New post here: http://edgeofevening.com/2015/01/calm-things/
Earlier in the month, our customary January picnic for B’s birthday. Another year, another Iron Age hill fort. This year was much, much colder. The pushchair, wheels jammed with mud, was abandoned half-way up the path, and collected again on our way back a couple of hours later. Whenever I think I might be safe to be let out into the countryside, I make a mistake like this. Who would try to push a Maclaren buggy up a very muddy hill? In our defense, we’ve just given our Phil & Ted’s — perfect for muddy walks — to a friend, desperate to rock her newborn to sleep in her living room. Anyway, mistakes were made, but fun — of a very muddy kind — was had, & the Pip-Pop proved himself to have some very sturdy walking legs. From the top, on a clear day, you can see the Isle of Wight. We couldn’t see that far, but the wind buffeting us up there was so strong that it sounded very much like the sea.
This week has been all about the colds. Our whole house smells delightfully of Olbas Oil to those who can smell anything. Experiments in scheduling continue. Early nights & episodes of Twin Peaks are keeping us going through the darkness of January. I’m in week three of getting up at six & writing first thing. Early conclusion: there is only so much time, it’s all about how you juggle it. I’m probably getting more writing done, but by about eight in the morning I can’t remember what I’ve written, so who knows about quality. I’m certainly getting less reading done because getting up early requires a fixed bedtime & lights off at ten. Some nights T has still been awake when we’ve been going to bed (she’s got a reading-with-a-torch-under-the-duvet thing going on, but that’s another story).
My plan to read/reread Penelope Fitzgerald is next up — The Golden Child, her first novel, arrived this morning. It’s one I haven’t read & I’m really looking forward to it. She wrote nine novels (five of which will be rereads for me), so if I aim for one a month I should have time in hand. These already sound like famous last words…
I live here in the realm of predictability. Each day goes by a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come. The passing hours bring variations in the sky’s coloration, the comings and goings of the birds, and a thousand almost imperceptible things.
from Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson (translated by Linda Coverdale)
A quiet start to the year’s reading: a journal of six months spent in the Siberian wilderness. Tesson’s account of his life in a log cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal is full of vodka, cigars, reading, and drinking sessions with Russian fishermen. Strangely, I liked him more once he was master of two dogs, Aika and Bek.
And here too the days are passing with rhythm and predictability. A new balance — waking early, writing in the quiet of the darkness, watching the moon wane — and sleeping early, dreams full of Twin Peaks. Here’s Tesson on his dogs:
The dogs twine constantly around my legs; in me they have found someone who responds to their affection. They neither rely on nor delight in their memories. Between longing and regret, there is a spot called the present. Like jugglers who ply their trade while standing on the neck of a bottle, we should train ourselves to balance in that sweet spot. The dogs manage it.
It’s soothing to embrace the repetition, to know always what one should be doing, to be balanced in the sweet spot of the present.
If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.
I first heard of Marilynne Robinson on a Saturday afternoon in the late spring of 2003. I was reading the Guardian — as we did in those long ago pre-children days — when I came across an article by Paul Bailey about a novel of ‘eerie beauty’ published in 1981 by a writer who in the intervening decade had written several non-fiction books, but no more fiction. Bailey noted, ‘[A] second novel has not appeared. Perhaps it never will.’ His tone was that of one who was grateful that Marilynne Robinson had written anything at all: ‘A first novel, then, and possibly a last. It’s cause enough for celebration that Robinson found the time and space in which to set it down with such loving attention to what Ruth calls the “dear ordinary”.’
Something of his fervour must have stayed with me, for somewhere (I seem to remember the Oxfam bookshop in Brighton) I found a copy of Housekeeping and I too fell under its spell. There it is in my reading list for 2004, between Notes of a Scandal and a reread of Peter Carey’s Bliss. From that first reading, I retain an impression of dreaminess, of wateriness, of the lake and loss and the lyrical, Biblical language of Ruthie.
And, just like that, a decade. Three children. Three more Marilynne Robinson novels, when, like Paul Bailey, I had hardly dared to hope for more. I’ve read Gilead twice (2007, pregnant with T; 2010, pregnant with the Moose) and Home once (2010). Lila is a pleasure saved against future drought.
Coming back to Housekeeping I had forgotten the density of its opening chapter, the way the stories pile one on another, the weight of history pressing down on a house, a town. The writing slowed me down and I noticed for the first time Doris Lessing’s verdict on the back of my copy of the book: ‘I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly — this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.’ And that sense of density and slowness reminded me of Donna Tartt’s dictum of density and speed. Perhaps there is room for both. Perhaps this partly explains the difference between a book of 187 pages and a book of 784 pages both of which feel equally ‘lived’ to me.
Ruth’s story had stayed with me, in almost all its particulars, in a way that those other books from my 2004 reading list haven’t. It’s a slight enough tale on the surface — after Ruth & Lucille’s mother leaves them on the porch of the house she grew up in & drives into the lake her own father died in, Ruth’s story is one of loss and the peculiarly large space those we have lost take in our consciousness. For five years their grandmother cares for them ‘like someone reliving a long day in a dream’, then one morning she ‘eschewed awakening’ and the great-aunts Lily and Nona briefly care for the girls before, alarmed at caring for two young children, they flee leaving them in the care of their mother’s younger sister Sylvie. Sylvie is a drifter, in the language of Fingerbone an itinerant, and gradually as Lucille allies herself with the normality of teenage clothes and friendships, Ruthie is drawn further from these things into Sylvie’s drifting lifestyle. But with Housekeeping the surface is hardly the point.
I can’t have missed Housekeeping‘s Biblical references the first time I read it, but I don’t think I was sure what to make of them. One of the pleasures of this reread was the knowledge of Robinson’s enlarged oeuvre & a better understanding of her overall sensibility. Reading Lily and Nona’s justification for calling Sylvie back to Fingerbone to care for Ruth & Lucille one can’t help thinking of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Home: ‘They agreed that the forgiveness of the parent should always be extended to the erring child, even posthumously.’ And knowing the centrality of grace to the Gilead books, how could I help reading this line about Ruth’s grandmother and her three daughters with added weight, ‘She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.’. To me, that ‘seemed like’ seems crucial, for perhaps this is not the grace bestowed by God.
Finishing Housekeeping for the first time, I found out what I could about Marilynne Robinson. It wasn’t much. But there was somewhere on the internet at that time a portion of a 2000 interview with her from An American Scholar. I have the print-out still.
MR: I wrote a lot of ‘Housekeeping’ in France. I wrote in a little dark room at the back of the house while trying to hide from the neighborhood children fascinated by this American family living in their midst. I was trying to remember when I was in Idaho.[…]And at first it seemed undoable and then I began to realize that if I gave my mind time it would discover things. It knew things that I would never anticipate it knowing and so there was this whole rising out of the sea of this remembered landscape which was a strange experience in itself because it was a discovery of mind about my mind that I would never have otherwise have made.
And this, which I have always loved,
It’s very difficult when you’re starting out because you have the strange abstract idea of what it would be like to write without having an experience of yourself writing. So you do all kinds of crazy imitative stuff or whatever.
Then a snippet from a more recent interview, the Paris Review‘s Art of Fiction no. 198 from 2008,
Did you ever have a religious awakening?
No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.
How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?
It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.
We learn not to see. But reading Robinson, one might start learning how to see again.
My thoughts on Housekeeping, and particularly on the strangeness and permeability of Ruth’s narrative voice have been made far more coherent by watching two lectures on the novel by Professor Amy Hungerford. She draws out the links that I would have been entirely unaware of between Marilynne Robinson’s interest in 19th century transcendentalism — whose key figures included Emerson, Thoreau & Emily Dickinson — and Ruth’s fluid consciousness.
We’ve just started watching Twin Peaks for the first time. I basically can’t wait until evening and that first twang of the synthesizer and the picture of that little bird. Scouting the internet for advice on which of the pilot episodes to watch, we found an answer that ended by saying ‘lucky you still having TP to watch for the first time’. Well, if you haven’t read it, lucky you for still having a first reading of Housekeeping ahead of you.
The weather is mild again. The little ones are back at school. The Pip-Pop cried after we’d dropped them off and were walking to town. ‘Popsy go to school too, Mumma. Popsy want school.’ I feel jet-lagged — waking a full three hours earlier than I was by the end of the holidays. Through the loft window the sky is a dazzling turquoise and the clouds — fat and white with heavy gray bases — are racing by.
If I think back, without looking, at what I read last year these are the ones I loved: Crossing to Safety, The Lowland, Leaving the Atocha Station, Light Years, A Suitable Boy and Daybook. And for this year I have a few projects in mind. I’d love to read/re-read all of Penelope Fitzgerald & Michael Ondaatje. I’d like to continue with my pencil in my hand, and I want to continue to start & end my days with a poem.
T (seven & a half) is leaving me far behind her. At breakfast she told me the entire story of Treasure Island and then apologised for not being able to use enough expression when she’s summarising a book. The holidays have also seen her get through Anne of Green Gables among others (did I already say that she carried on & finished Little Women without me). So another new year wish is to follow along with her a little better — even if it means picking up the books after she’s read them.
For my writing, here’s the lesson I need to go back to,
…doing writing practice endlessly with no structure in mind puts you on the road to Never Never Land — never finishing, never publishing.
The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long
She’s tough on me, but I need it. (And she does believe in writing without structure to find out what you have to say, but then you have to choose a suitable structure/come up with one, and write into it.)
And here, for the blog, I’d like to tell you everything nobody has ever asked me, and — naturally — make things a little more beautiful.
Mornings beautiful for their encrusting of frost. Afternoons reading on the sofa. Silence at the turning of the year. Thinking about effortless effort. A year of something small: page after page of days in black ink.
The company of friends, and the first year that T has been awake at midnight — tiptoeing down from the double-bed she was sharing with her friend and her friend’s little sister to stand wide-eyed at the pictures of the fireworks on the Thames. 1.30 & I creep to the loft ready to bring her home & find her and her friend both lying on their tummies, reading. Boys heavy with sleep and warmth as we carry them home. Starting the year a little jaded. I read Paddington stories, while B cooks a roast.
The year ahead hazy with possibility. It will be the first year in seven that we haven’t had a child under two or been expecting another. That is something to marvel at. Moving to the next stage with grace. Never to forget how lucky I am to have them, all four. And this year I will be the same age as my father, though he has been stuck at 37 for the last twenty-five years. How sometimes it seems that it is all going so quickly but the days arrive, one after the other, each for the using.
2015. May it bring you whatever you wish for.
Radio Times: You’re 91. What’s the secret to a long and successful working life?
Judith Kerr: You have to make a plan for the day. I get started at 10.30am. At lunchtime, I have a Martini Rosso on ice which keeps me awake in the afternoon. In the evening, I go for an hour’s walk along the Thames. It helps me to think. When I get home, I have a whisky. I’ve done more work since Tom [Judith’s husband, Quatermass screenwriter Thomas Nigel Kneale] died eight years ago than I did before because otherwise there’s this emptiness.
We read a fair number of Mog stories round here, and I keep thinking that T must nearly be ready for When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (which the Radio Times reveals might be adapted by the BBC), so I was really excited to see this year’s Christmas Radio Times cover. But then, just as my brother & I used to as children, T disappeared with it & spent many happy hours poring over the Christmas TV listings. She has listed every film that she’d like to watch in her Christmas notebook. (The one in which she also writes letters that begin: ‘Dear Father Christmas, I hope that you and Mrs Christmas are both well…’.)
Anyway, these days of planning & plotting, mulling over the year to come and its shape & rhythm are probably the perfect time to heed Judith Kerr’s wonderful blend of pragmatism & heartbreak. For further Judith Kerr inspiration look no further than this fantastic BBC documentary. The sight of her practically skipping up the stairs to her studio with Alan Yentob, more than twenty years her junior, puffing far behind her is enough to make anyone a devotee of daily hour-long walks.
We’re settling down, cosying in. The kitchen is the busiest room in the house. From here at the kitchen worktop I can see no less than three dishes in progress: my spanakopita, B’s bread sauce (for Christmas Day) & a beef stew in the oven. The clementine cake is cooling behind me, and next up is icing the Christmas cake. Granma has arrived with supplies of mince pies. The Pip-Pop is napping, and the others have been whisked off to the library. I’ve got my eye on the sofa. It’s almost four & nearly dark, but in the early afternoon, if the sun is shining, it’s just the place to be. Tilly thinks so too. Maybe just a few minutes with a book before anything needs stirring or anyone needs getting up/letting back in.
Wishing you a happy & calm time over the holidays — and hopefully even your own few minutes alone with a book. Thanks so much for being here this year. My Christmas wish has definitely come true. x
One must be terribly old, Margot said to me one day, to renounce the vanity of living under someone’s gaze.
The Vagabond, Colette
On Wednesday I lifted recipe books and Christmas magazines from the shelf in the kitchen & sat at the table, coffee in hand, planning what to cook over the holidays. Clementine cake & stollen. Chestnut stuffing & aubergine moussaka.
I was listening to Joni Mitchell & when she got to ‘River‘ everything was just so perfect that all I wanted to do was share it with someone.
For years I’ve only known half of the Colette quote. ‘To renounce the vanity of living under someone’s gaze’ is the epigraph to Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful fictional biography of her mother, Poppy, and I’ve always associated the quote with the maternal gaze. I sometimes think that one of the best things I can aim for as a parent is simply to supply that gaze — to be the one who will always be interested. The way Modjeska pieces together her mother’s life from scraps and imaginings is a reminder of the depth of the loss that comes when that gaze ends.
For renouncing the vanity of living under another’s gaze presupposes the existence of another who is interested and willing to listen. Flying to Vietnam as an eighteen year old gap year student I was shocked that the other, the willing listener, was no longer there. Already thinking of how I would tell the story of the journey, I realised that there was no one to whom I would be telling it. I’ve written before about how long ago that journey now seems in terms of technology — one phone call, and everything else by fax or letter. Strange in this connected world to believe that such a time ever existed.
Now — all these years later — I’ve finally looked up the full quote. Actually it’s about a lover not a mother. And, rather than being something to aspire to, it is — thankfully — something that only someone very old would be capable of. Or maybe it depends what one is seeking from that gaze. It is something to aspire to if one is in some way showing off to impress the gazer or seeking praise or recognition from them. But, to want to be seen, to want to share, seems to me to be entirely human.
So here, I give you my table. You give me your gaze.
The phone, the phone. I know, when will I stop talking about the phone? But it’s affecting the way that I see things and do things all the time. This photo, for example. This whole train of thought. (Oh! I found myself thinking. This is why people are on Instagram.) Or today in the library, when I couldn’t remember the name of the next book for my book group & spent about five minutes wandering the shelves before I realised that my emails were in my pocket. (Stormbird by Conn Iggulden). Or yesterday, when I went to London for the day & in two hours spent on trains saw only one book, but countless screens (one person with three!) on phones & iPads & ereaders. I expect I’ll calm down soon, but for the moment I’m so intrigued by this world that it seems everyone else has been in for so long.
I will admit […] 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.
from Bluets by Maggie Nelson
On Saturday afternoon the winter sun filled the living room with long slants of light and I stretched out on the sofa & read the whole of Bluets, a pencil in my hand, a cat on my lap. Oh what rare bliss! To read a book in a single sitting and follow the wandering path of someone’s thoughts from start to finish. A small boy with a ‘deep cough’ lay on the rug beside me building an intricate system of cogs and asking a question for each of the 95 pages of the book, but that didn’t take away from my pleasure.
Bluets is a poet’s meditation on blue — “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color”. Nelson weaves art, science and philosophy with two strands from her own life: the breakdown of her relationship with the man she calls ‘the prince of blue’, and a friend’s horrific accident and its aftermath. Constructed in 240 numbered paragraphs or Wittgensteinian propositions (Wittgenstein and Goethe are listed as ‘principal suppliers’ in Nelson’s credits), it’s the best kind of collage, made of pieces that are interesting and beautiful on their own, but combine to create a repetition and patterning that makes something more of the whole.
And the pleasure of reading it all at once was the pleasure of immersing myself its net of references and its simple understated sentences. Nelson took me to places I’ve never been — Wittgenstein’s philosophy for one, the art of Joan Mitchell for another — but also back to places I have: Marguerite Duras and the opening of The Lover, Novalis and his unfinished story of the blue flower (though, sadly, not on to Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower), the writing of Adam Phillips. There’s a great collection of some of Nelson’s references here.
Like the bowerbirds who ‘collect and arrange blue objects’, Nelson presents us with her scraps and pieces and tiny treasures of blue. ‘Am I trying, with these “propostions” to build some kind of bower?’ she asks. ‘–But surely this would be a mistake. For starters, words do not look like the things they designate (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).’ But, whatever it is she’s built out of her pieces of blue, this collection of the very personal and the universal has lured me into its spell. Here’s how Nelson ends, after telling us that Simone Weil warned, ‘Love is not consolation. It is light.’
When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.
I was pointed to this piece by Tim Parks on reading pen in hand in the comments section of Kerry’s blog. I’m an instant convert. Though, only pencil is going to touch the pages of my books. Already, writing this was made much faster by being able to find the sections I wanted to straight away. (Strangely I have no problem reading pencil in hand with non-fiction books. My reverence and problems only start when I’m reading fiction or poetry.) (And, final thing, I read the Tim Park’s column on my phone. Amazing! My Instapaper problem may be over.)
At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
from ‘Bluets’ by Maggie Nelson
It’s got to that point in December when it seems we’re burning through the days, just like Maggie Nelson’s lit cigarette. There was a period, earlier in the month, when I thought that there was plenty of time. Now I’m just waiting for the ash to fall, for the year to turn. Which makes it sound like I’m not looking forward to Christmas. And I really, really am. It’s just that, work-wise, it seems like the year is already over. The time I have while the Pip-Pop naps is gradually being taken over — with delivery guys knocking on the door, with Christmas cards that I can’t put off writing any longer, with nativity plays and Christmas performances, and with my own inability to decide which of the many useful things I could be doing I should actually do.
The Moose, in his first ever nativity, was narrator number 18. It turned out that his line — loud and clear in his sweet voice — was the last line of the play. He gave us a double thumbs up when he saw us. T’s year did their performance with the year above them and, much to T’s disgust, the parts all went to the older children. But there she was singing away from the front row, smiling and waving at Popsy, her hair in bunches, her face long and pale and sincere.
The Pip-Pop himself has discovered the concept of happiness. When he wakes up he says, ‘Popsy happy. Mumma happy.’ When he ran into a chair this morning, he paused in his sobbing to say, ‘Popsy not happy.’ He is two years, two weeks. The two weeks have made all the difference. He has decided that he can spoon porridge into his mouth, after all. His sentences grow each day in little unit cubes: ‘Get it. For me. Get Popsy’s car. Up high. Please Mumma.’ We don’t get to choose, but if we did, I’d choose them.
And, in other momentous news, I’ve replaced my eleven-year-old Nokia and moved onto my second mobile phone. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to create such a large technology gap again. From a world where photographs were an impossibility, texts were sent by pressing number buttons that had long-ago lost their numbers, and I couldn’t actually make any calls because I never had enough credit, I’m now in a sleek universe of finger print recognition, internet at my fingertips & a screen that is so beautiful to read on it far surpasses the five-year-old laptop in the kitchen. (Oh, and I can also make calls. Ta-dah!)
The decider was the day in the summer holidays when I was lost on the Oxford ring road with no map & three children in the back of the car all asking when we would get to the park and find our friends. In the end, I had to call B at work & ask him to look up where we had ended up and direct us back to where we wanted to be — and to be super-fast about it because my phone battery collapsed the moment you tried to talk on it. And I realised that, like many things in life, I didn’t need to make it quite so difficult for myself.
Anyway, sleek new phone is now encased in a hideous plastic case, which I hope will make it as indestructible as the old Nokia (which I actually managed to ever so slightly crack earlier in the week when I dropped a jar of honey on it). I’m not on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (obviously!) but I’m still wondering what sort of Pandora’s box I might have opened up. I slightly freaked out last night when I was trying to text our babysitter & I discovered that there’s such a thing as iMessage…who knows what else this brave new world may contain.
I found poems that might lend my life a sense of gravity. I read them in the near-dark, trying to pass the time so I wouldn’t go to bed at such embarrassingly early hours. When you are old and grey and full of sleep…My throat was gritty with wine; anger rose like phlegm. How could anyone write those words once they’d seen aging for themselves? But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,/And loved the sorrows of your changing face. What did young Yeats know about the bodies of old women, how their pubic hair turned ashen between the sticks of their thighs?
Alcoholism; anorexia; abortion; the female body — pain of, aging of, desire of; family — secrets of, estrangement from, dysfunction of; sex — prostitution, affairs, consensual; the American West; displacement, rootlessness; the loneliness of the city. And that’s just for starters. It sounds like a lot for a first novel to carry, but The Gin Closet does it with grace and heartbreaking beauty.
I’d been intimidated by Leslie Jamison. By the wonderful title essay from her collection The Empathy Exams, by her wisdom and openness in the immaculately condensed How To Write A Personal Essay (which I mentioned here) and, not least, by her amazing tattoo. But then she was one of the writers featured in the IOWA How Writers Write Fiction course, and — as often happens when you ‘meet’ someone in person (or in this case, watch a video of them talking!) — I found her generous and quirky and full of interesting advice. (Sample: Give yourself a mini-sabbatical from pushing your narrative forward by writing up a world glossary of objects, places and phrases, and what they mean to your characters.)
Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, was published in 2010. Twenty-something Stella is commuting from her empty life in New York to Connecticut to care for her increasingly frail grandmother, Lucy, when she finds out that Lucy had a younger daughter, Matilda,
In her croaking voice, Grandma Lucy told me about her younger daughter in reverent bursts, as if Matilda were a dream that would be lost if she weren’t told fast enough. It had taken all these years just to say her name out loud.
When Lucy dies and Stella’s lawyer mother proposes to write a letter informing Matilda, Stella decides to seek out her lost aunt and deliver the letter herself. Finding Tilly living in a trailer park in the Nevada desert, Stella is drawn into Tilly’s life of alcoholism and squalor, and drawn into the possibility of helping her find redemption. “You’ve always wanted to turn yourself into a story,” Stella’s brother Tom observes, “I knew it would get you into trouble someday.”
The novel is structured around alternating first person sections narrated by Stella and by Tilly. The sections are, until the closing pages of the novel, relatively long — around 50 pages — and they allow you to sink you deep inside each of the women. So often structures that move from one voice to another leave me twitchy and desperate to get back to the viewpoint that I prefer, but Stella and Tilly were equally compelling, equally telling in their observations of the other.
Jamison’s sentences are smooth, slow, rich with imagery. She has no fear of simile, sentences with the word ‘like’ pile up, one after another, yet all contain surprising, fresh images. She mentions blogs and cell phones and the world as it is without ceremony or hesitation, which shouldn’t be rare enough to mention, but somehow (in my reading at least) is. ‘The truth was, I shopped at store that other people liked first or that trusted bloggers recommended.’ Well, what blogger wouldn’t love a book that acknowledged that blogs exist?
I knew from reading interviews with Jamison that her essays and fiction shared common concerns. Here she is on the overlap between The Empathy Exams and The Gin Closet
There are, as you say, so many resonances between the books: an interest in bodily experience (especially pain) and how it shapes us, how it inflects the ways we care for each other. But the novel often finds hollowness or self-interest or futility in certain things (presence, listening, rescuing) that the essays ultimately want to recuperate. They say, “Of course empathy and showing up and caring for are all subject to polluted motivation and troubled execution, but let’s try them anyway. Let’s see where they go. Let’s see what good they can do.”
I love that ‘polluted motivation and trouble execution’. And, yes, let’s try empathy and showing up anyway. So here I am, still intimidated by Leslie Jamison, but now just for her beautiful writing and her wonderful mind.
Where do I go from here? I’m reading Jamison’s essay ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’. Planning to commit to memory her recommendations from The Millions A Year in Reading series (unconnected: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets arrived here yesterday, so maybe I’ll start there). And, finally, re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, partly for the aunt connection, partly for Jamison’s admiration for Robinson, and partly because I know Kerry is about to read it and I couldn’t bear the thought of the pleasure she is about to have without having some of it for myself.
This week I made my first submission. This week I also received my first rejection. It snuck into my inbox while I was upstairs bathing children.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about my working life. A succession of jobs that involved writing in one form or another, but didn’t involve my name. I’ve worked for an MP and ghostwritten articles & speeches. I’ve worked for an organisation where everything I wrote reflected the views of its eminent Fellows and was phrased in the first person plural. I’ve worked in a Government department where my words and phrases were put into the mouths of Ministers and printed in glossy policy documents, but my own name was invisible. In all these places (with the exception of the MP), there have been layers of sign-off; a hierarchy of people modifying or agreeing with my words and approving their release into the world.
And, for the most part, I found that frustrating. But now, I also think that these were the jobs I chose. The places I felt comfortable. The positions where I could play with the words, but the words weren’t traceable to me. Where the responsibility for all those words in the world wasn’t my own.
The rejection began, ‘Dear Sarah’. It named my submission and then there was a standard no. But I didn’t feel disheartened; I felt seen. The rejection is evidence. That I shaped something, and finished something, and revised something, and made it the very best that I could at this point. That I submitted something. That I attached my name & my heart to my words and sent them out into the world myself to see what they could become. Someone has typed in my name & the name of my essay! Someone has read my words and considered them (however briefly)! I like that. And I like the evidence of that, nestled in my inbox.
I think I’ve mentioned Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor before. It’s so useful that I wish I could keep it to myself. I love it because it blends the practical and the inspirational; because Long makes it clear that the work is demanding and never-ending, but this simply means you’d better start right now & work as productively as possible. ‘Nothing here is offered in the spirit of an academic exercise. Who among us has time to waste?’ she asks. Here she is on the submission strategy she devised when she first started trying to get a poem published,
My plan was to energetically accumulate 500 rejections by sending out that many envelopes as intelligently as I could (“intelligent” means, read the journal before you send the poems). I wanted the number to be a large number, because I wanted time and I wanted room and I didn’t want to fail. With this setup, a rejection wasn’t a failure; it was progress toward the goal.
So what happened? It took me several months, and 70 rejections before I received an acceptance. That acceptance was one of the thrilling moments of my life.
I have no idea what made me think of that strategy, but years later I am still impressed by it. It reduces the weight of any one rejection and it requires the writer to send out lots and lots of envelopes.
Finally, I keep thinking of this electrifying piece by Michelle Dean in The Toast (via Jessica Stanley’s Read, Look, Think, where I find all manner of wonderful things). To start with because Dean’s experience of ‘success’ is so terrifyingly not what you might imagine: ‘Things started going wrong at the same time they started going right. I sold a book. I suddenly had a second career not just in theory but in fact. And all at once, overnight, the bottom fell out of my mind.’ But mostly, mostly for this:
I was not an early bloomer. It took me too long to figure out for myself that I had something to say. I was a good kid and a good student and what I knew, primarily, was praise. How to find it, how to get it, how to do it without committing any kind of error. You can’t be a writer like that. Not even oh-god-doesn’t-everyone-love-her Zadie Smith is a writer like that. There are mistakes of form and mistakes of content to be made in building a body of work. And for most of my life, I was unwilling to make a single one of them.
I don’t want to be unwilling to make mistakes any more. Who among us has time to waste? Who can afford not to act at all for fear of making an error? I recognise in myself a tendency, a talent almost, for succeeding at things that I don’t really care about. And, its corollary, a tendency to avoid trying the things that I want more than anything. So, another 499 rejections to go.
I don’t know how many copies of This Little Baby we’ve got through in seven years as parents. I found three copies in various book baskets around the house this morning & I know that I’ve had to recycle at least one copy due to an over-enthusiastic reader who decided to literally gobble it up.
My love for it is unashamed nostalgia. Each of my children has adored its simple rhymes, its black and white photos of babies, and its surprise mirror ending. An ending, I might add, that I’ve often had to change to ‘these are the babies I love the very best’ as children lean over the book for a glimpse of themselves in the mirror. (For complete accuracy, I also add my own enthusiastic ‘waa, waa, waaaa!’ to the page with the baby who makes lots of noise.)
It’s a book that has stayed the course from the very earliest days of our parenthood. A book that I know by heart & probably always will. Reading it in his cot last week the Pip-Pop pointed to the front cover and smiled. ‘Look Mumma! Popsy there!’ And he could almost be right.
However many copies we’ve had, they’ve all come to us through Bookstart, a wonderful programme that gives two sets of free books to all children in the UK before they start school, and encourages parents to enjoy reading to even the very youngest of children. Nicole’s thought provoking post on the huge socio-cultural divide between children who are read to before the age of five & those who aren’t has made me appreciate Bookstart even more.
It is in a house that one is alone. Not outside it, but inside. Outside, in the garden, there are birds and cats. […] One does not find solitude, one creates it. Solitude is created alone. I have created it. Because I decided that here was where I should be alone, that I would be alone to write books. It happened this way. I was alone in this house. I shut myself in — of course, I was afraid. And then I began to love it. This house became the house of writing. My books come from this house. From this light as well, and from the garden. From the light reflecting off the pond. It has taken me twenty years to write what I just said.
Marguerite Duras, Writing
Still thinking about these words, which I first read a few weeks ago in a car full of sleeping children. Yes, we create our own solitude. Or — and how to stop doing this? — we prevent our own solitude. Of course, I was afraid, writes Duras. There are so many temptations to fill the emptiness of solitude. Alone with an empty page & there is the fear, and there is the lure of an internet browser a click away. Solitude, true solitude, is perhaps something we have to work harder than ever to create.
I read Duras’s The Lover while we were in Cornwall too. Set in 1930s Saigon, it’s a slender, disquieting book about a young French girl’s affair with an older, and far wealthier, Chinese man. Duras works in very intense short sections, often just a paragraph long. Time is non-linear, arresting images recur — the girl on the ferry where she first meets her lover; the madness of her mother, years later, in a house on the Loire. Tenses shift: sometimes the girl is ‘me/I’, sometimes ‘the girl’. And through it is an honesty and an intense nostalgia bestowed by the perspective of old age. ‘Very early in my life it was too late.’
There’s a honey cake cooling on the rack in preparation for the Pip-Pop’s second birthday this weekend. We’re taking him on a protest march…and to see the new Paddington movie, which has had T re-reading all the Paddington books in preparation. (Yes, two is a bit young to go to the cinema. The Moose is four and he’s never been before. T, seven, has only been once…what are we doing? Such is the popularity of ‘Paddy’ bear in this family that no-one wanted to miss out. I’ll report back.)
After last week’s round-up of gift books, here’s a little collection of colouring & activity books that would be perfect for Christmas giving. I love a good colouring book. One that encourages exploration & creativity, but gives confidence and structure — a starting point for little hands & minds to build on. Paper & crayons are great, but sometimes it’s lovely to have something special to work on, and, as a parent, having a colouring book up your sleeve (metaphorically at least) can save the day on rainy days, snuffly days, or don’t-know-what-to-do-days. Here are a few of our favourites.
1. The Scribble Book by Hervé Tullet. Big, beautiful & fun for even the youngest of artists. This would be my choice for those around 2/3 years+. Tullet is also the author of some fantastically fun interactive (in a low-tech way!) board books like Press Here and The Game of Finger Worms which are also great for younger children.
2. The Colouring Book by Hervé Tulle. What are the right colours for happy people? For sad people? Tullet encourages experimentation in colour, shape & line in another of his beautiful and inventive books. Once you’re finished with The Scribble Book start here.
3. Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered by Quentin Blake & John Cassidy. I love this book — perfect for an adult or an older child (say around 5/6+). Quentin Blake, illustrator of Roald Dahl’s books & loads of other favourites in this house (for example this and this) takes you through the process of ‘trying to capture the spirit of something’. ‘If this were a piano, and not a book, these drawings would be bits of improvised jazz more than classical scales or movements,’ he writes. Covering umbrellas & other objects, perspective, human anatomy, expressions and emotional rabbits, it’s worth seeking out for Blake’s views on creativity and art alone. Here he is on ‘misteakes’ (sic): ‘We don’t believe in them. You’ll note, in fact, that the erasers have all been painstakingly removed from our pencils. We did this ourselves, by hand, at our eraser-removal plant because you won’t (can’t) make any mistakes in drawing with these particular pencils. This is not to say you won’t get some drawings that succeed more than others.’
4. Play All Day by Taro Gomi. There is an Amazon review of this book of punch-out pieces that I love. The reviewer complains that the book should be renamed ‘A Lot of Boxes and a Few Other Bits’ & gives it two stars. And I can see just where they’re coming from. You do end up with a lot of cardboard boxes, plus finger puppets, cardboard quoits & ‘decorations’ that you’ll be finding round your home for years to come (we’ve had the book for three years & the second photo is just the pieces I could round up from the living room). BUT my kids have had hours and hours of fun making all these strange delights with very little adult input. This makes it a definite hit in these parts (even if I occasionally sneak dusty pieces into the recycling when no-one’s looking!). Quirky, fun & irresistible to small hands. I’d say suitable from 3+ with help, 5+ if you want to be more hands-off.
5. The Usborne Write Your Own Storybook. A notebook full of story starters & writing advice for kids. I think this one probably depends a great deal on your child — it might seem too ‘school-like’ for some. And I know that had I received it as a child, I’d have loved it but never dared to write on its beautifully empty pages. But for T, who loves writing her own stories and has no fear of ruining the perfection of a blank page, it’s perfect. As well as story prompts in genres including fairy tales, family sagas, comic books, sci-fi and flash fiction, it covers story structure, titles, making your writing exciting, and ideas for carrying on writing (‘Read a lot and write book reviews.’) I would say it’s ideal for around 6/7+.
So, your turn. Any recommendations for colouring & activity books? Here are a couple for older children/adults that I’ve got my eye on for this year — Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden and Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom.
Just doing the work is the whole battle, we always say: making contact. Sit with the novel, be in it. Turn off the internet so you have nowhere else to go. Only rarely is it satisfying. Rarely is there a great chunk you can point to at the end of a day and say, here is what I did today! More often there’s the vague fear you’ve made no progress at all. Where did those hours go? Where is your work? What is this adding up to? You have paid someone else to be with your child while you did this bullshit? The thing continues and continues to feel like a wreck. But it’s your wreck. And you are working on it, even when it seems like bullshit, eating your time and appearing none the better. No effort is wasted, says the Bhagavad Gita on a post-it I stuck to the bottom of the giant computer monitor. But God, some days are a slog.
I’ve read Elisa Albert’s essay Where Do I Write? All Over The Damn Place three times since the weekend. Practically every other paragraph of my bath-crinkled print-out has scribbled lines at the side of it — yes! I keep thinking, yes! She circles around, takes you to unexpected places, and then says something that will make you laugh so hard you cry. Or maybe it will just make you cry in great snorting sobs. So, if you haven’t already, read it. She’s made me desperate to get my hands on her new novel ‘about early motherhood, the desperate combat-zone-like surreality of it’. It’s called After Birth and it’s out in February. (Via the also highly recommended Blue Milk)
One strand of Albert’s essay is about the loneliness of moving to a new place. It’s nearly four years since we moved here from London, but I remember that strange desperation for community, for friends who would laugh with you at your child’s appalling tantrum rather than looking on in tight-lipped shock. But loneliness isn’t just about moving geographically. I felt it when T was newborn & I didn’t know anyone else with a baby. I used to wander the streets in my sleep-deprived bubble while she slept. I’d walk along the river in the park, beneath electricity pylons that cut through it like they were striding off to better places. Often I’d go to the Starbucks on the retail park and watch the other mothers with young babies sitting in large NCT groups round a table, unable to work out how to approach them. ‘Look’, I wanted to say, thrusting my baby daughter in their faces, ‘I have one too! Be my friend.’
A few weeks ago, walking along another river to playgroup with the Pip-Pop, I had two realisations. I found myself worrying that there wouldn’t be anyone I knew there, that I would have to do that awkward ‘I’m just really into playing with my child’ thing, while sidling up to friendly looking types. So, first realisation, I’m just as scared and awkward about going into an unknown playgroup as I ever was. (Ha, unknown! This is the playgroup I ran the year before last! But two years ago, that’s like decades in the lifecycle of a playgroup.) And then — as I thought, you’ve done this before, you can do it again — the second realisation: I’ve spent the last seven years going to playgroups. Seven years without a break. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Of course, Albert is right, no effort is wasted, there were people I knew; new people to meet. There was a cup of tea with the distinctive mustiness of playgroup. All was fine. Just another day on the baby circuit. But, yes, some days are a slog.
A little round-up of some of the books we love the most that would be perfect for giving this Christmas. By ‘gift books’, I mean the kind of thing you might give as a special present: Christmas, birthday, naming day or some other ‘mark-it-properly’ type occasion. Though, let’s face it, who here needs a special reason to give a book? I hesitated about offering any ideas because I’m pretty sure that many of these will already be on the shelf of any book-loving child. So, here’s the deal: let me know what special books you recommend for giving. I’d love to know what the hits are in your home. These are the tried & tested successes in ours.
1. Lavender’s Blue, compiled by Kathleen Lines & illustrated by Harold Jones. All the nursery rhymes you know and all those you have half-forgotten in one beautiful book. First published in 1954, this is the 50th anniversary facsimile edition. We bought T hers for her second birthday & it’s still a favourite five years later. This would make a perfect present for a newborn. (Strangely, I still forget the words to Lavender’s Blue. And for years & years T insisted that it was about a cat — all those ‘Dilly Dilly’s sounding so much like Tilly Tilly, our cat’s name.)
2. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Lauren Child. The creator of Charlie & Lola takes on the subversive, feisty and wonderful Pippi Longstocking in a match made in heaven. Blissful read-aloud fun for 3/4+. T was reading it to herself from 5+. We’ve gone on to read the rest of the series, but if only Lauren Child would work her magic on another Pippi book!
3. See Inside Your Body, Katie Daynes and Colin King. A fun & mind-boggling first trip inside the human body, with flaps to open for extra detail. T has been fascinated with this for the last three years. The Moose has See Inside Trains from the same Usborne series. 3/4+.
4. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear, illustrated by Ian Beck. I’m always in awe of writers who talk about the poetry they know by heart and how they can recite it to themselves when stuck in a traffic jam or queuing at the Post Office. Well, here’s a secret. The only poem I reliably know by heart is The Owl and the Pussy-Cat. But it’s a good one to have down. From teenage summers working in a nursery school to calming a child who’s tripped in the park (obviously only one of mine: other children might be disturbed by a sudden recitation of Edward Lear), it’s knowledge that has served me well. I love Ian Beck’s whimsical illustrations and all of our children have adored this book. Again, this one is suitable from birth. (With thanks to Nana for bringing it into our lives, and to Grandy for playing the bong tree in many of T’s somewhat bossy reenactments.)
5. The Shirley Hughes Collection. No childhood would be complete without Shirley Hughes. I’m even willing to put aside my abiding hatred of paper sleeves on children’s books for this selection (as you can see, our copy is well-read!). From rhymes for the very youngest children, through Dogger, Alfie, Lucy & Tom, and Hughes’s illustrations of Dorothy Edwards’s My Naughty Little Sister, onto Hughes’s stories for older children, this is a real companion for the whole of childhood. (With thanks again to Nana.)
6. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Everyone has a favourite Alice, and this is mine. The text is unabridged and Helen Oxenbury’s illustrations are exuberant and wonderful. We also have Oxenbury’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Read-aloud from 3/4+.
So, your turn. What are your recommendations for special books for giving?
To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.
George Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
I’ve been looking back through my notebooks for a piece I’m trying to write. Again & again, I’m startled by things that I’d completely forgotten. Rhythms and routines that once seemed they would last forever. A page from 21 February 2010, when the Moose was five days old: ‘How blissfully happy I am, day & night — B talks about what they’ll be like in a couple of years & I cry that now ever has to finish.’ And, beneath it, the quote from George Perec. Two days later: ‘And how it has rained this whole first week of his life & at night as though we are under a tin roof as the comforting heartbeat of drops leaks through the guttering.’ 2 March 2010: ‘The second week liquid: tears & milk & rain.’ I think the tears were mine.
I have a wonderful book edited by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe called Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written. Woolfe & Grenville interviewed ten writers about how their published work came together, the ‘rough notes, dimly-glimpsed ideas, and trial and error’ that led to acclaimed novels. Here is Helen Garner on the notebooks that she carries in her bag at all times:
I keep these small notebooks — I was going to say at random, but I mean without any particular aim except that I can’t bear to let things get past me. Philip Larkin says somewhere that ‘The urge to preserve is the basis of all art’. That’s pretty much my approach. Small things are so fascinating and precious that I can’t bear to let them go. So I write them down as they strike me. I don’t invent a book out of thin air. I need — or at least I did at the time I wrote The Children’s Bach — a bed of detail for the thing to be based on before I can start to make something up.
I feel that ‘urge to preserve’. I record compulsively. I feel anxious if I don’t capture things: the rhythm of our days, things my children say and do, how the light looked that evening when we sat out late in the garden talking of the future. I don’t look back at my notebooks often, but I know they’re there. My children grow, things change even as they appear to stay the same, but there is a trace, a mark, a few signs of what once was.
Today the children went to school dressed as superheros for Children In Need. T with a tutu skirt and an old curtain as a cape; the Moose with shorts over his thermal leggings for that authentic superhero look, a gold sequined cape that had once been his sister’s tied round his neck. ‘But Mumma, who am I?’ he asked anxiously, looking round at a class full of Supermen and Spidermen. ‘You’re Superhero R of course!’ ‘Oh, okay then.’ He smiled and disappeared into the crowd of red.
Photos from Sunday morning in the garden. B still working on re-building our ancient shed, and the light just so.
Finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic. For ten years I had passed by with my shopping bags not knowing what lay behind the twenty foot wall…Here was a studio, a yard and garden, where I could work in open air and space.
from Barbara Hepworth — A Pictorial Autobiography
Back to St Ives & our magical visit to the Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden one late-autumn morning. The light was amazing: winter sun low in the sky, filtering through the foliage and burnishing the bronze. The shadows of leaves playing on stone. And then B showed me the shadows the sculptures cast on other elements of themselves.
Hepworth bought Trewyn Studio in 1949 and lived and worked there from 1950 until her death in 1975. The studio leads directly into the garden, which she gradually filled with her work. The parish church & sea are just visible over the garden wall. And, everywhere you look: green & Hepworth’s sculptures. Bamboo, palm trees; a rose, fuchsias, Japanese anemones; a small pond; a summerhouse with a daybed. Tranquil and verdant. It was Halloween and the children ran round the garden playing hide-and-seek with a little witch. There was a grey-black cat stalking around, posing beautifully with the sculptures, looking for strokes.
Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it.
from the catalogue of the Barbara Hepworth Retrospective exhibtion, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1954
The sculptures interact, they are all seen in relation to each another and to the garden. You glimpse one through the window of another; they are never alone. And they made much more sense to me like that — outside, ever-changing, subject to shifting moods and seasons and lights, as we are.
And so one isn’t an oddity, but just another chap rushing out in overalls to buy some more files at the nearest shop. St Ives has absolutely enraptured me, not merely for its beauty, but the naturalness of life…The sense of community is, I think, a very important factor in an artist’s life.
from Barbara Hepworth — A Pictorial Autobiography
The greenhouse and, most especially, the stone-carving workshop, feel like she has just stepped out of them. Roughly shaped blocks of marble await her return. Light glows off the white-washed walls, aprons and jackets hang on the door & her tools, with their smooth wooden handles, are ready for work.
Photos: 1. My own. 2. Klovharu, or Haru, Tove & Tuulikka’s atoll-shaped island on the Gulf of Finland. Photo: Per Olov Jansson © Moomin Characters™. 3. Tove Jansson. Photo: Per Olov Jansson © Moomin Characters™
Jonna had a happy habit of waking each morning as if to a new life which stretched before her straight through to evening, clean, untouched, rarely shadowed by yesterday’s worries and mistakes.
I’ve wanted to re-read Fair Play ever since I read Denise’s beautiful response to it at the start of the year (you can read my original thoughts from back in 2007 here). And, as I knew it would be, it was an afternoon well spent. Reading Tove Jansson is like drinking a glass of the clearest, iced water: purifying, refreshing, invigorating.
Fair Play is a book about art and love, and how to bring those two together to make a life. Except in Jansson, art is always given its due as both work and play: there is no art without work. Famous for her children’s books about the Finn Family Moomintroll, Jansson turned to writing for adults when she was in her 50s. Fair Play was her ninth work for adults, first published in 1989 when she was in her mid-70s; Sort Of Books brought out Thomas Teal’s English translation in 2007. In Jansson’s own words,
Fair Play could in fact be called a novel of friendship, of rather happy tales about two women who share a life of work, delight and consternation. They are very unlike each other, but perhaps that is why they manage to play the game successfully, with patience and, of course, a great deal of love.
Fair Play original cover copy by Tove Jansson
It’s a slim book — 128 pages — of seventeen vignettes about Mari and Jonna, life companions and artists, who live at opposite ends of the same apartment block in Helsinki and spend their summers together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The book reflects Jansson’s own relationship with the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, her companion of over forty years. It feels like the distilled wisdom of a life spent working creatively, shot through with reflections on how such a life can be shared with another.
They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected — those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.
Mari and Jonna watch movies — Fassbinder, Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder & B-Westerns — they work, they argue, they travel together, and contemplate aging and approaching death together. Not much happens in the conventional sense, but yet everything happens. Mari and Jonna get lost in the fog on their boat and restart an old argument about their mothers. When the fog lifts they find they’ve drifted towards Estonia. Jansson, with typical restraint, finishes the chapter with the line, ‘They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.’
And here is Jonna, helping Mari with a short story,
“Read slowly […] Real slow. We need to pay attention. Every time it seems wrong, we stop. Every time we get something like an idea, we’ll stop. Are you ready? Read.”
In an essay on Jansson’s work in The Millions, Sonya Chung points out that ‘a deft shift from third person to first person’ is ‘a fascinating and somewhat frequent feature in Jansson’s fiction’. Here, from the same chapter, ‘Killing George’, is one of these seemless transitions, third to first and back again,
Jonna filled the teakettle in the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, looking at her own face, she thought with sudden bitterness that it couldn’t go on like this, these short stories that were never finished and just went on and on getting rewritten and discarded and picked up again, all those words that got changed and changed places and I can’t remember how they were yesterday and what’s happened to them today! I’m tired! I’ll go in and tell her, now, right now…For example, I wonder if she could describe me well enough to give people a quick, convincing picture. What could she say? A broad, inhospitable face, lots of wrinkles, brown hair going grey, large nose?
Jonna took in the coffee and said, “Try to describe what I look like.”
And Mari’s response, the answer that gets Jonna fired up to start helping her again? “I’d try to describe a kind of patience. And stubbornness. Somehow bring out the fact that you don’t want anything except…well, except what you want.” One of the pleasures of the book is its depiction of such a long-standing relationship, with all its idiosyncrasies and disagreements, but its firm basis of love.
Jansson’s books are like icebergs: we know that what goes on beneath the surface is far bigger than what we see. Reading her is a lesson in space and editing, in what is left out and what goes unsaid. As Ali Smith observes in the introduction, Jansson writes in ‘a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency’. And what a gift that transparency is, allowing us to see straight to the heart of things, to the everything that lies beneath the nothing much.
Tove Jansson was born in 1914; there is a website to mark her centenary here. I also highly recommend The Summer Book and The True Deceiver, but I see that Sort Of Books has brought out more of her work — so good to have more to explore. In the US, her books are available in beautiful looking editions from NYRB Classics.
For me rereading is the litmus test of a work of art’ — Edna O’Brien.
We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time or age have affected our understanding.’
‘Reading Like a Writer’, Francine Prose
I would love to reread more than I do. I watch the way my seven-year-old daughter reads — returning to old favourites again and again, sometimes going back to the start of a series as soon as she reaches the end — and I remember the deep pleasure of reading a book over and over until it is as familiar as a dear friend.
But it’s hard, as an adult, to make the time to reread. The piles of books that I want to read — both virtual & literal: by my bed, in the loft room, on the shelves at the end of the kitchen — seem to grow exponentially. There’s a strange pressure to read the next thing, or the latest thing, or the classic thing that one hasn’t yet read. Nicole recently wrote a great post about avoiding that pressure and returning instead to the pleasure of reading.
When I reread The Children’s Bach earlier in the year, I realised how right Francine Prose is when she talks about the ways in which time and age affect our reading. It was the third time I’d read it, the first as a mother, & though I loved it fiercely each time, it filtered through my own experiences so that my reading of it was, in some ways, completely different. And I like thinking about that: the ways in which a book changes for us as we ourselves change. I haven’t read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (it’s on the virtual pile) and I’ve only read Middlemarch once, but I can understand how something as rich and complex as the world George Elliot creates could always have new things to teach you.
And, of course, there’s a more selfish reason to want to reread more: I want to see how it’s done. No matter how hard I try to concentrate on the invisible strings the first time I read something, I always get so caught up in the pleasure of reading that, after the first few chapters, I forget any sense of reading for technique or structure or anything but story. With a short story it’s easy to return to the start and read it through again, but I never do that with a novel. I can remember being struck by the passage in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking when she talks about her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, reading in just that way,
One summer when we were living in Brentwood Park we fell into a pattern of stopping work at four in the afternoon and going out to the pool. He [John] would stand in the water reading (he reread Sophie’s Choice several times that summer, trying to see how it worked) while I worked in the garden.
So, confession time. I keep a reading notebook & quickly scanning through the last twelve years, these are the books that I’ve reread: Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey; Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; Metroland by Julian Barnes; Rain by Kirsty Gunn (read Theresa’s thoughts here); Nemesis by Agatha Christie; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk; The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald; The Summer Book by Tove Jansson; and, now, Fair Play by Tove Jansson. Looking through the list, I realise that I would recommend any of them in a flash.
How about you? Avid rereader or not? And is there a single book that you return to again and again? I’d love to know how other people manage the balance between rereading and seeking the new. And, to encourage my own rereadings, I’m going to start an occasional series here: back soon with more on Tove Jansson’s Fair Play.
Photo: the winter jasmine is out in the hedge — bright yellow against green.
25 October. The journey, nightmare long. 11ish before we set out; 3.30 by the time we’d covered the 140 miles to Castle Drogo. Driving past Stonehenge — seeing it for the first time — and how close you are. First a pattern of people in the distance, ring-fenced it turned out, a circle of black figures against green field. The stones themselves, ancient, humping — lower to the ground, more worn than I had known. The road passes close — the traffic jam seemingly just people gazing at the stones.
Green. Hills and rolling valleys. Sheep: white and brown. South Somerset, & then Devon. Castle Drogo and the sun low in the sky. Light grazing the autumnal trees as the little ones run through the gardens. Vague echoes of being here as a child, running myself. Beech nuts out of their three-sided cupules. The castle shrouded in white for its restoration.
Then another two hours: Dartmoor and Bodmin. Chimney stacks and wind turbines. The road faster now: up hills and down. Until, finally, in the dark, a glimpse of the sea.
1 November. Sunrise in St Ives. Pink flushing the horizon. Craning out of the window to look at the sea. A pause at Launceston: car park, sleeping boys, & B bringing back hot pasties which I rest on my lap. I read a few words from Margarite Duras’ Writing, about solitude, about the solitude she needed to write her books being something she created. I must create my own solitude.
Lytes Cary Manor. Espaliered limes just losing their leaves. A small chapel, an Apostle garden. A walk, with the Pip-Pop running after the others, into the woods. Driving back past Stonehenge & onto home: to Tesco for milk; to Halfords for yet another new brake light. A half-moon in the afternoon sky.
Who knew that an October holiday could be so wonderful? We’d never been away at half-term before but it was addictively good. Holidays just seem to lead to the question, when’s the next? Anyway, back. Back to the rhythm of school, back to autumn (we were so lucky with the weather last week, 18/19°C versus today’s 10°C). And the clocks went back while we were away, so back to dark evenings. Back to my autumn rituals. A diversion in my poem-a-day ritual: I’m reading Galway Kinnell who died last week. I have the Bloodaxe edition of Strong Is Your Hold which comes with a wonderful CD of him reading his poems in that deep, resonant voice. I always feel safe when I’m listening to him. And, a Goldfinch update. It was a shaky start. In fact, a shaky 200 pages or so. But now, after over 300 pages, with Boris on the scene — oh Boris! — I’m loving it.
Half-term, and we’ve escaped to St Ives. We make like the three bears and have porridge for breakfast, with a starter of grapefruit & a dessert of chocolate-spread covered toast. Mornings on one of the beaches, sipping coffees & watching the little ones mess about in the sand. Lunch back in the cottage that T insists has come straight from a fairytale: Cornish pasties or scrambled eggs, maybe leftovers from the night before. Afternoons, and B works while I read Littlenose — my own brother’s childhood favourite & staple of my babysitting years — to T & the Moose, and the littlest bear sleeps off his sandy adventures. A walk into town with one or other of the older children to buy provisions and visit the wonderful bookshops. Dinner together & then a round of Uno. Evenings: for more work and for reading. Mint tea before bed.
The perfect routine.
And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to.
from ‘Girl Meets Boy‘ by Ali Smith
It’s been such a good reading year; I’ve been pulled from one book straight into the next, hit after hit. But then, just like that, nothing was working. I started stalling part-way through books — the middle of A Sport and a Pastime; the start of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, which I was enjoying, but couldn’t commit to. Somehow the joy had gone. And once the joy had gone, I found less and less time to read. I re-read ‘The Lady with the Dog‘. Twice. I felt like I could keep re-reading Chekhov forever. But then I remembered Ali Smith, and the joy was back.
How could I have forgotten the light, playful, exuberant texture of her work? The way she makes words dance and fizz? How she can make even a single short sentence into something unexpected and tingling: ‘I went outside mournful, and I hit pure air.’?
Girl Meets Boy is part of the Canongate Myths series: a modern re-working of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Iphis, a girl brought up as a boy, is changed into a boy by the goddess Isis on the eve of her/his marriage to Ianthe. Smith’s version has a fairytale feel that swept me off my feet from its opening line: ‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.’ Well, who could resist that? Girl Meets Boy has more than a little of a Shakespearian comedy about it — genders blur and merge; doubles and puns abound. But beneath the dazzling surface of her words, Smith lays a steely core of morality and of political engagement in its most human terms.
And the sex! Did I mention the sex? (Am I going to receive a surge of misguided readers if I mention sex three times in a row?) But it really is the best sex I can remember reading — swirling, associative, dazzling, shape-shifting, playful, climactic! — here’s a just a snippet,
Her beautiful head was down at my breast, she caught me between her teeth just once, she put the nip into nipple like the cub of a fox would, down we went, no wonder they call it an earth, it was loamy, it was good, it was what good meant, it was earthy, it was what earth meant, it was the underground of everything, the kind of soil that cleans things.
— Ali Smith was nominated for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award for it, so maybe it all depends on taste. But writing about sex is perhaps bound to be laughable out of context — and possibly you just have to write any extended sex scene in literary fiction to find yourself on the Bad Sex award shortlist (in so many novels sex is elided, glossed over rather than dramatised). Anyway, she didn’t win (Norman Mailer did).
And this isn’t meant to be about the joy of sex, but the joy of reading, the seductive joy of storytelling, the joy of ‘the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope to cross any river with’. I’m so happy to have that joy back.
The terrible, horrible, dreadful, awful thing happened. Ramona threw up. She threw up right there on the floor in front of everyone…Nobody, nobody in the whole world was a bigger nuisance than someone who threw up in school. Until now she thought that Mrs Whaley had been unfair when she called her a nuisance, but now — there was no escaping the truth — she really was a nuisance, a horrible runny-nosed nuisance with nothing to blow her nose on…As she fell asleep, she decided she was a supernuisance, and a sick one at that.
from ‘Ramona Quimby Age 8′ by Beverly Cleary
T threw up at school last week. I picked her up from the school office where she was sitting ashen-faced, a bucket held between her knees. As we walked home together, we cheered ourselves up by talking about how it was just like when Ramona threw up at school. ‘Yes, but we don’t have any fruit flies,’ T pointed out. ‘And,’ she added, ‘I know I’m not really a supernuisance, because — well — I did say that I wasn’t feeling very well.’ She didn’t point out that she also hadn’t accidentally cracked a raw egg on her head one lunch time, but she could have.
Oh, how I love Ramona Quimby! She came into my life, as many of the best things do, through a meeting that might never have happened. When I was seven, I had a friend called Nicola who lived in the house that neighboured the bottom of our garden. One day, Nicola took me to knock for another girl, who lived a little further up her road. I can still remember how nervous I felt standing outside this other girl’s house, waiting for the doorbell to be answered. But soon Nicola had moved away, and the girl who came out to play with us — K — a year older than me & at a different school, would be my companion for pretty much every Sunday afternoon of my childhood, and my friend forever. And the very first birthday present K gave to me was Ramona Quimby Age 8.
It’s here beside me now — pages yellowed & stained, spine creased, and, if I hold it to my nose and breath deeply, it has that characteristic smell of old books blended with the damp smell of home. I can’t begin to remember how many times I must have read it, but each page seems deeply familiar. The illustrations by Alan Tiegreen bring it all flooding back. Mr and Mrs Quimby’s money worries as Mr Quimby goes back to school to learn to be a teacher. How he works part-time in a frozen-food depot, while she works as a doctor’s receptionist. How the car’s transmission packs up so that it can’t be put into reverse. Ramona’s dreaded afternoons after school spent with Howie Kemp’s grandmother and his little sister Willa Jean. Yard Ape, the new boy at school, and the hard boiled egg craze. The wonderfully realistic sibling relationship between Ramona and her big sister Beezus. (And how my friend K had a guinea pig named Beezus.) Oh, yes. It doesn’t seem twenty-eight years since I first read it!
I whizzed through the rest of the Ramona books, but they were all borrowed from the library. So, for T’s seventh birthday, she received another four of the eight book series, and she too whizzed through them and returns to them again and again. Like I was, she’s probably pretty bemused by American school life — the Principal who wants to be your pal; the grade system — but, of course, none of this matters. Beverly Cleary created a character who will always be relevant: a spirited girl who wants to do the right thing, but sometimes fails — and that, that’s pretty much universal.
Even if T isn’t a supernuisance, the dreaded sicky bug is. It’s taken a week to work its way through two children and their father (naturally B was ill over the weekend when the kids were all fine). The Moose and I were equally proud of being the last ones standing, but now he’s lying on the sofa with the sick bowl. I’m starting to think I’m doomed — but if obsessive hand washing has anything to do with it, I may yet sit this one out!
A significant milestone: the Pip-Pop can tell on his big brother. One morning last week, he ran into the kitchen crying, his feet thundering on the wooden floors. I crouched down, taking him in my arms and perching him on my thigh.
‘What’s the matter, Pops?’
‘Ra-Ra hit yooooo.’
‘Did Ra-Ra hit you, Popsy?’
‘Yes!’ He nodded his head and smiled. And, just like that, he turned and ran back to his brother.
He’s on that cusp — words clustering into almost-sentences. His ability to tell us things is growing fast. ‘Bit more, Da-da!’ he cries, pointing to his empty bowl. ‘Bit more paa-staa!’ He’s scrupulous about his end consonants — often sounding them a beat late: ‘Ladybir– –d got spo– –ts.’ We frequently hear, ‘Popsy do it!’ And, my heartmelting favourite: ‘Mum-ma help yooooo,’ said as he takes me by the hand and leads me off to whatever he has decided I need to do.
Although our older two have had many nicknames — & plenty are still in circulation — he’s the first to exclusively refer to himself by one of them. If you ask him his ‘big’ name he just says ‘Popsy In–i–go [Indigo]’ & his family name. It’s so sweet, especially as I know he won’t be introducing himself as Popsy when he’s fifteen. I still remember the day the Moose woke up and said, ‘I’m not Ra-Ra, I’m R–!’ And continued saying it, until we all finally remembered. I love the fact that he makes an exception for his little brother, who also hit on Ra-Ra as an approximation of R’s real name. And — just in case anyone is worrying about poor Popsy — he answers to his ‘big’ name, even if he doesn’t say it.
I wanted to know what she had been crying about and I managed to communicate that desire mainly by repeating the words for ‘fire’ and ‘before’. She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.
How do you write a novel about the slippery instability of language? About the multiple simultaneous meanings of everything we try to communicate? About our fumbling, clumsy attempts to assign words to our emotions and to interpret the words of others? You probably need to be a poet to try.
Leaving the Atocha Station is Ben Lerner’s first novel after three books of poetry. It’s narrated by the hapless Adam Gordon, a young American poet spending a year in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship. Ostensibly working on a ‘long, research-driven poem exploring the [Spanish Civil] war’s literary legacy’, Adam is instead wandering Madrid, self-medicating on his little white pills, his tranquilizers, hash and caffeine. Haunted by his belief in his own fraudulence, Adam tells us,
Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
As we move through the stages of Adam’s ‘project’, Lerner explores inauthenticity, whether or not it’s possible to have a profound experience of art, the texture of time as it passes, the poetry of John Ashbery, and Adam’s numbed reaction to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. It sounds serious, but it’s frequently hilarious. In fact, it’s hard to convey just how funny and moving I found this short novel and its solipsistic, neurotic, lying, but always self-aware, narrator.
Lerner brilliantly captures the strange ways in which technology has infiltrated our lives. There’s a disconcerting, moving and perfectly observed ten page instant messenger chat between Adam and his friend Cyrus. After the terrorist bombings, Adam sits in his apartment in Madrid refreshing the homepages of the New York Times, El Pais and The Guardian in his browser and watching the number of estimated fatalities increase, while reading about the helicopters he can hear above his head.
I sat smoking and refreshing the homepages and watching the numbers change. I could feel the newspaper accounts modifying or replacing my memory of what I’d seen; was there a word for that feeling? The only other feeling I registered was fatigue.
(This reminded me of sitting at my desk on the day of the London bombings in 2005. Everyone sat alone, mostly silent, trying to take in what was happening. I could see Big Ben out of the window, helicopters overhead. A colleague arrived late, his face blackened. He’d walked along a tunnel from an evacuated tube train. It took us the rest of the day, endlessly reading the news online, to realise that he’d been on the bombed train. That evening, I walked the seven miles home, crossing the bridge at Vauxhall and following the Northern Line stations south through a silenced city.)
When Rachael recommended Leaving the Atocha Station I’d never heard of Ben Lerner. Now I see reviews of his new novel, 10:04, everywhere. I haven’t read any of them yet. But I can already tell you that I’ll be reading 10:04. Maybe just when all the fuss has died down.
Rachael also pointed me to this interesting essay on how Adam fits into a tradition of flâneurs including the narrators of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Teju Cole’s Open City. I think that he also has more than a little in common with Paul Chowder, the poet narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Travelling Sprinkler. I love all these connections. I haven’t read Sebald for years, and I definitely need to go back to him. And, though I loved The Anthologist, I haven’t read Travelling Sprinkler yet. Clearly reading just leads us to more reading.
My children were at that time six, three and one. Their care came first. Doctors’ appointments, reading to them, rocking the baby to sleep, car pools — all that had to be done, and done as well as I could, before I could turn to myself. Confronted by this situation, I made two major decisions.
The first was to invest in myself, as needed, the money I had inherited from my family. I simply poured my capital into my work […]
The second major decision was to increase my energy output and use it as wisely and as fully as I could. Again fortunately, during the years from 1948 to 1961 I had formed the habit of working in my studio almost every single day. Rain or shine, eager or dragging my feet, I just plain forced myself to work. This habitual discipline came up under me to support my revved-up schedule. I simply got up early every morning and worked straight through the day in one way or another, either in my household or in my studio. Before I went to sleep, I loosely organized the following day’s schedule — loosely because there were, of course, always unexpected events. But I tried to hold course in accordance with my values: first — husband, children, household; second — my work. The periods of time left over from my practical responsibilities were spent in the studio. If there were fifteen minutes between shopping and carpool, I used them. If I had an hour, or two hours, I rejoiced, but didn’t waste time feeling happy, just worked.
from ‘Daybook’ by Anne Truitt
There is so much to take from this. Discipline and obsession, yes. A commitment to using every possible moment. But also belief, a steely core of belief that allowed Anne Truitt to make the decision to invest in herself in this way (she buys both materials for her sculptures and domestic help: ‘a very faithful live-in maid who was my friend as well and shared household responsibilities with me’). I know that I would hesitate to invest in myself in the same way, even as I hesitate to invest in myself in many smaller ways. When I first read these words, in the spring, my own children were six, four and one, and her decisions and the commitment they represent echoed through my thoughts for weeks. Truitt writes, ‘Why am I so obsessed? I do not know. One element is clear, however, and that is that the capacity to work feeds on itself and has its own course of development.’
So, let that be my mantra for autumn, ‘the capacity to work feeds on itself’.
1. ‘Something small‘: 15 minutes of free-writing/focused free-writing // 2. 500 words: new words, typed // 3. Read a poem. I’m going to work my way through Singing School & try to read each day’s poem three times (morning, evening & once in between) // 4. Add to my word hoard. Looking up the roots of words. Finding out the names of things. Gathering, as Priscilla Long puts it, the ‘good words, the juicy words, the hot words’ // 5. Twenty minutes of non-fiction reading // 6. Twenty minutes of pleasure reading (this shouldn’t be hard!) // 7. Exercise: yoga/walk/exercise DVD.
The great late radical feminist theologian Mary Daley wrote in an introduction to her first book about the trouble she had just getting around to writing it. Everything else — cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet — took precedence over this thing that she wanted to do more than anything else. Write a book. Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: “I have to turn my soul around.”
‘The Trouble with Writing’, Michelle Huneven
I always believe that the next week is going to be a ‘normal’ week. A week with nothing out of the ordinary about it. A week when the rhythm will be just so. When things will run pretty much as they did the week before. When I nail everything kid related with grace and precision, including the swimming lesson torture, and the ballet night sting-in-the-tail that ends our week.
(In the ‘normal’ week I would always be like Topsy and Tim’s mother on CBeebies. When Topsy and Tim are squabbling & drop a box of pink- and yellow-frosted cupcakes intended for their birthday party, she simply crouches down low at their eye level and says, ‘When something like this happens, you just need to take a deep breath and have some quiet time.’ I’ve watched a lot of Topsy and Tim this week. It took me a few episodes to remember that their mum is not real. And, alarmingly, it was her incredibly neat & ‘done’ looking hair that tipped me off, rather than her never-riled manner.)
The ‘normal’ week would also leave plenty of time for me — long lunchtime naps for the youngest on the days when his big brother is doing a full-day of school. I’d read with a coffee, sift my thoughts, maybe write here, maybe write something longer, work on something more.
This — you probably won’t be surprised to hear — was not the ‘normal’ week. This was the week of the earache — a day off school for one, nights spent screaming for another. And really I know that the ‘normal’ week is a fantasy. There is always something, from the delightful to the mundane. The next few weeks involve Harvest Festival celebrations (times two), doctor’s appointments, parents’ evenings, the final ‘baby’ check-up — and, obviously, these are just the things I know about. Those pesky unknowns that seem to come from nowhere are even more trouble.
When T was very small, in those relentless early weeks, we would each choose three things for the day. The three things that we most wanted to do for ourselves. One might be a phone call, or an e-mail. Another might be walking to a coffee shop. A bath or shower counted as one of the three. A day on which we each ‘achieved’ our three things was a success. Simple. It was a strange ritual, but as a tool for decision-making it really worked. No guilt over what was left undone. Clear priorities on limited resources.
It’s amazing how many times we have to learn the same lessons. So often now, no matter how much I’ve ‘achieved’, I think instead of all the things that I haven’t done. Printing off photos for T’s baby book (empty now for seven years). Reading the book I didn’t pick up, rather than the one I did. Sorting the laundry. Revising the poems I wrote over the summer. Cleaning out the cat litter. Calling my friend. The list, almost literally, endless.
So I loved this post by the writer Monica Byrne in which she shares her current six daily rituals. Byrne writes: ‘If I do four out of the six—two of which have to be (1) [morning pages] and (2) [1000 words of her new novel]—I count it a successful day. See? You thought I was cruel and exacting toward myself. Au contraire. I am fair and beneficent.’
Yes! This is how I want to be. Clear about what is enough. Focused on my own priorities. There may be limited time outside the wonders of life with little ones, but it’s entirely up to me how I spend it. I’m going to test out a few rituals over the coming weeks. Tips or tricks of your own? Let me know! Let the experimenting begin. (Oh, and my ‘something small‘ — fifteen minutes of writing a day, pen on paper — is still going. Nine months straight. That will be my non-negotiable.)
Michelle Huneven talks more about ‘turning your soul around’ in a talk on ‘The Writing Life’ at the start of the IOWA MOOC ‘How Writers Write Fiction’ which has just got going. Still plenty of time to join! The poetry MOOC over the summer was really inspirational.
September. It seems these luminous days will never end.
A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter
Such beautiful opening lines. The September light, the slanting light of these days that I love so much, is wonderful this year. And always pregnant with the knowledge that we are on borrowed time, that the darkness of winter is approaching.
Opening aside, after 67 pages, I’m not sure about A Sport and a Pastime. How to react to casual racism in a book first published in 1967 and set in the 1950s? By remembering that it is the first person narrator’s voice I’m reading? By remembering the mores of the day? By setting the book aside? I guess some combination of the first two, at least until the book is finished and I can form an opinion on whether the racism serves any purpose in the story. My hunch at this point would be that it doesn’t — but 50 years ago is a different age, so maybe I shouldn’t be expecting it to. Maybe, I should just accept it as ‘normal’ for its time. However, I’m going to be reading All That Is (published in 2013) more critically in this respect. Here’s Roxana Robinson on Salter:
James Salter is praised as a writer’s writer, with good reason: His work is hauntingly beautiful. Each word seems inevitable and perfect, as though the sentences were carved in marble. His voice creates an enchanted forest, and we move, entranced, through its deep shadowy glades. The spell is such that we might not notice the content. If we did, we’d pause, in confusion and dismay.
She’d begun to write her name, to spread the butter on her toast. Her legs were growing long, though her belly was still rounded. Her back was soft with hair, an elegant line of it running along the length of her spine. There was a perfect loop of it at the center, like the whorls of her fingertips, or in the bark of a tree. Whenever he traced it, as he washed Bela in the soapy tub before bed, the hairs rearranged themselves, and the pattern dissolved.
from ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri
Why do we sometimes abandon authors whose work we’ve loved? Looking through my reading notebook, I see that I read The Interpreter of Maladies in 2005, but since then nothing by Jhumpa Lahiri. Her short essay on James Salter’s Light Years was what led me back to her, though actually The Lowland was already in a dusty stack of unread library books beside my bed. On Salter, she writes:
Reading Salter taught me to boil down my writing to its essence. To insist upon the right words, and to remember that less is more. He taught me that a plot can be at once a straight line and a collage, that tense and perspective are fluid things. That great art can be wrought from quotidian life. These teachings are ongoing.
So I read The Lowland with Salter in mind: thinking sentences, structure, and deft handling of the passage of time. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a book that spans seventy-odd years, four generations and three continents; the personal and the political and the tender, gristly point at which they meet. Epic as that sounds, the focus is always tight. Lahiri works through carefully rendered locations — the suburb of Tollygunge in Calcutta; Rhode Island in the States — and through a relatively small number of characters who we come to know intimately.
It’s the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta in the 1940s. One moves to the States, one becomes involved in radical politics. There is emigration, marriage, death, birth, estrangement, aging. The overarching image of the lowland, an expanse of a few acres beside the brothers’ childhood home in Calcutta, is there right from the first page. Two ponds ‘oblong, side by side’ lie in the lowland; in the monsoon they flood and become one. The imagery of the two ponds — the two brothers — and the flooded lowland choked with water hyacinth repeats through the novel, and yet never seems over-played.
I started out skeptical. In the opening section the politics, the emergence of the Naxalite movement in the early 60s, seemed clumsily spliced between carefully constructed scenes of the brothers’ youth. Who was telling me about the politics in such a dry textbook way? To whom were these boyhood scenes memorable? The third person narration felt cold and impersonal. Then, as the book gains speed, Lahiri plays with a close third-person that moves between the characters in far more interesting and revealing ways.
My favourite sections of the novel were those in which Subhash and his wife Gauri are living in campus accommodation with their daughter, Bela, as a baby and then young child. Lahiri captures the enormity of new motherhood in a few devastating pages — ‘While pregnant she had felt capable. But now Gauri was aware of how the slightest oversight on her part could cause Bela to be destroyed.’. The description of four-year old Bela above — the spreading of butter on toast! such an overlooked but wonderful milestone — reminded me of my joy when T started to do this for herself.
Gauri’s relationship with Bela is complicated by the past and its reverberations in Gauri’s present, and Lahiri develops this in a nuanced way that, for me, was wholly believable. ‘With Bela, she was aware of time not passing; of the sky nevertheless darkening at the end of another day. She was aware of the perfect silence in the apartment, replete with the isolation she and Bela shared. When she was with Bela, even if they were not interacting, it was as if they were one person, bound fast by a dependence that restricted her mentally, physically. At times it terrified her that she felt so entwined and also so alone.’
Lahiri’s triumph is capturing the passage of time; showing the way ‘a life’ is not a single entity, not one life, but many. The separateness of sections of years — a childhood in India, the years spent raising a child — all eras that, at the time, felt without end, but can never be revisited. She teaches us again and again that life can cleave into before and after; that we have no idea where these hidden fissures lie.
The Pip-Pop is sleeping. The Moose is trying a full day at school. B has cleaned the loft windows and the sky is dazzling in its clarity. The cloudscape is crisp and beautiful — thin trails of cirrus against perfect pale blue. This morning was cold and misty. Always the change surprises me when it comes. All those months of walking to school with bare arms, wearing sandals. Today I slipped on shoes, knotted a scarf at my neck, showed the Pip-Pop how to put on a cardigan. We walked past glitter-dusted cobwebs, no spiders in sight. The children marvelled at seeing their breath in the air, then disappeared into their lines clutching their book bags. Back home, with ten minutes before we needed to go to the doctor’s surgery, I went into the garden to capture the webs there. Orb webs, mesmerising in their geometry. Beautifully intricate tangle webs. The first leaves of the magnolia turning papery brown. Thick seed pods blushing red. After school, there is swimming. Now there is ironing to do for tomorrow’s funeral. I will go to my grandparent’s house and neither of them will be there to open the door. So many years, as a child, of worrying that they would die, craning as we pulled out of their cul-de-sac to wave a final wave, seeing them standing arm-in-arm, waving back, getting smaller and smaller, until we turned and were gone.
I can’t stop listening to this by Josephine Foster, since I first heard it here. If you happen to have listened to rather too many times table songs on YouTube, so many that you wake in the night with them still going round and round in your head, then it’s the perfect antidote. (On the plus side, T is now a pro at the three times table thanks to this and this. Listen at your peril.)
Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have — that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point. But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It’s the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding. Maybe I’ve learned it’s a mistake to reveal her at all.
from ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud
It was an unusual luxury to read books so quickly when we were on holiday. To remember what it’s like to be truly gripped by a book & consume it in the way T does, turning page after page until there are none left to turn. I read in the car outside the boulangerie, on the windswept beach, by torch light in the chill darkness of evening. So often now books are companions for weeks. But on holiday, reading was again an intense pleasure, a single book carried with me everywhere for a few days, colouring the ‘real’ world with its distinctive atmosphere.
Nora, the school teacher narrator of The Woman Upstairs, had a voice so instantly compelling, so recognisable and gripping, that I could hardly put her down. She’s angry. Very angry. A ‘good girl’, a ‘nice girl’, who tells us on the opening page of the novel, ‘It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.’ And from that opening rage, when Nora is 42, we circle back to her meeting with the charismatic Shahid family five years earlier — beautiful eight-year old Reza, and his parents Sirena, an artist, and Skandar, an academic — and the dizzying sense of possibility they opened up in Nora’s life.
It was a novel I rode like a fairground ride, quickly, with stomach-dropping slides of recognition and often with surprise at the turns we weren’t taking. And then, when I got off at the end, I was slightly disappointed to be back where I’d started, confused that it was over before I expected it to be, that the final twist had been signalled so far in advance. Some of the reviews I’ve read complain of lack of plot — but in a way, I wished that there had been even less plot. Plot seemed to me beside the point in something so relentlessly interior. But, nice girl that I am, it seems impolite not to point out that while I was on it, I enjoyed the ride. I really enjoyed the ride.
A central strand of the novel is the disparity between Nora’s interior life and the life she appears to be living from the outside. Messud says at the back of my Virago edition, ‘I wanted to write about the interior life. We all have one. It’s where we all, largely, live. External reality accounts for such a small part of our daily existence; so much of our time, we’re bound up in projection, or fantasy.’
I like thinking about that. Thinking about how to move away from Nora’s position — so afraid of failure that she would rather not try; conflating being an artist with being a famous artist, rather than the act of creating art. Thinking about moving to a position where outside shows the contours of inside, where, imperfect as all communication is, and hard as it is to really see or be seen by those around us, we still try. It reminded me of one of the things that has stayed with me the most from Daybook:
We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them.
I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allow them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.
from ‘Daybook’, by Anne Truitt
It is, I’ve had cause to observe in myself, incredibly hard to reach for the openness Truitt describes. Even, perhaps especially, with our children. But think what connection might be possible if we succeeded.
I love books in which the narrator is swallowed whole by another family and then, one day, suddenly spat out again. The Woman Upstairs definitely fits in this category. It’s such a rich seam, I guess playing on that common childhood daydream of waking up & finding that you belong to a whole other family. Brideshead Revisited springs to mind, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. I know there must be more. And these families, so desperately alluring, are never quite what they seem. But then, what family is?
I was a writer and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t writing. The answer was, I think, that I hadn’t understood how writing gathers everything into itself to make a satisfactory piece. My story, someone else’s story, a place, an idea, a dream, human anatomy, the mind acting on the world, vice versa, some or all and more yet unthought of, had to be combined in the right amounts in order to make a book, an essay, fiction, non-fiction, history, comedy, whatever, work.
from ‘A Diagnosis’, Jenny Diski
I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better? This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another…Sometimes I imagine history and science and memory are puppets, and I’m pushing them onto the stage of inquiry and asking them to have a conversation — to share their knowledge, to argue with each other. It’s a lab experiment: what explosions are uniquely possible in combination?
from ‘How to Write a Personal Essay’, Leslie Jamison
If you haven’t read Jenny Diski’s brilliant essay on her diagnosis of an inoperable cancer, then do — it’s knowing, funny, devastating, and just brilliantly written. Her description of writing ‘gathering everything into itself’ sent me straight back to Leslie Jamison & her ‘threads’ of history, science and personal material. Diski writes about how her first, her primary, emotion is embarrassment — ‘I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script’ — and I suddenly remembered my own embarrassment at being pregnant for the first time. (I notice I’ve swiftly moved this to being all about me: but isn’t that what the best personal writing invites us to do?)
I was in my late 20s, carrying a much desired child, & yet I was desperately embarrassed by all my growing stomach was shorthand for — the fact of having to give birth, the too-close confidences of strangers, projections of desire and fear from all sides, the implied closeness to all other pregnant women, the blatant advertisement of my sexuality, all that I knew I didn’t know about having and raising children.
I think part of it was cultural: we were the first of our friends to have children and we knew no-one who had a baby. Pregnancy was a foreign land, peopled only by TV characters who screamed loudly on their backs during labour, and the women in my mum’s 1970s pregnancy guide who all seemed to be poor, deluded dears suffering from phantom pregnancies. But it was also the embarrassment of being on a conveyer belt with only a few possible exits, of having set something in motion hidden in the silent depths of my body that could no longer be stopped, would no longer be hidden. A premonition of my body no longer being mine, but being communal and open to interpretation; of my body as a subject that would need medical observation, perhaps medical intervention; of a private act gone irrevocably public.
For that nine months, I avoided other pregnant people as much as I could, probably to a slightly deranged extent, emerging after T’s birth to discover that I needed to make friends and fast. And, luckily for both me and T, I did. I found that all the people who had flocked together when pregnant weren’t as intolerable as I had previously thought. That people who didn’t do NCT classes were people I particularly liked. That life on the baby circuit — playgroups with names like Monday Munchkins and Colliwobbles (we lived in an area called Colliers Wood), singing time at the library, softplay at the YMCA — was a life full of interesting and wonderful people who just happened to be my co-workers in the parenting trade.
Like the Queen, I now seem to have two birthdays. The real, a day just like any other, and the official, on which I open cards and presents and we celebrate. For the last couple of years, the real — full of kids and routine, with B at work from very early to very late — has been a slightly sorry affair. But this year it was lovely. A sweet birthday note from T outside my bedroom door when I got up. Friends for coffee & cookies, all unaware of my birthday. Lunch with the Pip Pop. School pick-up, twice. A couple of chapters of ‘The Borrowers Afloat’. Then the usual rush of ballet class & tea. Pizza and the first episode of ‘The Killing 3‘ with B. Simple but lovely. It’s always reassuring when you actually enjoy your own real life.
It helped that I’d taken the precaution of buying plenty of presents to myself. Then on Saturday, my official birthday, I felt very guilty when it turned out that B had also bought me plenty of lovely presents. (When we were little — which, at 20, we really were when we met — some years we would exchange birthday or Christmas presents and some years we wouldn’t. There was no system, no pressure, no way of knowing in advance. These days, we tend to do birthdays, if only because the little ones like it, and it seems good to show them that we like presents too.)
Our newest tradition is ‘birthday treats’ for grown-ups. Back in January, B chose our local science centre; this time I chose the zoo. There were complaints about how unfair it is that only we get birthday treats. I countered with the fact that we don’t get parties. I wonder how long it will take them to figure out that we choose treats that they will love. ‘Well, you’re having a lovely time, Mumma, because your favourite thing is being out on an adventure with all of us!’ said the Moose. And he was right.
We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.
Andre Dubus II, Broken Vessels
We arrive by accumulation.
Time twists us by the shoulders until we’re positioned to die,
looking backwards. Twisted into the ground.
from ‘The Day of Jack Chambers’ by Anne Michaels
September is my favourite month. Days like today: sky high & blue; air like a long, cool drink. On Tuesday, the Moose started school. He was such a sweet boy in his red and grey uniform — so eager and handsome. He pulled up his long grey socks to meet his shorts. The dimple in his cheek showed as he posed for photographs with his sister, with his book bag, ready to go outside the front door. He’s started part-time, so I pick him up at 1 o’clock, after his lunch, and just before the Pip Pop’s nap. This means that I am still never alone. But, even so, I sat on the stairs and sobbed when I walked into my empty-ish house. Even his enthusiasm was heartbreaking. Then I pulled myself together and changed the sheets on the kid’s beds for the first time in at least six weeks. (Still thinking of Nedra: ‘Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing…Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing.’)
Then, on Tuesday night, my grandfather, my father’s father, died. We celebrated his 90th birthday with him just over a week ago. A day when he was very weak, but at home, with family. With the Pip Pop who gave him kisses from his special zebra, Zee Zee. With the Moose who raced all of the old wheelbarrows in the back garden & told him how good the birthday cake was. With T who, as we were leaving, first waved her goodbye, then hesitated & lent down and swept her arms around him in the most beautiful embrace. There was a moment when he was looking at me and smiling, and I couldn’t tell if he was just daydreaming or really seeing me, but it was me he was looking at, and as I licked my chocolatey fingers, he said something, something like, ‘She’s had her cake and eaten it and licked her fingers too.’ How it felt to be watched by his gaze, to be under his smile. And so all that is over. We will miss him for himself, but it’s more than that. So much is gone. The connection he came to represent — to my grandmother, to my father — is lost. I continue to be amazed by how fragile it all is: how we pass from one family to another; how all that remains is what we hold within.
A birthday morning posy gathered from the garden: nasturtiums, geraniums & verbena.
Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.
And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.
I’ve been seduced again. It started with William Maxwell a couple of years ago; then I fell headlong for Wallace Stegner; and now, now it’s James Salter. American men of almost the same generation. Maxwell and Stegner born within a year of each other in 1908 and 1909 respectively; Salter, the youngest of the three, born in 1925. What connects them in my mind — apart from the beauty of their writing — in The Château, Crossing to Safety and now Light Years, is their tender portrayal of marriage, their infinite sympathy for their characters, even at their least attractive. I couldn’t sleep last night, two maybe three weeks after I finished the book, for thinking about Nedra and Viri, and all that they had, and all that they wanted, and all that they lost. If you’re already feeling the seasons and years flitting by (say you have both a child starting school and a birthday next week) then this book might keep you awake too. But it’ll be worth it.
It all happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore.
On the surface, Light Years is about Nedra and Viri, their marriage, their infidelities, their children, their friends, following them from their late 20s in 1958 when their daughters, Franca and Danny, are seven and five, to their late forties some twenty years later. Twenty years, but it feels both shorter and longer, as perhaps life does. Salter works through a kind of temporally-linear collage of memories: Christmas, days at the beach, birthday parties, dinner parties, conversations. Time unspools: a season is named and then another, and it takes a beat or two to realise that we’ve skipped ahead to another year. ‘She [Franca] is nine. Danny is seven. These years are endless, but they cannot be remembered.’ The organising principle, Salter says in his Paris Review interview, he later recognised in a Jean Renoir quote: ‘The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.’
The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train — a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by — everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes.
James Salter on his novel ‘Light Years’
Its a book built from the smallest of details and objects, from the flashes of life that endure. But, beneath the gilded surface of Nedra and Viri’s daily lives, desire, disillusionment and mortality pulse through Salter’s exquisite sentences. Their children grow and become adults themselves. They become older. Their desires, in the main, go unfulfilled. This makes it sound incredibly depressing; which it both is, and isn’t. It isn’t because writing this good could never be wholly depressing. And also because Nedra and Viri continually misjudge what will make them happy — possessions, money, travel, always a desire for change. Yes, life is short; but, knowing that, it is in our hands to choose carefully how to spend its limited days. Light Years is a beautiful reminder to do just that, even as I secretly long to live like Nedra.
Her [Nedra’s] life was like a single, well-spent hour. Its secret was her lack of remorse, of self-pity. She felt herself purified. The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied. Into them there came books, errands, the seashore, occasional pieces of mail. She read them slowly and carefully, sitting in the sunshine, as if they were newspapers from abroad.
There are two wonderful short essays on reading and re-reading Light Years on the Paris Review website by Jhumpa Lahiri — ‘As a writer, I am shamelessly in its debt.’ — and Porochista Khakpour. Already feeling haunted, I keep coming back these lines by Khakpour:
Nedra is as entirely unique and yet universal as any woman — at once hard and extravagant, both old and young, an artist and an observer, creator and destroyer, wanderer and homebody, a mother and the ultimate antimatriarch. Losing yourself in Nedra is dangerous; my experience — nearly a decade since I first read the book — is evidence enough that she can haunt you a few steps ahead of yourself.
Home, which brings its own strange dislocation. A seeing which is impossible in the rush and familiarity of the everyday. I notice all that we have started and not finished: the unpainted wall in our bedroom, the bare light bulb at the end of the kitchen, the half-read books piled on the shelf. The season too has shifted: the rhythms of our summer — all those hours in the garden — no longer fit the weather or the length of the day. The evening air feels autumnal, dusk falls early. We shop for school shoes.
But, there was the light. The light at the coast and the light at B’s parents’ which holds you in its embrace — a fly in amber. Liquid, dripping light. Light into which to dive. My notebook is full of questions, plans. How to carry the energy of this holiday, the bliss of its togetherness, its ease, its possibility? How to work towards this being more what we have? How to hold to all that I have promised myself? I sketch out possible routines for the weeks ahead: if I get up at x o’clock, if the Pip Pop continues to nap after lunch, if I write for two hours on a Saturday morning before anyone else wakes.
And this is where we are. Almost at the start of September, almost at the start of all these new possibilities.
We’ve been camping. Camping in Brittany. Camping, to be precise, in Finistère: the end of the world. We stayed on a beautiful dairy farm, with goats, pigs, donkeys, rabbits and geese, as well as the cows and their calves. It was pretty magical. But also pretty cold and wet. I now finally understand those tactful comments people made when I told them where we were going. My lovely neighbour who told me of her many trips camping in France, her many trips to Brittany, but never, as far as she could remember, camping in Brittany. Later, B told me that she’d said to him that they’d bought a caravan in the end after getting washed-out one summer.
Still, the enormous tent we bought second-hand on eBay in December (a cheap time to buy a tent!) but hadn’t had time to put up, did have all its parts, and was wonderfully waterproof. And it only took us an hour and three-quarters to put up in the pouring rain, and, well, about five hours to pack it up again. The trip to Ikea for bowls and door mats and rugs and blankets and cutlery was worth it. The purchase of a roof-box for the car, which had made me feel undeniably middle-aged, was entirely necessary. The extra jumpers, hats and coats that I packed at the last minute, still not really believing that we’d need them, were all invaluable. And, if you ever get a flat tyre in Morlaix on a Sunday, we can tell you exactly where to go.
One night the rain was so heavy that it stopped sounding like discrete drops of water, sounding instead continuous, like being under a river, so that I became afraid that if it started to come in we wouldn’t be able to breath, would suffocate, would drown. But most nights I lay there thinking of what I’d been reading. Worrying about Nedra and Viri in James Salter’s Light Years, wondering what would happen next in A Very Long Engagement, dreaming of the heat of Sri Lanka as I read Running in the Family. The book auditions payed off, the reading was excellent.
T’s fears of running out of books came true by the second day, but by then she was off in a world of bouncing on the trampoline, skipping off to buy the raw farm milk, and swapping addresses with unfeasible numbers of small friends. The Moose loved everything: the animals, the freedom, the charming of new friends, the eating of copious amounts of his daddy’s moules frites (‘Daddy, what other tiny sea creatures have you got in there?’). And the Pip-Pop, oh that boy! He can eat a pain au chocolat faster than anyone else in the family, he can call ooh la la! in his sing-song pure voice, he can take you by the hand and lead you to the calves and the rabbits to say to them he-oooh rabbits, he-oooh cows. There were late nights sitting outside the tent drinking hot chocolate and playing Uno with the two bigger children by the light of the lantern. There was a day on the beach when the sky was an unfeasibly penetrating blue, the children were playing, the little white sails of the boats were scattered on the water of the bay.
Now we’re warm and dry at B’s parents. Their friends keep asking if we’re disappointed by the weather (an overcast 21°C), and all they have to say in reply is that we’ve just come from camping in Brittany. Apparently it’s met with laughter every time.
I don’t have many rules when it comes to books and children. Deliberate destruction upsets me, but I’ve got pretty good at magical mends over the years.
Walking home from school holding a book in front of your nose? Fine, just look up when we’re crossing the road please. Not talking to me for an hour after school because you just have to finish your book? Okay, but I can’t say I won’t be lonely. Staying up hours after lights-out because you just can’t stop reading? I was that child. Censoring your reading? Never! Or at least I thought never. And then, well, I looked at Roald Dahl’s The Witches and found myself saying, not until you’re seven.
Since reading really clicked for T two summers ago she’s made her way through pretty much everything Roald Dahl wrote for children. For a long time she read Danny the Champion of the World over and over. Then, after her birthday last year, there was the Matilda phase. Camping in France last summer, she sometimes read aloud to us in our tent by the river, and it was magical. That same holiday we visited the beautiful gardens of Marqueyssac and walked a long, steep trail up to a cliff top view of the Dordogne below. After a quick glance at the view, T fished in my bag for her book and sat on a rock and carried on with Matilda.
It’s been fun to watch her racing through the books that made our childhoods. In most cases, the literal books. Every few months B would dig through the box under our bed which contains all his childhood books and pull out something new. He seems to have had all the Roald Dahls in hardback. My yellowed paperback copies don’t stand a chance. Watching her devour Matilda I remembered the Christmas day when I unwrapped it and I read it from cover to cover. Then B pulled The Witches from the box, and I said, not until she’s seven.
Mrs Smart read The Witches to our class the year I was eight. We loved it. But the bittersweet sadness of the ending — a boy who remains a mouse after defeating the witches, but is happy to do so because his mouse lifespan is equivalent to the number of years his beloved Grandmamma can hope to live — I wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t sure about the death of his parents early in the book in a car crash either (“Soon after my seventh birthday…”).
And then, then she was seven, and The Witches came out of the box. I don’t stand a chance with T: she’s such a fluent and avid reader, and we have so little uninterrupted time together, that I knew she would read it alone. She devoured it. Her verdict: wonderful, funny, not at all sad, and only a little bit scary.
But later that night, when I climbed into bed, I realised that she wasn’t taking any chances with The Witches. Often, if she’s been reading something unsettling, she’ll put that book under a teetering pile of other books on the floor by her bed. It’s a habit she’s had since she was small, so that the bad fairy doesn’t get out. But The Witches had been carefully placed beside my bed, held in place by my bedside table (okay, my bedside Ikea stool!), the Grand High Witch’s face totally obscured.
I haven’t learnt my lesson. I’ve now said no to Harry Potter until she’s eight. But they really do get scary. (So scary, I still haven’t read the last one. I’m saving it for a metaphorical rainy day!) Is it just me, or does anyone else find themselves imposing unexpected book rules? Where will this end? I’ll know things have gone really wrong if I find myself banning Judy Bloom.
‘Barty and I were very happy in the Fens. We had two children — boys. They were both killed in the Great War — the First World War they call it now.’ Mrs Bartholomew did not cry, because she had done all her crying for that so long ago.
from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (first published 1958)
And, oh, how I cried as I tried to read these lines from the final chapter of Tom’s Midnight Garden to T and the Moose outside our tent last summer. Twice last year I was undone by the ubiquity of loss in that generation — the loss of husbands, sons, brothers. A loss so catastrophic that it permeates children’s literature in such a matter-of-fact way. In The Borrowers, it is Mrs May who tells Kate about the tiny people who live in houses and ‘borrow’ things from humans. But it was Mrs May’s younger brother who met Pod and Arrietty and told her about them,
‘He was such a tease. He told us so many things — my sister and me — impossible things. He was killed,’ she added gently, ‘many years ago now, on the North-West Frontier. He became colonel of his regiment. He died what they call ‘a hero’s death’…’
‘Was he your only brother?’
‘Yes, and he was our little brother. I think that was why’ — she thought for a moment, still smiling to herself — ‘yes, why he told us such impossible stories, such strange imaginings[…]’
It puzzled me, to start with, why Mary Norton had chosen to frame her story with the foreshadowed death of its child hero (though, to the Borrowers, ‘the Boy’ is an ambiguous character — it is his interference that leads to them having to leave the house that has always been their home for the great and uncertain world beyond). But it was such a small line that it seemed to simply wash over my young audience, even as I stumbled on it. Thinking it over, I can see it lends mystery — Mrs May remains uncertain about whether her brother was telling the truth about the Borrowers or whether he was just teasing her — but it also points to the tragic commonness of such a loss. (It’s not clear that Mrs May’s brother does die in the First World War: he could have been killed at the North-West Frontier at any time during the British Raj.)
When we light our candle this evening I will be thinking of the past, yes, but also the present — loss piled on loss, conflict on conflict, unbearable, unimaginable suffering. It seems such a small thing to do — with my own three children safe in their beds in a world they can’t imagine could ever fall apart — but at least it is something.
We’re two books into the Borrowers series, and they make the perfect read-alouds for us at the moment. The language is old fashioned and sometimes obscure enough that T struggles with them alone, but the stories are so full of adventure that the Moose can follow them too. I’ve also introduced them to this BBC gem from my own childhood.
And he reads to them, as he does every night, as if watering them, as if turning the earth at their feet. There are stories he has never heard of, and others he has known as a child, these stepping stones that are there for everyone. What is the real meaning of these stories, he wonders, of creatures that no longer exist even in the imagination: princes, woodcutters, honest fishermen who live in hovels…It is as if there is only a single hour, and in that hour all the provender must be gathered, all the advice offered. He longs for the one line to give them that they will always remember, that will embrace everything, that will point the way, but he cannot find the line, he cannot recognize it. It is more precious, he knows, than anything else they might own, but he does not have it.
from Light Years by James Salter
Picnics. Summer colds. Day after day of perfect weather. Falling leaves even in July. And now, August, and the weather has changed. The sky is white, the evening air cool. Today’s adventures were low key: the Post Office depot to pick up a package; the supermarket; the car wash; some baking. I love their excitement at such small things. Complimented on their good behaviour at the supermarket check-out, T said, ‘Well, I’m normally at school, so I don’t usually get to come here.’
I’m auditioning books for our holiday. Light Years has proved too good, and, though I planned to stop after a couple of chapters, I can’t put it aside. T is worried that no matter how many books we take it will not be enough: ‘Well,’ she says, ‘I easily read three or four books a day.’ And it’s true. We talk about the girl we once met on the ferry, a little older, with a teetering stack of books in her hand. When I jokingly asked her whether that would be enough for the six hour crossing she smiled and showed me her Kindle at the bottom of the pile.
When I read the lines above as I was drinking my coffee this afternoon, I thought of the fairy tales that T is filling herself with from Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales. We started it as a read-aloud, but I couldn’t keep pace with her insatiable appetite for them. I keep seeing her entranced by it in various lovely looking reading spots around the house and feeling slightly envious. I’m hoping that I’ll get my hands on it again at some point.
So, as a replacement, after lunch, under trees in our garden, in the park, at various National Trust houses (oh my, thank goodness for NT membership!), we’ve been reading King Arthur retold by James Riordan: dragons, swords, destiny and betrayal — their amazement that The Sword in the Stone is just the beginning — and they’re lapping it up.
Today was the first day of T’s summer holiday, so we hit the beach. I have a secret rule of making the first and last days of the summer holidays particularly special – a sleight of hand by which I hope they will remember their summers as being good ones, magical ones even, as summers should be.
And it was a good day. An amazingly good day considering I took three children to the beach alone for the first time. I grew up in the Midlands, hours from the nearest sea (Weston-super-Mare where, famously, the tidal range is so great that the low tide mark is a mile from the sea front), so the idea of going to the beach for the day is still novel to me and we still have many beaches to check out. This is Lepe Country Park and you can see the Isle of Wight across the Solent. T gives it ten out of ten.
If I were making an album of memories, I would slip today – three swim-suited children digging a hole upon a beach – between the pages. And so the summer officially begins.
It was mid-October and her breasts were leaking and they were hard as rocks and her nipples hurt; one of them was cracked and bleeding…Helen unbuttoned her blouse and Gabrielle latched on fast and her other nipple squirted fine threads of milk all over the kitchen table…Gabrielle snuffled in and sucked hard and the other breast was dripping fast and there was a drop of blood, bright red, on her other nipple and it slipped down her breast.
from February by Lisa Moore
Milk seeped into Kate’s clothes and sweetened and soured her chest and the cleft between her breasts every time she heard her baby cry, as soon as he cried. Milk wet her shirt when she sat own alone near her bedroom window and saw the exposed brown grass in the yard, rents in the snow, when she read some item in the newspaper about a child falling out a window, or saw a commercial for long-distance dialing on television…Her breasts let down and her uterus cramped sharply, turning like a small animal inside her, contracting in its nest. When her eyes got wet, her breasts performed, as though she wept milk…She wept food and he grew on sorrow.
from MotherKind by Jayne Anne Phillips
Seeing one’s own experience reflected in words is its own particular nourishment. I’ve spent half of the last seven years nursing a baby or toddler and so these breastfeeding scenes give me a particular pleasure of recognition and companionship. They seem to me rare in their physicality, their honesty, their intensity. I don’t remember reading anything like this before I had children, but then perhaps I simply wouldn’t have noticed.
I’ve been playing with some of those rich and delicious words — colostrum, engorgement, latch, let-down — to see if I can make a poem of them. Often, I come back to the words of the breastfeeding counsellor we met before T was born, If it hurts, you’re not doing it right. Well, yes and no. But mainly no. I think I’d have been better prepared by examples like this, examples that show you can move from a difficult, painful start — even that a difficult painful start might be natural — to something that’s nourishing to both mother and child.
I read and loved February a couple of years ago; looking back in my notebook at the pages surrounding this quote, I see we were also trying to decide whether to have a third child. It’s a wonderful novel which I wholeheartedly recommend (additional children purely optional). I’ll write more about MotherKind, which I’ve just finished, soon.
You can’t catch us. Oh no no no!
We’re holding hands and we won’t let go.
We’re Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie
And Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow!
from ‘The Paper Dolls’ by Julia Donaldson
I know you don’t need me to tell you about Julia Donaldson. But this week is all about keeping things simple. Calm thoughts, calm words, even if there are two boys thundering round and round me shrieking with laughter. That’s the intention anyway. (I realised, hours later, that the tea I threw into the supermarket trolley this morning is called ‘Zen Again’. I am a marketing person’s dream.) I’m trying to fit in lots of snuggling and reading with my boys before the summer holidays start and my attention is divided into three. (Or three million, depending how you look at it.) So, here they are: two instant Julia Donaldson hits from last week’s library trip.
I have a mixed history with Julia Donaldson. There are many of her books that I could read all day and all night, and most probably have (The Snail and the Whale, Sharing a Shell, Tyrannosaurus Drip). And then there are a few that I can hardly bare to read at all (What the Ladybird Heard and The Rhyming Rabbit come to mind). I think that the distinction between the two sets is a very fine line: it’s all a matter of how much repetition I can take before the pay-off. If the language is good enough – by which I mean fun and exuberant enough – then I can take quite a bit, even when I know what’s coming.
So it is with Jack and the Flumflum Tree which is a wild romp to the faraway Isle of Blowyernose to pick a fruit from the flumflum tree to cure Jack’s granny’s moozles. There are plenty of misadventures on the way, but good old granny has sent a patchwork sack full of everything they might need. If only they could work out what the three spotty hankies are for!
We’ve had this one out of the library before, so my children already shout, ‘”Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” said Jack’ at any likely opportunity. Which, luckily, I rather like. We can also cheer ourselves up at any hint of a rash with the suggestion that it’s the moozles. It’s riotously good fun, and the Moose in particular (4 years old) loves it. David Roberts’ wonderfully simple yet intricately patterned and detailed illustrations make the perfect accompaniment, and there are plenty of opportunities to spot old friends for lovers of Tyrannosaurus Drip or The Troll.
The Paper Dolls is a slightly different affair. Less exuberance and rhyme, and more whimsy. A little girl makes a chain of paper dolls with the help of her mother. The dolls escape from a dinosaur, a tiger and a fierce crocodile, but will they escape from her brother and his scissors? I can’t get to the end of this one without fighting tears on the page where the little girl grows up. (She grow into a mother, what else? Which, though necessary for the story, slightly irritates me each time. Couldn’t she be – even momentarily – something else? She is pictured between childhood and motherhood wearing a beret and clutching a book. Maybe I should just imagine her life as a research scientist in Paris…)
It’s illustrated by Rebecca Cobb in a magically childlike style full of charm and delightful details (on one page the Owl and the Pussycat are illustrated on a jar of honey in their beautiful pea-green boat). The way she draws hair and rosy cheeks reminded me of my own childhood favourites, the Emma series (which seem to have had many names in translation!) by Grunilla Wolde. On the face of it, this seems more aimed at girls – and it was my go-to Christmas present for pre-school age girls last year – but again the Moose loves it, and enjoys reciting the names of the paper dolls over and over again. We had a paper doll making phase earlier in the year. Only his seem to have survived. But hopefully they’re all still dancing around somewhere in the heads of their little makers.
Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain. We tried to answer her back but we did not have the language to explain that we were not women who had merely ‘acquired’ some children – we had metamorphosed (new heavy bodies, milk in our breasts, hormonally-programmed to run to our babies when they cried) in to someone we did not entirely understand.
Things I Don’t Want To Know, Deborah Levy
We’re speeding now, towards the summer holidays. Two weeks and two days to go. And yet, there’s so much to be fitted in. Sports day, the school summer fair, the Moose’s visits to T’s school which he will start in September. Play dates and picnics and holiday preparations. It’s all fun, but it has the pell-mell acceleration of cycling downhill without being certain that the brakes are going to work.
After weeks of sitting on the lid of the kids’ sandpit to read in the shade after lunch it finally occurred to me to move the bench from the sunny end of the garden to the shade under the magnolia. Today I’ve realised that I can even bring the laptop out here. The hedge is full of clusters of the small red roses in the photo above. They grow from my neighbour’s side and remind me of the day three summers ago when I first saw this house. T had chickenpox and I had to carry her round for the whole viewing. The Moose sat in his pushchair in the hallway eating raisins. When B came to see the house later that same day, he saw the bedrooms with the shadowy shapes of children sleeping in their beds.
Anyway, sitting out here last week while the Moose lay on a blanket at my feet, I read Deborah Levy’s miraculous Things I Don’t Want To Know. (It took a few days; he doesn’t do ‘big boy quiet time’ for long these days.) It was pure pleasure to read such a fluid, elegant and moving essay. Levy’s responds, in an oblique way, to George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write, and the four sections of her essay take Orwell’s motives for writing as their titles: political purpose, historical impulse, sheer egoism, and aesthetic enthusiasm. Orwell writes,
I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject-matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.
And it is this that Levy so beautifully shows us – her early development, the age in which she has lived, her emotional attitude – but, crucially, she adds in what it might mean to be a female writer and a mother. We move from London to Majorca, to Levy’s childhood in apartheid-era South Africa where her ANC supporter father is imprisoned, to her teenage years in London, and then back to the ‘present’ in Majorca. Levy manages a short of shape-shifting form, an essay which mutates into an extended autobiographical piece that reads almost as a short story, before circling back to the meditation on what it is to be a female writer with which it started.
I loved it for its exquisite writing, for its precision, for its heart-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to be a young child in a system which is patently unfair and nonsensical. I loved the opening section with its devastating take down of motherhood as constructed by masculine society (‘We had a go at cancelling our own desires and found we had a talent for it.’ ). And I loved it most of all for its conclusion,
A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.
(back, of course, to Woolf) – which I read as simply, get on with it.
I’ll leave you with Levy’s last line,
Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa.
We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float. Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.
from Open City by Teju Cole
It seems to me now, that to hear anything about this book before reading it would be to profoundly change your experience of it. Perhaps this is true of all books, but I think it is especially so here.
So, don’t think of this as a review, don’t even think of it as my thoughts on the book; just think of someone pressing it into your hands, someone pointing you in its direction.
What more can I say, without saying anything, to help you know that it’s the book for you? You might know that you have to read Teju Cole, as I did, by reading this. Or you might want to feel as I did when I closed it: profoundly shaken, complicit, knowing that I too had not got away unscathed.
And when you’ve read Open City, this interview with Teju Cole is brilliant. (But note that it contains spoilers.)
Poems that change our perceptions are everywhere you look, and one of the definitions of poetry might be that a poem freshens the world.
By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say “We loved the earth but could not stay.”
The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser
From my morning reading, a little re-visit to Ted Kooser’s slim and wise book. I love Kooser’s practicality and warmth; his wonderfully simple definition of what a poem can be, of what we might aim for when we’re writing. But oh, that ‘could not stay’…really, can I really not stay? It will never be enough.
We found this blackbird’s egg on the pavement as we walked to school one day last week. The Moose took it to pre-school and now it’s disappeared into T’s classroom. I wish I could let you hold it in your hands, feel how paper-thin that beautiful blue shell is, how it seems it would shatter at the lightest touch.
Then there was the afternoon the tiny froglets were hopping high and fast across the newly-mown lawn, green-brown tiddlywinks.
There was the morning after a migraine, when sometime before lunch my headache lifted leaving only its own shadow, and there was that feeling you have after a hangover, when the world is once again vivid and pure, and you can again participate in its wonders and yet you are still apart, still too fragile for the normal fray, and so there is time. Time, I found, to sit and built towers from the stacking cups for the Pip-Pop to knock over. Time to wash up slowly, stopping again and again to re-fill the watering can for the Moose, passing chalks out of the back door for when they’d finished playing.
Sometimes the world seems to freshen itself before our very eyes. But, yes, other times there are all those poems out there waiting to refresh it for us. Messages in a bottle saying ‘I loved the earth but could not stay.’ Strange how hard it is to remember this in the day to day of living, in the world of snatched text conversations with old friends, of quick looks at Feedly, at Pinterest. Strange when a poem would take minutes, involves only (only!) concentration and a moment’s thought. A freshening of the world that can colour a whole day. (This, of course, all a note to myself.)
I listened to this the other week & really enjoyed it. (The recording itself is a little annoying because it’s a live-recording of a seminar session and, at times, it’s hard to hear everything that’s going on.) Haiku seem a perfect example of a brief refreshing of the world. This is Bashō translated by Robert Hass.
felling a tree
and seeing the cut end –
…the creation of a character is like listening to something faint and distant. It’s like trying to remember someone one knew slightly, in passing, a very long time ago, but to remember them so that one knows them better than one knows oneself. It’s like trying to know a family member who died before one was born, from looking at photographs and objects belonging to them; also from hearing the things, often contradictory, that people say about them, the anecdotes told.
from Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deidre Madden
This morning, driving to pre-school, the cow parsley on the verges was a head-high veil of flickering white, the fields and roadsides were dotted red with poppies. Sitting here, in our loft room, I can hear the children at T’s school playing outside. The breeze is warm and gentle on my bare arms. The air smells of cut grass and privet. It’s the kind of day that you feel you are swimming out into, floating along in its warmth and fragrance. Days like this always remind me of the first page of Mrs Dalloway,
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave…
Or maybe Mrs Dalloway is where I got that image of plunging into water from…it’s strange how once we’ve read something its images enter us in that way, its phrases linger.
Last week I read another wonderful book set in one day, Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deidre Madden. In this case, the day is the birthday of the famous actor, Molly Fox, the twenty-first of June, midsummer’s day. The book is quiet and unusual, constructed so that much of it takes place in the memory of its un-named playwright narrator. Friends with Molly Fox for over twenty years, she’s staying in Molly’s house in Dublin, supposedly working on her next play, while Molly is in New York. Her thoughts about identity and friendship, the unknowability of both the other and the self, are at the heart of the story, together with her reflections on writing and acting. It’s thought-provoking and captivating, and I’m really glad to have read it and encountered Deidre Madden’s work. Rachel’s lovely review says more & persuaded me to pick this up at the library.
What about you? Any favourite circadian novels? I think I’m rather in love with the form. Eva Figes’s novella Light – a day in the life of Claude Monet and his family – is another amazing read. We’re planning a weekend in the garden, a dinner with friends. Savouring the warmth and light while it’s here. I hope that you enjoy the midpoint of the year wherever it finds you.
Painting from nature is not a matter of copying the subject, but of expressing one’s feelings.
On Saturday I had an adventure all of my own. A day with no responsibilities, no requirements, no restrictions. I took myself on the train to Oxford, to the Ashmolean to see Cézanne and the Modern. The whole day was magically mine in a way that no other day has been for far, far too long.
The exhibition, and the whole Ashmolean, were a revelation: small enough to enjoy, but vast in scope and perspective. In the exhibition a Van Gogh lit up an entire room, an electric shock of colour. But my favourites, the paintings that I chose to stand or sit in front of and just breath in, were quieter. Cézanne’s still life watercolour of three pears, so exquisitely simple and lucid. A small oil study of a male bather. And another nude from behind, this time a woman by Degas. I seemed to be particularly attracted to these figures seen only from behind – there’s something so intriguing about them and the unknown eye/I watching them. What is the story lurking behind the painting?
Wandering through the rest of the museum – all glass views of the atrium, and beautiful white staircases, and open spaces – I found myself looking at a small bronze dog. A small bronze dog from around the eight to seventh century BC. A small bronze dog, recognisable in all its doggy energy, tail curling in a wag, all these thousands of years later. How strange, this urge to represent our world; how amazing that it seems to always have been there. (If you ever visit, or know the Ashmolean, the dog is one of the Lucera bronzes, in the Etruscan section of the museum.)
I hadn’t been to Oxford for almost fifteen years, so I followed the recommendations in Emma’s literary city guide & they were perfect. (If you’re in the market for an adventure near you, check out the other literary city guides – ‘travel resources for bookworms who love to eat’ – on Nicole’s lovely blog.) I had coffee & an almond croissant at The Missing Bean on Turl Street, and lunch at Mission Burrito on St Michael’s Street. Both places were fantastic – friendly, busy, but perfect for time alone: eating with a book in one hand seems to be perfectly normal in Oxford. And of course, I visited the bookshops too. I came home with a few extra books, including the beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions by Deborah Levy above (pictured with a postcard of another view from behind, this time by Toulouse-Lautrec). I read and loved Swimming Home last spring, and I’m looking forward to reading this, Levy’s response to George Orwell’s Why I Write.
Mostly I just wandered around, unencumbered: no pushchair, nobody to please but myself. It was a close, overcast day, but when the sun came out the Oxford stone lit up, and the town glowed with all its honeyed warmth. It was impossible not to be slightly envious of the students – so young in such an amazingly beautiful place, full of ideas and opportunity. But everything for them is uncertain, still to unfold. I feel so lucky to know a little of how things will turn out. I have B, I have the little ones. I sometimes feel like I’m living at the centre of my life. Coming home, three children and a cat all desperate to press themselves close to me, was what made the day perfect.
The stories gets passed on and the truth gets passed over. As the sayin goes. Which I reckon some would take as meanin that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet. It dont move about from place to place and it dont change from time to time. You cant corrupt it any more than you can salt salt. You cant corrupt it because that’s what it is. It’s the thing you’re talkin about. I’ve heard it compared to the rock – maybe in the bible – and I wouldnt disagree with that. But it’ll be here even when the rock is gone.
It isn’t often that I read a book because I saw the movie. But this is how it was with my first Cormac McCarthy novel. I read No Country For Old Men because I watched the film. And I only watched the film because I love the Coen brothers. (Yes, slightly late. The film came out in 2007. Who knew that in these years I’ve been busy having children they’ve remained busy making films?)
What to say about this book? That it is just like the film, only more so. That it is violent and terrifying and mesmerising. That it unfolds with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. That it evokes a world, the Texas-Mexico border in 1980, that is fallen, harsh and godless, with the good old boys, like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, watching on unable to stop the escalating and apocalyptic violence.
Vietnam veteran and welder, Llewellyn Moss, is out hunting antelope when he finds a group of three vehicles surrounded by dead men. In the front seat of one of the trucks is a dying Mexican who begs him for water he doesn’t have; in the back of the truck is a load of heroin. Following a trail of blood – ‘You aint going far, he said. You may think you are. But you aint.’ – he finds one last body and a case stuffed full of banknotes. He takes the money. It’s not certain, but at this point things may still have gone another way. But Llewellyn too is one of the good old boys. That night, waking in his trailer beside his young wife, he is compelled to go back with some water for the half-dead Mexican. From this point on he is on the run from both Bell, who wants to save him, and from the chilling Chigurh. As Moss says to himself, ‘There is no description of a fool…that you fail to satisfy. Now you’re goin to die.‘
The language is spare and precise. The dialogue is brusque, fast-paced, often very funny despite everything. With the exception of Sheriff Bell, we only learn what the characters are thinking through what they say to one another or, occasionally, to themselves. Bell, whose italicized reminiscences start each chapter, seems a distant relation of Marilynn Robinson’s Reverend John Ames. A good man, old now and feeling passed by, ruminating on the past and what he believes. Yet Bell has none of Ames’ gentle optimism for the future. He believes in tending to those in his county as a minister would tend to his congregation. But he has no hope now for what’s ‘comin down the pike’: ‘Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again.’
It’s a book that took me to places I’ve never been, and places I would never want to. Out hunting with Moss, I felt the pleasure of following someone with deep knowledge of the landscape and the wildlife. I picked up new-to-me words like pebbles for my pocket: caldera and talus; bajada and rincon; winegrass and sacahuista. I saw how much can be done with so little exposition, how far dialogue and pared-down description can carry you. I’m left with the image of the world vanishing through the eyes of a dying man as his killer stands above him watching his own reflection disappear in those same eyes. Maybe, one day, I’ll be ready for The Road.
I knew practically nothing about Cormac McCarthy. When I’d finished No Country For Old Men and I wanted to find out more about the creator of this bleak vision, I discovered that he had – to me – a most unlikely friend: Nobel-prize winning physicist, Murray Gell-Mann. When I was doing A-level physics I was taught by two wonderful women. One of them handed round photocopies of a text book photograph of Gell-Mann. ‘He looks so kind,’ she said. ‘It will be nice for you to have him smiling at you from your notes.’ And so, for a while, he was my good luck talisman. A few years later, B & I went to see him speak at The Royal Geographical Society. He was every bit as lovely as he had looked. I think he talked about his Roman coin collection. By then I knew him as the discoverer of the fundamental particle, the quark. (Named for ‘a quark for Mister Mark’ in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, but pronounced ‘quork’ by Gell-Mann, though all our lecturers said ‘quark’. Gell-Mann’s explanation is that he had the sound of the word in his head before he came across the line in Joyce which gave him the spelling.)
A final digression. In the descriptions of Moss hunting, McCarthy repeatedly uses ‘glassed’ as a verb for scanning with binoculars: ‘Moss…glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power german binoculars.’. It’s not a usage I’m familiar with, but I like it. Consulting the OED (the wonders of the internet & a library card!), I found glass as a verb, in this sense, as entry 4(c). The first quotation to support the usage? Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935), ‘We glassed the country.’. I have a hunch that Cormac McCarthy already knew that.
The tight buds on my Wildeve rose opened while I was away over the weekend. You can just make out the black spot too, though it’s described as a very robust and healthy rose. It reminds me of a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán which I sometimes used to visit on my way home from work. Those were the years when I walked across Trafalgar Square twice a day. Later, when I no longer made that exact journey, I wrote a poem about the painting. I loved it for its simplicity and mystery. Light and dark. Delicacy and practicality: the rose and the cup.
Zurbarán’s rose, if you picked it up, would lose its petals, and in today’s drizzle the petals have dropped from my rose onto the brilliant green of the rain-wet grass.
A Cup of Water and a Rose on a Silver Plate
how the streaming light is frozen
gracing the blown petals of the dusky rose
and illuminating the rim of the plate
and the dark so deep, the water
pure as the Virgin –
and no matter how many times
he wakes upon this earth
it will never be enough.
“Don’t have a kid until you have a book published,” she says. “Your life changes, you stop caring so much. Get a book out before, when you still think art is the most important thing.”
It’s half-term. The little ones are off school and it’s raining in an endless grey drizzle, a fine mist of water. We’re still having adventures (simple ones), and have had two picnics (coats on). Afternoon readings of Mrs Pepperpot are going down well. T, who had the stories read to her a couple of years ago and has now read them hundreds of times herself, calls out which story I should read next (‘The hospital one!’, ‘The one where she goes ski-ing, it’s right at the back of the book!’). The boys sit one on either side of me, until the Pip-Pop gets bored & wanders off to read his own books, and T sits at the end of the sofa knitting. Yes, really knitting! (It’s a scarf for Dog. There’s sometimes a sigh when she drops another stitch. The yarn is a blue acrylic that I imagine will be etched in her memory for years to come, just as I can still feel the intransigent cream cotton of my first dishcloth rubbing against my fingers.)
When I can, when I’m pretending to cook, I sneak into the kitchen and read the amazing essays on Literary Mothers – short pieces by writers (of all genders) on the female writers who have inspired them. Each time I do, I add another few books to those that I simply must read right now. I loved Helen Phillips on Jenny Offill (as quoted above), and both went straight onto my must-read list (all held in my head – surely not the most advanced tracking method). Nadxieli Nieto, founder of Literary Mothers, describes it as a political response to the lack of an acknowledgement of a female body of work:
There are enough brilliant female writers that no middle school, high school, college, or graduate school should ever want for female writers on their syllabi—the same can be said for writers of color and international writers in translation. I hear the protestations already…But they’re hard to find, but they’re out of print, but my students don’t want to read work by women, but I can’t think of any.
This is my answer—Literary Mothers: an Alexandria, a seed tray, a safe space where our gratitude and where we point it might have some cultural and political power. Let us thank the female writers who made our work possible, who made us who we are as writers and as humans. And let’s leave crumbs, a trail line for those coming up.
It makes me wonder who I would claim as my literary mothers (as a reader, if not a writer). And why do I find it hard to answer that question? Who are yours? If you know, the Literary Mothers project is open for submissions.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played until our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent streets.
from ‘Araby’ by James Joyce
It’s hard to come to a book without expectations. The author, the context in which you select the book (a review, a random find in the library or charity shop), the cover (oh, the cover!), the blurb – everything conspires to give you a sense of the space the book might occupy, the position it might take in the shelves of your mind. It’s even harder to come to a book without expectations when it was first published a century ago and has been discussed and written about ever since. And so it was with James Joyce’s early short stories Dubliners.
‘Araby’ was the only one of the stories that I’d read before. In fact, the only Joyce that I’d read before. It’s the story of a young boy’s determination to go to the bazaar (Araby) to buy a present for Mangan’s sister, a girl with whom he is quietly and desperately in love. I can remember not liking it, finding the ending abrupt and the overall effect not what I had imagined a James Joyce story to be. It’s one of the three stories written in the first person about childhood that start the book (the other stories are all third person and about adult characters). But this time, read in the context of the other boyhood stories, I loved it for its atmosphere, its perfected depiction of the dependence of childhood, of the impossibility of acting as we want to, when we want to. The boy, dependent on his uncle’s permission, arrives at the bazaar too late and – in one of those epiphanies that slightly make me cringe, even as I see where they are gesturing – faces himself as ‘a creature driven and derided by vanity’.
When I reached ‘The Dead’, the last of the fifteen stories, and read the opening line, ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet’, I had James Wood whispering in my ear, This is free indirect style…you know that no-one is literally run off their feet, this is what Lily would be saying to herself. (I’m paraphrasing How Fiction Works.) I had echoes of Charles Baxter’s essay ‘Counterpointed Characterization’ from Burning Down The House ringing distantly in my ears. I had just read David Shields’ Reality Hunger and the claim that when we reach the epiphany of the story the rest of the story falls away and is useless to us. And still, and still. Still I was transported, still I was carried to Dublin and to the night of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Still I was left wondering why I had left it so long.
There’s a certain despair in all of these stories. A colour, a feeling, an overwhelming atmosphere. The characters are all trapped: by their own addictions or natures, by their country, by poverty, by fate. Escape seems impossible. And so there is an endless perambulation of the city, and I wish that I knew Dublin well and could follow the paths of these characters as I can follow the route Mrs Dalloway takes through London. It had also escaped me that the stories would be so political, so involved with the question of Irish nationalism and the English domination of the country. Though this should not really have been a surprise at all.
There’s not much I can add, or would want to add, to what has been said about Dubliners. Except to say – if you haven’t already – read it, go there. Sometimes the shape a book occupies in our minds turns out to be completely different from the reality of the book. Which is perhaps just to state the obvious: it’s sometimes easier to spend time reading about a book rather than actually reading the book, but it’s rarely as valuable.
Entirely serendipitous to the timing of my reading of Dubliners, lots of things are happening to celebrate the centenary of its publication. (This is what happens if you leave a good book for long enough!) There’s an interesting looking free app from the Humanities Institute at University College Dublin exploring ‘The Dead’ through audio, images and commentaries. Equally intriguing is Dubliners 100 – ‘cover versions’ of the stories by fifteen contemporary Irish writers, edited by Thomas Morris. I recently read Morris’s excellent and funny editorial statement – ‘A Tingling Pleasure’ – at The Stinging Fly. He likens the submissions period to ‘one long curious birthday’ for the magazine editor before going on to say,
while I enjoy receiving what I have asked for (a CD, a bear clad in a tweed jacket, a 2,500-word neat and tidy short story about love and loss), it’s always so much better to be blown away by a gift—some strange but perfect object—I never knew existed, but now, gleaming there in my hands, already seems utterly essential, appears to have always existed, and makes me wonder how I ever got by without it.
Wonderful. And as true for readers as editors.
And so she is seven. It’s been a weekend of glorious weather: one day for parties; one for gardening. Twelve growing girls, and our own two small boys, ran wild in the back garden yesterday. Peg dolls were made, hula-hoops twirled, ice-cream eaten. Later, B & I went to a party of our own, and drank, and talked to friends, and stayed out in a magical garden until long after dusk had turned to darkness. And today, I planted out the sweet peas, some mange-tout, and a verbena bonariensis, watched and chatted to by the older of the small boys, while his little brother sat in the sandpit (eating sand as it turned out), and his sister devoured Ramona books one after another on the garden bench. The first vivid purple alliums are out, and the aquilegias, dusky pinks and purples, are nodding their bonnets.
But now the partying is over. And I’m planning an early bath and an evening with a long awaited book.
The Biscuit will be seven this week. Once she was only seven weeks. Let’s call her T to celebrate. Seven feels a big deal. Other years have passed with me thinking more of myself. A year, two years, five years ago today we still weren’t parents. I was five, seven, ten days overdue. I remember the feeling of being poised in free-fall, falling and yet not falling; and how, as the days went by, I felt less and less sure we would ever land. But this year, this year I think less about that. We have been parents forever, and it feels like her birthday is finally all about her.
She rolls her eyes at me. She tears out of school, just like Bella in Dogger. She reads until late in the evening, and then again when she wakes. She keeps a diary full of exclamation marks and cryptic remarks about how much fun she and her friends had at break-time. She still skips along when she’s happy. She is, in all essential ways, just as she always was. Last night in the bath she said, “I’m a bit sad to be leaving six, but I’m looking forward to seven.” Then she told me her theory of numbers: some are girls (2, 3, 4, 6) and and others she thinks are boys (1, 7, 9 and 10). “Well,” the Moose piped up from the toilet, “I’m four you know T and I’m a boy! So boys can be four.”
I can recommend seventeen months too. The Pip-Pop, like his big sister, is an early talker, an avid reader. Shirley Hughes’ Olly and Me series are his current favourites. He twists backwards and slides himself off the sofa to go and fetch another, then returns smiling triumphantly and holding his arms up to be lifted back onto my lap. “Ears!” he shrieks, grabbing mine. “No-o-o-o-!” pinching my nose. He sits in his highchair dropping bread onto the floor and smiling. “Brea- uh-oh. Uh-oh.” He’s pretty much irresistible. In the car on the way back from pre-school last week, the Moose taught him how to say ‘knock, knock’. Now his jokes are just as good as his big brother’s. (And at least shorter than his sister’s.)
Anyway, this just to mark the moment. And to remind myself how much easier it’s got in the last few months. There’s no sense now of the Pip-Pop being new. When I looked around the table at lunchtime on Saturday I saw three children, all making jokes, all joining in the conversation in their own way, all very much part of the gang. Just like the cat, the little ones go through phases of doing the same thing at the same time of day. This week, it’s all about the morning reading. As I prepare breakfast, T sits on the sofa, a brother on either side, and reads to them the books that I once read to her. My darling girl.
Lost In Living, confronts the contradictions inherent in personal ambition and self-sacrifice, female friendship and mental isolation, big projects and dirty dishes. The complex realities of family life unfold in this documentary film about the messy intersection of motherhood and artistic expression.
If the trailer is anything to go by, Lost In Living is the perfect movie for me right now. Filmmaker Mary Trunk followed four artists over seven years as they combined motherhood with art, two becoming mothers for the first time and two continuing their established careers with adult children. And it’s streaming for free this weekend here (4pm PST on Friday May 9th until midnight on Sunday May 11th). [Via the wonderful bluemilk.]
It’s been a tough week. Not for any reason in particular. Just hard to regain solid ground. Hard to move towards some sort of equilibrium after the Easter break. To reconcile myself to the limited time I have to read, to write, to idle. I’ve noticed that even in my daily writing (the fifteen minutes of something small), I don’t want to be fully alone with myself.
I try to trace these feelings of suffocation and constriction back to their source. They seem to be simply a rising panic, a strange desperate sense that I should be doing more. That something small is not enough. I feel like I’ve reached this point before: notebooks full of words; scraps and observations; ideas and beginnings. But nothing finished. Nothing complete. I start writing a poem in an old notebook. The poem on the page before is dated May 2009. Five years ago. Two children ago.
With time at my disposal, say an hour in the evening after the little ones are in bed & before B gets home, I find myself frantic with excitement, and yet full of disappointment for all the things that I can’t do simply because I have to choose one from among them. And then, the time has passed without anything of note accomplished. Just as in the days when the Biscuit was newborn, I’m blinded by indecision, overwhelmed by all the things that I could do, to the extent that I don’t actually do anything. Rachel Cusk describes exactly this feeling so brilliantly in A Life’s Work:
…it is when the baby sleeps that I liaise, as if it were a lover, with my former life…I dash about the house unable to decide what to do: to read, to work, to telephone my friends. Sometimes these pleasures elude me and I end up gloomily cleaning the house, or standing in front of the mirror striving to recognise myself.
What helps? Yoga last night: focusing on only my body. Compulsively reading Anne Truitt‘s Daybook (as recommended by Theresa, for which I’m incredibly grateful). More on this another time, but despite differences of generation, location, resources (she did have a live-in maid), reading her thoughts on integrating art and life (in particular life with small children) is helping immensely. Trying to go slowly, trying to be kind to myself – but to push myself too. Knowing that this stage is coming to an end. In September the Moose will start school. I will have two children in one place, apart from anything else saving six hours a week of driving to & from pre-school. Things will get easier.
I stepped out of the back door & took these photos earlier while the children were upstairs, already in their nightclothes, waiting for their bedtime drinks of milk. That helped too. A few minutes alone in the garden, just noticing. Watching how industriously the bee worked at those barely open flowers. Seeing how it never quite stopped moving. I just need to keep the faith.