Saturday, April 5, 2014

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively

This image originally appeared in the NY
Times book review. Kudos to the artist -- it
couldn't be more apt.
This is the first of Penelope Lively's books that I've read. She's an author whose name has floated in my field of vision for years, and now I wish I'd gotten round to reading her sooner.  I adored How It All Began -- for me, it was a well-timed bit of escapist fiction, inviting me to lose myself in her characters to a degree that I rarely do. It was also an excellent continuation on the life vs. story discussion that Sam Shepard started with the Beckett epigraph at the start of his novel.

As the book opens, Charlotte lies dazed on the pavement after a thief snatched her handbag.  She can't get up, and a small crowd gathers round her. I love the clipped, terse inner monologue, so true to the circumstances. Oh, and the siren transcription, too, though it took me a moment to catch onto that.
Voices discuss. She is not much interested. Nee-naw, nee-naw, nee-naw. Here it is. Know for whom the bell tolls. Expert hands: lifting, bundling. In the ambulance, she is on her side, in some sort of rigid tube. She hurts. Where is hurt? Don't know. Anywhere. May as well try to sleep for a bit."Keep your eyes open, please. We'll be there in a few minutes." Trolley ride. On and on. Corridors. People passing. Right turn. Halt. More lifting. They take the tube away. She is on her back now. Nurse. Smiling but businesslike. Name? Address? Those she can do. No problem. Date of birth? That too. Not a good date of birth. Rather a long time ago. Next of kin? Rose is not going to like this. It's morning, isn't it? Rose will be with his lordship. Next of kin will be at work. Not bother her. Yet.
Rose is Charlotte's daughter, the next in line to feel the impact of the snatch thief's action. And there begins the thread that binds together eight people whose lives shift course as a result of Charlotte's mugging, though most of them are barely aware of the connection, if at all. When the call came from the hospital, Rose was indeed at work, tending to the needs and copious paperwork of Lord Henry Peters, a pompous, aged, self-absorbed historian of the 18th century. Actually, Henry's position in the academic world is slipping, but he is loath to acknowledge this as he toils away on his memoirs. It's a bit of a bother to Sir Henry that Rose must take a few days off to look after her mother, as his important work is likely to suffer in the absence of his assistant. Or so he believes.  One has a consistently high opinion of one's own worth, as he himself would be likely to put it.
Henry is in fact out of touch with the eighteenth century. He stopped thinking much about it a number of years ago; he has not kept up with new publications. The eighteenth century has moved on, leaving him behind. History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant, but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion. Henry is well aware of this, and aware that the eighteenth century has disappeared over the horizon so far as he is concerned, reconstructed, reinterpreted. No, better not stick his neck out. Could be cut up by some young turk. Not that one's own work does not remain the basis of Augustan studies, in the opinion of any reputable scholar. Most reputable scholars, anyway.
While Rose is absent, Henry calls upon his niece, Marion, a well-heeled interior designer, to accompany him to deliver a lecture in Manchester. It is a fiasco -- Marion neglects to bring the lecture notes, and Henry finds himself at the podium gesticulating madly about ... the Elder and ... the Younger, completely unable to call the name of Pitt to mind.  This mortifying event sends Henry off on a mad mission to make historical documentaries for TV. At the post-lecture luncheon, Marion sits next to a wealthy banker with investment properties in need of decoration, which at the time seems a heaven-sent coincidence.

Going to Manchester with Uncle Henry meant having to cancel a date with her married lover, so Marion sent him an SMS. Which Jeremy's wife spotted, occasioning yet another of her nervous breakdowns. Jeremy is a charming cad -- he continues to pursue Marion whilst simultaneously trying to win Stella back, filling his rubbish bin with menacing letters from her divorce solicitor. Jeremy wallows in shameless self-absorption and self-pity, unaware that he might be at least partially responsible for the mess he's in, yet not entirely clear on how others caused it, either.
Sometimes Jeremy cannot remember how the hell all this began. How and why did his life fall apart? Oh yes, the wretched text from Marion. What on earth was it about? Nothing much. She couldn't meet up, for some reason. Something to do with that uncle of hers. What the devil has her uncle got to do with Jeremy? Why should he be persecuted by a solicitor because of someone he doesn't even know? It is so wrong.
When Charlotte imagines that the thief might have been a starving artist who swiped her purse in order to buy opera tickets, Rose retorts that he or she probably just needed a drug fix. Either way, the thief stays resolutely out of the picture, unaware of the chain of reaction he's unleashed.

Meanwhile, trying desperately to achieve as much independence as possible and to impose as little as possible on Rose and Gerry, Charlotte -- a former English literature teacher -- agrees to tutor an eastern European immigrant "with forests in his eyes" at the apartment.  Anton can speak passably good English but has made no progress in learning to read the new language in the new script. He would like to find work in his field, accountancy, but his illiteracy keeps him working on a construction site. Charlotte is surprised to come home one afternoon to find her mother and Anton hunched over a copy of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Anton engrossed. (If anyone knows about keeping readers involved in stories, it's Penelope Lively.)
"Isn't this rather unorthodox, Mum?"
"Possibly. Anton isn't complaining."
"I am like child," said Anton cheerfully. "Child learn when he is interested. When he want to know what come next in the story. Nothing come next with 'I go to the shop' and 'This is our house'."
When she goes back to the clinic for a follow-up visit, Charlotte hastily grabs a paperback off Rose's bookshelf as she heads out to the waiting minicab. She expects the NHS to give her a good long time to read before she sees a doctor. Like most bookworms, Charlotte has a look around the waiting room to see what others are reading, and what she might deduce about them as a result.
One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy-pink raised lettering on the cover. An elderly man had a battered hardback library book. She wanted to know what it was, but could not see -- unforgivable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime. A few pages of The Da Vinci Code, and she knew that she could go no further with this. Moreover, she felt that her reading matter nailed her: the woman beside her had glanced at the book before Charlotte opened it, and given her a complicit smile and nod. I am seen as a Da Vinci Code person, thought Charlotte. Well, there would be a certain affectation in being someone who sat in a hospital waiting room reading Dostoevsky.
Ms. Lively gracefully ends the book without any pat conclusions (earlier in the book one of the characters had railed about the newly vogue idea of "closure" -- as if there were any such thing!). Instead, she puts down a variation on a phrase typical of English novels of earlier centuries, "We leave them here...", and, much as I revelled in each character's company, I was content to let them all go on their ways. They gave me a lot during the time we were together.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Day Out of Days, by Sam Shepard

The mention of Sam Shepard brings these images to my mind, in no particular order:  cowboy, astronaut, playwright. A rugged, outdoorsy sort of literati.  Day Out of Days is a collection of stories, snippets, poems and dialogues, loosely strung together along themes of memory, wandering America's vast highway system, desolation and decapitation.  It fits quite well, actually, with my vague preconceptions of Sam Shepard.

The book opens with an epigraph:  "That's the mistake I made-- to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough." --BECKETT

I sat and stared at this quote for a good long time.  It's an interesting choice for the beginning of a book of stories. I remember a friend once told me that she was aware of wanting a narrative for her life and living accordingly. I suppose any of us with the inclination to write do the same, and I can only presume that includes playwrights Shepard and Beckett. Is it in fact a mistake to want a life story? And to what extent does that yearning shape our actual lives? I agree, life alone is plenty interesting without moulding it into a cohesive narrative.  Maybe that's the point -- life gives us scenes, not often stories, novels or plays. And if you string a bunch of those scenes together, slowly the connective themes start to show through.

In one of the first stories, a man is walking down a road in Arkansas when he spots a severed head in a ditch. The head addresses him. In a matter-of-fact, polite manner, the head asks if he wouldn't mind carrying it to a nearby lake and tossing it in.  Nothing about this story is surreal or fantastic, apart from the conversation with the disembodied head, which comes across as just one of those things you'd rather didn't happen when you're walking down a road minding your own business.

We all have an especial horror of decapitation, I think, and Shepard plays on this in "These Recent Beheadings".  Whether his beheadings are allegorical -- people feeling detached as the world goes mad -- or physical, we just don't like to think about having our necks severed.
These recent beheadings are just what we've always dreaded. We knew it was coming sooner or later and now it's here. Ancient gleaming steel coming down like a message from the heavens on our exposed white necks. The kind of separation that terrifies us the most -- losing our heads. The absolute shock of sudden separation. The body here, the head over there. And the mind desperately darting between them, trying to pull them back together. How did this happen? From out of nowhere. Seemingly. Nobody saw it coming. Nobody could predict this.
One of the voices in the book is that of a hired killer who is not happy with the way things are going nowadays in his profession. He expresses nostalgia for the days when a simple photo of the done deed was adequate proof, and payment was forthcoming.  But in "Pity the Poor Mercenary", he describes his latest employers' demand, which strikes him as unprofessional and dishonourable. He is after all a man of his word:  "I cut his face off meticulously. That's all I have to say. Just doing my job."

Many of the stories' titles include highway numbers, their narrators being peripatetic observers who roam from one side of America to the other, with a lot of time spent in the small towns in the middle. There's not much of a story in these towns -- just life.
I am stuck now in a town of backyards. This is not a dream. There are no houses to speak of so it can't really be called a town, certainly not "Our Town" or downtown Milwaukee or something identifiable like that. There is no center; no Main Street but the people stroll along as though they had somewhere to go; some destination or another -- purposefully but without any urgency like they would in a Big City, hustling and bustling just because everyone else is, as though caught up in a fever they can't escape. More like a walk in the park; meandering but not really wandering so much; not really lost like me who seems to be the only one the least bit bewildered.
Our heads are, of course, a repository for memories and the studio where we create our personae.  "Orange Grove in My Past" is a brilliant mosaic of identity -- what we see in others and how we define ourselves.
I thought I had done my level best, done everything I possibly could, not to become my father. Gone out of my way in every department: changed my name, first and last, falsified my birth certificate, deliberately walked and swung my arms in exact counterpoint to the way he had; picked out clothing the opposite of what he would have worn, right down to the underwear; spoke without any trace of a Midwestern twang, never kicked a dog in the ribs, never lost my temper over inanimate objects, never again listened to Bing Crosby after Christmas of 1959, and never ever hit a woman in the face.

Desolate.  The landscapes, the recollections, the tone of these stories... In "Van Horn, Texas (Highway 10)", the narrator stops at a diner where the waitress and the cook look at him with suspicion. The cook, clearly wanting the stranger out of his place, tells him that the pies won't be ready for hours. The traveller says he'll come back later, after taking a walk around the town.
I'll stroll around the town and take in the sights. He says there are no sights; there is no town. But I tell him I'm a big fan of desolation. I'm fascinated by the way things disintegrate; appear and disappear. The way something very prosperous and promising turns out to be disappointing and sad. The way people hang on in the middle of such obliteration and don't think twice about it. The way people just keep living their lives because they don't know what else to do. He says he has no time for small talk and leaves me staring at the sugar.
Just as the residents of Van Horn, Texas keep living their lives because they don't know what else to do, the travellers themselves struggle with direction and purpose.
But what do you do with yourself now?
I wander around from place to place.
What's there to aim for?
That must get old after a while.
I don't know what else to do.

Near the end of the book, the walker finally reaches the lake into which the head has asked him to throw it. Feeling that they've developed a bond of sorts, the passer-by asks the head if it would open its eyes, just for a moment, but the head declines:  "You couldn't handle it," it says, just before the man heaves it into the water. In "Regrets of the Head", it seems that the head is not all that is severed -- he is as detached from other people as he is from his own body. Absolute, total disconnection.
I do regret not opening up my eyes and allowing him to see into me, just that once. I do regret that now. I should have been more generous. What in the world did I have to lose? I'd already lost my entire body. What was left? Fear, I guess. Of what? Of him seeing me? I guess. 
Who (other than Sam Shepard) would have guessed that a disembodied head would have anything left to fear? It seems the fear of revealing ourselves runs very, very deep. Regrettably.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


There's been precious little reading in the past couple of weeks, because I am in the process of moving
myself, my two cats, and all our earthly possessions from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh.  Although things have gone more or less to plan so far, my inner neurotic constantly reminds me that they could go amok at any moment.

I'm making my way through Karen Armstrong's The Case for God on the Kindle, a paragraph here or two there. Although superb, it's not the best choice of a book for these distracted and anxious days. Some escapist fiction might be more suitable.

An almost laughably bad decision was to begin Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel on the audio player.  Yes, it's a classic, and yes, it's a fine bit of fiction, but it's also dark and pessimistic and best known for its iconic statement, "You can't go home again."  This is hardly the message I want to dwell on as I prepare to leave a home that I've dearly loved.

I think it's time to be sensible and to put both these books on hold until I'm in my new place with the bags unpacked. Until then, I'll switch to medicinal fiction.  Back in a bit!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

Wallowing: Reading this book at this moment in my life is an act of pure, masochistic nostalgia. It's part of my farewell to Malaysia, which is painful enough. It's also a tribute to the historical Malaya that I've come to know and love through books, stories and spirits. The Malaya of the '40s and '50s had its horrors -- the war, the Emergency -- but I've so often  thought I should have been here then.

Like Tan's earlier novel, The Gift of Rain, this one takes place primarily during the years of the war, with occasional shifts forward to the post-war Emergency period, when the British, returned to power, battled the guerrillas whom they termed "Communist terrorists" or CTs.  The first book was set in Penang, and this one in the Cameron Highlands, but both feature a Chinese protagonist who forms a deep, complex relationship with a Japanese teacher.  'Atmospheric' is an overused description of novels, but an understatement when applied to Tan's fiction:  the misty horizons, the scent of freshly picked tea leaves, the crackling of rice paper lanterns set alight. And, of course, the bellows of the Japanese internment camp commandant and the hungry depredations of the marauding Communists.

The narrator, Judge Teoh Yun Ling, upon retiring from her bench, returns to the Cameron Highlands, where she lived for several years following the war, learning the art of Japanese gardening.  Her teacher was Aritomo, who had once been the Emperor's gardener but who had retreated to his house on a ridge in Malaya to develop his own garden. Yun Ling had grudgingly asked him to design a memorial garden for her sister who adored Japanese gardens and perished in the slave labour camp where both girls were imprisoned during the war. Aritomo refused to design the garden but offered Yun Ling an apprenticeship, through which she would learn to create her own garden.
A garden is composed of a variety of clocks, Aritomo had once told me. Some of them run faster than the others, and some of them move slower than we can ever perceive. I only understood this fully long after I had been his apprentice. Every single plant and tree at Yugiri grew, flowered and died at its own rate. Yet there was also a feeling of timelessness around it. The trees from a colder world -- the oaks, the maples and the cedars -- had adjusted to the constant rains and mists, to the seasonless passing of time in the mountains. The turning of their colours was muted. Only the maple growing by the house remembered the changing seasons in the expanding circles of its memory; its leaves had turned completely red, flaking away from the branches to drift across the garden: I would often find the leaves plastered to the wet rocks on the banks of Usugumo Pond, like starfish stranded by the tide.  
I found myself re-reading this paragraph again and again, and with more admiration each time. It's a fine example of Tan's descriptive powers, but it also touches on a couple of themes that run throughout the book. The Cameron Highlands is famous for its tea plantations, and the novel's leading tea planter is Magnus Pretorius, a Boer from South Africa. Although Magnus and his son, Frederik, are on friendly terms with their neighbour, Aritomo, they challenge his gardening philosophy. They say his gardens are artificial, contrived, overly planned.  They favour 'indigenous gardens'.  Aritomo, and later Yun Ling reply that the Japanese gardens do mirror nature, but in a way that makes visitors feel integrally connected to it.

Memory: Yun Ling has been diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder that will gradually render her aphasic.  As time passes, she will no longer recognise words that she hears or sees, so she scrambles to record her life, especially the time with Aritomo, while she still can. The garden was to be a memoriam to her sister, and yet she simultaneously tries to forget the horrors of their incarceration.

I don't think I could have appreciated the feeling of timelessness that Tan describes when I still lived in a place with four distinct seasons. My decade in Malaysia is a decade-long temporal blur -- did something happen one December, or was it July, and if I didn't write it down, how could I possibly remember? There are no seasonal clues, one day being very much like any other, so near the equator. I think we all run on a variety of clocks which run at different speeds. Perhaps some are in sync with the natural seasons (where they exist), and others creep at geological rates. Aritomo's garden is one means of transcending time, of putting us in contact with times we can only remember at a cellular or genetic or instinctual level.

For those who cherish Malaysian history, The Garden of Evening Mists is historical fiction at its best. Tan's fictional characters cross paths with British High Commissioners Gurney and Templer, with Communist leader Chin Peng and some of his cohorts, with Japanese officers and murdered planters and elusive orang asli who are trying to survive the different wars being waged around them. They ramble from the Cameron Highlands to the grand old Moorish courthouse in Kuala Lumpur, into limestone caves to collect swiftlets' nests and into the thick jungle where the Japanese have hidden a secret internment camp.

I feel more deeply connected to the Malaya of this period than I do to either the country of my birth or, indeed, to the Malaysia of the present. The friend who gave me this book is an Englishman who lived in Malaysia for over twenty years. I told him that reading it on the eve of my own departure may have been a bad bit of timing, because I'm woefully susceptible to bouts of nostalgia now. We both thought about this for a few moments and then shook our heads, realising that we are both nostalgic for the Malaya that is no longer. I can't say I'll miss KL's fertile crop of high-rise condos and shopping malls.

But this country -- its customs and history, and most certainly its people -- has touched me more deeply than I can explain. Countless Malaysians have asked why I'm here, seeming a bit surprised when I either shrug or tell them that I love the place. "It must be the food," they say. Aritomo answered the same question with far more eloquence.
Invariably, someone would enquire as to why he had given it all up to come to Malaya. A puzzled look would spread across Aritomo's face, as though he had never been asked that particular question before. I would catch the flit of pain in his eyes and, for a few moments, we would hear nothing except the birds calling out in the trees. Then he would give a short laugh and say, 'Perhaps someday, before I cross the floating bridge of dreams, I will discover the reason. I will tell you then'.

The Mill River Recluse, by Darcie Chan

"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."  - Oscar Wilde

This is a banana-chocolate chip muffin of a book -- a reader's guilty comfort food.  Set in a small, scenic village in Vermont, it tells the story of the agoraphobic widow, Mary McAllister, who never leaves the great marble mansion atop the hill. She forms a sense of connection to the people of Mill River, however, through her visits with the devoted Catholic priest, Father Michael.

The characters, apart from the odd quirk or two -- Father Michael has a spoon-pilfering compulsion, and "Crazy Daisy" spends her days making, bottling and selling magical potions -- are fairly one-dimensional, the good ones clearly delineated from the bad.

Although The Recluse of Mill River is written for adults, I had the not unpleasant sense of nostalgia for children's fiction when I read it. I reverted to the age when one absolutely thrills to a story that promises no unpleasant surprises and in which everything will be set to rights at the end. While you are between the covers of this book, at least, the world will be a just one.

One of my bookish friends and I used to wag our fingers at each other after discussing yet another dark piece of literary fiction we'd just read and threaten that our next book -- no, really! -- would have a pink cover (our code for Chick Lit).  This book doesn't quite fall into that genre; I don't think it's formulaic enough, and there's no steamy love story. It is, however, a feel-good novel, and that's not a bad thing. I think even Oscar Wilde might have agreed.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta

The Crooked Maid could be the prose adaptation of a black & white photo of barely post-war Vienna: a gritty and damaged city, but one with a fierce survival instinct. Vyleta adds the odd dash of colour to his novel -- a pilfered red hat, an eerie blue glass eye, the stranger's red woollen scarf -- but they are few. This is a novel that crosses genre lines, sitting equally well on mystery, love story, crime drama, and historical fiction shelves.

Like the city itself, the characters have come through the war years with injuries. Their various physical deformities are merely the visible manifestations; the psychic scars are profound. None of them trusts each other, and we readers don't trust any of them. Vyleta's characters are a hardened lot who have suffered at the hands of both the Soviets and the Nazis.

Anna Beer returns to Vienna at the opening of the book. She is coming home to reunite with her husband, psychiatrist Dr. Anton Beer, whom she'd left years before after discovering his scandalous infidelity. She finds their apartment relatively intact but empty, and thus begins her search. Someone claims to have seen Dr. Beer in the Soviet camps; someone else is sure he's dead. Some children at play find a badly mutilated corpse in a cellar, and Detective Frisch invites Anna to the morgue to see if it might be that of her missing husband. Vyleta's description of the porter is about the best introduction to a morgue I could imagine.
Frisch led her into the building. In the gateway stood a porter's booth. While Frisch signed them in, Anna found her reflection in its glass; the light-green blouse and auburn hair, her lipstick glowing brightly in her pale and powdered face. She had dressed as though she were on her way to collect her husband at the train station; then on to a picnic in the gardens of Schönbrunn. Behind the glass, the old, pockmarked porter concluded she must be staring at him. He flashed her a grin of yellowed teeth. A half-eaten sausage lay on an open newspaper, looked grey and waxen in the booth's dim light.
The face of the corpse is so battered that Anna tells the detective she doesn't believe it's Dr. Beer, but she can't be certain. For one thing, the corpse has a glass eye, which Anton did not have, or at least not when she last saw him. Staring out from the ravaged, decaying face, the glass eye is a thing of macabre and uncanny beauty.
Anna held her breath and kept staring at the eye. It was very intricately worked, the iris structured into layers, clear amber grains embedded in three shades of blue, each a snowflake pattern radiating from the pupil's central well. In the bright light of the morgue the eye's milky glass had turned transparent, become infused with something like an inner glow. A root system of capillaries spread from the depths of it: tender, light-pink tendrils fanning out towards the surface and the light. The lid that clung to its outer edges gave it a frame of amber lashes, each gently curving outwards, away from the glass. It was a lovely, human eye, alive with an intelligence intrinsic to its design. The dead man watched her coldly, without judgment.
Also returning to Vienna in the same train compartment as Anna is the young Robert Seidel, who had been away at boarding school in Switzerland. He too comes back to a chaotic and unwell household:  his step-brother, Gustav, is a former Gestapo officer now on trial for patricide. Robert's widowed mother rambles around their big house in an opiate-induced fog. Holding the household together is Eva (known at other times to other people as Anneliese), a young, embittered, hunch-backed maid who has a strange connection to Dr. Anton Beer.

Robert's step-father, who died after crashing through an upper storey window (perhaps pushed by a drunken Gustav, although the jury formally acquits him of the murder charge), built up a successful factory before the war with the help of his Jewish business partner, Rothmann. When the Nazis banned Jews from owning property, Rothmann deeded his house and his share of the business to Herr Seidel with the understanding that he could return and re-claim his share after the war, should he survive that long. Now, in 1948, there is a gaunt stranger wearing a red woollen scarf over his tattered coat, and he's watching the big house from a distance. Robert's addled mother assumes that it's Rothmann, returned to make his claim. She pleads with Gustav to "deal with him".  Robert fearfully asks Gustav what he has in mind, and the elder step-brother explains the family's history with Rothmann, and why Mrs. Seidel, originally from the lower classes, holds such a grudge against the Jew.
"Those were glory times in any case; we never had so many servants. Life would have been grand, if it hadn't been for that Jew. Every other day he'd come for dinner, sometimes with his whole family in tow. Father practically fawned on him. It was, 'Try this cigar, Herr Rothmann, I had it sent from overseas,' and, 'Take the good chair, Herr Rothmann, here, by the fire, it's chilly out,' 'Such a delight to see you, you must come back soon,' on and on -- and me already in the police! It was then your mother and I started discussing Party business over dinner. Good God, we had such fun. One time, early on -- I remember it like it was yesterday -- Rothmann leaned over to your mother, very discreetly, mind, speaking under his breath, and instructed her how to hold the fork, 'in a good household.' You should have seen her blanch. I swear, she signed her soul over to the Party and cheered Rothmann's entire race to the gas chambers just for that 'in a good household.' Not that he was wrong, mind. Your mother handled cutlery like she was digging a latrine." 
The end of a war never means the end of hostilities; those may take generations to calm down, if they ever do. People stole, betrayed, and killed to survive the war, and there are always old scores to be settled. Gustav reminds young Robert that nearly everyone in Vienna has skeletons -- literal, figurative, or both -- in shallow graves.
"You know," he finished, patting the basement wall, "she's a little touched, your mama, but the truth is that half the people on this street, they have a Jew walled in their closet. God, how they are hoping the mortar will hold."
After reading The Crooked Maid, I learned that it's a sequel to an earlier novel, The Quiet Twin, which is equally acclaimed. I'm relieved to read that they work just fine as stand-alone books, and I look forward to my next visit to Vyleta's Vienna.

Note:  The painting above is by Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968) and is titled "Corn Poppies".  It hangs in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in the United States, and its subject reminds me of Eva, the crooked maid, in her incongruous, stolen red hat.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Stephen Grosz

I read this book on the strength of its Guardian review, which described the stories in this collection as blurring the line between psychotherapeutic case studies and philosophical essays. The reviewer, Talitha Stevenson, remarks on the author's restraint and humility:  Some of the insights are his, and others belong wholly to the patients, but in either case,"Grosz writes with such artful self-effacement that his cases seem to speak for themselves."

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes similar collections of case studies/essays, but he tends to focus on the more unusual and radical effects of brain injury, as in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. When reading Sacks, we're tempted to say "Oh, thank the statistical gods, that's unlikely to be me!", whereas when reading Grosz, again and again I thought, "Yes, that could well be me."  And it was discomfiting to see my own psycho-snafus held up to me in the mirror of this book.

In his chapter titled "Confidence", Grosz examines the influence parents exert upon their small children. He notes that the contemporary tendency to dole out empty praise is as harmful as earlier generations' habit of spewing out thoughtless criticism. He cites a study which shows that children who are praised for trying hard outperform those who are praised for being clever or excellent. If you stop to think about it for a moment, this makes perfect sense:  Why would a child continue to try harder after hearing that he is brilliant, or he is the best at doing whatever it is?  Praise the child for his diligent effort, however, and he'll continue to strive.

As I read this chapter, I looked back on my own parents' child-rearing methods, which probably fell into the category of gentle but relentless criticism -- "Well, that's not bad, dear, but it could be much better..."  At 52, I feel quite sure that nothing I ever do will be good enough, no matter how hard I try. Yet I am equally sure that my parents felt that they consistently encouraged me to try harder by keeping the bar just out of reach.

So many adults feel the need to give children guidance, advice, lessons.  Grosz observes the work of an octogenarian child psychologist, Charlotte Stieglitz, who tends to avoid the subject of praise vs. criticism and simply spends time with children.
Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present. Being present builds a child's confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we've not been attentive to her?
If, as adults, we wind up in the psychotherapist's office, it's usually because we are in pain, and we want it stopped. Healers of all kinds, however, take their time before dispensing analgesics, because pain can be a valuable diagnostic tool. Grosz points out that patients who deny, mask or dull their own psychic pain will be unlikely to find its root cause. Like a leper whose nerve damage has left him numb, those of us who numb our emotional grief also run the risk of injuring ourselves further as a result.
In 1946, while working in a leprosy sanatorium, the physician Paul Brand discovered that the deformities of leprosy were not an intrinsic part of the disease, but rather a consequence of the progressive devastation of infection and injury, which occurred because the patient was unable to feel pain. In 1972, he wrote: "If I had one gift which I could give to people with leprosy, it would be the gift of pain." Matt [Grosz' young and self-destructive patient] suffered from a kind of psychological leprosy; unable to feel his emotional pain, he was forever in danger of permanently, maybe fatally, damaging himself.
Oddly, one of the chapters that jolted me most was "A Safe House", in which a middle-aged businessman spends much of his therapeutic time talking about his house in France. He tells Grosz that merely thinking about the house reassures him, gives him a sense of security. When the apocalypse strikes, when life in the UK becomes untenable, he shall retreat to his safe house in France. During meetings, or when he can't sleep, or when he recalls his very abusive and violent childhood, he withdraws into the house, thinking of potential renovations, redecorations, extensions he might do. He sketches floor plans, examines paint samples, details what is on each shelf in the pantry. Throughout the session, the man acknowledges that his house in France gives him comfort when life gets stressful, just as he had wished for an escape route when his mother had been viciously beating him when he was a boy. Overall, though, the session seems to be a calm and reflective one, not emotionally tumultuous. And then his hour is up.
"Mr Grosz?"
"I don't really have a house in France. You do know that, don't you?"
Emma is a PhD student in her 20s who is suffering a deep depression. Grosz repeatedly asks her how she feels about this or that and is struck that she always responds by telling him what her father or her boyfriend, Mark, thinks about the matter. This exchange could easily have happened between Mr. Grosz and me. Like Emma's, my father was forever telling me what I should and shouldn't feel or think. What I did feel or think was either wrong or immaterial, so I lost sight of it altogether. Emma is obviously in the same boat.
"The conversation with my dad was like the conversation with Mark -- both were telling me what I really feel, or should feel." Emma said that she didn't understand how people knew what they really felt. "Most of the time, I don't know what I feel. I figure out what I should feel and then just act that way."
As he listens to a patient who talks herself out of every intimate relationship, Grosz is reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge.  (I love the idea of a Dickens character as a psychotherapeutic anti-hero.)  But it's true -- Scrooge cannot bear the thought that love ends. Actually, Scrooge finds any loss unpalatable. But protecting himself against losses has a steep cost.
Scrooge spends his evenings comforting himself; as he reads his deposit book, he thinks to himself, "You see? No losses, only gains." Ultimately, Scrooge changes because the ghosts unpick his delusion that you can live a life without loss. They undo his delusion by haunting Scrooge with the losses he has already experienced, the losses now being endured around him, and the inevitable loss of his own life and possessions.
Why do we stay in toxic relationships? Often for the same reason that we stay in any number of other unhealthy situations -- we are averse to change. Grosz cites a woman who had worked on a high floor in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  After seeing the plane crash into the neighbouring tower, Ms. Panigrosso grabbed her purse and ran down the stairs.  Other colleagues stayed at their desks, and one actually returned to the office to retrieve her daughter's baby pictures, which she'd left in her desk. None of them survived.
In Marissa Panigrosso's office, as in many of the other offices in the World Trade Center, people did not panic or rush to leave."That struck me as very odd," Marissa said. "I said to my friend, 'Why is everyone standing around?'" What struck Marissa Panigrosso as odd is, in fact, the rule. Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.
I read this account and shuddered. Having been badly burnt as a teen-ager, I do not stand around when I smell smoke or hear a fire alarm. I don't ask my neighbours if they know what's going on; I don't wonder if it might be a false alarm. I don't worry about what people might think of me as I exit the building as hastily as I can. This, however, seems to be a result of my own previous trauma. Ms. Panigrosso and I appear to be in the minority when it comes to emergency evacuations.
And research has shown, again and again, that when we do move, we follow old habits. We don't trust emergency exits. We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered. Forensic reconstruction after a famous restaurant fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving, and so died in a queue. After twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst, I can't say that this surprises me. We resist change.
But what about life situations that are only figuratively engulfed in flames? Do I move as purposefully toward the emergency exits? Do I even know where they are? Or do I loiter about my desk, wondering if it might be a false alarm, or if the firemen will extinguish it, solving the problem for me?  I've been in both personal relationships and work environments that were essentially on fire, and what did I do? Dithered, hung around, hoped things would magically clear up on their own. Grosz has two clients in destructive circumstances, and they too are paralysed.
For Mark A. and Juliet B. the fire alarm is ringing. Both are anxious about their situations. Both want change. If not, why tell a psychoanalyst? But they are standing around, waiting -- for what?
In my case, my own psychotherapist put this very question to me some years ago, noting that my life was indeed on fire: "What are you waiting for?"  The answer came to me instantly.  I was waiting for someone to give me either permission or orders to exit, or to make the necessary change. Just as people who are near death may hang on until a loved one assures him that it's okay to let go, I was waiting for someone else to give me the signal. My therapist's question prompted me to give myself permission.

Grosz speaks of the myriad external distractions we employ to avoid confronting our internal malaise. One patient comes to her sessions and tells him that she is very upset about a natural disaster here, a war there, and a long list of social ills right in her neighbourhood. I wondered what this woman was doing in the therapist's office -- after all, isn't it perfectly normal to be upset about the woes of the world? Part of Grosz' skill, however, is seeing through what his patients present as the problem.  Elizabeth's wars and disasters were nothing more than red herrings.
After about six months, Elizabeth confided that the first thing she felt in the morning was "a depressed, choking anxiety". She woke frightened, sometimes shivering with fear, until she remembered a problem, some urgent situation that required her to get out of bed and face the day. There are various ways to circumvent depressed, anxious feelings. It's not uncommon, for example, to exploit sexual fantasies, or to use hypochondriacal worries. Elizabeth employed her disasters to calm herself -- they were her tranquilliser ...
It's also not uncommon to use some large-scale calamity, or someone else's personal disaster -- the newspapers are full of both -- to distract oneself from one's own destructive impulses, and I soon noticed this tendency in Elizabeth ...
But we can sometimes exploit a disaster to block internal change. Like Elizabeth, we can take on a catastrophe to stop ourselves feeling and thinking -- and to avoid responsibility for our own intimate acts of destruction.
We've all been cornered at a party, feigning interest in the fluctuations of east Asian currencies or a re-hash of last weekend's cricket game, praying that the speaker will need to refill her glass or his plate very soon. In one chapter, Grosz describes a patient whose dullness does not reflect a stagnant life -- it's something quite different, and I'll never look at a tedious person in the same way again.
Graham C. was boring. One night, his girlfriend, an economist who worked in the City, told him so. They had just had a dinner party, during which she'd watched him, again and again, thoroughly bore the person he was talking to. "Can't you tell when someone goes dead behind the eyes?" she asked. Then she broke up with him. A few weeks later, the senior partner at Graham's law firm called Graham into his office. He told him that his work was fine, and that he appreciated the long hours he was putting in. But he warned Graham that the clients weren't taking to him. If Graham wanted to make partner, clients would need to feel a loyalty to him; they should want to call him with their problems. Graham saw the future he'd imagined for himself slipping away. Worried and depressed, he came to see me. For the first few months of his analysis, Graham bored me too ...
Graham's being boring was aggressive -- it was a way of controlling, and excluding, others: a way of being seen, but not seeing.
Grosz gives a chapter to one of his long-time friends, Tom, who accepted Grosz' referral to another therapist, Dr. A. When they meet for coffee, Tom relates what his therapy has revealed to him.
"... if you're frightened of being criticised, you're probably pretty critical. And what a surprise -- it turns out that I'm a critical person. It turns out that when I'm not finding fault with myself, I keep busy reproaching others. I won't bore you with the one thousand and one things that are wrong with the decor in Dr A.'s office -- or with Dr A. herself. You can imagine." Tom leaned forward and put his hands on the table. "Do you know the word captious?"
I had a good laugh at this, both because I've had a very similar realisation about myself, and because that very word -- captious -- is all but stalking me in my reading, as if mocking me. Tom goes on to share another belief that I've harboured all my life, despite the fact that I have no evidence to back it up.
" ... there's still part of me that wants to believe that if I stay nice and clean, and work really hard, and I'm a big success, I'll be protected from depression and anxiety."
The problem with being captious, of course, is just that:  You are always finding fault, both with yourself and others, but usually more the former.
Tom's minutiae-- the smell of his sweat, the mud on his shoes; how opposite this view of himself from my own picture of this big, gentle, civilised man. I thought about his fear that if he was known, if he was seen as he believes he truly is, he would be found dirty, broken. And being dirty and broken -- how could he love, or be loved?
I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book and that I found it very sensitive and insightful. I admire how Grosz helps his patients see what lies hidden beneath their ordinary coping mechanisms. My friend replied, "Well, yes... but what does he say about changing one's behaviour? It's one thing to understand what caused the problem, but does he say  anything about fixing it?"

I paused and thought.  "No. No, he doesn't." But does that diminish the value of the book? I would say not. Perhaps that would be a different book, or a sequel. Diagnosing the root cause of a problem is of course the first step, an indispensable step, and the insights that Grosz relates in The Examined Life are valuable as they stand. Changes or solutions may or may not follow. For myself, I know that I'm now more likely to make important changes in my life without waiting for someone else to grant me permission or encourage me to do so, and for that, I thank my therapist. On the other hand, knowing that I would be much happier if I curtailed my constant stream of self-criticism hasn't actually done much to curb it. The case studies in The Examined Life, however, encourage me to look at my own idiosyncrasies and upsets, and then to look, with gentler inner eyes, more deeply beneath them.