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Monday, 26 July 2010

The Sky is Changing

 The Sky is Changing

Now is the age of anxiety — W H Auden

How do you capture the zeitgeist before it turns into cliché? It’s hard when all the good metaphors have been used up. The Age of Anxiety would have been a good title for Zoë Jenny’s sixth novel, The Sky is Changing, but Auden already wrote a long poem with that title. There are, however, some similarities between Zoë’s novel and the poem: each takes place in a major city, each takes place during a time of war, both writers take a special interest in the roles of women in society, each concerns a quest for the nature of identity and each was written by a foreigner. By that I mean that Auden was a prize-winning British poet living in, and writing about, New York; Zoë Jenny is a bestselling Swiss writer, living in and writing about London. The war in Auden’s case was World War II; in Jenny’s it’s the War on Terror. There are other differences, too, apart from the obvious fact that one work is prose and the other fiction: interestingly it is the poem that is considered by many long-winded (Larkin famously couldn’t finish it); the novella (144 pages) is a quick read – I read it in two sittings.

Why do we measure our lives in terms of things we don’t have? Why are we determined to see ourselves as incomplete, unfinished? Claire, the protagonist in this book, has a lot to be grateful for. She has had a successful career as a ballet dancer, she is happily married and she is alive. I’m not being flippant when I include the last item on that list because she not only survived the July 7th 2005 tube station bombings but also being mowed down by a car. On the down side she has not escaped unscathed: the car accident robbed her of her ability to dance, the bombing took away her security.

And this is very much how the author felt when she was in London during the attacks and after:

There was fear in the air and I could feel that. And it really affected me quite deeply. And I think, whether consciously or unconsciously, it did affect a lot of people. It’s different to waking up in a place where there were no attacks. London had quite a claustrophobic feel to me after the bombings.[1]

This is not the world Claire grew up in either. Little by little life has stripped things from her. Like the rest of us she now lives in a post-9/11, post-7/7 society. She watches Two towers young hooligans watch her as she rides by on her scooter while CCTV cameras watch them watching her. Is this any kind of world to want to bring a child into? And yet she wants to. Desperately.

With all of this swimming around in her head – she was also looking to get pregnant at this time – Zoë Jenny sat down to write looking to find some kind of catharsis, which she did. She also found that writing in English for the first time was a help:

I think it is a process of emancipation. I always wanted to free myself from the shackles of my mother tongue. Swiss German is a language few understand – I learned High German in school and wrote my first four books in that language, but I never truly felt ‘at home’ in it. The English language suits my writing very well. German is very analytical – an excellent language for philosophy but not necessarily for narrative and telling stories. I feel I can write much more freely in English.[2]

Her character, Claire, is not so fortunate. Her natural mode of expression has been ripped from her. She can’t dance but she needs to work, to be useful. The job she ends up with is as a swimming instructor of all things. But she is a swimming instructor with a difference – she mainly teaches clients on a one-to-one basis. This means she attracts those with a particularly strong aversion to water and/or the well to do.

The book focuses on Claire’s relationship with one particular client with whom she has developed something of a special bond, seven-year-old Nora. While sitting with her husband, Anthony, one night as he enjoys his after-dinner cigarette, Claire tells him about Nora. He seems to understand:

“It’s normal to feel more affection for some children,” he said, puffing smoke through his nostrils. “Just don’t get too involved.”

Claire carried the dishes to the sink. Don’t get too involved. It had sounded like a warning, and she loaded the dishwasher with more noise than necessary.

Anthony is a City Analyst, hence not a stupid man. He is well aware that they’ve been trying to get pregnant for  fifteenivf months now and that this must be affecting his wife. It’s certainly affecting him especially when the subject of IVF is brought up, a real slap in the face to his masculinity. Needless to say he is not at all keen at first:

“I want to reproduce.” Claire smiled afflicted. How technical that sounded. ‘Reproducing’. Like something animals do to sustain the population. “I want to pass on my genes,” Anthony continued, “so something from me lives on, you know. Some people even say this is the meaning of life.”

Anthony followed a clear path: the house, the marriage, a child, then a bigger house... the usual aspirations. And why not? After her accident, Claire knew she could never dance again and have a fabulous career like [her sister] Anne, the award-winning architect with work in magazine. She saw herself ready to settle and have a family. But Anne now had a child... she had it all, and where was Claire?

And just what is the score with Nora’s mum? Is she as oblivious to the fact that her daughter is as much of “a neurotic mess” as she seems? Could she really be unaware that the little girl nearly drowned on holiday? Nora’s fear of the water is extreme and Claire has her work cut out for her:

Claire talked to her in a low voice, almost whispering, “I will carry you,” she said. “Trust me.”

She held Nora’s back with her hands so she could just relax and feel the weightlessness of her body. “See? You’re floating.”

It was a way of familiarising her and making her comfortable in the water. She had to take away her fear of going under and drowning, the fear of losing control. As Nora realised she was safe she sent the signal Claire was waiting for: a tiny smile. Her reward.

“Shall we try now?” They were only two metres apart, Claire standing there like a steadfast rock as Nora swam towards her, frog-like, in hasty awkward movements, her lips pressed together. “Head up,” Claire shouted, “head up,” and then Nora jumped. Claire almost lost balance as she leapt at her, legs and arms clinging around her.

“Don’t let go,” she stammered. “Please, don’t let go.” As her little face burrowed in her neck, Claire could feel the breath on her skin. The hot breath of fear. She stroked the back of her head, a reflex – was there such a thing as a reflex for affection?

Nora’s mother is not that blind. She can see that a bond is developing between her daughter and her instructor and so takes advantage of it asking Claire to extend her time with her, to effectively slip into the role of nanny; Claire does not need to be asked twice. The outcome is pretty much as you would expect. Without Nora, “at home the house felt emptier than usual, the rooms bigger.” At an evening with her friends she finds herself going on about the girl:

Claire didn’t know what came over her, but she suddenly leaned over and started telling them about Nora. That she went to that coffee place, bought her cake and how close she felt when she was holding her hand as if it were her own child. Relieved to be unburdening, she found herself adding, “I even imagined taking her back home with me.”

Claire sensed immediately she had made a mistake. The words sounded wrong, desperate, like a confession. Everyone looked at her taken aback; there was a silence.

After embarrassing herself in front of her (childless) friends you will not be surprised to find that Claire keeps it to herself the next time Mrs Ross asks her again to take care of Nora. This time on a trip in a taxi they pass Nora’s house and she begs Claire to let her show her her room:

“Please please,” Nora begged, rolling her eyes as she sensed Claire’s hesitation.

“Are you sure no one is at home? Your mummy doesn’t want us to go to your house, you know.”

“But she doesn’t know, please please. Only five minutes.”

Here, or perhaps before when she took Nora’s hand or when she admitted in front of her friends (and to herself no doubt for the first time) – somewhere along the way, a line is crossed but certainly for a while in Mrs Ross’s house Claire gets to wander around on the other side and sees that the grass is in some respects greener. Where is this all heading?

People cope the best way they can. Some turn to drink to solve problems other than thirst, some take drugs even though they’re not poorly, some pluck babies from prams to try to fill holes in their lives left by other things.

To find out where Claire is heading we really need to know where she has been and so, as the main thread of the story progresses, we also get flashbacks to key moments in her life and in particular her relationship with her older (fertile) sister, Anne:

Her family was scattered all over Europe. Her parents lived in Berlin, her sister Anne in Hamburg, she had an aunt in Barcelona and an uncle in Toulouse. She kept in touch with all of them, by phone and e-mail, but it was Anne that she missed. Anne before the baby that is.

How much control do we have over our lives? A crash has put an end to her plans for the future. A financial crash is about to do the same to her husband’s plans. Her parents are putting pressure on her to return to Germany. What’s harder, hanging on for dear life or letting go?

7july_london_train_bombing This book touches on many contemporary issues but they are most definitely the backdrop to the story and not the meat. Even the 7/7 bombing that Claire was involved in barely gets a couple of pages devoted to it and much the same with 9/11. There is no real attempt to discuss these at length but then I would imagine most ordinary couples simply absorbed these events into their lives, learned a couple of new euphemisms and got on with their daily routines. And despite the fact they’re not poor, Anthony and Claire are a fairly ordinary couple, a bit on the boring side really. A year after the bombing they go and lay a bouquet of roses at King’s Cross and in a couple of paragraphs this scene is described. They then drive home and don’t talk about it. But what really is there to say?

They’re not exactly cardboard cutouts but they’re not very deep either. Since infertility is the central issue there are a number of roles that need to be fulfilled: the sister with a kid, the husband who won’t consider other options, the sympathetic friend, the mother who wants to know when her other grandkid is coming and the kid who gets to play proxy. Reducing the book to a formula is perhaps a little uncharitable but I think the problem with this kind of situation is that people automatically line up to fill clichéd positions. That’s where the clichés came from in the first place.

Talking about The Pollen Room, The Observer calls Jenny’s prose “spare, assured and evocative, the tone matter-of-fact and utterly without self-pity” and the writing is much the same in this book. I didn’t feel that the simple, unpretentious style was anything less than deliberate and not a result of writing in an unfamiliar tongue although she does admit that she found writing in English hard at first. I’m not sure this style necessarily helps this book though. Claire, in my opinion, even when she starts to lose control is very aware that she is losing control. This is something I would expect from a person who has spent years in a strict training regime but I would rather have seen her fall to pieces more and her relationships suffer more. Everything in this book is just a bit too civilised. Don’t quote me but I don’t think Claire actually cries in the book.

I was curious about why Zoë had written Claire that way and so I dropped her an e-mail to which she responded:

I always find it fascinating to see how different people react to the same book – everyone reads their own version and of course sometimes a book and its reader just don't click. I believe the novel speaks for itself and doesn't need additional explanation.

Okay. Fair enough. Perhaps part of my problem is that I can’t relate to Claire. My wife fell pregnant within a few months of us getting married and I’ve never known anyone who’s struggled to conceive other than my own parents and as I was the solution to that particular problem I have an unusual and unique perspective on their struggles.

You’ll be pleased to note, by the way, that, after five years of treatment, Zoë Jenny finally gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Naomi. We never find out what ultimately happens with Claire. We can but hope. And that’s where the novel leaves us, hopeful for the future. Despite everything I think most people are.


Zoë Jenny was born in 1974 in Basel, Switzerland and spent parts of her childhood in Greece and Ticino. Her first novel, The Pollen Room (1997), won her global critical acclaim and is the all-time best-selling debut novel by a Swiss author. Translated into 27 languages, the novel propelled her across the globe for readings and talks in schools and universitieZoe feature_covers as far away as Japan, China and the USA. She lived in New York and Berlin and in 2004 settled in London. In 2008 she married Matthew Homfray, a British veterinary surgeon and pharmaceuticals consultant which whom she now has a daughter.

Zoë has since published several highly acclaimed novels: Der Ruf des Muschelhorns (2000), Ein schnelles Leben (2002), Das Portrait (2007), a children’s book: Mittelpünktchens Reise um die Welt (2001), and various collections of short stories. Surprisingly none of these has made it into an English translation yet although some are available in Italian.


[1] Andrew Littlejohn, 'Best-selling Swiss author launches English debut', Swiss Info, 2nd June 2010

[2] ‘Writing Across Borders’, New Books in German, Spring 2010, Issue 27


Kass said...

Maybe Claire's tears were lost in translation.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s a fair point, Kass. I had hoped that the author might have had a little more to say but, as is her right, she chose to let the work stand on its own which is how it should be. We all judge books based on our own life experiences. I have no doubt that what it presented here is realistic but perhaps not typical. I have much the same problem with the character I’m writing in that what’s ‘normal’ for her is not ‘normal’ for most people. She’s very much like Camus’ Merssault who I’ve always had a problem with. At least my character admits to herself that her behaviour is atypical and feels she ought to feel guilty for not grieving by the numbers; the problem is that she doesn’t. Then again, who wants to read books where the characters do predictable things?

Kass said...

I have a list of book titles in my head and one of them is Realms of Normalcy. I haven't found the appropriate story or self-help advice yet, I think because the parameters keep changing.

It's true, we do judge normalcy by our life experiences. If what the author presented is realistic in her experience, it would have been nice of her to acknowledge your response. Perhaps she herself has no understanding of her affective disorder.

Do I read correctly that currently you are writing a character much like Camus' Meursault? At least we have this information before the fact and can begin to see where he/she falls in the DSM-IV.

A lot of us proceed with 'normal actions' and no one will ever know what is going on below the surface. The advantage you have as a writer is that you get to plumb those depths, or lack thereof.

Is apathy always monstrous? Aren't I more disordered to dote and devote to a mother who found me "off the beam" all my life and who could in today's standards qualify as an abuser ?

Jim Murdoch said...

The reason I have been struggling so much with this current book is that what I am dealing with, Kass, is the issue of loss, of being left. My parents are both dead but apart from a couple of poems I never wrote much about how I feel about that. I know what the so-called “rules” for grieving are and the fact is that I never went through them. I didn’t behave in a way that many people would have considered “normal” but, of course, the way I acted was “normal” for me. That’s where the lead character in my book, Meursault and I have a lot in common.

My wife and I watch the show Dexter, which, if you’ve never heard of it, is about a serial killer trying to live a normal life. He thinks of himself as a monster but has learned to fake humanity. I get that. I’ve been an aberrant social personality type for years. By that I mean I’ve been a poet living in a world where I didn’t fit it. And yet I learned to pass myself off as normal, to make small talk with all sorts.

I didn’t object to the way Jenny handled her character. My concern was only that it might not sit too well with her potential readers but perhaps she would have considered taking the easy option selling out. I don’t think any of my lead characters are especially likeable people but I can’t seem to warm to this woman I’m thinking about just now at all. And that makes her a hard sell.

Kass said...

Hard sell maybe, but you've piqued my interest.

It's interesting how easily doctors and psychologists will label someone with the reactions you've described as having a level of autism. I have a niece who has two children with Asberger's Disease. They find it hard to engage in social situations (I still ask, "what's disordered here - the child or society?). My French next-door-neighbor told me after a year of living next to me, that he had Asberger's and had just learned to observe others' behavior and act normal. And I always thought he was just French.

Art Durkee said...

I've been thinking about post-9/11 literature. Although Theodore Adorno once famously opined, "After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry," I've always thought rather, that after Auschwitz there MUST be poetry. And music, and painting, and laughter. If you let the bastards destroy your ability to enjoy life, to give back to life, be alive, to be creative, to co-create reality and art and life, then you've let the bastards win. I refuse to the let bastards win.

And it makes you think about art after disasters. What sort of literary category is that? Art after disasters.

The thing is, I know for a fact from my own experience, after a life-changing experience, your art changes, and sometimes even how you make art changes. I'm experiencing that again right now. I'm going through another life-changing experience, right now, and my art is changing, again.

So it makes me think about literature after 9/11.

To be honest, mostly I see a lot of flailing, not much real juicy stuff I can sink my teeth into.

The one exception that I've noticed lately is William Gibson's new trilogy-in-progress, which is explicitly post-9/11 literature. I've read and re-read "Pattern Recognition," which I have to say is Gibson's very best novel since "Neuromancer," and I've read "Spook Country." The third book I haven't read, if it's out yet. I highly recommend "Pattern Recognition." And it is genuinely post-9/11 lit, as the story is not ABOUT 9/11 but shows how the world has changed because of 9/11, and how the characters must live with that.

What becomes normal, after all that? What can normal mean? or be?

Dave King said...

I've always tended to think the literature of loss almost a genre of its own. And, for me, a very difficult one to attempt. Like you, I have lost both my parents and have never written about either loss. I have thought several times about doing so, but have never got as far as writing a word. I don't know why that is. In the case of my father I can tell myself that I am still too close to it, but that doesn't apply in my mother's case.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, I agree totally, Art. What’s the point of poetry if not to help us deal with tragic events like the Holocaust or 9/11? I’m sure there were people who tried to cash in on 9/11 but I suspect most artists were genuine in what they tried to express. It has become a metaphor that works the world over. That’s why I was puzzled why people couldn’t get over Mantel using the Holocaust as a metaphor. Great events like this naturally become benchmarks against which we measure other tragedies. I think this book fits in with how you describe Pattern Recognition: it is not about 9/11 or 7/7 but about living in a changed world. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the protagonist is a little more distant than I might have expected.

And, Dave, yes, loss is a hard one. What I’m finding hard is not to fall back on old clichés. Death has been with us for thousands of years – what is there left to say about it? But there are different kinds of losses and quite often we lose an individual years before they actually pass away. In this book the protagonist has lost something. She hasn’t lost her life but she’s lost quality of life. More people survived 9/11 and all the others than died in them but somehow I think the survivors' cumulative loss is the greater.

Art Durkee said...

After Mom and Dad died, within a year of each other, I went and partook of the Hospice grief counseling. One thing I know for a fact: people grieve for a loss differently. Some go numb for a long time. Others get right in there and work it through. Most do a bit of both. I found that my creative response, which is a fundamental response for me to most things, helped me work it through. I did write extensively about my parents' deaths, including poems, and lots of family history memoir. Most of that's on my blog.

And I have seen a lot of people who it seems are still sleepwalking, sort of numb and detached, after 9/11, or 7/7, or whatever. Part of the story of "Pattern Recognition" is how the protagonist starts coming back to life.

It can take a few years.

One thing I learned from the Hospice people: There is no one pattern. There is no set group of "stages" that everybody goes through, and the order may not be the same either. There are no rules.

Those people who give us rules or stages are basing that stuff on general trends from seeing a lot of people, but it's really very individual and unpredictable.

Jim Murdoch said...

Everyone wants to believe that they’re behaving normally though don’t they, Art. In my book, which I really didn’t want to get into but I’ll mention this, the protagonist notes how people are very quick to tell her how she should be feeling: “Oh, you must be devastated, dear!” only she’s not. She feels guilty because she doesn’t feel guilty but the simple fact is that her father was not a big part of her world at this point and so the damage is limited to a small corner of her life.

I’ve always been a practical person. There are things that have upset me for the short term, the loss of a girlfriend, the death of a cat, but life goes on. I was brought up with that mentality. Someone told my ex-wife that what she was going through when we separated was grief. The writer in me found that fascinating. I can’t really say how I felt because I was in the midst of a major depression and that kind of swallowed up everything else.

I’ve actually just spent a good hour on Google Maps ‘driving’ round my hometown. When I moved I cut ties with so many people and I imagined I’d feel a wash of loss or something but I found myself more interested to see that the new people have knocked down the garden wall and built a new porch. I couldn’t see if the garage was still there. But is all seems so far away now.

I think that’s why I find books that deal with loss interesting because I get to try on someone else’s grief for a while. It’s never feels like a good fit though. It was a book that gave me the idea for my current novel, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo although I’m miles away from that first idea now. That was a book about coping with grief. I’ve yet to read The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster because it was too close to the direction I had intended to take at one point but I’ve always planned to.

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