This blog is a continuation of the series of book (novel, memoir, biography) reviews I began on Ellen and Jim have a blog, Two, itself a continuation of this sort of reverie as book review I used to do regularly on Ellen and Jim have a blog, too. I would call them "A few good books to be getting on with," or "Quite enough books ... " Since last I posted about a group of books meaningful to me, I've read and browsed such a number (amid all other activities) I can't remember them all. Suffice to say that at night and even during the day (early morning, dawn hours, before dawn), outside my regular projects I read to answer the needs of my heart.
And that need and unity comes out of my need to reach people or presences or spirits in books which speak to me of the world in a way that is similar or analogous to mine, which validates on some level my experience from a core of the writer's being that is felt. Ultimately my choice of scholarly projects comes out of this too, but I go about them more objectively (or so I tell myself).
For today I have four: two memoirs, Hilary Mantell's Giving up the Ghost and Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws.
First (as ever) a picture, From a recent art exhibit called Family Ties (or from the book about the exhibit), :
Faith Ringgold's The Beach, Part 1:
It's an acrylic canvas, bordered, printed, painted, quilted cloth on it. At Solomon Guggenheim museum.
I find it a cheerful scene: the family group making the best of what they have. They can't afford to go to the beach (maybe they haven't got a car, maybe it takes 6 buses -- which it used to when I lived in the Southeast Bronx to get to Orchard Beach), so they sunbathe on the roof. They are probably hot inside and probably the apartment leaves a lot to be desired in the way of space. So they have the sky, decorate to their heart's content and take out comfortable chairs and tables. We do not go to the beach this year; we say it's because we cannot afford it; in fact we don't enjoy the beaches we can get to, only like going if it's part of a larger experience of travel.
It's a benign fantasy which acknowledges hard realities. The discourse accompanying the pictures from the exhibit tends to be sentimental and glide over some nonetheless articulated (in general terms) family realities. The idea was to tell the truth of what nuclear families are today: not the regulation strictly heterosexual biological unit and provide real reflections of experience. The exhibit included some of Diane Arbuses photos, taken seriously.
To turn to the texts, I begin with the two memoirs, move onto Austen by way of the jigsaws in Mansfield Park.
Hilary Mantel's GIving Up the Ghost is a memoir much in the spirit of Lorna Sage: Bad Blood: very hard hitting, trying for truth by never overspeaking -- nor pulling punches and softening. Both these women are superb reviewers.
She begins in the here and now with herself and her husband seeking to sell their house in Norwich and move, and then moves back in time. The purpose is to frame the book -- probably that is intended to comfort, only we are told right away of her years in Saudi Arabia, that this is her second marriage to the same man (and they don't get along that great) and her condition of helpless obesity after years of terrible treatment by doctors (including the usual indifference and scorn) over her gynecological troubles.
She then moves to her early childhood and girlhood, and begins with who was burnt to death and the hard scrabble of existence on the edge of Derbyshire. What I loved best was how she exploded the myth of eternally green England to depict the realities of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire against the usual mythic overspeak. Now this is directed at just such people as me who sit and watch film adaptations built out of universalizing small sections of England seen from the road or very rich people's houses.
She hasn't worked as hard as she does on her essays -- which I think are among the most brilliant in the papers she writes in, especially on women's issues (like anorexia). And probably not as hard as on her historical fiction (which I nonetheless can't read as they bore me no matter how much research she did and how much I'd learn about history the easy way supposedly). I've not read her novels set in our comtemporary world.
But I certainly recommend it if you are seeking a friend who tells you the truth about one woman's life brought up in the lower middle class of mid-lands England who was a reading girl and became a writing one. To me that 's comfort and strengthening.
Eventually the memoir becomes devastating in its depths of despair, longing and loss. As I suspected, what we were driving towards was her experience of helpless obesity. Mantel spent many years where she had inexplicable pain; some of this was psychosomatic, but some was physiological and (it was thought by her doctors), the result of endometriosis (growths on the uterus is a layman's description). So the solution was to remove her uterus. The result was that (like some eunuchs), she grew fat, and in her case, she kept getting fatter and fatter. She conveys the terror of not being able to stop this, no matter how little she ate, and the fear she would just blow up like a balloon. We see what it is not to be able to buy clothes that fit, and how others treat fat people so cruelly. It's not clear she has managed to control this expansion for good by the end of the book.
What I did want to say was she also conveys (as I've seen her do before, say in the LRB), that the way mentally troubled people, people with illness not susceptible to a physiological explanation (or causation) is as bad in the UK as it is in the US. It's true that you are not fleeced to the nth degree in return for the hope of help. Coercive behavioral therapy is as rife there as it is here. She was led to have a hysterectomy because no one could understand the myriad pains she had beyond endometriosis.
The close finds her resettling outside London, in an apartment and ready to write. It's a journal which takes us up to her writing life, how she got there to some extent, and the terms of her existence, mostly alone in a room with her books and computer reminds me of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, except she doesn't close the blinds but opens them to a wide landscape of England.
Cover photograph of my copy of Giving Up the Ghost
The sad thing is she has this idea she has lost out because she never had a child. It's so sad at the end: she grieves over the lack of a child suddenly so strongly -- she's really grieving for her whole state of body, but that's what she's fixated on. I wished I could write her a letter and tell her she's fantasizing over counterfactual fantasies. She is dreaming up ideal people and has not begin to imagine what it will be like for her putting the child in the awful schools, coping with their social experiences with peers, just the whole helplessness and animosity everywhere towards the mother. I wish I could send her a letter advising her. Surely we must give up such ghosts is the meaning of her book.
It's a quintessentially woman's story. Her tragedy is her hysterectomy, that partly brought on by her physician's refusal to pay attention to her pain and really to take adequate care or warning her. Also that she couldn't find a spot to fit into unless by marrying someone and going with him to South Africa and back. She remarries the same man. What is she to do? Her grief over her childfree state, and finally her part withdrawal to write (very like Jhabvala's daily life) though this is probably what one might find in a great male writer's life too.
John Singer Sergeant, The Boating Party (1889): I put it up no Trollope-l and enjoyed looking at it all week. This may look photographic, but it has been set up geometrically, is lush with impressionist color that is tapestry like. A story is suggested too. There is a companion painting, Autumn on the River
The Puzzle in the Carpet. It is good, very different from many books, as it feels so relaxed. I, as reader, almost feel she's talking directly to me with all guards down (the opposite would be an Elizabeth Bowen book). It swirls about an aunt who loved jigsaws as did and does Drabble, also her husband Michael Holroyd who I now know became ill with a dreadful cancer and about how for two years he fought this with her helping him (operations, diets) and how she turned to jigsaws again to calm herself
I was thinking of taking down one of Laura's old puzzles and doing it. How I used to do puzzles myself, for hours on end in the summer watching old movies on TV. Alas, the cats will not permit it. They will bat the pieces and then eat them :(
It feels bright as I read but I do not forget (as she keeps mentioning from time to time), her husband Michael Holroyd is and has been suffering and might still be as she writes this book from a dangerous cancer: he had to have two monstrous operations and must be on a careful diet, and goes in for chemotherapy. And we learn of her first husband, Clive Swift: he who played Bishop Proudie, was in a subtle film adaptation of an MR James story, the Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale, a subtle stalwart character actor in BBC TV dramas. Her three children are by Swift and we hear of them and her grandchildren.
She loves England and conjures up its green places. How I do too: like some US people my identity is there because of my readnig as a child. Off she goes in her car with grandchildren and Auntie Phyll in tow to eat at pubs and climb rocks in Devonshire.
Thus she turns to puzzles to calm her and remembers back.
She weaves in memories of an aunt who meant much to her and with whom she stayed often enough as a child to achieve a rooted relationship, her mother's sister, Auntie Phyl. Auntie Phyl's house was at a cross-roads of England, and at one time it was a bed-and-breakfast and then a tea-shop place. Drabble remembers this. Auntie Phyl never married and she was not super-courteous at all -- raw statements making all uncomfortable were common, but she was no phony and not a depressive.
This latter is important for another part of the book woven in are memories of Drabble's parents as depressives, and her home with her older sister, Susan (AS Byatt), a brother not a happy place at all. We get glimpses of the mother looking down on Phyl as unsophisticated and not knowledgeable, but Drabble defends her aunt against this mother. She and the aunt loved to do jigsaws and so we are often and running about these again.
It's a cyclical book and in that very much a woman's book. It reminds me of Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in its use of cycle.
She does relaxed research on jigsaws and we learn a lot about them and children's games. ARe they a game? I think so: you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place. I do have a method: first you make the frame and then you work on different portiosn of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard. Since the competition is at a distance, it's relaxed and you have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together.
This leads her to childhood, its history becuase puzzles begin as learning tools: that's how rich and middle class children learned their geography, maps were dissected puzzles. Drabble finds the history begins in the Renaissance but spreads in the later 18th century, when childhood became something to create for a child.
Which gets us to JA: famously there is a puzzle in MP -- free indirect speech from either Julia or Maria:
"Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together -- or my cousin cannot tell the principle rivers in Russia -- or she never heard of Asia Minor -- or she does not know the difference between water-colors and crayons --How strange! -- did you ever hear of anything so stupid?"
Fanny's pain comes through indirectly. The next reference is a letter by Cowper to someone recommending a dissected puzzle. WE learn about Lady Charlotte Finch (down and out from a brutal husband with 4 children who became a companion and governess at George 3's court).
All sorts of out to the way information; like about the woman who was the modern big researcher and collector of puzzles, Linda Hannas. Who invented them? Apparently it was a later 17th century French novelist whose main subject is education: Anne Louise Elie de Beaumont. Austen might have read her; at any rate they were writing with similar conscious aims in mind.
Drabble is too complacent for my taste, too easy to read out of pictures distress and into them optimism (like when she tells the story of Mary Delaney), but after all that's understandable for this book is therapy too. I feel the woman who has had a successful career out of thick skin and can understand why she has written books I could not get on with at all.
At one point she is hurrying by cab (though she disapproves of this mode of travel) to get from one museum to another for her exploration, and finding open access is a myth, and talking to her cab driver (who miffed her at first by assuming she was tourist-- no she's a researcher).
Then she becomes friends with the cabdriver and he takes her round London to visit jigsaw type sites. These include archeaology digs where we see pieces of the past brought together and reformulated -- and so we are into the modern geologizing topic of _Digging the Dirt_ as in Jennifer Wallace's great book.
Although it would seem that Henry James's short story, "The Figure in the Carpet" is centrally alluded to I have seen no sign of specific allusions and this is not a book where the author hides herself, no tricks here. The texts beyond 18th century ones, on the history of jigsaws, and childhood education and games she uses are Perec, and especially his Life: A User's Manual. This one (Jim tells me and he's read it) does use the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle centrally. Perec's hero is very rich and doesn't have to work; he thus needs something to do with his life and so he has beautiful watercolors made of ports, harbours, around the world. These are central for communciation in the past. Then he has these cut into vast jigsaws. Then he works to put them together. Finally he has the painting erased so he is back where he started. It is a despairing view of our own daily activities and how we kid ourselves about the usefulness of our days and overall larger meanings in history. The novel takes place in a tall apartment building and on each floor are different stories; you can rearrange the chapters as you might in your imagination rearrange the floors. A jigsaw. So jigsaw come maps of life.
Perec wrote the book translated as The Void, in French and and the English translation there is no "e," so there's an activity, which includes rewriting "To be or not to be" without an "e" or The Raven," as in quote the big black bird, not again. This is the Oulipo group, and Jim loves this sort of thing. I've had the patience to dip into The Void and read this or that floor of stories in Life: A User's Manual.
Well The Pattern in the Carpet is a large grabbag about life too as Drabble moves from all this to her father's novels which he wrote later in life to give himself something to do (she says her mother scolded her for telling him the third needed work and it discouraged him) and Spenser on the Ruins of Time:
"My sad desire, rest therefore moderate
For if that time make end of things so sure,
It als will end the paine, which I endure.
And of course she writes it as her husband fights a terrible cancer.
Which of course gets her to art history, what she didn't do in school (and her pride that one of her sons by Clive Swift did not go to university and has had a fine career without it -- by Swift's connections no doubt as he's in TV) and then a trip she took to Italy which dazzled her mind and opened her to the romance of history through art.
After a while her delightful associative divagations makes the book into a jigsaw puzzle. The latest turn takes one into the area of archealogy by way of thinking about the oddity of wanting to recreate something originally in one medium in another. After all that is also what a jigsaw is. It is made of pictures which you reconstitute in a different medium. This leads her to talk of the weirdness of wanting say "to reproduce a cauliflower in wool." She had gotten onto to tapestry; tapestry designs are often made into puzzles and as a girl in a boarding school she found herself doing tapestries as each Wednesday afternoon she was required to do an acceptable hobby.
"The desire to reproduce one meidum in terms of another, or to imitate natural objects in unnatural substances, is a curious, wide-speread and deep-rooted human need. The very difficulties of translation are a challenge."
She goes on to talk of various craft modes women have often done -- not much respected but regarded with awe (Delany's flowers, I remember a quaker who reproduced a painting of George III in tapestry).
It made me think of film adaptations and how difficult it is to turn a novel into a film and also of translations from one language to another.
How dangerous is copying she says and reproduction. There is ever someone somewhere who wants to own the image already extant and wants to be asked for permission or given payment for the right to reproduce in another medium. A cop took Goethe to jail for drawing a ruin; when he finally understood Goethe wasn't planning to do something nefarious, he couldn't understand why anyone wuold copy a ruin for nothing, to get nothing out of it.
Drabble asks why we have this "absurd desire to appropriate the world and everything in it in a manner" peculiar to ourselevs. In the 20th century it is backed and rationalized as getting money and the evils of copyright preventing knowledge and pleasure from spreading were before me. The ironies of who ends up controlling the copyright (insttutions most of the time, that's why it's been so extended).
She talks of how to write you must appropriate people you have known and use them, and tells of a dream she had of her aunt who is reproaching her for bringing her back from the dead. An insight here to into mythic thought.
The book is helping me through the summer. Drabble reveals aspects of herself I see at root of those books by her I can't read or like, but she does so in a way that is candid and open and makes me accept them (like her love of opulence and respect for competitive power). She may well be cleverer than her sister, I suspect she is, if not as talented in the ornate or passionate.
I hope I have conveyed something of the charms of this book, and its pleasures, and from Austen's use of childhood and jigsaws to convey Fanny's distress and Austen's interest in young girls (that they not be exploited, their real dreams and feelings)