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.

A Good Epiphany Is Hard To Find

When I sat down this afternoon to think about what post I could write, I had so far that day a) been to the dentist and b) had to listen to my son in tears over skype because his ex-girlfriend is moving in with her new man. In short, not much fun had been had. So I thought, I know what I’ll do, I’ll read a famous short story, something that will take up my thoughts for a while and jolt me into a critical analysis and thus lift my spirits. And casting about my books, I decided to read Flannery O’Connor’s classic, ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’. Sigh. Well, my mother told me there’d be days like these.

a good manIf you haven’t read it already, I’m here to tell you that ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ is not on first acquaintance a story that is going to cheer a person up. It is one of the finest examples I’ve come across of a writer treating her reader with casual but rigorous sadism. What it reminded me of most forcibly was Shirley Jackson’s story ‘The Lottery’; same innocuous opening, same fascination with small town folk going about their ordinary selfish, half-comical business, same ending of brutal and unexpected violence that takes your breath away. Now why should it be that these two stories hold such sway over the American imagination?

Flannery O’Connor’s tale concerns a manipulative old biddy who is trying to pursue her desires exactly as they rise up in her without much thought to the consequences, clearly a lifelong strategy that is about to end in disaster. She lives with her son and his family, who are tired of her conniving ways but have chosen endurance above all else. The family is setting off on a trip to Florida but the grandmother has decided she’d rather go to Tennessee and is doing her best to gain this outcome, essentially by pointing out to her relatives that a killer named The Misfit is on the loose in Florida: ‘I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.’ Given her strategies have gained her zero credence in the household, this is dismissed as a piece of nonsense.

So the family sets off in the morning, grandmother first to get in the car and smuggling along her cat who she knows does not have permission to come. There’s plenty of back seat comedy with the children and the grandmother that ends with her deciding there’s a house she’d like to visit en route and telling the children (untruthfully) that it has a secret panel. The kids kick up enough fuss that their father changes direction, but as the grandmother realises to her chagrin that the house she’s thinking of is in a different state entirely, she lets the cat loose and they crash the car in the subsequent confusion.

Pootling over the hill, witness to their accident, comes another car. The family flags it down and out steps none other than The Misfit and his henchman, who the grandmother identifies out loud, alas. So up until now the grandmother has been like a small child herself, prodding and poking in the vain attempt to get some attention and to have things her way. And now, she’s managed to tweak the tail of a tiger and there is no going back. Now, in this too-late stage, the grandmother does her best to appease the Misfit, telling him over and over that she can see he’s a good man, and that if he prays, his life will be better. The Misfit has his own twisted tale to tell, of being punished for something he knows he did, but can’t recall what. This seems to offer enough of a flaw in the workings of justice to let him feel hard done by, and to kill without remorse. He picks off the family one by one and, when the grandmother reaches out to him and tells him he could be her son, he kills her, too.

My first impressions? I’ve never read a short story before that attempts to combine a serial killer with an obscure religious sermon. Jo Nesbo meets C. S. Lewis in the deep South. I can see that this is the kind of story to stick in the literary craw because the events are so horrific they demand that some sort of interpretation is made in the name of redeeming the material. And yet not enough information is provided actually to make an interpretation. Apparently, a great deal hinges on what the reader thinks is happening to the grandmother when she touches the Misfit and calls him her own child. Are we witnessing some sort of epiphany on her part? Or is this another attempt at a self-serving manipulation? Or is it simply that, now that the killer has put on her dead son’s shirt, she is confused by terror? The ambiguity is continued by the Misfit’s pronouncement over her body that she would have been a good woman ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ Does this mean, as some suggest, that only extreme circumstances could jolt the grandmother into goodness, or does it mean that she would have needed a gun against her head on a daily basis to keep her good?

flannery o connorFlannery O’Connor was a star in the writer’s workshop she attended at the University of Iowa, though she liked to say that when she first went, ‘she didn’t know a short story from an ad in a newspaper.’ Pretty self-deprecating for a student who ‘scared the boys to death with her irony,’ as one teacher put it. Elizabeth Hardwick described her as both ‘whiny’ and ‘immensely gifted’. O’Connor thought that her audience was ‘hostile’ and that ‘a writer with Christian concerns needed to take ever more violent means to get her vision across to them.’ My gut instinct is that here is someone wielding a pickaxe to open a letter. Perhaps it’s the sheer force of excess that has kept this story so infamous. Or maybe, as with Shirley Jackson’s story, there’s nothing like a viciously brutal portrait of humanity to get readers searching for meaning and epiphany. Perhaps there’s satisfaction in seeing the grandmother’s manipulative behaviour get more than the comeuppance it deserves, or perhaps the story appeals to the instinct that drives people to horror movies, where they can identify with the victim and feel the fear then walk away, safe in the knowledge that their life is different and elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s simply that jarring juxtaposition between the goodness and Christianity that the story manipulates (just like the grandmother, to make a seemingly empty point) and the unflinching violence with which it is met – the sheer audacity of that collision – that proves hypnotic.

It’s certainly true that once you’ve read this story, you’ll never forget it. For shock value, Flannery O’Connor could have taught Quentin Tarantino a thing or two. But is there more artistry in it than there is horror? I’m not entirely convinced. My experience, though, was that the horror made me shift my thinking about the story onto an abstract plane, and so I engaged with it as a piece of complex and obscure art, rather than a nasty and upsetting tale. So I suppose it did get my mind off my own troubles. Credit where it’s due!

 

 

 

The World of Angela Thirkell

angela thirkellIt’s curious the way that some of the most amusing and comforting writers develop their voice out of personal tragedy. Any reader might be forgiven for thinking that Angela Thirkell led the same sort of easy, untroubled life of the gentry – with visits from the vicar, summer fêtes up at the village’s manor house and children mostly packed off to boarding schools – that the protagonists of her novels enjoy. Her early connections were unusually good: one of her grandfathers was Edward Burne-Jones and she could count among her cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. But by the time she began to write, she was no stranger to hard circumstances. Her first marriage was to a singer, James Campbell McInnes, who turned out to be a violent drunk. She had two sons with him, and a daughter who did not survive, before divorcing him in 1917 in a blaze of undesirable publicity. She married again, this time an Australian engineer and army officer, the splendidly named George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell. They went to live in Melbourne, where she had a third son, but the lower middle class life style she had to adopt was not at all congenial to Angela. Claiming it was nothing more than a holiday, she packed up the sons that would come with her and sailed again for England, never to return. And never to marry again: ‘It is very peaceful with no husbands,’ she was quoted as declaring.

Forced to generate some income of her own, she turned to writing, and published her first novel at the age of 43. She soon found she could publish a novel a year and had almost forty to her name before she died.

Last summer I read Wild Strawberries, and just this morning I finished High Rising, the first two reissues by Virago. They belong in the same stable as Dodie Smith, and E. F. Benson, as the gentlest form of social satire. She has been compared to Barbara Pym, but Pym had a great deal more to say, of a sharply insightful nature, about loneliness. Angela Thirkell is just there to guide her characters through the mildest storms in village tea cups, before the inevitable and charming happy ending, easily effected when marriage proposals fall so readily from the lips of her male protagonists. In High Rising, single mother and author of ‘good bad books’, Laura Morland (Thirkell in semi-disguise) is drawn into a web of complications surrounding the new secretary of her dear friend, George Knox. The secretary, Una Grey, is a scheming sort with an unbalanced temper and a tendency to send poison pen notes, who is longing to marry some unsuspecting meal ticket. Laura and her saintly friend, Anne Todd, step in to prevent George from a typical Thirkellian fate of marrying in a deep state of inattention – a sort of unconscious coupling that must set up a precedent for Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest conscious uncoupling, perhaps.

None of this plot particularly matters. Angela Thirkell sets out to amuse, with Laura’s state of mind legible in the state of her hair – one particularly taxing morning leaves her looking ‘like Medusa on a heavy washing-day’ and her relationship to her small son Tony, a mix of adoration and irritation, offering wonderful scenes at his boarding school, notably a boxing match where ‘shrimp-like figures’ approach each other with ‘downward clawing motions’ from arms that looked ‘about as strong as boiled macaroni’ before the gong sounds and they ‘fled back to their corners, where they tasted real glory, lolling majestically, arms outspread on the ropes and feet dangling well off the ground.’ In fact, the less that happens, the better Angela Thirkell is at describing it. The essence of her world is a kind of Edwardian nursery, where silliness occurs because of short tempers and wounded pride, but there is always someone sensible on hand to restore order. As in the case of George Knox’s lonely approach to his house ‘which occasionally caused one of Mr Knok’s maids to have hysterics and give notice. But being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back.’

high rising

Servants are intriguing in Thirkell’s novels. While their masters and betters restrain themselves at all times to the most tepid expression of emotions, the mildest of manners and the most distantly tender of relations (or as Hermione Lee phrases it: ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’) the servants are there to tell it like it really is, with strong language, violent emotions and cherished paranoia. They may argue and shout, act compulsively and capriciously, but their emotional stamina lasts well beyond that of their employers. The most disturbing parts of Thirkell’s books are the out-of-date attitudes towards foreigners and the lower-classes, but if her main protagonists patronise their servants, it’s nothing in comparison to the contemptuous patronage they are forced to suffer in return.

It’s a particular and distinct world that Angela Thirkell writes about, one in which small boys want nothing more than to accompany their elders on a hunt, one where kindly doctors don’t charge fees to their favourite patients, where people are generally good and kind and helpful to one another and things work out just fine, thanks to the benevolent intervention of fate. And for the most part, Thirkell’s humour is exceptionally tender, born of loving amusement. It’s a strange, lost world, but a gentle one.

We have to feel for her, then, that one of her sons, Colin McInnes, was a bohemian bisexual who grew up to write books about everything his mother could not bear: ‘urban squalor, racial issues, bisexuality, drugs, anarchy and decadence. He found her novels ‘totally revolting’, a ‘sterile, life-denying vision of our land’.* Unsurprisingly the two of them hated one another, and she cut him out of her will (though she never said anything unpleasant about his books). When we read a Thirkell novel, we get to blindside the uncomfortable, challenging elements of life – that’s the entire point of reading them, to take time out of reality. You do wonder what it must have been like for Thirkell to live there in her imagination all the time.

* Hermione Lee wrote a very entertaining and perceptive essay entitled ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’, which appears in her book Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing. The quote comes from this essay.