Nothing beats a cosy chalet at the foot of the ski pistes, with an open fireplace, good food, old friends and excellent books to surround you! The snow is not quite enough for skiing yet, the chalet remains to be booked (or paid for) but I do feel I have friends and books, so thank you all so much.
The following books all fall into the category: enjoyable but not enough time to review them fully (perhaps not outstandingly ‘different’ and memorable enough to make me find the time for complete reviews).
David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow
Alan Turing dies in Wilmslow, just outside Manchester, by eating a cyanide-laced apple. Was it suicide or murder? This odd mix of detective story and spy thriller speculates on his demise. It’s not badly written and evokes that atmosphere of suspicion and one-upmanship of the 1950s Cold War very well, but I don’t quite see the point of it. The Turing story is by now quite well-known, so it’s really more about the interior journey of one man – the policeman Leonard Corell – who becomes fascinated with Turing and saddened by his life and death. He initially recoils from homosexuality but ultimately can relate to Turing’s misfit status. It does read at times like a treatise on maths and computer science, and the ending is a bit of a nonentity. I then saw the film with Cumberbatch as Turing and was a bit disappointed at the portrayal of Turing as a geek. Difficult he may have been, but there was far more to him than an almost autistic devotion to science and a lack of humour.
Nicci French: Friday on My Mind
The fifth in the Frieda Klein series and I still enjoy Frieda’s moodiness and the descriptions of hidden London (including its underground rivers). But she does do some reckless and silly things which in real life would lead to her being instantly charged and imprisoned. So it was a welcome addition to the investigative team to have a new female detective to view Frieda a little more objectively (and coldly). Above all, I liked the way the authors tackled head-on the ambiguity of grief and the guilt of losing someone one once loved but no longer does.
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
Not my usual reading matter at all, although I do like the more unusual science fiction of Asimov, John Wyndham, Ursula Le Guin and Iain M. Banks. This is a hypnotic and disturbing book about the limits of human comprehension, the tricks our mind can play on us, about whether it’s ever possible to understand and accept the ‘other’, how misunderstandings can lead to escalation of conflict. So, all worthy themes, but too many didactic bits, physics explanations etc. to really grab me. I think I prefer the Tarkovsky version, which apparently Lem described as ‘got it all wrong – it’s not a Love Story set in Space’.
Glad to see it translated properly and accurately into English now, though, rather than via a French translation.
Mary Kubica: Pretty Baby
A typical suburban family suddenly finds itself careening out of control as they take in a young runaway girl and her baby. This novel speaks to the fears and contradictions in all of us: wanting a comfortable lifestyle vs. wanting to help, trusting vs. being suspicious, frustrations of parenting vs. frustrations of married life and much more. Clever characterisation, with viewpoints shifting from one character to another, until I felt sorry for all of them. Readers who say that the characters are unsympathetic must score very highly on self-esteem, as I recognise many of the thoughts and anxieties of the people in the book – albeit heightened, of course, that’s why it’s a thriller! I did foresee some but not all of the developments, but more than anything it’s a study in disappointment and frustration rather than a straightforward thriller, despite its explosive finale. I’ve tipped Mary Kubica as a woman author to watch on the CFL website and certainly look forward to reading more by her.
… for your encouragement and support. I was very moved by all the kind words and offers of help. I hesitated for a long time before I posted my self-indulgent rant on Sunday, but you have made feel much less alone.
Please forgive me if I don’t reply to each of your lovely comments individually. I was slightly overwhelmed at the number and quality of all your comments and find it difficult (and embarrassing) to respond. But know that I read and appreciated each one of them. [And I’ve made another appointment with my doctor.]
I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.
‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’
And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.
I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?
My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.
The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?
When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.
A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.
When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.
My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’
But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.
‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.
Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.
Grandiloquent gestures and symbols do not sit well with me. I express my love of my current home, France, in simpler ways – not just today, but always.
Madame de Chatelet was a respected author, mathematician and physicist, who translated Newton into French. Voltaire was her lover, friend and intellectual collaborator for 15 years, until her untimely death in childbirth at the age of 42. Voltaire wrote of her:
Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly.
Madame de Staël was one of the most vocal opponents of Napoleon and had to flee across the border to Switzerland to escape persecution. She felt restless and lonely in rural Coppet, missed the intellectual verve of Paris.
The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. (Madame de Staël)
Mauriac was one of the 3 Great ‘M’s to originate in Bordeaux (the others being Montaigne and Montesquieu) – a novelist, dramatist and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952.
I believe that only poetry counts … A great novelist is first of all a great poet. (Mauriac)
Thanks to the success of L’Assommoir, Zola bought a small house in Medan and extended it so that he could receive his friends, Guy de Maupassant, Cézanne, Manet, Alphonse Daudet and so on. How I’d have liked to be a fly on the wall there!
Hugo and his family spent a lot of time in this house and village on the river Seine, but their time here was marked by tragedy too. His favourite daughter Leopoldine and her husband (they had just married, despite some family opposition) drowned in the river there.
This is the only building left of a much larger manor house and property belonging to Flaubert’s father. The writer adored this house and wrote all of his work here.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. (Flaubert)
The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced, or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write. (Duras)
Cautionary note as to the last, however: Dumas designed and built the chateau from scratch and moved in the grandiose custom-built venue in 1847. By 1850 he was bankrupt and had to sell all the furniture, the house itself and find refuge from his creditors in Belgium.
Over at dVerse Poets Pub, Mary is tending the bar and asking us to write poems in answer to the question: ‘WHO or WHAT do you miss?’
I miss… understanding (between people). We are too quick to judge, to criticise, to retort, to ban. However, the poem below took me in a different, unexpected direction, although it started with a lack of understanding…
It was the staircase which sold the house in England to me 10+ years ago. The stairs were dark, dingy, very 70s, but they turned the corner in a large hallway (not at all common in UK homes) and had a gallery running all the way around the first floor. I’ve repainted the wood and got rid of the wallpaper, but I have great plans for that staircase…
Meanwhile, here are some staircases which might inspire you.