The Merry Divorcee

Two days ago, The Sunday Times Style magazine (not my usual reading fare) conducted a survey of over 1000 divorced men and women, and concluded in huge capitals:   MEET THE NEW BREED OF HAPPY DIVORCEE: WOMEN WHO ARE EMPOWERED, POSITIVE AND THRILLED TO BE SINGLE. While I have minor quibbles about the methodology and the slightly sensationalist way they presented the findings, I completely agree with the sentiment. Forget about Lehar’s Merry Widow, this is the age of the Merry Divorcee! Why? Mainly because it’s a bloody relief to be carefree and single again.

Well, who wouldn’t be merry if they were as glamorous as Lana Turner in
The Merry Widow?

It is surprising how little I miss being married – which probably shows that I had been getting very little out of that marriage for many, many years before it ended. I was responsible for all of the children’s medical appointments, school admin, payments, extracurricular activities, holidays, homework, shoe and clothes shopping, haircuts anyway, so in fact it is an improvement that occasionally they spend time with him and he has to organise days out with them or take them to the orthodontist twice a year.

How relaxing to have the whole bed to myself, to be able to switch on the bedside lamp to read when I suffer from insomnia, to not have all of his mobile phones and tablets flashing and beeping all night, to not see his blissfully unaware sleeping form on cold mornings when I need to get up early and get myself and the children ready for school, because he can’t be bothered to do the school run because he is not a morning person. I no longer have to remember the entire family diary (including his parents’ birthdays, his sister’s nameday, his nephew’s shoe size, his cousin’s promotion) or organise our entire social calendar only to have him moaning about the time, place or people involved, while I do all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, pouring out of drinks and conversation when we have guests, because his idea of small talk was usually something involving particle physics or berating of others for their political views. Oh, and how free will is entirely illusory. You’ve heard it seven times, you’ve heard it all. Do you know how much more interesting my conversations have become since I am by myself – even with my sons?

A Higgs boson for breakfast, lunch and supper, anyone? I have plenty of physicist friends who can talk of other things as well.

I can watch the TV I want instead of the droning of Formula 1 every second weekend. Or not watch it at all and read for hours before bedtime without someone sulking that I am not paying them enough attention. I can write a book review, or blog post, or scribble a poem or goof about on Twitter without constant questioning. Above all, I no longer get frustrated that my partner is not pulling their weight, because I know exactly how much I can do and when, rather than having any false expectations or relying on somebody else. I can get up and make a tea for myself without glowering that no one is offering to make me one. I can drill holes in the wall and hang pictures without a running commentary about how badly I do all those things. I can decide not to cook when I am tired and ask the children to either have toast with peanut butter or prepare their own pasta. I can make mistakes, be untidy, burst into giggles or be ignorant without a patronising sneer or far too earnest attempt to ‘teach me’.

As for loneliness, what loneliness? I’ve been going out much more frequently than at any point over the past 15 years (helped, of course, by the fact that the boys are older now and learning to fend for themselves). I keep in touch much more regularly with friends, whom I tended to avoid during the dying years of marriage because I didn’t want to deal with their uncomfortable questions or even sympathy.

Once a year, about this time of year, I do miss the masculine touch: I struggle to ‘bleed’ the radiators before switching them back on for the winter. But that’s an infinitesimal reason for marrying – I’m sure a handyman is less expensive in the long run and better for your health.

The WB Chronicles: Court Battle

Your Honour, we were students, not in the money
for a wedding, anticipated trouble, so my then-honey
and I kept our nuptials secret from our parents,
only informed them a good while after the events.
By then mine had bought a flat for me alone,
or so they thought. Its value soared like a drone,
so we got our next house, and the next. Twenty years later
we’ve had many more donations from the pater…

Mr Judge Sir I protest…
This woman thinks she’s the best,
but she kicked me out less than three years after she found out
that I’d had moments of joy with another. But I called her out,
‘cos it was her lack of uncritical admiration
and the general sense of deprivation
that I could not rule with absolute decree
which drove me to the arms of Gina, Becky, Lee.
She expected me to be apologetic – more like apoplectic
wouldn’t cook or do my laundry while I was texting
the latest mistress I was sexting.
Now I have to pay a massive rent to get a house of similar size –
so what if the kids only spend 6 days here a month – in their eyes
it’s got to be attractive, have room to fit 88 inch TV and Playstation,
while she complains of boiler repairs, lording it in the old location.
That’s the state of our nation.

His salary is high, his pension secure,
why do we have to drown in manure,
when it’s clear as day, eat or pray, doom and gloom,
the boys are mainly spending time in my room?
I feed and clothe them, know all the ins and outs of school…

Your Honour, it’s time to overrule. Food bills are such a drag
why bring up the subject? I don’t mean to brag
but the science the boys get from me
are worth 3 of your books, theatre or history.
Just admit it, you’ll never be as good
as my mother tells me I am. That’s understood.
They’re boys, they need a father to set an example or else
they’ll end up as unhappy as I was
when she made me pick them up from school while she was travelling.
All the while my social life was unravelling,
couldn’t go out for beers more than twice a week.
I’ll teach them to be manly not so weak.
I spend as much on my children as she does, or does she believe
that holidays chasing solar eclipses come through charity relief?
Cinema tickets, theme parks all cost money,
so curb your spending on socks, shoes and school trips, honey!

And if you don’t know, now you know…

With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Cabinet Battle in Hamilton, which inspired this.

Book Launch: Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström

Nordisk Books is a small independent publisher specialising in Nordic literature – trying to demonstrate that there is literary life beyond Scandi crime fiction (fun though that may be). When I heard about the launch of this book by Swedish professor of literature and feminist Ebba Witt-Brattström at Hatchards, in a translation by Kate Lambert, I just had to join in.

Three wonderful women to present: moderator, author, translator.

It is the story of the breakdown of a marriage, and it is stripped to the bare minimum: the dialogue between spouses, in short lines somewhere between prose and poetry. Prosaic verse maybe (prosaic subject, verse-like lines, the pithy a-ha moments of poetry). He said/she said alternate here, often talking past each other, not listening to each other or misunderstanding. It is based upon the author’s own acrimonious divorce, but also on her examination of feminist literature. There are so many elements there which are universal, and will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever been in a relationship with the opposite sex.

She said:
Everything I lived for
believed in
wanted
loved
lies burning around me.
Piles of smoking ash
wherever I look.

He said:
Sorry
but I don’t want therapy
only to live normally
the way I am
with my vanity
or whatever you want to call it.
If you don’t want to
be with me on the ride
any more what can I do?
I am not re-education material
not for my sake
or for anyone else’s.

This dance to the death between the couple, advancing and retreating, challenging and posing, blaming and defending, is like a complicated and furious paso doble. The dark humour of recognition is present – all the women in the audience laughed at certain phrases – but it is also quite visceral and damning, so much so that you need to stop and take a deep breath every now and then.

With this level of intensity, I was expecting Ebba to be loud and dour, but she was delightful: funny, thoughtful and feisty. And when I went to her with the book to be signed, she very sweetly wrote ‘with sisterly good luck’ when I explained the parallels to my own situation. The translator also said she found it hugely relatable but also quite painful to translate. Initially, Ebba said she had written it as a more conventional novel, but then she realised that the real ‘juicy bits’ were in the dialogue, so she left the bare bones or skeleton of the novel.

There were a few brave men who attended the event (and the publisher Duncan Lewis is a man too, so bravo to him for uncovering this book and getting it translated), but I wonder what men make of it when they read it. I hope younger men will be inspired by it to NOT become like their fathers, to learn a different way of relating to women. Anyway, it inspired me to come up with this poem:

Stone Age But Effective

The words chiselled, honed over time,
first the blunt Acheulian handaxe to thrust home the proof.
The flint-knapping tools bring to pin-point precision
an arrowhead bordered by microlith flakes
aimed precisely to inflict maximum organ damage
and blood loss. Yet he kills not just through calculation
but also with thoughtless, sloughing off scales,
absent-mindedly fondling her last open lesion
before driving home anew the blade.

Not You Too

Not you two…

 

The wedding goers run to spread,

Middle-grooved, life-burnt, ambitions pinched.

They remember you reed-like, proud.

The tallest, the thinnest, the broadest of smiles.

Twin souls, all that gaff which you too

You two

Believed.

No one knew how compromise was already sewn tight

In hems, cross-stitch of last chances,

Loosely looped into seconds

Then thirds.

Your glamorous wasp waist

So thin

The twigs snapped soon and dropped

In dismayed defeat, booted into the mud.

What do Facebook pictures of gappy, goofy children show

Other than absence of parents.

 

Friends sigh and shuffle

Take sides

Blame quivering dull like blancmange

To be appointed, swallowed whole,

Perhaps even digested.

2016: A Year of Goodbyes

All I seem able to write lately are non-fiction, personal essays or rants about perceived unfairness. Things I’ve always avoided writing before. I hope normal service will resume soon (poetry, book reviews, writerly stuff).

Goodbye, Mont Blanc!
Goodbye, Mont Blanc!

After an insane 2014, a stagnating cesspool of 2015 (I’m talking personal rather than global troubles here), I was looking forward to 2016. It was going to be a year of starting afresh, making changes, taking control. But 2016 has proved fierce, fearsome and unknowable so far. It has drained me more than it has energised.

It has robbed me of David Bowie and Prince, two of my childhood idols. It has robbed me of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood, whom I got to know and love later. Of course, these are not people I knew personally, but we all feel we know celebrities, just like we feel we know ‘the culture of a country’.

In many ways, the greatest tragedy this year has been that it has robbed me of many of my illusions about and feelings for Britain. For me, it had always been a country that stood out as a beacon of civilisation and civility, fairness and even-handedness, where people talk to each other in moderate tones instead of breaking out into street fights. Over the past few weeks leading up to the referendum, I was beginning to recognise (from the media and the comments in the media) that Brexit had become a real possibility. It did not quite catch me by surprise, but it nevertheless hurt me. It’s not the vote in itself which makes me sad and scared, but the animal it has unleashed, how easily a country (and its people) can change beyond recognition. And yes, I know that there are still plenty of decent people there who are equally bewildered, shocked and hurt by what they see.

This reminds me of a divorce in far too many ways. Which is something else that 2016 is throwing my way, so bear with me as I work through this metaphor:

  1. It’s about emotion rather than rationality. After weighing the pros and cons for far too long, trying to be very rational and fact-based, there comes a time when you lose all common sense. You can only see the things you hate about the other, you cherry pick those arguments and behaviours which prove your point. In other words, you ultimately vote with your gut. And we all look foolish when we react in anger.
  2. There’s no such thing as a clean cut. Perhaps if you are a young couple who’ve been together for a very short while and have no children or joint property, it’s easier to separate. For the rest of us, there are a hundred links, some visible, many invisible, which need to be severed. It’s like cutting off a living organism with profound roots in foreign soil.
  3. You don’t know how much you might be damaging the future generation. Even if you have the best intentions in the world and the most unified approach to parenting, the children will struggle to understand and cope with a divorce. Just imagine what happens when the parents are warring with each other, no one has a clear plan for what happens next and you, the child, are blamed for some of the problems too!
  4. The fault never lies with just one side. It’s tempting to buy into just one side of the story, but the truth always lies somewhere in-between. A marriage seldom falls apart solely through the fault of (the other) person, even though it may be cathartic to believe that for a short while. However, if you continue to believe that, you will never learn from your mistakes and will be an impossible person to live with in your next relationship.
  5. You will feel guilty no matter what. If only I had listened more… If only I had spotted the warning signs earlier and done something about it… If only I could behave more like a grown-up now and not let these emotions get the better of me… If only these children weren’t judging me every day with their eyes…
  6. You will move on, survive and perhaps thrive. You fear for your relationship with your children, your finances, whether you will still have a roof over your head. You go through the motions every day, barely keeping up with the formalities you did not wish for, allowing balls to drop all the time because this kind of juggling isn’t what you wanted to do with your life.

It seems difficult to believe in a period of meltdown, but the hatred won’t last forever in its volatile state as an unstable isotope. You have a choice. You can either allow it to harden into an ice-cold little kernel which will prevent you from ever trusting anyone again. Or you can let it decay, evaporate, blow away like fine dust… and build a more stable isotope to take its place.

Here is a song that has helped me through these last few days in particular, but also for most of the year.

Sia: Unstoppable

 

Goodbye for today, from your Porsche with no brakes and, despite everything, no fear of speaking her mind…

The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother – or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.

 

Strange Narrators, Unusual Minds

This May is my month of eccentric and genre-bending reading. After three mammoth books, I’ve now had the opportunity to read three very unusual ones, in which we are taken into the mind of the narrator so completely, that we are nearly in danger of suffocation. All three books were interesting, although not outstanding, and certainly not the kind I would want to reread.

HarrietKrohnKarin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

Karin Fossum and her Inspector Sejer have always been more on the introspective and melancholy side of the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon. Her pace is leisurely, she recounts detail after detail, and she always focuses on the psychological drama rather than action scenes. This one is even more extreme than others I’ve read in the series, certainly not your standard crime novel. Sejer barely makes an appearance in the proceedings. It is much more in the vein of ‘Crime and Punishment’, as we see the reasons behind a rather terrible and sad crime, and its consequences on the criminal and his family. Charlo Torp is an average man, flawed, weak, trying to do his best but never quite succeeding. Despite being a loving husband and doting father, he nevertheless gave in to his gambling addiction and now has to resort to a desperate act to pay off his debts and try to regain the affection and respect of his daughter.


Told entirely from Charlo’s point of view, we become privy to all his insecurities, doubts, anxieties, hopes and wishes. We are made to feel sorry for him, but the author never whitewashes his crime, never makes us doubt the criminal justice system. She just shows us that things are never quite black and white, that any one of us can resort to extreme solutions if we are desperate enough.

And who is Harriet Krohn? An inoffensive elderly woman, a victim, a nobody. Fossum is very subtle at showing that victims deserve names and dignity.

FlyTrapFredrik Sjöberg: The Fly Trap

I was sure this one was a novel and kept waiting for something to happen, for a change to occur and the narrator to learn something. But I later found out that it is in fact non-fiction, which would explain why it feels more like a loose collection of thoughts and essays, rather than a coherent whole. It is a meditation on the nature of obsession, on collectors, on explorers, on classification. And just when you think it is all about entomology it suddenly ends with a discussion about art and forgeries. There are some witty and profound observations about life and human nature, and the writing has an almost hypnotic, very restful quality to it. Perhaps a book to dip into while on holiday on an island, whether Scandinavian or not.

affaireEliette Abécassis: Une affaire conjugale 

Hard-hitting story of a divorce, showing just how nasty people can get in the process. Told entirely from the viewpoint of the wronged, downtrodden yet ultimately vengeful wife, you begin to wonder just how reliable a narrator she really is. Depressing but very readable, it does feel at times a bit like a soap opera, and there is an awful lot of Googling and Facebook chat going on, as if to make this timeless tale feel more modern. The main protagonist is a songwriter (lyrics), and she refers to several French chansons to express her pain and anxieties, perhaps to create a little distance. There are also some quite sharp observations about the ‘industry’ of lawyers, helpers, counsellors, financial advisers etc. that has sprung up to fleece people at their most vulnerable moment, i.e. when going through a divorce.  However, there is also genuine poignancy, especially when describing the fears of the negative effects on the children.

Have you come across books recently which were well-written, solid, yet which failed somehow to captivate you entirely? Books which you feel you ought to have liked more, but just didn’t?

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation

AftermathThere seem to be an awful lot of books out there with ‘Aftermath’ in their titles, but I am referring to the one by Rachel Cusk, published in 2012 to a howl of indignation from many readers and critics. In it she talks with unadorned consternation and painful honesty about the breakdown of her marriage and its consequences. And she talks about it at length. Every passing mood is recorded – too much for some tastes, but it may help many women who are struggling to come to terms with separation. I am not usually much of a fan of memoir-writing (certainly not of ‘misery memoirs’) and yet I rather liked this one.

Of course it is self-centred and self-absorbed, but is it ‘infuriating and narcissistic’? Of course it represents a small sliver of life: the story of a rather privileged, well-educated woman who can come across as elitist. She does not have to go out and work night shifts as a single mother to support her children. She does not have to take her ex-husband to court for neglecting to pay child support. (On the contrary, he is the one demanding support from her, since he sacrificed his career to help raise the children. The bitterness is palpable in this section of the book and shows the battle of the sexes is still alive and well.) But does that make her pain any less valid, her struggles any more risible?

Cusk has been accused of blatant exhibitionism, but there is little detail here about what caused the collapse of the marriage. Instead, we find here a dissection of mind, heart and soul, sometimes a little fuzzy and self-justifying, but very often with scalpel-like precision. There are some interesting extended metaphors strewn throughout the book: comparisons with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; the failure of a cake she bakes for her mother’s birthday (‘the difference between what I could conceive of and what I could actually do’);  a bloody tooth extraction on the day the husband moves his possessions out of the house. These are the ‘distancing’ moments, when fiction is weaved into the fabric of the memoir, and when I feel the author is writing her best work.

There is collateral damage; the fine mesh of life is torn. He has caused unnecessary pain, and trauma to the other teeth.

Aftermath2What I found most touching were the descriptions of the effect the divorce had on her daughters. The author is constantly worried about how the separation and her own mood-swings will affect her children – it does, and it is described in a most sensitive way. It’s at these moments when Cusk becomes most alive: a mother ferocious with love, sad at the pain she has inflicted on her offspring, and nursing that eternal feeling of maternal guilt.

Conclusion: Not an easy read, but certainly a contrast to the grim crime fiction characteristic of my month of February.

Surfeit of Boxes

I am still in the throes of moving and do not have Internet or phone or TV connection, nor even a desk on which to put my laptop.  So this is written in less than ideal environment while having a coffee at a place with free Wifi.  I just didn’t want be silent for so long.  Needless to say, my current thoughts are very much taken up with packing, unpacking and cartons.

All packed up.

Not neat,

Just jumbled

Out of sight

In forgettable cartons

With reductionist labels.

At first it seemed the avalanche of boxes would be

Unable to contain a life half-lived, a life half-envied,

Detritus of consumption, dresses never worn.

Then, when the flat was laid to waste,

Bereft of colour, longing, personality,

Pale in its nothingness, reduced to so little –

The rich canvas of life together now squeezed

In his and her boxes,

His and her children,

Safely contained

In their separate storage,

To be manipulated,

Torn bleeding apart,

But bled dry.

Those leaking boxes that overflow

And mess up the new spaces

Wherever you put them down.

Not knowing where

To locate

The heart.