Friday, 6 April 2012

40BFL 13: Birthday Letters

Ok - so I haven't done so well in writing reviews of my favourite 40 books in Lent. 13 is a little disappointing - in fact at 31% it is pretty much 'unclassified'. I blame Roaring who has been silent for some time.

Anyway, it's Good Friday so I thought I would make one more entry. Good Friday, number 13, it all seems somehow appropriate, and, as I have been reading Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters for the past few months, it seemed like a good fit.

I've always liked Ted Hughes' poems, particularly Crow; but I hadn't read Birthday Letters. I actually usually prefer Plath's poems and love The Bell Jar, which features as an image throughout Birthday Letters. I only picked up a copy after reading 'Last Letter' published in the Oct 2010 New Statesman. Hughes is a great storyteller, but it is the way he shocks with perfectly selected words intensity of emotion and change of mood. Repetition of words and sounds produces a cumulative effect, preparing the reader for the disaster they know is coming, only to delay, and then with perfect timing deliver the fear and loss. A life possessed of so much tragedy finds its lethal expression of grief:

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'

Birthday Letters is the most intense autobiography imaginable. It is like Groundhog Day, where every day is repeated but somehow ends in the death of the lover. Bill Murray swimming against the pull of the waterfall in every possible direction but everytime getting pulled back into the abyss of churning water. Plath is painted in such bright colours you long for her, believe in her, feel the rawness of her emotions, the brightness of hope, love, passion. But always the dark shadow of Hughes' failure and her death - harrowing, exhausting to read. I never read more than one a day.

Nor did I know I was being auditioned
For the male lead in your drama,
Miming through the first easy moments
As if a puppet were being tried on its strings,
Or a dead frog's legs touched by electrodes.
I jigged through those gestures - watched and judged
Only by starry darkness and a shadow.
Unknown to you and not knowing you.
Aiming to find you, and missing, and again missing.
Flinging earth at a glass that could not protect you
Because you were not there.

Ten years after your death
I meet on a page of your journal, as never before,
The shock of your joy
When you heard that. The the shock
Of your prayers. And under those prayers your panic
That prayers might not create the miracle,
Then, under the panic, the nightmare
That came rolling to crush you:
Your alternative - the unthinkable
Old despair and the new agony
Melting into one familiar hell.

('The Visit')

So much tragedy. The sense of fate and predetermined agony hangs over it all:

Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding.
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.

('You Hated Spain')

One last quotation.

As I paused
Between your mouthfuls, I stared at the readings

On your dials. Your cry jammed so hard

Over into the red of catastrophe

Left no space for worse. And I thought

How sick is she? Is she exaggerating?

And I recoiled, just a little,

Just for balance, just for symmetry,

Into sceptical patience, a little.
If it can be borne, why make so much of it?

'Come on, now,' I soothed. 'Don't be so scared.

It's only a bug, don't let it run away with you.'

What I was really saying was: 'Stop crying wolf.'

...Then the blank thought

Of the anaesthesia that helps creatures

Under the polar ice, and the callous

That eases overwhelmed doctors. A twisting thought

Of the overload of dilemma, the white-out,

That brings baffled planarian worms to a standstill

Where they curl up and die.

You were overloaded. I said nothing.

I said nothing. The stone man made soup.

The burning woman drank it.

It's Good Friday - an apt time to meditate on grief, suffering and misunderstanding. These letters are as good a way in to thinking about the mess of being human as anything written.

Monday, 2 April 2012

40BFL 12: Sexing the Cherry

The novel most people think of when they hear the name Jeanette Winterson is Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Usually you hear the word 'auto-biographical' in some relation to it and of course 'lesbian'. As it happens both are not so much incorrect as incidental. She would, I am sure, be as puzzled to find it in the biography section of a Bookshop as she would be annoyed to find it in the Queer section. But it is the case with all her novels that the biographical - or perhaps better the personal is painfully, honestly, barely at the forefront, confessing itself to the reader.

Mothers can be difficult. Oranges is honest about this - though often with affectionate humour. It is the only book of Jeanette's that Mrs Winterson read. This is a shame really because the Dog Woman, to me, is an apology for difficult mothers and there is something in Sexing the Cherry that seems like an attempt to reach out here; if not to understand then at least to accept difference.

Sexing also continues the clear themes that run throughout all JW's novels - they are always about the attempt to escape, there is always the presence of transcendence - at the edge of the novel's world and the reader's, - there is a preoccupation with honesty - about the nature of feelings, of language, of our experience. They make you think. No matter how convoluted her plots, the diversions of magical realism, of parody and pastiche, what she writes about is what is most real: Love - how we lose it, how we run away from it, how we cling on to it and how it burns us.

This for me makes the best sort of writing. A free imagination tied to intensity of feeling and a bold, observant, scrupulous honesty. Sexing is a great read. It's an historical romp, it's an imaginative adventure, it's a philosophical experiment, it's a revisionist myth-making. It's funny, it's sweet, it's thought-provoking. And it's short. Praise God for short novels.

Some people say that's she's quite hard to read. This is laziness. It's true there is a lot of reference to other poems and novels - she has a super memory - and you'll hear Eliot, Browning, Byron, Marvell and many others alongside a crooked Bible and a wonky copy of myths and fairytales. But it stands on its own feet and - at the end of the day - if you don't start reading somewhere when will you ever get back to reading English Literature A to Z?

I first read this novel to help my mum. She was writing a paper on it and wanted me to trace the biblical refences in it. It took a long time and eventually became the impetus for my phd proposal. In a way that is probably the best sort of response. It is a novel about self-discovery - tracing the lineaments of the face you see in the mirror - and following it like the mystics used to describe the itinerarium intus, the journey of the soul. I read her more recent, and more obviously autobiographical, Why be Happy when you could be Normal? today. It has the same searing honesty, the same wit, the same genius for a turn of phrase. She is postmodern in all the good and interesting ways - through telling stories, petit recit, the awareness and deconstruction of power, the playfulness, parody and pastiche; but underlying it all is a quest for truth and a spirit that hungers for transcendence.

Sexing the Cherry is all of these things. It should make you want to leave home - whether or not that means getting out of your chair. It should make you want to think - which requires imagination and passion.

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