Although perhaps not quite at the level of the end of this quote from metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne: ‘… inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful’.
Yes, I am pushing out my little sailing-boat to new, unexplored shores. New job, new timetable, new way of presenting my book haul and a meeting with one of my living heroines: Herta Müller.
I thought I might save some time if I present my book haul in a one-take video and upload that on You Tube. I’m not quite convinced yet that it will be a time-saver, but perhaps this will get faster as I become more familiar with the settings. I rather cringe, though, when I see and hear myself speaking. Plus, my anonymity is gone now!
Here is the link to the video. Let me know if you have any problems viewing it.
I’m off to catch the train to see Herta Müller at the British Library and will write more about it when I get back.
Northern Italy may not always have the best weather, but the region of the lakes surrounded by mountains has always been popular with the wealthy Milanese and the rich from other European countries as well. Nowadays it seems to be THE spot for weddings and honeymoons. I’m trying to prolong the summer and keep the tone light with some of my favourite villas on Lake Como. However, my thoughts are with my friend Ilaria living in Livorno in Tuscany, where they’ve had severe flooding this past week.
WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted – for #EU27Project and because it is about Transylvania just before, during and after WW1. Bánffy was a politician as well as a writer born in Transylvania, and he is nostalgic but also scathing about the Hungarian aristocracy. It is a massive tome (and it’s just the first of a trilogy), so I think it should keep me quiet for months to come.
Laura Kaye: English Animals – one of those cultural exploration stories which I find so fascinating. A Slovakian woman gets a job as a sort of housekeeper in an English country house owned by an eccentric mismatched couple. Library book which I couldn’t resist getting. Even better: it’s in large print, so the pages just whizz by!
Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley – what is it about these Latin Americans that they are so visceral and interesting and wild? An impossible to define novel about fear, dislocation, crimes, revenge and an increasingly global world. Experimental and yet immensely readable.
Grazia Deledda: After the Divorce – I will write a proper review of this for #EU27Project, but it’s a sweeping picture of a Sardinian village, with all its poverty, gossip, violence and passion. There have been some complaints about the translation, but it sounds quite modern (perhaps too much so?) to me.
Terence Portelli (ed.): Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta – review to come for #EU27Project. Nice to read something from a culture and country that I know very little about.
Maggie Nelson: Bluets – is this poetry, essay, memoir? A bit of each? An investigation into the colour blue (my favourite) and the end of a relationship.
Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk – the last novel of a wonderful writer, who will be much missed
Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal – political thriller, was going to be part of my summer reading, but I never got around to it
I will be starting a new full-time job on Monday, which will involve daily commuting into London. Whether that adds to my reading time remains to be seen. I am afraid it may sadly eat into my writing and blogging time. However, I suspect that all those who follow me on Twitter will be hugely relieved that I will be spending less time on that platform!
Following on from yesterday’s review of Maggie Nelson, I thought I’d apply a similar list-making technique to give you an update of all that is happening in my life at the moment. A little self-indulgent, but you will be spared such things in the future, as I won’t have the time.
Jobless, homeless no more
A year since coming back to the UK, cocksure and blind, so confident that I would easily find a new permanent job in HR. So scratch, scrabble and scrape in the post-referendum landscape, with my gentle, constructivist Learning & Development topic, when all companies are looking for is Immigration and Payroll Specialists.
My heart was not in the job hunt, that’s true. Hip hip hurrah for my freelance life, being able to take my book deliveries directly from the postman, taking time off during the children’s holidays, working a few days per month and then having enough time to write. Hip flask to hand.
I know you are all green with envy by this point.
It was the perfect lifestyle, except for one thing. The bank. I couldn’t take the mortgage in my sole name with such an uncertain financial track record, with no idea when the next job would come in (and companies keep changing their minds or postponing or cancelling their training courses). So hip flask got thrown when the bailiffs come knocking at the door, or rather, my soon to be ex (STBX) threatening that I would have to sell the house and give him his share.
Now watch him parade around in a rented house that is too big for him, with his all-new furniture and all-new giant TV and Amazon Alexa the Echo, even-tempered slave girl, and expensive holidays, while moaning that he cannot afford child maintenance. Cue many sleepless nights. But a few pills and Talking Therapy sessions later, I’ve learnt to meditate and relax my muscles and turn a blind eye to the unavoidable. Still we pirouette around the financial pot, each side claiming greater overall contributions or greater need.
So I potter around on French property websites, remarking how easily I could get a maison de maitre property in Aquitaine for my share of the house sale minus mortgage, instead of reading the hundredth rejection email starting: ‘We value your application, however, on this occasion we will not be progressing you to the next stage. Other candidates more closely fitted our requirements. We would like to thank you for your interest and encourage you to sign up for job alerts to hear about future vacancies. Please fill in the survey below to tell us about your recruitment experience.’
Feeling too old, too past it (I would be the grandmother intern if I were to move into publishing – and I certainly couldn’t survive on those starter salaries!), diminished, unwanted, in the wrong field, regretting all my past choices. The ones that seemed the perfect fit were the ones that hurt the most. Especially when they claimed to like you and your lateral skills, that they weren’t discriminating on the basis of age, praised your achievements and qualifications. You almost believed them… until you see the dewy faces and minimalist experience of the people they did pick for the job.
If it’s that difficult for me, an able-bodied woman (White Other on census forms), with a few degrees from the UK as well as elsewhere, to find a job in publishing because of my age, can you imagine if I were POC or without a degree or disabled? Diversity in publishing indeed! Obviously, everyone above the age of 40 stops reading…
So it was back to the corporate treadmill, one I’d refused to run on for many years, one that I’d stopped believing in, but teenagers are more expensive than cats. They eat all the time and grow an inch per month.
Let no one tell you that you can follow your passion. My career and choices in life have been determined by geography, accident of birth, nationality, age, history, family situation etc. And many, many other people have had their choices far more severely curtailed!
Then I calculate how many more years I have to stay in a UK which has become strangely frightening and all too recognisable (from living in countries where political incorrectness reigns). Seven more years until my children leave the house to go to the university, ten until the younger one finishes university – although I suspect they may want to study abroad.
But avast, avast, stop preparing an escape route and stop hauling myself over the coals, for suddenly interviews materialised! Over the summer I was wanted for job interviews, even managed to convince some people that I didn’t mind being overqualified for the work I would be doing. (I really don’t, I just need to pay the bills and see my kids in real life rather than on Google Hangouts). Yes, all of them were short-term contracts or very, very part-time. All paying slightly less than the salary I had 18 years ago in full-time employment, back in the days when I had a small house and no children and a husband earning roughly the same as me.
About equality of pay. Since then, STBX’s salary has increased slowly but surely ever year, while I have had peaks and troughs. In 2003 I was on 2.5 times his salary, but since I had my (our) first son in 2003 it has gone into free fall. Never mind the fact that most of it went on childcare.
So I bide my time and try not to jump at the first desperate opportunity. The less promising ones offer me the job, while the certainties bail out. And I start to feel very foolish.
I took the bait. A permanent position in London, an interesting job (in HR, rather than publishing) in the university sector. It is not perfect, but it will keep me and the children off the streets. My friends are delighted for me, but I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne open. It’s not a new career doing something I feel passionate about. It’s not living the dream at this late stage in life. It’s more of the same, without the flexibility I’d grown used to in the past 8 years.
Still, reasons for celebrating! It means I can stop hearing my STBX scolding or pitying or alleging that I could earn much more than him if only I put my mind to it. ‘No one ever asked you to give up your career to follow me around. You could have got an au pair. All right, if you were worried about me having an affair with the au pair, you should have got a male au pair. What do you mean, there weren’t any of them in Geneva? But Pablo’s family had one? Oh, because he was Spanish and couldn’t find employment in Spain? Oh, and he left after 4 months all of a sudden when he did get a job in Madrid? Never mind, it just proves my point, that there are some men au pairs around. I think you didn’t want to work. You just wanted to sit at home with the cat and write and I’ve had to support you while you have written three novels.’ It means I can now start the formal divorce proceedings and wash that man right out of my hair.
One year on, the house is slowly but surely falling apart after 5 years of tenants and a year of my shoddy housekeeping. I was often too overwhelmed and depressed this past year to repair things or keep the house spick and span. Besides, why invest more love and hope in a house I was no longer sure I’d be able to keep? So a professional one-off cleaning is called for before I start work. With the result that I’ve been frantically scrubbing the place in preparation for this. To save my tattered reputation. Some people never learn.
Commuterland and superwoman
London has its pros and cons. The plus side: bookshops, being able to go to cultural events [‘You spend HOW much on books and entertainment?’ my horrified financial advisor said], meeting friends for lunch or drinks. Downside: 2 – 2.5 hour commute each day if the trains aren’t delayed and an annual season ticket somewhere in the region of £3500 per year. Leaving just before the children set off for school and getting back at 7 p.m., just in time to shout at them about their homework over dinner. Having to organise all the orthodontist, haircut, doctor etc. appointments for them on a Saturday or else take a day off. At least they don’t have any clubs or other extra-curricular activities (but oh, the guilt associated with that!). So many other single mothers do precisely that – and it’s worth it to hear my children say: ‘Does that mean we get to keep the house? Then go for it, Mama! We’ll cope.’ They crave a bit of stability and they are so much more loving and helpful now that I am more relaxed and happy without their father around.
Plus, I have the feeling they will relish no ‘Have you done your homework yet?’ mutters in the background every half an hour.
But I must write – how will I write?
If only I had the time to write, instead of travelling like a maniac around the globe! (2012-2013)
Now I have the time, but oh… If only I had the peace of mind to write instead of falling apart/ raging and ranting/ worrying about things/ jobhunting (2014-2017)
Now I have peace of mind but oh… I won’t have any time for writing or blogging or tweeting! (2017-2018)
And so I worry and give up before I even start. Run away rather than fight the impossible fight. There was only one situation where I chose to stand my ground and cling on for dear life. The wrong situation. I chose badly. I stayed way past the expiry date, the food rotted and now I’ll never get the smell out of that fridge.
Last Night of the Proms brought that home to me. That I worry about the things that might happen. But might not.
I could not watch it, because I no longer find the tub-thumping patriotism and Union Jack waving hilarious and endearing. But then I heard that they’d been handing out EU flags and the audience were waving those as well. How many times have I been pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions when I’ve been expecting the worst? Am I letting fear and prejudice cheat me out of opportunities?
Is the fear of not having time for writing paralysing me? Am I using the guilt over my reduced time with the children to distract me from the hard work that needs to go into writing? Am I content to remain on amateurish turf forevermore, every now and again hitting a lucky shot?
And so on ad nauseam. There is a time for writing, there is a time for ranting, there is a time for logistical acrobatics. Things will be imperfect at first – and may remain imperfect. There will be things I have to miss out on. Another year of not having something quite ready for submission. And yet… Sometimes the most impossible situations produce the best work. I refuse to feel guilty and I refuse to stop writing.
Plus, I can read and write during my commute, right?
If I make it through September, fold my pinnies, cool my forehead, don’t wait for gaps to be filled with leisure, no clemency left in any fibre. I will be a new woman, trying to do several new things at once, such as cycling to the station.
Yet not attempt too strenuous a life of many amputated beginnings and bird flutter under the skin until the very least October. For no respite, no holidays will follow for the new hireling.
If November doesn’t bring morose companionship on wet flagstones, where would my certainties drain like ink still damp on poor-quality paper?
And if you can’t wait until December to see if my sleight of hand produces a second draft or better poems, why, I’ve wasted my breath and months…
Some people never learn. Some people never know when to give up.
But, as Mary Oliver said, the world has need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I recently read for the first time and am already rereading, puzzled me. It’s a memoir mourning the death of a relationship. It’s also a series of numbered mini-essays, meditations and aphorisms linked to the colour blue, in its literal and metaphorical manifestation. At times, it reaches poetic intensity, but this is not what we would usually describe as poetry. (Foyles had it displayed in the poetry section, however.) It is the prose-poem mix and research-intensive, allusive type of poetry which has become fashionable in recent years: practised by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Bhanu Kapil. (There are plenty of earlier examples of it, but it seems to be much more mainstream now.)
I like each of the above-mentioned poets and I liked this book too, if we think of it as poetry, as sudden illuminations of a dark area of the human heart and mind. Vignettes about loss and pain, where the anguished cry of hurt and anger is kept at bay through careful selection of information, data points, quotations. Mediated through this semblance of rationality, the unruly emotions can be filtered for public consumption, unlike the angry, self-pitying outpouring on a blog for instance (just talking about myself here). So a very useful device for passionate writers who want to avoid descending into self-pitying bathos .
135. Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: ‘She’s got them bad/ She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know/ Just what her blues is all about.’ Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is to eventually move towards darkness.
138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.
The author acknowledges this distancing effect. By writing things down, by finding words to share certain moments or feelings with others, she is robbing those moments or feelings of their mystical power. Which can be both good and bad. It might work as a way of overcoming sorrow and loss, but at other times it feels like you’re giving up something too precious:
193. I will admit, however… that writing does do something to one’s memory- that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.
However, there are two objections or hesitations that I have with this kind of writing. First, if it is poetry, it is too much ‘telling’ and not enough showing. I don’t think rationality and emotion have to be at odds with each other, but when I read or hear poetry I like to feel as if the poet is reaching directly inside my chest and pulling at my heart, or has seen directly into my head and made me aware of things that I’d previously hardly dared to voice. It’s very much like Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ There has to be something unspoken and ungraspable about it. It encompasses all of the poet’s feelings, plus mine, plus so much more.
Secondly, when this type of book is supposed to be a novel, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, it feels to me like an incredibly lazy way of handling a story arc. Vignettes, no matter how well written, avoid the connective tissue and real plot development. Perhaps it’s a trick writers use to hide their lack of ideas for plotting. It’s as if I were writing the exciting scenes of a novel but leaving out all the links between them, anything which might explain character development (other than the narrator), or running away from the saggy middle because I can’t think how to improve it, or chickening out of a proper ending because I’m afraid I can’t handle it.
This is not the case with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I now feel the urge to read her The Argonauts, which has a clearer narrative structure, to see how she handled that. While I agree that modern life is messy and oddly dislocated, it is:
a) Not a new thing: Modernist literature is entirely predicated on this loss of innocence and decline of society.
b) I don’t see why coherence has to be sacrificed to describe messiness in fiction. Perhaps in a time of confusion, we need the boon of structure more than ever, supporting us just enough so that we can play freely within it.