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. Continue reading
Something I often say in Creative Writing classes is this: a story (or poem, or novel, or essay) should contain the rules for its own reading. If you have intentions for a piece of writing, then those intentions should be embedded, or encoded in the piece. You should establish your own house rules, give clues as to what you’re trying to do. A dead body and a detective will tend to suggest the likelihood of a crime novel. But it goes beyond this. Take irony. You can’t be ironical without establishing that you’re being ironical. The regular use of the comma splice could be a stylistic choice, or it could be editorial sloppiness or grammatical ineptitude. If it is a choice, I want some implicit indication of this, perhaps in the relationship between content and form, or between narrative voice and character. I want to know you know what you’re doing.
This works well enough inside the Creative Writing course, where the idea of authorial intention is not only viable, but necessary. You can’t mark anything without objective criteria. In Creative Writing courses the universities set out the (quite broad) definitions of what ‘good writing’ is, and students are encouraged to present work that makes sense within that rubric. Make sure I know what it is you’re trying to do, and I’ll mark you accordingly. Embed your own house rules in your writing. Goethe’s three questions of constructive criticism very much apply:
What was the author trying to do?
Did they succeed?
Was it worth doing?
(There is a further complication produced by the current system of teaching, which is that often you already have an idea of what a particular student is trying to do, from discussions in the seminar, and so the encoded intentions, the house rules, go by the bye. This can cloud the marking – and shows the need for second marking, and moderation. Rewarding a piece of work primarily for its intention is clearly academically unsound, no matter that it is, critically speaking, unsounder still.)
Things get more tricky outside of academia, where the critical paradigms are more varied and confused. Two months ago I read my first novel by Anita Brookner, and yesterday I finished my second. The first was her debut, A Start in Life (1981), the second her eleventh, A Closed Eye (1991). I was struck by both books having the same narrative construction, one that I found frustrating, and I found myself asking myself: is this what she intended? It must be, if she did it twice. (I’ll explain what it is in a moment.) But why?
I’m afraid that, if I’d been ‘marking’ it, I’d have marked her down.
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