Storytelling and Compassion

One of the many wonderful things about books is that they give us a safe space in which to encounter difficult and frightening thoughts. The structure of a book, with its perceptive narrative voice and its promise of an ending, guarantees us at least one of the four great anti-anxieties: meaning, wisdom, truth and resolution. Whatever darkness the story brings, these four are the light.

How much darkness we can take, how much light we need is, I think, a very personal ratio. When I was younger, I had a lot more capacity for difficult and demanding novels. I had more stamina for reading about suffering. These days I can endure a great deal less. I’m sure this is in part because I am increasingly interested in what it means to be compassionate in the world. I’ve been reading a book lately that defines compassion as a two-part process. The first part is to look squarely at the pain, but the second, and equally important, is to think how suffering can be eased. This is not to say that bad events and the pain that accompanies them can be avoided. Alas, no. But what it does mean is that whatever pain we – or others – endure, the important part is to seek to minimize the extra and sometimes unnecessary suffering that clusters around it. The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind. But literature is quite different. A well-told story is constantly helping the reader to stay clear-sighted and engaged while conflict takes place, so that we can think about it without being overwhelmed.

These thoughts have been running around my mind lately, after listening to two quite dark tales. The first, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, was very rapidly dubbed the ‘harrowing book’. Set in World War Two, it follows the fortunes of three young friends – Mary, who skies down to her finishing school the moment she hears war declared and packs her bags, hoping for adventure; Tom, who is in charge of education in a capital soon to be deserted by evacuation; and Alastair, Tom’s friend who has been working at the Tate as an art restorer, but who signs up immediately.

Mary is set to work as a teacher – not at all the sort of adventure she was longing for – and finds it surprisingly fulfilling. In particular, she forms a bond with Zachary, a dyslexic child (though no one understands this in 1939) whose father works in the Black-and-White Minstrels show in the West End. When Zachary returns from the country, having learned that rural prejudice is more dangerous than German bombing, Mary ends up in charge of a class of rejects. Children with learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties for whom the beauty pageant of evacuation has been a disaster. She also begins a love affair with Tom, who cannot help but admire her daring, courageous intentions, even while deploring the trouble she causes by them. People tend to have this mixed reaction to Mary – her well-born, well-bred mother, and her best friend, Hilda, being other examples. There is a long-held tradition of Mary pinching Hilda’s men, and so when the friends go for a double date during Alastair’s leave, the tradition raises its head in especially dangerous ways.

So far, I’ve made this book sound quite appealing, I hope, and mostly about love and friendship. But the majority of the narrative is concerned with the experiences of these characters during the Blitz and – in Alastair’s case – in Malta during its lengthy siege. And oh my lord, Cleave does not hold back with the horror of wartime. In fact, it is fair to say that the characters now undergo a series of traumas that will leave them broken and spent. I found long sections of this book very hard to listen to, and quite often I put my fingers in my ears and sang la la la la a lot. I only listened to a certain amount of it each night, so as to get to sleep. And then, when the horror never abated but seemed to be piled on and on, relentlessly, I found myself starting to laugh because I just couldn’t stay in that engaged place. Sometimes more is just too much.

Why did I stick with it? Well, essentially because of the quality of Chris Cleave’s prose. Here I owe the man an apology, because I seem to have contracted a prejudice about him. I thought he wrote just sensational stuff, all about making an audacious impact. And whilst this is sort of true, he can really, really write. He also keeps the characters’ interactions light. I’m not sure that everyone in wartime was this witty, but it’s nice to think so. There’s a real British spirit operating here (Brits really do whine during good times and then discover a sense of humour in awful crises), with the characters quipping away at one another, refusing to show they are rattled by means of deadpan humour. When a group of men are clinging to a too-small life raft off the coast of Gibraltar, the talk is all of the fish and chips they’ll have when they reach Brighton. The dialogue is very good, sharp and smart and pithy. Does it make up for all the characters go through? No, not really. It’s a bit like glitzy nail varnish on a corpse. But the ending is very gently hopeful, and the story is apparently based on the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents during the war (this bit was missed out of the audio book – shame!) and so you do believe there was the possibility of a happy ending eventually.

The second book I listened to was Salley Vickers’ Cousins. This was a very different beast – still beautifully written, but in a more straightforward way, less consciously literary. It was also very much informed by Vickers’ previous job as a psychotherapist, something that always thrills me in novels as I love a properly astute psychological framework in a story.

This novel begins with teenage Hetta being woken in the night by her parents. They have just received a phone call that changes everything: Hetta’s older brother, Wil, was climbing the tower of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, where he is a student, when he fell. The family make a stricken dash through the night from Northumberland to Cambridge, fearing that Wil may die before they arrive. In fact, what happens to him is worse than that.

What happens next in the story is, essentially, the slow, gradual retelling of a long family saga. We have to understand Wil’s fall as the culmination of all sorts of family tensions and secrets which Hetta is determined to uncover. In the immediate present, the fall seems to be linked to a forbidden relationship between Wil and his cousin, Cele, a young woman who has been much neglected by her mother, and who has sought refuge while growing up in Hetta’s family. Brought up almost as brother and sister, Wil and Cele have been a great deal more to one another than that. And this turns out to be a repetition of an earlier family root. Hetta’s grandparents were also first cousins, but they managed to marry – though not without an indiscretion of Hetta’s grandfather which produces a child, Nat. Nat’s mother is killed during the Blitz, and so Hetta’s grandmother brings him up as if he were her own. In fact, she feels closer to Nat, more loving of him than she does of her other children – Belle, Cele’s selfish mother, and Beetle, Hetta’s timid and sensitive father. Then tragedy strikes Nat, and a long string of family consequences ensue.

This is a novel of two parts. The majority of the narrative is concerned with retelling family history, and it switches between the hands of Hetta, her grandmother, and Belle. But the latter stages are quite different, a courtroom drama of sorts, and I found the change of pace and direction a little disorientating. However, there is much emotional resonance in these events, as it feels as if the unpunished, unseen ‘crimes’ of family life finally reach a sort of fruition in an actual court of law. And what happens here, how the crisis is dealt with by the family, is an outright attempt to make amends for all that has gone before.

Cousins is not a smooth book. The start is rather slow, the end is rather surprising, but I enjoyed it very much. Salley Vickers has a gentle hand with tragedy, allowing the narrative to touch it and then move away. Funnily enough, this was the book that brought me to tears on a couple of occasions, which goes to show that you do not have to put the reader’s heart through the wringer to be assured of creating an effect. In fact, I often think it is kindness and simplicity that are really tear-inducing. And maybe that’s because we weep when we encounter compassion, since we are so sorely in need of it.

 

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?

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.