SUSAN SONTAG REVIEW

The following review was published in Australian Book Review, March 2015 issue.

ABR has grown in recent years and is well worth a look – both the print version and the on-line version. I’ve just joined the board of ABR, and as a trenchant non-board, non-meeting sort of person, this act says volumes about the publication.

 

SUSAN SONTAG. A Biography. Daniel Schreiber. Trans from German: David Dollenmayer. Northwestern U Press, Evanston, Illinois. $62.95 cloth, 280 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8101-2583-4.

Susan Sontag. Jerome Boyd Maunsell. Critical Lives Series. Reaktion Books. London. $29.99 pb, 214 pp. ISBN: 978 1 78023 288 1

Susan Sontag

At the age of eight I wanted to be a novelist. By the age of eighteen, having fallen in love with an intellectual, I aspired to be a novelist with sturdy intellectual credentials. There was much work to be done. My beloved set me a course of essential reading, including Susan Sontag’s first two essay collections and her two early novels.

The intellectual lover moved on as youthful lovers do, but Sontag remained: a reliable and enduring guide through my formative years. And while she was not my only guide, she was the most compelling, the most provocative and, indubitably, the most beautiful.

Her essays revealed who I should be reading, whose films I should be seeing, whose art I should be viewing. Sontag alerted me to the style of camp, the power of metaphor, to the complex meanings of photography and pornography. There was a moral imperative operating here – to not know was to be intellectually negligent – and an urgency too: her enthusiasms, the ideas that captivated her and the people she admired, were essential to an intellectual in the making. Sontag introduced me to Walter Benjamin, Borges, Simone Weil, Artaud, Barthes, Elias Canetti and many other luminaries. She shaped my understanding of the films of Godard and Bergman. It was Sontag who had me lining up for hours outside a San Francisco theatre, under assault from neo-Nazis, in order to see a one-off screening of Syberberg’s seven-hour marathon, Our Hitler. A Film from Germany.

The first three essay collections, Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), contain many pieces that still pack a punch today. In contrast, the two early novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) were always a struggle. At my first attempts, and with the blindness of the acolyte, I believed my failure to appreciate them was indeed my failure, and not the fault of the work; back in those days, Susan, my Susan, was infallible. That the novels were bad – which they are – simply was not an option.

Sontag’s intellect was voracious, her passion for life was insatiable. She wrote essays, monographs, fiction, she directed plays and films, she was a political activist, she was president of PEN, she travelled extensively, she had many friends and lovers.

From the beginning she was the sort of writer to go against mainstream ideas. In the 1960s, when most intellectuals were narrowly focussed on high culture, she argued the case for popular culture. By the 1990s, when pop culture was thriving and high culture was languishing at the university gates, she took up the banner for high culture. In an interview with Allan Gregg conducted in the late 1990s she said that the role of the writer is to be ‘somewhat adversarial’.

Sontag was forceful, she was eloquent and, yes, she was adversarial. Such characteristics inspire strong responses – accolades as well as criticism. But the qualities which produce exciting, contentious, courageous work are unlikely to emerge from a sweet, gentle, empathic nature. As Yeats suggested: it’s ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’. Some of the responses to Sontag have garnered considerable notoriety, such as Camille Paglia’s diatribe, ‘Sontag Bloody Sontag’ (Vamps and Tramps, 1994), and Terry Castles’ wry, disarmingly honest yet appreciative essay, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (LRB 17/3/2005). A particularly informative and well-received essay about Sontag’s life and work is Joan Acocella’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ published in The New Yorker of 6/3/2000, while a staggeringly mean-spirited essay has come from Elliot Weinberger in his review of At the Same Time, Sontag’s posthumous collection (NYRB, 16/8/2007).

Daniel Schreiber’s biography, originally published in German in 2007, is, to my knowledge, the first book-length study to have appeared after Sontag’s death in December 2004. During the writing of his book, Schreiber was aware that David Rieff, Sontag’s son, planned to publish his mother’s journals. The first volume of these, Reborn, was not to appear until 2009 and Rieff refused Schreiber’s request to view the diaries prior to publication. Rieff’s own deeply personal and anguished memoir of his mother’s last illness and death, Swimming in a Sea of Death, was not published until 2008, and Rieff himself granted only one interview to Schreiber. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s partner for the last fifteen years of her life, refused Schreiber an interview. To write a biography without input from major players and source material is a risky exercise. In Schreiber’s case, he has failed to pull it off. His is an irritating, amateurish, tepid biography that provides a pedestrian overview of Sontag’s work and fails to illuminate the woman herself.

A good deal of Schreiber’s material is drawn from interviews with Sontag ‘friends’ – Stephen Koch, Richard Howard, Steve Wasserman, Wendy Lesser among others. The nature of these friendships, their duration and dynamic, is given little or no explanation in the text. This, combined with the absence of an acknowledgements section, leaves the reader unable to judge both the worth and integrity of this source material. Sontag valued friendship; at the same time, she was quick to judge and would sever relations with friends if they disappointed her. Enduring friendship was not one of her strong suits, so when ‘friends’ provide so much information we need to know something about them. (An entertaining account of friendship Sontag-style is given by Terry Castles in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ – an essay which, incidentally, includes no mention of any sexual connection between these two alpha females. Yet Schreiber refers to Castles as ‘Sontag’s later lover’ (p.93), referencing an interview he conducted with Castles. Terry Castles has never been coy in print. If she and Sontag had dallied, not to have included this titbit in her essay but conveyed it to Schreiber for his book strikes me as very out-of-character.)

The published sources Schreiber uses are commonly known to Sontag followers, the book lacks a proper index, it contains no images. I did not learn anything new, and was constantly frustrated by what had been left out.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work and integrates the two effectively. Maunsell draws judiciously on the journals as well as Sontag’s body of work. He also makes relevant use of Rieff’s memoir, as well as Sempre Susan (2011), a memoir written by Sigrid Nunez, an early girlfriend of Reiff’s, who lived with him and Sontag in the 1970s. Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.

Susan Sontag was a brilliant and original essayist who wanted her reputation to rest on her fiction. She wrote four novels and published a volume of short stories. Of the novels, three of them, including her last, In America (2000), make for poor reading; only the third, The Volcano Lover, an historical romance shaped around the collector and diplomat, William Hamilton, his beautiful young second wife Emma, and Lord Nelson of the Admiralty, displays the fine focus, the sense of continuity and cohesion, and an intense interest in character that marks good fiction. There’s a tragic dimension to the brilliant essayist who wanted to be recognised as a brilliant novelist.

Susan Sontag did not suffer fools gladly, indeed, she did not suffer them at all. She was impatient with slowness, stupidity and those who held opinions which differed from her own. Deification often occurs when an esteemed person dies, when the person enters what Janet Malcolm calls ‘the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead’. This has not happened in the case of Sontag, perhaps because deification occurred during her life. But now that she can no longer speak for herself (except in the painfully personal diaries – which make her an even easier target to would-be detractors), people are not holding back.

Only the mediocre person is always at their best, as Somerset Maugham self-consciously said. I have recently re-read Sontag’s essays and monographs. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote nor was I bowled over by all her choices of topic, but I was stimulated and invigorated by the originality of her ideas, by the exactitude of her expression, by the breadth of her knowledge. And grateful too: her work remains a rare pleasure.

Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind.

In recent weeks the neurologist Oliver Sacks announced that he has terminal cancer: multiple metastases in the liver from a rare ocular melanoma he had nine years ago. He is 81. I have admired Sacks as a neurologist and a humanist since I first started to read him thirty years ago. Twenty years ago I wrote an essay about his approach to neurology for the magazine, Island. I have recently revisited that essay, titled Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind, and I have now posted it in PUBLISHED ESSAYS, in an act of on-going appreciation of a great medical man.

In the twenty years since I wrote the essay, there have been significant and positive changes in the way neurologists approach their work, spear-headed in large part by Sacks himself. In this regard there are snippets of the essay that are – fortunately – out of date. Neurologists today are much kinder, creative and whole-patient focussed than their colleagues of the last century. When it comes to Sacks himself, though, what I wrote back then, and the admiration that prompted the essay, holds true today.

ESCAPE FROM CYBERSPACE

I was born into a print world.

I learned to read at a very young age and I bought my first books while still in primary school. As a university student, in addition to my study books, I read newspapers and periodicals, feminist tracts and political manifestos. I would wander through campus on the way to and from the union gathering flyers as I went. I collected roneoed foolscap sheets advertising rallies in support of the NLF in North Vietnam, demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, lectures on Existentialism and phenomenology, a Bunuel festival, a sit-in over the slaughter in Uganda, a reclaim-the-night march down St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street. A single trip across campus and I would collect information and activity sufficient to fill a week. I never threw anything out. I worshipped print. Stored in my filing cabinet – yes, I still possess a four-drawer monster – on sheets of fading foolscap I can revisit the left-leaning liberal’s diet of times past.

There has always been too much to read for any voracious reader, but back in the days of print I managed better than most. Through a process of sifting, selecting, and settng aside reading time every day I would read two or three books a week, plus newspapers and periodicals. The situation has now changed. With numerous digital devices and twenty-four hour access to the web, the problem has become one of abundance. There is, simply, too much – and not just to read. There’s too much information, there are too many shops, restaurants, publications to explore, in short, there’s too much of everything all of the time.

I long for an off-switch or a safety overload-switch. But I keep my longings to myself, for to admit to any sort of disenchantment with these information-rich times all too readily casts one as a dinosaur of the pre-virtual world.

Don’t get me wrong, I delight in being able to access a variety of information without moving from my chair. Over coffee with friends, I’m relieved to search out the name of that 1940s Hollywood star that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. Like the kid in an IRL (in real life) candy shop, it’s so difficult to control yourself when you enter the web. And just like the child keeps piling in the sugar despite feeling sick, the pleasure and delight you initially experience is readily crushed in the frenetic dashing that takes you over. You read an article or a news item, there are two or three links, you follow one, then another, there’s an ad for a miracle face-cream, you peruse the product, don’t buy, search out another product, still don’t buy, check into Facebook, return to original article, follow another link, check your email, investigate another face-cream, back to article, breaking news, return to Facebook, more email. And an hour or a day later little, if any, of the information is remembered because there’s been no time taken to absorb it, and no opportunity to reflect on it.

This is life in cyberspace. And it has consequences.

My favourite Saturday as a child, and well into adulthood too, was one spent with a novel. I would start the book in the morning and have it finished by day’s end. I was so absorbed I had no sense of time or place; indeed, the world about me could pass through all the colours of the rainbow and I would not have noticed. That same deep, focussed attention served me well during my studies, and has continued to serve me well as a novelist. I’ve never experienced any difficulties going to my desk and staying there throughout the many drafts that novels require so they appear as if they fell onto the page fully formed.

Until recently.

My new novel, The Science of Departures (the title is taken from a Mandelstam poem) has a Soviet Russian connection. The idea for this novel emerged about two years ago. Since then I have been reading extensively about Russia through the Soviet years. Most of this reading has occurred via printed books, and includes works by Orlando Figes, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Catriona Kelly, Gary Shteyngart, Masha Gessen, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Nabokov and many others. The books have furnished me with the political and social fabric of Russia during the twentieth century. But when it comes to specifics like the sort of home lighting available in the years just after the revolution, or the location of hospitals and universities in Leningrad during the 1980s, or brands of Russian cigarettes, or daily life in the communal apartments, the Kommunalki, it is the internet with all its arcane and special interests, together with its print and picture archives, that has been astonishingly helpful.

So where is the problem? I have books for depth, I have the web for detail, and I know enough about my characters to bunker down and write the novel. (In that previous sentence I rather fancied the word ‘hunker’ rather than ‘bunker’, but had a suspicion that ‘hunker’ might not be a real word. A few months ago I would have done an on-line search, but today, just moments ago, I took down my tattered OED and looked up ‘hunker’. It is not a word in my 1997 edition. I then flipped the pages back to ‘bunker’ to help me decide whether to use ‘bunker in’ or ‘bunker down’. Consulting my old OED took about one minute. If I had gone on-line, I would still be there, following up interesting titbits offered up by my search engine, but completely irrelevant to the task at hand.)

Yes, I have changed. Rather than mindlessly capitulating to the seductions of the web I am asserting control over my usage.

For a long time I’d been aware that my ability to concentrate on a single task for hours at a time had been compromised by constant web searches, obsessive checking of email, and an unnatural attachment to my mobile phone. Novels, particularly in the early drafts of their creation, require long and deep immersion: without prolonged concentration they will not be completed. My susceptibility to the vast digital world was putting my new novel at risk.

At the same time, my memory, always so reliable, was letting me down. Or, to be more accurate, I was not taking care of it. On the third occasion I looked up the various names given to the Soviet secret police during the 70 years following the revolution, I realised I needed to change my tactics; specifically, I needed to revert to some pre-digital practices.

I found an empty notebook. This became my ‘things/facts that need to be remembered’ book. It was no longer sufficient to do as I had done in times past, that is, take a moment to stick a fact into memory. My memory had been, for too long, mollycoddled by the ever-available information on the web, and it had grown slack and flabby. By writing the information down I was simultaneously taking the time memory needs to open itself up to a fact, and I was doubly rehearsing that fact by committing it to writing.

There still remained the issue of my jittery attention span. This was dealt with in a most unexpected way. It was a Tuesday in mid-July, I was having dinner with my old friend L. L and her family are, like me, Jewish, although they are a good deal more observant than I am. In particular, they observe the Sabbath – Shabbat: from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday theirs is a time of solitary reflection, of prayer, of time spent with family and close friends. For twenty-four hours they do no work, they do no cooking, they do not handle money, they do not drive or take public transport, they use no electronic devices including sound systems, computers and phones.

It’s a day of replenishment, L said to me, and went on to add that she simply did not understand how people managed to start another busy week without a day in which to stop and take stock. To replenish.

As L talked about her Shabbat, her manner and voice became quieter and more reflective, as if demonstrating what this day meant for her and the effects it produced. It was a state foreign to my current life.

I told her how besieged I felt by email. Each day, I said, brings at least twenty new messages most of which I do not want. I trash emails without reading them; I unsubscribe from commercial communications with fury; I think I’ve finished an email thread only to receive another communication. I can end up having daily emails with someone I’ve never met – and would not want to meet. I feel stalked, hounded, battered. I told her about my susceptibility to the web, that even before a session finishes I feel like a rat in a maze. And I wondered aloud whether I might not benefit from my own day partitioned off from the rest of the week – not a religious observance but a day of solitude and reflection: reading in the morning, followed by an afternoon of music and a leisurely walk. A day with no email, no time spent on the computer, no iPad, no mobile.

L stressed that if I chose this path it must not feel like deprivation. She suggested I might begin with just two hours away from my various devices.

This conversation occurred on a Tuesday. As the week progressed I found myself eager for Saturday to arrive.

I checked my email just before midnight on the Friday night. On the Saturday morning I woke at my usual 6 am, made my breakfast and took it back to bed, along with the latest print issue of the London Review of Books and a book on the publication machinations of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée). Every few weeks I have breakfast in bed on a Saturday, so this in itself was not unusual. What marked it as different was that my iPad and my mobile were not on the breakfast tray, they were not even in the room. I read for an hour, I had paper and pen next to me to jot down notes and queries. I made a second cup of coffee and returned to bed. I read some more.

Far from feeling deprived, the hours were infused with familiarity. This was exactly how I used to start the weekend in the ancien régime before the digital age.

At mid-morning on that first Saturday I took my digital temperature. I didn’t feel deprived, I didn’t want to check my email, I wasn’t driven to do web searches on issues that had arisen in the course of my reading. So far so good.

I showered, I dressed, I took my dog for a walk. I was at ease. I felt gentled. And as I walked through the park my mind was in a lovely meandering – just like it used to be – moseying off into surprising and fruitful places. On the way home I bought the Saturday Age, and over lunch I read an IRL newspaper and not the on-line version. I read slowly, I finished articles.

That first Saturday afternoon I listened to a Mahler Symphony. I knitted while the music played and my mind continued its leisurely sauntering. Every now and then I put my knitting down, picked up a pen and made a note. Around four o’clock I checked my email. Only one email was waiting for me – which underscores what we all know: that the more you use email the more emails you receive. I checked my email again before going to bed. My inbox was empty.

The next morning I awoke refreshed and, yes, replenished for the day and week ahead.

 

I now observe digital-free Saturdays, this also includes mobile-free Saturdays. I also try to keep the day clear of arrangements. I look forward to my Saturdays, I actually start thinking about each one, planning for it a couple of days ahead.

To anyone who wants to reclaim an interior life, who wants quiet and extended periods of creative reflection, I would recommend you take a digital-free day each week. For those born into the digital age you won’t know yourself, for older people you will recognise a self from long ago, one you’ll welcome back – with relief – as a familiar.

 

I MAY BE GONE FOR SOME TIME….

I have disappeared inside my new novel. Into the scrawl and crossings-out of The Science of Departures (the title comes from a poem by the great Russian Osip Mandelstam). Into the umpteen promising beginnings that within weeks, sometimes only days, have shed their gloss. Into the relief of the occasional scene that has traction. Into the delight and the tease of new ideas. Into the temptation and frustration of a thousand possible narratives.
The word count waxes and wanes. Twenty thousand words one day becomes thirteen thousand the next. My folder of cut pieces is the only aspect of the new novel that reliably increases in size.
The surface of my desk has disappeared under research notes, reminder jottings, hand-written notebooks, annotated typescripts. And a few unpaid bills.
I have disappeared into other people’s books, books that provide fuel for my imagination. I am reading fat volumes of Soviet history and biographies of Soviet Tyrants. I am reading slender biographies of lovers. I am reading essays written by great thinkers (Russian and others), and Russian poetry, mostly Akhmatova and Mandelstam. I am reading fiction by Nabokov (for the ideas and the rich language), Virginia Woolf (for pace and for the essentials of prose), H.G. Wells (popular in Russia/Soviet Union during the twentieth century), David Lodge’s fictionalised account of Wells, A Man of Parts. I have started and discarded several volumes of contemporary fiction, including Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, the self-conscious cleverness of which actually destroys the fiction.
And I walk the streets. So much walking, and invariably I find myself riffing on a new narrative strand and dashing home to try it out. This new novel that does not exist is occupying my life. It’s a feeling that’s lovely, terrifying and magical.
I’ll not be back here for some time.

VOLUPTUOUS LANGUAGE

In 1998, the National Gallery of Victoria mounted an exhibition titled, Beyond Belief – Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. The exhibition appealed to me not because of any strong religious beliefs of my own, but I was drawn (and continue to be so) by the pairing of different types of imagination, in this instance, the spiritual and the visual. I did not know which artists were to be included, but I understood from the advance publicity that many were well-known.

The day I visited the exhibition there was quite a crowd. I was alone and in no hurry, so loitered beyond the outer edge of onlookers, waiting for the crowd to thin. And so it was that I walked around a screen and there, several metres away, I saw a small Rothko (it was Black, brown on maroon, 1957). My first response was delight at the unexpected meeting with one of my favourite artists, my second response even while the delight continued, was tears. I stood there in an open space beyond the crowd gazing at this Rothko with tears rolling down my face.

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

The painting affected me in a way I did not understand. But something profound HAD happened. If I say about the experience that I was moved (and I clearly was moved) it does not do justice to what was an intense and complex reaction. If I say that I was overwhelmed by intense emotion, it still gives little indication of what I was feeling at the time.

There are certain experiences, intense and significant, for which common language usage all too often fails. The appreciation of music, for example, or the expression of pain, or a description of wonder, or my unexpected reaction to Rothko’s painting. More often than not the attempt to explicate, actually leeches the experience of its essence.

So what happened when I caught sight of that Rothko hanging on the gallery wall?

I was waterlogged with wonder

I stumbled into paradise

I gazed into the face of God

I fell into a Mahler symphony

 

As to which metaphor I might use, that would depend both on my experience and the person to whom I was attempting to share it with. Gazing into the face of God might hit the spot with someone of a religious disposition, the Mahler metaphor with someone musical, natural world metaphors with those connected with the natural world.

Too often we treat language as if it were arithmetic, wherein an equivalence is assumed/sought between symbol and referent. But as Magritte so aptly demonstrated in his Ceci n’est pas une pipe, language is not the thing. We might speak of the infinite nature of language, can actually show how it works in theory, but in practice, language usage is all too finite. We have nailed language to the mast of unambiguity. We have stripped it of its music. We have smoothed out its paint strokes. We have made words into Lego blocks.

When language in this unambiguous and hobbled form is used to describe an experience like my Rothko experience, of course it fails, of course it falls short. So much of my Rothko experience was non-verbal, or extra-verbal, and only language that spills its usual boundaries will do the experience justice. We humans live in a language dictatorship. Like the Russian poets during the years of Stalin, we need to go underground.

It’s not vocabulary we are wanting (although the impoverished vocabularies of most of us could do with considerable expansion), rather we need to bring imagination to language usage, we need to impregnate our language with tone and texture and sensation and atmosphere.

Of all the tools of language and communication it is metaphor that subverts the whole notion of sign-symbol equivalence, that smashes the ties of immutability between language and its referents. Metaphor is the wild child of language, the recalcitrant offspring which can turn around and teach its elders what they did not realise they did not know. Metaphor makes the familiar strange and different. Metaphor brings music to language, it brings sensation and emotion. Metaphor subverts routine ways of seeing and thinking and communicating, and thereby it illuminates the shadows of meaning.

The right metaphor can portray complex emotional and intellectual responses with great power and economy – which is why poetry, good poetry, can have such a profound effect, and bad poetry, of which there is an inordinate amount, feels like such a betrayal. But in fact prosaic and routine language usage is no less a betrayal. If an artist were to restrict his palate to green, if a composer were to confine herself to a single octave, we would feel betrayed. So, too with banal and hackneyed language usage. It’s treating the great gift of language in cavalier fashion, it is also denying what marks we humans off from other animals: language and the imagination.

And why be concerned about this now? Public language as seen in the two second rehearsed grabs of our politicians, as seen in the mindless talking in exclamation marks of comperes of reality TV shows, has never been so impoverished. If we don’t act soon we will lack the language to describe what has gone wrong, much less fix the situation.

 

 

PORTABLE PLEASURES

 

Recently, while sitting in a café I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. It was a group of five, all of them bright and twentyish, all dressed in skimpy fashionable clothes, all with well-mussed, multi-coloured hair, each sporting one or more tattoos on otherwise smooth and unmarked skin. They were playing a game of ‘My favourite Things’. Their voices were resonant, they laughed a lot. First there were favourite films, followed by favourite pieces of music. Then in quick succession came favourite shop, favourite brand, favourite device, favourite sexiest person, and lastly favourite colour.

Decades ago when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Tammy Fraser was asked in a radio interview her favourite colour – as if there were nothing more important to ask this particular first lady. To my horror she did not sound insulted nor did she hesitate.

Yellow, she replied, my favourite colour is yellow.

At the time Fraser, and all associated with him, were not favoured by the left. Even forgetting the limited merits of yellow, the fact that Tammy took colours so seriously – and favourites always help to define oneself – condemned her to remain where we on the left had unquestioningly put her.

Life was a much more simple affair back then.

And yet I have always had favourites.

In Bunuel’s Tristana, one of the characters looks for and finds the best green pea on the plate. I watched that scene and I recognised myself. I make a point, a private point of finding my favourite pea, my favourite potato chip, my favourite cherry. I have favourite flowers and trees, not botanical favourites, but a particular flower on a particular plant. My favourite elm stands near the Yarra River where Alexander Parade turns into Punt Road. My favourite oak, planted in the 1880s and recently cut down due to age and disease, was an Algerian Oak on the edge of the oak garden in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. I have an ever-expanding list of favourite books, I have favourite passages and verses from books (copied into the latest of several quote notebooks). I have favourite buildings and streets, favourite towns and cities, favourite paintings and sculptures, favourite musicians and musical compositions.

 

Quote book

Quote book

And I have a favourite letter.

A few years before Tammy’s interview I began keeping a personal dictionary. Frustrated at having to consult my Oxford dictionary for the same words over and over again – the meaning of certain words simply would not stick – I purchased a sturdy notebook, cut an index along the right-hand side for the letters of the alphabet and every time I looked up a word in Oxford’s dictionary I copied it into my own. I also decided to include in my dictionary interesting words whose meaning I knew, but in the haste and habits of everyday life I would forget I knew, words like ‘canker’ and ‘conceit’ and ‘clotted’ which when put with other words – clotted memories, family conceits, cankerous yearnings – spiced up this whole lovely business of words.

Years passed before I realised that the words of one letter ran to several more pages than any other in my personal dictionary. That letter was ‘p’. And now, along with parrots, the music of J.S. Bach and Bleu de Basque cheese, I rank ‘p’ words high on the scale of my favourite things.

Personal Dictionary

Personal Dictionary

Take ‘patina’ and ‘palimpsest’ and ‘pentimento’. For a person such as myself burdened with secrets these words supplied some gorgeous and relief-giving metaphors. And as an eighteen-year-old desperate to get away, peripatetic peregrinations encapsulated the freedom I longed for wrapped in the lyricism of travel. My sins became the far more acceptable peccadilloes, my pessimism was readily placated by propitious signs, my lack of perspicacity was less of a failure than purblindness. My sense of being at odds with the world, the perfidious world, run by pettifoggers who lacked prescience, found an effective panacea in ‘p’ words.

The appeal of ‘p’ certainly does not reside in its sound. That voiceless puff could never, for example, compete with the sonorous ‘m’ or the tricky ‘r’. The attraction is in the phantasmagoria of ‘p’ words. ‘P’ is the verbal imagination’s favourite child. Once I wrote a letter almost entirely with ‘p’ words – it was a perfect letter.

And if not for ‘p’ I would never have produced my one and only public work of art.

To describe my artistic ability as parsimonious would be to give it airs, so when I agreed to decorate a platter for a fund-raising auction conducted by the Jewish Museum I was understandably challenged. The platter arrived; it was 43 centimetres in diameter and very blank. I was rightly perturbed. I considered a pastiche of portraits cut from various papers but that would have publicised my lack of talent. I considered a range of lies to get me out of the whole thing, but pride stopped me. As the deadline approached and I was still procrastinating, my fears were palpable and my pride was heading for a fall.

And then it occurred to me: I would make a P-Plate.

In different sized fonts I typed out ‘p’ words. Perplexed, pungent, promise, painting, propinquity, piano, politics, people, philology, pertinacious, prose, poetry, 232 words in all. I cut out the words and glued them to my platter. And then I varnished the whole thing. I produced a high-gloss p-plate. And a person purchased it, a person of impeccable taste, and for quite a pretty price too.

Many things are not portable, but all favourite things are. It is the imagination which confers their status and bestows on them their delights. And it is in the imagination they remain special. The material world is so cluttered and cumbersome, but this world of favourite things is a paradise.

 

RAW DEAL FOR EMMA BOVARY

Ever since Eve was banished from paradise for demonstrating a curiosity sorely lacking in the insipid Adam, women have suffered for harbouring desires that do not fit within the narrow confines of their lives. The list of fictional women who have been punished for wanting more than their designated lot includes Anna Karenina, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and, more recently, Thelma and Louise. The list is long, and to my eyes delightfully illustrious, yet of all these women who defied the conventions of their time, it is Emma Bovary who has received the worse press.

I’ve been reminded of this during a recent rereading of Flaubert’s famous novel. Books and Arts Daily (ABC RN, weekdays at 10) is delving into a selection of European classics on the last Friday of the month throughout 2014. They are commencing the series with Madame Bovary – an excellent beginning to what promises to be a great series. (The series includes Crime and Punishment and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which make my best novels of all time list.)

While I’m rereading Madame Bovary in Alan Russell’s wonderfully rhythmic and lucid translation, I receive a copy of Rebecca Mead’s irresistible and idiosyncratic The Road to Middlemarch (Text, 2014). I find myself comparing Dorothea Brooke with Emma Bovary. Both women reveal yearnings and desires far too abundant for the limited boundaries that corseted the lives of nineteenth century ladies. But Dorothea wins a happy ending while Emma, like so many tragic thwarted heroines of literature, kills herself.*

There are many reasons, above and beyond authorial whims, that accord Dorothea her happiness while Emma’s only option is death. Dorothea’s author, George Eliot, was a woman who had felt the constraints of the society in which she lived and had bucked against them. She lived with a man who was married to someone else, and after he died she married a man twenty years her junior. In contrast, Emma’s creator was a man who took lovers but never married, whose most committed connection with a woman was with his mother. George Eliot would have wanted more for her heroine than a tragic end – as indeed she wanted more for herself. But author biography aside, the desires and yearnings expressed by Dorothea and Emma are different. Yes, there is some overlap when it comes to romantic love – both women want that sort of passion, but Dorothea has intellectual and social justice passions as well. Dorothea reads beyond the fictional romances that fill the young Emma’s leisure hours, she reads about social conditions and she observes them as well, and she yearns to improve the lot of tenant farmers. So while both women revel in active imaginations, the life of Dorothea’s mind is far broader and better nourished than that of Emma’s.

Still, these reasons alone fail to explain why Emma Bovary has received such a consistently raw deal. A consideration of sex and motherhood fills out the picture. Emma is not a Madonna type. The passion Emma wants is sexual passion, that explosive, fall-in-love-at-first-sight, take-me-I’m-yours emotion that exists primarily in romantic novels and Hollywood films. And when she does fall in love the sparks don’t last. She discovers that love, like marriage, like town life, is prey to habit. Emma is imaginative but her imagination is mostly in service to her own well-being. Dorothea’s imagination, in contrast, takes in the intellectual as well, and is thus seen as a more admirable character.

Then there’s the matter of children. Emma has often been criticised for being a bad mother to young Berthe. This judgement lacks evidence. There is a single instance in which Emma lashes out at Berthe; she is immediately appalled at her behaviour and deeply remorseful. She’s been accused of being neglectful, but the fact is that women of her class and time had nursemaids and wet nurses. Often parents saw their children only briefly in the mornings and evenings. Berthe and her mother most certainly have a relationship on which the young girl doted. This is demonstrated on a day when Emma fails to return to Yonville after a rendezvous with Léon, and Berthe is distraught because her mother is not around to kiss her good night. With this instance, many readers have simply focussed on Emma’s absence, rather than the child’s response which suggests that mother and daughter were accustomed to regular and close connection.

Emma has been excoriated through the years, but what about the men in the novel? All of them are either weak or cads – or in the case of Léon, both. But somehow a weak and rather stupid man like Charles Bovary is less deserving of our condemnation than his passionate adulterator of a wife. I can understand this response in 1856 when the book was first published, I can understand it through much of the twentieth century (although I would have thought plenty of 1950s housewives would have understood Emma’s plight). From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century though, Emma Bovary is a quintessentially modern woman. And while I wish she had more of Dorothea Brooke’s intellectual muscle, Emma Bovary nonetheless pushes at the boundaries of her life with courage and imagination.

*The comparison runs deep. Madame Bovary (1856) is subtitled ‘A story of provincial life’, while Middlemarch (1871-2) carries the subtitle ‘A study of provincial life’.

6/3/14