Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

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

Sunday 23 November 2014

Commentary on commentaries


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

one imagines
an earthworm dreaming
butterflyit might become a
butterfly or even
just Chuang-

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

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

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.


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


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.

Sunday 9 November 2014

The Artist of Disappearance

the artist of disappearance

Ravi was too crushed by the school day to take the risk of any other failure, and heaved his school bag onto his back to slink home with the hope of going unnoticed—which he mostly was. – Anita Desai, ‘The Artist of Disappearance’

The cover states this volume contains three novellas. I’ll deal with each separately.

The Museum of Final Journeys

In his review for The Washington Post Ron Charles says that “The Museum of Final Journeys is a little toothache of a story that you’ll have trouble putting out of your mind.” It’s as good a description as any without actually saying anything about the story. It says on the cover it’s a novella but at only 11,000 words you can really only call it a novelette.

The protagonist is an inexperienced bureaucrat, the son of a successful bureaucrat, who as part of his training has been assigned a post in some backwater where he gets to play King Solomon for people he doesn’t understand and could care less about but this is a necessary stepping stone and dutifully he makes do and gets on with it. The first part of the story lets us get acquainted with him as he acclimatises and then what little novelty there is wears off. Very soon he’s read all his books and has little to look forward to bar the crossword in the newspaper, so when an unexpected visitor from an estate he’d heard rumours of arrives talking about a museum his interest is piqued and he makes the trip to see for himself.

ElephantIt would spoil the story to say what he encounters there but what’s more interesting is what he does with the information. And Charles is right, this is a wee toothache of a story but I’ve never had a toothache in my life that I enjoyed. I don’t mind not knowing all the facts—in the real world we rarely have all the facts and we get by—but an author needs to be wary about what he or she chooses to omit. I thought Desai left me short-changed at the end of this story. That said I did enjoy what I read and she kept me turning pages but there were a few too many whys left at the end of this one for me. It is an interesting character study, however, even if we never learn the protagonist’s name or very much about him other than he’s subservient to the will of his parents; his mother eventually finds him a wife and he settles down to live much the same life as his father did before him. Only his father never experienced what the son does. He never saw the museum. To see the museum and then to end up exactly where he’d expected to be moving from one ministry to another until he reached the end of “a long and rewarding career of service” seems a little sad. It’s supposed to.

Translator Translated

Like the previous story this begins a little off-stage if you will: Prema Joshi, “middle-aged, even prematurely aged one might say,” arrives at her school reunion not expecting to be noticed by anyone; she was never anyone at school so why should she be anyone now? Her life since leaving school has been uneventful. She holds a “a junior position in a minor women’s college in a bleak and distant quarter of the city” teaching girls “every one of these [whom] would leave college to marry, bear children and, to everyone's huge relief, never read another book.” When Tara, the most glamorous girl in class, not only recognises her as a classmate but chooses to strike up a conversation with her Prema is taken aback. She’s followed Tara’s career since leaving school with interest. Tara “had founded the first feminist press in the country and made it, unexpectedly, an outstanding success.” You would think they’d still be poles apart.

And then a providential act took place. A small, grubby paperback slid out of the overstuffed, ungainly satchel that Prema was trying to keep from falling off her lap. And as Prema tried to stuff it back before any further objects followed it out, Tara, idly continuing the conversation since nothing else seemed to be happening, asked, 'What is that you're reading?'

bookThe book is a collection of short stories written in Oriya, the predominant language of the Indian states of Odisha, and it just so happens that Tara has been wanting to branch into translations but neither woman makes any suggestion to the other and it looks like the opportunity is to be lost. Prema, however, is passionate about the language—her mother spoke Oriya to her as an infant but died young—and also about the author of the stories, Suvarna Devi, who she is determined to champion and so makes the effort to see Tara again who although clearly a busy woman is quite accommodating and suggests Prema have a go at translating the book into English.

Publication of Prema’s translation brings Suvarna Devi to the city for a conference, where the two women meet but much to Prema’s surprise and annoyance she’s very much side-lined as merely the translator. She does get to meet her heroine later and persuades her to let her translate the novel she is currently working on. And this is where things start to go awry: Prema’s burgeoning ego begins to get in the way of things and she’s starting to think of herself as a co-author; she really is getting ideas above her station and stations are a big thing in India. Curiously a couple of times during the story the narration slips into the first person although the style is indistinguishable from the third person narration. Clearly the author is making a metafictional point here.

So an interesting wee story about identity, the need to be aware of our limits (as opposed to knowing ones place although there is a touch of that here) and why we should never give into the temptation to meet our heroes. A more rounded and satisfying piece than the first one.

The Artist of Disappearance

This final story—a bona fide novella this time—nicely rounds off the group. In some respects Ravi, the old man we meet at the beginning of this story, is like the protagonist in the opening novelette. As a young man he’s sent away to study and obediently he acquiesces:

The years that followed, Ravi did not count. He did not count them because he did not acknowledge them as his: they did not belong to his life because they did not belong to the forest and the hills. They belonged to the family in Bombay, to the business office, to his duties there, his relations to the family, and some years at a college studying 'management' (although they never made clear and he never understood what he was supposed to 'manage').

On his return home, however, his life takes a very different direction. Ravi is… I suppose the best expression I can use is ‘a child of nature’. From a very early age he just wants to be outside:

Hari Singh [the majordomo as far as I can figure out] gave up setting a place at the table with the requisite glass and silverware, and took to letting Ravi eat his meals at a small table out on the veranda where he would not be separated from the outdoor world that provided all the nourishment he wanted.

matchesHe’s an adopted child—“at the suggestion of a distant, philanthropic aunt”—but never really takes to the family nor them to him. Luckily he’s comfortable with his own company especially when left to roam free. His parents die before too much pressure is placed on him to marry and so, after a tragic accident, he ends up living alone in the ruins of the old family home cared for by Bhola, Hari Singh’s son, and his family who still keep their distance appreciating his preference for solitude. And then the film crew arrive and discover what Ravi’s been doing all these years hidden away from prying eyes.


This is a book suffused with melancholy and occasionally full-blown sadness. I read them in the middle of what passes for summer in Scotland and so I couldn’t help but feel hot reading them but I suspect one might sense that even in winter, not that the books are heavy on descriptions but she makes them count:

The sun was setting into a sullen murk of ashes and embers along the horizon when he turned the jeep into the circular driveway in front of a low, white bungalow.


Through the suppurating heat of June and July, under a slowly revolving electric fan, and with perspiration streaming down her face in sheets, Prema settled to trying to rediscover the joy she had initially taken in translation.


When he looked up from it he found the woolly dusk had knitted him into the evening scene, inextricably.

Although Ravi is the only out-and-out recluse all three characters live, at least for a time, on the fringes of society and all aspire to better things. Success comes at a price and although all three better themselves—in very different ways—it costs them. Having been a little disappointed by the ending of the first story I was wary about proceeding but the other two were better and I think the last one was the best but I have a soft spot for loners and outcasts. In an interview Desai says:

I’ve often written about people who don’t go along with the mainstream, who go against the current, who live outside of the current, or are stranded whilst everyone else just flows along. I think I’m drawn to such characters. Even in the last three novellas that I wrote, that same type of character surfaces again and again. I’m interested in people who live in a kind of exile; it may not be political exile, but in some sense it’s exile from the rest of society. It may have something to do with my upbringing and my parents. My mother, having been German, lived most of her life in India and never felt able to return to Germany. After the war, we would sometimes suggest, “Why don’t you go back and visit your country? See who is still alive, who survived.” It would bring her to tears, and she’d say, “Don’t make me do that.” To have lost your country, your family, your society, so wholly, must have been a devastating experience. Somehow she survived it. My father was, in a sense, in exile too. He was from East Bengal, which then became East Pakistan. So his family lost their land and everything else they had there. Then he came to Bangladesh, which was another loss, another change. He didn’t feel at home there either and lived in North India, which was a foreign country to him. They were outsiders, and while there’s no reason why I should be that too—I was born there—I was brought up with the same sense of being an outsider. I certainly absorbed it from them.

Going back to Ron Charles, looking at the book as a whole he says, “Desai takes a certain perverse pleasure in exposing the self-pity of mediocre people; if Anita Brookner were a little meaner, she might write like this.” This really hits the nail on the head. I’m a fan of Brookner—oddly I have to say because there are so many reasons why you wouldn’t think she’d appeal to me—and I suspect I might become a fan of Desai. I was interested in what Manini Nayar Samarth writes in the abstract to her dissertation:

Desai's fiction is lyrical, because, as in lyric poetry, it combines the self (the writer/protagonist) with society through epiphanic insight. The achievement of selfhood is therefore defined by a sense of mystic unity or belonging to a stable and known world. In contrast, Brookner's ironic novels express the failure of a self/world synthesis in an arbitrary and amoral wasteland. Selfhood is defined by the ability to confront and resist the corrosive effects of abandonment and homelessness. These diametric responses to alienation lead to two affirmative modes of closure. In Desai's lyrical novel, the self rests in grace attained through vision. In Brookner's ironic novel, it generates the courage to survive isolation through stoical acceptance or by the creation of a private fiction. Either way, both modes of closure denote a triumph of character over situation, of will over circumstances, thereby establishing the resilience and creative power of the spirit.

That these stories are all based in India is a little problematic—they’re several steps removed from my personal experience of the world—and I found myself googling more Indian words than I would’ve liked but there is still a universality to the book; these people weren’t so different that I didn’t get them. Maybe that says more about me than I care to admit.

I’ll leave you with a very nice—and lengthy—interview with the author.


Anita Mazumdar Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, to a German mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English outside the house. However, she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result English became her "literary language". She began to write in English at the age of seven and published her first story at the age of nine.

She was a student at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in Delhi and received her B.A. in English literature in 1957 from the Miranda House of the University of anita desaiDelhi. The following year she married Ashvin Desai, the director of a computer software company. They have four children, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai whose novel The Inheritance of Loss won in 2006. You can read an interview between them here.

She is the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a writer she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times; she received a Sahitya Academy Award in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain, from the Sahitya Academy, India's National Academy of Letters; she won the British Guardian Prize for The Village by the Sea.

Sunday 2 November 2014

Out of the Dark


Everything disappears his books seem to tell us, and also—in small but omnipresent echoes—everything somehow stays. – Jordan Stump in the introduction to Out of the Dark

In his introduction to Out of the Dark translator Jordan Stump talks about the title he chose to give to this novel:

The French title of this book, Du plus loin de l'oubli, poses a particularly thorny problem, since the English language has no real equivalent for oubli, nor even a simple way of saying du plus loin. The phrase, taken from a French translation of a poem by the German writer Stefan George, is literally equivalent to ‘from the furthest point of forgottenness,’ and I have found no way to express this idea with the eloquent simplicity of the original.

You can read an interview with Stump here.

french coverOut of the Dark is an okay title but that’s as far as it goes. And one might be forgiven for saying that Out of the Dark is an okay novel had its author not just been awarded the Nobel Prize. If I were asked for a single word to describe this book the one I’d go with would be ‘understated’. There’s a lot its narrator never found out and he can’t tell us what he never knew but he’s also looking back on events fifteen and thirty years in his past and so can be forgiven if he doesn’t get every detail straight—in 1964 the couple go to see the film Moonfleet but as it was released in France in March 1960 it’s unlikely it would still be showing anywhere—but I suspect the real problem with the storytelling is that the narrator doesn’t choose to share everything. What interests him he describes in great detail; the dialogue, for example, moves slowly because he frequently comments on facial expressions and gestures and yet he skips over his past as if it’s entirely inconsequential.

A recent article in The New York Times following the news that Modiano had won the Nobel Prize reports:

Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Modiano “a Marcel Proust of our time, “noting that his works resonate with one another thematically and are “always variations of the same thing, about memory, about loss, about identity, about seeking.”

And if that’s the case Out of the Dark is probably as good a novel to read as any if you want a taste of Modiano. Where it is, apparently, a little different is the fact it has little or nothing to say about World War II. According to Wikipedia:

Obsessed with the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation—during which his father had allegedly engaged in some shady dealings—Modiano returns to this theme in all of his novels, book after book building a remarkably homogeneous work.

It’s a short novel—just shy of 150 pages (none of his novels are epics)—and is written in lean, clean, easy to follow prose although he can be a little repetitious at times—just how many times does he need to mention that Gérard Van Bever’s overcoat was a herringbone and Jacqueline’s soft leather jacket was too light for the time of year?—but this is a minor criticism and Dan Brown’s survived worse. The narrator is looking back from 1994—he was born during the summer of 1945 so that makes him about fifty—firstly to the winter of 1964 where the bulk of the novel takes place (over a three or four month period beginning in August), then to 1979 (this time only dealing with two or three days) and finally to the present, October 1994. What ties all three periods in his life together is a woman called (at least in 1964) Jacqueline.

In an interview Modiano makes an interesting observation about his writing (assuming Google Translate’s done a fair job): “If an x-ray of my novels were made, we would see that they contain whole sections of the Profumo affair or the case of Christine Keeler.” Modiano was in London in 1960, the Profumo scandal came to a head in 1963 and his first book was published in 1968. Was Jacqueline modelled on Keeler? Who knows? But read on.

terriblesWhen our unnamed narrator meets Jacqueline she’s a part of a couple but when has that thwarted a full-blooded Frenchman? As I read the opening few pages I was immediately reminded of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles whose title is rarely translated into English these days so I think Stump might’ve been forgiven for digging his heels in and insisting that Du plus loin de l'oubli be kept as the title. The narrator is an outsider (which, of course, suggests another French classic with an untranslatable title) who gets embroiled in a world he’s not entirely comfortable in or fully understands. There is a reference to the novel A High Wind in Jamaica (a book in which children quickly become part of life aboard a pirate ship and treat it as their new home) and there’s definitely a feel of that here but even more so in the London section of the book. The couple he meets are essentially bohemians although neither’s artistic unlike the narrator who aspires to be—and finally does become we discover—a writer. They get by on charity, gambling and finally theft and for some reason open their arms and accept this young man into the fold without any explanation. He’s a dropout. Estranged from his family he lives in a cheap hotel and gets by selling books. He’s a good fit.

Modiano largely abandoned his own family and once said of his mother that her heart was so cold that her lapdog leapt from a window to its death. It’s also been said that he does not know where his father’s buried. There’s clearly a lot of Modiano in this book’s main protagonist. In the novel this is virtually all the narrator says about his parents:

I was drifting away from my parents. My father used to meet me in back rooms of cafés, in hotel lobbies, or in train station buffets, as if he were choosing these transitory places to get rid of me and to run away with his secrets. We would sit silently, facing each other. From time to time he would give me a sidelong glance. As for my mother, she spoke to me louder and louder. I could tell by the abrupt way her lips moved, because there was a pane of glass between us, muting her voice. And then the next fifteen years fell apart: a few blurry faces, a few vague memories, ashes . . . . I felt no sadness about this. On the contrary, I was relieved in a way. I would start again from zero.

Jacqueline, for me, was actually the most interesting character in this book. Like the narrator she’s also “underage” but that just means she’s not reached twenty-one and is technically still a minor—why she’s out in the world on her own we never learn—but she copes. She’s manipulative, self-interested and has no problems letting things or people—older men especially—slip though her fingers and fall to the ground once she’s done with them. She abandons Van Bever for the writer (an out of character move considering his age) and then, after a move to London (funded by money stolen from a man called Cartaud who’s been passing himself off as a dentist and also has a thing for Jacqueline) she forsakes the writer without a backwards glance in favour of the slum landlord Peter Rachman.

Rachman, of course, was a real live person although he died in 1962. Wikipedia has this to say:

Rachman did not achieve general notoriety until after his death, when the Profumo Affair of 1963 hit the headlines and it emerged that both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies had been his mistresses, and that he had owned the mews house in Marylebone where Rice-Davies and Keeler had stayed.

Keeler1Underlining this connection is the fact that Jacqueline is introduced to Rachman by Linda Jacobsen. In the (in)famous photo by Lewis Morley Keeler sits astride a copy of an Arne Jacobsen chair. Michael Savoundra, who they meet in the Lido with Rachman, is named after Emil Savundra who was an international swindler, confidence trickster and business partner of the real-life Rachman. There are also several references to Jamaicans in this section of the book.

Fifteen years later our writer encounters Jacqueline by chance—they’ve both returned to France by this time—and he follows her gate-crashing a party he suspects she’ll be at. Luckily she does arrive shortly after he does sporting a new hairdo, a new man and a new name but disappears overnight again. A further fifteen years on our writer again sees a woman he suspects might be Jacqueline and follows her for a bit but this time he decides to leave well alone.

None of the characters has what you might call a clearly defined identity and there’s virtually no backstory that we can trust. They’re amorphous beings. Even in his maturity it doesn’t feel like the narrator has settled down; found himself. What could possibly be gained by a third encounter with this woman?

On the little square you come to before the park there was a cafe with the name Le Muscadet Junior. I watched her through the front window. She was standing at the bar, her shopping bag at her feet, and pouring herself a glass of beer. I didn't want to speak to her, or follow her any farther and learn her address. After all these years, I was afraid she wouldn't remember me. And today, the first Sunday of fall, I'm in the métro again, on the same line. The train passes above the trees on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques. Their leaves hang over the tracks. I feel as though I'm floating between heaven and earth, and escaping my current life. Nothing holds me to anything now. In a moment, as I walk out of the Corvisart station, with its glass canopy like the ones in provincial train stations, it will be as if l were slipping through a crack in time, and I will disappear once and for all.

In this book no one is what they seem to be or say they are. Cartaud is clearly not a dentist, Van Bever is not a salesman, the writer’s not a student and he and Jacqueline are neither married nor engaged and yet parts are played as long as it’s convenient. At some later time—after 1979 but before 1994—the writer finds a photograph of himself with Jacqueline and notes, “I was struck by the innocence of our faces. We inspired trust in people. And we had no real qualities, except the one that youth gives to everyone for a very brief time, like a vague promise that will never be kept.” There’s definitely a touch of the mumblecore about this book.

I wasn’t sure about this book at first I have to say. The plain-speaking style is deceptive; it’s subtle. As his translator says in interview:

It is a very simple style, but it’s not plain and it’s not overly poetic. There is a kind of poetry in it, but it’s very discreet. So if you translate him too plainly, or if you translate him too poetically, you completely lose the voice. His voice is very elusive. It’s hard to get a handle on. But it’s straight-forward and it has resonance of meaning that isn’t on.

I recommend you give him a go. I’m not sure looking at the other mooted nominees he would’ve been my choice—we’ll have to wait until 2064 to learn who the competition was—but he’s certainly not a bad writer. He’s an interesting writer, quietly digging his own furrow. Or as he’s put it himself: “I have always felt like I've been writing the same book for the past 45 years.” And that reminds me of Brookner in more ways than one; she also writes short novels that sell remarkably well.


patrickPatrick Modiano was born in 1947 in Paris, where he still lives. He received his secondary education at various colleges: Biarritz, Versailles, Chamonix, and Paris. His father, Alberto Modiano, was an Italian Jew with ties to the Gestapo who did not have to wear the yellow star and who was also close to organised crime gangs. His mother was a Flemish actress named Louisa Colpeyn. His family’s complex background set the scene for a lifelong obsession with that dark period in history. His big break came partly due to his friendship with the French writer Raymond Queneau, who first introduced him to the Gallimard publishing house when he was in his early twenties.

His first novel, La Place de l'etoile, published in France in 1967, won the Roger Nimier Prize and Fénéon Prize. Modiano won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person) and the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française in 1972 for Les Boulevards de ceinture. He also won the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for his lifetime achievement in 2010, and the 2012 the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.

Although he has written some twenty-nine novels (which apparently have been translated into more than thirty languages) less than a dozen of his works have made it into English and several of which were even out of print before the announcement of the fact he had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize. The award-winning Missing Person had sold just 2,425 copies in the US prior to the Nobel announcement. Yale University had intended to print 2000 copies of his novel Suspended Sentences this year; that’s now been upped to at least 15,000 copies.

Ping services