Holiday!

Mr Litlove decided, quite at the last minute, to take a week’s holiday this week. We have an assortment of plans and half-plans and I’m not sure of our final program, but I will be absent from the blog for the week. Whatever else we do, I’ll be working my way through the last batch of reviews for our second edition of Shiny New Books. There’s going to be a new colour scheme, a brand new competition and masses of reviews of new books.

Before I go there’s a question I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on. I read a review a little while back that became very angry with a certain novel because of the way a secondary character was portrayed. This was a gay man (and the book was set back in the early 70s when homosexuality was not considered to be publicly acceptable) who behaved quite badly towards his wife; their relationship was complex in many ways, but he could at times be quite mean and unkind towards her and there was a sadistic element to their sexual relationship. There was also deep attachment between the two of them, even if that was not always healthy. Well, the reviewer said that such a portrait of homosexuality was not acceptable, that it ruined the book for her and that no one wanted to read such a thing in the 21st century.

So my question is two-fold. The first part a) is whether as a reader you find you can be completely put off a book by a relatively small part of it? The second b) is whether you feel writers should not portray once marginalised identities in a negative way? I’m most curious to know what people’s instinctive reaction is to these issues….

 

ETA: It occurred to me that it wasn’t fair not to mention where I stood on the questions. Although it doesn’t happen very often, I can be completely put off by a small thing. I remember reading a novel last year where the excessive repetition of the speech tag ‘whispered’ really irritated me, to the point where I could barely concentrate on the story. Then Mr Litlove read the same book and said he hadn’t noticed it at all. As to the other question, I don’t think special pleading is a very good idea; to my mind, equality is about treating everyone similarly, which is to say understanding that first and foremost we are all human and all human beings do good and bad things, and often behave badly when their vanity or safety is in some way threatened. Plus, in novels, I think paragons of virtue are boring and implausible. But this is not a fixed view and I’m more than open to hearing other sides of this particular argument. I’m very curious about it.

 

Blindness and Insight

raymond carver_cathedral_coverWhen I worked in Waterstone’s back in 1993, Raymond Carver was the man. I hadn’t even heard of him, but it wasn’t long before I realised he represented some pinnacle of writing to the people I worked with. A collected edition of his stories had recently been published and I bought a copy of it, though it was in fact many years before I actually started reading him. Short stories aren’t something I read very often. I did appreciate him, and all those blue-collar depressives he wrote about, self-consciously ordinary people on the run from their better natures. But I didn’t love him, not in the way I felt I ought to. One story, though, stuck out in my mind, awkward and yet fascinating. This was ‘Cathedral’, the story in which a man overcomes prejudice and experiences a moment of pure revelation.

Our unnamed narrator is waiting at home, anticipating a most unwelcome visitor. Long ago, before she married him, his wife became good friends with a blind man named Robert, who saw her through some difficult times with compassion and support. For a long time they have been corresponding by means of recorded tapes and this friendship and its unusual communication is clearly very important to her; ‘Next to writing a poem every year,’ our narrator tells us, ‘I think it was her chief means of recreation.’ But now Robert’s wife has died, and he is coming to pay a visit. ‘I don’t have any blind friends,’ the narrator whines to his wife. ‘You don’t have any friends,’ she retorts. She tells him a tender story about Robert’s marriage but the idea of being married to a blind man sparks a train of perjorative speculation in our narrator, who is made deeply uncomfortable by the thought of having to be in proximity to someone so mysteriously disabled.

Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one,’ he ponders. ‘Someone who could wear makeup or not – what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter.’

We can see he’s a guy who idealises a certain kind of normality, a man trying too hard for simplicity and ending up with emptiness, ringed by danger. He wants things to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but when that easy, dependable sight is out of the equation, what creeps in instead is chaos, the breakdown of civilisation represented in that mad Picasso-woman he imagines. While he tries to exert his own superiority in his prejudice against the blind, we only hear wilful ignorance and ugly anxiety, provoked by a stranger who threatens not to be exactly like him.

When Robert arrives, he is easy-going, friendly, happy to fit in with the couple and to appreciate any little thing that’s done for him. Together they share drinks and a meal and then a joint. For most of the evening Robert and the narrator’s wife talk, and when the talk slows, the narrator turns on the television in a gesture that’s pretty much an insult. But Robert is as unruffled as ever, content to learn through listening, as he puts it. When a program comes on about cathedrals, our narrator feels obliged to add a little commentary. Robert admits that he knows very little about cathedrals, and says he’d be grateful to have one described. Our narrator is once again bumping into his limits, lacking the words, let alone the intelligence, to make a decent attempt at it. So Robert asks for pen and paper and he asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him, covering the narrator’s hand with his own and following the lines. After a while, completely engaged in the task, Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes and together they keep drawing. ‘It was like nothing else in my life up to now,’ the narrator confesses: ‘”It’s really something,” I said.’

So the point of the story is clever but obvious. The blind man is not the one who is physically blind. It’s our narrator who has to open his eyes metaphorically to all sorts of things he has been strenously keeping out – wonder, amazement, new experience, sensitivity, insight. That last one says it all: ‘insight’, the ability to see beyond the façade or to look inwards to the experience of a different but potent world. Though Robert may be blind, it’s clear he is open, aware, flexible, loving, engaged with everything around him. He manages to bring his would-be enemy to a point of unexpected revelation, and it’s important that whatever that revelation is, the narrator can’t describe it in ways the reader can see. This is how we know his internal paradigm has shifted.

I wonder whether we can’t take the analysis a little further, though. A literary critic called Paul de Man wrote a book of essays entitled Blindness and Insight. His argument was that blindness and insight are not an either/or, but an ‘and’. We cannot have one without the other. This argument came out of looking closely at various critical readings of books that seemed to select only certain points of a story to base an interpretation upon while ignoring others. This was considered a flaw, but Paul de Man suggested it was a necessity; to try to deal with the entirety of a story at once is too overwhelming and complex. His point was that you can only get an insight with the help of a little selective blindness. So to return to our story, perhaps it’s no coincidence that blind Robert seems to have uncanny powers of understanding and empathy. Nor that the narrator, who privileges sight in an excessive way, seems to know nothing and understand nothing and this quite willingly. He has to be made to slow down and focus in tight, to deprive himself of his cherished sight, in order to gain that special quality of insight.

Maybe this is a reason why so many writers – and Raymond Carver was exemplary here – hit the bottle as part and parcel of a writing life. Maybe they need to anaethetize some part of themselves, tune out the white noise of the world or the multiple voices inside their heads, in order to select the elements that make a story. Only alcohol, being such a blunt instrument, tunes out more than they bargained for.

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!