Making Choices

On Friday I completed what I think will be my last survey for an online market research forum into contemporary books. When I first received the email inviting me to join, I liked the idea of filling in surveys about the books I bought and read. The reality has been surprising, however.

The vast majority of questionnaires have been about supermarket books, the most mass market romance and thrillers to which I don’t pay much attention. The most persistent questions concern the covers and the blurb, as well as the endorsements that feature there. I’m not sure whether I have ever convinced the shadowy forces behind these surveys that I really do not buy books for their covers. And certainly not supermarket books whose covers are far from innovative. Time and again the questions back me into a corner. Of three dull and ordinary covers, which one do I like the best? Reluctantly, I click. And what do I like most about this cover? (Please be as detailed as possible.) I struggle to find a polite way to say: absolutely nothing, but I prefer it to the other two, which I sincerely hate. The survey presses on. Which one of these blurbs makes me most interested in reading the book? Where is the option to say I am not interested in reading this book at all, regardless of blurb or endorsement or cover? In the eighteen months or so that I’ve been responding to these questions, there have only been two surveys about literary books, one of which was about repackaging modern classics for book clubs. The rest of the time I’ve been doing what I thought was impossible – responding to questions about books in which I actually have no interest. It’s not even that I wouldn’t buy a supermarket book from time to time; it’s just that scrutiny of them reveals a sort of painful banality.

Yesterday, in the spirit of Bank Holiday spring cleaning, I decided I would finally tackle the great heap of academic books that came back from my university rooms and which have been lying for almost three years now under a throw. The hope was that they might have the vague appearance of a table, but they have never really looked like anything other than the corpse of my intellectual life. I’ve done a lot of book culling this year, and before storing what I wanted to keep in plastic containers in the loft, I knew I ought to make a serious attempt to reduce their number. When I first took the throw off it was like unveiling a time capsule, packed full of books I had completely forgotten about. I sat back on my heels, thinking how smart I would have been, had I managed to read all of them. The question now was how many to keep, which translated as: how smart did I think I would be in the future? There was an honest answer to that and an idealistic one. Which to choose?

It occurred to me that these two experiences concerned the books at the furthest ends of my reading spectrum. I’ve always really liked reading everything. I’ve never wanted to define myself by being the ‘type of person’ to read only one genre or another, high literature or low. I never wanted the possibility of a book foreclosed to me before I even knew what it was about. When I was a teenager in the 80s, I loved reading Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz, Susan Howatch and the sort of family saga that reached a zenith with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the start of the 90s. After that, there was a great phase of witty, sharply observed women’s writing, by authors like Kathy Lette, Anna Maxted, Victoria Clayton and Caro Fraser. All the time I was reading these books, I was studying Beauvoir and Proust, Camus and Sartre, Colette and Duras, Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Goethe, Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida. Why not? As the new millenium approached, I spent an hour a night reading children’s literature to my son and loving that, too. The more the merrier. I loved the feeling of imaginative expansion, all these ways of seeing, all these approaches to storytelling.

But in the past few years something has definitely changed. I suppose it is probably me. I decided with great reluctance to give away the pristine, untouched books I owned by Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers I barely understood when I was at the height of my intellectual curiosity. And I have to say that I don’t like a lot of the mass market fiction that’s currently being written. The Girl on the Train was its epitome (or nadir?) for me – a narcissistic narrator, a silly, overly sensational plot and badly written. It’s that flat, first person present tense narration that I truly hate, all cliché and ultra-conventional emotions laid out as if they were insightful. I find myself much more drawn towards Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym for my essential comfort reading, as all three can turn an exquisite and characterful sentence.

In one way it’s sensible to focus in on the authors that I appreciate the most. However much I want to read everything, I don’t have the time for it. And I seem less able to tolerate the styles of writing that displease me; I’m more critical than I used to be, and I’m not at all convinced it’s a good thing. I’ve never thought that the greatest powers of discernment when it came to books had anything to do with value judgement. Instead, I valued elasticity, the ability to look at any book on its own terms, and engage with what it was doing and how it was doing it. But my tastes are narrowing. However much I don’t want to make choices in my reading life, I seem to be making them anyway.

Maybe for that reason, I found I couldn’t give away many of my academic books. Instead I sorted them into different areas of criticism and theory, packed them into storage containers and let Mr Litlove struggle under their vast weight to the loft. In all honesty, I’m not getting any smarter. But I decided I’d keep the hope that one day, it might happen.

 

 

 

 

We Prepare For A Holiday

Yes, the blue moon must have been glimpsed in the sky because Mr Litlove and I are going on holiday again. He is doing another chair making course, this time in a workshop on the edge of the Sussex Downs, and I will be going along for the ride with a box of books. We’re staying in a place called Library Cottage, which should bode well, don’t you think?

In an unexpected twist of fate, the injured member of the party this time is Mr Litlove. Last week he went for a routine eye check up and was sent to the emergency clinic at the hospital. There were some concerns about a thin patch on his retina, though what the upshot of this concern is, we are not entirely sure.

I dropped Mr Litlove off at the clinic at 10.30 in the morning. By 11.30 he had the drops in his eyes to enlarge his pupils and by 12.30 he was finally seen by a doctor. The doctor, however, wasn’t at all sure what she was looking at. ‘I wish your optician had said on the form where the problem is,’ she told him, ‘I can’t see anything wrong.’ Then, having checked the form again, ‘Ah, yes, she did say. Well, the retina’s a big place, you know.’ Once the doctor had located the problem, she still didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Twice she went off searching for a colleague to give a second opinion, and there were no colleagues to be found. ‘Perhaps I should pop you back in the waiting room and see another patient,’ she muttered to herself under her breath, while examining him again. Did she think his condition might deteriorate to the point of certainty within the next half hour? Or was he going to stay there indefinitely?

Towards two o’clock they let him go. The doctor decided he should come back for some treatment and told whoever it is who keeps the appointments diary that it had to be within a fortnight. ‘I’m actually going on holiday the week after next,’ Mr Litlove confessed. And of course there was no appointment to be had in the week ahead. The consultant four doors down was consulted and the message came back, ‘He’s fine, do it when he’s back from holiday.’ The reassurance was nice, Mr Litlove said, and would have been even nicer if the consultant had actually looked at him. But he’s experiencing no symptoms and in fact, he thinks that something similar happened to him four years ago. Only then, the test took place at the opticians and he can’t recall the outcome. Maybe he was supposed to go to the hospital and forgot to make an appointment? Maybe the opticians forgot? But still, if he’s had this for four years at least, it’s unlikely a couple more weeks will make a difference.

When I mentioned this to my mother on the phone, she remembered the same thing happening to my brother. When they next saw each other, she got the full story off of him, and would you believe it, but my brother has been seen twice for thinning of the retina, once 15 years ago, once about four or five years ago. He’s never had any treatment, and hasn’t been able to get out of any doctor how serious this all is. It strikes me as extraordinary, this lack of information that passes between doctor and patient. Why is medical knowledge treated as classified? Is it something to do with doctors being afraid of people sueing them? Or are doctors rarely certain what is going on with a patient?

Sitting in the waiting room without his contact lenses in and thus forced to read his rowing magazine with one eye closed and the paper held an inch from his nose, Mr Litlove said he thought this must be how the NHS runs an efficient service at a low cost. ‘You don’t worry about the patients’ time, but keep them all together so they can be seen when the doctors are ready,’ he said. ‘But your experience wasn’t one of efficiency,’ I told him. ‘How long did the doctor dither over your diagnosis?’ ‘Well I’d rather not have a doctor who is cavalier with my health,’ he replied. ‘I completely agree,’ I said. ‘So wouldn’t it have been good if she could actually have had that second opinion she wanted?’

So, we are going away hoping he’ll be fine, and having been told if he has any strange disturbances of vision we must rush him to the hospital. I have to say I am impressed by my husband’s stoic calm. I do not deal with these sorts of medical issues well. But I’m also quite sure that he’s had whatever he’s had for a long time, just like my brother. I think it’s one of those things that, if you’re unlucky can be problematic, but is most likely not an issue the rest of the time.

Talking of being unlucky, our neighbours who usually feed the cat in our absence are also going away too. So Harvey is headed for the cattery for the first time in his life. It’s an imposition to ask people to come round twice a day to feed him (and even that is a lot less than he’s used to, now he’s an old, querulous, whining cat) but at least we know he can keep his routine and that he’ll be safe if we board him. Harvey has already suffered the great indignity of having to get his shots updated and will not be at all pleased to learn his fate. The other evening, Mr Litlove was checking the cattery out online and was surprised to find they have a facebook page. ‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘Harvey can drop us a line while we’re away, let us know how he’s getting on.’ I could envisage it already: ‘O hai, hoomans. Kamp suks. Git me now.’

And finally, what books am I taking? You’ve been very patient waiting until now to ask. I am taking:

Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd

This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway

I’m halfway through a thriller that I’ll take too, and then I’ll probably not be able to resist throwing one more book in. I’m thinking either Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which I am one of the last remaining people on earth not to have read) or Us by David Nicholls. Have a great week next week, and don’t forget to visit our new Extra Shiny, out on May 14th, debuting our book club with Laline Paull’s The Bees – which is now looking like a controversial choice!

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?

Boarding School Murder, Then and Now

What an interesting comparison it made, reading Tana French’s 2014 novel of murder in a girls’ private school, The Secret Place, and then not long afterwards, Josephine Tey’s 1946 version of the same thing, Miss Pym Disposes. What has changed in 70 years, you may well ask? And the answer in a weird way is: not much.

the secret placeIn Tana French’s novel, the murder is already a year old when the action of the novel begins. Chris Harper, a charming and confident young stud from the boys’ school up the road, has been found dead in the gardens of exclusive girls’ boarding school, St Kilda’s. The inquiry into his murder has stalled and might have remained that way except for a surprising occurrence. One of the pupils, Holly Mackey, makes her way to the police station and asks to see Stephen Moran, an ambitious detective whose career is festering in cold cases. (French’s books feature an interrelated set of characters and Holly and Stephen met many fictional years ago in Faithful Place). Holly has brought with her a photograph taken from ‘The Secret Place’ a noticeboard in the school where students post images and notices and artwork as a safety valve: ‘If you’ve got a secret, like you hate your parents or you like a guy or whatever, you can put it on a card and stick it up there.’ The photograph is of Chris Harper, and in ransom note letters across it is the legend: ‘I know who killed him.’

So Stephen Moran and the original detective on the case, spiky, bad-tempered Antoinette Conway, return to St Kilda’s together, embarking on a day-long investigation that will cover almost 550 claustrophobic pages, and will be told in alternating chapters, one dealing with the investigation in the present, one following the events that led up to Chris’s death in the past. You’ll be familiar with this sort of structure – it’s very popular of late.

miss pym disposesIn Josephine Tey’s novel, the establishment in question is the Leys Physical Training College, a place with a reputation for excellence in its discipline and teaching. Here high school-aged women come to learn about everything to do with a healthy body; they are rigorously trained in gymnastics and dancing, take advanced anatomy and physiology classes, run their own clinics and give classes in local schools. The eponymous Miss Lucy Pym is a writer who has had an unexpected success with a book on psychology. She is also a old school friend of the headmistress, Henrietta Hodge, who has invited her to be a guest lecturer at the school. Charmed by the health and vitality of the students, Miss Pym decides to put off her return to London and stay until the end of Summer term. She will be an interested witness as the students sit their final exams, receive offers of first-job teaching posts and prepare for the great Demonstration of their skills to their parents. We will be on page 186 of 249 before any murder is committed, which is a very old-fashioned way of organising a narrative now, but used to be more popular when it was enough for the writer to produce a set of intriguing characters and it was enough for the reader to watch a situation move to boiling point.

In both cases, the lure for the crime writer is the difference between the gilded surface of life in exclusive establishments and the darkness lurking beneath. Having marvelled at the beauty and vivaciousness of the young women around her, Miss Pym is told that ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.’ In the approach to the end of their school careers, with so much at stake in terms of exams and jobs, one teacher explains that

I should say that five Seniors out of six in their last term are so tired that each morning is a mild nightmare. It is when one is as tired as that that one’s emotional state ceases to be normal. A tiny obstacle becomes an Everest in the path; a careless comment becomes a grievance to be nursed’.

The scene is set for an unexpected injustice to rock the school, when a plum first job is given not to the school’s best student, but to a young woman who may have been cheating in her exams.

At St Kilda’s 70 years away, the gilding is more about money and class. Stephen Moran, ambitious himself, is awed by the gorgeous grounds and buildings in which the students live and work. When he views the Secret Place for the first time, covered with images of self-harm, verbal abuse and covert bullying, he is horrified:

That there was what was giving me the off-cider feel. That gold air transparent enough to drink, those clear faces, that happy flood of chatter; I had liked all that. Loved it. And underneath it all, hidden away tight: this. Not just one messed-up exception, not just a handful. All of them.’

Strangely similar also is the focus on over-close friendships as being both admirable, something that we might all aspire to or hope for, and simultaneously diseased and over-heated, dangerous to the emotional stability of those concerned. In The Secret Place, the action focuses on two groups of four friends; one headed by the rich bitch Joanne, who demands obedience from her acolytes, the other group containing Holly and her friends, who become the strange, shining centre of French’s book. Their friendship is portrayed as so perfect and intense and extraordinary that it seems to release supernatural energy. This was a very odd if intriguing element of French’s otherwise orthodox police procedural. The middle part of the book is fascinated by a magical energy the girls can produce together, which can make the lights go out, or levitate small objects. That same energy is dispersed in hysterical ways in Joanne’s group by girls who claim to see Chris’s ghost, something the police officers will use repeatedly to their advantage in questioning overwrought young females.

Even the dialogue isn’t so very different, if you pay attention just to the cadences, though it must be said that, overall, French’s characters are obsessed with boys, clothes, friends and swearing, whilst Tey’s are obsessed with exams, being good and getting the right jobs to go to. Here’s one of Tey’s more frivolous characters:

Oh, Greengage, darling, you are an unsympathetic beast. I’ve bust my suspender, and I don’t know what to do. And Tommy took my only safety-pin yesterday to pick the winkles with at Tuppence-ha’penny’s party. She simply must let me have it back before – Tommy! Oh, Tommy!’

And now we take a deep breath for Tana French:

I mean, just for example, right? You should have seen them at the Valentine’s dance. They looked totes insane. Like Rebecca had on jeans, and Selena was wearing I don’t even know what it was, it looked like she was in a play!… Everyone was like, hello, what are you like? I mean, there were guys there. The whole of Colm’s was there. They were all staring. And Julia and all of them acted like that didn’t even matter.’ Jaw-dropped face. ‘That was when we realised, um, hello, weirdos?’

So what does separate these two novels? Well, I’d say in terms of the content of the story it was mostly attitude – Tey’s young women are essentially good-hearted, hard-working, admirable creatures, whilst French’s are dissolute and cynical for the most part, self-obsessed and all too busy with power games. In terms of organization of the narrative, the difference is 400 pages of padding in the French novel. Not that it isn’t good and enjoyable padding, used to ratchet up the tension as the girls are questioned over and over about the events of a year ago. Both are psychological thrillers, essentially, fascinated by the energy and recklessness of youth. But Tey’s is written from the viewpoint of the analytical and thoughtful Miss Pym, whilst French’s is a God’s-eye-view, up close and personal with the rival groups of girls or with the mismatched officers as they try to solve the case. Tey packs as much into her 250 pages, but most is the rich silt of Miss Pym’s contemplation. In Tana French we are taken over and over the events of the past as we wait for one – or more – of the girls to crack. I very much enjoyed them both (though in all fairness, the ending of Josephine Tey’s was better) – though what Enid Blyton and the girls of St Clare’s would say about it all, I don’t know.