I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.
I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.
Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion.
Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.
It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.
The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.
Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.
(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)
The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.) Continue reading
Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Future (translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller and published by Dalkey Archive) does something so simple with its prose, yet so groundbreaking, that I can’t believe it’s not been done before. If it has, please let me know.
Here’s a longish extract, that shows what I mean. (The man has just run to catch a bus, and caught it just in time.)
The driver is wearing a leather jacket and seems very robust. Between us is a kind of glass pane held in place by aluminium bars, and between the glass and the bar on the far right is a space where my voice can get through to him.
“Please go faster, I don’t want to miss my train. You see, I took my bags there earlier in a friend’s car—he left this morning heading in a different direction. So, I’ve still got to pick my bags up from the luggage office. I didn’t leave this morning because I still had a few things to do: I had to visit someone (there was no point mentioning Maria’s name, as he wouldn’t have known who I meant, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know Magda either)—anyway, to visit a woman.” The driver didn’t say a word, as if he were deaf and dumb. At some point a woman with an incredibly large stomach got on the bus; maybe she had a pillow under her dress . . .
It was warm and he felt good. He adjusted the pillow and turned over again, feeling himself begin to fall back asleep. He didn’t try to resist, although he knew that in the end he wouldn’t be able to stay in bed.
“Get up, you mustn’t be late,” Maria said, but he kept quiet and turned again to watch her dressing. Then they both went out onto the veranda, where she placed herself right in front of him. With a maternal gesture she adjusted the knot of his tie, smoothed the lapels of his jacket and kissed him on the cheeks. He wanted to kiss her too, but she darted away and descended the few steps to the garden. The gravel crunched beneath her feet. He took the bunch of flowers from the table on the veranda and said, you’re right, I should get going. Maria walked with him to the green-painted door: go then, and he left without looking back. A dog with the mouth of a fox stood in his way. In a courtyard a fat man was killing a pig, watched by several women in pink silk dresses, and blood was gushing onto the stone slabs; strangely, the pig made no sound. He didn’t stop. He walked on faster and faster, even though he could feel Maria watching him with her fingers still tight on the bars. He didn’t look back. He turned the corner onto a street where a cyclist in a top hat and striped jersey was pedalling furiously but not making any progress. A string bag with some fish was behind the cyclist on the saddle rack; he’d probably just been fishing.
Now he saw the stop and broke into a run. He managed to catch the bus right at the last moment.
After giving up one of my tickets, I went to sit behind the driver. “I’m in a real hurry,” I said.
This is quite near the beginning of the book. The central character has already caught for the bus once before it, slipped back to the house once before, too. He will go on to catch the bus again another, what – dozen, twenty times? (She will warn him not to be late another dozen times, too, although sometimes she’ll be Magda, not Maria, sometimes just M.) Continue reading