Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This is Your Life

As almost everyone who comes here knows for themselves already, a life spent reading fiction produces a swag of paragraphs that are not exactly committed to memory, more that the memory of the act of reading them stays with you, because they are as useful as proverbs in the help they give you. I remember Hilary McPhee on a panel at some Writers' Week or other in the mid-1980s, saying with passion that one of the reasons we read fiction is to get ideas about how to live our lives.

Now that is not one of my conscious reasons for reading fiction but every now and again I am reminded of how very helpful it can be. I've headed more than one disaster off at the pass by heeding the voice in my ear of E.M. Forster, as channeled by the fey Mrs. Wilcox (not Margaret Schlegel as was, but the older and, as it were, original Mrs Wilcox, Vanessa Redgrave not Emma Thompson) -- 'Separate those people who will hurt each other the most.' Which was also very helpful during the terrible week of my mother's death.

But I appear to have reached a stage of life where some books remind me of other books that have provided these lifelong aids to sanity and quiet reflection. It's bad luck, on the eve of Christmas Eve when I am way behind with everything, that one of this week's work novels is so rivetingly engaging and charming that I feel compelled not only to read it very slowly in order to honour its virtues but to blog about it as well, all of which might mean pulling an all-nighter which I haven't done for several years and may now be too old to survive intact.

Anyway, I'd only got as far as page 17 of Julia Glass's I See You Everywhere when I found this:
Whatever Lucy knew, she kept to herself. When I asked Dad why he didn't get her to tell the whole story, he said "Louisa, we live in an age when keeping secrets is out of fashion, and that's a shame. If she wanted to tell us, well, she would."

Which immediately brought to mind the bit in The Once and Future King that has been my rule for the keeping of secrets since I was twelve:
The morning when they were to set out for Bliant arrived, and the newly-made knight, Sir Castor, stopped Lancelot in the Hall. He was only seventeen.

"I know you are calling yourself the Ill-Made Knight," said Sir Castor, "but I think you are Sir Lancelot. Are you?"

Lancelot took the boy by the arm.

"Sir Castor," he said, "do you think that is a knightly question? Suppose I were Sir Lancelot, and was only calling myself the Chevalier Mal Fet -- don't you think I might have some reasons for doing that, reasons which a gentleman of lineage ought to respect?"

Sir Castor blushed very much and knelt on one knee.

"I won't tell anybody," he said. Nor did he.

(The power of that quotation, I see for the first time as I type it here, may lie in the scansion of that last sentence: three heavily stressed monosyllables, a sound like the slow but firm closing of a door.)

But Glass was (and is; I'm only up to page 55 as I type and have no doubt there are further revelations in store) not yet finished with me; on the same page, indeed in the next paragraph and regarding the same character -- an ancient aunt whose tale in the family lore is that she gave up her whole life to look after her damaged older sister -- there's this:
I believe she was swept along on a tide, like most of us. There you are, diligently swimming a straight line, minding the form of your strokes, when you look up and see, always a shock, that currents you can't even feel have pulled you off course.

Which for reasons that are about to become apparent reminded me of this, from A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden, which refers to a character with a severely autistic son:
" ... But I think it's possible Mrs Haydock'd just come to pieces without him. Having made him her life. Funny thing, the variety of lives, you can't know what accident won't set yours in some very simple terrible deep channel for the rest of its run."

(Again what has appealed to memory, I now see, is the rhythm of one phrase, that unstoppable run of adjectives with its string of insistent stress: simple terrible deep channel.) Byatt has been rescuing me from dark places since 1984, when I first read this and put it, with desperate gratitude, to good use:

She did not see why he should preserve his good opinion of himself at her expense. It was refusing these small encounters that exhausted her ... She walked away from him. She did not think he had expected this precisely; but all that was left, as she saw it, to do, was to uncreate him in her mind. If she could have worked through the relationship, unhindered, if she could have cast him off, and held him as an interesting memory when they had nothing more to say to each other, she would not now feel so stunted, so trapped in his view of her ... There was nothing to do but behave as though he had never been.

As I say, I'm only up to page 55 of the Glass book, which is where I found this next bit, which cracked me up with happiness and recognition so much that I decided I had to blog it and make myself even later with everything than I already am and God knows whether there'll be a decent fillet of beef for the buying anywhere by tomorrow but never mind. Louisa, one of the heroines, makes a living by editing obscure, pretentious, grandiose and/or unreadable essays on art into publishable form, negotiating all the while the internal politics of who follows which school and who is whose nephew or protegé or enemy. Here she is on the beach, working as she wonders with one part of her mind why she hasn't heard from her rat-bastard boyfriend Sam:
"Articulata" was a piece on the proliferation of text in photography. Might we see this as a symptom of visual insecurity, or is it the strident, declarative end to our long-running romance with lensmen such as Adams, Weston, and even Walker? Might we venture so far as to interpret this trend -- nay, this turning point -- as an invigorating divorce of sorts? I looked up to see a gull eyeing my knapsack, venturing so far as to interpret its bulk -- nay, its grease-stained belly -- as a food station. "Well," I said loudly to the gull, "might we indeed?" I squawked, and the gull scuttled away. I lay back and put the essay aside, weighting it down with my sneakers. I fell asleep in the sun. I dreamed that the author of the pompous essay turned out to be Sam. "That we is not royal," he told me angrily. "It's entirely actual. Look in your Chicago." It turned out that somehow I had the wrong edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, that my copy was way out of date. I would lose my job. When I woke, the gull was back, standing at the edge of my towel and staring at me. The obvious question on his mind was Is she edible?

Back to work.


Misrule said...

If it's any consolation, you've just sent me off to reserve the book at the library--like I don't have enough to read!

Pavlov's Cat said...


genevieve said...

Can Haz Julia Glass? I CAN HAZ. Thank you for stopping, for making me stop too, and for the tip off. (Deep and terrible channels, indeed.) And have a beautiful Christmas, Pav.

Elsewhere007 said...

'Vanessa Redgrave not Emma Thompson'


Pavlov's Cat said...


bernice said...

Bugger the fillet of beef - where am I going to find a copy of Glass's between here & Nowra tomorrow?

Pavlov's Cat said...

I have procured the fillet of beef* but am hoping that no-one will bugger it (shades of Portnoy), though it is more than possible that I will bugger it up.

Am now halfway through the Julia Glass, which is holding up the standard.

*Luxury item for Christmas feed, to be roasted rare that morning and allowed to cool to room temp without ever being in the fridge, after a family consensus (for once) that we all drew the line at the current price of shellfish when people were losing their jobs and houses all around us.

bernice said...

Hazarr!!! gleebooks may not have had it but Dymocks Nowra did. Enjoy the beef, wine, song & company.

Anonymous said...

A hundred times yes to this post. Reflects too much of my life in the real world.

Hope you had a gladsome hols. The trouble with those whooshing deadlines for me is that they scream in my head if I stupidly make them in the middle of my holidays.

- barista