February and March Reading: Messud, Powers, Ferrante, Adler, Fitzgerald, Angel


I am bad. This is old. We are going back to early February here. I’ve been reading, but I’ve not got round to writing any of it up. There are two reasons for this, beyond sheer laziness. One of them is that I wanted to use one of these month’s round-ups to reconsider the whole ‘reading women writers’ / #ReadWomen2014 thing, which beyond being a prompt to myself to read more women was originally supposed to be a prompt to thought: not just why don’t I read more of them, but why do I read them as women; why when I’m reading them am I aware, at some level, of treating them, in my reading, as women writers, not male writers.

Is this true? Or do I just worry that it’s true?

Is awareness thought?

Am I turning into my own thought police?

Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.

And of course you’re entitled to question the very idea of the pantheon as a method of literary assessment.)

So, the four months I spent reading women last year was supposed to end with some kind of accounting of that experience, and it never did. I wanted to include that in my Feb reading post, but wasn’t ready to, hadn’t marshalled my thoughts.

I’m not ready now.

I have not marshalled my thoughts.

I’m listening to Nils Frahm: ‘Spaces’. I recommend it.

The second possible reason for not having written up my February and March reading, till now, is that I have been in the final throes of preparing my novel, ‘Randall’, for publication. Working with the publisher on proofs, publicity, promotion, review copies, getting quotes, cover, author photo, a reading; then: first Q&As, mini biogs, a foreign rights deal, the London Book Fair. A million and one things, but mostly: the words.

And the realisation, that hit home most of all when I held a bound proof in my hand, that the gap between the words on the page, and the novel in my head, was no longer capable of remediation.

The novel in my head was now, to all intents and purposes, dead, or devoid of significance.

(The revelation of this, of the shadow that falls across art, for its creator, between its conception and its product, came to me late: it was an interview with the film director Hal Hartley, whom I revered in my early twenties, when he said, talking of the film Amateur, which I loved, that there was a shot – a single shot – towards the end of it, that he thought he’d got right, that had got what he was after.)

And so the sudden concreteness of the book in my hand made the book in my head – the private movie that had been, all along, the source material I tried to transcribe, or translate, or footnote in my writing – throb ever more relentlessly, it was like a headache. This headache was the last hurrah of that head-novel, but that head-novel tended to shout down anything else I tried to read, or tried to think about, having read.

The most dispiriting books I read, during these two months, were the ones that seemed to be doing what I had tried to do with my novel – in terms of the pitch of the prose, the balance between ‘realism’ and ‘experiment’ (between vodka and tonic – or tonic and vodka), the degree to which they aspired to and achieved a particular state of ‘literary fiction’… and had done it better, while at the same time had made it seem not worth doing.

These two were one of the first and last of this particular tranche of books: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, and Orfeo, by Richard Powers – both of them the first I had read of their books, both American, both established and venerated. They both had turned in books that at once made me despair – look how well they are written! – and despair doubly – was that what I was trying to do? Was that it?

The Messud held me, for a while, then let me go. My main problem with it was that I was never convinced by the angriness of the main character – flagged up from the first sentence. Nora Eldridge is the overlooked woman, the silent woman, the woman who has worked hard and tried to do good, and do good for herself, but been passed by by luck, or life.

It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies…

Well, frankly, that fury never comes across in the prose, which is polite even when it is furious, polite even when it is swearing. The trajectory Eldridge takes through life was fair enough, the art and the human relations it exemplified were plausible, but nothing in the book ever made me want to test that plausibility.

(I rather think the angry woman element to the character was added on after the story was written; there is little in the rest of it that lives up to that claim. There are angry narrators out there, and this one just doesn’t seem unhinged enough.)

The art stuff in it worried me. Whenever there is art in a book it worries me. (My book is about art.) But, honestly, two months on, much of the book has slipped from my mind: the characters were well built, but the glow they produced didn’t reach beyond the page. A few moments, it came alive: the child in the playground, the spark of friendship between the women in the cafe, the spark of love for the child, in the classroom, but nothing like the way the air vibrated between the characters in, for example, the best sections of The Goldfinch.

Powers’ Orfeo is still fresh in my mind. Some sections of it blew my mind.

(Did it?)

The ten or so pages of the character jogging in the woods, being lapped ever so often by the younger woman:

She edged away. Els ached to call her back. Faust’s parting shot to life: Stay awhile; you’re so beautiful. But then, he felt like saying that to everything, these days.

And here we are. That – and much else – resonates with me. That will be me, I thought, reading it, in thirty years. It bites true to my sense of self… but is that because it is ‘great’ literature, and the Messud isn’t, or is it because the character is a man, and the writer is a man, and I am a man?

Deborah Levy:

In all my own books, far more important than being a female writer is, in my view, female subjectivity. So when we think about that old chestnut of men not reading female authors, well, you know, we can all read what we like, but I think if we don’t read books by women, we’re missing essential data.

Am I letting that essential data flow by me? Am I a bad reader?

Or is calling it ‘essential data’ in itself a mis-step. Does it relegate women writers, to me, as other?

(Is that a bad thing, if it does?

Well, no, but bear in mind, Jonathan, that the whole point is that women readers are not given, have not been given, over the long years of cultural accretion, the option of considering male writers other in precisely that way. The male is natural, the woman other.

                        Yes, okay, so how do I read differently?

By reading women writers until they become natural. Until their concerns – to quote, horribly, Woody Allen – are my concerns.

Here’s the thing. My first English homework, in the first year of my grammar school education, was to write an essay about myself, until the title ‘Know thyself’. It’s possible that that maxim has guided much of my cultural life… that I read books, watch films, listen to music, look at paintings in order to come to a deeper understanding of myself. When in fact I should be using art not to turn my thoughts inwards, but outwards. I started reading Violet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, but didn’t finish it. Why not? Because I didn’t like the writing? Because I honestly didn’t connect with any of the characters? Of just because none of them were like me? Of course, this question can very easily turn into a kind of gestural politics… for example, what would be worse: to not read anything that upsets your vision of the world, that connects you with the myriad differences and others that exist out there; or to read about them, and do nothing? It seems perverse to judge someone on their reading, if you are not going to judge them on their actions.

I want to get back to the Powers, which, as I said, ‘spoke to me’ (as ‘great literature’ / ‘man-to-man’) almost as a kind of personal astrological star chart, but this has happened to me, too, with women writers. Most memorably, it happened with Helen Simpson’s story ‘Heavy Weather’, which I originally read in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists 2. It came out in 1993. I was 21. The story was about youngish parents, most likely somewhere in their thirties, on holiday, been traumatised by their all-marauding kids, battling rain and snot and lack of sleep. The rubbing against each other of the two levels of the story – the awfulness of their life, and the quiet, triumphant sense that it was all worth it – affected me greatly.

‘That’s me,’ I thought. ‘That’s what parenthood will be like.’ It felt like an annunciation.

The best fiction feels like an annunciation.

(The best fiction feels like an annunciation.)

But then Powers, too, can be too much. There is an epiphany every few pages. They come far enough apart, in the character’s life (he’s a composer, and the revelations are generally musical, and genuinely illuminating, some of them) but as he’s taking us through his whole life in those few hundred pages, they seem to come around every few minutes.

Oh music! Oh humanity!

(Then, a few pages on:

Oh music! Oh humanity!)

And the luxury prose.

The luxury prose!

Three similes:

The thing [the four-note motif of the climax of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony] spills out into the world like one of those African antelopes that fall from the womb, still wet with afterbirth but already running.

(Does it, though?)

Thirty yards out, kids swarm a plywood float lashed to empty oil drums, like ants massing a melting sugar cube.

(But do they?)

The crystal liturgy spread through the group like flu moving through a day-care center.

(Did it? Really)

Now that’s luxury prose. Those are good similes.

But, equally, they somehow hollow out the whole idea of the simile till it’s a grinning skull. What is the point of a fucking simile if all it can go is compare kids on a raft in a lake to ants on a sugar cube? What kind of dressage of this, the great horse of language taking pernickety sideways steps across the ground, when it should be taking the ground at a gallop?

Even when the kettle is not cracked, even when it is whole, pristine, precision-engineered and flawlessly designed, and even when the bear leaps and swoons like Nijinsky, still the stars see nothing, have not noticed us, are looking the other way.

Three books that did it for me, in these months:

Renata Adler’s Speedboat, at something like the third time of trying. There is essential data there. Opening the book now, I recognise little of it. (Which is not to say I didn’t recognise it for what I was when I was reading it: viz, something unrecognisable.)

It remains essential. It stays unread.

(There’s a definition of a great book, for you: that when you read it, it stays unread.)

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. For much of the year, or close on, that I have been jibing myself that I must find a woman to bow down before as I bow down before Marías or Dyer, Ferrante has been my great white hope. The Days of Abandonment… ah, there is fury there. Claire Messud, read this book! And there is essential data. The sex scene in that book is still, now, enough to make me wilt, to hang my head in shame.

(Compare to Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, which seems to want to shock me to the same degree, but does so by pandering to my dirty secret thoughts, by reaching its long fingers deep into my pornographic soul, and pulling out coloured handkerchief after coloured handkerchief.)

(And compare that to Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, which does us the huge double favour of being utterly candid and at the same time utterly reticent. It lays it all out, but when it does, there is little there to shock. It is sex in daylight. Another book I have been enjoying, enjoying puzzling over, wanting to read it slower than I am. Not every page is a revelation, but I enjoy the attention it is bringing to my attention. It is the perfect example of what Levy said: it is not a book written by a woman, let alone a ‘woman writer’, but it is a book suffused with female subjectivity. )

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels. My first of hers. Bright, sharp, subtle, oblique. Muriel Spark. Russell Hoban. Iris Murdoch. As if the comic characters from a Shakespeare history had been isolated and extrapolated, but somehow with the awareness that what is happening off-stage is very much the opposite of comedy.

Precisely comic writing at the service of something other than comedy.

The other books in the pile are either books I reviewed, or books I’ve started and have been, temporarily, superseded.

So, I will go on reading women. I will try to read books by women while not thinking, as I read them, this is a book written by a woman. I will let in female subjectivity. Know thyself, yes, but let loose the bounds of your definition of thyself. Fortress self.

Also, I think this is likely to be the last ‘monthly reading’ post for a while. It’s gone on for two years, and it’s a good format – the idea being, from the start, to not review the books I was reading, but to consider where that reading took me, what I got out of it – but I don’t want to risk repeating myself. I will find other ways to goad myself into posting. (The monthly blog is as much a way of putting off posting as it is a way of making myself do it. They also end up very long, sometimes…)

Also, I have another regular online writing project about to start that I don’t want to jeopardise.

Thanks for reading.



  1. Slightly Bookist

    I really enjoy these monthly round-ups, so I will be sorry to see them stop. They are so detailed and precise, and one of the few long(ish) things I read on my computer without switching tabs partway through.

  2. Alison

    This concept of “female subjectivity” still appears to assume a way of thinking and feeling common to women, and it does not treat women as individuals. (Quite a number of women, of course, are happy with this idea of common female subjectivity and find themselves in agreement with its typical contents as displayed via their particular entertainment medium of choice. Just as plenty of men are with an equivalent “male subjectivity” in fiction, tv, sport etc… To the chagrin of those of us who feel less typical, and frequently have tiresome wrong assumptions made about our opinions and interests, not least by members of out own sexes.) Presumably not all male writers speak for you, and it would be annoying if people assumed their characters were “essential data” about you just because you’re a bloke, in preference to something like that Helen Simpson story.

    There are literary authors who define themselves as “women writers”; there are those who specifically do not want to be categorised that way and have said so, for example A.S. Byatt and Nicola Barker, and others who, whilst they’ve not made any public pronouncements, do not foreground gender issues or toe the party line, and write about people as individuals rather than defined or generalised-about via their gender.

    Fourth-wave / online feminism is, to some of us, regressive, petty, essentialist, and too keen on setting up barriers between genders. For a woman to say in the context of #readwomen2014 that she more often identifies with male characters written by male authors (whilst not defining as trans), as I do, would be likely to be seen as hostile and/or met with some hostility – yet that is simply stating a personal experience.

    I am wondering if this project may, sadly, make some men see women as more “other” than they did previously, because they don’t click with the books they read for it. But – from the viewpoint of a non-author, and someone who has never worked in the literary world – they’re just books and what counts is not what you read in your leisure time but how you are treating the real people around you. Assuming they are like characters from novels can get in the way of understanding them, as plenty of bookish teenagers have found when they were finally free to escape into the real world.

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