What Some People Do In The Name Of Love

We were brutally woken at dawn yesterday by thunderous hammering on our front door and yelling. It sounded like a raid, but when Mr Litlove went rushing to the window it was just youths and they (he? I never did ask) went away. I admit I was terrified. It didn’t help that my recurring nightmare of late is of being inside the house whilst it is being broken into – not exactly fun to think that was coming true for a few minutes. Because our house fronts directly onto the street we’ve had people (men or young boys) knocking on the windows and doors late in the evening when they are on their way back from the pub. But we’ve never had anything quite so pointlessly sadistic happen before. Who would want to do such a thing?

theKissWell, one of the many great qualities about reading is that you usually find within the pages of a book a whole lot of people much worse off than yourself. Having been meaning to read Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, for weeks now, I finally got around to it on the weekend. It tells the story of Harrison’s incestuous relationship when she is reunited aged 20 with the father she hasn’t seen since early childhood. When it was published in 1997, it met with a mostly hostile reception, critics decrying the queasiness of such an honest account and reproaching the author for having written and displayed it in the public domain, particularly when she had children of her own.

Much more interesting was an article it spawned that argued such adult reunions were often fraught with sexual intentions. It’s known as Genetic Sexual Attraction and: ‘What is not well known is that in an estimated 50 per cent of cases the meeting is accompanied by strong feelings of sexual attraction.’ What the outrage also seemed to discount was that in Kathryn Harrison’s case, her fascination with her father was platonic, and he was the one who insisted on taking things further. As ever it amazes me that whenever sex comes into the story, it’s always the woman on whom the censure primarily and publicly falls. Very little seems to have been said about her father, except that maybe the poor man didn’t want his dirty laundry put on display; it might, after all, damage his reputation as a Protestant minister.

Harrison must come from one of the most dysfunctional families to have disgraced the literary page. Her parents were 17 when they met and had Kathryn, her mother an aspiring actress who found herself married to a man selling encyclopedias to try and make a living. Her mother’s wealthy and somewhat controlling parents intervened and insisted on a divorce when Kathryn was six months old. She was then brought up almost exclusively by her grandparents. Her mother did live with them for a while, but it was not a success. She was far too young to be interested in her own child, not to mention enraged by all that had happened to her. Kathryn was well aware that any love she received was conditional, for instance on Kathryn being able to learn to speak and read French, something she found at six and seven almost impossible to do. However, when as an adolescent it was her weight in question, she found it all too easy to stop eating. The search for admiration was also a rebellion. ‘You want thin? I remember thinking. I’ll give you thin. I’ll define thin, not you. Not the suggested one hundred and twenty pounds but ninety-five.’ She would suffer from periods of anorexia and bulimia from then onwards.

When her father re-entered her life while she was in college, his upfront and outspoken fascination with her was as hypnotic as it was disturbing. ‘I don’t know it yet, not consciously, but I feel it: my father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being.’ When she drove him to the airport to see him off, he kissed her, changing their relationship irrevocably.

In years to come, I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed.’

This is a literary way of saying that her father blackmailed her emotionally into a full affair with him. He would argue that God had given her to him, that God was revealed to him through her body and her love and that she was everything to him. He would write endless letters and call her up to three times a day.

”How am I” he says when he calls, and he says this because how he is depends utterly on how much I love him. Without me, there is no meaning, purpose or pleasure in his life.’

For the neglected daughter of an emotionally-withholding mother, this was hopelessly binding stuff. When love threatened not to exert its power over her, her father was equally ready to use his anger too:

 “Well,” he says, and he folds his arms. “You’ve done what you’ve done, and you’ve done it with me. And now you’ll never be able to have anyone else, because you won’t be able to keep our secret. You’ll tell whoever it is, and once he knows, he’ll leave you.”

As is usual when the mind is held hostage, the body speaks. Kathryn suffered from a whole panoply of symptoms. First a bad case of shingles, then depression and insomnia, bulimia and finally pneumonia. The latter she succumbed to when she had moved in with her father and his second family – her father’s second wife in full awareness of what was going on between them but so controlled by Kathryn’s father that she accepted it. In all this sorry story, it’s the complicit nature of the adults around Kathryn that’s most upsetting. They are all too self-obsessed or weak or distracted to offer her any help at all.

This is a horrifying book, but I didn’t find it a depressing one. It is an amazing testimony to the human spirit that Kathryn Harrison went through all she did and somehow managed to emerge the other side. Not that she says a great deal about the healing process. Her grandfather dies, and then her mother dies at 41, and it is as if an evil enchantment has been lifted. In a moment of perspicacity, Kathryn understands that it was unacknowledged anger towards her mother that was responsible in part for bringing her and her father together. It was the love she ended up feeling for her mother that broke the spell.

I quite understand how people might look at a book like this and think it isn’t their cup of tea. But I’m less sure why anyone would want it censured. After all, it’s denial and wilful blindness that cause most of the worse emotional abuses, or at least allow them to carry on unhindered. Unfortunate as it is, there is a dark side to humanity, one that acts out time and time again. We can be sanctimonious about it, and wish it out of our sight. But I don’t think it will ever go away unless we look at it without flinching, and consider the circumstances that cultivate it.

 

 

Three Disasters

1. I was sitting up in bed writing my diary about a week ago, when I heard Mr Litlove talking on the phone. Few people ring so late, so I was not surprised to hear he was talking to our son, and making many expressions of deep sympathy. I’ve been channelling Dorothy Parker for a while now, and I confess the phrase that sprang to mind was: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ Though as is the case when trouble hoves into view, I am always looking in the wrong direction. This is how you know what’s real: you could never have guessed it.

It turned out that it was one of my son’s best friends who was in need of assistance and a bed for the night. His girlfriend lives in our village, and he had gone to visit her, only to find that she and her family were out. He sat on the doorstep for a while and then, bored, had gone for a walk. Only to run into a bunch of youths who had assaulted him. Now he was injured, and the family still hadn’t returned, and it was nearly midnight.

I felt both enormously sorry for my son’s friend, and deeply exhausted at the thought of his arrival. I think I’m suffering from compassion fatigue, after all my son’s troubles of late. Plus it was the end of the week in which we had launched the magazine, and I’m still writing a book here and I was just tired. I’ve noticed, though, that when a situation calls for me to be more engaged and nurturing than I think I can manage, it arouses profound anxiety. The thought of this poor wounded child arriving (would he need to be taken to hospital?) nearly gave me a panic attack. Though in fact, when he came, he only had a small cut on his forehead (where he’d been headbutted) and wasn’t the traumatised boy I’d imagined.

We all went to bed, and in the stillness of the night I could hear him moving around in our son’s room. I was lying there, wide awake, trying to reconstruct his movements. I could hear him talking very quietly on the phone. Then more movement. Then he went downstairs and seemed to try the front door. I could feel Mr Litlove beside me, listening too. After another brief call, he went downstairs again and out of the door. Mr Litlove looked out the window and saw a car arrive and pick him up. Either this was the most willing kidnap in criminal history, or his family had come for him. In the morning we found a really sweet note that he’d left us, saying it was his girlfriend’s family who had finally returned and picked him up en route.

 

2. On Monday morning I was driving to work at the bookshop and sitting in the usual heavy traffic, when I saw my hairdresser pass by in his car on the other side of the road. I was so surprised to see him, as one is with people who belong so intrinsically to their environment. But we waved gaily at one another, and in turning around to do so, I stalled the car. And then, when I tried to start it again, the engine was completely dead.

I put my hazard warning lights on and wondered what on earth to do. I thought for one mad moment I should get out and push, before remembering you needed someone at the wheel to do that. I dug my phone out of my bag, though knew Mr Litlove was in a day-long strategy meeting and couldn’t help. All this time, traffic was pouring around me, white vans honking in protest, the buses squeezing through impatiently with millimetres to spare. And then a saviour appeared at my passenger window in the form of a man on a bike with a beard and ponytail. ‘Have you broken down?’ he asked. ‘I didn’t think you could just be sitting there.’ As he began to push, so the window cleaners from the shop materialised and, recognising me, came to help. I was at least now off the main road in a side street, though parked in a doctor’s space.

The window cleaner had a look at the engine and thought it was the battery. He asked me what had happened and I tried to explain my hairdresser’s surprise drive-by, a narrative he greeted with an expression of bewilderment mixed with indulgent contempt. He had packed off his apprentice – over whom he rules with a sort of benign despotism – to finish the job they’d been doing and said that, when they were ready to leave, he figured they could give me a push start and I could make it home. I don’t have any rescue cover, as Mr Litlove is fond of cancelling things that charge against chance; which is fine when he has the luck of the devil, but not fine for me who most certainly does not. I’d thought I needed to open the shop, so that was a complication, but luckily it turned out that someone was in. So I returned to my car to await my unlikely heroes.

‘I’ve never done this before,’ I said when they appeared. ‘So you’ll have to tell me exactly…’

‘Do you want to push?’

‘Yes.’

So I lined up with the apprentice, both of us grinning wryly at each other in acknowledgement of our lowly status, and we pushed and ran and pushed and the engine caught again.

 

3. So on Thursday night I was once again in bed, writing up my diary, when I became aware of a commotion coming from the bathroom. Mr Litlove was yelling for my help, an act that was unprecedented in our twenty years of marriage, and there was the ominous sound of water cascading. I sped over the landing, opened the bathroom door and saw a drenched Mr Litlove, his hands in the toilet cistern, attempting to stem a gushing fountain of water that would have graced Trafalgar Square. ‘Go and get me a screwdriver!’ he begged, and I shot off, not really liking to admit that I could probably only identify a screwdriver under conditions of complete calm and on receipt of a jolly good clue. In any case, as I hunted around our utility room, there didn’t seem to be any tools in evidence at all. I tore back, tripping up the stairs, with the whole (almost empty) toolbox in hand. ‘You’ll have to stop it while I look,’ Mr Litlove said. ‘Put your hand here and flush the loo when the water gets high enough.’

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s out of control water. It seems to symbolise the most powerful forces of nature able to destroy and wreck in blind chaos. I sloshed through the lake that was covering the bathroom floor and stuck my thumb in the dyke, as it were, my heart pounding and trying not to shiver in my thin nightdress. I could hear Mr Litlove running down the garden path to his shed, and then back to the house and up the stairs. When he had a screwdriver, he could turn off the isolator down by the cistern, and the fountain of water died instantly away. For a moment we neither said nor did anything, catching our breath.

‘Sorry about that,’ said Mr Litlove. He had been washing up downstairs when he heard water running down the windows, which he identified as coming from the overflow. Thinking he could effect a quick repair, he’d gone to take the troublesome part out of the cistern, and…I guess it didn’t go so well. We still don’t have a working toilet upstairs, which is okay, we have a cloakroom, but I’m always halfway up the stairs before I remember.

So it seems the lords of misrule are still aligned over the Fens and I am left wondering what will happen next? It doesn’t bear thinking about…

The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.

 

 

Thursday Reading Notes

It has to be notes at the end of this week rather than a review because I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s magnificent epic, The Luminaries, and I’m afraid at this point that it might just go on forever. I am enjoying it and admiring it hugely. The writing is outrageously good. But heavens, it’s long. It’s also intricately plotted and where I am (250 pages in) there are still new characters being introduced, so I don’t like to put it down and pick anything else up for a mental palate cleanse. I’m keeping all the information in my head at the moment, but a break might set free details that will turn out to be essential to understanding the outcome later on. I worry about these things.

I’m really not good with very long books and it seems to me that, generally, books are getting longer. The average length for a novel seems to be about 350-400 pages, often with 50 pages that could have usefully been edited out. I’m not sure why longer books should be so fashionable, unless they look like better value for money. But I also wonder whether the length is about increasing complexity, and the urge, so prevalent in a tortured bookworld, to grip a reader and not allow them to go.

Tuesday's goneLast week I read the second Nicci French book featuring Dr Frieda Klein, their psychotherapist-detective. It was by sheer chance that I read the first book first – another thing I’m bad at is reading in the right order, prefering to cherry pick the best books from a prolific author when given the chance. But in this case, order is essential, because the opening chapters of the second novel give away pretty much eveything that happened at the end of the first, and continue to develop the plot lines that were started. I get the feeling that if you’ve read one, you’ve got to read ‘em all, and the second book has 450 pages, because now there’s not just a murder enquiry to be developed, there’s so much else going on in Frieda Klein’s life as well.

What I really appreciate about the books is their properly disturbing atmosphere. Nicci French have done a great job of tapping into the feeling of shifting sands that comes with mental instability, how dislocating and disorienting altered mental states can be. Tuesday’s Gone begins with the discovery of a corpse, but one that’s being given tea and buns by a woman with a severe mental abnormality. It was one of the creepiest openings to a work of crime fiction that I’d read in a long while. The character of Frieda Klein is also very well drawn, showing the way that therapists both seem calmer and more in control in emotional situations than most, but also how deeply wounded they may be in other ways. The third in the series Waiting for Wednesday, is just out and yes, I have a copy. I’m hooked in now.

I’m also writing about Dodie Smith, which involves reading all four volumes of her memoirs. Clearly this was an example of Dodie getting going and not being able to stop herself – she is having such a ball describing her life, but I found to my surprise that I wasn’t having so much of a ball keeping her company. In principle I should love these books; Dodie Smith is a very funny, self-deprecating writer who had a half-life on the stage before becoming an author (and writing 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle if you can’t place her). After reading up on a couple of male authors who could be rather full of self-pity, I thought I’d appreciate her sparky, spirited good humour. And I do. But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow. At the moment, we are in the thick of World War One, but after three years of warfare, world events have scarcely warranted a mention. So caught up with her failing and foolish love affairs is Dodie, that when she watches a zeppelin raid over London from the blacked-out theatre she’s appearing in, all she sees is a delightfully pretty phenomenon in the night sky and she’s rather proud not to feel in the least bit scared. It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1. But the experience of the memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.