Events Summary for September

I started off writing a weekly summary of events for this post and then realised that it is the end of September, so a monthly summary might also be appropriate. But first the weekly bit.

Two rather lovely events this week. First, a literary evening as part of the Festival America events across London, with Canadian writers Heather O’Neill and Michael Redhill at the very beautiful Canada House in Trafalgar Square. They even had a throne under lock and key, made specially for George V when he visited Canada.

The main staircase at Canada House.

Both of them are prize-winning authors in Canada, less well-known over here, but there is such a contrast between the two of them. Heather O’Neill has been on my radar since I stumbled almost accidentally across her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in the McGill University bookshop while I was on a business trip to Montreal. I was so moved by that story that I automatically wanted to read everything else written by O’Neill. Yet when I got to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I was equally entranced and repulsed by it. Hearing about Heather’s crazy childhood and parents who ‘had no idea how to function in the real world’, it is understandable that her view of the world is a combination of hardcore cynicism and childish wonder. She is extremely entertaining when she talks about her horrific experiences as a child, but she has clearly turned to fiction as a way to process trauma. As she said ‘Children have no language to express the bad things that have happened to them. My fiction tries to give them that language without taking away any of the nuances.’

She also had interesting things to say about literary prizes, having been a judge on the Giller Prize (the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker) this year. She said that most of the books she felt strongly about none of the other judges liked – ever the rebel!

Michael Redhill is a poet and novelist, and seems at first glance to fit very much into the mainstream straight white male cannon. I didn’t quite get what he tried to achieve with Bellevue Square, but I thought it was an interesting and brave attempt, like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. Then you find out that he has also published crime fiction under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe – now I look forward to reading some of those. And there was quite a bit of subversion in the way he talked about literature and literary prizes – in his opinion the books that win most years are the second place vote for everybody. In other words, the book that all the judges mind least if it wins. He said that for him Bellevue Square is a clearing house for humanity, with such an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and he particularly admired how Heather gave such depth of character to the people in her novels – people that we would normally dismiss or avoid or run away from. 

Heather O’Neill (left) and Michael Redhill being interviewed by Georgina Godwin.

On Friday I had the unexpected good fortune to go to an evening of ballet at the Peacock Theatre. The New English Ballet Theatre, who are a young, energetic company very much open to innovation, had a double bill of Remembrance/The Four Seasons and I reviewed it for View from the Cheap Seat.

September has gone by even faster than the previous months, so what have been the highlights?

We started off the month in one of my favourite places in England, Cambridge, then continued with another mother-and-sons trip down memory lane to Vienna. Although it is always bittersweet to go back to the places where you were once so happy, I hope that I’ve inspired a future generation to take advantage of opportunities and expand their horizons.

I had the bestest of times singing and dancing along to one of my living heroines, Janelle Monae. I did a short workshop with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias about developing your resilience as a writer, which made me decide to focus more of my energy on submissions once more. I saw another of my writing heroines, Sarah Moss, and was inspired by the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair. And, alongside all that, I’ve been learning a new (and very counter-intuitive) events management system at work and helping roll out a new initiative, getting the boys settled into their new school year and starting contemporary dance classes. 

October is set to be just as busy, so let’s hope that this sprained ankle which has laid me low this weekend is nothing more serious (X-ray to follow tomorrow) and won’t slow me down at all.

Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

beautyhusband

By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

LongWayHome

I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

www.annpatchett.com
http://www.annpatchett.com

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…