5 Reasons to Get Excited About Alias Grace on Netflix

A very fabulous Friday to one and all. As I feverishly try to finish reading the book, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace arrives on Netflix. It’s been on my TBR pile for yonks and was moved up the list when the release date was announced but alas, the awesome tiny person with whom I am spending most of my time at the moment is not entirely sympathetic to such ‘deadlines’ and so I am battling the temptation to binge watch before I have read the final pages. However, from where I’ve got to, I can see way more than five reasons to be excited about another Atwood adaptation but in the interests of brevity (as demanded by afore mentioned tiny person) I have exercised some self-restraint!

  1. Atwood translates brilliantly onto screen.

I have finally plucked up the emotional courage to finish watching the new and much lauded version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It strikes me that there is a reason it has become an icon for our times beyond the eerie prescience of the subject matter. Atwood has a knack for conveying the states of her characters visually: the clothes and costumes they wear are powerfully reflective not only of social position but of the political oppressions they are subject to in that position. Obviously the red habits of the Handmaids are the standout example of this but it pops up in lots of Atwood I’ve read; the MaddAddam Trilogy (currently in development by Darren Aronofsky and seeking a home) does it very well too, as does, Alias Grace.

2. Alias Grace is just as relevant as THMT. 

Without wanting to give anything away, Alias Grace is another study in the violence and oppression of patriarchy. Although it is a historical novel based on the story of a real woman who purportedly murdered her employers, it deals with many of the same themes as THMT. The disempowered female figure worked on by a brutalising patriarchal order might in this instance be set in the grime of the Victorian era but it’s a book that seethes with anger and outrage in the same way as the Handmaid’s dystopian future. The Weinstein revelations and continuing fallout in the era of “grab ’em by the pussy”, layers both books (and hopefully both adaptations) with more, very real urgency.

3. Atwood is consulting producer on the production

And we all trust Margaret, do we not?

I love the freedom she afforded the makers of THMT adaptation. She allowed it the capacity to be as pertinent as possible without compromising her world creation in any way. Indeed, as it has been confirmed that season two of THMT will move beyond the scope of the original book and an audiobook has been released with a new ending, there are rumours afoot that a fully fledged sequel may be in the offing. What is most exciting about this is the way in which Atwood sees the fluidity between media: just as her stories usually highlight ambiguity and subjectivity so she reflects this in the flexibility of her narrative modes. There is, of course, more than one way to tell a story and Atwood’s enthusiasm for this multiplicity only expands the reach and depth of her writing. Indeed, she’s been branching into another more visual medium with her graphic work Angel Catbird.

4. It’s a bloody good story. 

I have a bit of a weird thing with Atwood: I absolutely love her but I always struggle to get into her books to start with. This was no exception but, as is usually the way, once embroiled it’s a brilliant and clever thrill of a read. It won the Booker in 2000 so evidently I am not alone in thinking it rather good. And, once I’ve finished it, I will be very interested to have it retold from someone else’s imagination.

5. Well, would you check out this trailer? 

Reading into Motherhood – Stay With Me, Ayòbàmi Adébàyò

As promised, this post will set out some thoughts on Ayòbámi Adébàyò’s startling novel of motherhood, marriage and masculinity. Also shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize, on the face of it, Stay With Me could not be more different from Naomi Alderman’s The Power which eventually won. Alderman’s novel is an audacious story of speculative fiction using key players to narrate large scale calamity; Adébàyò by contrast is intensely focused on the intimacy of the family. That said, both novels present clear challenges to societal assumptions about gender; one of the most interesting aspects of Stay With Me is the toxicity of expectation, not just of women and motherhood but of masculinity and what it is to be a son, a father, husband.

Set against the turbulent politics of 1980s Nigeria (about which I know precisely nothing and now wish to learn), Stay With Me unspools the story of Yejide and Akin who, after four years of marriage, are unable to conceive a child. Despite Yejide’s protestations, a second wife is provided for Akin by his family in the hope that children will follow. Aspects of the story are familiar: it is assumed that the “problem” is Yejide’s. It is she who seeks treatment, is subject to interrogations and humiliations at the hands of the family and she who feels the childlessness they share most acutely as hers. Adébàyò, though, offers dual first person narratives that work to reveal the complexity of familial pressure, not only on a childless woman, but on a man in this position. The desire to fulfil a powerful and oppressive version of masculinity leads Akin into terrible and unforgiveable manipulation of his wife. There is throughout a pervasive sense of entitlement to the female body and to its reproductive power which, in the context of the #metoo campaign just this week and the Harvey Weinstein revelations, feels especially pertinent.

There is great beauty in the writing too. The language is lyrical in its bell-like clarity. Adébàyó’s skill is not only in the creation of voice and character but in the distillation of emotion at its most complex. And in what context is feeling more complicated than within the family?

“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It is strange and unnerving to read a novel so focused on children and their absence at six and a half months pregnant. It is not too much of a spoiler to share that Yejide experiences a phantom pregnancy soon after wife number 2 appears. Sections of the novel left me holding my bump, a tightness in my chest when the little one hadn’t kicked for a while.

I came to the book completely blind and wonder if my emotional response would have been substantially different had I read the novel before I was pregnant or indeed after the little miss was born. I suspect it would have been. Adébàyò’s subject and her rendering of it are devastating in equal measure. Reading this book into motherhood with all the anxiety that entails I realise now that the title is a sort of mantra. During those first anxious weeks through the long nine (and a half in our case) months to the tiny little person currently asleep on my chest, the mother in me unconsciously whispers to her: stay with me.

Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

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So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

The Baileys Shortlist: The Power, Naomi Alderman

51406888778__FED9AB04-D00F-4046-90AC-A94F31E7BFFA.JPGThis year I have set myself the challenge of reading The Baileys Prize Shortlist before the winner is announced on 7th June. This should be no mean feat except for the fact that, as per previous posts, I am a teacher and term time reading is often a luxury not to be taken for granted. Thus I undertake this task not only because there are some exciting titles on the shortlist but as an exercise in personal wellbeing. I once heard Neil Gaiman say that, “there’s time for everything in you make it”. I have made a sometimes sporadic effort to take these unsurprisingly wise words to heart. It is not always possible but I like the premise: if something matters enough, there will always be time for it in your day. I’m thinking of getting it inked across my forehead before the baby’s born.

It does help that this challenge seems likely to prove a thoroughly enjoyable one. Taking advantage of the Easter break to give myself a head start, I have just raced through Naomi Alderman’s, The PowerWhen I say there are exciting titles on the shortlist, this is exactly the kind of book I am talking about. I heard it reviewed on The Guardian Books Podcast and the premise had me hooked before I even owned it. Alderman’s depicts a world on the brink of global “cataclysm” ostensibly precipitated by a mysterious physiological development in the female anatomy. Women, much like electric eels, are born with a “skein” allowing them to deliver powerful shocks at will.

The consequences of this new twist in evolution are far-reaching. The power dynamics endemic to patriarchy are reversed. Revolution follows in Saudi Arabia. Conventional religions recalibrate with women at the centre. Boys are segregated for their own safety and the world crackles as new orders vie for primacy and what is left of the old resist. As you can imagine, all this is rather exciting. The novel is, among many other things, a fast-paced thriller. The other things though, are what make it such an important and exciting work that is earning deserving plaudits from across the literary world as well as the science fiction corner. A very good friend of mine once said that, “good science fiction is about ideas” and The Power is certainly that. Though it has a great storyline that romps through the intellectual long grass, Alderman’s book is also multifaceted and at times desperately uncomfortable in its resistance of any binary forces for good or evil. She uses her near-future vision to probe and interrogate the injustices and inequalities of our own time and in doing so, complicates notions of victim and perpetrator in ways that will make any reader squirm.

This multiplicity is in part afforded by the unfolding of the story through four parallel narratives. Alderman follows four central characters into this strange new world: Roxy, daughter of London’s organised crime royalty; Allie, abused foster child who reinvents herself as Mother Eve; Tunde a male Nigerian reporter and finally an American politician and opportunist, Margot Cleary, who manipulates the situation to her own advantage with outrageous self-interest.

As the conventional balance of physical power shifts from men to women, so too do the central institutions of power. Alderman uses each of these voices to illustrate the various ways this shift manifests and takes root in society through crime, religion, the press and of course politics. Within these grander societal pillars of narrative, Alderman explores the nuance and complexity of gendered power. Some of the most interesting and disturbing passages in the book deal with sexual violence perpetrated by women, simply “because they can”. This phrase echoes through the text. It takes no note of gender or faith, only strength and power precipitate evil action. There is no inherent tendency towards it but a dangerous cocktail of strength and desire that makes abuse possible and where such abuse is possible, abusers will emerge. In no passage is this more evident than when a refugee camp comes under attack late in the plot and atrocity after atrocity is perpetrated by women. Equally, there are those women for whom the skein does not function properly or who are born without one altogether. The term “pzit” for a woman who cannot shock taps into the current vocabulary of masculinity: “he’s a pussy”, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Similarly, the creeping distrust of individuals with chromosomal abnormalities that renders their bodies spliced across gender expectations is all too familiar. As is the disempowerment, isolation and shame they are made to feel.

Alderman’s prose is confident and fluid. The dialogue is bold and her characters are drawn in effervescent technicolour. The acknowledgments cite a debt to Margaret Attwood who “believed in this book when it was only a glimmer”. That debt is clear, not only in the subject matter and speculative quality of the fiction but also in the framing academic structure. The story itself is interspersed with academic documents and diagrams put together by a Neil Adam Armon (spot the anagram) some thousands of years in the future. Neil has written to Naomi with deference and gratitude for her opinion on his work. Much as I hate to say it, the humility of his letter and the earnestness of his thanks are deliberately appropriating the propensity to undervalue and undersell themselves that women so often show in the workplace (cheers, thousands of years of patriarchy).

By the same token, Naomi’s voice assumes a confidence bordering on arrogance and in places offers patronising and sceptical responses to suggestions that undermine the status quo of power relations between the genders. The assumed voice manages to capture the worst of masculine academic attitudes and it works brilliantly. The initial confusion at the masculine organising voice only makes the realisation of what Alderman is doing at the end of the book all the more gleeful.

This reading holiday has been a joyful one. Following Attrib. it has been so gratifying to get excited about a totally different kind of book and, as I turn my attention to Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀, I have a feeling that this excitement is only going to grow.

As ever, I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts. I wonder how different the reading experience is for a male reader? Postcards, carrier pigeons or comments below both welcomed and encouraged.

The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (1977)

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The Passion of New Eve follows the transformative punishment of Evelyn (who begins the story as a young Englishman) that sees him surgically re-sculpted into Eve. Evelyn impregnates and abandons the inchoate Leilah who once danced “a dance called the End of the World, to lead the unwary into temptation –“ and is left bleeding and sterile by the Haitian abortionist. Evelyn flees the streets of a nightmarish, dissolute imagining of New York for the unforgiving sterility of the desert. There he is captured and cast before Mother, an absurd rendering of a fertility goddess who:

…had reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and needles into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example, and flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters’ breasts over the cathedral of her interior, the cave within the cave.

Mother exacts vengeance on Evelyn for his crimes against women and intends the re-enactment of the Immaculate Conception until she flees. In her flight, Eve soon comes under the power of Zero the poet, with one eye and seven (soon to be eight) wives whom he rapes and beats, raging against the moviestar and “dyke” Tristessa, object of Eve’s obsession, who he believes has stolen his fertility. The revelation of Tristessa’s own secret follows before the third and final phase of Eve’s journey begins: she is captured once again and finds herself a maternal comfort to the Colonel of the boy soldiers who weeps at her breast. Ultimately the apocalyptic vision of the novel comes to fruition in the multi-factioned civil war; the skies burst with flames and Eve must move forward, at once towards her past and future.

Carter’s prose is described as “pyrotechnic” in a quotation from The Observer on the front cover and that it certainly is. Graphic, colourful and lurid Carter crafts a surreal dystopia structured around mythologies and iconographies of the sexed body. It is through these mythic re-imaginings that Carter exposes the inherent inadequacy of the binarism that underpins them: a matriarchy founded on motherhood is a matriarchy defined by phallocentric conceptions of femininity as evidenced by the symbol of the “truncated phallus” by which those women define themselves. The images that Evelyn is shown during his metamorphosis in order to feminise him psychologically reinforce a phallocentric conception of a femininity that is passive, malleable and receptive: “…sea-anemones opening and closing; caves, with streams issuing from them; roses opening to admit a bee; the sea, the moon…”

The body in this world is amorphous and through Eve/lyn’s transformation and indeed through the absurd Tiresian figure of Tristessa, Carter excavates the connections and disparities between “the essence and appearance”. The opening passages detail Leilah’s ritualised robing in which the reflection of her body in the cracked mirror (an image that recurs throughout the novel) acts a blank canvas for her to decorate and costume as if for some grotesque carnival:

…applying rouge to her nether lips and the purple or peony of scarlet grease around her mouth and nipples; powders and unguents all the colours of the rainbow went on to the skin in the sockets of her eyes…

Leilah’s performance and manipulation of the body in a way foreshadows the blankness and potentiality of Eve’s rebirth. Once Evelyn’s emasculation is complete she exists as “a tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I hae not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no: both more and less than a real woman.” Eve learns to perform her new sex whether in the role of Zero’s eighth wife, Tristessa’s lover or as comfort to the boy soldier who weeps. However, “to become” a woman in this novel is to be defined by phallocentric expectation of womanhood as symbolised in the rapist Zero, the murderous boy soldier and the “mythic and monstrous” Mother. The body exists as an instrument of performance but the performance is of a gender defined by sex: even Tristessa, whose “name has all the poignancy of hopelessness in its whispering sibilants” is forced to embrace the gender expectations intrinsic to his biology.

The ideas Carter dramatizes here are articulated explicitly in her work The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, published the year after this novel in 1978. It is heavily informed by a variety of feminist writings, not least of all Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, and if these questions of gender and performance interest you I would also recommend digging into some Judith Butler. Next up for me… am I finally going to crack into The Luminaries?

Feminism, Islam and the importance of complexity

When I sat down to write this post on Saturday morning, it was going to be about literary Christmas presents. Something fun and frivolous for the pleasingly alliterative festive season. However, in my pre-post pottering I came across this article by Laurie Penny. Entitled, ‘This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia’, it raises various ideas about the assumption of feminist authority by far right commentators to derail and distract from discussions of structural sexism in the West with Islamophobia. I have been following the response she has received – albeit intermittently due to various travels and familial duties –  both on Twitter and in the comments section below the article itself and as such I felt moved to offer my tuppence, however insignificant that tuppence might be.

A great deal of the criticism Penny has received for this article objects to the stereotyping of different gender groups – in particular white men – and expresses outrage that it is not an article condemning oppressive practices at work in the name of Islam. Both these responses, to me, miss the point that Penny is making: this is not an article about radical Islam, nor is it an article about gender stereotyping, it is an article about language and the appropriation of that language in the name of hypocrisy and hatred. This is something she sets out very clearly in the opening paragraph, “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.” Penny is calling out hypocrisy and with it an insidious brand of misogyny that dresses itself up in words like freedom and equality and, in doing so, muddies the inherent value and meaning of those words. The ‘equal’ West and the ‘oppressive’ Middle East is a dangerous and false dichotomy that plays out across a broader media and political narrative but it is particularly infuriating when, as Penny points out, it is crassly politicised by organisations of the far right whose own records on gender discrimination are themselves so questionable.

Any discussion of discrimination leads to stereotyping in some degree: by its very nature it necessitates the catergorisation of groups of people be it white men or Muslim women (though it’s interesting that one is defined by race the other by religion). This is always going to be reductive and until the language of political debate and discourse starts to privilege complexity and nuance over quotability it will continue to be so. I’ve been wanting to write a post about contemporary political rhetoric for some time and whilst the finer details of that future post are still ruminating among cobwebs somewhere dusty at the back of my brain, this article speaks to some of those ideas. I can’t bear watching politicians speak, whether it’s on Newsnight or in the Commons the priority is to deliver simplistic, quotable one-liners that will play well with whichever demographic they are playing to (look at me generalising and stereotyping there…). We should require of our politicians and commentators on both the left and the right (what could be more reductive than that?) that they embrace complexity and nuance; they should be complicating issues not artificially simplifying them. We need complexity and the culture of the soundbyte negates it.

The response to Penny’s article exemplifies this: to identify one issue – the appropriation of feminist language and rhetoric by Western politicians both to propagate Islamophobia and maintain the fundamental inequalities of Western society – does not diminish nor deny the importance of another, let’s say the suggestion of gender segregation in universities or the stoning of women for adultery. It’s not an either-or discussion. It should go without saying that Penny stands against those latter two and, importantly, just because she has written what I think is an articulate and provocative comment piece on the former doesn’t mean she is, necessarily, privileging it.

Journalists like Penny go out of their way to complicate debate and that is exactly what this article is doing. The subtext of “West good Islam bad” that permeates so much of both the media and political narratives (again note the geographic v. the religious there) is not only unhelpfully reductive in the extreme but downright insulting, not just to the women who are still, relentlessly, fighting for a voice and making themselves heard but to those women, like Penny, like Caroline Criado-Perez, who are so frequently told that they have a voice, so why don’t they stop their whining and just shut up?

The Red Room, New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës

 

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This collection of short fiction is another Unthank publication (I recently reviewed their new writing Unthology here) in which editor A. J. Ashworth has gathered together twelve new stories inspired by all things Brontë. As she explains in her Introduction, the collection came about as part of an effort  to celebrate the Brontës’ association with the village of Thornton where, “Our nation’s most famous sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne” were in fact born. A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of this collection will be donated to The Brontë Birthplace Trust by Unthank, not only to support the promotion of Thornton as a tourist attraction but also to contribute to ongoing fundraising to purchase 72/74 Market Street which appears to be currently be in private hands.

In addition to these stories, the collection also features ‘Emily B’, a poem by Simon Armitage that effectively captures the essence of the Brontës’ or at least, their essence as it exists in the collective imagination. Armitage conveys a wild, hard-edged natural energy, inextricable from the setting of the moors  and the ‘dry wind that rushes’ there, whilst alluding to the inherent tragedy of Emily’s, and indeed all the sisters’ lives, as ‘bad water/leaches the graveyard’ and premature death becomes inescapable.

The stories gathered here are variously dark, playful, sad and eerie. Some extremely accomplished writers engage with the work and lives of the Brontës in different ways, whether it be through the figure of the lost little boy or the isolated governess, the limitations of poverty set in contrast to the freedom afforded by wealth, or most consistently through the weather and landscape of Yorkshire, so integral to the tales they tell us.

Alison Moore’s opening piece is an eerie re-imagining of Catherine repressed in a different time. It draws on familiar ideas of religion and marriage as tools of masculine oppression, even, it is suggested, as the sinister Mr Blakemore puts “four fingers and a thumb inside her mouth so that she would not forget” of physical violation. Elsewhere, the tone shifts to a more playful one, Zoë King’s ‘My Dear Miss…’ imagines a correspondence between the ever-meddlesome Emma Woodhouse (of Emma fame) and Jane Eyre, troubled under the pressure of St John’s proposal. Other stories engage with the influence and impact of the works themselves, Sarah Dobbs’ portrait of a young boy in the anguish of grief and the impressionable teenager in Elizabeth Baines’ ‘The Turbulent Stillness’ both feel the import of Wuthering Heights in one way or another.

The writing is at times moving and reverential in its treatment of the sisters and their works and at others entirely irreverent and ironic. I teach both Jane Eyre  and Wuthering Heights and I see daily the lasting effects that those two works specifically (sorry Anne!) have on students and the longstanding power they hold within the imagination. Part of the pleasure in any tribute is tracing the lines and patterns to the originals, spotting the references and enjoying the sense that you, like a conspirator, are in on the secret. This collection is rich with clues of this nature but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them and invites you, with the contributors to meditate on your own, personal encounters with these wonderful, ill-fated sisters. I read this at home with my family for the half-term break and it’s a good job too as I find myself reaching for my own, rather dog-eared, first and very special copy of Wuthering Heights once again.

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Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

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This novel is the second recommendation from that fabulously gifted friend mentioned in my last post. If you have already encountered Written on the Body, I’m sure you’ll be able to gather why it was mentioned in the same breath as DeLillo’s  The Body Artist. Both novels are concerned with the human psyche and exposing the relationship it bears, or in this case, exploding the relationship it bears to the gendered body.

The opening line of the novel links love with loss in posing the question, “Why is the measure of love loss?”. The structure of this one line introductory paragraph effectively encapsulates the undulating movement of the narrative that is to follow. The narrator weaves a story through memories of and reflections on the nature and experience of love and the loss of that love. The physical body – as the title would suggest – lies at the centre of this narrative. Love is examined through the body and the connection of bodies.

The narrative voice is technically genderless. The voice has girlfriends and boyfriends but is never identified as male or female to the reader. The result is not, however, the strange sense of dissociation of psyche from physicality that one finds in the DeLillo but instead an intense and bodily exploration of sexual subjectivity. Even the body here, if only the narrator’s body (a point to which I will return), is stripped of gender and with it any social gender constructs or preconceptions that the reader brings with them. Winterson herself once commented in an interview that, for her, “a love story is a love story. I don’t care what the genders are if it’s powerful enough. And I don’t think that love should be a gender-bound operation.”

In many ways, this novel reads as a mediation on the disconnect between the body as a vehicle for a gendered consciouness and the experience of love through that same body. This is one of the things that I struggled with: the novel, in denying the narrative voice a gender would seem to be aiming at the transcendent power of love. The problem I have is that the same narrative gives the body primacy within the novel. It feels contradictory. The narrator has no gender but is defined by sexual encounters and experiences of the body. The attempt to tie love to the physical and in the same moment to deny the relevance of gender to that physicality seems to fall over itself and as a result it just doesn’t quite work.

Another problem is the nature of the language, I found it very uncomfortable to read in places. Now there’s nothing wrong with that; a good book should certainly make you squirm, should ask questions of its reader and one of the text’s successes is definitely its undermining of romantic cliché. Again though, in exposing the failure of language through a sort of corrupted lyricism, the graphic sexuality somehow at odds with its own imagery, it ties itself in knots. How can the depth and truth of love be figured as textual, as “written on the body” as a name “scored… into my shoulders” if language ultimately constitutes failure? The narrator tells us that, “Love demands expression.  It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no.  It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.” And yet even the simplest expression of that love is deplored as “unoriginal”.

Am I missing the point here? Of course the text is straining past the constructs and conventions of gender and love; it embraces the contradictions I’m grappling with as inherent to the experience of love in a world where sexuality and gender are increasingly dissociated. I’m just not quite sure I buy it.

All of that said, it does make for a fascinating read. As you can probably tell, I have got myself into a bit of tangle over it and I would be very keen to hear from anyone who may be able to help me unpick it all in the comments section below…

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Nightwood, Djuna Barnes

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
I came across Nightwood cited as one of ‘the world’s most difficult books’ in this Guardian blog post (for a full list click through, I’m not entirely convinced – surely substitute Ulysses for Finnegan’s Wake? – but that’s another blog post…) and in a particularly defiant mood I ordered myself a copy. I finally got round to tackling it this week; I was, I don’t mind admitting, more than a little apprehensive but my nerves proved as ill-founded as this novel proved extraordinary.

Published in 1936 Nightwood revolves around the lives of five characters thrust together in the rushing decadence of 1920s Paris. Some American, some European this collection of outsiders take a hold of you as you read, you find yourself drawn to them with a sort of compulsion that works like a rhythm through the prose.

Iin her 2007 Introduction, Jeanette Winterson identifies the beginnings of “the modern diaspora” in the strange sadness of the self-proclaimed Baron Felix Volkbein; the chaos of Robin Vote, propelled by alcohol and unhappiness into the arms of strangers; the desperate passion of Nora Flood compelled to follow her; the happiness magpie that is Jenny Petheridge, only able to appropriate the feelings of others and the grotesque wisdom of the transvestite’doctor’ Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. The combine to create a miasmic instability within their world.

Identity is fluid and shifting here. The language of the novel is charged with the permeability of gender, sexuality, religion and class; indeed it is well-known as one of the first and most powerful literary portrayals of homosexual relationships. This tag though, I feel is reductive when in fact, as Winterson points out the novel’s “power makes a nonsense of any categorization, especially gender and sexuality”.

Barnes presents us with characters groping into the shadows for self-knowledge, seeking to understand themselves as much as they seek to grasp those they love. Reality is refracted through feeling to be revealed in all its raw, bleeding intensity; multi-faceted and complex it glares up at you from the page. These characters are indeed “missing and whole”.

Aspects of this novel remind me of the more sordid underworld that F. Scott-Fitzgerald hints at in the roaring twenties of The Great Gatsby’s New York. Both novels operate with the spectre of the First World War hovering in memory and image and both are poetic in their prose. Indeed, T.S. Eliot in his Preface to Nightwood identifies a “prose rhythm… and the musical pattern which is not that of verse,” going on to assert that it, “is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”
I absolutely see what Eliot means here, there is a sort of rhythmic rise and fall to the language that leaves an impression of intense feeling perhaps best exemplified in ‘the doctor’s’ extraordinary, long sermonic speeches in which he acknowledges, “I have a narrative, but you will be put to it to find it”. It is a difficult text. The prose is dense, beautiful and painful all at once. The ‘doctor’s’ statement that “Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two are buried at opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both” burns with vivid beauty and vivid pain.

Djuna Barnes herself is as fascinating a character as any one of her creations. She died a recluse in 1982 having returned to Greenwich Village. Nightwood famously includes elements that are clearly autobiographical. She herself spent time in Paris in her twenties and just as we may identify Nora Flood with Barnes so the character of Robin Vote offers parallels with her lover the American sculptor Thelma Wood. Again, though, any preoccupation with distinguishing between the real and the imagined feels reductive; to explain or to categorise the depth and reach of emotion in Nightwood is to deny its power.

I am certainly going to seek out more Djuna Barnes and you may find the poems offered here a useful starting point. Other works include:

The Book of Repulsive Women

Ladies Almanack

Ryder

The Antiphon

Spillway

In the meantime, T.S. Eliot (who incidentally edited Nightwood, softening some of the language and sexuality of the text mindful of censors…) suggests that one reading is not sufficient to grasp the full meaning of Nightwood; in light of this, I think I’m going to read it again and see what happens a second time round. I suspect it will feel ever more pertinent and ever more painful in its fervent, unashamed embrace of the complexity in which it renders human feeling, connection and loss.