A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Archive for June 2011

Marilyn French: The Women’s Room

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When I was at university, a supervisor picked me up on one of my essay writing habits. ‘Why do you always call the reader “he”?’ he asked. I replied that it was shorthand, that I couldn’t be bothered with adding the cumbersome ‘or she’ every third sentence, that the Elizabethans used to use ‘he’ as a neuter form (I was a cocky so-and-so) and that, as a woman, I was aware I could get away with it.

He looked at me kindly but sternly. ‘I think you need to think more carefully about the battles that have been fought about this issue,’ he said.

Marilyn French wouldn’t have needed such a reminder. Writing in the seventies, a few years after the crest of the second wave of feminism broke on western shores, she made the struggles of women for equal recognition and a voice in debate the lifeblood of her work.

Told from the perspective of Mira, a bright but deeply conventional woman who gradually learns to test and then finally reject the status quo she has been brought up with in small-town America, The Women’s Room blows apart accepted structures and forces readers to question whether what is is what has to be. It brings in the lives of numerous female characters, each of whom eventually runs up and smashes against the limitations of the world in which she is obliged to exist.

The book is so massive in scope (despite its domestic subject matter) that it’s tempting to think of it as a sort of female Odyssey, in which the heroine encounters a string of challenges in an effort to reach harmony and a true home. French would no doubt reject such a definition, however, as her narrative is nothing if not a struggle to find a way of articulating the mental fetters that bind women by breaking free of traditional masculine structures, Homeric epics and all.

Val, French’s most memorable and tragic character, puts it most succinctly:

‘We’re rebels against all establishments because we’re rebels against male supremacy, male surface bonding, male power, male structures. We want a completely different world, one so different that it’s hard to articulate, impossible to conceive of a structure for it’

And that’s the dilemma that makes the book so compelling: when all that’s biased and tainted is stripped away, precious little remains on which to build a new vision. Val has a stab at it, positing a sort of Utopian community not dissimilar to the Italian commune Germaine Greer sketches out in The Female Eunuch, but even she has to admit the vision is unconvincingly vague.

Witnessing the sad dissolution of the women’s lives, you can’t help but feel how difficult it is to envisage true equality in a system that is fundamentally constructed by and for men. We are all (men and women alike) so trapped in the world-view we’ve been fed and clothed in since we were born that imagining that there might be an alternative is challenge enough for most of us, let alone trying to thrash out what that alternative might look like.

Society, the book leaves you feeling,  would be entirely different if it had been constructed by women — not necessarily better, but very different. In such a world, instead of swallowing my arrogance and adding ‘or she’ into my assignments, I might not have been writing essays at all.

Picture by Galdo Trouchsky. With thanks to Georgina for recommending The Women’s Room.

Written by londonchoirgirl

June 25, 2011 at 9:06 am

Rosamond Lehmann: The Weather in the Streets

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One of my favourite things about reading books from eras past is those rare flashes of insight that remind me that I’m really no different from people who’ve gone before. ‘Stop thinking you’re so sophisticated,’ the best writers say, ‘Stop thinking that you invented sex, irony, hair removal [or whatever it might be]: you’re much more similar to these folk than you can even begin to imagine.’

That doesn’t happen in Rosamond Lehmann‘s The Weather in the Streets. There is not one single, isolated insight. Instead, the whole book is soaked in universal female experience; so much so that you forget you’re reading and feel rather as though you have been granted privileged access to the interior monologue of the woman sitting across from you on the bus as she thinks through the things that happened to her last year.

Told from the perspective of Olivia, an early thirty-something who has separated from her husband and rents a room in a wealthy single friend’s London pad, this 1936 classic unfolds the germination, blossoming and consequences of her affair with a married childhood friend. It charts her progress from emotionally fettered, overgrown adolescent to seasoned woman, throwing up startling glimpses of the mental cages that the people around her live in along the way.

Lehmann is a fearless writer. Not only does she lay bare the terrors and neuroses that riddle us all and wade freely in the waters of the forbidden — homosexuality, drug use and back-street abortions being just a few of the topics she takes on — she also takes the rules of writing and snaps them in two.

Her promiscuous use of both the first and third person voice would make a creative writing tutor weep. Indeed, it would make nonsense of most writer’s work, but Lehmann’s style is so distinctive, and her touch so deft, that it merely serves to heighten our sense of being in Olivia’s world by showing us the ambivalent way she sees herself — sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘she’. At its most magnificent, Lehmann’s writing has the fluidity of an impressionist painting, yet with all the details picked out in astonishing clarity.

She’s really funny, too. Best of all are the flashes of steel that puncture the pomposity and smugness of minor characters. A case in point is Olivia’s private response to a prudish acquaintance’s plans to embroider a set of eight chair covers for her dining room chairs.

‘I think it will be gay’  she said meekly, holding up the square with her dear little old-fashioned head on one side.

Nothing you did or conceived of could ever be gay; and do your children know yet they hate you?

That’s not to say the book’s perfect. The wrapping up, involving a host of secondary Bohemian friends who engineer a possible next step for Olivia, feels thin after the heady emotion of the preceding chapters. Although it does contain some nice touches and wicked vignettes — the scene where the drunk Adrian tries to chat up the beautiful teenage boy who features as the back end of the bull in the amateur play is great.

Taken as a whole, though, this book is extremely impressive, elegant, engaging and a lot of fun. Much like the lady who recommended it (thanks Jo).

Picture by jaybergesen.

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

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A traditional woman

Women hate each other. At least you’d be forgiven for thinking that on the basis of most of the books I’ve read so far this year. Whether it’s Trapido’s bullied teenager Cat, Oates’ tormented misfit Minette, or the brilliant, yet ultimately ostracised Lily Bart, women’s cruelty to one another is a recurring theme in women’s lit.

Interestingly, with the slight exception of Lucy Caldwell’s Noor who passes the treatment she suffers on to the unfortunate Hong Chang Jones with interest, the story is nearly always told from the victim’s point of view.  Whether that’s because literary bods tend to be the bookish, solitary types prone to this sort of treatment, whether it’s because this makes for a powerful plot device, or whether the mechanisms of society are such that all women feel a degree of victimisation at some stage in their lives is not clear. But there’s no doubt that the passages dealing with the peculiar brand of subtle, mental destruction that women mete out to their peers are often among the most vivid and heartfelt in the books.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is no exception. Finding herself at a loose end when her husband of 30 years asks for a ‘pause’ from their marriage so that he can pursue his passion for a much younger colleague, middle-aged poet Faith divides her time between visiting her elderly mother and her cronies in their sheltered home, getting to know a vulnerable neighbour, and teaching a summer class for teenage girls in a quiet US town. Having been victimised herself at school, she is quick to spot a souring dynamic between her most precocious pupil and the rest of the group. When an incident makes what has been going on clear, Faith takes it upon herself to counter the girls’ vitriol and turn their negativity into strength.

It’s a surprising, if not entirely successful, book. From the Amazon blurb, you might easily assume this novel sits towards the trashy end of the commercial scale. If I’m honest, it was the lure of the plot about the unfaithful husband and the dilemma he presented that drew me in. I even felt slightly guilty as I downloaded it, thinking of the hundreds of fascinating, classic and worthy books on my list of recommendations and must-reads.

The reality was quite the opposite. As far as I know, there is no literary prize for the number of academic references in a single book, but if such an award existed Hustvedt would be a hot favourite. From Winnicott and Chomsky to Nietzsche and Kant, the whole galaxy of intellectual stars is brought to bear as Faith works her way through a maze of thoughts about gender, identity, love and truth. Pensees range from meditations on the female orgasm in the animal kingdom to the portrayal of the sexes in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

And that’s the problem: thought-provoking though it is, the book reads like a series of essays strung together with a loosely conceived plot. Strange devices, such as the bizarre Mr Nobody, are introduced and tail off unresolved and the central dilemma of the husband — surely the hook that will snare many a reader — is never adequately confronted. As the final pages approached, I found myself wondering when the story would begin.

There are also some irritating textual effects: any piece of writing that ends ‘Fade to black’, for example, except possibly a book about film, clearly takes itself far too seriously.

Still, you have to give Hustvedt credit for the intellectual rigour with which she presents her preoccupations and her attempt to do more than simply reflect the cruelty that troubles her. In a market where it’s tempting to drop the complexities and play to the gallery, this is a writer who bangs her own drum.

Fade to black.

Picture by Robert Wade

Written by londonchoirgirl

June 9, 2011 at 9:36 am

Kiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss

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A policeman at the gorkha statue in Kalimpong

VS Naipaul’s recent assertion that no women authors are equal to him unleashed an avalanche of comments from readers and writers around the world. Among the arguments advanced in the Nobel Prize-winner’s defence was the suggestion that women wordsmiths tend to focus on narrow, domestic topics and leave the empire building to the boys. Women, bless ’em, the implication was, can’t get their pretty little heads round politics and have no need to try when there are big, strong writers like Naipaul around to do the thinking for them.

If evidence were needed against such a ridiculous argument, then Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss surely provides plenty. Set in the 1980s, in the remote community of Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, the book follows the fortunes of three characters who spend their days alone together in a crumbling villa in the jungle, each locked in his or her own neuroses, obsessions, memories and fears.

While the curmudgeonly judge broods over his chessboard, plagued with recollections of the wife he once cruelly drove away, his orphaned granddaughter beguiles the long hours with dreams of her earnest, impoverished tutor from the slum down the hill. Meanwhile, their cook pines for letters from his emigrated son, who, unbeknownst to him, is tasting the bitter side of the immigrant experience in NYC.

So wrapped up is each of them in his or her own concerns, that they are oblivious to the currents of anger and bitter hatred swirling about the region until the crusade for a separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ literally invades their home. Yet, as the insurgency gathers pace and atrocity is heaped upon atrocity, they each struggle to break out of their isolation and forge the bonds of affection and understanding that will ultimately save them and, perhaps, their homeland.

Having been lucky enough to spend a few days in Kalimpong recently, I can vouch  for the fidelity of Desai’s evocation of what is a fragile, enchanting and truly moving place. From the tawdriness of the town bazaar, to the steaming momos (dumplings) at Gompu’s shack, and the mountain mist ‘charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of borders’, Desai captures the character of the Darjeeling hills and bodies it forth in all its exuberance, madness, wistfulness and colour. She deserves her Booker Prize for this alone.

Yet her portrayal of the complex politics of the region, which has been parcelled up and handed between kings, empresses and governments for centuries, and the violent separatist passions that simmer and flare among rival groups there, is equally strong. With a little probing, the wilderness that at first seems so idyllic and peaceful reveals itself as a warren of grudges and suspicions, in which tensions mount and occasionally explode. 

Desai captures this mixture of sleepiness and sudden, violent action perfectly. In fact, if anything, it informs the book a little too much, being subsumed into the plot so that it too moves sleepily, punctuated here and there by frenetic events, and finally fades into the mist. While some readers may find this frustrating, no-one can dispute Desai’s skill in getting under the skin of the society she portrays and tracing the threads that connect individual lives to the making and breaking of nations. Naipaul himself could do no more.

Photo by Steve Lennon.