Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

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The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine some years ago, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, but something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate. I wanted to understand the wider context of how people came to be living here and what they’d had to endure to survive.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and read it while in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it, I said to my husband (born in Bethlehem), somewhat in awe, “Congratulations, you survived,” and I wondered who these people really were, who had survived such a long, brutal history and come to be living in these towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. One thing was for sure, they were survivors and most likely had traces of every people who had ever passed along the pilgrim trail within them.

Recently I was recommended a couple more Karen Armstrong books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and The Great Transformation as background to the conditioning that underpins much of humanity’s belief system of the past millenia, however I decided to add to this collection by first reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase, about her life after leaving the convent, where she spent seven years leading up to her becoming the well renowned author she is today.

I wasn’t interested in her life as a nun, or the details of her leaving the convent, I was interested in how she had used what she learned in rejecting her faith to inspire her towards immersing herself in the history and identifying that catalyst of humanity’s desire to embrace organised religion.

This memoir thus starts as she is trying to finish her university education and doctoral thesis, then her foray into becoming the partial carer of an autistic child, her teaching, her involvement with Channel 4 and the BBC in producing a series of programs on St Paul and then the crusades, and finally launching herself into a writing career when it appeared all other options were closed to her.

Every venture she went into, except the writing career, followed a similar trajectory, where she did the thing she’d convinced herself was what she should be doing, only to eventually lose hope, which became the turning point, or the spiral in the staircase, where she changed direction, it always seemed dramatic and quite often was, however my perspective on those turning points is that they were a course correction, she went along a path for as long at it had something to teach her and then she’d be literally thrown out of it – this kind of thing usually happens when we know we need to change a circumstance but we do nothing, and seven years in the convent had conditioned her to ignore any kind of inner guidance or intuition, making these changes when they did occur seem more dramatic than they might have been, had she transitioned earlier.

Boarding School

I loved reading about her journey and couldn’t help but remember the nuns from my secondary school education, apart from a couple who taught they were elusive figures on the periphery of our lives, we lived on the same premises, for us a boarding school, for them in a separate wing, it was more like a retirement home, they were very, very old and the only time we saw them was in the chapel on Sundays.

They were shadows of whoever they had been and we had no real interaction with them, except the ancient, tough 90 something Sister Conway who still worked in the scullery plunging her gnarled, arthritic hands into boiling hot water as if it were tepid, while we waited for the cutlery to cool before lifting it to dry.

Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of seven years in the convent and even then likely will never do so completely. An intellectual unsuited to academia, she eventually finds her place studying the great religious and spiritual practices looking for common threads, she’s less interested in differences than in commonalities.

As she researches and learns how to use empathy and compassion to inhabit the minds of those she seeks to understands, she comes closer to a spiritual experience than anything she experienced as a Christian. She has let go of God as objective fact and of belief as being a necessity, discovering instead ‘practice’ and compassion to be the one significant practice of all the faiths that succeeds in managing the ego sufficiently to create peace and harmony.

I enjoyed her honest, though often self deprecating account of this period in her life and particularly loved what she experienced when she visited Jerusalem, the cross cultural encounters and being told to drop the small talk and niceties:

“Karen! You are not in England now. There is no need to be a polite English lady here in Israel. We are not formal people. There is no point to speak if there is nothing to say.”

It becomes even more humorous when she is invited to do the same:

“Do not be a polite English lady. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!”

at which she surprises herself in doing after a particularly charged day when tensions were high and Joel had snapped at her rudely. His response is excellent, he is proud of her!

The other amusing experience in reading my second hand copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, shared her thoughts more vociferously, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was with the work, deciding to rant and share snippets of her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining, often annoying, and ultimately unwelcome! Here are some of them, since no one else will have had this reading experience!

page 123 After speaking about how her years as a nun had broken something in her, and affected her eating habits, Karen Armstrong writes:

“And I did not want to nourish myself. What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?”

And my interlocutor writes:

“as I was after the divorce”

Armstrong mentions that she isn’t going to write about her failed love relationships, seeing no reason to dwell on episodes that didn’t develop into anything significant and writes:

“Just as I was prevented from becoming an academic, so too I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, had also ensured that I remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm”

to which my interlocutor responds:

“oh do stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

and even adds later on

“perhaps you are just unloveable”

which is a mild example of the kind of comportment (at different levels of societal power clearly) that nevertheless can lead to disharmony, conflict, war even, for if there is a conclusion to what Karen Armstrong has learned, it is a lesson she gifts to her readers, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule that all great leaders have taught, Confucius proclaimed it 500 years before him, Buddha and Jesus taught it, it is the bedrock of the Koran:

“Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you”

As one of her advisors Hyam Maccoby said

“It takes more discipline to refrain from doing/saying harm to others than to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people.”

Jo Malone, My Story #JoLoves

Although I lived in London through much of the period when the Jo Malone brand was being created and built, I can’t say I was really aware of it in its early days, not until it hit its tipping point and her trademark bags and candles started to become the beautiful gifts others in the know would offer those who didn’t shop in the more exclusive shopping areas of Chelsea and Belgravia where you often find luxury hip and boutique brands.

my-storyBut Jo Malone the girl, wasn’t born into luxury. She was an ordinary girl raised in a family that struggled a bit on the good days, and a lot on the bad days, which were often brought on by her doting father’s gambling inclinations, her mother’s over-spending habit and the pressure to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

Her mother returned to the workforce as a manicurist until she was lured away by the eccentric Madame Lubatti, who would become an influential figure in Jo’s early life, an Empress of scent, whose origins we never really discover, just that she spent time in Hong Kong gathering her knowledge.

She would introduce her protegé (mother and daughter) to her laboratory of elixirs and magic ingredients and taught Jo to develop her nose and instinct allowing her to experiment and discover how to create  face mask and cream blends, until they were just right – texture, aroma, perfection – inspiring confidence in her while she was young enough not to doubt her ability to make fragrant, creamy magic.

Madame Lubatti coaxed out my love of fragrance and essentially trained my instincts…She would bring over three unlabelled bottles of different rose oils, remove the stoppers, place each one under my nose and ask:

‘What do you think that smells of?’

I’d close my eyes and sniff; ‘Tea-rose?’

It impressed her that I could tell the difference between the woody muskiness of a garden rose, the clean apple-green notes of a tea rose, and the rich, regal scent of a Bulgarian rose.

She would learn other secrets of scent, of the importance of the whiteness of the room, and allowed her access to the biggest secret of her unrivalled success, a precious, well-thumbed, black leather ledger, filled with four decades if recipes. The elderly Madame Lubatti not only exposed to the secrets of her clinic and laboratory, she also took her on her visits to the homeopathic chemist for pills, powders and oils, the herbalist for herbs, waxes and dried flowers and to Marylebone High Street for chocolate marzipan at the Viennese coffee shop. She imparted to Jo her high standards, stressing ‘If you can’t do something perfectly, don’t do it at all. You must do it brilliantly!’

While she was competent in the home and at the salon where her mother worked and even accompanied her father to sell his paintings in the market during a prolonged period of unemployment, school was not any kind of refuge for Jo. Her undiagnosed dyslexia contributed to her difficulty and she would leave school without any qualifications, but quickly found one job after another through her mother’s contacts, until eventually joining up to work with her mother giving facials to clients and making home-made product to sell to them.

She would go on to attract her own clients and after a series of falling outs with her mother, would go it alone, working from a room in their small apartment, making product from her kitchen. By this time she had married Gary, a young man she met in a period when she joined a bible study class. He was the grounding stability she needed, the strategic businessman to her creative inspiration. From this point on, she rarely mentions her family, though one incident reveals something of the bitterness that existed among those who were close to them. Malone’s response to the incident is to share a little of her life philosophy:

…human nature is divided between those who thrive on, and get easily distracted by, gossip and they tend to go nowhere; and those people who know their purpose, know what they want, and won’t give weight to the chirpings of misinformed tittle-tattle because they know that such things are a waste of focus and energy.

lime-basilWhen she really began to play around with fragrance, demand began to rise more than she could cope with, and Gary suggested they embrace the business, move it to its own premise and open a shop. Her business was beginning to overwhelm their living condition, he recognised the potential and offered to commit himself wholeheartedly it. That would be the beginning of Jo Malone, her signature brand.

post-itFrom there, a whirlwind of events follow and she will partner up with a perfume house in Paris, turning her instinct into a viable, enduring product. She tried to put into words her creative process and it is fascinating when she does, for it is something that can’t be copied or cloned, it is an insight into the pure magic of creativity, of how she uses image, colour and experience to create a scent.

Those descriptions of her creative process are some of the most exciting and inspirational passages in the book; when she begins to flourish her creativity sings and reading her descriptions of being in the creative zone, of creating a scent, playing with the notes of fragrance my post-it notes were flying. I had to refrain from dog-earring pages and scribbling in the margins as the book was lent to me.

Having become interested in and immersed in the study of aromas and the energetic and therapeutic qualities of essential oils 20 years ago, I too am someone who creates aromatic oils and creams and loves nothing more than to experiment with and create a personalised magic blend for a client or friend, so I totally relate to the bliss Jo Malone felt when she’s doing her thing in a creative sense. (Me with some of my magic potions below).

Though she had her share of fears and trepidation at entering into the unknown, her life has been scattered with signs and synchronicities that propelled her forward, to meet those who would show her the way, encourage her to take the next step, work through the challenges, admit the mistakes, learn from them and move on where possible.

pomeloI absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.

And though she is no longer part of Jo Malone, she is where she ought to be, doing what she loves and still thinking outside the box, creating new scents and new experiences. This one, her new signature fragrance and brand was included in the front of the book, it smells divine!

P A S S I O N  * R E S I L I E N C E   * C R E A T I V I T Y

Highly Recommended!

 

Into The Magic Shop, A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

Into the Magic ShopJames Doty never really set out to write this book, but he told his story to so many people with whom it resonated and being one of the founding creators of CCARE (The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research) he was eventually convinced how many more people could be inspired by his story and learn about the amazing work being undertaken, that he agreed to share his experience.

Doty came from a poor background, raised in a dysfunctional family, his mother was frequently depressed and had suicidal tendencies, his father, who when he was sober he adored, often disappeared after one of his drinking bouts and when he did return was violent and abusive. Consequently, as a child he lived in a constant state of fear, in anticipation of when the next bad thing was going to happen, it made his heart race, his body tense and constantly made him dwell in anger and sadness.

The first major turning point in his life occurred in his early teens when he went to the local magic shop looking for a replacement thumb tip and there he met the mother of the owner, a woman named Ruth. Ruth recognised something in him and invited him to come to the shop every day that summer, promising to teach him a kind of magic he could use all his life. So he did.

She talked to him about different feelings and the emotions they stem from and taught him:
Trick 1. to Relax the Body,
Trick 2. to Tame the Mind,
Trick 3. to Open the Heart (the only one he didn’t learn) and
Trick 4. to Clarify your Intent.

She taught him to visualise and to never accept that something was not possible. He took the lessons and they enabled him to attain goals he believed would not have been achieved without the insights and practices that Ruth taught him. He went to university, to medical school and despite absences and the lack of excellent grades, became a doctor, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, a husband and father. But at a price, something he wouldn’t learn until many years later when he finally understood what the third lesson that he had failed to learn and practice was about and began to live and work in accordance with it.

Ruth was helping me form new neural connections in my brain. It was my first experience with neuroplasticity, well before the term was commonly used….Not only was Ruth training me to change my brain by creating new neural circuits but she was also training me to regulate the tone of my vagus nerve and, by doing so, affect both my emotional state and my heart rate and blood pressure.

James Doty became a neurosurgeon and shares a little of what he learned about the brain and uses it to explain how those early interactions with Ruth were changing and remapping his brain in a way that would help him in the future.

Neuroplasticity

In another turning point in his life, later when he has risen to great heights and achieved the great material success he believed was all he desired, he would come to learn how much more he was capable of with an open heart, he would bring together a group of people to scientifically research the effect of compassion and altruism on the brain.

As well as great scientific minds, he would meet with the Dalai Lama, who on listening to Doty explain his research and answering a number of questions, decided to support and sponsor the research with a significant and unprecedented financial donation, so impressed was he with the project.

When our brains and our hearts are working in collaboration – we are happier, we are healthier, and we automatically express love, kindness, and care for one another. I knew this intuitively, but I needed to validate it scientifically. This was the motivation to begin researching compassion and altruism. I wanted to understand the evolution of not only why we evolved such behaviour but also how it affects the brain and ultimately our health.

It is a wonderful, honest account, a compelling and easy read. Doty shares his story, flaws and all, sharing the beneficial effect on his life of the rare gift of meeting someone who shared those simple life resources with him at an early age, and importantly where he got it all wrong. Through this book he and many others hope that more people will have access to them, or at least become interested enough to find out more.

It is fascinating and heartening to see the increasing scientific development in the 21st century into understanding the effect of compassion, altruism and meditative practices on the brain through science, something that ancient Buddhist cultures have known, experienced and passed down the generations through practise for thousands of years.

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

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

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Vera BrittainThat Vera Brittain chose to name her autobiography a Testament, at first seems like an assertion of her intellectual inclinations, particularly in light of the decision she made to pause her hi-brow Oxford University studies when the First World War began as her closest friends, her fiancé Roland and brother Edward all signed up to participate, one by one departing for France.

She had fought hard to be accepted into Oxford, at a time when women were not exactly welcome, her own family and many of their social peers thought it a waste of time. It remained important, but while those she was closest to were sacrificing everything, it felt indulgent to be pursuing anything intellectual. She volunteered to become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse as she sought the diversion of physically demanding work to lessen the idle hours of mental anguish concerning her male contemporaries at war.

Testament is more than one woman’s intellectual account, it is evidence of a generation’s stunted youth, a youth stolen by war and loyalty, one that for the men who participated, would continue to be acknowledged and remembered, their efforts appreciated and honoured. For Vera Brittain it would bring grief, disappointment and disillusionment.

She recalled one of her last bittersweet moments, punting up the river in Oxford with her friend Norah, whom she would not see again after the end of that term.

‘No evening on the river had held a glamour equal to that one, which might so well be the last of all such enchanted evenings. How beautiful they seemed – the feathery bend with its short, stumpy willows, the deep green shadows in the water under the bank, the blue, brilliant mayflies which somersaulted in the air and fell dying into the water, gleaming like strange, exotic jewels in the mellow light of the setting sun.

I had meant to do such wonderful things that year, to astonish my fellows by unprecedented triumphs, to lay the foundations of a reputation that would grow ever greater and last me through life; and instead the War and love had intervened and between them were forcing me away with all my confident dreams unfulfilled.’

Malta Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain, 3rd from left, in Malta, WWI

Her nursing efforts took her out of the northern provinces of England for good, away from her studies at Oxford to a military hospital in London, until events would propel her to volunteer for a foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her account is all the richer for the journals she kept from 1913 to 1917 and rather than present them in full, she selects extracts to bring the era to life, sharing the angst and idealism of her youth, simultaneously looking back and narrating from the wisdom of early middle age, for she was 40 years old before she would finally see the much revised autobiography in print.

The book contains snippets of letters to and from Vera and her fiancé Roland and her brother Edward, they were her life blood, her motivation to face the relentless days in the hospital, where their work offered so much and yet did so little to stem the flow of blood and severed limbs, pain and hopelessness.

The letters that pass between Vera and Roland reveal the slow loss of hope, optimism and valour as they struggle to find meaning in war. Despite the often depressing content, they are fortunate to have each other, writing letters prolifically, drawing each other deeper into a love that they knew could be destroyed on any day.

After the war, Vera returns to Oxford and finds herself isolated. She has difficulty articulating her experience in a way that is understood and instead invites scorn and derision. A new generation of youth has swept up behind her and they have little time for the lessons that might be gleaned from a mature student who forsook her youth for volunteer nursing abroad. She gets involved in the debating society, and in one of the more excruciating passages in the book, valiantly tries to prove her point only to discover it will be she who is taught the lesson.

‘In the eyes of these realistic ex-High-School girls, who had sat out the war in classrooms, I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history’s cruellest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun, ludicrously boasting of her experiences in an already démodé conflict. I had been, I suspected, largely to blame for my own isolation. I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

Vera’s hope and her life purpose after the war, was to try to understand and then participate in any action that could prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that caused the loss of so many lives. She changed her focus from Literature to History and searched for proof of anything that had been put in place to prevent such destructive hostilities from wiping out a generation of youth. She found what she was looking for in treaties and agreements and became an international speaker for the League of Nations attempting to advance understanding and awareness among the common population.

The book impressed me with its honesty, particularly as Vera Brittain was not afraid to portray her flaws; through the extracts from her journals we have a real sense of the character she was in her twenties and though she is the same person after the war and we recognise her inclinations, her direction in life is permanently altered by the experiences of those years.

The combination of experiencing the present through her diary and letters and her observations from the maturity of having survived war and gained some distance from it, from which to observe her former self, provides the reader a unique insight into humanity.

For me, it was a gripping read and although we learn much of the story in the opening introduction, it does nothing to lessen the effect as we witness Vera receiving news she has dreaded from the beginning and more than the individual events, the observation of emotional ups and downs and the effect of war on a generation seen from a young woman’s perspective is more insightful than any rendition of battles or victories I have ever read.

If the prospect of reading a 600 page book seems daunting, look out for the movie coming out in 2015!