Tagessays

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is an academic at University College Dublin. Notes to Self is a collection of personal essays, first published in Ireland by Tramp Press, and now given a UK edition by Penguin. The book begins with Pine and her sister visiting their seriously ill father in a Greek hospital:

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.

This is typically unflinching of Pine as she delves into her life across the six essays. In the first piece, ‘Notes on Intemperance’, she details that immediate situation, where she and her sister have to clean up and look after their father because the hospital is so understaffed, but also her complicated relationship with her father’s illness. He was an alcoholic, which caused liver failure and the haemmorage that has put him in hospital, but also left him cold and antagonistic as a father. For Pine, this made him difficult to love:

I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father. It took years of refusing him empathy before I realised that the only person I was hurting was myself.

Pine captures these ambivalent feelings on the page, but she also confronts what it means for herself and her family to write about life in this way. Yet ultimately there’s a sense that this act of writing is vital: “what my dad really taught me, despite himself perhaps, is that writing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing – of possessing – thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain.”

Through writing, Pine then takes possession of deeply personal experiences: infertility, her parents’ separation, sexual violence. Sometimes the subject of an essay is intertwined with writing itself. For example, Pine begins ‘Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes’ with the metaphor of a writer bleeding on to the page, before going to consider periods and societal taboos around her body. At the end of this essay, she wonders what her body might say if it could tell its story:

I think it would talk about blood. Its mesmerising flow and its ebb. About ending and renewing. I think it would talk about the touch of my fingers and my hands and another’s lips. The feel of skin on skin. Wet and slow. Soft and hard. The shock of cold, the pleasure of warmth…

Notes to Self is a raw and powerful reading experience. It’s often harrowing, but there are also compelling moments of hope and optimism. The passage I’ve just quoted reads like that to me: hope through writing, the stuff of life taken apart and rebuilt to find a way forward.

Book details

Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine, Hamish Hamilton, 206 pages, hardback. Also available in Tramp Press paperback.

The Blind Spot – Javier Cercas (#SpanishPortugeseLitMonths)

July is when Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) have traditionally hosted Spanish Literature Month. I like to join in, because I’ve always found some excellent books that way. Well, now the event has expanded to cover Portuguese as well as Spanish lit, and it goes into August as well. So, welcome to Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months! I have quite a few books lined up for this season, starting today…

Whenever I find myself in a reading slump, the way out is often to try something that breaks the pattern of what I’d been reading previously. My way out of a recent reading slump was some non-fiction. The Blind Spot is an “essay on the novel” by Spanish writer Javier Cercas (whose The Impostor was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize). Cercas explores his approach to his own work, and identifies a tradition of novels with similar characteristics, before going on to consider issues such as the writer’s role in public life.

The novels that most interest Cercas have what he calls a “blind spot” at their centre: a point of ambiguity or contradiction which animates the whole work:

at the beginning of [novels with such a blind spot], or at their heart, there is a question, and the whole novel consists of the search for an answer to this central question; when the search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is in the search itself, the question itself, the book itself.

(translation by Anne McLean)

Cercas’ key example of a “blind-spot novel” is Don Quixote which, he says, asks whether Quixote is mad, then demonstrates that he is both mad and sane – and, in Cercas’ view, Don Quixote ultimately shows all truth to be as ambiguous. Another example given by Cercas is Moby-Dick, in which the white whale is (irreconcilably) the embodiment of both good and evil.

I found this a fascinating idea to think about, and felt I could apply it to many of the novels that have stood out to me during the lifetime of this blog. For example, The Rehearsal asks unresolvable questions about what happened in a student-teacher scandal, and more widely about the nature of reality and performance. Human Acts asks whether and how the reality of an event such as the Gwangju Uprising can be processed. Nocilla Dream asks what kind of structure there can be in a de-centred, globalised world. In all three cases, the novel itself embodies an answer in the way that Cercas describes.

On the downside, I can’t help being disappointed that all of the novels discussed in The Blind Spot are by male writers, which feels like closing off whole realms of discussion. Still, as a book to think with, Cercas’ essay is nothing short of invigorating. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotations that I (mentally) underlined:

The best literature is not what sounds literary, but what doesn’t sound like literature; that is: what sounds true. All genuine literature is anti-literature.

***

The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.

You can read further reviews of The Blind Spot by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and James Doyle at Bookmunch.

Book details

The Blind Spot (2016) by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean (2018), MacLehose Press, 176 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

This moment

When life stands still here and we face the endless, shifting, indifferent grey-brown sea, when we hold ourselves open and out into that indifference tenderly, without pining, self-pitying, complaining or expecting some reward or glittering prize, then we might have become, just for that moment, something that has endured and will endure, someone who can find some sort of sufficiency: right here, right now.

This moment, one out of a million, out of a million millions, towards 4.30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late November, on this East Anglian beach, grey cloud, gulls, gusts of wind, vast darkness descending. Here is delight. Here one can help oneself out of one’s solitude, shift that wedge-shaped core of darkness that is the self, and reach out and up towards another… in love.

Ecstasy bursts into our eyes. It is enough.

— Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide, p. 76

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Notes on Suicide (2015) by Simon Critchley, Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

Three Pieces: Granta 117 – Horror

Today, I’m trying out a different approach to blogging about an anthology, by concentrating on three particular pieces from it. The anthology in question is the Autumn 2011 issue of Granta, whose theme is ‘Horror’. It was my first time reading all three of these authors; I’ll go through their work in the order in which it appears in the anthology.

Will Self, ‘False Blood’

This is an account of how Self was diagnosed with and treated for polycythemia vera, a condition which causes the blood to thicken through the overproduction of red blood cells. It’s a very frank piece: Self writes matter-of-factly about his past of drug-use – neither apologising not seeking to justify it, but simply treating it as something that happened – and how it left him afraid of needles, which made his treatment (by having excess blood extracted) all the more difficult.

The horror of ‘False Blood’ seems to me to lie less in the mechanics of Self’s illness and treatment (though there is certainly some of that, and you may well find yourself picturing the blood flowing – or otherwise – through your own veins) than in something more existential. Self reflects on death and disease, and how we dress them up in metaphors in the vain hope of making them more palatable – and comes to the conclusion that it’s better to confront those phenomena without metaphors. But Self acknowledges that disease has been one of the key metaphors he has deployed in his fiction.

So, just as the very blood-flow which sustains Self’s life is now threatening it, so a cornerstone of his life’s work has gained a chillingly personal resonance. Perhaps the true horror of this piece comes from the thought of being betrayed by the most familiar and trusted of things.

Rajesh Parameswaran, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’

A tiger wakes up one day (“the worst and most amazing day of my life,” p. 167) and realises that he feels love – the love that comes from a deep friendship – for his keeper, Kitch. But where is Kitch today? Ming is getting hungry and wants to see his keeper and friend. When Kitch finally arrives, he’s with another, rather nervous, member of zoo staff; the tiger’s friendly move towards Kitch scares the other man, so Kitch strikes Ming with his stick – and then it all goes wrong.

When I started reading ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, I thought Parameswaran’s decision to give the tiger such a fluent, human-like narrative voice was amusing but perhaps misjudged – surely that wasn’t how an animal would really think? But now I see that the voice was judged perfectly, because the affect of the story is founded on the tension between the measured, reasonable tone of the narration, and the way Ming’s animal instincts intrude upon it. It’s not just that the tiger tends to misinterpret the human characters’ behaviour; it’s also that the way he reacts and explains himself can be at odds (sometimes chillingly so) with what his voice lulls us into expecting. This story is extracted from Parameswaran’s forthcoming collection, I Am an Executioner, to which I now look forward eagerly.

Julie Otsuka, ‘Diem Perdidi’

Diem perdidi is Latin for “I have lost the day”, which sums up what has happened to the woman with dementia who is at the heart of this story. The text consists mainly of declarative statements about what the woman does and doesn’t remember (sometimes addressed directly to the woman’s daughter – though neither character is ever named). With what might seem to be a rather restricted palette, Otsuka paints vividly what has passed in the lives of the woman and her family; and what is now being lost, the little cruelties of (and those caused by) being able to remember the relatively distant past, and long-held routines, but not what happened a few minutes before. Otsuka’s prose is dotted with poignant turns of phrase, such as: “She remembers that today is Sunday, which six days out of seven is not true” (p. 252). Clearly another writer whom I need to read further.

Elsewhere
Granta magazine
Author websites: Will Self; Julie Otsuka.
Read an abridged version of ‘False Blood’ on the Guardian website.
Additional content on the Granta site.

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