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.

All Change

So, my son left today for university and it is such a happysad event that I can’t even begin to know how I feel. He’s excited and keen and very ready now for his own life, so this is exactly how it should be, this is the right timing. But of course I grieve for the ending of an intense period in my own life, one that was harder than I could ever have imagined and more rewarding than I could ever have guessed. But don’t those two always go hand in hand? Anything worthwhile stretches you far beyond your known limits, as our son is about to discover.

I think what makes it harder than it might be to let him go is knowing that he’s already in a tricky stage of his life, deeply committed to a relationship that is in a particularly challenging phase. Mr Litlove and I have our moments of fearing it will be doomed, but our son, combining his passion, his determination and his sheer willpower, three rights somehow making a wrong, refuses firmly to believe any such thing. I worry about that, because if there’s one quality we all need in relationships, it’s elasticity, and some acceptance that negotiating separateness is as important as dealing with togetherness. I worry that he faces challenging and distressing times ahead, possibly without enough support.

But I also think that this whole situation has a lot to tell me about the art of letting go. The thing about motherhood is that it’s based on an experience of culturally accepted madness. You get this baby put in your arms and the shock of responsibility is tremendous, breathtaking, you pretty much never get over it. Parenting means you spend years doing the kind of things that you should never have to do for another person. Those first three years in particular are a boot camp into an extraordinarily intrusive, overbearing way of being that is based on the sacrifice of your own life. And then after that come the field marshal years, where you bark commands from one end of the day to the other, spend your time checking the canteens are supplied and generally give every remaining drop of energy into mustering morale among the troops. Eventually it enters your bloodstream, you are brainwashed, trained up and kitted out. Because if you did not do these things, even if you do not especially like the person you become when doing them, chaos would result. This is not about choice.

So when adolescence comes along, and teenagers reclaim the territorial rights to things that were always theirs in the first place, it can be disconcerting. Mr Litlove and I have absolutely no right to tell our son who to love or how to love, or what he wants or who he should be. We can discuss these things, adult to adult, if he’s willing. But all those old strategies – bribery, blackmail, begging, putting one’s foot down – that fell into the category of means justifying ends in the old days, revert to being the unacceptable tools of oppression that they basically are. Thinking that we have any say in such matters reverts to being intrusive, that we ‘know better than him what he needs’ is egotistical. And however much I might wince and fret to see him running into the future, arms outstretched and calling for experience to come to him, knowing that smiling destiny will beat him up, there is nothing I can do about it now. He has to learn the hard way, like we all do.

It’s good news, then, that I have this new writing course to distract me. This first week has been tentative, on the whole, with the twelve members posting their work onto the website almost discreetly and not a great deal of discussion going on. Those who have commented have been resolutely nice. The unexpected challenge has come from the first long written piece that we are preparing. The brief was to write a personal essay that braided together two separate narratives. I thought the braiding would be the difficult part – and it was – but little did I suspect that the personal part would be worse. Yes, I managed to write a first draft involving two narratives, neither of which was in any way personally about me. And you know what, I didn’t even notice I’d done it! If you asked me, I’d say I was someone who went on and on about themselves, more than ready to overshare. But when I think about it, I rarely volunteer. If you ask me, I’ll tell you, otherwise I assume I have nothing that anyone wants to know.

‘That blog of yours,’ said Mr Litlove, when we were discussing this strange phenomenon, ‘talk about a dance of the seven veils. Of course you’ve got none left now and everyone knows all there is to know about you. But they probably don’t realise because it took you so long.’

The more I look back, the more I see that I do it. Being with students was only okay because it wasn’t about me; it was about books, or their problems (I avoided the social events as much as possible). And one of the most striking things about my son leaving home is how exposed it makes me feel. What will I tell people now when they ask how we are? When people come round or we visit, what possible entertainment can I provide? I don’t mind rushing out and doing ten minutes of cabaret, on pre-prepared topics. But reveal myself? That sounds….awful. I had no idea how much I feel compelled to hide.

There are only two personal topics that I will readily talk about here: chronic fatigue and anxiety, both things that I feel are stigmatised and insufficiently spoken about. So there’s a sort of public duty about bringing them into the light of day. But can I talk about them at length in essays where I speak openly about myself? Oh my goodness; suddenly this course looks even more demanding than I thought.

Yes, But I Don’t Like Him

I suppose if there was a message to the 20th century, it was that there is no longer anyone trustworthy at the wheel. Not necessarily in a cosmic sense, but in an ordinary, human one. Politicians have lost almost all credibility, kings and queens are for gossip magazines, leaders of industry only make the news in the wake of some great catastrophe. We’ve lost faith in all kinds of authority. We’ve gone through the era of the hero, and through the era of the anti-hero and we’re out the other side in the land of the lowest common denominator. And that’s a place where Geoff Dyer is quite at home:

I had been drifting for years, and now – like the lone cloud we’d seen at Hadrian’s villa – I had drifted to a standstill. I may not have admitted it at the time – if that afternoon was a turning point, then I responded as one invariably does at such moments, by failing to turn – but at some level I knew I had been kidding myself: that all the intellectual discipline and ambition of my earlier years had been dissipated by half-hearted drug abuse, indolence and disappointment, that I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was twenty or thirty even, that I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me.’

Yoga Geoff DyerAs the title may hint – Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It – this is a book of travel writing for the world-weary and the disaffected. It’s about going to the four corners of the world and finding not a great deal to do in any of them. He has a horrible time in sullen, tourist-unfriendly Libya, visiting ancient monuments that fail to move him; gets marooned at midday in three foot of water in a vast lake in sweltering Cambodia, where raw sewage floats past; can’t put a new pair of trousers on in rain-soaked Amsterdam because he’s too out of it on magic mushrooms, and when incipient depression accompanies him to Detroit, he decides to take a tour around the desolate and abandoned areas of the city. Well it sounds like a rotten job, but I guess someone has to do it. The only really upbeat chapter is the one that bears the title, in which he falls in love with a lively American woman at a sanctuary in Thailand (his attraction is drawn by the way she copes so bravely with being stung by a fleet of jellyfish). It was, in consequence, the essay I liked best.

If all this sounds like travel writing to slit your wrists to, there is redemption in the form of a Beckettian dry, deadpan humour. Geoff Dyer really knows how to tap into the sheer cussedness of the human spirit, its refusal to cooperate with the imperative to enjoy oneself and our basic ability to allow potentially magical experiences to be ruined by small but insistent gripes. There is a fine honesty at the core of the book, in the recognition that an awful lot of travel does involve doing things or being in places that are dirty, dull or just not quite right at the time. And most admirable of all, there is a great deal of exquisite writing. Credit where it’s due, this really is a wonderfully written book, the voice flawless in its amusingly melancholic disdain, the descriptions original and highly perceptive. I really felt as if I was with Geoff Dyer in his far-flung locations, even if they weren’t places that either of us truly wanted to be.

I admired this book greatly, but could not bring myself to like it, because I could not bring myself to like Geoff Dyer. He made me think of the boys who’d sit at the back in the graduate seminars: dissimulating protective boredom, mocking and contemptuous and too clever for their own good. To be fair to Dyer, there are times, towards the end of the book, when he allows a little real emotion to soak through, and I liked him the better for it. But sometimes I just wanted to give him a boot up the backside and tell him to get over himself; there is no way an author of as many books – and award-winning ones at that – could ever be so hopeless, so lazy or so unfulfilled.

I’ve often complained before that readers are too bothered about liking characters in books, and I hold to this when it comes to fiction. Every character in a fictional universe has been created for a purpose. To get the most out of that universe, it’s best to accept that unsympathetic characters may just need to be that way for the story to unfold as it does. When it comes to personality-led non-fiction, though, I find the contact between reader and narrator to be too tight, too intimate, too real, to gain any sort of useful emotional distance. Geoff Dyer’s voice appeals to the piggy side of human nature, and he invites the reader to be okay with consistently low-level failure, out of our own idiocies and weaknesses. I am not okay with this. I am, for instance, completely out of patience with people who do drugs. I do not look upon it indulgently as the sort of thing anyone could fall into. If Geoff Dyer had the misfortune to read any non-fiction by me, he would find me a prissy, uptight, overachieving school ma’am type. Which I am. I disapproved of him and his silly magic mushrooms. But I suppose I suspected that his persona was at least partially false. For all that humans are destined to fail and mess up, we are equally hardwired to try and to aspire. Geoff Dyer obviously likes the waster persona he wears in his narratives, but I think I know his secret. I would put good money on there being a part of him that’s pure good boy, diligent, assiduous and hard-working. He would just consider it too uncool to be on view.




1. ‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour,’ Maggie Nelson writes in the first of 240 numbered paragraphs. ‘Suppose I were to speak this as if it were a confession’. Already there is a nugget here, a knot, a twist of thought containing strands that are both related and dissimilar. We confess to love, but rarely to loving a colour as if it were a romantic passion. But this is the springboard for her poetic exploration into a strange but profound attachment to the colour blue, a colour that evokes divine beauty, depression and ribald explicitness in equal measure.


2. Blue now appears in all sorts of ways, as a magical element of the natural world, as the infinite variation in a huge and disparate assortment of objets trouvés that Maggie Nelson’s magpie eye has found and coveted, and as a word full of rich associations in songs, poems, works of philosophy. Nelson probes the deep emotional bond that ties her to the colour, and spreads her out into the world as a curious but sometimes mystified spectator. ‘When I talk about colour and hope, or colour and despair,’ she writes, ‘I am not talking about the red of a spotlight, a periwinkle line on the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.’


3. What it means apart from meaning seems to be blue’s capacity as foil for, diversion from, and mask over a failed love affair that Nelson is grieving. We never learn much about this lost love, except for the lostness, and the harshly evoked misery that she feels. She quotes Thoreau, in the wake of his falling out from Emerson: ‘When our companion fails us we transfer our love instantaneously to a worthy object.’ Whether this is exactly what she has done or not is, like everything else in this text, offered as a suggestion that flowers momentarily with possibility and meaning before drifting off into the white space of uncertainty.


4. This is what the numbered paragraphs contain: blossoms of thought, startlingly bright and vivid as the cornflowers (bluets) whose name they evoke. Each little paragraph a kind of standalone prose poem in a field thick with them. Although the proper origin of the numbered paragraph is the philosophical proposition as offered by thinkers like Wittgenstein. In this case, each proposition builds towards a profound truth by way of these individual building blocks. The white space in philosophy is like a pause in music, a moment for the mind to digest what has preceded and to ready itself for further ingestion. But the white space in prose poetry is the place for the mind to give itself over to speculation, dreaming, the lazy mingling of ideas and emotions. Is this the effect of Maggie Nelson’s white spaces? Or do they work to undermine the coherence of any message she might be offering the reader?


5. Nelson is not the only person speaking in this text by a long shot. Her voice is plaited through a rich and diverse network of cultural geniuses (nothing but pure art gets cited here). I started a list, but gave up because the non-Greek chorus of commentators became just too unwieldy. Mallarmé, Goethe, Wittgenstein, Newton, Gertrude Stein, William Gass, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Marguerite Duras (who I am always pleasantly surprised to see mentioned), Billie Holiday, Derek Jarman, Novais, Van Gogh, even William Carlos William’s grandmother gets a name check (ah, so of course, not all geniuses then, not even this can become a stable rule or certainty). They all have something to say about the colour blue, for the most part, or suffering, sorrow and the mysteries of vision.


6. What are we to make of this web of creativity, spun around Maggie Nelson and her pain and passion? Perhaps she is akin to the male satin bowerbird she describes, who spends weeks hunting down blue objects with which to weave an enticing nest for his female. ‘He builds competitively, stealing treasures from other birds, sometimes trashing their bowers entirely.’ Goethe, Mallarmé et al are surely robust enough to withstand the nicking of little bits of blue from their collected works, in the good cause of creating a blue nest woven around the seductive Nelson, who lures her reader in.


7. I should mention also the paraplegic friend Maggie Nelson talks about often, whose life was ruined by an accident and whose courage is immense but not always equal to her pain. Nelson cares for her tenderly, seeing in her suffering perhaps an echo of her own, or maybe seeing in her situation the chilling affirmation that some accidents of life have everlasting consequences.


8. But by this point in the book we may well be asking ourselves where we are actually going with all this. In the absence of a full narrative arc, standing like a rainbow over the text and pointing towards a pot of gold, will this meandering river of blueness ever deliver us to a destination? Or are we to question what ‘getting somewhere’ in a narrative means? Whether we can ever find a solution to the questions of Bluets, if indeed any questions have ever been properly posed?


9. Bluets spirals around its concerns, touching upon them in turn and moving restlessly on. It has no interest in closure, nor in explanation. Although it takes a form that was once linked with the original understanding of philosophy, which strove to identify what exactly we could know with complete certainty, its heart beats with the more modern understanding, in which philosophy seeks to track down a truthful experience of life as it is lived. It is a shift from cognitive mastery of the world, to close observation in service of a life whose mysteries will to some extent remain intact.


10. And so, in this rich, frustrating, beautiful, poignant union of philosophy and poetry, the objective proposition yields to the subjective insight. Life cannot be cured, love cannot be explained, pain cannot be deconstructed. Together they form the skein of an emotional life that is as tightly tangled as it is powerfully binding. Maggie Nelson and her friends evoke the potency of both passion and suffering, and the glorious distractions of art, thought and beauty that act as insufficient but dazzling palliatives.