Carmen Maria Machado: In the Dream House

Reading this book at the same time as the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya stories was a bit of an emotional challenge, I admit. This is a memoir about a very painful period in the author’s life, while being in an abusive lesbian relationship. Although, on the surface, it doesn’t seem quite as extreme and bleak as the physical and mental abuse Petrushevskaya’s characters have to go through, the description of the insidious nature of control and cruelty in a relationship is perhaps even more chilling. In other words, the gap between what Petrushevskaya describes and what I know seems too wide, so it is easier to accept that as fiction. Machado, however, gives voice to moments I recognise all too well – and that is unnerving.

I also liked the way she circles around the topic, presenting the Dream House (or dream relationship) as a series of metaphors, introducing conceits such as references to anthropological or folklore studies, choose your own adventure pages, or writing in the style of a noir novel, murder mystery, Bildungsroman. In an interview, she said that this was the only way she could write a memoir about this subject. However, I have to admit that it was not quite as experimental and whacky as I expected it to be (and almost wanted it to be): the affair was described in roughly chronological order, and there were no wildly different chapters stylistically speaking. Nevertheless, it was cleverly done, allowing for more inferred meaning, more emphasis on certain horrific moments, than a ‘tell it all’ traditional kind of memoir could have achieved.

Machado is so good at showing that people who stay in a bad relationship need not be stupid, deluded, cowardly or anything that people who have never been in such a position blithely throw at them. She was young and not overly confident, she felt lucky ‘as a weird fat girl’ to attract such a desirable partner. She felt pity for the hurt in the other person which made her lash out against others. She kept believing in the periods of remorse and nice gestures: ‘People settle near volcanoes because the resulting soil is extraordinary’. Above all, because abuse in lesbian relationships is seldom mentioned, she lacks the language to describe (or even recognise) that this is abuse.

This is not really a review. Below, I’ve chosen a few of the quotes that really stuck with me:

What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act, dictated by the archivist and the political context in which she lives.

You have spent your whole life listening to your father talk about women’s emotions, their sensitivity. He never said it in a bad way, exactly – though the implication was always there. Suddenly you find yourself wondering if you’re in the middle of evidence that he’s right.

I always thought the expression ‘safe as houses’ meant that houses were safe places… but house idioms and their variants, in fact, often signify the opposite of safety and security… House of cards, writing is on the wall, glass houses… Safe as houses is something closer to the house always wins. Instead of a shared structure providing shelter, it means that the person in charge is secure; everyone else should be afraid.

A reminder that abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something and not care how they get it.

She is always trying to win. You want to say to her: We cannot advance together if you are like this. Love cannot be won or lost; a relationship doesn’t have a scoring system. We are partners, paired against the world. We cannot succeed if we are at odds with each other. Instead you say: Why don’t you understand?

When I was a child, my parents loved to refer to me as melodramatic or, worse, a drama queen. Both expressions confused adn then rankled me. I felt things deeply, and often the profound unfairness of the world triggered a furious, poetic responde from me… Why do we teach girls that their perspectives are inherently untrustworthy? I want to reclaim those words. That is what I keep returning to: how people decide who is or is not an unreliable narrator.

You know, this little hobby of yours has gone too far. Why can’t you for once do something for me?

In the pit of it, you fantasize about dying. Tripping on a sidewalk and stumbling into the path of an oncoming car… Anything to make it stop. You have forgotten that leaving is an option.

When it started, I believed I was special. It was a terrible thing to discover that I was common, that everything that happened to me – a crystalline, devastating landscape I navigated in my bare feet – was detailed in books and reports, in statistics. It was terrible because I wanted to believe that my love was unique and my pain was unique, as all of us do.

#GermanLitMonth: Marlen Haushofer

This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.

The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.

So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.

Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.

She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.

The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.

Cialdini’s Science of Persuasion: The Principle of Commitment

Ask for small commitments first, then, when the large requests come, they will find it impossible to say no.

Image of Russian stacking dolls from TES teach.

Last week I cleared out boxes

loft-bound for the longest time.

I found cards and letters

from the days when we preferred them to email

when international phone calls were too expensive

for us scholarship students.

Too few of yours: proof that even then

you favoured silence as a method.

 

Sheet after sheet of colourful stationery

with my girly, high-pitched scrawl,

giggly, breathless, full of words

to reassure how free you were,

no demands at all.

How I played the game of reasonable

contrast to all those you’d loved before.

Not sensing all the while

the noose tightening around my neck.

Alexa, What Is One Plus One?

Alexa, What Is One Plus One?

‘I think you know the answer to that one.’

 

Because I would not, could not stay calm

or reasonable, full of fact-based evidence…

Because instead of all the answers

I had questions of my own…

Because I stamped my feet at injustice

and cried noisily at films

(quietly into my pillow at night)…

Because he asked questions he already knew the answer to,

just to test and tease and lecture on

till touch has gone, unless it’s right swipe…

Because who wouldn’t rather be a hammer than a nail?

 

…he bought Alexa as a Christmas present for himself.

amazonecho

It’s Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub and any form of poetry is welcome, so please do join in and have fun.

Prosaic Monday

‘So, Mrs. Rhino, do you see my problem? I’m trying to give you some constructive feedback here, but you don’t seem to be prepared to take it on board.’

Munch.

‘We’ve been in this enclosure together for quite a few years now and I have never seen you engage in any blue-sky thinking. You’ve never really pushed yourself out of your comfort zone. You are content to wander around and munch your way through the same old greenness as ever.’

Snort.

‘Surely there is scope for improvement here. Have you considered doing things a little bit differently? Starting your grazing in the left-hand corner, for example? Or sitting down when digesting your food?’

Grunt.

‘What is the most useful coaching question I could be asking you now? They say your client has all the answers, but in your case, Mrs. Rhino, I do sometimes wonder… . I had such high hopes for you, but I am afraid our ways must part now.’

She turned her button-like eyes on him and peered past her horn.

‘And where will you go, my dear?’

rhino

Yep, I’m back on my corporate trails once more and allowing myself to be inspired by its wooden language.

Meretricious

I am always late for the event (not even elegantly late, but REALLY late), but do join us over at dVerse Poets Pub for the Open Link Night.  Today it’s all about the poetry of the everyday, the mundane, the meretricious…

 

‘Awkward,’ he said,

dashing out of her bedroom and into her brain.

Forever to measure the yokels who followed,

the husband found wanting,

the wood left entangled,

the burbling of Jabberwocks

that filtered and flitted,

never to be caught again.

 

So they lived and soldiered on,

grim lines they furrowed,

objective: silence.

Not the harmonious calm of unspoken shared thoughts

but the hush for fear of a storm.

So they dealt with the past.

Not brushed aside but lulled,

put to pasture,

With nervous asides for skittish breaks.

 

Non-mention will cicratize the wounds.

Confession about Betty

When I first moved to London, I was shocked at the state of student accommodation (at least for my college). However, I was very lucky to find a spacious room with a bay window in the beautiful neighbourhood of Golders Green.  I lived in the house with my landlady Betty, who was then in her 70s, but whose love of life, humour and vivacity placed her somewhere in her 20s, very close to my age.

Betty told me so much about her life, her family, about being Jewish, about war-time in Britain.  We shared a deep love for films and music, for literature and for laughter.  She gave me so much companionship that I never felt lonely in a big city and foreign country for a minute, even though I was going through some personal turmoil at the time.  She gave me so much and all she asked in return was that I keep my non-kosher food  on a separate shelf in the fridge from hers.

Old handwritten letters
Old handwritten letters

I only lived in her house for 8 months or so, before I set off to do my fieldwork abroad, but we remained friends.  I introduced her to my future husband, then to my children.  I kept moving around and kept inviting her to my new homes, but she was getting more and more reluctant to travel. We kept in touch sporadically via phone and birthday cards or Christmas and Hannukah.  She was not on email, of course, and I gradually lost the habit of letter-writing.  Fortunately, I did go to visit her in 2011, just before relocating to France.

This weekend I received a small card in response to the Christmas/Hannukah card that I had sent to Betty in December.  It was from her sister, Sybil, to say that Betty had died peacefully in her house in Golders Green in the summer.

I find myself writing through tears. Tears of sorrow for the loss of one of life’s great originals.  But also tears of guilt that I have been so bad at keeping in touch, that it took me so many months to find out about the death of a friend.  Ah, yes, the usual excuses apply – the distance, the busy-ness, the cost of international phone calls – all those easy little white lies that slither off our tongue like maggots.

But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than your friends, than the people you love.  Make time for them.  Because some day it might be too late.

Bless you, Betty, and thank you.  It has been such a privilege to know you. RIP.

Ships in the Night

She would do

Make do

A shrug as you count and find

Slightly wanting.

Nearly there

Almost perfect

Rather very but sufficiently nice.

Vainglory flows from the cups we have shared.

Satiated and  plump, we each go our way.

 

We shape this damp shroud between us

We cast it pearls to rummaging snouts

We batter some life in things long left dead

We scratch our wounds raw.

After the party

We linger and drain once-intimate gestures

of meaning, magic and trust.

Empty cups, vain promises,

Hopes unsated, we  just miss.