Sunday, 31 May 2009

Bibliotherapy:what to read when life seems unfair

When cataclysm strikes – death, divorce, disaster, despair, of which I have had my fair share – there is a question that can hover in the air. ‘Why me?’ The answer, of course, is ‘why not me…’ But if one forgets this – and I do forget, as most of us do – then a reminder of the random harshness of life can be found in Shirley Jackson’s story, ‘The Lottery’. First published by the New Yorker on June 26th 1948 (and anthologised many times since), it opens on the morning of June 27th, a sunny summer’s day in rural America, as village people gather for their annual lottery.

What follows next is an account of how a scapegoat is chosen by lottery to be stoned to death by the rest of the community, a sacrificial victim to ensure a good harvest. Such is the vividness of contemporary detail that the tale seems less gothic fantasy than nightmarish reality: ‘The lottery was conducted – as were the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program – by Mr Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities. He was a round-faced jovial man and he ran the coal business.’

The story was met with widespread horror; the following month, Jackson wrote of the difficulty in explaining a work of fiction, which had been seen by some readers as fact. “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” Jackson lived in Bennington, Vermont – the epitome of civilized American life – and her readers responded with unusual venom. In the avalanche of hate mail she received, “I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?’”

If not cheering, ‘The Lottery’ is nevertheless unexpectedly bracing, in its clear-sighted acknowledgement that little in life is fair, and of that much we can be certain.

Pale and interesting...

Hope everyone is outside in the sunshine -- if the sun is shining wherever you are, which it is here. Two summer dresses (above) from Christopher Kane at net-a-porter; as pale as the rose petals on the lawn in my back garden, and ivory clouds in the sky...

Here's today's Closet Thinker:

If black is the strongest of colours in the palette of fashion, then nudes are altogether more muted, yet strangely difficult to wear. Actually, I feel slightly uneasy with the label itself – it’s shorthand for a spectrum of flesh-tones that span the palest of pink, apricot, beige and ivory, as if skin colour never varies from that. But in fact, these are shades that tend to look better against darker skins, for they can make white faces seem pallid and washed-out.

Still, designers have decided that pale flesh-coloured clothes are a good idea this summer, as is evident at Chloe, Lanvin, Christopher Kane, and Marios Schwab, amongst others. I like the look of them on the pages of a magazine – at best, they’re evocative of a gentle 1930s Englishness, as sweet as a young girl’s blush – but experience has taught me to avoid them, because they turn my skin liverish or tiredly yellow. And even if you do manage to find a flattering shade, it demands an element of rigorous high-maintenance, the self-control of Victoria Beckham in her flounced nude Alaia dress, worn as if to prove the polished sheen of her skin and tautness of her body, the tightly fitted bodice an indication of her sculpted torso beneath.

A more forgiving way to wear nudes requires the use of black by way of contrast, to separate and define, so that skin and material don’t merge into a frumpy lumpish mass. This is a trick that Kate Moss is good at (not that she would ever look lumpy herself), both in her collections for Topshop and her party frock of choice several years ago, a much-copied Dior dress that featured a black lace bodice over nude chiffon.

Christopher Kane has taken a similar approach in his autumn 2009 collection, which uses graphic black ribbon appliqués to intersect sheer nude organza skirts and dresses. Nevertheless, that a great many customers are happy to wear all-over nude tones is clear from the fact that Kane’s summer range of cream and blush-coloured silk dresses has already sold out several times over on net-a-porter.

These are frocks that cost in excess of £2500 each – thereby representing a naked exhibition of wealth, and possibly providing a frisson to the apparently innocent allure of pale chiffon – but there are less expensive alternatives available. My favourite in a British summer is a short cream trench coat from Banana Republic: lined and waterproof, of course, in case of dark rain-clouds or an overcast sky that chills flesh from hues of peachiness to blue.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Shoes to do battle in...

I don't often post my fashion writing here -- but I do write a column every week for the Sunday Telegraph called Closet Thinker, and this one might interest some of you.
One of the reasons I like writing for Stella (the Sunday Telegraph magazine) is that the editing process is very civilised. You'll see that there's a translation at the end of this column, and I got the following email from one of the subeditors (I hope she won't mind me repeating it here). She suggested that instead of the translation I'd originally used ('by her gait was the goddess revealed'), that it might be rephrased (you'll see what I mean in the final line of the column).
This is her very courteous message:
"On investigation I discover this is indeed closer to the Latin ('incessu patuit dea').
Of course, translation is not an exact science ('Les traductions sont comme les femmes. Lorsqu'elles sont belles, elles ne sont pas fidèles, et lorsqu'elles sont fidèles elles ne sont pas belles), but do you think that as well as being more 'accurate' it is also more poetic-sounding? (the French quote above notwithstanding...)
Your call - it's just a suggestion!"
By the way, the shoes in the picture (above) are Christian Louboutin, and I have just bought them in a sample sale. I love the red soles (good for the soul). Definitely splashes of happiness... not that I intend to splash the pale pink satin with anything that marks. In fact, where can I wear them? Probably not to the Bronte Parsonage Museum when I go there next week...

Who’d have thought that gladiator sandals, along with a plethora of Greco-Roman inspired fashions, should prove to have such staying power? I probably shouldn’t sound surprised – these are styles that have been around for several millennia – but there’s been such a preponderance for the last three summers that you’d expect the backlash to have started by now.

However, fashion’s appetite for classical references appears to be undiminished this season: draped goddess gowns at Donna Karan, Marios Schwab and Versace; mosaic Roman prints at Miu Miu, accompanied by a declaration by Miuccia Prada that ‘It’s time to investigate our history and European past’. Marios Schwab was rather more cryptic when he cited the chiton, a traditional Greek tunic, as inspiration for his current collection: ‘Cloth, rope and chain, if left in their natural state, would be mundane and almost irrelevant objects. Here, when applied and connected to each other, they form a bond; gaining both relevance and value… A refined desirable interpretation of the sinister side of desire.’

Confused? Me too, though Schwab’s dresses are very beautiful, as are those by Prada. They’re not historically accurate – this is fashion, rather than museum exhibits – but they do draw on a host of historical references, including the Grecian gowns designed by Vionnet and Gres in the Twenties and Thirties, as well as Halston’s reinvention of Roman decadence in the Studio 54 era of Seventies excess.

Perhaps a better explanation of why a classical inheritance still pervades 21st century culture comes from Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, in the introduction to his book ‘Love, Sex & Tragedy”: ‘To be as beautiful as Venus, to enchant like a Siren, to strut like an Adonis, to be as strong as Hercules – these images ground our imagination and our language.’ From Renaissance scholars to Victorian artists, classical history and contemporary fantasy have entwined to create new versions of ancient ideals. Thus Sigmund Freud and Gianni Versace were both inspired by Medusa; Freud described the severed head as ‘the supreme talisman’ of castration, and heaven only knows what the founding father of psychoanalysis might have made of Versace’s appropriation of Medusa as emblematic of his fashion house.

So here we are again, in 2009, with a horde of gladiators striding across our television screens, down the catwalk and into the corridors of power. Witness Naomi Campbell in fierce gladiator sandals as the guest of Sarah Brown at a Downing Street dinner for the First Ladies at the G20 summit. To which one might quote Virgil: ‘By her gait was the goddess revealed…’

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Sorry to have disappeared...

I've been working on my new book, in a place without internet access, which is good for writing, but bad for blogging. Here is a clue about where I've been (above). First person to guess correctly will get an excellent prize (a limited edition Chanel lipstick).
Anyway, here's what I've been doing: a trip to Fowey to speak at the Du Maurier festival, which was lovely, though being in Fowey made me cry, because it's the first time I've been back there since last summer, and it brought back all kinds of memories about family holidays (good memories) and the end of my marriage (bad memories), and the overlap between the plot of 'Daphne' and the unexpected turn my life has taken, ever since my husband left me at the beginning of the year, in a twist that felt horribly reminiscent of my novel. Does that make any sense? No, probably not, unless you've read 'Daphne'... So I walked along the coastal footpath from Readymoney Cove to Pridmouth Bay, and wept and wailed into the wind. Fortunately, no one was there to see me apart from a herd of cows and a flock of seagulls, who wailed even louder than I did (the seagulls that is, not the cows. The cows just stared at me, and carried on chewing the cud).
Then after the weeping walk, I had dinner with Kits Browning, Daphne's son and executor of her estate, and his wife, Hacker, who are incredibly kind and generous people, and they cheered me up. Caught the ferry there, and a smaller boat back at midnight, and felt sufficiently restored to be able to speak at the festival the next day without bursting into tears on the podium. The event was about 'The Breaking Point", which I've posted about here in an earlier bibliotherapy column, and the other speakers were really interesting -- Stella Duffy and Lisa Appignanesi -- and the chair, Professor Helen Taylor from Exeter University, pulled the discussion together with her usual aplomb. One of the most intriguing parts of the discussion, at least for me, was Stella's comparison of Du Maurier with Patricia Highsmith, which had never occurred to me before she mentioned it, but I can see exactly why she might link the two writers together. I was also struck by Lisa's observation of the metamphorses in Du Maurier and Angela Carter; from human to animal, and vice versa...
This is turning into a bit of a stream of consciousness -- what I did in my weekend in Fowey -- so apologies for that, but have slightly lost the plot.
Where was I? Oh yes, in Fowey. The festival bookshop didn't have any copies of 'Daphne' to sell to the audience afterwards, which was mightily disappointing, but my favourite bookshop did -- Bookends of Fowey -- so thanks to them, as always. I dropped in to see them, and to browse through their treasures -- they've got the best selection of rare Du Maurier editions, along with other wonderfully alluring books (it's the bookshop equivalent of a treasure hunt, with one clue leading to the next; you'll have to visit the shop to soak up the atmosphere...)
Then I bought a large Cornish pasty -- it would be a crime to leave Fowey without eating at least one -- and went for another quick walk along the Esplanade to the sea. By then, I'd reached a kind of accommodation with my sadness, and remembered what it was that I love about Fowey. As Stella Duffy said to me, 'it's good to come back here, because you'll have new experiences to overlay the old ones'.
Am going to post this now, before I have second thoughts about the hopelessness of my prose tonight. Forgive me for the rush of words...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you can’t sleep

“All who love Dickens have a strange sense that he is really inexhaustible,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, which is one of the reasons why he is a good companion for an insomniac in the long hours of the night. Dickens’ sheer volume of work is such that it will keep you going through lengthy bouts of sleeplessness – more than a dozen lengthy works of fiction and many more short stories, thousands of letters and essays and pieces of journalism – but he also endured his own bouts of insomnia, which may be of comfort to fellow sufferers.

Perhaps the best of his writing on the worst kind of sleeplessness is ‘Night Walks’, an essay published in his magazine, ‘All the Year Round’, on July 21st 1860. Dickens had established the journal after falling out with his friends and publishers, Bradbury and Evans, when he felt they had not been sufficiently supportive to him during the break-up of his marriage in 1858. There was much to keep him awake at night at the time: rumours were spreading of his affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and of a possible relationship with his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. Dickens had taken the extraordinary step of issuing a public statement in June 1858, in which he acknowledged the separation from his wife, but denounced ‘the unwholesome air’ of ‘the breath of these slanders’.

If he felt himself to be shrouded in a dark miasma, then a sense of these ominous shadows hangs over ‘Night Walks’, in which Dickens describes a nightmarish tour of London, a city inhabited by ‘enormous hosts of dead… if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin’s point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into.’

As Dickens walks, he begins to understand an ‘experience of houselessness’, a state of mind, as well as a series of stated places: Newgate Prison, Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, Waterloo Bridge, and the dark river below, haunted by ‘the spectres of suicides’, and above ‘the wild moon and clouds… as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed’.

All of which might seem the very opposite of soothing, and yet I find it strangely consoling, lying awake but safely housed, at home in my own bed.