July and August Reading: Beard, Rentzenbrink, Markson, Ondaatje, Baker, Diski, Postel, Moss, Palmen

Two months of summer reading brought together because, you know, things. Only some of which are books. July started with a fresh attempt – my third, I think – at Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing, subtitled A Family Memoir. Why did it take me three goes to get into? Because, frankly, it is a fucking hard book to read. It’s a writer’s response to some ancient family history: the death, by drowning, on a family holiday, of Beard’s younger brother, Nicholas – made more devastating for Richard, eleven years old to Nicholas’s nine, by the fact that he was only the witness, only just managing to save himself from the same deceptive tides on a Cornish beach that swept Nicholas out of his depth.

And made more devastating, over the years, by the decision of Beard’s father to wipe the tragedy out of the family narrative. Over the next forty years Nicholas was barely spoken of, represented by a single photograph in the family home, his few belongings relegated to a box somewhere in the attic. If this sounds like English repression taken to psychotic lengths, try this for size: after returning to Swindon to bury Nicholas, the family drove back to the rented farm house in Cornwall to finish their holiday. It was booked and paid for, after all.

It’s not these awful aspects of the situation that make the book so hard to read, though. They are traits that can be analysed, contextualised, built out from. It is the insistence of Beard on returning again and again to the ‘primal scene’ of the drowning, trying to work out what happened, trying to investigate his own guilt: could he have saved him? If Beard’s father set out to deny this moment as a survival technique, then Beard insists on looking. He insists on us looking too. It’s that that makes the book at times excruciating to read. That and the way the surviving family members (not his father, he died: “I haven’t mourned him, and I didn’t cry at his funeral,” Beard writes… “A lesson he taught me himself”) are actually, eventually, willing to talk about Nicholas, and his death, now, forty years on. Perhaps, you think, all that denial was not needed. Clearly, this was a book that Beard had to write, in some sense (he talks about the dead little brothers that have cropped up in his fiction), but in another sense it was a book that didn’t have to be written at all, or wouldn’t have had to be written, if Beard’s father hadn’t been a particular kind of Englishman.

It’s all dreadfully sad, but am I glad I read it? I’m not sure. I happened to partially reread Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love at about the same time, for teaching, and it reinforced my general feeling about such memoirs: that I don’t like them, however well they’re written. Perhaps it’s because I have very little close experience of grief. I haven’t had the opportunity to see how mourning can become part of a person: I can’t see it in the people I know who have lost someone. I see only desperate desire to imbue the pages with the presence of the dead person. A desire that can only lead to failure. The specifics of the dead person can never be as meaningful to me as to it is to the writer. Grief memoir is the genre that is doomed to failure.

Following these books I had a few days of feeling really ill (some kind of bug, I can’t remember now) and every book I picked up seemed to hard, the language too complex, the insistence on plot and character too damned demanding. The only book I found I could bear to open was David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Having read it and kind of enjoyed it, but then read and loved his earlier novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I had long wanted to look at again because of it.It was perfect for where I was: laid up in bed, wanting the comfort of reading, and of the thought of culture, if not its huge demands, the sense that life was worth going on with, despite it all. For those that don’t know, Markson’s late books are experimental, but far from difficult. They are largely made up of a collage of cultural facts and allusions, strung together by a more-or-less consistent but hardly concrete narratorial presence. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress this is a woman who claims to be the last person left alive on earth. (It featured in my 2014 year of reading round-up.) In This is Not a Novel it is ‘Writer’. Here is the first page, in its entirety:

Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.

Lord Byron died of either rheumatic fever, or typhus, or uremia, or malaria. Or was inadvertently murdered by his doctors, who had bled him incessantly.

Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis in 1900. Granted an ordinary modern life span, he would have lived well into World War II.

This morning I walked to the place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish. My God, it was beautiful. Says a van Gogh letter.

Writer is equally tired of inventing characters.

Bertolt Brecht died of a stroke. Terrified of being buried alive, he had pleaded that a stiletto be driven through his heart once he was declared legally dead. An attending physician did so.

There is no plot, no characterisation – no characters, beyond Writer and his gallery of cultural antecedents. The problems with the book are obvious, as are its appeal: it at once feeds a cultural desire to reduce artists and thinkers to biographical titbits, even when those titbits are the nature of their death, and it satirises this impulse. (I hated Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers when I read it, which pulls a similar trick, on the basis that if all philosophy is teaching you how to die, then we should look at how philosophers did this. Now I rather wish I hadn’t got rid of it.)

Markson’s book is a sort of vade mecum, a set of luxury fragments for anyone to shore up against the ruins. You might imagine a copy of it being rocketed out into space on the Pioneer probe, as summary evidence of what humankind got up to in terms of culture. As I say, ideal comfort reading for the ill.

Early in July Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient was voted the best Booker winner in one of these rather spurious polls – I say spurious, but it did spur me on to take down my copy and read it again. I loved this book when I first read it, aged 21, living and working in France as part of my undergraduate studies, and I wanted to see if it stood up to my memories of it.

Short answer: it did. I love the structure of it; I love the post-colonial gaze at the war, the desert, the readiness to shift that gaze from the war to the classics, from Rommel to Herodotus. (In a way it is of a piece of Markson: it is a book that wears its cultural references boldly on its sleeve, that wants you to think it is made up entirely of tattered remnants of other, greater books. (Is this a male thing? Is it Oxbridge Nick Hornby? I’m rather scared it might be.))

I love the characters. I love the sex. I loved the film – loved the film, so lushly cast, with Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe – though I’m not sure when I last saw it. And I love the prose. Yes, it’s rich, yes, it’s lush. It’s at once muscular and poetic. It gives me the problem I have with certain books that I read it too quickly.

I have the book next to me on my desk, some 5 or 6 weeks after reading it, and I want to read it again: too much has been forgotten. I pick it up, and I’m immersed in bits I can’t remember reading.

Is there something wrong with my reading process? Am I reading too quickly, too greedily, too indiscriminately? To what end am I reading? What remains of the books we read? If so little, why do I persevere? Without these posts, would it be even less?

I went straight on from The English Patient to In the Skin of a Lion, which some people think is better. Again, it was a reread. Again I loved it. Again I pick the book up and open it at random and don’t recognise what I read. I hate that it hasn’t stuck in my heart or head or soul more than it has. I open it now and I find this, underlined:

He turns the page backwards. Once more there is the image of them struggling and tickling Alice until she releases her grip on her shirt and it comes off with a flourish, and Hana jumps up, waving it like a rebel’s flag in the small green-painted room. All these fragments of memory … so we can retreat from the grand story and stumble accidentally upon a luxury, one of those underground pools where we can sit still. Those moments, those few pages in a book we go back and forth over.

That’s Ondaatje in a nutshell. The best literature erases itself as it is read, reducing itself to memories, fragments, unparaphrasable parts that cannot be put back together again: the book must be reread. The best literature is written in water. I can’t summarise these books for you. I can barely recommend them to you. I can only recommend them to myself.

Also in July, Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, a reissue from Daunt Books by a writer whose name meant nothing to me. I picked it up the week before going on holiday, and then blazed through it in three days. It’s a brilliant, spiky first-person narrative about a young American woman travelling home to wreck her identical twin sister’s wedding, only she ends up wrecking more than that. It’s whip-smart and flattering as a good cocktail, and comes with a similar kick. I’m listening to Martha Wainwright as I write this and that’s as good a descriptive comparison as anyone could want. It’s the perfect pool read – in that it will draw you in, entertain and enlighten you, and then leave you there, alone and shivering, as you realise it’s dark, and that everyone else has gone in to dinner, and you’ve probably missed that too.

I tried Caroline’s Bikini by Katherine Gunn, but didn’t get on with it. Experimental literature in its purest form, in that it is as likely to ‘fail’ as to ‘succeed’, but that doesn’t discount the usefulness – the importance – of the experiment. Even if you had to pay for it.

On holiday I read Apology for the Woman Writing by Jenny Diski, another book that had taken two or three goes to get into. It’s a brilliantly unclassifiable book about Marie de Gournay, a French woman who was the self-proclaimed biggest fan of Mr Essay himself, Michel de Montaigne, much to the great man’s embarrassment. If you’re interested in Montaigne, then for god’s sake read this rather than Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, which is fine, but is really just a companion piece to the essays. This gets down and dirty with Montaigne, gritting him up in prose fiction, but always drawing back from making you think that this is somehow ‘the truth’ or ‘how it was’.

Marie is a marvellously unlikeable character. She is forthright in manner, plain in looks, resolutely charmless, and not as bright as she thinks she is. Everybody avoids her, but she thinks she’s god’s gift to literature. So yes, I did find the book difficult to get into, partly because of that unlikeableness, but by the end of it Diski has dragged at least some pity out of her situation. The long diminuendo of her later years is very well as done, as Marie slides into poverty and cultural obsolescence while being cared for by a servant, Jamyn, who stays loyal despite having no illusions about her mistress. It’s kind of the opposite of Cassandra at the Wedding – there is no cocktail on this earth that would work as a comparison – and it’s a million miles from the muscular poetry of Ondaatje or the knowing, gappy minimalism of Markson. Only Diski can write books like this.

I also read Jonathan Coe’s lovely Number 11, again for teaching. Very good.

On returning from holiday I did another two-day blitz on Sarah Moss’s new novel Ghost Wall, which I didn’t love as much as her last book, The Tidal Zone, which I thought was excellent. It’s an interesting set-up, about a teenage girl spending a week’s on an archaeological camp, where her father is teaching students how Iron Age people might have lived. There is a link to a real Iron Age murder/sacrifice that brings to mind Alan Garner’s time-hopping fictions, but the book doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. A book this short should be brutal. Less than brutal, it should have been longer, more indirect, with more backstory.

On holiday in France I limited myself to one new French book, a Folio paperback picked rather at random in a bookshop attached to a Leclerc supermarket. This was Les Deux Pigeons, by Alexandre Postel, an author I had not heard of. Largely picked because it looked easy enough to read, and seemed like an interesting companion piece to Annie Ernaux’s The Years/Les Années, written about here. It’s the story of a young white Parisian couple, Dorothée and Théodore, who embark on a relationship full of self-regard and self-analysis. They don’t have children, but try pretty much everything else: vegetarianism, activism, sexual adventurism, tango. The back of the book compares it to Perec’s Les Choses, which is entirely fair, but in spending as much time on the couple’s often failed social pursuits and (shared and separate) idées reçues as on their lived environment it is equally the child of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. It’s simplistic enough, but did keep me engaged, and there are plenty of underlinings in my copy.

Au bout de toutes les pensées de Dorothée il y avait de la tristesse, comme au bout des allées d’un jardin à la française on rencontre toujours une statue…

[At the end of all Dorothy’s thoughts there was sadness, just as at the end of every walk in a French garden you always found a statue.]

Or, when Dorothy finds evidence on Theo’s laptop of his porn-watching habits:

Elle n’avait pas pleuré, elle n’avait rien cassé; simplement, elle avait éprouvé une légère sensation de repli, de retraction, comme lorsqu’on aperçoit, un beau matin, une fissure au plafond d’une chambre familière.

[She didn’t cry. She didn’t break anything. She just had a slight sensation of folding-in, of withdrawal, as when one day or another you look up and see a crack in the ceiling of a familiar room.]

I haven’t quite finished Les Deux Pigeons, but I’ve been writing (revising) as much as I can, and that writing has involved reading a novel suggested to me as offering a useful perspective on my current manuscript: The Laws, by Connie Palmen, a Dutch novel from 1991 about a woman and her encounters with seven men, from whom she thinks she will learn the secret of life (the law), or at least the secret of why it has always seemed like it was men who had access to this. Interesting, and useful, but I’m blazing through it, I will take what I need from it, and I will move on. At the same time I spent a tired couple of hours yesterday afternoon happily rereading the joyous third part of Brigid Brophy’s wondrous The King of a Rainy Country.

My reading here is a means to an end – as well as, in Brophy’s case, an end in itself. So I come back to my earlier thought: why do we read books if so little of our reading remains on reentry? We eat food, we digest, we take from it nutrients and we shit out the waste. What remains of my (re-)readings of Ondaatje, beyond the pleasure of the reading at the time? Is there a deposit, a sublimation? Something that is left behind? There must be, but what it might be is so much harder to define than the pleasure gained from the experience as it happens. There is no accounting for books. God, I wish there was.

Disclosure: all books bought from my own pocket, except for Ghost Wall (thank you, Granta) and Cassandra at the Wedding (thank you, Daunt). Richard Beard I know a little, in the literary way of things.

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One comment

  1. Cecile

    ‘Grief memoir is the genre that is doomed to failure.’ Your point is very well argued. Perhaps fiction articulates truth better, as in Markson’s other books?

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