I had planned to write you a review of The Women’s Room by Marilyn French today, because believe you me, I have one or two things to say about it. But I am too tired. Last night we went out to the theatre to see the musical, Little Shop of Horrors. It was an excellent production, slick, funny and the singing was fantastic. Apparently it had come from the West End and was headed off on a three-month tour of the UK. We nearly didn’t go, because when I went to book tickets (the trip was intended to be part of my husband’s birthday present) the cost seemed a bit prohibitive, and I ended up saying I’d think about it. Well, I thought no more about it until the theatre rang offering me the tickets at a significantly reduced price, and so I decided, why not? The theatre must only have been about two-thirds full, as a result of many people hesitating the way I had done, no doubt, but we were a highly appreciative audience.
As you probably know, the storyline concerns a decrepit florists shop on Skid Row, where everyone is poor and pessimistic. The young dogsbody of the shop, the gullible and neglected Seymour, ends up cultivating a bizarre plant that only grows when he feeds it blood. But as the plant grows, so his fortunes are miraculously turned around, the fame of the extraordinary plant spreads far and wide, and the riches start to roll in. So it’s a Faustian pact story with a nice line in chilling materialism, as the plant starts to get more and more demanding in order to satisfy its blood lust. By the end I decided that as a story, it was a tragedy of low self-esteem. The worse you think of yourself, the more you shun your birthright of basic entitlement, the more you end up paying in blood to some monster of outrageous demands to make you feel good about yourself. And even that doesn’t work. I told my husband and son this as we were walking out. My husband snorted with laughter and my son gave me one of those looks that suggested that he was erasing that remark from his data banks. But then the big cardboard cut out of the plant standing in the theatre doorway suddenly lit up and started pleading ‘Feed me, Seymour!’ and the whole group of us nearby just cracked up. That plant really is the star of the show. Even at the end, when we know how evil and monstrous it is, we all sat there cooing ‘Awww, look how cute that plant is when it dances!’ I think it’s a phenomenon to which would-be world leaders should pay attention. Never underestimate the persuasive power of rhythm.
I do like my wide margins to the day still; late nights and early mornings do take their toll. To add to last night’s excitements, there was Tuesday morning when I had to get up at the crack of dawn to take my son to school. Usually my husband does this part of the day, but he’d had to get up even earlier to go to a breakfast meeting of all things in London. He works for a small start-up firm and had come home in rather somber mood on Monday to say that his boss’s wife had just been diagnosed with clinical depression and he would have to take over some of his work. As if worries about the recession and the volatile nature of small businesses weren’t enough, they now have this happen, and undoubtedly in part due to the strain the boss’s family must have been through over the past few years. They have four children and he’s rarely home. So my husband has not been his usual cheerful puppy self this week, not least because I am conscious that the event has recalled for him memories of the difficult years when I had chronic fatigue badly. Once he’d told me about Jon’s wife, he said ‘don’t get depressed, will you? And I said I thought it was unlikely, because through the years of ME, I’ve been annoyed and frustrated and completely fed up, and sometimes very miserable but I haven’t ever been properly depressed. But it just goes to show that bad stuff happening does not necessarily make you a stronger person. It may well be that the experience of trauma and tragedy makes you wiser, and more tolerant and compassionate and humble, but it also gives you a much better idea of what to dread.
Anyhow, to get on to what I actually intended to write about today, probably a mere 700 words or so into the post, I saw over at Dorothy’s site, this fun meme that asks you to list your 25 most influential authors. I couldn’t come up with a whole 25, but instead offer you 10, with the brief addition of how they’ve been influential to me.
Enid Blyton – supremely jolly children’s writer, who taught me that the moral universe of the book – literary karma – is the place where the body blows are dealt to the reader. And that issues of injustice and retribution are most palatable when handled with cheery optimism, even if that’s not terribly realistic.
Agatha Christie – Golden Age crime novelist who taught me that the most gripping plot is a slow, continually surprising, revelation of the truth.
Colette – Early to mid-20th century French author whose sumptuous description, clear-sighted gender politics and determination to explore experience for its anecdotal value has long provided me with a beloved role model.
Proust – Early 20th century French author whose lengthy sentences marry intense emotional scrutiny to philosophical thought. I was instantly won over to such a method.
Rainer Maria Rilke – 20th century German poet and novelist. Rilke was one of the first authors I encountered who understood that there is the real world, and there is the miasma of metaphysical meaning that hovers around it, the meanings, significance, implications, truths, symbols we draw out from it. The more artistic sensitivity you have, the more this other dimension dominates and overwhelms perception. It’s a pain in the neck to live with, but it’s the source of all art. Fundamentally that’s what Rilke writes about, and I was utterly fascinated by it.
Sigmund Freud – the daddy of psychoanalysis. He may have got things a bit wrong here and there, but it’s of little matter. He brings together mind and body, thought, emotion and the power of storytelling to change lives.
Julia Kristeva – late 20th century French psychoanalyst who is very, very difficult to read. I broke my head on Kristeva as a graduate student, but she altered the course of psychoanalysis by insisting that the mother was the fundamentally important figure in a child’s life. Much developed in her thought and mine, from that point.
Julian Barnes – late 20th century English novelist. I won’t say much about the delightful Mr Barnes, other than that he taught me that erudition is great in books, so long as it comes with humour and the strong sensation of the author’s guiding hand.
Joan Acocella – late 20th century American critic whose essays bowled me over last year. I had no idea that literary biographical criticism could be so elegant and such fun.
Janet Malcolm – late 20th century American biographer, who showed how biography becomes ever more interesting when you line all those different eye witness accounts up together and just marvel at the radical differences between them. There’s a lot to be learned there, about reading books, and reading as we do it in our daily encounters.
If anybody else wants to play along with their most influential authors, feel free!