Making Choices

On Friday I completed what I think will be my last survey for an online market research forum into contemporary books. When I first received the email inviting me to join, I liked the idea of filling in surveys about the books I bought and read. The reality has been surprising, however.

The vast majority of questionnaires have been about supermarket books, the most mass market romance and thrillers to which I don’t pay much attention. The most persistent questions concern the covers and the blurb, as well as the endorsements that feature there. I’m not sure whether I have ever convinced the shadowy forces behind these surveys that I really do not buy books for their covers. And certainly not supermarket books whose covers are far from innovative. Time and again the questions back me into a corner. Of three dull and ordinary covers, which one do I like the best? Reluctantly, I click. And what do I like most about this cover? (Please be as detailed as possible.) I struggle to find a polite way to say: absolutely nothing, but I prefer it to the other two, which I sincerely hate. The survey presses on. Which one of these blurbs makes me most interested in reading the book? Where is the option to say I am not interested in reading this book at all, regardless of blurb or endorsement or cover? In the eighteen months or so that I’ve been responding to these questions, there have only been two surveys about literary books, one of which was about repackaging modern classics for book clubs. The rest of the time I’ve been doing what I thought was impossible – responding to questions about books in which I actually have no interest. It’s not even that I wouldn’t buy a supermarket book from time to time; it’s just that scrutiny of them reveals a sort of painful banality.

Yesterday, in the spirit of Bank Holiday spring cleaning, I decided I would finally tackle the great heap of academic books that came back from my university rooms and which have been lying for almost three years now under a throw. The hope was that they might have the vague appearance of a table, but they have never really looked like anything other than the corpse of my intellectual life. I’ve done a lot of book culling this year, and before storing what I wanted to keep in plastic containers in the loft, I knew I ought to make a serious attempt to reduce their number. When I first took the throw off it was like unveiling a time capsule, packed full of books I had completely forgotten about. I sat back on my heels, thinking how smart I would have been, had I managed to read all of them. The question now was how many to keep, which translated as: how smart did I think I would be in the future? There was an honest answer to that and an idealistic one. Which to choose?

It occurred to me that these two experiences concerned the books at the furthest ends of my reading spectrum. I’ve always really liked reading everything. I’ve never wanted to define myself by being the ‘type of person’ to read only one genre or another, high literature or low. I never wanted the possibility of a book foreclosed to me before I even knew what it was about. When I was a teenager in the 80s, I loved reading Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz, Susan Howatch and the sort of family saga that reached a zenith with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the start of the 90s. After that, there was a great phase of witty, sharply observed women’s writing, by authors like Kathy Lette, Anna Maxted, Victoria Clayton and Caro Fraser. All the time I was reading these books, I was studying Beauvoir and Proust, Camus and Sartre, Colette and Duras, Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Goethe, Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida. Why not? As the new millenium approached, I spent an hour a night reading children’s literature to my son and loving that, too. The more the merrier. I loved the feeling of imaginative expansion, all these ways of seeing, all these approaches to storytelling.

But in the past few years something has definitely changed. I suppose it is probably me. I decided with great reluctance to give away the pristine, untouched books I owned by Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers I barely understood when I was at the height of my intellectual curiosity. And I have to say that I don’t like a lot of the mass market fiction that’s currently being written. The Girl on the Train was its epitome (or nadir?) for me – a narcissistic narrator, a silly, overly sensational plot and badly written. It’s that flat, first person present tense narration that I truly hate, all cliché and ultra-conventional emotions laid out as if they were insightful. I find myself much more drawn towards Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym for my essential comfort reading, as all three can turn an exquisite and characterful sentence.

In one way it’s sensible to focus in on the authors that I appreciate the most. However much I want to read everything, I don’t have the time for it. And I seem less able to tolerate the styles of writing that displease me; I’m more critical than I used to be, and I’m not at all convinced it’s a good thing. I’ve never thought that the greatest powers of discernment when it came to books had anything to do with value judgement. Instead, I valued elasticity, the ability to look at any book on its own terms, and engage with what it was doing and how it was doing it. But my tastes are narrowing. However much I don’t want to make choices in my reading life, I seem to be making them anyway.

Maybe for that reason, I found I couldn’t give away many of my academic books. Instead I sorted them into different areas of criticism and theory, packed them into storage containers and let Mr Litlove struggle under their vast weight to the loft. In all honesty, I’m not getting any smarter. But I decided I’d keep the hope that one day, it might happen.

 

 

 

 

What We Did On Holiday

Well, we are back, and totting up the credit and debit sheet, Mr Litlove had 100% nice time, and I had an 85% nice time. There’s always something, it seems, that means I arrive back with a chronic fatigue relapse. But that’s much later in the story. For once, I took a camera with me, so given I’m still a little tired, we may be able to let the pictures do the talking.

I told you we were staying at Library Cottage, right. Well, this was it:

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You can see we had big double doors onto a really gorgeous garden, and a huge skylight. The weather was excellent for most of the holiday and lying reading on the sofa with the doors open and the sun streaming in was pretty good. Apparently the current owners bought their house off of a barrister, and this was his work room, hence all the bookcases, which are now crammed with the most intriguing and eclectic mix of books:

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We spent the evenings combing through the selection and reading out loud things that caught our attention. In fact, several evenings in a row, Mr Litlove read to me from Christopher Booker’s enormous tome, The Seven Basic Plots; Why We Tell Stories. The seven basic plots themselves were extremely interesting (tragedy, comedy, rebirth, overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return); the problem came when he started to tackle the past 200 years of story writing, most of which subverted or altered the basic plots in ways that Booker obviously thought were wrong and misguided, a form of cultural neurosis in a way. If you have to diss everything written in the past two centuries, the chances are good that there’s something wrong with the guidelines for judgement! Anyway, it was all very interesting.

On the Sunday we decided to visit a stately home and really we wanted to use our National Trust memberships, which we’ve got for the year. However, the owners suggested we visit the nearest to us, Parham House. This was a lucky break as it was by far and away the most amazing place I saw in the week, and so I was very glad we got to see it together.

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This was the house from the approach – a long winding driveway through gently undulating Sussex grounds. It looked like an oasis and it sort of was.  Inside the rooms were full of the most amazingly beautiful antiques. The house had been bought in 1922 by a wealthy couple who enjoyed collecting; they renovated the place, restoring it to its original condition (the Victorians had papered over the panelling and so on) and then filled it with anything relating to the families who had lived there.

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The Great Hall – full of light from a series of high mullioned windows and cosier than most flagstoned halls.

 

The portraits were particularly astonishing. Mr Litlove kept asking the guides if they’d recently been cleaned, they looked so sharp and colourful:

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The lovely Susan Villiers, looking a lot like Helena Bonham Carter.

In this room, the Green Room, you can just make out a picture of a kangaroo by Stubbs near the corner of the room. Apparently, Sir Joseph Banks brought the kangaroo back as a souvenir of his round the world trip with Captain Cook. Well, he brought back the skin of the kangaroo, and so Stubbs then reinflated it in order to paint the picture. This is perhaps why the kangaroo looks a tad… odd. Mr Litlove liked this story a lot.

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My favourite story of the visit, though, concerned this bed in the Great Chamber:

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It was bought by new (well, new in 1922) owner Clive Pearson for his wife, who was an avid collector of tapestry and embroidery. It was essentially one huge ornament, not intended for sleeping in as it was too precious and delicate for that. The frame dates from Henry VIII’s time and the canopy and bedspread date from c.1585, probably the work of French or Italian craftsmen – because at this point in time such needlework was a valued occupation and was therefore undertaken by men. I overheard the guide telling another visitor this and my first reaction was: of all the cheek! Now I wonder at my reaction and yet… well, okay, I just find that annoying. Mr Litlove said it was no different from male chefs, who had a status that your average cook did not.

And just as we reached the very top of the house, already overwhelmed by all we had seen, we found the Long Gallery, which almost topped the rest.

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But we were a bit sated with beautiful objects by this point and so went out into the gardens. Guess what? They were gorgeous too.

Parham. Sussex. Cool colour borders in summer. Path with view through to dovecote

See more pictures of the gardens at this site here: http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/parham_house_and_gardens

 

So, that was our Sunday, and on Monday, Mr Litlove went yomping off across the fields to his Windsor chair-making workshop.

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While he was there, I had some more adventures with stately houses and gardens, but we’ll do part 2 another day. That’s enough for now!

 

We Prepare For A Holiday

Yes, the blue moon must have been glimpsed in the sky because Mr Litlove and I are going on holiday again. He is doing another chair making course, this time in a workshop on the edge of the Sussex Downs, and I will be going along for the ride with a box of books. We’re staying in a place called Library Cottage, which should bode well, don’t you think?

In an unexpected twist of fate, the injured member of the party this time is Mr Litlove. Last week he went for a routine eye check up and was sent to the emergency clinic at the hospital. There were some concerns about a thin patch on his retina, though what the upshot of this concern is, we are not entirely sure.

I dropped Mr Litlove off at the clinic at 10.30 in the morning. By 11.30 he had the drops in his eyes to enlarge his pupils and by 12.30 he was finally seen by a doctor. The doctor, however, wasn’t at all sure what she was looking at. ‘I wish your optician had said on the form where the problem is,’ she told him, ‘I can’t see anything wrong.’ Then, having checked the form again, ‘Ah, yes, she did say. Well, the retina’s a big place, you know.’ Once the doctor had located the problem, she still didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Twice she went off searching for a colleague to give a second opinion, and there were no colleagues to be found. ‘Perhaps I should pop you back in the waiting room and see another patient,’ she muttered to herself under her breath, while examining him again. Did she think his condition might deteriorate to the point of certainty within the next half hour? Or was he going to stay there indefinitely?

Towards two o’clock they let him go. The doctor decided he should come back for some treatment and told whoever it is who keeps the appointments diary that it had to be within a fortnight. ‘I’m actually going on holiday the week after next,’ Mr Litlove confessed. And of course there was no appointment to be had in the week ahead. The consultant four doors down was consulted and the message came back, ‘He’s fine, do it when he’s back from holiday.’ The reassurance was nice, Mr Litlove said, and would have been even nicer if the consultant had actually looked at him. But he’s experiencing no symptoms and in fact, he thinks that something similar happened to him four years ago. Only then, the test took place at the opticians and he can’t recall the outcome. Maybe he was supposed to go to the hospital and forgot to make an appointment? Maybe the opticians forgot? But still, if he’s had this for four years at least, it’s unlikely a couple more weeks will make a difference.

When I mentioned this to my mother on the phone, she remembered the same thing happening to my brother. When they next saw each other, she got the full story off of him, and would you believe it, but my brother has been seen twice for thinning of the retina, once 15 years ago, once about four or five years ago. He’s never had any treatment, and hasn’t been able to get out of any doctor how serious this all is. It strikes me as extraordinary, this lack of information that passes between doctor and patient. Why is medical knowledge treated as classified? Is it something to do with doctors being afraid of people sueing them? Or are doctors rarely certain what is going on with a patient?

Sitting in the waiting room without his contact lenses in and thus forced to read his rowing magazine with one eye closed and the paper held an inch from his nose, Mr Litlove said he thought this must be how the NHS runs an efficient service at a low cost. ‘You don’t worry about the patients’ time, but keep them all together so they can be seen when the doctors are ready,’ he said. ‘But your experience wasn’t one of efficiency,’ I told him. ‘How long did the doctor dither over your diagnosis?’ ‘Well I’d rather not have a doctor who is cavalier with my health,’ he replied. ‘I completely agree,’ I said. ‘So wouldn’t it have been good if she could actually have had that second opinion she wanted?’

So, we are going away hoping he’ll be fine, and having been told if he has any strange disturbances of vision we must rush him to the hospital. I have to say I am impressed by my husband’s stoic calm. I do not deal with these sorts of medical issues well. But I’m also quite sure that he’s had whatever he’s had for a long time, just like my brother. I think it’s one of those things that, if you’re unlucky can be problematic, but is most likely not an issue the rest of the time.

Talking of being unlucky, our neighbours who usually feed the cat in our absence are also going away too. So Harvey is headed for the cattery for the first time in his life. It’s an imposition to ask people to come round twice a day to feed him (and even that is a lot less than he’s used to, now he’s an old, querulous, whining cat) but at least we know he can keep his routine and that he’ll be safe if we board him. Harvey has already suffered the great indignity of having to get his shots updated and will not be at all pleased to learn his fate. The other evening, Mr Litlove was checking the cattery out online and was surprised to find they have a facebook page. ‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘Harvey can drop us a line while we’re away, let us know how he’s getting on.’ I could envisage it already: ‘O hai, hoomans. Kamp suks. Git me now.’

And finally, what books am I taking? You’ve been very patient waiting until now to ask. I am taking:

Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd

This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway

I’m halfway through a thriller that I’ll take too, and then I’ll probably not be able to resist throwing one more book in. I’m thinking either Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which I am one of the last remaining people on earth not to have read) or Us by David Nicholls. Have a great week next week, and don’t forget to visit our new Extra Shiny, out on May 14th, debuting our book club with Laline Paull’s The Bees – which is now looking like a controversial choice!

Lying

You may well be familiar with the paradox of the Cretan liar, the Cretan who says: ‘All Cretans are liars,’ thus presenting a difficult act of deduction. Do we believe her or not? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, is the most audacious elaboration of this paradox that I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of reading. It’s a memoir that attempts to express the deepest, most twisted realities of Slater’s identity and her troubled relationship to her mother – and not a word of it might be true.

LyingWhen she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. Lauren’s father fades into the background, a spineless Hebrew School teacher, leaving centre stage in their family life to his socially ambitious wife. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Initially her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But when she is sent to the nuns whose special program teaches her how to fall without hurting herself, the will Lauren finds to help her is quite different to the one her mother insists upon. There are two types of will, she explains.

Will A is what we all learn, the hold your head high, stuff it down, swallow your sobs, work hard kind of will. Will B, while it seems a slacker thing, is actually harder to have. It’s a willingness instead of a willfulness, an ability to take life on life’s terms as opposed to putting up a big fight. It’s about being bendable, not brittle, a person who is brave enough to try to ride the waves instead of trying to stop them.’

The discovery of Will B seems to offer genuine hope and enlightenment to Lauren, as well as a way of escaping her mother’s clutches. But then puberty comes around and everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. In the end she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. Oh, and she’s also left with those personality disorder symptoms I mentioned before – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. Writing begins to take on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. Lauren begins an intense and unhappy affair with another writer (and sexual compulsive) who had wanted to mentor her, and when this ends and she is left in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, no such operation would ever be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch, or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate, or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth, or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ How can we pretend that things are real or not real when half the time we’re not even sure ourselves? When reality can feel like a dream, or like such a vivid intense experience that we can’t believe it when other people tell us it wasn’t so, it wasn’t that way. How can we be completely sure that our memories are accurate? Or that the stories we tell ourselves aren’t true?

I am toying with you, yes, but for a real reason. I am asking you to enter the confusion with me, to give up the ground with me, because sometimes that frightening floaty place is really the truest of all. Kierkegaard says, “The greatest lie of all is the feeling of firmness beneath our feet. We are at our most honest when we are lost.”’

And the thing is, no reader can accuse Lauren Slater of not being honest about the way she toys with us. The book opens with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy (who needless to say, does not exist) in which he tells us exactly what we will be up against when reading this memoir:

[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

So, are you horrified yet? At the idea of a memoir about a debilitating form of epilepsy that might not be factually true? About a non-fiction writer refusing to tell her readers what actually happened and what is a construct?

But what if this memoir really is the truth of Slater’s life? What if she is a natural confabulator, uncertain herself what is real and what is fantastic? What if she is just more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections? What if our identities were all composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? I think it’s more truthful to say that they are, than that they are not. I think that Lauren Slater asks us to confront a very disturbing truth of the human condition – and of storytelling – when she draws our attention to the very blurred boundary between truth and fiction.

A final intriguing point. Halfway through this book, I had a small, disconcerting thought. I went to my bookshelves and found that yes, I had this book twice, once in an American edition entitled Lying, once in a UK edition entitled Spasm. The blurb on the back of the American edition admits immediately that this is a book about the uncertain line between fact and personal fiction. The UK edition begins with the epileptic fits and the surgery, stating that by then the ‘psychological reflex was ingrained’ of inventing and exaggerating. Two utterly different perspectives on the same book. Which one is more true?