Posts Tagged ‘W.B.Yeats’

So much going on in Sally Rooney‘s Conversations with friends (Faber, 2017), where to begin?  How about with the brilliant piece of book design that is the endpapers of the hardback edition (click on the pic for an enlargement)?  They give a colourful taste, a decent aperitif, of what lurks inside:

I only had access to a library copy, so here’s what’s hidden under the label: I just don’t think I would enjoy being someone’s second choice / You can love more than one person / That’s arguable.  And the Yeats thing (top right), to remove any ambiguity, it finishes with: No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.  As someone who this holiday season just past revisited a home video recorded on the occasion of his 40th birthday which included a section of himself reading to camera Yeats’ The second coming, I’m taking that with a pinch of salt.  After all, Frances, our narrator, and her mate Bobbi are not your average third year Dublin university students.  Conversations with friends fizzes with stuff like that.  Here she is at the start of that bad date, trying to be ‘real’ and ‘normal’:

 I’ve never worked hard at anything, I said.
That must be why you study English.
Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.
Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets.
He didn’t have anything else to say about poetry after that.

(I’ll admit I did not know W.B. had briefly flirted with fascism, though I do now that I’ve looked it up: the Irish fascists had blueshirts.)

One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of Conversations with friends invokes Salinger’s Catcher in the rye and I can see that, except that Holden Caulfield was only 16 going on 17, and these are very different rites of passage for very different times; for starters, sharp as he was, he was in no position to namedrop French postmodern cultural theorists.  In this passage Frances has been to the theatre but has not been able to believe in the performance, regardless of the quality of the acting:

I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, although I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

At this point I’d also like to introduce Adrian Mole into the conversation.  This is something of a long shot, some will say – though consider “I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive” – but what fuels these pages is the mismatch between an aspiration to live one’s life in accordance with a theoretical critique of modern life and your actual daily existence, especially when the possibility of love is involved.  Contradictions, compromises, ironies and ambiguities inevitably follow, and entertainingly so. This, after all, is a novel that can get away with a line of self-examination like:

… have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement … ?

Serious stuff (the paragraph also acknowledges self-harming), but am I wrong to also spot humour in the employment of that phrase?

Here’s the disappointing cover of the soon to be published paperback. Ok, there is a significant sojourn on a French coast, but this really undersells what’s going on between the covers.

Frances and Bobbi – the odd girls out at school – had been lovers, but are now besties; they are performance poets – a double act even – though we get no flavour of the material.  Frances is the writer, while Bobbi has the confidence and charisma.  They meet up with a pair of older established culture vultures, a married couple – Melissa a successful writer, Mark a sometime semi-successful actor.  Their lives become entangled and we run a gamut of adultery, infidelity, jealousy, feeling worthless and having fun, not to mention frustration, vulnerability, exhilaration, reconciliation, and student survival, all punctuated with some fascinating conversations, variously full of intelligence, belligerence, caring and wit.  There is no definitive reading to be had from the ending (was that an echo of Ulysses’ Molly I felt there?) but our narrator has survived; passages have been rited (I’m just not going to say ‘rites of passage’).  It’s a tremendous bit of writing, wise beyond its years.

The thought occurred: am I too old for this sort of thing?  Thankfully not. “I felt like I was playing a video game without knowing any of the controls” is not a simile that I’d employ, but I certainly remember with a degree of nostalgia these phases:

Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  (p23)

 That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.  (p203)

Sally Rooney had me worried when Frances, in her vulnerability, started reading the Bible, but I should have had faith:

 My favourite part of the gospels was in Matthew, when Jesus said: love your neighbours, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you. I shared in this desire for moral superiority over my enemies. Jesus always wanted to be the better person, and so did I. I underlined this passage in red pencil, to illustrate that I understood the Christian way of life.
The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.

Good old  (young) Bobbi: “I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing“; but, still,   Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.”  Doesn’t stop her interjecting into a discussion about commitment, of the possibility of loving more than one person:

Well, it depends whether you believe in some kind of transhistorical concept of romantic love consistent across diverse cultures, said Bobbi. But I guess we all believe silly things, don’t we?

For what it’s worth, the title of my piece is a skewed take from the paragraph below.  ‘Operant discursive practices’ is Foucault, I think, or one of those post-structuralist or whatever theorists whose notions overtook large parts of academe in the ’70s.  I’m glad I escaped it … just.  And of course we just had thick A4 exercise books and a biro:

Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I like to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’.

If I could have made anything out of ‘epistemic rearticulation’ I would have.

Worth saying too that in the quotations of conversations I’ve used it’s not me that discarded the conventional inverted commas speech mark punctuation; Rooney doesn’t use them.  Three out of the last four books I’ve read have used alternative conventions – something I’m in favour of, and shall probably ponder here in the near future.


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Monday night to the theatre for Derren Brown‘s Svengali show.  The man is amazing.  Best for me this time was him doing something extraordinary at an easel, painting or drawing with one hand, while taking his cue from the arm of a randomly selected audience member (blindfolded?) whose arm he is grasping with his other hand as she thinks about a famous face, though that is but a small part of the show.  The audience is spellbound for well over two hours.  And yet.  The trouble is, the last show, Enigma, was so good it’s difficult to be have one’s flabber quite so gasted, though I’ve still absolutely no doubt that anyone coming to this with no experience of the man live would be more than impressed.  One is still charmed by the wit and in awe at his ability to hold and work a large audience so effectively.  Apparently he’s gone without his usual co-writer for Svengali; maybe there’s a bit of edge lost – a feeling maybe just be brought on by familiarity – but this is far from an exercise in Tony Hancockian hubris.

The stage set is steam punk, 1900s futuristic.  The centre piece segment of the show, the title piece, features an automaton doll called Svengali, a furtherance of Brown’s mission to replicate and demystify (even though he doesn’t explain how it’s done) Victorian era (and some) supposed occult phenomena.  The creepy – only word – automaton doll is given a back story with its origins in the late eighteenth century, including a tale of Catholic exorcism, for which, I can only say, I can find no concurrence on Wikipedia … but no matter.  The magician blogosphere suggests that much of the show is technically unexceptional misdirection and suggestion played out skillfully and at length, but again, no matter.  Long may Derren Brown thrive.  Attitude!

Andrea Gillies‘ book Keeper: a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake (Short Books, 2009) is about Alzheimer’s, a condition I knew a bit about but had no direct or indirect – through friends or relatives – contact with.  I know a lot more about it now and it’s worrying, scary and, as Gillies says in her forward, a growing problem for society as a whole.  Keeper won the Wellcome Prize for lay science writing; I wouldn’t have been reading it but for the Reading Group, but I’m glad I did.  It’s well written and nicely paced, the story – as it unfolds – interlaced with medical and scientific explanation and discussion as to what’s going on in the Alzheimer’s sufferers’ brain.

Andrea and her husband decide to live the three generational model of family care.  Nancy, her mother-in-law has early to middle stage Alzheimer’s and Nancy’s invalided husband Morris has his own problems, so they can’t cope on their own.  Andrea and Chris have three children.  They decide the only way to buy a house they can afford to accommodate them all is to move into a Victorian semi-ruin on a remote Scottish headland.  Chris is the main breadwinner so most of it – the caring, though note the book’s title is Keeper – falls on Andrea.  In the end it can’t be sustained.  And the extreme weather is far worse than they’d ever expected.  You do have to wonder quite how they thought it could ever work.  There was also the notion of touching the Wordsworthian Sublime (capital S), being closer to the elemental and all that. Leading to:

A baby seal dead on the beach, and then a dolphin, part eaten before it was washed ashore.  I begin to feel an overwhelming, disproportionate pity for the sheep and the bullocks that watch me from their pasture as I pass.  It’s all suffering and cruelty out there, I think, stomping along the beach in a summer dress and raincoat and wellingtons; it’s cruelty disguised by landscape, by our fetish for views.  I blame Wordsworth for that.

Nancy’s disintegration – the deterioration of self (“What am I doing here”? when most cogent), her loss of memory and routines of even simple hygiene, the return to a state of toddlerdom but with all the retained physical adult strength of anger and temper, her uncomprehending rants – and the effect this disintegration has on Andrea and the family dynamics, is devastatingly, compassionately and honestly – she almost cracks – described.  Nancy doesn’t recognise her husband, nor son or daughter in law; grandchildren are hit. It is harrowing. Never mind the dealings with Social Services.  Sad, but what relief to discover that sufferers fare better in an environment away from their family, free of the frustrations of the residue of vaguely remembered details of a forgotten life with no coherence, and with all the tensions reflected back by the travails of their once nearest and dearest distant.

As the sub-title of Keepers suggest, there’s a lot more to the book than that.  For all that the quote above suggests there is some wonderful descriptive writing about the land and clime. There is humour and a more general contemplation of existence, a sense of wonder of what an amazing thing the brain is, what it can do (eh, Darren?), what we take for granted.  What becomes clear is that our identities are our memories.

I can hear her ranting about me next door, but she is in rant mode most of the time now anyway, so it doesn’t matter.  None of it matters in the least, I say to myself, turning the radio up louder.  The radio is on in the kitchen all day now, the radio or the CD player.  Hendrix turns out to be an excellent granny repellent.  Mozart brings Nancy in asking questions and Sinatra sparks something that has the tone of reminiscence, but is a random putting-together of words and ideas, presented as urgently true.

There are questions that linger at the back of one’s mind, unsatisfied: there is very little back story (though with that it would not have been the same book, a certain crucial element of neutrality lost) and you do sometimes wonder about the part Chris plays in all this.  The book has done its job, though; part-therapy it may have been, but we get the picture.

I was intrigued by one aspect of Nancy’s decline; strange to say, reassuringly so.  She retains the capacity – can one even say necessity? – to rhyme.  Long after the memory of the proper words of her favourite song – When Irish eyes are smiling – are gone, her own made-up substitutes, even when no longer actual words, still rhyme.   Maybe a good time then, to give a nod to Mike Scott‘s band The Waterboys and their setting of some of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats‘s works to music.  I’ve been listening to the CD lately and it works much better – for all that (because) I’m a fan of the Waterboys and Yeats – than I’d ever expected.  The track that has been sticking in my mind? – Mad as the mist and snow.

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