The Examined Life

Examined LifeRecently I listened to a podcast entitled Literature on the Couch featuring Andrew Solomon, Greg Bellow and Stephen Grosz.

It was the book written by the latter that provoked my interest, Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves. While there are many books one can pick up, which write with a voice of authority and experience on the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis, there are few if any, which have been penned as a practical legacy to the children an author will one day leave behind.

I like the idea of leaving lessons of our life’s learning to one’s children, they are the few people on earth we are able to genuinely love unconditionally and it intrigued me to seek out this book, to see if writing for one’s children on a subject one is something of a professional expert in and having already been reasonably widely published can remove the influence of ego or meeting the expectations of one’s academic peers and make a subject or in this instance many case studies, accessible to the lay person and true to that spirit of sharing wisdom with one’s progeny.

The book is divided conveniently into five sections, beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving.

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My Other Passion, Distilling Essence

The chapters are like perfume samples, distilled to their quintessential essence yet encapsulating the base notes that make a scent whole or a lesson in life complete. Incredible given that many of the cases he mentions are the product of a year or two of conversation, meeting with a person for fifty minutes, four or five times a week, over a number of years. A life work of more than 50,000 hours listening, learning, resolving, and understanding (or at least trying to).

In Beginnings, the first case that made me go back and reread a few pages was How Praise can cause a loss of confidence and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand the subtle difference between giving praise and giving something else more likely to boost esteem and confidence in children, so subtle and yet so potentially powerful. And what a great gift to pass on to those children, who may one day become parents themselves.

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing – doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.

In Loving, the chapter Paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent catastrophe is insightful and may make us more sympathetic to those who suffer from it, particularly the elderly.

With old age, the likelihood of developing a serious psychological disorder decreases, and yet the chance of developing paranoia increases. In hospital I have heard elderly men and women complain: “The nurses here are trying to poison me.” “I didn’t misplace my glasses, my daughter has obviously stolen them.” “You don’t believe me but I can assure you: my room is bugged, they are reading my post.” “Please take me home, I am not safe here.”

Grosz suggests that paranoid fantasies, such as a feeling of being betrayed, mocked, exploited or harmed are a defensive response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference. They protect us from the more disturbing emotional state, from a feeling that no one cares about us or is thinking about us, that we have been forgotten.

changeIn Changing, we learn how our very survival can be put at risk by our fear of change in How a Fear of Loss Can cause us to lose Everything. How some of us will escape at the very first sign of danger, even if it means doing something we are not used to doing and how others may perish, because of the fear of acting without sufficient information.

“We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.”

Overall, an intriguing, easy read including stories which might easily be those we encounter or recognise in ourselves or others close to us and with a clear explanation of the hidden meaning and lessons that can be found within them. Not surprising to see it listed yesterday in the Guardian’s recommended Holiday Reads, literature for the couch, the beach, the balcony or wherever it is you’ll be putting your feet up this summer (or winter if you’re down-under!)

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Magda

Magda (2)In the course of Meike Ziervogel’s novella, we meet three generations of women in one family, an embittered grandmother, her daughter Magda and the lovesick teenager Helga. They have little in common except the desire to improve their lives and those of their children, something in which all three of them will spectacularly fail.

Magda succeeded in elevating her station in life, though some may have perceived that she achieved notoriety only through marriage. However, from an early age she appeared to decide she deserved better than the position society had set her; taking her destiny into her own hands it manifested physically in the clothes she wore, the adornments with which she accessorised and in her comportment. She kept quiet about her material accumulation, but her gestures spoke volumes and even as she volunteered selflessly to help those less well off, others looked at her with scorn and derision.

Despite her mother’s efforts to do her best by her headstrong daughter, that didn’t mean she should give herself airs and graces she was not born to, at least that was her mother’s opinion.

Was it a consequence of being sent to a convent for schooling at a young age (at the suggestion of a new stepfather) that developed her resourcefulness and sense of superiority? By the time her mother decided to end her education and send her to work in a factory to smother that conceited attitude, the stepfather who had come to adore the charming girl, would have none of it.

We learn of the mother’s perception of Magda after the fall of Hitler, whilst she is being interviewed by a commissar and she is revelling in having an important audience in which to denounce her child – though more through envy, jealousy and a sense of outrage at being unappreciated, forgotten even – not quite the admission of guilt he is looking for, though he hopes it may contribute to establishing Magda’s fanaticism.

It reflects the irony of a mother wanting the best for her baby girl and then having to live in the shadow of who her offspring has become, someone unreachable, who has by necessity let go and left the bitter mother full of resentment behind.

Magda_Goebbels

Magda Goebbels

Upon receiving this book from the author Meike Ziervogel, (also founder of the publishing company Peirene Press), I read a few mentions of intentions to read Magda that indicated a certain wariness, expecting it to be disturbing, as do a few of the more provocative blurb comments, suggesting the portrayal of mother’s as abusers and the association of one mother being a Nazi sympathiser and married to a prominent figure in that regime (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister).

I didn’t find the book like that at all and found the suggestion that…

…abuse breeds abuse through generation after generation. – Frederick Taylor, author of Exorcising Hitler

…misleading, even false.

I found much to admire in Ziervogel’s depiction of the character Magda, her ability to use disadvantage to her advantage, her separation from her mother allowed her to amass inner resources, to learn another language, to create a persona that made her different. She understood implicitly her mother’s advice that she should better her social status; her falling – or failing – was the direction in which she channelled the fire within her, that desperate need for some kind of meaningful fulfillment, that was at its height at the wrong time in history, her calling came not for Him (God) but for him (the Führer).

She believed in him and his vision with a fanaticism, similar to religious fanaticism and in the same way that a small minority of devout religious followers go to extremes for their beliefs, so too does Magda.

Helga’s is a brief, heart-breaking coming-of-age story, the story within the story and it seems appropriate that she, the innocent, is depicted through a different narrative structure, the intimacy of her private diary.

As I reread the last three chapters a second time, I noted  all the chapter headings which read like flash fiction, framing the story in less than thirty words.

3 generations by Allia

3 generations by Allia

The Preparation

The Girl Behind Convent Walls

The Mother and the Commissar

The Calling

Helga’s Diaries

The Pill Box

The Vision of Magda Goebbels

The Final Task

As a novella, Magda doesn’t waste words, yet it manages to depict the depth of the three generations of its female characters. While it succeeds here, the end remains shocking and disturbing, unjustified, it is impossible to accept.

The book is fiction, inspired by real historical figures and events. I have written these thoughts without having read about the actual life of Johanna Maria Magdalena “Magda” Goebbels (11 November 1901-1 May 1945), wishing to pay closer attention to the author’s story and her character creation than the historical account, which could easily overshadow one’s impression of a work of fiction.

The Exiles Return

Elisabeth De Waal was a poet, writer and the first women to gain a doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1923. Born in 1899 in Vienna, she was the eldest child of Viktor von Ephrussi and Baronness Emmy Schey von Kormola, her father and uncle sent from Odessa 30 years before, one to Paris the other to Vienna to create the family banking empire.

030413_2049_TheHarewith1.jpgWe may not have known of her, were it not for her grandson Edmund De Waal, the ceramist, who inherited 264 Japanese netsuke, and decided to share the story of the passage of these miniature artisan objects in his excellent The Hare With Amber Eyes, which I read earlier this year and adored – a 5 star read for me.

He traced his family history through the voyages and resting places of those well-travelled netsuke, one of the more significant journey’s being his grandmother’s return visit to Vienna after the second world war, her return from exile, where she was able to reclaim the netsuke (and sadly little else) thanks to an amazing story of courage by the family’s maid.

Hare Amber EyesHis father handed over the yellowing typescript along with school reports, essays, letters and a few diary entries, the things that had mattered to Elisabeth De Waal, that remarkably survived into the 21st century.

It was from this return journey that her inspiration came to write this novel, The Exiles Return where we enter the lives of three exiles, a Jewish laboratory professor, a Greek property developer and Resi, the daughter of a Viennese princess, who though born in America, seems ill-fitted to fulfill family ambitions, so spends a summer with her Aunt and cousins in Austria, a return to her roots.

Fifteen years after escape into exile Professor Adler returns to Vienna, Austria leaving behind a prestigious job and a reluctant, successful wife and daughter who have adapted to their New York life beyond the point of wanting to return, her financial independence empowering her with the will to resist him.

With a mix of hope and trepidation, Professor Adler fears what he might find yet desires to somehow recreate a still familiar past, to be back where he felt he belonged and re-establish a life. He looks up old friends and seeks reinstatement at the laboratory where he once worked, encountering that which looks familiar, though unavoidably changed by the past.

“They could exchange nothing but exclamations, well-worn phrases, just to express, however haltingly, feelings too deep for words.”

Exiles Return

The Exiles Return

Theophil Kanakis, descendant of a wealthy Greek family has returned to Vienna with the confidence and arrogance that plentiful money bring. He no longer desires financial success, he seeks pleasure and indulgence and the subtle manipulations inherent in ensuring he attains what he yearns for. Once he is re-established in the manner he wishes, he begins to issue invitations to a widening circle of friends and through his friendship with the gallant pauper, Prince Bimbo Grein, a younger set begins to frequent his salons which he encourages, the setting in which all the characters in the novel are in some way connected.

In the scene where Kanakis seeks an audience with an Estate Agent and comments and his gaze alights on two dark, heavily framed pictures hanging on the wall, we obtain a glimpse into what it may have been like for Elisabeth De Waal to encounter appropriated chattels.

“They are in no way outstanding or really valuable – a minor nineteenth century artist. I just thought they furnished the room, gave it a certain cachet, within the limits of what I could afford. They did in fact belong to an acquaintance of your family, Baron E_. You might possibly have seen them at his house. Baron E_ unfortunately died abroad, in England, I believe. His heirs, after they had recovered what could be traced of his property, had it all sold at auction; having no use for this old-fashioned stuff in their modern homes, I suppose. I acquired the pictures quite openly, publicly and legally, you understand.”

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna Elisabeth's Childhood Home

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna
Elisabeth De Waal’s Childhood Home

None of the characters seem to be based directly on the experience of Elisabeth De Waal, who was shocked and saddened by what she found when she returned to Vienna, but there is little doubt that the story she has written was influenced by that return journey as she captured the experiences of her three protagonists.

I really enjoyed the book and wanted to know even more in particular of the experience of Professor Adler, perhaps the closest to how Elisabeth De Waal may have felt. It is a novel that is appreciated all the more for understanding the life of the author herself, and I enjoyed it having read Edmund De Waal’s history of the family and imagining what Elisabeth may herself have experienced. For the period in which it was written, I find it compelling and modern literature.

Not like The Hare With Amber Eyes, but an important part of that story and an excellent companion novel; what a privilege that we now have the opportunity to read her work and that she is finally receiving the recognition she so deserves as a writer.

RilkeSo now, what about that correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke? Might there be a book in that? A sequel, Letters to a Young Female Poet perhaps?

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher, Persephone Books.

The Faraway Nearby

After spending a few months with me in London some years ago, a very good friend was about to return to New Zealand and was making some major changes in her life, both personal and in her career. She wasn’t entirely sure what job she wanted to do, but knew it would be in the great outdoors. She loved to travel and she loved nature. I organised a subscription to Wanderlust Travel magazine for her, an inspiration of amazing photography, fabulous ideas for out-of-the-way places to visit and best of all, a link to exciting jobs for those who love to travel across cultures, to be outdoors and meet people.

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Life on the Milford Track

She completed a diploma, training in the skills required to become an outdoor guide and now works for the Department of Conversation as a guide on the Milford Track, this last season she was based in a lodge, only accessible by helicopter or a few days walk in. She is now living her dream job and it is indeed just like those jobs offered in the pages of that inspiring magazine.

Fast forward a few years and I come across a book called Wanderlust : A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I was interested in it, though stronger was the feeling that I should send it into that remote wilderness to my friend, it seemed to describe where she had arrived at. So I did. I then forgot about the book until I saw the name Rebecca Solnit come up recently on NetGalley, she had a new book coming out The Faraway Nearby. Here is the book I will read I thought and requested it.

Some weeks later while in London one Saturday, I discovered The London Literature Festival was on and at 3.30pm, I could attend a talk by Rebecca Solnit speaking about her book The Faraway Nearby. Serendipity? I bought a ticket, a hardback copy of her book and went to listen to the author, curious, though I had never read a word of her writing.

FarawayThe book is good, but Rebecca Solnit’s ability to captivate an audience is spectacular. I’m almost sorry to admit it, but the live version was even better than the passive written version, which I really enjoyed, the reading experience enhanced significantly by the additional anecdotes and philosophical meanderings of Solnit in person, as she spoke without pause, the voice of a poet.

The talk was hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark, who suggested that the media coined her book not a memoir, but an anti-memoir. Part anti-memoir and part matremoir, it starts with her recounting the gift of 100 pounds of apricots from her mother, one of the few gifts she ever received from her mother and not disconnected from the fact that her mother is undergoing something of a personality change since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She lays them out on her bedroom floor, wanting to appreciate their abundance, but instead embraces a soon to be dissected anxiety.

“The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in Rumpelstiltskin needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered in the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon. The heaps are only a subset of the category of impossible tasks that included quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of the firebird who loves at the end of the world, riddles, and facing overwhelming adversaries.”

Nature essays, how stories create the narrative of our lives, philosophical meanderings, her chapters weave in and out of many subjects, flitting here and there, as she recounts pieces of a year that passed whilst her mother was regressing. She contemplates and then makes an escape to Iceland, mentions friendships and her passion for visual art, the occasional Buddhist legend, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, pain and leprosy likening her narrative to a Russian matryoshka doll, even going so far as to repeat chapter names in reverse, once she arrives at the hard core (the doll that has no doll).

“My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and then tried to get herself back from a daughter.”

ApricotsThere are many anecdotes, insights and great lines throughout the narrative, however Solnit stops short of going too deep into her subject, she observes the apricots and watches how they change, just as she does her mother, but stops short of looking too deep into the past, of really describing their relationship and how they were with each other, it is implied, not described.

I understand this reluctance, for that percentage of women out there who had the kind of relationship with their mother that Solnit did, there will be many nods of the head in recognition of what she says without having to go into detail. For the rest, it may seem superficial or even harsh, but they are the words of a mature 58-year-old women, who admits:

“If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.”

At the end of the talk, a few people asked questions and at the last minute, but too late I put up my hand, my question deemed to remain silent. Or so I thought. As everyone left the Purcell Room, a woman called Helena sitting next to me who was also visiting from the country for the day, asked me what I had been going to ask. And so I told her – and had a delightful conversation, just as interesting as it might have been, had I asked the author.

The question I wanted to ask was:

Did she believe that a challenging relationship could be a gift, that it could bring her something that she may not otherwise have developed in herself, had it been otherwise?

I suspect the answer is yes, that these relationships do give people something that can be used proactively, if self-awareness is developed to prevent regressing into the negative aspects or effects of those childhood and adulthood experiences. She may not have been able to fix her mother, but it may not be a coincidence that Rebecca Solnit is outspoken and active in terms of her support of nature, the environment, politics and art.

“I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

She Left Me the Gun

The GunNeither the title nor this book cover would normally attract me towards picking up this book, however it was through neither of those avenues that I came to hear about the book. It was a random tweet that included the following:

Any sentence that contains the words “Maya Angelou and Emma Brockes, who both…” works for me.

I was reading Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom at the time and so wondered who Emma Brockes was, intrigued by the reader’s comment implying she’d enjoy curling up with both books. I saw that Brockes had published a memoir about her mother and then read an excellent article in The Guardian, where it turns out Emma Brockes works (in the New York office).

Emma Brockes was born in England, her mother leaving her own country of birth South Africa in her early twenties. After some years living in London, she met her husband and they moved to an English village. She was a mature mother, having her only child later in life and lived a quite routine-lead life with her small family and had a job doing accounts for a jeweller in a neighbouring town.

Brockes recalls her mother mentioning that she’d one day tell her about her life in South Africa before coming to England, however the daughter didn’t press her mother and that moment of revelation never arrived. Apart from a couple of offhand comments hinting at some dark past and a court case, any opportunity to quietly share her past with her daughter in her later years was cut short by her illness and premature death, a time when the days seemed better spent just appreciating each other’s company.

It seemed absurd at this stage to ruin what time we had left with painful and long-avoided subjects.

Whether it was the journalist instinct or some kind of closure in making an effort to understand her mother more fully, Brockes decides to find out what it was that drove her mother to abandon her family and her country and never look back.

Jo'burg High Court

Jo’burg High Court

Knowing there was a court case against her grandfather and using her journalistic knowledge and access to resources, she searches archives, only to discover an earlier judgement, one that preceded his marriage to her grandmother, a murder conviction.

She requests the file to be sent to her and then discovers the second court case, in which mother is named in bringing a charge against her own father. The file is too large, so she makes plans to visit South Africa to do her research and to meet the numerous family members, her mother’s half sisters and brothers, the seven aunts and uncles who live there.

When she was in her mid-twenties, she said, she’d had her father arrested. There had been a highly publicized court case, during which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness-box and destroying them one by one. Her stepmother had covered for him. He had been found not guilty.

Emma Brockes

Emma Brockes

This is a book that once started is hard to put down, the way Emma Brockes writes, it is as if you are on the same journey, with the same feeling of curiosity tempered by an instinct not to get too involved.

In fact, for me there was a turning point somewhere in her travels, just when she starts to become part of a local crowd of journalists, when she begins to become part of the weave of family fabric, when it felt like it was time to get out. That while she was there and had a clear purpose and was fulfilling some kind of tribute to her mother, all was well, but that getting any further involved might in some way rub something into her that her mother had spent a lifetime trying to protect her from.

She was right to leave when she did.

And the gun? Well you know whenever a gun is mentioned, a shot must be fired and so it was, yet while the title stretches the truth somewhat, all must be forgiven, since it was suggested to the author by the late Nora Ephron, another fitting tribute.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

London Literature Festival #londonlitfest

Late last week I was working in London and had a free Saturday to enjoy the delights of the city.

Providores

The Providores + Tapa Room

I was meeting a friend for brunch in Marylebone High Street, ironically it is London’s French quarter, many of the shops and cafés and boulangeries are very familiar; however we weren’t heading for a French café, we couldn’t help but be tempted by one of New Zealand’s greatest exports, chef Peter Gordon and his restaurant The Providores with its excellent downstairs Tapa Room, the all-day restaurant, café and wine bar.

London's South Bank Centre

London’s South Bank Centre

Before heading out, a quick google search “literary events London” informed me that the London Literature Festival was on, I couldn’t believe it!

So after a terrific brunch, off I went to the South Bank Centre and the Royal Festival Hall, always a hive of activity at the weekend, and hive  an apt metaphor, as the festival was using the image of a bee and honeycomb in its publicity.

Don’t you just love those sun loungers outside Foyles bookshop. Bliss!

To my delight and surprise, the American essayist and writer of non-fiction Rebecca Solnit, was speaking in the late afternoon, so I avoided the pull of Foyles to buy a ticket and then decided to check out The Spectacular Translation Machine, a collaborative attempt to translate an entire book from French into English.

CIMG4524The book On Les Aura! was the private diary of a French solider written in 1914 , which the renowned illustrator Barroux discovered and published in France, adding his line drawings to bring the story to life. It has never been translated into English, so each illustration along with the short paragraph of text was hung on a line around a room in the Royal Festival Hall and members of the public invited to choose an image and attempt the translation.

I chose an illustration of the solider lying in bed and a steaming cup of coffee beside him. The paragraph underneath the illustration read:

Je m’éveille après une bonne nuit de sommeil et je trouve un bol de café fument. Quel changement ! J’écris a ma chère femme pour la rassurer et lui envoyer mon adresse. Vers 10 heures, le Major passe la visite.

Along with children, a couple of students, a woman who could speak 15 languages and anyone else wanting to give it a go, we sat at the table and worked on our translations in a wonderful community approach. Such fun!

From there, a quick scout of the bookshop Foyles where I picked up a copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and a copy of The Artist’s Way.

CIMG4528Then on to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an inspiring talk by Rebecca Solnit, author of The Faraway Nearby, hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark. Solnit’s book was already on my list and downloaded to the kindle to read, but jumped to the top of the pile after an engaging talk about apricots, Alzheimer’s, Iceland and the significance of stories in our lives. A very poised and engaging speaker with scores of anecdotes and quotes that she repeats without hesitation.

It must be the season for book readings, because I am back in Aix and today we have had Jonathan Coe participating in an excellent and well hosted and translated discussion. More on that soon!

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner Announced

CIMG4526Excellent timing, the women’s prize for fiction is announced during the London Literature Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, which I had the opportunity to visit on Saturday (more on that excitement later!).

A strong list, and some equally strong and divided opinions about the books that made the list and a bit of a surprise result, it has to be said.

So to remind you, the six shortlisted authors and their books were:

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In the opinion of the judges the book chosen mostly ably fulfilled the criteria of the award, being originality, accessibility and excellence.

And the winner was:

May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

A first book award for her 10th book, a career spanning 25 years and a dream fulfilled at last. The author paid tribute to her father who sadly passed away a month ago, knowing that his daughter had made the short list and also to her grandmother who lent her the money for her first typewriter and made sure she paid it back.

“… this book really struck all the judges, partly because of just the pure quality of its writing, it has this incredible energy, at times its very vicious and very bleak, but it also has this warmth that comes through at the ending… it is one of those books that speaks to people in different ways and really is something that begins conversations and begins thoughts…” Natasha Walter, Judge

The new sponsor has also been announced and there was plenty of the beige drink being served from all accounts, so from next year expect to hear about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Well done AM Homes, up against strong contenders, including the almost invincible Hilary Mantel.

Let’s hope that it’s a good omen for her publisher Granta, after the rapid departure of most of their management team, the publisher/magazine currently having to rebuild itself from scratch.

Looks like I have yet another book to add to the list!