Paul Auster Reading Week: The Invention of Solitude

When I was a student, Paul Auster was all the rage in Romania. My fellow students of languages and literature were all going through a post-modern craze at the time (literary currents tended to reach our shores a decade or two later). Boys and girls were wearing black roll-neck jumpers and smoking, discussing Derrida and Foucault, reading The New York Trilogy and Umberto Eco, John Fowles and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. [Yes, I wonder too sometimes about those strange juxtapositions.]

But I have to admit I haven’t read Auster since the late 1990s. When Annabel announced that Paul Auster is her favourite writer and that she would dedicate a whole week to reading and reviewing his books, I idly checked the catalogue at my university library and came away with three books. (I can seldom stop at just one – that goes for both cakes and books. Maybe that’s why I never started smoking, even in my postmodernist university days…) And this one fits nicely with my memoir reading month this February.

The Invention of Solitude is his debut work, a memoir and a meditation on what makes us the people that we are, especially men and writers. It’s made up of two parts: Portrait of an Invisible Man, a description of Auster’s distant, apparently cold and unemotive father as Auster goes through his belongings in an attempt to clear the house after his death. The second part, The Book of Memory, is a mix of memoir and fiction, an exploration of Auster’s own relationship with his son, but also of all fathers in art and literature, mixed in with a sense of grief and loss as the narrator waits for the death of his grandfather. Pascal Bruckner, who wrote the preface to the 25th anniversary edition, claims that this is Paul Auster’s ars poetica and that there is a theme of remorse running through all of his work. How painful it is to be an individual today when we no longer have the protective shells of any ideologies or beliefs, Bruckner says, and of Auster’s characters, he has this rather striking description: ‘Their chaotic odyssey never ends in peace, and they always fail to regain their lost innocence.’

Back to the ‘Invisible Man’. After his parents’ divorce, his father refused to budge from the house that had become far too big for him. He was also a rather stingy man, who tried to do all the repairs himself, even where he was not really qualified to do so. Auster sees the house as mirroring his father’s inner world and the indescribable blankness or emptiness at the centre of it.

.. although he kept the house tidy and preserved it more or less as it had been, it underwent a gradual and ineluctable process of disintegration. He was neat, he always put things back in their proper place, but nothing was cared for, nothing was ever cleaned.

As he delves deeper into his father’s life, he finds it seems to be all about appearances, that there appear to be no depths – deliberately so. This is a man who seems to find life tolerable only by staying on the surface of things – his relationships with women, with his children. It’s all about preserving that superficiality, not having to reveal himself, waiting hat at the ready and walking stick in hand, ready to escape at any given time. After describing some of the typical disappointments of his childhood, and how he felt unseen and unappreciated, Auster concludes that:

…even if I had done all the things I had hoped to do, his reaction would have been exactly the same. Whether I succeeded or failed did not essentially matter to him… Like everything else in his life, he saw me only through the mists of his solitude, as if at several removes from himself. The world was a distant place for him, I think, a place he was never truly able to enter…

The reason for this aloofness and solitude is revealed when Auster finds an old family portrait amongst his family belongings. His father is the baby in the arms of his mother, surrounded by an older sister and three brothers. He notices that the photograph had been torn and stuck together again, as if a certain person (his grandfather, he later realises) had been taken out of the picture. One of his cousins finds out by coincidence the real story about his grandfather’s death and the family’s subsequent life. A traumatic episode which certainly must have contributed to his father’s sense of insecurity and transience, ‘no enduring points of reference’, his conviction that no one is to be trusted, that you cannot expose your vulnerability by loving someone, that it is best not to want anything too much.

As he attends his father’s funeral, as he tries to cling on to a few of his objects, Auster finds his father slipping away from him again, becoming invisible once more. Except now he has started to understand him, perhaps even forgive him, as he struggles with the challenges of fatherhood himself. I had somehow missed this book when I was going through my Auster phase, I only read his fiction, but I found it oddly moving and quite understated.

I’m not sure if I will have time to read the other books this week (Winter Journal and Timbuktu, in case you are wondering). I also think that taking Paul Auster in smaller doses is probably more sensible at my age. These days, I also think I prefer the writing of his wives, Lydia Davis and Siri Hustvedt. But thank you, Annabel, for reminding me of his existence!

Memoir Month: Maggie Gee and Beth Ann Fennelly

Women’s memoirs are bringing great comfort and inspiration to me at the moment, especially those of women writers. (To be honest, I seem to read very few memoirs by people who are not writers or dancers… and that has been the case since childhood.)

Maggie Gee: My Animal Life

Unusually for a writer, Maggie Gee focuses not so much on her interior life, but on what she calls her ‘animal life’ – the life of the body, the senses, sex and love, birth and parenthood, illness, aging – all the things which make Jinny in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves so irresistible.

Not to degrade my life, but to celebrate it. To join it, tiny though it is, to all the life in the universe. To the brown small-headed pheasant running by the lake in Coolham. To my grandparents and parents, and my great grandparents who like most people in the British Isles of their generation wore big boots, even for the rare occasions of photographs, and lived on the clayey land, and have returned their bones to it, joining the bones of cattle, horses and foxes.

Her accounts are frank and fresh, humorous and without an inflated ego. She is content with her husband, her daughter, her writing, but she constantly asks herself questions: How can we bear to lose those we love most? How do we recover from our mistakes? How do we forgive ourselves – and our parents? What do men want from women, what do women want from men? Why do we need art and why are we driven to make it? On the whole, she attempts to answer these through personal observations and reflections, acknowledging her luck but also detailing those near-misses. After a clear, deftly-rendered memory, she will often start a more general musing on the subject.

Above all, I enjoyed her observations about the life of a writer (creatives in general, but she singles out writers and storytellers in particular). For example, she describes how her writing career nearly derailed when she became too complacent. She admits that the literary world can feel like a jungle, that it is bowing down to commercial reality. Yet I like the way she refuses to be bitter about it – and seems to have a very kind word to say about book bloggers without an agenda other than sharing their love of books.

In the jungle, writers are opportunists. We are show-offs, trying to display our coats. We need to be the most beautiful and youthful, we need to have novelty, we need to have mates… If we fall, we must be sure to get up quickly, for if we lie there, bleeding, we will die down there… Of course, some good writers do well in the jungle… But it isn’t inevitable, it isn’t even normal. If you want to know where the best writers are, you can’t tell by reading the literary pages, or going to big bookshops, or looking at prize lists. You must read for yourself, and think for yourself, or listen to voices you know and trust: private readers: truth-tellers…

And then there is the work. Come back to that. Get up on the wire, walk the line in the sunlight. Breathe, concentrate, find the nerve.

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling. 52 Micro-Memoirs

If Maggie Gee is inspirational in terms of content, then the second memoir I read was inspirational in terms of form. Beth Ann Fennelly is in fact the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and these micro-memoirs (ranging in size from one sentence to 3-4 pages) are almost like prose-poems. Poignant observations, tiny vignettes, which make you suddenly see the world in a new way. The poet describes herself as being bad at remembering, so these memoirs come out higgledy-piggledy, some of them with addendums, some of them on topics she keeps coming back to (like Married Love). But of course that is all carefully and deliberately constructed.

She was recommended to me by poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, when I attended her workshop on the ‘Home Movie’ (writing about house and home). They are very funny and quirky, some seem just casual throwaway remarks, but they build up over the length of the book into something far more coherent and touching. Here are just three very short ones which I love:

I Knew a Woman

Everything she had was better than everything the rest of us had. Not by a lot. But by enough.

Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay

If you all collected all the drops of days I’ve spent singing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to children fighting sleep, you’d have an ocean deep enough to drown them many times over.

I Come From a Long Line of Modest Achievers

I’m fond of recalling how my mother is fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.

#EU27Project: Denmark

This is one of the set of books that have been cluttering my desk for months, as I got sidetracked from the #EU27Project. The Danish entry is a book I randomly found at the Senate House library, by an author who seems to have been very popular in her home country but who hasn’t been much translated: Tove Ditlevsen.

This book Early Spring (translated by Tiina Nunnally) is about her first eighteen years growing up in Copenhagen, dreaming of becoming a poet, how she persisted against all odds, her working class childhood and complete lack of interest and support of her parents.

Tove was born in 1918 in a small apartment in Copenhagen, the year the war ended and the 8 hour working day was introduced. Her older brother Edvin had been born the year the war started and the working day was still 12 hours long. Her mother was severe, distant and cold; little Tove lived in fear of her, her hopes of being loved or appreciated systematically and repeatedly crushed. Her father reads the occasional book despite the fact that his wife says: ‘People turn strange from reading. Everything written in books is a lie.’ He is the only one who understands her love of reading, but he is weak, especially when he is fired from his job at the age of 45 and struggles to find any steady employment. The banks go under and Tove’s grandmother loses all her savings. Her brother teases her mercilessly about her attempts at poetry, although it later emerges that he was secretly rather proud of her.

This is not a memoir full of charm and funny anecdotes. It depicts all the harshness, the ‘sharp corners’ of Tove’s life, the hardship of a particular time and place.

Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own… Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about like an illness you’ve survived.

However, there are lighter moments, and that is because Tove herself, in spite of all that life throws at her, has an indomitable spirit. She pursues her literary ambitions with single-minded focus, even when the editor who had promised to take a look at her work dies, even when she has to leave school and start working in hotel kitchens at the age of 15. She is candid, observant, idealistic, always eager to learn, curious about the world and ever so slightly mischievous. She makes fun of her early, entirely derivative poetic efforts, in which she talks about love and loss and other experiences that she has never had personally. For example, at the age of twelve:

… all of my poems were still ‘full of lies’, as Edvin said. Most of them dealt with love, and if you were to believe them, I was living a wanton life filled with interesting conquests.

You can read Ali’s review of this book here.

#EU27Project: Croatia – The Hotel Tito

‘Art allows more room for the truth, especially if your goal is not merely to tell your own story…’ says the author of The Hotel Tito Ivana Bodrožić. So this is most decidedly not a memoir, but a novel, the story of an entire generation of people who grew up in a country that suddenly disintegrated, children who had to leave their homes and grow up in displaced peoples’ housing.

Of course, even though the war ended, nobody won. In Zagreb people wanted to forget, but refugee families like the narrator’s are still writing letter after letter to the authorities in the hope of getting proper accommodation rather than camping out all in one room at a run-down hotel. The family separated from the father, who was left behind in Vukovar, and is now missing, presumed dead. The uncertainty of his fate and the lack of paperwork to confirm his death meant less rights in terms of benefits and housing.

These are similar themes to those tackled in Yugoslavia My Fatherland, but the viewpoint is resolutely that of the child here. We first meet her at the age of nine, when she first becomes aware of the war because her father tells her off for humming ‘Whoever claims Serbia is small is lying’. We grow up alongside her, see her almost superficial preoccupations about fitting in, putting on her make-up in secret and going out with boys, fighting with her older brother, being exasperated by her embarrassing grandparents. A normal teenager, whose normality keeps getting punctured by stark reminders of her ‘barely tolerated’ status. No wonder she soon develops a shell of cynicism around her:

It’s the hardest when they turn you down the first time, afterward you get used to it and you don’t care.

Seeing everything through the child’s naive perspective was a deliberate choice. The author says: ‘I knew I didn’t want to fall back on the wisdom of hindsight, I tried to set aside my adult perspective. I also didn’t want to spare anybody, including myself, in terms of treating with honesty the emotions I’d felt and my memories.’

In conclusion, both books are powerful and poignant reminders that destruction of life as we know it is always just a heartbeat away. I would recommend Goran Vojnović if you want the grown-up trying to analyse the situation calmly after the events, seeking to understand the mindset of the nationalists and finding himself not quite able to excuse them. But if you want to feel part of the events, how it feels to be a child refugee albeit in far more ‘civilised’ circumstances than many refugees experience today, and that life is not all bad, that children will be children and find ways to play, rejoice, forget and make suffering bearable, then Ivana Bodrožić is the way to go.

Claire Tomalin: A Life of My Own

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Claire Tomalin as a biographer, having read her biography of Dickens and Dickens’ ‘invisible woman’ Nelly Ternan, as well as well-documented and sensitive recreations of the life of Samuel Pepys, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield. But she found her vocation rather late in life, as she admits in this very frank memoir A Life of My Own, and her career has been almost accidental, often resulting from changes to her personal circumstances rather than any ambitious planning.

Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries

Tomalin’s life is a mix of privilege and hard blows. As she herself admits: ‘I’ve had a life with tragedies in it. But also extraordinary good luck.’ Born to well-educated but unhappily married parents, brought up bilingual and evacuated from home during the Second World War (changing schools very frequently), she entered a charmed circle of talented friends at Cambridge, who later became influential journalists and critics. She married young and had several children in quick succession, but her charismatic reporter husband Nick Tomalin was an inveterate womaniser, who kept planning to leave her but eventually came back. When he was killed by a missile attack in Israel in 1973, Claire was shocked but must also have been relieved. She built a new life for herself as a single mum supporting her four children, working as Literary Editor at The New Statesman and the Sunday Times. She knew everyone who was anyone and had affairs with younger men, such as Martin Amis. She lost a baby and her last child, a son named Tom, was born with spina bifida. She describes her struggles to bring him up as normally as possible, but also found an army of willing childminders. Her middle daughter, who always seemed the most cheerful and well-adjusted, committed suicide when she was 20. She found late love with her second husband and lifelong friend, playwright Michael Frayn.

During happy times, the description of her music and book-filled life, with frequent trips abroad and full of big names, can sound slightly elitist. Yet she is often very modest and full of subtle humour. Although she names a few lovers, she is on the whole discreet about all the men offering themselves to the young widow as ‘admirers, consolers, wooers, romantics and would-be seducers’.

Claire has a breezy way of dealing with sad events in her life, dispatching them in one unsentimental paragraph. No self-pity is allowed to creep in at all, but her stoicism made me as a reader feel very uncomfortable. For example, about her last reconciliation with her first husband:

Nick grew more pressing. My daughter Jo was now twelve and I decided I should consult with her. I told her he was eager to come back and said I thought he would never change and that we could make a better life without him, and maybe I could marry a steadier partner one day. She listened, and then said in a very small clear voice, ‘I want Daddy.’ And I answered, in a voice which I made cheery, ‘All right – we’ll have Daddy.’

At times, this breeziness can descend into callousness, such as when she describes falling in love with Michael Frayn, who was still married at that point.

… Michael and I were now living together. Our long friendship, in which we had talked and confided in one another about our lives, had turned to love. It was an overwhelming experience. It also caused pain and difficulties for everyone. We tried to give up our relationship more than once, and never could. The situation was resolved very slowly through the generosity of his wife…

Maybe the previous generations are far less puritanical than ours (and the younger ones). Or perhaps this is the way to deal with things in life, to tell yourself a certain story and not agonise over other possible interpretations.

When Poetry Meets Essay Meets Memoir

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I recently read for the first time and am already rereading, puzzled me. It’s a memoir mourning the death of a relationship. It’s also a series of numbered mini-essays, meditations and aphorisms linked to the colour blue, in its literal and metaphorical manifestation. At times, it reaches poetic intensity, but this is not what we would usually describe as poetry. (Foyles had it displayed in the poetry section, however.) It is the prose-poem mix and research-intensive, allusive type of poetry which has become fashionable in recent years:  practised by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Bhanu Kapil. (There are plenty of earlier examples of it, but it seems to be much more mainstream now.)

I like each of the above-mentioned poets and I liked this book too, if we think of it as poetry, as sudden illuminations of a dark area of the human heart and mind. Vignettes about loss and pain, where the anguished cry of hurt and anger is kept at bay through careful selection of information, data points, quotations. Mediated through this semblance of rationality, the unruly emotions can be filtered for public consumption, unlike the angry, self-pitying outpouring on a blog for instance (just talking about myself here). So a very useful device for passionate writers who want to avoid descending into self-pitying bathos .

135. Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: ‘She’s got them bad/ She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know/ Just what her blues is all about.’ Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is to eventually move towards darkness.

138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.

The author acknowledges this distancing effect. By writing things down, by finding words to share certain moments or feelings with others, she is robbing those moments or feelings of their mystical power. Which can be both good and bad. It might work as a way of overcoming sorrow and loss, but at other times it feels like you’re giving up something too precious:

193. I will admit, however… that writing does do something to one’s memory- that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.

Maggie Nelson, from Goodreads author picture.

However, there are two objections or hesitations that I have with this kind of writing. First, if it is poetry, it is too much ‘telling’ and not enough showing. I don’t think rationality and emotion have to be at odds with each other, but when I read or hear poetry I like to feel as if the poet is reaching directly inside my chest and pulling at my heart, or has seen directly into my head and made me aware of things that I’d previously hardly dared to voice. It’s very much like Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ There has to be something unspoken and ungraspable about it. It encompasses all of the poet’s feelings, plus mine, plus so much more.

Secondly, when this type of book is supposed to be a novel, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculationit feels to me like an incredibly lazy way of handling a story arc. Vignettes, no matter how well written, avoid the connective tissue and real plot development. Perhaps it’s a trick writers use to hide their lack of ideas for plotting. It’s as if I were writing the exciting scenes of a novel but leaving out all the links between them, anything which might explain character development (other than the narrator), or running away from the saggy middle because I can’t think how to improve it, or chickening out of a proper ending because I’m afraid I can’t handle it.

This is not the case with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I now feel the urge to read her The Argonauts, which has a clearer narrative structure, to see how she handled that. While I agree that modern life is messy and oddly dislocated, it is:

a) Not a new thing: Modernist literature is entirely predicated on this loss of innocence and decline of society.

b) I don’t see why coherence has to be sacrificed to describe messiness in fiction. Perhaps in a time of confusion, we need the boon of structure more than ever, supporting us just enough so that we can play freely within it.

Nature saves us all: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu
Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu

Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.

For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However, Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart infuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.

Then there are the books which weave nature observations and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it (or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find allusions whooshing over your head, but also the occasional tangential riffs and unusual erudite connections which will gladden your heart and make you feel smart. Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.

outrunWhere does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home in the wilderness and isolation of the Orkneys. It was largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be: do not read this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.

The nature/lost soul  parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:

I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.

Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.

I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.

The flatness and trelessness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz
The flatness and the treeless-ness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz

These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness – perhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.

The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com
The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com

Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):

I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.