I was so angry that I decided I’d better write an essay

(Excepts are from a Guardian piece by Jonathan Franzen)

A lot of people think Jonathan Franzen is a pompous git but I suspect he is vilified for speaking his mind and not being afraid to shake up the received wisdoms. I loved ‘The Corrections’ and enjoyed ‘Freedom’. This article is a mea culpa for an earlier essay he wrote critical of those who (in his opinion) mislead people by suggesting we, as a global community, still had time to avert devastating climate change. I thought he had some interesting things to say about writing that I’ve collected here.

Essays are like fiction writing

‘To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?’

‘Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallise thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.’

Essays against the ‘silo’ effect

‘Trump and his alt-right supporters take pleasure in pushing the buttons of the politically correct, but it only works because the buttons are there to be pushed – students and activists claiming the right to not hear things that upset them, and to shout down ideas that offend them.’

‘And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.’

Apocalypse now

‘Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming.’

(Equally substitute indigenous Australians for indigenous Americans)

My top book read in 2016

a-golden-ageMy criteria for top book is simply the book I loved the most. I guess that is the book that resonated the most, that moved me, that drew me in to an absorbing, interesting world, that had characters I wanted to spend time with. On the whole I don’t read a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it. The only exception is our book group books which I’m obliged to read. Luckily this year they were all good and interesting in their own way: Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Lily King’s wonderful ‘Euphoria’ (based on the life of Margaret Mead), Eggers’ spot-on Facebook/Google satire ‘The Circle’ and Imbolo Mbue’s flawed but fun migrant story ‘Behold the Dreamers’.

The first three are all honourable mentions as is Margret Atwood’s acute and wonderful ‘Stone Mattress’ (the book, a collection of stories, is uneven, though, but the title story is brilliant). Commendations also to Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’ – an atmospheric, moving and spooky tale set in a rain-drenched fenlands, and Atwood’s other wonderful and strange classic ‘Surfacing’ that somehow I had missed out on reading all these years – first published in 1972, if you can believe it. Joanne Harris’s ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was a satisfying, twisty thriller that I think they are making into a film.

But drum roll, or, more aptly, sit down quietly under a mango tree and sip a cup of Darjeeling – my favourite was ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam. This wonderfully moving, sad and understated novel follows the lives of a mother Rehana and daughter Maya and son Sohail, at the time when Bangladesh was fighting for it’s independence from Pakistan. The novel captures you from the opening lines:

Dear Husband, I lost our children today …

How would she begin to tell him?

She got back into the rickshaw with the children … the graveyard was dotted with dusk mourners. They tossed flowers on the wet pelts of grass that grew over their loved ones. In the next row a man in a white cap cried into his hands. Beside him, an old woman clutched a spray of bokul.

Rehana held the round palms of her children.

‘Say goodbye to your father,’ she said, pointing to Iqbal’s grave.

The rest of the novel is Rehana’s explanation to her dead husband about what happened to her and their children. To get her children back from the court who has given custody to her wealthy brother in Lahore, Rehana scrounges money to build a house in her backyard that she rents out so that she can say she is financially independent. She is happy to be a widow cooking and having friends over and bringing up her children – feminist Maya and university radical Sohail. History, of course, steps in.

I’m conscious that this description would probably not draw anyone to read this book but, as with the best novels, it is not the plot: it is the atmosphere, the characters who get under your skin, the sense of the richness in human existence, shadowed by things none of us want to face.

I have Anam’s follow-up novel ‘The Good Muslim’ that follows Maya’s life to read this year.

  • For the stats. Five male writers out of 33 books. Two memoirs, one non-fiction, one classic, eleven fantasy or spec fiction, three crime, the rest general fiction. I will try to up the classics in 2017.

 

 

The Witches – Stacy Schiff

the-witchesThis book, a history of the Salem witch trials is the darling of the critics, and the dud of the reader. “J K Rowling meets Antony Beevor, Stephen King and Marina Warner” says The Times quote on the cover. ‘Schiff’s writing is to die for’ it effuses. Um, no. Schiff has taken a fascinating, utterly compelling subject and sucked the life out of it to leave a dried husk. Her convoluted, tortured sentences while perhaps, elegant, inventive and even witty on their own, when compiled one upon the other just serve to obfuscate an already extremely complicated and detailed account. No one can fault Schiff for her research: it is meticulous and wide-ranging. As well as getting the actual events of the accusations and trial, we get an account of the colony of New England, the land disputes and administration of Salem and surrounds; the family backgrounds and histories of the ministers, the judges, the governors, the scribe for the trials etc. etc. To complicate matters further, these accounts often form lengthy diversions interspersed through the narrative dragging the reader down intricate, detailed and boring rabbit holes. One wonders if the critics actually read the book they reviewed.

To be fair to Schiff, the lumpiness of the book is probably due to the type of documentary evidence available – we have the court records (though these are not complete and are often filtered through the opinion of the recorder), land dispute records, and histories of the officials (all men). There is a big gap in that there is little known about the teenage accusers (all female), and what is known is eked out by Schiff so that her take on the genuineness, or otherwise, of the girls is only revealed towards the very end of this lengthy account. Often the girls are described as though they are one shrieking, contorting entity.

I started out reading this book so angry and exasperated by what happened to the initial witches who were hanged – one was a beggar woman, and another sharp-tongued and opinionated: the type of women outsiders who fitted the medieval witch type a neighbour might accuse, but another, Rebecca Nurse, was a kind 71 year old church goer. Schiff goes to great length to establish that there were tribal enmities at work in the community in the form of lengthy land and inheritance disputes, and that this may be part of why some people (women and men) were accused, and how other people could be easily found to also testify against them. The Nurse clan did all they could to save Rebecca (such as getting up a petition), but to no avail.

At the beginning of the book it seemed incredible that the word of the accused girls could have been taken at face value. It all started with two young girls, ten and eleven, the daughter and niece of the local minister writhing and screaming, and saying they were being tormented. In the late 17th century, mishaps and misfortune was often attributed to witchcraft, and the church, including the puritan church, accepted the reality of the devil and demons. This meant the minister spent time at their bedsides praying and trying to work out who was bewitching them. The minister’s Indian servant, Tituba, was only too willing to interpret the girls’ visions. Schiff describes her as a ‘a brilliant raconteur’, her testimony ‘a hypnotic performance’ – her fulsome description of witches’ activities and rites set the scene for the accusations and confessions to follow. Schiff writes: “It was as if Tituba had handed out hallucinogens. The terrifying, psychedelic confession, rather than the voodoo of legend, was her contribution to the events of 1692.”

As the narrative progresses (as we begin to understand that leading questions are allowed in the court, that the gang of girls and young women accusers are able to writhe and shriek in court and say they are pricked and punched, they can fall to the floor when an accused looks at them, and to cry out that they see witches and their familiars – invisible to all except them – sitting on the rafters: all without being questioned themselves) you know that there is not going to be any common sense, compassion or fairness in the trials. One thing that riled me was the so-called ‘touch test’. The idea was that if one of the afflicted girls was touched by the witch, their symptoms would cease because the ‘power’ was reabsorbed back into the witch. Of course this test could be easily verified by blindfolding the girl and having a few different people touch her to see if only the touch of the accused worked but, no, they didn’t blindfold her, they blindfolded the accused!

The other truly exasperating thing, is that the court was run by educated men, and at this time it meant educated at Harvard. It was never really explained how such men closed their ears to any dissenting voices – they were forever sending letters to senior churchmen in Boston or New York senior asking for their advice on the matter, and then ignoring the advice. For example, they were warned not to rely on ‘spectral’ evidence alone – this is the visions of invisible witches, their familiars, accounts of being asked to sign the devil’s book etc. – yet often evidence used to convict was of this sort. The ridiculous touch test was supposed to be true evidence, and so was used extensively.

But all my outrage at the goings on was suffocated by the detail and diversions, and oblique writing of Schiff – you can’t continue to be angry when you are ploughing through convoluted prose trying to work out what the hell is going on. I also thought the throw away ‘wit’ of Schiff, her tongue-in-cheek jokes, ironic remarks etc., deflated the true horror of what I was reading. Perhaps this was intentional – a way for Schiff to deal with something so confronting and frustrating, and for the reader to deal with it too. It may also be used as a way of hinting her position while maintaining a seemingly objective stance.

“Villages scratched their heads over enchanted fireplaces, ambulatory trees, and misplaced saucers but were more circumspect about those oddities, participating in another New England specialty: that of leaving things unsaid. After the acoustical runaway of the witchcraft crisis – the voices rising to a fever pitch – 1692 left in its wake a thundering reticence.”

As hinted here, there is little satisfaction to be had at the end of the book. Schiff does give some explanation but it is too little, too late. What she does achieve is to throw the reader into a maelstrom of detail to show that there is no easy explanation – there are one or two unreconstructed villains but she presents most participants as honestly trying to deal with an inexplicable problem: the seeming outbreak of the devil’s work in New England. Most people involved, including the accused as well as the accusers, the clergy and the authorities, did believe in witchcraft. At the height of the scare, hundreds of people were accused and arrested.

It is understandable that once the first cohort had been hanged proclaiming their innocence, that the judges could not admit they were wrong, and so were obliged to go on finding guilt, and signing execution orders. It is understandable that the accusers might be hysterics and truly afflicted by pain and visions – the very constricted lives of women and girls at the time contributing to this. It is understandable that people were afraid and lashed out, and that they accused others first for fear of being accused themselves later. SPOILER ALERT But other things are unforgiveable: the torturing of teenage boys into accusing their mother and others, the pressing to death of seventy-year-old man who would not confess, dragging a woman from her sickbed into a cold, crowded, lice-filled gaol where she died; women left to give birth on the gaol floor; the manacling of a five-year-old accused girl, who saw her baby sister die in front of her, and whose mother was hanged (when this orphan was finally released after eight months she was insane and would remain so for the rest of her life); the corrupt appropriation of the property of the accused etc. etc. There was no redress for these many crimes and there were only a few confessions by those involved that they had put innocents to death. Only one of the accuser girls later admitted to fabrication; she had to do this to be allowed back into the congregation. It is interesting that, although this issue of fabricating the whole thing is pivotal to a modern understanding of the trials, it didn’t appear to be the crux of the matter for the people of the day. Except for the one confessor, none of the other girls were held to account: they grew up and led ordinary lives, apparently.

All in all, “The Witches”, is a frustrating read. I would have dearly loved Schiff to be a more straightforward writer, her literary hijinks just complicated things for me. I do admire her, though, for making me see things through the eyes of people living in another time and place, however uncomfortable that process was.

Travelling to Infinity – Jane Hawking

infinityThe photo on the front cover of Jane Hawking’s autobiography of her long marriage to Stephen Hawking shows a bookish long-haired Jane and a mop haired, handsome Stephen Hawking – both look cool and stylishly 60s. Yes, they did fall in love in the sixties – he a brilliant PhD student at Cambridge, she a languages student in London. The window for young love was terribly narrow as Stephen was given the motor neurone disease diagnosis in his early twenties – when he asked her to marry him he knew his prognosis, and so did she. The doctors gave him only a few years to live – they thought they should enjoy married life while they could; Jane tells us she loved him, and so of course she would marry him.

Her parents were less sanguine, and so were his, although, as it transpired they appeared to hand over responsibility for Stephen totally to Jane, and it was not long until that responsibility was particularly onerous.

One of the problems, perhaps, with this book is that it is, necessarily one sided – it’s Jane’s story. But that is the interest of it – it appears to be scrupulously honest, detailed, reflective and unflinching. We are given enough detail and context to make up our own minds.

In another writer’s hands, this account of a marriage, an astounding career, the visceral trials of disability, a family under strain and, ultimately, various degrees of betrayal, could have been prurient. But Jane goes to great lengths to show her love and dedication to Stephen, and to give credit to his work but we also see the increasing strain of it all, and how the struggling family is left to cope on their own (amazingly, it was not until very late in the piece that they got any nursing or home help at all).

On the face of it, they had an enviable life – Stephen was recognised early as a brilliant mind and he was given a number of posts at a college at Cambridge university. They lived in a heritage house in Little St Mary’s Lane close to the uni and the river, but the reality was the ‘posts’ Stephen held were paid miserably and the house was small, cramped and uncomfortable (he couldn’t teach so he didn’t go through the normal academic trajectory). Children soon came and Jane had to raise toddlers as well as assist Stephen who deteriorated quickly. Stephen insisted she go with him overseas to awards and conferences, to further his career, dragging the kids. She was privileged to go all over the world (the account of Soviet-era Russia is particularly interesting) but it was an incredible strain, and Stephen’s wishes were always paramount.

Jane makes much of how the wives were known as physics widows. Many of these women (Jane included) were qualified and intellectually gifted, but the physics always came first, and it would be beyond the pale to put your own interests before, you know, little things like: ‘the origin of the universe’, ‘black holes’ and ‘the theory of everything’. As the years wore on and Stephen became more severely disabled, he seemed to become more determined, more autocratic and demanding. Jane would be the first to say he was courageous in his suffering – before he had a tracheotomy, he had coughing fits during which he must have thought he was dying – but he appears to have utter confidence in his superiority and importance, and complete belief that Jane should devote her life to him, even above the children.

My reading is that Stephen was a complete tyrant, maybe he had to be to survive. On the positive side he loved his children, even though, and much to Jane’s bitter regret, he relied heavily on his eldest son (Robert) to help him physically, the responsibility depriving Robert of part of his childhood.

I couldn’t help but be on Jane’s side in this book. She was not a paragon of virtue but she did devote much of her young adult life, and middle age, to Stephen – she did manage to complete a PhD herself in this time but it took her over ten years to do so.

As is often the case in marriage breakups, when Stephen made a significant amount of money from the immense success of ‘A Brief History of Time’ Jane didn’t get to see the proceeds. As Stephen became more and more successful and famous, his body became more and more infirm – in the later stages of the marriage they could finally afford nurses to help look after Stephen. But for Jane this wasn’t a much-awaited respite but just more worry as the nurses squabbled, or were neglectful, or treated the family with contempt. Jane hated that the family, especially the school-aged children, had to relinquish their privacy.

The advent of the nurses also, unwittingly, brought about the end of the marriage. Stephen left the family for one of the nurses, Elaine Mason. By all accounts, Elaine appeared to idolise Stephen – she would berate Jane, accusing her of not giving up everything for Stephen, the great man. Jane, by her own account, was shell-shocked at Stephen’s request for a divorce, however, from an outsider’s viewpoint her (admittedly platonic) relationship with another man – Jonathan – over many years, must have allowed Stephen to feel he was justified in looking elsewhere. Jonathan did help the family with assisting with meals, chores, transport and physically helping Stephen but, if Jane and he were in love, it must have been obvious to everyone and humiliating for Stephen, although he never said so. Perhaps it took Elaine to point it out.

The whole Stephen/Elaine thing takes up very little space in this long book, and Jane doesn’t dwell on it. You can learn more online about the accusations of abuse and the subsequent divorce. For Jane’s part, she married Jonathan, renovated a house in France and wrote her own very successful book. Latterly, it appears that Stephen and Jane have become friends again – apparently Stephen thought the film made of their early life ‘The Theory of Everything’ was a pretty accurate account – perhaps flattered at Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of him – that would be just like Stephen’s immense ego.