“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?

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A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #69)

Today’s post is  the latest in a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

A Room of One’s Own grew out of lectures Virginia Woolf was asked to give at Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in 1928. You can read the full essay in various places online. Women were only officially admitted to the university in 1948, and the fact that these talks were given 20 years previously shows just how ground-breaking Woolf was.  A Room of One’s Own is a vital proto-feminist text that remains relevant today.  The fact that you can buy bags, pillows, tea towels, deckchairs, mugs, notebooks ad infinitum with the book cover on is an indicator of how much the central image continues to speak to people, as well as the arguments themselves.

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(Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/particularbooks/postcards-from/)

The central image is: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  In other words, she needs a means to support herself, and space to reflect and think; she needs liberty, and these things have been traditionally denied to women.  They have been dependent on the men in their family for financial support, and not supposed to concern their pretty little heads with intellectual endeavour.  Woolf argues her points forcefully but wittily, you never feel you are being bludgeoned by polemic.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done.”

The paucity of women writers Woolf has at her disposal to refer to speaks volumes about the male dominance of writing up to this point, and the reliance on male point of view for literary portrayals of women:

“women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time — Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes … Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.”

Of course, Woolf was a highly accomplished and inventive writer herself, and this is reflected in the lecture which is not traditionally academic but instead illustrated with fictional characters such as Judith Shakespeare, sister of the more famous William:

 “his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. […]She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face […]who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? [She] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”

As my extensive quoting shows, I think this is a fantastic essay, well worth reading. It isn’t flawless, it’s culturally biased towards the speaker and her audience: middle-class, white, Western women.  But Woolf never claims to have all the answers: “women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” (I think the idea of women as an unresolved problem is ironic and assertive, not derogatory?) A Room of One’s Own highlights enduring problems, relevant to both genders, of how to claim societal freedom that will permit individual voices to be heard. It also makes me very glad that I am a woman in this day and age; I may be embarrassed at how ridiculously over-educated I am (a perennial student) but at least I had the choice to become so.

To end, a picture of a room I wish was my own – it could do with a few more books, though…

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(Image from http://pawilson.ca/are-there-some-books-you-keep-reading-over-and-over/ )

“Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name./Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.” (Robert Burns)

Saturday is Burn’s Night, in honour of Scotland’s favourite son, Robert Burns (1759-1796).  I’m posting today however, because tonight I am going to a Burn’s Night supper.  This will consist of Arbroath smokies, followed by haggis, tatties and neeps, followed by clootie dumpling, followed by an argument as to whether I’m going to dance at the ceilidh.   Although I have two left feet I quite enjoy a dance, but my suggestion that we do it before a three course stodge-fest has been met with derision.  Needless to say, I think I’ll be lying down in a corner while the more hardy among my number whizz around in Celtic fashion. To celebrate I’ve chosen a novel written in Scottish vernacular, and a poem by a Scottish writer. I like them both so I hope Burns won’t find me to be one of the “cutthroat bandits” he refers to with such derision. Slainte Mhath!

Firstly, Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2002).  This was Anne Donovan’s first novel, and it is a confident and accomplished debut.  It tells the story of Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, who becomes interested in Buddhism.  His desire to put his newly-discovered beliefs into the practice of his daily life cause strain in his relationships with his wife Liz and daughter Anne-Marie, and all three lend their voices to individual chapters to tell the story.

Jimmy learning to meditate: “It was as if ah’d never felt ma body afore; felt the tightness in ma airms and legs, the openness of ma chest, the wee niggles that ran aboot inside me that usually I never even think aboot. Then as ma breathin slowed doon and ah sterted tae feel mair relaxed he took me through each person in turn.  That was the really hard bit because as each feelin came up he tellt me no tae judge it.  Wi Anne Marie ah just felt ashamed that ah’d let her doon […] Then Liz. That was haurd too cos ah love her – always have – but somehow ah cannae get her tae unnerstaund how this is that important tae me. There’s a gap openin up between us. Ah can feel it and ah’m scared.”

The relationships do start to break down, but Donovan is very even-handed and you don’t apportion blame, you can just see how it’s happening as people grow apart.  The first person narrative from all three characters means you can empathise with them all.  Liz doesn’t always behave in the best way, but I still felt sympathy for her as she struggles to make the life she wants:

“It was five o’clock in the morning but ah didnae want tae go back to sleep in case the dream started again.  It wasnae the most frightenin dream ah’d ever had but it was confusin.  Usually if ah have a dream it’s dead obvious what it means, but this.  Ah leaned back on the pillows, shut ma eyes and the feelin came back tae me; the cauld of the water beneath ma feet, the panic as ah started tae sink and the relief as ah sprung up oot the water, the green castin an eerie light all round the sky and this dark, shadowy figure waitin for me on a rock on the other side.”

And between them both, their daughter Anne Marie.  After she plays her parents a song she’s made with her friend:

“And ah was dead chuffed that they liked it but efterwards, sittin in ma room, ah kept feelin that there was sumpn missin. As if they hadnae really got it. And ah really wanted them, no just tae like it, but tae unnerstaund it.  And ah didnae think they did.”

And that really is the crux of Buddha Da.  It’s about how the people we love may not always be the ones who really understand us.  It’s about the gaps that exist even in our closest relationships.  Donovan writes with real affection for the characters, and so these themes aren’t depressing.  It’s a warm novel about living with imperfections and muddling through together. If you’re interested in Scottish vernacular novels, two famous examples you may want to try are Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, and How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.

Secondly, a poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in Glasgow.    I love Duffy’s writing, and she’s managed the rather astonishing feat of writing decent poems within her remit of commemorating national events. Warming Her Pearls (from Selling Manhattan (1987)) was written long before she took office, and is one of her more famous verses.  However, I still went ahead and chose it rather than something more obscure, as I do think it’s brilliant.  You can read the full poem here.  It is spoken in the voice of a maidservant to a rich society woman:

“Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress

bids me wear them, warm them, until evening

when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them

round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her”

This to me is a good example of Duffy’s writing: accessible, simple language to convey an unconventional literary voice, in this case, a maid’s erotic love for her mistress.  The power dynamic of the relationship with its “bidding” and the rope of pearls adds a slightly BDSM element, and Duffy plays with the idea of power throughout the poem.  The maid is emboldened by her desire outside of social class, rather than cowed by it.  I love the following image:

“[I] picture her dancing

with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent

beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.”

The insidious nature of the maid infiltrating her mistress’ life through her body odour is so clever, slyly humorous and evocative; the idea of bodies betraying themselves is carried on in the next stanza: the soft blush seep through her skin/like an indolent sigh.   The tenderness with which the maid approaches her mistress, a reflection of her feelings, is wonderfully evoked through this beautiful language.  Warming Her Pearls is as delicate and subtle as the situation it portrays.

Finally, a little bonus, another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, this is from The World’s Wife, where she imagines the stories of the wives of famous men.  ‘Mrs Darwin’ is one of the shortest, so here it is in its entirety:

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.

I said to Him –

Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

I could end with a picture of the books, but I doubt Burns would approve of such a prosaic choice.  Instead, here’s one of the most Scottish things you’ll ever see:

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(Image from http://www.sattlers.org/mickey/culture/clothing/kilts/hallOfFame.html)