The following reviews appeared in The Independent:
Glow, Ned Beauman
Ned Beauman's worlds are recognisable: they are unhinged, over-whelming and brilliant. In his first novel, a swastika-blazoned beetle led aristocrats, eugenicists and a five-foot, nine-toed boxer on a caper through thirties Britain; his second followed struggling artist Egon Loeser in his pursuit of the bewitching Adele Hitler, unfolding a trail of mayhem that stretched from pre-war Berlin, 17th century then 1930s Paris, and 1930s L.A., to an indeterminate point in the future.
In Glow, Beauman's first novel to be located solely in the present day, Raf, a twenty-something Londoner afflicted with a sleep disorder alights upon a series of intriguing occurrences: a drug called "glow" which enhances your brain's reaction to light, a mysterious girl called Cherish, Burmese strangers loitering around his local radio station, and a number of white vans that are kidnapping people. It all boils down to a Burmese mining corporation's attempts to monopolize control of glow by liquidizing the Burmese community producing it in south London.
Beauman has taste: his antennae are acutely tuned to the stylish and resonant. And having assembled his cortege of ideas he has an ingenious way of effecting their interpenetration. In Glow these ideas are: light, sound, frequencies, neurochemistry, pattern, synchronization, disruption, real and fake. Like Tom McCarthy's C, Glow is concerned with communication in all its minute and multitudinous forms, its equations and correspondences.
This attention to detail is evident in the surface of the novel: metaphors are dazzlingly original – a bus's windows so bright they are "like a goods vehicle hauling not flowers to market but bulk photons", a broken windscreen "diamonds of safety glass which with this morning's rain has mingled an alluvium of damp white blossom and a few fronds of synthetic wig hair caught on a chicken bone, like the shattered remains of a tribal fetish" – though it may not be to everyone's taste. Beauman gets off on words the way others get off on porn: words like "cloacal", "entactogenic", "ouroboros", "capsaicin" and "cognatic", as well as discussions about vector algebra, open-source bio-rhythm generators, suprachiasmatic nuclei, vectors of influence and input-agnostic flow mathematics.
Raf, the anti-hero, is lovelorn and socially disadvantaged. Beauman's protagonists seem to be versions of one person but it doesn't matter; he is not interested in character, only in constructing a vehicle for the exploration of his ideas – and why shouldn't he when the ideas are so ingenious? There are some instances in Glow however, where the general implausibility interferes with our enjoyment: the successful attempt of former PR man Fourpetal to milk a former colleague for information at a climbing gym, for instance, or the fact that the production of glow depends upon foxes eating a weed and their excreta being purified – or that the foxes themselves are becoming more human as a result of this.
The plot too, while impressive, is littered with connections that seem too felicitous. This did not matter so much in Beauman's previous novels, perhaps because they were not set in the present; here the Burmese sections dragged, the jargon was sometimes tedious, I didn't care about the characters. I didn't care about the characters in Beauman's other novels either but it didn't matter because I was enjoying myself.
Is Glow's message that the "material interests" mentioned in Conrad's epigraph cannot help but be inherently corrupt (Cherish's dreams of a "benign narco-state" can only be accomplished by jettisoning innocent lives)? Is it of modern-day paranoia, "a fear in a brain in a head in a hood in a call in a warehouse in a city"? Or that we are creators of our own reality, nothing but "a drowsy and gullible consciousness floating through its own depthless improvisation"? But in a book that foregrounds hijacked communication, has a radio station called "Myth FM", and states: "we live in those distortions", perhaps the very idea of a message at all is a foolish one.
If Glow lacks anything it is weight, the sense that behind the glittering display there is something enduring. But few novels have weight; weight would hinder Beauman's fantastical machine in its glorious flight. Glow does not glow – it dazzles; but I was unsure about what remained after the mind-bending effects of the trip had worn off.
The My Brilliant Friend series, Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan saga, including its final and latest instalment, The Story of the Lost Child, dramatises an extraordinarily complex relationship between Elena, the protagonist, and Lila, her “brilliant friend”.
Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are born in impoverished 1950s Naples. They are '”opposite [yet] united”. Lila is bold, mercurial, by turns deeply malicious and utterly selfless. Elena is a follower, a striver, chronically insecure. The relationship is symbiotic, and destructive to Elena, whose achievements are sooner or later eclipsed by Lila's. Lila possesses an 'irresistible force of attraction' that makes her the focus of the 'neighborhood' and Elena herself. The greatest obstacle Elena the motivated student, young woman, gifted academic, ardent feminist, successful novelist, wife, lover, mother and daughter faces in achieving autonomy and fulfilment is not the poverty of her origins, religious and cultural institutions, fellow literati, political opposition, or the men in her life, but her lifelong friend - a friend she would surely die for, yet more than once wishes was dead.
It is ironic then, that Elena (and 'Elena' the author)'s entire artistic endeavor is initiated by a wish to preserve Lila, if only though writing. The first Neapolitan novel opens with Elena receiving a phone call from Lila's son: his mother is missing. '[Lila] wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six,' Elena writes, 'but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. I was really angry. We'll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story...' An unselfish and selfish undertaking then; one that intends to rescue and give to the elusive Lila 'a form whose margins won't dissolve', and at the same time 'capture', transcribe and translate her, best her by demonstrating Elena's own artistry; render lifeless by forcing to appear in a text she who we learn at the conclusion of Lost Child is also writing a saga; she who showed such prodigious talent as a child that her teacher stole her story The Blue Fairy and only relinquished it after death.
Writing about Lila is actually a way for Elena to explore herself: 'the very nature of our relationship', she writes early in Lost Child: 'dictates that I can reach her only by passing through myself', and indeed at times it seems the women are interchangeable. Ferrante has said the most difficult thing for a writer is to see, name and imagine oneself. If she can do this only by means of 'Elena-Lila', Elena the character relies on her alter ego just as much. The two women are symbolized by Tina and Nu, dolls thrown into a cellar when they are children, 'mine by Lila, Lila's by me'. When they cannot find the dolls the girls climb to the ogre-like Don Achille's apartment thinking he has stolen them. He denies this and gives them money to buy new dolls but they instead buy Little Women, 'the novel that had led Lila to write The Blue Fairy and me to become what I am today', Elena writes. Literature and learning are viewed by Lila intermittently and Elena continuously as a means to escape and construct new selves, like the new dolls they had opportunity to purchase. 'Tina' is also the name of Lila's daughter (ostensibly the lost child of the title) whose disappearance heralds her psychic disintegration, a disappearance Elena hypothesizes Lila fabricated because she could not bear to see herself 'reproduced, in all her antipathy'.
Elena needs Lila: 'using her to give truth to my story [is] indispensable'. But Lila's explicit wish is to leave 'not a trace'. '[M]y favorite key is the one that deletes', she says. Lila's goal of complete erasure is linked to her terror of 'dissolving boundaries' when objects 'pour into one another'. Lila - she who 'moved things, who made and unmade' - wants to erase herself so that she can be protected from disintegration and chaos. This sits oddly with her ability to 'take…disorder from you…and give it back…well organized' but has a powerful counterpart in the political instability and shifting identities the novel dramatizes, and it is in the passages when Ferrante explores the liminal states of Lila's consciousness that the writing transcends itself.
These strengths not much improve the novel, however. Lost Child does not stand independently and despite the summaries in the Index the uninitiated reader will struggle to understand the story, which begins in medias res, as if Elena were beginning a new sentence rather than a book. Elena herself is not an engaging narrator. She has a habit of needlessly explaining ('In other words I felt reassured…' 'Problems, in other words') and stating the obvious ('Those were difficult hours', 'I was proud', 'I was displeased', 'I suffered'). Ferrante has said that writing, above all, is a battle to avoid lying. While Elena's honesty is liberating for author and character, and for the reader to some extent, it does raise the question of just how autobiographical Ferrante's works are (a question Ferrante seems to invite: Elena's work - a novel entitled A Friendship - deals with almost identical issues to Ferrante's own quartet, both Elena and Ferrante share names, are writers, both approximately the same age, both were born in Naples…) While this is not a problem in terms of subject matter, Ferrante seems to make little effort to conjure a pleasing aesthetic structure: Lost Child (and the previous novels) reads like a diary, a stream of events that bleed into one another. Nothing is excluded (Elena is 'luminous' with happiness because of critical acclaim despite learning her baby daughter has just been admitted to hospital with pneumonia; on holiday she has sex with her husband standing up in the kitchen so as not to wake the children) though scenery, smells, sounds and atmosphere are rarely described.
Even taking into account translation, the prose is awkward, pedestrian: 'eyelids' 'cancel' a gaze, tempests 'explode', 'My heart was going crazy in my chest', and strangely archaic, with much usage of the euphemism 'sex': 'the large sex taut between his thighs', 'thrusting his taut sex inside the sex of a mature woman'. It is also melodramatic: words such as 'torture', 'destroy', 'passion', 'slave', 'heart', 'consume', 'desire', 'struggle' and 'horror' abound. '[I]ntolerable anguish' seizes the heroine, she is 'freed from chains', hearts are about to burst, heads 'in the clouds', 'characters battle 'irresistible force[s] of attraction', are 'annihilated by wonder', 'break out in cold sweats'. Elena herself is ruthless and self-serving. She has a 'craving to grab everything' and constantly checks she is receiving 'each thing that was mine by right', from critical acclaim to sufficient orgasms. Because we are never released from the torrent of intense, un-modulated, and almost unhinged ranting, reading can become humorous: 'Nino had f**ked the servant and then gone to his appointment, not giving a shit about me or even about his daughter. Ah, what a piece of shit, all I did was make mistakes. Was he like his father? No, too simple…his propensity for f**king did not come from a crude, naïve display of virility, based on half-fascistic, half-southern clichés….Philistine, philistine…son of a bitch…Rage had opened up a pathway in the horror…' Despite all of this, however, there is a strange impetus to read on.
Elena rereads her text at the conclusion to 'find out if there are even a few lines where it is possible to trace the evidence that Lila entered [it]', but has 'to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone'. She has won the autonomy so long desired at the cost of forfeiting her subject and friend. But then she recants a little: 'Only [Lila] can say if…she has managed to insert herself into this…text.' In that case we should reserve judgment on The Lost Child, and the mighty saga that preceded it, for the enigmatic, protean and seemingly eternal Lila herself.
The Snow Queen, Michael Cunningham
The Snow Queen begins with the promise of greatness and the exciting prospect, in our current climate, of spiritual phenomena being explored seriously: “A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” It is modern-day Brooklyn. Barrett is gay and unfortunate in love. His brother Tyler, with whom he has an unusually close relationship, is trying to write a song to save his dying girlfriend Beth. Beth recovers from cancer – the Snow Queen's kingdom – miraculously, only to succumb three months later and die.
It is unusual for a contemporary novel to align itself so overtly with a fairytale but Cunningham's novel does, the references to frozen lakes, sleepers, underworlds, journeys, captivity, 'cinder's caught in people's eyes, and snow (characters dream, write songs about, walk in, liken drugs and memories to snow) intruding obsessively. The overall parallel to Andersen's fable is muddy however, single elements endowed with both malevolent and benevolent significance, characters taking the role of child rescuer, child captive and Snow Queen simultaneously. Initially the main disappointment was that I wanted the book to be about Barrett, who is introduced to us at the opening, but soon takes a back seat to Tyler. Then I found the characterization, though possibly sophisticated, too convoluted: both Barrett, Tyler and Beth, at various times, wish Beth was well, ill, dead and alive. Then there were just too many interchanges that didn't ring true: Tyler's rage that Barrett did not tell him about the light, Barrett's desire to keep it secret, the just plain weird childhood interactions with their mother. Characters exist in some rarefied, high-Modernist atmosphere, sit in bathtubs while an all-important Woolfian window stands open (to glacial weather), discussing their dreams “as if they [are] scientists, taking notes”, spend all night taking drugs then emerge onto rooftops in snowstorms to ponder moments when they “were able to hold [their] very being in…outstretched hands and say, here I am…”, supposedly have money worries but sit around writing songs,”'stand for a moment in…doorway['s] rectangle[s] of snowy light…appear[ing] to wonder, briefly, at the fact that [they're] there at all”. The description of Beth's illness is repellant: cancer is not about “white do-rag[s] wrapped with exquisite carelessness around…hairless heads” and descents into beautiful though ghostly kingdoms, but very real suffering.
Cunningham's prose, though stylish, begins to feel as stuck as Tyler's song. When you have read enough sentences such as: “Barrett, bluff-chested, naked in greying water, is in particular possession of his pink-white, grandly mortified glow” you begin to long for the directness, simplicity and power of a Coetzee. “I'm not trying to be profound, or anything,” Barrett remarks at one point, and found myself wishing his creator had taken a leaf out of his book. The whole thing begins to seem unnecessary – as does Barrett's initial vision, which intrudes into unrelated conversations with all the weirdness, pointlessness and implausibility of a U.F.O.
Perhaps Cunningham does manage to dramatise the way hope leads to devastation and devastation hope (one of the possible themes, the two words described as “the same thing”'), perhaps he does manage to dramatise recognition and apprehension, but if he does it was lost on me. There are too many meanings, centres, gleaming nubs. Towards the end of the novel the character Barrett confided his sighting of the light to tells him he too has seen it then asks Barrett for money. By this point, if Barrett feels cheated, so does the reader. “What, then…was the annunciation?” Barrett wonders at one point; readers of The Snow Queen – if they make it that far - will do no less.
I Put A Spell On You, John Burnside
One of the pitfalls of memoir writing is failure to transcend the personal, the author succumbing to solipsistic catharsis. There is no way anyone could level this charge against John Burnside's recent work however, because it is not just a memoir but also a collection of (sometimes apparently random) "digressions" into subjects such as "glamour", narcissism and freakishness.
While you may be tempted to skim some, most deserve to be read carefully; those subjects that the author does not reimagine he discusses with freshness and urgency – his tiny yet astonishing essay on the old Scots word "thrawn", which everyone should read, as they should his sixth digression on aloneness and community, is a case in point, and an antidote to our culture of fear and conformity.
Some passages had me cheering, passages that contain lines such as: "the beglamoured exist as the antithesis of that world… and their visions… give the lie to the Authorised Version of existence", "There is real virtue… in being of no use…" and "For the not-thrawn, all belonging has to do with possession… [which] is the very antithesis of belonging – is nothing more, in fact, than a routine enactment of being present in which attentiveness is sacrificed for an illusion of ownership."
Even the conventional autobiographical passages are elevated by Burnside's desire to penetrate the essence of things. Here he dissects a single note from a Nina Simone song sung by a "desperate", fly-away girl he knew in his youth, a note which echoes along a Proustian trail of association that ends with the word "glamourie": "I imagine that somewhere… she had discovered the power of the sustained note, and she had obviously sung like this before, for herself more than anyone – to deflect criticism, no doubt, but at the same time, to reassert some vague hope she had, a hope that, as the songs all begged to know, and in spite of much evidence to the contrary, love is real… I see now that that was what I was responding to: that hope." It is "that hope", the pursuit of and flight from the various states known as "love", that is at the heart of Burnside's treatise – and Spell is a treatise as much as it is a memoir, having much in common with works by Montaigne, Pessoa, and Sebald.
For all its impersonal enquiry, there were occasions when the personal intruded all too uncomfortably, however. I was embarrassed on behalf of Burnside's wife and children because he never mentions them; in fact, he does not contemplate anyone very much but himself (his mother being an exception). Burnside is married, but Spell reads like the memoir of a single man: a man who considers going home with a woman he meets in a bar, getting in touch with the "real love" of his youth, who lists every woman he has ever been attracted to but his wife, and asserts that his rejection of his youthful love was justified – even complimentary – because "the options offered by the outside world were all of them beneath us". What this says about Burnside's wife isn't hard to infer.
Setting the real person, whoever that may be, and his relation to this "memoir" aside, though, as well as retaining reservations about some of the statements, when Burnside hones in on something, there are real rewards. I recommend this treasury, notebook, journal, repository, treatise and meditation, because at times it constitutes not just brilliant, but essential reading.
Confessions of a Lioness, Mia Couto
'Confessions of the Lioness' is inspired by fact. Hunters were called in response to lion attacks that coincided with the visit of environmental field officers during a program of prospecting in Mozambique. "Gradually", Mia Couto writes in his author's note, "the hunters realised that the mysteries they were having to confront were merely symptoms of social conflicts". The problem with the ensuing novel is that this realisation is not gradual. The second problem is that though this could be remedied by dramatisation, it isn't.
Archangel, the hunter, speaks like a prophet, is likened to Christ, yet feels insubstantial. Mariamar, the village girl, is so many different things it is no surprise to learn at the conclusiong she "was never born" at all. Characters are lost amidst a hoard of metaphors, discover blood gushing from them, beasts making love to them, lose the power of speech, lose fingers, legs, become emotions, lions, hens, vultures, snakes, fish, oceans, sky, stars, trees, rivers, souls, gods, the village.
Motifs of drowning, burial, exhumation, rebirth and dying proliferate. Life becomes death, the hunter hunted, the captor captive, the devourer the devoured. It is understandable in such delirium that characters wish to empty themselves and take the form of nothing at all.
Couto's prose is high-flown and – even allowing for the inadequacies of translation – awkward. Words "reverberate through [a] mysterious setting", "desperate urges" "cause" characters to do things, another's "tone adjust[s] to her status", "an anguished sigh escapes [a] breast", a woman "impress[es] upon [him] her bodily curves". Gnomic utterances such as – "silence is an egg in reverse: the shell is someone else's, but it's we who get broken"; "[s]adness isn't crying… sadness is having no one to cry for" – occur on every page.
Moreover, Couto does not engage, he states. Meaning is hammered out. And things often become ludicrous: "I want to be devoured. But I want to be devoured in the sexual sense. I want a lion to make me pregnant". We are told things too late: "I had just challenged the sacred precepts that forbade me from uttering the names of the dead", Mariamar explains. There is no discovery: "Those hunters are no longer humans. They are lions. Those men are the very animals they seek to hunt".
"Then I understand", says one character after another, the words invariably followed by something the reader understood much earlier. The effect of these multiple revelations is profoundly underwhelming. The subject of female divinity and creation (the Other) disrupted, abused, and snuffed out by 'lions' – paranoia, jealousy and hate – though as old as women themselves, has never been more current. It is unfortunate, then, that rather than speaking to the heart, this novel reads like a bad undergraduate essay. Compare it to Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country or Waiting for the Barbarians, novels dealing with similar subject matter in an effective way. In each case the writing speaks for itself.
The following review appeared in The Guardian:
Dirt Road, James Kelman
Dirt Road, the Booker prizewinner James Kelman's ninth novel, in keeping with much of his previous work, takes the form of a lengthy stream of consciousness in a Scottish dialect, narrated by a young, working-class man engulfed by a sense of frustration and entrapment. The desire for independence and self-reliance is one Kelman has addressed consistently; in the past, he has identified himself as one who spoke from within an occupied country. He has also stated his desire to write and remain a member of his own community. Dirt Road may well be his most optimistic dramatisation to date of the possibilities of political and personal enfranchisement.
It opens with 16-year-old Murdo and his father, Tom, leaving Scotland to visit family in Alabama, following the deaths of Murdo's mother and sister from cancer. The trip is clearly a huge undertaking for Tom, whose anxiety reveals itself in his concern that they will not manage to contact Murdo's uncle, his fear they will miss buses, and in his chastisement of Murdo for forgetting his phone, assuming their relatives will provide towels, popping out to the shop… even for looking inside sandwiches. We do not know whether Tom has always been so critical, or if it is a result of his recent bereavement, but it makes for saddening reading; Murdo is a well-intentioned, warm-hearted young man, dealing with his own burden of grief and apparently not getting much support.
Kelman shows rather than tells par excellence, narrating the entire novel through Murdo's consciousness, replete with dialect such as “didnay” and “jeesoh”. The reader is privy to everything, from Murdo's concern not to spread zits when shaving to his sexual fantasies and meditations, sometimes quite profound, on the nature of consciousness.
Murdo is innocent, old fashioned and shy; the hour or so he spends with a girl he meets early on in his visit to America is enough to tempt him to journey across the country to join her at a Cajun music festival, in defiance of his father. His decision is brave, desperate, reckless and understandable, given the extremely short leash Tom has kept him on, and given Murdo's overriding passion for music – he feels physically weak when he has not played for a while, and often laments the fact that his father did not allow him to bring his accordion. His journey to the Lafayette festival, a possibly doomed undertaking, signals the beginning of a healthier relationship with Tom and serves as a metaphor for Murdo's emerging selfhood. We cannot imagine he would have dreamed of running away prior to this holiday, but within the briefest of time spans Kelman allows us to see Murdo become a new version of himself.
Kelman's prose requires proper listening. Listening is what Murdo does effortlessly, highly attuned, as he is, to sound and music. He believes music can free you; take you anywhere at all. While Murdo acts out his desire for self-fulfilment, Tom lives in as constrained a way as possible. It is fortunate, then, that his son's rebellion forces him to take action and bring the more generous aspects of his underlying love to the fore. Tom forgives Murdo for running away, enjoys himself at the music festival, gets up to dance and even, after some persuading, allows Murdo to remain on tour with his new friends, something he would have been unlikely to concede to at the outset. The picture looks distinctly brighter for Tom as well as Murdo at the novel's close.
Dirt Road is a life-affirming novel, in which Kelman paints a convincing and at times moving portrait of two likable characters on the road to fulfilment and recovery.
The following reviews appeared in blog posts:
Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto, a playwright, and his marriage, first through his own eyes, then his wife Mathilde's. Mathilde is one candidate for the role of Fate/Fury, weaving the tapestry of her husband's life unbeknownst to him and meting out justice upon those who betray her. Lotto's mother, who withholds his inheritance, is another. The Fates/Furies appear to be disembodied entities, however, and though there are classical references, there are no direct parallels except a subplot in which Telegonus mirrors Lotto's son, Odysseus Lotto, and Mathilde Penelope.
Groff's language can be brilliantly inventive (trees are 'sparked neurons', the body of one recently deceased 'a word repeated until it has lost all meaning', funeral well-wishers 'carp…mouthing the air,' 'Pelicans thumb-tack… in the wind'). She has a predilection for the 'non-sentence' currently in vogue but the stilted, notational style does cover swathes of narrative economically. The Fates/Furies' utterances are odd, however. Interlacing a rendition of jingle bells with a dive into the past, they lend a filmic, multi-sensorial quality to the narrative while commenting wittily on the present, but mostly their bracketed pronouncements are jarring, faux lyrical. The sagacity feels thin ('[The noble feel the same strong feelings as the rest of us; the difference is in how they choose to act]; '[Tragedy, comedy. It's all a matter of vision]') or simply nonsensical ('[Let me be the wave…if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture…]').
The main weakness is that so much feels unreal, from the depictions of artists 'in deep', composing eyes closed, arms outstretched, walking into snow barefoot, without jackets, writing masterpieces while drunk, having never written a word before, to the sex on every other page, within moments of characters meeting one another (not even casts and slings deter them). Faces press to hands, mouths to throats, tongues lick crumbs from another's lips - and for dialogue: ''You're a genius,' she said…'So do me,' he said. 'Gladly,' she said'; ''I just grinned,' he said, 'and bore it.'…'I just bared it,' she said. 'Not boring,' he said. 'Darling, bore me,' she said. 'As in drill.' 'Like a wild boar,' he said.'
Everything strains desperately to be stylish. Groff seems to be in love with the idea of the artist, love, marriage, sex, but unable or uninterested in depicting these things realistically. When, holed up one winter, Lotto realises he has ingested 498 percent of his daily fiber in granola bars the moment is so uncharacteristically humorous it is a relief. Other authentic moments include the depictions of Mathilde's childhood and the way her mother tongue bobs beneath her English. On the whole, however, the novel feels hollow. 'There was something just, I don't know, unconvincing,' one character remarks; '[t]he audience leaves after three hours with an overwhelming question: Why?' After considerably longer, so did I.
The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner is one of our subtlest, most erudite and original writers so it was with great anticipation I opened his latest publication: a short essay in the form of a simple yet beautifully bound paperback published by Fitzcarraldo, whose impeccable taste, evident in both who they choose to publish as well as how they present their offerings, seems to be unrivalled (they recently produced the equally brilliant Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, bound in a similarly chic jacket). Lerner's language may alienate some readers: we plunge straight into iambic pentameter, parallelisms and conjunctive adverbs. Words such as: 'innominate', 'lubricity', 'fungible', phrases like 'vector of implication', and sentences such as: 'The virgule is the irreducible mark of poetic virtuality' are to be found on nearly every other page. While some elements of this essay smack just a bit of affectation and faux literariness (the overly-aestheticized large print, for instance, and the italicised topic headings in the margin that summarize key points in the text: 'unfolding of the word', 'E pluribus unum', 'I, too') and may grate a little, on the whole the essay is so accomplished that I am sure Ben Lerner will garner many more fans than detractors.
He begins by tracing poetry's history, from the first 'poet' Caedmon, through Plato's Republic and Sydney's Defense to the present day, analysing society's conscious and subconscious assumptions about poets and poetry along the way; Lerner, being a published poet as well as novelist, has had his fair share of exposure to these, which involve, he says, 'both embarrassment and accusation'. His central thesis is that poetry is 'an art…hated from without and within', and such duality is the hinge upon which he levers much of his discussion, unearthing contradiction and dichotomy wherever he turns his gaze. Reading 'bad' poetry, he says, simultaneously alerts us to what good poetry might do and be. '[T]he closest we can come to hearing the 'planet-like music of poetry' is to hear the ugliest earthly music'. Awful and dazzling poets, by virtue of their awfulness and brilliance respectively, both show us heavenly poetry, though it is easier to agree on a very bad example of something than a very good one. The central impulse, even within poetry itself, Lerner suggests, is to stop writing in favour of silence and linguistic (if not literal) death (he cites Rimbaud and Oppen as cases in point). The avant-garde, he argues, for all their posited hatred of conventional poetry and attempts to explode the form, still create poems; and poems remain poems however transgressive and subversive they are. And this almost magnetic attraction towards void, empty space and erasure, towards nothing rather than something, or if not nothing then something one remove from itself; something encased and re-contextualised, possessing, as Keats would say, 'negative capability', Lerner deeply relates to: 'I tend to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose…' he writes, 'where the line breaks were replaced by slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.' He even sees contradiction in the disappointment in poetry's lack of political power in the present, which unites, he says, the futurist and the nostalgist.
Lerner's fascination with the poetic impulse towards both creation and destruction yields particularly rich results when he devotes himself to what he does best: detailed critique and appreciation of individual lines of poetry. His analysis of Emily Dickinson's 'I dwell in Possibility' is itself a thing of beauty, his identification of Shelley's belief in the usefulness of poetry with its very uselessness, and his unpicking of the paradox at the heart of Whitman's verse (who 'sing[s] difference but cannot differentiate himself without compromising his labour – which is part [in turn] of why his labour has to be a kind of leisure') are masterly. His mini essay on the virgule is even more dazzling, if possible, for being as diminutive as the mark it discusses, than it would be if it had been drawn out. Despite his brilliance, however, Lerner is also likably human, freely admitting he has never been put into a trance by Keats' odes and doubting any critic has either, while his diamantine dissection of William McGonagall's awful 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' affords the reader a giggle or two. He is also humble, continually referencing his erstwhile and 'brilliant' teacher Alan Grossman, writing: 'I come to realise with greater and greater clarity how central Grossman's thinking is for me'.
What we are left with after this exploration is what Lerner describes as the common tendency to 'virtualize' poetry – evident in everyone from Keats, to Whitman, to Dickinson – a sort of universal recognition that poetry cannot and never will be enough, so must be negated even as it is created; and thus, possibly, we may approach if not the Ideal itself then at least knowledge of it. Even Claudia Rankine, Lerner writes, deploys the lyric (two collections of her poetry have as their subtitle: 'An American Lyric') subversively in order to highlight the 'felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories', in which, once more, ''Poetry' becomes a word for that possibility whose absence we sense in these poems'.
Lerner's conclusion? That all of the impossible demands and criticisms levelled at poetry throughout history are actually an 'unwitting way of expressing the Utopian ideal of Poetry', which he himself believes he came closest to experiencing in the liberating, mercurial and magical changeability words possess in early childhood, when 'any usage signified'. Even in adulthood, however, poetry is 'a vocation no less essential for being impossible'. And hatred can be a part of its appreciation – even it's nurturing, for – in a concluding sentence that in its effortless style, originality and contradictory brilliance can be taken as a token of the whole that precedes it – Lerner exhorts readers to perfect their contempt of poetry, to deepen rather than dispel it, so that, in 'creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.'
The Wind in theWillows, Kenneth Grahame
Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic The Wind in the Willows was republished last year in a beautiful hardback edition by Egmont 'Classics', complete with an appendix of activities for children, a well-conceived glossary (as some of Grahame's words are challenging) and E. H. Shepherd's original and unforgettable pen illustrations. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The recommended reading age is 9 – 11 years but a confident reader of seven or eight could be enthralled either reading it themselves or having it read to them and indeed anyone from a five or six year-old to ninety or more could fall in love with this book and remain in love for life.
The unusual and wonderful thing about The Wind in the Willows is that it has references adults will appreciate (to Ulysses for instance, the politics of Grahame's day, and other literary allusions), some moments of genuine profundity (the haunting chapter 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' is a case in point) – and abundant humour, warmth and excitement that will entertain children as well. Indeed every aspect of this novel is exceptional. The prose is exquisite, the atmosphere palpable, the descriptions of the natural world amongst some of the best in children's literature and not a page goes by without some gentle humour. The characterisation deserves special notice and is unusually sophisticated for a children's book; Mole, in particular, is a peculiar, humorous and endearing little creature but all of Grahame's cast are marvellously realised.
Children's classics of this period excel in their delicacy, beauty and strangeness. They seem to possess a quality difficult to describe but feels 'strange' to our 21st century ears. This quality might also be called 'magic'. There is an 'otherness' to The Wind in the Willows (and several other bygone treasures such as Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, Charlotte's Web…) that it is virtually non-existent in modern children's literature and so enchanting that it is impossible not to feel that Grahame has written something resonant and timeless, and that while we are reading we are doing something very worthwhile.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte
Ashamed of not having read anything by Anne Bronte but only her sisters I recently began reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was astonished (though perhaps should not have been) firstly by how psychologically convincing the characters are, and secondly by the strangely addictive quality the writing possesses; considering its length (it is nearly 600 pages in the recent, extremely beautiful Vintage editions illustrated by the gifted Sarah Gillespie) I was amazed at how quickly I was half, then three-quarters, then all of the way through it, and wishing it was not over and that I could read more.
The main reason to recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, is that Anne Bronte has created a strongly – even radically – feminist heroine in Helen Huntingdon; one who shuns the institution of marriage when circumstances call for it (an act most nineteenth century novelists – especially early nineteenth century novelists like Anne – shied away from; as they shied away from depictions of male depravity that Anne is utterly fearless in recounting) despite paying a price that at some points seems impossibly high, refusing to be swayed from following a path her own integrity marks out for her. This strength of character is common to all the Bronte's work, of course, but Anne's portrayals of women are by far the most revolutionary and only recently beginning to attract the recognition they deserve. It is also worth noting that her male characters possess a far more convincing inner terrain than either Emily or Charlotte's; Heathcliff may be iconic and overwhelming, but iconic and overwhelming characters are not usually noted for their plausibility, relatability or tendency to inspire empathy. All these aspects make it both extremely sad and surprising that Charlotte Bronte herself dismissed her younger sister's literary efforts and had so little insight into just how progressive they were.
For all these reasons, I would encourage anyone whose interest in the Brontes has been sparked by the recent TV program or who is simply wishing to embark upon a worthy, provoking and highly enjoyable Victorian novel, to invest their time in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; high-quality literature and effortlessly involving, it is the perfect marriage on many fronts.
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The third novel in Robinson's Gilead trilogy, Lila is the eponymous story of the Reverend John Ames' much younger wife, whose poverty-stricken and itinerant childhood in Dust Bowl America has shaped her into a deeply insecure, yet compassionate and courageous human being. The narrative is a mixture of omniscient third person narration and Lila's own internal reflections, the impetus to move forward mainly derived from the vacillations of the fledgling and highly unusual relationship between herself and the aged Reverend, so that even after they are married the reader worries about the durability of the union, their very affection for one another part and parcel of their fear: 'The more she might seem like a wife to him,' Robinson writes, 'the more he would fear the loss of her.' It means that in a novel which meanders chapter-less through a plethora of apparently random details and decades, we never come to rest – or wish to – right up to the last page, so entwined do we become with Lila's own fear-laden consciousness.
Though Robinson's project is essentially spiritual, it is her deft characterisation (in this case, of Lila's quietly burgeoning love for her husband, who has himself known great personal loss) along with her exquisite prose that make for an affecting and transcendent reading experience, rather than any overt dogma. The reason the spiritual dimension of Robinson's world is so palatable is that it is ensconced in the everyday: a field, a little valley, a flock of pelicans, a day of snow and silence. What is more, her characters' redemptive trajectories are couched in the gentlest, driest humor, so distinctively Robinsonian: Lila's childhood friend's experimentation with a member of the opposite sex, for example, is described as her getting 'very curious' and 'finding out whatever it was she wanted to know'; once this curiosity has been sated she moves on to other things; 'it had taken Lila', Robinson tells us, 'a little longer.'
At its' heart Lila is concerned with reconciling a God of love with a world of suffering but because Robinson never alights on an explanation and places the debate in such halting and beautiful terms – in the mouths of characters whose search for meaning for the most part ends in uncertainty – the novel is far from a sermon. Take the concluding words of a letter written by the Reverend to Lila before they are married and little more than strangers, for instance: 'I have struggled with this my whole life' [Ames writes]…'I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it, I may be learning something from the attempt'. And this attempt by Lila to understand a biblical verse that has captured her imagination:
'And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn't want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilt. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.'
It is in such a spirit of gracious humility that Robinson makes her offering, and it is hard not to be moved and awed by the result.
Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett
It's rare to discover a truly original book these days but Pond is just that. A series of short 'stories', sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, this highly eccentric and experimental work revolves around an unnamed woman whose rural isolation is the occasion of her meandering meditations upon everything from bananas, control knobs, a conglomeration of stones in a wall and modern dating etiquette.
Bennett withholds the conventions of fiction (namely plot and characterization) to the point of infuriating some readers I would imagine, though perhaps this is her intention. One 'chapter', for instance, consists solely of this ditty which is just two very short paragraphs:
'Oh, Tomato Puree! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, erupting…
Oh Tomato Puree – let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!…'
It continues in a similar fashion.
While such strangeness can weary at times (when the reader is enmeshed in some particularly diaphanous, trance-like passage, for instance), the effort on the reader's part to forge some sort of meaning is worth it. Bennett refuses to let anything figure – to let anything stand for pretty much anything at all; metaphor, we sense, is anathema to her; but there is a reason for this. In a brilliant passage that implicitly comments upon her own artistry and is simultaneously a cameo manifesto for the entire novel, she writes of her self/protagonist:
'…she went off to place a cautionary notice next to the pond – which, by the way, has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn't put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I'd write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn't bother at all….'
She goes on to state that she knows the sign is to prevent children coming upon the water too quickly but says she herself, if 'brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon…only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it…[would] be hopping.'
At the end of this chapter she removes the sign altogether, her reasoning being, as mystics and philosophers have pointed out before her (and there is definitely something of the mystic about Bennett's protagonist), that words erect an artificial interface between us and the world, preventing us 'moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.' And it is true, as you read Pond, you feel all the strangeness of a heightened reality, much more a decipherer than simply a reader, as you do with most books. Despite the impression that Bennett's writing is steeped in philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Derrida among them – there is such lightness, such whimsy, that reading Pond is not like reading a philosophical work at all, however resonant it may feel; for ironically, despite Bennett's protestations to the contrary, her implicit suggestion that there is no 'depth' to her work only serves to make it all the more esoteric and enigmatic.
The experiments of post-modernism have left little room for literature to move forwards, but Bennett, in subtle yet inimitable fashion, has been able to suggest how it might. Pond is sign-posted. There are no poxy pieces of plywood, just plenty of magic.
Rebecca Stott’s account of life in a fundamentalist sect known as the Exclusive Brethren opens with the weeks she spent caring for her terminally ill father. Following his death, to fulfil her promise to him, Stott sets out to trace four generations of her Exclusive Brethren family, from prestigious Australian forebears on her mother’s side, to an apprentice Scottish sail-maker on her father’s, whose move south to find Brethren wives for his sons results in the marriage of Stott’s parents. Both Rebecca and her father (whose memories she relays) endure harsh discipline as children of Brethren parents, hours of boredom in congregation meetings and are periodically haunted by their inability to feel sure of things they think they should be: have I managed to ‘take the Lord into my heart’? the young Rebecca wonders; ‘Sometimes I’d be sure….then a day or two later He’d be gone again.’ Both she and her father are deeply suspicious of unbelievers, live in a world of feverish make believe, and have literary leanings. Her father is one of the last Brethren permitted to attend university, where he experiences what could be argued is his true conversion courtesy of reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, following which he assumes a leading role within the Brethren.
All is reasonably well until the succession of J. T. Junior as head of the Brethren in the 1960’s results in a separation rule that means Brethren are no longer permitted to live in communal buildings unless they use a separate entrance or to eat with unbelievers, including fellow-workers and family members. A ‘ruthless gestapo’ is set up to enforce these ideals; Stott’s father one of them. These ‘priests’ visit homes, forcing confessions of deeply humiliating ‘sins’, usually of a sexual nature. Solitary confinement or expulsion from the organisation frequently ensues, even if the wrongdoer is repentant; nor are the interrogators immune, fearing exposure even more than their victims. This paralyzing environment of fear continues until 1970, when an alcoholic, demented J. T. Junior is found in bed with another man’s wife. When Stott’s father stands up in the midst of the assembly demanding ‘a simple relation of the facts’ he is ‘withdrawn from’. The upshot of this is that half the Brighton meeting walk out with him and globally, eight thousand more Brethren, who, in time, splinter into new factions. Stott’s family leave the Brethren, an experience she describes as like ‘being lost in a town where all the signs had been changed into a language I didn’t know.’ The aftermath of extreme devotion for her father includes materialism, adultery, divorce, addiction, bankruptcy and prison; for herself the ‘beauty’ of Darwinism, musicians, poets, shoplifting and teenage pregnancy.
Stott deploys her skills to good effect: as historian she delves into newspaper clippings, tape recordings, archive materials, a host of memoirs and books on doctrine, theology and the Exclusive Brethren. As novelist she dramatizes admirably to life: the scene where her father is expelled from the Brethren, or that in which hundreds of Brethren from around the world gather in Alexandra Palace in 1962 are cases in point. As essayist Stott weaves ideas together seemingly effortlessly: pattern, foresight, chance, Tribulation, Yeats’ gyres, Zeus ‘seduction’ of Leda, and Gabriel’s visit to Mary are yoked almost magically within the space of a single conversation the teenage Stott has with her father while driving to a production of Macbeth. Yet neither novelist, historian, essayist or biographer are finally able to account for the destruction wreaked: ‘[T]here was no…explanation I could offer my father or my younger self’, Stott writes; ‘there was no culprit to be caught, no handcuffs to be placed on the wrists of a single murderer or thief’. The result is a state of radical unknowing.
I, like Stott, grew up in a religion which was not something that entered one’s life only on Sundays or at certain times of year but made up the anatomy of my existence; a religion in which there were weekly meetings, a body of elders, women wore headscarves, sex before marriage and association with unbelievers was forbidden, further education viewed as dangerous and excommunication practised. At one point, when Stott mentions the Brethren’s use of the term ‘worldly’, I thought I was reading about the same denomination. I was not, and there are differences in our experiences: Stott left the Brethren when she was seven, I remained until my mid-twenties; however challenging it was being part of such an organisation or creating a life afterwards, I do not share the unequivocal view Stott takes of her erstwhile faith as something entirely destructive. But there was something that resonated deeply with me as I read In the Days of Rain: the sense of being tortured by an inability to feel sufficiently sure of things one’s very life depends upon. When a friend’s mother tells the young Stott ‘It was alright not to know’ shortly after her family leave the Brethren, the idea astonishes her; not long after she experiences something like a conversion in a Catholic church, moved by the music and spectacle, where ‘[f]or a moment [she]…stopped striving to understand’. The relief is seismic.
When every feeling, thought and impulse is given over to an infallible and omniscient Being a person cannot develop an inner compass, natural instincts or uncensored emotions; a state of being that besides being agonising can also be fatal. In fact, getting to a place where ‘it [is] OK not to know’ subsequent to such an immersion, then allowing oneself to be open to whatever emerges next, Stott hints, is the undertaking worthy of real devotion.
In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott
The following review appeared in The Guardian:
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The article below appeared in the onilne literary magazine 'Boundless'. You can read it in full on this page or on Boundless's webite by clicking the image below:
'I have had very little sexual experience. I lost my virginity late and have recently embarked on my first relationship. So I have only hunches. One of these hunches is that, as I said to my boyfriend the other night, sex seems to be “everything and nothing”. At least, I thought I said it to him, but it turned out later that he didn't hear me because he was already asleep. Such is the way of things. I am a thinker; I stare into the dark trying to fathom this and that. He, like most men, is a doer. And after he's done he conks out.
“Everything and nothing” mainly for me perhaps, because to someone growing up in a strict, fundamentalist religion, sex was the cardinal sin, or so it seemed; to engage in it outside of marriage was to exchange everything, including life itself, for the blotting out of perdition. Sex was the real unspeakable, not God's name (which my denomination pronounced anyway), representing everything that was shameful, hidden, taboo and transgressive, whether my parents intended it to be that way or not. Most of all, sex was everything to me because, for a very long time, my entire self-worth rested upon the fact I had not and did not “have” it.
My craving for love and meaningful sex was all that mattered and all I wanted from life. But for so many years, sex was forbidden and after that it was an impossibility because I was ill. Sex was the epicentre around which I spun. And I spun for many, many years…even after I had “had” it. Perhaps even more frantically afterwards, desperately trying to penetrate the heart of the mystery; to know it, hold it, possess it. This isn't unusual; sex is so mythologised, so gossiped and whispered about and cautioned against that when one finally does engage in it with another person, it is bound, for most of us, to be something of an anticlimax. Sex continued to be “nothing” for me, however. I met with disillusion again and again. It was utterly empty, a cipher and an aporia. In theory, sex meant the world to me, yet in reality, the sex I was having could have been traded in for a handful of loose change. The world itself and I, at this time, like Louise Erdrich's “earth and sky” in The Antelope's Wife, “[touched] everywhere and nowhere, like sex between two strangers”; sexual alien, the world itself was unknown to me.
“Everything” - and nothing; “everything” perhaps, because at the moment of orgasm, the pinnacle of sex, all things appear to be possessed and everything right. “Nothing”, because simultaneously, all other things, for one or two blissful seconds, are wiped out. “Everything” because orgasm is without doubt the greatest pleasure that human existence can offer (at least to someone who has not experienced spiritual bliss). “Nothing” because where does this pleasure reside: in the genitals, in the mind, outside the body altogether (I often feel “outside” myself at this point)? Apparently there can be nipple orgasms, elbow orgasms - orgasms nearly anywhere – as those who have lost part or the entirety of their sexual anatomy have attested. The body is infinitely adaptable. In states of deep meditation, a similar, even greater bliss can be experienced. And where this euphoria is located – and where the experiencer resides during the experiencing - I do not know.
“Nothing” and “everything” because, as I have discovered, like most things in life, during a single act of sex there can be moments of emptiness and moments chock-full of meaning; it can be mechanical, abstracted - and unbearably intimate and personal. Sex is life then, is time, simply being; is calm, maelstrom and flux. Henry Miller, one of the greatest sexual voyagers of the last century, understood this. “For some,” he wrote, “sex leads to sainthood; for others it is the road to hell. In this respect it is like everything else in life – a person, a thing, an event, a relationship”. Sex is interchangeable; translates into the rest of life. This is confirmed by the fact that changing one's sexual style can highlight and resolve non-sexual issues in personal development and relationships. Sex is a chameleon then; nothing special in itself, it can, with the right circumstances, be a doorway to encounters most of us only dream of.
I do not dream about sex. I felt and still sometimes feel a sense of de-realisation during it. In the midst of what “should” (and perhaps there's the rub) be the most intimate and intense experience with (in most cases) the person you are humanly closest to at this point in life, the very proximity of that other body, the sounds, smells and sensations engineer a kind of trance; so much so that though I have an encyclopedic memory, I can remember only before and after, the act itself is a blank, the time it took unknown - possibly stretching out to astonishing lengths or equally elapsing in a surprisingly short interval.
Sex acts for me are places where the reel skips, the frame flickers. It sounds suggestive of trauma, the brain callusing over previous points of assault. Is this a result of experiencing sex “virtually” for so many years, I wonder? Of being an observer rather than a participant for too long? I do not know. “Sleeping with a man she would very often have [the] feeling, that she was animus for a pre-existing framework…someone who wasn't there, someone who may or may not even have existed,” Rachel Cusk writes of a character in her novel Transit. Space (nothing) and matter (everything) are at the heart of Cusk's enquiry into selfhood in her recent fictional experiment. While other characters talk the narrator begins “to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank”. Paradoxically, she learns to locate herself through just such erasure. I often feel erased during and after sex, relieved of some indefinable mass or excess that has evaporated, until it accretes again. But whether I am better able to pinpoint myself afterwards I am not so sure.
Susan Sontag says that sex, “unlike writing a book, making a career, [or] raising a child” is “not a project” but “consumes itself each day. There are no promises, no goals, nothing postponed. It is not an accumulation.” It is a momentary process appearing and disappearing, not something to own or secrete away. “Nothing” then; each time a beginning and an ending, a doing and undoing, a becoming and unbecoming, casting off of the old and donning of the new. No wonder sex is an enigma for many of us. When Connie Chatterley can completely surrender to this vast unknown in D. H. Lawrence's novel, “she was gone, she was not, and she was born: a woman.” After she has sex with Mellors the gamekeeper for the first time, Lawrence writes that she “just dimly wondered, why? Why was this necessary? Why had it lifted a great cloud from her and given her peace? Was it real? Was it real?” This is one of the most profound encapsulations of both the transformative power of sex (its everything) and its mirage-like nature (its nothingness) experienced from a woman's point of view that I have come across. I too, like Connie, used to long for that “everything” again after sex, and when I next “had” it, struggled to retain its reality fruitlessly. So much for Lawrence not understanding women.
The notion of reality is examined to great effect in Charlie Kaufman's animated film, Anomalisa. The protagonist, a puppet, who has experienced a destabilising 24 hours which included a sexual encounter with a stranger, suffers a kind of nervous breakdown, during which he catches glimpses of our own “real” world. At the conclusion we leave him watching a Japanese porn toy, half machine, half doll, serenade him with an incomprehensible song. We are prompted again to ponder the absurdity, awkwardness, and ill-adjustment to our own “medium” that are experiences frequently attendant on being human and often concentrated most intensely in the act of love itself. Ironically, for an animated feature, the sex scene in Anomalisa is one of the most realistic I have seen (the lovers' bodies are middle-aged, imperfect; they fumble, apologise, the woman bumps her head), so much so that I forgot I was watching animated “actors” and felt I was intruding, something I never do when watching “real” flesh and blood actors and actresses cavort. This is partly Kaufman's point: in our awkwardness and fallibility we are greatest. We transcend ourselves when the strings show.
Sex is “everything” for most humans, in contradistinction to animals, not simply because it is one of the most fundamental biological urges, impacting our emotions and hormones and thoughts, but because society and the media make it so. The covert nature with which sex is often referred to, particularly in the developed world, would not be significant if it was not also so mythologised; after all, many aspects of life, particularly relating to our physicality, are hidden (defecation, menstruation, childbirth etc) but because sex is simultaneously hinted at, boasted about, longed for, it creates fertile soil for dysfunctional attitudes to spring up, particularly in the minds of the susceptible.
Because I was deprived of information on and experience of sex for so long, instead of it remaining firmly in its (invisible) place, it took centre stage, intruded into everyday life; innocuous situations and interchanges became filled with sexual overtones and connotations, life became exhausting as I expended huge amounts of nervous energy. Each glance, each gesture, each word was loaded. The ogre of sex dictated nearly every decision of my young life (as I attempted to avoid the shame of being seen to be without it) – all in the complete absence of the act itself.
Sex and love are possibly the most mythologised states of all time. They form the subject matter of most popular songs and have been a staple of the arts from time immemorial. Their antithesis – isolation, involuntary celibacy and loneliness - are the most execrated; I suspect most people would rather admit to having an affair or criminal activity than being lonely. The idea of sex (and the concomitant horror of its lack) is big business. It is used to manipulate, shame, induce envy, continually divest the masses of money, and incite us to constantly upload data to social media. To a large extent, someone's ease of access to sex is a determinant of their social capital. We are led to believe that those having “great” sex are gods. Like fame, great achievement and immense wealth, sex is a Holy Grail. No wonder, then, that when it, as other idealised attainments, disappoints, the narrative leading towards it is perceived to be a sham. Great is the “nothing” in which those who have tasted “everything” then find themselves. Sex lends itself to excess, and excess and extremes, as Carl Jung noted with his theory of enantiodromia, have a tendency to turn back on themselves, implode and become their opposite.
The world would also have us believe that sex is “nothing” however, because as well as being omnipresent (sex is everywhere just as people are everywhere) it is possibly also the most hidden, and because of that, the most misunderstood. Ninety-nine percent of the time sex takes place in private and it is often referred to by hints, suggestion or euphemism. But that which is hidden becomes more intriguing, that which is illegal becomes more pervasive and that which is resisted becomes infinitely more powerful. The “covering over” of sexuality in Christianised societies can be traced from the story of Adam and Eve, whose “sin” led directly to the realisation and covering of their nakedness, to the thirteenth century Le Roman de la Rose - overtly a joyous celebration of “courtly love”, but in reality a tale of a young lover in pursuit of pudendum (the fabled rose's lips outrageously mimicking women's labia) - to the whitewashing and “purification” of sexuality in the Victorian era; a time characterised by greater numbers of prostitutes in London than any other.
Sex is always just below the surface yet it is so out of keeping with the vast percentage of our lives it can seem varyingly unreal, embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk or think about. It can potentially reduce our everyday, responsible identity to “nothing” through feelings of vulnerability, stupidity at requesting certain fantasies, loss of control and autonomy during the act itself, even with a trusted and caring partner, or in the hands of an abuser, which can be the means for the most profound destruction of another person's mind. The covert nature of sex then, as with many clandestine things, is a major component of its power. The result is endless curiosity, confusion, suspicion, competition and victimisation. No one really knows what other people are getting up to, how other people feel, whether the sex they themselves engage in is “normal”, “right”, terrible, great, or just good enough.
Danger lurks more freely within the implicit than the explicit, and the implied than the stated. The damage wreaked in a society that will not engage in open discussion about sex is incalculable and hard to remedy; no one is even sure where or when the damage has been done. Some of the most powerfully dramatised instances of violence in literature are those inflicted psychologically, in invisible ways, often in a sexualised context. In Anita Brookner's autobiographical novel, Look at Me, tensions centering in the psyche of the sensitive and socially vulnerable librarian, Francis, come to a head in a scene freighted with images of sexual significance. Ostensibly, not much “happens”: Frances has Christmas dinner with her glamorous friend Alix, Alix's husband, a woman called Maria, and James, the man who until recently expressed romantic interest in Francis. The chapter in which the dinner takes place and the chapter that follows are a masterful dramatisation of the undoing of someone, of subtle yet devastating abuses of power. In the dinner scene food is sexualised (as it is in Rossetti's similarly sinister Goblin Market) and an objective correlative for Francis' horror, shame and revulsion she feels in the presence of the people around her. Maria, Alix's crass friend, dollops desert onto James' plate and before Francis' eyes James displays sexual interest in Maria in a shocking and uncharacteristically lascivious manner. It spells the end for Francis:
''More, more,' shouted Maria…and she bent over James, who was laughing, and said, 'More, darling. I want you to be good and strong tonight. More.' I stared down at the yellow custard on my plate and willed my shock not to show. And when I raised my head, it was to look calmly and even smilingly at Alix and Nick. Who were, of course, watching me. I said, 'It was delicious but I really couldn't eat any more.'”
There is no overt likening of the custard to semen or anything sexual at all but the reader's imagination is working feverishly by this time and sees sex (something the deeply repressed Francis has tried to keep from both her own and her reader's mind) everywhere. Because the deathblow is covert and happens in the midst of a “civilized” dinner it is sanctioned; Francis, the victim, cannot even acknowledge the murder herself, for that would divest her of the last vestige of dignity she has. Rebecca Solnit understands this. In her collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me she identifies a “continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death”. Solnit is primarily concerned with male domination of women but I would point out that women, in an attempt to attain monopoly of sex (the currency that controls both men and other of their sex) do as much damage to one another as men. In this novel, they do infinitely more.
The socially maladjusted narrator, Rachel, in Stephan Benatar's criminally little-known novel Wish Her Safe at Home is portrayed as being so similar to ourselves that her gradual descent into madness, to some extent, drags the reader with it. Her insanity is triggered by subliminal sexual deprivation, and because we see ourselves to a frightening extent in Rachel, her increasingly deranged interactions are more than painful; they are hideous, they are wrenching, they are well-nigh unbearable. If sexual shame, sexual jealousy and sexual grief has been portrayed in literature, I do not think it has been done better than by this uniquely gifted author. And the axis upon which he works his dark magic are those subtle abuses of power that a society which banishes sex to the margins enables. As in Brookner's novel, the reader is left wondering: did I imagine that? Was something happening or nothing? Of course, the answer is both: something completely real and something entirely imaginary was taking place. It meant absolutely everything and nothing at all.
Can sex really be “everything” and “nothing”? Is there no innate meaning that resides in the act itself? There does not seem to be a context in which a non-sentient human engages in it, so we cannot know; young children and animals engage in sex as unselfconsciously as any other pleasurable activity, and there certainly seems to be no inherent meaning pertaining to it in these instances. It is true that engaging in sex can make women emotionally attached to a man they may not have been particularly attracted to before they slept with him. It can make a man repulsed by a woman he previously lusted after. It can make a couple grow closer or further apart. Sex as a form of abuse can devastate a life as nothing else can. And it has been at the heart of women's struggle for equality with men since the beginning of time. The endless backwards and forwards dialectic between persons gendered male and gendered female, between giving and receiving, settling for nothing or taking everything instead, is expressed by Katherine Angel in her book Unmastered: “Must I either take, or be taken?” she writes, “Must I either do, or be done?” This varies, in everyone's life, from moment to moment, as we flip continuously - opposing halves of one magnet - between poles; pulled from side to side of a purportedly optimal mid-point.
The domination of women by men perpetuated by sexual mythologising is both overt and insidious. There is the degradation of women in phallocentric pornography filled with heteromale-generated automatons who always want sex and orgasm loudly from mere moments of penetration, which begs the question, as Alain de Botton puts it in How to Think More About Sex: “why a man might ever choose to lead his own life rather than just click on, obsessively, from Amateurs to Blondes, Bondage to Interracial, Outdoors to Redheads and Shemales to Voyeur”. And there is, as Sara Pascoe says in Animal, a “more common lie being shouted about what [women] should expect from love. This is the modern world; women lied about by pornography and men lied about everywhere else.” She is referring to the plethora of romantic fiction (which begins in childhood with countless fairytales) that involve the redemption of a helpless woman by a powerful male. This is the main motif in E. L. James' depressingly popular Fifty Shades of Grey, where Anastasia orgasms when Christian simply plays with her nipples, and is first dominated, then “saved” by him. The damage done to so many straight women and girls by such mendacious storytelling is incalculable. Whole lives are wasted, devoted to the exhausting and never-ending task of conforming to various roles which will (hopefully) gain hetero-male approval; so “over-written” that women are unable to experience pleasure themselves. “[T]he tendency of women to link sexual desire with so many arbitrary expectations and consequences [is] that they cannot focus on sexual experience itself”, as Emily Witt puts it in Future Sex.
Georges Bataille, the French philosopher and novelist, famously wrote: “I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction”. “[T]he crux of the conflict pertains to the rarely understood phenomenon of polarity”, Henry Miller wrote in The World of Sex. The greatest healing can come about through sex, and the greatest harm. This paradox is at the heart of the pleasure/pain relation played out in various forms of sadism and masochism. At a more quotidian level, sexual relationships, or the lack of them, seem for most humans to be the most fertile ground for the proliferation of psychological pain. Simply put: if sex were not in our lives we would be much less acquainted with agony. Antidepressants kill libido but also to an extent kill mental pain, suggesting that a large proportion of human pain (as Freud attested) is linked to our sexual drives and identities. Sexual shame is the deepest. Sexual fear is the deepest. So is sexual delight. That union through sex affords one of the few possibilities in our temporal domain to attain oneness with the 'god-like' and eternal has long been a trope in literature. In true metaphysical fashion, sex provides the possibility for not only exploring the self but for that same delimiting self to be eliminated, for a human to travel full circle and by becoming “all” become simultaneously “nothing”.
The whole of the universe rests upon the attraction between opposites. This is present at the subatomic level in the attraction between positive and negative parts of an atom. And where there are polarities there is a preoccupation with wholes. The idea of uniting opposites in a kind of transcendent “rebis” (“dual or double matter”, the end product of the alchemical magnum opus or great work) occurs in the ancient Greek philosphers, the traditions of Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, German mysticiam; Taoism, Zen and Sufism, among others. In John Donne's 'The Ecstasy' the souls of two lovers leave thier bodies during thier physical union and mix together in a purifying and spiritually fulfilling process before returing to their corporeal forms. Writers such as Marsilio Ficino, St. Teresa of Avila, Bataille and others have proposed similar ideas regarding the transformative effects that sex has on the soul.
Besides increased knowledge of self, such transformation can involve a quantum leap forward in knowledge of the other. The Old English synonym for the noun 'sex' is 'know'. It may seem strange to reduce the desire to have sex with someone to an epistemological longing but that is what the act and term conveys at its deepest meaning. In Michael Ondaatje's sumptuous The English Patient the climate of Second World War desert warfare and exploration provide the author with a way in which to dramatise how both love and war involve a desire 'to know things, how the pieces fit,' as Caravaggio, one of the characters, says. The result is a recognition, as Katharine experiences with regards to the character of Almasy - a recognition that causes her to wake screaming. The physical love between Katharine and Almasy finds its analogy and inversion in his mapping of the desert divided by war: 'There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace,' Almasy writes. 'The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in new light...' Throughout the novel sexual forays are paralleld by risks taken during war. Hana, the nurse caring for Alamsy (the 'English patient'), listens to her lover's heart 'the way he will listen to a clock or a mine'. For her lover, contact with the bombs he defuses (and through them, the enemy who made the bomb), is described synonymously to his interactions with Hana, who wonders: '[h]ow could he trust even this circle of elastic on the sleeve of the girl's frock...? Or the rattle in her intimate breath as deep as stones within a river?'
Knowledge attained through sex can be akin to religion gnosis. In Eimear McBride's debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, the protagonist's self-knowledge arrived at during sex with her uncle-in-law is described in langauge befitting religious intiation, and the rapture (and rupture) of her psyche could as easily be that which accompanies the End of Days as near-incest. Her petitions for her uncle to enter her have the fervour of a religious supplicant and the act the same abandon and headlong hurtle:
'God his face like a pattern I have seen...Since I was younger...He will take me somewhere...Come into me. Come into my house. Come in and stop all the clocks for he can...Give me a moment...He says stop. I'm here now...I'm here. Come for you...I called you. I said. Where were you?...Put yourself on me then, in me. Pull all other things out. It's no interest to me and. Throw me. Smash all that up. Do whatever you want...Fuck. Yes. Help me. Save me...'
McBride's prose blurs lines between speaker and interlocutor, saviour and saved, taker and taken, doer and donne-to, as language becomes both intercessor for, and means of dissolution of the self. Later, when her uncle-in-law rapes the protagonist, the Christ imagery is explicit and the protagonist allied to Christ in his harrowing, becoming 'Jesus me','Jesus. I nme'. The name she loses at the conclusion of the novel, the 'My I', is '[w]hat he takes is the what there is of me':
'There's a my body he push back. I'm. Fling rubbish thrown I am am I I. Falt. Where until I crack. Bren my. Face. Head. Something. Smash...Not this I don't not for me what he will. You. Jesus. Got. Jesus on his knees pull me up pull me...Not my Jesus. His nails too sharp are you...Jesus he. Not. No. Jesus me...Save...Kill. Me...In the muck my crown of stones...tucks the fck the thing in. Me. In. Jesus. I nme...'
The moment her uncle ejacuates inside her language breaks down as never before in the novel, the 'coming' of the abuser allied terrifyingly with the coming of Christ. The loss of the protagonist's self - fatal in this case - is a product of her earlier knowing: 'Know me you know he know me.'
It is perhaps no coincidence that the capacity for intimacy is directly linnked to the ability to tolerate existential loneliness. For the poet, John Keats, a principal figure of the Romantic movement, and for whom ill-health and early death deprived him of the experience of physical union, the 'still point' was achievable only through the highest reaches of art, the climax of creative form reached in his 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', where it is heralded by a 'mad pursuit', 'struggle to escape' and 'wild ecstasy'. Unlike bodily union, however, which by virtue of its very nature can last a mere matter of moments, the artistic union of 'beauty' and 'truth' in this poem forms something arrested and everlasting. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria RIlke, similarly bereft of human love, asked in his 'Duino Elegies':
'Is it not time that, in loving,
we freed ourselves from the loved one, and quievering, endured:
as the arrow endures the string, to become, in the gathering out-leap,
something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.'
For Rilke, departing from the self was necessary in order to me more than oneself. When he talks of 'loving' he does not mean the usual, physical act of love. As Gerard Manley Hopkins before him (whose poetry is similarly sensual and littered with dichotomies, dualities and 'dappled things'), Rilke tells us that the world itself is the 'lover' we should turn our attention to.
As Chris Klaus knew and demonstrated in her auto-fictional I Love Dick, there is something 'better' than reality, 'and better than is what it's all about.' '[S]ex short circuits all imaginative exchange', Klaus writes, and her book, ostensibly about wanting to fuck someone and never getting to, is the result; the only exchange possible, one of imagination, the result a work of poet-modern self-consciousness, where life becomes art by means of a sleight of hand known as the Kierkegaardian third remove. The irony is that the copy - the replica - does not undercut the emotion of the original, but serves to accentuate and make it stronger. Ali Smith, likewise fascinated not just by sex but the ways in which art supplants, supplements and interfuses with life, explores knowledge of self through the binaries man/woman, straight line/curve, arrow and circle in her novel How to be Both. Beneath such exploration of opposites, however, is the realisation that these things are one, just at different stages of becoming:
any sign of the tree
the seed still unbroken
the star still unburnt...
Sex partakes of the dichotomy at the heart of the universe to an extent few other things do. It is Blake's heaven and hell, Coleridge's snake with its tail in its mouth, ineffable light and inscrutable darkness, the yin and the yang, Hegel's thesis, antithesis and synthesis rolled into one. Merely a reflection of the rest of life, sex is governed by the same principles that govern both atoms and galaxies, is the story of the universe all over again; the outer movement followed by the in, expansion by contraction, movement by stillness, creation by destruction, no time and all time, containing 'everything' and nothing at all. Not surprisingly then, being at peace with oneself, with aloneness, and with the present moment, is paradoxically highly conducive to sexual health and happiness. The pleasure sex bestows comes most easily when we cease seeking self, cease seeking pleasure, cease seeking to arrive - in fact when we cease seeking pretty much anything at all. Sex is its own creature and will not brook interference, abuse or control. It, like all other things, partakes of and embodies the 'nothing' at the heart of existence. And embracing the 'nothing', letting it in and making it one's home, is a potent way to make the all-important space for sexual knowledge and power to grow.'
The article below appeared in the onilne literary magazine 'Boundless'. You can read it by clicking the image below:
The article below appeared in four instalments in the onilne literary magazine 'Boundless'. You can read part one by clicking the image on the left, and listen to a podcast version, plus Q & A with Arifa Akbar, by clicking on the image to the right: