Two DNFs

When you hate a book, it’s always personal, I think. By which I mean that the book cannot possibly be as bad as you think it is – the hatred and dislike arise from whichever personal nerve has been tweaked, and reading through the subsequent red mist is never going to be rewarding.

adam gopnik winterIt’s quite rare for me to hate a book, but when Adam Gopnik’s Winter; Five Windows on the Season came along, it very rapidly fell into that rare category. I did not even manage to make it to the very end of the first chapter. I had three attempts at reading that chapter and any number of refusals at picking it up. The book arose out of a series of lectures that Adam Gopnik gave. Knowing that publication would be simultaneous with the lectures, he actually prepared the material that formed the basis of the book well in advance, and delivered improvised speeches to friends and family in his living room. In the introduction he writes: ‘These chapters are meant to sound vocal, and I hope that some of the sound of a man who has boned up on a subject – in several cases, just boned up – and is sharing the afternoon’s enthusiasm with an evening’s friends is still in place.’

He really need not have worried: he meets his own criteria perfectly. But he would have done better to include a few enemies amongst his audience of friends. What follows is, to my mind, the exact replica of those 70s slide show evenings, when the neighbours would bore their hosts rigid with photos from trips abroad. It’s like Adam Gopnik came for a visit inside my head, saying ‘Hi, I’ve just taken a fabulous trip through the world of art and brought back a few pictures, poems and pieces of music I’d love to share with you.’ And then for what seems like forever, he witters on about each slide, roughly grouped together under a theme – in the case of the first chapter ‘Romantic Winter’ – though you learn nothing from this whistle-stop tour with an amateur tour guide. It’s such a lazy format, and the insights gleaned from skating lightly over the top of so much ground just aren’t worth it.

But let’s be fair here; on the grounds that it can’t possibly be as bad as I thought it was, I should state my personal investment. I’ve spent the past five years hearing from agents and editors that immense care must be taken when transferring academic-type writing on art and literature into the commercial arena. No one’s interested in the old school style any more, it’s got to be new, bright, fresh, different. Okay, fine – I quite agree. So why make me read through this kind of tedious McRomanticism which is, to my mind, gaspingly old and sterile? Oh but feel free to go ahead and read it – and enjoy it, too. The problem with ranting reviews is the same as for gushing ones – they’re written from extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, and it’s highly unlikely that subsequent readers will find themselves in the same place, particularly not if they’re expecting it. With my own thoughts on the book in mind, I picked it up and flicked through it, and it didn’t seem so bad. Though I do have a theory that it reads better backwards; that way you’re not waiting for an argument to be developed.

lessons in frenchThe next DNF was, thankfully, not dreadful, it was just a terminal case of the ‘meh’s’. Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French is a coming of age story about Kate, an American student who bags herself the holiday job of her dreams with ‘difficult’ photo journalist, Lydia Schell. The Berlin wall is coming down, Salman Rushdie’s in hot water, and Lydia is rushing about trying to make serious art out of these situations, leaving Kate in charge at her apartment in Paris. There Kate finds Lydia’s husband, Clarence, who is an academic with writer’s block, and Olivier, who is the boyfriend of Lydia’s troubled daughter, Portia. Kate immediately falls for Olivier (who is headed back to America) and then spends a lot of time angsting about what she may have ‘done’. And angsting about the difficult/inappropriate jobs Lydia asks her to do.

I picked this up thinking it would be a fun, jolly sort of read and it began that way. The main problem is that it suffers from too many ‘first novel’ issues. The writing is very patchy – there are a lot of nice sentences, but also far too much awkward, implausible dialogue, and the whole thing never really coheres into a compelling story. Then, there are all sorts of issues with character, most of which fall under the banner of ‘determined to make her characters “sympathetic” they become dull and incoherent.’ Oh this sympathetic character thing! Somehow the word ‘sympathetic’ had become unhitched from its mooring and taken on a demonic half-life of its own. I think it has come to mean: ‘characters who behave with the kind of integrity and moral courage that the vast majority of us could never access in the moment.’ But much worse than that, I think it’s taken the word ‘interesting’ hostage. What we really want is interesting characters, not sympathetic ones. In Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant novels there is always one character I loathe with a virulent passion. It means I cannot put the book down, because the idea that this character’s schemes might dominate the outcome and ruin the lives of those around him/her is quite intolerable. I have to read on to see that awful person (hopefully) defeated.

What’s a book without a decent villain? Or without a situation that poses a truly stark or upsetting ethical conflict? These things are incompatible with a bunch of characters for whom we are obliged to feel ‘sympathy’ all the time. Kate ends up beige bland, and Lydia is not the demon boss I had hoped she might be, just self-absorbed and pretentious. I would probably have limped to the end of this one if I hadn’t had quite so many books I needed to read. But about halfway through I began to feel that life was very short.

In all fairness, these books had the misfortune to arrive in my hands when I wanted something specific from them – I wanted delicious enlightenment from Winter, and I wanted entertaining comfort from Lessons in French. I did not read them in the spirit of ‘don’t know much about this, but let’s see where it goes,’ which is by far and away the most productive attitude for reading. So they already had high hurdles to clear, and they should be viewed more gently because they had to suffer my demands.

The Landscape of Colette

Colette's FranceI have been a very bad blogger of reviews lately, choosing far too often to witter on about life (because it is shamefully easy to do) rather than make the small amount of effort it takes to write something coherent about a book. For this reason, I finished Colette’s France; her lives, her loves by Jane Gilmour several days before Christmas and am only just now getting around to assessing it.

This is a sumptuously beautiful book. A hardback with a floral border on all its pages, it is packed full of glorious photos of Colette and the places she lived, some from the time she lived in them, some from the present day when the author undertook her pilgrimage around the sites of Colette’s life. Really, it’s gorgeous, and the idea of illustrating the life of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted writers on nature and landscape is an excellent one. One of the great pleasures of Colette’s prose is her ability to conjure up places, sensations and vistas; she was a very visual and sensual writer who openly gorged herself on beauty. The way this book has been designed does great justice, I think, to that side of her work.

Author, Jane Gilmour, was a Colette scholar in her youth. But having finished her dissertation on Colette at the Sorbonne in Paris – in the late 60s, early 70s when the Left Bank was the pulsing hub of intellectualism – she left for Australia with her husband and a very different sort of life. The years passed and that first marriage ended. But gradually the idea returned to her to journey in the footsteps of Colette, and as she undertook a series of trips to France with a new partner, sharing her Francophile enthusiasms with him and revisiting the salient locations in Colette’s life, so the idea of a book became a reality.

I began to see Colette’s life emerging through the prism of the different places in which she had lived – the places of her heart – each representing a particular period in her life and particular relationships, each profoundly influencing her writing, and each so vividly evoked in the shapes, colours, perfumes and sounds of her prose.’

What follows is a memoir shaped by the houses of Colette’s life, which do seem naturally to mark out quite different eras. From the Burgundy of her childhood, steeped in vineyards and the crippling demands of respectability (demands which her family singularly failed to meet), Colette moved with first husband, Willy, to the centre of artistic Belle-Époque Paris. Whilst a great deal of her career would necessarily take place here, Colette was essentially a country woman who needed her rural retreats. Husbands and lovers were more than willing to provide them for her. Willy bought her a little house (not so little by today’s standards) in the Franche-Comté region east of Paris, a lushly forested area bordered by mountains. Missy, the lesbian lover she left him for, built her a seaside house in Brittany, which Colette refused to give back when they eventually split. Her next husband, the wealthy and aristocratic Henry de Jouvenel opened the doors of Castel-Novel to her, his family seat – complete with ivy-covered turrets and rows of ornate balconies – in the lush heat of the Limousin. Her third husband introduced her to the pleasures of Province, where she bought for herself La Treille Muscat, a pretty gorgeous villa in the shade of pine forests that overlook the Mediterranean. Old age and the second world war found her fixed in Paris, refusing to move away from the source of her work and finding comfort in the community of apartment dwellers in the Palais Royale.

The first thing that struck me was what a lucky woman Colette was to live is a series of amazing houses in lovely locations. The second was how many different lives Colette had managed to cram into her eighty-odd years. I confess I knew that about Colette already; what I hadn’t realised was how she changed the theatrical backdrop to her life with each reincarnation of herself, and how that must have helped her with the chameleon grace that she felt was so essential to female survival in the world. Colette was proud of her pragmatic peasant mentality, as she called it, and fascinated by the immediate. You might describe her as living in the moment, which undoubtedly facilitated her abilty to slip out from under the guilt she really ought to have felt about the way she treated people. Like most memoirs, this is a sympathetic portrait of Colette, but Jane Gilmour does admit in her conclusion that Colette surprises the avid reader of her work by turning out to be, at her worst, hard-headed, grasping and selfish. But stubbornly following her own star certainly gave Colette the best life she could have dreamed of, and by graft and determination, she certainly had plenty of rooms of her own to write in – while poor old Virginia Woolf pondered how difficult that was for a woman in polite and convention-bound England.

The biographical part of the book is a good, accurate and satisfying account of Colette’s complex and varied life. I have to admit that the prose is a bit pedestrian and the writer doesn’t always delve as deeply as I might have liked into the links between writing and life. The translations of Colette seem a tad stilted, too. But this is a book that sort of hovers around the coffee-table genre, and as such you get plenty of fascinating information to go with its gloriously decorative function. For an easy and enjoyable introduction to Colette’s life, and plenty of location-lust, you couldn’t do better.

 

So, The Writing Course

For all the uncertainties I had at the start, I am very glad that I did the writing course. There is nothing like being forced outside of your comfort zone to make you pay attention and learn new things. Plus, for fatally curious people like me, there’s always an intriguing narrative to be uncovered when a bunch of strangers get together. On this occasion, what made the course a pleasant experience – a group of quiet, polite and well-mannered participants – reduced the potential for good anecdotes afterwards. Out of a group of 12 there was only one person by the end who I really didn’t like and only one person who semi-dropped out. I thought that was pretty good going.

We were trying our hands at three different techniques. The first was braiding two or more lines of narrative. This was by far and away the technique I found most difficult and my first attempt at it was frankly a mess. I had a look around the internet and came across an extremely useful piece of advice. Take each line of narrative separately, this author suggests, write each story out individually and only then combine the two and tweak from there to make them speak to each other. This made all the difference to me. I rewrote the piece almost entirely, and found it worked much better. Call me sick, but I really enjoyed the process of getting this wrong and then figuring out how to make it right. It reminded me how inordinately satisfying it is to learn, if you can give yourself plenty of licence to make mistakes. Plus I’d gone into the course uncertain whether I’d be able to write anything at all, so the sheer relief of completing an assignment gave me a boost.

The second technique was incorporating research. I felt that this one ought to be a doddle for me as it’s generally what I do. So I thought it might be the moment to pick more challenging content and decided to write about the experience of chronic fatigue. Well, by the time I’d reached the end of the first draft, I realised that fifteen years of experience could not be fitted into 3,500 words. You might think I’d have figured this out beforehand, right? Well, I already knew that writing is like taking a pencil torch into a windowless cellar. The thin beam illuminates a contour here, a detail there, the shadowy mass of an object in the far corner, but a full picture of the entire room is out of the question. The first draft is like putting a burning torch in a wall bracket, but you never really get to see everything. I never expected to write the entire cellar, but I’d believed I could pack in more than I could. To swap metaphors a moment, I thought I might be able to write the piece like skimming a stone, glancing off the biggest ripples across that sea of time. But no. Once again I had a 3,500 word mess on my hands.

The answer was to go smaller and more detailed. I figured I’d only be able to write half of an essay at best with so few words at my disposal. So I spent a lot of time trawling the past in my mind, trying to find the scenes where the material was full of the ineffable. I’d been a bit unsure about tackling this subject in the first place, but my fellow participants and the instructor had assured me that writing lends distance and emotional liberation, and putting it down in words is a way of saying goodbye. I sort of agree, but it works best when an episode in life is over and finished. And whilst I am sure I’m in the end game of chronic fatigue here, I don’t think it’s exactly the end. Writing the theoretical parts was, by contrast, a delight. Unfortunately, I did them too quickly. I finished the assignment, and it was okay, and I submitted it. But was it a coincidence that shortly afterwards, I must have trapped the nerve in my neck that led to my bruised nerve in my gum and my sore arm? ‘Those nerves must be really irritated,’ the osteopath said to me (and they still are troublesome). And what was the feedback? Less theory and more you! my readers cried. I gulped and decided not to finish the essay during the course, on the grounds that so much emotional liberation might kill me.

By the time I was in any sort of state to write my third and final essay, I had five days left before the deadline and still had a jangling tooth, a sore arm and no idea what to write. The course participant I did not care for had annoyed me by leaving a highly critical comment of the reading we’d been assigned. It had not been to her taste, and so therefore she declared it bad, and demanded to know why we had been given it to read at all. My nerves were already irritated and so I was not impressed by such an attack of solipcism. Around that time I read a phrase on a blog that really struck me: empathy is the job of the reader. How I wish I remember where I read it! That phrase saved me. The assignment was to write an essay that moved about freely in time and I decided to write about the experience of extreme empathy, both as a reader and as a mother. I knew I had one shot at getting it right, wrote a steady 700 words a day and produced my best essay of the course. Isn’t that ironic? I thought that if, as I had often suspected, I did my best work up a corner with everything stacked against me, it was time to retrain as a plumber. That was not a deal with destiny I was willing to make.

So what did I learn? Well, I learned that you can say a great deal less in 3,500 words than you think you can, thus the skill is in knowing what to leave out. I learned that a good scene can do an immense amount of work for you. I learned that the past is stored in more detail and intensity than we think, but that looking back over it is never easy. I learned that I can write more to order than I feared I could (I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it at all). And I learned that other people’s problems are far more entertaining to me to write about than my own. The best part of the course was an experience that I wasn’t expecting. The emphasis throughout was on slowing down and taking the time to figure out what we really wanted to write about. The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth. Like all the best art, that concept has a lot to say about life. And that’s why art is not some frippery or foible, but deeply worthwhile.

A Hit and a Miss

It feels like an age since I’ve written about any books. This must be partly because the books I’ve been reading lately have often left me uncertain how I feel about them. I’m not sure whether it was because of the writing course, which encouraged us to unpack pieces of writing (I’m not exactly unused to that) or whether it’s just been the nature of the past couple of months with their run of irritations that have put me in a funny place in relation to my books. It’s one of the great paradoxical truths of existence that the more you long for things to be perfect, the less likely it is that they will be so.

Matisse woman with goldfishNothing ruins the experience of a book more surely than having too high expectations for it, and I wonder whether that was at the root of my troubles with Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque; A Search for the Sublime. In theory this ticked all my boxes. I’d read one of Hampl’s essays on the writing course and been very impressed by it. This book was exactly the sort of hybrid creative non-fiction that I am most interested in, a journey across time and space that begins with the sighting of a Matisse painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. A young woman at the time, Hampl is on her way to lunch with a friend when she is stopped dead in her tracks by Matisse’s picture of a woman contemplating goldfish in a bowl. Something about the woman’s attitude, the timelessness of her gaze, the relaxation of her posture, appeals strongly to Hampl but resists articulation. Armed with the belief that the woman in the painting represents a way of seeing that is intrinsic to art and highly valuable to life, Hampl enters into a length meditation that encompasses the lives of artists she loves, as well as trips to the locations where they were inspired, and her thoughts on the work they produced.

What’s not to like? The artists considered include Matisse and Delacroix, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Katherine Mansfield – a small constellation of stars in Hampl’s inner universe. And the travel writing, moving from Minneapolis where Hampl lives, to the Côte D’Azur and North Africa provides suitably glossy and exotic locations. What appears to be the main thrust of the series of interlinked essays – that the speed of the modern world makes us miss the sort of experience that end up being most valuable to us – is one I wholeheartedly endorse. And in all honesty there is much to love in this book, so many exquisite sentences, beautiful, vivid imagery, some nice points made, and at all times Hampl’s intelligence shines through.

But I just could not stay awake while reading it.

There is a fundamental problem with this kind of hybrid writing that skips between memoir, biography and criticism, and that’s the difficulty the reader is bound to experience trying to hang onto the point. I find that, like a complex dream, all those weird shifts between heterogeneous scenes erase what came before, and I can lose whole chunks of narrative, forget them as if I’d never read them. I finished this book only a couple of weeks ago and have retained practically nothing from it. No, in all fairness, I recall the travel writing, which was excellent. And I felt that in those scenes something was happening, something I could really engage with. Hampl’s art criticism, whilst always intelligent, tended to sink into the swamp of its own thought, witness this small excerpt where she is talking about an autobiographical film:

I was listening to a memoir, the genre that inhabits a fascinatingly indeterminate narrative space between fiction and documentary. As it refines its point of view, lavishing itself on the curious habits of personal consciousness, memoir achieves a rare detachment even as it enters more deeply into the revelation of individual consciousness. Its greatest intimacy (the display of perception) paradoxically reveals its essential impersonality. It wishes to see the world, not itself. Hill’s real subject, like Matisse’s was individual perception: not simply what was seen, but how seeing was experienced.’

A few paragraphs like this strung together and I was out like a light. Which goes to show that, like everything else, critical writing needs to keep the concrete in sight at all times. The more grounded the writing, the more it is about something real, the better the chance of hanging onto the reader’s attention. But this book frustrated me, as I felt it had a lot of interesting things to say, and I really did wish I could stay conscious long enough to hear them.

 

Weissmanns of WestportAltogether more grounded was Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. In my twenties I’d enjoyed her first novels, The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece and recalled them as being sort of literary rom-coms. Not a lot has changed in the intervening decades – the Weissmanns tale being loosely based on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I forgot this detail until halfway through the novel, when I thought to myself, ‘goodness me, these sisters are exactly like Eleanor and Marianne Blackwood!’ and recalled that this was, in fact, the point. And then I was aware enough of these literary ghosts to watch the novel diverge from Austen’s plotting and play a few neat tricks with its model. Just in case you were wondering how that particular borrowing worked out.

At the tender age of 75, Betty Weissmann finds herself being divorced by husband, Joe, on grounds of irreconcilable differences. ‘Irreconcilable differences? she said. Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What has that to do with divorce?’ Of course, there is another woman, Joe’s secretary, Felicity, and Felicity manages to talk Joe out of leaving the New York appartment to his estranged wife on the grounds that it is much more generous to take the burden of worry about taxes from Betty’s shoulders. So Betty finds herself exiled and downsized to a holiday cottage owned by wealthy, family-loving cousin, Lou in Westport, Connecticut. Partly to support their mother, mostly because of financial crises of their own, Betty’s daughters Annie and Miranda move out to live with her.

Annie is the sensible, one, a divorced librarian with two grown boys, who is impotently aware of her mother and sister spending far more money than they possess. Miranda is the flighty one, a literary agent recently humiliated and put out of business by revelations that the misery memoirs she traded in were more fiction than fact. The family hasn’t been in Westport long when Miranda starts a relationship with an out of work actor, Kit, and his enchanting little son, Henry. Meanwhile, Annie pines silently for Felicity’s brother, Frederick, a writer with whom she has been briefly entangled, but who is now persona non grata for obvious reasons. Best of all, nothing works out the way you might think it would. This was charming and funny and intelligently written enough that it was like hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream and no guilt. If such a thing as a poignant soufflé existed, I could liken this book to one. Don’t come to it expecting Tolstoy, but the quality of the writing and the insights about love and life lift it above the level of your average comfort read.