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the star of the hour

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Everyone’s talking about Clarice Lispector. A little synchronicity for me – I picked up The Hour of the Star before the summer, and within weeks, I heard her name spoken everywhere. I’m glad.

I recently attended a book event in Edinburgh. A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway read from their novels – respectively, Paradise and The Trick is to Keep Breathing – which have both been reprinted as Vintage Classics. Two extraordinary books, and two funny, clever writers. The chairperson asked the authors questions about their place in the literary firmament. They laughingly declined to answer. They said that as women, they don’t expect their books to last. When women die, their books die with them.

And yet, here is Clarice Lispector, long dead, and suddenly the talk of the town. Her stories, her passions, her language. (Her heroic cheekbones.)

The Hour of the Star is an odd, short novel, which contains within itself another odd, short novel, and its novelist, who appears to be writing himself into and out of the life of his protagonist, a colourless, stupid girl.  Only the novelist sees in her something very touching, something to love. Perhaps it is something he sees in himself. Nothing much happens. It’s not certain who or what the story is about. But Lispector’s writing is hypnotically strange. It’s weightless, then it sinks you with a moment too heavy to bear. Sometimes you have to stop reading and breathe.

Virginia Woolf once asked, “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” I think one reflection of this question is Clarice Lispector. She is ideological. She is avant garde. Her language is abstract and hums with its own peculiar rhythms. She is, perhaps, a little boring to the modern reader. We don’t want abstract passions and puzzles; we want story. We want the three-act structure and resolutions and we want things to go the way they should. That’s good writing, we say, when it happens.

I don’t know if a woman could write like Lispector now, with such freedom, or if anyone could. I say a woman but maybe I mean anyone. We seem to be so beleaguered at the moment. We seem to be so at odds with the world. We have to be very sure, we have to be rock solid and unshakeable, so we can stand atop our perches and be unmoved by the world’s opinions of us. But how then can a writer  experiment, how can she step out not knowing what’s beneath her? How can she balance with one toe on solid ground while the rest of her stretches out into other worlds, feeling for the force and the upswing, hoping for less gravity? Well, maybe she can, if she is monstrously brave.

 

 

fierce attachments

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

buy his paintings

There are some books which I consider to be unequivocally women’s books. Women’s books because they speak of female worlds which are secret and separate from the ‘real’ world, the outer world of action, which is seen to belong to males. These are books which needle out from under the skin the bloodied strings that tie mothers to daughters, where each mother passes to her daughter the exact amount of hate and love that she herself was gifted with. Nothing in these relationships is simple, but there is one story that keeps playing out: how the girl strains to escape the limitations of her society, which the mother has (weakly, stupidly, cravenly – in the daughter’s eyes) capitulated to. And how the mother attempts to hold the girl back, not just out of jealousy, but out of a need to perpetuate the same conditions that have stunted and stifled her own life, a need which she calls ‘protection.’  This is women’s culture, this is how it has been passed down through generations.

These books also have in common an almost supernatural brilliance, an ability to convey feeling and character with deft touches that practically defy analysis. It is done by truth-telling, by honesty without self-justification, without falling back on artificial narrative resolution. Such is the clarity of writing in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that I was convinced I had been given secret family knowledge, that hidden truths had been revealed. Gornick writes of growing up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx during the depression, but everything about that which is alien and other to me is rendered by her prose as familiar and intimate as if I’d lived it myself. I felt that I lived in her story, in her incredible sentences.

Gornick’s relationship with her mother is at the centre of the book and the centre of her life, and there is really nothing she can do about it, try as she might. There is humour in this, and even love, but most of all there is a kind of tragedy. Every woman in the story is affected by it; some are destroyed. Gornick and her mother fight, often. At one point, Gornick yells at her mother, “Don’t I get any credit for spotting a good idea, Ma? That one should try to live one’s life?” And her mother defends herself, says, “What did I have? I had nothing. Nothing.” But that’s not good enough, how can it be? It’s testament to Gornick’s talent and temperament that the reader never loses empathy with any woman: all are living out this culture, this practice that sets one generation against the next. (Our culture where pregnant women are told, “girls steal your beauty,” where thirteen-year-old girls speak ill of each other enough to kill.)

I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I read about her in an essay by a wonderful writer, Rikki Ducornet, whose novel Gazelle is another book I would add to the category tales of women’s culture. I would also include Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Of course these books feature terrible, desperate mothers, but they are still mothers. They are the kind of mothers so many women have had, the kind that hold you down in the name of doing you good. The dominant myth of motherhood is that mothers are shining angels of goodness and of love. And some mothers are surely that good, and some are better. But what about the other mothers? It is brave to speak of them at all.

what we have learned since then

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

In the final pages of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Living with a Wild God‘, she says: “Human solidarity [...] is the only reason for writing for a book.” It’s one of those moments of joyful recognition that Ehrenreich is so generous at providing. You imagine a woman laden down with grenades of wisdom – she just chucks them out whenever she feels like it, not knowing or caring much about the impact, the blown minds she leaves in her wake. And you want to thank her, or punch the air, perhaps, for making the truth simple and believable. Ehrenreich has written this book out of solidarity with her species, and it is a book that fills the reader with gratitude: thank god for you.

Or maybe not god. God, or not god, is not exactly the question. In this reflection on science and religion, the existence of a monotheistic god is never at stake. Ehrenreich’s atheism is something she takes for granted, something handed down to her by generations of blue-collar workers and particularly by her (alcoholic, neglectful) parents, who teach the young Ehrenreich that if something can’t be expressed in words, then it can’t exist at all. Following her father into a scientific education, she attempts to fit the whole universe into this belief. When something strange happens in her seventeenth year, something that doesn’t fit, she represses it, tries to forget it, denies it. She hands over responsibility for the situation to a future version of herself. In the absence of better answers, she ascribes her experience to madness.

Yet the one thing that seems most unlikely in Ehrenreich is madness. Even as an adolescent (“a particularly clinical case”) her journal writing is assured, confident, and full of her irrepressible intelligence. She treats her younger self with great compassion for the most part, only losing patience when the troubled teenage girl shows a lack of ability to think clearly about her experience. Think about it! Make sense of it! She exhorts her former self. But this lack of thinking and questioning is a brief blip in the mind of a woman whose greatest gift to the world is her ability to think it through.

Because Barbara Ehrenreich is one of our greatest thinkers. She’s clear-sighted, rigorous, original, and she never allows herself to get away with an easy answer, or to use language to obfuscate or misdirect the reader. She is scrupulously honest, even when the subject does not yield readily to explanation. Her job is to report what there is to report, to enlarge our knowledge of the world and each other. Her foundation is a brilliant, if formidable, intellect – and if she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, at least she never assumes that you are the fool.

In this book, she thinks clearly, lucidly, and persuasively about the question that’s been bugging her since she was a kid: What the hell’s going on here? What exactly is this world? By the end of the book, she has, in her meticulous, clear-sighted manner, answered that question, or at least got as close to an answer as she can. Along the way, she provides a slyly witty account of her adolescence, which hints at the origins of her later successes and failures. Her account of her relationship with her father is sad and subtle; her tales of being exposed to potential fatalities are wildly entertaining: perhaps some combination of these influences make the adult Ehrenreich simultaneously a superlatively rational thinker and the kind of woman who spends hours alone in a kayak, taunting sharks.

There’s a sense of correspondence, too, between Ehrenreich’s teenage and adult selves. As a teenager, Ehrenreich demands of her future self that she reads her journal with compassion, that she doesn’t forget. She needn’t have worried: Ehrenreich more than does justice to her and to her story. She has written exactly the book that the young Barbara desperately needed to read. And for those of us who also spent our youth in passionate pursuit of the meaning of life, Ehrenreich’s perspective is invaluable. Here is a woman who has lived the life of the mind, who has travelled from solipsism to solidarity, and who sincerely attempts to answer the question posed in her journal by her sixteen-year-old self: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”

You might not find the meaning of life in this book, but you’ll certainly learn something, and that’s a very good place to start.

the visionaries

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

We watched it on TV, but some people went down to the lake and took pictures and video on their cellphones. The President’s security was pretty relaxed, they said, all things considered. But we watched it on TV. The President in his waders, and the still surface of the lake. And everyone saw it, everyone except me saw it, when he plunged his hands into the water and brought up the Baby Jesus.

The Baby Jesus did not cry or choke. The President held Him right up to the sky, shiny like a silver dollar and naked except His diaper, and then it was a bright mess of cameras flashing and phones going off and people crying. On the TV they played the Star Spangled Banner and Beyoncé was singing, but I just couldn’t see what they all saw.

“Look,” Mom said, touching the TV screen. “See here, son, that’s Jesus.” But all I saw was a smudge on the screen and the President holding up his empty hands, dripping with lake water, and his face so solemn and holy.

“And to think he used to be a Moslem,” said Mom, and she sighed.

I asked Mom could she describe the diaper on the Baby Jesus, because out of everything, that was troubling me the most. Like, how come the Baby Jesus could be in a diaper under the water? But Mom hushed me, and she said, “You know fine well what a diaper looks like.”

Next day was a school day and all anyone could talk about was the little Baby Jesus that our President had fished out of the lake. Imagine what else is in there, I said to Mike Powell. We’d been swimming in that lake since we were three years old or maybe even younger. Imagine if there are other babies in there, I said. But Mike Powell punched me on the arm and said, “That’s blaspheming.

Then I ran into Ginny Evers in the hallway and grabbed her and said, “You seen the Baby Jesus in the lake?” And Ginny said, “Well, did you see the Baby Jesus in the lake?” So that way I knew Ginny hadn’t seen nothing either and I started to say something else but then she leaned in to me and whispered, “Pretend you saw it, doofus.” She pinched me on the arm so it hurt and nodded her head. “Doofus,” she said.

All the lessons that day were about the Baby Jesus in Lake Chorizon. Mrs Royce played the TV footage over and over, and I still couldn’t see nothing but a dribble of water in the President’s hands. The others though were all gasping and cheering and Mike Powell stood up and started singing the school anthem, Lord Jesus we are humble students, so we all had to get up and sing it and Mrs Royce wiped a tear from her face.

At lunchbreak, me and Ginny took our sack lunches to the bottom of the playing field like always.

“You think it’s cause I’m bad I can’t see the Baby Jesus?” I wanted to know.

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Geez, you’re such a dumbass. You really think they all see it?”

“Sure,” I said. “They all can see it, my Mom and Dad too.”

“Bet they can’t,” said Ginny.

In history we did the American Presidents and how it was that only our current President could raise the Baby Jesus from out the lake, even though his history of being a Moslem and a black man should have went against him. Mr Victor, the history teacher, left us be to write in our notebooks about this moment in history, and that was when Ginny got up on her desk and said, “Wasn’t the Baby Jesus just the darlingest baby you ever saw?” And Mildred Cuth, with her buck teeth, said, “The darlingest!” And Ginny said, “And all that curly black hair, like a little African!” And Mildred Cuth said, “What you talking about, curly black hair? That baby has the cutest blonde fuzz.” But Mike Powell spoke up, saying maybe it was dark blonde and the water could have made it darker, or something, and then everyone was talking at once and debating, and no one could agree what color the Baby Jesus’s hair was.

Ginny got down from the desk. She winked at me and smiled her clever smile, and Mike Powell must have seen that, because he said, “Why you stirring up trouble, Ginny?”

And the others stopped talking and all looked at Ginny.

“She didn’t even see the Baby Jesus,” said Mildred Cuth.

“Course I did,” Ginny said.

“Your folks is atheists, I heard,” said Mike Powell.

“What’s that got to do with it,” said Ginny.

“Only believers can see the Baby Jesus,” said Mildred Cuth. “And patriots.”

Mike Powell said, “We ought to write the President about you. It’s unpatriotic.”

“You’re ridiculous,” said Ginny.

“Leave her alone,” I said, weakly, but then Mrs Royce came into the class to see what all the commotion was about and Mike Powell yelled that Ginny was anti-American and an atheist and didn’t believe in the Baby Jesus. Mrs Royce told everyone to calm down and be quiet and respect this moment in the history of our country with quiet contemplation. Then she locked her eyes on Ginny and said, “Come with me, Miss Evers,” and Ginny got up and followed her out of the room while the rest of us steepled our hands together to look like quiet contemplation. Mildred Cuth whispered, “Serve her right,” but Mike Powell hushed her. “Contemplate,” he told her.

Ginny didn’t come back to class so when the bell rung I picked up her backpack along with my own and went to Mrs Royce’s office. The door was open and no one was there. So I went out front and waited on the steps until the school had emptied out and then I rode my bike round back of the woods two miles to get to Ginny’s house and wheeled down her steep front drive and rang her doorbell.

“Hey,” said Ginny’s mom, wiping her hands down on her apron.

I dropped my bike on the path and held up Ginny’s bag and said, “Ginny left her bag.”

Ginny’s mom said, “Thanks, hun. You wanna come in and get a snack?” I followed her to the kitchen where she poured me out a glass of milk and stirred in a sachet of red powder which made the milk turn pink and frothy like a shake, and she put some cookies on a plate.

I said, “Is it true you’re an atheist, Mrs Evers?”

She smiled and said, “You talking about the Baby Jesus in the Lake? No one can talk about anything else today.”

“I can’t see the Baby Jesus,” I admitted. “I can see the President just fine, but I can’t see no baby. Do you think that means I’m an atheist?”

“Not necessarily,” said Ginny’s mom. “Maybe you just saw what there is to see.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, but I nodded like I did and went back to sucking on my milkshake.

“Where’s that girl of mine?” Ginny’s mom picked up her cell from the kitchen counter and dialled a number, I guess Ginny’s number, and she listened a while and then she said, “Ginny, it’s Mom, it’s getting late, can you call me back honey?” She smiled at me and said, “I’m gonna call that school.”

She went out of the kitchen and I ate my cookies and drank my milk, and when I got to the bottom of the glass, there was a dark pink sludge and I stirred it round and round. I thought about Ginny’s face when she got up and followed Mrs Royce out of history class. Defiant was the word for it. I heard Ginny’s mom say to her one time, don’t you defy me, young lady. But that was Ginny all over.

When Ginny’s mom came back in the kitchen, she didn’t look so good.

“Mrs Royce said she left at the normal time. She should have been home by now. I think I ought… you think I should call the police?”

I nodded yes, because she was a grown up and if she was asking a little kid for advice she must be real worried, and I figured a cop might be more use to her than me. She went out of the room again, but this time I could hear what she was saying, bits of it anyway – she was crying and saying, you have to do something, she’s a little girl. When she came back in the room she looked bad, shaking and red eyes, and I got down from the counter and went over and held her hand. We didn’t say nothing, and then a while later the doorbell rang. “Oh thank God,” said Ginny’s mom. She rushed down the hallway to the door, and I followed behind, wanting to see if it was a cop. But it was Mike Powell’s daddy. He was shuffling from side to side, and he shoved something at Ginny’s mom, a slip of paper.

“Oh Michael,” said Ginny’s mom, “you know I got no problem with your beliefs, I respect your faith.” She looked down at the paper. “I just don’t know about this.”

I eased the paper from out her fist. It was a picture of our President, standing in the lake, and holding up his hands. I guessed his hands were holding the Baby Jesus, but I still couldn’t see it. And there were words on the paper, saying “In Jesus we are free.”

Mike Powell’s dad said, “You do know, Sara, we all know, cause we all saw it. Now we got proof, the Baby Jesus came up from the lake, from our lake, he even had that fucking golden halo to prove it was Him, pardon my language, and now I’m here to ask you to accept the Baby Jesus as your personal savior. I don’t want to see you suffer no more.”

“Michael,” she said, “It’s not the right time for this discussion. I’m sorry, but my baby girl is missing, I’m waiting for the police to come.”

“The police ain’t gonna come to an atheist house, Sara. This is America.”

Then Ginny’s mom made a sound like the sound you make when you get winded from a punch, and my eyes flicked up to the road and I saw they were all there, Mildred Cuth’s parents, and Mrs Royce and even my Mom was there, but she didn’t see me. And Mr Powell was wrong, the police were there, but they were in the crowd, not coming down the drive. All of them were hanging back at the road, maybe twenty or thirty folks, and they weren’t doing nothing, but you got this funny feeling off them. And Mr Powell said, “Sara? Do you accept the Baby Jesus into your heart?” And Ginny’s mom said, “Yes I do, I truly do,” and Mr Powell smiled and said, “Well, hallelujah.” He walked up the drive to the top, where they all were standing, and there was some shouting and calling out, but Mr Powell was gathering them up, urging them away, and they all went, slowly at first, like they really wanted to stay and do something. I don’t know what.

When they’d gone, we went back into the kitchen, me and Ginny’s mom, and she said, “You want something else to eat, hun?” but she was crying and I said no thanks. She sat next to me at the kitchen counter and we were silent for a time and then we just prayed. And then it was getting dark and I said I better go home if that’s all right, and she said I could wait for Ginny’s daddy and he would give me a ride but I said it was no trouble on my bike. We didn’t say nothing else but I could see she was thinking a lot of deep thoughts and when I left she gave me a hug and said I was to take good care.

I cycled home fast as I could go. After everything, the streets seemed kind of dark and I didn’t want to be out there on my own. It was always Ginny who was the brave one, not me, and I was wishing so hard that she was with me, or at least that her daddy would find her safe. When I got onto my street, I could see the house was real dark and quiet, no one home. I let myself in and locked myself in the upstairs bathroom, and through the window I could hear sounds coming from the neighborhood: the whoops and calls of our parents, praising Jesus.

a good dog

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

This is Laika. I’m deep in the middle of a novel about Laika, and this week is the 57th anniversary of her journey into space. So it seems wrong to let this pass without some kind of commemoration.

Laika was chosen for the Sputnik mission because she was a good dog. Of all the stray dogs that were brought in off the streets of Moscow, it was Laika who was the most biddable. She was “sweet and charming,” they said. Trusting. She did what she was told without complaint.

Shortly before the November 3rd rocket launch, one of the scientists took Laika home for a night. She played with his children, slept in their bed. She must have thought she had found a home, that she had been taken into a family. Then they took her away. They put her, terrified, inside a tiny metal box, and launched her into space, where she died from overheating hours into the flight. A more cruel and pointless death is hard to imagine.

Sending a dog into space was Kruschev’s whim. It was a gimmick, not useful science.

The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We didn’t learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog (Oleg Gazenko, 1998).

And all Laika wanted was to be good.

If you really want to have your heart broken by Laika, I can thoroughly recommend Laika, by Nick Abadzis. My novel-in-progress takes a more tangential (not to say abstract) look at Laika’s life and death.

 

 

mythically delirious

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

In the words of Mike Allen, “makes our notoriously offbeat Clockwork Phoenix seem like a product of the straight and narrow.” How can you possibly resist? Now available to buy on Amazon UK. Buy it, write a review, say you love us only.

five

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

At five ayem, all you can hear is the sound of the river rushing below your window, and the gurgle and spit of the coffee machine. You still have the night, and all its velvet mystery. The day hasn’t yet started; you are there to call down the moon and raise up the sun.

Peaceful. Your neighbours are sleeping. Not one door slams, not one voice is raised. You even feel kindly towards them, at this hour. They’re so sweet, when they’re sleeping. They don’t bother you at all.

You’re someone different at five in the morning. Someone meaningful, purposeful. Because only those who suffer from meaning and purpose force themselves to wake at that hour. Nothing is beyond you then. You can do anything at all. What you do, naturally, is write. It should be no easier or harder than at any other hour, but the muse looks kindly on those who come early to work. She likes to see you there every day, washed and dressed and properly humble.

You learn. It’s a glamourous hour.

Lunar Maria

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Not seas, but dark basaltic plains,

No tides but the pulling down of light,

And all misnamed, fanciful poetry

Storying the romance of the night.

Lunar Maria, false seas deceiving men.

Waterless, dry creeks and dusty rilles.

Not, after all, the swells and deeps of women;

Not, in fact, a goddess hidden in the hills.

Send rockets then, and men to mine

The rocks, and organise the sand;

To colonise the goddess moon,

Shove flags into her silver hand.

 

the best bit

Monday, September 29th, 2014

The absolute best bit about writing is when you get a lovely new copy of a book containing one of your stories. There are other good bits, but this has got to be the best. It never gets boring.

It adds to the brilliance when you are sharing covers with some flipping amazing writers, like Priya Sharma, Nina Allen, and Carole Johnstone, to name but a few.

You can buy this book here or here or in a good bookshop.

masters at work

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.

In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.

Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.

Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lats the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.

That is why it needs calm.

There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac’s age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French revolution.

One can tell by the taste whether  cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one’s head calmly, without hurry.

And it will do what it is supposed to do.

From Imperium, by Rsyzard Kapuściński.