Archives for category: Literature

image1

As I sort and pack books, I cannot help but leaf through many, mainly to remind myself what they were all about (sometimes I think that I have read too many books, and as a result do not always remember the content). Just now, I came across Immortality, published in 1992. On the opening page, we are introduced to a woman – who ‘might have been sixty or sixty-five’ – being observed having a swimming lesson by the writer/the ‘I’ of the narrative. He focuses on a gesture she makes at the end of the lesson – smiling and waving to the lifeguard as she leaves. The narrator is moved by the gesture:

“That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment.”

He continues:

“There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.”

This passage affirms my theory that we read to find and recognise ourselves. I, of course, am that woman, momentarily escaping the constraints of biological age. I like what Kundera says about existing outside of time, and being ageless, although I suspect that society – which includes ourselves – enforces a pretty constant reality check on how we are perceived by others. Thus, being ageless is a rare luxury.

But I also find myself a little angry with Kundera when he appears to pass judgment on the charmlessness of the woman’s face and body because of age, which has also denied her her beauty. Being middle-aged myself, I no doubt take a sensitive and defensive stance on such attitudes.

Perhaps I should suspend my own judgement until I finish re-reading the book.

 

CQ

Advertisements

I have spent much of my life alone. Mostly by choice. This might suggest that I am a reclusive solitary. I don’t believe so. My world is very often a peopled one. I am, nonetheless, quite content to spend long periods on my own.

Of late, I have been questioning that blurry distinction between aloneness and loneliness. I will be relocating later this year to another city, another continent. London has suited my need to be alone, and I have rarely felt lonely here. But then, being alone, or not, was usually a choice rather than an imposition. My daughter, and only child, is about to leave home. I have lived with her for 19 years, and although our lives are lived increasingly in parallel, her vague presence has no doubt protected me from many potential moments of loneliness.

Heading off to another place and another way of living, aloneness, and perhaps loneliness, may be forced upon me unless I make heroic efforts to ensure otherwise. The evidence suggests, strongly, that the more socially active we are, particularly as we age, the less likely we are to become depressed, and the more likely we are to delay the onset of cognitive impairment, and even possibly dementia.

I have been reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The tagline for the title is Adventures in the art of being alone, thus suggesting a conflation of both terms, ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’, and an implication that they might be synonymous. I wonder whether I have tried too hard to see them as separate and distinct entities – aloneness being ok, even noble, while loneliness suggests an element of the loser. My own adjudication.

IMG_0408

I am only a third of the way through Laing’s book, an intriguing read thus far that looks to art, both the works and its creators, in an exploration of loneliness, and how inextricably linked it is to the essence of humanity .

Laing reflects that ‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.’

True. I remember after my marriage ended, being acutely aware of my aloneness when witnessing the togetherness of couples and families so omnipresent in the urban setting.

As I read Laing’s thoughts on art, Alice Neel comes to mind. Her painting Loneliness has always resonated with me, signifying an emptiness that being alone can instil, and also now suggesting an intertwining of aloneness and loneliness that I hadn’t hitherto appreciated.

19ae78b515b8d8347812fa0886e8f7f4

I also think of poetry, particularly Carol Ann Duffy’s Practising Being Dead, which ends:

‘Nobody hears

your footsteps walking away along the gravel drive.’

I suspect that the arts – music, literature, cinema, theatre – have protected me from loneliness. When I find connection within the words of others, I am in a peopled place.

I have spent many hours over the past years in my little study, which is overcrowded with books. As I begin the process of packing up, I am gradually gifting them to friends and charities.

image1

It feels a little like losing friends somehow. These shelves have been weighed down by books that have kept me company for many years. The people, thoughts and adventures they contain have transported me to alternate realities, and alongside keeping me company, that have also allowed me to imagine, to dream, and to be hopeful.

Even hopeful enough to consider writing my own book.

 

CQ

 

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.

Following on from my last blog piece on ageing, I came across an interesting book review in this week’s issue of the Lancet. Desmond O’Neill speaks about Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten by Linda and Michael Hutcheon.

The book I will check out for sure, but for now I particularly like Desmond O’Neill’s positive take on ageing:

“By reframing old age in terms of potential rather than problems, it counters those who portray ageing in terms of unmanageable deficit and loss. Creativity also illuminates the complex interplay of growth, loss, and transcendence in later life.”

 

CQ

 

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

image1 (1)

image1

Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’

image1

CQ

Being able to ‘read’ and to understand the language of pain and suffering is for me an essential life goal.

Below is a link to a recently published personal reflection on how I started on this journey.

http://www.hektoeninternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1746

CQ

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano died this week. I love his writing, my favourite being The Book of Embraces. I have bought numerous copies of this title over the years, all but one of which I have given to family and friends. It is that kind of book: true to its title, it demands sharing.

The Book of Embraces defies classification, being partly prose, poetry, fiction, history and autobiography. At a very rough guess it contain more than 200 entries, the longest just two pages in length.

Some of my favourites:

Dreams at the end of the exile/1

Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it and sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.

Grapes and wine

On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela’s ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

The grape,” he whispered, “is made of wine.

Marcela Perez-Silva told me this, and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell who we are.

Resurrections/1

Acute myocardial infarct, death clawing at the center of my chest. I spent two weeks sunk in a hospital bed in Barcelona. Then I sacrificed my tattered Porky 2 address book, which was falling apart, and although I could not help it, as I changed address books, I relived the years since the sacrifice of Porky 1. While I was transferring names, addresses and telephone numbers to the new book, I was also getting a clear perspective on the muddle of times and people I had been living with, a whirlwind of many deep joys and sorrows, and this was a prolonged mourning for the dead who had remained in the dead zone of my heart, and a long, much longer celebration of those still alive who fired my blood and swelled my surviving heart. And there was nothing bad and nothing odd about the fact that my heart had broken from so much use.

CQ

An interesting piece on ‘last words’ in The Conversation [http://theconversation.com/that-final-vowel-reading-seamus-heaneys-last-poem-32539] encouraged me to reflect on, not so much final words themselves but more how we interpret them. I suspect this is particularly true when we consider the poet.

When Seamus Heaney died, much attention was given to the last words he uttered, via text, to his wife: ‘Do not be afraid’. Heaney actually typed the words in Latin, ‘Noli timeri’, which, ironically given the poet’s own superlative classical translation expertise, was misspelt in various media transcriptions [http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/how-so-many-people-got-seamus-heaneys-last-words-wrong/279330/].

As The Conversation article suggests, Heaney’s last poem – a mediation on a painting of a canal by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte and completed just 10 days before the poet’s death – cannot escape being analysed in the context of the imminent demise of the poet’s voice. I have always struggled with this issue, which is that we too often gravitate towards a contextual interpretation of poetry, as if the words alone, unexplained, are not enough. For my MA dissertation I argued that the work of Robert Lowell was inappropriately and unfairly adjudicated against the background of the poet’s bipolar condition. I argued for an appreciation of his works purely in the context in which the poet himself presented them.

It is tempting and too easy to over interpret, to satisfy a base and human need to explain everything away. Which goes against the very essence of poetry, where words can stand defiantly alone, and have the power to transport you elsewhere, and manywhere, as such.

Heaney:

‘A poem should take you somewhere different…a poet should be the one least likely to step into the same river twice.’

 

CQ

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