Men Being Depressed Again

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.

NachbarUrsAlex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)

TBR8

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.’
‘But?’
‘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.

kimnovakHåkan 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.

pushkinhillsSergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)

TBR9

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.

From sciencetimes.com
From sciencetimes.com

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.

Fun But Serious: Two Recent 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.

manathelmNina 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.

LelivrequifaitaimerFrançoize 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:

Books don't make you fat: Mille feuille (literal translation: a thousand  pages/leaves): 1000 calories. 1000 page book: 0 calories.
Books don’t make you fat: Mille feuille (literal translation: a thousand pages/leaves): 1000 calories. 1000 page book: 0 calories.
Books help build your vocabulary. Example: 'Pass the salt' before and after reading.
Books help build your vocabulary. Example: ‘Pass the salt’ before and after reading.

 

On Waking Up at Night

Nighttime
Nighttime

My nightmare begins in the sweetest of ways

exploratory conversation, a joke, a slant glance     then I wake up

warmed instead of chilled

at the thought of carefree happiness I believed lost.

So I learn to crave that wholesome feeling.

What if it never appears again on my horizon?

Imagine the gape, the void          the want

all the missing in one laugh, a gentle touch to mark a word.

In the dark I hear a breath

or several

enslaving me

do you see a way out?

Who can quite explain why

the landscape before and after seems endless and bleak?

Will I ever experience emotion again

outside of my dreams?

I think not. So night fears

hurt me less than these joyous snatches of dreamscape.

It’s almost bearable – please believe me –

it’s just the waking

from delicious dreams on a foggy winter morning

or seeing plans go to waste in the dark.

Another wintery and not very cheerful poem to link up to dVerse Poets Open Link Night. For more cheerful and interesting responses, please check out the other poets posting there tonight. The theme is ‘gifts’ and the most precious gift for me has been people’s responses to my writing over the past two years.

Through Zoe’s Eyes

Carnival Mask

In Zoe’s eyes the birds don’t sing,

waters run too shallow.

If she could sleep those worries away for a

Blink-length in time…

In Zoe’s hands winds drop bland,

little scabs tremble with the memory.

She fears no strangers but each

is an intruder

she will not talk to.

She fills in gaps with words apt and inept.

Oilcloth strips she stuffs in crack,

when cracks are all she sees and walks on.

Answers rehearsed, eyes dart to the left,

A clue we have seen before and again.

Zoe’s skin bears the weight of all scars

Her own and the world’s.

When you lookCarnival through Zoe’s eyes

Your world temperature turns down a notch.

 

Linked to dVerse Poets Pub: Poetic Expressions.   This week it was all about Dominant Impressions in Artistic Expression.  For me, Venetian carnival masks are all about sadness rather than gaiety.

The Ballad of Night Anxious

Image from http://homepages.tcp.co.uk/~nicholson/alice.html

What does it matter where my body happens to be?  My mind goes on working all the same.

I’ve done it again. Unwitting, unwelcome,

I’ve woken up Knight Anxious,

all creeping worries and lingering thoughts,

all lists and fears, tapeworms,

my warts magnified fivefold by the conjured dangers of the night.

 

He heralds tumbling tonefalls, a rain-soaked day ahead.

Regardless of the weather, he never cooks the pudding,

yet proud of his invention, he harrumphs on horses high,

failure denigrated, unhinged from little pleasures,

unwashed with median joys.

 

He watches, waits, then pounces, always the live menace,

but always unexpected.

After all this time

I still can’t find the trigger

nor welcome him sagely

nor sluice him off like wet reproaches.

I hesitate just one second:

each time the haircracks multiply,

he seeps through, sucking

all air from the cave of my lungs:

infallible gravity.

 

We soldier on, we soldier on, mounted or on foot,

no end in sight, no redeeming dawn,

we balance, we teeter… and some of us fall.

Clone Trooper Wins Again

We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings!  I’m tired.  Run about, do something!’

It’s cold, windy.  The monkey-bars are icy, and there are too many children on the climbing wall and see-saws.  My baby brother sticks out his lower lip. ‘Don’t wanna!’

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?  Talk to me!  Can’t help you if you don’t tell me!  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 and switch her off like the sound 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 Wii… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this…

She folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench.  Jake stands stiffly beside her. 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.