What To Look For In Winter

This is Candia McWilliam in the late 1980s when she was at the height of her success as a literary novelist.

Candia Mcwilliam 1

This is Candia McWilliam today, after years of struggling with alcoholism, an unresolved personality disorder and functional blindness through blepharospasm, a rare condition in which the sufferers’ eyelids close uncontrollably although their sight is not impaired.

candia mcwilliam 2

What To Look For In Winter: A Memoir in Blindness is an account of a self laid bare in all her pain and bewilderment at how many wrong turns her life seems to have taken, and her struggle to make sense of these crises. It is a fascinating and strange book, exquisitely written, about a woman who shows both profound insight and remarkable courage coupled with an inability to master her negative emotions and a terrible fear of tackling herself. It is essentially the story of how we are compelled to recreate the situations that cause us most pain, if we persist in leaving them unexamined and unresolved.

She was born an only child into a troubled marriage; her mother was emotionally incontinent, her father emotionally constipated, although both were talented and capable people. When she was nine years old, her mother committed suicide, and although her account is opaque and allusive, I think she found her mother’s dead body. Whatever happened, there was enough absense of explanation, comfort and safety that the origin of McWilliam’s troubles is very easy to locate. Quite quickly afterwards her father remarried and started a new family, and from this moment on, the clever, sensitive and fragile Candia was living in a state of constant displacement. She became a ‘cuckoo child’, attaching herself to large, happy-go-lucky families, but it was not enough to make her feel the sort of acceptance she craved.

What I wanted was to belong, but I rushed to expel myself before I had even been sent out. My instincts and intuition were sound, but my use of them was not; I rushed to hurt myself before anyone else did.’

Sent away to school she proved to be academically gifted; she won the Vogue Talent Contest for 1970 and a place to Cambridge. Oddly enough, this is the toughest part of the memoir to read and I nearly gave up. Not because of the archly literary style, heavily influenced by Henry James (although it is notably torturous here), but because McWilliam is honestly recording a perspective on life that is all about glorifying glittering prizes, aristocratic titles and the sort of idle, shallow glamour that sits on a knife edge of pretension. It makes for queasy reading. But for the observant reader, it’s easy to see how McWilliam’s tendency to idealise has gone into overdrive, and married itself to a celebration of the sort of worldly success that actually means very little. Across this stretch of her life, she is weaving in and out of two marriages that fail, writing her novels that achieve a measure of acclaim and learning how to be a closet alcoholic. Self-sabotage is the name of the game, and an inevitable outcome of privileging the sparkly achievements over the altogether duller, tougher ones of accepting oneself and others, dealing with sorrow and frustration, learning to love the truth, and so on.

As she moves away from what seems to me a fundamentally dishonest period in her life, and towards the darkness she harbours all along, emerging in her ever-worsening alcoholism, the memoir becomes utterly compelling. Hot on the heels of alcohol dependency comes the condition that becomes the focus of the book (and somehow all the words we use figuratively about sight and insight gain hefty meaning in her narrative). She was a judge for the Man Booker prize in 2006 when she began to lose her sight and it took a long time for the correct diagnosis of acute blepharospasm to be made. It was a particularly cruel thing to happen to someone who found her sanity through reading and writing, and yet, given the lack of knowledge about the condition, and the suggestions of some that it had a psychosomatic element, McWilliam decided to write – or at least dictate – this memoir, in order to take a good long look at the circumstances that had brought her to this pass. She is very clear about her disinclination to do this and the figurative power of the blindness she embraced when she could still see. As someone who seems to have clung to comforting fantasies while letting a deeper truth destroy her, she makes a hypnotic subject for memoir, as her own growing self-awareness informs the reader’s progression through the story, and the writing, often frustratingly digressive, gradually gains the strength to face the reality of her character head on.

The second part of the memoir is a series of shorter pieces written while she was undergoing an experimental surgical treatment for her eyes. Doctors harvested tendons from her legs and used them to pin her eyelids open, a process that was both extremely painful and far from easy. Accompanying it are analyses of her character and her feelings that are disarmingly honest and unforgiving. Low self-esteem to the point of self-hatred is the dominant emotion:

I sense myself as a disaster in the room, as though someone has let in a maimed domestic animal and half-killed it, for its own respite, and its fur and blood are settling in the unhappy air around it.’

Undoubtedly her situation at this point is pretty awful; she is clearly still in love with her second husband, from whom she is separated. He now lives happily with another woman (and puts Candia up regularly when she needs rest after operations). She feels she has failed all her early promise, and is caught in a coffin of a body, fleshy and heavy, sightless and painful. The sense in the narrative of insufficient love is pervasive and terrible, as is her conscious searching out of ways to flagellate her already raw emotions. Yet the truthfulness of her narrative shows the reader that she is in fact surrounded by family and friends who love her and are ready to do all they can for her. This is the paradox of low self-esteem; those who refuse to believe they are lovable regularly insult all the people who love them.

The memoir ends on a tentative note of optimism, with her sight restored and her commitment to writing, at least, offering a valuable lifeline. Given how amazingly good the writing of this narrative is, that’s surely a plus and a reason for hope. This is an excruciatingly honest memoir that is at times infuriating, at times exquisite, and as such creates, in form as well as content, a faithful portrait of its author. If that’s so then the way forward for Candia McWilliam is to figure out what’s really important and chuck out the rest – for the main flaw of the book is its tendency to include much that is extraneous. As a symphony of human suffering, I doubt there is another book out there to match it.



23 thoughts on “What To Look For In Winter

  1. Wooah. Makes me think my Christmas wasn’t too bad after all. Memoir/literary ….I’m not sure. Some of the most ‘high brow’ writers don’t do memoir as well as the less ‘ambitious’. Wasn’t she beautiful?

    • Wasn’t she? Right at the end of the memoir, she’s looking at an old picture of herself and saying, you fool, you did it all wrong. She never knew she was beautiful when she was, and instead she felt all along that her reality was the way she looks now. There’s a lesson for all of us! As always your comment made me laugh – yup, I reckon the poor woman had a few taxing Christmasses. But this IS a good book and an interesting one. The best memoir I think I’ve ever read is Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, just in case you are interested!

      • Ooh Thanks. Just done Miss Winterson’s after watching the tv programme about her and recently slogged through G. Slovo’s which was hard going (not because her mother was shot in hideous circumstances) but because it was BORING.

  2. Excellent review. It sounds, however, like a rather harrowing read. It must have been difficult for her to write/dictate it as well.

    • Do you know, I am a wimp about a lot of things but I didn’t find this harrowing to read at all. The difficult parts are so packed in with beautiful and more ordinary observations, and the tone isn’t sensational at all. I completely agree it was hard for her to write – physically as well as mentally. She describes typing with one hand while the other holds her eyelids open and it doesn’t sound much fun! It was a book that made me think loads while I was reading, and I liked that. Thank you for your lovely comment.

  3. I think I would be scared to read this (I’m not a brave reader at the moment) but I can definitely see the value in such a memoir. And of course it would be interesting to read more about psychosomatic blindness as well as the success-to-ruin-back-to-recovery narratives. Great review.

    • Interestingly, McWilliam talks at one point about how a publisher wanted her to write a disaster-to-recovery sort of memoir and she refused point blank. She is very keen all the way through to reject easy explanations or facile solutions, and that makes it all the more interesting. I didn’t find it hard to read (but I quite understand about wanting to find comfort in books – been there, often done that), and yes, definitely some parts would be very intriguing to you. But probably covered in ordinary psychobabble lit elsewhere!

  4. What a lucid and fascinating and compassionate review. I have been thinking a lot lately about human pain and the self-destructiveness of lying to oneself, yet how pervasive that is. Timely.

    • Dear Lillian, thank you for your kind comment. There is, I think, no more damaging behavioural trait than being dishonest with oneself, but it can be hard at times to know what we really think and what we really want. However, my memoir-reading experience suggests that a person has to ignore, quite strenuously, the mayday signals being sent from body and mind in order to end up in a real pickle. There’s hope for all of us who would be lucid there!

  5. This sounds fascinating, but I’m not sure I’d be able to read it. Have you read her fiction? Does she still write, or did she break from this entirely until she wrote her memoir?

    • It’s really not at all hard to read; I never shed a single tear, or felt I had to put it down and turn my attention to something comforting. Which I should have said in the review as I can see that the subject matter makes it sound ghastly in that respect! I haven’t ever read her fiction, although I remember A Case of Knives being published and I believe she won a prize for Debatable Lands (she wrote three novels). She had been suffering from writers’ block for years and years before she wrote this – not surprising when you hear about her life. But she hopes to start writing fiction again now. I think you might like her – she is heavily influenced by Henry James, alas, and can turn a sentence into a room overcrowded with furniture that you have to sidle through, but she is very intelligent.

    • It isn’t depressing at all – partly because a lot of the writing is very beautiful, partly because she doesn’t dwell on the sad events in any sort of sensationalised way, and because so much of what she writes is a very honest exploration into her behaviour that is fascinating. I read the other day that depression often occurs when the fantasy of how things ought to be gets too far away from how things really are. Which may explain why I find it far more depressing to see false cheer rather than genuine honesty. The latter is full of hope, I always think.

  6. Hi, Litlove!!!! whew, this is a keen review; very sharp and also heightened by the before-and-after pictures. Would it exist without the photos? Yes, but the point is made even stronger with them. I’m not sure I can read this memoir yet feel compelled to do so tho’I might speed through it and miss a lot of the fine, grace notes that you find.
    I guess I’d sooner visit a bookstore or library built by book and life bloggers than any franchise and in many cases, even independent bookstores.
    I’m way behind and will now work “backwards” to see what other treasures you have in store.
    Happy New YEar and hope it’s been a beautiful holiday season for you and yours so far!

    • Happy New Year to you, Oh! I’ve been bad at visiting people lately, but I will pull my socks up next year, for sure! The photos are rather shocking, aren’t they? But the book isn’t hard to read at all, not in the sense of upsetting or harrowing. I think McWilliam is so lucidly analytical about herself, and so interested in getting to the bottom of things (and interested in much else that surrounds her, that has nothing to do with her own problems), that the reader is securely held in a thinking place, not a blindly feeling place (which is more apt for this book than I intended, not thinking what I was doing when I picked that adjective). It’s a book you have to read slowly, though, so the library is an excellent place to start, and you can see how it appeals. Hope you have been having a wonderful festive season – lovely to have you drop by!

  7. Oh my goodness, such a lot of grief has been suffered here. My first husband took his life; that alone is enough to knock a loved one of her feet for a few years. I can’t imagine coping with blindness, and a myriad of other woes, as well. Ultimately, it takes courage of some sort or another for each one of us.

    • Bellezza, your comment triggers a memory in me. I was reading this book and thinking about how much people will suffer and go through, rather than face the one thing that really scares them inside. I get the feeling that rather than face the fact of her ordinariness, her common humanity, the events of McWilliam’s life have left her with the feeling that she must be special in recompense. It is more special to destroy oneself spectacularly than to live quietly unnoticed. Every one of us has a similar sort of equation that we need all kinds of courage every day to tackle, I think. Though hopefully most of us don’t have such extreme scales to balance! I am so very sorry to hear about your first husband, though. What a dreadful time that must have been.My heart goes out to you.

  8. This caught my attention when you first mentioned it.
    I ordered it and would like to read it but could imagine it will not be easy for many reasons. It’s amazing how the body cries for attention when we don’t want to listen to our inner voice. The symbolism of her affliction is eerie. Thanks for making me aware of this book and an insightful review.

    • Caroline, I would so love to hear your thoughts on this one. I think you will find it very interesting. It does have a slow start, be warned, but the beauty of the writing carries you through. Once you hit the midway mark, the rest is plain sailing. I will hope you might get to this next year some time!

  9. This sounds unbearably sad–I’m not sure I could read it, though you do tempt me to look for it. It’s reading books like this that makes me appreciate my own problems–however awful they seem to be at the time–they somehow don’t quite compare. You’ve read a number of good memoirs like this this past year, haven’t you?

  10. I really enjoyed this incisive and generous review. I’m currently reading the McWilliams book and find it riveting. If only there were more memoirs like this, crammed with event and insight, talented (not just troubled) people, and overflowing with rich, sui generis prose. When you consider the conditions under which it was written, it’s even more amazing. McWilliams is a tough Scot to the bone.

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