Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Week Fifty-Three - Jude

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1532)
Recommended by Jeanette

Some things I've done for the first time in 2013:

* Been to Norway.
* Baked an apple and brown sugar cake.
* Interviewed Paul McCartney.
* Stayed in a posh hotel in Oxford for a difficult, but restorative weekend.
* Grown tomatoes.
* Had a writing retreat at my dad-in-law's with Jeanette.
* Read The Prince by Machiavelli.

Some things I haven't done for the first time:

* Broken a resolution.

Let's face it - I'm rubbish. This new year's resolution had all the qualities of one worth keeping. I'd suggested to a friend that we should share it together. Said friend was queen of willpower so she would drive me on, and I would drive her in return. We'd be like two gabby, lazy friends at aerobics class. All would be wonderful.

I forgot that the only resolution I'd ever kept was to lose weight back in 2008. Gone were memories of teenage diaries that quickly ran out of ink, dry Januaries that were wet by mid-month, countless attempts to correct my behaviour that wilted before spring wound its way in. This year, I buckled in March, and again in September. It's been a funny old year, though.

February this year was very tough, as were the few months that followed. From August, my mind was similarly preoccupied. Now it's December 31st, and I'm on a train from Sheffield to London, feeling something kick in my belly, thinking back on twelve peculiar months during which I've changed a lot. A year ago today, Jeanette and I were in the Sheffield Tap at the train station, discussing the year ahead with excitement. We've both learned, in  different ways, that you never really know what's coming; I've also realised that not-knowing is something you have to accept. 

But one thing that has changed for the better, that this project has genuinely fostered, is a closer friendship between me and lovely J than the one we had before. So resolutions can have value, even if they don't turn out the way you thought they would.

When I first heard about Jeanette's book choice for me, I wondered if she was trying to express something about the tyrant she really is. I'm not completely kidding. J is many things - sweet and funny and lovely and daft - but she is also ridiculously driven, absurdly committed, and admitted to me as recently as last night that she's getting more competitive as she gets older (her new Christmas obsession, Yahtzee, will definitely not beat her, for example, while I'm happy to put down a few attractive words in Scrabble, leaving the result to whoever). 

As I'd suspected, therefore, The Prince is not an easy read either (although I can't exactly complain on that front, having given Jeanette the complete poems of TS Eliot). I love that we've both given each other books that meant a lot to us as teenagers, though - it says a lot about the way our friendship has developed. My copy of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems came into my life in tertiary college; it's now stuck together with annotations from adolescence to adulthood, and slivers of cracked sellotape. Jeanette's love of The Prince came from A-Levels too, only the study of history, not the study of literature. I'm not sure what my choice says about me, and I'm intrigued to know what Jeanette's theory is (5pm blogpost-time-update: I haven't read Jeanette's last entry yet). Hers doesn't speak of tyrannical ambitions - so I think, anyway, haha, argh! - but it does say tons about the serious, hard-thinking autodidact behind that enthusiastic pop-girl.

What struck me most about The Prince, reading it in this last week of the year, was how relevant it felt to the times that we live in. Frighteningly so, really. I found it tough at first, mind you. It is by no means a page-turner: Machiavelli's style is rather dry and academic at times, and for the first forty pages or so his work feels closer to a handbook of business management or strategical thinking. It's also littered with names of historical leaders that I'd never heard of, so I spent the early part of the book with one hand on my phone, ready to consult ye olde reference toole Wikipedia. 

As the chapters progressed, I realised it didn't matter if I knew the references or not, though. Here were sentiments that made sense as of now, from the real world around me, however archaically they were expressed.

This is the first line that shook me out of everything around me:

"Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself."

This book kept me thinking of Thatcher more than anyone, perhaps naively. She was a democratically elected leader, of course, but someone whose shadow has nevertheless not retreated at year-end. And the line I've picked upon above, unfairly or not, made me think of the suggestion that early '80s Liverpool should be given over to a policy of "managed decline" - a suggestion that came from Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph rather than Maggie herself, if I remember rightly. My own interpretative inconsistencies aside, lines like the one above made me think again of the ruthlessness of politics, and how easily we can slip into being idealistic, without recognising how the world often works. In other pages, I found intimations of the so-called Coalition, the arrogance of Hunt and Gove, the way the monarchy still make people love them, and the ways in which international situations today still wax and wane.

Then, in Chapter XV, comes this:

"Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation."

And in chapter XVIII:

"A prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good, this precept would be not good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep their word to them."

Help. It's all a bit Daily Mail, innit.

You see, I am wet, and in the words of Molesworth, a wede. I like people before they do things to make me dislike them, and am generally optimistic about human beings (this has served me ill in the past, but I've got cannier as I've grown older). Maybe this is why this book came across to me, sometimes, as satire too. I googled theories about this weird impulse of mine, and was glad to know I was not alone - hell, there's a section on the Prince's Wikipedia page about it, so I can't be being completely thick. I think Gramsci's going too far saying that The Prince was a book for the "common people" though - it sounds too reverent, too compromised, not arch enough for that. 

What's more, Chapter XXV - How far human affairs are governed by fortune, and how fortune can be opposed - confirms to me that Nicolas' intentions weren't always done with a tongue in his cheek. Such is the relish with which he delivers this line:

"It is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her."

The lines that follow - about fortune favouring younger, more ardent men - could be satire, I guess, but it is here that young Machiavelli and me go separate ways. Some people may have the resources, the brute force, the iron will, to try and change the ways of the world for themselves, and Machiavelli's book is definitely laying the how-to rules out there for us, whatever his motive. In my own world, realms away from princes and kings, I don't think we can change what's going to happen to us, period. We can affect little changes, certainly, some which change the whole courses of our lives - going into a room at a certain moment, meeting someone you would have never met otherwise - but we don't necessarily know what the effects of our actions will be. Sometimes we're lucky that they work out, at other times, things fall through. Keeping going is all we can do. And in some ways, for all of us, prince and pauper, I believe that's true.

This time last year, Jeanette and I started a blog for several reasons: to exercise our minds, to take us into different worlds, and to learn more about our friends and the books - and the words, and the ideas - that they loved. Jeanette's done better out of the first two than me (by virtue of sticking to the task at hand for starters!) but we've both got the same value out of the third reason, I think. Not only have I learned so much about Jeanette's friends - often our friends - from reading this blog, but Jeanette has also become been an incredible support to me throughout this year, by virtue of the closeness this blog has created. She's been there for me through times when I knew that the act of trying to read and process a book wasn't ever going to happen, and to that brilliant afternoon in Friday after we'd both come back from writing our retreat, when I did a test, on the off-chance, and both lines turned blue. I've tried my damnedest to be there for her too. And what I've got out of this blog for the last twelve months, even though I've not always been here, is a knowledge that while the world can be horrible, cruel and tyrannical, friends can be everything and more. Sometimes, broken resolutions don't feel so broken after all. 

Week Fifty-Three - Jeanette

 Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T.S. Eliot (1909-1962)
Recommended by Jude

People spend years studying the poetry of T.S. Eliot. They don’t usually chuck it into their brain at Victoria Coach Station.

I did not even have a week in which to read this. The combination of adding an extra book to Two Readers and the cumulative effect of the occasional late post left me with eight books in December. But, 2013, throw all the shit you want at me (as I just wrote, today it’s a malfunctioning laptop power pack, meaning I’m racing to do this standing up in Hillsborough's Wetherspoons as the battery life ticks down and new year revellers start piling in) but, fuck you, I’m finishing Two Readers on time.

I want my world to end with a bang, not a whimper.

Jude writes, in her dedication at the front of my copy of Collected Poems 1909-1962, that Eliot’s poetry ‘made me realise the real magic of the English language.’ Perhaps, then, it’s not such a bad thing that circumstance has forced me to pelt through it. I’m reacting in a very primal way, thinking of the way the words dance on the page, feeling the direct relevance that the poems brought to my world.

            We shall not cease from exploration.
                        (‘Little Gidding’)

I saw Jude last night – the wonderful Jude. We were with others, so we didn’t get too long to reflect on the project, but I will tell her now that Two Readers has been one of the most satisfying creative experiences of my life. Even though Jude’s posts weren’t regular, they were brilliant and inspiring, and the credit for turning my idea for book recommendations from friends into a blog entirely lies with her. That’s what true friendship does: one of you has an idea, the other has an idea, you do something amazing together. Iron sharpens iron. I have felt her hands on my back, supporting me, in so many precious ways this year.

            What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
            Out of this stony rubbish?
                        (‘The Waste Land’)

‘The Waste Land’ came into Jude’s life when she was in sixth form, which provides a curious parallel with the book I recommended for her. We’ve often talked of what made us want to write, and what made us writers (two different things). That era, age sixteen-to-eighteen, is perhaps the key one of my life, and I know she feels similarly.

            The tiger springs in the new year.
            Us he devours.

Jude and I have each had a very difficult 2013, for different reasons. But through it we have been there for one another. Writing about the people very very closest to me, of whom Jude is one, is not easy. Because there is so much to say about someone I love so very much. So perhaps less is more.

            Both intimate and unidentifiable.
                        (‘Little Gidding’)

Just as there’s so much to say about these bloody incredible poems. (And so little time to say it.)

The first of my favourites is ‘The Hollow Men’. I knew I’d love it just from the Heart Of Darkness epigraph. And then this comes…

            Between the idea
            And the reality
            Between the motion
            And the act
            Falls the shadow
                        (‘The Hollow Men’)

That’s exactly how I’ve felt this year. I’ve felt shadows in my mind, on my heart, in my creative process, coming between thought and result. How can one fight a shadow? I’ve tried. And I am hard on myself when I fail. But Eliot's words buoyed me, they swaddled me, they told me that I didn't need to hate my failure quite as much as I do.

Many of the poems have a strong religious element. There’s clearly a schooled element to Eliot’s Christian history, but there's also playfulness. Take ‘The Hippopotamus’. Its opening lines relate to how huge the animal is, but that it is ‘merely flesh and blood’ compared to the True Church. The poem vacillates between a seemingly genuine devotional fervour and a ludicrous piss-take, particularly with Eliot's glorious image of the hippo ‘performing on a harp of gold’.

For Eliot does have quite the sense of humour, and he sometimes tries to ‘help’ the reader with notes and references, particularly in ‘The Waste Land’.

I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken: it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia.
                        (‘Notes on The Waste Land’)

Cheers, Thomas Stearns.

But what of ‘The Waste Land’ itself? It is astonishing. Imagine everything in English literature from Sir Gawain And The Green Knight to Lily Allen. I am simply overwhelmed. The word awesome is so overused, but with reference to 'The Waste Land', I mean it in its original I-am-struck-with-awe sense. Written in 1922, my initial impression is that its some sweep of post-Great War British culture, putting it in the context of the long Christian epoch of the country: of how societies fracture and repair, how traditions break and form. I also loved the references to Dante's Divine Comedy, my only other poetry foray this year. I haven't had the time to research anything of Eliot or his literary intentions, but I have learned from the book jacket that he was an American who settled in the UK in 1915. Perhaps that completely scuppers my theory, but perhaps not: the eyes of the new sometimes open wider, and cry fresher tears.

Since ‘The Waste Land’ is so impossible to sum up, perhaps I should just leave it there before I embarrass myself, and conclude with mentioning my other favourite poem, ‘East Coker’, part of Four Quarters.

            As we grow older
            The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated.
                        (‘East Coker’)

This long poem feels like a very personal reflection, a song of experience, one which lights the bonds of humanity. Those ties that transcend the spoken and pull us on to the new. I expect that’s why it has hit me so very hard on this, the old year’s night. I have read fifty-three books and I have loved fifty-three people. I'll never do it again. But I'll never forget it.

            In my end is my beginning.
                          ('East Coker')

Week Fifty Two - Jeanette

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)
Recommended by Stuart

            Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house.

I spent Christmas in Oxford, with Kathryn and her family. We played Yahtzee, we drank Lidl’s knock-off (and far nicer) version of Southern Comfort, we watched The Manchurian Candidate. Spending the festive season there was indeed like sitting at night in a lighted house. Lighted with the mini-bulbs on the tree, and a family’s love.

It’s still Christmas (ish). If I can’t be sentimental now, then when?

I also read Housekeeping. I purposefully kept this as the penultimate Two Readers book because I suspected it would be one of my very very favourites. And so it proved.

Anyone that leans to look into a pool is the woman in the pool, anyone who looks into our eyes is the image in our eyes, and these things are true without argument, and so our thoughts reflect what passes before them.

Thank you, Stuart Evers. Here he is cooking an egg. (He hates eggs).

Why is he cooking an egg on Battle Of The Pans for charity? Because he’s only an acclaimed novelist with two fabulous books to the good, Ten Stories About Smoking and If This Is Home.

I’ve known Stuart for ages now, way before either of us had a published book. (Always satisfying to say you knew them before they were famous, darling). We met during the post-university social whirl. He was friends with my friends, and a proper looker. I couldn’t fail to notice someone with his kind of louche grace! The first time I spoke to him properly I was about 22, and we were at (the now sadly closed) Rowan’s Bowling Alley in Finsbury Park. Neither of us could bowl but both of us could drink. The former was quickly abandoned for the latter, and we’ve been friends ever since.

He recommended both Jude and I fifty-two books to read. What a guy. Jude chose Georges Perec's Things; I decided to leave my book to the hand of fate. In our modern world, that hand equates to a random number generator on the internet. Although I promised the generator I would read Jack by AM Homes, I immediately broke that promise, because I saw Housekeeping at four. I knew that was the one.

(By the way, I’m keeping Stuart’s list of other novels for future reference. This year has taught me that I need to be far less sniffy about contemporary fiction. Stuart writes an excellent blog, and here is his list of this year’s best books. I shall be delving into that, too.)

Why did mine eye alight on Housekeeping? Partly because I knew it to be an important modern novel, but mainly because I was fascinated by Marilynne Robinson’s approach to fiction. Housekeeping, her first novel, was massively lauded at publication in 1980 and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Gilead, her second novel, was massively lauded at publication in 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Twenty-four years and two masterpieces at either end. I have the hugest amount of respect for people with very high inner critics who will not dish up anything unless they are sure it’s astonishing.

Housekeeping’s power is stealthy. You get to know characters as you would in real life: they don’t dump out the contents of their individual personal history handbag on the table the first time of meeting. They’re guarded, waiting until they can trust you, sure that you understand them. And, because you’ve worked to get to know them, their tragedies become yours.

Ruth and Lucille, sisters and orphans, are well acquainted with loss. Their mother, Helen, committed suicide; their grandfather perished in a locomotive accident; their grandmother, after caring for them for five years, ‘one winter morning eschewed awakening’. They are then passed on to Lily and Nona, another pair of sisters. Uncomfortable with children, they struggle to relate to the introverted Ruth and Lucille.

‘That Lottie Donahue could help. Her children are alright.’
‘I met the son once.’
‘Yes, so you said.’
‘He had an odd look. Always blinking. His nails were chewed down past the quick.’
‘Oh, I remember. He was awaiting trial for something.’
‘I don’t remember just what.’
‘His mother never said.’
Someone filled the teapot.

Lily and Nona aren’t bad people, they just don’t really want the responsibility of bringing up two troubled little girls while in their twilight years. They connive to palm them off to Sylvie, Helen’s sister. Sylvie is a transient, who sleeps with her shoes under her pillow: an enigmatic woman who few people understand (or wish to). However, living with Ruth and Lucille brings her a sense of home, and the girls, at least initially, find solace with her unusual ways.

Not an especial amount happens in Housekeeping until the final fifty or so pages, when separation trauma becomes the primary theme. First comes a deeply upsetting schism between Ruth and Lucille, the latter growing embarrassed by Sylvie’s unusual behaviour – so much that she is prepared to forego her sister and Sylvie's defender. Very realistically, Robinson pulls out the hardness and the pity of how two formerly inseparable people grow apart.

‘It wasn’t the flowers, Ruthie.’
That sounded rehearsed. I waited, knowing that she would go on.
‘It was much more than that. We’ve spent too much time together. We need other friends.’

It isn’t only Lucille who views Sylvie as an unsuitable mother figure. The reader has been used to seeing Sylvie’s housekeeping from Ruthie’s perspective; all of a sudden we see it from a conventional viewpoint. The final act of Housekeeping is a quietly harrowing exploration of how alternative relationships and living situations are seen from the outside. Just as with Robinson’s characterisation of Lily and Nona, there’s no judgement against the people who are not comfortable with Sylvie and Ruth’s lifestyle. Although I felt Ruthie clinging on to Sylvie very strongly, also (and perhaps because I’ve worked in social care research) I understood also how they could not be left as they are. Neighbours don’t only stick their noses in because they don’t approve. There is a genuine, and laudable, desire to protect children from harm. Neglect is the hardest form of abuse to detect and to stop, and the consequences of not listening to that voice that says ‘that family down the street are worrying me’ could result in another Victoria Climbie or Baby P.

The book seems to be called Housekeeping because it looks at how we keep our homes in order: the domestic chores and the emotional well-being. Two Readers has been a sort of housekeeping, too. Reading and blogging on a book a week offers up its routine, while the critical reflection and heartbursts of love for my friends has been its emotional ballast.

Housekeeping this blog, and getting them all in before the end of the year, was something I thought I could do. I really did. But today my laptop power pack has broken: I've written my final post, Jude's recommendation of course, and I'm hoping the remainder of the battery will hold while I put it up.

2013, you bloody drama queen to the end.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Week Fifty-One - Jeanette

Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson (1992)
Recommended by Anita

My body is written on.

I have three tattoos. Each is a carefully chosen design, patterns I knew I wanted indelibly inked upon me. The nuances shift, but their core meaning doesn’t: they represent transitions. I got each one during the final element of a pupa stage. They are memento moris of my past lives.

(We tattooed people do witter on about how deep ‘n’ meaningful the things are. Boring bores, the lot of us.)

But, lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s another, less highfalutin' reason for my tattoos. I think it’s also an expression of my background, a branch from the same root as liking amusement arcades and gaud at Christmas. Loads of people I grew up with have them. If you don’t tattoo the name of your child on your arm, well, what kind of mother are you? Don’t you love your kid?

I feel kinship with Jeanette Winterson. She has my name! There are precious few of us Little Jeans around. But, too, she was a working-class girl who found herself running with a different crowd when she went to university. For me, the process had already started before I left Norwich (a schoolfriend accused me of being a class traitor), but it certainly solidified after the age of eighteen. I never thought of it as a conscious denial of my background, although I’m sure others saw it that way. As I wrote in Week Sixteen, there are only two people from my pre-uni days involved in Two Readers.

It's a minor part of the book, but Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit captures this chequered experience well: the excitement and feeling of belonging with your new life, coupled with the sense of loss for the old. 

In her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Winterson revisits the material she drew on for Oranges. Her conflicted feelings about her upbringing (and apart from the class aspect, her family circumstances are very different to mine) continue to be source material for her. Having read those two works, I approached Written On The Body with veiled autobiography in mind.

It was an interesting book to tackle directly after The Pursuit Of Love.

I had said them many times before, dropping them like coins into a wishing well, hoping they would make me come true. I had said them many times before but not to you. I had given them as forget-me-nots to girls who should have known better. I had used them as bullets and barter. I don’t like to think of myself as an insincere person but if I say I love you and I don’t mean it then what else am I?

The gender of Written On The Body’s narrator is never revealed, yet (perhaps because of my association of Winterson with memoir) I found myself thinking of that narrator as ‘her’ throughout. I assumed one of the country’s top lesbians must be mining her own relationships with women. But of course it could be a man, or a transgendered person. (There is no Smack My Bitch Up ‘surprise’ twist ending). I also suspect Winterson was drawing attention to the difficulty of expression without gender pronouns, critiquing how binary and constricting those categories are.

We begin by reading of the narrator’s back love catalogue. The prose is graceful, charged and often erotic, although it does sometimes spill into floridness.

I watched her break and butter each piece, soak it slowly in her bowl, let it float, grow heavy and fat, sink under the deep red weight and then be resurrected to the glorious pleasure of her teeth.

I do like it when Winterson gets a bit bawdier, too.

           June. The wettest June on record. We made love every day.

Most of the narrator’s women are flowing-locked anarcho goddesses (‘I had a girlfriend once who was addicted to starlit nights.’ Not addicted to Tetris, then?), but perhaps this is intended to show how the narrator idealises love objects rather than as a parade of unrealistic females. The Helenest of these Helens Of Troy is Louise: the pair embark upon an erotic and emotional odyssey until we discover that Louise’s body is more than honey-filled breasts and love-saturated heart. It has been invaded by leukaemia.

We are beholden to our bodies and, suicide aside, it is the body that has the ultimate control: the power of life and death. (That’s another reason why I decided to get tattooed. The body does enough stuff that you don’t want it to do, might as well get it to do something you do). The narrator now has to come to terms with this, and the book’s interlude, the extended prose poem ‘The Cells, Tissues, Systems And Cavities Of The Body’, explores Louise’s physicality as something more than sexual. It is an expression of the narrator’s love, framed by the new awareness of the cancer spraying graffiti on the inside and outside of Louise’s body.

Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them as they come at you? Why can’t I dam their blind tide that filthies your blood? Why are there no lock gates on your portal vein?

Like Dennis Quaid in Innerspace, the narrator roams around: you can hear fingertips running on the corrugated roof of Louise’s mouth. But, when the narrator returns to the corporeal world, the hard fact of Louise’s illness is still there. What is more important, the health of the body or that of the heart?

One of us hadn’t finished, why did the other one go? And why without warning?

This novel didn’t, for me, have the personal clout of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit: the story seems deliberately not as strong, almost as if Winterson thinks that an abstract narrative is a more valid approach to literature. But I really enjoyed getting lost within Louise’s capilliaries, climbing her spine stepladder, being swaddled by her intestines. 

And while we’re thinking of bodies, what body do you picture when you hear ‘mermaid’? Ariel in The Little Mermaid? Daryl Hannah in Splash? Cher in fancy dress? Jerry Hall on the cover of Siren? Chances are it isn’t this…

Cryptozoology is a word I had never encountered before I met Anita. It refers to the study of fake or unproven creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, and Norfolk’s own Black Shuck. (Look at this fascinating list of cryptids – a Man-Eating Tree!). And then there’s The Buxton Mermaid, that beauty above.

Anita restored her. She is also her ambassador, telling her story to the press and to museums. Her care of The Buxton Mermaid goes beyond a job, and that is typical Anita. She will give her time and her support to those (and crypto-those) who she loves. She’s certainly done it for me. When I was in the midst of a crisis, Anita not only propped me up with words and hugs, she came to my place and did my washing-up. When everything is surreal because sadness is so huge, to have someone who can gently re-orientate your world, so you’re in no doubt it’s still worth living in because you have friends like her… it is a key to recovery.

I love conversing with Anita about books. (She's Tim's sister, equally as erudite as he) and as the year, and this project, has written itself on my body, I've realised I have my Two Readers friends to thank for more than just their book recommendation. It’s talking about the posts, sharing thoughts on the books in person, and to hear other interpretations of the stories and ideas that has been so incredibly inspiring, and the motivating factor in getting me to book fifty-one out of fifty-three.

Hold on to your hats. There are two amazing works coming down the Two Readers bridleway before midnight on the 31st of December, 2013.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Week Fifty - Jeanette

 The Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)
Recommended by Katherine

When I moved into my present flat (helped by Katherine, as well as Sharron, Nik, Tim, Kathryn, Rupert and the still-to-come Anita) I didn’t have much furniture. What I need, I said to Katherine, is not really a bed or a table. It’s a lovely vintage writing bureau.

‘I’ve got one of those in my garage,’ she said. ‘You can have it if you want.’

Since that beauty took up residence in the corner of my lounge, I cannot imagine life without it. Not having separate sections for creamy high gsm envelopes and the pound-shop jobbies for sending off the council tax? Pure savagery. (That sounds sarcastic if you don’t know me, but if you do, you’ll know how absolutely in earnest I am.) But, more importantly than even the correct ordering of stationery, I cannot imagine life without Katherine as my friend.

Last time I saw her, for a Christmas drink, our natter flitted between the effect of topography upon memory and the pantos we have known and ‘loved’; literary stylings and how Jem and the Holograms dolls were overpriced compared to Sindys. (Plus her husband comes from Norfolk. She’s as wry about the place as I am.)

Katherine is only a bloody qualified librarian, too! That’s the Red Rum (winning horse not backwards prophecy) of literary suggestion, right there. That’s why I wasn’t worried when I picked up The Pursuit Of Love and it had a hot-pink, Sophie Kinsella reader-friendly cover and praise from the Daily Mail on the back. I also wasn’t worried because I knew that Nancy Mitford was big mates with one of my revelations of the year: the prickly prince EvelynWaugh. And I certainly wasn’t worried when I started reading her cut-glass prose.

Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination to us children.

The children include our narrator, Fanny, and her cousin (the book’s protagonist) Linda. A dramatic youngster, Linda attempted suicide by yew-berry at the age of ten (because of a dead dog). They both love Oscar Wilde and long for adulthood, because they presume it will be all social whirls and Grand Love.

While Fanny quickly gives up on the latter and settles for the up-down-four-square Alfred, Linda keeps her idealism and it, naturally, leads her to missteps. Seventy years ago, people generally married these missteps. First up for Linda is the Conservative MP, Tony Kroesig, son of the Governor of the Bank of England. I found the characterisation of the Kroesig family brilliant but extremely depressing, because it is exactly analogous to the Tory attitude of today.

The only mental qualities that they respected were those which produced money in substantial qualities, it was their one criterion of success, it was power and it was glory. To say that a man was poor was to label him as a rotter, bad at his job, idle, feckless, immoral.

It doesn’t work out with Tony.

Next, Linda throws herself into marriage with a Communist, Christian. His bad points are of a different hue.

‘I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.’

It doesn’t work out with Christian.

Linda’s refusal to settle leads to Paris and to a man named Fabrice (‘she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love’); but, for some of her social circle, her swelling heart doesn’t matter. She should have stuck with Tony or, at a push, Christian. She’s judged as superficial, reckless and selfish, quick to bugger off at the first sign of trouble to look for a pipe dream. Yet, the reader is led to a far kinder conclusion. Linda is pursuing love, and second best is never enough: you’ll do much better, baby, on your own.

Since we’re quoting Madonna, I re-watched Who’s That Girl lately, and it popped into my head while reading The Pursuit Of Love.

Now, I’m making no claims for its cinematic qualities (it’s quite crap). I bring it up as a point of comparison that’s easy to forget when you largely live in a literary fiction and arty movie bubble. At the end of Who's That Girl, Griffin Dunne jilts his dullard fiancée for the unconventional Madge, which is a textbook example of a standard and extremely common dramatic device. From the breezy chimes of Busted’s ‘Crashed The Wedding’ to the more textured The Graduate, those who pursue love (especially by taking drastic action) are treated in one way and one way only. They are rewarded. In real life, they’re generally not. For a start, we usually take the hint that we’re not wanted when our darling gets married to someone else. In popular fiction, the heroes and heroines are so thick-skinned that they see the nuptials simply as another hurdle to leap, and no-one will be upset, or angry that the thousands spunked on a wedding is wasted.

What I really liked about The Pursuit Of Love was that, even while it uses some of the expected structure of romantic comedy, there’s a strong discomfort about happy-ever-after. For when Linda does find love with Fabrice, she is put off by his apparent commitment to someone else (a dead woman: how can anyone compete with that?). It is not at all clear that when Linda finally has her strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness that it will result in anything like a conventional relationship, or even a relationship at all. In this way, it is very similar to the other major work I’ve read on l’amour this year, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time Of Cholera. Unlike ...Cholera, though, The Pursuit Of Love’s épée to cut through love’s cliché is not philosophical intensity but sharp wit and brutal social observation. It has a light comedic touch and firm location in a contemporary setting.

I think I said all I wanted to say about love in relation to the Marquez work. When I wrote that – my favourite post of the year – I was in the eye of a perfect storm, and that book was my lightning rod. Now it’s Christmas Eve, I have three books left of Two Readers, and a real storm is raging outside, pulling trees from their roots and causing brick walls to tumble down.

            ‘He was the great love of her life, you know.’
            ‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly. ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.’

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Week Forty-Nine - Jeanette

The Autobiography Of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley) (1965)
Recommended by Sarah

A little over a year ago, Sarah and I were in Egypt.

We weren’t just arsing about in the pyramids (although we did that, too): we were working as part of the TEMPUS project at the universities in Cairo and Assiut. We were there at a turbulent time. President Mohamed Morsi had granted himself unlimited power, and there were sweeping protests against this. If you remember the story, you probably recall UK news emphasising violence and disorder.

That contradicts what I saw. Sarah and I went to Tahir Square with our Egyptian host. Yes, there were some disturbing embers of conflict – rubble, tanks, streets closed off – but the protests we saw were non-threatening. They had a message to be heard, the people were determined, but the method was intelligent serious debate and not aggression. Protesters even organised the street clean-ups. This politically engaged attitude was also present in the students Sarah and I met at the universities. Apathy wasn’t on the table. Incredibly inspiring, and something Sarah and I talked of over the crazy sludge that is Egyptian coffee (which I got rather addicted to).

As the first time Sarah and I had spent much time together, I found that she herself was pretty inspiring. She is involved directly in the campaign for women bishops. I recently went to an event that she organised, and was saddened and shocked at the depth of opposition within the Church of England hierarchy to women bishops, while also being supremely impressed with the fire of those working for progressive change.

With her willingness to stand up and be counted, it makes sense to me that Sarah studied, and retains a very strong interest in, African-American history and those who fought for political and human rights.

Malcolm X is a divisive figure. While everyone (everyone non-racist) can feel comfortable with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X is often accused of ‘reverse racism’. That, in his anger at the oppression of African-Americans, he espoused an uncompromising solution: complete segregation of black and white. He had a penchant for calling white people ‘devils’ and was especially suspicious of any who supported civil rights and integration.

I very much respect Malcolm X. From my relatively privileged position, I still get so worked up over inequalities that I want to throw paint at things; fuck, if I was a black person in post-war America I’m sure I’d be angry, feel that white people were devils, and distrust their efforts to ‘help’.

My mother, with the baby in her arms, just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showering sparks. I remember we were outside in the night in our underwear, crying and yelling our heads off. The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned down to the ground.

The Black Legion, a local version of the Ku Klux Klan, set that fire. A white man raped Malcolm’s grandmother (resulting in her pregnancy with Malcolm’s mother). White men murdered Malcolm’s father, the Reverend Earl Little, because of his vocal support for Marcus Garvey. As a child, the Little children were called ‘nigger’, ‘darkie’ and ‘Rastus’ so much ‘we thought those were our natural names’. Malcolm, academically top of his class, was told to give up any thoughts of being a lawyer and to be a carpenter instead.

Yes. I’d be really fucking angry, too.

Malcolm Little (the X came slightly later: it symbolises the true African family name that an African-American could never know) responded, at first, through hustling, drugs, pimping, crime and, as he terms it, being ‘mentally dead’. He is hard on himself for collaborating with racist America by exploiting other black people (selling drugs) and trying to ‘whiten’ his look by straightening his Afro hair. He ends up in prison, and begins to read, everything from rare anthropology texts to the dictionary itself. His curiosity is piqued as to how and why slavery and exploitation occur.

First, always ‘religiously’, he [the white man] branded ‘heathen’ and ‘pagan’ labels upon ancient non-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non-white victims his weapons of war. […] Europe’s chancelleries for the next century [19th] played a chess game of naked exploitation and power from Cape Horn to Cairo.

It is during this period when he becomes taken with the Nation Of Islam (NOI), led by Elijah Muhammad. NOI teachings draw from mainstream Islam – there is no God but Allah, total adherence to the Qur’an, prohibitions on alcohol and pork, for example – but have a specific American cultural context. For instance, the ninth platform of NOI reads:

WE BELIEVE that the offer of integration is hypocritical and is made by those who are trying to deceive the Black peoples into believing that their 400-year-old open enemies of freedom, justice, and equality are, all of a sudden, their friends.

Also not a part of mainstream Islam, and far more dubiously, NOI holds its own creation myth. White people were the result of genetic engineering. Over six thousand years ago, when all humankind was black, the scientist Mr Yacub (the biblical Jacob), was embittered towards Allah. He holed up on the island of Patmos and created a ‘bleached-out white race of devils’ (the Jews). This white race stirred up trouble, until they were exiled to Europe; they remained in caves, living savagely, until Allah sent Moses to ‘civilise’ them.

This I find very troubling. I don’t have a problem with African-Americans calling white people ‘devils’ on account of their collective racist behaviour. I do have a problem with a bogus scientific explanation for devilishness that specifically targets Jewish people. We all know where that can lead.

As well as this ‘Dr Yacub’ business, the other big gripe I have with Malcolm X is his frankly atrocious attitude to women. He casually and routinely comments on a woman's attractiveness, and how women in general are manipulative, have little purpose but  to support a man and family, and should basically be treated as babies or pets. It's worth noting that this attitude predates his NOI days (although the organisation didn't exactly stop his misogyny).

Malcolm X rose through the NOI ranks very quickly, and helped membership and visibility. His rousing and inflammatory speeches brought the race debates in America to a new intensity; he explained and challenged racism on TV and in print, often in the face of stupid and insulting interviewers.

Soon, far more people knew his name than that of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X writes that he remained loyal to Muhammad, even when scandal broke over the latter’s fondness for impregnating his secretaries. He even massaged his speeches in light of Muhammad’s indiscretions. 

I began teaching in New York’s Mosque Seven that a man’s accomplishments in life outweighed his personal, human weaknesses. I taught that a person’s good deeds outweigh his bad deeds. I never mentioned the previously familiar subjects of adultery and fornication, and I never mentioned immoral evils.

However, like the character Syme in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who is eliminated because he ‘sees too clearly and speaks too plainly’, the eloquent and high-profile Malcolm X is expelled from the NOI. Relationships deteriorate quickly. Malcolm X tries to regroup – he undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca, spends much time in Africa, and converts to Sunni Islam – but, by the end of the Autobiography, the mood is very sombre indeed.

I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form.

He didn’t. Nation of Islam members murdered Malcolm X in February 1965.

I felt very galvanised reading The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, just as I was when I saw those Egyptian protests. For we need people who are not going to sit down and shut up.

It’s how shit gets done in this troubled world.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Week Forty-Eight - Jeanette

Between The Acts by Virginia Woolf (1941)
Recommended by Tim

Tim came round for dinner on Saturday. As the last time we’d see each other before 2013 shut its eyes, our shared mood was reflective. I was taking stock of Two Readers, and talking of my impression of Between The Acts.

I thought Between The Acts would be one of the more challenging recommendations. I had read To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, and retained no great affection for either. I did admire Virginia Woolf’s stylistic ambition, but the books themselves were fairly unloveable: similar to my thoughts on Joan Didion, you can appreciate writing for the achievement it is without ever wishing to read the fucker again.

In our Saturday conflab, Tim described Woolf’s non-page turner Mrs Dalloway succinctly as ‘all people preparing for dinner parties.’ Still, and certainly as one of my best-read friends, Tim felt he needed to persist with Virginia Woolf. He felt uncomfortable with dismissing an important novelist as only concerned with the bourgeouisie arranging flowers. And it was, with Between The Acts – Woolf’s final novel before her suicide – where he found satisfaction. This was the first reason for his recommendation.

In a note that precedes the text, Leonard Woolf (her husband) writes that Between The Acts was a complete novel, but Woolf had not ‘finally revised [it] for the printer’ before her death. I wonder if this was a reason why Tim, and I, reacted better to this novel. Perhaps, because there wasn’t that last opportunity to ruthlessly weed out what she considered sentimental, Between The Acts is a warmer book. It wasn’t half as much of a slog as I feared.

At that, the audience stirred. Some rose briskly; others stooped, retrieving walking-sticks, hats, bags. And then, as they raised themselves and turned about, the music modulated. The music chanted: Dispersed are we. It moaned: Dispersed are we. It lamented: Dispersed are we, as they streamed, spotting the grass with colour, across the lawns, and down the paths: Dispersed are we.

Concerning a play (actually, calling it a ‘play’ dignifies it: it’s more of an am-dram dickabout), Between The Acts’ most obvious theme is performance, and especially the relationship between an audience and the action in front of it.

‘Reality too strong’, she muttered. ‘Curse ‘em!’ She felt everything they felt. Audiences were the devil. O to write a play without an audience – the play.

Tim knows acting fascinates me (and that’s the second reason he recommended this book). This isn’t because I want to act myself, but rather because I’m intrigued by how acting translates into everyday life. If you can convince people that you feel emotions as part of a constructed performance, what’s to stop you using those skills in real life? Manufacturing deceit, onstage and off, is a longstanding interest of mine.

              We all act. Yes, but whose play?

The play in Between The Acts is written and directed by failed actor and ‘lady of wonderful energy’ Miss La Trobe. It is an annual event, almost a ritual, and the community comes together to watch and participate in the pageant. Rather than create a coherent work of fiction, La Trobe’s work is an anthology, stopping at different eras of British history. She creates not individual characters, but the nebulous and shifting character of national identity. Thus, it is less like (e.g.) a well-crafted Ibsen psychological drama and more like a Mummers’ play.

What Mummers’ plays and Miss La Trobe’s pageant (and, perhaps, Woolf’s novels) have in common is that they’re not that interested in dramatic tension. Each looks at archetypes (folk and mythological characters, representations from British historical periods, the contemporary mannered upper-middle classes) and reproduces them. The audience has a prior knowledge of what to expect. The drama instead comes from random factors: will it rain, who’s gossiping about whom in the audience, will the cows’ lowing drown out the dialogue. What happens, indeed, between the acts.

Miss La Trobe’s play is performed a mere few weeks before the outbreak of World War II. Woolf obviously knew that, soon, all existing community rituals would be shattered, replaced by the new ones of blackouts and air-raids. But, still, in 1941 the full horror of Nazism was yet to come: the Final Solution had not been implemented, with the first industrial extermination taking place at Auschwitz in September 1941, six months after Woolf's death. She could not know how fully even humanity itself would be torn apart. Still, it is said that the horror of the war (and her house being bombed in the Blitz) contributed to the re-emergence of her depression and her decision to drown herself.

Although it’s tempting with a carefully constructed book like this to get all lit-crit on yo' ass and disappear in a cloud of signifiers and discourse (read the introduction for an ample example of that), it seems equally possible to enjoy it as a storytelling snapshot. I found Between The Acts often surprisingly direct in its imagery.

There, couched in the grass, curled in an olive-green ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round.

Even if that’s a metaphor for the futility of war or a comment on the impasse between the genders, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a striking passage that perfectly captures the mood at that point in the book. Between The Acts has several such images, which don’t necessarily have to be pored over, because in and of themselves they are evocative of that very moment. This includes impish as well as violent moments. This book is probably the closest Woolf ever got to serving up the LOLs.

However, it would be wrong to say this was an easy read. Woolf was a modernist writer, and Between The Acts is a modernist work. Despite being one of her gentler artistic experiments, it does require concentration and is not simple to grasp. A pioneering approach of hers was to try to replicate the mayfly that is the mind, often dislocating thought from speech and physical action.

Why’s stale bread, she mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation, so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak.

The third reason that Tim recommended this book, I think, is because much of it deals with the inner world. Woolf’s prose claims that outer action and spoken words are opaque signs as to what’s really going on in our psyche; sometimes this is meant to mislead (as in acting), but often it’s an automatic and quite prosaic process. We don’t unpick every step of our thoughts that flit from stale bread to Italy, yet we’re there, while our conversational partner has gone from clock-watching to brooding on a miserable grudge.

I would argue that it is when you’re really close to someone that you let them in to the way your mind works rather than just revealing the contents of it. With Tim, I have had some of the longest and deepest conversations I have had with anyone. Yet, more than that, I think we have an understanding of each other’s inner narrative construction, and we can spend a good while disentangling our cerebral journeys with each other.

Let's go back to Saturday night (we’d emptied the mulled wine by this point). Tim was talking of the difficulty in finding an appropriate radio station to wake up to. I knew he wouldn’t go for Radio One, and he’d already expressed frustration with Radio Four for his early morning hello. ‘What about Classic FM?’, I asked. ‘It’s alright if you want to buy a Saab,’ he said.

‘What about Radio Three?’ Well, he explained, the classical selection they play is far too random. Sometimes it hits the wake up just right with a Debussy. But sometimes, he said, it was full on military music at 6am: ‘and I wake up and think there’s been a coup.’

We debated for at least another ten minutes. He eventually detailed a convulted plan where the field recording of a chaffinch plays for ten minutes before the radio switches on.

Phoney coups.


Sharing thought processes.

You can see why I love this man so much.