Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.

 

Shiny Summer!

Shiny New Books Edition 6 is now live, hurray!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245It’s a packed programme over there, as always, with loads of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprinted books, as well as the BookBuzz section which has all kinds of intriguing interviews and features.

Okay, where to send you first? Well, given I’ve been so absent from this blog, I’ll link to a few reviews of my favourite books this time.

Probably the most moving and engaging book I read for this edition was One Life by Kate Grenville, a biography of her mother and a deft social history of the 20th century in Australia.

But you should definitely check out Threads,  Julia Blackburn’s quest for the lost painter and embroiderer, John Craske, a fisherman whose experience of chronic illness turned him to art.

As for fiction, I probably enjoyed most Paradise City by Elizabeth Day, a four-handed narrative between disparate London-dwellers whose lives interact in surprising ways.

I’ll also mention Early Warning by Jane Smiley, second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. I loved it, but you really do need to read the first volume first.

As for my own section, BookBuzz, there’s so much there that I really loved. Check out Anne Goodwin’s fascinating account of creating her unusual main protagonist in her debut novel Sugar and Snails.

And oh, choices! How about Tony’s account of being on the shadow jury for this year’s IFFP?

Finally, the book we’ve chosen for book club in August is Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, so now you’ve got six weeks to read it if  you’d like to join in with our discussion on the 20th August. Do hope you will!

 

 

 

 

To Kill A Mockingbird

Cover-of-To-Kill-A-MockingbirdIt’s funny how many well-known classics – Frankenstein springs to mind – turn out to be quite different to my expectations. I thought To Kill A Mockingbird was all about a court case in which a black man is wrongfully accused of the rape of a white woman. And chapters 16-22 out of 31 are indeed focused on this gripping piece of blatant injustice, beautifully constructed, jaw-droppingly outrageous and rightfully taking their place amongst the works of literature that will survive eternity because they have something so powerful to say.

But what about the rest of the book? It reminded me of other American classics like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer’s Schooldays with their gentle pace and episodic structure, a slow 360 degree contemplation of a society that is still in the process of constructing itself, although it thinks itself finished and complete. The heart of Mockingbird is with Scout and Jem, the siblings who are being brought up by their widower father, Atticus Finch, and allowed to run wild, according to small town wisdom. But we readers see nothing of the sort. Instead, much of the novel is about the education that Atticus is trying to give them – an education that is complicated by their own perceptions and the rules that society seeks to impose. For what Atticus is trying to do is teach them to be unusually deep and perceptive readers – to read against the grain of common understanding.

Take for instance, Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, an elderly neighbour who torments Scout and Jem by insulting their beloved father – because of his decision to defend the black man, Tom Robinson. Jem loses his temper eventually and cuts the heads off all her camillias, an act which angers Atticus and for which he must pay a penance. Mrs Dubose wants to be read to every day, and the children carry this promise out, hating and fearing the bedridden fits she succumbs to, whilst being aware that the reading sessions are gradually growing longer and longer. Finally they are released and Mrs Dubose dies shortly afterwards. Only then does Atticus present them with the solution to the mystery. Mrs Dubose, old and ill, has become a morphine addict, but she is determined to crack the habit before she dies. Jem’s reading helps her through the stages of withdrawal. Atticus explains to them:

‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what…She was the bravest person I ever knew.’

Instead of seeing a cranky, cantankerous, vicious old lady, Atticus insists they should see the reality of fear and despair that lies beneath, as well as courage in the face of death. It might look like she hates them, but really, Mrs Dubose hates her own fate. It’s a beautiful study in compassion, but it’s also remarkably convoluted. Another example is Mr Dolphus Raymond, a white man considered to be evil because he lives with a black woman and appears to be constantly drunk. In fact, the children learn that he only pretends drunkenness to help out the townspeople who want to hate him for the way he lives. He hands them an excuse that also gives them a credible way to understand why he won’t change.

A great deal of this novel is concerned, then, with the legibility or otherwise of people, the strange ways they mislead or signify by misdirection because of an overly rigid and complex code of appearances. How does this fit in with the crucial trial, you might ask? Well, perhaps it’s going to take this sort of careful, subversive reading for the whites to come to terms with the blacks, to see past their colour and the prejudices it provokes, to the real people beneath.

But there are some problems with this. Scout, quite rightly points out that the education they are receiving is out of line with the community they live in: ‘nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything’ she complains, instinctively aware they are being prepared for a society that is not yet ready for them. And the educated, liberal middle-class attitude that Atticus wants to pass on to his children is itself steeped in its own kinds of coding. What Atticus wants Scout and Jem to do is never show their feelings. They must at all times maintain a veneer of politeness and respect, no matter what they feel.

Whatever is wrong with this, you may ask? Well, the problem is that such a mode of behaviour ends up by supposing that only vile and unpleasant things lurk beneath the surface of human beings – that politeness is essential or else aggression and vice will seep out. We’re given an example of this in Scout’s teacher, who confuses Scout by sanctimoniously reviling Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in the classroom whilst mouthing off to her friends in private about the blacks and the need for them to keep their place. Where education doesn’t cover her attitude, that old human hostility rears its head.

But the best example of the problem with this attitude comes from Atticus himself. At the end of the book, Scout and Jem are placed in great danger, but their attacker is stabbed. When the sheriff comes to see Atticus, he tells him the villain fell on his own knife. Atticus will not believe this; in fact he is determined that Jem must have killed him in self-defence and it’s only by the most strenuous efforts on the sheriff’s part that the wholly innocent Jem doesn’t land up in jail. Atticus is incapable of believing in his own son’s innocence because his code of interpretation gets in the way.

See, this novel cannot believe that humans can live without a code, and that’s the most intriguingly problematic thing about it. There is no hope in emotional congruence as the saviour of human relations – a world in which people are allowed to feel what they feel, but precisely because they have their feelings and are aware of them, can choose how best to act. The most congruent characters in the novel are, of course, Scout and Jem, and this is why they are so endearing and so lovable and so easy to relate to. It’s also why the hopes for a more just society rest upon their shoulders. When Scout asks Mr Raymond why he’s told them his deepest secret, he says: ‘”Because you’re children and you can understand it”,’ children whose instincts have not yet been warped by social mores, and who can still cry out of a wordless but accurate horror over ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.’

To Kill A Mockingbird is brilliant on the simple hell that gets enacted on blacks by whites. When it comes to the behaviour of adult whites between themselves, the situation becomes more complex. Perhaps being taught to pretend a polite serenity one doesn’t feel is the first step forward, but it’s still pretending. In a world where, as Judge Taylor says ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for,’ the practice of pretence gives them a reason to do so. But still, above this layer of complexity, Mockingbird is a novel that pushes hard for compassion, sympathy and kindness, thus gaining a place in the great canon of world literature not only for its storytelling skills, but also for its great big heart.

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?