Tag Archives: Memoir

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Described by Lahiri as a kind of linguistic memoir, In Other Words is a beautiful, meditative series of reflections on the author’s quest to immerse herself in the Italian language – a passion she has nurtured since her days as a college student. It’s a fascinating volume, presented in a dual-language format showing Lahiri’s original Italian text on the left-handed pages with Ann Goldstein’s English translation on the right. Thematically, the book has much in common with Lahiri’s fiction, tapping into subjects such as identity, alienation, belonging – and, perhaps most importantly, how it feels to be in exile, an outsider as such.

This love affair begins in December 1994 when Lahiri takes a short trip to Florence in the company of her sister. While there, she feels an immediate connection with the Italian language, which seems foreign yet also strangely familiar – a paradox of sorts, a simultaneous closeness and remoteness.

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment, a closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight. (p. 15)

Following her return to America, Lahiri begins to study Italian – partly for her doctoral thesis about the influence of Italian architecture on English playwrights and partly to feed a personal passion for the language, a desire ignited by the trip.

In time – and as her writing career takes off – Lahiri continues her relationship with Italian, working her way through a series of private tutors, learning enough to converse, albeit somewhat hesitantly. Nevertheless, she feels limited by her lack of knowledge and familiarity with the language – a feeling that prompts a move to Rome on a semi-permanent basis, uprooting the family to accompany her in this quest. Only by living in Italy and continually conversing in Italian can Lahiri fully immerse herself in the language – and hopefully fulfil her aims.

Naturally, there are practical obstacles to be overcome when the family arrive in Rome, especially given their lack of friends or acquaintances in the city. But this is not Lahiri’s main focus here; instead, the book is an intimate series of reflections on Lahiri’s relationship with a new language – the painstaking process of learning and immersion, with all the attendant emotions this transformation involves.

In the six months leading up to the move to Italy, Lahiri reads solely in Italian, mainly as a way of preparing herself for this new world. Then, on her arrival in the city, she begins a new diary in Italian – a spontaneous impulse, despite her uncertainties with the language and a tendency to make mistakes.

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here—maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy. The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly. It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment (p. 57)

In effect, this whole expedience prompts a kind of renewal for Lahiri as she rediscovers her reasons for writing – more specifically, what drives her interest in language and how she uses it to understand the world.

Despite the limitations imposed by a reduced vocabulary and her concerns about grammar, Lahiri finds the process of writing in Italian very liberating. There is a sense of freedom about it, a kind of permission to be forgiving and accepting of imperfections. It’s a tension that underpins many of Lahiri’s meditations in this book, a paradoxical link between liberation and restriction (or, in other instances, between closeness and remoteness).

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect. (p. 83)

Identity and belonging are prominent themes here too, mirroring the preoccupations of much of Lahiri’s fiction. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, Lahiri was born in London and raised in America, following the family’s move to the US when Jhumpa was aged three. Consequently, English is her second language, the one she learned in school and by reading voraciously as a child. At home, however, the family spoke only Bengali – Lahiri’s first language and her only way of communicating until nursery school at the age of four. In some respects, Lahiri has always felt a sense of divided identity. As a girl growing up in America, she wanted to assimilate and be considered American, a citizen of her adopted country, while also wishing to please her parents by speaking perfect Bengali at home. Perhaps because of this duality, she strongly identifies with life on the margins – individuals who find themselves on the edges of countries and their cultures.

I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted, but where I’m comfortable. The only zone where I think that, in some way, I belong. (p. 93)

The sense of affinity Lahiri experiences with the Italian language prompts her to question the nature of her identity, stirring feelings of dislocation and a degree of estrangement. The more she immerses herself in the Italian language, the less comfortable she feels about returning to English, prompting her to write professionally in the former. (Her latest novella, Whereabouts – which I loved – was also written in Italian and subsequently translated into English, in this instance by the author herself.)

Why don’t I feel more at home in English? How is it that the language I learned to read and write in doesn’t comfort me? What happened, and what does it mean? The estrangement, the disenchantment confuses, disturbs me. I feel more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition. (pp. 129-131)

In Other Words is a very intimate and personal book – a meditation on finding a sense of freedom through the creative process, however uncomfortable that might feel. Lahiri writes openly about the experiences of learning a new language, complete with all the challenges and frustrations this creates. Nevertheless, these difficulties are balanced by the author’s passion and determination; the liberation she experiences is beautifully conveyed. One gets the sense that writing in Italian has given Lahiri a new sense of direction with her work, prompting a creative rejuvenation that is fascinating to observe.

Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone interested in writing, translating and learning a new language – or Lahiri’s fiction, particularly given the resonances with the book’s themes.  

In Other Words is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. 

Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz

Two terrific books for you today – by prose stylists of the highest order. Enjoy!

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (1943)

This is a book for anyone who enjoys food – not the fancy, pretentious kind of food the word ‘gastronomical’ might suggest, but honest, simple, good quality fare, typically fashioned from flavoursome ingredients.  It is, in essence, a blend of memoir, food writing and travel journal, all woven together in Fisher’s wonderfully engaging style.

Backlisted listeners among you may have encountered Fisher through How to Cook a Wolf (1942), her wartime guide to keeping appetites sated when decent ingredients are in short supply. In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher looks back on some of the most symbolic meals and food-related experiences of her first three decades – the quality of the dishes consumed, the people who shared them and the memories they evoked. She writes lovingly of her early life, the most notable culinary occasions, irrespective of their simplicity, and the way our feelings towards certain foods are often entwined with memories of people, places and key moments in time. There is a sense of meals being part of the fabric of a person’s life here, inextricably linked to love, friendship and family – encompassing both happy times and sad.

Throughout the book, Fisher relates her most memorable food-related experiences, from her first taste of the frothy ‘skin’ on her grandmother’s homemade jam to the trepidation of swallowing a live oyster at the high-school dance. We learn of her travels from California to France, following her marriage to Al Fisher, an academic studying for his doctorate at Dijon. On their arrival in France, the Fishers were eager to experience the European lifestyle, delighting in simple yet flavoursome food, courtesy of their boarding house and the city’s modest restaurants.

The memoir gives us snapshots of Fisher’s life, mostly from the late 1920s (when Fisher would have been around twenty) to the late ‘30s, when Europe was in the grip of a tumultuous war. Various sea crossings are dotted throughout the memoir – as are various friends, family members and other eccentric acquaintances the Fishers meet on their travels. Naturally, there are affairs of the heart too, particularly when M. F. K. falls for the American writer and artist Dillwyn Parrish (or Chexbres as he is affectionately known) in the mid-1930s. In time, he becomes the love of her life; although sadly, their time together is very short, cruelly curtailed by Chexbres’ suicide, prompted by the debilitating impact of Buerger’s Disease.   

Where the book really excels is in Fisher’s ability to convey a genuine love of food. Not in a way that reeks of privilege or pretentiousness; just warmth, passion and enjoyment, laced with an admiration for the people who prepare it. In this scene, Fisher recalls a meal of freshly caught trout, potatoes and hot buttered peas from the garden of a Swiss guesthouse near Lucerne.

It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good…but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.

We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us of it willingly, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it; but I know that I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive, probably. (p. 217)

It’s a glorious vignette, beautifully conveyed in Fisher’s elegant, eminently readable style.

I Used to be CharmingThe Rest of Eve Babitz (2019)

I’ve written before about Eve Babitz, the American writer, journalist and album cover designer who died last December. Her 1974 collection, Eve’s Hollywood, could be described as autofiction or maybe a semi-fictionalised memoir. Either way, it’s a luminous book – like a series of shimmering vignettes on bohemian life in LA.

Slow Days, Fast Company followed in 1977, cementing Babitz’s reputation as a leading documenter of the Californian lifestyle/counterculture. Both books are currently in print with NRYB Classics, along with a third volume of Babitz’s work, I Used to be Charming – The Rest of Eve Babitz, compiled in 2019.

Charming comprises some fifty articles/essays, mostly published in magazines between 1975 and 1997. Far from being a collection of odds and ends, Charming contains some of the very best of Babitz’s writing – the titular essay, recounting her recovery from life-threatening third-degree burns, is worth the cover price alone. It’s a searingly honest yet funny piece, conveyed in Babitz’s thoroughly engaging style. Also of particular note is a sixty-page essay on the ethos of Fiorucci, the pioneering Italian fashion brand based. Much to my surprise, I found this absolutely fascinating and immersive!

As in the earlier books, Babitz turns her eye to various topics here – mostly related to California with the occasional sojourn to New York. She writes beautifully about men, relationships, actors, musicians, locations, fashion, body image and various personal experiences. Her style is naturally breezy – conversational, almost – both easy-going and whip-smart. It’s a tricky blend to pull off, but to Babitz it seems intuitive, as in this 1979 piece titled Gotta Dance.  

Once you feel what it’s like to dance with someone who knows how to dance, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You may even come to realize, as I have, that dancing is better than sex. I mean that, I really do. It’s better because it’s a flirtation that can go on forever and ever without being consummated; because you can do it with strangers and not feel guilty or ashamed; because you can do it outside your marriage and not get in any trouble; and because you can do it in public, with people watching and applauding. And when you’re doing it right, you can’t think about anything else, such as what you forgot at work or that the ceiling needs painting.

Which is why women love to dance. (p. 203)

Babitz can be funny too, as in Tiffany’s Before Breakfast, an article about coping with an impending crisis. Here, she has arranged to meet her friend Tina to make plans to avert a collapse.

So we met at Nickodell’s, a thirties Hollywood restaurant which has stuff like “turkey croquettes” on the menu, it’s so Mildred Pierce. Nickodell’s – it’s sort of the only place in L.A. you can go without accidentally bumping into an alfalfa sprout. It makes you feel grounded. It’s a good place to discuss your nervous breakdown. (p. 136)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Babitz writes evocatively about cities, neighbourhoods and locations – not just her beloved L.A. but also the more friendly San Francisco.

Here, it seemed to me, was the essential San Francisco: a city of lights, a city of radiant beings, a city of taxis and tourists and back alleys, a city of crazily shaped enterprises, of too-high hills and too much romance from long ago, where the past and the present blur into each other… (pp. 315-316)

I’ve merely scratched the surface of this beguiling collection of pieces, which I read over several weeks during the dark days of January. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in California, especially during this era.   

Both of these books qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event in support of Independent Publishers. The Gastronomical Me is published by Daunt Books, I Used to be Charming by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing review copies.

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Cost of Living – a luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention – is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. I’m not quite sure why I started with this middle volume, first published in 2018 – maybe its focus on a significant turning point in the author’s life particularly appealed. Whatever the reason, now that I’ve read Cost, my investment in the trilogy as a whole is well and truly sealed.

In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years. Levy is fifty at this point, and the book starts with her realisation that she no longer wishes to live with her husband, to be part of the traditional societal view of the woman as wife and mother – roles designated to women by a longstanding patriarchal society. But, to paraphrase Levy herself, why mortgage one’s life to someone else’s fear? It takes immense amounts of time, care and generosity to build a family home, to be the ‘architect of everyone else’s well-being’. However, when we no longer feel a sense of belonging in our family home, it is time to move on – to step out of the old story and invent a new one. 

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story? (p. 85)

It was time to find new main characters with other talents. (p. 87)

Consequently, Levy and her two daughters move from their dark, well-furnished Victorian house to a small but airy flat in a dilapidated North London building with poor heating and darkly ominous communal corridors, which Levy ironically calls ‘The Corridors of Love’. Here, Levy begins a new phase of her life, sometimes writing at night on the tiny balcony amidst the silvery sky and stars.

We were living with the sky from dawn to dusk, its silver mists and moving clouds and shape-shifting moons. (p. 24)

Many of the author’s reflections are intensely personal, offering the reader an insight into the emotions they inevitably trigger. Levy writes movingly her mother’s death from cancer, a tragedy that occurs within a year of the breakdown of the author’s marriage. We hear something of the mother’s backstory, too – a bright, glamorous, resourceful individual who worked hard to keep the family together when Levy’s father, an anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned in the 1960s for his political beliefs.

In many cases, it is the details that make Levy’s vignettes feel so vivid, often imparting a note of ironic humour amidst the undeniable poignancy. For instance, when her bag breaks, the chicken Levy has bought for dinner is run over by a car, leaving an indelible impression, both on the bird and on the reader’s mind. Each day, as her mother’s life is coming to an end, Levy diligently buys a particular brand of ice lolly (the only food her mother can consume) from a newsagent’s shop run by three Turkish brothers. During each visit to the shop, Levy clears the top of the brothers’ freezer of various assorted goods – mushrooms, shoe polish batteries etc. – to reach the treasured ice lollies, preferably the lime ones which her mother prefers. One day, however, the usual flavours have gone with only the bubblegum lollies remaining – a variety her mother subsequently rejects. The frustration Levy displays towards the Turkish brothers is both heartbreaking and wryly amusing – an entirely understandable outlet for the depth of her pain.

There are several brighter, more playful moments, too – like shards of light amidst the darkness of winter. For example, we learn how Adrian Mitchell’s eighty-year-old widow, Celia, offers Levy the use of her husband’s old shed as a writing retreat – a rather spartan habitat that Levy shares with her friend’s spare freezer. In relaying this and other stories, Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

Of course I wanted to instal a wood-burning stove in the shed (what was I to do with the freezer?) and live a romantic writer’s life – preferably Lord Byron’s life, writing poetry in a velvet smoking jacket, waiting for inspiration to ravish me as the fragrant wood crackled and popped, etc. (pp. 49–50)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few challenges, Celia’s shed proves to be a welcome refuge for Levy, enabling her to write with a new sense of liberty.

Reflections on various literary figures are threaded through the memoir, often entwined with Levy’s own thoughts on writing, womanhood and ways of living. Her artistic touchstones range far and wide from Emily Dickinson to Simone de Beauvoir to Margarite Duras. Duras feels particularly crucial in this context, offering inspiration on motherhood, our perceptions of ourselves and the general creative process.

Levy’s ideas on various social constructs form key elements of the text, particularly those on the perception (and suppression) of women in 21st-century society. She highlights how men often fail to mention a woman by name when referring to her in conversation, defining the woman by their relationship (e.g. my wife) or simply leaving her nameless, like spectral figure in the shadows. A chance encounter with a man at a party is particularly telling, signalling a lack of interest in women’s voices on the part of this writer whose specialism is military biographies. On introducing himself to Levy (who has only just arrived), this tall, silvered-haired author asks her to pass him a canapé – a request she shrewdly ignores while proceeding to change her shoes.    

He was tall and thin, possibly in his late sixties, and seemed to desire my company. He talked about his books for a while and how his wife (no name) was unwell at home. He did not ask me one single question, not even my name. It seemed that what he needed was a devoted, enchanting woman at his side to acquire his canapés for him and who understood that he was entirely the subject. (pp. 66–67)

Above all though, The Cost of Living is about discovering a new way to live – to move away from the life that someone else has imagined for us and embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. It is heartening to read of Levy whizzing around London on her e-bike – a sort of metaphor for liberation itself – navigating the challenges this break from marital security presents. Especially so when we see how wise and perceptive Levy is in her reflections on life – her honesty and unassuming nature really do come through.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

The Cost of Living is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

First published as an essay in Granta’s Summer 2009 issue, Lost Cat is a thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. Mary Gaitskill – an American writer whose work has recently been experiencing something of a revival – is perhaps best known for her short stories; but this slim memoir is wonderfully affecting. (Spoiler alert: I really adored it.)

While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten whom she names Gattino. The kitten is the runt of the litter – thin, one-eyed and desperately in need of attention. Nevertheless, under Mary’s supervision, Gattino grows stronger and more affectionate, seemingly returning his carer’s love and nurturing gestures.

In time, Mary and her husband, Peter, return to their home in New York, with Gattino in tow. At first, Gattino seems settled, continuing the progress that was made back in Italy. However, not long after Mary and Peter move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, prompting a tireless search for the cat in the immediate area. Over the next several months, Mary puts out food, lays traps, distributes flyers and stakes out car parks, all in an effort to find the elusive Gattino. Various potential sightings are reported, but none of these instances turn out to be genuine.

In her desperation to find the lost cat, Mary consults psychics and mystics, while continuing to worry away at various omens and superstitions – anything that might have some significance to Gattino’s whereabouts and situation.

Running through this profoundly moving memoir are various other strands that cut deep into Mary’s life. The loss of Gattino reawakens various emotions within Mary, releasing previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of her father. What emerges is a picture of Mary’s father, a ‘difficult’, truculent man who had suffered great pain from an early age, his own father and mother having died when he was a young boy. Moreover, Mary’s father endured a slow and painful death, a function of his terminal cancer and refusal to accept treatment. While Mary and her father were not particularly close, she and her sisters tended to him in his final months – albeit too late and somewhat inadequately.

Consequently, there is a sense that the loss of Gattino allows Mary to experience (and ultimately, to come to terms with) the pain of losing her own father. Not only the physical loss of a parent but a yearning for the life they might have had together too. In effect, Mary’s concern that she has failed to ‘protect’ Gattino opens the gateway of emotions related to other, potentially more painful regrets.

Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love. (p. 15)

Also of significance here are Mary’s feelings for two disadvantaged children, Caesar and Natalia, whom she and Peter met through a kind of fostering programme several years earlier. The children’s home life in the city is tough, with a mother who beats and belittles them routinely and no sign of a father on the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this background, the siblings prove somewhat challenging to reach; nevertheless, Mary perseveres, recognising Caesar’s neediness and aggression to be a function of his situation.

I took Caesar’s aggression seriously – but for a long time I forgave it. I forgave because for me the aggression and need translated almost on contact as longing for the pure affection he had been denied by circumstance, and outrage at the denial. (pp. 40–41)

Holidays with Mary and her husband prove to be a release for the children, initially at least. Mary spends considerable time and energy supporting the pair, giving them pleasurable experiences to remember, helping Natalia with her homework, and paying for both children to attend a good school. Nevertheless, as the siblings grow older, disaffection sets in, and Mary’s efforts to nurture Natalia’s abilities fail to have the desired impact.

In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. Through her reflections on these issues, Gaitskill comes across as a very open person, someone with a desire to analyse and reflect on her experiences, laying bare her various anxieties along the way.

I can’t say offhand how many times, during the decades before I got married, I asked for or demanded some sort of relationship with someone who shut the door in my face, then opened it again and peeked out. I would – metaphorically – pound on the door and follow the person through endless rooms. Sometimes the door opened and I fell in love – before losing interest completely. I thought then that my feelings were false and had been all along, but the pain that came from rejecting someone or being rejected was real and deep. (p. 82)

There are points where Mary doubts or examines her reasons for intervening in these situations, particularly as far as Caesar and Natalia are concerned. Nevertheless, there is a sense that she was right to offer her love to Gattino – perhaps accompanied by the hope that one day he might return…

Lost Cat is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

glass

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

As someone whose childhood in 1970s Britain was soundtracked by the likes of Bowie, ABBA and The Jam, I was always going to fall squarely within the target market for Broken Greek, the glorious coming-of-age memoir by the respected music journalist, Pete Paphides. However, when Gordon, my music-obsessed neighbour, mentioned to me back in May that it was shaping up to be his book of the year, I knew I had to read it pretty damn quick. And he was right to praise it. This is such an engaging book, full of warmth, honesty and humour; it just might turn out to be one of my books of the year, too.

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares.

Back in the early ‘60s, Paphides’s parents – Chris, a traditional Cypriot with socialist values, and Victoria, an emotionally intuitive woman from Athens – move to England with little in the way of money or secure job prospects. When a potential contact fails to materialise, the couple fall into the fish and chip business, ultimately scraping together enough money for an outlet in Acocks Green. The move to Britain was originally intended to be a temporary one, with Chris harbouring ambitions to return to Cyprus where he would open a garage using profits from the couple’s time in England. However, a combination of the realities of working life and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the early 1970s ultimately puts the kibosh on any plans for that.  

With mum and dad working all hours at the chippy, young Pete and his older brother, Aki, have ample time on their hands to try and make sense of the world around them. As the book opens, Pete – or Takis as he is known at this point; the name-change to ‘Pete’ comes later – is in the midst of a long silent phase (a 3-year period that eventually ends through a well-judged intervention by Aki). It’s an astute opening, one that secures the reader’s emotional investment in the book’s protagonist right from the start. Pete – a quiet, emotionally sensitive boy at heart – finds something in music that speaks to him very clearly, a deep sense of connection/reassurance that touches a raw nerve. 

For a few years in the mid-late ‘70s, Pete becomes convinced that his parents are secretly planning to leave him, largely due to his inability to speak to anyone outside of his immediate family circle – a condition that causes his mother much embarrassment. As a consequence, Pete begins to line up a sequence of ‘fantasy childminders’ or ‘pop parents’ should the unthinkable happen with his real parents. ABBA, Kiki Dee and Brotherhood of Man are all high on the list of candidates, especially when BoM’s appearance on Top of the Pops (TOTP) results in a sort of epiphany for young Pete.

‘Save Your Kisses for Me’ was my prepubescent ‘Starman’ moment. But this was no alien gang leader exhorting me to help him overthrow the hidebound post-war torpor of my parents’ generation and invert this monochrome dystopia to reveal an iridescent post-apocalyptic ambisexual utopia. No, this was serious. I felt like Brotherhood of Man – the dark-haired bloke with the moustache; the sleepy-eyed, super-affable guy with brown shoulder-length hair, just the way I secretly wanted my hair to be; the kind-faced blonde woman; the only slightly less kind-faced looking dark-haired woman – understood me. 

As the years go by and the Paphides family move from one Birmingham-based fish and chip shop to another, Pete’s connection with music grows, deepening in intensity.

The memoir perfectly captures young Pete drawing on a litany of pop music, effectively using it as a means of creating a cultural identity for himself – one that is very much his own, independent of that of his parents. While Aki has a knack for discovering the coolest bands (The Clash, Echo & The Bunneymen, and The Teardrop Explodes, subsequently claiming them as his own), Pete puts more weight behind emotional connections, falling hard for the resonances stirred by ABBA, Olivia Newton-John and Janet Kay, whose hit single, Silly Games, is a song I adore. In short, pop music is akin to ‘a third parent’ for Pete; something that explains the world to him so that his real parents don’t have to.

In ‘Silly Games’, Kay’s vulnerability echoed the uncertainty of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘A Little More Love’. The other obvious point of comparison was ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game’, whose love-struck narrator edges by tiny increments towards emotional disclosure, ever wary that her feelings might not be reciprocated: ‘if I trust in you, would you let me down? / Would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you? / Could you feel the same way too?’

Given that my parents had little that corresponded to my somewhat idealised definition of a relationship, it probably wasn’t surprising that I was searching ABBA records for clues. 

ABBA prove particularly useful in imparting the harsh realities of love, their music effecting mirroring the dissolution of first Bjorn and Agnetha’s marriage, and then Benny and Frida’s, as one emotionally-revealing album follows another. Bowie too is another touchstone, one that only becomes fully apparent following his death in 2016.

Bowie’s vocal seemed to come from a place near the edge of life itself. Either awakening from a period of unconsciousness or about to enter one. Over time, I would come to realise that his ability to refract unspeakable, unknowable peril through the prism of melody was unsurpassable. It was there in ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. By the time he released Blackstar, knowing that he had weeks to live, it didn’t occur to anyone that Bowie might, this time, actually be writing about his own death. 

Cultural identity is a theme that permeates virtually every page of this book. From an early age, Pete is cognisant of the sense of tension between two very different cultures in his life: the traditional Greek-Cypriot heritage of his parents and the more exciting world enveloping him in Britain. Like many children of first-generation immigrants, Pete and his brother Aki soon begin to identify more strongly with the country of their childhood than their parents’ beloved homeland. In Message in a Bottle by The Police, Pete finds something that resonates with his own situation and the ‘looming identity crisis’ he is trying to ‘will out of existence’. More specifically, the fact that he doesn’t feel very Greek and cannot see himself fulfilling his parents’ expectations of a son – namely, someone who marries a nice Greek girl and settles down in the family business.

Even though I was no longer mute, an awareness was growing both in me and my brother that all the things that we found exciting were culturally alien to our parents. Rightly or wrongly, it increasingly felt as though it was our destiny to disappoint them. 

As the memoir unfolds, we learn more about the Paphides family back in Cyprus and Greece. The guilt Victoria experiences after leaving her mother and sister for a new life, one that turns out to be very different from the dreams she envisaged; the anguish of having to send baby Aki back to Greece for a couple of years, purely because childcare isn’t an affordable option when you’re trying to save for a business in the UK; and the grief Victoria ultimately has to deal with following the death of her mother, a woman whose life was defined by deference and hardship. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

On the music front, there is so much that resonates with me here, from the taping of pop songs on the Radio 1 chart rundowns, to the thrill of discovering a new band through a memorable appearance on TOTP, to the regular trips to Woolworths to buy the latest singles. As Pete looks to music to navigate the challenges of childhood, the musical references come thick and fast, covering a myriad of artists including ABBA, The Jam, Orange Juice, Duran Duran and Dexys Midnight Runners. While many of the issues touched upon here are relatively common childhood concerns – dealing with school, the fickle nature of friendships, irrational phobias, worries about not fitting in etc. – it is the wonderfully humane manner in which Paphides recounts his experiences that makes this book such an engaging read.

In Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too.  

Broken Greek is published by Quercus; personal copy.

Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.