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.

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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.

 

#ReadingRhys — Short Fiction and Memoir

Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.

smilepleaseWhere Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.

The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.

What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.

sleepitoffWhen she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’

You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please.  The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.

Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).

Jean Rhys at about the time of the publication of 'Sleep It Off Lady'
Jean Rhys at about the time of the publication of ‘Sleep It Off Lady’

Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.

Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.

In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.

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Three Women Writers and Memoirs to Discover

I sometimes use little green stick-its to mark passages I particularly want to return to or quote in the books I read, and the three books below are FULL of green. They are all memoirs of one sort or another, looking at motherhood, being a woman in the modern world, moving between cultures and countries, how to be creative and fulfilled. And they are all poetic, funny, sad, and don’t beat you around the head at all with preachy ‘self-improvement’ tips.

Elif Shafak, from www.standard.co.uk
Elif Shafak, from http://www.standard.co.uk

Elif Shafak: Black Milk (transl. Hande Zapsu)

After the birth of her first child, the highly successful Turkish author experienced a severe case of post-partum depression, which puzzled her and crippled her creativity. She describes how she overcame it and found salvation through writing. So far, so dry a blurb, but this is Shafak we are talking about. So, in the storytelling tradition of Shehrazat, with typical scorn for conventionalities, we embark upon a stormy tale of how the author came to terms with all the warring women inside her. Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Little Miss Practical, Mama Rice Pudding, Dame Dervish and Blue Belle Bovary are at times suppressed or neglected, at other times they come to the fore and attempt to install a military dictatorship. It’s a witty way of talking about inner turmoil and life in general – and woven in we find Shafak’s usual candour, erudite cross-cultural references and self-deprecatory humour. Here’s a quote from the end of the book, chosen not because it is typical of her style, but because it seems to me to speak about so much more than just inner peace.

That is not to say that they [the 6 women] agree on every issue. But by listening, not just talking, they are learning the art of coexistence. They now know that to exist freely and equally, they need one another, and that where even one voice is enslaved none can be free. Together we are learning how to live, write and love to the fullest by simply being all of who we are. Sometimes we manage this beautifully and artlessly, sometimes we fail ridiculously. When we fail, we remember the moments of harmony and grace, and try again.

 

Elizabeth Smart: The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals

elizabethsmartopenbookontarioNowadays if you do a Google search for the name, you will find a former kidnap victim talking about her experiences, but before that, Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian writer best known for her fragmented, personal, prose-poetry work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a barely fictionalised account of her tumultuous love story with English poet George Baker. This volume is a continuation of the first one, in which Smart is a single mother of four trying to make a living as a copywriter in post-war London, in equal measure addicted to and annoyed by a feckless lover.

It surprised me, upon looking at Smart’s biographical details more closely, to discover she was very successful and made lots of money in her profession… and that she found ways to be a prolific writer (although it was mostly published posthumously). The way she presents herself in this book (and in its predecessor) is very much ‘woe me’, with an anger and ferocity of spirit, an openness about love and sex and feeling unfulfilled, which must have been very fresh and scandalous at the time.  Yet the observations are not just personal: there are excellent descriptions of austere, grey London after the war; of the centuries old division of labour- a proto-feminist too; a champion of ‘our hard-working deserving poor’.

Everyone must work; nobody must loaf. ‘Pull your own weight,’ my mother repeats… ‘Keep clean, bear fruit, and wait.’ This seems to cover housework, childbirth, sainthood. But money must come into it… I am reluctant, until we know more, to see the future so drearily laid out like an allotment garden, with each to his patch of work.

theassumptionsThere is little continuity in a narrative of this type: it is made up of glimmers of brilliance, highly quotable passages, and then we’re off on a new tangent, a new jumble of thoughts and impressions. The author acknowledges she may not be to everyone’s taste.

I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity…. An obsessional fog, even if it is made of a flock of holy ghosts, is not the sort of thing we can put before the members of Parliament… too fleshy too flighty too messy for debating floors?

Before you can start shifting uncomfortably in your chair, however, and complain that she is dripping in self-pity, she points out precisely that, proving that awareness of privilege is not a new thing:

O stop the caterwauling! Women with gusty voices pound pianos in pubs, impossibly happy against great odds. More ravaged and more successful by far than you, they know how to back-slap life with a greeting of gratitude. I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen. I might get a faded facsimile. If I were lucky a man I want might happen to find comfort in my simple meals, or warmth from a fire always burning at the right moment. This isn’t at all enough, but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.

***

‘Miss Smart, you are not the first woman to have had four children.’

Smart thinks and writes like a poet, so there is no story arc here to speak of. Instead, you have diverse approaches to the same body of a problem, like birds coming to peck at a cadaver from all different angles. You have repetition, strong rhythmical patterns which need to be chanted out loud, clusters of images exploding under their own weight at times. While it hasn’t got the raw power and coherence of her more famous book, it is brittle and smouldering and shrill. An acquired taste, perhaps, best read in instalments, a cry of real pain, with added burrs of satire and wit, and much compassion for frailty, drunkenness, despair. I can see myself liking it more and more after several rereadings.

Isabel Huggan: Belonging

Isabel Huggan near her house in France, from canadianwritersabroad.com
Isabel Huggan near her house in France, from canadianwritersabroad.com

By contrast, Huggan’s style is not at all convoluted: it is limpid-clear like a mountain spring, occasionally mischievous, and warm and welcoming like a bowl of soup. Huggan makes us feel one with the world and humanity in general. Although it’s a very personal story of (yet another) Canadian writer who lived in Kenya, the Philippines, France, and finally renovating a house in the south of France, it is in fact a mix of memoir and fiction (to show just how permeable the line between the two is), and something to which many readers will be able to relate. Above all, there is that generous, humble, self-aware spirit which makes me love the work and its author. Modesty, I suppose, is the word I am looking for: gentle curiosity, wisdom, openness, empathy for others, willingness to learn. Something which is often lacking from the ‘me, me, me’ shouty, selfie-touting discourse on social media nowadays.

I know all about homesickness – sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I’ve been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can blind you to everything else. And so you learn to live with mal de pays as with chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie. Then finally you wake up and compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed, and you stop.

She gives us the most succinct and true picture of what it really means to be moving abroad, that you will never be the same again:

… neither of us suspects how changing countries, even temporarily, is going to change us. He hopes that this job will open doors for him in the future, but we do not yet know the windows and doors in our hearts that will be opened – be wrenched open and torn from their hinges, never to be shut again. We do not know that we have begun a long journey with no return.

belongingI used to be somewhat suspicious of memoirs, seeing them as ego-driven exercises, for what could average people possibly have to teach to others? A strange attitude for an anthropologist, who loves listening to other people’s stories. However, after reading the unusual approaches to memoir-writing taken by these three women writers, I am converted. Memoir is really about sharing stories around the camp-fire, about sharing memories, finding the universals in human experience. I end this very, very long post (well done if you’ve made it this far!) with another wonderful quote from Isabel Huggan:

Since my earliest days I have been a merchant for Nostalgia, setting up my souvenir stall on the road to the wharf on the River Styx. I do not hoard memories and I am willing – even eager to part with them.

‘Here now, sir, here’s something to take in the boat with you as you pass on to the other side. A line of poetry smooth as a pebble, a phrase bright as an insect’s wing, a clause transparent as snake-skin shed in the grass. Take these souvenirs, if you wish, you who travel forward, and keep them close to your heart as you move into the darkness. You cannot take your gold and jewels, you cannot take your fossils. But you can take your stories across the water.’

 

 

 

Quick Reviews: Women Not in Translation

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.

devilunderskinAnya 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…

footstepsSusan 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.

furiouslyhappyJenny 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.

 

 

Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net

 

 

Reading with a Theme: Bad Mothers

Every now and then I happen to read a couple of books with a similar theme and then I am tempted to seek out a few more with the same theme. So I end up with a mix of fiction and non-fiction, memoir and even poetry about a topic, which gets me thinking about my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. This time the topic was: bad mothers. Or perhaps it should be called just ‘mothers’, since, as a friend of mine often says:

No matter what you do or don’t do as a mother, you will get blamed for everything anyway.

PaulaDalyPaula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You?  – may be a question most mothers ask themselves at some point during their lives (or at least once a week in my case), but the mother in question is relatively blameless compared to the ones I’ll mention below. Lisa Kallisto: she was just so overwhelmed – this is what it will say on her headstone. And who cannot relate to that? We can all empathise with her as she tries to juggle work and family life, so many plates to keep spinning. Is it any wonder that one of them may occasionally fall? Yet when one of those ‘plates’ is the daughter of your friend, who was supposed to be staying for a sleepover with your own daughter, but now has disappeared, is it any wonder you blame yourself? A seriously addictive page-turner, because it is so relatable for any mother.

Mother Mother by Koren Zailckas has been described as crime fiction, but really it’s not the mystery which keeps you reading. It’s the sheer horror of an incredibly dysfunctional family. Yet this too offers searing moments of recognition. I wish I could say I view these moments with humour (or shocked dismay), but in fact they rip open scabs on wounds I had long thought healed. Or wounds that I’ve refused to acknowledge thus far, wounds which I thought I had inflicted on myself. Although I usually despise labels and their limitations, it does help that I now have a name for something which may be involuntary, a kind of illness rather than deliberate malevolence: narcissistic mother. And no, I’m not talking about myself!

MothermotherThere is a lot of melodrama in this book, deliberate switching of viewpoints to increase the suspense, but they also help to provide a more rounded picture of Josephine, the mother in question. A monster? Yes, perhaps, but not entirely unappealing, even if her young son Will is perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. But then, who is? I would ideally have liked to see how outsiders perceived her – we only have a hint of that with the comments of the social worker who comes to talk to daughter Violet at the hospital.

This is not an easy book to read, it’s a painful dissection of dysfunctional families and the ways in which we torture and manipulate each other (sometimes with the best of intentions). I found the portrayal of Will and the ineffective husband/father particularly well written. Too little too late comes to mind, and I shudder to think how the reverberations of the events described in this book will continue to affect the protagonists for many years still to come.

Anna Gold : Bienvenue (in French)

Bienvenue_V1At the bedside of her dying mother, the narrator, Léa Blum, seeks to come to terms with her Jewish heritage and her estranged family. A story as old as the hills – the teenage girl who rebels against her upbringing, finds an unsuitable boyfriend (in this case, unsuitable because he is not Jewish) and falls pregnant. Yet the way in which the full extent of her mother’s betrayal is gradually revealed is particularly painful. Léa repeatedly tries to break through her mother’s coldness and lovelessness, tries to understand and forgive it as a trait of a Holocaust survivor, but finally she gives up. She seeks refuge instead in her literary creation, Sonia van Zijde, a Dutch Marrano Jew living in 17th century Amsterdam, who becomes friends with Rembrandt and his wife Saskia, and through them gets to know the philosopher Spinoza. The contrast between the multiple lives of the narrator: the one she was expected to live, the one she did live and the one she would have liked to live, all meet here, as we alternate between Sonia’s story and her own. Perhaps a little predictable as a story, but it ends on a hopeful note.

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (to be translated and published soon as ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’)

DelphinedeViganThis is not a Mommy Dearest portrayal of a monster, but a daughter and a writer trying to understand and interpret her own childhood, that of her mother, the mother’s manic depression and an unusual but rather attractive family. There is a lot of love and forgiveness in this book, a lot of painful honesty, as well as a meditation on whether we can ever be truthful in our representations of reality, or just how reliable memory is. Unlike all of the other books on this theme, this is most resolutely memoir rather than fiction (however thinly disguised some of the other fiction is). Of course memoir is interpretation, it is fiction too, and this book is not just a family history and the portrait of a troubled mother, but also a meditation on the nature of memory, of how stories are constructed and retold, of the power and dangers of silence. Out of all the conflicting family accounts from her mother’s brothers and sisters, which will the author choose as ‘the truth’? And ultimately, is there ever a single truth, can we ever know what drives a person to despair, depression and suicide?

Delphine’s mother Lucile was a beautiful child model, the third child in a large and apparently picture-perfect family.  Yet the family was touched by tragedy: the childhood death of a younger brother was just the start. Lucile marries far too early, has children when she is barely out of her teens and soon finds herself struggling to make a life for herself and her daughters as a largely uneducated single mother in Paris. As her moodiness and occasional sadness descends into delusions and paranoia, the girls struggle to anticipate her behaviour and surmount their own fears. Could anything or anyone have saved Lucile from suicide? Could her life have been better? And can we ever doubt her love for her children?

For a more detailed review of this book, see this fantastic blog.

NightRainbowClaire King: The Night Rainbow

Another depressed mother, another account of a potentially damaged childhood, this time a fictional story seeped in the sun of Southern France, as seen through the eyes of a precocious child narrator, Pea (nearly six). This could be a very dark and sad book in terms of subject matter: the rather horrific neglect of Pea and her younger sister Margot, the infuriating apathy of a severely depressed, heavily pregnant  mother struggling to overcome her own grief, the well-meant interference of other villagers, the hilarious but also dangerous scrapes the girls get themselves into (a scorpion in a jar, a haircut which goes terribly wrong). Yet all of these are counter-balanced by a delicious freedom and poetic description of country life which few children are able to enjoy nowadays. The smells, sounds, textures of the fields of hay, of the market-place, the taste of freshly-picked peaches, the breathless run through to the treehouse. It was a book filled with nostalgia, just like the de Vigan book, evoking a lost paradise (the days when Papa was alive and Maman still used to laugh, hug and cook), but here we are allowed to hope in a better ending, an improved life for all.

Have you read any of these books or others about ‘bad mothers’? And how do you feel about themed reading? Does it get too much after a while to read about the same topic, or is it fascinating to see the many different takes on it? Motherhood is one of those topics which never gets stale (although in this case it did get a bit depressing, even if I interspersed them with other reading), nor will it ever be elucidated. Complex, mysterious, complicated, joyous and troubling: our relationship with our mother is one topic which is never likely to disappear from literature.