Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Alison Croggon, Theatre

This is a classic DL strategy: a re-reading prompted by a fresh encounter. I heard Alison read last week in London at the Poetry Society and was overwhelmed by both the familiarity and utter strangeness of her poetry. I've known Alison for ten (Ancient Mariner moment... OK, it's over) years, across oceans and ether and pages and conversations. The question of "knowing" a person in their work as/because you know them in real life is for another post, though: what struck me in the sunny Studio was the way that I *felt* her work.

I remember seeing Alison read at Pembroke in February 2000, when she was the Australia Council fellow at Cambridge: she wore a leopard-print dress and high-heeled black sandals and surveyed a crowd (myself included) of ratty/dumpy/boho students and faculty dressed as much for the soul-creeping dread of the late winter fens as for the cold. But, as we came to realise, Alison's strategy against the soul-cold was to burn brighter, to be fiercer -- and in her fierceness was a lack of critical distance (irony, intellectualism, equivocation, revocation, self-denial, incomprehensible density as cover for deep feeling) that marks a lot of contemporary experimental poetry. Her reading was full of voices, like Prospero's isle, but also blushingly full of bodies, with a directness and cutting-to-the-quick that is poetry's essence -- and which I think is neglected.

Writing about apostrophe (poems that address a listener within the text via the exclamation O! or the use of the second person), critic Jonathan Culler describes it as symptomatic of "all that is most radical, embarrassing, pretentious, and mystificatory" about poetry. I love that strange combination of words (and they definitely came to mind while I was watching Jane Campion's new film Bright Star today). Poetry *is* embarrassing, not just naked but skinless, not just skinless but the act of pointing and saying: "Look, no skin! Look, blood -- meat -- pulse!" It's in that radical strategy of drawing attention to that which we do not look regard that Alison's poetry excels. "I am concerned," remarks the titular garment in "What the Glove Said," "with the skin of nearness."

The glove's exactly the object (intimate, inside-out, human-shaped) to speak metonymically for the poet. As the title of her most recent collection Theatre suggests, she brings a playwright's (and theatre critic's) eye to the drama of revelation and the honing of address. The book begins with a plangent and seemingly transparent poem about her inability to write the poem that she writes, which sets the stage for the fiercely doubting, elusive yet ever-present "I" that will declare and undercut itself throughout the book. Of the self's relation to poetry, and the writer's relation to the reader, the poem "Theatre" asks
and is this really my own damage
or a wound torn in others
that they must diagnose
through my skin?
There's no deflection here, no deferral of meaning. It's reminiscent of John Berger's Pages of the Wound, and some of the prose poems in the collection have the dense, earned slippage between allegory and political reality of Berger's novels.

Even so, the "I" struggles to come to terms with its incarnation, its necessity for the production of poetry. In "Flames," the speaker extinguishes the poem with the lines
I am ash for a beloved voice
whose irony rebukes me
, while the poem "after Arseny Tarkovsky" (which is a version or ventriloquism of the Arseny Tarkovsky poem used by his son Andrey in the film Stalker) ends with an accounting that cannot add up: "My life… My love… my soul… my thoughts… but it isn't enough." Even when the act of writing appears to offer sufficiency and expression, it's not enough:
She writes her body with the tips of her fingers but it is no longer her body. The words are not her they belong to nobody. She writes to slough off her name. She speaks to become invisible. She desires to become what she is.
No wonder Alison's first collection for Salt was called Attempts at Being.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paranoia in Translation, or Lisbeth Salander in the Land of Green Plums

Actually, this post could equally be called Schizophrenia in Translation: the sensation that derives from reading two (very different) books concurrently to the point that they seem, if not to merge, then to be deeply intertwined (litzophrenia?). Not that I'm looking to make light of mental illness by using terms like paranoia and schizophrenia out of context, but sometimes an encounter with a book will remind me what a weird process reading actually is -- that sitting silently over some marks on woodpulp, muttering and laughing to oneself while entering into a fantastical world and often into the persona of an invented person, is a pretty wacky thing to do.

It's hard to stand outside reading as an activity: I've been doing it since literally before I can remember anything else. One of my first and only toddler memories is of putting together the blobs on a flashcard into a word. Après ça, there was no stopping me: by the time I was in infant school, I was teaching the other kids to read. I think my mindbrain has probably been so shaped by reading that it's what I am in the same way that Usain Bolt's musculature and neurons have been sculpted by running. Culturally, reading has pretty much set in for the long haul. We all (84% of UK 16-65 year olds in the UK have literacy at GCSE grade G or above) do it inadvertently from the cereal box to the end credits every day, and many of us do it advertently (a word? And if not, why not?) most days as well.

Maybe it's because I've been hitting the poetry like a poetaholic (with events at PoetryFilm and at Keats House for Brittle Star, and reviews due to Staple) that I contracted reading-dissociation when I switched back to novels -- and a big fat novel at that, purchased especially for a weekend of train journeys and a solo hotel stay. I'm hardly the first person to be bowled over by Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (an established fact, since half the people at PEN have been telling me to read it for at least a year), but I might be one of the least likely. After (because of? despite?) a brief (and disturbing) devotion to the work of Andrew Vacchs when I was about sixteen, and an obsessive interest in Twin Peaks and The X Files, I have never been much for thrillers, either in codex or on celluloid.

Both my parents were big with the mysteries, 'tec series and all things investigative, but my love of noir begins and mostly ends with Laura (a major influence on Twin Peaks). That's right: I don't have the hots for Hitchcock, and I've no remorse for yawning at Morse. It's a failing, I think, as a reader, to exclude a genre from your library, but Delirium's mystery/thriller shelf is entirely reserved for the splendid Sherlock Holmes, a detective I encountered almost as early as I began reading (those shadowy semi-memories of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes still give me nightmares). I've tried Rebus and Whimsy and Wallander and Dirk Gently, and no-one has ever come close to the idiosyncracy and intellect, the conviction and addiction, of Holmes (especially Jeremy Brett in the role).

But I have to confess: Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous "girl with the dragon tattoo" comes close. Despite Larsson's info-dumping, despite the financial shenanigans that make as much sense to me as Ikea self-assembly diagrams, even despite the relentless snö (and equally persistent mosquitös) that falls on all Scandi detectives, I found myself hooked until 3 am, reading with the covers drawn up to my chin -- except when I leapt out of bed to check the door was locked. I couldn't sleep until I finished the book, and then I couldn't sleep some more. If my bag hadn't been full with a print-out of my own novel (which I'd promised myself I'd edit on the train home, come hell or inconveniently located rabbis), I would have bought The Girl Who Played With Fire in WH Smith's in Manchester Piccadilly station that very morning (possibly even before breakfast at the excellent Koffee Pot).

Because here's the thing: I don't read thrillers because they *get* me. Rewatching The X Files (series 1-3 1/2) recently, I found myself almost choking on my fingernails even in episodes that I'd seen half-a-dozen times before. I suffer from what's known in my household as "narrative tension." Hell, I couldn't even watch Sense and Sensibility at the cinema without getting fahrklempt about whether Marianne would see that Alan Rickman, I mean Colonel Brandon, was infinitely superior to stupid-haired Willoughby. And I'd read the book only six months previously (I also clearly have an appallingly lax narrative memory). I'm like the goldfish in Ani Difranco's song for whom the little plastic castle / is a surprise every time. Or a terrifying shock.

It's not so much about guessing whodunit as worrying in every fibre of my being about who's going to be next and what horrible defilement will be described. Worrying, I suppose, that I'll be next. Larsson's thrillers fit very much in grim miserablist realism tradition of writers like Ian Rankin where a city like this harbours people like you living next door to psychos like him. Not so much plausible deniability as undeniable plausibility. Larsson's obsession with Ikea furniture may be a running footnote on the commercialisation of Scandi design, but it's also an arrow pointing at our own living rooms (and particularly at the Swedish airport minimalism of the hotel room where I was holed up). What with financial crashes, banker bonuses and inter-generational sexual abuse, Dragon Tattoo felt like reportage as much as fiction -- and who doesn't feel tense thinking about how the house of cards (economic, political, environmental) is about to crash down on us?

Despite the expertly-generated tension, the novel lacked two aspects that mar most thrillers for me: punitive manipulation of reader expectations (and of vulnerable female characters), and stupidity dressed up as fearlessness (goading the reader to follow the investigative character into the darkness). It also lacked any sympathy for, or glamorisation of, the killer(s), and in a way any curiosity about them. They were dead space, plausibly drawn characters exerting zero narrative fascination rather than the devilish figure who haunts so many contemporary thrillers. Coupled to that lack of interest is an abiding, energising fascination with -- and fury about -- the systems of fear that make possible sexual abuse and murder, and the silence surrounding them. Industry, politics, the law, the family, the state: these are the real abusers in Larsson's books, the facilitators who empower the bit-part players who carry out the social will, whom Salander fights against with every sinewy ounce of her 4"11 being (Kate Mosse made the point well in a Guardian review entitled (although it's lost its title online) The Man Who Liked Women). I've never encountered a mainstream fictional work that lays out as clearly the effects of state power, in particular its impact on those considered less than full agents of the state: women, children, those with (perceived or actual) disabilities, those who dissent.

OK, Larsson was no Herta Müller and contemporary Sweden is not Communist Romania, but I can't help feeling that their books have something in common -- and not just because I've been reading The Land of Green Plums this weekend as well (props to Haringey Libraries, incidentally, for having a copy of the Nobel prize-winner's book, which is incidentally out of print). It's a book so powerful that I had to return it to the library the minute I finished reading it: not just because I wanted other people to have the chance to read it, but because it felt dangerous to be carrying it, as if it were one of the banned books that the characters hide in the summer house. Or even as if it might infect me with the green plum-death or cancerous nut or the dream of the sack that variously afflict characters. It's an extremely calm nightmare of a book, where the narrative tension happens on a word-by-word level, as if the novel is in code. There's no secret who the bad guy is (the state and its agents) even as the protagonist investigates every detail of her life exhaustively to find it/him out, but almost any character could be a spy, even Elsa the white cat, creating an extraordinary atmosphere of anxiety, as in the novels of Ismail Kadare (although unlike Kadare, Müller does not see women's genitalia as both the salvation and betrayal of every man).

In both books (both of which are, of course, in translation, by Reg Keeland and Michael Hofmann repectively), the tense mood of the thriller and the anxiety of the reader act as political critiques, engendering the desire for relief through change. In both, the female protagonist is almost unbearably unknowable, courageously unpredictable, and hyper-alert to the tentacular enemy with which she battles. Or maybe I'm just hyper-alert to their similarities after my weekend of sleepless paranoia, and hyper-alert too to the possibilities of thrillers to challenge my thinking, and experimental novels to have me on the edge of my seat.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ophelia's Mind Went Wandering, with Sovay and Lavinia

I've been humming Natalie Merchant's "Ophelia" to myself on and off for months, so it's not surprising that I picked up Lisa Klein's novel Ophelia at the library on Monday.I devoured it in a day, as blogger Lizbee suggests, and liked many aspects of its historical consciousness, particularly the idea that skull-obsessed Hamlet was on his way to Padua to study anatomy with Vesalius when his father died. Klein sets the story of the play between 1585 and 1602 -- that is, during Shakespeare's lifetime rather than in the time of the original Hamlet legend (before 1200, when Saxo Grammaticus recorded it), which gives Klein more scope to imagine Ophelia as the kind of heroine all YA historical novels must have: feisty (yet sexy), feminist (yet boy-crazy), educated (yet ill-informed about pregnancy), courageous (with a soupçon of fainting). Klein's Ophelia reads Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron, learns herbalism, resents her brother's education, avoids rape by Edmund, [spoiler] fakes her own death and does, indeed, get her to a nunnery.

Klein, who teaches Shakespeare (I'm guessing this from the acknowledgements), salts her retelling with dozens of Shakespearean -- or rather, Shakespeare in Love-ean -- devices, such as cross-dressing (all the comedies) and a fake death (Cymbeline). But the book is at its best when it takes an imaginative leap far from Shakespeare and stops trying to cram in every clever reference to the play, in the final section detailing Ophelia's life at the convent, where she meets a St. Teresa-style mystic, negotiates life among a society of women, conceals her pregnancy and faces down a bishop. Her path through doubt and faith is more convincingly of its time than her feisty arguments for equality, although possibly less captivating to a contemporary reader.

Celia Rees makes a better attempt at a similar project in Sovay. Like Klein, Rees begins with a pre-existing text, a traditional English ballad about a young woman who dresses up as a highwayman to see if the rumours of her beloved's unfaithfulness are to be believed. She stops his coach and demands the ring that was her gift, and when he refuses, knows that he's been true. Rees gives us the ballad tale in the first chapter (Sovay's betrothed, James, is more of a cad than the ballad Sovay's lover) and wonders what would happen next to a girl with that kind of courage and wildness. Taking the story out of ballad-time, Rees makes excellent use of her late eighteenth-century setting, quickly getting Sovay embroiled in the panic over the French Revolution. There are well-researched references to experimental science (Joseph Priestly), the American War of Independence, slavery, molly houses, transportation to Australia, period fashions and a judicious use of eighteenth-century fictional style.

Sovay has more compass in which to move than Ophelia, even though both of them try on male clothing for protection, freedom and anonymity. Springing from a ballad, she has no character attached apart from her fondness for "stand and deliver," and Rees' choice of era is well-matched to her fictional style, which echoes everything from Fielding to The Scarlet Pimpernel, whereas Klein's novel never quite disguises -- or works with -- its dual origin in folk tale and play. Sovay's nascent feminism is more credible than Ophelia's, given the republicanism she encounters among the supporters of the French Revolution (although it's surprising she doesn't mention Mary Wollenstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published six years before the novel opens), and her adventure has a more defined form, full of allusions to Gothic novels of the period. Rees gets a bit ensnarled in the Illuminati (it's never a good sign when they show up, frankly, and they semi-wreck Rees' bewilderingly complex The Stone Testament as well) towards the end of Act II, but switches tack to a fantastic portrayal of the final days of the Terror in Paris (which was more credible yet less expository than Sally Gardner's The Red Necklace) that ends all too soon with reader, she married him [no spoiler on which of her many suitors she chooses!] Perhaps a second Sovay novel is in the offing?

It was a non-sequel that thrilled me most in my week of literary heroines. After Powers, the third book in Ursula Le Guin's Annals of the Western Shore series, I was all revved up for the fourth (and final?) installment. Instead there appeared Lavinia, a novel about a minor character (and I mean minor, she gets maybe three lines) from Virgil's Aeneid, the dullest of all the epics. Not only that, but Lavinia's main role is to be the silent bride traded to Aeneas and mother of Rome. Yawn. But Le Guin is nothing short of a genius: as well as a detailed historical imagining of early Latium, Le Guin allows her character to take on the conundrum of being a bit player in a national myth, the slip of a poet's pen as he struggled to finish his epic. Lavinia meets -- and debates with -- the spirit of the dying Virgil at the local shrine, learning her fate both within the poem (to marry Aeneas) and in history (to be a fictional character). It's reminiscent of Christa Wolf's Medea, which begins with the novelist describing her own trip to Mycenae.

It sounds like a postmodern narrative game, which it is, but the stakes here are incredibly high: the nature of narrative itself, and particularly the role of women in much of the canon, there to provide a foil, cover or bosom for the hero. Aware of her fictionality, Lavinia nonetheless -- or perhaps even more -- relishes the materiality of her life in Latium, from the texture of lamb fleece to the scars on her husband's thighs. The richness of Lavinia's world is that which, Le Guin suggests, eluded Virgil in his focus on Aeneas, who is himself focused on his destiny. Domestic life, ritual duties, sex, friendship, hard work: these are all described with Le Guinian good sense and humour, and her telling eye for the small details that shape a culture. That's why (and I'm loathe to say this) I'm not sure that the somewhat mystical ending works. While it follows the unfinished nature of the Aeneid, it feels like a withdrawal -- not a cop-out, exactly, nor a failure, either, because it gives me chills. But a question.

Perhaps the ghostliness of the un-ending in which [spoiler] Lavinia turns into the owl that haunts the woods of Latium and flies over present Italy, which is almost impossible to imagine and yet so vivid, makes visible the chilling realisation that fictional characters do not have a life beyond the final page except what we choose to give them. Le Guin has always had a gift for unsettling the status quo, asking charmingly difficult questions about everything from pronouns to political agency (which are, of course, connected) through her carefully wrought fictions, but Lavinia is the most thorough and unsettling investigation of the nature of storytelling itself. She may not make Lavinia a circus girl or a bluestockinged suffragette, but she raises, profoundly, the question of what Lavinia -- or Ophelia, or Sovay, or even Ged -- can ever be.