I do hope so. There’s been a lot going on here lately that I will tell you all about soon. But in the meantime, I’ve got an essay on Henry Miller up at Numero Cinq, about the torturous route he took to write Tropic of Cancer. Hope you like it.
There was a moment, a few weeks back, when I was listening to four audio books (not simultaneously, obvs): Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Autumn by Ali Smith, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. And I thought to myself, wow, what a line-up. Does it get any better than this?
Alas, Autumn has fallen by the wayside. I love Ali Smith so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the novel. What I suspect is that her style doesn’t translate well to audio – so few styles do. I love her whimsicality on the page, but it doesn’t come across so well when you’re listening. I must get hold of the book. And the Agatha Christie was a delight, but you probably don’t need me to tell you anything about it. You will either love Agatha or not, as the case may be, but if you love her, it’s a really fun and clever outing on her part.
Which leaves me with two novels to talk about here, one of which I expect lots and lots of people have read, the other of which I expect lots and lots of people are intending to read. And what fine novels they both were.
Bring Up The Bodies will scarcely require a summary. The second of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, we’re following Thomas Cromwell through the wreckage of Henry’s love life. Cromwell is mostly definitely Henry’s right-hand man, but this is rather like being the enforcer for the Godfather. Cromwell accepts this, in fact, he almost welcomes it. But you do sense that this is at least in part because he knows that a fall from grace at this stage will mean death; so doing Henry’s bidding, however crazy or daft it might be, is a no-brainer nevertheless. And it’s hardly as if Cromwell needed the mental focus that would ensure.
When the novel begins, Henry is falling in love with Jane Seymour. She’s described as quiet, whey-faced, retiring, prudish, submissive. All the things, in other words, that Anne Boleyn is not – and this is not a coincidence. But Anne is in the early stages of pregnancy and so her position on the throne is relatively safe. Jane Seymour’s brothers and her father are in no doubt about the upswing in their fortunes that Henry’s infatuation might bring them. Jane is primped ready to meet the king’s needs while Anne is with child. But this never happens. Anne loses the child and, already out of love with her, torn by the desire for a male heir and by the desire for Jane, Henry starts to whine. He decides that this abrupt u-turn in his feelings can only be accounted for if Anne actually bewitched him into loving her in the first place.
Honestly, men! It’s bad enough they come up with this nonsense, but to see a long, inevitable chain of events unspooling from this ridiculous notion that will lead to Anne’s death is quite another matter. If ever a reader were in any doubt as to why power should be controlled by law and divided by as many people as possible, this is the book to clarify the reasons.
Ironically enough, Anne’s execution is facilitated by the death of the first queen, Katherine. While Katherine was alive, Henry had a reason to stick to his guns over Anne, out of stubborn contrariness if nothing else. But when she dies, then Henry starts to feel how lovely it would be if he and the Pope were on better terms again. Anne was an interloper, she put Henry in disfavour with the Catholic church, she has caused him problems without producing the required male child. Oh poor Anne; as spiky, egotistic and loveless a character as she is in Mantel’s version (and Mantel is brilliant in her portrayal), the sheer mendacity and corruption of the case that is brought against her is enough for outrage on her behalf.
Oh and lots of other things happen too: Cromwell is gearing up for his assault on the monasteries, an indication, I felt, of the general overreaching that is creeping into his management of the king’s affairs. Henry is often described as a big baby, and Cromwell, in that case, becomes his over-indulgent mother, giving him everything he really ought not to have. But in doing so, in the ever swifter dynamic of tending to the king’s needs with no hesitation and the experience of power it brings, he is starting to lose sight of the integrity he might once have possessed. If this book had been a movie, a sequel to Wolf Hall and a precursor of the final conclusion to Cromwell’s life, it would probably have been a mess of storylines without satisfying resolution. The kind of in-fill number that you are cynically made to watch if you want to follow the entire story. But in Mantel’s hands it’s all kinds of wonderful. Sharp, insightful, dramatic, gripping and exceptionally written. I expect you’ve heard other people say that, too.
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is also a sequel of sorts to her huge hit, My Name Is Lucy Barton. In it, Strout returns to Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois, and tells the stories of a number of characters who received only brief mentions in the first novel. Do you remember all the local histories Lucy’s mother tells her about, all those failed or difficult marriages that she recounts while Lucy is in her hospital bed? Well, along with Lucy’s siblings, those lives now take centre stage.
It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the first novel, because the real beauty of this novel – comprised in a series of interconnecting stories – is how the dots are all joined up between the people who feature within it. There was a moment in every story, a gorgeous AHA! moment, when I realised who it was we were reading about, which of the characters who had made a short appearance or been referred to in an earlier story. As in Lucy Barton, it’s a way in which the structure of gossip is used so cleverly and given such unexpected depth. It’s a gossipy small town situation that we always find ourselves in, and if you feel inclined to find that insignificant in any way, there’s plenty of times when you’ll say: Oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so! And you’ll realise that gossip is storytelling at its most compelling.
What Elizabeth Strout also does with supreme narrative efficiency is draw us into lives of quiet anguish and the unexpected compensations they contain. Strout’s characters suffer: they have trauma in their past, and poverty, and deep, abiding sadness. But these sorrows are balanced by the genuine rewards that sometimes enter their lives – and Strout knows exactly what a real, honest reward looks like. Patty Nicely, a counsellor at the local high school, is bruised by an encounter with an ugly-mouthed teenager, who lets it be known that Patty’s worst secrets are common knowledge. But Patty finds her equilibrium when she summons the strength to understand the young woman and actively help her. How does she find it? Well, in between these two moments, she reads the latest book by Lucy Barton, a warts-and-all memoir of her childhood, and it delivers the grace of insight. ‘The book had understood her’, Strout writes in one of her devastatingly simple sentences. And I wonder how many people feel understood now in their ordinary sadness by Strout’s luminous writing.
There are so many wonderful stories in this narrative that it’s tempting to go on too long about them. My favourite was probably the one about the artist who comes to town for a week’s conference and is lodged with a couple who seem very respectable on the surface. Until the guest goes to bed and the hosts go upstairs to watch her do this on the webcam they have planted in her room. And I did love the story where Lucy briefly returns (as part of her book tour) to Amgash and a reunion with the brother and sister she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. It goes as well and as dreadfully as you might expect.
It’s funny when I think back on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and remember that I really didn’t like it. It was one of the very few books back at that time in my life that I didn’t finish. I’m not sure which one of us has changed. But I feel that Strout’s writing has more emotional balance to it now, and that it makes all the difference. Boy, does she know how to do anguish! And she can take you to places that are almost too painful to tolerate – such ordinary humiliations, such unspeakable losses. In Anything Is Possible, though, the title holds a clue. People can be so reliably surprising; life can be so unexpectedly, ironically generous. These are the touches of grace that we live for, and which Strout captures so beautifully on the page.
So, last week was an unusual one for us because Mr Litlove was unwell. I always find it intriguing when he falls ill, because I get to witness what happens when a healthy person goes through a virus. Mr Litlove is a stoical type on the whole, but being ill makes him anxious and miserable, especially when, as in this case, he has an unpleasant symptom like stomach cramps. Then he struggles as anyone would not to make them worse because they are unfamiliar and unpleasant and causing him some concern. But the moment that those symptoms start to abate and he begins to feel better, I can almost see him overlaying the diminishing symptoms of illness with his memory of good health. He’s only been away from it a few days and now it’s a template he can hang onto, drawing himself nearer to normal with the simple confidence of its being his natural and typical state.
These things interest me, because the experience of chronic illness is so different. Last Friday was ME/CFS Awareness Day, apparently, and thinking about what it might be useful to make people aware of, it’s the effects on a person’s soul (if you like) of ongoing illness that are so often misunderstood. When you have an illness like CFS, you are at the mercy of a lot of symptoms which, if suffered in isolation, as Mr Litlove suffered some of them, are quite normal and readily overcome. But the effect of CFS is to hold you hostage in illness and therefore also in that anxiety state, with symptoms refusing to go away, and new ones popping up all over the place, and no diminution to give you hope that wellness will return. As the days stretch into months and then years, you forget what normal looked and felt like. You have only memories of illness and fear and they increase every time some fresh hell occurs to you. Anything stressful is that much harder to deal with because the inner ‘pint pot’ that contains stress is already half full. What kind of a monster would I have been if I’d told Mr Litlove that his stomach cramps were all in his mind, and that he should stop whining about them and just manage the best he can? And yet that’s what a lot of CFS sufferers get told, and mostly from the medical profession. Oh, doctors might couch it in more neutral terms, but often with the force of their indifference, it’s what they imply.
I last saw a GP back in February with the usual range of things that were not in themselves worrying, but were dragging me down because they came all at once and hung around far longer than necessary. I had the throaty/chesty-thing I’d caught the previous November that was still recurring (mostly gone now), styes in my eyelid (still got those), and a range of perimenopause symptoms which were making the CFS worse (they’re not going anywhere either). The doctor told me that these days they ‘didn’t think CFS was all in the mind anymore – there’s definitely something there.’ But that ‘no one can cure you so don’t believe anyone who says they can.’ Just pause for a moment here and consider that I have had chronic fatigue syndrome for almost 20 years now. I lost an excellent career to it and live a much reduced life; I’ve visited my son in London once in the four years he’s lived there; I have all kinds of skills I would love to contribute to my society but cannot. And this is what the doctor thinks to say to me? That I should give up on the thought of getting better? (I relate her words to you verbatim, with nothing added or taken away.) In fact, there are things that you can do to help with CFS, but the NHS is about 15 years behind, and the tactlessness, not to mention unhelpfulness, is quite breathtaking. I must admit that I was annoyed, and I felt determined to make the NHS do something for me. I’ve never complained to a doctor about the lack of help or support in all these years, or demanded testing or any form of possibly experimental treatment. I really felt they owed me.
However, squeezing something out of the system is not easy. I asked if I could be referred to the CFS centre at Peterborough (about 30 mins away), but the doctor refused on the grounds that I was probably doing all the things they might suggest already. Which was pure assumption because she asked no questions. So then I asked whether I could have CBT counselling, which I had seen advertised widely as a new NHS service. The doctor was not optimistic but said she would put my name forward. Naturally nothing happened, and I presumed that the doctor had forgotten about me the moment I’d walked out the door. So imagine my surprise when an appointment for an ‘assessment’ came through last week.
The assessment was an other-worldly experience. I drove to the far side of the city and found, in the middle of the wilderness beyond the outer ring road, a dilapidated collection of buildings that held the breathless silence of a ghost town. It was as if I’d stepped back in time to 1955 and been sent to the ramshackle remains of Bletchley Park. Half the buildings were derelict with broken windows and overgrowing foliage, as I found in my tour, having taken a wrong turn which proved impossible to undo. I had to exit the complex and come in at the front again. When I did locate the building I required, it seemed completely empty. Eventually a young woman came to find me and take me to her room. We passed a number of rooms off a corridor, some set up like classrooms, others just empty spaces, but everything seemed decades old and abandoned. However, something was working: the heating. According to the young woman, the therapists had been freezing all winter, asking if the heating could be put on, and now that the weather had finally warmed up, someone had flipped the switch. In consequence I felt I was being cooked. It was so hot in that room that I actually had to ask if I could leave and walk up and down the corridor for a moment. Really, it was almost unbearable.
But we sat and sweltered through an hour of questions. I had gone in asking if I could receive CBT for my phobias. In decreasing order I experience quite extreme anxiety and fear of: medical treatment, travelling and socialising. The latter I’m not exactly afraid of, but I find it exhausting because so often being social means a certain level of performance. By the time I left, we had agreed that I would receive CBT for my phobias. The only ‘decision’ I’d made was to have this CBT online rather than one-to-one, so why I’d needed to be assessed, I had no idea. In retrospect, I suppose that the NHS waiting list for treatment is so long that an assessment is required to see if you’ve become a risk to yourself since the initial referral. If I’d wanted one-to-one treatment, I’d have had to wait another eight weeks. I have to say my heart went out to anyone who wanted to use this service who was really at the end of their tether. It would be enough to push you over the edge.
So I left the tropically heated ghost town behind me and returned home. A few days later I was invited to sign in to the service and having done so was instantly sent an online questionnaire to fill in that was essentially all the questions I’d been asked in the assessment. This was to ‘match me’ to a therapist, clearly not the young woman I’d met, who was also clearly not able to pass on the details I’d given her (though I should point out that she was very nice and doing the best she could under trying conditions). So this is the NHS: hobbled by administration, cumbersome and complex and slow, with the resources that make you think you’re living in a third world country. There must be better parts of it than I’ve seen this past week; here’s hoping I’ve just had a less-than-ideal experience. I mean, my normal experience of therapy has been to ring up a therapist, have a chat on the phone and then make an appointment. That’s it. Well, I guess we’ll see what happens next.
What, then, to take from all of this? Well, I suppose I’d like to send a shout out to all those suffering from CFS for the Awareness Day because it’s a pig of a condition that still has a lingering stigma. But I’d like to to extend that greeting to anyone suffering from an ongoing chronic condition, who feels like they have exhausted the patience of their doctors, but who is anxious and fearful because managing life around ill health is all that can be done. Mr Litlove is one of the lucky ones. If you fall ill and it’s a passing thing, just a part of wellness as it were, then you are very lucky. And if you are that lucky, don’t assume that other people who can’t do what you can do are lazy, morally weak or malingering. No one wants or chooses to be ill; it’s always distressing to experience. And finally, what on earth are we going to do about the NHS? Having come up close to it, I’m under the impression that its inner chronic fatigue is worse than mine.
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.
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.
6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.
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.
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.
32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.
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.
37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.
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.