Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2010

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2010

Nick Hornby
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  • Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?: The Journal of a Psychotherapist—Jane Haynes
  • The Birds on the Trees—Nina Bawden
  • The Driver’s Seat—Muriel Spark
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—Muriel Spark
  • A Far Cry from Kensington—Muriel Spark


  • The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street—Charles Nicholl
  • The Birds on the Trees—Nina Bawden
  • The Driver’s Seat—Muriel Spark
  • Peter Pan—J. M. Barrie
  • Fire from Heaven—Mary Renault
  • Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live—Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
  • Too many other Muriel Spark novels to mention without embarrassment

If you are reading this in the U.S., the presumption over here in the U.K. is that you have either just come out of a session with your shrink or you’re just about to go into one, and for reasons best known to ourselves, we disapprove—in the same way that we disapprove of the way you sign up for twelve-step programs at the drop of a hat, just because you’re getting through a bottle of vodka every evening after work and throwing up in the street on the way home. “That’s just life,” we say. “Deal with it.” (To which you’d probably reply, “We are dealing with it! That’s why we’ve signed up for a twelve-step program!” So we’d go, “Well, deal with it in a less self-absorbed way.” By which we mean, “Don’t deal with it at all! Grin and bear it!” But then, what do we know? We’re smashed out of our skulls most of the time.)

Recently I read an interview with a British comic actress, an interesting, clever one, and she articulated, quite neatly, the bizarre assumptions and prejudices of my entire nation when it comes to the subject of the talking cure. “I have serious problems with it…. The way I see it is that you’re paying someone, so they don’t really care about you—they’re not listening in the way that someone who loves you does.”

There’s a good deal in that little lot to unpack. The assumption that if you give someone money, then, ipso facto, they don’t care about you, is a curious one; the chief complaint I have about my dentist is that he cares too much, and as a consequence is always telling me not to eat this or smoke that. According to the actress, he should just be laughing all the way to the bank. And how does she feel about child care? Maybe she can’t bring herself to use it, but in our house we’re effectively paying someone to love our kids. (Lord knows, it wouldn’t happen any other way.) But the real zinger is in that second argument, the one about “not listening in the way that someone who loves you does.” Aaaargh! Der! D’oh! That’s the whole point, and to complain that therapists aren’t friends is rather like complaining that osteopaths aren’t pets.

One of the relationships described in ‘Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?, psychotherapist Jane Haynes’ gripping, moving and candid memoir, is clearly a defining relationship in her life, a love affair in all but the conventional sense. The affair is between Haynes and her own therapist, and the first half of the book is addressed to him; he died before their sessions had reached a conclusion, and Haynes’ grief is agonising and raw. So much for the theory that a bought relationship can’t be real.  In the second half of the book Haynes describes the problems and the breakthroughs of a handful of her patients, people paralysed by the legacies of their personal histories, and only the most unimaginative and Gradgrindian of readers could doubt the value of the therapeutic process. Pills won’t work for the patient whose long, sad personal narrative has produced an addiction to internet pornography; pills didn’t for the woman who was only saved from suicide, tragicomically, because of a supermarket bag she placed over her head after she’d taken an overdose. (The maid cleaning her hotel room would have presumed she was sleeping had it not been for the fact that her face was obscured by an advertisement for Tesco’s.) As Hilary Mantel says in her quite brilliant introduction, we don’t enter the consulting room alone, “but with our parents and grandparents, and behind them, jostling for space, our ancestral host, our tribe. All these people need a place in the room, all need to be heard. And against them, our own voice has to assert itself, small and clear, so that we possess the narrative of our own lives.” In a bravura passage, Mantel goes on to describe what those narratives might read like: “For some of us, they are a jerky cinema flickering against a rumpled bedsheet, the reels out of order and the projectionist drunk. For some of us they are slick and fake as an old dance routine, all high kicks and false smiles and a desperate sweat inside an ill-fitting costume…For others, the narrative is the patter of a used-car salesman, a promise of progress and conveyance, insistently delivered with an oily smirk…There is a story we need to tell, we think: but this is not how; this is not it.” If you think you can find a friend who is prepared to listen hour after hour, year after year, to your painful, groping attempt to construct your own narrative, then good luck to you. Me, I have friends who are prepared to listen for ten minutes to my list of which players Arsenal Football Club need to mount a serious challenge next year – but then, I’m an English bloke. My therapist, however, has tolerated more agonised, baffled nonsense than any human being should endure. And yes, I pay him, but not enough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tenor of Mantel’s introduction and the nature of psychotherapy itself, with its painfully slow storyboarding of life’s plot twists, there is a good deal in this book about the value of literature. Haynes repeatedly claims that she’d find her job impossible without it, in fact – that Shakespeare and Tolstoy, J.M. Barrie (there’s an extraordinary passage from Peter Pan quoted here, hence its appearance in Books Bought) and Chekhov have all created grooves that our narratives frequently wobble into, helpfully, illuminatingly. So even if you have no time for Jung and Freud, there’s something for the curious and literate Believer reader, and as I can’t imagine there’s any other kind, then this book is for you. It’s occasionally a little self-dramatising, but it’s serious and seriously smart, and Haynes allows her patients a voice, too: Callum, the young man addicted to pornography, makes an incidental but extremely important observation about the “pandemic” that the Internet has helped spread among men of his generation. (Haynes quotes the psychoanalyst Joan Raphel Leff, who says that sex “is not merely a meeting of bodily parts or their insertion into the other but of flesh doing the bidding of fantasy.” So what does it say about those who use pornography, I wonder, that they are prepared to spend so much time watching the insertion of body parts?)  I’m going to stop banging on about this book now; but I got a lot out of it. As you can probably tell.

In 1971, the Booker Prize suddenly changed its qualification period. Up until then, the prize had been awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous twelve months; in ‘71 they switched it, and the award went to a book released contemporaneously. In other words, novels published in 1970 weren’t eligible for the prize. So somebody has had the bright idea of creating a Lost Booker Prize for this one year, and as a consequence our bookstores are displaying a shortlist of novels that, if not exactly forgotten (they had to be in print to qualify), certainly weren’t terribly near the top of British book club reading lists – and I’m betting not many of you have read Nina Bawden’s ‘The Birds On The Trees’, J.G. Farrell’s ‘Troubles’, ‘The Bay Of Noon’ by Shirley Hazzard, ‘Fire From Heaven’ by Mary Renault, ‘The Driver’s Seat’ by Muriel Spark, or Patrick White’s ‘The Vivisector’. I bought three of them, partly because it was such a pleasure to see books published forty years ago on a table at the front of a chain store : British bookshops are desperately, crushingly dull at the moment. Our independents are almost all gone, leaving bookselling at the mercy of the chains and the supermarkets, and they tend to favour memoirs written, or at least approved, by reality TV stars with surgically-enhanced breasts, and recipe books by TV chefs.  To be honest, even memoirs written in person by reality TV stars with entirely natural breasts wouldn’t lift the cultural spirits much. If asked to represent this magazine’s views, I’d say we favour natural breasts over augmented, but that breasts generally are discounted when we come to consider literary merit. And if I have that wrong, then I can only apologise.

Nina Bawden’s ‘The Birds On The Trees’ is what became known, a few years later, as a Hampstead Novel – Hampstead being a wealthy borough of London that, in the imagination of some of our grumpier provincial critics, is full of people who work in the media and commit adultery. My wife grew up there, and she works in the media, but…Actually, I should do some fact-checking before I finish that sentence. I’ll get back to you.  Nobody would dare write a Hampstead novel any more, I suspect, and though its disappearance is not necessarily a cause for noisy lamentation – there is only so much to say about novelists having affairs, after all – it’s interesting to read an early example of the genre. ‘The Birds On The Trees’ is about a middle-class media family (the wife is a novelist, the husband a journalist) in the process of falling apart, mostly because of the stress brought on by a son with mental health problems. People drink a lot of spirits. Marshall McLuhan is mentioned, and he doesn’t come up so much in fiction any more. There are lots of characters in this short book, all with tangled, knotty connections to each other – it feels like a novel-shaped Manhattan at times – and, refreshingly, Bawden doesn’t feel the need to be definitive. There’s none of that sense of “If you read one book this year, make it this one”; you get the sense that it was written in an age where people consumed new fiction as a matter of course, so there was no need to say everything you had to say in one  enormous, authoritative volume.

None of the Lost Booker books are very long; I chose to read Muriel Spark’s ‘The Driving Seat’ a) because I’d never read anything by Muriel Spark before, and she has the kind of reputation that convinced me I was missing out and b) her novel was so slim that it is almost invisible to the naked eye. And, if you look at the Books Bought and Books Read columns this month, you will see, dear youthful writer, that short books make sound economic and artistic sense. If Spark had written a doorstopper of a novel, I probably wouldn’t have bought it; if I’d bought it, I wouldn’t have got around to picking it up; if I’d picked it up, I wouldn’t have finished it; if I’d finished it, I’d have chalked her off my to-do list, and my relationship with Muriel Spark would be over. As it is, she’s all I read at the moment, and the income of her estate (she died four years ago) is swelling by the day. What’s the flaw in this business plan? There isn’t one.

My only caveat is that your short novels have to be really, really good – that’s the motor for the whole thing. (If you’re going to write bad short books, then forget it – you’d be better off writing one bad long one.) ‘The Driving Seat’, which is pitched straight into the long grass somewhere between Patricia Highsmith and early Pinter, is a creepy and unsettling novella about a woman who travels from Britain to an unnamed European city, apparently because she is hell-bent on getting herself murdered. I couldn’t really tell you why Spark felt compelled to write it, but understanding the creative instinct isn’t a prerequisite for admiring a work of art, and its icy strangeness is part of its charm. ‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ came later, but is set earlier, in a West London boarding-house whose inhabitants are drawn towards each other in strange ways when one of them, an editor at a publishing house, is rude to a talentless hack. (She calls him a “pisseur de copie”, an insult that is repeated gleefully and satisfyingly throughout the book. Spark is fond of strange, funny mantras.) And ‘The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie’ is her most famous novel, at least here, where the movie, starring Maggie Smith as the overbearing and eccentric teacher in a refined Scottish girls’ school, is one of our national cinematic treasures. I probably enjoyed this last one the least of the three – partly because I’d seen the film, partly because Miss Brodie is such a brilliantly-realised archetype that I felt I’d already come across several less successful versions of her. (Influential books are often a disappointment, if they’re properly influential, because influence cannot guarantee the quality of the imitators, and your appetite for the original has been partially sated by its poor copies.) But what a writer Spark is – dry, odd, funny, aphoristic, wise, technically brilliant. I can’t remember the last time I read a book by a well-established writer previously unknown to me which resulted in me devouring an entire oeuvre – but that only brings me back to the subject of short books, their beauty and charm and efficacy. A Far Cry From Kensington weighs in at a whopping two hundred and eight pages, but the rest are all around the 150 mark.  You want your oeuvre devoured? Look and learn.

 At the end of “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie”, one of Miss Brodie’s girls, now all grown up, visits another, and attempts to tell her about her troubled marriage. “’I’m not much good at that sort of problem,’ said Sandy. But Monica had not thought  she would be able to help much, for she knew Sandy of old, and persons known of old can never be much help.” Which sort of brings us full circle.

In next month’s exciting episode, I will describe an attempt, not yet begun, to read  ‘Our Mutual Friend’ on a very modern e-book machine thing. It’s the future. Monday, in fact, probably, once more Spark oeuvre has been devoured.

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