Monday, August 11, 2014

Sloth and torpor

The internet is conspiring to scold me today. Over the past few months, I haven't been reading as much as I normally do. Sure, studying Khmer for several hours each week takes some time away from my Kindle, but I could still read more than I do.

I feel guilty about this, because I have mountains of excellent books at hand.  I'm not wasting my time reading rubbish.

I am just spending too much time sitting at the computer.  Too much time, in fact, looking at cute cat pictures which in turn chastise me for not reading good books.

Discipline! What I need is discipline. It wouldn't hurt to have a sad-eyed black cat like the Bear (above) instead of my resident voluptuary, Crumpet, who considers napping the highest form of self-improvement.

No more excuses -- I will finish the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn by the end of this week. I love reading, and these books are superb. It's pure laziness on my part. Switching off the computer now.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel

I am still waiting to encounter the book by Hilary Mantel that leaves me anything less than awestruck.

One of the countless subjects she handles very astutely is the expatriate experience. In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, she brought me as close as I ever wish to get to living as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.  In A Change of Climate, the story shifts back and forth between Norfolk, England and Africa -- specifically South Africa, where apartheid was still new in the early 1950s, and then Bechuanaland (now Botswana).

Mostly, though, this is a book about family chemistry, in which secrets are powerful catalysts, having indirect effects on those who don't know them and often corrosive effects on those who keep them.

Ralph Eldred wants to attend university to pursue his passion for geology -- specifically fossils -- but his father, a Bible literalist, forbids it, insisting that Darwinism is atheism by another name. Making scant headway with his determined son, the patriarch delivers a threat:  Persist in this endeavour, and I shall pull your sister, Emma, out of her studies at medical school. Ralph capitulates, though few (and certainly not his beloved sister) understand the reason why.

The story jumps ahead to Ralph's middle years; he and his wife, Anna, have returned from their missionary postings in Africa to Norfolk, where they're living in a rambling, ramshackle house with their four children. Ralph manages a charitable trust, and the young, old, addled and addicted clients of the trust frequently land in the Eldreds' home for a period of time. Eldest daughter Kit, aged 10, upon finding one of them ineffectually slicing her wrists over the kitchen sink, simply goes for the first-aid kit, and disinfects and bandages the woman's shallow knife cuts. Although the woman clearly has psychological problems, Ralph places her into his category of "Good Souls".  It's small wonder that Ralph's children frequently commented that they lived with a saint.
And this was how the world was divided, when Kit was growing up—into Good Souls and Sad Cases. There was no wickedness in it.
Meanwhile, Ralph's wife, Anna, attends the funeral of the local estate agent, Felix Palmer. Nearly everyone in the area knew that Felix had been carrying on for years with Ralph's sister, Emma. Felix's wife, Ginny, knew it. Anna and the children knew it. Only Ralph was in the dark. But it's a funeral, and everyone maintains a semblance of propriety, as Anna makes clear to her older son, Julian, when she returns home.
Anna went into the kitchen. Julian had heard her come in, and was setting out cups for tea.
 “How did it go?”
 “It went well, I suppose,” Anna said. “We buried him. The main object was achieved. How do funerals ever go?"
 “How was Mrs. Palmer?”
 “Ginny was very much herself. A party of them were going back to the house, for vol-au-vents provided by Mrs. Gleave.” Anna made a face. “And whiskey. She seemed very insistent on the whiskey. If you’d have asked for gin—well, I don’t know what!”
Julian reached for the teapot. “Nobody would have gin, would they, at a funeral?”
“No, it would be unseemly,” Anna said. Mother’s ruin, she thought. The abortionist’s drink. A mistress’s tipple. Flushed complexions and unbuttoned afternoons. 
Then Mantel takes us back to the beginning of Ralph and Anna's marriage, when they accept a missionary posting in South Africa. They seem neither giddy and idealistic nor pious. They seem more than anything to want to be away from Norfolk. Upon arriving in Cape Town, they have an audience with the weary and elderly archbishop.
“Do you also not feel equal to it?” the archbishop inquired.
“I am not sure anyone could be.” This was a good answer.
“Well, I know I am not,” the archbishop said. “There are two things—no, three things—I ask of you, particularly. Try not to despise your opponents; try not to hate them. It will probably be quite difficult for you, but for a Christian the effort is necessary. And try not to break the law. You have not been sent here to get yourselves into the newspapers or the magistrate’s court. I hope you can remember that.”
“The third thing?” Ralph said.
“Oh yes. When you write home to England, ask your people not to make hasty judgments. It is a complicated country, this. I comfort myself that there is little real wickedness in it. But there is so much fear, fear on all sides. Fear paralyzes the sympathies, and the power of reasoning. So it becomes a kind of wickedness, in the end.” The archbishop looked up, nodded. The interview was over.
There it is again. "...ask your people not to make hasty judgments... there is little real wickedness in it." Withhold judgment.  Anna and Ralph will hear this again from the Boer police who arrest and deport them -- You don't understand; this is a very complicated situation. It's true that they are foreigners, new to the country, but it's also patently obvious that the ruling white South Africans are using power oppressively and corruptly. By taking a stand, Ralph and Anna find themselves arrested, disgraced and deported to the backwater known as Bechuanaland.  And that is where the real tragedy strikes them.

Years later, Anna and Ralph are re-settled in Norfolk, Ralph running the trust that his uncle founded, and Anna trying to hold the house and their four teen-aged children together. Two of them, Kit and Robin, reflect on sharing a home with "saints".
“But do you know what I mean? Mum works so hard to keep the house going, with that furnace to be fed, and that demented twin-tub, and that antique Hoover. All Dad does is bring home hulking great hallstands from Yarmouth, and then beam on us like Jehovah and think he’s done his duty by us. Don’t you ever wonder why we have to be good all the time, why we have to have such tender consciences, why we have to have these Visitors every summer?”
“We’ll be getting some new Visitors soon,” Robin said. “Morlocks, Yahoos, slags, and tarts.”
“Why can’t we be normal, and self-absorbed, and acquisitive?” 
Anna and Ralph, however, are not saints. They coped (or failed to cope) in very different ways with the horrifying incident in Africa. It becomes clear to the reader (if not always to the characters)  that the residue of that experience will colour the rest of their lives. Anna, especially, stores a great reservoir of bitterness. In a rare outburst, she airs her unsaintly thoughts on what they sacrificed on that mission.
"I wish we had never left England. I do not believe that any good we have done here can compensate for a hundredth part of what we have suffered, and for what we will suffer as our lives go on. It seems to me impossible that we will ever lead lives like other people, or that anything ordinary and normal and safe will ever be within our reach again."
Not long after their return, Ralph and Anna sit down with Uncle James, the founder of the trust which Ralph will manage. Anna's twin senses of rage and isolation are palpable, and I can't think of many writers who could express them as deftly as Hilary Mantel.
When Ralph and Anna returned to England they began at once upon the business of finding a house. Practical considerations would not go away; there were decisions to make. Anna had talked only briefly, grudgingly, about her missing child. What was the point of talking? she asked. No one could share her feelings. No one could enter into them.
“Anna, don’t injure yourself more,” James said. “There is a thing people do—when they have been hurt, they hurt themselves again, they compound the damage. Don’t become bitter. That’s all I ask.”
“It’s a great deal to ask,” Ralph said.
“Next, James,” Anna said, “you’ll be asking me to forgive.” A kind of hard jauntiness had entered her voice; it was her usual tone now.
“No, I wouldn’t ask that. Not yet.”
“Good,” Anna said. “I am not up to the effort.”
“If you could think,” James said, “that there are some things that God does not control or will, then you could ask God for comfort … but it’s very difficult, Anna.”
“It’s impossible,” she said. “I asked God for comfort when I came home to Elim [South Africa] every night, and saw these beaten people waiting for me on the stoep—but God kept very quiet, James. God did nothing. It was up to me to do something, but I acted within constraints—I tried to be good, you see, I felt the love of God biting into my wrists like a pair of handcuffs. So what did I offer these people? Bandages and platitudes. Suppose my training had been different? I might have stepped on the train to Cape Town with a revolver in my bag, I might have shot Dr. Verwoerd—then I might have done some good in the world. Now, James—when I had in the room with me the man who was going to kill my child—when I had in my hand a broken bottle, suppose I had drawn the edges across his eyes? Suppose I had sliced his eyes to ribbons, suppose I had severed his veins and made him bleed to death? Then I would have done some good in the world.”
“Anna—” he said. She saw the fear in his face.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You leave me alone, James, and I’ll leave you alone. You don’t come at me with your theology, and I won’t stop Ralph doing his job. It was planned that he should take over the Trust, yes? So there’s no reason to change the plan. It doesn’t matter what I think, inside myself. Nobody could imagine or know what I think, inside myself. But I promise you I won’t stand up in church and bawl out that it’s all a sham. We’re professional Christians, aren’t we, Ralph and me? That’s how we make our living. Why should we be poor, when every hypocrite is rich?” No one had seen her cry, not once; not from the beginning. Emma knew right away, when she met them at the airport: “Anna is too angry to cry. She is almost too angry to breathe.”
People who have never lived abroad will tell expatriates that they can't fathom the culture shock of living in a culture vastly different than their own. Few stop to consider, though, that the reverse culture shock can be nearly as profound if and when the expatriate comes back home.
It’s not so easy to return from Africa, even when circumstances are favorable and the return is planned. Hostilities against the cockroach and the ant cease only gradually. A mark on the wall converts itself into a crawling tick, and there is effort and vigilance all the time—it is hard to sit in the fitful English sunshine, in the heat without threat, harmless insects brushing your bare arms. It was more than a year before Anna could bring herself to leave a plate or a cup on a table; after it had been used, she would snatch it away and wash it, to thwart the advancing carpet of crawling greed. “Poor Anna,” people said. “She’s always on the go. She’ll wear herself out, that girl.” The words used about her, the trite kindnesses, had a sting of their own. There had been a tragedy in her life, and no one here had the terms for it. In winter the weight of her clothes oppressed her; wool and shoe leather chafed and cramped and squeezed.
I know other expatriates will empathise with the following passage, knowing all too well the polite and uncomprehending silence of those for whom living in a foreign country is simply unfathomable. A friend of mine announced to her friends in Michigan, US, that she would be volunteering for an NGO in Phnom Penh for two months. Their response:  Collective mute stares followed by a change of topic. She told me today that they never asked her about the experience once she'd returned to Michigan. For Anna and Ralph, their African tragedy makes the conversation even more awkward.
Anna’s parents knew the facts—knew the probabilities, that is— but they settled for not talking about them. They pretended that they were sparing their daughter’s feelings, but really they were sparing their own. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for catastrophe. They worshipped routine; events were dubious matters, and often in bad taste. It was a form of showing off, to have things happen to you. “Of course, it’s terrible, a horrible thing, dreadful,” Mrs. Martin said, “but although I don’t say so, of course, I blame him for taking her there in the first place. He could have had a nice job with his father, there was no need to trail halfway across the globe.” The Martins had spent much of their lives beating the drum for the Christian faith, getting up jumble sales and flower shows so that the dark races could have the benefit of the company of brisk young Englishmen who were familiar with the Psalms and (among other Books) the Book of Job. But they did not expect to have one of these young Englishmen in their back parlor behind the shop, frozen and speechless with misery. They did not expect the Book of Job to have any practical application...

Ralph had feared intrusive questions, but instead there was an indifference that he felt as an insult. He made a discovery, common to those who expatriate themselves and then return: that when he and Anna went abroad they had ceased to be regarded as real people. Out of sight, out of mind. Nobody, even the most generous donor to mission appeals, wanted to hear anything about Africa.
Although Mantel's characters seem to reach an accord to put the horror into storage and get on with life, like so many other dark secrets, it takes on a sinister life of its own, creeping out in dreams, in cringing expressions, in diverted conversations.
After a while they ceased to flinch when a picture of a lost child appeared in the newspapers. Finally the dimensions of the tragedy shrunk; there was a little barbed area in which no one trod, in which the secret was sequestered and locked away. Was it less potent, confined? No: it was more potent, Ralph felt. He dreamt of scrubbing blood away, scrubbing his own blood off a cement floor; but the stain always returned, like the blood in Bluebeard’s room. He understood, then, what the fairy tale means; blood is never wiped out. No bad action goes away. Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself; only its form changes.
Hilary Mantel crafts characters like no one else, but one of the finer ones in this book is the house itself, which becomes an architectural reflection of the family that lives in it -- somewhat disjointed, operating on laissez-faire laws, harboring secrets.
She remembered how she had tried to sell the place, only a couple of years ago. It was a house with no center, she had always felt, no room from which you could command other rooms. Sound traveled in its own way; from one of the attics, you could hear the downstairs telephone quite distinctly, but from nearer rooms it couldn’t be heard at all. The house had its own conduits, sight lines. Sometimes one of the children’s friends had stayed overnight, without her knowing. She didn’t make a practice of searching the rooms, scouring the cupboards and landings for fugitives or stowaways; the house would have its private life, whether she agreed or not. In the morning a parent would telephone, furious or distraught. She would say, “Your child is here to be collected. I make no charge for bed and breakfast.” And then, oblivious to the babble on the line, she would put down the phone. She had not lived her life in a way that attracted sympathy. She had made sure of that. 
Although she gives us moving and profound insights into the lives of these characters, Mantel weaves the same cautionary message throughout the book:  You can't really understand. The South African authorities repeatedly tell Ralph and Anna that no matter how long they stay in the country, the situation is too complex for them to grasp, and so they should neither judge nor meddle in it. Ralph's conservative Christian father, when arguing with his son about why he will not fund a geology degree, says the same thing:  You're young; you're arrogant, and you think you have (or can find through scientific means) all the answers. You can't. The Norfolk residents neither claim nor want any understanding of Africa, nor of what Anna and Ralph experienced there. As the family reaches their crisis point at the book's climax, teen-aged daughter Kit tries to reason with her mother in an attempt to salvage her parents' marriage. And Anna's response?  You know nothing of these matters. You can't possibly understand.

It's true, none of us will ever fully understand what another experiences. That statement, however -- "You don't understand!" -- is a defense mechanism, a barrier.  "...And don't even try" is often the unspoken tag line, leaving the speaker isolated. If we listen and read carefully, though, we can at least gain some insight into the matter. Hilary Mantel has made potential friends and confidantes of her readers, if only her characters could reach out and accept them.

The photo above is by Rebecca Brittain; prints are available for sale here.