Claire Tomalin: A Life of My Own

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Claire Tomalin as a biographer, having read her biography of Dickens and Dickens’ ‘invisible woman’ Nelly Ternan, as well as well-documented and sensitive recreations of the life of Samuel Pepys, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield. But she found her vocation rather late in life, as she admits in this very frank memoir A Life of My Own, and her career has been almost accidental, often resulting from changes to her personal circumstances rather than any ambitious planning.

Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries

Tomalin’s life is a mix of privilege and hard blows. As she herself admits: ‘I’ve had a life with tragedies in it. But also extraordinary good luck.’ Born to well-educated but unhappily married parents, brought up bilingual and evacuated from home during the Second World War (changing schools very frequently), she entered a charmed circle of talented friends at Cambridge, who later became influential journalists and critics. She married young and had several children in quick succession, but her charismatic reporter husband Nick Tomalin was an inveterate womaniser, who kept planning to leave her but eventually came back. When he was killed by a missile attack in Israel in 1973, Claire was shocked but must also have been relieved. She built a new life for herself as a single mum supporting her four children, working as Literary Editor at The New Statesman and the Sunday Times. She knew everyone who was anyone and had affairs with younger men, such as Martin Amis. She lost a baby and her last child, a son named Tom, was born with spina bifida. She describes her struggles to bring him up as normally as possible, but also found an army of willing childminders. Her middle daughter, who always seemed the most cheerful and well-adjusted, committed suicide when she was 20. She found late love with her second husband and lifelong friend, playwright Michael Frayn.

During happy times, the description of her music and book-filled life, with frequent trips abroad and full of big names, can sound slightly elitist. Yet she is often very modest and full of subtle humour. Although she names a few lovers, she is on the whole discreet about all the men offering themselves to the young widow as ‘admirers, consolers, wooers, romantics and would-be seducers’.

Claire has a breezy way of dealing with sad events in her life, dispatching them in one unsentimental paragraph. No self-pity is allowed to creep in at all, but her stoicism made me as a reader feel very uncomfortable. For example, about her last reconciliation with her first husband:

Nick grew more pressing. My daughter Jo was now twelve and I decided I should consult with her. I told her he was eager to come back and said I thought he would never change and that we could make a better life without him, and maybe I could marry a steadier partner one day. She listened, and then said in a very small clear voice, ‘I want Daddy.’ And I answered, in a voice which I made cheery, ‘All right – we’ll have Daddy.’

At times, this breeziness can descend into callousness, such as when she describes falling in love with Michael Frayn, who was still married at that point.

… Michael and I were now living together. Our long friendship, in which we had talked and confided in one another about our lives, had turned to love. It was an overwhelming experience. It also caused pain and difficulties for everyone. We tried to give up our relationship more than once, and never could. The situation was resolved very slowly through the generosity of his wife…

Maybe the previous generations are far less puritanical than ours (and the younger ones). Or perhaps this is the way to deal with things in life, to tell yourself a certain story and not agonise over other possible interpretations.

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#6degrees April: From Memoirs of a Geisha to…

Only just got back from holiday, but I really want to participate in one of my favourite monthly memes: the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate in Kew

This month’s starting point is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which I read while I was studying Japanese at university, so I was really snobbish and dismissive about it at the time. There is an element of exotification the Oriental Other and a strain of soap opera about it which still doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s been a gateway to Japanese culture and literature for many, many people. Incidentally, if you are looking for a more honest account of life as a geisha in post-war Japan, Iwasaki Mineko (the geisha whom the author based the book on) wrote her side of the story in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another book that casts a non-judgemental look upon what some call the ‘oldest profession in the world’, but without the glamour and rigid rules that have been associated with it in Japan, is G. B. Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionHow do you come to terms with your mother being a former prostitute and now a brothel madam, when her money offered you a comfortable lifestyle and supported you through your studies? Well, although I am not a fan of prostitution, I certainly don’t blame women for it, so I think both Shaw and I disapprove of the self-righteous daughter’s shock and rejection of her mother’s way of life.

The mother-daughter relationship is such a rich source of fiction and memoir, so it was quite hard to make a choice for my next link, but Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain is a brilliant story about an ungrateful daughter whose mother has made far too many sacrifices for her. The film version is (dare I say it?) far better though (and I don’t often say that), with Joan Crawford being absolutely devastating in it.

 

One of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of divorce and how to survive a cheating spouse is a volume of poetry. Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap is ferociously honest, at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, chronicling the end of a marriage from anger, disbelief, grief to final acceptance and moving on.

…and I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,

first, to have been able to love,

then, to have the parting now behind me,,

and not have lost him when the kids were young,

and the kids now not at all to have lost him,

and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have

lost someone who could have loved me for life.

From a leap to a jump, Austin Ratner’s The Jump Artist is a novel/biography of the photographer Philippe Halsman, born in a Latvian Jewish family, accused of murdering his father in 1928 and freed after numerous appeals by friends such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and others. He lived and worked in Paris until France was invaded by the Germans, then moved to the States. He became famous as a portrait photographer who asked many of his subjects to jump, because ‘when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.’

One of the people Halsman photographed jumping is Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. In the thoughtful biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, we read that in the first take Hyman jumped so high that the frame only captured his feet. Halsman did not expect a sedentary scholar to be so competitive – and the image he did finally capture shows a person so self-absorbed and demanding (of himself and others), that it does indeed give us an insight into the tough-emotionally-yet-satisfying-intellectually marriage Shirley Jackson must have had with him.

For once, I have stayed largely within the English-speaking realm this month, and on the verge of biographies/real life stories. Where do your Six Degrees take you?

 

 

 

 

 

January 2018 Reading Summary

It’s been a long month, which is reflected in quite a good month of reading. 17 books (18 if I count the book that I read in both French and English), although I have to admit many of them were very short, more like novellas. 10 of those were in translation or another language (representing 9 countries), of which 3 books were by the same author, Cesar Aira. (Bless those rabbit holes…). 7 by men, 10 by women. 1 short story collection, 2 non-fiction, 1 1/2 books of poetry (I’ll explain about the half later). 4 definitely crime fiction, another 2 somewhat crime fiction. I am delighted to see somewhat more variety in my reading.

Bit behind with my reviewing though…

Argentinean fiction

I started off with the first title in the Asymptote Book Club, Cesar Aira’s The Lime TreeI enjoyed that so much, I promptly read another two by the author, The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Strange does not even begin to describe the themes and styles of this author: it’s a world away from the magical realism of Marquez which I was never that keen on. Another Argentinean writer with a surrealist metaphorical bent is Ricardo Romero: his novella The President’s Room brought back all sorts of memories of self-censorship, of everyone knowing but no one talking, of not feeling safe even in the bosom of the family.

Crime fiction

Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark tackled the difficult topic of child pornography and abuse, while Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist (review forthcoming on Shiny New Books) is a political thriller with a race against the clock hostage situation but also hints at how extremism is born and reborn in the Western world. Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic was not cheery either, showing how immigrants are treated in Switzerland and the extent to which human trafficking is hidden in that affluent society. Kate Rhodes’ Hell Bay, meanwhile, is a more typical police procedural, set on a small island, thereby creating a closed room mystery set-up.

The additional two that might very loosely be classed as crime novels are Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (murders do happen, both in the past and in the present), and Die Stille der Gletscher (The Silence of the Glaciers) by Ulrike Schmitzer, an Austrian author who might be said to be popularising the science of climate change via a crime story and global conspiracy about scarce resources.

Cross-cultural and translated fiction

Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara contained some very short stories, almost fragments of ideas or flash fiction, from this always interesting, stylistically impeccable author. I had a bit of a French binge with Marie Darrieusecq’s Naissance des fantomes (My Phantom Husband) and Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce. It is fascinating, if time-consuming, to read books in both languages and see how they compare. I find the English versions a bit colder than the French versions, through no fault of the translators, although I always thought that the English were the masters of the ‘straight to the point, no beating about the bush’ style.

The last one to fit in this category was written in English but depicts a cross-cultural relationship, Leila Abouleli’s The Translator.

Most memorable

It’s been a very good month for reading, with a lot of the books in the above categories vying for the title of ‘Book of the Month’. However, the non-fiction stuck in my mind most this January. I absolutely adored the well-documented biography and sensitive interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s works by Ruth Franklin. I was mowed down and resurrected by the eloquence and clever use of autobiographical detail in Jodie Hollander’s poetry collection My Dark Horses. Last, but not least, I was amazed at the amount of work, passion, dedication and clever detail which went into the creation of the Hamilton musical, as set out in the wonderful book Hamilton: The Revolution, full of lyrics, stage notes, background explanation, mini-bios of cast and creators, and semi-memoir, with great pictures. It offers a brilliant insight into the creative and collaborative process and shows that no genius can operate in isolation.

Glacier on the Grossglockner in Austria. Just because they are receding in worrying fashion.

 

Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson has always been one of my favourite writers, although I had only read some of her short stories and her two most famous novels before last year. I now want to read pretty much everything she wrote, even her lighter pieces about being a mother and housewife, and this is in no small part thanks to this magnificent, well-researched and sensitive biography written by Ruth Franklin.

I haven’t quite finished reading this yet, but I’ve been reading it everywhere: during my commute, during my lunch break, in bed and any spare minute, as eagerly as if it were one of my most exciting crime novels. It is fluently written and very accessible despite the innumerable minute details. Yet, at the same time, it is quite sad and ‘haunting.’

Just like I used to imagine parallels between Sylvia Plath and myself when I was a self-dramatising teenager, I now see some similarities between Shirley Jackson and myself as I approach the age at which she died. Needless to say, Shirley outranks me in every category. It’s like a larger than life version of my pallid little life.

Domineering and overly critical mother? Check.

Feeling like an outsider at school because of a family move? Check.

Prone to anxiety and depression? Marrying a clever man because of his brains but then growing to hate him because of  his lack of kindness? Unexpectedly enjoying being a mother but resenting the time it takes away from writing? Enjoying one’s food and putting on weight? Check, check, check.

Now I just wish I could concentrate on my work and write at least a tenth as well as her. That economy of style, every sentence perfectly crafted. That subtle double meaning throughout most of her work. The never-quite-explained ending. Motivations left open to interpretation. The memorable characters. But she wrote and wrote and submitted and got rejected many, many times before she found success. Even when she started selling well, she was probably misinterpreted and misunderstood, as she was rather ahead of her time, as well as of her time (which her biographer demonstrates rather well).

I wrote about rereading Shirley Jackson for Crime Fiction Lover. And I am curious (and rather nervous) about the upcoming film of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But if you are a fan of her writing, then this biography is a superb read.

#WIT Month: How to Be Happy by Mme du Chatelet

Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.

The portrait by Latour.
The portrait by Latour.

It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]

In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…

She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.

Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…

The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.
The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.

Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:

I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…

The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).

Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.
Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.

This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.

This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.

So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.

I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.

Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.

For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.

 

Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com

Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net

 

 

A lifetime condensed in a novel?

WearenotourselvesI recently read the ambitious debut novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ by Matthew Thomas. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and how it changes when the husband starts suffering from dementia, it is in fact nothing less than a portrayal of the American Dream after World War Two. So it’s the story of second-generation immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, but also a family story, seen largely through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty, who marries scientist Ed Leary. But it’s about the whole context as well: the need to believe in the perfect family and home, the birth of consumer society and economic prosperity, the wish to rise above one’s station. It’s also about mortality, frailty, parents and children, dreams and how we don’t quite make them work for us, about everything under the sun. So, while I admire the author’s ambition, this is perhaps the flaw of the novel: it tries to tell too much, but is nevertheless beautifully written and with some truly touching moments.

I’m not normally a fan of sweeping family sagas, but this one is so tightly bound to a single point of view (Eileen’s), that there is no sense here of too many characters insufficiently connected, some of which you couldn’t care less about. The second point of view, that of Connell their son, comes to the forefront only in the last quarter or so of the book. There is a lot of summarising and skipping of years, a lot of trivia and minutiae, which were fine until I realised that after reading pretty solidly for several days, I had only reached the 30% or so mark of the book. It is a long book, and could perhaps have benefitted from some editing –  it does drag on a bit. There are perhaps a few too many instances and examples, and they get more and more gruelling as the husband’s condition deteriorates. But there are also moments of such insight and beauty, such sharp observation, where the characters really come alive with all their pain and hopes and disappointments laid bare. It’s worth wading through all the rest for these moments (and they are by no means rare). It doesn’t surprise me to discover that the author spent ten years writing, rewriting, refining this novel, and it is remarkably mature for a debut novel.

PrivatelifeIt got me wondering, however, what other books are of similar epic proportion, and have the ambition of ‘telling the story of a nation or a generation via the story of an individual’. And what came to mind was ‘Private Life’ by Jane Smiley. Margaret Mayfield is practically an old maid at the age of 27 in the last decade of the 19th century, so she considers herself lucky to make the ‘catch’ of Captain Andrew Early, naval officer and astronomer, the most famous man in their small Missouri town. They marry and she follows him to his observatory on the naval base just outside San Francisco. But her life turns out to be one long disappointment.

Interestingly enough, this book is not just about the ‘private’ life: it refers consistently to external events – the great earthquake in San Francisco, the First World War, Pearl Harbour, internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War etc. It also talks about a scientist husband with very strong opinions and a lack of empathy. However, the resilience of the couple in ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ stems from love and respect (however different it may be from the ideal of romantic love), while in ‘Private Life’ it seems to be more about a sense of duty and having no other choices. Of course, it’s a different time period: Margaret could be Eileen’s grandmother. Divorce initiated by women was highly unusual in those days (and we have the cautionary tale of a member of their knitting circle who does get a divorce and ‘disappears from view’).

From archives.gov.on.ca
From archives.gov.on.ca

What struck me in both books is just how tedious the minutiae of daily life is to all but those living it. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, and sure enough there are moments of universality (perhaps the contrast is all the sharper because of the endless piling on of small details), but is it really necessary? Could we have some judicious editing, please? Strangely enough, I love reading diaries (Pepys, Evelyn, Virginia Woolf), but diaries are not novels. Any pattern or shape emerges accidentally in diaries, but I like my novels to have form and coherence. I don’t want them to depict the trivia of everyday life, but rise above that.