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September 2016

The idea is that by right living I might come to right feeling. Therefore: run three times a week even in the freezing cold, go to sleep by 10PM, write 500 words of prose a day six days a week, eat well, listen when the children are speaking, have sex with husband, etc.Mothers by Rachel Zucker

November 2016

Hi. I feel shy. I just forgot my wordpress password, moments after my fingers hesitated over typing edgeofevening. I do think of you. Often actually, especially when I’m cooking & so writing anything down is especially inconvenient. I compose whole blog posts in my head. An alternative way of looking at this is that often, when I’m cooking, I talk to myself in blog posts. Anyway. Here we are: Thursday night & it’s already getting late & everything I wanted to say has vanished.

This morning there was a frost & the rose leaves were edged in white, the last buds still closed. Today, Pops & I have written the invitations to his fourth birthday party. Big(ger) children have worked hard on decorating strips of paper which will one day be fashioned into paper chains for Christmas (!!). We had our Thursday evening ‘family meal’. I thought of Kerry as I always do when I make Anna Jones’s lentil ragù, heeding Kerry’s hard-won advice that an oven glove is necessary for the successful pouring of half an empty tomato tin of boiling water.

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I’ve been having a problem with narrative. A few weeks ago, I picked up Lauren Groff’s acclaimed novel Fates and Furies at the library. I enjoyed the first couple of chapters, but then I just couldn’t go on. The narrative had moved back to the childhood of one of the main characters & my interest was waning. I reread Kerry’s review. I read James Wood’s damning (and plot revealing) review. Then I spent half an hour skipping around, missing whole chunks of the hefty book, finding the pieces that I wanted to read. The end still moved me, but the idea of spending a week or two of my reading life within its pages wasn’t appealing.

The novels I’ve enjoyed the most this year have either dispensed with plot — Ben Lerner’s 10.04, Renata Adler’s Speedboat — or skipped through time, like In Certain Circles, or, like Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Child, been restricted to a time frame of a few days. I’ve become annoyed with books that are long seemingly just for the sake of being long.

March 2017

Like Zucker, I hope to come to right-feeling by right-living. February was lived right: a routine that I stuck to, time that I zealously guarded as my own, pages of handwritten notes that quickly filled notebooks. I find February easy. It’s short, the year is still young. Everything is still possible. This is never how I feel about March.

But here it is anyway, waving daffodils and fat waxy magnolia buds at me. When the sun shines it’s hard not to be seduced. A friend is picking Popsy up from pre-school today. When I got back from drop-off at 10.10, I had a whole five hours to myself. I discovered cat shit on the kitchen floor, changed the litter, took the bins round from the back to the front for tomorrow’s collection, made coffee. Still four & a half hours. I wrote, I ran, I showered, I ate lunch. I visited you, dear old blog. And look, still half an hour to go. The smell of spring in the air. Fingers moving lightly over the keys.

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The Pumpkin Eater

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer | edge of evening

A womb isn’t all that important. It’s only the seat of life, something that drags the moon down from the sky like a kite and draws the sea in and out, in and out, the world’s breathing. At school the word ‘womb’ used to make them snigger. Women aren’t important.The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

I‘ve been doing a lot of rereading these past few weeks. Looking back at books I’ve loved & trying to  see them afresh, wondering always how they cast their magic. But one new-to-me book I have read is Penelope Mortimer’s slim 1962 novel, The Pumpkin Eater, now reissued as both a NYRB Classic and a Penguin Classic.

It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a woman married to her fourth husband, an up and coming screenwriter (based on the author’s husband, John Mortimer) and the consequences of his infidelities and her focus on their home and many, many children. The writing is so fresh — funny and moving by turns — with wonderful dialogue and a great deal of space between what is said and what is left for the reader to infer. She’s also wonderful at getting children onto the page in all their living, breathing, infuriatingness (Penelope Mortimer herself was a mother of six), reminding me of the brilliance of Penelope Fitzgerald’s young characters.

Mortimer mangages her brilliant and visceral autopsy of a modern marriage in a little under 160 pages, and it made me incredibly sad to think how little remembered she is compared to her former husband. I’ll definitely be seeking out her other novels, but I think they’ll have a hard job to displace this one from my heart.

You can read more about Penelope Mortimer and her novels here.

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And with thanks to Kerry, who sent me in PM’s direction.

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Do you change it? Do you leave it the same?

swans, 22 December | edge of eveningjuvenile swan, 21 January | edge of evening

Top photo: December 22, 2016; Bottom photo: January 21, 2017

 

                      Do you change it? Do you

Leave it the same?

from ‘Mind Core’ by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

I went running last Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t go in the morning, as I have been recently, because of an ill child and because we needed to eat lunch at 11.30 to get another child to her extra ballet practice. It was because of the ill child and the ballet child that I didn’t march, a trip to London being just too awkward to fit in. I thought that I was okay with that, but as the day progressed — coughing child, breakfast, supermarket, lunch, hour-long wait in the car for ballet child — I felt less and less okay about it, until I felt very un-okay in a frustrated and angry kind of way. Which is where the run came into things.

Chunks of thick broken ice on the boardwalk. Silvered grasses. Pied wagtail. Robin fluttering just ahead of me. 

I listened to Michael Silverblatt interviewing Ottessa Moshfegh as I ran (recommended) and then started Rachel Zucker’s interview with Bernadette Mayer before realising that I was so cold that it was time to head home. This week I’ve started reading Mayer’s book length poem, Midwinter Day which fits into the gaps in my day, as I wait for a kettle to boil, or a child to get ready. “I want poetry that contains everything,” I wrote on Instagram & this book is certainly one answer to that desire. My recent morning reading, Solmaz Sharif’s lucid, beautiful, mindfucking, heartbreaking Lookand Kaveh Akbar’s miraculous Portrait of the Alcoholic  are other answers, other consolations, other reminders of what wouldn’t be if one man’s vision of America is allowed to prevail.

Last Saturday, as I rounded the top of the nature reserve, I saw the juvenile swan I’ve been watching all summer alone for the first time. His parents, usually fiercely protective, seem to have decided it’s time. There was something both moving & comforting in even this. Now, as the news seems worse and worse each day, it’s hard to believe that all this was only a week ago.

Is reading poetry, writing poetry any kind of defence? The lines from US poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera I quote at the top have stayed with me all week, though my real questions are how do you change it? how can you leave it the same? This brief interview with Herrera, from 2015, consoles me and commits me to reading more poetry that changes me, cracks me open, reveals me to myself as I gain an brief insight into someone else’s truth. To see and be seen, I keep thinking. That would be a start.

“Poetry is one of the largest, most beautiful, most intimate and most effective ways of participating” in public life, he said.

This political potential of poetry isn’t something that’s obvious to everyone, but it is to Herrera himself. “Poetry, as odd as it is, and as hard to figure out as it is, many times, it’s almost something that we’re used to,” Herrera said. “It’s kind of like a dream language that we had centuries ago, so that when we speak poetically, or write a poem about what’s going on, a real difficult issue that’s facing our communities, people listen.” It carries a power that pamphlets and reports cannot, he says.

It’s not that he expects a poem to transform all of society in one sweeping movement. But, “the justice and change probably [comes] in those five seconds where the person gained an insight.”interview with Juan Felipe Herrera, The Guardian, June 2015

The female body: Eileen & Hot Milk

Hot Milk & Eileen | edge of evening

It’s up to you to break the old circuits.Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, epigraph to ‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

So often with reading, it’s all about the connections. The secret conversations between one book and the next. And, blue covers & Booker shortlist connection aside, the two books I ended last year with had a lot to talk to one another about. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk could stay up all night talking about mothers (alive and dead), fathers (alcoholic and abandoning), alienation, boldness, sexuality, and the female body. They’re also both compulsively readable novels.

I came to Ottessa Moshfegh through her short stories which are fearless and physical and altogether unlike anything else. I highly recommend ‘Bettering Myself’ in the Paris Review (subscription or free trial needed to read the whole story). Eileen is set over a few days before Christmas in 1964 and narrated by a much older Eileen looking back on her twenty-four year old self and what turned out to be her last few days in X-ville, the town where she grew up and lives with her alcoholic father.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes — a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

So much of the book’s appeal lies in its atmosphere — Moshfegh’s ability to pull you fast & deep into Eileen’s constricted and squalid world. Eileen’s hatred of her own body and fear of her sexuality runs right through the novel. It’s interesting to see the book reviewed as a thriller in various places, which ties in with Moshfegh’s stated intention to write something that would get the attention of mainstream publishing houses (“it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.“). Read as a thriller, I can see its flaws, but read as a novel about escape and becoming and selfhood, it’s thrilling.

I also read some of Deborah Levy’s short stories last year, enjoyed her previous novel, Swimming Home, and have written before about my love of her essay Things I Don’t Want to Know. Hot Milk is dreamlike, mythic, unsettling. Levy’s novel dispenses with many of the niceties that make fiction seem ‘realistic’. Things happen in a way that reminds me of reading Iris Murdoch: veracity is achieved without too much concern for believability.

Twenty-five year old Sofia has accompanied her mother, Rose, to the Spanish coast to consult Dr Gómez, their last hope in understanding why Rose can sometimes walk and sometimes not. Rose’s incapacity has trapped Sofia on the brink of adulthood & the journey brings with it questions of sexuality, illness and the extent to which we are bound to the body of the mother. It’s a coming-of-age novel with a difference, as Sofia realises the extent to which she is stuck and, following the advice of Gomez, attempts to become bolder.

Yes, some things are getting bigger, other things are getting smaller. Love is getting bigger and more dangerous. Technology is getting smaller, the human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am still spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?

I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Lisa Appignanesi invokes a comparison with Elena Ferrante which I think is fitting: “Only Elena Ferrante writes of the seepages of illness and woman’s identity in the family with equal insight. But Levy’s prose is gleeful and punctuated by a scabrous wit.” I loved Hot Milk — its inscrutability, its mysteries, its refusal to allow anything to settle into simple understanding.

And reading an interview with Levy, I’m so excited about what she’s working on next:

Levy is now working on a sequel to Things I Don’t Want to Know, called The Cost of Living. “I’m going to talk about the making of home,” she says. “Women put so much of their energy into creating a home: it’s something I respect deeply; I’ve made a few myself. But there comes a stage, it seems to me, where women don’t feel at home in their home; the very place they’ve created is the place they want to leave. That interests me.” Identity, exile and dislocation again: in a literary sense, at least, Levy has found her home, and leaving doesn’t appear to be an option.interview with Deborah Levy

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There’s something off in my timing. Things here now lag several weeks (months?) behind my actual reading. I confuse myself about what I’ve said here & what I’ve said on Instagram. My digital lives seem to run in a time independent of me. Anyway, Shari kindly asked me what my favourite reads of last year were & in fiction I came up with these two plus Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Han Kang’s Human Acts & The Iceberg by Marion Coutts for a top five, feeling very bad about leaving out Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. How about you?

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Begin again

Begin Again | edge of evening

light on beads | edge of eveninglight on beads | edge of evening

And so, again we start at the beginning. Maybe we even start a little way back, looking for the point where we lost ourselves in the pre-Christmas rush. Trying to pick up the threads of what we were thinking, what we were doing, where we were heading. Each time I resolve to hold tighter to that thread, but I think now that losing it — or at least setting it aside for a time — is all part of these years with young children. The trick might be to put it somewhere you will remember it; to pick it up again as soon as you can.

So here’s what I’m doing:

Waking early again to read in the still-dark house. (Solmaz Sharif’s stunning collection , Look, is making it so that I practically leap out of bed.)

Noticing. Linda Gregg’s essay The Art of Finding is the thing I always come back to when I feel I’ve stopped seeing & so I’m doing my six things religiously. (“I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them.”)

Reading more, reading less. I want to find the time to read more non-fiction this year, which means reading earlier than bedtime if I want to remember what I’ve read the next day. We’ve juggled things around so that our two ‘study’ nights a week are now supplemented by two reading (me)/guitar playing (B) nights a week. They’re companiable & calming as we each sit at our own end of the sofa under a shared blanket. I’ve started with Of Woman Born, underlining frantically and wondering why I’d left it so long. I’d expected something drier, more academic, but Rich disrupts the text with her own raw experience of trying to hold onto that thread.

I admit it, I’m a lover of January. The year is open, everything possible. The house, stripped of its Christmas clutter & many of its small inhabitants, is spare and simple. The winter light slants through the windows, pink in the morning, golden in the hour before dusk. But I’m not a lover of February and certainly not of March. I know that I need to find my way again quickly, before the crisp newness of the year wears off. Then I guess it’s just a matter of not stopping.

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Over on Instagram, I’m continuing to read a short story a day for January. Endings are so hard! (A friend asked me if there are enough short stories to read one a day for a year — just as I was thinking that a year of reading had only touched the surface.) I’m also going to try harder to share some of the best here.

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Four

Wildeve in frost | edge of evening
I sometimes find myself thinking the strangest things. One of these thoughts, which occurs somewhere towards the end of every school term is, it’s always some time of the year. It sounds like a complaint, and in some ways it is, but I take comfort from it. It’s true, if it’s not nearly the summer holidays, then it’s Harvest Festival, or Easter, or someone’s birthday, or it’s Christmas. And though each of these things means that cakes have to be baked or presents wrapped or costumes acquired or fashioned, they’re also the rhythm to our year, the seasonal beat to our children’s childhoods.

I just looked back at this time last year. Once again, it’s the school Christmas Fair tomorrow. We celebrated the Pip-Pop turning four last weekend. Earlier in the week one of his pre-school teachers heard me calling him Mops (Popsy/Pops/Mops — all still in use) & laughed. And I thought, oh, yes, he’s C to you. He sat down at the table earlier in the week and declared that he was going to write his Christmas cards now, and he did. Since nobody’s taught him to write, there were no finger spaces, and there was lots of, what letter next? but it was pretty impressive. Having had a child with no interest in drawing or writing between T and the Pip-Pop, it’s really funny to again have one who just naturally assumes that he can do this stuff.

His party was the absolute best. Three friends, all the games, pizza for lunch with a fairy cake for dessert & a slice of the birthday cake (the honey cake from Tessa Kiros’s  Apples for Jam) and a balloon to take home. T had wrapped the pass-the-parcel. B led the games. So all I had to do was sit & drink coffee with my friends & watch. Somehow, in less than a decade of parenting, this was our 19th little one birthday celebration, and I think the experience showed.

The Moose had his nativity earlier in the week & made a very convincing line dancer (!!). Heart-breakingly sweet. T has her Christmas service next week. After the indignity of being donkey number 3 last year, she’s again the younger year in the service & so relegated to just singing and dancing. A show in which she doesn’t have a chance to speak goes against everything she holds dear, so I’m hoping that next year’s part (her final year of primary school!) will satisfy her. She was much happier with the wind band concert last week, in which ‘Frosty the Snowman’ was the crowning glory.

We’ll be spending Christmas at home & then going up to my mum’s for a few days on Boxing Day, partly to see my beautiful new niece & her parents, who’ve had a pretty rough first couple of weeks together. I can’t wait to be with them. B has plenty of time off work, we’re stocked up on Christmas movies, the shopping is so very almost done, and I’m really looking forward to the holidays. Before then, I’ll pop back with a final few book recommendations of the year! Hope the holidaying where you are is going well.

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Love Me Back

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce | edge of evening

I knew nothing about Merritt Tierce’s debut novel Love Me Back when I picked it off the shelf at the library a few weeks back. I’d only heard of Tierce because I’d read her widely circulated essay on money and writing back in September, in which she wrote about the financial reality that followed publishing a first novel to ‘wide acclaim’,

For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I’ll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job.Merritt Tierce

I remember reading that piece and feeling sympathy, but also thinking, maybe your book just isn’t as good as you think it is. I was so very wrong. I started reading Love Me Back on a Friday evening just before putting the kids to bed & I finished it late the next day, after the Bonfire Night fireworks, turning the pages faster & faster as midnight approached.

This might already be clear to you but, these days (these years!), it’s almost unheard of for me to finish a novel in two days.

From the very start, Love Me Back is something special.  A voice, perfectly nailed, from the opening lines:

I met all four of them at an off-site catering event for the opening of their new Minimally Invasive Spine, Neck and Back Group. The one I liked, Cornelius, was the only one I didn’t sleep with, and the only one who asked me out.

Marie, is a young mother working in a succession of Texas restaurants. She specialises in excelling during her shifts and afterwards losing herself in whatever way that she can — through sex, drugs, and self-harm.

It wasn’t about pleasure, it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.

If I had known more about the novel, I might not have thought it was for me. It’s a graphically sexual book. There are many scenes in which, although Marie has agency, there is always the very real fear of her losing any control of the situation. But somehow, in the litany of Marie’s jobs, her sleazy bosses and customers, her colleagues and their stories, the book enters that small genre of books that describe a job and its world so well that you feel you’ve lived it. In Merritt’s hands, the meticulous ballet of fine-dining service becomes the most riveting and vital performance. And Marie can lose herself within it like nothing else.

This is the thing about the service industry, you can get trained to be slick and hospitable in any situation and it serves you well the rest of your life. Once you figure out that everything is performance and you bow to that, learn to modulate, you can dissociate from the mothership of yourself like an astronaut floating in space.

But Love Me Back is also a motherhood book of a kind I’ve never read before. Getting pregnant by another member of her church youth group at seventeen, Marie is shamed by the church elders and derailed from her own life. Instead of entering Yale, she starts waitressing, working right up until her daughter is born. And then, that other dance, of fierce love and ambivalence begins. Each scene with her daughter is hauntingly unfamiliar yet achingly familiar,

You are strong. My father calls you Little Boot because when you fall you never cry. You can read when you are four and I ask you to help me memorize the parts of the cow. You have a lisp and I tell you to say brisket over and over just so I can hear it. But when you fall asleep I go into the bathroom and do lines off the map of the steer. […] You like staying with me because you get to sleep with me. You are so warm but I can’t stop shivering. I feel a soaring bliss–I adore you–I feel a plummeting ugly resentment–I am a pile of shit falling endlessly down a dark shaft, I am the hate that hurled the shit and the fear inside the hurled shit. If you slip out one stitch in your brain high and low are the same.

(Courtney Maum writes beautifully about Love Me Back as a motherhood book over at Electric Literature.)

More than any other, the book reminded me of Denis Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son. The same episodic, almost dream-like moving through anecdote and incident and then, bam, the whole thing igniting in revelation. But this book, this book is all female experience. I can think of many reasons why Tierce’s transgressive heroine might not have sold as well as she should, but not a single one of them is to do with the quality of the writing. Her voice, oh her voice! I could have listened to Marie for another two hundred pages, and another, and another. I burned through this book like nothing else I’ve read this year. Consuming and consumed and totally in love.

Please someone, pay Merritt Tierce to write.

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Desperate for more, I read this short story by Merritt Tierce — also recommended.

What are you going through?

post-election reading | edge of evening

I had put dark brackets around the paragraph that began, “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?'” [Simone] Weil was talking about the Grail quest, about the king afflicted with a terrible wound, experiencing excruciating pain. She was talking about suffering. The Grail was said to belong to the one who is compelled, feels the compassion, knows to ask, and, most importantly, has the courage to ask the king, “What are you going through?” Which seemed a very easy thing to do, but of course this is complicated by those cold and sometimes necessary distances we keep from one another as human beings, by our reservations, by our worries about what might be appropriate, by protocols, by hesitation, by over-interpretation of who the sorrowing suffering Grail king might truly be.

How is one to do this?Rumi and the Red Handbag by Shawna Lemay

I’m a firm believer in the serendipity of reading: that each book finds us when we most need it. Of course, we find what we’re looking for in what we read. Something will stand out in one context that might not in another. But I mean more than that, something more mysterious and alchemical. I mean that sometimes it will truly just be the right moment for that book & you. That the leap you need to take, the thing you need to figure out, the insight you need to know, the understanding that you need to glean, will find you at just the right moment.

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This isn’t the blog post I’d started for this week, but it’s hard to write about anything other than Tuesday’s election. We don’t normally sleep with phones within reach, but for the second time this year, we did. Back in June, I woke at around 5 to discover that the unthinkable had happened. This time, I woke later, when the alarm went off at 6, and I already knew that nothing was unthinkable. Still, I refreshed The Guardian home screen again & again, trying to change the news.

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The first time I truly felt what it might be like to inhabit the world in a black skin, to be subject every day to what he elsewhere calls “the many microaggressions of American racism” was reading Teju Cole’s novel Open CityIt struck me then that this was a late position to arrive at. A problem of my reading, or of what is published?

I’d read things that had made me feel the horror of slavery, for example, Andrea Levy’s The Long Song set in 19th-century Jamaica, but since this isn’t the 19th-century I had the privilege of believing that this was a historical wrong not something enacted day to day in the 21st century. What else had I read that shifted my perspective? I can only think of ZZ Packer’s short stories (‘Brownies’ is a good example), which do show what it’s like to be African-American, but which I could also identify with so easily being, at the time I first read them, young and female like many of their protagonists.

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For a long time I’ve wanted to read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American LyricI finally snuck it into an order for T’s clarinet music last week. It arrived — of course! — on Wednesday morning. It’s luminous in its beauty and anger and pain. Impossible to read without leaving changed. A litany of banal, everyday discrimination, which drop by drop feeds a river of dehumanisation flowing to catastrophe — the abandonment of the inhabitants of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina; violence; murder.

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dyingCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

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Other books this week has made me pick up again: Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss; The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A reread of Teju Cole’s essay ‘The White-Saviour Industrial Complex’ (collected in Known and Strange Things) from which, this, which is haunting me:

People of color, women, and gays — who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.The White-Saviour Industrial Complex by Teju Cole

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Then, a book that has been by my bed, waiting patiently for the right moment for almost a year, Rumi and the Red Handbag by Shawna Lemay. I pulled it out of the stack on Monday evening and last night I read the paragraph that heads this post and it took my breath away. For all I have been doing is reading, which is in a way its own kind of asking, but at a time of such darkness for so many, isn’t enough on its own.

The quote from Simone Weil, “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?'” is so beautifully complicated by what Lemay calls ‘our worries about what might be appropriate, by protocols, by hesitation’. Who hasn’t felt that hesitation. That to ask might be inappropriate, or that we won’t know how to respond. Let’s ask. Let’s care. Let’s learn. Let’s respond with empathy and love and know that that isn’t enough because the way things are, the way things have been, the way things are going, nothing is enough, but listening and truly hearing must be a place to start.

Talking to myself (or, go & read these essays)

Wildeve buds in frost | edge of evening

Verbena bonariensis in frost | edge of evening

Geranium leaves in frost | edge of evening

After half-term & various illnesses and school events etc, Wednesday was the first day in three weeks that everyone has been at school/pre-school for their full hours. And, oh, the joy of those precious hours alone. I read so many good things that morning & I wanted to share a couple of them here — though I suspect that many of you will already have read them.

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Firstly, I reread Rachael Nevins on Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia. I love this essay so much! I’ve enjoyed Rachael’s blog for years & so it was wonderful to read how she recognised her personal ‘frantumaglia’ in Ferrante’s fiction.

Few people know about my phobia, because it is so peculiar that even I can hardly account for it; now I have a word I can use to tell the strangest thing about me, the way that my mind snags on certain objects of the world, allowing an inexplicably horrifying disorder to tumble in.

“Why might you have felt that you were going to pieces?” asked my therapist after my honeymoon. Her question seemed to be beside the point, because my terror seemed to have to do with something deeper than mere personality or the taking up of a new identity as a married woman. I remember looking out the window of the bed and breakfast where my husband and I stayed after the wedding. The sweet evening light illuminated the grass and trees, and I thought, Now I am married and one day I will die. The part of life that fairy tales tell about had for me come to an end.Fall to Pieces: On Elena Ferrante and My Own Frantumaglia, Rachael Nevins

It’s a short one, so do head over right now & find out what Rachael’s rather unusual phobia is.

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My Elisa Albert love knows no bounds & so while over at Hazlitt I was excited to finally have time to read her essay on ambition, The Snarling GirlI need to reread this one. There were bits that frustrated me & then suddenly I’d read something that I’d underline so hard that my pencil went right through the paper (oh, yes, paper…). And, you know, I kind of liked that about this one — that I need time to think it through again, that there’s stuff that I want to revisit.

But one of the (several) things that completely stopped me in my tracks was Albert’s realisation that her mother’s criticism had actually been self-directed:

“I’m lazy,” she [Albert’s mother] amends, and my heart breaks for both of us.

She used to tell me I was lazy, back when I was refusing to care about my GPA, refusing to run the college admissions race, refusing to duly starve myself like all the good li’l girls, refusing to wax my asshole or get manicures or chemically straighten my hair, refusing to do much of anything other than consume books and music and movies and books, then scrawl my favorite bits all over the damn place. She was talking to herself all along. She was talking to herself! Remember: our most haunting, manipulative ghosts always, always, always are.

It’s true, I thought. She was talking to herself all along. But that recognition instantly lead me to wonder what my own children will remember me saying to myself, out loud to them.

A couple of years ago, when Pops was about to turn two, I started a post about my favourite motherhood books. But already, so long ago, I felt out of touch with the subject of new motherhood, as though my life had moved on & to confess the immensity of what I had felt was almost embarrassing. One of the books I was going to write about was Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky A. Bailey, which is a pretty awful title for a really good book. (My copy also has an excruciatingly annoying photo of a small girl with her thumb in her mouth.)

This book is the one I still turn to when it’s all falling to pieces. I should confess that I’ve never actually read it straight through because I’ve never needed to. Bailey starts her book with the seven powers of self-control that parents need to model to their children. Basically, every time I focus on these — focus on mothering myself, controlling & understanding my own emotions — things get better again & I just use the rest as and when I need to.

One of Bailey’s powers is the ‘power of perception’, ‘no one can make you angry without your permission’, & in this section she writes what has been, for me, the most valuable piece of advice: ‘You are never upset for the reason you think you are.’ So often, when I’m feeling enraged by a child, I simply have to think back to the minutes before — to the email I was thinking of, to the task I was just trying to finish off, to the concern with what other people are thinking, or (true more often than I’d like to admit) to the fact that I just glanced in the mirror & didn’t like what I saw.

Albert’s observation seems a corollary of Bailey’s. It’s certainly true of my relationship with T that I criticise in her what I least like in myself. I’m not sure if I’m like that with the boys. Its always been her I over-identify with; her behaviour that I feel reflects most on me, even though I know this is lunacy. I don’t have a conclusion, but I’m really grateful to Elisa Albert’s essay for opening this conversation with myself.

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Any recommendations for things — obvious or not! — that you’ve read recently?

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Photos: Yesterday there was a frost & the rose leaves were edged in white, the last buds still closed.

Human Acts

Human Acts by Han Kang | edge of evening

Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded. The world darkens, like electric bulbs going out one by one. I am aware that I am not a safe person.

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered — is this the essential fate of human kind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

It’s Wednesday morning, the last week of term. Later, I will pick Pops up from pre-school early & together we will go to church for the school Harvest Festival service. The sky is a high distant blue streaked with white cloud; the October light golden, oblique.

Last Friday we were having dinner with friends & I was asked what I was reading. I tried to describe Han Kang’s Human Acts. I failed spectacularly. Why, it was implied, would you want to read about torture, about corpses, about a violently suppressed student uprising that took place thirty years ago in South Korea?

I tried to convey how extraordinary this book is. How beautiful and how brutal, how poetic and how violent, how specific yet how universal. How powerful it is. How important it is. How very much I was loving it as an act of humanity, of empathy, of incredible evocation, and, perhaps above all, as both a wonderful novel and an example of what literature can do.

Human Acts unfolds in six parts, six voices from the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, with an epilogue in the voice of ‘The Writer’ making a seventh. It’s a stunning technical achievement — polyphonic, spanning more than thirty years, moving fluidly from past to present, from the living to the dead. The link between the sections is the boy, Dong-ho, fifteen years old and, as the book opens, searching for the body of his friend, Jeong-dae.

Bodies are everywhere in Human Acts. The unidentified bodies, putrid and rotting, that Dong-ho tends in the gymnasium of the Provincial Office. His friend, Jeong-dae’s dead body which Jeong-dae comes to hate as it rots: “[I] was filled with hatred for my body. Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat. Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun.” The beaten face of the Editor, and the tortured bodies of the Prisoner (“Every day I examine the scar on my hand. This place where the bone was once exposed, where a milky discharge seeped from a festering wound. Every time I come across an ordinary Monami biro, the breath catches in my throat.”) and the Factory Girl (“Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a thirty-centimeter wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus? […] Is it possible to bear witness to the fact that I ended up despising my own body, the very physical stuff of myself?”).

Han Kang was born in Gwangju and lived there until she was nine, just months before the Uprising. The three decades that have past allow her to trace the long afterlife of the events of that summer. The high suicide rate of survivors, the emotional shutdown of torture victims, the long-term grief of families. In the epilogue, narrated by ‘The Writer’, she writes,

I read an interview with someone who had been tortured; they described the after-effects as ‘similar to those experienced by victims of radioactive poisoning.’ Radioactive matter lingers for decades in muscle and bone, causing chromosomes to mutate. Cells turn cancerous, life attacks itself. Even if the victim dies, even if their body is cremated, leaving nothing but the charred remains of bone, that substance cannot be obliterated.

Human Acts has been the slowest, fastest read. It isn’t a long book. Its prose is beautiful and understated. Despite its many shifts in narrator, tense and time, Deborah Smith’s translation runs as clear as a stream (she writes in her fascinating introduction that she has added temporal headings & paragraph breaks in places). But it’s taken me over three weeks to read. Each time I put it down I was reluctant to pick it up again. Each time it was in my hands I was totally absorbed, unable to take my eyes from the page. When I finished it in bed last night, I was sobbing so hard that I could hardly see the words. It was the section narrated by the boy’s mother that undid me. I thought that I was crying silently, but B said later that he thought I would never stop.

I can’t leave it there, for I can’t fail again. I want you to read this book. I want everyone to. On a morning when the sky is blue, when my children are safe, when it’s hard to imagine that a very different world is just a paper wall away, I want to tell you to look into the darkness of human nature which Kang pursues so resolutely. For she finds not only darkness, but what dignity she can. Dignity in the families of the dead, in the ordinary citizens who queue at the hospital to give blood, in those who can speak up and those who can’t.

And if you want confirmation of the power of the novel to speak what can’t be spoken, to tell what can’t be told, to bring the voices of the dead alongside the living, you’ll find it in these pages. I’ll leave the last words to Han Kang herself:

For three months after December 2012 I spent eight or nine hours every day reading brutal documents related to Gwangju, followed by examples of other brutal acts which the human race had perpetrated throughout the twentieth century; the more I read, the more the faith in humanity I’d had so far, such as it was, crumbled. I felt thwarted, unable to carry on writing, and almost did give up. Then, I happened across the final diary entry of a member of the civilian militia who had stayed behind in the Provincial Office in the early hours of May 27 1980, and died. A quiet, delicate-natured twenty-seven-year-old who had taught at night school. The entry was in the form of a prayer, and began thus: ‘Oh God, why does this thing called the conscience pierce and pain me so? I want to live.’ Reading it, I realised what I had been missing in my previous reading. And what I thought was, though this novel began with human brutality and violence, it has to move towards human dignity. I felt that that was the only way, to go as far in that direction as possible.interview with Han Kang in the White Review

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An interview with Han Kang about the book.

Deborah Smith, writes about translating the book.

Guardian review by Eimear McBride

 

 

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