Going Beyond Ourselves: Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

In the early 90s, Kate Clanchy was a young teacher in a decaying mining town in Scotland. Tasked with teaching her thirteen-year-olds about HIV, she soon realizes the children know nothing about sex. She has them write their questions anonymously and promises to answer them, no matter what. Never since in her thirty years in the classroom, Clancy avers in Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, has she been so frightened. But the sex education class goes well: the children are interested, relieved, full of relieved laughter. What if you’re having sex and need to pee? Can you have sex while menstruating? Most of the questions, she explains in a characteristically deft phrase, are “not about juices, but about love: could anybody love; could gay people love; could you change later on. I only had to say the words aloud and say yes.”

As a prize-winning writer, Clanchy is in the classroom less often these days, but she can still silence a fractious room with a glance or chasten obnoxious teenagers on a bus. Yet despite these formidable qualities, she invariably appears in the book as the kind of teacher she was in that moment in Scotland: someone who makes things possible, someone who offers a model. I only had to say the words aloud and say yes.

Anker_Die_Dorfschule_von_1848_1896

In the Scottish classroom, lesson completed, Callum sidles up to her. Callam, who, “in a class of undersized, undeveloped children,” is “by far the least tall, the least developed.” The boy asks:

‘Whit wis the name for men and men?’

‘That was homosexuality, Callum.’

‘Aye. And whit wis the name for women and men?’

‘That’s heterosexuality, Callum.’

‘Aye. Well, when I grow up, I’m no’ going to have either o’ them. Ah think Ah’ll just have a big dog.’

But Kids Say The Darndest Things is not, thank God, Clanchy’s modus operandi. Here’s what she says next:

No one said ‘fluid’ back then—gender fluid, fluid identity—but fluid is a good word for that afternoon. The room seemed liquid, lacking in barriers. And fluid was what those children were, behind their stern names and rigid codes. Changeable, molten, and warm as any child; waiting for a mould, hoping there would be space for the swelling, shrinking, and unknowable quantity of themselves. For Callum, that space needed to include the possibility of living on his own, and that was as important to him as the possibility, for surely one child in that class, and very probably more, of falling in love with someone of your own sex. So, I didn’t say that would be bestiality, Callum, though the thought flickered across my mind. I said yes, yes, Callum, you could do that. A dog would be very nice. That, Callum, would be grand.

The book is full of generous and smart reflections of this sort. It would have been easy (but wrong) to joke about this provincial child. And Clanchy is honest enough to suggest that she thought about it. Instead she gets a laugh without a joke, and a warm laugh at that. Plus, she shows us how important flexibility is to good teaching. Look how alive her prose is, studded with precise, mobile adjectives—students are “changeable, molten, and warm,” wanting their “swelling, shrinking, unknowable” selves to find a place in the world. We don’t create ourselves from nothing, no matter what bootstrap conservatives would have us believe, we need models, moulds to use Clanchy’s word. Family—especially extended family, especially that extended family of friends and mentors and people who wish us well we have if we are lucky, a topic Clanchy explores brilliantly in her earlier memoir, Antigona and Me—often provides such a mould. And so does school.

In addition to her narrative non-fiction, Clanchy has written a novel and a book of short stories. But she is best known as a poet; in addition to her own verse, she has complied anthologies of poetry written by her students, mostly from the multicultural school in Oxford where she teaches. Students speak dozens of languages at home; no ethnic/racial group makes up a minority. It is a truly diverse place, an exhilarating but also difficult reality, especially for someone trying to teach poetry. The landscapes Clanchy’s students have grown up in are not “ones with lakes and low hills and houses filled with grandmothers in aprons who baked sponge cakes”; thanks to unconsciously imbibed structural racism, the students don’t understand their experiences as proper subjects for poems. (She tells an anecdote about two girls from the subcontinent who write adventures stories together, stories set in American summer camps they have no experience with. The stories are awkward, misshapen. “‘The thing is,’” she gently points out, “‘canoes don’t have engines? Usually.’”)

So Clanchy brings to class examples from young poets, written by POC whenever possible. More than the subject matter, though, or the background of the writer, what matters is her method. She passes around a poem, asks the students to read it, then starts talking with them, not interpreting the poem so much as just seeing what conversation it sparks. Then she sets them to writing their own poems, maybe asking them to copy the structure of the example, or giving them a line to repeat. They write amazing poems.

Everything Clanchy does with students follows this credo, music to my ears:

We are learning to write by reading and to read by writing.

She adds:

We will know we are learning to read well when we recognize beauty and truth in our own writing and in others’ writing. We will know we are progressing in writing at those times when we go beyond ourselves; when we express what we did not even know we meant in a graceful synthesis of words and sounds that is both ours alone and part of the richness of our languages and literatures. We will know we have learned much about English at various points in the future, near and far, when we express ourselves confidently in writing, and when we find joy and humour and wisdom in reading.

I almost balked at “beauty and truth,” but this isn’t Keats or Arnold (not that I imagine Clanchy has any problem with them). And I love the “going beyond ourselves” formulation (not least because of that inclusive “our”—these words apply to Clanchy as much as her kids). I believe in this idea too, I chant it at my students, I’ve seen it happen. When you give students time, and encouragement, and good models, when you help them let go of the idea that writing is a mere transcription of some preexisting idea, and show them that writing is thinking, is creating, you get exciting results. Moreover, you don’t always know the full extent of what they will achieve. You plant the seeds and trust in the flower, though you’re not often around to see it.

Interestingly, Clanchy doesn’t follow the prevailing (in the US, anyway) wisdom that writing, especially creative writing, is self-expression. She is uninterested in using writing to process trauma, especially for students who are refugees or poor or both (as many of Clanchy’s students are) and who know trauma first-hand. She admits, though, that her philosophy has changed: she has come to see how expression matters inasmuch as it leads to detachment, distance, and control: “The writing of a poem does not open the writer to a desperate blurt… rather, it orders the experience it recounts and gives the writer a grip on it.” Even when they exaggerate or self-aggrandize, as her student poets often do, they are controlling their experience. And if they do more, “if they dig deep, and find effective images, and make a good poem out of the truths of their lives, then that is not just control, but power. It is different from being happy; it isn’t a cure for anything, but it is profoundly worth having.”

Clanchy’s insistence that feeling oneself a valid, meaningful person—being legible to others as a fellow human being, sadly much rarer than you’d think—lies at the root of the book’s most inspiring idea. She calls it “patrimony,” by which she means the abilities, interests, and dispositions a child brings to an educational situation. Instead of worrying—as middle-class parents in the US and UK routinely do—what school will give their kid, we should consider what their kid will bring to school. Writing about the decision she and many of her well-educated friends face—do we send our kid to the local school (more diverse, less highly ranked) or to the “better” one?—she concludes, “You are taking something away from the community when you withdraw your child.” Moreover, to do so is to destroy a virtuous circle. Because it isn’t just the community that gains; it’s also the child. Here’s the balance she draws up after she and a friend decide, inciting much neighbourhood consternation, to send their boys to the local school:

What they received at school: those grades [her son did just as well as he would have done at the “better” school], a special card from Faroq entitling them to free minicab rides in exchange for  all the help in Maths, the ability to knit, an acquaintanceship with kids from every corner of the globe, and the confidence that if they walked across any rough park in town, late at night, and were approached by a hooded gang, it would probably just be Mo and Izzat, saying hi. What they gave: their own oddity in the rich mix of the school, their Maths coaching, their articulate voices in class, their academic demands, their parents’ informed labour, their high grades to spike the stats, their evident wellness and cheer to act as advertisement for other parents… And one other thing they got: the knowledge that they had something to give—a patrimony—as well as something to take, from the communities they joined.

Clanchy disparages academic streaming: “the good done to the selected minority is always smaller than the bad done to the rejected majority.” By contrast, she values special classes for struggling students—what at least at the time of writing was called in the UK Inclusion Units (IU). These beliefs are contradictory only from the position of equality, rather than that of equity. Many, even in the education system, disparage the IU as holding lower performing kids to lower standards. But “higher standards” is almost always a code for “what rich, white, well-adjusted kids know how to do.” Standards in the IU, where Clanchy teaches poetry once a week, are in fact challenging. “It’s just that the IU acknowledged that for some kids, very simple things were challenging.”

I love how Clanchy’s mixes tartness (evident when she demolishes streaming) and generosity (evident in her writing about the IU). She’s always ready to counter received wisdom, always ready to imagine why people do what they do, even when those actions seem self-defeating or dismaying to middle-class norms. Writing about why so many girls in the IU got pregnant, for example, she concludes:

The IU girls did it to contribute to the family home, to be like their families, or because even six months in the council mother-and-baby unit as you waited for a flat was better than living in an unhappy home. [From a US perspective, it’s amazing how generous the UK benefits system seems. That is not a compliment to the UK.] They did it because they didn’t know anyone who had done it differently, and middle-class choices such as university seemed completely unreal. They did it because they weren’t willing to reject everything about their own upbringing, especially when people from different backgrounds had not been helpful to them. They did it because they wanted someone to love, and because they believed, as we all do, that they could make a better job of it than their own mothers. They did it because it was the only route to a bit of independence and status realistically available to them. They did it because they weren’t stupid, not because they were.

These analyses are even easier to take on board because Clanchy doesn’t spare herself. Take, for example, the story of Kristell, a girl in the IU who is bombarded with unwanted attention by boys (they snatch her papers, they read aloud over her shoulder, they harass her in all sorts of petty, maddening ways). One day Kristell plaintively asks why they do it. Because you’re so beautiful, Clanchy replies, because they want your attention, because they like you.

Kristell’s face crumples: You’ve got it all wrong, she says. They hate me. No, Clanchy tuts, that’s not right. But later she concedes that Kristell knew what’s what. And the problem wasn’t just the boys. She was right

to tell me that the boys’ attention was a form of hate; it was, and so was my attitude to her, so was the attitude of our entire society, the attitude that identifies disruption as coming from the young girl, not the gazing man, that attributes power to such a powerless person.

Clanchy’s writing pedagogy aims to chip against this structural disparity, to replace, even just a little, even for the kids as expert in self-sabotage as Kristell—that is, as resourceful in finding even this desperate and Pyrrhic strategy for responding to the impossible situations of their lives: Kristell writes poems about self-harm and rape—powerlessness with power.

original_400_600

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me has many fine qualities. It’s often funny—a student at a debate tournament makes a long speech “about climate change, linked, as it so often is, to littering.” It’s often heartfelt—to a colleague who, having dedicated herself to the IU and done so much for so little recognition, despairs over the value of her work, Clanchy stoutly insists, “‘It was a great thing, what you did in the IU. One of the best things I’ve ever seen.’” And, as these and the many other examples I’ve been compelled to quote suggest, it’s always wise and generous.

I wish this book would be published in the US, but I bet it won’t. US publishers are parochial and the book’s necessarily specific to the UK education system: seldom have I so enjoyed a book I understood so little of. But Some Kids will speak even to readers who, like me, don’t know what GCSE stands for or what a comprehensive is. Not because growing up is the same everywhere (though some bits are) or because everyone could learn from Clanchy’s way of teaching (though many could). But because to write carefully about particular situations—to indulge our fascination about the details of our lives—is to write for wide appeal. Some Kids recently won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Maybe that will entice someone to give it a try over here.

struth_-_aquarium

Clanchy starts the book with a little hymn to September, “school’s New Year.” A time to start afresh, to meet new students, to see how old students have become new people over the summer. A time when it’s easy to remember the wonderful parts of teaching, perhaps most importantly, she suggests, how the classroom takes her out of herself.

This line resonated strongly with me—I’ve always found the classroom a way of both being and escaping myself. That’s how this introvert can thrive in that performance space; that’s why the crap of daily life can fall away for an hour. This September will be the first time in twenty years I won’t be in the classroom—given how fraught, how dangerous this fall is likely to be, I’m even more grateful for a fortunately timed sabbatical—and I know I’ll miss it. But I’ll be thinking about it. Instead of being in the classroom I’ll be writing about it—or trying to, anyway. It’s time to give myself the chance to write a long-imagined book on teaching the Holocaust. I’m frightened of this opportunity, at least half-convinced I’m not up to the task. I read Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me as an example of what I might write. Often I was daunted. How will I ever write anything this good? How will I capture my students so vividly? How will I blend narrative and analysis so elegantly? Then I thought about Clanchy’s idea of models. I remembered what she said about writing poems. First you read some, and then you try them on for size. You imitate them, you tinker, you improvise, you bring your inimitable self to the thing you’re copying.

Deep breath. Here goes.

 

 

 

On Lumbago

Both of my Swiss grandmothers loved to garden—vegetables more than flowers. They came of age in the 1930s, when thrift, frugality, parsimoniousness, always characteristic Swiss traditions, were especially valuable. Decades later, as a child, I would spend the summer in Switzerland every four years or so. These trips were the most indelible experiences of my life.

After especially busy sessions in the garden, my paternal grandmother (we called her Grossmami) would be almost laid-up with back pain. Nothing could actually incapacitate her: she was always in motion, a doer more than a thinker. She allowed herself the occasional nap, but that was it. Idleness was not for her.

I was never as close to Grossmami as to my maternal grandmother, my Grossmueti, but I loved her: she was sweet and witty and sassy and had gorgeous, opulent hair she was vain about. I inherited the hair and the vanity.

In the summer of 1986, when I was 14, my sister and I spent a month in Switzerland on our own before our parents joined us. We ate a lot of vegetables from the garden: lettuce, tomatoes, rutabagas (gross) and green beans, so many green beans. (In retrospect, I wonder how much radiation we consumed with them—the Chernobyl disaster had happened only a few months earlier.)

Once, when Grossmami came in from the garden, hands on her back, bent forward, I asked how she had hurt herself. She spoke no English, really; my Swiss German was good but hardly perfect. She told me she had a Hexenschuss. I did not know this word, it seemed strange and ominous. Something about a witch?

I mean, I was not totally crazy. Eine Hexe is a witch. Ein Schuss is a shot. A shot from a witch? A witchy shot? Surely not. She tried to explain: it came from bending over in the garden too long, it happened when you got older, it hurt, it went away in a day or two. It was no fun but it was no big deal.

The next time I was at my maternal grandmother’s (the grandmothers lived about 20 minutes apart) I looked in a German-English dictionary. Grossmueti spoke only a little more English than Grossmami, but hers was a house of books.

The few books owned by my paternal grandparents were clearly for show, unwanted sediment from some long-forgotten Book of the Month Club-type membership. I still remember a gilt-backed Crime and Punishment, a book I’m sure they never read but that I knew I would. (Even then I was good at using the thought of reading something—as opposed to actually reading it—to mark the person I wanted to be.) My maternal grandmother, by contrast, had lots of books. They were mostly my grandfather’s, a Marxist machinist who loved Charlie Chaplin but who never seemed funny to me, on the contrary, he was stern and unsmiling and had always scared me (he died of a heart infection when I was ten). Some of the books were her own, mostly about women in religion; in her quiet way she was a feminist, it seemed to me to fit with her quiet dignity (she was very tall, especially for a woman of that time, that might have contributed to my sense—when I think of her I see her on her bicycle, she took it everywhere and never learned to drive). Even as kid it was clear how different Grossmueti’s house was from Grossmami’s. Grossmueti lived in a town, Grossmami in the country. Grossmueti’s kitchen had no need of flypaper. Her living room had no television. Television was a big deal at Grossmami’s, although this was back when there were no programs during the day. All of these things made their houses seem totally different to me. What I might say now is that although my father’s parents were richer, my mother’s parents had more cultural capital.

Which takes me back to the dictionary. Ein Hexenschuss, I read, was “lumbago.” (The dictionary was clearly British.) That didn’t help. I knew the word from Agatha Christie mysteries, where people, mostly curates, sometimes suffered from it, but I didn’t know what it meant. It always sounded vaguely like a dance, though I knew that couldn’t be right. Hexenschuss, the word as inscrutable as my grandmother’s pain, remained one of those cross-cultural mysteries, those gaps in communication that made me feel more helpless and childish than I was, and that always left a gap between me and my relatives. It was frustrating to be a bookish child, in love with language, yet unable to communicate to family with ease and nuance.

Flash forward thirty-five years and now I know that the pinching feeling I get when I vacuum is lumbago. Every week, as I push the bloody thing around in a losing battle against the dog hair that coats the house, the word runs through my head (Hexenschuss, Hexenschuss, Hexenschuss) and I think of my grandmother Madeleine Stuber, née Muriset, who was from a town known in German as Biel and French as Bienne (like the writer Robert Walser whom I almost wrote my dissertation on) and whose first language was French and who was as elegant as people in that part of rural Switzerland got, and who would have surely been happier with another husband but who, I think, had a good life, certainly a long one, and might in fact even still be alive had she not elected in 2015 to take up her right, under Swiss law, to end her life.

She was in her mid 90s then, depressed and ground down by age but still mentally and mostly physically together. She shuffled a bit, worried about falling. She was probably developing Parkinson’s. Her decision to kill herself through physician-assisted suicide did not go over well with her children, my father and my aunts. (No one ever knew what my uncle was thinking.)

I’m reminded now that hexen means to do witchcraft, to perform black magic, to do ill—this is where the English word “hex” comes from. Our word “hag” has the same origins; eine Hexe is also a pejorative for a woman, a minx, a hussy, at least it used to be, the term might be old-fashioned and definitely should be retired. Madeleine was not a minx, though it’s the kind of thing people in my father’s family might say: the Stubers were into snappy retorts and teasing, all very funny, but with an undercurrent of meanness, as teasing always carries. So Hexe is also a curse, which is probably the primary referent in Hexenschuss—that pain makes you feel cursed all right. I feel sad about the end of my grandmother’s life, but not angry. I don’t think her life was curses, or her suicide a curse on her descendants. No crime, no punishment.

GetAttachmentThumbnail

My grandmother Madeleine with my grandfather Paul

Instead I think that at least I spend an hour or so thinking about her each week. As I busy myself with the vacuum, taking grim satisfaction in making order from mess—I’m a little grossed out by dirt, gardening has never been my thing, the vacuum is my rake, my hoe, the rug and the floorboards my garden—I feel the pinch in my lower back and think about Madeleine, who knew I was different from her and everyone else on that side of the family, but didn’t mind, wasn’t made insecure by that difference, never forced her gangly, awkward grandson into the garden, left him to his books. Takes my mind off the pain of the lumbago.

 

What I Read, June 2020

The reading month was a tale of two parts: a blissful vacation week, non-stop reading, each book as strong as the last, followed by two weeks teaching a workshop on writing personal statements. Fun, but tons of work and although I read a lot it was all med school and Fulbright applications. In non-reading life, the weather remained surprisingly agreeable, and the COVID situation in Arkansas hadn’t yet deteriorated as it has since (though the mask-less signs were there). I was doing okay at the time, but now that feels like a century ago. I worry about my job, my health, my loved ones’ health, the planet’s health. Let’s talk books instead.

EZS4vdOX0AIBw_H

Tessa Hadley, The Master Bedroom (2007)

Not as terrific as Late in the Day but still pretty damn terrific. Kate Flynn leaves London and her academic career behind and returns home to Wales. Cardiff is small—it’s not long before she runs into the brother of a childhood friend and falls for him. David’s marriage is not falling apart exactly, but something’s going on, his wife has new friends, disappears for days at a time. David is drawn to Kate—or maybe to her childhood home, a ramshackle mansion grandiosely named La Firenze where Kate’s delightful, increasingly senile mother potters about while Kate practices chamber music. Before long, Kate meets Jamie, David’s 17-year-old son from his first marriage, and before she knows it finds herself involved, in different, complicated ways, with both men.

This could be a farce, but poignancy is more Hadley’s thing. But so is passion, with its messy and violent challenge to decorum. By the end of the novel, a lot of things get broken; some new things get made from the pieces. Hadley’s really doing it for me at this stage in my life.

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children (2015)

I’m usually impatient with novels that switch between two perspectives. Just when I’ve fallen into scenario or point of view, I’m jarred by having to return to the other. And I’m usually more interested in one of the stories. But Moss, really hitting her stride as a writer in this, her fourth novel, a sequel to the very fine Bodies of Light, avoids these traps. At the end of the previous novel, Ally Moberley, one of Britain’s first female doctors in the 1880s, married an engineer named Tom Cavendish. Here the newlyweds find themselves separated when she takes on a job as a doctor in an insane asylum in Falmouth and he travels to Japan to build lighthouses. We learn a lot about Ally’s work and almost nothing about Tom’s—the sections in Japan focus on his secondary task of buying fabric and art objects for an English collector (this makes him basically a personal shopper, and part of the way the novel feminizes him, to use Moss’s own description). Moss’s research is impeccable but lightly worn, even oblique—I think Rohan said something about these being modernist Victorian novels. Moss evokes with equal skill Tom’s feelings of foreignness (which turn to admiration for Japanese society) and Ally’s struggles to challenge the norms of a medical world in which she is as much on sufferance as her mentally-ill patients. There’s even an intriguing plot element: will the couple survive the geographic and psychological distance between them?

Above all, though, Signs for Lost Children, like its predecessor, is Ally’s book. For Moss’s main subject is how easily, terribly, and insidiously we internalize the bad emotions other people, often those closest to us, direct at us: whether jealousy, anger, disparagement or contempt. Ally’s struggles to overcome those voices hit me in the gut.

Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Deaths, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (2017)

The northern city of Toronto Star reporter Talaga’s title is Thunder Bay, Ontario, but it could be almost anywhere in Canada, a country where indigenous lives matter less than anyone else’s. Which isn’t to deny the particularity of Talaga’s subject. The fallen feathers are seven indigenous teenagers who went missing and were later found dead, mostly pulled from one of the city’s many waterways. The police, Talaga shows, were never too interested in investigating: another missing Indian, probably drunk and careless. In fact it’s likely some of these young people were murdered—indigenous people are regularly attacked and abused in Thunder Bay: the podcast Canadaland, in a powerful series(featuring Talaga), explored this possibility—but Talaga’s interest here is on a whole system built on broken promises, especially when it comes to education. After the terrible legacy of the residential school system, indigenous people were supposed to have more say in their children’s education, and more money to help them build a new system. But if young people in small northern settlements want to continue to high school they need to fly south, which, in Ontario anyway, usually means going to Thunder Bay. Billeted with foster families paid to take them—some good, some not—living in a place many times bigger than anywhere they’ve known before, missing loved ones themselves damaged by generations of abuse, they struggle. Even though organizations, some indigenous-led, exist to help them, resources and cultural will are lacking.

Talaga’s prose is workmanlike, and her choices in structuring the book sometimes confused me. (A moving section on residential schools could have been the basis of a separate book.) But this powerful book should be read by all Canadians, and everyone who idealizes the place. I cried reading the last pages. The prejudices instilled in me growing up white on the prairies in the 1970s an 80s haven’t been uprooted from reading this book, but they’re more obvious to me now.

Anita Brookner, Look at Me (1983)

Justly famous. This novel provoked many responses when I tweeted my love for it, mostly similarly enthusiastic. Many readers seem to think this, Brookner’s third novel, is her first great one. (Her debut was pretty terrific; I’ve yet to read her second.) Frances Hinton works in a medical library, the kind of sleepy, not especially oppressive job that doesn’t seem to exist anymore (and maybe never did, outside books). She lives with her mother’s former servant in a sepulchral apartment she inherited on her parents’ death. She writes, a little, a story is published and admired. Her life is quiet without being desperate. Yet desperation runs through Frances, as suggested by Brookner’s marvelous title, a phrase Frances regularly howls onto the page. “Look at me” could be self-deprecatory, or coquettish, or rebuking. But in France’s narration it’s a demand—for visibility, legibility, intelligibility. A demand kindled when she is taken up by the dashing physician Nick Fraser and his glamorous wife, Alix. Suddenly Frances is eating out and meeting people, including a kindly doctor whom she gets involved with, but in a detached way, until the relationship that blows up in a surprising way. The WASPs are horrible, it’s the beginning of the rise of the City and all that 80s excessive consumption stuff, the kindliest character is a disabled Jew. All strange and marvelous, and offered to us in less than 200-pages. The most marvelous bit of all, the scene everyone on Twitter mentioned, is a hallucinatory walk through nighttime London, incredibly menacing. There’s a lot of menace in this book, in fact (Frances’s previous lover has been cruel, perpetrated some Jamesian obscure hurt alluded to darkly but firmly.) Brookner is often compared to James or Bowen, but the novel’s last line reminded me of the end of Beckett’s Molloy. Brookner is icier, though, and less funny. Icy domesticity? Yes, please! I’m going to read the rest of her books on my sabbatical.

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education (1989)

Book of the month! The year? The century?!? Oh who knows but damn this is good. I saw it was shortlisted for the Booker and, amazed that it didn’t win, took a look at what did. (Remains of the Day: worthy for sure and hard to pick but might take Jigsaw.) Clearly some people appreciated it at the time, but I think it reads less strangely now than it might have then—reviews could call it autofiction and have a way to pigeonhole it. Although pigeonholing is everything this book is not. A fictionalized version of Bedford’s extraordinary life, what she called her unsentimental education. From her first memory (being wheeled in a too-small pram through the streets of Copenhagen, then parked outside the apartment of a writer her mother had come to seduce) through her childhood with her father in a chateau in Baden (which sounds amazing, but post WWI the once-noble family was so poor that father and daughter nearly froze to death in the place, with hardly any clothes and little to eat, only a fabulous cellar to console them), on through life with her mother and her mother’s kind younger lover, first in Italy and then on the Côte d’Azur, with interregna in England, all on her own, a teenager making her way in the world, and back to France where she ran with a crowd that included Aldous and Maria Huxley—the whole thing is so incredible. Not glamorous, mostly she was poor and hard done-by, but amazing.

The book belongs to Bedford’s mother: titanic, careless, insecure, lordly, in the end tragic. But there are a ton of other great characters too. Most delightful of all, though, is Bedford’s narrative voice. You get aperçus:

Are all young children unregenerate creatures? Incapable of moral responses? responses of the heart? Can these be awakened? Mine were not. I was unregenerate and self-absorbed.

You get loose-limbed syntax:

He [her grandfather] had died in his nineties at Voss Strasse before the end of the war – I was there: a death in the house.

And you get both at once:

When I am trying to think of those years in NW1, and I haven’t thought of them for a very long time, they seem to have been all of a piece, a uniform round. It can’t have been wholly like that. There must have been some process of growing up, at whatever rate; life does widen and not only by visits to the British museum, the Tate and Winchester Cathedral. Yet the only thing that remains vivid is the physical feel of living in London, young and on very little though sufficient money. The buses—one was always running after, catching or just missing a last bus; the queuing for a play in Shaftesbury Avenue; the Lyons’ Corner House afterwards (poached egg on toast); Bovril at a coffee stall very late at night; the elegance of Mayfair streets at lunch time; how splendid the men, how pretty the girls, how well dressed everyone was, how en fête; the smell of the cheaper Soho restaurants (upholstery, grease, spice, trapped air); my digs.

Read it!

ETn1T_KXsAAGU8h

Susie Steiner, Remain Silent (2020)

Third Manon Bradshaw novel isn’t as suspenseful as the first, but its character development is even better. Such a range of registers: I laughed aloud and wanted to cry. An Eastern European subplot is handled with much more thoroughness than usual. But more important than the book is the news that Steiner is gravely, perhaps terminally ill. It is so terrible, I send a prayer for her healing.

James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry (1968)

McPherson’s debut includes two terrific stories—“A Matter of Vocabulary” and “A Solo Song: For Doc,” the former about brothers who pick up after-school jobs at a grocery store and learn how much they differ (it’s going straight onto my short fiction syllabus); the latter about the end of the Pullman porter era—a couple of satisfactory ones, and several joyless and unpleasant ones. There’s not a single sensitively portrayed female character in the book and, although the scenarios occasionally reminded of Malamud I missed the sympathy that attends even Malamud’s most miserable characters. Sometimes I think the 60s were a happier time than our own unhappy one, but then I read something like this and think, nope, at least not for everybody. Even Edward P. Jones’s introduction—which I looked forward to, he’s a favourite of mine—feels dutiful. Did McPherson get better?

Dola de Jong, The Tree and the Vine (1954) Trans. Kristen Gehrman (2020)

More curiosity than masterpiece, de Jong’s novel of unconsummated lesbian love in 1930s Holland is given a sprightly translation by Kristen Gehrman. Bea meets Erica, they move in together as friends, Bea is more and more obsessed with her, to the point that her boyfriend leaves her, which Bea isn’t sad about, in part because she’s so sad or conflicted or unsure or something by Erica, who isn’t especially nice to her. Unhappy lesbian stories are pretty common in the first half of the 20th century, though this one has an intriguing frame in which Bea, writing from postwar life in the US, intimates that she has found happiness or at least contentment. But de Jong is pretty haphazard with that retrospection. I dunno, the book didn’t quite work for me; I wanted to like it more than I did.  I’ve a hunch, though, that I might appreciate it more on a second reading.

Megha Majumdar, A Burning (2020)

Ostensibly about the aftermath of a sectarian terrorist attack in Kolkata (fictional, but modelled on a real one in Bangladesh), A Burning is really about how money and a sense of belonging and counting as a human being are connected—in other words, about the reality for most people in the world right now. The novel is structured around different first-person points of view. (Surely some Jameson-inspired critics are writing about how different-walks-of-life-that-get-connected narratives reflect our economic and social ties under late capitalism.) A young woman—who might have abetted the terrorists—posts a mild criticism of the government on Facebook and is arrested. Her former PE teacher happens upon a demonstration organized by a nationalistic political party—drawn there in the first place by the chance to see a movie star speak—and finds himself more valued than at the girls’ school where he has worked, even if that means becoming a fixer and a perjurer (he ends up a Minister, so who’s to say he was wrong?). A hijira—an intersex and/or transgender person—who had been tutored by the arrested woman overcomes obstacles on their way to stardom.

The teacher—called by his classroom nickname, PT Sir—is the most compelling character, but maybe that’s just because he is most developed according to the codes of realism (he does the most doing, incites the most complicated feelings, has the most developed interiority—he reminded me a little of the lead in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s story “Nawab Electrician”). But PT, like Lovely, the hijira, and Jivan, the accused woman, live in a world in which public spectacle and outcry drive success. Individuals only have meaning in relation to the mass (a more fitting term for the world of this novel than public or citizenry IMO). But this reality poses a dilemma for Majumdar. Because novels rely on individual agency, in a world in which such agency (fancy word for willpower), novels have to turn on themselves. Accordingly, the most compelling moments in A Burning are when characters both do and don’t decide something. Its most representative scene, then, shows Jivan’s lawyer being bribed to abandon his client. Gobind—note the suggestion of blindness in his name; to say nothing of the bind he is in—agrees to drop the case. The narration adds, “He is unsure if he chooses this.”

Reading A Burning I was reminded of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, a better because less schematic, more oneiric book, but similarly concerned with the compromises of success in contemporary India. Majumdar’s is a formidable debut; I’ll read the followup with interest.

Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler (2020)

After News of the World I was eager to read Jiles’s new novel, which centers on Simon Boudin, a character who featured briefly in the earlier book. (Because I listened to an audiobook from the library I couldn’t go back to read that scene again—a source of repeated frustration to me as I read Fiddler.) In Texas in the last months of the Civil War, Boudin is conscripted into the Confederate Army, a fate the slight young man had avoided by pretending he was only a teenager. But he is a musician, not a fighter and at the end of the hostilities finds himself playing at a garden party for officers of both sides, a reconciliation event that is unsuccessful—except for Simon, who spots a beautiful young woman and immediately falls in love with her.

The object of his affection, Doris Dillon, an immigrant from Ireland, is an indentured servant to a Union Captain who is posted to San Antonio where he is meant to bring order to the lawless city when in fact he spends most of his time creeping on Doris. Simon the Fiddler is half love story, half picaresque, as Simon and some charmingly idiosyncratic fellow musicians form a scratch band and play their way across Texas. No, it’s not as great a book as News of the World, but Jiles’s descriptions are evocative and you get a happy ending despite some terrible events along the way. This won’t be on my end of year list, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

ERUHqXiW4AI7Wni

There you have it. The year’s more than half over (I’d say good riddance except I’m scared of what’s coming after it). Maybe I’ll look back on the first half, which, reading-wise, hasn’t been too bad, a damn sight better than everything else. Stay safe, friends.