I am too diffused

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing

This book is more of an intellectual exercise than a novel, which has its rewards and makes it good fodder for discussion, but doesn’t make it the most enjoyable book I’ve read lately. Not that I hated it by any means, I’m glad I’ve read it, but I’m not convinced of Lessing’s skill as a writer so much as her intellect.

Having said there’s plenty to discuss, I’m not sure some of the more interesting things I got from it can go into this review as they reveal too much about the end of the book, but I’ll try to say what I can without spoilers and without sounding like a study guide (which, incidentally, there are plenty of for this book, because it’s that kind of book).

This is the story of two women, Anna and Molly, in 1950s London. (There are some flashbacks to earlier in their lives, particularly Anna’s, but the bulk of the story is in the 50s.) Molly is an actress, with a steady stream of small parts, or sometimes big parts in small shows. She has a grown son, Tommy, who lives with her and a fraught relationship with her ex-husband Richard. Anna is a writer who wrote one very successful book early in her life and has been living off the proceeds since. She is also a single mother, though the story of the child’s father is only gradually revealed. Both women have been communists, which proved a major influence on their lives.

“Looking back at those week-ends they seem like beads on a string, two big glittering ones to start with, then a succession of small, unimportant ones, then another brilliant one to end. But that is just the lazy memory.”

Essentially, the book is split into sections: there’s the “wraparound novel”, a seemingly straightforward narrative about Anna and Molly, titled Free Women. Then there are four notebooks kept by Anna, in which she writes about different aspects of her life, splitting herself and the way she observes the world. Anna writes multiple times that she can’t help fictionalising her own life, indeed it is never wholly clear whether Free Women is written by her, and therefore yet another fictionalised account, or if it is the supposedly objective “truthful” account.

“I was going to say disaster. That word is ridiculous. Because what is so painful about that time is that nothing was disastrous. It was all wrong, ugly, unhappy and coloured with cynicism, but nothing was tragic, there were no moments that could change anything or anybody.”

Anna’s previously published novel that she is living off was loosely based on her own experience in colonial Africa during the Second World War, and she writes several accounts of her time there in the notebooks, but they don’t entirely match up – sometimes she changes names, sometimes she refers to the version of the story told in her novel. When you add to this that Anna shares an awful lot in common with Doris Lessing, it all starts getting rather meta. Lessing’s own explanation of the book is that it’s a novel plus the notes an author makes surrounding it, which either demonstrates how much is discarded from the full “fictional” idea, or demonstrates how differently the same “true” story can be told, even by the same person.

“I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused.”

Which all sounds more complicated than it is to read. The writing style is pretty straightforward, though I found my interest wavered with the subject matter. The overriding theme of the notebooks is to analyse over and over, which I tended to find an interruption to the story rather than an enhancement, but arguably it was the whole point. Though Lessing claims in her introduction that the novel isn’t “about” anything except a person falling apart, it certainly has a lot to say about communism, feminism, friendship, writing, love, sex, relationships, parenthood, psychoanalysis and truth. I suppose you could try to read it as a straightforward narrative without trying to piece together the different versions of the same story, but for me that was part of the fun. I like that when I got to the end there were several ways to interpret it, both in terms of what “happened” and in what the “real” structure is.

“It’s a question of form. People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like the messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand formlessness.”

However, I only fully engaged with relatively short sections (bearing in mind this is 550 pages of small print), when the story got under flow, in-between lists, newspaper cuttings, diary-style brief notes and the like. I didn’t warm to Anna, which is in some ways surprising as a writer struggling with anxiety and depression, contemplating motherhood and politics, full of concern about the world, should be right up my street! But I mostly found her cold and unemotional, even listless, making odd decisions about life, which I suppose might arguably be a better depiction of depression than many I’ve read.

Maybe it was just far too long. I certainly highlighted dozens of passages that I admired, either for the language or for the idea. I really liked learning more about communism in Britain in the 1950s, and about war-time in a British colony in Africa, but despite her Nobel Prize in Literature I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to Lessing.

First published 1962 by Michael Joseph.

Source: Paper copy bought from Toppings in Bath, e-book from Amazon. (I have both as I was going on holiday just before the book club and I only take my Kindle on holidays.)

The truth is complicated

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

I picked up this comedy for a quick read when I was struggling to get into another book and it turned out to be much better than I had expected: funny but also original and compelling.

The story is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Seattle-resident Bee (short for Balakrishna), whose mother Bernadette has gone missing. Who Bernadette really is and why she disappeared is gradually pieced together and it’s both an odder story and a more relatable one than it at first appears.

“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, ‘The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.’ “

Semple rips into Seattle culture, but it’s humour with an edge of fondness. She satirizes the dominance of Microsoft and its influence over the city, the difficulty of being a retiring artistic type in a social group that puts pressure on to get involved at your child’s school. But she also acknowledges that, unlike in California (where Bernadette and her husband Elgie moved from), people in Seattle (including teenage children) aren’t obsessed with fashion or the latest gizmos.

The story is mostly told through e-mails and letters, with some being brief notes and others much longer storytelling affairs. This meant there were not only lots of voices, but some characters were depicted in multiple facets of their life and I thought this was handled well. It was a nice update to the epistolary style without feeling like it was trying too hard to be modern (except where mocking modernity).

“Your mission statement says Galer Street [School] is based on global ‘connectitude’. (You people don’t just think outside the box, you think outside the dictionary!)…you must emancipate yourselves from what I am calling Subaru Parent mentality and start thinking more like Mercedes ParentsGrab your crampons because we have an uphill climb. But fear not: I do underdog.”

I liked the combination of themes dealt with – there’s career versus family (for men and women) and how everyone, even your nearest and dearest, is a mystery to everyone but themselves. The book also touches on technological developments (through the character of Elgie) and the fight to balance societal and commercial pressures. And without giving anything away, I loved the final section, which could have felt like it just wrapped everything up neatly, but managed to steer clear of that, just as it managed to get emotional without seeming mawkish.

Semple’s is the comedy of everyday irritations and she judges well the point when something stops being funny or when it stops being acceptable to get annoyed. Not that that line is never crossed, but the character in question stops being sympathetic, which is such a realistic means of showing up character flaws.

I must admit that, more than a week later, this book hasn’t particularly stayed with me, but as you can tell I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Published 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Source: Amazon.

If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still

Stone in a Landslide

Stone in a Landslide
by Maria Barbal
translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

This book takes a whole life and tells it in less than 120 pages, which is both its strength and its weakness. There is some beautiful writing, but there’s also a lot of speeding past things that another writer might have taken a whole novel to explore. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

The life told is that of Conxa, a poor Catalan woman whose story begins when she is a child in the early 20th century. There are three major things that happen in her life that each could have been central to a chunky novel but here are dealt with in 10 or 15 pages. First, she is from a large rural family that can’t easily support all the children, while her aunt and uncle are childless and need help to manage their house and land, so at 13 Conxa is sent on a day’s journey, the furthest she has ever travelled, to begin a new life at her aunt’s house. She has gone from countryside to small town, from familiar to unfamiliar and it takes years for her to settle in.

“My mother was a woman who knew only two things: how to work and how to save…She was always the last to go to bed and sometimes she’d say a rosary. But for all her devotion, I’m sure she didn’t even get to half a mystery. Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”

Perhaps the biggest thing, from Conxa’s perspective, is her falling in love with Jaume. He’s a builder and carpenter who travels a lot for his work, and consequently is much more worldly and politically aware then Conxa, who shies away from such things. I found it difficult to sympathise with Conxa’s lack of interest in the wider world, even though the story is narrated by her voice, so we hear her reasons first hand. It keeps the story very narrow, telling just her life rather than the history of the world or Spain or even just Catalonia at that time, which I can see has its advantages, but it’s not the perspective I would prefer to read.

The final major event for Conxa is the Spanish Civil War. While the First World War appears to have happened without even a hint of it in Conxa’s narrative, the Spanish Civil War is unavoidable. Jaume’s interest in politics makes his absences from home suspicious and it’s little surprise when terror comes to their doorstep. But still Conxa never offers explanation or her own opinion, only fear.

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days.”

Weaving between and around these three is the everyday life of sustenance farming and village gossip. And none of these are things that lack interest, or told badly, only too briefly to really make me feel involved. I usually like spare prose but I think this was too much of an extreme and I just wanted there to be more to it.

Pedra de Tartera published 1985 by Columna Edicions.
This translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

I was a furious pinpoint

Beside the Sea

Beside the Sea
by Véronique Olmi
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

This was the first book published by small publisher Peirene Press and since I began blogging I have been hearing how wonderful this book is, so earlier this year I bought it. But the thing is that the premise of the book is so dark, so sad, that it took me a while to pick it up and to be honest even though I think it brilliant I am not sure I would ever want to put myself through it again.

The story is that of a single mother who takes her two boys to the seaside for a holiday she has planned and dreamed of for a long long time, but she is poor and suffers from depression so nothing is as she had hoped. And to add to the bleakness she has a plan to protect her boys from the world at the end of this holiday, a plan that is not explained but is nevertheless clear from page one.

“It felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown plane, specially as it wasn’t the holidays and that’s what the boys kept thinking, I know they did. We’d never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life felt new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it.”

I found this book extremely disturbing. Olmi does an amazing job of bringing to life a mother juggling money troubles and hunger and some form of depression, getting right inside her mind, which is not a comfortable place to be. Her four and eight year old sons are more au fait with the world than she is, and she feels this keenly. She has such a disturbed view of world, full of paranoia and fear, that she frequently hides from it all by trying to sleep, and her sons are familiar with this and accept it, even when they’ve skipped multiple meals and promise after promise has been broken.

“Lights mingled with the sound system, becoming as depressing as the songs, you couldn’t see the rain but it was following us all…the bells wouldn’t stop ringing, people were hurrying onto rides in every direction, where did all that money come from, everyone could afford everything, there was too much of everything everywhere, too much noise, too much rain, too many lights, all reeling past me.”

Olmi’s real skill is to show that this mother, struggling and under suspicion of social services and indeed most people they meet, truly loves her children and is trying as hard as she humanly can to do what’s right by them, it just isn’t enough. It’s unbearably sad. Doubly so as it’s so clear where this is going but you’re willing it not to go there, to find a way out.

“I was a furious pinpoint, with darkness all around, I was a star, old and always there, old and full of fire. I’d been thrown up into the sky, I wasn’t holding on to anything but everything around me hung on, like I was cradled by arms.”

I was left in a black mood for a couple of days after reading this book. I salute Olmi’s skill and achievement but I really do not want to enter that world again.

Bord de mer published 2001 by Actes Sud.
Translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

The person you thought you knew

The War of the Wives
by Tamar Cohen

I was intrigued by this book from the synopsis and I am left feeling very smug that I know myself well – because I loved it. It isn’t perfect but it is gripping and thought-provoking, and story and character are equally strong.

To save you even having to read the blurb, the tagline on the front of this book tells you all you need to know (when did books start having taglines? Is that a thing now?): “At your husband’s funeral you don’t expect to discover his other wife.” So it’s about grief, lies, family, bigamy, but also modern life in London and how change can make you realise what kind of person you are.

The storytelling is narrated alternately by the two wives, Selina and Lottie. Initially there’s a little bit of stereotyping. Selina is well off, uptight, a kept woman who keeps her very nice, very big house in Barnes in impeccable order and doesn’t check the price tag before buying yet another cashmere coat. She was married to Simon for 28 years, they have three children, aged 17 to 26, and while there’s not really any passion left she still loves her husband. She worries about ageing, her children’s choices of partner and why her youngest son insists on eating junk food.

Lottie is artistic, but illustrating children’s books isn’t making her a living so she also has a job she dislikes in a hotel. She lives in a flat in North London with her and Simon’s daughter Sadie, who is 16 and very difficult. She and Simon were married 17 years and they were still very passionate about each other, though they had money troubles and they fought a lot.

Cohen takes as her structure the five stages of grief. So the wives’ hatred of each other and what Simon did really comes to the fore in the “Anger” section. And the book inevitably wraps things up in the “Acceptance” section. Which was where, looking back, I feel a little disappointment. A lot of mysteries turn out to have been red herrings, which I should have seen coming when a potential major storyline just didn’t go anywhere. But what this does is keep the focus on the families, which is definitely Cohen’s strength. That and her fantastic turn of phrase that can combine urbanity and sentiment in clever, often comic, ways:

“I know how you can think you know someone, really know someone, only to find the person you thought you knew turns out to be a hollow timber structure with someone entirely different inside – a plastic wheelie bin of a someone.”

I liked the depiction of the children through their mothers’ eyes. I liked the way the women developed from the stereotypes they saw each other as being into complex, interesting characters. I liked the ultra-current setting – not just Twitter and Facebook but also preparations for the London 2012 Olympics – but I do worry that it will date the book quickly. I suppose that’s a decision the writer and her editor have already made.

The main flaw, I would say, are the prologue and epilogue, which is a shame because they are the first and last impressions. I found the epilogue especially jarring and completely lost my hold on the fictional world I had until then been enjoying thoroughly. But the rest of the book is good enough to forgive the slight lapse.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Know your medium

It Sucked and then I Cried
by Heather B Armstrong

So this is a lesson in how a decent blog does not necessarily make a decent book. Heather Armstrong’s blog Dooce is widely considered to be the most popular personal blog on the internet, with tens of thousands of visitors every day. She is a huge influence on other bloggers and has some interesting things to say. Taking one of the more eventful sections of her blogged life and writing a book about it should have been a great idea, right?

The thing is, what works in a blog does not necessarily work in a book and a decent editor would have stopped this book from being published in its current form. Large sections of text are reproduced verbatim from the blog, which I understand the temptation behind, as the blog is so successful, but a lot of the same people will read both and it’s disappointing to read the same jokes, the same descriptions, the same insults over again.

In a blog you can jump from one topic to the next, or start a story and then pick it up again a few weeks (and a few thousand words) later. In a book you need more structure. Skipping out of your timeline to tell a funny anecdote from the past doesn’t always work. And you also don’t need to keep repeating things. In a blog it’s acceptable to assume that people need reminding of a fact you mentioned several entries ago, if they read it at all. In a book it’s a fair bet that the readers of chapter 10 also read chapter 2. Quite recently.

But more crucially even than that, in a blog you can get away with writing in all caps for emphasis, assigning cute but stupidly long nicknames to people or breaking out in a sickeningly mushy ode to your loved one. None of those things are appropriate in a book. They make it incredibly hard to read more than a few pages at a time. One of the most grating things for me was the reproduction of Heather’s monthly letters to her daughter Leta. Now, this is something a lot of “mommy bloggers” do when they have babies and it’s a sweet idea that may even have been original to Dooce. On a blog you can skip past them if you’re not feeling soppy because they do tend to be very soppy indeed. Heather’s letters are no exception and they seemed wildly out of place in this book. The odd phrase from them could have been quoted or incorporated into the retelling but pages and pages of baby talk very nearly made me stop reading on.

It’s really very disappointing because the basic story of Heather’s difficult pregnancy, depression and postnatal depression is one that was interesting on her blog and these are subjects that should be talked about more. I commend her for her openness and looked forward to this book to find out more about the experience. Though there was some more detail than in the blog it was written in an awkward style and was hard to read.

What this book confirmed for me was that Heather is not a successful blogger because she writes well. She does not. She is successful because she has interesting and often controversial things to say and she’s sometimes funny. And because of that story about her being fired because she said rude things about her employer on her blog. Other bloggers have done this better and I think I know now why I haven’t read Dooce for a year or so.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster.