Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Snow Queen



I've been writing, and re-writing, and discarding the threads of a near-impossible book. It's so damn hard -- to try to address something deeply personal, in the almost certain knowledge that exposure to the outside world might shrivel it up and turn it to ashes. I say 'it', as shorthand for the unsay-able -- in other words, the attempt to tell a story that begins with the end of a marriage, without being hurtful or damaging to anyone involved. Has anyone else read Rachel Cusk's 'Aftermath'? I did, a couple of weeks ago, and admire her courage in addressing a subject that seems to create such powerfully judgmental reactions (she initiated the separation from her husband). The reviews have veered to extremes; critics love it or hate it -- usually the sign of an interesting book, and Aftermath is vividly spiky, demanding, jagged, visceral -- but the online response is terrifying (volcanic acid spewing out of the internet). Needless to say, this has made me horribly uncertain about the idea of writing anything personal, which is perhaps an appropriate response.
I'm not sure why, but the anxiety sent me back to Hans Christian Andersen, to re-read The Snow Queen. What a strange, unsettling series of episodes make up the narrative -- so much more complicated than its modern interpretations tend to be. There's something profoundly compelling about the opening -- a devil-made mirror that reflects and refracts uncertainty, showing the worst of all worlds, and then smashes to pieces, the tiny fragments lodging themselves into the eyes and hearts of those thereafter doomed to see only the dark side... (Andersen himself being a writer more often drawn to the shadows than the light).
It cannot be coincidental that the Snow Queen was elemental in Daphne Du Maurier's writing, an archetype that seemed also to be summoned into her life (by the writer herself, as a character that sometimes blended into her mother, or her husband's lover -- the threatening Other Woman, too powerful to resist); so yes, I confess, I've been thinking about 'Daphne' again, and the process of reading and writing, and how to see clearly, without a shard of broken mirror in my eye.
Does any of this make a modicum of sense? Not to me, not yet, not clearly... but I'll keep trying.
Upon reflection (ten minutes later)... perhaps looking at the fragments of a broken mirror is inevitable, in the aftermath -- examining them, putting them down again, sweeping them out of sight, too sharp to touch, too dangerous to handle. And trying to reassemble them into some kind of order is as doomed a puzzle as the one attempted by the boy in The Snow Queen. Still, he was obsessed with numerical and logical processes -- while I'm more intrigued by intuition, however elusive, and the thoughts that lie just beyond our grasp.

17 comments:

jaywalker said...

Gosh, you're right about the strident online criticisms of Aftermath. They certainly don't inspire me to buy it.
However, I do know something of what you are experiencing. My 23yr marriage broke up amidst a scandal that cropped up in conversations in our small community for years afterwards and is still occasionally quoted as a cautionary tale.

It's all so long ago that I can tell you that I was not just the Other Woman but was the Other Other Woman. Yes, he was married and I thought he loved me and then discovered he also had a second long-term lover who thought exactly the same. When his marriage broke up, he chose her instead of me and although, as the wife, I can understand you may not empathise with this viewpoint, I felt more betrayed than anyone.

I didn't sleep for three months and spent the nights turning it all into a novel. It's still in my filing cabinet. It was cathartic but I am NOT a writer and it wasn't publishable, as I'm sure yours will be. I've experienced the pain of the glass shards but like pieces of broken glass on a beach, time does wear them smooth. Good luck with your struggle.

Gondal-girl said...

I like the Snow Queen - she is a handy archetype to know I think - yes she has that mirror that shows us all sorts of dark places, but I think she also has that coolness needed sometimes to surmount such emotionally hot and overflowing situations and turn them into something else - I like that Jungian thought that like dreams, the characters are all parts of one self.
(ps. I know your book will be wonderful)

enid said...

Snap I am so amazed because when I read the crits of Aftermath I thought of your book and wanted to warn you. I was worried about you but did not know how to approach it. I know that writing is cathartic and we can all learn from others so go ahead be pubished and you will only enhance our lives as you always do.

Kim said...

Dear Justine
I love reading your blog and the insightful comments from your community of friends - it really is a life enhancer. I read your wonderful books about Ruth and the process of grieving during a time in my life when I was nursing my dear parents through terminal illnesses and in the process of separating from my husband who had met someone else.
Your words have really helped me over the years but I do feel that I want to urge you to listen to your instincts and your uncertainty about the topic of your book. There are so many people to consider including of course, your beloved sons and things once said or written can never be undone. You have reached a much deserved place of calm and happiness - do you really want to ruffle the oasis. I'm sure there are other ways to explore the issues you want to discuss.
I hope you do not mind my comments - they come from the heart and out of concern.
Love
JeanAlice

Caroline said...

Justine - I wish in some ways you hadn't confided in the blog about this - because people read all sorts of things into and make all sorts of assumptions about others' imagined intentions: not necessarily helpful.
Something about the revelations which unfold with the passage of time would be life affirming and not do-down anyone. My former husband always said - and I did not understand it at the time - it was not to do with me, it was to do with him that he had left. I do understand that now (25 years on!)
But the joy and strangeness of new love lies side by side with the loss of the old - and some way of setting this down, would bring hope to many going through that dreadful, shocking, mad, time of abandonment. Great good wishes to you and your exciting future.

Kim said...

Having read Carolines comments I just want to clarify that in no way would I assume that your book Justine would not be as full of the generousity of spirit, compassion and understanding that your works are known for. I have certainly responded to the life experiences you have shared.
It is rather the the whole focus of the topic which would generate immense and intense personal interest to which I refer.
I am thrilled by the recent wonderful chain of events which have been shared with readers of your blog and wish you every happiness for the future and of course, with your new book whatever form it takes.

Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justine Picardie said...

Thank to everyone for your comments and stories -- they are so life-affirming, and remind me of why I go on writing, as well as reading, and sharing experiences with others.
I welcome every insight that has been offered here -- all the different interpretations and responses are valid and thoughtful, and they mirror my own, varying states of confusion.
One of the things I've realized is that love and loss is something that we all share, whether one is the abandoned wife or the other woman. Perhaps the other is also an aspect of oneself, which is why the Snow Queen is such a resonant archetype.
As for what form my next book might take: it's not yet clear, but the process of writing and rewriting feels as if it is part of understanding the fall-out from the broken mirror.
And let's all go on writing and reading, here and elsewhere...

Terri said...

I was divorced in 1992 and though I have remarried, the divorce continues to revolve in my consciousness and my thoughts about it have moods all their own. My thoughts about the divorce have never been entirely static. And for that reason I would have trouble publishing a book on that topic. I did in fact, write a novel about it, but never submitted to my agent...because it involved living persons I did not wish to hurt.

The Scrivener said...

The Snow Queen and those splinters of glass that enter hearts turning them to lumps of ice makes me think of Graham Greene and his assertion that all writers have a chip of ice in their hearts. If Greene is right I think it is in the way that writers must be able to detach from those around them in order to observe and to make the, sometimes uncomfortable, connections necessary for their work. Does that mean all writers are piecing together their own shattered mirror?

Lilac In May said...

I look forward to reading your tapestry tale Justine. If The Spirit Moves You demonstrates clearly your skill as a sensitive and gifted weaver of personal experience and story. The quality of the finished piece all depends on the artist who creates it. To echo others good luck with your struggle, I hope it's a fruitful one.

Bette said...

I'm really interested on your take on The Snow Queen. It haunted me as a child. It's very deep. The fear of using your own experiences in a direct way is very understandable. I'm thinking about the terrible effects Julie Myerson's book about her son seemed to have... I think, though, that the creative process can mutate or transform experience into something else... I wonder if you caught the William Boyd interview on Open Book... He had useful things to say about how writers draw upon their individual 'well'. Might be worth checking it out. I think your book will be marvellous as you write with real poetic sensibility. Go for it!

Justine Picardie said...

Sorry for silence, when there are so many interesting comments to respond to (I'm in Tokyo for a few days, and have had iPhone problems here). Anyway, all of your thoughts have travelled with me, and I'm still trying to work out what to do with the fragments of broken glass. At the same time, I'm superstitious -- magical thinking is impossible to let go out -- and therefore wary of the broken mirror.
There is an element of memoir writing that is akin to fiction -- not that one invents the truth, but a narrative has to be shaped and edited and scrutinised. Perhaps that is why so many people read 'If The Spirit Moves You' as if it were fiction, and even referred to it as a novel. And the blurring between fiction and reality in Daphne Du Maurier's writing has always intrigued me; hence the structure I used in my book about her. She was never frightened about writing memoir -- just consider her book about her father, Gerald, which was hugely controversial when it was published -- though was also adept at weaving her autobiography into her novels, and vice versa.
Perhaps what really matters is a commitment to weaving stories out of the chaos of life, and the attempt to understand one's own past, as well as being understanding of others.

Justine Picardie said...

And now I have to leave another comment, to take them past 13...

jaywalker said...

Doesn't Japan have its own mythical Snow Queen? Somewhat different from Andersen's but still representing the 'cold' in human hearts.
Only been to Tokyo once but clearly remember being overwhelmed by it all! Got completely lost in the train station and struggling with the crowds in shopping areas. The rest of Japan was much nicer.

Justine Picardie said...

It's raining in Tokyo; very jet-lagged, and only here for three days, then back to London, where I intend to nest...

RitesForGirls said...

Justine, you have a special place in my heart. I met you on the printed page in 'If the Spirit Moves You' and I was immensely grateful to you for being brave enough to publish. I went to King's with Ruth and loved her spirit. I came across your book about a year after our baby had died, when all around me was making me feel like I should be over it and stop searching. From your book I took permission to carry on grieving exactly how I was... I imagine there are many others glad that you wrote about your journey who have never had the chance to let you know. Perhaps this will help in your decisions about your next book.
That said, I have just begun to write publicly (on a website www.ritesforgirls.com) and on receiving some pretty personal attacking comments I realise that you have to be pretty tough to withstand the reactions when you touch on raw issues openly. So I understand your hesitation - and because I like how you tell your tale, I hope you have all the loving support that you need to go ahead anyway!