Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Carrington Collection Part II: Surreal Fictional Reality

A game of draughts to decide who must throw the queen to the lions; a corpse remaining warm enough to hatch eggs; one hundred cats and a badger chasing a saint; games of Pigeon Fly; nymphs running through gardens cared for by nuns; sisters with wings drinking blood; rabbits feasting on decomposed meat; lovers stolen while you wait; young girls collecting the heads of poultry; masked balls with moustaches on the menu; underwear flying each day from a traffic island; society beauties knitting spiders’ webs; Russian rats trained for surgery; mothers who are cows, grandmothers who are umbrellas, live jaguars made of stone. And everywhere, horses. Horses leading you to Fearful parties, girls that become horses, magpies that become horses, rocking horses that become, well, horses, horses that trample a woman but are also the child in her womb…

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Carrington Collection Part I: Surreal Non-fiction

“I had recourse to my heritage of British diplomacy and set aside the strength of my will, seeking through gentleness an understanding between the mountain, my body and my mind. One day I went to the mountain alone. At first I could not climb; I lay flat on my face on the slope with the sensation that I was being completely absorbed by the earth. When I took the first steps up the slope, I had the physical sensation of walking with tremendous effort in some matter thick as mud. Gradually, however, perceptibly and visibly, it all became easier, and in a few days I was able to negotiate jumps. I could climb vertical walls as easily as any goat.”

Reading Leonora Carrington’s Down Below, I thought: what an insightful metaphor explaining her mental state, climbing a mountain representing her struggles during a breakdown. It’s not a metaphor, I realised on rereading. She really is trying to climb a mountain. ‘Jams’ in her mind were beginning to manifest themselves in physical symptoms. To Carrington at least, she really did have to lie down on the mountain before she could learn to climb it, following which she really did develop an accord with the animals she met on her walks, to whom she could go closer than other humans and speak with them through touch.

This is the nature of Down Below, the remarkable and harrowing account of her breakdown, incarceration in a mental institution and eventual escape – she recounts precisely what happened without false imagery. This is how she remembered it, how she saw the world then, perhaps to an extent how she continued to see the world.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Fickle and inconstant is woman, always

The Public Voice of Women

varium et mutabile semper femina – Virgil Aeneid V.569-570

Or, as rendered by David West, “Women are unstable creatures, always changing.”

A sort of wry smile would be shared around the room at university when we read sentences like this. A smug look that seemed to say, ‘ah, the ancients and their ways – of course we have come so far since then’. There was a sort of tacit agreement not to go too deeply into discussion about such assertions. You can’t call Virgil anti-feminist if feminism didn’t exist then right?

Well, what you can do is look at how some ancient views are embedded still in today’s society. Mary Beard has. In the first chapter of her manifesto, Women and Power, she highlights how some attitudes from the very earliest western literature still affect how we perceive women’s speech, particularly in public, today.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Go on, try it. Admit you hate your partner's best friend.

‘Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends?’

That is the rather uninspiring question apparently posed by Lionel Shriver’s The Standing Chandelier. In case you didn’t quite grasp its point, ‘just’ is printed in italics so that readers catch on quickly. Here is a question that magazines and romance novels can continue to puzzle over for years safe in the knowledge that there is no good answer so they won’t need to find a new question.

Given the vast wealth of political, social and economic upheaval in recent years, given crises in health, homelessness, hunger, given that Shriver is someone brave and articulate and controversial, I was excited to know: what would she write about next? Her previous book, The Mandibles: A family 2029-2047, was sharp and eerie in its predictions. Shriver created an all too real fiction in which the US dollar collapses and society falls irreparably apart. It is deeply complex and hard to read for all the right reasons.

Hence, some trepidation on my part at the premise for The Standing Chandelier. I should have known that it too would comprise both anthropological study and biting satire.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Inside the Living Mountain with Nan Shepherd

Around the country, but in Cambridge in particular, there is a growing and deserved interest in Robert Macfarlane’s books. Put Landmarks or The Old Ways on a nature/travel writing table and they go through the till pretty regularly. Most recently, his book The Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris so beautifully as to make the cold-hearted weep, has garnered attention. It consists of acrostic spells about conkers, acorns, kingfishers; words that are just falling out of use as children and adults look less hard and for less time at nature, indeed avoid going out in it at all.

What's this all about?

Eighteen months ago, I arrived for my first day of working in a bookshop in Cambridge. The phrase ‘avid reader’ employs such a generic epithet that it has become meaningless but I suppose that is how I could have been described growing up. ‘Obsessive’ could work too. Something about the later teenage years and a less than enjoyable time at university cooled this obsession to a more tepid one and I read rather less for pleasure and remained in the comfort of well-known friends when I did read; Brideshead Revisited, Catch-22, Wuthering Heights and Tom Stoppard’s plays The Invention of Love and Arcadia were my safe retreats.

In which I fall over Sir Tom Stoppard

            ‘There is a way to die and a way not to die. That is very important. Hence my admiration for George the Fifth who - on his dea...