I’m one of the lucky ones. I spend about an hour and a half on trains every day and rarely in rush hour, so I usually get a seat. I have access to a communal garden, which tempts me out when I have a spare half hour on warm days. I have a couch and bed for cold days. This means I actually have time and space to read books, some doorstopper thick and unportable, some sleek enough to go everywhere. The books I have on the go (typically two at a time) offer a commentary on wherever I happen to be, whatever I’m doing. They’re closer than friends, and their words revisit me inadvertently at unthinking moments… Sometimes, on a day like today, when I’m mildly hung over, I’m walking to the tube stop and the line ‘…My Paris/ Was only just not German’ (Ted Hughes, ‘Your Paris,’ The Birthday Letters) interrupts me for a reason I can’t completely understand. Why do I need this relatively unremarkable line right now?
When I get home, I find the poem. Hughes’ autobiographical account of how the Paris he remembers from his time as a soldier in World War II , (a city occupied by the Nazis where ‘So recently the coffee was still bitter/ As acorns’), differed from the experience of his wife Sylvia Plath, who tried to distract herself with ‘American’ Hemingway and Fitzgerald fantasies from the pain of her own memory of being rejected by a former lover in the city. The phrase I remembered is preceded by another forgotten one: ‘I kept my Paris from you’ (Hughes to Plath). These 6 words take me back to where I accidentally found The Birthday Letters the second time, in Word on the Water, a secondhand bookshop in a tugboat, on leafy Regent’s Canal in July. I was falling in love, and at the height of my giddy infatuation, my reunion with The Birthday Letters in such a poetic surrounding felt like kismet (his word not mine). Of course, The Birthday Letters document a love/hate dynamic, a narrative of intimacy and misunderstanding, and I could have seen them as a warning. What started out as passion and the immense desire to share everything, turned into hurt and privation, something being kept from me. Not a city, but a story it was thought I would never understand.
It’s funny, but Plath and Hughes volumes seem to jump off the shelves at me whenever I embark upon a cliched passion-motivated affair like theirs. Something about the dissenting voices, the sensuously acrid imagery, reflects something real right into my soul. Their words and my own satellite relationships give me no shortage of thrills, but leave me a little raw and hungry.
Seeking rootedness, sunshine and inspiration, I turn to my other relationships, and a trip to San Francisco. As I’m walking in the city’s Sunset District, I become intrigued by a neoclassical-fronted public library, guarded by marble lions and walk in. On a table I spot a book called Fairyland by Alysia Abbot. It’s cover is illustrated with a black and white photograph of a slick, elfishly handsome man in a dark suit, holding a white magnolia. Behind him is an earnest, exquisitely-featured little girl in a long chintzy white nightgown. It must be magic realism, a modern fairytale, I think, and turn it over. But when I do, I find out that it’s a woman’s memoir of growing up in San Fransisco with her gay father in the 1970s and then nursing him through Aids. I’m not sure I can read this right now- It feels a little too close to home when I’ve recently been overwhelmed with the news of one close friend’s serious illness and another’s bereavement. I put the book down- it belongs to the library anyway, so it’s not like I can take it away. But then the day before I’m due to catch the ten-hour flight home, I persuade my friend Nikki and her mum to go to touristy North Beach, and drag them into City Books, (Jack Kerouac’s favourite, incidentally), where all I want to buy is Fairyland.
It’s beautifully written, searching and honest- I like how Abbot pilfers through her father, Steve’s poems and private correspondence to conjure up his side of the story as a counter-narrative to her own. Poetry, bohemianism and love are prominent, but Abbot doesn’t brush over the mutual inconveniences of their family unit. Her presence as a demanding child and bratty teenager damages Steve’s credentials as lover, and there are times when his flamboyant homosexuality and hippiness embarrass her. Abbot’s account of her search for a life of her own as a young woman as Steve’s illness advances, is especially moving. Much of this is related through their letters, precious documents where they exchange ideas about life as well as reports of their everyday experiences. I’m reminded that dying and living aren’t the opposites that they’re generally seen to be, that a sick person may be languishing in body, but enjoying a vivid mental and spiritual experience. This book, which has made me a little less afraid of sickness and death, ends on a tender, marvelling note: ‘This place Dad and I lived together, our fairy land, wasn’t make believe but a real place with real people and I was there.’
While my foray into the life and death theme was accidental, over the past few months, I’ve been consciously drawn to makers’ narratives. It’s essentially the same story told a little differently told each time. A person with big ideas, a smattering of talents and scattered means, makes something of their life. I’d been meaning to read Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects for a while, and found it in the Camden Waterstones last month. It’s a weighty tome with a midnight blue waxy jacket, gold lettering and a comely aloe smell. I could only read it at home or on journeys when I knew I wouldn’t be walking much. Anyway, I found Lutz’s account of how the Brontes created their famous stories in and amongst their possessions, chores and life crises strangely comforting. Books doubled as storage units, presses and even writing paper, when the latter was scarce and expensive, and someone had a story idea that just had to be captured, even if there was literally marginal space for it. Plots were discussed around pudding bowls, and developed in breaks from sewing- an accomplishment the Bronte girls wanted to keep up, so that they wouldn’t become decadent, unfeminine literary types. I like this idea of creativity amongst stuff and busyness rather than ascetic vocationalism, not only because it’s realistic, but because it’s generous and intricately woven into life.
The figure of Emily Bronte, the wildest of the sisters has always intrigued me the most, and it horrified society to think how this ‘slim, wick of a girl,’ a clergyman’s daughter nonetheless, conceived a hero as violently savage as Heathcliff. As far as we know, she had no such lover, or even character in her life; but Lutz speculates that Emily’s familiarity with Lord Byron’s works, as well as her affinity with the untamed moorland and acute observations of dogs, (pre-Chiuaua-era they were much closer to their lupine cousins), would have been enough. About one hundred years later in Paris, people would marvel at how the seemingly innocent eighteen-year-old Francoise Sagan (real name Quoirez) could create a novel as candidly racy as Bonjour Tristesse. Anne Berest’s focused study of Sagan’s life in 1954, the year of Bonjour Tristesse’s publication, is another account of how a green young woman possessed the sensitivity and acute powers of observation to write beyond her personal experience, and get published. I think that Emily and Francoise’s examples stand out in my mind, because there are things that I want to achieve where I can envisage the result, but not the next step. So many times, writers are told to draw from their own experience, but Emily and Francoise didn’t have that much, so they took what they had, and with a dash of inspiration, jumped into the unknown.
Alysia Abbot, Fairyland (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).
Anne Berest, Sagan: Paris, 1954 (London: Gallic Books, 2015).
Ted Hughes, The Birthday Letters (London: Quality Books, 1998).
Deborah Lutz, The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015).