I’ve now finished reading all of the shortlisted titles for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, but for most of the month the day job has been so demanding that I haven’t had time to review any beyond the first one I read. So you can expect a flurry of reviews coming up between now and the end of the month, as we prepare to announce the Shadow Panel winner on the 3rd of December. The judges will announce their winner on the 10th of December.
Catherine Cho’s Inferno is a memoir (it says so on the title page, as if it would be any less powerful if it were fiction). It is an account of the post-partum psychosis that the author experienced shortly after the birth of her first child, while she was visiting her family in the States together with her English husband and their baby son. The experience was so severe, her mental state so profoundly altered, that she ended up being hospitalised in an involuntary psych ward.
The book moves between scenes from the ward, references to the author’s Korean family traditions and stories, a doomed previous relationship, and the story of how she fell in love with her husband, their marriage and their road trip across the States. At first I found these switches of perspective unnerving, even irritating, but then I realised that Cho is trying to make sense of something that struck her so suddenly and seemingly made no sense at all.
Her psychotic brain was seeing patterns where there were none, but now she wants to recollect those moments at a distance, calmly, and see if there was any rhyme or reason to it.
There are certainly elements of Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the ward scenes, but it’s the passages of lyrical, almost manic poetic intensity that try to replicate the ‘brain on fire’ phenomenon of psychosis which I found particularly moving. I have seldom seen the dangerous temptation of allowing oneself to sink into the abyss described so well (although Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and Leonora Carrington’s Down Below do come to mind).
It was strangely exhilarating to see these patterns, like putting together a story when there were only pieces before. And through my dread and my fear, I saw the beauty in them, the patterns in the universe. I could tell it was dangerous, this raw energy, this coursing feeling, and for a moment, I wished I could tumble in, tumble into the madness. I felt like I’d caught a glimpse of another dimension, of the void, of the truth, of possibility. This feeling was beautiful; it was terrifying. I would never be able to harness it, I knew, I would never be able to control it. I felt like Icarus, gaspin in what was awesome, transcending fear.
This is undeniably an extremely brave, raw and hard-hitting book, so honest that it almost flays the skin off the reader. I cannot help wondering how her husband, but above all her son will feel in the coming years to see these painful moments openly exposed. Does the ‘sharing the experience so that others can see they are not alone in feeling it’ justify this? Or is it a work written as catharsis? Or perhaps the author is trying to untangle the threads, understand the reasons behind this situation and perhaps cast a protective spell, to ensure that this won’t happen again?
In an attempt to be all these things and more, although I loved individual parts of the book, I have to admit that the parts did not really coalesce into a fully satisfactory whole for me.
Whatever its intent, it is certainly a memorable exploration of identity, love and family, one that I am not likely to forget in a hurry… but also one that I had to read in small chunks, to prevent overdosing. I’d perhaps also add, since the title for the award is Young Writer of the Year, that, while Exciting Times did feel like it was written by a young person, Inferno gave the impression of a much older, wiser author.
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!
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.
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.
‘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 TitoIvana 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Speculation, it 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.
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 Heartinfuriated 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.
Where 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.
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.
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.
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.
Where 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.
When 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).
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.
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: 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
Nowadays 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.
There 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
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.
I 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.’