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.
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.
Tuula 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.
Sarah Ruhl is a distinguished American playwright, nominated for many prizes, recipient of quite a few (including the MacArthur Fellowship). She is also a wife and mother and in this book of ‘mini-essays’ she talks about theatre and audiences, life, art and the challenge of combining the two. It’s a real book of ‘cabbages and kings’, with topics ranging from the most trivial to the most profound and I was tempted to underline some quote on nearly every page. One of my favourite essays (No. 60) is entitled ‘Is there an objective standard of taste?’ and consists of the single word ‘No.’
The opening essay ‘On Interruptions’ is longer, very funny, but will provoke a wry grimace as well in any parent struggling to be creative. It incorporates actual interruptions:
The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me —
Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.
She could be describing my life, even though my children are older now and therefore expressing higher-level demands and being quite vociferous about my ‘neglect’.
In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, ‘Mom, can I poop here?’ I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.
Her conclusion is beautiful, though painful to hear at times for stressed-out parents:
…tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.
It’s not all about motherhood and the tortured artist, however. There are many astute observations here about the theatre, life and the stage, whether we’ve lost the ability to wait, the dangers of digesting too much ‘surface’ and not diving deeper, living in a culture where ‘the talk about the art often takes up more time than the experience of the art’?
I love blogging and Twitter, that’s no secret, but I do hate the mediation of experience through iPhones and the like, so this passage in particular spoke to me:
The age of experience is truly over, we are entering the age of commentary. Everyone at the event was busy texting everyone else… and a general lack of presence was the consequence… We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences. We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over. Will we evolve out of the ability to make art? Will events need to have more violence for audiences to enter them purely, to compete with the gaze of commentary?
This book will be one I dip into again and again, reminding me of that nervous tension and fragile balance between the known and the possibilities, reality and our ideals.
Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.
Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)
The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.
A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:
When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.
When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.
When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.
Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.
You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.
How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?
He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.
Adam Wyeth: Silent Music
A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.
There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all. ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom. The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.
Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.
Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto
Nothing moves but cars.
First one passes, then I see
a second coming.
By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:
This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).
A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.
Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.
So full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused. On the left, a sign beckoned.
‘London’, it said.
‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’
The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me. Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?
How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.
The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it. It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me. So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.
I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.
I am far from that place now. Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.
May Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.
And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.
Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised, a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse. All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.
There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:
And then suddenly in the silence someone said,
“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:
I shall remember that long after I am dead.”
Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,
How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,
And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look
Might warm us each someday when we were cold.
And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,
Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,
So one seeing it marveled the other night,
Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”
Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular
Reflection of your grace like fire on snow –
And loved you there.
Many of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’
There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:
We enter this evening as we enter a quartet
Listening again for its particular note
The interval where all seems possible,
Order within time when action is suspended
And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.
Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:
It is not so much trying to keep alive
As trying to keep from blowing apart
From inner explosions every day. […]
Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling
Where everything is seen, and nothing mine
To plead with or possess, only partake of,
As if at times I could put out a hand
And touch the lion head, the unicorn.
Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.
One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.
Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.
Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs
Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of. She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:
I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.
While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.
One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?
Henry Sutton: My Criminal World
This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.
‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’
‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. […] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’
Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.
Stela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights
You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.
The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then. Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.
The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.
So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading?
A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).
I attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.
Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.
A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.
One of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone.
Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.
‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.