Working titles? Authors who take on the 9-to-5 World of work is often perceived as dull and dreary – but that’s not always the case

 MICROSERFS

The Cambridge dictionary defines work as an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical energy to do, usually for money. Physics defines work as moving a force over a given distance which rings true for all us worker bees who daily move forces over vast distances in a sisyphean effort to make a living. Jerome K Jerome stated: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work.The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said that “work is the only practical consolation for having been born’’.

Douglas Coupland has declared the nine to five as barbaric and thinks that one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we now view child labour in the 19th century. He has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace and his literary works such as Generation XJPod and Microserfs all revolve around smart and creative young people struggling with the demands of the corporate world.

The world of work is tainted by being perceived as being dull and dreary and to depict it using prose can prove a project too stultifying for a novelist to dedicate a few years to its depiction. Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops. When a novelist can explore heightened worlds innervated with psychological tension the mundane terrain of the water cooler and a poor performance appraisal can seem a turgid option.When there’s war, heartbreak, murder, fictitious future worlds, class struggle, familial discord and clever plots aplenty why would any fiction writer preoccupy himself with the nine to five?

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, heads east to learn the bond business but, instead of office politics, the novel pulsates with high drama and extravagant parties. The odd sentence appears in the novel to confirm that Nick has a job: “Up in the city, I tried for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock, then I fell asleep in my swivel chair.”

Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens recently predicted that most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. He writes that as artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. If a world of post-work awaits us future generations can learn about the nine to five through works of fiction which will stand as a testament to the world of work. Reading most contemporary fiction one might assume that real life was something that went on outside of working hours. The following novels put work firmly where, in the majority of people’s lives it belongs – in the middle.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

All jobs entail tedium and toil but the depiction of the work environment in a regional tax-processing centre on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois, takes brain-crushing boredom to a new level of pain. One of the characters’ remarks that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is”. There is a stunning passage about men on a work break, standing around talking about nothing in particular, but it nails the condition of bleak office-life with definitive accuracy.Wallace focuses on an assortment of misfits, eccentrics and outsiders who come to work at the I.R.S. and work as accountants, pushing paper and numbers in a generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation”.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

SWEET BITTER

Ever since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000 there has been a vogue for books that take us behind the scenes into the intoxicating world of restaurant work. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is a poetic coming-of-age story about a young woman, Tess’s, experience working as a waitress in a Union Square Cafe, negotiating both New York and a new world of tastes and desires. Her descriptions of the aftermath of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle are rendered with poetic dazzle.Unwelcome daybreak with its ensuing horror is “a dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows”, and “sunrise came like an undisclosed verdict”. Danler’s description of the panic of the unannounced health department inspection will resonate will all workers who have lived through similar situations. The narrator distills from her experience of her working life some philosophical truths including that “ a certain connoisseurship of taste,a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet”.

Personal Days by Ed Parks

When Ed Parks was let go after New Times Media took over The Village Voicehe wrote this novel channelling the pre-layoff atmosphere of dread and anxiety into witty prose. Personal Days unfolds in three parts: Can’t Undo, Replace All and Revert to Saved, all familiar from Microsoft Word. He employs the language of computer software to narrate the happenings in the archipelagos of cubicle clusters while lambasting the lingo of corporate speak. Parks has said that this is “a layoff narrative” for our times.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Daniel Underwood the narrator of this novel is a 26-year-old aspiring code writer, an affable insomniac who tells the story through his online journal Daniel@microsoft.com. Daniel and his fellow “microserfs” lead lives of frantic tedium tethered to their computer screens for 15 hour days, living on junk food and obsessing about Bill Gates. The novel makes a prescient point that “machines really are our subconscious” in this entertaining depiction of life as a computer techie in the early days of the technological revolution.

London and the South-East by David Szalay

LONDON

Thoreau’s observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation finds embodiment in the character of Paul Rainey, the anti-hero of this sharply written satire on the modern workplace. He is an ad salesman with a company engaged in the increasingly profitless business of selling advertising space in trade magazines whose only subscribers are the advertisers themselves. The novel’s evocations of the day-to-day textures of the workplace, the routines, rivalries, allegiances, resentment and camaraderie, the lunch hours in the pub, the Monday morning postmortems of weekends. Paul’s dissatisfaction with his life lived in a sapping fog of alcohol and automation is brilliantly conveyed by Szalay: “Lying in his tepid bed, wheezing shallowly, eyes shut, ticker fluttering, his head a tightening knot of pain, he is once more sentient of his self, and his situation.” This novel is compulsively readable; Szalay’s prose and darkly comic tone make this a classic of the genre.

50 Jobs Worse Than Yours by Justin Racz Satirist

Justin Racz has spanned the globe to find 50 jobs that can only instil gratitude in any worker complaining about the difficulty of his job.This mini-book with 50 jobs and 50 photos showcases occupations from silly to gross, tedious to terrifying and may serve to dispel all work woes and take the blue out of Mondays, at least until it rolls around again.

No Time For Work by George Ryan

In the humorous tradition of Myles na gGopaleen, Ryan’s comic novel’s narrator is a newly qualified teacher who along with his friend Cecil Chuckleworth do all in their power to avoid work.They manage to outwit headmasters, school inspectors, parish priests and publicans with their escapades in an effort to live the dream, getting paid for sipping porter. The misadventures and comic capers will raise a smile with any reader who has navigated the Irish education system; Ryan writes that “long ago I discovered that teaching is an easy way of earning a living provided that one does not make the mistake of actually teaching.”

The Cambridge dictionary defines work as an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical energy to do, usually for money. Physics defines work as moving a force over a given distance which rings true for all us worker bees who daily move forces over vast distances in a sisyphean effort to make a living. Jerome K Jerome stated: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work.The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said that “work is the only practical consolation for having been born’’.

Douglas Coupland has declared the nine to five as barbaric and thinks that one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we now view child labour in the 19th century. He has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace and his literary works such as Generation XJPod and Microserfs all revolve around smart and creative young people struggling with the demands of the corporate world.

The world of work is tainted by being perceived as being dull and dreary and to depict it using prose can prove a project too stultifying for a novelist to dedicate a few years to its depiction. Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops. When a novelist can explore heightened worlds innervated with psychological tension the mundane terrain of the water cooler and a poor performance appraisal can seem a turgid option.When there’s war, heartbreak, murder, fictitious future worlds, class struggle, familial discord and clever plots aplenty why would any fiction writer preoccupy himself with the nine to five?

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, heads east to learn the bond business but, instead of office politics, the novel pulsates with high drama and extravagant parties. The odd sentence appears in the novel to confirm that Nick has a job: “Up in the city, I tried for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock, then I fell asleep in my swivel chair.”

Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens recently predicted that most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. He writes that as artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. If a world of post-work awaits us future generations can learn about the nine to five through works of fiction which will stand as a testament to the world of work. Reading most contemporary fiction one might assume that real life was something that went on outside of working hours. The following novels put work firmly where, in the majority of people’s lives it belongs – in the middle.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

All jobs entail tedium and toil but the depiction of the work environment in a regional tax-processing centre on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois, takes brain-crushing boredom to a new level of pain. One of the characters’ remarks that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is”. There is a stunning passage about men on a work break, standing around talking about nothing in particular, but it nails the condition of bleak office-life with definitive accuracy.Wallace focuses on an assortment of misfits, eccentrics and outsiders who come to work at the I.R.S. and work as accountants, pushing paper and numbers in a generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation”.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Ever since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000 there has been a vogue for books that take us behind the scenes into the intoxicating world of restaurant work. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is a poetic coming-of-age story about a young woman, Tess’s, experience working as a waitress in a Union Square Cafe, negotiating both New York and a new world of tastes and desires. Her descriptions of the aftermath of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle are rendered with poetic dazzle.Unwelcome daybreak with its ensuing horror is “a dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows”, and “sunrise came like an undisclosed verdict”. Danler’s description of the panic of the unannounced health department inspection will resonate will all workers who have lived through similar situations. The narrator distills from her experience of her working life some philosophical truths including that “ a certain connoisseurship of taste,a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet”.

Personal Days by Ed Parks

When Ed Parks was let go after New Times Media took over The Village Voicehe wrote this novel channelling the pre-layoff atmosphere of dread and anxiety into witty prose. Personal Days unfolds in three parts: Can’t Undo, Replace All and Revert to Saved, all familiar from Microsoft Word. He employs the language of computer software to narrate the happenings in the archipelagos of cubicle clusters while lambasting the lingo of corporate speak. Parks has said that this is “a layoff narrative” for our times.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Daniel Underwood the narrator of this novel is a 26-year-old aspiring code writer, an affable insomniac who tells the story through his online journal Daniel@microsoft.com. Daniel and his fellow “microserfs” lead lives of frantic tedium tethered to their computer screens for 15 hour days, living on junk food and obsessing about Bill Gates. The novel makes a prescient point that “machines really are our subconscious” in this entertaining depiction of life as a computer techie in the early days of the technological revolution.

London and the South-East by David Szalay

Thoreau’s observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation finds embodiment in the character of Paul Rainey, the anti-hero of this sharply written satire on the modern workplace. He is an ad salesman with a company engaged in the increasingly profitless business of selling advertising space in trade magazines whose only subscribers are the advertisers themselves. The novel’s evocations of the day-to-day textures of the workplace, the routines, rivalries, allegiances, resentment and camaraderie, the lunch hours in the pub, the Monday morning postmortems of weekends. Paul’s dissatisfaction with his life lived in a sapping fog of alcohol and automation is brilliantly conveyed by Szalay: “Lying in his tepid bed, wheezing shallowly, eyes shut, ticker fluttering, his head a tightening knot of pain, he is once more sentient of his self, and his situation.” This novel is compulsively readable; Szalay’s prose and darkly comic tone make this a classic of the genre.

50 Jobs Worse Than Yours by Justin Racz Satirist

Justin Racz has spanned the globe to find 50 jobs that can only instil gratitude in any worker complaining about the difficulty of his job.This mini-book with 50 jobs and 50 photos showcases occupations from silly to gross, tedious to terrifying and may serve to dispel all work woes and take the blue out of Mondays, at least until it rolls around again.

No Time For Work by George Ryan

In the humorous tradition of Myles na gGopaleen, Ryan’s comic novel’s narrator is a newly qualified teacher who along with his friend Cecil Chuckleworth do all in their power to avoid work.They manage to outwit headmasters, school inspectors, parish priests and publicans with their escapades in an effort to live the dream, getting paid for sipping porter. The misadventures and comic capers will raise a smile with any reader who has navigated the Irish education system; Ryan writes that “long ago I discovered that teaching is an easy way of earning a living provided that one does not make the mistake of actually teaching.”

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Tolstoy, TS Eliot and CS Lewis: the writers inspired by Easter As well as the religious symbolism of Easter the idea of becoming new is very potent

With the wealth of inspiration that the homeliness of Christmas offers, Easter can appear to be literature’s second-string festival. As a festival, Easter offers real drama. It begins with triumph, goes through betrayal, despair, suffering and for believer’s it culminates in great triumph. For a novelist it offers a great symbolic journey, which as well as being the journey of a great man is the journey of humanity. As well as the religious symbolism of Easter the idea of becoming new is very potent, the idea of being born again and beginning afresh.

The word Easter comes from a Germanic word that is cognate with “east”, and therefore with dawn, pointing to the spirit of new beginnings which Easter represents. Benjamin Disraeli coined the term for celebrating Easter, so however you’re Eastering this weekend there are no shortage of literary works inspired by Easter to keep you company.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Faulkner took the title for this novel from the Macbeth speech where Macbeth laments the futility of life being a “ tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

It opens inside the mind of the “idiot,”Benjy Compson, a 33-year-old man who has the mind of a small child. More than any other modern masterpiece Easter is pivotal to the novel’s architecture and plot. Three of the four parts of Faulkner’s magnum opus are set on the Easter weekend of 1928, with the final part occurring on Easter Sunday. In the novel, several characters experience parallels with Christ’s death and/or his resurrection. Friday’s narration is by Jason, the cruel, sadistic male heir of the Compsons whose malevolence is in stark contrast to Christ’s forgiveness and love. Holy Saturday marks its narrator Benjy’s birthday as he turns 33; Jesus Christ died at age 33. Benjy may be seen as a Christ figure, cast aside as an idiot and made impotent by modern society. The deaths of Quentin and Mr Compson, the loss of Caddy’s virginity, and the deterioration of the Compson family may all be viewed through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection.

A segment of Sunday’s narration, often known as “Dilsey’s part”, although not narrated by her, is set in a church of African Americans rocked by a moving sermon about the resurrection. This segment crystallises the goodness of Dilsey, who reflects Christian principles demonstrated by Jesus: strength, courage, and love. In the end, readers must decide for themselves if there is any redemption for the Compson family.

Resurrection by Tolstoy
This is Tolstoy’s last novel and perhaps his most controversial. Published in 1899 it is a scathing indictment of injustice, corruption and hypocrisy at all levels of Russian society. The story of Prince Dmititi Nekhlyudov’s journey to redeem a past guilt, Tolstoy’s storytelling genius bring to life this unjust world.

Tolstoy never did anything more delightfully infectious in fiction than the scene of the Easter service in the village church, where the young hero and heroine, after the traditional Russian greeting “Christ is risen”, exchange kisses with the carefree rapture of mingled religious exaltation and dawning affinity for each other. “Everything seemed festive, solemn, bright, and beautiful: the priest in his silver cloth vestments with gold crosses; the deacon, the clerk and chanter in their silver and gold surplices; the amateur choristers in their best clothes, with their well-oiled hair; the merry tunes of the holiday hymns that sounded like dance music; and the continual blessing of the people by the priests, who held candles decorated with flowers, and repeated the cry of “Christ is risen!” “Christ is risen!” All was beautiful; but, above all, Katusha, in her white dress, blue sash, and the red bow on her black head, her eyes beaming with rapture.”

Easter Parade by Richard Yates
Joan Didion considers this “Yates’s best novel”, even better than Revolutionary Road, which was made into a film by Sam Mendes starring Kate Winslet and with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Easter in Yates’s novel is not one that is a portend to renewal and rebirth, it is an Easter that is a watershed moment in the lives of two girls Sarah and Emily. Sarah dresses up in “an expensive dress of heavy silk” and a “ broad-brimmed hat of closely woven straw” to take part in New York’s Easter Parade . As she is driven uptown by her handsome fiancé, her younger sister Emily watches on giddy with the promise life holds. The New York Times photographed the couple and the camera “had caught Sarah and Tony smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine, with massed trees and a high corner of the Plaza hotel just visible behind them” . The novel ends during a Springtime decades later, the story of the girl’s lives and loves delivered in exquisite prose by this master storyteller. Yates has an unflinching eye for the human capacity for self-delusion and for excavating a bleak beauty from life’s tragedies. Yates has been described as the Flaubert of the Eisenhower years; he peeled away the veneer of postwar plenty and saw the empty chasm beneath.

Unkept Good Fridays by Thomas Hardy
Innovative in his use of stanza and voice, Hardy’s poetry, like his fiction, is characterised by a pervasive fatalism. In the words of biographer Claire Tomalin, the poems illuminate “the contradictions always present in Hardy, between the vulnerable, doomstruck man and the serene inhabitant of the natural world”. Hardy’s Easter poem eschews the traditional religious Easter poems in this tribute to the “unpenned.. nameless Christs”, “men whom rulers slew/ For their goodwill.” This poem commemorates victims of torture and oppression who have no Good Fridays to remind the world of their suffering and death.

East Coker by TS Eliot
The Easter theme of this, the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets, is especially prevalent in the fourth section, a short lyric which casts Christ as a “wounded surgeon” – wounded because of the crucifixion, but a “surgeon” who carries the cure for all of humanity’s ills. Eliot wrote East Coker in 1940, against the background of the second World War and the Blitz.

Lead Us Into Temptation by Breandán Ó hEithir
Set during the Easter weekend of 1949(the date of the declaration of the Irish Republic )in the university town of Baile an Chaisil, a thinly disguised Galway, the novel immerses the reader into the bawdy world of Martin Melody, a pub-crawling university student and his student side kicks. The novel was published in 1976 as Gaeilge as Lig Sinn i gCathú, a rebellious challenge to the pious Lord’s Prayer. Breandan O hEithir’s fictoir will strike a chord with any one who lived the student life with his depictions of odious landladies, crackpot academics and clergymen. After a particularly indulgent session on holy Thursday night Martin and his dig’s room mate Billy are awoken by the landlady Mrs Anderson, who had already been to morning devotions, the stations of the cross, had visited the cemetery and a session of scandalmongering in her sister’s house. She’s hammering on the door screaming: “In the name of God, boys, are you trying to bring the curse of the Almighty down on my house? For God’s sake, get up quick! It’s gone one o; clock. Get up and show some respect for the Passion, the Divine Thirst and the Crucifixion.” This reader could well imagine the divine thirst that Martin and Billy were experiencing and could empathise with the misery they endured on that long Good Friday.

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the opening novel of the Chronicles of Narnia series and is widely regarded as its highlight. Lewis felt that some of the religious stories of his childhood lacked the creative spark to invite an “imaginative welcome” to the Christian faith. Lewis wanted to rewrite the religious stories of his boyhood and imbue them with a fantastical, magical feel. Religious symbolism plays a major role in the Chronicles of Narnia.One of the best examples of this symbolism is Aslan, the noble lion of Narnia. Just about everyone agrees that he’s the stand-out character of the Chronicles of Narnia and probably Lewis’s greatest literary creation. Aslan is a literary Christ figure who plays a pivotal role in the story of Narnia, just as Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith.

Lewis explained in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves in October 1931, that he set out his story of Aslan as a retelling of the “actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection”. The future of this story is assured as it opens up some of the deepest questions of life and points to that the special beauty and wonder at the heart of the universe.

Lewis does not tell us what Jesus Christ is like; he shows us what Aslan is like, and allows us to take things from there by ourselves.

“Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia, and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen,” he told a school class in Maryland in a letter in 1954.

For Lewis, one of Aslan’s chief roles is to enable people to discover the truth about themselves.

To Sleep perchance to dream…

Sleep, or the lack of it, is another modern malaise. The purpose, function and drive to sleep has eluded science for millennia; to unravel its mysteries and deliver its age-old secrets has become the holy grail of modern neuroscience and research. Michael Rosbach, one of three American biologists awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the master genes controlling the body’s circadian rhythms, has declared that all of western society is chronically sleep-deprived.

Though feted as a malady of the technology era, insomnia has always been the unwanted bed fellow of modern man. Some of the most famous actors, artists and political leaders have been unable to court the Sandman, and tales of their insomnia are legendary .Vladimir Nobokov, a famous insomniac, called sleepers “ the most moronic fraternity in the world” and felt that the wrench of parting with consciousness almost unbearable. He wanted always to be an eye awake, a seer in a sleeping world, a solitary watcher among the unconscious.

Vincent Van Gogh was said to have been a sufferer and used to douse his mattress and pillow in camphor, a close relative of turpentine, which scholars believe may have caused the brain damage which contributed to his suicide. Groucho Marx’s extreme insomnia led to him reportedly calling strangers on the phone in the small hours to insult them and wrote: “What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?” According to Marx the correct answer is someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.

The modern-day equivalent is the insomniacal tribe of online social media users, who often commune and direct message in the small hours, propelled by the excitement that they are not alone. As an often-reluctant member of this wide-awake club, I have taken comfort in Leonard Cohen’s line that the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the waking world.

Medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn

Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, writes about the pattern where medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn. The wakeful hours were spent in prayer, visits to neighbours or engaged in nocturnal shenanigans. He argues that the modern “precious eight hours’ sleep” is a product of the industrial age and the advent of artificial light and that medieval sleepers got closer to nature’s intention than we do. As well as negotiating the tribulations of middle age it appears that my sleeping pattern is medieval, a nightly throw-back to the bi-modal sleep pattern of my ancestors.

Tallulah Bankhead, the early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on a solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to hold her hand until she nodded off

Tallulah Bankhead, the famous early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on the solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to sit with her and hold her hand until she nodded off. A less expensive and modern alternative is to try to nod off to the gravelly tones of Drew Akerman, aka Dearest Scooter, the 42-year-old creator and host of the popular Sleep With Me podcast. This is downloaded about 1.3million times each month, which gives some measure of the need for stories that succeed in boring the listener to sleep. Scooter sometimes calls his show “the podcast the sheep listen to when they get tired of counting themselves”. In Greek myth, Hermes used his inimitable wit to tell stories so long-winded and labyrinthine that they lulled the many-eyed monster Argus to sleep.

Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger

Anna Akhmatova wrote that insomnia is when both sides of the pillow feel hot. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet about sleeplessness called I wake and feel the fell of dark, when he lived in Ireland in the 1880s. In its depiction of a dark night of the soul, it is unparalleled in English literature. Another poet who distils the essence of the sleepless night is Philip Larkin. He often stayed up all night with his martinis and jazz LPs, and in the poem Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger. “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…”

Aristotle regarded sleep as a between world, “being as it were a borderland between living and not-living”, sleep being nearer to death than waking, or as Macduff calls it in Macbeth, “death’s counterfeit.”

As a seasoned insomniac, I have spent many years in search for a panacea from the gods, a miracle that would restore me to dream like the Waltons, fast asleep after lights out, cocooned in soporific dreamland far from the madding world. I have tried tinctures, tonics, flower remedies, herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture. I have downloaded apps, subscribed to YouTube channels, chanted and exhaled, twisted and turned and made Faustian pacts for nocturnal oblivion. I have spent vast sums on goose-down pillows and frette linen sheets as Spotify filled the bedroom with soundtracks of rainforests and jungles. The screeching cockatoos and monsoon rains’ aural ministrations have often scared me senseless and led to lights on in wonderland and paranoid checking under the bed for any stray jungle creature.

I have trawled the internet for moon juice and night dusts made by hippies in California, whose contents promised to deliver a nightcap that would lull me to sleep and let me slip slide away into a deep, sound slumber. A cornucopia of soporifics, including cherry juice, magnesium, B6, calcium and chamomile have left me still staring at the ceiling. As a great believer in bibliotherapy, I recently set myself a challenge to read my way through some of the recent publications concerned with the search for an enlightening sleep.

Wide Awake: What I Learned About Sleep from Doctors, Drug Companies, Dream Experts, and a Reindeer Herder in the Arctic Circle, By Patricia Morrisroe
This memoir is a must-read for fellow insomniacs. As a fourth generation sufferer of the plight, Morrisroe approaches the topic with the zeal of a researcher – always armed with her fabulous wit, which percolates the book and gives great light to the dark subject. Her insomnia is personified for her as John Malkovich in the tole of Valmont, the sadistic French aristocrat of Dangerous Liaisons. She realises that sleep, in its various dysfunctions, can be one of the most dangerous liasons of all, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer.

Morrisroe’s book is a personal narrative of her search for that which eludes her, the perfect night’s sleep. On this journey to unmask her torturer, she meets drug researchers and dispensers, mystics and cowboys, psychotherapists and savants, and unravels the notions about sleep that are often founded on fantasy, mythology and marketing. She illuminates the murky world of smart drugs like Provigil, whose maker Cephalon paid a huge fine for allegedly marketing the drug as a wake promoter instead of its FDA approved use for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy.

She also interviews an anthropologist, who says that in many traditional, non-Western cultures people sleep on light mats, in groups, around a fire and drift in and out of slumber instead of our “lie down and die” model. Sometimes they get up and dance for a while, which is very reminiscent of student life, but perhaps not compatible with a life based on a nine to five. Her description of a restful apartment’s ruination by the arrival of noisy upstairs neighbours, whose children proceeded to stampede nightly at 3am across her ceiling will strike a chord with many of us who’ve endured similar nocturnal nuisance.

Until she found her dream home she lived in a variety of New York apartments; one had such a flimsy common wall that she could hear her neighbour, an elderly Irishman, praying nightly for the Pope and President Reagan. The acoustics allowed her to hear his tonail-clipping, “the nails clattering over the hardwood floor like reindeer hooves.”

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams , By Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker is a renowned neuroscientist and sleep expert who explores 20 years of sleep research in an attempt to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. This book is divided into four parts: the first two are concerned with the mechanics and benefits of sleep, the last two with how and why we dream as well as a new vision for sleep in the 21st century. As a bedside read, it can be dipped into according to one’s curiosity about sleep and the style is accessible, with the author able to demystify complex neurological phenomena.

The first chapter sets the tone, with Walker announcing the sobering fact that “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer” as well as contributing to your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and heart failure. Walker explains that sleep remains one of the last of the great biological mysteries. Our sleep patterns are cued by light and its absence, with photoreceptors at the back of the eyes picking up light and sending electrical signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain. This is the master timekeeper, which regulates and synchronises body temperature and blood pressure, making sure that they all operate on the same cycle, known as circadian rhythm.

In an ideal world, without the blue light of digital devices discombobulating the clockwork, when darkness falls our pineal gland produces melatonin which induces sleep. During daylight hours, melatonin production is reduced to encourage wakefulness. Walker is particularly informative about our genetic propensity to be either an owl or a lark and society’s bias towards larks in work-scheduling. This causes owls to burn candles at both ends to fit into the work model, which exacts a huge toll on health and happiness. Despite some of the findings making this night owl a little uneasy, it’s a triumph in its field, where findings have huge implications for health and work life in modern society.

Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, By Lisa Russ Spaar (Editor)
Rudyard Kipling wrote that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. This is a beautiful anthology, with poetic greats like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, Rimbaud and Sappho, Shakespeare and Shelley representing the best of the Western canon, alongside poets from Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Romania and other far-flung corners of the world to show the universality of sleeplessness and what it means to be acquainted with the night.

A restless night of tossing and turning can become, in the hands of Hopkins or Sappho, a visionary and artistic experience that can lead to epiphany or confrontation with existential crisis. The anthology is divided into three parts; Solititude, Vigil and Anguish and Longing and Epiphany and Vision. Insomniac by Sylvia Plath is a triumph of all of these odes to insomnia where Plath summons a nightscape of terror inspired by her own bouts of excruciating sleeplessness. Plath describes the insomniac’s pillow as being a desert – arid and bereft from the oasis of sleep. The insomniac is immune to the sleeping tablets “those sugary planets whose influence won for him/ a life baptized in no-life for a while” and their “poppy-sleepy colors do him no good”

The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole –
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.

Pushkin’s poem loses none of its powerful evocation of a sleepless night in its translation from the Russian in its depiction of the sleepless author listening to the external ticking of the clock as well as the internal whispers of a reproachful conscience.

Lines Written at Night During Insomnia by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by DM Thomas)

I can’t sleep; no light burns;
All round, darkness, irksome sleep.
Only the monotonous
Ticking of the clock,
The old wives chatter of fate,
Trembling of the sleeping night,
Mouse-like scurrying of life…
Why do you disturb me?
What do you mean tedious whispers?
Is it the day I have wasted
Reproaching me or murmuring?
What do you want from me?
Are you calling me or prophesying?
I want to understand you,
I seek a meaning in you.

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time , By Arianna Huffington
The media mogul Arianna Huffington’s book is a call not to lean in but to lie down and sleep as an aid to productivity and life enhancement. Arianna practices what she preaches and sleeps on a bed dressed with her organic cotton sheet range from her Huffington collection and her pillows stuffed with soporific hops and barley. She relegates her phone and electronic devices to the foyer outside the bedroom and engages in a half-hour nightly transition to sleep that includes gratitude journaling, bathing in Epsom salts by candlelight, rituals which help her to greet sleep with respect. Huffington believes that the miracle of sleep allows us to see the world with a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored. This is a must-read for all aspiring entrepreneurs as this newly anointed sleep evangelist believes that a sleep revolution will allow us to problem solve and dream a new future.

Sleep in Early Modern England, By Sasha Handley
Handley’s book is an illuminating cultural history of sleep, drawing on a rich host of archival sources, referencing Samuel Pepys and the Romantics in an effort to enrich our knowledge of sleep and its roles in earlier societies. The physician and clergyman Thomas Cogan in his The Haven of Health written in the late 1500s presaged this year’s Nobel thesis when he stated “the benefit of sleepe, or the necessity rather needeth no proofe, for that without it no living creature may long endure, according to that saying of the Poet Ovid.”

worldsleepday.org

Mothers in Literature

     mr-and-mrs-bennet-jane-austens-couples-14290545-499-281       

E.M Forster  wrote that “ if all mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”If all mothers were like the  saintly depiction in Little Women of the figure “ who glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlid here, settling a pillow there”, then Forster might have been onto something. Fiction would be very colourless without the horror inducing psycho mums and mommy dearests  who make Medea seem maternal.

Joyce wrote that “ whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not” and Steinbeck wisely declared “ that it takes courage to raise children.  Larkin in his famous poem This Be The Verse stated -They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/ They fill you with the faults they had// And add some extra just for you-Novelists rejoice in the roomy expanse of the marriage plots as a device and in the narrative thrill that adultery provides but very few have tackled the mother as the central heart of the work . With Mother’s Day around the corner here are some of the books that explore our closest bond.

 

1-Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s narrator described her as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.” As mother to the five Bennet daughters who won’t be inheriting their father’s estate this incorrigible social gadfly’s mission is to find wealthy husbands for her girls. Controlling, bossy and very crude she raises the bar for meddling mothers and scheming matriarchs.Her crass actions are driven by economic necessity and she is one of the earliest depictions of what we now call a momager. One of the quotes that epitomises her character- “ I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children.“Not that I have much pleasure indeed in talking to anybody.  People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking.  Nobody can tell what I suffer!–But it is always so.  Those who do not complain are never pitied.”

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-australian-poster (1)

 

2-Eva Khatchadourian in We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

At the very beginning of this novel Lionel Shriver cites a quote by Erma Bombeck “A child needs your love when he deserves it least.”  Eva is a 37 year old successful career woman with her own travel company, in a stable and happy relationship. She is certainly reluctant about becoming a mother but does so to please her husband Franklin. We know from the outset that her son, Kevin, has gone on a shooting spree at his school and has killed nine students and two members of staff. The novel makes for propulsive reading as Eva

reconstructs her motherhood in a series of letters addressed to her now estranged husband. The genius of Shriver’s story is the way Kevin’s guilt and Eva’s guilt are investigated with psychological depth, the story carried by Eva’s voice, a narrator who may be unreliable but is always inexorably honest as she tries to unravel the genesis of Kevin’s evil deeds. Was it that she didn’t love him enough? Had the fact that she bopped around her Manhattan loft to “ Psycho Killer” instead of Mazart’s sonata’s make him evil? Eva expands on Sartre’s existential statement when she declares that “ Hell is other people you’re related to.” Shriver’s fiction challenges the reader to confront assumptions about nature and nurture, crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption and how ultimately the answers are multitudinal, complex and  may defy rational comprehension. Eva’s own comment about motherhood is that “…trying to be a good mother may be as distant from being a good mother as trying to have a good time is from truly having one.”

 

 

 

3-Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary is a woman so disenchanted with the constraints of her life as the wife of a provincial doctor that she longs” to die or to live in Paris. “ In this phrase Flaubert perfectly illuminates the struggle for Emma who was bored to death with her role in life and longed for some indescribable “ something to happen, like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar some white sail in the mists of the horizon.”She elicits our sympathy because of her hopeless romantic fantasies that made an ordinary life in a french village a horror for her poetic sensibilities. Emma’s daughter Berthe fails to bring her any joy and after a series of affairs and profligate spending she commits suicide  leaving Berthe to a perilous fate. As a bourgeouis narcissist in 19th century France Emma was constitutionally unsuited to motherhood, selflessness and empathy were not part of her nature, traits that are necessary for the travails of motherhood.

 

4-Ma in Room by Emma Donoghue

 

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a 11 by 11 foot room with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal. Ma coaches Jack on reading and writing, and even gets him doing yoga exercises. Through the engaging child narrator we realise that the child does not feel trapped in the confines of his existence, Ma through her selfless ingenuity and love makes his world expansive and whole.

 

5- Rosaleen  in The Green Road by Anne Enright

 

In Anne Enright’s non-fiction work Making Babies (2004) she writes “ that most of us come to an accommodation between the “ Mother “ in our heads and the woman who reared us.”Rosaleen is the matriarch of the Madigan family, who we initally meet in 1980 when she has taken to the bed in protest when Dan her eldest has declared his intention to join the priesthood. The loss of grandchildren would be catastrophic to the drama queen that is Rosaleen.The family scatter to all corners of the globe but are summoned back to Clare after a card from Rosaleen declaring that she is selling the family home because her family have all left her. Soon the “ children” are back at their assigned places at the table and regressing fast to their childhood selves. Rosaleen is ringmaster of this family circus and expertly manages  all her children’s emotions. She is always centre stage herself and no more so than at the end when she disappears into the night and the family all search for her, physically and metaphorically.The drama queen who could be impossible and nasty in her dealings unifies her brood with this drama. “ We had been for those hours on the dark mountainside, a force. A family.” As a mother Rosaleen is a fascinating and intriquing character, vain and self-centred she still elicits our sympathies and in the pantheon of irish mothers her position is safe.

rachel cusk

 

6-A Life’s Work:On Becoming A Mother by Rachel Cusk

 

Cusk describes the book as a letter to women “ in the hope that they find some companionship in my experience.” This true account of the first few months after her daughter Albertine was born is a memoir infused with wit and searing honesty, where daily battles with colic and childcare become almost a war diary. Her depictions of “ the anarchy of nights, the fog of days’ are candid emotional accounts of her experiences of new motherhood. This is a love story born out of the terrors and confusions of being a mother, neither good nor bad just fallible and human, negotiating a new role with intelligence and humanity.

 

7-  The Bolter from The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Mitford’s Bolter is so names due to her habit of leaping from one marraige to another. She flits in and out of the life of her daughter Fanny with an endless array of lovers in tow. A woman who is described as having fled to Kenya to enbroil herself in “ hot stuff.. including horse-whipping and the areoplane” seems constitutionally unfit for hands on mammying. She does have a rapier wit which for this reader made her an enaging woman, if an appalling mother. At the end of the novel , when fanny explains that her cousin Linda has found “ the great love of her life, you know,” the Bolter replies, “ Oh, dulling, One always thinks that . Every,every time.”

 

9-Sophie Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Sophie Portnoy is the overbearing Jewish mother, “ one of the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time.”This woman is so invasive that she wants to see his bowel movements, control who he dates, tends to his every need which allows Portnoy to stay in a state of permanent adolescence. Portnoy’s enmeshment with his mother means he spends the rest of his life trying and failing to get away from her while subconsciously trying to find her replacement.

 

Joyce wrote that “ whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not” and Steinbeck wisely declared “ that it takes courage to raise children.  Larkin in his famous poem This Be The Verse stated -They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/ They fill you with the faults they had// And add some extra just for you-Novelists rejoice in the roomy expanse of the marriage plots as a device and in the narrative thrill that adultery provides but very few have tackled the mother as the central heart of the work . With Mother’s Day around the corner here are some of the books that explore our closest bond.

 

1-Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s narrator described her as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.” As mother to the five Bennet daughters who won’t be inheriting their father’s estate this incorrigible social gadfly’s mission is to find wealthy husbands for her girls. Controlling, bossy and very crude she raises the bar for meddling mothers and scheming matriarchs.Her crass actions are driven by economic necessity and she is one of the earliest depictions of what we now call a momager. One of the quotes that epitomises her character- “ I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children.“Not that I have much pleasure indeed in talking to anybody.  People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking.  Nobody can tell what I suffer!–But it is always so.  Those who do not complain are never pitied.”

 

2-Eva Khatchadourian in We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

At the very beginning of this novel Lionel Shriver cites a quote by Erma Bombeck “A child needs your love when he deserves it least.”  Eva is a 37 year old successful career woman with her own travel company, in a stable and happy relationship. She is certainly reluctant about becoming a mother but does so to please her husband Franklin. We know from the outset that her son, Kevin, has gone on a shooting spree at his school and has killed nine students and two members of staff. The novel makes for propulsive reading as Eva

reconstructs her motherhood in a series of letters addressed to her now estranged husband. The genius of Shriver’s story is the way Kevin’s guilt and Eva’s guilt are investigated with psychological depth, the story carried by Eva’s voice, a narrator who may be unreliable but is always inexorably honest as she tries to unravel the genesis of Kevin’s evil deeds. Was it that she didn’t love him enough? Had the fact that she bopped around her Manhattan loft to “ Psycho Killer” instead of Mazart’s sonata’s make him evil? Eva expands on Sartre’s existential statement when she declares that “ Hell is other people you’re related to.” Shriver’s fiction challenges the reader to confront assumptions about nature and nurture, crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption and how ultimately the answers are multitudinal, complex and  may defy rational comprehension. Eva’s own comment about motherhood is that “…trying to be a good mother may be as distant from being a good mother as trying to have a good time is from truly having one.”

 

 

 

3-Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary is a woman so disenchanted with the constraints of her life as the wife of a provincial doctor that she longs” to die or to live in Paris. “ In this phrase Flaubert perfectly illuminates the struggle for Emma who was bored to death with her role in life and longed for some indescribable “ something to happen, like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar some white sail in the mists of the horizon.”She elicits our sympathy because of her hopeless romantic fantasies that made an ordinary life in a french village a horror for her poetic sensibilities. Emma’s daughter Berthe fails to bring her any joy and after a series of affairs and profligate spending she commits suicide  leaving Berthe to a perilous fate. As a bourgeouis narcissist in 19th century France Emma was constitutionally unsuited to motherhood, selflessness and empathy were not part of her nature, traits that are necessary for the travails of motherhood.

 

4-Ma in Room by Emma Donoghue

 

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a 11 by 11 foot room with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal. Ma coaches Jack on reading and writing, and even gets him doing yoga exercises. Through the engaging child narrator we realise that the child does not feel trapped in the confines of his existence, Ma through her selfless ingenuity and love makes his world expansive and whole.

 

5- Rosaleen  in The Green Road by Anne Enright

 

In Anne Enright’s non-fiction work Making Babies (2004) she writes “ that most of us come to an accommodation between the “ Mother “ in our heads and the woman who reared us.”Rosaleen is the matriarch of the Madigan family, who we initally meet in 1980 when she has taken to the bed in protest when Dan her eldest has declared his intention to join the priesthood. The loss of grandchildren would be catastrophic to the drama queen that is Rosaleen.The family scatter to all corners of the globe but are summoned back to Clare after a card from Rosaleen declaring that she is selling the family home because her family have all left her. Soon the “ children” are back at their assigned places at the table and regressing fast to their childhood selves. Rosaleen is ringmaster of this family circus and expertly manages  all her children’s emotions. She is always centre stage herself and no more so than at the end when she disappears into the night and the family all search for her, physically and metaphorically.The drama queen who could be impossible and nasty in her dealings unifies her brood with this drama. “ We had been for those hours on the dark mountainside, a force. A family.” As a mother Rosaleen is a fascinating and intriquing character, vain and self-centred she still elicits our sympathies and in the pantheon of irish mothers her position is safe.

 

6-A Life’s Work:On Becoming A Mother by Rachel Cusk

 

Cusk describes the book as a letter to women “ in the hope that they find some companionship in my experience.” This true account of the first few months after her daughter Albertine was born is a memoir infused with wit and searing honesty, where daily battles with colic and childcare become almost a war diary. Her depictions of “ the anarchy of nights, the fog of days’ are candid emotional accounts of her experiences of new motherhood. This is a love story born out of the terrors and confusions of being a mother, neither good nor bad just fallible and human, negotiating a new role with intelligence and humanity.

 

7-  The Bolter from The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Mitford’s Bolter is so names due to her habit of leaping from one marraige to another. She flits in and out of the life of her daughter Fanny with an endless array of lovers in tow. A woman who is described as having fled to Kenya to enbroil herself in “ hot stuff.. including horse-whipping and the areoplane” seems constitutionally unfit for hands on mammying. She does have a rapier wit which for this reader made her an enaging woman, if an appalling mother. At the end of the novel , when fanny explains that her cousin Linda has found “ the great love of her life, you know,” the Bolter replies, “ Oh, dulling, One always thinks that . Every,every time.”

 

9-Sophie Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Sophie Portnoy is the overbearing Jewish mother, “ one of the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time.”This woman is so invasive that she wants to see his bowel movements, control who he dates, tends to his every need which allows Portnoy to stay in a state of permanent adolescence. Portnoy’s enmeshment with his mother means he spends the rest of his life trying and failing to get away from her while subconsciously trying to find her replacement.

mr-and-mrs-bennet-jane-austens-couples-14290545-499-281

Midsummer Night Reads

1 MEMOIR

Ann Lamott wrote that “you own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Below I’ve picked three memoirs that I’ve enjoyed over the past month and will follow with my pick of fiction and non-fiction over the next week.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford ( Bloomsbury)

 

 

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For any Ford fan this is a must read as the Pulitzer Prize winner writes with affection and some humour about his parents Parker Ford and Edna Akin. The memoir was originally written as two essays written decades apart and in their fusion creates one of the most extraordinary depictions of loss in literature. Ford writes first about his father, Parker, a traveling salesman who died in Ford’s arms in 1960 when Ford was 16. He wrote the piece about Edna, his feisty, independent mother shortly after her death in 1981. In the author’s note at the beginning of the memoir Ford acknowledges that writing the two memoirs thirty years apart he has permitted some inconsistencies persist between the two timelines and has allowed himself the lenience to retell certain events.This is a subtle and beautiful testament to devotion and a writer repaying parental love with his exacting prose and ability to animate his parent’s lives. In the afterword to the memoir Ford writes that ” the fact that lives and deaths often go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task” and that ” the chore for the memoir writer is to compose a shape and an economy that gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic, coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”I had the privilege to hear Richard Ford read from this memoir at Listowel Writer’s Week last month, his voice suffused with emotion and deep south charm inducing a trance like state in the audience where we confronted some of life’s beautiful but painful truths.

 

 

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Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler published by Canongate.

Once We Were Sisters

South African novelist Sheila Kohler has been haunted by the death of her sister, Maxine, who died a violent death on a spring night at the hands of her abusive husband. This memoir is the author’s attempt to unravel the truth of what happened and sift through the sands of memory to recapture the privilege of their childhood in 1950’s South Africa, a society where colonial gentility co-existed with violence and privilege. This searing illumination of sisterhood starts in 1979 when Kohler hears the news that her brother-in-law, a protege of heart surgeon Christian Barnard, drove off a deserted road and into a lamp-post causing the death of his wife Maxine. When Kohler sees her sister’s face in the morgue she feels guilty about not saving her from a husband they knew to be unspeakably cruel. She soul searches through this memoir and confronts the dark questions that her sister’s death bring to the surface including her own passivity which may have been exacerbated by the misogyny of 1950’s South Africa. This memoir is written in the present tense which reminds us that Kohler’s sister is forever with us and in her stark and delicate prose she captures the sensuous South African childhood of “swimming in the big pool, picking armfuls of bright flowers, gathering oranges and lemons” as well as the heart of darkness that destroyed this paradise.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

This memoir by New Yorker writer Ariel Levy confronts the notion of having it all. She was riding high in 2012, successful at her chosen career, legally married to a woman and pregnant with her first child. ” Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is the heart -breaking essay that Levy wrote about the miscarriage that happened in a hotel room in Mongolia where she had flown to do a report on the country’s mining boom.Her memoir picks up where the essay leaves off and explores the aftermath of the miscarriage where her marriage fell apart and Levy felt that the Universe had delivered her a karmic blow for dreaming that she could live a life of her choosing. Of her generation, Ms. Levy writes: ” Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they’s bestowed on us. Other times, they were aghast to recognise their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring.” This memoir confronts taboos and life-shattering events in self-lacerating detail and ends with a Austenesque happy ending though in typical Levy style she has declared that this is not an ending as she is not dead.

 

 

 

The Marriage Plot

According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.

A line from Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucald in a recent New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.

The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Austen to Knausgaard. Here are some of them.

1: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
The Course of Love is a very welcome return to the subject of amour. De Botton first put it under the philosophical microscope in the mid-1990s with Essays on Love, a delightful mixture of novel and non-fiction that forensically examines the nuances and subtexts of a date, from the initial delirium of infatuation to the lows of suicidal despair brought on by a relationship blip. In The Course of Love, Rabih and Kirsten are a very believable pairing for De Botton to subject to his philosophical and psychological microscope. Rabih is half-Lebanese, half-German, a little dreamy and insecure and through his job as an architect shakes hands on a construction site with the feisty Scottish Kirsten. Romanticism has influenced Rabih and over coffee with Kirsten, Rabih feels certain “that he has discovered someone endowed with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities… someone with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life.” Throughout the novel, de Botton explores what it means to stay together over time, the continual need to feel wanted in a marriage and the dangers of sharing the contents of our sexual imagination. He also examines all too common fraught emotions inadequacy, guilt and love encountered in parenthood, which reveals “another thing about love: how much power we have over people who depend on us and, therefore, what responsibilities we have to tread carefully around those who have been placed at our mercy.” In a recently published article in The New York Times titled ‘Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person’, he writes that romanticism has been unkind to us and this harsh philosophy has made a lot of what marriages entails seem appalling and wrong. De Botton preaches an accommodation to “wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners. Interviewed recently by Richard E. Grant for a Penguin book podcast, de Botton makes the point that fiction usually concentrates on the obstacles to finding love and only explores long term love if something dramatic or tragic occurs in the marriage. The Course of Love is an attempt to redress this imbalance and look at a relationship over many decades – one that is a “good-enough ordinary” one, but no less colourful for being so.

2: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
“To start with, look at all the books.” From the opening line of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, it is clear that this novel is about other novels, the people who read them and seek life’s truth in them. The novel is as much about books as it is about marriage; as much about literary criticism as it is about coming of age.
The first paragraph introduces us to the female protagonist Madeleine Hanna by an omniscient narrator, bringing us on a forensic tour of her library: “There was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty first birthday; there were the dog eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.”
It is clear that Eugenides is illuminating Madeleine’s character by showing us her reading material and setting her up as a devotee of the old traditional novel, as yet unscathed by the forces of twentieth century literary criticism. These traditional novels had their genesis in the 18th century novel Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, who avoided an episodic plot by basing his novels on a single action; that of a courtship. Ian Watt’s The Rise of The Novel attributes the growth of Pamela and similar novels to the demand for entertainment by women, who had been freed from the tyranny of domestic chores and had leisure time to fill with reading.
Madeleine is like an Austen heroine. She has spent her college years in pursuit of The One, engaging with marriageship: “the cautious investigation of a field of eligible males, the delicate maneuvering to meet them, the refined outpacing of rivals, the subtle circumventing of parental power (his and hers), and the careful management, which turns idle flirtation into a firm offer of marriage with a good settlement for life.
Madeleine’s relationship with biology major Leonard Bankhead has recently broken up, but she hasn’t given up hope of reconciliation as she had been planning on moving to Cape Cod with him where he has a fellowship to study. As befits a woman of Madeleine’s sensibility, she briefly contemplates giving up on the exhaustive plan of trying to win Leonard back and moving home to her parent’s house and becoming a ‘spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance’. She has also alienated her male fan Mitchell Grammaticus, whose old-man attire, stability and obvious interest in her makes him a lot less alluring than the brooding, enigmatic Leonard.
Eugenides has set the stage for a romantic tussle between Leonard and Mitchell in a contemporary novel which has at its heart a marriage plot, in a world where Madeleine’s professor Saunders declared that ‘marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.’ The character of Mitchell is imbued by the author with the values and mores of the Old World and is pitched by the author against the post-modern gothic figure of Leonard. A battle is begun between the old vanguard of traditional literature and the new forces of deconstruction theory.

3: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine’s Professor Saunders complains that contemporary life has been a disaster for the novel. He argues that “in the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” The Emma that he refers to is Emma Bovary from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This novel sustains de Botton’s theory that love stories affect our relationships and colour our expectations of married life.
Emma Bovary spent her childhood in a convent immersed in heady Romantic fiction, which made her expect that her husband would be a transcendent soulmate, a source of constant intellectual and sexual presence. This sets her up for a fall when she marries the very human Charles, has her first child and finds herself bored senseless by the routines of married life and by the demands of domesticity. Emma is convinced that her life has gone profoundly wrong because of the huge gulf that exists between the actuality of her life and the romantic novels that she gorged on in adolescence.
In an effort to bridge this gulf Emma embarks on an affair with Rodolphe, a louche landowner who is her superior in terms of class and wealth. He is initially full of ardor, but, Flaubert tells us: “Eventually, sure of her love, he stopped making any special effort to please her, and little by little his manner changed. He no longer spoke to her in words so sweet they made her weep, and there were no more of those fiery caresses that threw her into a frenzy. Their great love, in which she lived totally immersed, seemed to be subsiding around her, like the water of a river sinking into its bed, and she could see the mud at the bottom. Refusing to believe it, she redoubled her tenderness; and Rodolphe hid his indifference less and less.”
After this affair ends, Emma again embarks on another misguided affair, neglects her child and eventually commits suicide. Flaubert’s wry wisdom lends the book a didactic air, that to be guided by the falsehoods of romanticism can only lead to unhappiness in a long term partnership.

4: Emma by Jane Austen
In a typical Austen marriage, the heroine must examine, study and know her suitor rather than trust her own feelings – or worse – give in to her passion. Among Jane Austen’s many artistic achievements is her adaption and development of the simple marriage plot into a more variable pattern, which allowed her to show the growth of her heroines. In Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility she used the marriage plot as a convenient structure to showcase her character studies and theme. By the time she wrote Emma she had the skill to subvert the marriage plot and add extra layers of nuance and depth. Emma, when compared with all the other heroines – Elizabeth Bennett, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot and Catherine Morland – is the most complex, subtle and best portrayed. She is “handsome, clever and rich” and at 21 will be enmeshed in Austen’s web of wrong-headedness, remorse and repentance until she emerges at the end of the novel enlightened with the wisdom of self knowledge and the prospect of “perfect happiness” with Mr. Knightley. Intelligence matters to Austen’s heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation; the kind that requires mutual understanding.

5: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.” A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.

6: My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The beauty of Knausgaard’s fiction is its ability to imbue the ordinary with fascination as he recounts life’s minutiae and domestic drudge and as Jeffrey Eugenides said, “Knausgaard breaks the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Knausgaard is heavily influenced by the romantics when he describes his first encounter with his current partner Linda, whom he met at a writer’s convention. “I looked at her, and there was something about her I wanted, the second I saw her, it was there. A kind of explosion.” For Knausgaard, the process of falling in love has nothing to do with being seduced by the woman’s mind , instead her sheer presence has a powerful and mysterious effect on him. In this regard his attitude to love has more in common with Emma Bovary than the more realistic entreaties of de Botton on the fallacy of the romantic ideals.

7: Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk
Professor Saunders from Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot felt that the availability of divorce and sexual equality was bad for the novel. He hadn’t predicted the rise of the divorce memoir, especially Rachel Cusk’s feminist take on the collapse of her marriage. Aftermath draws on references to Oedipus and Agamemnon as well as wry observations about having a toothache on the day her husband moved his possessions out of the marital home. In the course of the memoir Cusk writes that “marriage is civilization and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins” and that “people overthrow their governments and then they want them back,” which shows the difficulty for a woman of losing an old identity and moving into a new reality.

8: Gone Girl by Gillian Walsh
Gillian Walsh’s Gone Girl explodes the myth of perfect coupledom that central character Amy finds oppressive. “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face.” Nick and Amy Dunne co-narrate this thriller and the novel opens on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, when Nick realises that Amy has disappeared. Walsh’s portrayal of a descent from a seemingly perfect marriage into chaos is emblematic of the simmering resentments and betrayals that are constitute the topography of betrayal, failure and revenge. What follows is a baffling, disturbing but ultimately delightful read with its terrifying conclusion.

The Literature of Death

Woody Allen famously quipped “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” This resonates with all of us who live in a culture that promotes eternal youth through scalpel or scientific miracle and cold shoulders the icy certainty of death. Kafka stated that “the meaning of life is that it stops” while Anais Nin, a daily diarist, wrote that “people living deeply have no fear of death.” Freud recognized that people sometimes did express fear of death, a condition referred to as thanatophobia. Freud felt that it was not actual death that people feared as our own death is quite unimaginable, and in our unconscious we are all convinced of our own immortality. Beckett wrote that “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lately there has been much written about death, narratives and stories that aim to help us negotiate the emotional landscape of grief and death. The novelist Julian Barnes is a self –confessed thanatophobe who sometimes is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.” In his memoir on the fear of non-existence Nothing to Be Frightened Of Barnes writes an elegant meditation on death and attempts to address his thanatophobia. As an agnostic Barnes doesn’t believe in an after-life and writes that “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” He believes that the Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie… a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in a Mozart Requiem or the sculptures of Donatello.

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 publication called Reality Hunger he advocated a return to the “real” in literature and he railed against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir. A memoir of illness and dying is always an emotional read and the pages pulse with life, strife and the emotional intensity of the author’s feelings and predicament. None more so than the recently published In Gratitude by Jenni Diski, who died last week of inoperable lung cancer. Diski wrote a series of essays in The London Review of Books about life after her diagnosis with its frailties and sudden fragilities which have been published as this memoir. She writes that she feared the oncologist would find her response clichéd after he gave her the prognosis and she turned to her husband and suggested that they’d better get cooking the meth like Heisenberg in the television series Breaking Bad. Diski’s talon-sharp prose has never harboured a platitude and this memoir touches on her peripatetic early life, abandoned by neglectful parents and in and out of psychiatric hospitals, “rattling from bin to bin.” She was also adopted by the literary giant Doris Lessing for four years as a teenager and shared family dinners with Alan Sillitoe, R.D. Laing and Arnold Wesker and listened to late night intellectual discussions about philosophy and psychotherapy which she describes as “a dream come true, but I had to work out how to live it.” Diski with her unique sense of directness and humour writes that she makes an ideal candidate to play the role of a cancer patient as her lifelong favourite places are bed and sofa and she lives like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly languish on the fainting couch. Jenni described herself as being “contrary-minded,” delighted in breaking taboos and pushing boundaries. Controversial to the end she likens having cancer to “an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed, I have been given this role ….I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.”

Christopher Hitchens was on a book tour for Hitch 22 when he experienced the first health crisis that was the beginning of his demise. However this pugnacious and witty writer was able to channel his experiences into his end of life memoir Mortality which begins with the line “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death.” When the emergency services arrive to collect him Hitchens feels a psychogeographical shift taking him “from the country of the well to the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Hitchens concedes that he has become a finalist in the race of life and quotes from T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker / And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat / and snicker / And in short / I was afraid.

Hitch decided to live dyingly and extolled the consolation of friends who came to eat, drink and converse with him even as these earthly delights become impossible for him as the cancer progressed. His memoir is life affirming, punchy and rich with morbid humour noting that when one falls ill that people tend to send Leonard Cohen CDs, he doesn’t experience rage at a terminal diagnosis as he feels that he has been taunting the Reaper into “taking a free scythe in my direction “and that he has now succumbed to “something so predictable and banal that it bores me.” His wife Carol Blue in the afterword to this memoir writes of the man she admired and loved and ends with the lines that Christopher has the last word, in death as in life Hitch still has the last word.

Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, begins with the death of her husband of forty-four years, the writer John Dunne, and brings the reader on a journey through the land of grief that she entered in the aftermath of his loss. In the opening lines of this poised but passionate memoir she writes that “life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” She writes on the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event and writes that when we are confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how “unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell.’’ Didion gives the reader an unflinching account of grief in the year when the shock of Dunne’s death “was obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” Despite the unshakeable reality of her husband’s death Joan’s thinking enters the realm of the magical and she writes that “we do not expect to be crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” Zadie Smith wrote that Didion is essential reading on the subject of death and I have bought many copies over the years for grieving friends who have found comfort in its reading, recognition of their suffering in its pages.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is an unstintingly honest memoir about the loss of her mother Barbara from colorectal cancer. Meghan is an award-winning poet and she writes about the consolation that she finds in reading Hamlet. Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion; emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief. O’Rourke can understand why Hamlet who has just lost his father is angry and cagey. He is told that how he feels is unmanly and unseemly, his uncle greeting him with the worst question to ask a grieving person “How is it that that the cloud still hang on you?” O’Rourke felt a resonance with Hamlet in her grief state when she felt that to descend to the deepest fathom of it would be unseemly and was somehow taboo. She writes that nothing prepared her for the death of her mother, even knowing that she had terminal cancer did not prepare her. There is a stark unearthing of truths in this memoir. “A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky, unimaginable.”

Doctors face death daily and Doctor Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon because with its unforgiving call to “perfection, it seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death.” When Breath Becomes Air opens with a description by the author of a CT scan that he was examining where the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed and a full lobe of the liver obliterated. This scan though similar to scores of others that he had examined over the previous six years was different, different because it was his own. Paul Kalanithi wrote his memoir in the aftermath of this discovery fusing his medical knowledge with his love of literature to produce a work that is more than a memoir, it is a philosophical reflection on life and purpose. Kalanithi and his wife have a baby Cady who was eight months old when her father died. His memoir will be his legacy to his little girl as “words,” he writes, “have a longevity I do not.”

The Iceberg: A Memoir written by Marion Coutts tells of Coutts’ partner Tom Lubbock’s death from a malignant brain tumour. This account of illness and decline is told with an artist’s eye and in poetic prose that is both razor sharp and suffused with emotion. Coutts writes that there is a filmic quality to their life, a friend suggests that the director is Bergman, “shot flat without affect but deeply charged, with a fondness for long shots, no cuts, ensemble scenes, dark comedy and the action geared always to the man in the bed even though he is frequently off camera.”

Death is the inevitable full stop in the essay of life. Christopher Hitchens quotes this poem by Kingsley Amis in his memoir Mortality: Death has this much to be said for it/ You don’t have to get out of bed for it/Wherever you happen to be/ They bring it to you-free. The writer Katie Roiphe wrote The Violet Hour; Great Writers at the End in part to sate her curiosity about death and dying. It is an account of how the writer found beauty and comfort in the stories of how her literary heroes faced up to dying. To Katie religion has never been consoling and feels like a foreign language. She, like many book lovers finds comfort in novels and poems. As a child recovering from serious illness Yeat’s Sailing to Byzantium resonated with her. She becomes ambushed by the beauty in the deaths of her literary heroes, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sontag, Freud and Sendak. Susan Sontag “fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception.” Roiphe feels that writers and artists are more attuned to death, that they can put the confrontation with mortality into words in a way that most of us can’t or won’t. The last taboo has been dealt with by memoirists, essayists and poets. If, according to F.R. Leavis, literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness, then these publications are a gateway to enlightenment.