Artful

 

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

Wislawa Szymborska (trans. by Cavanagh and Baranczak)

 

Of all the riches in Ali Smith’s book, Artful, this is perhaps the one that spoke to me most insistently while I was reading. We are living in difficult times and teetering on the brink of worse ones, and it is perhaps only art that has the authority and the kindness with which to remind us that it was ever so. And also to provide an antidote to all that is toxic in the present day. The Roman historian Sallust (again, thank you, Ali) said ‘these things never happened, but are always’, and if he could say that a millennium or so ago, and the World hasn’t yet earned the world’s end, well, maybe there’s hope. See, this is the paradox of reading a book that is purely, unashamedly, in fact joyfully, literary and apparently about nothing to do with the present moment at all. Art always has something relevant to say.

Artful is the compilation of four lectures Ali Smith gave at St Anne’s College, Oxford in January and February, 2012: On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer And On Reflection. It is not – as some reviewers seem to think – the novel that Ali subsequently made out of the lectures, but the lectures themselves ‘pretty much as they were delivered’. They are, in fact, the most original form of art criticism that I’ve ever read, being a combination of fiction and critique rolled into one big, generous, sometimes overwhelming gift of narrative.

There is a story, then, that weaves all the material together. Our narrator has been grieving for a lost partner for over a year when, in the hope of breaking the deadlock, s/he plucks a book down from the shelf at random and it happens to be Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thus encouraged to move a chair, which in the narrator’s opinion has long needed moving, in order to get better light, s/he begins the book, and begins to think about the book, and at that point something extraordinary happens: the ghost of the lost partner appears in the doorway, dirty and torn, covered in bits of rubble and having some trouble with words, but back. However, this is not a ghost like all the others. The first thing the partner does is to sit down in front of the television (‘You came back from the dead to watch tv? I said’), and then empties a cup of tea on the floor. Before long the ghost is being quite the nuisance, stealing things and breaking things and smelling so badly that all the neighbours ring up to complain about the drains.

Interspersed with the story of the revenant are passages of literary criticism which turn out to be the lectures that the lost partner was writing in the months before dying. These lectures bring together snippets of lots and lots of wonderful works – old and new, poetry and prose, the references range from Shakespeare and Gilgamesh and Woolf and Graham Greene to Hitchcock and Saramago and Beyonce (yes, you read that right). And they are used to look at all the rich and varied ways that time and form create, sustain and renew art, and that borderlines and edges, gifts and promises and reflections all thrill and confound and enlighten us. There is, oddly enough, a hurrying quality to the literary passages, as if there’s scarcely time enough for the writer to shower us with the abundance of artful gorgeousness that s/he longs to collate together here. Sometimes the ideas come so thick and fast that you just don’t have time to make sense of them all, or to get what each little passage means. To get the best out of this book, don’t quibble. Just open up your reading arms and gather in as much as you possibly can. It’s like Ali Smith has become Ali Baba and for the time of reading, this incredible cave of literary treasure is open to you. So hurry, take all that speaks to you, knowing you can come back for more. ‘We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once,’ Ali Smith writes.

Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them…. Great books are adaptable… You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and going. Because come then go we will, and in that order.’

So perhaps you can see that the ongoing story of the ghost is a brilliant way of reflecting on the reflections on art. The ghost is the creation of the narrative – which is its own time out of time, and which has the elasticity to make anything happen that it chooses. The ghost is also a liminal element, which is to say something that hovers on the borderline between life and death, which makes us, precisely, aware of that very borderline and as such presents a hypnotic notion to our imaginations. And the ghost returns in stories in order to make the people in them reflect on their lives; this is what ghosts have, after all, a very special gift of enlightenment that can’t be given any other way.

But perhaps most of all, what we understand by the end of this poignant, beautiful and demanding little book is that art is always recompense for loss. It crystallises the lost moment, the lost experience, the lost society, the lost age. It gives us in imagination what we do not have before us in reality. And it comforts us and sustains us with the truth, told in a way that we can bear, given in a form that nourishes us. ‘All the time I read this book, I felt it was feeding me.’ (Katherine Mansfield on D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod) If you ever feel like you are losing faith in the world and in the humans who live in it, then pick up Artful. Or indeed any of Ali Smith’s works, which I love because her writing is always full of joy. But Artful will remind you why art is so necessary and so vital, today and always.

Snooping, Blinking and a Controversial Chair

As you may remember, while my eyes have been troublesome, Mr Litlove has been reading to me most days after lunch – a sort of bookish siesta. This has meant picking out books that we’re both interested in, which in reality has meant non-fiction, and mostly psychology studies. Earlier this year we read two related books that couldn’t have been more different.

Snoop by Sam Gosling had an intriguing premise. What Your Stuff Says About You, the subtitle reads, and essentially, it’s about decoding the objects people possess in order to gain psychological insight into them. It’s what most of us do when entering the room of a new acquaintance for the first time, casing the joint to see what kind of books, pictures, music the new friend owns; the fact that Gosling’s research students prove you can make a pretty swift and accurate personality assessment on this basis seems to show there’s more to it than meets the eye (see what I did there?). Gosling proposes that daily clutter can be categorized three ways, as an ‘identity claim’ (things we’re proud to have reflect on us), a ‘feeling regulator’ (things that arouse emotion or contain special memories) or a ‘behavioural residue’ (the overflowing laundry basket that says you’re a slob). Then he introduces the reader to the five big personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – and shows how objects can be character markers of these traits.

And that’s about as far as we got before we abandoned the book. There were a number of problems that stymied us (okay, mostly me) and that forced us to give it up in the end. The first is that, in the history of crossover non-fiction literature there are few academic authors who are quite as evidently pleased with themselves as Dr Gosling is. This is a bit off-putting. The book begins with him showing off his amazing skills to a television producer who has sent him a box of items from the room of a mystery person. From a small tube of skin cream, a hairbrush, a scratched CD of dance music and a photo of a sink area, Dr Gosling deduces an Asian male in mid-to-late twenties who is probably gay. What seems important here is that all this is for the pilot episode of a new program about snooping that would have a role for an expert in such matters (guess who?).

But as we get more examples of Gosling’s prowess, I did begin to question it somewhat. Gosling gives us the example of a large seagull mobile hanging in the office of a research collaborator that catches his eye. What does this tell him about his colleague? What may he deduce from it? After much pontification via the strategies of Hercule Poirot, he decides that the seagull was probably linked to a fond memory or a meaningful event and that it helped his colleague stay calm and focused. When asked, the colleague said she’d bought it at a conference at Stockholm and used it ‘to stop tall people standing too close to her.’ Conclusive, no? No. Dr Gosling helpfully points out that you can’t ever expect one object to tell you everything about a person, and the chances are you’re going to be wrong more than you’re right. And this was the problem with all his argumentation that I heard; it was dilatory, digressive and far from clear. He just couldn’t nail his points.

It was about now that my life began to seem very short and precious to me.

So I had a snoop of my own in Dr Gosling’s acknowledgements and found a very long, fulsome expression of gratitude to his editor and the hours they spent side-by-side writing and rewriting, to the extent that he felt she was a ‘co-author’. Which told me that Dr Gosling had probably got his contract on the TV interest and the high concept and then struggled manfully to write the thing. Of course, in all fairness the problem with a DNF is that it might have become brilliant in its later stages and entirely fulfilled all its initial promise. I don’t know; I never got that far. But maybe that editor whipped him into shape by the end.

Anyhoo, we decided to swap to the book that had first drawn attention to the ‘science of snooping’ and given Gosling his break: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Blink is a book about snap judgements and the way they can be more accurate and helpful than second, third and fourth thoughts. Gladwell opens with a marble statue bought by the Getty Museum, supposedly dating from the sixth century BC. The purchase took place after a cautious 14-month investigation by art experts, and then the statue went on display to full fanfare. At that point the trouble started, as other experts and dealers and people from the art world came and looked and felt in their gut that something just wasn’t right. The Getty took the murmurs of uncertainty seriously and further investigations were made. And oh dear, it turned out that the kouros ‘didn’t come from ancient Greece. It came from a forger’s workshop in Rome in the early 1980s.’

So, Blink is a book about the way that our cautious, thoughtful brain can be confused and our quick, grasping one can be clear-sighted. It’s sort of an easy version of Daniel Kaufman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, with extra jolly anecdotes. Because say what you like about Malcolm Gladwell (and I believe some people do), that man has a genius for exploiting the exemplary anecdote. His arguments throughout this book were beautifully made, utterly lucid and persuasive, and consistently interesting.

He moves from the frivolous to the serious and stops at various stations of the cross in between. Pausing at researchers working with five minute videos of couples from which they deduce the likelihood that the couple will stay together, through Warren Harding’s truly disastrous presidency (yes, there are precedents!) which he won almost entirely because he looked the part (exactly like the butler from Downton Abbey, in case you’re wondering), through the madness of market research. Take the rivalry between Pepsi and Coca-Cola and the television adverts Pepsi ran in the 1980s that showed people off the street taking a sip of each drink and declaring Pepsi the nicer of the two. Coca-Cola, rattled, ran its own blind tests and found that 57% of participants did indeed prefer Pepsi. Horrified, they altered the secret formula to make the drinks more similar – and released the product to consumer outrage. Their loyal customers hated the new drink and it was rapidly taken from the shelves never to be seen again. The thing is, what might be nicer on the basis of one sip (because it’s sweeter) is not necessarily nicer to drink at length. The sip test turns out to be misleading.

There are also more serious sides to the book, considering the use of snap judgements in combat situations and in the case of four white officers shooting a lone black man in the Bronx in February 1999. The man was entirely innocent of any crime, and the object he had withdrawn from his back pocket as the officers approached him turned out to be a wallet, not a gun as they had assumed. Gladwell looks at this incident from the perspective of a ‘mind-reading failure’. We have them all the time, instincts that arise and tell us someone is hostile or angry or something else altogether, drawn from another person’s facial expressions and body language. But police officers have to act regularly on those instincts in life or death situations, and sometimes they have terrible results. When you have so much adrenaline pumping through your system that you literally cannot tell the difference between a gun and a wallet, I think that’s a pretty good argument for not arming your average patrol cop, but what do I know?

So, all in all, this turns out to be a book that is just as cautious about snap judgements as it is congratulatory of them. Essentially, Gladwell is carving out a position in which thinking fast is a good idea, and shading in all the areas in which it gives misleading (sometimes disastrously so) results. Essentially, the issue boils down to experience and expertise. The more time you have spent studying something, and the more experience you’ve had in judging and then weighing the results of that judgement, the better your instincts will be.

This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren’t grounded in real understanding.’

Which, in an age that has become ‘fed up’ of experts, is something we should probably all hear.

Finally, then, a little blink test of my own. Below is a chair that Mr Litlove has recently finished after the style of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Do you like it or not? I do, but Mr Litlove doesn’t. What does that say about us, I wonder?

The Penguin Rocker and More Books

I have been very remiss in not showing you a photo of the chair Mr Litlove made me for my birthday. Yes, I know what you are thinking: how many more chairs can be deemed anniversary gifts before there is no more room in the house? A very good question, my friends. The answer: not many.

But in the meantime, I’ve always wanted a rocking chair and now I have one. We’ve been unofficially calling it the penguin chair because it just has that flippered look about it. One misconception I’ve been harboring about rocking chairs is that they have their own momentum. Well, they sort of do, but the experience is akin to being on a garden swing. You need to put a little kinetic energy in to keep going. I do think it’s the perfect chair for listening to audio books. I can’t knit as an accompanying activity, so that option is out of the question, but I can steeple my fingers and nod wisely with the best of them.

Now, some more books and let’s plunge into controversy with Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors, and at the start of the year I had a re-reading session with her novels. I read The Professor’s House and A Lost Lady again, which are both flawless masterpieces to me. Sapphira is Cather’s last novel, published in 1940 when she was tired and bitter, nostalgic for the past, horrified by the war in Europe and suffering a chronic wrist injury that prevented her from writing in comfort. Maybe for these reasons it’s a darker novel than many, although Cather never loses touch with the beauty of nature and the innate potential for compassion in her characters. It’s set in Virginia way back in the 1850s and concerns the household of local mill owner, Henry Colbert. His aristocratic wife came to him at their marriage with black slaves from her homestead, and although Henry is deeply uncomfortable with slavery, he understands that this is how his wife manages domesticity. He can’t upset the apple cart to the extent of turning the slaves free (in 1850, he’s not sure where they’d go), and so his intention is to treat his people with as much generosity and kindness he can muster, and ensure their lives with him are good.

Sapphira’s relationship to her slaves is quite different. Although we understand that she has been, across her lifetime, a good and generous mistress, just lately a few distressing problems have soured her outlook. First of all, Sapphira has recently become crippled with dropsy – extremely swollen ankles – and must deal with both physical restriction and pain. As a lady she bears it stoically, but it’s not helping her temper. Added to the humiliation of bodily woes, she suspects that her pretty black maid, Nancy, is having an affair with her husband. Now, no such thing is taking place. Henry admires Nancy and he has respect for the attention she brings to her chores. There may be something a tad guilty lurking in the back of his mind, which is why he can’t bring himself to act when he realises a serious problem exists between the women. But Henry isn’t much of an instigator at the best of times. So, lack of communication between husband and wife is consolidated by Sapphira’s jealous mind with suspicion, and the indignity and embarrassment of encroaching old age. Not content with chiding and scolding Nancy and smacking her with a hairbrush at the least opportunity, Sapphira decides to act out in a far worse way.

She contacts the family rake and invites him for a lovely long stay. Naturally, said rake finds Nancy extremely alluring and, since she’s a slave and readily available to him, he’s determined to satisfy his lust. Poor Nancy is in a terrible position. If she becomes pregnant she’ll be thrown out, but how can she avoid the unwelcome attentions of an arrogant, entitled white master? Well, as it turns out, Sapphira and Henry have a daughter, Rachel Blake, and Rachel can’t abide slavery:

It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always known it was wrong. It was the thing that made her unhappy at home and came between her and her mother. How she hated her mother’s voice in sarcastic reprimand to the servants! And she hated it in contemptuous indulgence.

Rachel sets out to help Nancy, only it will come at a heavy price for her.

Now here we run into the controversy. This seems to me to be a pretty enlightened tale for 1940, and it would be a humanitarian miracle for 1850. But the criticism that I’ve read of it says it’s still not good enough for the new millennium. The thrust of the story is entirely about the awful consequences that can occur when some people believe they have absolute power over others. But in the general areas of the narrative, there’s enough to offend the sensibilities of some. The term ‘darkies’ is used occasionally. When the slaves are all finally freed, one goes to the bad, which I’ve seen stated as cause for concern. There’s a general sense of the primitive in the descriptions of the servants. I suppose if you have delicate sensitivities in this area, then maybe it’s better to read something else. But it seems to me that if you open a newspaper,  there are far worse examples of racism to be had in the world today than in this book. If you’re okay with historical fiction and its vicissitudes, then it’s worth reading. Myself, I’d rather not miss out on the message that even good people can be corrupted by a fatal combination of misguided entitlement and their own insecurities. In fact, it seems to me vital that such a message be heard right here and now. It seems essential to me to read books like this, flaws and all, to see how much has changed, and how little.

Well I have wittered on so long that once again I’ve used up my thousand words with many more books still to be discussed. Hope to come visiting you all soon, too, and see what you’ve been reading.

Agent Hunter and other stories

So, where were we? Ah yes, we had finished the Barbara Pym part of the narrative concerning Mr Litlove and we were moving onto the Stephen King part of the narrative that involves me.

But first! Let me tell you about Agent Hunter. You may recall before Christmas I mentioned a novel I was thinking of selling, and I probably grumbled about the selling part because it’s so not fun. Any of my blog friends who’ve been around since I started blogging may remember that we’ve been here before. Back in 2008 I started working with an agent on non-fiction ideas. Now she was a lovely agent and I very much liked her; the problem was a cultural one. I was still theoretically teaching French (though on sick leave) and undoubtedly my mindset was very academic. I just could not put a proposal together that sounded the way the agent wanted it to sound. She even sent me a proposal under cover of darkness that she thought was a good one and between you and me, I didn’t think much of it. It was very vague, very unstructured and by this point I was beginning to feel as if I really ought to write something rather than plan endlessly to write something. We drifted our separate ways, with no hard feelings but I didn’t feel much the wiser about the commercial world.

The thing about working with an agent is that it’s a very, very strange relationship. When you start to write commercially an agent is presented as the Holy Grail. Find an agent, we are told, and then you have someone who believes in your work and who will sell it tirelessly to big name publishers like Penguin and Bloomsbury. And because the ratio of literary agents to people who have written a book is atrocious, the odds of getting an agent are slim. So, even more frenzy is whipped up. It’s impossible! But you must do it! And when you do you will be validated forever!

Ah well, life is never like the movies. I had a very nice agent. She liked my writing well enough and I liked her, but we couldn’t make it work. This is because having an agent is a lot like marrying a virtual stranger with whom you’ve shared a couple of internet dates.  The splicing together of agent and writer is such a high pressure, hardscrabble affair that you never get to know the really important things about one another until it’s too late. Then of course the commercial publishing world is such a viper’s nest that every new book becomes another hurdle in the agent/writer alliance. Most of the authors I know seem to spend their time switching agents.

Anyhow, I digress. When I began looking for an agent again, I have to admit that my heart wasn’t much in it, my confidence was low and my desire to trawl through the internet even lower. So when I saw that a site called Agent Hunter was offering a trial period for an honest review, I gratefully signed up. And thank goodness I did. This site is fab. You can search it for agents who are actively looking to build up their client list; you can search for publishers who don’t require an agent at all. When you find an agent there are often a lot of helpful interviews included that tell you what the agent is looking for. I’ll pass on the information right now that the vast majority want a chilling psychological thriller with a great twist. This makes my heart sink, but never mind, we’ve established that I’m jaded. The point is that in half an hour of my time I had a list of seven possible candidates with notes about their specific requirements in terms of submission materials. Sorted!

And then, not quite. Oh dear friends, I have been up and down the streets and around the houses with this question of an agent. As good as the Agent Hunter site is, it does not have a search criteria for agents who are willing to take on the medically challenged. And I keep imagining scenarios in which I have to explain that no, I cannot charge up and down the country giving author events, and no, I cannot turn my galley proofs around in 24 hours after six months of waiting for them because the editorial department has mysteriously got behindhand. In the wild dating world of the agent, I am not at all an enticing proposition as a go anywhere, do anything kind o’ gal. I’m more your refuse everything kind o’ gal.

I had an okay January, and it was definitely a busy one. Part of it involved doing interviews for an article  with friends of mine, one a poet, one a painter, about their different kinds of creativity. This was a lovely experience with two incredibly talented women. And then we were more booked up socially than usual. Towards the end of the month I saw my eye specialist and he was pleased with me; he decided I should try to come off the medication. I skipped out of the surgery… and then found myself straight back in it a week later, with keratitis back in one eye and a stye in the other. I’d never had a stye before but it didn’t bother me. The second one that came up did. And when I developed a third, all in the same eye, I was distinctly unhappy about it. I sort of had this feeling that CFS would form an unholy alliance with the perimenopause and February was all about that. I asked my eye specialist if hormonal imbalance could be at the root of the problem and he said, for sure. Apparently changes in hormones can completely alter the chemical composition of your tear film – hence the ongoing mayhem. By this point I also had a mouthful of ulcers, sciatica and a lovely new symptom involving muscle spasms and twitches up my diaphragm and esophagus. Think that’s nothing to do with perimenopause? I found this very interesting article that did make me feel better, in a dispirited kind of way. There was much in it that made sense to me, not least because I’ve always felt that my own brand of CFS has a lot to do with my hormones.

When I hit menopause I can go get myself some lovely HRT and feel better. But until that point, which may be a couple of years off… Well, extreme forms of dating are not very appealing. When I laid this problem out to my friend the painter, she was wonderfully clear sighted about it. She reminded me that I was selling the book, not myself, and that if anyone wanted the book, then they’d have to take its owner no matter what state she was in. ‘Litlove,’ she said, ‘we are just too old to be anything other than totally honest about the people we are.’ Which I absolutely agreed with. I think a lot of my problem here is that I did SO MUCH hoop-jumping in the Cambridge University years that my spring is sprung. I do believe we all have a hoop-jumping quota in our internal systems and once it’s exhausted, there’s no going back. And then she said that maybe the book deserved a chance to have its own life as an artwork. Oh, she is one clever woman.

So I am still just about in the game, though I promise faithfully that this is the last time I will mention this book as it’s a tedious topic. But I did promise Agent Hunter their review and it really is an extremely helpful site that I would like to recommend. Next time, I’ll talk about the books I’ve been listening to.