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: “Don’t skip out on me” by Willy Vlautin

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Horace was alone in the city and he realized that being alone in the city was worse than being alone on the ranch. Because when he was alone on the ranch he had the dream of the city, the dream of what he would become in the city. But now he was there and he was still alone. He was just himself in another place.

‘But I don’t care anymore, Mr. Reese. Every night I’m here, I hope I get run over or stabbed or shot or thrown in prison. That’s how I feel.’
‘I’d be tired too, if I were you,’ the old man said. ‘It’s hard to hate yourself every single day, and it’s hard to try and be something you’re not. Both of those take their toll.’

Have I ever before mentioned my love for Willy Vlautin? One of best authors I’ve read in the last few years? One of my favorite authors ever? Have I not? Shame on me.

So, I love Vlautin’s books. He creates unique characters with very special voices, stories, issues, that affect me deeply, remind me of someone (myself at times), let me explore unknown perspectives and lives and introduces new ways of looking at familiar issues to me—all this in his very own, unique way of telling a story. My first Vlautin was Motel Life, followed by Northline. I highly recommend reading both books if you want to enjoy Vlautin’s full ouvre, the early Vlautin, so to say. Northline also comes (at least it did back then when I ordered the book) with a wonderful soundtrack, a musical gem that is one of my main “work soundtracks” next to Cliff Martinez’ Solaris. Moreover, there’s The Free, another masterpiece by Vlautin. Oh my, you see, mine won’t be a sober, impartial “review”…

We are following the story of Horace Hopper, who wants to become a Mexican boxer, even though he does not have any Mexican roots, but is a half Paiute Indian. He also strongly dislikes Mexican food and doesn’t speak Spanish, still he thinks that the identity of a Mexican boxer is what suits him most. Left behind by his mother when he was eight, he grew up with his grandmother, who tried her best but as the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions… In his teens he started working as a ranch hand on the Reece ranch, where he found a home with the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Reece, supporting them when Mr. Reece’s health and body fail him and giving Mrs. Reece a new reason to live and a purpose in life, which she lost bit by bit after their daughters left the ranch to pursuit their life and luck elsewhere. Mr. and Mrs. Reece are worried about Horace and his plans, wanting him to stay and one day take over the ranch since to them he seems like their own son. But Horace has to prove that he is worth something, that he is worthy of love and attention and respect, even though his mother left him and his father never cared about him. So he will be Hector Hidalgo, and Hector will become a successful boxer, thereby letting everyone know WHO he is and how great he is—even though he is not what he pretends to be. Sounds a bit unhealthy? Like you want to give Horace a hug, tell him he is a great person just the way he is and he shouldn’t waste a present life full of appreciation and love for who he is to let himself be haunted by a past he will never be able to change, no matter who and what he pretends to be? Well, Horace is 21 and he wouldn’t listen to you anyway, as he doesn’t listen to Mr. Reece, and so we are forced to watch another wonderful human being fight the demons of his past.

Reading the quote at the beginning of this post, once again Vlautin’s story reminds me of someone: me. When I was 17, I moved back to the city after having to live with my family on the countryside for two years (I HATED the countryside, still do); I had a lot of shitty teenage drama going on, as we all had at that age, and it’s nothing compared to what Horace is going through BUT I too can remember the moment when I realized that by simply moving back to the city, being on my own and responsible for myself, nothing changed or magically got better; I didn’t become this perfect little butterfly I wanted to be, I was still me, with all my insecurities, fat ass, and shitty thoughts, just somewhere else. This hit me really hard, and I can still remember my desperation when I realized that there was more to improving your overall situation than just moving somewhere or doing something different; it took me quite a few years and gallons of alcohol to find the courage to face the issues that really mattered…
So I do understand Horace, I understand his desperation, his feeling lost and overwhelmed
, not knowing where to go, what to do, whom to turn to. Because Horace feels alone, to him the only person he trusted to turn his luck around, to bring him success, was Hector Hidalgo, and as the story proceeds, Hector (for reasons I won’t mention at this point because you will find out for yourself) might not be so reliable after all. Learning to rely on other people and trust them picking you up and supporting you no matter what you do is hard, and sometimes it comes late in life …

Writing this post took 4 days and several attempts until I thought it’s at least halfway expressing what goes through my head (and heart) everytime I think about Horace and his story. It’s hard for me to write about this book because it was such an intense reading experience. It always is with Vlautin, but this one brought me to tears at the end (though mind you, I cried reading Stoner too, so this can happen from time to time…). Writing about books I like seems much easier than writing about books I love. Anyway, go and meet Horace—don’t skip out on me.

SPOILER ALERT: I will close this post with a quotation of the beautiful and poetic ending of Vlautin’s novel; though it does not give away much, decide for yourself if you want to read it or not…

Mr. Reese rolled him over and pulled him from the bag as tears leaked down his face. He held him in his arms and rocked him back and forth, and the night went along.

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…).