Sunday, March 22, 2015

Eire go Bragh

St. Patrick’s Day came a little late this year. This arrived in the mail on Friday.

Between the promise of O’Connor, finishing Tim Robinson’s magisterial Connemara trilogy, whizzing through the second season of The Fall, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker article on the bodies of those “disappeared” during the Troubles (March 16th issue), March has proved an Irish excursion. I’m almost in the mood for a thimbleful of Guinness.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


My previous experience of Rachel Cusk is restricted to her travel book on Italy, The Last Supper, which was withdrawn in Britain because of objections from individuals who found themselves featured, unflatteringly, within its pages. It's very difficult not to write a book about Italy without being smug.

Then I read reviews (especially hatchet jobs) about her controversial divorce memoir, Aftermath. I confess I’m suspicious when a writer writes memoir after memoir, as if his own life is the only field of interest. I read memoirs – I am moved by the familiar voice – but I’m wary of their cultural predominance. Self-knowledge is a good springboard for knowledge of others. Orbiting one’s own life without ever calling into question the limitation of it seems myopic. (This, however, is not to say that personal writing can be divorced from art, or that it should be.)

But Outline is an expose of how fascinating and selfish and dreary and inescapable monologues on the self can be. The plot is slender: a writer goes to Athens to teach a writing course. The novel is structured as ten monologues, given by people the writer meets who can’t help disclosing themselves, speaking at length about their thoughts and lives, their shortcomings, and the shortcomings of others. The wealthy man who sits next to her on the plane. The students at her writing course. A fellow writer. A friend. They are driven to anatomise themselves in public, stamping themselves on the writer’s blank page. Despite being in the middle of some muted crisis, the writer allows her companions to speak with very little interruption or contradiction. What starts in the novel as speech, given in the figure of dialogue – that is, between quotation marks – quickly becomes the substance of the text itself. I’ve looked through the novel again to find a quotation, something to chew over, but I find I can’t take it from the continuing whole, which is so sleek and effortlessly integrated, without diminishing the part I’ve removed.

In any case, the writer’s silence cannot be explained easily as saying that women are reduced to silence by the volubility of men, even though she is female, and her male friends are voluble. Rather, the novel features explicitly feminist characters which are just as boring and long-winded about their own oppression. Outline suggests that people can’t help telling stories to each other. Narration, especially self-narration, is ongoing. The listener (or reader) is hypnotized by the voice which continues to talk, which in turn is so self-enthralled by his own life that he can’t doubt the value of his expression.

While the novel could be read as being about the act of writing, the novel is more interested in human instinct and social relations. It’s interested in a variety of voices, all self-involved. It just so happens that writers try to fix down those human instincts and social relations: for entertainment, for consolation, for exposure. It’s a fine-boned book and has tripled my regard for its author. I suspect it’ll make this year’s Man-Booker longlist.

Friday, January 23, 2015

I’m reading the journal of Katherine Mansfield. Every so often reading gives you a jolt of recognition or kinship: some kind of connection to the absent voice. This morning I read:

January 22. Weather worse than ever. At tea-time I surprised myself by breaking down. I simply felt for a moment overcome with anguish and came upstairs and put my head on the black cushion. My longing for cities engrosses me.

January 23. The old man breaking stones again. A thick white mist reaches the edge of the field.

The year is 1915 and a space of exactly a hundred year stands between Mansfield and me. One January is as bleak as another. Why is it so comforting to read about another’s misery? Why is this true about diaries and not Facebook? I imagine this is because diaries are private consolations, places to put despair so that it doesn’t leak into public life. Facebook, on the other hand, becomes a means of redefining a version of the public by one’s despair.

My brilliant, imaginative friend and former tutor Sally Bayley has written a history of the diary. She’s publishing it with Unbound books, a new crowd-funding model which has caught the eye of the publishing industry. Forbes discusses it here. Sally taught me mental breadth; her classes were exhilerating experiments. You can (and should!) support her work here