It’s been a strange week. One of my colleagues at work was killed in a car crash, leaving the entire fellowship stunned and shocked. Another colleague from the university is up in court on some serious charges and might face prison. I feel as if I have inadvertently wandered into a mini-series where there is an endless trail of Events. Too much plot! I want to protest. Let’s go back to the European art house film I thought I was living in, where I wander about and stare meaningfully into space a lot and very little happens. It’s been a plot-filled week in books, too. The first I read was Fay Weldon’s The Spa Decameron. As the title suggests, it’s a modern-day rewrite of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of travelers, fleeing the plague in Italy, gather together in the countryside near Florence and pass a fortnight together telling stories. The hundred stories that result are often concerned with love in its many guises and appear allegorical in nature, although Boccaccio was in fact satirizing the ‘teaching tale’. Weldon’s modern day rewrite has a group of women fleeing the Christmas season by spending it together in a luxury spa. Across the course of each day they gather together to tell each other the stories of their lives, almost all of which are fraught with love and violence. Around them the life of the spa begins to deteriorate as the few connections with the outside world break down and the staff leave as it turns out the place is going bankrupt. Only Fay Weldon could get away with the tales the women tell each other, which are lurid in the extreme, yet narrated through her cool, composed voice they invite you into another world at the limit point of emotions and experience. Weldon was best known in the eighties for a strange and yet irresistible combination of the feminist and the fantastic, and I can remember reading novels of hers like Puffball, and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil that were distinctly disturbing and completely compelling. I think she may have passed her peak now, but she is still a better stylist and a more interesting writer than many, and this was a lot of fun to read. Pure entertainment, even if the whole thing wobbles a bit about three-quarters of the way through. Weldon pulls it together for the last couple of stories.
After that I began what may be a lengthy excursion into the world of chick-lit, reading Fiona Neill’s The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy. I don’t know how far across the world these terms have spread, or whether they are simply a UK phenomenon, but here it is impossible to open a Sunday supplement without reading some style piece about the supposed trends in mothering towards either Yummy Mummies (those who manage to look attractive and well-dressed despite having young children) and Slummy Mummies (those who know they ought to be able to look attractive and be organized but cannot conquer the laundry pile despite their best efforts). It’s an interesting tug of war, this, that says far more about women’s fragile self-esteem than it does about how mothers actually behave. The Yummy Mummy was at first held out as a salvationary possibility to all mothers who were threatened with the sense of losing themselves in domestic chores, sleepless nights and the relentless demands of children. The idea was that the right clothes could maintain your self-respect and bolster a vanishing sense of identity. But then quick on the heels of such an injunction came the Slummy Mummy, who recognized that having to be fussed about how you look every day, on top of all those domestic chores that aren’t going to get done by the fairies in the night, was just another form of self-torture on the ladder of achievement for women. But Slummy Mummies run the risk of letting a lack of concern about difficult standards tip over into unfettered chaos. And so the battle goes on, sometimes favouring the harsh inner female critic who wants things to be just so and believes it can be possible with organization, and sometimes embracing the need to let things go, to ease back on the demands, to hope (and it is only ever a hope) that one can still be lovable in tracky bottoms and a ripped t-shirt. I always think it’s an indication of how wonderful and fundamentally good women are, that these kinds of books never take their eye off the basic concern of loving and tending for children. They frequently depict women struggling with terribly low levels of self-esteem but the underlying message is that such concerns are trivial in the extreme when countered with a child’s needs. Of course this is how come many mothers have such low self-esteem in the first place, because they insist on putting everyone else first. But I feel it affirms again how motherhood is a passage through sainthood for the vast majority of women. This book was also surprisingly good. I enjoyed it and when the heroine quotes the child psychologist D. W. Winnicott (who is a favourite of mine) at one point, I thought, good grief, chick-lit has become more sophisticated these days. I’ve got The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy by Polly Williams to read next, so we’ll see how that adds to the picture.
I am currently also reading Nerval’s Aurélia. This is a completely different kind of book, a brief nineteenth-century novella, ostensibly autobiographical in nature, concerning the writer’s experience of extraordinary and exotic dreams whilst in a state of mental turmoil. Gerard de Nerval defined a certain kind of troubled artist who was in and out of mental asylums for most of his brief life (he hung himself eventually). On good days, however, he could be found out and about in Paris walking his pet lobster on a pale blue velvet leash. Ah, those writers knew how to starve in garrets and embrace eccentricity. At the time Nerval was writing, France had been repeatedly torn apart with revolution after revolution, and a segment of the population was appalled and saddened by the impossibility of instigating stable, reliable forms of government. Nerval was one such, and founded the group known as the Parnassians, who used art to hark back to a lost golden age in which gods and goddesses ruled and one could believe in heroes. Nerval was also one of the last writers to truly incorporate Romantic ideals in his poems and novellas, and by now they are sickly, nostalgic things. To be a Romantic is to long to the point of bitterness and melancholia for heights of human achievement and depths of love that are forever out of reach. The Aurélia who motivates this particular novella is a woman Nerval sort of loved but undeniably lost before the narrative ever began, and it is to her ghostly figure in dreams that he turns. In fact Aurélia doesn’t show up much, being little more than an uncertain, brief sighting on occasion. Instead Nerval spends his time detailing the strange towns and cities and civilizations in his dreams and the alien, mystical journeys he undertakes to reach them. As a story, it is confusing and distinctly odd and otherworldly, and yet hypnotic somehow. It is the picture of an artist’s imagination, let off the leash by madness and romantic yearning and quite unlike anything else I have read. If you like the nineteenth century but want to try something quite different, then Nerval’s writings are worth considering. He is best known for his poems Les Chimères, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to start there: they are some of the most difficult poetry I know. Instead, the undergraduate’s favourite, his short story Sylvie is a charming piece of writing over which the shadow of Nerval’s madness gently and exquisitely falls. It’s a thirty-page time capsule from another world.
ps. Apologies to everyone with feed readers for the fact that I keep editing these recent posts. I don’t know what has happened to wordpress since the new dashboard was put in but transferring my posts from word results in the removal of all paragraph breaks. So I have to transfer via the notepad which then removes all italics. Sigh. I will remember this in the end.