A Country Road, A Tree

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jobaker

A Country Road, A Tree, Jo Baker, Alfred A Knopf, 2016.

Last night, I went to bed at around 10pm and intended to read for 20 minutes before going to sleep. When next I looked at the clock it was 12.30 and my eyes were feeling increasingly gritty and I noticed the dull thud of an impending headache, but I read on. Later, when I read the final line and closed the book with a contented sigh, it was nearly 1.45am. It has been an absolute age since I’ve felt so captivated by a book that I stayed up late reading. Despite being really tired, it felt all kinds of wonderful to have been so engrossed in the world Jo Baker created, and I felt as though she had shot a little dart on a string from her brain to mine, or maybe from her heart to mine.

And so, now I have read two fantastic books in the space of a few weeks, although this one has knocked Margaret the First into second place as far as my best read of the year goes. I would like to encourage everyone to read it, but I doubt that it’s everyone’s cup of tea, seeing as how it’s a re-creation of Samuel Becket’s experiences in France during World War II. I don’t usually get along with most biographical fiction, but Baker has done a stellar job with this book. She sticks to the known facts and, more interestingly, makes use of many of the themes, metaphors, and features of Becketts’s own writing, somehow bringing him to life at the same time as creating a compelling story in a style that feels decidedly Beckettian.

I was a bit hesitant to pick up the book in the first place, after my disappointing experience with Baker’s Longbourn. Oh, I liked the writing, and I liked the idea of re-telling Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, but I could not like how she portrayed Mr and Mrs Bennet, or the backstory she invented for them. I was worried that she had done something similar with Beckett, but as soon as I started reading I realised that I was going to like this book a great deal. I really enjoyed Baker’s imagining of James Joyce: almost blind, dapper, insistent, oblivious, self-centred, carelessly cruel and offhandedly kind. And then there is the push and pull of Beckett’s affection for Joyce and his nostalgia for old times mixed with his bafflement at the distance now grown between them, and his need to slough off Joyce’s influence and to discover his own style of writing.

For those who don’t know, Samuel Beckett (yes, the Beckett who wrote Waiting for Godot), was in England visiting his mother when war was declared, but he would rather be in France during wartime than in Ireland (where his mother was), so he high-tailed it back to his cold garret apartment and his vastly interesting girlfriend, Suzanne. Just before the Germans invaded Paris, Beckett and Suzanne fled, becoming just another two bodies in the vast crush of people trying to escape, but when it became apparent that not a lot had changed in the city, they returned and tried to carry on as usual. However, Beckett soon became involved with the Resistance and did some valuable work for about a year, until the cell to which he belonged was betrayed by a Catholic priest and most of his friends were rounded up by the Gestapo. He and Suzanne managed to escape, and with the help of many brave people made their way, slowly and painfully, on foot, to the Free Zone where they lived under assumed identities. When the Germans invaded there too, the escapees’ lives were once more in danger, but they had nowhere else to go so they stayed put and hoped that no one would betray them. Beckett worked on a farm in exchange for food, and Suzanne gave piano lessons and did what she could to help them survive. It was, of course, a time of great fear and hunger, and boredom, as they waited and waited to see what would happen next. Once again, Beckett got involved with the Resistance and risked his life by going out at night to retrieve munitions dropped by parachute, and helping to hide and cache the weapons for future use against the enemy. The war was declared over before local fighting took place, but he and his comrades were ready to take on the invaders if need be. After the war, Beckett went to Ireland to visit his ailing mother and then returned to France as a Red Cross worker, because that’s the only way he could get back into the country. When his contract ended, he was able to return to Paris and take up residence once more in his cold garret apartment, where he claimed the time and space and solitude that enabled him to write and write and write. Oh, and he was reunited with Suzanne, but by this time they were companions rather than lovers. They stayed together and married in 1961, a few years after Beckett met the other great love of his life, Barbara Bray. It’s all very complicated, really, but it seems that both women were important and necessary to him in different ways and for different reasons.

The lovely thing that came through in this book is Beckett’s innate humanity and decency. He was, by all accounts, a kind and compassionate man, and I think Baker manages to capture his character beautifully. In conjunction with A Country Road, A Tree, I’ve been re-reading parts of Damned to Fame : The Life of Samuel Beckett and Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett : Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him. I seem to have disappeared down the Beckett rabbit hole, so I think I’m going to have to re-read Damned to Fame in its entirety, along with some of Beckett’s fiction, which I haven’t touched for a couple of years now.

Anyway, for fans of Beckett, or those interested in him and his work, A Country Road is sure to prove a most interesting read. I loved it. I didn’t want the book to end and I wish Baker would write the next chapter in his life, but I’m sure she’s feeling rather exhausted after the effort she put into this book. The title, by the way, is taken from the stage directions for the first act of Waiting for Godot [A country Road. A tree. Evening.], and there’s a wonderful Godot-like scene in the novel where Beckett and Suzanne wait under a tree on the side of a road for a guide to appear. He is supposed to turn up and show them the way to a safe place where they can rest until it’s time to cross into the Free Zone, but he doesn’t arrive and they wait and wait, and talk about nothing. Sound familiar? Also, unsurprisingly, there are a great many mentions of boots in the novel. 🙂

Burnt Bridges

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I’m an inveterate (metaphorical) bridge burner in real life. I’ve destroyed most of my internet friendships over the years, too, by suddenly deleting my accounts and disappearing. I used to have quite a few internet friends, but only a few have stuck with me through the ups and downs of my Crazy Brain misadventures.

Sometimes I feel a little sad because I’ve taken myself out of the loop once too often and lost the friendship of some really lovely people. But, life goes on. I keep on plodding in no particular direction, one foot, then the other foot, and somehow that eventually turns into a journey, of sorts.

I guess I just want to say thank-you to the people who have stuck with me, who understand that when I disappear it’s because that’s what I need to do at the time. Sometimes I need to concentrate all my attention on just putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s all I have the ability to do.

You know who you are. Thanks for being there.

Violet xxx

 

Encounters

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encounters

This book is the catalogue attached to this exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. I felt rather grim as I read about how many of the objects in the exhibition were ‘collected’ by British invaders and colonisers. It just feels terribly sad to me that so many objects that are significant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultural heritage are claimed as being ‘owned’ by the British Museum, and they won’t give them back to their rightful owners, or failing that, to the Australian Museum, where people could at least gain access to them. I think it’s wrong that over 6,000 objects originating in Australia but declared ‘owned’ by the British Museum, many of them sacred, are locked away from the people who have family and cultural ties to them.

I’m finding it highly ironic that many British people are squawking loudly about unwanted immigrants in the UK, but they don’t spare a thought for the fact that the British colonised a great many countries, and did their very best to destroy the cultures of a great many peoples all over the world in the process. In Australia, Aboriginal people were not even counted as people until 1967. They have been subjected to the most horrific acts of racism and attempted genocide. It’s a wonder Aboriginal language and culture still exist, but they do. Aboriginal people are amazingly resilient, and they keep on fighting for their rights as the first owners of this country.

So, I knew I would have some ethical problems with this exhibition. Some of the Indigenous people interviewed as part of the exhibition say they’re glad that the objects were collected, because at least they were saved from destruction by the colonisers. Other people express their sadness that the stories and songs attached to the objects are lost. Some people are disgusted that the objects were only ‘loaned’ to Australia.

Viewing an object in a glass case is not the same as touching it, of being in its presence.  I’m not qualified to speak for Aboriginal people, but it seems to me that common decency demands that white people return collected artefacts to Indigenous peoples all over the world. Just give them back.

At least there is progress being made on the question of the British Museum returning human remains that were ‘collected’ in the nineteenth century. Some of the heads and skulls and bones of Aboriginal people which were taken as ‘souvenirs’ or ‘objects of interest’ have been returned to their families, but there are many more ‘specimens’ dispersed throughout the museums of the world.

As for the objects depicted in the book, I was impressed and moved by the beautiful bags and baskets woven from various materials, including plant fibre, kelp, and human hair. They look so delicate and fragile, but they’ve endured for a very long time.

Comradely Greetings

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comradely

Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek, tr. Ian Dreiblatt, Verso, 2014.

I enjoyed reading this short correspondence between Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot who was sentenced to two years in a Russian prison camp, and Žižek, the famous philosopher who was asked to write to her.

The pair did not know each other before they began corresponding. Apparently, Tolokonnikova was reading one of Žižek’s essays while she was being held in detention in Moscow and expressed a desire to meet him, but before arrangements could be made she was sent away to prison in Mordovia. They did, however, begin a correspondence, although the letters were subject to translation, and her letters were censored by the prison authorities.

I was immediately struck by Tolokonnikova’s courage in her defiance of Putin’s regime, and I was also impressed by her fierce and steely intelligence. Of course, she was writing with an audience in mind, but she comes across as determined and resolute in her political activism. She is very forthright about her opinions and I thought she was incredibly brave in what she said in her letters, considering the fact that she was locked up in a hell-hole prison and things could always be made a lot worse for her.

In his letters, Žižek starts out by being solicitous and asking if Tolokonnikova is alright and expressing his empathy and solidarity, but then he moves into full lecture mode and begins to theorise about the whys and wherefores of political activism, seemingly oblivious to the fact that political activism is not at all theoretical for her: she is living her political activism and suffering in prison as a direct result of it, whereas he is living safely in the West and merely philosophising about hypothetical situations. He says that he hopes she has time to read and write, and I got the sense that he was imagining her living in a spartan but clean prison cell somewhere, idling away the long hours in not too much discomfort. I found his questions about her physical conditions quite jarring to read, because the book includes an open letter Tolokonnikova wrote a year after she and Žižek began corresponding, in which she details why she was going on a hunger strike. She tells how she is being forced to live in disgusting and appallingly unsanitary conditions, without proper food, subjected to brutality, violence and bullying, and made to slave for seventeen hours a day sewing clothes for the Russian market. She wants people to know what she and the other inmates are being made to experience at the hands of the massively corrupt Putin regime. I doubt that Žižek knew about the reality of her existence and it sounds as though he was genuinely interested in her wellbeing, but there is an obvious disconnect between her reality and his perception of it.  As the letters progress, it seemed to me that although she appears grateful for his public interest in the Pussy Riot case, she isn’t very impressed with being lectured to and being discounted as an intellectual lightweight who needs to have to have various philosophical theories explained to her. (I thought that some of what he wrote fell into the category of mansplaining, although that may be a bit harsh. Aware that the letters would be published and that he was writing for a wider audience, his theorising was probably very deliberate. However, Tolokonnikova is clever enough to match his big-brain thinking, and although her style of discourse differs from his, I found her letters to be far the more interesting from a philosophical point of view. Also, it seemed to me that although Žižek tried to be kind and offer her comfort, Tolokonnikova made it clear that she was no damsel in distress: she wasn’t looking for personal sympathy, but for a political ally.)

Žižek:

“The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi clearly formulated how today’s capitalism  has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopts instead a logic of erratic excess: the more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normalcy starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening of normalcy is part of capitalism’s dynamic. It not a simple liberation. It’s capitalism’s form of power. It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety – because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay – as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value. It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit value. It literally valorises affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.”

Tolokonnikova:

“You really think ‘today’s capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality?’ I say maybe it hasn’t – maybe it just really wants us to believe it has, to accept that hierarchisation and normalisation have been exceeded…

Late capitalism’s anti-hieratic and rhizomatic posture amounts to good advertising. You and Brian Massumi are right to point out that capitalism today has to appear loose, even erratic. That’s how it captures affect – the affect of the consumer. When it comes to manufacturers (especially the ones who aren’t located in high-tech business parks) this ‘velvet’ capitalism can afford to change its stripes. But the logic of totalising normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behaviour is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule.”

Tolokonnikova is as forthright as she is brave and lets Žižek know that she’s not feeling sorry for herself and she doesn’t want his pity. Pretty soon, in fact, Žižek realises that she’s a whole lot smarter than he gave her credit for and that she doesn’t need him to ‘explain’ or ‘theorise’ about anything. What she needs is to discuss things on equal terms. She needs him to be a comrade in epistolary arms against the brutal and oppressive regime she is standing up to. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. I don’t know if they ended up being friends in real life when she was released from prison. Somehow, I don’t think they have much in common. He came across as living entirely in his head, whereas she was willing (literally) to put her body on the line in her fight against Putin’s regime. Anyway, I came away from reading what Tolokonnikova wrote with great respect for her integrity and a renewed interest in her political activism.

Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ’empirical deprivations’. There’s value to me in these inviolable limits, in my being tested this way. I’m fascinated to see how I’ll cope with all this, how I’ll channel it into something productive for my comrades and myself. I’m finding inspiration in here, ways of evolving. Not because but in spite of the system. Your thoughts and anecdotes are a help to me as I negotiate this conundrum. I’m glad we’re in touch.

[I’m sure this was written as much for the censors as for herself, but I admire how she remains strong and refuses to give in or give up.]

 

Image #: 16998901 ITAR-TASS: MOSCOW, RUSSIA. FEBRUARY 21, 2012. Masked members of Pussy Riot feminist punk group perform during their 'flashmob'-style protest inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The girls were marched by guards out of the cathedral. ITAR-TASS /Landov

Margaret The First

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margaretMargaret the First, Danielle Dutton, Cataput, 2016.

I was so impressed with this wonderfully inventive re-imagining of the life and times of Margaret Cavendish. The book includes a bibliography of the sources Dutton used in her research, and she also includes an author’s note in which she acknowledges Virginia Woolf’s influence on her writing about Margaret. [Woolf’s short essay ‘The Duchess of Newcastle’ is here. Margaret also appears in A Room of One’s Own.] (I haven’t read ARoOO for ages, but having just idled over some of chapter 4, I kind of want to read the whole thing again right now. Isn’t this the way it always goes? I’m such a rhizomatic reader (is there such a thing?) – one text sparks my interest and leads to another and another and another, and on and on. I seem to have an inexplicable curiosity about everything and I’m constantly following trails and buying books about my current area of interest and then that particular trail goes cold and I’m on to another. I’m sure this is how I ended up with such a disaster of book accumulation.)

Ahem.

Dutton’s vision of Margaret echoes that of Woolf: both portray her as having the kindest and most indulgent of husbands who encouraged and supported her writing in a time when men usually repressed clever women, with an iron fist if need be. Margaret had no children, but she did have leisure and a room of her own in which to write. She also had a wild imagination that was not much tamed or shaped by formal education, and she had a high opinion of her own ability to think and write as well as a man. Except, her lack of  education rather hampered her in the early years and rendered her spelling and grammar risible, but she didn’t let any of that stop her. Margaret had thoughts she wanted to share with the world at large: for instance, she didn’t like the way women were treated and railed that ‘Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms.’ In her day, his was rather an unpopular opinion to hold, but Margaret had a powerful and well-connected husband, so she could write outrageous things and get away with it. The intellectuals of her day (all men, of course), scorned her at first, but her grammar and her  ability to express herself improved and she continued to write prose, poetry and plays. As she grew more confident, she took on various philosophers and argued her variety of Natural Philosophy with passion and determination. Margaret didn’t have much success with book sales during her lifetime, but she dreamed that her precious Paper Bodies would be read and appreciated by people long after she was dead, and so it has come to pass.

One evening someone asked what modern scheme would replace the Aristotelian system, the Middle Ages with their air, wind, earth, and fire, their Ptolemaic structure of the heavens. Soon, beside empty glasses and snuffboxes, strange homemade instruments materialised on our tables: telescopes, compasses, captoptics, more. They spoke of new philosophies, in English or French, of bustling worlds in microscopes, the human mind and body, atomic operations and mechanical arrangement. It was all perfectly new to my thinking. I’d never seen a barometer, or cupped a lens in my palm. I sat in the corner, pretending to read or sew.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or literary biography. The narrative has a cinematic quality that brings scenes to life and immerses the reader in a rather wonderful and colourful world. Although, life was cheap back then, and it wasn’t unusual to see severed limbs hanging from the bridge railings when you went for a drive in your carriage. The environment was unhygienic in all sorts of ghastly ways, and the atmosphere in London was horribly polluted. The streets ran with filth and stank, (it’s no wonder people died of contagious diseases and infection) and Dutton brings all this glorious muddle to life. [Look, there goes Margaret, wearing one of the outlandish dresses she confected herself, trailing yards of silk and tulle and wearing an enormous, preposterous, hat.] Shy and quiet in company, Margaret also had a hunger for fame that drove her to do outrageous things, such as attend the opera in a topless gown. (They gossip about me? Well, here’s something for them to really gossip about!) I think some of Margaret’s behaviour was a seventeenth century version of one of those Miley Cyrus inspired ‘in-your-face’ acts of social defiance: a kind of ‘give them what they want, but give them more than they can handle’ middle finger to being told how you should act and who you should be.) Pepys once joined the crowds waiting for a glimpse of Margaret as she drove down the street in her carriage, but there was such a crush that he only managed to glimpse a slice of her hat and part of her face. Ah well. I think that reading this lovely novel is a good substitute for queuing up with the masses to watch a celebrity pass by: here is Margaret in all her fey and fanciful and sparkling glory, and in her sadness and dark despair, too. I would have quite gladly stayed perched on the chair in the corner of Margaret’s writing room for another several hundred pages and watched proceedings, but the book ended. This is definitely one of those books I wanted never to end.

Alone again in semi-darkness, Margaret stands in the corner and fancies herself a statue, with silken robes and a crown of topaz, erected in a garden, atop a pedestal, at the centre of a circle divided into four parts, with lines drawn, points laid, in the service of some abtruse mathematical thought, and covers her eyes with her palms. She can see her Blazing World before her: the emperor’s bed is made of diamonds. The walls of his room are jet. His penis is made of silver. She opens her eyes. No, it’s just a penis. But there are his horse stables of gold, cornelian, amber, and turquoise. There are his horses. This is his golden city, his flickering canal, his woodsy archipelago stretching all the way to the granite cave where Bear-men sleep on the cool dirt floor. She imagines the salty musk. She imagines the cave steaming, drenched, covered in moss and crystals.

The binding cracks. She sniffs it. Her book smells like a shoe.

Then as if she’s been struck by an alien star-stone, she’s suddenly struck by doubt. Is it ridiculous? Is she a joke? Not that these doubts are new, only here, again, and racing in the dark. And where moments ago she saw a golden city, now there is only this. The fallen snow. This dread. She places the book in a shallow drawer, scans the room to fill her eyes and so to fill her mind: the bed, the mirrors, the tapestries, a portrait of herself. But even with the curtains drawn she finds her eyes are burning, a headache coming fast, and she calls again to Lucy to assist her in retiring to a sofa of pillows embroidered with garden scenes. Off come her skirts and petticoats, her lace cuffs and collar, her shoes and whalebone stays, until she lies on her side in nothing but a cotton shift and endless strands of pearls. Dust hangs in a crack of light between red velvet drapes, like stars.

margaretcavendish