Strangers on a Train

strangers on trainToo many psychological thrillers these days think they’ve done sufficient work by placing their female heroine under multiple threats of peril. They need to have a look at the dark and twisted novels of Patricia Highsmith to see how it’s really done. Highsmith knew that no amount of external threat can rival the psychological terror we are able to inflict on ourselves. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), she created a story of claustrophobic menace that turned any simplistic understanding of morality upside down.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno are chance acquaintances on a train heading south to Texas. Guy, an architect, is travelling to see his estranged wife, Miriam, whom he hopes will finally agree to a divorce. Miriam is pregnant by a new lover, and Guy feels that here, at last, is the leverage required to settle the matter, though he is sure she will continue to kick up as many obstacles as she can. Guy has become steadily more impatient as he is nominally engaged to Anne, an altogether better prospect for the wife of a man with a budding career. Anne and her moneyed, harmonious family offer Guy the sort of social status he needs, and charming, elegant Anne inspires his genuine love.

Guy is accosted on the train by Charles Bruno who thrusts his company upon him. Bruno is already three sheets to the wind when they meet, and will drink steadily through their encounter. He has the sort of entangling presence that certain unstable people wield with cunning; a genius for ingratiating himself where he is not welcome. Guy drinks more in his presence than is wise and he ends up saying a little about Miriam – more than enough for Bruno to come to some astute conclusions. And so Bruno offers him partnership in a criminal scheme he’s been brewing for a while. Bruno hates his father and longs for him to be dead. He’d kill him if he thought he’d get away with it, but his homicidal desire is too evident. What he suggests to Guy is a tit for tat. He’ll kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father, and they will never be caught because there is no motive to link them to the crimes.

Guy is horrified by this idea and by Bruno himself. He ends the conversation and hopes never to see him again. But by the time he arrives in Metcalf, Miriam has miscarried and is threatening to accompany him to his new architectural project, a commission that could make his name. He can’t help but acknowledge a few murderous impulses towards her. When Miriam is found strangled at the local fair, Guy has the sickening sensation that his unconscious enmity has killed her, even though he is sure it was in the form of the all-too corporeal Bruno.

For Bruno turns out to be a man of queer passions. He loves his mother a little too much, and he has fallen into an idealistic veneration for Guy. This is a murder committed primarily out of twisted love – partly because he has been longing to reveal his own capabilities to himself, partly because he wants to offer it like a gift, a homage, to Guy. When Guy reacts with hostility to his actions, Bruno is deeply wounded. But not diverted from his determination to make Guy keep up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but if you’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation, you should know that from here on in, movie and book diverge. Hitchcock, with a mainstream cinema audience to please, keeps Guy riveted to his ‘good man’ persona, whereas in the book, Guy knows his integrity is lost from the moment he wishes Miriam dead, a moment that isn’t even articulated, but is no less potent for all that: we know he did because of the guilt he feels when she dies. From now on, the story of Guy will be a study in guilt and what it can make us do. Guy will find himself pushed to the extreme because the guilt he feels is so intolerable he will do anything – even compound his crimes – in the crazy desire to be free of it. I was writing last week about Patrick Modiano and his ability to create characters who are guilty until proven guilty. Guy is another in this mode. It’s a very common part of the human condition, and it makes a mockery of this idea that we have control over our lives to the extent that we can choose to be good or bad. We’re human and so, under duress, we do good things and we do bad things, and sometimes doing nothing is the most damning thing we do of all.

If Guy is the good man forced to the bad, then Bruno is the bad man who forces us to feel pity. Sure, he’s a fledgling psychopath, but it’s the love that’s inside him we cannot deny, however horrifying its manifestations may be. His descent into the worst terrors of alcoholism are car-crash mesmerising, and we wait on tenterhooks for the moment when he can no longer contain all his messed-up emotions – worship for Guy, pride in his cleverness, terror at his own steady disintegration. We know Bruno can’t be all bad, despite appearances, because Guy becomes bonded to him, in an act of brotherly recognition:

Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.’

This is not a pleasant book but it’s a gripping one. The claustrophobia that Highsmith builds up is brilliant and sickening. Although much of the book is about people doing dreadful things, its centre is the tragedy of our longing to be pure. Guy shows how nothing that has value in life – love, success, money – is worth a fig when set against the horror of feeling besmirched in our own sense of self-worth. Guilt dominates, and almost nothing can appease it at the height of its power. The kind of novel that sends a genuine chill down the spine.

Why Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

frank cottrell boyce Going to lectures by childrens’ authors is not something I normally do, but I have a good friend with an eagle eye for these events, who is writing children’s fiction herself, and then the speaker was Frank Cottrell Boyce (henceforth FCB) whose books Millions and Framed were favourites of my son. The lecture is an annual event held in memory of Phillipa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the book buying/signing shindig afterwards, I felt pretty sure I had never read that book and so – naturally in the interests of supporting the event – bought a copy. Though Mr Litlove wasn’t impressed: ‘It’s got ‘worthy’ written all over it,’ he said.

The lecture was, by contrast, all about the intense pleasure of reading and FCB made some rather good points. As well as being a prolific screenwriter and children’s book author, he is also involved in an organisation (and dammit I missed the name and can’t track it down in my internet searches) that promotes reading aloud to people in dire situations – children with extreme special needs, prisons, drug rehab centres, that sort of thing. FCB believes that being read to is a magical situation, that listening to a story, you are both highly alert and yet entirely without anxiety. If you know nothing is being asked of you other than your attention, you fall into a state of keen and agile acceptance that can have powerful consequences. Several of the anecdotes he told us concerned reports back from readers who witnessed attention deficit kids sitting still for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes when engrossed in a story, and of prisoners experiencing an entirely different way of thinking.

tom's midnight gardenHe was also talking about another power of storytelling – that of unpredictability. He read us several excerpts from novels by Phillipa Pearce using them to demonstrate how intriguing unpredictability could be, how audacious on the part of the author, to whisk the reader off in a direction s/he never saw coming. This idea of unpredictability fed into another line he braided into the talk – that of memory. He recalled in particular the moment on Christmas day many years ago when his grandmother woke up in the middle of the Morecombe and Wise special and started telling him about his grandfather, a man who had died before FCB was born. This was, he said, quite unprecedented. His grandmother didn’t like television, she didn’t like radio and she didn’t like conversation. He had spent far too much time with her as a child in a room full of clocks whose every tick marked the plucking of a hair of time, in what he termed a depilation of death.

His grandfather had been born with a caul over his head, which was supposed to indicate good luck, and indeed, he’d been an extraordinarily lucky man. He’d spent his life as a merchant seaman and had survived the battle of Jutland and the Second World War. The one night he’d got drunk and missed his boat, it had hit an offshore mine and gone down with all 700 hands lost. And then, it seemed that his luck ran out on the day that he died. He’d been a stoker, feeding the furnaces, and in the late 50s, when his boat was in Cardigan Bay, it happened to hit a mine leftover from the war. The mine exploded against the boiler room and his grandfather was the only man to lose his life. He shouldn’t even have been there but he was covering the shift for a friend.

millionsWhat on earth provoked this memory from his grandmother, he wondered? It was a story of unpredictability that seemed itself to have sprung from nowhere. We were all entranced as he told it, feeling for ourselves that suspension of the world that happens when we listen closely. And this was what his talk was like – a series of dramatic scenes that were vivid and fascinating but there seemed to be no coherent argument, just a hopscotch between the ideas of listening to a story, memory and unpredictability.

But then he drew them all together in an intriguing image. He told us about the formation of coal, how algae soaked up billions of summers on an empty planet, sinking down into the earth until the heat of the sunshine was compressed and compacted into rock solid matter. And then a hole was opened up and the coal extracted, where it burnt with the energy retained from those billions of unseen sunny days. And he said that stories worked this way in the mind. That they took their energy and brilliance down into the mind and lay there for a long time, decades, perhaps, until suddenly, a shaft opened up and that story came back, its splintered images emerging unpredictably but just when you needed them.

FCB said he worried that the way stories are taught in schools, particularly with young children, destroyed their power. He said he often went to read in schools and he’d be introduced by the teacher and the kids would be really happy at the prospect of listening to a story. ‘And we’re going to listen out for when Mr FCB uses his ‘wow’ words,’ the teacher would go on to say, ‘and afterwards you’re going to write them down and make some sentences from them…’ At which point, FCB argued, the power of the storytelling was lost. If you turn listening to a story into a transaction, you rob it of its value. All the energy of the story is dissipated. Not least because the pleasure was spoiled, and pleasure he argued, is a profound form of attention, one with alchemical properties.

I thought that was extremely interesting. The talk also reminded me how much I missed reading to a child. I loved bedtime reading. It felt like a rare time in the day when my son and I were both doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. During questions, FCB was asked about his favourite books as a child and he said he couldn’t distinguish now between the ones he liked and the ones he’d enjoyed reading to his own kids. But he did single out the Moomins, particularly Moominland Midwinter, when Moomintroll wakes up while all his family are hibernating. It was, he said, like someone had asked Kierkegaard round on a play date. A line I have savoured ever since. If Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be too worthy, I might remind myself what the Moomins were all about instead.

moominland midwinter 2

Trials in Reading

Life seems to have been very stressful lately, and in consequence I have been lying about the place like a beached whale, wondering if my zip will ever return. One part of this has been relief that another edition of Shiny New Books is out in the world and doing splendidly. But after reading twenty-two books in succession that needed to be read, I was finding it particularly difficult to make an autonomous decision about what to read next. Plus, I was in an awkward reading mood, my brain like a bit of overstretched elastic, and so I needed just the right thing. My comments on the following books should be understood in that light.

Mr PenumbraI first picked up Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The cover promised me loads of fun from this international bestseller, and it certainly began in jolly fashion. Out of work web designer, Clay Jannon, finds himself a stopgap job working the night shift at the strangest bookstore in the Bay area. The books are in code, the customers are mad and his boss exudes a benign but enigmatic mysticism. Clay teams up with a beautiful young woman who works at Google to try and solve the mystery of the shop and – hang on a minute! I’ve spent a lot of time with geeky boys, one way or another, and there was a major implausibility about a geek getting a hot girlfriend and taking it in his stride. Either he wouldn’t have given two hoots from that point onwards what was happening in the bookshop, or he would have remained utterly obsessed with the quest until the girlfriend huffed off in a snit. Of course, geeks are allowed their fantasies, too, and maybe they dream about the effortless acquisition of soulmates. That’s great. I could see this was a fun book, but somehow I couldn’t quite fit the world. If you love science and computers and books too, then this would be a wonderful story for you. I was just too much of an arts student to really get into it. I let it go.

do androidsAround about the same time, I’d started Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the classic Philip K. Dick novel on which Blade Runner was based. Not my kind of book, you might be thinking, and you’d be right. But Dark Puss and I are having a new reading challenge this summer. We’re reading books outside our comfort zone, and this was the one chosen to be outside mine. I have never read a work of science fiction before, and initially, I found it hard going. It was clearly written in English; I understood the words individually and even at the level of the sentence, but I found myself rereading paragraphs several times to try to figure them out. After a while, I realised I was having a failure of imagination. Because the world I was reading about did not exist, as such, I was struggling to create pictures in my mind. I couldn’t get into the text, and was bouncing about on its surface, unable to gain traction. I was also feeling incorrigibly feminine, and rather wishing that someone, in either of these novels, would have a baby or go shopping or need to sit down and speculate on another person’s emotions. Something I could get behind. In the end, having persevered through the early stages, I did find the novel easier to read, and it’s definitely a good and highly thought-provoking book. But I’ll talk about it in more depth another time.

frannyandzooeyI’ve been meaning to read J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey for ages. It’s certainly been displayed in my side bar for weeks now. So after two techie books, I picked it up, looking forward to what I expected to be a stupendous experience in fine writing. The first part about Frannie I thoroughly enjoyed. Frannie is having a religious crisis, and her boyfriend, Lane, has zero interest in anything other than his own opinions. The second part finds Frannie back at her childhood home, with her mother bursting at the seams with worry over her, and her younger brother, Zooey, being dragged in to help. The novella is about 160 pages long and consists of about four conversations. I figured it was roughly between 30-40 pages for each one. J. D. Salinger is one of those authors (Proust is another who springs to mind) who is determined to tell you everything, whether you want to hear it or not. Every nuance of the conversation, every piece of clothing, every tiny gesture on the part of the interlocutors, every thought, every glance, every small item they fiddle with, as if it were a significant prop in a powerful drama, is recounted in admittedly striking and clever prose. There are many wonderful sentences and stunning observations. It is all done with exquisite realism, but so much reality (far more than any casual observer could take in) that it becomes artfully artificial. A world of writing, rather than a written world. By about halfway through ‘Zooey’, I felt as if I were lying on the floor, crushed by the weight of arch declamations, yelling, okay, okay, J. D., you are brilliant, now STOP already!

After that, things began to get a bit more normal on the reading front, but this has gone on a while now and I’ll carry on with the rest next week. I am painfully aware how behind I am in blog reading, and I do hope to catch up soon, once I have a little oomph again. I very much want to catch up with you all and see what reading adventures you have been on.

 

 

 

 

On Not Being Able To Write

on not being able to paintAt the end of the 1940s, Marion Milner was a psychoanalyst who had been involved in a lengthy study of the ways in which children learn, and once the official report had been written up she decided to take time to consider a few private concerns of her own about the business of education. She decided to think about ‘one specific area in which I myself had failed to learn something that I wanted to learn’, and this was how to paint. Introspection was Milner’s preferred technique; she championed a state of ‘reverie’, or a kind of creative daydreaming, in which she let her mind off the reins to go where it pleased and made a careful note of the result. When she decided to tackle her inability to paint as she wished, she followed a similar sort of plan: ‘a way of letting hand and eye do exactly what pleased them without any conscious working to a preconceived intention.’ From these amateur sketches, she found she could deduce a great deal about the creative obstacles she was encountering, most of which seemed to indicate that we know very little indeed about ourselves – or at least the deep layer of the self from which creativity springs. And out of this experiment she wrote a fascinating book, On Not Being Able To Paint.

Marion Milner’s first discovery was that her stated intention to pursue what she found beautiful had nothing to do with the drawing she produced. Often the desire to capture an attractive woman on the underground or a beautiful, serene seascape, resulted in an odd caricature or an image of angry swirling clouds. Similarly she found that pictures drawn with correct perspective didn’t actually please her at all. There was, she realised, some upsurge of mood, some insistent and unknown desire at work infiltrating her creativity that would not be silenced, though she had no idea what to do with it.

Returning to her books about painting with these discoveries in mind, she chanced upon a highly significant phrase – that ‘painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space.’ Revelation ensued. Milner could see how ‘very intense feelings might be stirred’ when she stopped thinking about spatial relations in scientific terms and thought about what they meant for the way we organise both inner and outer worlds in our mind – how close or how separate things might be, how close or how separate we might want them to be: ‘the whole sensory foundation of the common sense world seemed to be threatened.’ As she looked at objects and their relation to one another with more honesty, she found that the outlines she had always considered the basic building block of her drawing were in fact false and overly simplistic. In reality, things were not so clear-cut. There were shadows and merging and blurring of edges, once ‘they were freed from this grimly practical business of enclosing an object and keeping it in its place.’

Thus the outline represented the world of fact, of separate touchable solid objects; to cling to it was therefore surely to protect oneself against the other world, the world of imagination…. I wondered, perhaps this was one reason why new experiments in painting can arouse such fierce opposition and anger. People must surely be afraid, without knowing it, that their hold upon reason and sanity is precarious, else they would not so resent being asked to look at visual experience in a new way, they would not be so afraid of not seeing the world as they have always seen it and in the general publicly agreed way of seeing it.’

She came to the conclusion that: ‘genuine vision as an artist needed a kind of courage that was willing to face all kinds of spiritual dangers.’

I found myself translating Milner’s adventures in painting into the experience of writing. I tend to think of writing as an exercise in extreme vulnerability; there’s nothing like showing something one has written to another person to know what it is to wince and cringe. Always, humiliation threatens, more so than is reasonable. But if painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space, then writing must be concerned with feelings about understanding – both how we understand the world, and how we ourselves are understood within it. The telling of any story is based on those foundations, and it cannot be avoided.Those moods that rose up and troubled Milner’s pictures, turning them into something quite different, infuse every sentence that we write. Something very private, and something that we might not always have agreed to put on public view, becomes nakedly visible.

How tempting it must be, then, to cling to the solid outlines Milner talks about, the ones that common sense agrees upon, the ones that are currently validated and approved of. How tempting to create a clear cut world and fill it with block colour that gives nothing away, and which creates not a piece of art but something childish and almost ugly. Art is nothing if it is not paradoxical – beauty is never where we might expect to find it. What risks we have to take to let the madness of reality in – the shadows and the blurred lines, the colours that do not seem to be there when we look, but which make the image spring to life on the page. And most risky of all, to allow ourselves to be seen, in our full messy humanity in a way that is perhaps truthful but not sanctioned by our vanity.

Milner talks about the necessary illusion of perception – the belief that what we see is an objective world, when it is determined by our inner lives and the dreams that populate it. If we want to be able to paint or write or create art of any kind, then it seems to be important to embrace the more difficult truths of subjectivity rather than run away from them.