Two months’ reading conflated, due to the small matter of PhD thesis duly submitted, with this post rushed due to impending holiday – which, though, should allow plenty of time for more reading – and all coming out in the wrong order, a concatenation of events, stitched together with tiredness, a tinnitus of the calendar.
Working backwards, from July to June we have: After Claude, by Iris Owens, The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, All The Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride and Armed With Madness, by Mary Butts. To which I’m adding a long poem, ‘You, Very Young in New York’, by Hannah Sullivan, from Areté’s Retrospective. Two new novels, one of them a new debut novel, the others recommendations from my Myopic/Misogynist reading list, one recent Italian translation and two classics of varying modernity – bitchy 70s New York, and and England between the wars.
And all touching, in one form or another, on madness, on a mind battling to contain and control the rising tide of reality – although strangely enough it’s the one with Madness in the title that least matches with what we think of as madness today – which I’d characterise as psychological disturbance. (I might be influenced in some of this by the fact that I’m married to a psychologist, who is very much against any kind of mystification or romanticisation of the topic.)
Perhaps that’s not surprising at all. Mary Butts’ book, Armed With Madness is a piece of modernism, coming somehow between Virginia Woolf and the Beats, if that’s a valid continuum, and seems to be of a time, or a moment, or a genre, that sees madness as something divine, and tragic, rather than, as today, something medical, and solvable. It is about a group of artistic types living in vaguely ecstastic rural bohemianism on the Dorset coast, and about the incursion into their lives of a bluff American, who feels it might be his destiny, or at least a personal challenge, to seduce the sole woman of the group, Scylla Taverner.
If one woman doesn’t seem enough to go round, then it might help to know that one of the other men is Scylla’s brother, Felix, and some of the others seem likely to be gay, or bisexual. As well as the America, the novel’s other narrative drive comes from the discovery, in a well, of an old church cup that might be the Holy Grail. A sense of immanent paganism throbs all the way through the book, and the notes point out that this kind of stuff was rather important to Butts, who seems to have been at least as psychologically unkempt as her characters, not to mention drug-addled.
Reading the book, you think: well, if I was going to live the bohemian life in a cottage on the Dorset coast with a bunch of self-obsessed and self-destructive arty types, well I’d want it to be this lot, or like this lot. The characters – their struggles with sex and ego, their tantrums and traps and slights and sufferings – are held up as heroic, if only for running against the grain of society. In this the book is a step on from the Woolf of Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, with their ordinary heroes. If this is close in spirit to one of her books (and, as I say, it’s clearly inspired artistically by her prose style) then it’s Orlando. It has the same passion, the same dangerous love of life.
Armed With Madness is a wonderful book – and, I’m happy to report, these five novels are all superb examples of the form, in their different ways – and it’s a book to hold close; to lift up, rather like a pagan chalice; perhaps even to pray to. By this I mean it’s rich and strange and distant. It doesn’t belong to our world, and seems to offer the promise, or at least the possibility, of another world.
But the problem with this, and reading Stephen Heath’s introduction only brings it out, is that what I take as strange and exotic and unbelievable (and therefore, weirdly, worthy of belief) was, for Butts, intensely real, the very stuff of life. She believed in all this shit – a new Arthurian age. I was reminded of that point in Kevin Jackson’s book of interviews with Iain Sinclair where he presses him on the whole ley-lines thing:
KJ: It’s more than a metaphor for you?
IS: It’s more than a metaphor.
KJ: But at the heart of it is the belief that something which happens in a place permanently affects that place?
IS: Very much so.
For me, suffice it to say, it’s ALL metaphor – but it’s the metaphor that moves me. Nothing makes me cry, in art, like the true expression of something I don’t believe, but wish I did.
After the Butts, the four other novels all seem to speak to each other in quite splendid ways – the Ferrante and the Owens are both about women driven to the edge of psychosis by having their man leave them. The Wyld and the McBride both feature protagonists who have been the victim of sexual abuse as a young teen – sex that it is abusive not so much for what is done, but for the situation of the woman. Not one of the four protagonists could be said to be fully in their right mind – there are hallucinations, and scary monsters, and scariest possibility: that it might be real.
Perhaps Olga in The Days of Abandonment is the simplest case. She has a breakdown when her husband walks out on her and her children. The novel follows her obsessive attempt to work out what went wrong but also her inability to separate herself from it: “I told him that was re-examining our relationship in minute detail and that I needed his help to understand where I went wrong.”
The writing is throat-grabbingly fervid and feverish – I remember reading it and thinking, This is what I wanted when I said I wanted a book to show me the female mind in action, as I love books that show me the male mind in action. (Think Marías, think Knausgaard.) There is a sex scene in it that felt, in all its clarity and candour and muckiness, like the truest possible expression of what I feel (what I fear) must be going on in that other mind, during sex, that point when we like to think our minds are most empty, we are most animal.
And here’s the thing. Elena Ferrante is an entirely anonymous author. No one knows who she is. This novel is the best advertisement I can think of for the idea that authors should be left to get on with what they do without any kind of publicity.
Harriet in After Claude is also dumped early in her novel, but this is a short-term boyfriend, not a life partner. Harriet is a violently intelligent and splenetic person, and this book is full of her hilarious, awful put-downs on everything and everybody. She wields the knife of sarcasm like a caveman with his cudgel. The book opens with Harriet and Claude watching a film about the life and death of Christ (Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, at a guess). This is from the second page:
“Thank God,” I said, as we staggered towards the aisle. “I thought the fag would never die.”
I must admit, there was a point, about halfway through this short book, when I began to tire of Harriet – not because she was ‘unlikeable’, Heaven forbid, but because Owens wasn’t putting her in any new situations, but rather, just letting her mouth off internally about everyone. The character wasn’t growing, and someone as truth-telling and hateful as Harriet can deserves either self-awareness or obliteration.
But she does get put in a new situation, and the last chapters of the novel open up a fuller understanding of the character and her place in society than I would have expected. It didn’t end how I thought it should have ended, but it certainly turns the screw on anyone who thought, fifty pages earlier, that they’d had ‘enough’ of Harriet.
(A brief mention here for Hannah Sullivan’s poem, in Areté, which cuts the line from the New York of Owens to that of the young things of today, by which I mean Tao Lin and Marie Calloway.)
Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is a difficult book to write about, in part because, at a distance of some two or three weeks, I can no longer really remember which parts of the story it tells were there in the book, and which parts in my horrified imaginings.
Everyone who reads it talks of its arresting prose style, which explodes across the page in a fragmented modernist interior monologue – that is probably no closer to how we ‘really’ think that the orchestrated sub-clauses of Proust, or the terse piling up of declarative statements of Bernhard, but at least reminds us that those, too, are lies, or approximations.
The upshot of McBride’s style, however, is that at times you can’t be entirely sure what is happening, or who is speaking, and so must trust your own interpretation of events. And seeing as one of the driving events of the novel is the seduction, or rape, or taking advantage of the narrator, as a teen, by her (non-blood) uncle, this radical ambiguity at the level of the sentence is a hard thing to take. There are some set pieces, when things seem to settle into what you expect from characters in a novel, but elsewhere you can be sure that this is a book, like a million-sided diamond, that no two readers will read the same.
Done and done to. Doing. I’ll do all of this. Dance with the pain of it and I would do later for many bleeding days. Sting and itch. Not from disease. From new stretched and snapped skin. Up inside that will not fit in time. Expand and let him lurch there. I want. And this is what it’s like after all.
Men, heterosexual men – tell me how you feel when you read, “Let him lurch there.” (cf. The Days of Abandonment.)
And, tell me, dear reader, gloss me, parse me that “I want.” Is that a full sentence? A fragment? Complete the sentence…
The worst thing that I can think of to say about Evie Wyld’s second novel, All The Birds, Singing, is that it is so hugely accomplished. By which I mean that – and especially compared to McBride – it carries all the hallmarks of well-written, well-appointed prose that we’re perhaps supposed to be worried is becoming the norm in a book-publishing world increasingly influenced by that whole teaching of Creative Writing thing.
(Wyld studied Creative Writing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and, seeing as I’m just coming to the end of my postgraduate studies in the same subject, it’s an issue rather on my mind, especially after reading a spirited, dispiriting piece in Bookslut interviewing Sarah Schulman – scroll down to July 8/9.)
All The Birds is a great novel, finely controlled and sparking with life on every page. It shows us two more or less distant worlds – a woman sheep-farming alone on a small remote English island, and another, younger woman sheep-shearing in the Australian outback – and the precision and immediacy of those worlds is everything that fiction is supposed to give us.
If it doesn’t sound too weird, reading All The Birds – so close to life, and so artfully removed from it, so as to point back at it – reminded me of watching an intricate stop-motion animation. It’s the distance from nature, from the sign to the signified, that is so powerful. Geoff Dyer says, “I like to write stuff that is only an inch from life – but all the art is in that inch.” Well, Wyld is more a half-foot than an inch, and the life is more like something from a Flemish still life, with every word, every sentence weighed.
What gives the book its exceptional power is a narrative structure so simple and powerful that it carries all before. Nothing more can be said about it, for the uninitiated, and little more than that for those who have the read the book, other than just to shrug and say, Christ, That’s good. It’s so good, in fact, that my reader brain yelped, when I saw what was happening: Surely this has been done before? But for the life of me I can’t think of an example, and for the death of me, even if I could, that wouldn’t take anything from this book.