Finishing The Nix by Nathan Hill

 

the nix

Yesterday I didn’t write because I was finishing The Nix, a big, fat american novel by first time novelist Nathan Hill.

A test of a great book for me is  ‘Would I pass this over to Brian Nellist?’ The answer for The Nix is no. BN is  too choosy, too old-fashioned for this. Gilead yes,  Home, absolutely,  Housekeeping, yes: everything by Marilynne Robinson (humane, religious, serious about people ) suits him. I tried to get him into George Saunders and no. No. George Saunders is superb, is serious, but not for the Nellibobs.

 

Shall we cut to the chase? Here’s the ‘no’ bit of my own qualified ‘yes’.

Too plotted, too long, too many strands, too anxious to get in every possibly thing that could be got in. In some places a bit silly, a bit thin. All of which I ignored because it’s a first novel, and he’s been writing it a very long time, and it’s easy to see how hard it is to let go and – to the point – some of this is good. And that’s where I would like to concentrate my attention.

Samuel Anderson is a Professor of Literature in a small time college and his life is a mess. So for me this novel places itself in an american novel tradition: Malamud’s A New Life and Bellow’s Herzog are both  (magnificent) precursors. Anderson’s real life takes place in an internet game, and his students’ main thoughts about Hamlet are that it is way too long. Samuel, living through World of Elfscape, is not very strongly present in reality. And while not fully present, Samuel Anderson, like Levin in A New Life, must deal with a student who doesn’t like the way he has marked her work.;

This was an Introduction to Literature course, but she cared less about literature than she did about points. It wasn’t the topic of the course that mattered to her; what mattered was the currency…Laura thought only about the bottom line, her grade, the only thing that mattered.

Samuel used to mark up their papers – a with a red pen, even. He used to teach them the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’, or when to use ‘that and when to use ‘which’, or how ‘affect’ is difference from ‘effect’, how ‘then’ is different from ‘than’. All that stuff. But then one day he was filling up his car at the gas station just outside campus – it’s called the EZ-Kum-In-‘n-Go – and he looked at the sign and thought, What is the point?

Really, honestly, why would they ever need to know Hamlet?

He gave a quiz and ended class thirty minutes early. He was tired. He was standing in front of that disinterested crowd and he began to feel like Hamlet in the first soliloquy: insubstantial. He wanted to disappear. He wanted his flesh to melt into a dew. This was happening a lot lately: he was feeling smaller than his body, as if his spirit had shrunk, always giving up his armrests on airplanes, always the one to move out if the way on sidewalks.

Yet Samuel himself does need Hamlet or something like it, even as he spends forty hours a week on World of Elfscape:

Why am I here? he wonders, even as he is crushed by the dragon’s tail and Axman is impaled by a falling stalactite and the healer burns to ash in a lava crevice and so the only elf remaining is Pwnage and the only way they are going to win is if Pwnage can stay alive, and the guild cheers through their headsets and the dragon’s health ticks down to four percent, three percent, two percent…

Samuel wonders, even now, so close to victory, What is the point?

There are parts where the writing is funny, superficial and clever and parts where it is deep and simple and moving. I liked that. I liked Nathan Hill’s ability to switch around. And I like the breadth – like The Goldfinch –  it gives the novel a brilliant modern-Dickensian quality. I like modern-dickensian but it’s got to keep moving and you’ve got care about some of the people. Dickens makes you cry. That matters.

Samuel was abandoned by his mother at the age of eight and the unravelling of the mystery of why is  the central thread of the novel. Here he is meeting her, with a lawyer present, for the first time in twenty years:

‘But that’s not why you’re here. Ask your real question. The thing you came here to find out.’

‘ I came here to write a letter to the judge.’

‘You did not. Go ahead. Ask your question.’

‘It’s not relevant.’

‘Just ask. Do it.’

‘It’s not important. It’s nothing -‘

‘I’d agree with that!’ the lawyer cut in. ‘Immaterial.’

‘Shut up, Simon,’ Faye said, then leveled her eyes at Samuel. ‘This question is everything. It’s why you are here. Now why don’t you stop lying and ask it.’

‘Okay. Fine. I want to know. Why did you leave me?’

And Samuel could feel the cry coming almost as soon as he said it: Why did you leave me? The question that had tormented his adolescence. He used to tell people she was dead. when they would ask about his mother it was easier to say she’d died. Because when he told them the truth, they’d wonder why she left and where she’d gone and why he didn’t know. Then they’d look at him funny, like it was his fault. Why did she leave him? It was the question that kept him awake night after night until he learned to swallow it and deny it. But asking the question now let it break back out – the shame and the loneliness and self-pity washed over the question so that he was barely able to pronounce the last word before his throat tightened and he could feel himself on the verge of crying.

The answer takes us back the the Chicago anti-Vietnam protests of 1968. And further back still. ‘Every memory is really a scar,’ Faye says to her son.

You’ll visit a brilliant 1950 Home Ec. room, see Alan Ginsberg  chanting, understand the feeling of being crushed in a demo, see northern Norway,  and feel the power of  community in  of World of Elfscape. Yes, there’s a wacky panorama of time and space, but the best things were little confused moments inside people, such as when teenage Faye makes a connection with a line of Ginsberg poetry, ‘Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower?’ Faye’s life as a troubled ordinary small town teenage girl is one of the best things in the book. I also lovedthe World of Elfscape stuff – written from the heart and hopeful for humans.

There are not many contemporary novels I can finish – I’m not glad about that. At 600-odd pages this was a long one, but it kept me with it through to the end. Looking forward to whatever Nathan Hill does next.

 

 

Coming Up from the Bottom of The Ocean

forgetmenots
Forget-Me-Nots remind me of my maternal Grandfather, Syd Smith

Today I’m continuing to read Silas Marner very slowly…we’re in Chapter 1.  If you want to read from the beginning search for the tag ‘Silas Marner’.

Yesterday we’d just been thinking about the boys pestering Marner and their fear that he might be able to put some kind of spell on them.

They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint
that Silas Marner could cure folks’ rheumatism if he had a mind, and
add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair
enough, he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange
lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be
caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for
the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and
benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion
can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most
easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who
have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a
life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic
religious faith. To them pain and mishap present a far wider range
of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is
almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all
overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
“Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?” I
once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and
who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. “No,” he
answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual, and
I can’t eat that.” Experience had bred no fancies in him that
could raise the phantasm of appetite.

Lots of things could go wrong here and I’ve had experiences in Shared Reading groups where they have. Sometimes readers think the writer is snob. But we’ve come a long way since George Eliot wrote the book in 1861. Then, the class of people known for hundreds of years as the ‘peasantry’ still existed, uneducated country people whose lives were often of intense drudgery and hardship. I think we’d have to go to an undeveloped third world country to find such people now, though lots of us, educated to a greater or lesser degree extent here in the first world, still share some of the superstitions George Eliot is talking about here. Thinking also about a general red-top sense of paranoia about world conspiracies, the popularity of  The Da Vinci Code and a lingering popular interest in horoscopes. But this is more serious than that, isn’t it? This is about the restrictions caused by true hardship on the growth of the imagination:

To them pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.

This is one of those moments of human understanding I love finding in George Eliot, and why it is necessary to go so slowly.

My first job is to make the translation into something I can picture and which will make the writing live for me. I try to think about such minds… where have I met them?

This sentence might have been written about some of the children in Care of Local Authority  that I’ve met over the years. The experience of such children, especially children who have been in many foster-placements, and with whom adults have failed to make bonds, is one of ‘pain and mishap’ ; that is the very material from which their lives seem to have been made. How should such children imagine other types of experience?

Their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope.

What are ‘the images’ that feed desire and hope?

If I think back to my own childhood, the images often centre about my grandparents. Moments of love or pleasure, say, travelling with my grandmother on the bus round Wirral as she took me with her to her cleaning jobs in posh ladies houses (I am such a person now myself, she might come here to clean), stopping off at various country pubs for a half of bitter for her, packet of crisps and a bottle of pop for me. The names of those pubs: The Seven Stars, The Fish, The Malt Shovel, The Shrew. Her love shown in the food she bought for me, sausages, a custard slice, mixed broken biscuits. The time she spent with me as we cleanedthe brasses on a Saturday morning. My grandfather, Syd, showing me how much he enjoyed a pear and so I loved pears too, and Forget-Me-Knots, and Blackbirds. the images then – things put into my mind by experience  – are people, time, love and language.

One of The Reader’s Patrons, Frank Cottrell Boyce, told me that when making the film ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’, he had met a woman who had been in a child in the terrible orphanages of  Ceaisescu’s Romania. She had grown up to be a lovely, and loving woman, working to rescue children from the war zone. ‘How did you learn to love?’ he asked her. ‘Growing up in those conditions?’. ‘I had Heidi,’ the woman replied. ‘In the orphanage there was a copy of Heidi, so I knew that adults could be loving and kind, that children could be loved.’

But of course to read Heidi, or any book, you need to be literate: you need a basic education. I’m going back to Silas  in a moment but before I do, I want to mention  The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose. If you don’t know this terrific book,  go and get hold  of a copy right away. There are some amazingly moving accounts of what education meant to the poorest people – people like my grandparents, and their parents, (factory-hands, labourers, domestic servants). Learning to read, says one man, was ‘like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.’

I go back to the text and reread that sentence and  notice this time  that George Eliot is using a metaphor of growth.

their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.

‘Barren,’ ‘overgrown’ and ‘pasture’ all point to an implied potential cycle of growth in the human mind. It isn’t that the peasantry are fixed as ‘rude'( basic, rough) minds: that’s how experience has grown them. Experience, as in the life of the old man who had only eaten ‘common victual’, determines our appetites.

Just going to read the next paragraph before closing the book for today; it’s really a quick sketch of the village: a bit cut-off from the world, old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road:

And Raveloe was a village where many of the old echoes lingered,
undrowned by new voices. Not that it was one of those barren
parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization–inhabited by
meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay
in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry
England, and held farms which, speaking from a spiritual point of
view, paid highly-desirable tithes. But it was nestled in a snug
well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any
turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the
coach-horn, or of public opinion. It was an important-looking
village, with a fine old church and large churchyard in the heart of
it, and two or three large brick-and-stone homesteads, with
well-walled orchards and ornamental weathercocks, standing close
upon the road, and lifting more imposing fronts than the rectory,
which peeped from among the trees on the other side of the
churchyard:–a village which showed at once the summits of its
social life, and told the practised eye that there was no great park
and manor-house in the vicinity, but that there were several chiefs
in Raveloe who could farm badly quite at their ease, drawing enough
money from their bad farming, in those war times, to live in a
rollicking fashion, and keep a jolly Christmas, Whitsun, and Easter
tide.

The irritation at bad farming by the ‘several chiefs’ who lived in ‘a rollicking fashion’ comes direct from George Eliot’s own experience. As herself, as Mary Ann Evans, she was the daughter of a very competent and hard-working Estate Manager in just such a part of the Midlands. She’s describing something like the very place she grew up. Imagination comes from real experience.

Oh dear time’s up. More tomorrow.

Setting off up Mount Silas

early
Early Morning in the Front Garden 6 May

One of my readers, Orientikate, called my writing here ‘daily practice’ and I  have been thinking about that.

What am I practising?

At about 1000 words a day, written in an hour or under, it’s of necessity speed writing. But I am trying to keep the reading very slow. That’s why it can take me three or four days to read a short poem. (And the speed writing explains the typos and spolling mistkaes…no time to go back over and proofread). That daily practice of concentrating hard on a few lines of poetry has been a source of deep delight for the past two months.

But yesterday I began to think about reading more than poems. Could I read Silas Marner? I am following Loubyjo’s advice, doing what I like here with no pressure, so I will make a start on Silas Marner and see what happens. If I miss the poems, I’ll stop and go back to them. Other things  – book notices, reports on where I’ve been – I’m going to write at other times of the day so that this early hour remains the practice of reading and writing about the reading.

Reasons to read George Eliot even though you might be put off by the slow tone, the seriousness, the long sentences? She’s one of the most intelligent human beings  ever to have put pen to paper and she has a great heart. She was a forgiving understander of human beings, and does terrific human thinking work in those long sentences.  Sometimes she can be tough, literally as well as morally, but there’s a reward in taking on something tough, as anyone who has climbed a mountain knows.

So put on some stout boots,  get a rucksack of provisions, and join me on this beginner’s mountain trek. I’m copying the text here from http://www.fullbooks.com/Silas-Marner1.html. I’m aiming to read about 500-1000 words of Silas  each day, and I’ll  drop  the day’s section in a quote box. I am going to paste in the full text for today’s reading, then reading it a bit at a time. Read it aloud to start, if you can. Read it slowly, whatever you do. Just the opening two paragraphs to start:

SILAS MARNER, The Weaver of Raveloe

by George Eliot

“A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.”
–WORDSWORTH.

PART ONE

CHAPTER I

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses–
and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their
toy spinning-wheels of polished oak–there might be seen in
districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the
hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny
country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The
shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men
appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for
what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?–and these pale
men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The
shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag
held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong
linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of
weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely
without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition
clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted,
or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the
pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had
their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained
unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?
To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct
experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their
untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as
the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and
even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to
be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any
surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had
ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any
reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All
cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument
the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in
itself suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner,
were mostly not overwise or clever–at least, not beyond such a
matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which
rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly
hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring. In this way
it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers–emigrants from
the town into the country–were to the last regarded as aliens by
their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits
which belong to a state of loneliness.

In the early years of this century, such a linen-weaver, named Silas
Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among
the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from
the edge of a deserted stone-pit. The questionable sound of Silas’s
loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the
winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail, had a
half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave
off their nutting or birds’-nesting to peep in at the window of the
stone cottage, counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious
action of the loom, by a pleasant sense of scornful superiority,
drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises, along with the
bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver. But sometimes it happened
that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became
aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he
liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom,
and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always
enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it
possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas
Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in
the rear? They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint
that Silas Marner could cure folks’ rheumatism if he had a mind, and
add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair
enough, he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange
lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be
caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for
the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and
benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion
can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most
easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who
have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a
life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic
religious faith. To them pain and mishap present a far wider range
of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is
almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all
overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
“Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?” I
once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and
who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. “No,” he
answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual, and
I can’t eat that.” Experience had bred no fancies in him that
could raise the phantasm of appetite.

 

Though we start off with what seems a historical novel opening, it’s worth noting the epigraph from Wordsworth before we get going.

A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts 

This is going to be a book about the effect of a child on a declining man, a book of hope. At the beginning it doesn’t seem so, and I know a lot of people are put off by the slowness and the darkness. Wait it out. And though it looks as if it is set in the past, there will be many connections for us. Look, for example, at that unwillingness to accept strangers:

In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?

We re in pre-industrial times, and the figures  we see, walking to farmhouses with packs on their backs, are the sellers of fustian and other cloth, which will have been woven on hand-looms.  if you’ve seen or read The Winters Tale you’ll remember Autolycus, the trickster who comes to the sheep-shearing to make a bit of money and get a girl…George Eliot  reminds us that these itinerant pedlars caused suspicion among country people whose lives were unchanging from generation to generation. A small indication of the human thinking that lies ahead is given a slight fore-showing in this:

those scattered linen-weavers – emigrants from the town into the country – were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.

if you are regarded as an alien by your neighbours it is very likely that you will contract ‘the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness’.

I think here of lone gunmen and others who have  become completely cut off from ordinary face to face life – ‘he kept himself to himself’. Eccentricity may have been more tolerated in the past?  We are very much aware now, initially because of TV and red top newspapers, and latterly because of the internet, of how everyone else looks/is doing/seems. Against such strong group pressure eccentricity looks even more eccentric. But it’s interesting and sad to see that anti-social individuality was so immediately visible at the beginnings of industrialised life, and that George Eliot ascribes the root cause to loneliness.

The novel will ask us to think about  loneliness and where anti-social impulses arise. Having set those thoughts gently into our minds, George Eliot now introduces  us to Silas. Boys, half-afraid of the noise and machinery  of his handloom, come to peer in at his cottage windows, and  Silas – near-sighted – stands at the door to scare them off.

But sometimes it happened that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he
liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom, and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in
the rear?

There’s already misunderstanding and suspicion here. the boys are part-scared, part-fascinated and part-scornful. Silas is annoyed at being interrupted. The boys frighten themselves by imagining Silas could put some kind  spell on them. This thought comes partly from their parents, who regard Marner as something off a witchdoctor.

The next half of this paragraph is a bit complicated – we have to think about ‘peasantry’  – is there a contemporary equivalent? – and a complete absence of education – hard  for us to imagine in our own time of universal free education?  My time is up, so more tomorrow.

Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel

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Yesterday a day full of  addiction and hope.

I visited the wise Karen Biggs, CEO of Phoenix Futures, one of  the UK’s leading addiction/housing charities. We’ve done some great work with Phoenix over the years, and it’s always a joy to spend time with the energetic heart and brain that is Karen.

Later in the day I spent time talking to playwright Sonya Hale, a truly remarkable woman. Sonya became an addict in her early twenties, and was street homeless for a decade. Much later she changed her life, partly through meeting the charity Clean Break.  She won the Synergy Theatre’s national prison writing competition with her play, Glory Whispers. She spoke to me of  the pain of losing her son, when her addiction became unmanageable, and he went to live with his Dad, and how that finally helped her confront her addiction and get into recovery. The interview will be published in The Reader magazine at a later date.

It was a long chat with Sonya. We’ve a lot of common and I’m always interested in learning how people live and why they sometimes learn to change.  I feel as if something new has entered my bloodstream and I’ll be processing the  conversation for weeks ahead.

On the  train on the way  down to London I finished (a two-sitting book) Daniel Magariel’s One of The Boys. I think I found this through a recommendation on twitter by the exceptionally emotionally intelligent writer, @carysbray. It also came with a blurb from my top-rated author, George Saunders. Those are two very remarkable writers, so I ordered my copy. I thought Karen or others at Phoenix might be interested in it so I when I arrived at her office in Elephant and Castle, I gave my copy to Karen Biggs.

green wall
The wonderful green wall at Elephant and Castle

It’s slight in terms of pages, a novella, but it is enormous in its content and concentrated experience, not unlike my two-hour conversation with Sonya. I felt I had been reading for a week, not two one-hour sessions. Reading with eyes glued to the page, full-pelt, non-stop. Told through the eyes of a child, the younger of two in a family where the father is a drug-user and is a manipulative, violent man, it’s a slice of real time, an immersion in an experience you might not want to know about. It’s not an easy read but its a real good one, with exceptionally careful writing about emotions.

The story is almost all about ‘the boys’, the father and his two sons; we don’t see the mother much and we don’t know her story,  but the scene where she dances ‘salt and pepper shaker’ had a grim and utterly real  graveyard humour. Apart from that, I did not laugh. I found the book frightening and true to life. Like Frank Alpine in Malamud’s The Assistant, when he is reading Crime and Punishment, I had the crazy feeling I was reading about myself.

When you have parents who do not parent you, you live a cycle of  caring for them when they need looking after, craving their attention when they don’t and then suffering when they don’t look after themselves, or when they turn on you. All that is carefully detailed here, in under 170 pages.

Every care worker, every social worker or children’s home assistant, every teacher, should read this book.

Scrub that, it’s a big problem with wide  ramifications. Everyone should read it.

Neither of  my parents were straightforwardly ‘like’ the parents in this book but there are certain underlying resemblances, the bone structure of addiction remaining the same whatever the flesh looks like. An addict is not a grown up, is not responsible, is broken, is ill. As the child you carry a lot of weight for them. You think their thoughts, feel their feelings. As a result you never really know where your own emotions begin and your parents’ end. That’s what most struck the chimes here.

After a particularly bad night, where the father and younger son (‘we’ in the quotation  below) have attacked and threatened to kill the older son, the younger struggles with guilt, anger and loneliness:

That night after we had cleaned up and dragged the coffee table to the Dumpster, my father called him into his room. I listened outside the door as he told my brother that he should never have contacted our mom. That we’d felt betrayed and did not know what else to do. “I would never hurt you,” my father said. “We only meant to scare you. Please forgive me. Do you forgive me?” Then he said, “Thank you, I forgive you, too. Can I have a hug?” The bed squeaked as my father scooted closer, I guessed, because a moment later he said, “Put your arms around me, son.”

I stepped outside to the park.

Overhead the moon was hidden. Clouds were backlit at their feathery edges. A strong wind from the east, from the Sandias, swept over the grass. I winced at the thought of today. My father turned us against each other – it was his method of control. And I’d fallen for it again. Any remorse I had for the Polaroids now felt false. I had let down my brother just as I had my mom. I was so disappointed in myself and I swore then that I would never again choose my father. I never again wanted to harm anyone I loved. I was on my brother’s side now. He was my brother for life. I’d been lucky today that he had not been not more seriously hurt.
A flock of birds came to rest on a nearby pinon tree, populating its limbs like leaves. and though I could hardly see them, hear them, I was happy for their quiet company and hoped they would not leave me soon.

Frightening, touching and educative – highly recommended.

Good in the garden. Again.

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Ah, the poor blog. Whenever things get busy then down, down, down the to-do list it falls.

Like the dear old garden, couch-grassed-over, cursorily glanced-at in the half-light as I leave the house, ignored as I arrive home at night: I half-forget it  yet feel it on my mind. But, in another sense, my (lack of) commitment to writing is not like  my love-it-when-I’m-out-there relation to the garden, because writing is a struggle and hard to feel pleasure in, whereas gardening, once started, is easy and makes me feel great. But oh, in both cases, the starting is hard.

I did try. Over Christmas I wrote about my book of the year but, at the risk of sounding like a second-year undergraduate, I lost my work. Yes, closed down without saving, or perhaps actively,  in a fit of exasperated distraction, chose not to save. And so hours of thinking and trying to make sentences about Joshua Ferris’ painful and deeply moving novel, The Unnamed,  went into the pale and placeless ether, and much as I love the book, I haven’t had the grit – or is it the time? or is it the energy? –  to go back and rewrite the post. Why? 4 major funding bids and The Reader budget to sort out in January and February. Oh yes, Jane, and why else? Why? I am spending at least an hour a day watching Seinfeld,  to which I became addicted over Christmas. It’s Kramer. And I’ve been making, and eating, marmalade. The making takes several hours per batch, the eating about the same.

Could I use that ‘at least an hour’ of Kramer, those several hours of marmalade, to write, to re-write,  about The Unnamed, which is without doubt, one of the best novels I’ve ever read and certainly the best contemporary novel I’ve read since Marilynne Robinson’s Home? I’ve been reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and have to confess in the light of the thoughts it’s made me have, that I might have rewritten my piece about The Unnamed. But I didn’t, because I let myself be distracted by Kramer and marmalade. I  am an obsessive, but not all the time, not about everything: I’m a monomaniac and a magpie. For  true grit, the kind of grit that makes you the best in your field, you need the single mind. Tim, the hero of the The Unnamed has that kind of habitual dedication to his obsession, walking, and it costs him everything.

I cannot garden in the dark so that lets me off the hook, Kramer-wise. As for weekends, I cannot garden in January – it’s just too monochrome out  there and the many things I have left undone – the broken shed door, the weed-rank pots – stand out like painful truths I don’t want to hear. But yesterday was Spring-like. I stopped off between car and door for the briefest of glances at the red single Camellia… one of the first plants I ever bought, which I planted by digging up a paving slab in the backyard of our first house. When we  moved I dug it out and brought it with me in a pot. It’s maybe twenty-five years old now, perhaps thirty. Lovely  thing, and unusual in that it’s stamens are not golden but red, same colour as the rest of the flower. It is always flowering by Valentines Day, but this year started on the  2nd February.


So having stopped to look, I looked elsewhere and saw lots of good in the garden – primrose, crocus, lovely red leaf buds on a rose, the unfurling Euphorbia.


Taking my Mum to the Garden Centre yesterday afternoon I bought some pale pink primulas to go in the big pot – they look brave. Not counting the Garden Centre time, I did an hours work but felt as good as if I’d had an invigorating afternoon at Enniscrone Seaweed Baths. 

As for writing, I need more grit.

That best part of a good man’s life

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A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

Another recommendation via Angie Macmillan. Recommended so heavily, in fact, that she posted it through my door the night before I was leaving for my sabbatical. I’m sorry to report my prejudices put me off before I had even opened the book. I thought the cover made it look, as a dragged-up David Walliams might say,  like a ladies book; a lightweight, slightly romantic family saga… And yet Angie had said, worth reading, you might like it. Even so, it went to the bottom of the pile and I read other things. Until I ran out of them.

And of course, Angie was right; the cover was an irrelevant (to me) marketing tool and my prejudices were, as usual, quite unhelpful.

This was a terrific novel, powerfully real and deeply moving. Hurray and very, very well done, Carys Bray. Not many contemporary writers take on religious faith as a subject. But this story of a devout Mormon family living through an immense trauma offers a lot of human depth.

You’ll think of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, if you’ve read it, because there’s a powerful portrait of a closely-knit  religious community that looks very odd to most people who are not part of it.  There’s initially a kind of spectator laughter about the weirdness of it all, which made me think the book was going to be cynical, but emphatically, it is not that. Winterson’s book is about a fight for survival but she’s an only child, and there’s only one real centre of consciousness, which – as the world it describes wants to destroy it –  must, for survival’s sake, stand outside.

That makes a difference. A Song for Issy Bradley is a family story, and it is partly about the interconnections of love within a struggling family. As Tolstoy tells us, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. These people may be members of a sect we don’t know much about, which at first makes them look pretty different, but they are eventually just people like us, and the ways in which the tragedy they live through plays out across and through their individual and collective consciousness is what makes the novel compelling. It’s not about Mormons, so much as a book about emotional aftermath and ongoing life.

Phil and I took turns to read this aloud. There were times where one or both of us were moved to tears, and the reading became utterly compelling. There were some parts that felt painfully close to the bone – scenes in the hospital and the undertakers, an incident that might be a rape. This was not a light read. But, as in life, there are moments of glorious hilarity which will get you through, to say nothing of playground football, Mr Rimmer’s Pioneer Wagon and the exceptionally wonderful teenage party scene which worryingly begins ‘no one had touched Zippy since Issy died.’ There are also moments of deep, sensible realism, such as this, where Jacob, aged 7, realises that humans have to learn to bear pain,

He wanted to tell Dad a story in the car but he wasn’t brave enough. The story is true, at least that’s what Sister Anderson said. It’s about one of the apostles who kept rabbits when he was a little boy. One day, when the apostle was seven, his favourite rabbit escaped. He looked for the rabbit but he couldn’t find it. Then he said a prayer and immediately a picture came into his mind and he went to the exact spot he had imagined and found the rabbit. This showed that Heavenly Father responds to the small, simple prayers of everyone.

Jacob thinks about the rabbit story and what Dad said about answers to prayers in the car. There should be stories where the answer is no. There should be stories where children pray for lost rabbits that never turn up and then people might get used to it an know what to do next: he doesn’t know.

A Song for Issy Bradley is one such story – there is a great big ‘no’ at its centre, where ‘death closes all.’

And yet, that great gaping hole can be combatted by the powerful ‘yes’ of ordinary, real life, those ‘little, nameless acts of kindness and of love’ as Wordsworth called them: trying to love each other and living on through it, so that finally we are not merely surviving, but also, sometimes, singing. Thank you, Carys.

Learning to write: Edith Wharton’s  Hudson River Bracketed 

Edith Wharton’s novels can be astonishingly revealing of human behaviour at the absolutely micro level – Wallace Stegner, whom I recommended here in a previous post must have learned something from her.

This was one I hadn’t read and so picked up in an Oxfam bookshop just before setting off for my reading and writing sabbatical. It’s a lovely thing when you have an author you trust enough to think ‘Something by you will be worth reading. It’s 500 pages but it will be worth carrying in my book suitcase.’

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And so it was.

Hudson River Bracketed is an architectural style, the style of a grand, largely unused, American house which plays a key part in the novel. It’s as if an English novel of the 1920s were to be called Oxford-Redbrick-Semi. Or Miners Two-bed and No Inside Loo. It’s partly a novel about the way that class, education and experience shape a life, and more than that, it is about how those things, plus reading, sex and money make or unmake an artist, and specifically a writer. And more specifically a male writer, from the west of America, born about 1900. Meet Vance (short for Advance) Weston:

By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the college of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents had lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called Getting There, to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.

One of Vance’s difficulties is learning how to trust or judge what he experiences, and the opening sentence gives us a clue about that, pitching ‘a week in Chicago’ against ‘invented a new religion’ without blinking.  You decide, Edith Wharton seems to be silently saying, what kind of young man this is…and yes, he is naive, excite able, foolish, inexperienced and has big ideas and a even bigger feelings. Should we laugh at him? Yes, a bit. But not everyone invents a new religion by the time they are nineteen, and it might be worth sticking around to see what else this guy does.

It’s a long stick-around, standing by this young man as he learns some hard Edith Wharton-ish lessons about the way complications build up and may  hamper, break or ruin the potential of a life.

In the last third of the novel I began to feel that the  trajectory might be  the unbearable downward curve at speed that is The House of Mirth (also by Edith Wharton, and surely that has got to be on my list of 100 books to build a woman? Think I need to re-read it. What a great book. My husband is currently reading a book called Why Humans Like To Cry and I was thinking The House of Mirth would be a good example of that… but is ‘like’ the right word? Surely, ‘need’  might be better…) But this is not The House of Mirth, Vance is man, and that doesn’t make all the difference, but it does make a difference.

This would be a book to read perhaps alongside or following D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers. It would make a very good  novel for a shared reading group, because it has short chapters, is episodic and is full of serious things to talk about…especially, how selfish does a higher purpose make a person? What is selfishness and how does it sit alongside our  need for  others, for love and  social being?