The Lighter Side of Shirley Jackson

After reading about the dreams and disappointments of a Brazilian housewife, I simply had to return to Shirley Jackson’s delectable yet barbed stories of domestic bliss. Raising Demons is a sequel to her first series of snapshots of American middle-class family life, Life Among the Savages. That first book proved so popular that she was begged to do more in that vein – and it is such a contrast to her dark, disturbing fiction, you will hardly believe this is the same writer.

It is mostly a light-hearted affair, with a deceptively simple stream of consciousness style, as if a gossipy friend is telling us about her day. Yet I can feel a tension in these cheery accounts of moving house with four children, family trips to New York City, the joys and woes of Little League baseball and a broked-down refrigerator.

Shirley Jackson and her children (and dog) round about the time the book was published.

On the surface, this is the dream that women in the 1950s and 60s were supposed to aspire to… but it must have been difficult for gifted women to achieve those almost impossible standards of married bliss and domesticity (straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting) and still have the energy left to create art or literature or music. Yet many of them craved both – but had been taught to expect only minimal help from their husbands! We hear about these almost schizophrenic impulses nearly tearing creatives apart, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, Lee Miller to Frida Kahlo.

So there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Jackson’s stories. She alludes to financial worries and her husband’s complaints that they are all going to go bankrupt because of her extravagant shopping. You would never guess that her earnings from writing at the time were far outstripping her husband’s college salary. However, you might guess that he was controlling and tight-fisted when she jokes about the underhand ways in which she has to convince her husband to give her money for food ‘by a series of agile arguments and a tearful description of his children lying at his feet faint from malnutrition.’ Meanwhile, his coin collection grows and grows.

There are other hints of fissures within their marriage, with several sarcastic comments about the pressures of being a male lecturer at a girl’s college, or when he tactlessly announces the visit of an old girlfriend:

I said it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled – perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

My husband laughed self-consciously. ‘I remember,’ he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

‘Yes?’ I asked politely.

‘Nothing,’ he said.

There is an even more pointed reference to her husband Stanley Hyman’s infidelities in the story of how he got invited to judge a Miss Vermont beauty contest.

‘Daddy is going to see a lot of girls,’ Sally told Barry. She turned to me. ‘Daddy likes to look at girls, doesn’t he?’

There was a deep, enduring silence, until at last my husband’s eye fell on Jannie.

‘And what did you learn in school today?’ he asked with wild enthusiasm.

This is the Shirley Jackson we know and love, always ready to plunge the knife in stealthily, when you least expect it.

I have no doubts some of the incidents have been exaggerated for comic effect, but many of her exploits and rants will sound very familiar to weary mothers everywhere.

Finally, after a good deal of worry I went out and bought a couple of epicure magazines, and leafed through them all morning looking for something exciting I could serve for dinner, and I found a recipe for a casserole dish based on stuffed cabbage with ground round steak and cashew nuts which I thought I could try… I decided to leave out the onion in the recipe because Sally would not eat anything so highly flavoured… I could not mix the ground round steak with rice because Laurie loathes rice. My husband could not bear tomatoes in any form, Jannie would not touch cabbage, and no one in the family except me cared for sour cream. When I had finished eliminating from the casserole what I had was a hamburger studded with cashew nuts, which was undeniably a novelty, although I am afraid that on the whole my casserole was not a success. Everyone carefully removed the cashew nuts and set them aside, and Laurie asked irritably if we always had to have hamburger for dinner.

These rants seem to be written in an effortless blurting out style, without any technique. But of course that is not the case. Shirley Jackson was a master stylist, carefully deliberating every word, and even if these stories were churned out much faster than her darker stories or novels, they are still full of rhythm and little darts landing in precisely the right spot.

Jackson certainly does not romanticise motherhood, and clearly longs for some time away from her brood. She is an inept housekeeper and pokes fun at herself for that. Behind the fatigue and exasperation, however, we detect a sense of wistfulness, a fear that they are growing up too quickly, and an ear well-tuned to her children’s vocabulary, fears and wishes.

The barbs are fully in place when she describes the ‘joys’ of being a faculty wife. So much so that the college president told her husband off for allowing the publication of the book.

A faculty wife is a person who is married to a faculty. She has frequently read at least one good book lately, she has one ‘nice’ balck dress to wear to student parties, and she is always just the teensiest bit in the way… She is presumed to have pressing and wholly absorbing interests at home… It is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own, but if she has it still, she is expected to keep it decently to herself.

I was not bitter about being a faculty wife, very much, although it did occur to me once or twice that young men who were apt to go on and become college teachers someday ought to be required to show some clearly distinguishable characteristic, or perhaps even wear some large kind of identifying badge, for the protection of innocent young girls who might in that case go ont o be the contented wives of furniture repairmen or disc jockeys or even car salesmen…

I put in four good years at college, and managed to pass almost everything, and got my degree and all, and I think it was a little bit unkind of fate to send me back to college the hard way, but of course there were things I might have done – or, put it, people I might have married – which would have landed me in worse positions. Bluebeard, anyway.

We know that Jackson suffered from depression and agoraphobia later in life, that she and her children felt occasionally ostracised by the small-town community. In these stories, however, she shows us her funny side, the imaginative and quick-witted mother that her children would remember with delight.

#GermanLitMonth Julia Franck’s tale of parental abandonment

Very nearly the end of the month and this may be the only German book I get to finish. Great plans fail in the execution, don’t they? However, I’ve been watching the first series of Babylon Berlin on NowTV, so I feel immersed in that period, almost as if I’d participated in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong.

Julia Franck’s strangely entitled Die Mittagsfrau (The Noon Witch, apparently after a Slavic myth) has been translated as either The Blind Side of the Heart in the UK (translated by Anthea Bell) or The Blindness of the Heart in the US (although still with Anthea Bell as a translator). Like in her other novels, Franck does a fantastic job of blending the personal with the historical, showing how we are all shaped by the political and social forces of the times we live in… and yet are often unaware of them, so self-absorbed are we.

Helene and her sister Martha are mixed-race (their mother is Jewish and their father Aryan German) but barely aware of the fact. Their father dies as a result of his wounds in the First World War and their mother becomes increasingly more depressed and erratic, with severe hoarding instincts, proving utterly unable to take care of the girls. They both hope to study medicine, but end up working as nurses in Weimar Berlin. Their brief period of freedom, fun and partying soon comes to an end. Helene endures heartbreak and marriage to an unforgiving man who feels she owes him because he faked ‘pure descent’ papers for her so she could continue working under the Nazis. It is a picture of the average person in wartime Germany, the great complicit masses, who were not heroic, who were disturbed by what they see around them, yet unable to do or say anything for fear of endangering their own lives.

What I liked most about this book is that it’s not judgmental or preachy at all – it just shows the unbearable sadness of a life marked by great upheavals, and how all we can hope for is to survive, albeit with huge scars. After the initial fireworks in the opening (more about that in the next paragraph), the piling on of disappointments, traumas and horrors both great and small is done subtly, as gradually as it happens in real life.

It has been grim reading, so I struggled with it especially in the chapters depicting the sisters’ childhood, but it’s not relentlessly dark. There are some comic moments (although always with a dark undertone). For instance, when Brecht’s Threepenny Opera literally makes Helene throw up. Or Helene’s wedding night, with her new husband very keen to show off his sexual prowess. But it’s the small, perfectly observed scenes where private life is suddenly confronted with the bigger picture that are most memorable: hearing her son sing a taunting song about Jews that everyone at school was repeating; seeing her mother in a mental asylum and having to pretend she is not related to her; going mushroom hunting in the forest and realising that the horrible stench coming from the train that is standing on the tracks there is not bovine or pig dung.

Everyone who has read the book (or who refuses to read the book) will refer to the shocking prologue, in which a mother abandons her 7 year old son on a station platform. We know from the start that it is 1945, that they are Germans trying to evacuate from Stettin (now part of Poland), that the father has abandoned the family and that the mother is a nurse who has been raped by Soviet soldiers, but it takes the rest of the book to examine just how the heart of a young girl has hardened, how desperate and hopeless she feels and how she arrives at the conclusion that sending her son alone back to relatives in Germany is the best thing she can do for him. In a very poignant epilogue, we also see how things have turned out for the son and what lasting effect this has had on him.

I’ve had a heated debate with a Russian friend who condemns Marina Tsvetaeva for leaving her daughers in an orphanage for a while during the Moscow famine during the Civil War in Russia 1917-1920. Her younger daughter died and my friend argues that no mother should ever abandon her children, even if she thinks that is what’s best for them at the time. But I think it’s easy to be judgemental when you are not living through such extreme times. We’ll never know for sure how we would react if we were faced with similar desperate circumstances. I also abhor the double standard: men have often abandoned their families for far less reason, while women are vilified if they do it.

This is not to say that we should admire or like Helene. No one emerges happy and pristine from the messiness of life lived with far fewer choices than most of us can imagine having nowadays. It is a wonderful metaphor for Germany, but like all good books, it has a truly universal message. I think of those parents who reluctantly, with broken hearts and with their last desperate reserves of money, send their children abroad to escape horrible wars and persecution in their own homes, without knowing if they will ever end up in a safe place or if they will ever see them again…

Swiss in October: Pascale Kramer

Pascale Kramer was born in Geneva and bred in Lausanne, worked in Zurich, but has also spent long stints abroad, in LA and Paris, and this shows in her writing. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of her, unless you are very passionate about Swiss authors, but she has written 14 novels, is a prize winner in her home country and has had three books translated into English and published by Bellevue Literary Press: The Living, The Child, and Autopsy of a Father. The latter has been reviewed by the EuroLitNetwork.

The novel I picked up on my last visit to Geneva L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Unbearable Brutality of Waking) has not been translated yet, and it seems less ambitious in scope than some of her other works. She has a reputation for observing minute reactions and behaviours, and for exploring tricky family dynamics. She certainly does so here, but the wider social aspect which appears in Autopsy of a Father is missing.

I bought this one under the mistaken assumption that it was about expat life, but in fact Alissa and Richard seem to be Americans living in LA. They have only recently moved into their own condo and have a five week old daughter. Alissa seems to be struggling with post-natal depression and feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Her parents live nearby and have supported her all her life, but now they are trying to get her to cut the apron-strings, and she feels somewhat neglected. Then her mother drops the bombshell that she has fallen in love with somebody else and left the parental home.

Alissa’s little world seems to split wide open at this news. She feels no desire for her husband, struggles to connect with her baby, finds it a pain to keep in touch with her girlfriends, makes silly mistakes and is far too attracted to their male neighbour whom she sees swimming and embracing a woman one day.

This is familiar ground, one that has been treated in a much more emotionally wrenching way by Ariana Harwicz in Die, My Love. Alissa seems spoilt and whiny in a way that Harwicz’ narrator (who is far closer to a violent breakdown) does not. The close observation of Alissa’s daily routine is stifling, but a trifle predictable and not all that interesting, while the flights of poetry and the peaks and troughs of an unstable state of mind in the Harwics novel are exhilarating (if depressing). Could that be a cultural difference between an Argentinian and a Swiss writer, both of them now settled in France?

It also had me wondering why Swiss writers are quite often keen to set their novels abroad, particularly in the United States. I’m thinking of Joel Dicker, of course, with his Harry Quebert Affair and its sequel. But if I just glance at the Swiss books I’ve piled up on my bedside table, such a large proportion of them are set elsewhere: Tunisia (Jonas Lüscher), Norway (Peter Stamm), Italy (Pascal Mercier), East Africa (Alex Capus). Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers have to stick to their homeland, but perhaps the Swiss feel more confined than most by their very small country and its many, many rules?

So, overall a rather disappointing read, although I might explore other books by this author at some other point. By way of contrast, I turn next towards an author who describes village life in Switzerland in disconcertingly perfect detail: Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.

Play Review: ‘Linda’ by Penelope Skinner at RADA

Last night I went to my ‘local’ theatre and watched the final year students at RADA in Penelope Skinner’s play Linda. I had heard that it was a powerful exploration of a woman’s midlife crisis so I took a friend of roughly the same age as me along who has also recently divorced and is juggling full-time work, children and a useless ex. Turns out, the play was so accurate and relevant that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Linda is a senior brand manager at a cosmetics company who seems to have it all, albeit with the usual compromises. She has won awards for her work and is passionate about changing the world, but is being pushed aside for a younger, dumber, more ruthless version of herself. She has a lovely house and family, but her two daughters feel insufficiently loved by her and her husband is cheating. As the world comes crashing on her from all sides, she refuses to fall silent, to become invisible as women over 50 have been told to do. At times, Linda seems her own worst enemy, but the people around her are anything but understanding or appreciative. Yet the young women in her life (her daughters, her work rival) are trapped themselves in other people’s expectations of them.

Rehearsal picture of Linda from the RADA website, with Bea Svistunenko as Linda and Jamie Bogyo as her husband Neil.

It was very funny as well as bitter, with so many lines resonating (I may not be remembering them 100% accurately, so apologies, but here is the gist of them):

‘Now your beauty seems like an asset but when you grow older, you will find yourself wondering if your achievements were because of what you could do, or because of the way you looked.’

‘So what was I in this story between you and my husband? If you were the crazy girl and he was the hero, what was I?’ ‘You were nobody.’

‘My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat, what I I say, how I walk, how I talk, what I wear, because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a woman. We do whatever they do, but backwards and in heels. And all this while achieving, climbing, raising children. You feel guilty at work because you’re not with the kids, you feel guilty at home because you’re not at work…’

‘I used to send you reminders about my birthday every year, because I could not bear the thought of you forgetting about it. I put up with doing all the work at work and then all the work at home, because I thought you were loyal and reliable.’

The finale very nearly nosedived into melodrama, but then there was an epilogue: Linda’s prize acceptance speech from ten years ago. All the more devastating, because it is full of optimism, belief in self and others, and in a better future for women. And entirely deluded, as it turns out. Sadly, seeing the backlash about #MeToo, I think we may still have a few decades to go before optimism is justified…

Needless to say, the actors gave such polished performances it’s hard to believe they haven’t quite graduated yet. Queuing up in the ladies’ toilets after the show, we were all shell-shocked and muttering: ‘That was unbearably close to home!’ ‘God, they need to set up a women’s after-show session with stiff drinks to hand!’.

This is always going to make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if you are a man (although it is not deliberately man-bashing: the men in Linda’s life are thoughtless, while the other women are vicious). But if you would like to watch it, it’s on until the 1st of December at RADA in London.

#EU27Project – France: Leila Slimani

Leila Slimani: Chanson Douce – Lullaby (trans. Sam Taylor)

I was delighted when I heard that a young woman of Moroccan origin had won the Goncourt Prize in 2016 for a novel about domestic life, even though I had not read it yet. This is because the  most prestigious literary prize in France is often given to middle-aged white men writing about worthy and very earnest subjects (usually the Second World War). So it was fun to imagine the mysognistic, rather pompous Goncourt brothers turning in their grave.

Since then, I have read the prize-winning book in both French and English (although I still have to read Slimani’s first book Dans le jardin de l’ogre) and have heard mixed reactions to it, particularly in the English-speaking world. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the way it has been marketed as a novel of suspense, a thriller, the next Gone Girl (you should be ashamed of yourself, Daily Telegraph). Secondly, the deceptively simple style, which can come across as rather flat, particularly in translation.

So let me tackle the first issue. There is no suspense. We know from the first sentence that the children have died. We know by the end of the first few paragraphs that the nanny has done it. The rest of the book is about understanding what led up to it, but not a thriller, so it is not about getting clear closure or simple cause and effect.

Myriam and Paul are an average bourgeois couple with two young children, both working, both trying to make a go of combining career and family in Paris in a flat that is probably slightly too small. They hire a day nanny, Louise, to look after the children and at first she seems perfect: small, neat, prim, always available, always patient. But Louise has a lonely life and is far too involved in her employers’ affairs. In such cases, it is too simple to point to mental illness or a single cause for the crime. In fact, as in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (which has a similar structure of starting with the outcome), there may be a main reason but there are many contributing factors and there are no clearcut answers. This book poses more questions than it answers, with the result that many readers complain that they thought it ended too abruptly or that there was a chunk missing. All of the people in the book whose lives have intersected with Louise’s, however tangentially, feel that if they’d done something differently, this tragedy might not have happened, but in fact there is nothing to indicate that this would be true. There is the inescapable sense of Greek tragedy and fate, of Moira, about it all. A young man who had been looked after as a child by Louise realises:

.. what he first felt earlier, when the policewoman told them, was not shock or surprise but an immense and painful relief. A feeling of jubilation, even. As if he’d always know that some menace had hung over him, a pale, sulphurous, unspeakable menace… Fate had decreed that the calamity would strike elsewhere.

Furthermore, the book is not about whodunnit or even whydunnit, but about issues of class, social divisions, parental pressures, conflicted maternal sentiments, loneliness and fear of abandonment. The countless minute humiliations, anxieties and cruel blows of fate that Louise is subjected to (from the tax office hounding her to the rotten shower cubicle to the well-intentioned but insensitive treatment by her employers) would damage even a stronger person. Add to that her dissatisfaction with her own family, her estrangement from her daughter and the way she used to be mercilessly teased by her deceased husband about her job, which is only fit for ‘illegal foreigners’. Her job isolates her still further, as she has no one but the children to talk with, and the playground nannies’ support network does not apply to her, since she is indeed one of the few white French women doing the job. Above all, Louise is a victim o her own aspirations to be a good bourgeois housewife and mother: she perceives Paul and Myriam initially as the perfect family and cannot forgive them for not living up to that ideal.

Author photo from Le Parisien.

The second, stylistic issue does owe something to the translation. As with Japanese books, I have noticed that when German or French books are written in a very unadorned style and then translated into English, they can sound a bit too bare, almost trite. Slimani admits that she was deliberately following the tradition of Camus and Marguerite Duras, aiming for a very simple style. ‘When the thoughts and concepts are confusing and complex, you need a very simple style or else you will overwhelm the reader.’ This is the transparent style of allowing words and deeds to speak for themselves rather than going too deep inside a character’s motivation (think Camus’ L’Étranger or Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale). The very opposite of the voluble, ornate style of the Spanish and Italian (or even Norwegian) authors who have recently become popular. So perhaps she is counter-fashion at the moment. Yet still winning all the prizes and recognition.

 

She Works Hard for the Money…

donna-summer_she-works-hard-for-the-money
Cover of Donna Summer’s single ‘She Works Hard for the Money’.

No, I clean no other toilets than my own. I only stand on my feet all day on the days when I deliver training courses and run through airports to catch my flight. I don’t usually get my bottom pinched by drunk customers, though the occasional leery look down my shirt is par for the course. I may be up all night because of jet lag or because I suddenly have to change my course at the last minute, but I don’t have to do night shifts. So I make no claims to be working as hard as the average single mother on a minimum wage job.

I also know how to count my blessings. The children are older and can do many things for themselves. I get paid reasonably well when I do work, even though the gaps between those moments are sometimes too long. Yet the precariousness of this freelance existence is brought home to me every time I fall ill or have a less than stellar experience of business travel. Let me give you an example:

I have a contract for a piece of work which pays the fixed sum of 500 euros for a day of classroom training plus a follow-up virtual session of half a day. Sounds quite good, right? Luckily, in this case, the sum was fixed in euros rather than pounds, so I am going to see a bit more £££ for my effort: 450 at the current exchange rate (which may change by the time I am paid, usually a month or two after the event).

However, that rate does not take into account the following:

  • 1 two-hour meeting with the client, 3 one-hour teleconferences, numerous emails and many hours of course design – all unpaid – I estimate about another 3-4 days of work at least.
  • While some of my travel expenses are paid for, it does not include compensation for the cancelled flight and airport parking from the previous week, when I was too ill to attend the initial course, so I am out-of-pocket to the tune of about £100.
  • For 7 1/2 hours of training, I spent 15 hours travelling, contending with flight delays and massive queues at airports. Bear in mind, this was in Europe and for a relatively short flight, but I occasionally have courses in Asia and the US.
  • Luckily, I have supportive friends who looked after the children while I was away and another friend in Geneva who housed me overnight, but if I’d had to pay for all that, the course money would probably not have covered my expenses.

This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, 'cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone... (lyrics from Beautiful South)
This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, ‘cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone… (lyrics from Beautiful South)

  • I’ve never been able to eat on the days when I deliver workshops, plus, as I age, I discover my body is less and less able to cope with the strain, the strange sleep patterns, the jet lag, the negative feedback. I usually end up with a migraine during or after such events, and am prostrate for a couple of days afterwards.
  • I don’t even get much satisfaction out of it, as quite often I cannot structure the course whichever way I please (despite the many hours of discussions and design efforts, I am only the lowly trainer-deliverer), so I’m often between a rock and a hard place when expectations are not met, the client is dissatisfied and the training provider goes on the defensive.
  • This is, to all intents and purposes, a zero hours contract: I have no idea when my services will be next required. I get sudden requests for help at short notice that I have to turn down because of the difficulty of making childcare arrangements. Flexibility may be wonderful during the children’s holidays, when I can be mostly at home with them (albeit often preparing materials or doing teleconferences). Not so wonderful however, when you have no income for 1-2 months at a time, then only a dribble the third month. Also, I have no proper pension or other form of security, no insurance, no security of any kind.
  • This is the kind of job that single people or those without children excel at. Or else those whose families are extremely supportive (or who have a Teflon nanny whom they pay in gold nuggets). Even so, I have friends who have whittled their savings account to zero during lean years (and counted themselves lucky that they did not have children to support).

This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.
This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.

By this point, that nasty, suspicious little noisy wren is turning somersaults and screeching in my ear: ‘Is it worth it? Can’t you do anything else?’ But of course I’m told everywhere that it’s too late to change career to something more bookish, that I’m over-qualified for a more administrative role, and over-specialised to do a more senior generalist position. While any other in-house training role will require just as much travel.

So forgive me this fest of self-pity. I’m actually trying to highlight a plight for many single mothers out there, regardless of what level of income they are at. Both single and ‘coupled’ mothers in many households I know have been doing the work of both parents anyway, organising complicated childcare arrangements for the times when they travel (plus handling all the laundry, housekeeping, school meetings, medical appointments and homework upon their return home), but (unlike me hitherto) there often isn’t even a reluctant someone there who could, if pushed and nagged and reminded daily, take the kids earlier one day for a school trip and maybe even remember to pack their passports or lunches.

Yet the corporate world has nothing but disdain and impatience for this ‘lack of focus’ and punishes women’s careers accordingly. The divorce courts allow more compensation for wives of millionaires who haven’t worked a day of their lives, rather than the very real loss of earnings of working women who have tried to find a balance and do the best for the sake of the family.

After all, nobody asked them for this sacrifice, right?

Flee the Fire

So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.

The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…