Mokusei! A Love Story by Cees Nooteboom (translated by Adrienne Dixon)

I have never really been able to explain what it is that I love about the work of Cees Nooteboom, it falls into the genre of those things which evoke an inexplicable feeling, something so nebulous and delicate that I can barely think about it without causing it irreparable damage. Yet the feeling persists, even when I doubt it. I think it may be best expressed by the Japanese expression mono no aware which means something like the pathos of things, the bittersweet emotion that is evoked by the beauty of impermanence. It is an apt reference because this brief, insubstantial novella has mono no aware lingering around it like the mists around Fujiyama.

Image result for mokusei cees nooteboomMokusei tells the story of Arnold Pessers, a Dutch photographer who visits Japan to take some photographs involving Fujiyama and a Japanese woman in traditional costume for a brochure. He embarks on a love affair with the woman who models for him, a woman who, to him, has three names: Satoko, which is her actual name, Snowy Mask which is a secret name and Mokusei which is the name of a scented Japanese flower which she introduces him to the morning after their first night together. As the story opens there is a sense that this affair has ended, that Arnold is looking back on his time with her, his time in Japan with mono no aware, the bittersweet knowledge of what had been, how brief it was, how astonishing, how devastating. Alongside his affair he reflects upon his relationship with Japan, largely through reflections of his conversations with a friend, De Goede, who worked at the Belgian embassy in Japan and who was instrumental in Pessers meeting his Mokusei.

“Then he turned to the purple flowers again. The leaves were long and narrow but the flowers themselves had a crumpled look, drops like quicksilver adhered to the green sepals. There was a curious oneness in everything, the sound of the water, the darkness that slowly fell upon the world, making the mist intenser, more sombre in colour; it all seemed to be one thing. And then there was the sound of the crickets, even now in October, and that was what they cried, October, October.”

The bulk of the story covers the time during which Pessers met Mokusei. Pessers was a novice to Japan, he was still enrapt in the ‘idea’ of it (as De Goede refers to it), the aesthetic and spiritual ideal of Japan as a place of purity and self-sacrifice. By meeting Mokusei he begins to learn about the duality, but more than that the mask beneath the mask. Like the woman, Japan has three faces. He will meet them all in his time there. As a photographer, Pessers is alert to the restlessness, the hidden energy that lies behind any image. Despite his intense focus on Mokusei, he is never quite able to penetrate her image. Their affair is doomed to end; something which he knows deep down but cannot allow himself to admit.

“…and this was exactly what the picture showed, a grey, leaden, old-fashioned plain in which prairie and water seemed to merge into each other without distinction. The horizon was a straight line; above it hung an equally desolate sky of a lighter grey, without any nuances. Two fields of grey, in fact, one darker, one lighter. And yet, when you looked longer, something like movement began to appear in those dead expanses of grey, a fraction of the light in the upper area had imparted itself to the darker area below, so that something of the light which had shone on that sombre river that day had been preserved; a few streaks, a few patches, a flicker, just as the light of the stars tries to speak of something that happened before there were people and would try to do so even if no people had ever come into existence, although in that case the question arose: Why or, rather, for whose benefit?”

Mokusei is an extraordinarily beautiful story, it is lightly told and yet layered with meaning and depth. It is a book which benefits from more than one reading. In fact, on my first reading I found myself a little frustrated; the story was so insubstantial, so delicate, that I felt almost cheated by its brevity. However, on my second reading it pulled me firmly in. I noticed the captivated beauty of the writing, the way in which Nooteboom creates space and slows time as he writes. It is a quality about his writing which I have long admired, the way in which he can seemingly write with intense clarity and yet create a nebulous uncertainty, a sense of a space opening inside in which anything and everything is possible. He evokes emptiness, transcendence, with nothing more than a description of a photograph, or a fruit dropped on a pathway, or the sound of the crickets. And he reflects, constantly, on life’s meaning, observing the way the mind works, how it challenges and tricks us. Like here, in a description which made me think again of that strange middle section of DeLillo’s Zero K:

“Long ago, and at the same time a sort of yesterday. For that kind of time no verb tenses exist. Memory flows this way and that between the perfect and the imperfect, just as the mind, left to itself, will often prefer chaos to chronology.”

And I wondered if the two writers, both predisposed to analyse the questions of language and memory, are somehow on the same wavelength, making the same connections and asking the same questions, and I also wondered if this is why I so admire both of their works. Nooteboom remains a firm favourite, a writer who has the strange capacity to evoke mono no aware, a beautiful kind of melancholy, whether he’s writing about Japan or the Australian outback or a suicidal man in Amsterdam. Mokusei may be slight and delicate, but it is also strangely affecting and it left me thinking about it for several days, rturning to a phrase or passage such as those I’ve posted here, wondering what it is that makes them feel so extraordinary.

With thanks to thebookbindersdaughter whose post alerted me to the existence of this previously untranslated novella by Nooteboom.

Posted in fiction, translation | 6 Comments

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

For those of you who have seen the movie Gladiator, you may recognise the name Marcus Aurelius as being the old emperor who offers Maximus the stewardship of Rome, only to be assassinated by his own son, inadvertently condemning Maximus to a butchered family and a life battling tigers in the Colosseum. None of those exciting events occur in the Meditations, but the vision of Aurelius as a benevolent, thoughtful emperor threads through his writings and this, rather than the Hollywood movie, is what Aurelius is rightfully remembered for.

I have, for a long time, been attracted to the philosophy of stoicism. This is the first time I’ve read it directly, in all other respects I have read about it referenced in other works or heard of its similarity in tone to many of the books and articles which have most stirred my admiration or struck an emotional chord. In recent weeks it has been calling to me from the shelf, but I have put off reading it knowing it would need a certain amount of focused attention which I had not been in a position to give. Then after all my travels, all the work pressures and the woozy-fug of seasonal tiredness and jet lag, it just felt like the right time. It was the right time.

The Meditations are a series of reflections, thoughts and ideas which Marcus Aurelius collected over his lifetime. Each meditation is a short passage, maybe a paragraph or two at most, and reflect Aurelius’s musings on his life, behaviour, the ‘right’ way to live and interact with others. The reflections are split into twelve books, and the whole selection is no more than around 150 pages long. In some respects the structure reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s work, though considerably less poetic and with fewer references to the works of others.

“If you are doing your proper duty let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are on the point of death or doing something else: because even this, the act in which we die, is one of the acts of life, and so here too it suffices to ‘make the best move you can.’”

There’s a sense when reading the meditations that they weren’t intended for anyone other than Aurelius himself. It reads like a journal, actually a little like my own journal if you strip out some of the self-pity and the plotting and organising and add a massive dose of thoughtful philosophy. Aurelius appears to be self-coaching, reminding himself of what he finds admirable, the people and the behaviours he has admired and, perhaps more crucially, what he does not. Each passage is quite beautiful in its own right, but as the meditations build you begin to see a picture of the man and the kinds of ways of being which can lead to a life filled with meaning and value. He is modest, or tries to be modest, not puffed up with self-importance or the luxurious trappings of holding a throne; he believes in maintaining a constant mindfulness of the brevity of life, how fleeting and how soon forgotten (however important the individual); he talks of gratitude, of valuing what you have and not being consumed by desire or grief for what you do not. His is a philosophy of acceptance, but also one which strikes at its centre a core of steely self-determination, of living by ones own values and sticking to them rather than being pushed and pulled by the views and expectations of others. Self-control is an important trait, because only by knowing your own soul and being in command of it can you live a life of intention and purpose.

“Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above Image result for meditations by marcus aureliusall, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man [or woman…my insert], as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.”

There’s a certain amount of repetition in the meditations, perhaps not surprisingly Aurelius returned to certain themes over and over. Yet they were also themes I needed to hear, to be reminded of. That I should be grateful for the things, the many wonderful things, that I have, that I should accept the things I cannot change, that when I feel angry it is because I have allowed outside entities to upset my equilibrium, that nothing outside myself can touch me except if I allow it.

 “Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in them habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.”

Despite the fact that I knew I needed to give the meditations focused, uninterrupted attention I still found myself struggling to do them the justice they deserved. It is not a book which can be read quickly or superficially, though it does lend itself to being dipped into and out of at need. There were certain passages I read over and over because there was something within them I both needed to understand and remember. That life is brief, that if you take the long view very little matters at all; and I was reminded of a time, once, when we were having some ridiculous argument at work about a cupboard and people were getting heated and unkind and out of the blue I recalled a strange little piece of information – that it took 50,000 years for a photon of light to make its way from the centre of the sun to the surface, and a further 8 ½ minutes to make its way to my eye – and something about the fact that the light I was seeing was so ancient and the thought that if a photon of light was created that minute by the time it reached the Earth even the idea of a cupboard would probably be dead and gone, that suddenly it became so clear to me that what we were arguing about didn’t matter, nothing that we did mattered, and it was so easy, then, to let it all go. Letting things go is something Marcus Aurelius understood so well and so beautifully, and it in such a way that you know letting go is not so terrible, that we will die and be gone and forgotten and it’s okay because that’s how Nature is intended to work and all we ever lose is the present moment. We cannot lose the past or the future, because we’re in possession of neither. In some ways it is bleak, but it is also extremely comforting. I can’t explain why that is. I know it is not a philosophy that speaks to everyone, but it speaks volumes to me.

“You should avoid flattery as much as anger in your dealing with them: both are against the common good and lead to harm. In your fits of anger have this thought ready to mind, there is nothing manly in being angry, but a gentle calm is both more human and therefore more virile. It is the gentle who have strength, sinew and courage – not the indignant and complaining. The closer to control of emotion, the closer to power. Anger is as much a sign of weakness as is pain. Both have been wounded, and have surrendered.”

I have read the Meditations and I know I will read them again. I am frustrated that I could not quite yet bring myself to devote my entire attention to them. Perhaps not this time, but perhaps in the future, maybe not even the too distant future, I will read them again and perhaps then, and perhaps over the course of whatever remains of my life, I’ll learn the acceptance that Marcus Aurelius spent his life convincing himself he had to attain.

Posted in Classics, comfort books, non-fiction, philosophy | 7 Comments

Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson (translated by Linda Coverdale)

I can’t believe that I have failed to blog about this book before, but I’ve checked both this blog and my old blog and somehow this little gem has slipped through the cracks. Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson is one of my comfort reads, a book that is easy to return to and always delivers a sense of quietude and calm in my otherwise noisy life. In the run up to Christmas things always begin to feel fairly fraught: work is busier, my daughter’s birthday is looming as is the spectre of Christmas shopping, and somehow I always seem to have to spend a week away from home in some place I don’t exactly want to go (Dubai, this time) which sets me back in so many ways it takes another week just to recover. It is a time during which I would love to do nothing more than retreat, hide away in the woods somewhere, but as I can’t do that (and it would only frazzle me more) I can instead read about someone that did, and the vicarious experience is soothing enough. Sylvain Tesson’s lovely book offers me that wonderful opportunity.

Tesson promised himself that before he reached the age of 40 he would spend some time holed up like a hermit in a cabin in the woods in the Russian taiga, and Consolations is the story of his time spent doing exactly that. The book is written in diary form, covering the period February through to July. Tesson took with him a supply of food, cigars, vodka and books and intended to spend the time uncovering the quality of his inner life, a matter which he had been concerned about and which was shielded by the hustle and bustle of Parisian life, his desire for travel and motion and the many ways in which he distracted and obfuscated himself. During his time in the forest he contemplates the slower, more self-reliant life, the value of fishing, of watching the light move around the cabin, of chopping wood and being intimately part of your surroundings. He reads books and thinks about what the books mean, he spends vast numbers of hours alone spending time exactly as he chooses. He doesn’t manage to be entirely alone. There are necessary bureaucracies to attend to, visits from other cabin dwellers, visits he makes himself, in the summer he acquires two dogs. But his time is spent predominantly alone, enjoying (or enduring, depending on the day) the slower, less distracted life.

Not a great deal happens in the forest. In the early days it is still winter, there is little in the way of creaturely life and instead Tesson has only the landscape, the unique environment, to reflect upon. Yet spared the usual distractions this proves a surprisingly rich and varied canvas to observe and reflect upon, like here when he describes spending a day on the iced-over lake:

Image result for consolations of the forest by sylvain tesson“A day on the lake fascinated by the designs in the icy mantle. Into the frozen body the cracks and fissures weave electric layers whose current spreads with hectic abandon: the lines retract, join up, veer away. The ice has absorbed the energy of the shocks by distributing it along sheaves of ‘wiring’. Staggering blows rend the silence and are borne along as the echo of an explosion dozens of miles away. The noise vents itself through these networks of veining. As the sun’s rays are refracted in the cross-connections, the skein begins to glow. Light irradiates the veins of turquoise, infusing them with trails of gold. The ice convulses. It is alive, and I love it. The pearly coils trace knots resembling the neuronal tissues or photos of stardust clouds. The map of this meshing would be psychedelic. Without drugs or wine, my brain perceives hallucinatory sequences as the world offers glimpses of an unknown writing. The patterns stream by as if born in an opium dream, for nature refuses us even the consolation of projecting our own brand-new images on this psychedelic screen.”

Aside from reflecting on the beauty and grandeur of the landscape, Tesson also spends time reflecting on his inner life, on the nature of hermitage and the benefits of this kind of life. It is evident that Tesson loved his time in the forest, that he adapted easily to life without the trappings of modern civilisation (though he did have solar panels, electricity and a satellite phone). His writing is clever, funny and at some times ruthlessly cutting, like here where he describes his reflection on the nature of retreat and what it means both for the individual and how it reflects on society:

 “A retreat is a revolt. Entering one’s cabin means vanishing from surveillance screens. The hermit erases himself. He sends no more numeric traces, no telephonic signals, no banking data. He divests himself of all identity. He effects a kind of reverse backing, and leaves the Great Game. No need, moreover, to head for the woods. Revolutionary asceticism can adapt to an urban milieu. The consumer society offers the choice to conform to it, and with a little discipline…Surrounded by abundance, some are free to live like pushovers but others may play the monk and stay lean amid the murmur of books, retreating to inner forests without leaving their apartments. In a society of penury, there is no alternative. One is condemned to a state of want, and conditioned by it. Willpower is neither here nor there. A famous Soviet joke says a guy goes into a butcher’s shop and asks: ‘You have any bread?’ Answer: ‘Ah, no, this is the place where we have no meat, so for the place where they have no bread, go next door to the bakery.’ The Hungarian lady who raised me taught me such things and I often think of her. The consumer society is a somewhat vile expression, born of the phantasm of childish grown-ups disappointed at having been too spoiled. They haven’t the strength to reform on their own and dream of being constrained to live in sober moderation.”

Ouch! There is a lot in my own life that I see reflected in that vicious little paragraph, but perhaps I can learn to play the monk in amongst society after all, denied the more obvious pleasure of a cabin in the woods, an axe, a good supply of tomato ketchup and a fishing rod with which to supply my proteinous needs. It’s a reasonable aspiration.

Consolations of the Forest is most certainly a consoling book. It is gentle and meandering, nothing much happens and you don’t really want it to either. Tesson’s reflections are little moments of calm in a chaotic world, interrupted on occasion by a bear or Russian generals blowing things up on the icy lake. He quaffs vodka with relish and smokes a cigar and enjoys watching the sun go down, or the clouds over the lake, or hiking to the top of a nearby mountain and camping in the open. It’s all very blissful (except when it’s not), and I can’t help feeling just that little bit jealous, much as I did when reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, on reading about someone who granted themselves the luxury of spending a little time entirely by themself, unencumbered by the demands and expectations of society, reading, thinking, reflecting and learning a little about who they are and what they really need. I can’t do that, not right now, but in the meantime I can still enjoy the pleasure of reading about it. Dubai might be a distant, frenetic dream, but Tesson’s cabin in the taiga will  be remain a little anchorage of peace and calm in my memory for a long, long time.

Posted in comfort books, memoir, nature, non-fiction, outwith, re-read | 7 Comments

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Life has been a bit messy recently, strangely bitty and unsettled and I’ve found myself craving silence and darkness, crystal-cold clarity and the icy certainty of facts and analysable data. It may have something to do with the slow procession towards winter, the dark, long-lasting nights and chaotic noise of Christmas, or perhaps it is just that I’m inclined that way, that when I feel harried or unsettled I turn towards a certain kind of writing, a certain kind of book. And it was in this mood that I turned, again, towards DeLillo and specifically his latest book, Zero K. Is there anything more silent or darker than absolute zero?

I’m not sure why Zero K exactly. My recollections of my last reading were one of fond perplexity. Zero K is a difficult book to unpick, it is not really one thing or another and though it embodies the familiarity of all the things that attract me to DeLillo’s writing – the strangely mesmeric tone, the lists, the skewering of language, a quality about it like a well-tuned advertisement – it is also a disjointed and nebulous book. I wondered if a second reading would change any of that, whether this time I would be able to grasp what had eluded me last time, but my own disjointed and distracted state conspired against that and I found myself again feeling like this book had slipped out of my grip, that there was something fundamental I was missing that a more careful, or perhaps repeated, reading would elucidate.

Image result for zero k don delillo

As a little reminder for those not familiar, Zero K is a book about death, about voluntary death and the ways in which we seek to both control and avoid death. The book is split into three distinct sections. The first section takes place in an out of the way place somewhere deep in Uzbekistan, at a facility called The Convergence. Jeffrey Lockhart travels to this place to meet his father – a super-rich investment banker – Ross Lockhart who has arranged for his dying wife, Artis, to be placed in cryogenic stasis. Jeffrey is the child of his father’s first marriage, his own mother, Madeline, having died a number of years earlier, and Jeffrey still bears the resentment that grew from his father’s absence. The Convergence itself is an unsettling, unrealistic kind of place. A collection of brutalist buildings in which everything is utilitarian and anonymised, even the bodies themselves denuded of all hair and distinguishing features. Jeffrey walks the corridors, encountering strange visions – screens which appear seemingly at random, showing videos of individual or mass destruction: a landslide, monks committing ritual suicide, tornados, bombings in market squares. These images are familiar themes of DeLillo’s work; he is a man obsessed by the implications of mass behaviour, mass destruction, the hidden forces that steer us to behave a certain way, the herd mentality, destruction on a large scale. It is a subject matter he describes with a kind of magnetic, yet disturbing beauty:

“The sun us an unknown entity. They spoke of solar storms, flares and superflares, coronal mass ejections. The man tried to find adequate metaphors. He cranked his hand in odd synchrony with his references to earth orbit. I watched the woman, bowed down, silent for a time in the setting of billions of years, our vulnerable earth, the comets, asteroids, random strikes, the past extinctions, the current loss of species.

“Catastrophe is our bedtime story.””

As Artis approaches her time to be frozen, Ross announces that he, too, has decided to enter suspension, an act which throws Jeffrey into disarray. Unlike Artis, Ross isn’t dying. However, he backs out at the last minute, an act which diminishes him and sets him on a downward spiral. Artis is frozen in cryogenic suspension; the men leave.

The middle section of the book consists of a few, very odd pages which represent the musings of Artis. It’s not clear if during this phase she is alive or dead or somewhere in between. It is a series of quite disjointed reflections on the nature of the self, of what it means to be, to think, to exist. It slips between first person and third person, confusingly and yet there’s a meditative quality to it. I have, as yet, no idea what it means.

The final section is much more ordinary. Jeffrey has returned home. His father is slowly deteriorating, alone, in his townhouse. Jeffrey is in a relationship with a woman, Emma, who has an adoptive son called Stak. Stak was adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage and is a source of continual confusion and frustration to Emma. He speaks Pashto to strangers. He will not touch her. He studies jujitsu obsessively then stops. He gives up school, he disappears. Jeffrey’s own life is strangely meandering, it is as though once the overwhelming power and authority of his father has diminished, he no longer has a clear raison d’etre and his days are spent wafting from one thing to the next, unstructured and unmeaningful. Or perhaps this was always Jeffrey’s life, juxtaposed against the certainty of his father’s existence. When Ross announces that he has decided to return to The Convergence, to be frozen alongside Artis, Jeffrey returns with him but his experience this time is something quite different. Now that his father is diminished, Jeffrey’s sense of unsettlement is also diminished. That is, until the viewscreen reveals what has happened to the missing Stak. Once Ross is frozen, Jeffrey leaves The Convergence, but not before encountering a plaque with an equation written on it which reveals, perhaps, what the book is seeking to explore:

 “I didn’t know what the equation was meant to signify and I had no intention of asking. Then I thought of the Convergence, the name itself, the word itself. Two distinct forces approaching a point of intersection. The merger, breath to breath, of end and beginning. Could the equation on the plaque be a scientific expression of what happens to a single human body when the forces of life and death join?”

The Convergence represents an intersection, a space in which science meets faith. But this book is filled with convergences, intersections in which two forces meet. There is Jeffrey and Ross, living in opposition of each other yet meeting, eventually, in The Convergence. There is the ultimate convergence of life and death, the question of whether one matters without the other, whether one can exist without the other. There is the convergence of the individual with the masses; the convergence of human with technology which is elucidated both by The Convergence itself and DeLillo’s customary insight into human society:

“Is it very different at home, or on the street, or waiting at the gate to board a flight? I maintain myself on the puppet drug of personal technology. Every touch of a button brings the neural rush of finding something I never knew and never needed to know until it appears at my anxious fingertips, where it remains for a shaky second before disappearing forever.”

The book ends on a spectacular convergence, the phenomenon of Manhattan-henge which occurs twice a year when the sunlight intersects with the streets of Manhattan, flooding the area with vivid light. It is a strangely hopeful ending to a book so otherwise defined by cold indifference and bleak uncertainty.

I’m not sure I got any closer to understanding Zero K, though my reading, I think, has revealed something more of its secrets. I feel like if I were to read it another 5 or 10 times I might uncover more, understand more. It is not the kind of book that benefits from superficial attention; it is dissatisfying in many ways and the structure is unnerving and disconnected. The beginning part has an ephemeral quality to it, something ungraspable, and I don’t know if it was my own distraction at root or DeLillo’s intention though I suspect it is likely to be the latter particularly as the third part is so firmly grounded. Yet it is also a compelling book. Compelling enough that  would read it again, maybe once or twice more, and maybe on one of those readings I’ll figure out what it’s all about.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I first hear of Sylvia Townsend Warner when David Mitchell (who I adore) named her book The Corner That Held Them as one of his favourite books of all time. This was some time ago and I never got around to either reading or buying The Corner That Held Them but I did quite recently pick up Lolly Willowes. I’ve been trying to read the books I buy quite quickly so they don’t add to the TBR load and after reading a number of fairly chunky / heavy going books the slimness of Lolly Willowes was quite appealing. I suspect I’m a little late to the party with Lolly Willowes because it’s one of those books that feels like I should have discovered it before, a hidden classic, a gorgeous little read that both charms and challenges.

For those not familiar, Lolly Willowes is the story of Laura WIllowes, a woman from a ‘traditional’ monied family who defies convention by not getting married. Or perhaps defies is too strong a word; she simply doesn’t bother doing it. Laura doesn’t bother doing many things – she doesn’t bother going to school, thanks to her mother’s indifference; she doesn’t bother going out into society; she doesn’t bother with getting marrieImage result for lolly willowesd or doing anything much except what she’s directed to do. When her father dies, Laura is 28 and she has few skills and fewer interests beyond a strange fascination with herbs and the outdoors and distilling helpful infusions from the plant-life and roots she gathers from the countryside. When her family decide she should go and live with her brother’s family in London, Laura complies. Thus she becomes ‘Lolly’ – a name given her by one of her nieces – almost a different person from the Laura she was when her father was alive.

The move to London is taken with as much indifference as Laura shows to almost everything. Her brother and his wife attempt to get Laura married off, but she remains indifferent to the idea and eventually they give up. Here we begin to see both the hypocrisy and the conventionalism displayed by Laura’s brothers, society and conventional family life. Laura is nothing more than ‘Lolly’ to most of her family. A vaguely useful, but ultimately under-utilised human being who doesn’t ‘meet her potential’ by becoming a wife and mother, as Caroline, her sister-in-law, reflects:

“A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

This is the conventional view of women – intended for motherhood and wifehood, a lifetime of service to others. Laura/Lolly behaves differently. She makes herself useful by fulfilling her role in the family, but something is awry in her life. She goes on long walks in the dark, in the countryside. There’s a sense of something burning inside her, perhaps a sense that her life doesn’t meet her needs (when of course it is meant to fulfil the needs of others). Then the war comes and after the war Lolly decides, quite suddenly, to move to a place in the country called Great Mop. This desire comes purely from the scent of some beech leaves and the burning feeling that it is time for her to live a different kind of life. Her family both dismiss and oppose the move, but she does it anyway. Once in Great Mop Laura begins to rediscover herself, to rediscover what it is that makes her happy, her inner needs and desires.

“She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been. Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.

Life in Great Mop moves into a different rhythm. It is a strange little place, quiet and unassuming. But why do people go out late in the night, and where do they go? Laura observes but does not seek to integrate. She walks in the countryside, she buries her face in the cow parsley and feels she is changed, or at least changing, but something of her agitation remains and remains out of the reach of her understanding. Then, out of the blue, she has a visit from her favoured nephew, Titus. Titus has always been the one to understand Lolly, the one most sympathetic to his most misunderstood Aunt. Yet when Titus decides to settle, too, in Great Mop Laura is furious. She is boiling inside, feels as though her escape from her family was just a terrible fantasy, that her life could never become her own. This is when Laura comes into her own. She rages out into the countryside and demands to claim her life. When she returns home a kitten has appeared in her house. It bites her, and then she knows she has made a pact with the devil. She is a witch. Somehow she always knew she was a witch in the making. Whilst this discovery is not without its challenges, it enables Laura to move on:

She was changed, and knew it. She was humbler and more simple. She ceased to triumph mentally over her tyrants, and rallied herself no longer with the consciousness that she had outraged them by coming to live at Great Mop. The amusement she had drawn from their disapproval was a slavish remnant, a derisive dance on the north bank of the Ohio. There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen useful props of civilisation. All she could do was to go on forgetting them. But now she was able to forget them without flouting them by her forgiveness.” 

Lolly Willowes is a strangely subversive little book. It is beautifully written, charming and sarcastic. There’s a core of black humour running through it, even as we see Laura being passed from pillar to post, overlooked, a non-person who is viewed by those around her as something spectral, not quite a life, someone who is useful and ‘loved’ but not worth more than a second thought. On one level it could just be seen as a charming, fun little story of a woman coming into self-discovery, albeit rather late, but it is also shot-through with social commentary, with an implicit criticism of the way women, particularly single women, are viewed by society. Sadly I’m not sure a great deal has changed, there is still an undercurrent of perplexity about single women, women who choose to be single, who live a singular life. Through Lolly, Sylvia Townsend Warner exposes this dehumanisation of such women, as well as reclaiming what it means to be a ‘witch’, not something evil, forbidden, the way the church and state have so pervasively presented it. No, witchhood is nothing more than women living by their own standards, in accordance with their own desires, according to their own wisdom, the wisdom that comes from listening to, and paying attention to, one’s own intuition. It is a powerful message so beautifully presented that it could almost be missed, and perhaps it might on a first reading but this is definitely a book which warrants a return visit. If only for the gorgeous prose, the ecstatic way in which Warner presents the countryside and, in particular, Lolly’s response to it. Like here, where Lolly walks out in the dark and almost encounters the devil who seeks to claim her:

“All one day the wind had risen, and late in the evening it called her out. She went up to the top of Cubby Ridge, past the ruined windmill that clattered with its torn sails. When she had come to the top of the Ridge she stopped, with difficulty holding herself upright. She felt the wind sweep down close to the earth. The moon was out hunting overhead, her pack of black and white hounds ranged over the sky. Moon and wind and clouds hunted an invisible quarry. The wind routed through the woods. Laura from the hill-top heard the various surrounding woods cry out with different voices. The spent gusts left the beech-hangers throbbing like sea caverns through which the wave had passed, the fir plantation seemed to chant some never-ending rune.”

It may be a brief book, presented in a seemingly simple manner, but Lolly Willowes is a book packed with deep meaning and insight. It is a book which can, in fact must, be read more than once and then returned to again a year, two years, ten years later. I found myself identifying with Lolly, not for her singlehood but for her singlemindedness. I admired her ability to let go, to not attach herself to things and modes of being. She was barely attached to herself, yet despite everything she was on a journey of self-discovery and she found herself eventually, when she stopped believing in all the things that would hold her back, when she stopped allowing herself to be held back. Lolly Willowed claimed a small piece of ground for herself. It shouldn’t be subversive, yet shamefully it still is.

Posted in Classics, fiction, gender | 9 Comments

Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

It’s been a bit of a tough year on the personal front. Nothing truly terrible has happened, but I have found myself in a situation where I feel I have been robbed of all my power, my ferocity, and I have found myself wondering where it has gone and why I have allowed it to be stripped from me. I have always been a strong-willed woman, determined and generally quite formidable, but recent events have shown that formidable nature to be somewhat diminished and I realised I have somehow colluded in allowing this part of my nature to be cowed. I have been disappointed in myself, saddened to have been so easily fooled and so easily taken advantage of, and I knew I had to do something to reclaim the wild part of my soul, so that it was not lost forever. I also need to re-empower myself, to rediscover my inner fighter and bring it back out. And that is what led me to Women Who Run With the Wolves. I came across it as a recommendation from Emma Watson of all people (I don’t know why I say ‘of all people’ as she’s a quite admirable young women and I don’t really see why I shouldn’t take guidance from her, but I said it and there it is) and it felt like it might offer me something, though I wasn’t sure exactly what. It has taken me a long time to read it. The book is just over 500 pages long, but it isn’t just the length which has caused me to take time over it. It has been a hard book to read. Hard not because it is difficult or complex (though it is, in many ways, both of these things); hard because it has within it many things I needed to hear, many truths I have turned away from, and many learnings I need to take away. It has been almost as difficult reading this as it has been experiencing the events that led me to it. But in the end I think it will be worth it.

Image result for women who run with the wolves“Without her women are without ears to hear her soultalk or to register the chiming of their own internal rhythms. Without her, women’s inner eyes are closed by some shadowy hand, and large parts of their days are spent in semi-paralysing ennui or else wishful thinking. Without her, women lose the sureness of their soulfooting. Without her, they forget why they’re here, they hold on when they would best hold out. Without her they take too much or too little or nothing at all. Without her they are silent when they are in fact on fire.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés is both an expert in Jungian psychology and a cantadora: a person who hands down myths and stories as a means of sharing truth or experience, as a means of learning. In Women Who Run With the Wolves Estés uses stories to reveal aspects of female experience, the female psyche and the ways in which women are both captured and released from the psychological and cultural prisons that hold them. She uses familiar stories – the story of Bluebeard, the Handless Maiden, the Skeletal Woman, Vasilisa and Baba Yaga, the Ugly Duckling – and she strips them apart to reveal the ways in which the women of the stories either come apart or find themselves through the predators and the helpers they encounter. She begins with the story of Bluebeard, a story I first encountered through Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, the story of a young woman who sets aside her reservations about a man and marries him, only to find she has married a killer. It is a story of initiation, the naïve woman who makes a poor bargain against her better judgement, a situation no doubt many women will recognise. This naivity is both inculcated and nurtured in many young women, women kept in ignorance of the world, taught to ‘be nice’ and ‘be quiet’ and that everything will fall into place nicely around them as a result, as she describes here:

“The acquiescence to marrying the monster is actually decided when girls are very you, usually before five years of age. They are taught not to see, and instead to “make pretty” all manner of grotesqueries whether they are lovely or not. This training is why the youngest sister can say, ‘Hmmm, his beard isn’t really that blue.’. This early training to “be nice” causes women to override their intuitions. In that sense they are actually purposefully taught to submit to their predator. Imagine a wolf mother teaching her young to “be nice” in the face of an angry ferret or a wily diamondback rattler.”

This overriding of intuition is a common theme throughout the book, as it is a common theme in the lives of many women. It occurred to me that it is one of the biggest crimes committed against women in a patriarchal culture – that we are separated from our intuition by a society that tells us that we are emotional, irrational, that we’re ‘no good at maths’, that our instincts are not to be trusted because they are seated in a kind of knowledge which is not empirical, which cannot be measured or intuited by men, that we don’t ‘succeed’ because we’re just not good enough, that we are prone to ‘hysteria’ or emotive judgements, that we are soft, naïve (often kept intentionally so), indecisive, weak and feeble-minded. I looked at my daughter and realised that she, too, is in constant battle for her right for self-determination, to hold her own judgement, to not be prey but to display her teeth and her growl and her anger when she wants to, when she feels it. I have seen her ideas quashed and her emotions dismissed. I have seen her dismissed as ‘mentally ill’ because she has cried in class, for honestly expressing her emotions. Because her emotions are ugly, they make others uncomfortable, they suggest that something is fundamentally awry with the world, something which many feel but have learned to look away from. Reading this I learned that I need to support her more, that I need to bolster her faith in her own intuitions, to ensure the connection is not severed. And I need to do the same for myself. I have learned not to trust my intuition, though it has often been right on the money. I have lived and worked most of my life surrounded by men. I am beginning to wonder what this has really cost me.

This self-sabotage continues into our later lives as we adopt the role of ‘healer’, ‘teacher’, ‘fixer’. Because women are associated with the nurturing spirit, not least of which symbolised by figures such as Mary, or Mother Theresa, the divine, untouchable women with boundless loving, caring, non-demanding, self-sacrificing, spirits who offer themselves limitlessly to others. Yet it is not, truly, self-sabotage but a corruption of the story, a bending of the truth to force us to continue to support others at our own cost. As Estés describes:

 “The great healer archetype carries wisdom, goodness, knowing, caregiving, and all other things associated with a healer. So, it is good to be generous and kind and helpful like the great healer archetype. But only to a point. Beyond that, it exerts a hindering influence on our lives. Women’s “heal everything, fix everything” compulsion is a major entrapment constructed by the requirements placed upon us by our own cultures, mainly pressures to prove that we are not just standing around taking up space and enjoying ourselves, but that we have redeemable value – in some parts of the world, it is fair to say, to prove that we have value and therefore should be allowed to live. These pressures are introduced into our psyches when we are very young and unable to judge or resist them. They become law to us…unless or until we challenge them.”

Again, it is an idea which is pressured onto us when we are young, that we must give ourselves up to others for the sake of society as a whole. However, Estés reframes that when she talks of the nurturer as wolf, the wolf that snaps at her young when she has to, who toughens them, who challenges them. Nurture is not all self-sacrifice, it can involve a hardening, forcing the other to discover its limits by refusing to aid, to molly-coddle. Women are entrapped by the idea of being the fixer, the one who heals the wounds. It is not our responsibility, but over-responsibility, Estés reminds us, is a trap which can disconnect us from our wild and fulfilled selves:

“A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”

She must put her foot down. This is one of the overriding themes of Estés book, that women must learn to trust their judgement and do what is right for themselves, even though this is hard, even though everything stands to prevent us from doing so. I found myself recognising my situation in many of the stories that I read. There were times I had to put the book to one side because I recognised too much of myself in those naïve, predated women, the ones who found themselves at the mercy of a system that would disconnect them from their joy and fulfilment, who would have them ‘be nice’ for the sake of others, so as not to be a nuisance or trouble, so as not to make the people around them feel the force of their bone-crushing teeth, the slicing judgement of their claws. I realised that I have been a bit dishonest with myself. I thought I was a person who had found the strength to operate in a male-dominated world, yet all I had done was cut off that which was womanly – all that would be rejected: my intuition, my emotional life, my anger, my pain, my truth – in order to better blend in. And it has not resulted in acceptance. Instead it has allowed me to become prey, and it has, more troublingly, cut me off from the very tools that would both empower and guide me, protect me from falling into such a trap.

Reading this book has been difficult. It has been difficult because initially I wanted to reject it. It talks in language which is not generally accepted, it’s a little ‘airy-fairy’, talking of psyches and mysticism, using fairy stories to deliver a form of truth which requires a leap of faith to follow it through. When I started reading I found myself very quickly in dismissive mode. ‘What a load of clap-trap,´ I thought, but that thought soon disappeared as I began to see how those stories could become tools to help me navigate not just this difficult time, but others too. I recognised too much of myself, and I began to see something very damaged at my centre which I have been adept at ignoring. I realised I needed to confront myself more honestly. And this is, perhaps, the true power of Estés’s book, because it doesn’t just show the holes in the road, but it also gives you the equipment you need to fill them in. Sure there will be scars, but who goes through life without developing a scar or two? And those scars can become a source of strength, a source of reminder of what we have been through and how we have not just survived but thrived. It has been a difficult read, I know I have a lot of work to do to get myself back into a place where I feel I can be truly, genuinely myself, fulfilled and doing my best, but I also know that I am capable of doing it, and doing it without hiding my womanliness behind a veil of something else, a false front. I do not have to hide who I am to be respected. I need to demand it, using my teeth and claws when I need to, howling when I need to, and never apologising for any of it.

Posted in gender, non-fiction, psychology, self-help | 8 Comments

A Message from God in the Atomic Age by Irene Vilar (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

Image result for a message from god in the atomic ageI could have chosen this book for the title alone, but its acquisition was more about securing myself a more diverse range of voices than that currently available in my library. Which is an admission that I bought this book, quite recently, despite my book buying ban and my many efforts to find sufficiency in my unread books. For once, though, the purchase was not an impulse. I realised that if I was going to manage to continue to slow the pace of reading and work my way through my extensive TBR list I needed to maintain some pockets of diversity to which I could turn in moments of need. Or that’s how I’ve justified it to myself anyway. In this case I’m very pleased I allowed myself this little lapse because it is a wonderful read.

A Message from God in the Atomic Age is a memoir written by Irene Vilar, a Puerto Rican writer who also happens to be the granddaughter of the Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron, a national hero to many. Lebron is famous for having, with three other Puerto Rican nationalists, entered the US House of Representatives and opened fire from the gallery, an event in which five were wounded though none killed. Lebron was sentenced to 56 years in prison, of which she served a total of 25 before being pardoned by President Carter. Whilst the act was violent and intended to threaten, Lebron had no intention to kill. Her expectation was that she would, herself, be killed in the attack, becoming a martyr for the Puerto Rican nationalist cause. Her intention was explained in a note she had written herself and carried in her purse which read “My life I give for the freedom of my country”, her expectation was death and self-sacrifice for a free Puerto Rico. Vilar describes, quite beautifully, the scene as Lebron mounts the stairs of the Capitol expecting to meet her end:

“In the afternoon, Lolita is climbing the steps of the Capitol with her three companions. Holding on to her gold-crested purse, which must have showed up sharply against the starched skirt, she advances, step by step. In the purse she carries a gun and a letter that she herself wrote in English. It is a cry of conflicting voices, humble and arrogant, that she hears and answers. But before we may know anything more of those voices, we must wait. Right now she has everything to lose and nothing to regret. Now the only thing that exists is the steps, the scenes of her life that must be passing before her eyes, before and after, obsessive, like a film now that she can’t do anything else but go forward, climb those steps, one after another and another – how many more? Hundreds, a thousand, the whole colonial past of America was there, its cruelties, echoing at each step, unchanged, unforgotten: Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti…and, of course, Puerto Rico, one of Spain’s first New World colonies, one of America’s last.”


Lebron & her compatriots being arrested


But this is not just a story of the famous Lolita Lebron, rather it is the story of three generations of women, each of whom carried death in their souls. Vilar’s own story is the crux around which the rest of the story flows. When we join Vilar, she is being committed to a mental institution in Syracuse after having attempted suicide. Vilar had moved to the US to study, but isolation, poverty, and a sense of disconnection all led her to attempt to take her own life. Or perhaps that’s a simplistic way to look at it, because there is no leading here, no certain path, instead we follow Vilar’s attempts to unpick the threads of her life which led her to committal. This inevitably includes her own grandmother’s apparent death-wish, the steps that led her to abandon her small daughter and pursue the nationalistic path, sacrificing her life to the idea of freedom, as well as Vilar’s own mother, Gladys, the abandoned child of a famous, revolutionary mother, who herself took her life by suicide when Vilar was only eight years old. For her mother had jumped to her death from a moving car, a car in which Irene was riding in the back seat, knowing something was wrong and knowing there was nothing she could do about it. She watched her mother tumble to her death, and then carried the ghost of it, the ghosts of all the women that had entered her life, around with her in a life which grew increasingly transient.

What follows is both moving and beautiful, unsettling and compelling. Vilar extrapolates her mother’s story, the way in which her life was affected by the abandonment by Lebron, the difficult marriage, the ongoing battle with depression and self-destructive tendencies. These tendencies Vilar seems to have inherited, whether by blood or by exposure. Vilar’s own descriptions of her feelings, her experiences, the confusion and the disconnection that arose during the lead up to her suicide attempt and subsequent time in the institution are extraordinary, creating a genuine sense of something off, something irreconcilable, she feels herself a creature, a thing, a non-person. One can only wonder if this, too, is how her mother felt:

“As if born out of the hospital colors, that larval feeling began, a small, curled-up creature that the mirror was giving back to me. An anomalous creature, somebody who had been given pills to take. It was clear that I was that somebody and that something in my body had broken down. The orderlies straightened up the bent thing; it walked. I thought they were taking me to an operating room, to cure me, to remove death from inside me, to id me of the ghosts, the ones I imagined I’d eluded by coming to Syracuse. They were going to give me back the joy of living. But instead they led me into an elevator and brought me to a room where a bright white light shone over a woman who was also dressed in white, sitting at a desk with my belongings…”

And then there’s Lebron. After Gladys’s suicide Lebron is permitted back to Puerto Rico to attend the funeral. Here we see Lolita the hero, but also Lolita the grandmother and Lolita the absent mother, absent by choice rather than compulsion. There’s a sense that eight year old Vilar cannot reconcile the woman who is her grandmother with the legend who attracts both supporters and detractors. In her time in prison, Lebron had become increasingly religious. The compelling title ‘A Message from God in the Atomic Age’ is the title of a collection of poems written by Lebron whilst in prison after what she believed was a vision from God. Lebron increasingly withdrew, confusing her supporters with her religious fervour which didn’t fit with the left-wing idealism displayed by her act. Vilar herself is both confused and intrigued by her grandmother better able, perhaps, to separate the idol from the flawed yet idealistic woman who may, or may not, have been the source of Vilar’s mother’s suffering.

A Message from God in the Atomic Age is a stunning and absorbing book, beautifully written, meandering and yet at times shattering with painful clarity. The entanglement between these three women, the impact they had on each other’s lives, the consequences of the actions of one on the behaviour of another, is quite stunning at times. The depiction, when it comes, of Gladys’s death is painful and horrifying to read, and it is hard to imagine being an eight year old girl clinging desperately to a mother who wants nothing more than to end, for everything to end, to know that your love and need for them is simply not enough. Vilar is unsentimental about her own mental illness, she does not try to explain nor justify it, as she should not (I’m never quite sure why we imagine we can think ourselves out of mental illness, any more than we can think a broken leg better), neither does she blame or try to attribute blame. She sees her experience, the experience of her mother and her grandmother before her as a complex interweaving of events which entangle them and, to an extent, condemn them to suffer similar fates. I’m not sure by the end that she had either closure or clarity, but the journey, her attempts to untangle the mingled threads, is as beautiful as it is revealing and I, for one, feel enriched by having read it.

Posted in death, memoir, non-fiction, translation | Leave a comment