It’s Haibun Monday at dVerse Poets’ Pub and this time Mary is asking us to use an image prompt. I’ve rewritten an earlier piece of flash fiction as a haibun (so I’m not sure it fits the description) – and I’m afraid it may be a little longer than ideal.
We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings! I’m tired. Run off, do something!’
It’s cold and windy. The monkey-bars are icy, there are too many children on the merry-go-round. I push the boat forlornly, just a little further out, to amuse my baby brother. Our remote has long since run out of batteries and nobody remembers to replace them. The boat shudders lop-sidedly and capsizes.
My brother’s lower lip starts quivering. I show Mum the wet bundle that was once our boat, hoping her longer arms will be able to retrieve it with the stick. But her eyes are elsewhere.
‘Go run around the pool!’ she says, ‘You’ll soon warm up!’
Mum rolls her eyes. ‘First of all, it’s “I don’t want”, not “don’t wanna”. Secondly, tell me clearly what don’t you want? Can’t help you if you don’t talk to me properly! When will you learn to express your thoughts instead of just crying and whingeing all the time? Waa, waa! Is that all you guys ever do?’
She’s off again. No one can say Mum is stuck for words. Press a button, and she goes on forever. I have my pocket remote – one that works without batteries – and zap off her sound like on telly. Only let a few words slip through, just to make sure she isn’t suddenly saying something important, like lunch or time to go home. But no, it’s the usual stuff… How could she have given birth to such lazy children?… Sports are so good for you – unhealthy, stuck indoors all the time – only interested in Xbox… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this… A burden on her, what has she done to deserve this…
I’ll have to get it myself. I sit on the stone edge of the pond, lean forward waving the stick like a light sabre. My theory is that if the Force is with me, little rays of it will make waves and bring the boat back to me. It nearly works, but I have to dip my hands into the water quite a bit to grab the sail. My fingers are icy around my catch. I hand it over hurriedly to Jake.
Mum folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench. Jake stands stiffly beside her, the boat clutched to his chest and dripping all over his shoes. Face all screwed up and snotty. Refusing to have fun. I shrug and start playing Star Wars. I always play this on my own – no one else, not even Jake, may join in. I’m a clone trooper, fighting enemies with my light sabre. I run around with sound effects. Mum hates this game. She says only Jedi knights have light sabres and clone troopers are stupid. But I want to be stupid, I want to look like everyone else. All Mum’s brains, all those college scarves in her sock drawer that we’re not allowed to touch… and she has to go to hospital every month. Feels sick like a slug afterwards.
Besides, Jedi knights are boring, like grown-ups: they talk too much, they’re always right, always winning. Light sabres should belong to everybody. And boats should never be allowed to sink.
Fingers ice over:
Who sees beauty in hoar frost
when hearts need warming?
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.
This is the world of Mad Men: 1960s New York and advertising, men earning enough money to support their families whilst feeling strangely alienated from them, trying to find some deeper meaning and purpose, but not quite succeeding. Except, of course, Richard Yates was the original and the writers of Mad Men have been influenced by him. This is not as moving a book as Revolutionary Road, possibly because it only presents one man’s point of view, nor is it as subtle, but it’s nevertheless a masterly description of a disturbed psyche who refuses to help himself.
Yates is one of the best authors to scrape away the thin veneer of comfortable, civilised, well-adjusted lifestyles and expose the despair and sense of emptiness lying beneath. Our main protagonist John Wilder was not wildly successful at school and university, but has made a reasonable career for himself in selling advertising space. One night, on his way back home from a business trip to Chicago, he has a nervous breakdown and gets sent to Bellevue mental hospital for a few days, where he feels like the only sane person in a sea of madness.
This experience marks him profoundly, but it estranges him further from his wife Janice (who craves nothing more than normality) and his sulky pre-teen son. His psychotherapy sessions are a joke, he goes to AA meetings without any intention of giving up his drinking and he embarks on an affair with a young girl, Pamela, believing she will help him to reinvent himself and resurrect his childhood dream of becoming a film producer. Needless to say, everyhing he touches turns to rot. There is a lengthy impressionistic scene describing John’s descent into paranoia and violence which is chilling, but perhaps even more sinister is the final resignation and incarceration. (Hopefully that’s not a spoiler alert – you just know there’s not going to be a happy ending with a book by Yates.)
John is not the most sympathetic character; at times you may find it hard to even pity him. He is obnoxious, selfish, stubborn and self-pitying. Yet he is also riddled with doubt and lack of self-esteem. He is so obsessed, for instance, about being too short, that he sees even the big moments of American history entirely through his self-centred perspective. Here’s what he has to say about the assassination of JFK:
He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too young, too rich, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder understood those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself…
Many readers think this is one of the weakest of Yates’ novels: it is true that it feels rather disjointed and episodic. There are some great set pieces and memorable scenes, but jerky transitions. I found it can still be ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word) on its own terms, and it’s this ‘anti-American dream’ stance which makes all of Richard Yates’ work so interesting.
You can’t help feeling that if John Wilder had read Matt Haig: Reasons to StayAlive he might have found a way of managing his life better. Haig’s book is a very personal description of his own experience with an apparently sudden attack of depression in his twenties and he is careful to explain that each person’s depression is different. Yet it also contains very wise statements about perceptions (and self-perceptions) of depression, brings in other people’s views on finding reasons to keep on going on, raises many important points for a serious debate about mental health.
Anyone who has experienced depression or known someone with depression will find this a very useful and at times quite uplifting book. It is not a self-help book, nor is it a systematic autobiography of the darkest hour and coming out of it. There is quiet humour, but none of the manic energy which spoiled Furiously Happyfor me. There are some very well-written scenes that convey just how it feels to try and cope with panic attacks and overwhelming depressive pain.
What was most interesting to me was that the author was very sceptical (as I am) of medication and that he found alternative ways of dealing with his depression. I found his conversations between ‘then me’ and ‘now me’ very revealing, while his descriptions of being overly sensitive and anxious spoke to me directly. The only criticism I would have is that perhaps the structure is too loose, it tends to jump around between subjects. But what brilliant subjects can be found here: Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations; Things depression says to you; Boys don’t cry and many more, each worthy of a lengthy discussion in its own right.
I’ll close with a couple of quotes out of the many quotable passages in the book, one that links back so well to the Yates novel:
Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.
I’m not talking about all that What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger stuff. No. That’s simply not true. What doesn’t kill you very often makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days. What doesn’t kill you can make you scared to leave your house, or even your bedroom, and have you trembling, or mumbling incoherently, or leaning with your head on a window pane, wishing you could return to the time before the thing that didn’t kill you.
I have stuck to a diet of women writers for this holiday month. I just felt they spoke more to me in my present situation of juggler-in-chief, squabble-settler-by-default, not-quite-amusing-enough-adult-companion and fleeting-moments-of-inspiration-scribbler.
Despite the foreign-sounding names, the first two women writers are native English speakers (married to ‘those attractive foreigners’), so their books were written in English. Although I do hope they will be translated into other languages.
Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin
This is the third installment in the Kiszka and Kershaw series, which combines police procedural with a detailed knowledge of London and its Polish community. This time, the story is very personal. Kiszka is finally getting close to his dream of convincing his girlfriend Kasia to leave her husband and move in with him. But then she disappears – as does her husband. Reluctant though Kiszka is to have anything to do with the police, he relies on his old friend Natalie Kershaw (who is suspended from active duty pending an investigation) to help him locate and save Kasia.
Of course, Lipska is too clever to make this a simple case of kidnapping, and East End and foreign criminal gangs soon get involved. Running up and down the East End and around Epping Forest, we meet an intriguing mix of characters, from a fake tan obsessed hotel-owner to a cat-loving assassin. This series goes from strength to strength, a successful blend of noir, police procedural and humour. The characters – not just the main ones and their sidekicks – are well rounded and entirely believable. But be warned: it does end on a bit of cliff-hanger…
Susan Tiberghien: Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman
Susan is the founder of Geneva Writers’ Group, of which I am a member, and teaches many of the workshops there, so I may be a little biased. However, it’s easy to fall in love with this charming collection of memoir, prose-poems, photos and essays about life as an American expat married to a French husband, travelling all around Europe with six children in tow. There is a home-made (but carefully crafted) quality to this patchwork quilt of a life filled with laughter, tears, children’s voices and recipes. The writing is poetic, warm, witty and full of subtlety. The chapter on the potato is a masterpiece of humour and comment on cultural differences.
This is a housewife (Susan became a full-time writer only after the children left home) with sharp observational skills and a barbed tongue, even though it be dipped in honey. For example, she describes the tricky preparations for their weekend trip to their chalet in the Alps, trying to fit 6 children, a family dog, and all their food, clothes and bedsheets into their car.
Then there was the carton of food. ‘It’s much easier to arrive with everything ready,’ Pierre said. And, of course, it was no trouble to prepare and pack and take care of the children while the father was busy tidying up his desk at the office downtown.
I’d try to make it all fun. After all, it was the thing to do, to go to the mountains for the weekend. The food went behind the last seat of the car because the skis went on the top, all sixteen of them. Ski boots went close to everyone’s feet, except the driver’s. He needed lots of room. I took his boots at my feet, along with my boots and Daniel’s. I had learned long ago that there was always room.
Finally, for good measure, a book that is by an American author with a very ‘English’ name.
Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy
An almost frenetic account of living with depression and anxiety. The author manages to make fun of herself and the people around her who have to deal with her very real problems. While the humour did seem a bit forced to me on occasion, there are passages that ring very true and heartfelt.
I wish someone had told me this simple but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect… You’re supposed o be sad when things are shitty, but if you’re sad when you have everything you’re ever supposed to want? That’s utterly terrifying… But it gets better… You learn to appreciate the fact that what drives you is very different from what you’re told should make you happy.
Why is it called ‘furiously happy’? The concept here is of going to extremes, making the most of those rare moments of joy as a counterpoint for the extreme lows that life can throw at you. This is not about mindfulness and enjoying the small pleasures of life, but about throwing yourself whole-heartedly into new experiences and breaking the rules.
Although it was funny in parts and I genuinely liked the author’s honesty, this wasn’t quite what I expected. I was hoping for more insight and relatable moments, something a little more profound. I will be reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon instead.
I never understood why the Almodovar film was called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, because my experience with literature has been that it’s mainly the men who are moody, depressed, angry and existentially musing about it. I’ve been reading a lot of books by women lately, but, as coincidence would have it, the three last ones I read were by men in the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis, even if they are not all middle-aged. And they all take place in different countries: Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)
In this charming collection of apparently harmless little stories about small-town life in Olten, Switzerland, Capus shows us the gnashing teeth under the veneer of politeness. Yet he does it with humour and grace, laughing both at himself and his fellow citizens. This is a gently mocking midlife crisis.
The narrator (or author, the two are very tightly linked) has five neighbours, all called Urs. Actually, there are six of them, but one doesn’t want to appear in a book. They all gather in the square outside their houses on balmy summer evenings and chat about random this and that, and sometimes even about the important things in life. Such as love and divorce, a sense of belonging, wanting to move away, welcoming foreigners … and the differences between the German- and French-speaking Swiss.
‘Your writing thingy, which you call work…’
‘What about it?” I ask.
‘Nothing,’ says Urs. ‘I suppose it must be some kind of work, that what you do. Don’t mind me, I didn’t say anything.’
‘It’s all right, let it be.’
This book was published in 2014 and has not been translated, but several of his earlier books have been translated into English, such as ‘Leon and Louise’, ‘Almost like Spring’ and ‘A Price to Pay’. You can find review of his other books on other blogs, such as Stu Jallen, Lizzy Siddal and Izzy Reads.
Håkan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak (transl. Saskia Vogel)
‘It’s going to be a difficult summer’, says Erik’s father at the start of the summer holidays in 1962. He is referring to his wife, Erik’s mother, who is slowly, almost noiselessly slipping away from them with cancer in hospital. But it’s about much more than that, of course, in this heart-breaking account of the coming of age of two 14-year-old boys. They get to spend the summer at the lakeside cottage, together with Erik’s older brother, Henry, former sailor and now freelance journalist, trying to write his first novel. A rural summer made up of small triumphs, everyday pleasures and benign neglect.
It’s a time of learning to cook, of daydreaming about gorgeous women resembling the actress Kim Novak, attending village fairs, reading and raiding the neighbours’ woodpile to build a floating dock. Those long summer days in Sweden, when time seems to stand still, and the adolescents learn about love and lust and violence. It’s not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, unlike Nesser’s previous work. Instead, it is closely observed, nostalgic without becoming twee, and reveals a stiff upper lip that will resonate with British readers (or other Northern Europeans). Why do I say it’s about midlife crisis? Because it’s the older Erik, now in his forties, who remembers that fateful summer and The Terrible Thing, with all its consequences on his family, friendship and himself.
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)
You are forewarned from the outset: this is the story of a failing Soviet writer, Boris Alikhanov, sinking into alcoholism, whose wife wants to divorce him and emigrate together with their daughter. In an attempt to patch his life together (or perhaps to get away from it all), he becomes a tour guide on the rural estate of revered national poet Pushkin, now a bustling tourist site. There, he encounters eccentric characters galore, learns how to massage facts and figures to please the tourists, and sinks ever deeper into despondency, indifference and impotent rage. It could be interpreted as the powerlessness and despair of artists having to live under the Soviet system – and not just artists, but the whole population. However, lethargy does not mean lack of feeling, and there is something very poignant about the stylistic restraint of the last few pages of this slim volume.
Every characters seems to have some kind of deadpan humour and are ready to interject philosophically when they are not busy frying their brain cells with drink.
I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’
Boris himself is self-critical, often all too painfully self-aware, but incapable of taking bold steps and either submit to the party line or else become a truly great dissident writer. His wife reproaches him:
Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…’
‘Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?’
‘Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?!…’
You can find a very thoughtful review of this book, complete with a small debate about how to translate colloquialisms, by Guy Savage.
In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with a little depression, and I enjoyed all of these books. But it always amuses me to see that men’s nervous breakdowns and alcoholic outbursts are associated with great literature, while women’s are treated with disdain and relegated to mere ‘domestic concerns’.
P.S. I’ve just finished a fourth book in the same vein: Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ and I really think I need a change of decor. Expect some funnier or lighter or just different next reads.
Sometimes humour is the best way to get a serious message across. Here are two books which have made me laugh out loud recently while reading them, but their message echoed and rippled in my mind for quite a while afterwards.
Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm
The idea that this book could be even semi-autobiographical fills me with horror, although the children seem to be getting on with their lives quite well despite the difficulties. After a privileged early childhood and an acrimonious divorce, nine-year-old Lizzie and her two siblings move with their mother to a village in Leicestershire, where they are made to feel very unwelcome. Their mother is attractive, rather too susceptible to male attention and completely useless around the house. Furious with her ex-husband yet helpless to improve their situation, she soon descends in a chaos of drunken self-pity, depression and bad playwriting. Or, as the author puts it: ‘a menace and a drunk and a playwright’.
This is just one example of the subtle touches underneath the often rather broad comedy: their mother once wrote a play while still at school, which was much praised and even performed for a week by drama students. That had been her one taste of success and she is now trying to recapture that lost dream, ‘now that her life was just a long grey smear with no relief’. So their mother has artistic aspirations and is writing a play based on her life ‘with snippets expanded, exaggerated, explained or remedied’, which she makes the family enact regularly
The children are forced to grow up rather quickly and become self-reliant. When they realise that their parents will never get back together again and that having a bad father is still somehow better than having no father at all and being made wards of court, so they resolve to help their mother find a new husband. This quest, in essence, forms the bulk of the book and leads to all sorts of hilarious and almost implausible situations. Of course, their mother makes her own disastrous mistakes in the process, they become even poorer and need to move out of their house, but there is a semi-happy ending.
I love the breezy, matter-of-fact style in which the narrator tells us about quite bad instances of suffering and neglect, the descriptions of bad housekeeping, haphazard pet ownership, no cooking and disastrous experiments with the washing machine. The scene with the two sisters going to London on their own to get additional anti-depressants for their mother was particularly harrowing, despite the bonus trip to the London Zoo. The mother’s downward spiral will sound worryingly familiar to anyone who has ever suffered from depression, especially when combined with parenting worries or bad divorces. This felt like the more satirical, less dramatic (and perhaps less deep) version of Claire King’s ‘The Night Rainbow’ (it also shows the difference between rural France and ‘little’ England).
It’s a wonderful recreation of a period in recent history – the 1970s, with spot-on observations and sly asides – yet it has a much older feel to it, an innocence and freedom to roam perhaps better suited to the 1950s. As for the children, their wit and self-sufficiency, their curious mix of worldliness and naivety, reminded me of ‘The Treasure Seekers’ or ‘The Railway Children’. They write letters to all male candidates in the neighbourhood (regardless whether they are married or not) and invite them to visit under various pretexts. This deadpan humour is very charming and stops the story from descending into sentimentality:
Our aim had been that they should have a drink and then have sex in her sitting room and do it enough times until they got engaged and then married. But we’d let him slip through our fingers with bad planning and shoddy execution. And though we agreed Mr Lomax wasn’t the ideal, we evaluated our efforts as if he had been, even though he most definitely hadn’t. It had been a mistake, we agreed, not to have offered any snacks or put on any music, and this might have led to Mr Lomax feeling uncomfortable and probably peckish and if there was one thing I knew for definite about men it was that they cannot perform sex if hungry.
Françoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)
This is a graphic book for children (and grown-ups) listing all the advantages of reading, owning and loving books in a fun, irreverent way which will appeal especially to the less avid readers (like my younger son). Some reviewers have found it a bit repetitive and silly, but our views as adults really don’t matter: my children loved it and it’s such a fun idea. It’s full of schoolchildren’s slang, so perhaps it’s funnier in the original French, but it has been translated into English and is available from Walker children’s books.
No need for me to waffle on about it, let me just show you a couple of my favourite pages to give you a flavour: