s battles. The vastness of the sky, the mobile architecture of the clouds, the changing colours of the sea, a prism marvellously suited to please the eyes without ever tiring them. The elegant shapes of the ships, their complicated rigging, which oscillates harmoniously with the swells, giving the soul a taste for rhythm and beauty. And then, above all, there’s a kind of mysterious and aristocratic pleasure for someone who no longer has curiosity or ambition, in lying in the belvedere or leaning on the jetty, contemplating all the movements of those leaving and those returning, those who still have the energy to want something, who still have the desire to travel, or get rich.