Hot Milk or What Kind of Critic Am I?

When I began this blog way back in the mists of 2006, I was a proper academic literary critic, which meant that I read books according to a number of non-negotiable rules. I still think they’re pretty good ones, if you want to get the most out of the reading experience. I accepted everything that happened within a story as being necessary to that story. I understood that every scrap of information available about the story was contained within the words of the text, so that in consequence, what the book meant had to be consistent with all I’d been told – there was no place for wild speculations, misplaced prejudices or readings that failed to take account of key elements of the narrative. And I was humble in the face of the story: it was not my place to say, effectively, I wish you were something other/different than you are. My job was to hold the story up to the light to show others all the internal workings, and to mine it for the most interesting things it had to say.

Over the course of the blogging years, this process has changed. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, but to notable effect. Questions that had made no sense to me before – such as ‘Do you like this book?’ and ‘Are you enjoying it?’ – now became much more urgent. I not only recognised that I had certain quirky tastes and hopes for a book, I also gave into them and began to consider them something I should satisfy. And I began to read stories more literally, more superficially, with questions of motivation and plausibility paramount in my mind. In short, the culture of goodreads began to get under my skin, and I let it.

All of which brings us to Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, a book for which I had high (probably unreasonably high) expectations. A few years ago, I read Levy’s short memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, which was her response to George Orwell’s essay about why he became a writer. I was absolutely blown away by this memoir, which was one of the finest pieces of autobiographical writing I had ever come across, as well as an affecting and sophisticated account of the creative impulse. I hadn’t read any of Levy’s fiction before, and I thought the premise of Hot Milk sounded intriguing.

It’s essentially the story of a twisted mother-daughter relationship that has kept Sofia Papastergiadis a slave to her mother’s hypochondriac needs. Rose – whose Greek husband left her long ago – is a stubborn, proud Yorkshire woman who has developed a perplexing condition. Sometimes she can walk, and sometimes she can’t. Having exhausted all other routes of medical inquiry, she and Sofia have come to Southern Spain to the clinic of alternative guru, Dr Gomez, to whom they have paid an astronomical fee in the hope of finding a diagnosis and a cure. Of course, in this land beyond the boundaries of tried and trusted medical science, all might not be as it seems. Dr Gomez is a mercurial trickster, kind and attentive to Rose at one moment, taunting and testing her the next. His approach to Rose’s condition is certainly directed as much towards her controlling nature and her fantasies of victimhood as it is towards laboratory testing.

In the meantime, whilst Rose is occupied at the clinic, chronic under-achiever, Sofia, is left to her own devices. Inattentive to her own needs and safety, Sofia manages to get repeatedly stung by jellyfish in the sea and to hook up with a strange couple who live nearby, the potent Ingrid and her boyfriend, Matthew. Through a slightly torturous friendship, Sofia is made to understand her own unquestioning submissiveness and to explore her desires (which include sleeping with both Ingrid and the beach hut attendant who deals with jellyfish stings, Juan). She flies to Athens to meet up with her estranged father and his new wife and child (which doesn’t go particularly well), and she starts to disobey rules and conventions, stealing a fish from the local market and obliging the diving-school owner to unchain his howling dogs. And all of this takes place in a jagged and discontinuous narrative, spiky and surprising in its emotional ups and downs, and often ascerbic in its humour.

More than any book I’ve read in a long time, it challenged and complicated the way I was reading and made me wonder what kind of critic I am these days. I found myself looking at it with a kind of odd double vision that was not comfortable. So, for instance, on one of their earlier meetings, Sofia, who has just bought herself a pizza, offers the box to Ingrid. Ingrid frowns at it with contempt, picks up the pizza and throws it on the ground. No one comments on this.

Critical reading: Sofia is so downtrodden by her mother that she simply takes this kind of bullying behaviour without batting an eyelid. In fact, she is hypnotized by it, partly because her mother has kept her in place this way for years, partly because such behaviour inevitably contains a repressed part of her self that she can no longer access any other way.

Ordinary reading: Who even does that? It is so incredibly rude and impolite and why on earth does Sofia stand for it? Oh no, you are not going to make friends with this person are  you, Sofia? For crying out loud, run, run to the hills and never look back!

Another instance: Ingrid, who earns money from sewing, gives Sofia a suntop she has made for her, on which is stitched the word Beloved. Sofia gets a certain amount of thrill from this and her low self-esteem is briefly boosted. Until she puts the top in the wash and realises that the word embroidered on it is not as she thought Beloved, but instead, Beheaded.

Critical reading: Sofia is so desperate for affection that she projects her need for it out onto the world in an indiscriminate way. What she gets back from the world, however, is emotional violence and hostility, which she often fails to recognise for what it is.

Ordinary reading: Why would anyone stitch a word like Beheaded onto an orange silk suntop? (Is Ingrid psychotic?) And how could anyone make such a mistake when reading it? At the very least, our heroine most certainly should have gone to Specsavers.

I intended to finish this book, but at some point about the three-quarter mark I put it down and failed to pick it up again. As you may imagine, my feelings about it are conflicted. I think there’s much to be said in its favour. There’s clearly a profound exploration of the mother-daughter relationship going on here, and I also enjoyed straightforwardly the scenes with Rose and Dr Gomez in the clinic. But it just strained my credibility too far in places, and stylistically was too choppy for my personal tastes. Given that my favourite writers are Colette and Willa Cather, everything else is going to have to be perfect for me to put up with choppy prose. But if you can read this book through the lens of artistic critique, then I salute you wholeheartedly and think you’ve got the best chance of making the most of an often intriguing story.

 

 

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My Last Essay And Other Stories

Well, the middle of August is not the best time to pop up in the blogworld after a lengthy absence, but the lovely Numero Cinq online magazine is coming to a close and I have a final essay in it on Doris Lessing. I’ve had a wonderful time writing for my gorgeous editor, Douglas Glover, who is also an excellent writer himself (do check out his story collection, Savage Love, it’s incredible).

And I also promised a catch-up, if there’s anyone out there who would still like to catch up with me. Basically, I haven’t been blogging because I still have recurrent marginal keratitis. I seem to have a genius for developing conditions that can’t be cured but only unreliably managed, and despite my best efforts with every eye gel, drop and lotion on the market, it still flares up, especially when I read. So I hope you’ll understand that I haven’t been around visiting blogs because a) the reading is a bit much for me and b) it’s sort of depressing to hear about the lovely books everyone is reading or looking forward to reading, etc, when I’m so restricted these days.

I got excited a little while back over Manuka honey, after finding an account of a man who’d had my condition for four years, lost his job because of it, and tried everything to fix it. Nothing worked until he bravely attempted an experiment with the honey, putting it directly onto his eyeball. How he managed this, I do not know, as I bought an eye drop with a small percentage of honey and to say the red fire ants are consuming my eyeballs when I use it is an understatement. You should have seen the comments – so many people desperate for a cure who had had marginal keratitis for up to 25  years, all hopeful for the first time. I’ve been using it for six weeks now and maybe it’s helped a bit; it’s hard to tell and there’s certainly no great change or return to stability. But I will persevere.

In more positive news, Mr Litlove launched his furniture-making business at the start of July over the course of two Cambridge Open Studios weekends. He had a terrific response: on the first weekend we had just under a 100 visitors to his workshop and the little gallery we’d set up. The second we roped in our son for reinforcements and had somewhere between 60-70 visitors which was definitely more manageable. Since then he’s done well with orders and enquiries. He’s currently making a desk and chair, with a shelving unit, coffee table, eight chairs and a table and another table lined up, a possible further six chairs in the pipeline. So he’s really happy.

As for my novel, well, it’s been a very odd experience. I did well to begin with in my last submission round at the end of March. Four agents requested the full ms. One backed out almost immediately but that was fine as she was a non-fic person standing in for a colleague on maternity leave, and I wasn’t sure how that would work anyway. But then the next three just went quiet and four months later, I hadn’t heard a thing. One finally turned up about two weeks ago with a no, which I was expecting after all that amount of time. The other two, still not a peep. I mentioned my experience to the online writing group I belong to, and one woman replied to say that her last submission round came up with 10 requests for fulls. Of those, there were seven rejections (that took 6-10 months to arrive), two r & rs (not sure what this is but think it must be rewrite and resubmit), and one whom she had not heard from despite numerous prompts. She had finally saved up enough money to get a professional report on her book and now felt she had a good direction to take it in. Two years after submission.

I admire her grit enormously, because people, the timescale here! I don’t think I have it in me to stick with a novel for the two, three, four years it must take anyone to find a home for it. In the four (almost five) months of agently silence, I have fallen out of love with the old novel, started another that’s now much more interesting to me, resurrected a non-fiction project and have joined in with two friends on an interdisciplinary artwork that should be sheer pleasure. Maybe something will come out of these things and maybe not, really who knows? The system, such as it is, for turning professional with art, seems to me hopelessly overwhelmed to the point of brokenness.

But I don’t want to self-publish novels either. That’s just another way of dropping your work into an ocean of verbiage from which little is ever distinguished. Unless you are some sort of marketing guru, that is, and I am not. So I don’t know. I suppose I keep enjoying a writing life, and try not to worry too much about a writing career. That works better some days than others, of course.

 

 

Forty Great Books By Women About Women

Last week my friend sent me a link to a list of 40 Books Every Woman Should Read in Red magazine. It seemed such an odd, eclectic list that it has tempted me to write my own. But without bullying modal verbs. Below are 40 books written by women in the 20th or 21st century that have something to say about being a woman, and I think they are all very good books. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments (my list isn’t especially diverse, for instance); I’d love to hear about your favourites too.

1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Brilliant account of the plight of the woman artist.

2. A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Hard to believe this meditation on women’s ability to take on responsibility to the point of overwhelm is fifty years old. It’s still so pertinent.

3. Cheri by Colette. Surely one of the best novels ever about a woman growing too old for love.

4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Pulitzer prize winner about a disgraced woman’s uneasy return to her social tribe.

5. Ghosting by Jennie Erdall. A beautiful piece of creative non-fiction about the art of ghostwriting.

6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.

7. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. The inimitable Carter’s take on classic fairy tales.

8. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Poignant memoir of life with a newborn.

9. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. So much I could have picked by Beauvoir, but in the end I opted for her first volume of memoirs: mapping the creation of a female genius.

10. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. The funny, bittersweet story of an ordinary marriage with all its trials and tribulations (and bad childbirth experiences).

11. Lying by Lauren Slater. Controversial memoir about epilepsy and the author’s tendency to fabulate.

12. Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar. This actually isn’t my favourite Djebar but she’s hard to get hold of in translation. She’s a brilliant writer on Algerian women’s experience.

13. How To Be Both by Ali Smith. A truly joyous novel about love and art.

14. The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska. I’m always trying to persuade people to read this. It’s an entirely original piece of creative non-fiction, not to be summed up in a sentence!

15. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m not a big reader of children’s books as an adult, but this one really transcends its boundaries. The story of a young girl who hunts the galaxy for her lost father.

16. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. The American Madame Bovary.

17. This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway. Hilarious account of a gruelling Scottish childhood.

18. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Powerful and disturbing story of an abused foster child in the Depression Era.

19. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. How many novels can you think of that feature as their heroine a brilliant elderly lady who knits? Watch Miss Marple wipe the floor with Inspector Slack.

20. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. The author audits a class on feminist texts in the early stages of her marriage and new motherhood. It’s beautifully done.

21. Sherazade by Leïla Sebbar. A teenage Algerian runaway in Paris on a search for her identity.

22. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. Coming of age in South Africa with a hated mother and a burning desire to write (yup, pretty autobiographical, Doris).

23. The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. Brilliant account of Sylvia Plath that teases out the hidden agendas in those who witnessed and wrote about her.

24. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Modern classic novel about women struggling to make it in Hollywood. Harlequin Romance meets Emile Zola.

25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.

26. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. One of the most original and extraordinary accounts of motherhood you’ll ever read.

27. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. One of my all-time favourite novels about Little England in which spinster, Mildred, watches the machinations of her attractive, trendy neighbours.

28. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. A recent edition to my personal greats. A novel about mothers and daughters and dysfunctional families.

29. The Group by Mary McCarthy. Following the lives of a group of friends post-Vassar in 1930s America. Was a scandalous success back in the day, still a great novel.

30. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Teenagers abandoned home alone cope with World War 3. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything else quite so visceral.

31. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. The story of a woman abandoned in a psychiatric institute for her entire life, for not behaving in the ways her family thought fit.

32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.

33. Desirada by Maryse Condé. Classic novel about a woman’s journey of redemption from Guadeloupe to France to the United States, away from a neglectful mother and in search of her father.

34. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. A slice of beautifully written social history in this saga of a middle-class family during World War Two.

35. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Funniest historical fiction ever about a giantess.

36. I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Gorgeous coming of age novel about two sisters seeking love and money.

37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.

38. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Murder and madness in this historical novel. Was young servant girl, Grace Marks, a cold-hearted killer or a vulnerable child just trying to survive?

39. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Gender-bending, cross-dressing historical romp by the one and only Woolf.

40. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk. This was a very controversial memoir about divorce when it first appeared. Hopefully now the furore has died down it can be read for the beautiful, expressive book that it is.

 

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Although the title of this post is definitely a Mr-Litlove-esque one, I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove has not done anything comical for several weeks and so this is about books.

I’m wondering why my reading experiences have been so mixed lately – is it me or is it the books? I do think that audio books test a narrative severely and that something like The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, a 17-hour listening slog, might be a much more entertaining book if you could zip through it on the page. As it was, I felt that this novel probably had a very good idea lurking deep within it, but the narrative flourishes including scheming Nazis, lost masterpieces, alcoholic mothers, desperate heads of auction houses, many, many international multi-millionaires, overnight success, murders and a truly ludicrous ending diluted that idea beyond redemption. After a while I re-named it: The Improbability of the Plot.

The story wasn’t helped by having a heroine who simply refused to become sympathetic despite having the entire catalogue of woes thrown at her. Or rather, it was because every fashionable device for creating sympathy was deployed that she drifts beyond the reader’s reach into boring incoherence. Annie is recently divorced and poor, living alone and lonely in London where she is hoping to earn a living as a cook. When the story begins she buys a dusty painting from a junk shop for a fledgling boyfriend – it’s his birthday – but alas the cad stands her up and Annie spends the night sobbing, unaware that she’s purchased a sleeper. The painting knows. The painting gets its own voice and its own chapters to tell us all about its fête galante fabulousness, daahling (I didn’t mind these). Then Annie’s alcoholic mother, Evie, comes stumbling back into her life and she thinks the picture might be worth something. Off they trot to the Wallace Collection where guide and amateur artist, Jessie, falls instantly in mad crazy love with Annie (it’s properly mad – she spends most of the book discouraging him after an opening in which she is longing for love, so who knows why either of them sticks with it). Jessie does all he can to get the picture authenticated for her, while Annie doubts and loses patience and can’t be bothered and oh all sorts of things that fail to whip up any interest in the reader.

Now I’m heading into big spoilers in this next paragraph so be warned. So, Annie goes to work for high class art dealers, Memling Winkleman (a 90-year-old in unbelievably good nick) and his put-upon daughter, Rebecca. The portrait of Rebecca is every bit as incoherent as that of Annie. Rebecca loves her father and yet is ground down by her father. When she discovers that he is not the sole Jewish survivor of a German family lost to the Holocaust, but a dirty Nazi who has funded their business with a huge stash of stolen art, she is so horrified by his lack of ethics, and so upset that the good name of the family will be tarnished, that she instantly puts out a hit on the art critic who has found Memling out, and then frames Annie for theft and murder. Wait, what?

There are good bits in this avalanche of narrative, and I was pretty much going along and enjoying it until about the halfway mark, when I began to lose the will to live. I think the art world is fascinating and I’d love to learn more about it, but this book is just too silly for words.

Moving swiftly on, then, to Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff. Now as books go, this one is a tricky little Munchkin.  If you hold it up to the light one way you get a very witty and amusing comedy about a man with hilariously clever dogs. If you hold it up to the light the other way you get a farcical take on depression and relationships and working in New York that is too crazy and all over the place for the big topics it’s wielding. I think to Rosoff’s credit, she is trying to pull off the very difficult trick of writing a book that is serious and funny at the same time. But again, the monster that is incoherence gets too good a grip on the middle section.

Jonathan Trefoil is a nice man but a lost one. He doesn’t understand what’s going on in his life, and he doesn’t have much idea about what he wants, but in an ideal world he’d like to be a grown-up doing grown-up things, like earning a living and marrying a woman he loves. However, his job is in an ad agency that is so superficial and absurd that it’s destroying him. And his girlfriend, Julie, is the organising sort who’s agreed to a wedding because the bridal magazine she works for is putting together a special edition and paying for it to feature. To add to his life woes, Jonathan is living in a dodgy rental and dog-sitting for his brother who’s working in Dubai. Although the previous sentences might lead you to think this is a book about Jonathan, it’s really about the dogs, who upstage every single character in every single scene they appear in. Really, the dogs are completely hilarious and adorable. In fact, the dogs could pretty much do without half the plot and half the characters, too, and just sort of improvise across the narrative. And I say this as someone who isn’t even into dogs.

So, Jonathan’s inability to get a grip on his life is entirely at odds with the iron grasp that fate seems to have got on him. The result is a severe breakdown in which he loses his ability to speak in anything but nonsense language. Ha, ha… no, not quite funny enough, somehow. Believe me, I was totally convinced by Jonathan’s character. I think he represents a fair slice of the male population. But you do long to give him a kick up the backside, and when it’s perfectly plausible that two canines have more instinct and drive than the human who feeds them, something is out of balance in your narrative. It makes Jonathan’s happy ending the implausible bit, because you don’t feel he’s had much agency in it.

What really redeems this book, however, is the brilliance of the writing. Meg Rosoff is SO funny. There’s scarcely an un-witty line in the whole thing. It’s like a masterclass in how to be funny in print, and how to use the absurd (so mishandled in most novels, cf The Improbability of Love) to its full effect. It’s sort of a shame that all this wonderful inventiveness is used in the cause of an ordinary rom-com.

Okay, I have, as ever, bypassed my 1,000 word limit without reaching my final book. But I’m not sure what to say about Elizabeth Strout’s novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, other than it’s wonderful. Spare, simple, direct storytelling that uses silence and the unsaid to devastating effect. Lucy is in hospital suffering from a strange, inexplicable infection after a routine appendicitis operation. While she is there her mother comes to visit her for five days. This is extraordinary – Lucy’s family is dysfunctional, poor, violent, full of shame and unresolved bitterness. When Lucy married she left and has not seen a single member for years. But now her mother has come and as she sits, sleepless, by the side of Lucy’s bed, they chat in an inconsequential way that thrills the once-neglected Lucy to the core. Her mother tells her stories of people from their home town but won’t be drawn into anything more intimate, anything more telling. But Lucy’s reaction, the patchwork of memories she gives the reader, her exquisitely rendered emotions at her mother’s presence, indicates the wealth of drama that is being played out under this most unassuming facade. I loved it.