Archives for the month of: June, 2013

This is one of those films that you are still thinking about, days after the event.

An autobiographical work, where various members of Polley’s family speak to the camera, the film attempts to piece together the story of the director’s mother’s life, as well as her own origins.

The film opens with an extended quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace:

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything about like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

Individually, we are all the sum total of a storied life and irrespective of the fact that the film focuses on one particular family and its story, there is much here that potentially holds resonance for all of us.

As such, the film has encouraged me to consider many things around the narrative form that our lives take.

As I have mentioned here before, I believe that we are born in the middle of someone else’s story. When exactly it becomes our own, when we can claim it as our own (and only ours?), I do not know. But I do know that I feel an increasing responsibility, and need, to reclaim my story, to shape it, and to write all headings for subsequent chapters.

Inevitably, (unanswerable) questions around ‘truth’ also arise. I am no longer sure that truth matters here. There is probably little that is true when we are dealing with the memories that inevitably shape our stories. Thus, truth as a end-goal feels like a self-defeating aspiration in this context.

Even if we are born in the middle of someone else’s story (and it follows that our stories too lead onto anothers), that feels ok. We can still take ownership, and reversion those bits where we have a starring role…


Japan is a country famous for suicide ( Its many suicide spots have become tourist attractions, including the Aokigahara forest, the Sea of Trees at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where bodies can lie undiscovered for months, and where tourists come to photograph corpses and to scavenge.

There is no religious issue about suicide in Japan, unlike in the West. On the contrary, the act of suicide is usually seen to restore honour, and is viewed more as a constructive than a destructive act.

A Japanese Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto, has set himself the task of confronting his country’s suicide culture. He conducts death workshops for the suicidal, where those affected are encouraged to imagine how they might feel if they were unexpectedly given a cancer diagnosis, with only three months, one month, one week, or minutes, to live. Within this imagined scenario, participants are challenged to consider how they might spend the limited time remaining in their lives. This approach, which encourages a shift of focus away from the desire to end life to a consideration of the act of living, appears to be both cathartic and therapeutic.

Nemoto did his training in a Rinzai Zen monastery, which was particularly rigorous and harsh – ‘Apprentice monks are treated like slaves on a brutal plantation’ – and seems to have had all the components of both extreme physical and psychological suffering. Few trainees manage to complete the programme. The aim of the training process is to eventually achieve a throwing away of the self, thereby ultimately discovering who you really are:

‘A well trained monk, it is said, lives as though he were already dead: free from attachment, from indecision, from confusion, he moves with no barrier between his will and his act.’

Nemoto is now abbott of a temple that is much less austere. Priests drink, smoke and marry, a deliberate move to ensure that they are not distancing themselves from their community.

In his work with those who feel suicidal, Nemoto advocates confronting rather than avoiding the fact of death. He has succeeded in opening up talking about dying, in a country where so many choose to kill themselves, and where notions of ‘talking therapies’ are far from commonplace. Nemoto has learned much about his own suffering since he embarked on this project. Initially, through his practice of Zen listening, he found that he became overly involved, and was deeply affected and distressed by every story he heard. He felt responsible for all those whose suffering he witnessed. He became seriously ill, with heart disease, and had to temporarily withdraw from the project. He was deeply shocked when his followers appeared to have no interest in his ill health, and persisted in seeking his help for their own needs, rather than enquiring about his. Nemoto felt he was dying, and that nobody cared, despite all that he had given of himself.

However, through this period of personal suffering, Nemoto discovered another truth: too much should not be weighted on the act of helping others; rather than it being something special or significant, helping others should be something one naturally does in the course of one’s life.

Today, following his recovery from illness, Nemoto only reaches out to those whom he physically meets. He no longer communicates by mail or email. As a result, those affected often have to travel very long distances, and need to be very committed, to seek him out in his temple. He interacts with fewer people, but Nemoto feels he achieves more. He also takes notes when listening to those who come to see him, an approach that has allowed him, he believes, to distance himself sufficiently from their distress and suffering. He also believes that such distancing has facilitated greater resolution for those he attends.

Nemoto ‘believes in suffering, because it shows you who you really are.’ I believe that to live, to truly exist, is to suffer, not in a penitential sense such as Nemoto might have experienced in his training, but in the sense that personal suffering, however one likes to interpret it (and it is a subjective experience in the end), is inextricably linked to living and to humanness.

Taking on the suffering of others, as Nemoto learned, can be a destructive and not altogether helpful act. Empathy, and the capacity for being there for the other, does not necessitate such…


I heard the American writer, activist and feminist Rebecca Solnit speak recently at the London Literature Festival. Since then I have read her current book, The Faraway Nearby, having previously read and loved an earlier book of hers, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

The Faraway Nearby did not disappoint. It is enigmatic, sometimes elusive, and ultimately stimulating and thought provoking.

The book was largely inspired by the unexpected gift of a (very large) box of apricots. This makes sense when you have read the book, the fruit bounty, symbolic of both abundance and decay, serving as a catalyst for this memoir/’anti-memoir’, which is in essence a series of connected personal reflections on stories and storytelling.

The fruit was shared and eaten, with some decaying before they could be enjoyed. Some apricots were canned, the jars and their contents mirroring the fate of stories, a preservation of something that would otherwise disappear.

And so, the stories of our lives preoccupy The Faraway Nearby, from its very first words:

‘What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.’

Our stories, and those we intersect with, create our connection with the world we inhabit:

‘You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.’

A significant thread that forms the backdrop to The Faraway Nearby is Solnit’s longstanding problematic relationship with her mother:

‘My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.’

At the time of writing Solnit’s mother had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and as a result was losing her stories, living increasingly in an ‘unremembered past.’

Solnit journeys far, both on the page to Frankenstein and Shelley, to Che Guevara, and to many fairytales and myths, and physically to Iceland, always considering stories, and the self along the way:

‘The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist.’

‘Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self, and to others.’

Solnit develops breast cancer  – ‘Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end…’ – and her experience of diagnosis and treatment leads to reflections on where an individual’s story is positioned in the face of illness:

‘The real story of your life is always all the way from birth to death, and the medical experts appear like oracles to interpret and guide even as they turn you from your familiar self, a dealer in stories, into mute meat, breathing or approaching last breaths.’

Empathy is inextricably linked to how we tell and hear stories. Considering doctors specifically, Solnit suggests that they need a ‘balance between empathy and separation, closeness and distance, to find the right distance at which to function best for their own and the patients’ well-being.’

Empathy for Solnit ‘is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel…’, or more lyrically, it is a kind of music akin to Wordsworth’s “still sad music of humanity”.

The capacity for empathy requires an imaginative leap. ‘…a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.’

Following on from a recent piece in the New Yorker (, which read as a cautionary note on how we perceive the benefits of empathy, particularly where it becomes our moral guide – ‘…empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future’ – I asked Solnit to comment on this perspective. She remains resolutely passionate about the importance of empathy in the creation of a humane society:

‘Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.’

There is much to consider in this relatively short book. Solnit brings you on a journey, where you feel guided through many imponderables, and less alone in your questioning and searching:

‘Books are solitudes in which we meet.’


I just heard that Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane won the 2013 International Dublin Literary Impac Award. I set out to read the entire shortlist of 10, but never quite got there. I abandoned two, completed six, and never got round to reading the remaining two.

City of Bohane was my favourite. It took me way outside my comfort zone, and I entered a world I never would otherwise have considered. It requires effort from the reader, at least initially. As Barry himself states, if we are willing to tackle the patois of The Wire, so too we might make the effort to enter the world of Bohane…

And it is absolutely worth it. A magical and transformative book, City of Bohane surprised, seduced and transported me.


I was intrigued by this alternative view on Alice Munro in the London Review of Books recently (

The author of the piece, Christian Lorentzen, claims to be confused by the consensus that surrounds the acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro, and how critics assert ‘her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness’ on the one hand, while at the same time encouraging us to see as virtues in her writing that which might otherwise be viewed as shortcomings:

‘So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels.’

‘She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental.’

‘She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people…’

Lorentzen has not enjoyed reading Munro’s work:

‘Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life.’

‘I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder.’

‘I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia…’

I have always been drawn to stories that feel realistic and believable. True, these narratives are often ‘pathos-delivering’, as Lorentzen describes Munro’s latest collection Dear Life. But, the tales that I can relate to and connect with do not make me feel sad, or sadder, or despondent. Rather, they reassure me that out there somewhere is a story and an experience that I can connect with, on some level. Such connection makes the world a less solitary place.

There is a bigger question here too, which is why do we read. Each of us brings our own agendas and individual needs to the page, be it escapism, a need to connect, or whatever. It is good that we are all such different readers and writers.

Ultimately, my experience reading Munro’s stories has been vastly different to that of Lorentzens. Take for example the story ‘Gravel’ from Dear Life, about which Lorentzen says little, apart from the three words ‘a child drowns’, which seem heavily weighted with his negativity towards Munro’s ‘pathos-delivering tales’.

I, on the other hand, remember something quite different from the same story:

‘”The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”’


I read this book almost in one sitting. It is that good.

Which isn’t surprising, as I have read and loved all of Jon McGregor’s books to date.

The title of the book is intriguing (and long, so it will be henceforth abbreviated to ‘This isn’t the sort of thing…’), and I am not sure I fully understand what it means or intends. Except that, perhaps perversely and ironically, what the book contains might just be the very sort of thing that actually does, or might, happen to me, or to you…

A collection of short stories that are in many ways connected, some very obviously so, ‘This isn’t the sort of thing…’ is quite an enigmatic and elusive book, yet also seductive, all of which are perhaps not unrelated.

The collection opens with the story That Colour, which launches the book both physically and thematically with the following sentence:

‘She stood by the window and said, Those trees are turning that beautiful colour again.’

The story ends ‘I said, But tell me again.’

This entrance establishes what was for me a recurring theme throughout the stories, the potentially destructive force of both the said and the unsaid.

We see it again in In Winter the Sky, where the unsaid reaches a critical urgency:

‘He had something to tell her.’

Sometimes, the telling only makes everything worse, which we witness in The Chicken And The Egg, where the protagonist works up to eventually sharing his secret phobia with his wife. When he finally unburdens, the sharing backfires, and he finds no safety or relief from the telling:

‘He hasn’t actually discussed it with anyone else since then, to be fair. He’s not at all sure it would help.’

Unsurprisingly, other stories weave a thread of deliberate silence. Close opens pointedly with the sentence:

‘She wouldn’t tell Patricia.’

There is also that which should never be said, as we see in Thoughtful:

‘She threw her pint glass across the garden and told him to just shut up.’

Avoiding and obstructing what someone else needs to say is the central theme of Vessel, where the tulips-bearing friend is ushered out the door before he can ‘say’ anything.

There is a profound sense throughout the collection that words can be dangerous and ultimately destructive. The need to share, to tell another, creates an urgency, which culminates in either silence or a saying aloud, neither act dissipating the fear they have arisen from. A sobering indictment on the possibilities of sharing and of trust.

I just came across this poem in the current issue of The New Yorker, and just love it. It is so eloquently sad and moving.

from Leçons De Ténèbres:

‘But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?’

‘…I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.’

‘… But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs

That have been taught to me by vanished time:

Not only to enumerate my wrongs

But to pay homage to the late sublime

That comes with seeing how the years have brought

A fitting end, if not the one I sought.’

Clive James