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
I only started reading Jenny Diski after she died. I went out and bought the as-good-as-posthumously published In Gratitude, which brings together material from her LRB diaries about her life with cancer, and about her time living with Doris Lessing, who took her in as a teenager when she went off the rails. When I finished that, I asked for recommendations as to where to go next. Skating to Antarctica, came the response, so I tracked that down and read that.
I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards memoir. I always ask myself: am I reading this book because of the facts of the life it describes, or because of the writing? (Please don’t tell me that it is pointless to try to separate form from content.) (This ambivalence towards memoir is perhaps bound up in the fact that my own life is far too uninteresting to merit memorialisation.) So, Jenny Diski had a chaotic childhood, being fought over by two belligerent, neurotic parents, both of whom attempted suicide at least once, and acted towards her in ways that occasionally bordered on child sex abuse, and she spent time in mental institutions, and she got cancer: lucky her! She has stuff to write about. I’ve lost no one. No one’s mistreated me. My life has been lucky and privileged and healthy. What a bummer.
Of course, what makes Skating to Antarctica such an excellent book, and more than just a high-quality misery memoir, is what she does with these life experiences, with this content. Her formal brilliance works both at sentence level, and in broader, structural terms – in the way, for instance, that she uses a solitary trip to Antarctica to frame the story of her childhood. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the book is powered by an irony that seems at once languid and vigilant. (“Indolence has always been my most essential quality,” I see I have underlined on one page.)
I loved it, and I recognised it as being kin to another writer I love, Geoff Dyer. “Very Dyer” I noted, near-anagrammatically, next to a couple of passages.
Here is an example:
The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is either lovingly preserved in its natural state or derelict, depending on how you choose to look at it. If derelict landscapes, like the murkier parts of King’s Cross and the old unreconstructed docklands appeal, then Grytviken is a pearl of desolation. A rust-bucket ghost town, left to rot in its own beautiful way.