Findings by Kathleen Jamie

“This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse.”

Image result for findings kathleen jamieWhen I read that line I realised that Jamie had latched on, somehow, to my very thoughts, and I realised that most of my reading this year, my most rewarding reading experiences, has been aimed towards this particular goal. Reading, for me, for everyone possibly, is a way of learning, it is a way of learning how to be in the world because we read how people behave and decide how we want to behave and we learn how to be those things through books. Jamie is an excellent example of someone who has learned how to notice, but not to analyse. It is, perhaps, the ultimate way of being in the moment, of observing something and enjoying it for what it is – seeing the bird looping in the wild air and not wanting to capture it by naming or description but simply observing the way it whoops and whirls. It is a state I have been struggling to overcome, it is not my nature to just watch and accept I am always trying to capture and own. I saw two birds walking along a wall at the side of the railway line last week, two black and white birds with long orange beaks, and they were walking single file and they looked beautiful and strangely hilarious and my first thought was ‘wow’ and my second was ‘what are those’ and the answer is oystercatchers, but I would rather the second part had remained somewhat unknown.

 Findings is a series of essays by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. There’s no particular theme beyond Jamie’s desire to see, to observe and be present in the world. It begins with Jamie’s foray into light and darkness, her questioning of the ways in which we perceive darkness as something negative, an absence, a place of death:

“I imagned travelling into the dark. Northward –  so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail by night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out The darkness through which might shine the Beacon of Hope. Isaiah’s dark: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’

Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness are we not? When my son was born, a midwinter child, he cried pitifully at the ward’s lights, and only settled to sleep when he was laid in a big pram with a black hood under a black umbrella. Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closed down with the cones of our retinas. I mean, I looked up ‘darkness’ on the Web – and was offered Christian ministries offering to lead me to salvation. And there is always death. We say death is darkness; and darkness death.”

She travels to the Orknay Islands to Maes Howe, a Viking tomb which captures the midwinter sun yet the trip doesn’t quite work out as she’d hoped. In other essays she watches peregrine falcons and ospreys,  she hunts the  elusive corncrake (which many will remember from Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun), she watches salmon attempting to leap, unsuccessfully, up a burn, she visits an abandoned island where she finds the decaying body of a whale and hacks the head off a dead gannet with her Swiss Army knife. She visits the Surgeons’ Hall and observes the many body parts which are collected there, the misshapen and tumorous, and leaves in tears. Here, where her husband is extremely sick with a fever, she observes the cobwebs gathered under the gutter of her house:

“Under the gutter of our house are many cobwebs, each attached at a slightly different angle to the wall. It’s an east-facing wall, so on sunny mornings the cobwebs are alight.

The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe. One cobweb after another – a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys. He biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist’s hand-span. I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group.”

The essays are at once detached and highly empathetic. Jamie has a beautiful way of writing, whether she is writing of tumbledown old shielings or the Edinburgh skyline, she has a fresh gaze and an eye for the unusual and whilst some of her subject matter can seem harsh or lurid – as when she hacks off the head of the gannet – there is an underlying reverence which elevates the experience to something more than mere violence. Jamie is one of those writers who can capture the magnificence and extraordinary beauty of the natural world and bring it dispassionately, or passionately, to life, a secular Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver. I remember being entranced the first time I read this book and that entrancing withstands, or in fact benefits from, re-reading. It is a gorgeous book, sparse and wonderfully written and it was exactly what I needed this week (it’s been a rubbish week) to remind me of what’s important and what the world offers us when we step outside the everyday.

Posted in nature, non-fiction, re-read | Leave a comment

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

“Human life is comprised of situations.”

Flights is one of those books which is hard to describe. It is hard to describe and it is even harder to review because reviewing requires some description and the nebulousness of this book makes description impossible. In fact not just impossible but actually counter to the philosophy of the book itself which posits description, in one posting anyway, as an act of destruction in itself:

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours. Even I, in my youthful naivete, once took a shot at the description of places. But when I would go back to those descriptions later, when I’d try to take a deep breath and allow their intense presence to choke me up all over again, when I’d try to listen in on their murmurings, I was always in for a shock. The truth is terrible: describing is destroying.”

So let me attempt a little act of destructive description here. Flights is a book about travel, it is about maps. It is about different kinds of maps: maps of places – which themselves figure in the book – maps of the body, in particular the work of the anatomists who Image result for flights by olga tokarczukhave both described and destroyed the body, captured and mapped it and shared it like those multi-language guide books do; maps of the mind, of consciousness, of the art of travelling and the question of motion. It’s about ‘kairos’ – the Greek God of moments, time captured in a bubble, the opportune or momentous time. It is about plastination, the art of preserving the body in a form which allows it to be both captured and revealed. All these ideas, these concepts, mingle together to make a complex, yet strangely cohesive whole. It is all interlinked, and through clever placement and clever repetition, Tokarczuk reveals this interconnection in surprising and, often, entertaining ways.

“The more experienced a biologist you become, the longer and harder you look at the complex structures and connections in the biosystem, the stronger your hunch that all animate things cooperate in this growth and bursting, supporting one another. Living organisms give themselves to one another, permit one another to make use of them. If rivalry exists, it is a localised phenomenon, an upsetting of the balance. It is true that tree branches jostle one another out of the way to reach the light, their roots collide in the race to a water source, animals eat each other, but there is in all this a kind of accord, it’s just an accord that men find frightening. It might appear that we are actors in a great bodily theatre, as though those wars we wage were merely civil wars. This – what other word to use? – lives, has a million traits and qualities, so that everything is contained within it, and there is nothing that might lie outside of it, all death is part of life, and in some sense there is no death. There are no errors. There are no guilty parties and no innocents, either, no merits, no sins, no good or evil; whoever thought up those notions led humankind astray.”

The structure of the book is equally unusual, or rather it is a kind of usual that is unusually deployed. The book comprises a collection of short pieces, many of which are less than a page long, some as short as a line or a single paragraph. Each piece contains an observation, or a story. Those stories are factual and fictional, they blend the idea of fiction and non-fiction in a way which is unusual to the Western ear (in many cultures there is no separation of fiction and non-fiction, there are stories and there are text books and books like memoirs are considered just another kind of story). Interspersed between the shorter pieces are a handful of longer sections, one of which is a continuous story of a man called Kunicki who lost his wife and son on the island of Vis, and the way this loss affected him. The quality of the writing is quite extraordinary; it is at once clear and enticing, it is reflective and clever and very compelling. Tokarczuk weaves her tales so convincingly that when the purely fictional stories come, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

“’In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.”

Flights is a difficult book to grasp whilst being extremely easy to read. It reminded me of a kind of mash up between Renata Adler and Maggie Nelson, not as philosophical as Nelson but rippled through with philosophy yet not as person-centric as Adler but with a very personable, and character driven tone. Style-wise the book is similar to these two as well, but somehow there is less formality and more playfulness and in this respect it also reminded me of Calvino in some of his more esoteric writings like Mr. Palomar or Invisible Cities. There’s a playfulness there, an experimentality, you get the impression that Tokarczuk is writing what she feels and seeing where it goes, yet the construction, the style and the skill of her pieces belies that level of spontaneity. No, Tokarczuk is a writer of power exercising her power in a fascinating and entertaining way. It’s like finding yourself in a museum in which each exhibit is both different and connected and as you walk along you find yourself being more and more drawn into it, its dizzying array of styles and perspectives, forms and presentations, and you emerge from it blinking and slightly unsettled, unsure of what you’ve just seen but yet dazzled by it. It has cemented my (not inconsiderable) respect for Fitzcarraldo Editions as a publishing house with spark and an eye for innovative writing and it has made me desire a subscription even more (if that was possible), a desire I’m going to have to work hard to quash after this.

Posted in fiction | 8 Comments

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Freedom is never very safe.”

Every now and again I remember that I enjoy science fiction immensely. It is a genre which is as full as rubbish as any other, sometimes descending into space opera, misogyny and trashy space erotica, but the same can be said for every literary genre. Crime is not populated purely by the Christies and Frenchs, general literature has its beach novels and its formulaic action heroes. At its best science fiction challenges both how we live and how we interact with both others and technology. It reflects our biases and our prejudices back at us in a form which is difficult to reject. It changes the world from Asimov’s three laws of robotics to Arthur C. Clark’s geosynchronous orbit, William Gibson’s coining of cyberspace to Ballard’s uncanny prescience on climate change and our relationship with advertising, science fiction both invades and defines our daily lives. It subverts language and space and time, our perception and understanding of it. The challenge, as with all genres, is separating the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately there are plenty of great names to work with that for the occasional reader it’s pretty easy to avoid the trash.

Ursula Le Guin is not just a great science fiction writer, she’s a great writer. Last year while I was away I read Lathe of Heaven, my first Le Guin, and it was interesting, challenging, but it ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way and for some reason I didn’t review it, I’m not sure why now. The Dispossessed is one of her better known science fiction novels (The Left Hand of Darkness perhaps the most famous, and one I have not yet read), it won a Nebula Award, a Hugo Award and the Locus Award, quite a set of achievements. It is, I discovered, part of the ‘Hainish’ series, the Hainish being a species which are referred to briefly in The Dispossessed, which has further piqued my interest. Science fiction has a way of world building which, if done well, can be utterly convincing and compelling. It can be fun to disappear into an unusual world with strange echoes of our own.

The DisImage result for the dispossessedpossessed tells the story of Shevek. Shevek is a physicist living on te moon Anarres which orbits the planet Urras. Shevek’s home is an arid, difficult and rocky environment on which the inhabitants eke out a living. His race are descended from anarchists who separated from Urras, desiring to live as a community without government or governance, no leadership. What we would term communism, but communism properly realised, without the ‘leadership’ which exists in those parts of the world designated communist here. A system devoid of personal and structural power, in which people do not exercise authority over each other. The Anarres live according to the tenets of Odo, an Urras woman who seeded the anarchist movement, who was imprisoned many times for her beliefs and who herself never left Urras. The people of Anarres live behind a wall, they trade with Urras but on strict terms: no one from Urras can enter Anarres (kind of like Dejima in Nagasaki), fearing what they term are the ‘profiteers’, a culture which exists on the backs of the poor and the disenfranchised. Citizens of Anarres are deterred from ‘egoizing’, which might be described as forceful individualism, there are no prisons and no laws beyond the tenets of Odo (and these, too, are loosely interpreted) and no punishment, there is a created language which avoids possessive terminology – for example, Shevek’s daughter offers him the use of the ‘handkerchief I use’, as opposed to her handkerchief, a denial of possession – people work on what they want to but collective labour is encouraged for the benefit of society first and people are given work assignments, when requested, by a centralised system called ‘Divlab’. No one has any possessions, everything is shared and not owned. The needs of society come before the needs of the individual.

Shevek is working on a unified Theory of Temporality, a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionise communication between worlds. At the opening of the book we see Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, by this time Shevek is widely considered to be a ‘traitor’ (an interesting concept for a planet without structured law), being the first resident of Anarres to leave his planet. Shevek is concerned with bringing down walls, the first of which is the restrictions which keep Urras out and Anarres in. Yet his society see this as a risky prospect, opening them up to the profiteers who will use Shevek’s ideas to subjugate their world. Yet Shevek still goes. The book then proceeds with alternating chapters – one telling of Shevek’s new life and experiences on Urras, a world which he finds strangely beautiful and compelling, contrasted against his old life on Anarres. Thus we discover Shevek’s back story whilst discovering, with Shevek, how different the ‘old’ world is to the society which has been built on Anarres. At times Shevek is overcome by the beauty, the plenty and the abundance of life on Urras, as he describes here:

“It was the most beautiful view Shevek had ever seen. The tenderness and vitality of the colours, the mixture of rectilinear human design and powerful, proliferate natural contours, the variety and harmony of the elements, gace the impression of a complex wholeness such as he had never seen except, perhaps, foreshadowed on a small scale in certain serene and thoughtful human faces.

Compared to this, every scene Anarres could offer, even the Plain of Abbenay and the gorges of Ne Theras, was meagre: barren, arid, inchoate. The deserts of the South-west had a vast beauty, but it was hostile and timeless. Even where men farmed Anarres most closely their landscape was like a crude sketch in yellow chalk, compared to this fulfilled magnificence of life, rich in the sense of history and of seasons to come, inexhaustible.

This is what a world is supposed to look like, Shevek thought.”

However, Shevek soon comes to realise that he has made a terrible bargain. Though Urras is beautiful on the surface, it hides an ugliness at the heart of its culture. Inequality, authoritarianism and subordination dominate its society. There are wars and violent suppression of demonstrations. Shevek, initially, is shielded from this. His ‘hosts’ (read: jailors) on Urras show him only the surface, their achievements and accomplishments. They seduce him with an array of foods and comforts, the likes of which would never be seen on Anarres. Yet Shevek is not fooled. He knows he cannot trust his hosts, though this is an impossible situation for someone who has been brought up to be open and trusting. He is unused to scheming and the idea of having been ‘bought’ because currency and trade do not exist in his society. Yet the inequality inherent in the society is unavoidable, as Shevek learns early on:

“Shevek turned the conversation, but he went on thinking about it. This matter of superiority and inferiority must be a central one in Urrasti social life. If to respect himself Kimoe had to consider half the human race as inferior to him, how then did women manage to respect themselves – did they consider men inferior? And how did all that affect their sex-lives? He knew from Odo’s writings that, two hundred years ago, the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been ‘marriage’, a partnership authorised and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode. Odo had condemned them both; and yet Odo had been ‘married’; and anyhow the institutions might have changed greatly in two hundred years. If he was going to live on Urras and with the Urrasti, he had better find out.”

Through the chapters on Anarres, we learn that the society is not much better there. Whilst the ideology is such that power is not exercised, Shevek finds to his disappointment that his attempts to expand his theory are blocked by vested-interests in his field and restrictions on the ability to publish. He is forced, though force is said not to exist, to share credit for his theories just to enable them to be published and whilst he has been indoctrinated not to ‘egoize’ the dissonance between how his society is supposed to work and how it does work grinds Shevek down. He partners with a woman called Takver and both she and his group of close friends find themselves being persecuted, treated with dismissal or hatred, because of their ideas. They are anarchists on a world said to be built on anarchy, yet Shevek comes to learn that any centralisation becomes prone to abuse, to the seduction of power. As Shevek realises through his experiences on both planets, ‘freedom is never very safe,’ one has to fight for it, risk for it, and demand it at all turns. It is a powerful message, made more powerful by the intricate structure of the book and the idealism of the character of Shevek, a man who finds himself an outsider wherever he turns.

The Dispossessed is a very clever book, beautifully written and absorbing. Le Guin has the ability to combine examination of complex ideas with an entertaining story so that you find yourself swept up in it whilst never failing to recognise the concepts she’s exploring. By contrasting the cultures of Urras and Anarres as she does, she reveals the positives and the failings of both systems, she manages to remain entirely non-partisan all the way through because it is in Shevek, the man who combines the best of both of these worlds, that the ideal exists. She does not set one society above the other, she simply explores the ways in which each society results in hardship and for some whilst enabling others. Whilst the setting is alien, the concepts are not and it is easy to see Urras as the decadent West and Anarres as communist Russia or China, though the communist systems as we’ve lived them have never been a true leaderless society (as, arguable, Anarres is not either). Le Guin plays with the way language can be used to shape and control behaviour, and she explores cultural assumptions which we live with today with a clinical and unfiltered eye, such that it leads you to question the validity of some of our cultural practices, the way we justify them and the mechanisms that are used to enforce them. It is a book which asks what it means to be free, how we secure individual and collective freedoms without compromising the freedoms of others. It is as timely a book now as when it was written in the ‘70s, perhaps more so given the rise of populism which is, to a degree, controlled and directed by a small number of vested interests. It has reinforced my love of science fiction, my respect for Le Guin, and the importance of literature in general. All whilst being very entertaining and enjoyable to read.

Posted in equality, fiction, gender, science fiction | 4 Comments

[Interlude] Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

“Keep sharpening your knife

And it will blunt.”

This is not a regular review, more of a reflection. Outside of my ordinary reading I have been dipping into poetry and other such things and somehow I came across the Tao, I can’t really remember how it happened. I think I must have read something else which made reference to it and out of the thinnest thread of curiosity I decided to borrow it from the library. I have, for a long time, been interested in buddhism, not to the extent that I could become a ‘follower’ but rather because there are ideas in buddhism which intrigue me, and the Tao has similar appeal but I was not quite ready for how wholly it would entrance me. The Tao is like a logical puzzle, yet it is neither logical nor a puzzle. It is a strange philosophy and yet it seems to encapsulate much of what I have been thinking and feeling over the past several months since I decided I needed to slow down, to restrict my reading and take more time over things. As with my interest in buddhism I am not about to become a follower, but the ideas, the ways of being advocated by the Tao, hold great interest for me and in many ways it is closer to both how I feel and how I would like to be than any other philosophy I have encountered.

The Tao Te Ching consists of 81 passages, presented like poems. There are a number of translations. I do not know which is the most faithful, but the one I enjoy the most is the translation by Stephen Mitchell. There is something clean about it, modern perhaps, it reveals complexity of thought through simple language. Like here, in his translation of one of the more famed passages, passage 33:

“Knowing others is intelligence;

Knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength;

Mastering yourself is true power.

 

If you realise that you have enough,

You are truly rich.

If you stay in the centre

And embrace death with your whole heart,

You will endure forever.”

It is not, of course, the veracity of the translation which interests me here, but rather the ideas contained within the words. It is an idea which has directed my thoughts and my actions for the past several months. I am trying to divest myself of the confusions created by desire, often desires which are fleeting and immaterial (or material in nature: the ownership, possession of books and things; the ideologies which are spread by the news, by politicians) and which do not bring either comfort or meaning or joy to my life. The Tao is a wonderful resource for reminding oneself of the necessity for silence and emptiness in a world which tells us that our life is worth nothing if we are not full, if we do not fill ourselves with food and experience, stuff our homes full of objects to display. As passage 9 states:

“Fill your bowl to the brim

And it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

And it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

And your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval

And you will be their prisoner.

 

Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.”

 

The Tao presents an idea of a life lived without the need for self-presentation, for praise or recognition. It is a philosophy which eschews the idea of image and exteriority. Since I have pulled back from doing things which are driven by fleeting and ephemeral desires I have noticed this more pressingly. Everything we see in the Western world is directing us towards the external presentation of the self, telling us that if we only look this way, sound this way, if only we have eaten these foods or seen these plays or TV shows, then we will be valuable and accepted in our society, that we will be admired. But admiration is like empty air, you suck it up and it is gone, it demands constant attention and it can direct us away from the things which matter most to us: love, connection, trust, intimacy. These things are not formed from external things, nor from a perfect image or from the things we have consumed. They are formed by outreaching, by being vulnerable and being willing to accept the vulnerability of others. The Tao advises us to be gentle and flexible, to be content with things as they are and not expend our energy on trying to force things to be what we want them to be. It asks us to let go of our need for control and step back, observe the world as it is and love it for what it is:

“If you realise that all things change,

There is nothing you will try to hold on to.

If you aren’t afraid of dying,

There is nothing you can’t achieve.

 

Trying to control the future

Is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.

When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,

Chances are that you’ll cut your hand.”

 

The Tao also has some comforting thoughts on matters of good governance, something which appears to be in short supply these days when ‘leadership’ seems to be reverting to a cult of personality and politics to mere gossip and squabbling. I wish our leaders would spend a little time reading and reflecting on the Tao, and perhaps they might learn this:

“If a country is governed with tolerance,

The people are comfortable and honest.

If a country is governed with repression,

The people are depressed and crafty.

 

When the will to power is in charge,

The higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Try to make people happy,

And you lay the groundwork for misery.

Try to make people moral,

And you lay the groundwork for vice.

 

Thus the Master is content

To serve as an example

And not to impose her will.

She is pointed but doesn’t pierce.

Straightforward, but supple.

Radiant, but easy on the eyes.”

 

I have found the Tao to be a source of great comfort, but also challenge; a way of challenging my mindset, my desires, my way of thinking and behaving. It has made me think about who and what I want to be, how I want to behave towards others and the value, the relief, of letting go.

Posted in philosophy, religion | 4 Comments

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

“6. This half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.”

When I read Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts last year it completely blew me away; it is a short but unusual book, raw and vibrant, unguarded (or seemingly so), beautiful and honest and smart. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before, unforgettable, and it cemented Maggie Nelson, even if only for that one book, as one of my favourite writers. Since I’ve been reading fewer books, I’ve had my eye on Bluets, in fact I’ve been struggling not to just go out and buy it, but thankfully the wonder that is Lancashire library service saved both my purse and my good intentions again. Thank you, Lancashire libraries.

“171. When one begins to gather “fragments of blue dense,” one might think one is paying tribute to the blue wholes from which they came. But a blue bouquet is no homage to the bush. Over the years I have amassed countless blue stones, blue shards of glass, blue marbles, trampled blue photographs peeled of sidewalks, pieces of blue rubble from broken buildings, and though I can’t remember where most of them came from, I love them nonetheless.”

Bluets is another unusual book, a book comprising 240 prose poems centred around the colour blue, Nelson’s love for the colour blue and the obsessions involved in thinking and writing about it. It is also about sadness, loss, about pain, about ‘blue’ as in an emotion, feeling blue, being blue. Nelson weaves the end of a relationship into her musings about blue, as well as a friend who was involved in an accident which left her quadri-paralytic, an accident which left her ‘like a pebble in water’. Like The Argonauts, Bluets is a complex piece of writing which warrants some time and attention to unpick. And yet even with time and attention it is unpickable, it is beautiful and sad, it is like reading poetry mixed with philosophy. It defies analysis.

“79. For just because one loves blue does not mean that one wants to spend one’s life in a world made of it. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus,” wrote Emerson. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.”

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Nelson’s inspiration, her source materials beyond the colour blue, were Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Goethe, amongst others. The style I think is drawn directly from Wittgenstein, in particular his Remarks on Colour which was written at a time of sadness, during which Wittgenstein was dying, which was similarly written in short bursts of text, dense and difficult to comprehend. I haven’t read Wittgenstein; after reading Bluets once and then twice I went to Waterstones and took a brief read of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his one firmly philosophical book, and I began to understand both why Nelson admired him and the difficulty involved in emulating his style. But Bluets is not mere emulation, it is not pure homage, it is a thing in itself: tense, passionate, engaging.

“13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the colour blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.”

In writing Bluets Nelson covers a great deal of ground. She writes not just of colour but of passion, obsession, love. She writes of loss and pain, of sadness and vulnerability. As a piece of writing it is extraordinary, and yet I found myself a little disappointed because whilst it is a stirring piece it did not stir me as effectively as The Argonauts did, and I wished that somehow I had encountered Bluets first because I think The Argonauts may have spoiled it for me, being such a powerful piece of writing. Yet Bluets remains a worthy companion-piece. In the end I read it three times, and I think I could easily read it three times more and not have appreciated it in its entirety. Even if it lacks the power of The Argonauts it is a book well worth reading and coming back to.

“183. Goethe also worries over the destructive effects of writing. In particular, he worries over how to “keep the essential quality [of the thing] still living before us, and not to kill it with the word,” I must admit, I no longer worry about such things. For better or worse, I do not think writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is. What does your poetry do? – I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language (John Ashbery).”

Posted in non-fiction, poetry | 8 Comments

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“One is not born a chameleon, one becomes one.”

Image result for hot milk deborahHuzzah! After what feels like months of being unable to read fiction, of picking books up and abandoning them after 50 or so pages, I was beginning to believe that my relationship with fiction was limited to books I’d read before. I wasn’t entirely hopeful when I picked up Hot Milk, but those concerns were soon blasted away. Within the first few pages, in fact. Furthermore, I devoured the book so quickly I had time to read it again and read some of the Theogony, which I didn’t think of as ‘cheating’ at the time, largely because I found it so spectacularly boring I ended up putting it aside anyway and listening to a little Billie Holliday instead. And disappointingly, the reference to Medusa was so brief as to be considerably less enlightening than the Wikipedia page, and as I don’t consider Wikipedia cheating this opened up a bit of a dilemma as to what forms of reading constitute cheating and which don’t, which as yet I have found no landing on. However, irrespective of which reading is cheating and which isn’t, Hot Milk was a clever and entertaining read which has reaffirmed my faith in fiction and I could easily have read it a third time, but even I thought that a little excessive. Huzzah!

Hot Milk tells the story of Sofia Papastergiardis and her mother, Rose, a woman mysteriously afflicted with ailments no one seems to be able to cure. Sofia has brought her mother, at considerably expense, to Almeria to a clinic run by the famous Dr Gomez in a desperate attempt to find a cure. Rose, it seems, cannot walk. Except when she can. Her legs are numb, except when a fly lies on them. Sofia is young yet she has spent most of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s illness, having cared for her since her father – a Greek shipowner – abandoned them, suffered a religious conversion and married a woman not much older than Sofia with whom he has a baby. Sofia herself is abandoned to her mother’s illness, but she has also abandoned her studies and much of everything else it seems. She has a first-class degree, a Masters and is working on a PHD in cultural anthropology, but at the same time she is working as a waitress in an artisan coffee house back in Hackney and her PHD languishes unfinished. Identity, how we define ourselves, underlines a large part of this story. Sofia retains her Greek name, despite it being difficult to pronounce and spell, yet she is as English as her Yorkshire Mum and she speaks little Greek, seeing it as the language of abandonment. She is an anthropologist, but when Juan, the beach attendant who treats her jellyfish stings, asks her to fill out a questionnaire which includes her occupation she writes ‘waitress’. Juan himself is a philosophy student, yet spends his days tending jellyfish stings and some of his evenings tending Sofia, as they enter into a sexual, if not romantic, relationship. Her mother, Rose, is both an invalid and not; she is fragile yet formidable and the water is never right. Dr. Gomez is both a renowned doctor, commanding a £25,000 fee, and a ‘quack’; his daughter Julieta is referred to as ‘Nurse Sunshine’ yet this is not her name but rather a name her father attached to her when she stopped smiling after her mother died. Everywhere you look there are people being things that they are not and not being things that they are. And Sofia, the cultural anthropologist, begins to ask what all of this identity framing is for, as she describes here when encountering the woman, who she had thought was a man, who sells watermelons:

“I showered and oiled my hair and then walked over to the plaza to buy a watermelon from the woman in the truck who I had first thought was a man. She was sitting in the driver’s seat with her young grandson sprawled on her lap. They were eating figs. Purple dusty figs, the colour of twilight. She told the boy to choose me a melon, which he did, and when she took the money she put in a cotton wallet that was strapped around the waist of her black dress. She had taken off her sandals and placed them in the compartment of the truck door. I noticed a ball of bone growing like a small island on the side of her right foot. Her arms were brown and strong, he cheek-bones sun-lashed, her hips wide as she moved to make space for her grandson when he clambered back on to her lap. Her body. Who is her body supposed to please? What is it for and is it ugly or is it something else? She silently pressed another fig into the boy’s hand, resting her chin on her head. She was a farmer and grandmother running her own economy with her money bag pressed against her womb.”

Medusas are also everywhere, along with Greek mythology. Medusa is the name of the jellyfish which stings Sofia, and Sofia herself is a ‘medusa’, a woman who transforms, who is transformed, by her illicit relationship with Poseidon (or, perhaps, Juan) from an ordinary, if beautiful woman to a ‘monster’. Sofia becomes stung with desire, though it is not her desire for Juan which triggers this but rather her desire for Ingrid Bauer, a German woman living in Almeria, a woman who embroiders unique designs on cast off clothes, a woman who wears men’s boots and blue velvet shorts, who has long, blonde braids and rides a horse, who carries around a tiny bow and arrow with which she shoots lizards so she can copy their design. Ingrid is a ‘big bad sister’ and Sofia is in her thrall:

“I am studying Ingrid Bauer’s bow and arrow. It is magnifying in my mind until it becomes a weapon that can wound its prey. The bow is shaped like lips. The arrow’s tip is sharp. Why am I a monster to Ingrid? She thinks of me as some kind of creature. The tip of the arrow is aimed at my heart.”

Ingrid, of course, is our Athena; she is fierce and ruthless, adept at crafts, she’s a giver of olive trees, she is wise and shrewd and she helps Sofia to become bold. Her affection for Sofia blows hot and cold, she punishes Sofia for her desire, yet she returns it. In Greek mythology Medusa was a priestess of Athena, sworn to celibacy, yet when she slept with Poseidon (in some mythologies this is suggested as a rape, in others a consensual act) she is turned into a monster by Athena as punishment. Here Sofia, or ‘Zoffie’ as Ingrid always refers to her, becomes consumed by her desire for Ingrid, it makes her ‘monstrous’ and yet in many ways she is freed by it, emboldened. Yet Sofia, too, flees from it. She flees to her father in Athens, leaving her mother in Gomez’s care. Yet her father is not particularly welcoming and Sofia soon realises that whilst her step-mother, Alexandra, is another formidable woman, as her mother was, her father is in hiding, trying to forget both his older daughter and his first wife. When Sofia returns she finds herself on a path to confrontation with her mother, a path which leads her back into her living her own life.

Needless to say, Hot Milk is a complicated, fascinating and very clever book. I found myself researching Greek mythology in an attempt try to unpick the links there, and there’s a hefty dose of anthropology which has no doubt escaped much of my attention. But what is more important than any of these things is how entertaining a book this is. The characters are well drawn and realised, they are all monstrous in their own ways, defying the clichés that could too easily form their identities which they are all attempting to escape. In one section, Sofia refers to her boundaries being ‘made from sand’ and her relationship with Ingrid being one in which Ingrid ‘made of me the monster she felts herself to be’ and there are monsters everywhere, but also none. The writing is sparky, in places it is very funny and the characters are sharp with each other and themselves. In the end Sofia realises that she is a slave to her mother because she chooses to be, and yet she is also a monster to her mother, much as her mother is a slave to her and a monster to her. We are what we choose to be, but we do not have to inhabit that choice. Sofia begins to make different choices; as Gomez says right at the beginning, as Sofia is examining a stuffed monkey Gomez keeps in his consulting room “I think, Sofia Irina, that you would liked to free our little castrated primate so he can scamper around the room and read my early editions of Cervantes. But first you must free yourself.”

Hot Milk has certainly freed me. It has freed me from a burgeoning poor relationship with fiction and reminded me that my relationship with everything is exactly what I choose it to be. I am bound by my identity only as much as I perceive it to bind me. Like Sofia, perhaps, our boundaries can be more like sand, less rigid, perhaps they are not for other people so much as they are for ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we can all afford to be a little more monstrous when following our desires.

 

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