World Mental Health Day: Mental Health in Fiction

Today is World Mental Health Day. Call me morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by mental health issues both in real life and in fiction. I seem to have quite a few friends with different mental health conditions, have suffered from depression on-and-off myself and have always read research papers on the topic. For a while, I was tempted to become a psychiatrist, except I couldn’t face going for so many years to medical school.

I find the self-help books often surprisingly unhelpful, and it’s a bit hit and miss with memoirs. I appreciate the honesty and find them inspiring in small doses. But, somehow, fiction describes it best – and there certainly is no shortage of such fictional treatments (pardon the pun). From Dostoevsky’s Idiot (who really only suffers from epilepsy and a good heart) to that well-known Victorian disease, hysteria in women, in The Yellow Wallpaper, from the graphic descriptions of electro-shock therapy in The Bell Jar to the horrific wards in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it seems that we are endlessly fascinated by the unpredictability of the human mind.

Now that I’m out of the danger zone myself, I’ve read more books on this topic in recent months. Books that I might have avoided 18 months ago. Although never explicitly diagnosed, in Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill we probably encounter (spoiler alert!) schizophrenia or paranoia, and various other conditions in the secondary characters. Meanwhile, Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen describes a horrific slo-mo fall into depression and self-destruction – exact diagnosis is not always possible or useful.

The most recent book I read on this topic also has a woman struggling with mental health issues (in all three of these books, it is the woman who suffers – hmmm), namely The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer. This was also my contribution to the #NYRBFortnight. [There is another excellent book published by NYRB which relates to this subject and which I might tackle next: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a non-fiction book by psychologist Milton Rokeach, who brought together three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed they were Jesus Christ.]

The unnamed narrator of the the Mortimer novel (or named only as Mrs Armitage, thus being denied of any identity of her own that does not relate to hear role as daughter, mother or wife) is a woman who can’t stop getting married and having children. We never quite find out the exact number of her brood, nor any of their names, except for the oldest daughter Dinah. We do know that she is in love or believes she is in love with Jake, her current (fourth) husband, who has become a successful and well-paid film director. But clearly there is something missing in her life, a gap that she tries to fill through babies, although she is somewhat ambivalent about them once they are there. They tear her apart with their ceaseless demands, yet she clearly would do anything for them.

She sees a therapist but finds it less than useful (he wants to talk about her previous husbands and her father, which she doesn’t believe to be relevant). Most of the book is constructed on dialogue, which prove to be hugely revealing of character.


“Do you like children, Mrs. Armitage?”
“How can I answer such a question?”
“Could it be a question that you don’t wish to answer?”
“I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn’t say a word. It’s like the inquisition or something. Are you trying to make me feel I’m wrong? Because I do that for myself.”
“Do you think it would be wrong not to like children?”
“I don’t know. Yes. Yes, I think so.”
“Why?”
“Because children don’t do you any harm.”

Except, of course, indirectly they do. A year before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Mrs Armitage expresses all the boredom and frustration, being slowly stifled by domesticity and colluding (sometimes quite happily, sometimes feeling she has no choice) in her own oppression. She is given some ‘happy pills’ but still has a breakdown in the linen department at Harrods. Her husband, the insufferably self-absorbed Jake, convinces her to have an abortion and sterilisation, but she discovers almost immediately afterwards that he has been having an affair with an actress. This was one of the most angry and poignant parts of the story and I was devastated to hear that it was autobiographical. But with what admirable control Mortimer takes real life and transforms it into fiction!

Penelope Mortimer, from the National Portrait Gallery.

This all sounds terribly depressing, but the book refuses to be self-indulgent and self-pitying. Instead, it is just the right proportion of fierce and funny, ironic and devastating. Reading it can feel a bit surreal, particularly at the beginning, when you wonder just why the heroine makes so many marriages and children. I particularly enjoyed the  pitch-perfect non sequiturs, whenever Mrs Armitage replies to anyone. She refuses to allow herself to be defined or questioned or pinned down by her victim. She refuses to be a victim, although she sometimes seems in danger of getting crushed by raw emotions. Her revenge is often sly, indirect, simply by ridiculing the men in her life. A woman’s weapons at a time when there were few other weapons available. But at other times, she explicitly calls out for women to rebel… although that letter (significantly) never gets sent. Still, this passage resonated particularly at this moment in time:

You have a vote, Mrs Evans. Now, why don’t you take advantage of it? I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened. Dear Mrs Evans, let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! you’re too weak! Get out! Come back…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easy when they take away love.

Peter Finch kisses Anne Bancroft on the forehead in a scene from the film ‘The Pumpkin Eater’, 1964. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

If this be insanity, then perhaps all women (at that time) were insane. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable response to difficult external circumstances. Yet, although it encapsulates a certain time period, it also feels very modern (and also quite American, so that I often was startled when I came across references to London in the text). Perhaps I say American because it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s home life. I think the two of them would have got along very well.

Advertisements

Reading Summary for September

It’s always a bit of a surprise when I sit down at the end of the month to do a proper count of the number and types of books I’ve read. This month, I only managed to read 8 books, which might in part be explained by the fact that it has been a month full of travelling and other cultural events, as well as the back to school rigmarole.

More surprising and disappointing, by far, is the fact that of those 8, only 2 were in translation, both from Spanish, both winners of the biggest literary prize in Spain, the Planeta Prize. These were Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s subversive Naked Men and Dolores Redondo’s gripping (although at times long-winded) psychological thriller All This I Will Give to You

So perhaps NOT the best month in terms of diversity. I found myself reaching for authors where I know what to expect, such as Rachel Cusk, Tana French or Sarah Moss, whose Night Waking brings back many, many memories of failed attempts at being a good scholar and a good mother simultaneously. And, if the author wasn’t known to me, I stuck to situations that would be familiar, such as expat life (Singapore is only slightly more of a police state than Switzerland) in Jo Furniss’ The Trailing Spouse. I cannot stop myself from reading these sort of books, but I do wonder why in so many books about expats, the main female character is often annoyingly self-absorbed, entitled and thoughtless (even when the writers are women, such as Janice Y.K. Lee, Nell Zink, Jill Alexander Essbaum, or more recently Louise Mangos with Strangers on a Bridge.) Nice cover, though!

The only two male authors I read this month were Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square, which left me somewhat perplexed, and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, which left me depressed about corruption, politics and vote rigging, although it takes place in Nigeria rather than in the UK. I’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing the author for Crime Fiction Lover very soon.

Reading Summary for August 2018

13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.

Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything

Lucy Fricke: Daughters  – in German

Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk 

Anne Holt: Dead Joker 

Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs – Moscow Diaries 1917-22

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité – in French, review to come possibly at the weekend

Crime Fiction

Tana French: The Trespassers – one of my favourites of the Dublin Squad series because of the prickly, larger than life voice of Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist

Michael Stanley: Dead of Night – standalone about the rhino horn trade in South Africa

Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources – the most extreme assessment centre you can imagine and the despair of the unemployed, review to come soon on CFL

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland – comic noir, review to come soon on CFL

Other Random Reads

Mircea Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats – an elderly teacher ends up on the wrong side of a totalitarian state when he tries to find an old pupil of his

Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility – essays about censorship, the difficulties of translation, living in exile, as well as many Romanian and other authors.

#WITMonth: Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs Moscow Diaries 1917-22, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell.

It has just occurred to me that for someone who likes to read and write poetry so much, I should have read more poetry by women in translation this month (which would have been easier than novels too, and would have allowed me to feature more women). Ah, well, as they say in Romania – give the Romanian the mind in retrospect!

Tsvetaeva in 1917.

So let me try to make up for it a tiny bit by reviewing a poet’s diaries. Marina Tsvetaeva is often described as the most Russian of poets, even though she claimed her first language was German and it was German poetry she turned to most for inspiration. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, and her life was full of political and personal drama, culminating in her suicide at the age of 48 during the Second World War, when practically her entire family was taken into labour camps by the Soviets. Here is a fragment from one of my favourite poems by her; entitled ‘Homesickness’, it encapsulates the feeling of loss, betrayal, anger of a writer in exile:

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet

(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time

stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most

indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.

For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.

Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
the rowanberry…

Moscow in 1917.

However, in these diaries of 1917-22, she is still in the country that will disenchant her and she comes across a very strong, resilient person and artist, who manages to keep her brain working and her pen flowing even when faced with revolution (she was from a wealthy family and lost everything), civil war (her side lost), her husband missing in war for three years, mind-numbing job, starvation (her younger daughter died of malnutrition) and a hostile environment around her. She makes me feel like a snowflake for ever complaining about hardship or not having time to create:

The brilliant advice of S. (the son of an artist). At some point during the winter, I complained (laughing, of course!) that I had absolutely no time to write. ‘I work till five, then there is the fire to light, then the wash, then bathing, then putting the children to bed.’

‘Write at night!’

In this there was: disdain for my body, trust of my spirit, a high mercilessness, which honored both S. and me.

The highest tribute of an artist  – to an artist.

She is almost comically inept in all practical matters, too outspoken for her own good, soldiering on, fierce, indomitable, at times desperate, but also abrasive and satirical. Her description of  her rival (although she would not deign to regard him as such), the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov, for instance, in the section A Hero of Labor is utterly, delightfully wicked. She mocks his introduction to a poetry reading by nine women poets that he has organised:

Woman. Love. Passion. Woman, from the beginning of time, has known how to sing only of love and passion. The only passion of woman – is love. Every love of a woman – is passion. Outside of love, woman – in creative work, is nothing. Take passion away from woman… Woman… Love… Passion…

Typical communal flat kitchen in Soviet Russia, taken from Expatica website.

She describes sordid details of everyday life, almost too painful to contemplate, but also manages to rise above them with witty, acerbic observations:

There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)

Another young Marina Tsvetaeva picture, from Odessa Review.

She has no illusions about Communism although she doesn’t seem to have too much nostalgia about the past either. She may regret losing her old home, but on the whole:

The difference between the old and new orders:

The old order: ‘A soldier came by… We made pancakes… Our grandmother died.’

Soldiers still come, grandmothers die, only no one makes pancakes anymore.

I have long regretted that I am only able to read this poet in translation (I’d have learnt Russian for her and Dostoevsky alone), for most translators agree her voice is very difficult to capture. Yet Joseph Brodsky also has this interesting observation about her:

Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context.

These diaries are such a wonderful insight into the mind and tormented life of a fascinating and controversial poet (I keep wondering if people would have been more lenient with her if she had been a tormented genius of a man). I filled them with pagemarkers and post-its, and will be returning to them again and again.

 

Two Crime Novels for #WITMonth

Better still – two crime novels by women writers, featuring a main protagonist who is a lesbian out of her 20s, yet this side of her (although it’s an integral part of the story rather than a bolt-on) is not the most interesting aspect. In other words, this is not about titillation or jumping on a bandwagon of including ‘some kind of minority’ in the story. It is, quite simply, normal.

That doesn’t mean that it is easy for the characters to face the world as lesbians, for fear of how people might judge them. But it’s a great step forward to be the main character, rather than the supportive sidekick, to be in their 40s and fairly sure of themselves, rather than shy young things. Not surprising, perhaps, that both books are written by Nordic writers.

Anne Holt: Dead Joker, transl. Anne Bruce

Anne Holt has all the background knowledge you could ask for: she worked in broadcasting, then for the police, started her own law firm and was even briefly Norway’s Minister for Justice. Since 1993 she has been steadily writing novels, at first mainly in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, featuring the lesbian Chief Inspector Hanne, her live-in partner Cecilie, and her investigative team, including the very loyal if somewhat scatty Billy T.

Or at least, all of the above appear in this book, because the series covers such a long span of time that people appear, disappear, marry, die, have children and grow old over the course of the series. So, more realistic than most, where everything seems to happen within the same couple of years of the main detective’s life. Hanne grows progressively more grumpy and anti-social over the course of the series, although it could be argued that it’s life and the things she witnesses that make her so. The books have been translated out of order into English, after the success of the book 1222, which was the eighth of the series. Holt’s other crime series about a profiler Johanne Vik were translated earlier and Hanne appears as a very minor character in those. Was the thought of a lesbian police officer too much for the shores of the UK in the early 2000s?

Here is a quick plot summary: The wife of the Chief Public Prosecutor is found dead in the family home, brutally decapitated. Her husband is under suspicion, as he was present in the house when it happened, but he claims that he knows who did it. The only problem is: that person is already dead. Hanne is inclined to believe him, but his foolish behaviour is very suspicious indeed. There are some gory details, but overall the emphasis is on the puzzle element, and figuring out just what drives the odd behaviour of a number of different characters. In the meantime, Hanne’s partner has worrying news, and the book is at least in equal parts the story of how a relationship can triumph in the face of death.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates

This is the second book in the Reykjavik Noir series and it features volcanic eruption (or rather, its impact upon air travel) as well as drug-smuggling. In the first volume, Sonja had been caught in a vicious circle of acting as a drug mule for her ex-husband in order to gain access rights to her son. But she thought she had left that life behind her, after snatching her son and running away to Florida.

The second book opens almost immediately after the end of the previous one. Sonja’s past catches up with her and she has to return to Iceland and try to extricate herself from the drug trade once and for all. This is set against a backdrop of Iceland’s failing banks and bankers being imprisoned for their shady deals. The story is grim and the characters are pretty ruthless, yet they are described with so much gusto that you might catch yourself laughing even when you feel you shouldn’t. A mad caper of a story, with perhaps a few too many financial transactions for my level of comprehension. The author says her aim is to entertain people, and she certainly manages that.

As a bonus, there are all sorts of hidden depths here, particularly in describing the relationships between the various characters: Sonja and her lover Agla, customs officer Bragi and his dying wife, Sonja and her controlling ex Johann. There is also a lot of suspense about ‘will she, won’t she’ manage to go through customs with her packages. Last but not least, there are some completely insane moments with the Mexican drug dealers Mr Jose, his wife Nati and their tiger in the basement.

So two very different series – one more a classic police procedural, the other more of a heist or crime gang novel – but both with psychological depth. I would recommend starting with the first book in either of the series if you are new to them, though.

 

 

#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

Reading and Reviewing Summary 13/08/18

This is a continuation of yesterday’s weekly summary, which was threatening to become far too long. I’ve been trying to curb my book buying, but I cannot quite boast of unalloyed success in this matter. I have borrowed more from the library as well. Netgalley has also reared its ugly (I mean beautiful, tempting) head, although my feedback ratio is still only 60%.

Sent for review:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo

This was my introduction to Izzo and remains my favourite of his Marseille trilogy. Something which really shouts out in all its dark, joyous, dirty, tasty, messy glory ‘Mediterranean noir’. I have it in the French original edition and now I have it in a rather beautiful reissued edition from Europa. And it reminds me that I need to have a holiday in Marseille and Provence with my boys soon.

Books bought:

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf started an extremely valuable thread about Malaysian writers on Twitter (and this is where Twitter’s power for the good is evident). You can catch the whole thread on her website. It inspired me to order at least a couple of the books she mentioned, as this is a part of the world I know very little about. I bought Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, a family saga in gorgeous prose, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, with its links to Japan and the Second World War. Both are chunky books, which should keep me busy for a while. I also finally gave in and got myself another translation of The Brothers Karamazov, so this will be the fifth summer in which I attempt to read it…

Library loans:

Keeping in trend with the #WITMonth, I borrowed Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt’s Dead Joker (transl. Anne Bruce). Hanne Wilhelmsen is grumpy and exasperating at times, but ahead of the field in so many ways. I’m not going to have time to write a separate review of this book, but I read it in 2 days. Suffice it to say that it’s one of those ‘impossible’ crimes committed by a dead person, and that Hanne’s personal life also takes a turn for the worse.

I also got two very different books, one for a quick read and one because I admire the author’s willingness to experiment: Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer (bonus: location of Austria) and Nicola Barker’s Happy, which is a triumph of typography and graphic publishing.

Netgalley:

I couldn’t resist the Swiss mountaintop hotel location and the And Then There Were None plot similarities, so I downloaded Hanna Jameson’s The Last. The other novel I downloaded is also kind of apocalyptical, but fits in perhaps better with my fascination for ‘dictatorship literature’: The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke, one of the foremost contemporary Chinese writers.

Reviews:

I have reviewed three books for #WITMonth already, which is a proud achievement in just over a third of the month. Two are on my blog: the dark Norwegian tale of descent into mental hell Zero and a Brazilian attempt to reconstruct memories and reconcile oneself with the past I Didn’t Talk. The third review is of Teresa Solana’s irreverent and utterly zany collection of short stories The First Prehistoric Serial Killer on Crime Fiction Lover.

#WITMonth

I still need to review Lucy Fricke, but I have three more books lined up for Women in Translation, so am doing better than I had hoped (I think I planned about 5 overall for the month of August, and now it looks like I might have 8). I’m in the midst of Tsvetaeva’s diary, and will embark soon upon Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir and Veronique Olmi  La Nuit en vérité (untranslated).