Reading: “Apology for the Woman writing” by Jenny Diski

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Her father’s library in Gournay was the place of escape from her present and from her preordained future. She slipped through the dark panelled door at every possible moment of the day and night, whenever she could avoid being tutored on how to be someone’s wife, some house’s keeper, some child’s mother.

‘I’m not ill, Maman,’ she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. ‘It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.’
There was a gasp from the three other women, each of whom instantly reassessed their usual picture of Marie in the library.
‘His books … the ones Uncle Louis gave me … they are … extraordinary … I’ve never imagined … they are … remarkable. No, remarkable is too small a word. Nothing, nothing, in all my life I’ve read nothing like these essays.’

Already she was using his name to boost her own work. A devotion to Montaigne’s work would replace the husband she would never have, the quality work she would never produce, and the restricted life she must inevitably lead. So there was something in it for her, as well as for him and his memory. He decided to speak to Francoise about it, and ask her to send a farewell letter to La Demoiselle as if dictated by him. And yes, he knew how close this thought was to a crime against her. A further crime. He would have liked to think that he was not a dishonest man. But he was, after all, a man like any other.

I first heard about Jenny Diski when I read her obituary in the Guardian (read it here). Diski – a passionate smoker – was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014. She wrote about her diagnosis as well as her life with cancer in the London Review of Books (find it here). Jenny Diski died on April 28, 2016. This may sound a bit morbid but her obituary made me want to find out more about this interesting and headstrong woman. After reading some of her contributions in the LBR, I decided to get some of her books, which was not as easy as I thought. I don’t know why – maybe Diski isn’t mainstream enough, maybe it’s not the right time for odes on smoking in trains and the like – but some of her works were hard to find. In the end I settled for two fictional works, the short story collection The Vanishing Princess and the book I will discuss here, Apology for the Woman writing.

Diski’s main protagonist, Marie de Gournay, is a stubborn, passionate, and at times aloof woman, who is in no way interested in following the well-worn paths of her mother and the women of her times and instead devotes her life and existence to the work and (later) legacy of Michel de Montaigne and his Essays. Setting out to become a writer and philosopher herself – something unthinkable for a woman in the French upper-class of those days (sixteenth/seventeenth century) – she eventually moves to Paris (first with her family, years later on her own) to try her luck. Diski portrays Marie as an ambitious scholar, an autodidact who tries to sharpen her intellect with the works she finds in her late father’s library and whatever books her uncle shares with her, but also as a woman with a lack of not only female looks but also features. In this instance, Marie at times seems like a caricature, though later in the book it becomes clear that she is indeed savvy enough to organize her house on a tight budget, so she is at least a bit practical, albeit maybe not in the typical and expected female way of those days.

But back to the first third of the book. After reading Montaigne’s Essays, Marie seems to have found her true calling, namely being one of history’s first “groupies” (in some way) and existing only to promote and support Montaigne’s genius, even though he does not even know her. After falsely believing that he is dead and finding out he is not, she writes him a passionate letter while residing in Paris with her family. He, after reading her flaming words and realizing they are both in Paris right now, imagines a beautiful and devoted young woman and decides that he wants to meet her. So Michel de Montaigne pays Marie a courtesy visit and from then on things go awry, in some way. Marie is not the beautiful young woman Montaigne imagined, still she overwhelmes him with her passion and devotion, pinching herself with her hair pin to demonstrate to him how strong her “love” for him is. After refusing to adopt her and instead offering her the title of”fille d’alliance”, a “daughter of his intellect”, Marie invites Montaigne to stay at her family’s home, the Chateau de Gournay, whenever he feels like it – while Montaigne tries to get away from her as fast as possible.

After suffering from a heavy bout of gout on his way home from Paris he is forced to accept her invitation to Chateau de Gournay. Staying for several weeks, Marie and Montaigne revise his Essays and it is then that she experiences her biggest triumph, seeing how he includes a paragraph appreciating her and her work in his writing. This is what will keep her going to the end of her days. This is what will make her vulnerable and at times ridiculous, even though she does not see it. Apart from the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll part, she is the perfect groupie and I can only imagine what would have happened had she ever had the chance to meet the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Justin Bieber (and forgive me for mentioning Bieber in one line with Jackson and the Beatles, this is referring to fan devotion, NOT musical genius/importance) …

She also works on her own books and writings as well, though Diski does not focus on this part of Marie’s life and work as much as her fangirling concerning Montaigne (her work is still quite impressive for a woman of her times, writing for nobility and receiving an allowance by Queen Margo, thereby being able to support herself). But everything that is remarkable about Marie as a person – her stubbornness, her ability to teach herself and learn from others and their writing (styles) – makes her work average and uninspired, at least according to Montaigne and Diski. Which may be the reason that Diski never really focuses on Marie’s writing apart from what happened in direct relation to Michel de Montaigne.

After Montaigne’s death, Marie’s wrong (asymmetrical?) self-assessment climaxes when she revises the final edition of his Essays – even though Montaigne’s wife, complying with his last will, simply asks her to find a printer in Paris to keep his memory alive – to her favor. Montaigne’s widow makes it quite clear that she does not appreciate Marie’s additions and revisions and that she furthermore wants her out of her life. From then on, Marie realizes that she indeed overestimated her position in Montaigne’s life and work and that she has to create her own life, if one might say so. Now we get to know Marie apart from Montaigne, Marie on her own, Marie with Jamyn, her maid and one more woman who is capable of so much more than she truly shows. Also, Diski adds an interesting twist to the relationship of the two women, which at times seems like a bit of an uninspired cliché, but more importantly adds an important and interesting layer to Marie’s character.

In the “Author’s note” Jenny Diski calls her work a ‘historical novel’ and explains her fictional Marie and why she chose a certain direction over another. Apart from the main characters and most of their works, this is fictional and not factual, something one should never forget when reading books like that. This is even more important when the author regularly uses a sort of factual, distanced prose that may create the illusion of reading a biography, not a novel. But this is Diski’s strength, and I loved the book for the distance she creates while narrating artificial and longed for intimacy between the various characters. Marie can be annoying at times, her fangirling and the way she never sees how her beloved philosopher at times simply uses her, can be exhausting. But I don’t have to love my main character every single page to appreciate and like a book.
Therefore, even though this book might not be for you, go out there, take a look at her oeuvre and maybe you find some other Diski that is right for you.

Reading: “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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Leo had been avoiding his wife, Victoria, who was barely speaking to him and his sister Beatrice who wouldn’t stop speaking to him—rambling on and on about getting together for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. In July. Leo hadn’t spent a holiday with his family in twenty years, since the mid-’90s if he was remembering correctly: he wasn’t in the mood to start now. 

So this is Leo and this will be Leo for the rest of the book, no matter how much he seems to undergo any sort of reformation; people like Leo do not reform, they perform. To an excellence it may even fool themselves at times…

In The Nest we encounter the Plumb family – mother Francie, brothers Leo and Jack, sisters Bea and Melody (in this oder), their late father Leonard Sr., ever-present thanks to his financial legacy called “the nest”, as well as his second cousin George – and a variety of people in their lives, most notably Stephanie, Bea’s former literary agent and Leo’s former lover; Walker, Jack’s husband; Walter and twins Louisa and Nora, Melody’s family…to just name a few. Leo, the oldest brother and the most successful sibling regarding monetary matters, crashed his car while high and drunk getting a handjob from 19-year-old waitress Matilda Rodriguez, whom he picked up at the wedding he attended with his wife and sister. George Plumb, trustee of “the nest” and family attorney, seeks the best possible option for Leo, with his wife Victoria filing for divorce and the New York high society already waiting for a scandal involving Leo Plumb: he pays out Matilda using a huge part of “the nest” and gets Leo into rehab, away from everyone and everything, until the dust settles and no one will even remember who Leo Plumb is. Which seems a good idea – but it’s not, at least not regarding to the rest of the Plumb brood.

Especially Jack and Melody desperately need and count on the money from the “nest.” They would get their share of the trust on Melody’s 40th birthday, which is just months away when we enter the story; now, after George and their mother Francie decided to use the money to get Leo off the hook, their shares shrunk significantly and are not enough to cover the expenses they already made and pay back their debts.
But of course, this book is not only about the money. In the end, it is hardly about money at all, but about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society in a traumatized city full of traumatized people who try to make a living in the best ways possible. And that’s were the magic starts, at least in my opinion. Focusing on the basic themes – moderately rich or well-off white brats going through life more or less aware of a world and people around them; immigrants trying to make it big or at least bigger than their parents in their new home country; people traumatized from war, injuries, 9/11 and its aftermath – we have seen it before (and better) BUT I’m always ready for more if it’s well done (which is totally subjective, of course) and I really like the way Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney tells the stories. There’s a number of characters and a lot of names, so I had my usual problem remembering who is who at times (husbands Walter and Walker, for example), but this happens to me all the time, so it’s nothing special. My ADHD and lack of focus is not an author’s fault, anyway.

Most importantly, at various points throughout the novel, just when you start thinking “hello cliché, no surprise meeting YOU here,” she takes a different direction, not necessarily one that no one would have foreseen BUT one that you would not expect her to go, simply because novels of this category – “light fiction”: funny with some (dark) humor, entertaining, bit of a critical undertone, but overall enjoyable – often choose the easy way out, ‘rewarding’ clichéd expectancies with the appropriate clichés. This rarely happens here, so I really enjoyed spending my time with the Plumbs and the people around them, even though some twists and turns were more foreseeable than others. Besides, some twists seem foreseeable because they are familiar – don’t we all know this ONE SPECIAL friend/family/ex-lover/colleague/acquaintance/asshole in exactly the same situation as Leo, Jack, Bea, …?

So what happens to people spending with money they haven’t gotten yet and, thanks to the overall human incompetence of their oldest brother, will likely never get? They are in a world of shit…so to say. And we are there with them, front row special seats. It’s a composition of different life stories and their various voices, perspectives, and worlds; an enthralling novel and a real pleasure to read. If you want something entertaining, humorous, and diverse to read, check the blurb and if you like it, go for it!

I want to close with a quote I love from the last chapter of the book – SPOILER ALERT – so be warned and continue reading on your own risk, knowing too much too early OR not understanding a thing:

Years later, when the tree had grown and formed the perfect canopy over the rear of the yard, Lila would marry beneath the massive leafy boughs turning red and orange on a blindingly beautiful October afternoon. She would ask Jack to escort her down the leaf-strewn path to her partner. Jack would be good to Lila all her life, showing up whenever she was missing a father. On the day of her wedding when Lila appeared on Jack’s almost-seventy-year-old arm, Stephanie would see Leo at her side and for a debilitating moment would be crushed by the enormity of everything he’d missed.

I love this quote because it is so positive, it is not about the daughter being left behind and missing out, but the father missing all the wonderful stuff that comes with having kids. To me, there is so much love in this small passage, I cried the first time I read it (you may need to read the whole story before even trying to understand my emotional exaggeration…).

 

 

 

Reading: “The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Tóibín

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“I have to keep convincing myself”, Helen said when they got outside, “that this is really happening. You’re all so matter-of-fact about it, but the truth is that he is dying in there and I have to go and tell my mother.”

Helen’s beloved little brother is dying. This brings the family together again – grandmother Dora, mother Lily, and Helen. While Declan has a seemingly casual relationship with his mother and grandmother, Helen hasn’t seen both for years and didn’t even invite them to her wedding. Her mother has never seen her two grandchildren, her grandmother met Helen’s family – her husband and her two sons – only once.

Reading the blurb (which says something like “forced to listen to each other” and “come to terms with each other”) I immediately thought of something blunt like an alcoholic grandmother, a crack-head mother, and two highly traumatized siblings coping with their past in different ways. The last part rings true in some way, but the first part is highly unimaginative, crude, and – thankfully – bullshit. Blurbs usually do their best to convey stereotypes to sell a book (we recognize the familiar), sometimes the opposite (at least for some readers). But I read one of Colm Tóibín’s short stories in The Book of other People, which I really liked, so I wanted to read one of his books. A bargain box at the local bookseller’s gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.

[Spoiler alert]

Helen’s little brother Declan is dying of AIDS. Assisted by his two close friends Larry and Paul, he spends a few days with his mother and sister at their grandmother’s place, an old house close to the sea, and the arrival of three gay men is reason enough to shake up Dora’s world. Nevertheless, this does not mean we meet the average old lady harboring prejudices against homosexuals; Dora is full of prejudices and resentment, so Declan’s friends are just the icing on the cake, at least in the beginning. Dora adapts to the new situation – Declan being seriously ill and dying – fast and seems to cope relatively well with the coming developments; mind you, the emphasis lies on ‘seems.’ For Lily and Helen, the situation is more difficult, since their relationship is strained at best; coming together again after years of not seeing each other and hardly any contact in the light of something as grave as the son/brother dying is a challenge on multiple levels.

“And why is it that he sent you to tell me?”
Helen stared at the road ahead. When she saw a double-decker bus, she thought about asking her mother to make her own way to the hospital, but it was a thought that she did not entertain for long. She softened and tried to imagine what it must be like for her.
“I think he felt that at a time like this we would all forget our differences,” Helen said.
“Well, I don’t notice any difference in you”, her mother said.
“Bear with me, I’m making an effort,” Helen said. She could not keep the dry tone out of her voice.

None of the two knew about Declan’s infection and illness, and especially Lily feels left out after realizing that Declan’s friends, especially Paul, know much more about his health and how to deal with his illness than any of his family, having accompanied him through the various stages of his HIV infection over the years.

Our main protagonist is Helen; though it’s a third-person-narration, the focus lies on her, her history, her issues, and her incapability to deal with her past. We also learn more about Paul, Declan’s friend, who never leaves his side and is the main force regarding his care (much to Lily’s chagrin). But apart from those two everyone else rather seems to set the stage for Helen and the family’s difficult past – at least this is how I felt. And it’s not that I didn’t like it; I loved it. First, when looking back on her past, Helen does not face a ‘huge trauma’ in the stereotypical way of trauma, meaning abuse and violence or the like. Her turning point was the death of her beloved father when she was 12; much of what follows are conflicts that could happen in a lot of families (maybe I feel that way because of my own background in regard to my mother and grandmother, so I’m sorry if this does not sound as serious and insightful as someone else may see the story). So while Helen’s inner (and outer) conflicts are understandable, one does not have to be awestruck how one person can go on with her life in the light of a past as gruesome as hers.
Second, Paul is wonderful. There’s no other way for me to describe it, he is a compassionate, caring, and thoughtful character, the best friend one can have in general and in Declan’s situation in particular. Larry, Dora, Lily, and Declan add their stories and all this together tells a difficult and sad story that will have no happy ending, but also one that shares a certain hope, though I cannot describe this feeling more detailed. I love being so vague…

Hope can feel good, even if it’s false hope. I read this book in two days, and it only took THAT LONG because I needed some sleep. Tóibín is a wonderful narrator, his stories carry a certain atmosphere I cannot specify, but I feel it whenever I read something by him. Nora Webster is already waiting, but I will take a little break before my next Tóibín. It’s an intensive and wonderful reading experience, one I cannot and won’t take lightly, for the best possible reasons.