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Sunday, 14 December 2014

A Little Lumpen Novelita


lumpen_revised_cover_small

I had to do things and not die – Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita




When starting a new book it’s tempting to hurry through the first few pages. You want to get into the meat of the book and I can’t count the number of books when on finishing them and looking over the opening page or two I realise just how much was said in those four or five hundred words. In this novella it’s the opening clause that one needs to pay close attention to:

Now I’m a mother and a married woman…

It tells us that our narrator is now a grownup, a woman and, most importantly, a survivor. The events outlined in the novella are what she survives. Then she gets married and starts a family so it’s not enough to say she survives—she prospers. Things might’ve gone very differently for her because that short opening sentence ends

…but not long ago I led a life of crime.

She and her brother are orphaned at the start of the book—their parents are killed in a car crash—and they’re left to fend for themselves. Exactly how old they are we’re never told. Her older brother is still a teenager and they’re both still attending school. The dynamic suggests that the girl is younger but probably not by much. Suffice to say they’re old enough to take care of themselves. A small government pension helps. It’s smaller than they’d hoped and so it’s only a matter of time and they’ve drifted out of education and into employment, he as a cleaner in a gym and she as an assistant hairdresser. They both dream—as I suppose everyone in poverty does—of the future. In fact when the novella was adapted for the screen this was its title: Il Futuro:

Once [my brother] told me that he dreamed of being Mr. Rome and then Mr. Italy or Master of the Universe. I laughed in his face and gave him my frank opinion. To be Master of the Universe you have to train from the time you’re ten, I told him. I thought that bodybuilding was like chess. My brother said that if I could dream of owning a mini-salon, he had the right to dream of a better future too. That was the word he used: future. I went into the kitchen and got our dinner started. Spaghetti. Then I set out the plates and silverware. Still thinking. At last I said that I didn’t care about the future, that I had ideas, but those ideas, if I really thought about it, never extended into the future.

“Where do they go, then?” howled my brother.

“Nowhere.”

Il_FuturoThe Future seems like a good title for this book. So why call it A Little Lumpen Novelita? For starters ‘little’ seems redundant. The key—and by ‘key’ I mean the key to the novel—must lie in the word ‘lumpen’. I’m British and I thought of ‘lumpen’ as “lumpy and misshapen; ugly and ponderous” but in a Marxist context it means “uninterested in revolutionary advancement” and that’s where we get the word ‘lumpenproletariat’ from, a term coined by Karl Marx to describe that layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society—the dregs of the dregs in other words.

In some respects the siblings actually do alright for themselves. They have jobs and a place to live. They don’t hate each other. The brother had started to bring home dirty movies which he watched with his sister, to “[l]earn how to make love” he insists; she’s sceptical but doesn’t object strongly and continues to watch them with him. Things could be worse. And the day the brother returns home with two bodybuilders he’s befriended, a Libyan and a Bolognan, it looks like things are going to head in exactly that direction.

The two visitors do not live up to expectations however. They stay for five days and then leave:

Even I couldn’t deny that their conduct had been impeccable for the five days they’d stayed with us. They always washed the dishes, three times they made dinner themselves, and they didn’t try anything with me, which was important. I could sense the interest in their eyes, in the way they moved, and the way they talked to me, but I also noted their self-control and found it flattering.

Eventually they return and this time it looks like they’re there to stay. One night one of them slips into the girl’s bedroom and she doesn’t object and then the next night the other—she shows no preference nor even that much interest in who’s having sex with her—but they take advantage and eventually she cuts them off; a girl’s got to get some sleep. Relations do resume, however, after a time:

Once a week, sometimes twice, I let them into my room. I didn’t need to say anything, I just had to be more talkative than usual or give them a meaningful look (or what at the time I imagined was a meaningful look) and they knew immediately that they could visit me that night and they would find the door open.

So, as I’ve said, things could be worse. The men continue to take care of the flat and (supposedly) look for work—by this time the bother’s been (so he says) laid off but times are hard and there’s (so they say) no work to be had. They tighten their belts and feast on the future to come:

Deep down, I think I was afraid something bad would happen. I think I sensed that it was coming soon and I worried about my brother, whose fate seemed so bound up with his friends’ fate. I didn’t care what happened to them. They were older and they were used to hard times, but my brother was innocent and I didn’t want anything to happen to him.

One day, though, things change:

They had a plan. That much I do remember. A hazy plan on which each of them, my brother included, had gambled his future, and to which each had added his bit, his personal touch, his vision of fate and the turns of fate.

She listens, agrees it’s a good plan and thus begins her life of crime. At least one could call it a life of crime if one included planning and talking about committing a crime. In no court in the land will you be convicted for that. The crime to be committed is one of robbery and the man they intend to rob is known as Maciste, a now-blind and obese former bodybuilder and actor—‘Maciste’ was actually the name of a character he played in several films—who lives alone. The girl is to be the bait. In her account the girl is keen to emphasise, “I’m no prostitute. I used to lead a life of crime, but I was never a prostitute,” but that’s simply not the case. She lets her brother and his friends (effectively serving as pimps) deliver her to Maciste’s house on Via Germanico where she has sex with the old man for money. Any court in the land would call that prostitution but as far as she’s concerned that’s just a means to an end, an act. While there she’s supposed to scope out the place, locate his safe and report back. Finding the safe does not prove to be as easy as they expected and so she keeps having to go back—assuming there ever was a safe and this was all a ruse to get her to sell herself—and that’s where the real story begins because she develops feelings for Maciste and he for her.

film still

I’ve never read anything by Bolaño before but apparently he likes to puts his characters in positions where they must choose between what's right and utter depravity. And they usually choose the latter. While it’s true that the girl goes along with the three guys—and so willingly chooses depravity—as I pointed out at the beginning she survives it, she learns from her experiences. I guess it’s the whole you’ve-got-to-hit-rock-bottom-mentality. Rock bottom’s there for a reason.

In his lengthy review of this book Craig Epplin says that “Bolaño is a master of the simile.” Looking through the book carefully I came across several:

Sometimes I saw the negative of a whole life: a bigger house, a different neighbourhood, children, a better job, time passing, old age, a grandchild, death in the public hospital or covered with a sheet in my parents’ bed, a bed that I would have liked to hear creak, like an ocean liner as it goes down, but that instead was silent as a tomb.

[I]n that brief how are you I sensed an incredible fragility, a fragility like a manta ray falling from the ceiling, the dark foyer the bottom of the sea and the manta ray watching us from above, halfway between the sea floor and the surface.

[F]rom the moment I stepped into his house, from the moment I saw him naked and hulking and white, like a broken refrigerator, everything stopped (or I stopped) and now things were happening at a different speed, an imperceptible speed that was the same as stillness.

The stylist listened without getting up from her chair. It was as if the girl’s words were sliding off her face, a hard face without a hint of indulgence. That’s what I remember. And I remember the sunset, a sunset of rose and ochre that crept all the way to the back of the salon, but never touched me.

I’ve come to remember each of Maciste’s words as a key or a dark bridge that surely could have led me elsewhere, as if he were a fortune-telling machine designed exclusively for me, which I know isn’t true, though sometimes I like to think so, not often, because I don’t lie to myself the way I used to, but every once in a while.

Because much of what happens in this book is frankly banal it’s easy not to notice these little gems. There is poetry here but it’s deadpan, indifferent almost. And because of the book’s length it’s also easy to think of it as a slight work but it’s really not. Its central theme is about a young woman taking control of her life and of course since she’s telling her tale sometime in the future we know everything works out but there’s an underlying regret here. She survived—she did what she felt she had to to survive—but it cost her to get where she ends up. If she was a criminal then this is her confession. But what exactly is she owning up to? What was her crime?

The book has an interesting—but not especially helpful—quote at the beginning:

All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put
into words any part of what goes on in their minds
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.

ANTONIN ARTAUD

The book’s not about being a writer. There are very few books in the novella; only the schoolbooks they turn away from. They only read newspapers and magazines when they can afford them. Most of their time is spent vegetating in front of the telly. Maciste has a room he calls a library “in which there wasn’t a single book” which is noteworthy because in an interview with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo first published in Capital in 1999 Bolaño said:

A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

So how am I to understand the novella’s opening quote?

In an interview Bolaño said:

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. […] For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.

The girl does admit to being a storyteller. Dan Piepenbring has some thoughts on the subject in The Paris Review as does Craig Epplin in his review. I also found a tweet from Aaron Boothby that expands on the quote: “All writing is garbage" because it pretends a solution to the unsayable. ... All are tormented because all words fail to do what they promise: communicate.” I wonder though if the answer to why Bolaño uses this opening quote might be explained by what Susan Sontag had to say in her essay ‘Artaud’:

For Artaud, the extreme mental—and also physical—pain that feeds (and authenticates) the act of writing is necessarily falsified when that energy is transformed into artistry: when it attains the benign status of a finished, literary product. The verbal humiliation of literature ("All writing is garbage," Artaud declares in The Nerve Meter) safeguards the dangerous, quasi-magical status of writing as a vessel worthy of bearing another's pain. Insulting art (like insulting the audience is an attempt to head off the corruption of art, the banalisation of suffering).

The link between suffering and writing is one of Artaud's leading themes: one earns the right to speak through having suffered, but the necessity of using language is itself the central occasion for suffering.

Let’s take an extreme example: Is a painting of Holocaust atrocities art? Technically, yes, of course, but what right does anyone have to record another’s suffering? And that is what Bolaño is doing even if the people involved are works of fiction. Only the girl can tell her story, can take the garbage that her life was comprised of and reform it into art or literature or something greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t know. You’ll have to read the book—it’s not long—and see what you come up with.

The film adaptation is mostly in Italian so if subtitles annoy you then you won’t much care for it. What might help is the casting of Rutger Hauer as Maciste. He only speaks English and so (conveniently) does the girl when she’s with him. When I was reading the book and imagining Maciste I couldn’t help but think of the character of Prétextat Tach in Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin. The dynamic is different but for purely practical reasons neither actor cast in the films is nearly as obese as the characters they’re being asked to play. For a seventy-year-old Hauer is actually in pretty decent shape. That’s he’s not gross is really neither here nor there; it’s enough that he’s old enough to be her grandfather. I actually think he was a good choice. He’s no Marcello Mastroianni but he does a decent enough job. My only real problem was how chatty he is but that’s the scriptwriter’s fault. He’s not like that in the book. Here’s a clip of their first meeting which will give you an idea what I’m talking about. You can view the trailer (with subtitles) here.


The Future

***

Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile on April 28, 1953. He’s led a nomadic existence from an early age. His family moved between several towns in Chile, before they moved to Mexico City in 1968. Bolaño was dyslexic and as a result, no academic. He dropped out of high school in 1968 to focus on poetry and, as at this time there were often mass riots in the streets of Mexico City, he identified with the leftist movement and went off to El Salvador where he spent time with other leftist poets as well as an El Salvadorian left wing guerrilla group.

He returned to El Salvador in 1973 where he became a spy for the resistance during the coup of Augusto Pinochet. In 1974, Bolaño returned to Mexico City where, along with poet Mario Santiago and a handful of others, he formed the Infrarealists, a poetic movement that identified with both French Surrealism and Dadaism. He published two poetry collections during his time in Mexico before heading abroad in 1977.

Bolaño spent a year traveling France, Spain, and North Africa before settling near Barcelona. He job-jumped during those years, working as a dockworker, grape harvester, and campground watchman. He also continued to write poetry and short stories, which he would submit to contests. His switch to writing fiction—short stories and later novels—had much to do with his maturation and the birth of his son in 1990, which instilled in him a sense of responsibility to earn a living, which he knew he could barely do as a poet.

Bolaño was most prolific during his forties and fifties. He wrote a dozen novels during these years, poetic works that concerned themselves largely with the purpose of literature and its relationship to life. His most famous work, The Savage Detectives, concerns the life and adventures of Arturo Bolaño, an alter-ego who appears in other stories and novels.

Written in 1989 and published posthumously, Bolaño's The Third Reich predates The Savage Detectives and shows some of the traits that Bolaño had yet to fully develop—particularly surrealism and an obsessive attention to detail. Between Parentheses similarly provides an excellent retrospective on Bolaño's work, bolano2collecting as it does many of the newspaper columns and articles that he wrote during the last five years of his life.

Perhaps the most well-known of the posthumously published Bolaño oeuvre is 2666, 900 apocalyptic pages of stories within stories and murder after murder. Bolaño was posthumously awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for 2666, and Time also awarded it the honour of Best Fiction Book of 2008.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003 from liver disease.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Falling Out of Time


falling out of time cover

[T]here is no there, of course there isn’t, but what if you go there? David Grossman, Falling Out of Time




The blurb describes this book as follows: “Part prose, part play, and pure poetry, David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time is a powerful exploration of mortality, mourning, and the long good-bye that follows the death of a loved one.” It’s an apt description but this description also pinpoints the book’s weakness: it’s neither fish nor fowl nor, as I suppose we need a third creature to pad out our comparison, beast. For my purposes I treated it as a novel in dialogue since I’ve been searching these out of late. I’ve also found myself reading quite a bit about loss recently—not exactly planned but these books keep falling into my hands—and so this was one more to compare with the others. And a very different exploration of loss and grief it was too.

Larkin has said his aim in writing a poem is “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” I believe this goal can be achieved by carefully written prose too and a good example is the book I’ve just finished reading—Us by Michael Kimball—a book the author spent a great deal of time perfecting. Grossman also didn’t rush the writing of this slim volume—the dates at the end state it took him from April 2009 to May 2011 to complete the work and it’s much shorter than Kimball’s—but it takes a markedly different approach to the problem of reproducing the process of grieving.

That this work might get compared to Beckett—Edward Hirsch in his review for the New York Times described the book as “a medieval allegory or a Beckett play”—but the works it actually reminded me of were not plays but rather the novellas Stirrings Still and Ill Seen Ill Said particularly the latter from which this is an extract:

ill seen ill saidThe cabin. Its situation. Careful. On. At the inexistent centre of a formless place. Rather more circular than otherwise finally. Flat to be sure. To cross it in a straight line takes her from five to ten minutes. Depending on her speed and radius taken. Here she who loves to – here she who now can only stray never strays. Stones increasingly abound. Ever scanter even the rankest weed. Meagre pastures hem it round on which it slowly gains. With none to gainsay. To have gainsaid. As if doomed to spread. How come a cabin in such a place? How came? Careful. Before replying that in the far past at the time of its building there was clover growing to its very walls. Implying furthermore that it the culprit. And from it as from an evil core that the what is the wrong word the evil spread. And none to urge – none to have urged its demolition. As if doomed to endure. Question answered. Chalkstones of striking effect in the light of the moon. Let it be in opposition when the skies are clear. Quick then still under the spell of Venus quick to the other window to see the other marvel rise. How whiter and whiter as it climbs it whitens more and more the stones. Rigid with face and hands against the pane she stands and marvels long.

The two zones form a roughly circular whole. As though outlined by a trembling hand. Diameter. Careful. Say one furlong. On an average. Beyond the unknown.

As with many of Beckett’s texts we’re given only as little information as is necessary—think of setting to Waiting for Godot: A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.—and it’s the same with Grossman. This is how Falling Out of Time begins:

TOWN CHRONICLER: As they sit eating dinner, the man’s face suddenly turns. He thrusts his plate away. Knives and forks clang. He stands up and seems not to know where he is. The woman recoils in her chair. His gaze hovers around her without taking hold, and she—wounded already by disaster—senses immediately: it’s here again, touching me, its cold fingers on my lips. But what happened? she whispers with her eyes. Bewildered, the man looks at her and speaks:

So reminiscent of Stirrings Still:

stirrings still_One night or day then as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. First rise and stand clinging to the table. Then sit again. Then rise again and stand clinging to the table again. Then go.

We’ve no idea what place this is, not even the country (the town’s troops are called hussars but that’s little help), what type of dwelling, how old the couple are (assuming they are a couple) or where in history this is taking place. Or even where the Town Chronicler is. Is he in the room with the couple or is he somewhere else relating or making up this tale? Since the town has a train station it can’t be set in medieval times, that’s for sure, but that aside the setting is timeless and placeless and, most importantly, in a political vacuum. What we do know is this has happened before, this ‘it’ that’s here again. A stage setting is not hard to imagine. An empty room, empty bar, a table and two chairs. Very Beckettian. The man begins talking:

—I have to go.
—Where?
—To him.
—Where?
—To him, there.
—To the place where it happened?
—No, no. There.
—What do you mean, there?
—I don’t know.
—You’re scaring me.
—Just to see him once more.
—But what could you see now? What is left to see?
—I might be able to see him there. Maybe even talk to him?
—Talk?!

TOWN CHRONICLER: Now they both unfold, awaken. The man speaks again.

—Your voice.
—It’s back. Yours too.
—How I missed your voice.
—I thought we … that we’d never …
—I missed your voice more than I missed my own.
—But what is there? There’s no such place. There doesn’t exist!
—If you go there, it does.
—But you don’t come back. No one ever has.
—Because only the dead have gone.

Superman_v_1_666There is like tomorrow. There is an idea. We, the living, are trapped in the here and now. Only in myths do people go there (Orpheus) or poems (Dante) or comics (Superman briefly became lord of Hell in Superman #666). We don’t even know where there is. Or, as the woman says, what there is. But if someone isn’t here they must be there otherwise they’d be nowhere and that’s even harder to imagine:

we are here
and he—
but it’s impossible!
Impossible.

We learn, as the two talk, it’s been five years since they lost their son, Uwi. They have now, as the wife puts it, “come back to life”, got on with their lives, but clearly grief is not done with them. The future is a place we can only imagine visiting but the past is easily accessible, too easy. “Don’t go back there,” the woman begs him. But it, whatever this ‘it’ is, has a hold of him:

MAN:
For five years
we unspoke
that night.
You fell mute,
then I.
For you the quiet
was good,
and I felt it clutch
at my throat. One after
the other, the words
died, and we were
like a house
where the lights
go slowly out

[…]

And together
we were born
on the other side,
without words,
without colours,
and we learned to live
the inverse
of life.

(silence)

Eventually the man can stand it no longer. He paces round and round the table. He has to go and begs his wife to come too but she won’t:

I would go
to the end
of the world with you,
you know. But you are not
going to him, you are going
somewhere else, and there
I will not go, I cannot.
I will not.
It is easier to go
than to stay.
I have bitten my flesh
for five years
so as not to go, not
there,
there is
no there!

But the man insists:

There will be,
if we go
there.

and he ends up leaving the cabin alone.

Again I’m reminded of Beckett. From Worstward Ho:

worstward hoA place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once whence no return. No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.

At first he trudges round the house and then widens his circle until eventually he ends up walking around the entire town. Again from Stirrings Still:

Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. The back roads. Now as one in a strange place seeking the way out. In the dark. In a strange place blindly in the dark of night or day seeking the way out. A way out. To the roads. The back roads.

In this respect he is similar to the woman in Ill Seen Ill Said who is “drawn to a certain spot. At times.” The man too is being drawn to a certain spot, a wall at it turns out, a stone wall (stones are important metaphors in Beckett’s writing), but first he has to journey there. But, of course, it’s not a linear journey—he doesn’t go straight there (does he even know where there is?)—but, like May in Footfalls (whose ‘journey’ is also circular (or at least elliptical)), he still needs to feel as if he’s going somewhere. As Beckett’s Molloy puts it:

When a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping to go in a straight line.

At this point in the text he stops being Man and becomes Walking Man. Later on we encounter a woman walking round and around a belfry and she is very much like May:

What do they see? A woman
from the village, from by the swamps,
with a village face and heavyset legs,
a long silver braid, barely moving, walking
slowly,
slowly,
three or four steps
an hour, a madwoman.
They can laugh.
Laugh all they want. I walk
around the spire slowly, one step,
another, and another step.

The Town Chronicler, who had been watching events unfold through the cabin’s window, follows The Walking Man for a bit before being distracted by others. What has happened in his house is, apparently, not an isolated instance. The man is only the first of many beginning with The Cobbler who, as the text progresses, all join The Walking Man in his perambulations. In his notebook the Town Chronicler writes:

At times it seems, Your Highness, that a nameless power hovers over the town, envelops it, and—like a person sucking an egg through a hole in the shell—it draws these people and others toward it, from kitchens and squares and wharves and beds. (And—if there is truth to the shocking, dizzying rumours, Your Highness—even from palace rooms?)

It’s at this point we realise that when the Town Chronicler’s talking he’s not addressing us. Actually he’s writing to someone he calls “my lord” and “Your Highness” who turns out to be The Duke but we don’t learn anything more about him at this point and the action shifts to “midnight, at the old wharf by the lake” where we encounter the mute Net-mender. (Not quite sure why she’s described as mute because she’s given lines to say a few pages on. Maybe they’re thoughts. No, later on the Town Chronicler says, “Now she notices me and falls silent.” Then again the first man and woman talk about being mute so maybe they all have been and now, suddenly, their tongues have been untied.) Days pass. On his third night’s watch the Town Chronicler comes across The Centaur, not a literal centaur, but a writer we discover sitting at a table:

A dirty blanket is spread out on the desk before him. A few empty beer bottles, pens, pencils, a school notebook, all scattered around. The notebook is open; its pages have thin blue lines. As best I can tell from here, they are all empty.

“Scram before I wring your balls,” the centaur growls without opening his eyes, and I flee for my life.

We learn that the Town Chronicler has a wife and like the others they too have lost a child (thirteen years before, a daughter) as has the Net-Mender (a six-year-old), the Centaur (an eleven-year-old boy, Adam, fifteen years earlier), the Cobbler and his stuttering wife (a daughter, Lilli), the Elderly Maths Teacher (his son, Michael, twenty-six years for him: a prank gone awry, / a bathtub, a razor, / veins slashed / in the course of a game) and the Woman atop the Belfry (a son, a soldier I think). And the Duke himself it transpires (a son one August and now every day is August).

As the text progresses we find out a few things about the Town Chronicler and his relationship with the Duke:

It was he who commanded me, in a royal edict, to exile myself from my home, to walk the streets day and night recording the townspeople’s stories of their children. And it was he who forbade me—by explicit order!—to remember her, my one. Yes, immediately after it happened, he sentenced me, after she drowned, I mean the daughter, Hanna, after she drowned in a lake right before my eyes, and I couldn’t, listen, there were tall waves, huge, and I couldn’t … What could I …

[…]

[W]e used to be good friends, the duke and I. Soul mates. Yes, after all, I was his jester for twenty years, until the disaster befell me. His beloved jester … And to think that he, of all people, decreed such a terrible decree … How did it even occur to him?

Only it may not be as simple as that.

As the days slouch on and more and more join this seemingly aimless trek the Town Chronicler’s wife notices a strange thing:

In recent days I think I see, over their heads, in the air, some sort of reddish flicker, a chain of embers hovering above …

The only thing I could think of when this was mentioned was the tongues of flames that appeared above the apostles at Pentecost. It is not explained, not at first, but when he has his attention drawn to it the old teacher notes:

My heart tells me, my boy, that from the moment a person notices the blaze, he is destined to get up and go to it.

And they do.

TOWN CHRONICLER: They walk on the hills and I follow them, constantly darting between them and the town. They groan and trip and stand, hold on to each other, carry those who sleep, falling asleep themselves. Nights, days, over and over they circle the town, through rain and cold and burning sun. Who knows how long they will walk and what will happen when they are roused from their madness? The duke, for example—who would have believed it—walking shoulder to shoulder with the net-mender, her fluttering nets occasionally wrapping themselves around him. And the elderly teacher, with his thin halo of hair, walking swiftly, as he is wont, hopping from one foot to the other and reaching his head out to either side with immense curiosity, even in sleep. And the cobbler and the midwife, hand in hand, eyes tightly closed, with stubborn resolve. And at the end of the small procession walks my wife, dragging her heavy feet, her breath laboured, her head drooping on her chest, with no one to hold her hand.

[…]

Sleeping … They’ve been sleeping almost constantly for days, sleeping their minds away. Sleeping and walking, speaking to one another in their dream, each head leaning on another walker’s shoulder. I do not know who carries whom and what force drives them to walk—

But not the Centaur, welded to his desk. He watches at a distance, through binoculars, and notes and records what happens once the Town Chronicler is also caught up in the crowd.

I’ve often wondered about graveyards. I think they exist so that there can be a there to go to. We go there and stand in front of a stone marker, a wall if you like, and that’s as close as we can get. In Ill Seen Ill Said a stone draws the woman to a certain spot. In Falling Out of Time the townspeople end up facing a stone wall, a communal marker although probably not a literal one otherwise the Walking Man would’ve reached it on his own on the first day. It’s as far as they can go and yet they seek to go further and so they dig their own graves, strip and get into them. I bet Beckett’s kicking himself in his own grave for not coming up with that one.

At one point the Walkers, talking as one like a Greek chorus—as they often do towards the end of the book although what we really have here is an exchange between the Net-mender and Duke—say:

                               Well, m’lord,
that’s because poems suddenly
tumble out my mouth. It is the same
with me, my lady: poetry
is the language
of my grief.

How do we make the private language of grief intelligible to others? Is poetry the way? As a poet I’ve written several pieces prompted by grief and loss and so I’m a very bad person to ask; poetry’s where I go at times like this. But what about ordinary people, net-menders and cobblers and maths teachers? They’re not poets, not practiced poets (I suspect that everyone is a poet at heart) and yet so many of them in this book find they need to express themselves in chopped-up prose that resembles poetry and occasionally is actually poetic:

TOWN CHRONICLER’S WIFE:
Who will sustain her,
who will embrace,
if our two bodies
do not
envelop
her?


WALKING MAN:
Here I will fall
now I will fall—
I do not fall.
Now, here,
the heart will stop—
it does not stop—

unnamableNow doesn’t that last quote remind you so of the end of The Unnamable which closes with the phrase “You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on,” That said I find myself agreeing with Hirsch when he notes, “the staccato line breaks are flawed and the lineation is probably the weakest aspect of this otherwise well-written book.” What is interesting is how the character of the Centaur clings to prose for so much of the novel but only towards the end, when he finally gives into his grief, do his words turn to poetry:

CENTAUR:
Imprisoned
in my room,
on my cursed body-desk,
I finally have written. Like fingers
probing crumbled earth,
I wrote the story.

The writing down is important. In writing down he comes to understand. And that is what Grossman’s been doing. His book was for himself first, and then us. I get that.

David Grossman lost his younger son, Uri, in the last Lebanese incursion by the IDF when an anti-tank missile hit its mark. George Packer’s essay in The New Yorker fills in the details and is worth a read. The statement issued by the family at the time read:

Uri GrossmanUri Grossman was born on August 27, 1985. He was supposed to celebrate his 21st birthday in two weeks. Uri studied at the experimental school in Jerusalem. He reached the armoured corps and fulfilled his aspiration to be a tank commander. He was about to be released (from the army) in November, travel the world, and then study theatre. Friday evening he spoke, from Lebanon, with his parents and sister. He was glad that a decision on a ceasefire was taken. Uri promised that he will be eating the next Shabbat dinner at home. Uri, son to David and Michal and brother to Yonatan and Ruthie, had a fabulous sense of humour and a big soul filled with life and emotion.

That was in 2006 and so Falling Out of Time is very much Grossman’s considered response to his son’s death.

This is a profound book and even if the poetry is not always the most poetic the book as a whole is. It takes us there. And then reveals the hardest truth matter-of-factly: "Maybe there has always been here all this time?"

“And maybe we’ve been there, too, just a bit, since it happened to us?” [The Town Chronicler’s wife] straightens up and a new momentum seems to drive her steps. “Maybe there has always been here, and we just didn’t know it?”

Some have suggested this might work as a play, specifically a radio play—Kate Kellaway in The Observer and Edward Hirsch—and it might with a little careful adaptation.

***

grossmanDavid Grossman was born in Jerusalem, where he still lives. He is the best-selling author of several works of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, which have been translated into thirty-six languages. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Buxtehuder Bulle in Germany, Rome’s Premio per la Pace e L’Azione Umanitaria, the Premio Ischia International Award for Journalism, Israel’s Emet Prize, and the 2010 Frankfurt Peace Prize.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Half Life


half life

Vanishing twin syndrome usually occurs in the womb. In our case it came about considerably later in the developmental process. – Shelley Jackson, Half Life




If, as I did, you struggled with this book (especially its ending) you might want to read Stéphane Vanderhaeghe’s essay ‘How to Unread Shelley Jackson?’ published in Transatlantica. It won’t answer all your questions but it’ll probably help you ask more sensible questions than, “WTF?” I’ll come back to that.

For the most part this is… correction, appears to be, a fairly straightforward novel. It tells the story of two conjoined twins: Nora and Blanche Olney. There are two overlapping storylines that run chronologically: the first charts their lives from conception until, when she’s thirteen, Blanche falls asleep and refuses to wake up; the second thread begins some fifteen years later when Nora, tired of carrying around what she’s come to regard as dead weight, decides it’s time for Blanche to go (in fact the very first chapter of the book is a copy of her medical release and waiver document). Sandwiched between these two storylines are extracts from ‘The Siamese Twin Reference Manual’ which is really more of a scrapbook Nora has compiled over the years but it serves to provide the readers with some much needed exposition like, for example, why the world is suddenly teaming with “twofers” which is slang term for conjoined twins adopted by North Americans; in the UK it’s apparently “mushies” (“Mushy peas, Siamese … Cockney rhyming slang).

So this is a what-if? book, what would the world be like if, following the detonation of the first atomic bomb, something happened and women started having two-headed babies? Not every pregnancy results in a two-headed baby but there is a considerable escalation. That part of the book was dead interesting. There have been many books written that tweak history and set their storylines in alternate realities: for example The Plot Against America by Philip Roth looks at an America where Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in 1940 in his bid for a third term as President of the United States, and Charles Lindbergh was elected, leading to increasing fascism and anti-Semitism in the States; Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series of novels are set in a world in which the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War, and Resurrection Day is a novel written by Brendan DuBois that depicts a world where the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated to a full-scale war, the Soviet Union is devastated, and the USA has been reduced to a third-rate power, relying on Britain for aid. It’s basically the butterfly effect.

The world as it now stands is full of minorities all banding together trying to first define and then assert their rights: the right to believe what they want, to marry who they want, to die when they want. This new world is no different in that regard:

[S]ome groups, like the Siamists, Togetherists, and so-called fusion theologists, aver that radiation has nothing to do with twinning. It was a deeper, more metaphysical split that took place when the first nuclear bomb was exploded at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945. Many consider this split no accident, but the essential next stage in the spiritual evolution of a species finally advancing beyond self-interest. To others, it is just the latest fissure in that ever-widening crack in the relation of Self to World whose warning signs first appeared in ancient Greece. Revisionist scholars, on the other hand, claim that a sizeable population of twofers has existed throughout history (“theirstory”), many more than were sung in ballads and broadsides. Indeed, the Togetherists, the most radical of the “fusion” groups, lay claim to an antiquity that rivals the Masons’.

man in the high castleI’ve been a fan of alternate histories for years. Oddly I’ve not read one until now and I really don’t know why—considering the amount of Philip K Dick I’ve read you’d’ve thought I’d’ve got round to The Man in the High Castle—but I did enjoy the setting part of the novel very much and there’re plenty of opportunities for humour, for example, reimagining the premises of television shows:

Three’s Company, about a sexy twofer and her male roommate, and Mork & Mindy: a dark comedy, in which one half of a two-headed alien falls under the delusion that he is a simple American girl.

Or films. She couldn’t resist slipping in a reference to Anna and the Siamese Kings.

But although there’s plenty of sly, wry and often dry humour in this book it has a serious, even a dark undercurrent. What right does Nora have to agree to have her sister’s head removed? Just as with the abortion and assisted suicide issues today there are widely differing opinions. In most countries surgical decapitation is illegal…

…to commit … an act of surgery against your other half, even if she is deaf, mute, an idiot, or insane, unless she’s also gangrenous and leaking pus out of her ears? And even then you have to get a court hearing and the consent of, like, everyone in the world: parents, both dead and alive, spouse, pet goldfish, next-door neighbour, kindergarten teacher, and five total strangers who looked at you once on the street.

But that doesn’t stop people doing it. And one of those whose services are available for a price—and not even an exorbitant price (she’s not in it for the money)—is Dr. Ozka, known in the press as “Doctor Decapitate”; her service is referred to as “The Divorce”.

brothers of the headWhen Nora completes her form she indicates that her twin is non compos mentis but what sort of book would this be if that was truly the case? It’s like the third head in Brian Aldiss’s Brothers of the Head. You just know it’s going to wake up at the end and that’s not going to be good. So is that what happens here?

I’m not going to spoil the book by saying what happens but the ending is far from straightforward. And this is where we start to get into WTF territory. But bear with me.

The book’s narrated by Nora who’s very much her own woman. Even as a child when Blanche was conscious Nora was the dominant twin but not necessarily the bad twin; things aren’t as black and white as they appear. (Nora ó noir ó black; Blanche ó white.) If Nora isn’t as attached (sorry, irresistible pun) to her sister as you might imagine there could be a good reason. The problem is remembering the past and as Nora tells the story of what it was like for the two of them to grow up in the ghost town of Too Bad, Nevada it appears she might not quite have all her ducks in a row. Especially when it comes to the foulmouthed girl she remembers as Donkey-Skin and the girl’s father Dr. Goat. To be honest if you extracted all the chapters about them growing up you’d have quite an acceptable YA novel. The big problem in childhood is gaining acceptance and it doesn’t matter if you’re the only kid with braces or ginger hair or a stutter or a sibling growing out of your shoulder you’re going to find it hard. I’ve known a couple of sets of twins in my life, an identical pair and a non-identical. The identical twins were inseparable—they might as well have been joined at the hip—but the other pair were like chalk and cheese. I was friends with George but I really didn’t have much time for David. Nora and Blanche have similar problems:

Gradually, something changed. The other kids decided that we were not one, but two girls. One had cooties, but the other was all right. They shared their lunch with Blanche—bartered chocolate pudding cup for fruit leather, peanut butter crackers for devil-dog—while I ate chopped olives. Once I tried to swap for a bag of raisins.

“Gross. Nobody wants to touch your food, Nora. Get a clue.” Blanche rolled her eyes apologetically at me and took another bite of Twinkie.

As an adult things have changed. For starters Nora’s no longer living in a backwater; she in the city where there are clubs and bars and a whole social world devoted to twofers. Oddly enough she doesn’t really seem to be a part of this. And the problem here is something along the lines of body dysmorphia: she feels like a singleton born in the body of a twofer and really isn’t that comfortable in the company of conjoined twins.

devil2Oddballs abound. Not quite sure Nora encounters anyone who isn’t a little peculiar or who doesn’t have some agenda. She’s certainly more than a little mixed-up herself. But she knows her own mind. For as long as she’s sure it is her own mind. Because then there’s all that Lithobolia business:

I named the phenomenon after Lithobolia, the stone-throwing demon: a beige blur would whisper past my head, and somewhere, something would smash. I’d look up in mild, disinterested surprise.

The “beige blur” is her own arm or, since she’s not in control of it during these moments, perhaps it would be best to think of it as Blanche’s arm. Blanche who’s still asleep and, presumably, sleep-throwing random object. This is new. And worrying. But as long as Blanche is out of it Nora’s determined to proceed and, after some effort and a few adventures, does indeed make contact with Dr. Ozka. Needless to say things do not go as planned at the clinic and Nora nearly loses her own head. She’s forced to return to the States where she finds herself pulled irresistibly—is Blanche driving?—home where it (whatever ‘it’ is because even some 400 pages into the book at this point I still wasn’t sure) all began.

This is where we start to get into WTF territory and I would recommend reading the final section of this book with a clear head and not, as I did, rush to try to get the damn thing finished because you’d already spent days on it. No, it is not an especially quick read despite keeping my interest pretty much throughout. In her essay Vanderhaeghe writes:

Shelley Jackson’s novel barely functions as this old-fashioned object once called a book used to… Well, it is a book all right, or at least bears every external resemblance to what we usually call a “book”. As such, the object is tangible enough to let anyone open it and adventurously get lost amid pages (white) covered with ink (black)—pages “stained with words” as Nora will eventually claim. But, naïve as the question surely is, does that make it a “book”? And what, then, is a “book”, or what is left of it, in the age of digital manipulation and electronic saturation? One possible answer is that a “book” is something we can always go back to and find unchanged, its contents there for eternity, forever preserved on a bookshelf somewhere in the library next door ; in that case, then, and despite all contrary evidence, Shelley Jackson’s Half Life is probably not a book ; for a simple experiential, hence subjective reason at least : when the readers reach its last page, they suddenly feel it vanish between their hands, even as they are grasping it, and grasping it tight, to get a reassuring sense of ontological certainty. If Jackson parodically makes use of conventional novelistic devices throughout, it seems relevant that, among them, the climax that one usually finds towards the end of a well-driven plot is reinterpreted along literal lines. As a metaphor that over the years has become so familiar as to have lost its full, though ambiguous meaning (if full meaning, ambiguous or not, it ever had), the novel’s “climax” is here envisioned as an atom bomb exploding. Yet the ending of Half Life is not the expected final explosion that would conventionally give birth to its mushroom-cloud of an offspring, but rather its parodic, self-cancelling reversal: the bomb, going off, sucks back its offspring off a mushroom-cloud. In other words, one had better follow the (metafictional) suggestion of One and a Half, this two-headed kitten singing songs to Nora, and refer to Half Life not as a book in the end, but as a “device” instead which leaves nothing intact, least of all the “text” or the “novel”.

Yeah, I had to read that over a couple of times too. There is a diagram at the end of the novel which is slightly helpful once you’ve actually read the book so I’m not really spoiling anything by including it here:

Venn Diagram

When Nora writes “I start to write” this is the point in the book she’s looking back from and from that point on she’s not looking back she’s writing about what’s happening to them day by day because I’m not actually sure what’s left at the end of the book. Not once we’ve gone full (twin) circles. Nora writes:

Everything happens twice, first in the fact, and then in the telling. At least twice: the telling, too, is doubled by the hearing of it. A cleft passes through the centre of things, things that do not exist except in this twinship. That cleft is what we sometimes call I. It has no more substance than the slash between either and or.

Either and or, exclusive or: XOR, one of the four terms that serve as section headings: NOT, XOR, OR and AND. Yeah, it doesn’t hurt to have some idea how Boolean logic works. And Venn Diagrams.

The book gets mixed reviews. According to Goodreads at the time of writing:

5 stars 15% 92
4 stars 28% 174
3 stars 29% 181
2 stars 17% 109
1 star 8% 51

I can understand why. Of the one-star reviews I think Wealhtheow puts it best:

This book is the written equivalent of the last twenty minutes of “2001”—I’m sure *something* “deep” is going on, but I’m not sure what and mostly I just feel bored and nauseated.

To be fair Nora is not the most likeable of characters—I’m actually not sure there was a single likeable character in the book (maybe Mooncalf, a chocolate lab)—and I can understand her thinking of herself as a singleton but what disappointed me most were the other twofers she meets along the way. None of them felt like twins, dicephalusconjoined or not. There was none of this cute finishing off each other’s sentences or making up their own language (cryptophasia) or anything like that but to be honest I was basing my judgement on what little I’ve seen of Abby and Brittany Hensel:

Dicephalus dipus dibrachius. That’s two heads, two legs, and two arms: standard-issue twofer.

plus what I know of Poto and Cabengo and June and Jennifer Gibbons. And, of course, my own experiences.

Half Life is an ambitious book and there’s a lot crammed into it. Perhaps too much. As Stacey D’Erasmo puts it in her review for The New York Times:

All this razzle-dazzle, all the allusions, the narrative loop-de-loops: it gets a bit busy. By the middle of the book, I wasn’t sure how many more cleverness hurdles I could clear, and I’m sure I stumbled over some. I don’t really know what a Boolean system is; I looked it up, then I forgot again. I skipped past the Venn diagram, though it was charmingly drawn.

Those bits I got but then I’ve always had a head for maths. It was other bits that lost me or at least lost my interest. But I was glad I read it despite its length; 450 pages is really my upper limit these days. I would read her again. She manages to balance the intellectual and the visceral quite nicely and at 179 pages her short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy is more my length; should’ve read it first I think. Bodies clearly fascinate her. In an interview she says:

[T]he body interests me most as something to write about, not to touch (not in a professional capacity, anyway). I am fascinated above all with using it as a object of fantastical transformations, because we care about the body and we know it intimately, and I think that makes it possible to invest bizarre scenarios with very strong, creepy, personal feelings.

***

Shelley_JacksonBorn in 1963 Shelley Jackson is the author of the novel Half Life, the story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl and Doll Games (with Pamela Jackson), several children’s books featuring her own illustrations, and SKIN, a story published in tattoos on the skin of 2,095 volunteers. A Village Voice “Writer on the Verge” and Pushcart Prize winner, she is also the co-founder of the Interstitial Library, Circulating Collection. Shelley Jackson lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at the New School University. Her website can be found at http://www.ineradicablestain.com/.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Commentary on commentaries


Commentary

Never explain what you do. It speaks for itself. You only muddle it by talking about it. – Shel Silverstein



I’ve mixed feelings about commentaries. I’ve said before that a poem which needs notes to explain it—e.g. Beckett’s ‘Whoroscope’—is basically a bad poem; the poem should stand or fall on its own merits. I do talk about my poetry in some of my articles but they’re not really commentaries. I don’t think I’ve ever dissected a poem for everyone to see. Perhaps I should.

I do what I do mainly for newbies. When I was starting out I hated the fact that everyone seemed to want to keep the hows of writing to themselves. I suppose I get it but it still annoyed me that I had to go it alone. I know writing is a private thing but it’s not as if I was asking them how they had a wank! I like that Kona Macphee produced a downloadable companion to her poetry book Perfect Blue which I reviewed here. In my article I included her poem ‘The earthworm’ which I’ll post again to save you looking it up unless you want to read the whole review:

The earthworm

No
one imagines
an earthworm dreaming
butterflyit might become a
butterfly or even
just Chuang-
Tzu

few
share its
urge to fashion
finer dirt from dirt,
to pass what
it passes
through

in
the ground
encompassing what’s left
of life’s green surge
and ebb, what’s
left of
you

This is what her companion has to say about the poem:

I like worms. They can eat dirt and make progress at the same time. They're great instructors in the fine art of just-getting-on-with-it.

This poem is about as close to haiku as I seem to get (which is not very close at all, really). Instead of fixed numbers of syllables, it uses fixed numbers of words in each line (which, from my point of view, feels pretty weird; normally when I use fixed line lengths, they're measured by the number of stressed syllables and the actual number of words doesn't matter at all).

Chuang-Tzu is the ancient Chinese philosopher who famously dreamed of being a butterfly, and then awoke to wonder if he was real, or simply the butterfly's dream.

Tim Love has a similar site here devoted to his pamphlet Moving Parts which I also reviewed here.

Part of the thing I have against commentaries is that they change how a person reads a poem. A poem is after all a collaboration between poet and reader and what they make of it will be unique to them. To then come along and say, er no, the poem’s actually about this isn’t really fair because that’s what I’ve made out of it in my capacity as reader plus I have access to all the other stuff that surrounded the writing of the poem which no reader need be privy to.

That said after I’ve read a poem as a poet myself it’s always interesting to learn a bit more about the process, something I might be able to take away and try myself. And by ‘after’ I mean a long time after. Once you’re basically done with it. I’m a student of Beckett as everyone knows and one of the great pleasures with Beckett is studying him. Sometimes I suspect he’s more fun to study than to actually read. One particularly good book I would recommend to fellow scholars is Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama 1956-1976 by Rosemary Pountney because Theatre of Shadowsshe spends a great deal of time looking at his early drafts and analysing how Beckett wrote. Her breakdown of Lessness is particularly illuminating. But I’d like to highlight something more familiar, Krapp’s Last Tape.

The play was written in 1958—quickly, probably between March and April—so he would’ve been 52 at the time. In the final version the curtain rises on "[a] late evening in the future." It is Krapp’s 69th birthday and he hauls out his old tape recorder, reviews one of the earlier years—the recording he made when he was 39—and makes a new recording commenting on the previous twelve months. What we learn from Pountney is that “the future” once had a rather specific date. Typescript 3 reads as follows:

April 1986. A late envening [sic] in 1985 the nineteen eighties.

In Typescript 4 this has become simply “in the future”. In April 1986 Beckett would’ve been eighty and obviously seventy-nine in 1985. This is typical of the way Beckett worked gradually “vaguening” the text moving from the specific, from him most often, to the Everyman. In Typescript 2 the protagonist’s name is “Crapp” by the way; prior to that he was simply “A”. It’s interesting to see what was going through his mind as he wrote but is it helpful or ultimately distracting? Of course by the time I read Pountney I was very familiar with the play but I do have to say that a part of me doesn’t really want to hang onto the details I’ve learned. Krapp is not Beckett. He is of Beckett but he is not Beckett.

When I produced my poetry collection This Is Not About What You Think a while back I chose the title because it was the perfect title. I’d always imagined my first collection would be called Reader Please Supply Meaning but I’m saving that for my next one. Both titles, however, underline the fact that it’s up to the reader to decide what these poems are ultimately about and that’s all right. As I’ve said already it is interesting to know the background to a poem but that knowledge changes it. I left it out for a reason. It’s called poetic licence: “The freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect”.

Let’s have a look at a few from the collection:

Father Figure

This is the floor beside my bed
where I kneel to talk to God.
If I press my ear to the floor.
I can hear Him talk to Mum.
About me. It is always me.

I know what God looks like.
father-and-sonHe looks just like my dad.
I heard him tell my mum:
"In this house I am God."
I heard that through the floor.

Now I only pretend to pray
because I don't want my dad
to really hear the things I think.
Now he's not sure I'm so bad.
I don't want him to know I am.

I just want my dad to love me.

It’s a common enough image, the child kneeling beside his or her bed, hands pressed together—“God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy”—but the simple fact is I never did. I was brought up by god-fearing parents—that is true enough—but they never actually taught me how to pray. Ridiculous, I know! So all the praying stuff in the poem is made up. I never even attempted to talk to God until I was a grown man. The image of me lying with my ear pressed to the bedroom floor—which was directly about the living room—is accurate but that’s not where I heard my dad say, “In this house I am God.” That was years later. He was in the kitchen and I was standing in the hall. I’m not actually sure who he was addressing. I don’t think it was me directly. I get the feeling my mum and probably my brother were there but again I have no idea what prompted his declaration although I do know the scriptural precedent for him feeling he had the right to say that and mean it. Now the lines:

I can hear Him talk to Mum.
About me. It is always me.

suggest strongly that it’s Dad doing the talking whereas the reality was it was Mum talking to him. You see my dad’s name is also James so when I heard her say, “Jimmy,” I assumed she was telling on me—“Our Jimmy did this… Oh, Jimmy did that…”—when actually all she was doing was addressing her husband by name. More fabrication. The sentiment of the poem is an honest one. I did want my dad to love me. I always wanted him to love me for being me though and not for being what he wanted me to be and the truth is he did always love me but he never got me and that was the best I could ever hope for.

Tools

Hammer"Just because you have a hammer
it doesn't make you a joiner."
My father had his way with words.

So I took a handful of nails
and boarded up my heart
against him and against the world.

And safe on the inside I yelled:
"Screw you!"
but he was never one for puns.

This isn’t even about my dad. I was corresponding with a girl at the time—I believe her name was Connie—and she was talking about her relationship with her father so I wrote her this poem. Not sure why I didn’t include a dedication—not like me—but I didn’t and so that’s how the poem stands. My own dad was a mechanic—he looked after machines in a cotton-spinning mill and later in a wool-spinning mill and apparently there’s a world of difference between them—and the truth is he really didn’t have a way with words but he could quote scripture and often did. I might not have been writing about my dad but I was accessing the same sort of feelings I had towards him. I understood where Connie was coming from which is why the poem worked so well.

True Love II

My father had a heart transplant.
Years ago, before I was born,
        doctors took
        out his broken heart

        and gave him a machine instead.
The strange thing about this machine
        was it was
        powered by sadness.

Of course he was always just Dad,
        but, when I discovered the truth,
        at first I
        hated the sadness

        then I became thankful for it
        because as long as I could see
        brokenhearthim be sad
        he would be with me.

And so I made it my job to
        make him the saddest dad in the
        whole wide world.
What else could I do?

My dad never had a heart transplant. He did have two heart attacks and the second one killed him. But this poem isn’t about him. It’s not even me talking. It’s my daughter. “How the hell were we supposed to know that, Jim?” I hear you say and the simple answer is: You weren’t. I excluded that from the poem. Of course this is a metaphorical poem and the simple fact is my daughter makes me both proud and happy—although I’d be prouder and happier if she read my damn posts more often—but ask yourself: “What would I do if my dad got fitted with some weird mechanism powered by sadness?” It’s preposterous—it’s meant to be preposterous—but if you loved him—if you really loved him—wouldn’t you go out of your way to make him as sad as you could? How many kids nip their parents’ heads about their salt intake or their cholesterol or the need to exercise; they make them miserable but they do it out of love because they don’t want them to die and miserable living parents are better than happy dead ones. Love’s a funny thing. And then there are the kids who run wild and break their parents’ hearts and you’d think they were deliberately trying to make them sad.

Silent Echoes

My father lost his hearing
        soon after he retired
        or rather he gave it up.

At first his hearing became
        selective as befits
        a man of a certain age

        but over time he lost all
        interest in listening and
        his ears forgot how to hear.

He wrapped himself in silence
        like an old comforter
        to protect himself from us

        and from our onslaught of words.
Sundays I'd sit with him
        swanand we'd feed the swans on the

        pond outside of the hospice.
From a distance I'm sure
       we looked like some old couple.

        with nothing more to say and
        no desire to say it
        which was not far from the truth.

My dad did go deaf. He also went blind. He never went into a hospice. He died in the front room of his house. It wasn’t even his usual chair. He did go with my mum to feed the swans in the pond behind the sports centre. They’d come up out of the water and take the bread straight from his hand. Nipped him more often than not but my dad had tough hands, like leather, so it didn’t bother him too much. I don’t recall Mum ever feeding the swans after he died. I certainly never went with her. Or maybe she just started feeding the swans on the river as it would’ve been easier for her to reach on her own. Can’t imagine her not feeding something.

Sometimes when I used to visit my dad Mum would be out—she couldn’t let a day go by without a tour of her precious second-hand shops—and Dad would just be sitting there in silence: no TV, no radio, no audio books (he never really took to them). He had indeed wrapped himself in silence but I don’t think it was much of a comfort to him. And we certainly never went on at him although when we were kids we did—I have the audio tapes to prove it—and so I do suppose in that respect the peace and quiet had a certain belated comfort to it. That’s the thing about life: it comes in chunks, hard to chew and difficult to swallow.

Are these poems any clearer now or have I spoiled them for you? I can’t read them without knowing all the stuff I know. I knew my father for forty-odd years. Just the word ‘dad’ is hugely evocative but then ‘dad’ means something to everyone and there’ll be people out there who read these poems and go: “My dad was nothing like that.” Well, good! Hopefully when you say that you mean he was better and not some homicidal maniac. At least my dad wasn’t that.

I say I’m not an autobiographical writer and I still stand by that. Like all writers I use what material comes my way. I’ve loved several women in my life and I’ve been around people who’ve been in love, I’ve watched TV shows and films depicting people in love and read books about love and so I’ve built up a composite picture of what ‘in love’ means and who knows you might feel exactly the same as I do about love and you might feel the same about your dad and your mum and maybe, like me, you never had a pogo-stick growing up and never learned to skate but if you didn’t you can still imagine what it was like but imagining’s not knowing; don’t expect it to be. And even now you know the things I’ve told you, you don’t know. You weren’t there. Make the poems your own.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Bell Jar


thebelljar

I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar




Of all the mental illnesses that we’ve labelled the one I expect most people imagine they’ve got a handle on is Depression. I, myself, have suffered from depression-with-a-capital-d since I was a teenager but the more I read about other people’s experiences the more I think the following is true: If you’ve met one person with depression you’ve met one person with depression; I’ve heard the same said of sufferers of autism, Asperger's, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's. You would think being a depressive I’d’ve approached this book with a degree of empathy—and I did, I did—but almost from the jump I realised I didn’t get the main protagonist. If I didn’t know better I’d say the author hadn’t researched her subject too well but, of course, as this is a thinly-veiled account of Plath’s own life and she committed suicide not long after the book’s not exactly ecstatic reception, I can’t lay that one at her door. All I can say is she wasn’t me and thank God I wasn’t her.

I struggled with this book. I found it dated and that’s fine—it is of its time and were it an historical novel written today I’m sure its author would be lauded for her commitment to accuracy—but society’s moved on; a lot that was accepted as the norm in the early sixties is quite unacceptable nowadays. Attitudes to women for starters although we’re still working on that. As she puts it:

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.

This still happens but now we regard it as abnormal behaviour and the societies and organisations that sanction it as backward. It’s easy though to see where the seeds to Esther Greenwood’s breakdown come from though:

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days

The_Bell_Jar_Harper_71Society at the time imagined a woman would want nothing more than to be a wife and mother and maybe keep the writing on as a hobby, something to submit to the parish journal. Oddly enough despite being a male I understand exactly the pressure Esther was under; I grew up in a working class household in Scotland where even going to university was still considered an odd thing to do.

The pressure to conform is a universal one and is a constant theme in modern Young Adult novels. And that’s really what this book is (Emily Gould in her article for Poetry Foundation agrees with me). I’m not using this as a disparaging term however and I’m not sure anyone today would object with Catcher in the Rye being reclassified as a YA novel (which is the book Robert Taubman in The New Statesman compared The Bell Jar to). On one level it’s a classic Bildungsroman. Professor Linda Wagner-Martin, in her essay, The Bell Jar as a Female ‘Bildungsroman’, writes:

Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the centre of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."

Janet McCann’s book on the subject argues the very opposite, “tracing Esther’s change from apparent knowledge and self-confidence to ignorance and uncertainty as the apparently open horizon shrinks to a point,” which is true up to a point but the point is that Esther survives the experience and (presumably, hopefully) goes on to have the happy and fruitful life of her choosing. Plath, herself, referred to the book as a “potboiler” and an “apprentice work” so I don’t think one should fret too much over descriptions. The real test is: Is it still—allowing her the credit that it was originally—a good read?

belljar_lThe first half, Esther in New York, was, frankly, a bit girly for me but it’s clearly important to see Esther in the company of “normal” women. Had the hero been a male and it’d been a men’s fashion magazine—do such things even exist?—I would’ve also found it equally off-putting. Just not my cup of tea. Once we moved into the book’s second half I found myself more interested; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is one of my favourite books which IMHO wipes the floor with this book. Could twelve years make such a difference? Then again we’ve since had Girl, Interrupted (1993) and Prozac Nation (1994) and, of course, The Bell Jar is going to start to feel tame. Just after I finished reading this book I watched The L-Shaped Room which was released the year before (that would be 1962) and was granted an X certificate by the B.B.F.C.—its tagline was “Sex is not a forbidden word!”—but anyone going to see it looking to be titillated would be sadly disappointed. In both The Bell Jar and The L-Shaped Room things that are discussed openly these days—lesbianism is a side issue in both—are skirted around here but, for its time, I can see why young girls would be drawn to the book if only to read the section where Esther finally does have sex and it’s about as erotic as the single coupling in the dark that we get treated to in The L-Shaped Room.

The treatment of mental health has changed radically but, electroshock therapy aside, the second half of the book focuses less on her treatments and more on what she’s doing when not being treated. This is a saving grace because loneliness and confusion haven’t changed since the dawn of time. This is the start of Esther’s initial meeting with Dr Gordon:

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.
        Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
        And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.
        But Doctor Gordon wasn’t like that at all. He was young and good-looking, and I could see right away he was conceited.
        Doctor Gordon had a photograph on his desk, in a silver frame, that half faced him and half faced my leather chair. It was a family photograph, and it showed a beautiful dark-haired woman, who could have been Doctor Gordon’s sister, smiling out over the heads of two blond children.
        I think one child was a boy and one was a girl, but it may have been that both children were boys or that both were girls, it is hard to tell when children are so small. I think there was also a dog in the picture, toward the bottom—a kind of Airedale or a golden retriever—but it may have only been the pattern in the woman’s skirt.
         For some reason the photograph made me furious.

Bell Jar, TheThere’s a scene not too dissimilar to this in The L-Shaped Room—Jane’s not got mental problems but she is pregnant and unmarried—and although the doctor there is also a perfectly decent individual you can tell there’s a gulf between the two of them and the main problem is one of gender; neither women conform to what society expects of them. This is how Esther’s interview with Dr Gordon ends:

When I had finished, Doctor Gordon lifted his head.
         “Where did you say you went to college?”
         Baffled, I told him. I didn’t see where college fitted in.
         “Ah!” Doctor Gordon leaned back in his chair, staring into the air over my shoulder with a reminiscent smile.
         I thought he was going to tell me his diagnosis, and that perhaps I had judged him too hastily and too unkindly. But he only said, “I remember your college well. I was up there, during the war. They had a WAC station, didn’t they? Or was it WAVES?”
        I said I didn’t know.
         “Yes, a WAC station, I remember now. I was doctor for the lot, before I was sent overseas. My, they were a pretty bunch of girls.”
        Doctor Gordon laughed.
        Then, in one smooth move, he rose to his feet and strolled toward me round the corner of his desk. I wasn’t sure what he meant to do, so I stood up as well.
        Doctor Gordon reached for the hand that hung at my right side and shook it.
         “See you next week, then.”

I found an article in The Guardian entitled ‘Sylvia Plath: reflections on her legacy’ in which a dozen women talk about Plath’s influence on them. Not one man? I don’t get this. Sylvia Plath is a writer, not a women’s writer. She wrote a book, not a women’s book. Granted men don’t come off too well in The Bell Jar but they’re not all irredeemable bastards; most, like the good doctor above, are simply products of their time doing what they see others doing and assuming that’s what’s expected of them too. But then that’s what the women were doing. And it doesn’t look as if any of them are particularly happy with the world in which they live but although individuals change the world most individuals don’t imagine they could ever change the world and so never try.

The fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication has just passed and a right kerfuffle’s there’s been over the new cover used by Faber & Faber. There’s a full discussion here but I’d like to highlight one paragraph:

The-new-cover-for-The-Bel-001"It should be possible to see The Bell Jar as a deadpan younger cousin of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, or even William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But that’s not the way Faber are marketing it. The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover," writes Fatema Ahmed. And I admit, she has a real point here. This 50th Anniversary edition does give the illusion that Plath's work is suited to the airport books section at Tesco, and definitely—we would never see Joyce or T.S. Eliot or Yeats sitting along those shelves. In fact, "books by men" are simply not marketed in this way.

This is a problem. Personally I don’t find the book cover particularly objectionable; it’s just not very apt.

It is true, this book’s lost a lot of its power. If books had been classified back in the sixties then I’ve no doubt whatsoever that this would’ve received the equivalent of an X certificate. The French film Jules and Jim received an X rating in 1962; that was changed to a PG rating in 1991. And that’s how I’d rank The Bell Jar. I’ve no idea if my daughter’s read the book. I know her mother has—she read it in the early eighties—but I do wonder if she passed it on. It’s a book that’s beloved by many and I can see mothers wanting to share the experience with their daughters as something special and the daughters being underwhelmed by it. I reread Catcher in the Rye when I was about thirty-five and was so disappointed by it.

the-bell-jar-movie-poster-1979-1020203401The book has been filmed (in 1979) and some kind person’s uploaded a copy to YouTube. The quality’s not great but it makes interesting viewing. If you’re keen you can see it here until someone makes a fuss about it. The VHS tape was rated R, so the American equivalent of the old X certificate. What can I say about it? Marilyn Hassett—the director’s girlfriend at the time—tries hard but everything’s against her. She apparently read fifteen books on Plath in preparation for the role but the script only pays lip service to the novel. That it would be different to the novel is fine—just compare the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Kesey’s book (they both work on their own terms)—but the script plods along. You can read Jane Maslin’s less than glowing review of the film (which she wrote for The New York Times) here. In part:

The scenes that are supposed to trigger all the trouble—Esther's confrontations with her mother (Julie Harris) and her strangely sadistic editor (Barbara Barrie), a gratuitously sleazy orgy with a disk jockey (Robert Klein)—are appallingly flat, neither explanatory nor disturbing.

[…]

The script, by Marjorie Kellogg, is full of overwrought extremes, even though Mr. Peerce directs virtually all of it with an inappropriate evenness. The editing of the film is so choppy it calls constant attention to itself. The music, by Gerald Fried, is pretty, and so are the costumes, by Donald Brooks.

To be fair I didn’t really feel the book dealt with the build-up to Esther’s collapse as well as it might have—she seemed pretty together to me during the first part of the book—and this was where the film could’ve done the book a huge favour but it dropped the ball in the first act. I read passages like

        The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.
        I knew perfectly well the cars were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for the good it did me.

in the book but I really didn’t realise how much she was suffering. In the book, for example, Esther goes to a party and a guy won’t take no for an answer. On getting back to her hotel this happens:

At that vague hour between dark and dawn, the sunroof of the Amazon was deserted.
        Quiet as a burglar in my cornflower-sprigged bathrobe, I crept to the edge of the parapet. The parapet reached almost to my shoulders, so I dragged a folding chair from the stack against the wall, opened it, and climbed onto the precarious seat.
        A stiff breeze lifted the hair from my head. At my feet, the city doused its lights in sleep, its buildings blackened, as if for a funeral.
        It was my last night.
        I grasped the bundle I carried and pulled at a pale tail. A strapless elasticized slip which, in the course of wear, had lost its elasticity, slumped into my hand. I waved it, like a flag of truce, once, twice....The breeze caught it, and I let go.
        A white flake floated out into the night, and began its slow descent. I wondered on what street or rooftop it would come to rest.
        I tugged at the bundle again.
        The wind made an effort, but failed, and a batlike shadow sank toward the roof garden of the penthouse opposite.
        Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.

Now compare that to the scene in the film:

The Bell Jar

She hasn’t been raped. But she has had to stand up for herself. A guy tries it on—guys try it on all the time—and although upset, very few women would be traumatized unless they were already on the edge. The writing here’s too poetic, too pretty to do justice to the moment. In this scene at least I can see that the scriptwriter’s heart was in the right place. Her name was Marjorie Kellogg. I doubt anyone will remember her nowadays but I watched another of her films a few months back, a 1970 adaptation of her novel Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, and it was quite wonderful.

So, bottom line: Would I recommend this book to you? Especially to the blokes out there. I want to say, yes. I do. But there’re only so many hours in the day. I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more books by women this year—which is how I wound up seeking out The Bell Jar in the first place—and what I’m finding is that I’m reading books because I feel I ought to read them rather than reading books that I want to read. The Bell Jar crops up on all sorts of ‘must read’ lists and in 1963 it was a must read but not nowadays. I want to say: No, read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest instead but there’re three things to consider. Firstly, if you’re reading The Bell Jar because you’re interested in the mentally ill then Kesey’s book is better BUT, secondly, if you’re reading The Bell Jar to gain some perspective into women’s issues then read The Bell Jar, not that you won’t learn a thing or two about women from Kesey but that’s by the by. Thirdly, I’ve not read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest since I was a teenager so maybe it’s also dated badly. Perhaps I should be recommending something like It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini—like Plath, Vizzini also committed suicide in his early thirties. Or maybe Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

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