Archives for category: Fiction

It has been many years since I read Jennifer Johnston’s works – The Captains and The Kings and How Many Miles to Babylon? stand out in my mind. A couple of weeks ago I picked up The Christmas Tree (1981), which I had not previously read in a local bookshop.

When choosing a book to read, I realised some time ago that I gravitate towards titles where I hope to find myself within the text. This really struck me while reading The Christmas Tree – the central character Constance frequently reminded me of me.

A slight read in terms of length (183 pages), the book unfolds as Constance’s narrative, where she shares both her feelings about dying from leukaemia and her recent and long past memories. Constance is not old – her baby is nine months – but she has decided to face death without embarking on what she sees as futile treatment. This choice – a freedom of sorts – is resolute and critical, although Constance also realises how insignificant this personal sense of control ultimately is in the face of imminent death.

‘If only it were possible to choose your time to die, I thought, this would be a good moment. A time to be born and a time to die. Only you hadn’t the right to choose. All the other choices that you had fought to be allowed to make, were all irrelevant in the end. Someone else made this choice.’

Constance realises that this will be her last Christmas, and the book opens with a memory from her childhood.

‘It was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house.’

Constance’s sister Bibi hovers throughout, desperately hoping that she will change her mind and agree to a hospital admission. Bibi refuses to acknowledge the fact that Constance is dying. The sisters love each other, as siblings do even when there is little else to connect them.

Constance: ‘We have a lot of genes and some memories in common. That’s all.’

Constance left Ireland, for London, many years earlier, only now returning to Dublin to die. Bibi remained in Ireland, looking after their parents, particularly the protracted care of the slowly dying mother. Constance disagreed with Bibi’s desperate need to keep their mother alive at all costs, which undoubtedly contributed to her own decision to avoid such a fate.

‘I saw an old woman who should have been dead being kept alive and tormented by the whole process just to make you and all the doctors and nurses feel good.’

Constance also muses on ‘the road not taken’, particularly her decision many years earlier not to marry Bill, a local boy and now her GP, and friend, in her dying days.

‘Suppose I had married Bill and we had gone to Connemara and had six children, would we have been better people? Happier? Would I have comprehended more in that isolation than I succeeded in doing in the isolation I created for myself?  Would I have been able to write, in those circumstances, the books that I wanted so much to write? Damn fool questions with no answers.’

Constance is resigned to the process of dying, and what it necessarily, or so she believes, entails. She remembers the pains of labour – just months earlier – and how it had a pattern, a rhythm.

‘It didn’t frighten me, even when the pauses became inadequate for me to collect my equilibrium.’

But now is different.

‘I am frightened now. There is no rhythm now. I get no warning. It is like being eaten by some animal that tears at me until its hunger is temporarily satisfied and then it sleeps uneasily until the hunger starts again.’

‘I smell of death these days… It creeps out through my pores again and clings to my clothes contaminating anything I touch. It depresses me almost more than the pain.’

The ending is predictable, but not tragic. In fact, there is something hopeful and redemptive as Constance’s baby daughter appears and reminds us that our lives and stories can continue without our physical presence. We are all of us born into the middle of someone else’s story. These narrative threads, like silver linings, extend without us, and beyond.

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Tartt

I am going through a Tartt phase, non-chronologically.

I wasn’t sure about the most recent The Goldfinch (my first read, it just didn’t grab me), loved The Secret History (it surprised and seduced), and tonight have embarked upon The Little Friend.

Which brings me to openers. I am obsessed by first sentences and paragraphs. Think Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart:

“My father still lives back in the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down.”

Storytelling magic.

In Tartt’s The Little Friend, the opener is good, very good:

“For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it.”

Loaded.

Tantalising.

Irresistible.

 

CQ

Book

By chance, this is the second Margaret Drabble novel that I have read in recent weeks. I came across a second hand copy of the 1965 The Millstone in Paris a few weeks ago, a book I had not read for some decades.

The Pure Gold Baby was first published in 2013. Having just read two Margaret Drabble novels written almost 50 years apart, I can see both what seduces me in her writing, and also what can challenge the reader. Drabble’s prose tends to have minimal dialogue, and is both intense and dense in terms of content and word. Yet, to skip over a sentence or a paragraph renders the reading experience incomplete and much less satisfying.

As a result, reading The Pure Gold Baby, although a relatively short book at less that 300 pages, takes time and commitment. Which it deserves.

The novel tells the story, narrated by a friend, of Jess and her daughter Anna, the gold baby of the title. Anna was the result of a short affair between Jess, an academic and an anthropologist, and her professor. A delightful and good-natured child, it slowly became apparent that Anna had developmental problems – she was clumsy, uncoordinated, slow to walk and to talk, and never mastered reading. There was no definitive diagnosis, but a vague label of ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘special needs’, which necessitated alternative schooling and an inability to lead an independent life, hovered over Anna’s and Jess’s lives:

‘Anna’s condition did not seem to answer with any precision to any known conditions. Like the shoebill, she was of her own kind, allotted her own genus and species. She did not suffer from any metabolic disorder, of either rare or frequent incidence. Brain damage in the womb or at birth was not ruled out, but could not be confirmed…An obvious genetic cause was sought in vain.’

Anna’s problems were not immediately obvious, especially to strangers. As a result, no leeway was given to her, which caused much anxiety for Jess as well as confusion as to the extent to which she should protect her daughter from the insensitivity of others.

The story largely concerns Jess’s life as she watches over and protects her much loved daughter. Drabble’s narrative style fascinates – not just how she unfolds the lives and thoughts of her characters, but also the details she delivers on the society that her characters inhabit.

The Pure Gold Baby is set in an earlier mid/late 20th century England – ‘We didn’t known about cholesterol then. It hadn’t been invented’. It is also the tail-end of the era of asylums. Colney Hatch, the Friern Barnet asylum that had been purpose-built in 1850 was being slowly decommissioned at the time; ‘Colney Hatch’ at the time had become slang for ‘barmy’. There is also reference  to ‘the experimental programmes of R.D. Laing’, and his community based management of schizophrenics at Kingsley Hall:

‘ ‘Yes,’ said Susie, ‘Kingsley Hall was Liberty Hall, that’s what I heard. No rules, no discipline. The patients did what they liked; they didn’t have to take their medication if they didn’t want. They could stay in bed all day if they fancied. They could paint the walls with shit if they wanted.’ ‘

In part a social study against the backdrop of the evolving narrative of the lives of Jess and Anna, the novel also contains many literary and anthropological references, including Melanie Weiss’s Bagration Island, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and the writings of Proust and Wordsworth amongst many others.

The ‘new forms of asylum, of the communities of the mad where the sick were reborn or, as a phrase of the day had it, rebirthed’, took on a personal significance for Jess when her friend, the ‘depressed poet’ Steve, attempted suicide. Steve successfully recuperated in a new 1960s therapeutic unit in Essex. This event poignantly highlighted a significant different between Steve’s condition and Anna’s – ‘There was material in Steve’:

‘Anna’s condition was not very interesting, except to Jess. It lacked drama and progress and the possibility of a surprising or successful outcome…Whereas Steve was in need, and might respond to a cure, and in a suitable haven, recover.’

Much happens and challenges the day to day lives of Jess and Anna. But theirs is not an unhappy or ultimately sorrowful story:

‘I will leave [Jess and Anna] in mid-air, but you will know that they landed safely…’

Earlier, the narrator shares a more fatalistic viewpoint while listening to Sibelius:

‘The natural world would survive us whatever we did to it. We could cement and tarmac it over and turn it into a motorway a mile wide, but it would break through in the end. That’s what Sibelius was telling us.’

The Pure Gold Baby is a rich, textured and complex book. At the very least it is a story of mothering, of the challenges that face those who do not fit into our idea of ‘normal’, and of what loving and being loved can overcome. The personal also interweaves with a social and anthropological narrative.

I was consumed and enriched by the sum of much more than 291 pages of text.

 

CQ

 

I love Sebastian Barry’s writing. His prose is so lyrical and poetic, you do not want to miss a single word. Having enjoyed The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side, I very much looked forward to his new novel, The Temporary Gentleman. I read it in less than 24 hours and was not disappointed.

In many ways, it reminded me of John Williams Stoner as it also tells the life story – a tragic life story – of one man and his family. It differs in many ways also, not least because The Temporary Gentleman is narrated in the first person of the main character, Jack.

We follow Jack’s story as he begins, in his 50s or so, the retrospective diary of his life. It is a sad and mostly regretful life, not least because alcohol dominated throughout. It is this that I want to focus on here, how Barry depicts the tragic effects of alcoholism. The Irish and alcohol are intimately and historically interconnected, but Barry does not default to stereotyping. The tone throughout is empathic rather than judgemental, as the situation in which Jack and his wife Mai inescapably find themselves unfolds:

‘It was as if the bricks and mortar of the house itself were saturated in alcohol.’

‘To remember drunkenness is so difficult because it is really a form of human absence, a maelstrom that blanks out the landscape.’

Behind the alcohol is the story of a couple who have lost each other, and who fleetingly regain something in the shared camaraderie of drinking. But as drink follows drink, the inebriated state again turns them into enemies:

‘But the savagery, the gear of savagery. The subtle metallic click of the machinery, when the rack is brought to the starting point, and the ropes are tied to the body.’

‘The terrifying eloquence of the barely articulate drinker. Insults, that might have done as well in the form of a knife, fashioned into a great bludgeon, for fear it would not strike home…

…Turning ourselves night after night into monsters, the creations of some failed Frankenstein…

..Nothing left at the centre but the cinder of what had been, splinters of the lost panel depicting out setting forth nearly thirty years before, in heroic guise, on this darkening journey.’

‘In the morning — nothing ever mentioned.’

The darkness is infinite and the black hole in which Jack and Mai find themselves is bottomless. But there is redemption here, of sorts. And love. The Temporary Gentleman is perhaps not an uplifting read, but a necessary one.

 

CQ

‘Incognito’ means having one’s true identity concealed. Nick Payne’s play very much questions the notion of identity itself.

There are three interwoven stories in Incognito. Two are set in the 1950s and are based on real events. One focuses on the pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and subsequently stole his brain. The other story from that era tells us about Henry, who underwent pioneering surgery for epilepsy that left him profoundly amnesic. The third story is a present day one, and focuses on Martha who is a clinical neuropsychologist.

Harvey decides to steal Einstein’s brain in an attempt to undertake research that might explain what genius is and ‘looks like’ at a neuroanatomical level. It soon becomes apparent that there was more to Einstein than his genius, and that as a father he was often strange and cruel. What does ‘knowing’ someone really mean?

Martha has a client who confabulates. He has amnesia and his brain compensates by making up stories:

‘A damaged brain can continue to make sense of the world even if the patient can’t.’

Who are we? What part does memory play in creating our identity and our sense of self? Incognito raises these and other questions, which are most likely unanswerable, yet still important to consider.

Martha also considers the potential benefits of amnesia:

‘Imagine if you could, if you could forget all the embarrassing things you’d ever done…if you could forget all that trauma and pain’

For me, Martha had the most insightful land thought provoking lines:

‘The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a storytelling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.’

I am less fatalistic than Martha – ‘We are pointless. We’re a blip. A blip within a blip within an abyss.’ – yet I am also grateful to Nick Payne and Incognito for encouraging me to consider what it might, or might not, mean to be me.

The text for the play includes the following disclaimer:

‘Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several

true stories, this play is a work of fiction.

But then isn’t everything.’

 

‘Everything’ may well include ‘everybody’…

 

CQ

The Spanish-Argentinian writer’s most recent novel has three narrators, 10 year old Lito, his mother Elena and his father Mario. Mario is dying, and the three contemporaneous voices tell the story of this experience from their own personal perspectives, the stories sometimes running in parallel, sometimes tangential. This is a wonderful book, which somehow manages to capture in just 160 or so pages the individuality and the heterogeneity of our approaches to life, heightened here in the face of dying and death.

We are first introduced to Lito as he embarks on a road trip with his dad. Mario wanted to do this trip with his son, at least once, just like his own father had once done with him. Mario is clearly already very ill, and just about manages to complete the journey. There are no deep and meaningful father-son chats during the trip. The opposite in fact, as Mario has deliberately chosen not to tell Lito that he is dying, or even that he is seriously ill. Later, when Mario has been admitted to hospital for the last time, Lito is sent to his grandparents. From here, Mario, at this point very near death, questions whether keeping his son in the dark has been the right thing to do:

‘you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son?, yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am, I prefer you not to see me like this…’

Instinctively, one feels that the lies were a mistake, but it perhaps easy for someone outside the tragedy within which the family find themselves to make a cold-blooded judgement call. Lies beget more lies, which become increasingly complex and entangled the longer they are allowed to continue. After his father’s death, which Lito has been told was the result of a road traffic accident, Elena reports:

‘He asks me how such a big truck could get crushed. I tell him sometimes big things break more. He asks me why Pedro [his father’s truck] looks the same as before, if he had such a big accident. I tell him his uncle did a really good job fixing him up in the workshop.’

Mostly, Lito’s voice is simply that of a 10 year old child, caught in the reality of his own day to day life, which is, at least until the moment of his father’s death, uncomplicated by anxieties for the future, and still in possession of a naivety that allows life to continue unquestioned despite the fact that the worlds of those around him are collapsing.

In Mario’s chapters, he speaks directly to his son, as if writing letters to be read posthumously. Yet, despite this direct address, Mario already seems detached, not quite present. Perhaps the lack of punctuation in his chapters contribute to this, with the text flowing as a stream of consciousness away from him, as his strength and life progressively ebb from reach. Much of what he touches on seems too painful to stay with. Speaking of the lie that hangs around the story he and Elena have concocted for Lito about his illness:

‘…I’d give anything to know what’s going to happen to this lie, what you’ll think of me when you discover it, you’ll have a few photos of me…but I have no way of seeing you, I mean will you be a nice guy or a rogue…’

Reflections on suffering and the aftermath of being given his prognosis are particularly moving:

‘…the worst of it is that I’ve learnt nothing from all of this, what I feel is bitterness, before…I though suffering was of some use…a bit of suffering in exchange for a conclusion…crap, it’s all crap…’

‘…from the moment they diagnose you, the world immediately splits in two, the camp of the living and the camp of those who are soon going to die, everyone starts treating you like you’re no longer a member of their club, you belong to the other club now, as soon as I realized this I didn’t want to say anything to anyone, I didn’t want pity…’

‘…I don’t want to touch anything that’s part of my body, everything in my body is my enemy now, this is what it is to be dead.’

For me, the most captivating voice was that of Elena. She raises many issues around the witnessing of dying, and the complexity of emotions, which can be contradictory and inconsistent, that can accompany this experience. Elena’s chapters are a rich source of references to authors who has written around the subject, as she questions what is happening to Mario and to all their lives in the face of his dying.

Quoting John Banville, Elena speaks of the effect of Mario’s diagnosis:

“It was as if a secret had been imparted to us dirty, so nasty, that we could hardly bear to remain in another’s company yet were unable to break free”

“From that day forward all would be dissembling. There would be no other way to live with death”

Elena also speaks of the divisiveness of serious illness, how it has distanced herself from Mario, at times even alienating each from the other:

‘It drives me crazy when Mario assumes that controlling attitude of his. As though illness depended on our level of composure. Mario is brave, his brothers keep repeated like parrots. If he were as brave as all that, he would weep with me each time we speak.’

‘When I go into the room, dressed in clothes he likes, my hair styled for him, I can sense resentment in his eyes. As though my liveliness offended him.’

So much of the loss around death and dying can happen before physical death itself:

‘By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little.’

‘By caring for our sick person, we are protecting their present. A present in the name of the past. What am I protecting of myself? This is where the future comes in…For Mario it is inconceivable. He can’t even speculate about it. The future: not its prediction but the simple possibility of it. In other words, its true liberty. That is what the illness kills off before killing off the sick.’

‘For us carers, the future widens like an all-engulfing crater. In the centre is already someone missing. Illness as a meteorite.’

Inevitably, the aftermath rests with Elena:

‘If death interrupts all dialogues, it is only natural to write posthumous letters. Letters to the one who isn’t there. Because he isn’t. So that he is. Maybe that is what all writing is.’

As Elena looks at photos of Mario when he was well, she questions the truth of what we remember:

‘Looking at you again when you were beautiful, I wonder whether I am celebrating or denying you. Whether I am recalling you as you actually were or forgetting you when you were sick. Reflecting about it today…the biggest injustice about your illness was the feeling that this man was no longer you, that you were gone. But you weren’t: he, this, was my man. Your worn-out body. The last of you.’

A gem of a book, which haunts and lingers…

 

CQ

 

Although long aware of the Irish author Niall Williams, I had never read any of his novels. The arrival of his current book History of the Rain prompted me to explore his earlier work.

I started with Only Say the Word, and loved it, finishing it in less that 24 hours. It feels as if every book this year reminds of another author’s work, coincidentally also Williams, John, and his novel Stoner, which I have previously spoken about here [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/]. Only Say the Word and Stoner are very different, but they do share a common theme of following one man’s life, and the influences and events that impacted on the life in question. In addition, both John Williams and Niall Williams are masters of a style of prose that seduces the reader willingly and complicitly into the life of the protagonist.

Niall William’s narrative tells the story of Jim, opening with the words:

‘I do not know what to write. There have been so many words written already. So many endings and beginnings. I have lost my faith.’

We are immediately introduced to the acute cause of Jim’s sadness, which is the loss of his wife Kate, mother of his young children:

‘And so I sit here, and feel your absence and wonder how to begin to live without you.’

As Jim commits his story to the blank page, his life up to now is revealed. We learn of his childhood in Ireland, with his devout mother who seemed to exist in a haze of sadness, his kind but distant father, his genius and troubled brother, and his baby sister Louise. It is a relatively calm and untroubled childhood, until:

‘And in that same passing of time, the same even measurement in which one moment seems identical to the next but is not, our life is struck and falls apart.’

Tragedy happens, from which nobody truly recovers. Jim partly blamed himself, as children tend to do, and it was not a family where such feelings were expressed or acknowledged:

‘In our family we are each like boats slipped from the moorings, out in deep water, and utterly separate or tangled in our own nets of grief and loss. We live together in the house but are each alone.’

Jim copes by escaping, initially through books and reading, and later physically, when he leaves school.

We follow Jim’s life, and his attempt to make sense of it as he commits the telling of it to the page. Jim is a more accessible character than John William’s Stoner, yet that is not the point. Liking someone is not critical for empathy, which only demands an authentic emotional connection with the suffering of another. Jim (and in essence Niall Williams) goes a step further. By sharing his story, and in particular the redemptive possibilities of caring and of love, hope is ultimately acknowledged and embraced.

 

CQ

I have just finished this book in almost a single reading session. It is enthralling. I cannot remember why or how I came upon it, but I am so glad that I did.

Elizabeth Strout is a Pulitzer-Prize winning American author who I has not come across before. The Burgess Boys is predominantly about two brothers, now middle-aged adults, and how their shared past impacts on their current lives and on the lives of those around them. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It touches on so many issues, particularly relationships and family, and our expectations and need for both.

What I want to share for now is a brief reflection on loss, and its aftermath, which I found particularly moving and beautiful:

‘But Bob was not a young man, and he knew about loss. He knew the quiet that arrived, the blinding force of panic, and he knew too that each loss brought with it some odd, barely acknowledged sense of release. He was not an especially contemplative person, and he did not dwell on this. But by October there were many days when the swell of rightness, loose-limbedness, and gentle gravity came to him. It recalled to him being a child, when he found one day he could finally color within the lines.’

 

CQ

IMG_0673

If, like me, you thought John William’s Stoner [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/] was one of the best books you have ever read, check out Train Dreams. It is a very different read, at a mere 116 pages, but Stoner was much in my mind while experiencing Train Dreams. It may well be the fact that both follow the life of one man, an alone and ultimately tragic (or so it seems to me) figure. It is also not luck that brought Train Dreams to my attention. The same person who gifted me Stoner recommended Denis Johnson’s work. Such is the magic of the reading experience. It connects people and events and episodes in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

I am not sure how much I liked the central character in both books (Howard Jacobson would probably say that the need to like characters misses the whole point of writing and reading), yet this did not stop me connecting with each and both, and with their stories of living and suffering.

Train Dreams opens with the ending of a stranger’s life:

‘In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.’

It ends:

‘And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.’

The intervening 100 pages or so follow Grainier’s adult life, which is dominated by loss, hardship and solitude. Yet Grainier is not a victim. He lives his life as he does and must, without questioning his suffering. He does, however, ultimately release and express and share what he has been holding within, in a way that is both surprising and beautiful.

Both Stoner and Train Dreams inevitably raises questions about what constitutes a life. Certainly, a life can be told in 100 pages, or 300, or whatever length. But what Williams and Johnson, exceptionally and in very different ways have done, is to share the essence of a lived life, the somethings that touch on and reach out to a humanness in us all.

 

CQ

 

The fact of dementia is inescapable, as its incidence threatens to reach epidemic proportions in the not too distant future.

Thus, unsurprisingly, dementia as a theme is increasingly prevalent in the arts, including literature, theatre and the visual arts. I discussed the artist William Utermohlen in a previous post, and the impact of dementia on his life and creativity (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/art-and-alzheimers/). I have also experienced wonderful theatre that has focused on the subject, such as Tamsin Oglesby’s Really Old, Like Forty Five (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/dementia1/), and Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/dementia-autobiographer/).

A few years ago I came across a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/10/21/131021fi_fiction_munro). The story was later adapted for the film Away from Her (2006), which was directed by Sarah Polley.

The short story concerns Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years, and do not have any children. When Fiona was 70, Grant started to notice little yellow notes stuck all over the house. The notes were detailed and included prompts on where to locate household items as well as aids for remembering what her daily schedule should be. Fiona then started to call Grant from town when she could not remember how to get home. Fiona herself comments:

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

The forgetfulness and memory loss get worse. Eventually, the time arrives for Fiona to move to institutional care at Meadowlake, where she creates her own and not unhappy life, separate and detached from Grant. The story is a profoundly moving and sad portrayal of love and of loss.

Today I read a more recent short story by Munro from her collection Dear Life. In In Sight of the Lake (reminiscent of Meadowlake in the earlier story), Nancy’s story slowly unfollows as one also of dementia, or of a ‘mind problem’ as she herself sees it, although then correcting herself: “It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.”

In Sight of the Lake is a more obtuse and enigmatic piece than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and it only really reveals itself at its denouement. Nonetheless, it is every bit as moving and as touching as its thematic predecessor, and leaves much to consider about the far-reaching and tragic impact of dementia, a condition that perhaps few of us may ultimately escape.

CQ