Innocents and Others, Spiotta – The F-Word Review

Hi Team,

A quick link to my review of Innocents and Others over at the F-Word. It was published in February and I have been dreadfully remiss in posting it here.

My thoughts on the next Bailey’s contender Stay With Me will be up soon – I have just moved onto The Sport of Kings which I am thoroughly enjoying.

Happy reading!

 

An English Teacher’s Little Secret…

We’ve all got them. Dirty little secrets that we secretly enjoy being discovered. Discovery makes us look cool and trendy, bucking the canonical establishment in favour of edgier, more unconventional texts. Everyone has one, a pesky little classic; giant of the canon, permanent fixture on your reading list or at the bottom of your ever-increasing ‘to read’ pile.

In my experience, they tend to be novels of a very specific type: definitely ‘classics’ in the old school sense of the word. There is an unspoken expectation that you will have read them. Most likely, you will have studied them for GCSE, or at least resentfully watched the movie. Think, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prej.; that sort of thing, novels that you expect the general populous to have a reasonable understanding of in terms of plot and character.

As a teacher of literature, it is these books that those who ran screaming into the hills away from English once their GCSEs were secured, feel able to discuss with you. Often, it seems polite to at least try. These texts, it seems, occupy a literary space akin to the social space of parenting: everyone’s been parented, thus everyone has an opinion on how to parent. Everybody’s read Pride and Prejudice, or, if they haven’t they can make a good enough show of it by having watched the BBC mini-series or Bridget Jones.

The time has come then for me to air my dirty laundry in virtual public: until very, very recently, I had not read To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t ask me why; I’ve always had a thing for American literature and, as it turns out, I now have a thing for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I decided to bite the Harper Lee bullet early before half term because it seemed like the best choice (by reputation) to teach to my delightful and curious GCSE class. Half term arrived, I embarked on a train travel odyssey to Kent (babysitting an errant Labrador), turned to the first page and, for the first time in years, I read a book in a single day. A masterpiece in escalating tension, the story is compelling from the start. The narrative voice of young Scout Finch frames the central plot through the eyes of children imbuing the injustice of racial hatred and violence with fresh rawness 56 years later.

A few years ago, I started writing in the front of my books the time and place I began reading. Apart from trying to keep some sort of record of my reading life, this habit quite accidentally highlighted the impossibility of dissociating the books you read from the personal and political context in which you read them. A dear friend of mine recently commented that across the western world the values of tolerance and difference upon which mature democracies are founded are being tested like never before. The rhetoric that surrounded the Brexit campaign is testament to this; as is, of course, the outright racism and misogyny that US president-elect (words I can hardly believe I’m writing) Donald Trump has somehow been able to spew without consequence. Again in the UK, the appalling media response to the admission of child refugees is indicative of a society in which fear of the other has crept further and further back into the mainstream consciousness. The well-documented rise in racially motivated hate crimes speaks to the mentality of the mob and if there is an undercurrent of violence to this UK dynamic; in the US, such violence continues to be institutionalised and explicitly raced in the “numbing regularity” of police shootings of unarmed black men.

In the context of all this, To Kill a Mockingbird is importantly uncomfortable reading. The same friend recalled coming to it as a teenager and realising for the first time that “injustice truly existed in the world”. Coming to it as a thirty-year old the realisation is more that this particular brand of injustice still exists. Such a revelation should not come as a shock, but, reading such an acute depiction of an ugliness that remains familiar over half a decade since its publication jolts one’s perspective on human progress. It is important to clarify: I am not equating the state of affairs now with the state of affairs in 1960s America, progress has been made, I think. What hits home at this moment, when it feels like fear and hatred are winning, is how far there is still to go.

Further to this, a contemporary reading renders elements of the novel problematic: this story of racial injustice is fundamentally centred around the heroism and brilliance of a white man. Tom Robinson’s voice feels absent and though the characters of Calpurnia and the Reverend go some way to filling this gap, the story is still focused on white people and their actions. From a different margin, in a current culture where allegations of sexual assault are more often than not greeted with scepticism and suspicion, Mayella’s treatment in the court scene does not make comfortable reading.  A reminder perhaps of the ways in which injustices intersect and complicate each other: Mayella can be seen as a racist young woman living in desperate poverty who is brutally beaten by her father as punishment for an act of sexual independence violating the racial codifications of her world. People are not one thing.

I felt both exhilarated and depressed at the end. There is a special energy that comes from the immersion of reading a novel in such a short time period, especially a novel so wrought with political and social significance. I cannot decide whether to risk reading Go Set a Watchman, the recently published sequel/prequel. There was a good deal of controversy preceding publication surrounding how much agency Harper Lee had in the decision to publish before she died. I’ve been doing some reading around it and I’m not sure, I don’t think I want to read an Atticus who is not steadfast in his principled tolerance. It makes me nervous. It may well take me another fifteen years to get around to it, and perhaps, in that time, we will have come even further in the combat of this particular mode of evil. Perhaps.

Lessons from Literature: What Would King Lear Do?

So, the actual EU Referendum is upon us and the opinion polls reveal nothing but that it is going to be very, very close. In considering all things political, my mind often wanders through powerful figures in literature musing on what angle say, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell would be working. What would Jay Gatsby make of Boris Johnson’s hair? What might Madame Bovary think? How would the Mad Hatter vote? Would Voldemort have cared?

Unable to answer these questions as I am, there is one character I feel pretty certain would have been for Brexit and that is Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear, were he around today may well have rebranded himself King Leave. And no, as anyone who has not seen/read/has any knowledge of any kind of the play will know, that is not a reason to vote Leave. It really, really isn’t.

If you know the play you will be familiar with the plot in which a vain and volatile old King defies all conventional wisdom in choosing to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He rejects not only wisdom but basic common sense at every turn, most notably of course in his decision to embrace division over unity. Rather than serve out his time as King of a united Albion, he decides he doesn’t really fancy the whole ruler thing anymore and on a whim comes up with the stellar plan to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, awarding the largest portion to the daughter who publicly flatters him the most. The decent daughter, Cordelia is understandably entirely fed up with her father’s nonsense and refuses to play ball. He banishes her, against the advice of just about everyone.

Unsurprisingly, this foolproof plan does not play out well for the idiot King and what follows is a series of escalating confrontations that allow the more unsavoury characters who deal in cruelty and violence a route to power. Lear, disenfranchised and running mad, ends up naked on a Heath shouting at the wind; another character removes another character’s eyes with his bare hands and pretty much everyone, including the decent daughter (who marries France, by the way), ends up dead.

There are some fun parallels to be drawn between King Lear and the Leave campaign, not least a self-interested preoccupation with ‘th’additions’ of Kingship (status, nice clothes, knights to order  around) rahter than actually doing the job itself. There’s also Vladimir Putin who, much like the play’s malcontent and literal bastard Edmund, is lingering in sinister manner praying for discord while lots of sensible people try to calm everyone down and encourage those spouting visceral unpleasantness to ‘see better’. A stable if problematic regime is replaced by chaos and violence.

Let’s learn from Lear and lead not leave. Otherwise, I fear, we too may find ourselves alone, locked out in the cold, stark-bollock naked, shouting at forces beyond our control who will not take a blind bit of notice.

 

 

Post-apocalyptic gender politics: The Oryx and Crake Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

I have a real affection for Margaret Atwood but I have not always found her work easy to get into and, as such, feel relatively poorly read within her oeuvre. I have started The Blind Assassin three times without success but raced through The Handmaid’s Tale with it’s deeply disturbing excavation of sexual politics in a near future world stricken by sterility as plague. I know my reading habits well enough to recognise that science fiction plus a bit of sex/gender equals a novel that is entirely my bag so when The Year of the Flood appeared on my MA reading list as part of the ‘Twenty first century feminist fiction and the world in crisis’ module I cracked into it with gleeful reminiscence of the The Handmaid’s Tale (a text I’ve actually been teaching my Year 13s and of which there is a gut-wrenching film adaptation available here) and much expectation.

I had read Oryx and Crake some years ago and was vaguely aware that this was the sequel, the second novel in a trilogy. I remembered enjoying and being appropriately unnerved by Oryx and Crake (though finding it tricky to start) and struggled to recall salient plot details as it became apparent that The Year of the Flood was covering the same years preceding the devastating man-made plague from different, female perspectives and the final novel in the trilogy MaddAddam operates in a similar way, though it simultaneously continues the narrative from the end of Year. The effect of the trilogy taken together is prismic: it offers a multi-faceted story intricate in its drawings of world and character and the fun of seeing hitherto undiscovered connections between characters and storylines emerge.

In a family of scientists (both brother and father), Atwood’s interest in popular science is well known; she famously keeps a box of newspaper and magazine clippings that have directly informed her futurist fiction, it is perhaps on this basis that she has long rejected the label of science fiction in favour of ‘speculative fiction’. She has said repeatedly that everything in her novels is rooted in potentiality, a ‘what if’ approach to human evolution and this is especially true here. These texts are laced with tangible anxieties around a whole range of issues: genetic engineering, unbridled commercial power and of course the effects of climate change. In 2005 Robert Macfarlane lamented the absence of a literary response to climate change, comparing it in scale and presence to the nuclear menace that haunted the Cold War years. This trilogy must have been exactly the sort of thing that Macfarlane had in mind.

The environmental anxiety underpinning all three texts is, in The Year of the Flood, explicitly connected to female experience. The urban dystopia of the pleeblands that precedes ‘the waterless flood’ of Crake’s manmade plague is a world characterised by sexual violence. The female protagonist Toby is repeatedly raped and brutalised by the figure of Blanco before her rescue by God’s Gardeners and the scars of this trauma sit with her through Crake’s manmade plague and into the post-apocalyptic world it leaves behind. It is significant too, that in MaddAddam it is Toby’s voice who takes on the God-like role in telling stories to the innocent Crakers (genetically modified humans created by Crake to repopulate the earth), stories that are set down with real religious significance to the Crakers. This voice effectively replaces the sermonic voice of Adam One that runs through the narrative of Year, the suggestion being that, with the fall of the pre-apocalyptic patriarchal order in which female function is predominantly performative and sexual (encapsulated in the club scales and tails where women dance and perform sexual acts in elaborate, dehumanising costumes) so has the patriarchal voice fallen to be replaced by a feminine authority.

I happen to disagree with Margaret Atwood in her rejection of the term science fiction but this is only because I agree with the commonly held principal of SF as a ‘literature of ideas’ and the Oryx and Crake trilogy is most certainly that.

 

 

‘Bliss’, Katherine Mansfield (1920)

Although Berth Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply. What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss!

Bertha Young is childlike from the outset, apart from the obvious connotations of her surname, she is connected with her daughter ‘Little B’ whom she displays a curious “fondness” for (“you’re nice – you’re very nice!… I like you.”) and is even explicitly figured “like the poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll” in her relationship with Nurse. This childlike character is throwing a dinner party for her “thrilling friends” and brimming with, “bliss”. This “perfect” happiness is felt as an almost obliterative, manic, sexual energy, “as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of the late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?…” And the source of this “bliss”? Not the “extravagantly cool” Harry, Bertha’s husband, but the ethereal Pearl Fulton, her latest “find” whom she has “fallen in love with… as she always did fall in love with beautiful young women who had something strange about them.”

The evening progresses and the comically named Norman Knights (or “Mug” and “Face as they refer to each other) become increasingly grotesque; even on arrival Face looks “like a very intelligent monkey – who had even made that yellow silk dress out of scraped banana skins.” The dreadfully affected Eddie Warren who speaks in italics and recites poems about Tomato Soup arrives “(as usual) in a state of acute distress”. Only Miss Fulton whose very touch “could fan – fan – start blazing – blazing – the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with” remains exempt from the absurdity of the party. Bertha feels sure that they share something, that “Miss Fulton, ‘gave the sign.'” and as the two women look on “slender flowering [pear] tree” in the moonlit garden the narrative reaches a climactic moment of connection between them, orgasmic in the imagining:

Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of the candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round silver moon. How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in the circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

Bertha experiences a sexual awakening in her communion with Miss Fulton and with it she feels finally able to transcend the realm of “such good pals” in which her marital relationship has languished as “for the first time, she desired her husband”, only to have her revelations shattered in a moment of supreme bathos which, for fear of spoilers, I won’t reveal here.

The narrative is undulating and elliptical, Mansfield’s use of free indirect discourse creates a space between Bertha’s perceptions and her realities and it’s a space to be identified in the dashes and ellipses of her voice. There are moments of direct expression that jar against the very mannered style of Bertha’s own speech and here, the reader suspects, is a more reliable source only glimpsed as Bertha pauses for breath. This flexibility of perspective and voice renders the final realisation all the more effective. It also elucidates the disparity between Bertha’s perceptions and the truth: the first word of the story, ‘Although’, flags that all is not as it seems. These flags continue to pop with Bertha’s frustration at having “a body shut up like a rare, rare fiddle” and “how idiotic civilisation” is; indeed the change in tone with the arrival of the dinner guests serves to further discomfit the reader, especially as Bertha becomes increasingly assured in her perceived connection with Miss Fulton culminating in their mutual gaze on the “lovely pear tree”.

The same pear tree that earlier Bertha has replicated in her “scheme” of “a white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings” and where she saw, “a grey cat , dragging its belly… across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after it.” The same sight that elicits “a curious shiver” and causes her to exclaim: “What creepy things cats are!”. Even the pear tree that Bertha identifies both herself and Miss Fulton with as a symbol of perfection is shadowed by an unsettling sexuality Mansfield later recalls using the same image of feline motion. The variety of meanings that have been attributed to the pear tree itself range from the phallocentric hardness of Harry (whose only interest in his daughter appears in the context of sexuality – “I shan’t feel the slightest interest in her until she takes a lover” – and who so relishes dismembering Miss Fulton as if he is almost running his hands over her body, “liver frozen…pure flatulence..kidney disease”); the langorous sexuality of Pearl with her “heavy eyelids” and “moonbeam fingers” or Bertha’s own sexual potentiality. The pear tree, then, is a composite symbol drawing these spectral sexualities together in the same uncertain, enigmatic way that the story itself characterises sexual possibility as fundamentally unknowable and uncertain.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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I finished this novel yesterday. I was lying stretched out on the carpet of my living room floor at home in Kent. Continuous games of football were being booted about noiselessly on the TV and the members of my family were variously packing, travelling, napping and enjoying the sun; the family cat Luna came and watched me for a while before yawning and going to find something more interesting to do. So I lay on my stomach for a good couple of hours, utterly engrossed and hoping that no-one would notice that I was weeping.

It has been a long time since a novel has made me cry like that and perhaps an even longer time since I have read a novel with such compulsion. I purchased it absent-mindedly after reading Zadie Smith’s essay that I believe now forms the introduction to this edition (it also opens Smith’s eloquent, personal volume Changing My Mind which is lovely and worth a read in and of itself). Smith describes her first encounter with Their Eyes Were Watching God. She describes taking it “to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish”: I cannot imagine a time when I would ever want to let it go. Indeed, I’ve offered to lend it to a dear friend and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to physically part with it, not just yet anyway.

The story is that of Janie Starks who stretches “on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.” In search of “singing bees for her” Janie sits at the front gate “waiting for the world to be made.” It is here that she kisses a boy, that “shiftless Johnny Taylor”. The reader is taken with Janie through three subsequent marriages, each one entirely different in character. I don’t want to, in fact, I won’t tell you any more about the plot because you need to (and I mean that as a real imperative); you need to read it, to feel it for yourself.

The language is astonishing in its lyricism, the opening lines of the novel, much like the moment we first meet Janie, are stunning:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

The words glow quietly off the page whispering as you rustle onto the next, yes, this is something special, come and feel with us. And feel we do. In Janie we encounter a character who, as Janie’s grandmother famously points out, being a black woman at this stage of American history, “is de mule uh de world.” Zadie Smith writes that “it hurt my pride to read it” and aspects of this novel are deeply painful. I found the matter-of-fact discussions about how to beat your wife difficult to read, I also found myself shaking with fury and disgust at the nerve of that Mrs Turner woman (you’ll understand when you get there).

This makes it sound like hard work though and it is nothing of the sort. For all the practical impossibility of Janie’s freedom; that is what lies at the heart of this book. Janie’s compassion for an old donkey; the sadness you feel for her with the realisation of “the rock she was battered against”; her capacity for true “self-crushing love” and the “glow” she feels when someone (again you’ll know when get there) teaches her to play chequers rather than expecting her to watch.

Zadie Smith’s introduction discusses the connection she feels to the novel, not just as a writer-reader but as a black woman; she explores the complexity of colour-blind reading and her joy as a fourteen year old at “the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.” The tributes on the back cover in addition to Smith’s are from Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey.

I am a twenty-seven year old white girl from Kent. I have no real understanding of what it is to be discriminated against, nor of the heritage that bears and I don’t want to claim a fraudulent connection with Janie Starks or Zora Neale Hurston – I am conscious of that even as I type. And yet, in spite of myself, I, like Smith, find myself moved “to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: She is my sister and I love her.”

Blogging The Sonnets… Sonnet II

It has been a shamefully long time since my last post but after a maniacally busy term I am returned to my sonnet project with apologies for the sonnetless stint. So, without further dilly dallying: to work!

Sonnet II

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

This sonnet seems particularly pertinent in the wake of last term; it continues to focus on ageing (years off my life…) or, more precisely, how the young man is obligated to take action against it. The argument runs in much the same way as Sonnet I: when you’re old and wrinkled by Time’s ‘deep trenches’, the elaborate garment of your beauty reduced to a ‘totter’d weed’ it would be shameful not to have a ‘fair child’ both to perpetuate and renew your beauty.

The opening image of the military siege figures Time as an attritional force acting on the Young Man’s beauty. The alliterative monosyllables of ‘dig deep’ in line 2 effectively evoke the action of digging and presents the violation of the Young Man’s beauty by time as an act of violation against Nature by a hostile army. The Biblical connotations of the number ‘forty’ (days and years in the wilderness…) combined with ‘winter’ suggest an infertile, fruitless life preparing the reader neatly for the poet’s solution: have a child!

The charge is roughly the same as the previous sonnet, one of Narcissism. It is worth identifying the erotic implications at work in the language here, extending the idea of self-love into that of unproductive sexual activity, that is, masturbation.

‘…All the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes’

Whilst to our modern ear the sexual connotations of ‘lusty’ are obvious, ‘treasure’ could, at the time of our poet’s composition, refer to semen. Similarly, it would be entirely possible to connect the ‘deep sunken eyes’ – a traditional symptom of old age – as a symptom of over-exertion in this manner during the last forty, sterile winters. This reading ties in with the images of ‘Within thine own bud buriest thy content’ and being ‘contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel’ of the preceding sonnet and it augments the presentation of a consummative self-adoration. So, with this in mind, the call to fatherhood to preserve beauty becomes a call to engage with the world and the final couplet, heralding the child as a renewal of beauty in the Young Man’s old age, easily reads with the implication that sexual intercourse itself may ‘see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.’

It isn’t a favourite of mine in deepest truth. It is, however, quite refreshing to imagine this mythicalised coterie of high-brow intellectual young men sitting around, giggling at wanking jokes.

It is also entirely believable.

Between the Crackups, Rebecca Lehmann

I came across this extraordinary collection via the wonderful world of Twitter and I do recommend that people follow @saltpublishing; they publish some cracking poets including Rebecca Lehmann who wrote Between the Crackups, winner of the 2011 Crashaw Prize. Courtesy of Salt’s Twitter presence I came across a number of excerpts including ‘The Devil Is […]