Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLavery, Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape, London, hardback. 2017

Another novel read in a day while I convalesced after recent medical treatment. It takes some getting into, with a rather bleak pair of central characters. The married couple, retired architect Gerald and teacher, Stella, are in the midwinter of their relationship. Will it survive their cathartic post-Christmas short break in Amsterdam, where the cracks in their marriage, and in their individual lives, widen, and the painful secrets in their past threaten to explode their outward calm?

MacLaverty W Break coverGerald is a drinker; Stella is searching for solace after an earlier terrible trauma. He’s either unaware of her pain, or has drunk himself into numbness to avoid confronting and dealing with it – and his own. She sees this in him, and is tired of watching him drink. She wonders if she still loves or needs him.

That’s about it as far as plot goes. It’s a slowly accreting, sympathetically and delicately observed portrait of two people clinging on to the wreckage of their relationship, damaged by the Troubles in N. Ireland from the 70s onward, where their Catholic faith marked them obtrusively in the conflict they deplored. Events in this violent past nearly destroyed them.

In deceptively plain prose, MacLaverty pieces together an impression of a marriage full of unspoken grief and deeply felt, barely suppressed emotion. It’s one of the most haunting accounts I’ve read of the ways people strive to communicate but often fail to connect – even when they’re desperate to do so.

He’s particularly adept at selecting and delineating the minutiae of their daily lives as they age and try to face their new, retired life without the stimuli of work or bringing up family – their only son has grown up and moved abroad with their much missed grandson (it’s fairly clear why).

The way the novel opens is typical of this narrative technique: Stella and Gerald are in their home in Scotland (they’d long since left Ireland), preparing for bed. He’s finished in the bathroom and leaves the shaving mirror at the magnifying face. Why are we given that detail? Was he being considerate, knowing she’d need the magnified side of the mirror to carry out her facial restoration regime? Or was he simply examining his own face, heedless of her own? MacLaverty leaves the options open.

This passage continues:

She licked the tip of her index finger and smoothed both of them [her eyebrows]. Then turned to her eyelids. She was sick of it all – the circles of cotton wool, the boiled and sterilised water in the saucer, the ointments, the waste bin full of cotton buds.

At first sight this is just a list of banal details – but MacLaverty is sharp-eyed enough to notice how Stella feels the need to try to hold back the ageing process, with particular emphasis on the eyes – the windows of the soul. More importantly, that final sentence reveals her simmering impatience. The symbolic waste-bin represents perhaps her life, and her life with Gerald. Yet the point isn’t laboured; on the contrary, it’s unobtrusive – just there, like Stella and her pain. And what exactly is the ‘all’ that she’s sick of: the attempts to hold back the effects on her face of ageing, or Gerald and her life with him – or life in general? MacLaverty delicately refrains from telling us, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s wrong here, what’s going on in these troubled lives.

Her bedtime routine is completed when she gets into her pyjamas quickly, because the room is cold: ‘She saw no point in paying good money to heat a room all day for a minute’s comfort last thing at night.’ This penny-pinching at the expense of her own comfort indicates her self-castigating, frugal nature, her inability to expand, indulge. The slow drip of such details through the narrative gradually, like an accumulating stalagmite, shows why she’s like that, so pinched, self-denying.

As she basks in bed, warmed by her only, limited indulgences – hot water bottle and electric blanket — we are privy to her thoughts: she loves this ritual hour of ‘separation at the end of every day’. Gerry (as she would call her husband; these are clearly her thoughts, relayed through free indirect discourse) ‘out of action, in another room…Having a nightcap, no doubt. Or two or three.’

Even in this rare moment of sensual abandonment in her solitary bed, she can’t help this frisson of judgemental scorn and bitterness. What’s so poignant is that the behaviour of each of them precipitates such reactions in the other; the ways they deal with their own personal demons drives the other one away, at the very points when they need each other most, like magnets of the same polarity.

It’s easy to dislike Stella and Gerald, but gradually he’s seen to be guided by his wife’s star; redemption flickers and fades before them. I found myself hoping they’d not let it extinguish.

Trelissick and Carrick Roads

View over Carrick Roads from Trelissick gardens

Mrs TD read this after me, and struggled with the first third or so of the novel, but told me she was glad she persevered to the end – it picked up considerably.

Just to finish, a picture taken yesterday during our first walk at this local National Trust property in six months. One of our favourite views. Had to book a slot and maintain hygiene/social distancing measures, but worth it. And the sun shone.

Barbara Pym’s letters, notebooks and diaries

A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. Panther paperback, 1985. First published 1984

I posted recently about friends who live nearby and have a lovely secret garden; one lent me some books on my last visit there with Mrs TD. Last month I posted about two of these: the twenty years spent at St Hilary church, Cornwall by the genial and charming Fr Bernard Walke (link HERE), and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (link HERE).

Barbara Pym A Very Private Eye coverIn the garden, presided over by the sphinx-like cats, we discussed the novels of Barbara Pym. My loan of Some Tame Gazelle (link to my post HERE) wasn’t entirely successful, but we all agreed we enjoyed her fiction. In return I was lent A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt (a friend and long-time colleague of hers at the International African (anthropological) Institute, and BP’s younger sister, Hilary Pym.

It’s a highly entertaining, often very funny insight into the mind and thoughts of this novelist. It starts with her early life then Oxford, where she began her undergraduate  studies in 1932. She seems to have spent much of this university period in a spin of dizzy romances and social engagements, alternating with assiduous academic work. I admit I skimmed much of this.

Much more interesting are the later sections: her war years (she served as a Wren – the women’s royal naval service – with duties including postal censorship) in London and Naples, then her long career at the International African Institute, where she edited anthropological papers.

I was surprised by the number of times her heart was broken when love affairs ended badly. Less surprising was the originality, passion and grit she showed in her literary work – she began to write at the age of twenty-two.

After six fairly successful novels and minor celebrity as an author, she famously fell out of favour at the start of the swinging sixties. Publishers lost their nerve, and rejected everything she sent them, saying it wouldn’t sell. She was devastated.

A long, increasingly friendly and encouraging correspondence with Philip Larkin, who admired her work, boosted her confidence. Eventually they met in person and enjoyed some very Pym-esque teas together. In January 1977 the TLS published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most under-rated writers of the century. BP was the only living writer to be chosen by two contributors: Larkin and David Cecil – another long-time admirer of her novels. Because of this publicity, and the changing mood of the times, her fiction came into demand again.

She was rediscovered. She was delighted to find herself more famous and successful than she’d ever been. Especially when she discovered that her fiction was being taught in American universities.

It’s gratifying to see revealed so intimately in her letters, diaries and notebooks, the deep pleasure and spirited pride she felt in her final years when she finally received proper recognition of her literary merit, after those dismal years of disappointment and humiliation.

She lived from 1946 in affectionate harmony with her younger sister, Hilary, and some very dubious cats, at first in London, then in the countryside. They ended up in a village which she described in a letter as straight out of Some Tame Gazelle, published many years earlier. She was thrilled to find that village life hadn’t changed that much, even though London had.

The title of this anthology of her non-fiction reflects what a private person she was. It’s thanks to the judicious editing and selection of the two editors who knew her so well that we can dip into this charming book and enjoy seeing the vivacity, wit and humanity of this excellent woman from a slightly different perspective from the one gained from reading her novels.

Helford river shore

View of the shore from where we swam: those are our bags

I’ll append here some pictures taken on Saturday’s seven-mile walk around parts of Helford River and the fields above it. Our new walk app describes the route and places of note on the way. We stopped for a swim at the bottom of the hill, in the salty tidal river, in the refreshingly cool water. I thought the house martins had all migrated south, but there were still a few about that day.

Helford river from above

The river and open sea from further on in our walk.

Helford River

This is the view from that beach where our bags were, out over the tidal creek

 

 

The restorative powers of the sea

Life in Britain, as in the rest of the world, has been depressing and weird this year. After our first holiday break with family since Christmas – in a rented cottage in Devon in the hottest week of the year to date (I posted about it HERE)  – we returned to Cornwall and grey skies most days, and continued social restrictions to mitigate the worst effects of the virus.

A week or so ago Mrs TD said she was fed up with being cooped up, and said we should go for a swim again. In the ocean. I wasn’t too keen – the week before the sea was very cold – but went along with the scheme.

Portscatho bay looking west

Portscatho bay looking west

She was right, as she usually is. I should know that by now. We had a lovely walk on the coast of the Roseland peninsula, after a coffee at the Hidden Hut café on the clifftop overlooking the bay. The beach was much less busy than it had been during the high season. A couple had a large dog with a disturbingly deep bark – a Spanish mastiff/labrador cross, they told me when I asked. He looked disappointed as we set off to explore the next bay and beach.

Portscatho bay east view

Portscatho bay looking east

What a good decision. The early cloud lifted and was replaced by summery blue sky and bright sunshine. There was a beautiful beach round the next headland. There were too many rocks on the shoreline for comfortable swimming, so we walked on until we found a delightful little pool – a mini-cove – between two rocky outcrops. The water was wonderful: calm as a lake, and beautifully clear and cool – just enough to be bracing and rejuvenating.

Our swimming pool.

That’s our swimming pool, and those are our footsteps

The beach was deserted, apart from a couple who paused in their walk to perch on the rock overlooking our pool (like the reverse of the folk myth: cormorants turned into humans) and watch us with envy.

It’s probably the best swim we’d ever had. One of the best experiences, too. After the dismay and chaos of this distressing year, it reinvigorated us and restored our sense of harmony with nature, of human equilibrium. It was good, for example, to watch the amazing diving skill of those miniature cormorants, shags. Unfortunate name, but excellent fishers.

Crantock beach

Crantock beach, north Cornwall coast

Earlier this week we went to the north coast and one of our default beaches near Newquay. It’s a huge sandy bay with just one coffee truck on the beach during the summer – an old army truck, strangely. None of the frantic seaside kitsch of the more popular spots nearby. Our much-missed dog Bronte loved it there, too, and we scattered her ashes there after she died. We still still her white phantom, racing down the dunes and leaping ecstatically into the waves. She didn’t like swimming, though.

As always on the north coast the surf was pretty fierce – not really good for human or canine swimming. But it was perfect for diving over, into and under the crashing waves – exhilarating. The water was slightly warmer here, too. This day probably topped the previous swimming experience in our private cove.

Back this week to test results from the hospital – pretty good news, considering – and more depressing incompetence and bluster from our out-of-their depth, bragging but useless government.

Log tortoise

This driftwood log on the beach near our swimming cove looked like the head of a tortoise, I thought

I shan’t linger on that. I prefer to think of the clear sea water and the beauties and delights of this part of the southwest of England.

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)