Sunday, 29 March 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when the clocks go forward

I’ve been longing for the clocks to go forward for the past three months – impatient for the lengthening evenings, the light at the end of a wintry tunnel – but I’m also aware of how time seems to be passing more quickly than usual, which is as much a symptom of growing older as the wrinkles around my eyes. And if an hour has been lost today, then what else have I lost in the last year, whilst anticipating what hasn’t yet happened, instead of living in the moment?

Hence my swooping between exhilaration and melancholy -- a blend of shadow and sunlight that seems to me to be characteristic of this time of year, as well as my time of life -- making Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ more timely than ever. Written in 1972, when the author was 58, and grieving for her mother, who had died the previous June, the book is a celebration of the joys of summer – swimming, gathering berries, making boats of bark -- yet also an acknowledgement that winter always returns.

Anyone who loves Jansson’s Moominland adventures, as I have done since childhood, will recognise her gentle humour and wisdom; but this less famous adult novel is more rooted in autobiographical realism than the quirky Moomintrolls. The story of an elderly woman and her granddaughter, Sophia, who spend the summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland, it reflects Jansson’s equally remote retreats to an outer archipelago, and her relationship with her mother and niece (also named Sophia).

The early pages of ‘The Summer Book’ describe Sophia’s awakening on an April night, when the moon is full and the sea still covered in ice. She remembers that ‘they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ “When are you going to die?” she asks her grandmother. “And grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’” Death, like winter, is unavoidable – that much is clear, even if its timing is not quite as predictable as clockwork -- but Sophia discovers the simple freedoms of summer are precious, and her grandmother’s love undimmed, even as darkness falls, and time seems to be running out.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The rights and wrongs of writing

Here's an interesting blog by Kathryn Sutherland; definitely worth reading, I think.
I am off to Harrogate tomorrow to speak at a Yorkshire Post literary lunch. (How does one speak and eat at the same time, I wonder?). Perhaps I should read the bit in Daphne about the real-life intervention of the editor of the Yorkshire Post in the Symington affair...

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re seeing red

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that it’s a mistake to turn rage inwards, so that it becomes self-loathing depression. Which is not to say that I am advocating endless displays of temper; but when fury is justified – when someone has done you a great wrong – I’ve discovered that there is much to be said for punching a pillow, and after sufficient punching, to recline back onto the pillow and read Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’.

I love each and every one of this collection of short stories, but the title novella is particularly effective. This fiercely gothic narrative is a new version of the Bluebeard fairytale, and also a response to the Marquis de Sade’s ‘Justine’; a book that horrified me when I first read it as a teenager, discovering that I was the namesake of an abused young girl, who rather than fighting back, becomes the epitome of female masochism.

Carter – who wrote controversially, and also brilliantly, on the subject of the Marquis de Sade in her polemic, ‘The Sadeian Woman’ – described Justine as ‘a woman with no place in the world, no status, the core of whose resistance has been eaten away by self-pity’. Her red-blooded retort (published alongside The Sadeian Woman in 1979) was ‘The Bloody Chamber’, in which a nameless heroine is apparently another Justine, a pale sacrificial virgin in a translucent white dress, destined to be murdered by her sadistic husband, the evil Marquis, who has already killed three previous wives. But instead of succumbing to passivity, Carter’s heroine is saved from decapitation by her pistol-toting mother, a woman filled with righteous rage. “You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane… without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.”

‘The Bloody Chamber’ – red in tooth and nail – seems to me a better story for Mother’s Day than a sickly sweet candy-coloured confection; with its message that sorrowful capitulation is not necessarily helpful, for wrath can be a way of saving one’s skin, and also one’s self-respect.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Speaking of which...

I've been avoiding the papers recently, but a friend just pointed out an interesting piece in yesterday's Observer, that was immediately picked up in today's Telegraph. I think readers who have followed this blog -- because this is a blog, above all, about sharing what we read -- will find it intriguing. I've been fascinated by Kathryn Sutherland's academic research into Jane Austen manuscripts and memoirs (amongst many other things), ever since reading her wonderfully thought-provoking book, 'Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood' (OUP, 2005), her edition of the Austen family memoirs, and her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of 'Mansfield Park'. I can recommend all of these -- they light up the dark and dusty places in which original manuscripts are often hidden away -- but the twist in the tale, as reported in the Observer, is intriguing, particularly to me, given that 'Daphne' is a story of possession -- of how writers can be haunted by other writers, of what they share, and what they seek to own. I'd never met Professor Sutherland, when she reviewed the hardback edition of 'Daphne' in the Times Literary Supplement this time last year (though we did later have the first of a number of interesting conversations, after happening to meet at the Oxford Literary Festival a month or so afterwards), but I was struck by her grasp of what it was that I was trying to explore in the novel, and also by her encouragement of different kinds of writing, and of the discourse between academia and popular authors, including Daphne du Maurier. So it is odd -- or is it the universe chiming? -- that she herself is now the centre of a tale of possession; of why we are what we read, and how we read what we are...
Speaking of all of this, it turns out that there was also a review of the paperback of Daphne in yesterday's Observer, that seems relevant to this conversation (or at least, the conversation that I hope we will all have on this blog...)

The unpinnable Emily Dickinson...

I am hugely grateful to Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of English at Oxford University (and whose wisdom and writing is always inspirational) for telling me about the following site on Emily Dickinson's manuscripts. It is completely magical... Professor Sutherland brought it to my attention, after reading yesterday's Bibliotherapy column; she asked me if I knew Dickinson's poems that were written on torn pieces of paper to be assembled and endlessly reassembled in different ways, and I said, 'please, tell me more'. Once you've found the site, keep clicking on the dress-making pins, which will take you to any number of different places...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you don’t want to walk the dog

There are times of sorrow or great hurt when home feels the only safe place to be, and even venturing outside with the dog to the park is frightening, in a world that seems implacably hostile. In these moments, I remember an Emily Dickinson poem that I first discovered as a child. Written in 1862 – the year that she poured out hundreds of poems in the privacy of her room, entering a period of seclusion that turned into an entirely reclusive existence – it begins: ‘I started Early – Took my Dog -- / And visited the sea -- / The Mermaids in the Basement / Came out to look at me – ’

When I first read this poem, I did not know of Dickinson’s reputation for impenetrability, both as the mythic woman in white hidden within her father’s house in Massachusetts, and in her famously difficult poetry. Instead, I imagined Dickinson slipping out at dawn, her dog by her side, to a beach where mermaids beckoned her into the water: ‘… till the Tide/ Went past my simple Shoe -- / And past my Apron – and my Belt/ And past my Bodice – too – ’

Much speculation surrounds Dickinson’s mysterious life (who was the identity of ‘the Master’ she addressed in several passionate letters; what was the trauma responsible for her withdrawal from the outside world?); but few facts are certain. One is that she had a beloved dog, Carlo, a Newfoundland presumed to have been named after a dog in ‘Jane Eyre’, who appears in her poetry and her letters. To the Master, she implored, ‘Could’nt Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour’; and told another correspondent of ‘shunning men and women’ because they ‘embarrass my dog’, describing her companions as ‘Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog… They are better than Beings – because they know – but do not tell…”

Whatever else was denied her – or she denied herself – Carlo was loyal to his mistress, who did not replace him when he died, after 16 years of companionship; and I still like to think of Emily Dickinson walking with her dog to the sea, and he keeping her safe from drowning.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read during travel delays

Recently, while waiting at chilly train stations or airless airport terminals, in a ghastly limbo between leaving and arriving (a state that also seems to reflect an unhappy state of mind, when one dreads what lies ahead), I have been re-reading Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece, ‘To the North’. Set in the Twenties, but first published in 1932, the novel begins with a train journey and ends with a car ride, and traces the paths – both geographical and emotional – of the two young women who travel across its pages.

Cecilia Summers is recently widowed – somewhat cold-hearted, despite her name – and shares a house in St John’s Wood with her gentle short-sighted sister-in-law, Emmeline. Bowen’s novel has the crisp comedy of Evelyn Waugh, and its characters inhabit a world of cocktail parties and country houses, of Bright Young Things who glitter with icy brilliance; but like Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’, ‘To the North’ is also a story of heartbreak and despair, of journeys that end in oblivion; of missed connections and the distance between those who should be joined by love.

Thus Emmeline runs a small travel agency, and is brought alive by the idea of the places that people might go, even as she remains at home. “Our organization is really far-reaching… We can tell anyone almost everything: what to avoid, what to do in the afternoons anywhere – Turkestan, Cracow – what to do about mules, where it’s not safe to walk after dark.” But she is too innocent to know how to avoid danger when it is invited into her home by the careless Cecilia, in the form of a predatory man, Mark Linkwater.

He seduces Emmeline, and she gives her heart to him; unaware that his very name is a signpost to a miserable destination, for he is as slippery as oil-slicked water, unable to commit to a solid link; a man who marks those do not defend themselves from him.

All of which might sound like gloomy reading for a delayed traveller, but Elizabeth Bowen – a writer with an exact understanding of the misunderstandings between men and women – is a marvellous companion on any journey, however difficult; a voice that speaks of the need to mind the gap, and then move on…

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

I am visiting dovegrey reader for her birthday today

Please come and join me there! Or here, rather... It's dovegreyreader's 3rd birthday, and I have been celebrating it with her. Oh, and she's done a very nice interview with me about 'Daphne'... And here is my favourite recipe for the best-ever birthday cake from Nigella Lawson, as pictured above. The picture of the cake is from Nigella, I hasten to add, not from my kitchen. If only...