March Reading 2020: Stamm, Hall, Solnit, Léger, MacNeice

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I have this problem with the novels of Peter Stamm. I love reading them, but they evaporate from my reading brain after I have read them – like the conceptual artist mentioned in Nathalie Léger’s The White Dress who pushed a block of ice around Mexico City until it melted entirely away. All that is left from my reading of All Days Are Night is a sense of a couple coming together in a ski resort, and an all-night rave of some kind, and of the relationship not working; Seven Years I remember barely at all; To the Back of Beyond is more memorable, perhaps because more high-concept: it is a novel built on an audacious idea that all the same builds that idea into something subtle, and moving.

The only thing I could remember about Stamm’s latest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, when I put it in that stack of books read in March, and photographed it with my phone, was the idea of the doppelgänger – which is also foundational to To the Back of Beyond. Beyond that, I could remember not a thing.

Writing this, though, the book has come back to me. It is just as audacious as To the Back of Beyond, and for that reason cannot be described. Let me repeat that Stamm tends to write books that start from an audacious conceit, but which drift away from it, or sink down into it, or in any case hedge or fudge their treatment of that conceit, so that you are never forced to actually judge it in the clear light of day, as you would with a piece of speculative or fantastical fiction that leads you to ask: yes, well, but would it actually work like that?

There is a kind of disintegration loops approach to the writing here – these are thought experiments that are allowed to unfold only so far until they start to disintegrate, while continuing to unfold.

Or: they are Schrodinger’s Boxes novels, that allow their conceits to both be and not be, and honour both in the telling, on the page, where normally things just are.

I’ve just picked the book up and flicked through it: no notes, no underlinings, which is unusual for me. And as I flicked through the book I thought about the nasty trick it plays with its gimmick; and that that’s precisely the reason for having it. It’s a book that undermines its own narrative strategy, or at least its narrator, that kills him off and leaves him alive to see it. It made me think of Simon Kinch’s excellent Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, which plays a more similar trick, I think, to To the Back of Beyond. There is something to be written about doppelgängers in fiction – not the simplistic Jekyll and Hyde type, but the type of novel that plays with the foundational idea of narrative that the narrator is a stable, indivisible unit. There’s also Geoff Dyer’s The Search. It is only men who write this kind of novel?

A thought experiment novel, I like that. Perhaps also a little like a Borgesian novel, if Borges hadn’t been too lazy (to use his word) to write one, and had had the patience to let his conceit roll out and gradually disintegrate, like the 1:1 scale map in That Empire in ‘On Exactitude in Science’.

Just for reasons of titular symmetry I’ll move from Stamm to Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference. Now, I’ve never quite managed to get to grips with Hall as a writer: I’ve failed to make significant headway with any of the novels of hers I’ve tried, and although I remember being quite affected by the story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ – the part with the creature following the woman along a beach in some far off holiday country – and I’m sure that I did get to the end of the story at least once, I was still surprised by that ending when I read it this time.

This time I read it because Hall was again picked as part of a Personal Anthology.

The first person to pick her was Naomi Frisby, who wrote “Sarah Hall is my favourite writer. Her novel The Electric Michelangelo is my favourite book. I have no time for the ‘but how can you choose?’ brigade. Simple: Hall’s work changed my view of the world. It took me to Coney Island; it inspired my PhD thesis; it speaks to me about my life. I am evangelical about her work.”

Susie Mesure chose two stories by Hall in her selection, which isn’t not allowed, but is unusual.

Hall’s been picked 10 times at the time of writing – and all by women, which is interesting. I wonder if there is something scary about her writing for men. I find it scary, in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t if it was written by a man. She’s been picked four times for ‘Mrs Fox’ (I can’t quite over the annoyance that although she hadn’t read it she was essentially rewriting David Garnett’s novella Lady into Fox; I don’t suppose she’d be very impressed by my annoyance), twice for ‘Luxury Hour’ and then for ‘Evie’, ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, ‘Vuotjärvi’ and ‘Butcher’s Perfume’. The last three are all in the only collection of hers I had to hand, so I read those, plus also ‘Bees’ and the title story.

Certainly I found it easy to appreciate Hall this time around. The stories are meticulously presented, and icily told. Far more icy than Stamm, who has a warmth to his narrative style – a distant warmth, but a warmth nonetheless –that is absent here. Hall’s narrators all have something wrong with them, something absent, as if a part of their emotional make-up is broken or lacking. Stamm’s books are like that slab of slowly melting ice, imperceptibly disintegrating. Hall’s books are like walking over a field covered in tennis ball-sized hailstones

This is impressive, story by story, as you are left hanging at the end, every narrator somehow stranded in the middle of the whiteness of the page, where the narrative ends, where the author should have continued the story, and shown us at least whether they live or die, whether they solve the problem they are faced with. The writing is lovely, the realism is that kind of luxury minimalism that you might get in an upmarket boutique hotel: everything just so. But perhaps, in the hotel that Sarah Hall is running, someone died in that bed last night.

Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Non-Existence was my read of the month. I’ve had a strange relationship with her writing in the past: I didn’t get on well with Wanderlust, her non-fiction book about the idea of walking, or really with The Faraway Nearby, which I found a little fey, but I love and have taught ‘Men Things Explain to Me’ (the essay and the book it comes in) and Hope in the Dark. This book, I think, is my favourite of hers so far. It is pristinely clear, free of some of the poetical frosting of the earlier books, that blur and obscure the sense of what she is trying to say.

I read Solnit straight after Hall, and the difference in prose styles was stark. Hall’s sentences were jolting, often short and declarative and tilting forwards, as if off-balance, constantly on the verge of tripping and falling. Solnit’s, by contrast, are effortlessly elegant, twirling and unfurling like ribbons, even when she is writing about bad, tough things, which she does a lot – violence, rage. She reads like would imagine it would sound to listen to Scheherazade talking, evenly, flowingly, hypnotically, ceaselessly, never needing to stop.

(In fact that might be why the endings to Hall’s stories are so brilliantly disorienting: if you read tilted forwards, always off-balance, when Hall ends the story as she generally does – suddenly, precipitously – you career right over the precipice, falling into the abyss of the white space that follows.)

Solnit’s book is a pretty straight memoir, not really themed to anything in toto, and so not beholden to anything. She is wonderfully clear and illuminating and strengthening about what she has lived through. I teach ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ to students, but I remember, as I read this book, wishing I could give it them to read as well: it is full of the sense of what it means to live through different times, or changing times; or what it means for things to improve; and it gives strength to those who are worried that they won’t be able to change things, themselves. She is the best kind of activist: slow and steady, and undaunted. I want to read it again. I read it too quickly to take in its lessons.

It is interesting to read Solnit alongside Nathalie Léger’s stringent, gripping, doubtful and occasionally gnomic The White Dress. It is the final part of a trilogy that tells an oblique memoir of Léger’s relationship with her mother through the biographical account of the work of three very different female artists: The Countess of Castiglione, in Exposition (though here the word artist is used rather loosely); the titular actress and director in Suite for Barbara Loden, and, here, the Italian conceptual artist Pippa Bacca.

I was supposed to be interviewing Léger at the Institut Français in April, which obviously I was hugely looking forward to, and which won’t now be happening – but still I’m happy to have the books. Now that I’ve read all three of them I want to read them together. The White Dress is perhaps the most obscure of the three of them, certainly the least detailed in terms of the life of its purported subject, and the most about her mother. In fact it is largely for what they say about her mother that I now want to reread the others.

The details in The White Dress about the treatment of her mother by her husband, Léger’s father – and by the French legal system – is shocking. There is a line from the final statement that is shocking in the extreme:

The wife’s multiple shortcomings regarding her obligations arising from the marriage that were of a kind that explains and even excuses adultery.

Quite apart from the fact that none of it was true, the idea that the law could excuse adultery like this is astonishing.

What, however, is odd – is unnerving, though in a productive way – about this is that this shocking revelation is dropped into a book that is in theory about the life and death of Pippa Bacca, a feminist-artist-activist who was hitchhiking from Milan to Jerusalem in a symbolic wedding dress when, in 2008, she was abducted, raped and strangled to death in Turkey.

What is disturbing about the book, in other words, is that we are implicitly asked to compare shockingnesses.

The details of Bacca’s death are appalling, so much so that Léger admits she doesn’t know what to do with them. (The are horrific in part because she her death was so… what’s the word? Can I say congruous? She set out to prove that it was possible to overcome the horror of war by giving herself over to the kindness of strangers – she made it a rule never to refuse an offered lift – and one of those strangers was the very kind of murderous rapist she set out to disprove or overcome. It is a trope familiar from fiction: from The Driver’s Seat, fromLondon Fields, from the figure of Moosbrugger in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. To have it thrust in our face in reality seems… unconscionable.)

Léger wants to write about Bacca, she wants to honour her, but she also knows that what she wants to do is fundamentally unachievable. It’s possible to recalibrate our understanding of a half-forgotten C19th aristocrat with artistic leanings; it’s possible to refocus the critical gaze on an underappreciated female filmmaker who died of cancer aged 48. But it’s not possible to atone for the violent death of an idealistic woman raped and killed aged 33. Léger can’t even bring herself, having made the journey specially, to interview the dead woman’s mother.

What seems to be being played out in the book, although it’s never made explicit, is that Léger’s failed attempt to write properly about Bacca frees her up to write properly to carry out the job thrust upon her by her mother, to take revenge for her “ordeal of this abandonment” in writing, to be her ‘vindix’.

The energy pushed in one direction ends up being channelled in another. This is the final lesson of the book – it’s a lesson that I think Solnit would appreciate – and it’s to see if and how it is refracted retroactively through the other two books that I want to reread them. (Though the final lesson of the book, which I won’t reveal here, is something to with image making that does echo, jarringly, back through the other two books. Léger is a great writer about the politics of images, very much in the vein of her beloved Roland Barthes.)

But as I say part of its power comes from its ambivalence, of how one writes about real death. As a journalist tells her, when she is worrying about how she can talk to Bacca’s mother, “‘It’s better to feel useful when you meet the mother of a dead girl, otherwise what’s the point. Your problem is that literature is always shameless, that’s its defect.’”

And yet she can also write, in the same book, of lying on the sofa in her own mother’s house:

My arms stretched out along my body, I hold myself as still as possible, resembling what one day I will be, secretly thrilled that mimicking death provides irrefutable evidence of my existence.

Which is… wondrous. But also, in the context of the book as a whole, definitely and explicitly and precisely shameless.

Quickly running through the other books in my March pile: I didn’t get on well with either Girl, Woman, Other, or Stubborn Archivist, coincidentally both books written in a tattered free verse. Both of them lost me in part through their purposeful avoidance of narrative: they are both character, character, character, with nothing at all happening. Girl, Woman, Other, I also have to say, considering it’s a Booker Prize-winning novel, I found to be quite pedestrian in its language. Its laid out like poetry, but I found very little exciting or suprising or vivid or alive in the words therein. I’m just over a third of the way through and I doubt I’ll continue with it. Stubborn Archivist I’m two thirds of the way through (it’s a very quick read, there’s nothing to it) and I won’t finish that either. The Forna is there as a reread for the MA Creative Writing I teach, and I still think it’s a great contemporary London novel. The love story anthology for an Alice Munro story I read.

My critique of Evaristo’s lack of poetry is all the more flagrant because I, no poet, am writing a poem myself just now, in draft on Twitter and then edited for reading in A Leap in the Dark, and for production as a zine for @zinesinthedark. I’ll write more about it elsewhere, but essentially it’s a response to life under the coronavirus pandemic through a pastiche of Louis MacNeice’s wonderful poem Autumn Journal, which he wrote from September to December 1938, as Europe headed for war. You can read the draft version of it at @SpringJournal.

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