Blindness and Insight

raymond carver_cathedral_coverWhen I worked in Waterstone’s back in 1993, Raymond Carver was the man. I hadn’t even heard of him, but it wasn’t long before I realised he represented some pinnacle of writing to the people I worked with. A collected edition of his stories had recently been published and I bought a copy of it, though it was in fact many years before I actually started reading him. Short stories aren’t something I read very often. I did appreciate him, and all those blue-collar depressives he wrote about, self-consciously ordinary people on the run from their better natures. But I didn’t love him, not in the way I felt I ought to. One story, though, stuck out in my mind, awkward and yet fascinating. This was ‘Cathedral’, the story in which a man overcomes prejudice and experiences a moment of pure revelation.

Our unnamed narrator is waiting at home, anticipating a most unwelcome visitor. Long ago, before she married him, his wife became good friends with a blind man named Robert, who saw her through some difficult times with compassion and support. For a long time they have been corresponding by means of recorded tapes and this friendship and its unusual communication is clearly very important to her; ‘Next to writing a poem every year,’ our narrator tells us, ‘I think it was her chief means of recreation.’ But now Robert’s wife has died, and he is coming to pay a visit. ‘I don’t have any blind friends,’ the narrator whines to his wife. ‘You don’t have any friends,’ she retorts. She tells him a tender story about Robert’s marriage but the idea of being married to a blind man sparks a train of perjorative speculation in our narrator, who is made deeply uncomfortable by the thought of having to be in proximity to someone so mysteriously disabled.

Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one,’ he ponders. ‘Someone who could wear makeup or not – what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter.’

We can see he’s a guy who idealises a certain kind of normality, a man trying too hard for simplicity and ending up with emptiness, ringed by danger. He wants things to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but when that easy, dependable sight is out of the equation, what creeps in instead is chaos, the breakdown of civilisation represented in that mad Picasso-woman he imagines. While he tries to exert his own superiority in his prejudice against the blind, we only hear wilful ignorance and ugly anxiety, provoked by a stranger who threatens not to be exactly like him.

When Robert arrives, he is easy-going, friendly, happy to fit in with the couple and to appreciate any little thing that’s done for him. Together they share drinks and a meal and then a joint. For most of the evening Robert and the narrator’s wife talk, and when the talk slows, the narrator turns on the television in a gesture that’s pretty much an insult. But Robert is as unruffled as ever, content to learn through listening, as he puts it. When a program comes on about cathedrals, our narrator feels obliged to add a little commentary. Robert admits that he knows very little about cathedrals, and says he’d be grateful to have one described. Our narrator is once again bumping into his limits, lacking the words, let alone the intelligence, to make a decent attempt at it. So Robert asks for pen and paper and he asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him, covering the narrator’s hand with his own and following the lines. After a while, completely engaged in the task, Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes and together they keep drawing. ‘It was like nothing else in my life up to now,’ the narrator confesses: ‘”It’s really something,” I said.’

So the point of the story is clever but obvious. The blind man is not the one who is physically blind. It’s our narrator who has to open his eyes metaphorically to all sorts of things he has been strenously keeping out – wonder, amazement, new experience, sensitivity, insight. That last one says it all: ‘insight’, the ability to see beyond the façade or to look inwards to the experience of a different but potent world. Though Robert may be blind, it’s clear he is open, aware, flexible, loving, engaged with everything around him. He manages to bring his would-be enemy to a point of unexpected revelation, and it’s important that whatever that revelation is, the narrator can’t describe it in ways the reader can see. This is how we know his internal paradigm has shifted.

I wonder whether we can’t take the analysis a little further, though. A literary critic called Paul de Man wrote a book of essays entitled Blindness and Insight. His argument was that blindness and insight are not an either/or, but an ‘and’. We cannot have one without the other. This argument came out of looking closely at various critical readings of books that seemed to select only certain points of a story to base an interpretation upon while ignoring others. This was considered a flaw, but Paul de Man suggested it was a necessity; to try to deal with the entirety of a story at once is too overwhelming and complex. His point was that you can only get an insight with the help of a little selective blindness. So to return to our story, perhaps it’s no coincidence that blind Robert seems to have uncanny powers of understanding and empathy. Nor that the narrator, who privileges sight in an excessive way, seems to know nothing and understand nothing and this quite willingly. He has to be made to slow down and focus in tight, to deprive himself of his cherished sight, in order to gain that special quality of insight.

Maybe this is a reason why so many writers – and Raymond Carver was exemplary here – hit the bottle as part and parcel of a writing life. Maybe they need to anaethetize some part of themselves, tune out the white noise of the world or the multiple voices inside their heads, in order to select the elements that make a story. Only alcohol, being such a blunt instrument, tunes out more than they bargained for.

First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.

The World of Angela Thirkell

angela thirkellIt’s curious the way that some of the most amusing and comforting writers develop their voice out of personal tragedy. Any reader might be forgiven for thinking that Angela Thirkell led the same sort of easy, untroubled life of the gentry – with visits from the vicar, summer fêtes up at the village’s manor house and children mostly packed off to boarding schools – that the protagonists of her novels enjoy. Her early connections were unusually good: one of her grandfathers was Edward Burne-Jones and she could count among her cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. But by the time she began to write, she was no stranger to hard circumstances. Her first marriage was to a singer, James Campbell McInnes, who turned out to be a violent drunk. She had two sons with him, and a daughter who did not survive, before divorcing him in 1917 in a blaze of undesirable publicity. She married again, this time an Australian engineer and army officer, the splendidly named George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell. They went to live in Melbourne, where she had a third son, but the lower middle class life style she had to adopt was not at all congenial to Angela. Claiming it was nothing more than a holiday, she packed up the sons that would come with her and sailed again for England, never to return. And never to marry again: ‘It is very peaceful with no husbands,’ she was quoted as declaring.

Forced to generate some income of her own, she turned to writing, and published her first novel at the age of 43. She soon found she could publish a novel a year and had almost forty to her name before she died.

Last summer I read Wild Strawberries, and just this morning I finished High Rising, the first two reissues by Virago. They belong in the same stable as Dodie Smith, and E. F. Benson, as the gentlest form of social satire. She has been compared to Barbara Pym, but Pym had a great deal more to say, of a sharply insightful nature, about loneliness. Angela Thirkell is just there to guide her characters through the mildest storms in village tea cups, before the inevitable and charming happy ending, easily effected when marriage proposals fall so readily from the lips of her male protagonists. In High Rising, single mother and author of ‘good bad books’, Laura Morland (Thirkell in semi-disguise) is drawn into a web of complications surrounding the new secretary of her dear friend, George Knox. The secretary, Una Grey, is a scheming sort with an unbalanced temper and a tendency to send poison pen notes, who is longing to marry some unsuspecting meal ticket. Laura and her saintly friend, Anne Todd, step in to prevent George from a typical Thirkellian fate of marrying in a deep state of inattention – a sort of unconscious coupling that must set up a precedent for Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest conscious uncoupling, perhaps.

None of this plot particularly matters. Angela Thirkell sets out to amuse, with Laura’s state of mind legible in the state of her hair – one particularly taxing morning leaves her looking ‘like Medusa on a heavy washing-day’ and her relationship to her small son Tony, a mix of adoration and irritation, offering wonderful scenes at his boarding school, notably a boxing match where ‘shrimp-like figures’ approach each other with ‘downward clawing motions’ from arms that looked ‘about as strong as boiled macaroni’ before the gong sounds and they ‘fled back to their corners, where they tasted real glory, lolling majestically, arms outspread on the ropes and feet dangling well off the ground.’ In fact, the less that happens, the better Angela Thirkell is at describing it. The essence of her world is a kind of Edwardian nursery, where silliness occurs because of short tempers and wounded pride, but there is always someone sensible on hand to restore order. As in the case of George Knox’s lonely approach to his house ‘which occasionally caused one of Mr Knok’s maids to have hysterics and give notice. But being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back.’

high rising

Servants are intriguing in Thirkell’s novels. While their masters and betters restrain themselves at all times to the most tepid expression of emotions, the mildest of manners and the most distantly tender of relations (or as Hermione Lee phrases it: ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’) the servants are there to tell it like it really is, with strong language, violent emotions and cherished paranoia. They may argue and shout, act compulsively and capriciously, but their emotional stamina lasts well beyond that of their employers. The most disturbing parts of Thirkell’s books are the out-of-date attitudes towards foreigners and the lower-classes, but if her main protagonists patronise their servants, it’s nothing in comparison to the contemptuous patronage they are forced to suffer in return.

It’s a particular and distinct world that Angela Thirkell writes about, one in which small boys want nothing more than to accompany their elders on a hunt, one where kindly doctors don’t charge fees to their favourite patients, where people are generally good and kind and helpful to one another and things work out just fine, thanks to the benevolent intervention of fate. And for the most part, Thirkell’s humour is exceptionally tender, born of loving amusement. It’s a strange, lost world, but a gentle one.

We have to feel for her, then, that one of her sons, Colin McInnes, was a bohemian bisexual who grew up to write books about everything his mother could not bear: ‘urban squalor, racial issues, bisexuality, drugs, anarchy and decadence. He found her novels ‘totally revolting’, a ‘sterile, life-denying vision of our land’.* Unsurprisingly the two of them hated one another, and she cut him out of her will (though she never said anything unpleasant about his books). When we read a Thirkell novel, we get to blindside the uncomfortable, challenging elements of life – that’s the entire point of reading them, to take time out of reality. You do wonder what it must have been like for Thirkell to live there in her imagination all the time.

* Hermione Lee wrote a very entertaining and perceptive essay entitled ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’, which appears in her book Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing. The quote comes from this essay.


The Riddle of the Labyrinth

RiddleOfThe LabyrinthMuch as I love words and enjoy arranging them in pretty patterns, I am completely hopeless when it comes to crossword puzzles and anagrams. I just don’t have the kind of mind that can crack a code. So I wondered how I’d get on with The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox, the story of an academic relay race to solve the mystery posed by Linear B, the oldest discovered language on earth. Learning it had made the New York Times Notable Books list spurred me to pick it up (I am so shallow), and I was so glad I did. It’s a fascinating account of three eccentric and gifted individuals who shared a violent obsession and who, between them, proved that the impossible just takes a little longer.

The story begins in 1900 when the Victorian archaeologist, Arthur Evans, broke ground at Knossos in the wild northern reaches of Crete. He came looking for a bronze age settlement, unpersuaded by current thinking that the magnificent race of the Ancient Greeks had sprung into being as fully formed as one of their own Gods. And he was amazingly lucky. Before the week was out, his workmen had hit upon huge building blocks of gypsum, the walls of a vast prehistoric building that predated the earliest recorded Greek settlement by a thousand years. Evans believed he had found the palace of Minos, famous for its labyrinth and the Minotaur that lurked in its depths. The building had contained hundreds of rooms, linked by a complex mass of passages; surely the literal foundation on which the legend would grow.

What was certain was that the excavation had hit the administrative centre of a sophisticated civilization. The fire that had destroyed it had served to bake hard and preserve its records, over two thousand clay tablets inscribed in an unknown language. The find was of immense proportions, the kind of discovery that would see an archaeologist through to the end of his life. Arthur Evans then did what any ambitious academic would do – he sat on his laurels, not allowing anyone else to view his finds, determined to crack the language as the prime achievement of his career. But he was a busy man, and an unknown language in an unknown script offers a fairly daunting obstacle. He published a little, revealing pictures of two hundred or so of the tablets, and made very little progress in decipherment before his death at the ripe old age of 90.

Now I would have absolutely no idea where you would begin with such a task, but it turns out that languages come in a limited range of sizes and varieties. Essentially they are either logographic (little pictures), syllabic (symbols for each different syllable) or alphabet based, as English is. You can tell quite quickly which you are dealing with because of the number of symbols encountered. If every word requires its own picture, then you end up with thousands of symbols. When it comes to syllables, you’ll need 80 or so, and an alphabet is the most economic with symbols, our own a mere 26. Linear B as the language was called, was syllabic, with a few hieroglyphs thrown in for good measure. These were pretty helpful in recognising basic words like man and woman, horse, goblet, cauldron, your average Bronze Age necessities. Arthur Evans also figured out that a mark like a straight comma was used to separate words, and that the script read from left to right.

The meagre publications Arthur Evans made unleashed a coterie of impassioned linguists and classicists onto the problem. But this was the middle of the twentieth century, telecommunications networks were in their infancy and two world wars had left nations poor in resources. Scholars were forced to work in isolation. This was one of the reasons why the middlewoman in the chain of decipherment, the woman who did all the hard graft, has received no recognition for it before Margalit Fox’s book, being somewhat lost to history. Alice Kobel, a hardworking classics teacher in Brooklyn, painstakingly wrote out every word from the 200 or so tablets in the public domain on the few scraps of paper she could get her hands on – the backs of greeting cards, hymn sheets, checkout receipts (wartime rationing left everyone in this era short on paper), then she filed them in boxes made out of the cardboard from cigarette cartons. She noted all the patterns she could find and punched holes in her index cards appropriately, so that when lined up, matches could be found. It was, in essence, an early database. Kober’s approach was rigorous and scientific – no fun guessing at what the language could be. She would work purely with its form alone, teasing grammatical rules out of it, and eventually plotting syllables on a grid, rather like an enormous sudoko puzzle.

It was this painstaking work that left the way open for a British architect, Michael Ventris, who was something of a linguistic genius on the side, to eventually crack the code. Kober and Ventris were both doomed individuals, people who did amazing things and who seemed to have to pay a price for that. Polite and helpful Alice Kober, out of a pure love for scholarship and an absence of competitive spirit, ended up appallingly abused by the male scholars she admired (that bit made my blood boil), and the reader is reminded, once again, that even those who should know better mistake fervent belief for knowledge. This was a surprisingly compelling book, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that when humans overreach themselves the results are always hypnotic. And it’s fairly mindblowing to consider a literate civilization in existence some three thousand years ago. If you know a fan of cryptic crosswords, thrust this one into their hands, and for even the most anagramatically-challenged (like myself) it’s a wonderful story.