Friday, 30 April 2010

New Look Study and Recent Reading

Now that the planes are back safely flying and family members are equally safely returned to where they should be, I find I have an elegant new look study, freshly painted walls and varnished floors. Trouble is, it’s so clutter-free, neat and tidy that I feel intimidated by its aura of calm tranquillity and hesitate to disturb it with my piles of books and papers. In order to re-engage with various projects, I’m going to have to mess it up. How long I wonder, before it once more resembles a rat’s den? [I know what a rat’s den looks like, someone I used to share with had the most adorable pet rats, and after they left, I discovered a pile of strange things, including several lost biros, hidden away in their secret place. I speculated on how on earth they managed to transport them – for they were very small rats.]

To ease the transition back into my own writing, I’ve read a couple of good books lately.

Anna Gavalda's Consolation [which takes place mainly in Paris, hence the photos of Paris]brilliantly captures the way our awareness and attention flicker, brief thoughts, truncated ones, the distractions of car horns, other people, mobile phones, radios, ipods, sat navs, the clamour and near-disintegration of continuity in our minds, emotions, lives. Except for the dumb persistence of habit, our faithful dog selves, the self most connected to our body and its automatic functions, the self our rebel self taunts and harasses, finds fault with, even as it does its duty, continues on its path, until something big comes along to push it out of its grooved ways, and forces a confrontation with the rebel self, which needs its co-operation.

This is what happens to the main protagonist, Charles, when he hears of the death of someone he loved deeply, when he was young, but who he did not keep in contact with, once he grew up and became busy with a career that he seemed to fall into rather than pursue. He’s drawn back to
the abandoned waste-ground of his youthful emotions and discovers, beneath the layers of detritus, dried bindweed, broken toys and garbled memories, something powerful and still very much alive, despite its discarded and desiccated appearance. It’s as if it has come to meet him, throwing his present life into disarray, pushing through the floorboards of the life he has laid out, taunting him with its realness, compared to his fractured life of international flights, meetings in various foreign countries, mounting pressure as his list of appointments, consultations and conferences piles up.

He is pushed into a journey to reconnect with his past, his emotions, all that makes life flourish and shiver with meaning. It’s a modern-day hero’s journey beyond the narrow confines of the known world, the search for authenticity and reconnection with roots, a reconciling of the embattled self. It requires facing danger of course – the dragons of our own fears which in
our modern world are often emotional aspects of our selves.

I feel it would make a good film for all Charles’s inner conflicts are well described. His hesitations, denials, refusals, uncertainties as to whether what draws him is a temptation to be fought against, or the brambles surrounding the castle where his soul is sleeping, which need to be hacked down with commitment and determination. All these could be portrayed through his expressions and actions - and the descriptions of modern life, with its trams and airplanes, its elevators and towerblocks, its streets, either choked with traffic or narrow, cobbled and deserted, lend themselves so easily to symbolism.

There is a whiff of predictability of outcome and I wonder if there is also the slightest suggestion of a firm hand on the controls of the characters. The shade of victimhood hanging over the character who is only revealed through Charles's memory, the woman who has died, feels just a little irksome. If she was so vital and so caring, why did she give up? Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I feel she's been manipulated by Charles's love and particularly his guilt, in having lost touch with her. I feel she's been used as a sharp spike, to goad him into changing his life completely.

Which he does. A little bit too abruptly, for me, to be entirely convincing. Yet it has to be said that Anna Gavalda writes well about the kind of everyday events that don't usually figure in novels, the enjoyment of playing with children in the countryside, the presence of domestic pets, even if some of them are highly unusual, the kind of details that underpin our lives yet can so easily become blurred in our modern stressful urban living.

Cora Sandel's Alberta and Jacob on the other hand, is a wonderful description of an awareness [in the main character] which feels desperately out of place, and longs to get away from the stifling petit-bourgeois family and small town in Norway she lives in. Descriptions of the weather, landscape and the choked atmosphere of constrained social relationships all pervaded with Alberta's longings is described in entrancing detail. It feels more honest somehow, to focus on Alberta's misgivings, frustrations, social ineptitude and desperate desire for a more open and expressive life, yet doing it in such a way that hope rather than despair breathes life into the descriptions, whether it's the people and the way they interact, or the effects of the landscape and the weather, particularly on Alberta's moods.

This is the first volume of a trilogy, though I read the other two first. The second, Alberta and
Freedom, takes place in Paris, showing that Alberta did succeed in escaping from the constraints and frustrations of the small town she grew up in. But there are, of course there are, other problems. Her experience of Paris takes place many decades before Charles' in Consolation – there are no ipods, no plane trips, and far less money. Jobs are hard to come by, and life is very much hand to mouth. Relationships are awkward and troubled and fraught with disillusion. But Cora Sandel has the most remarkable gift of writing about difficult situations with a stubborn determination that is inspiring and uplifting. And imbued with an authenticity that gives you flavours and subtleties of mood shifts that are utterly recognizable.

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