Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson (2007)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I came across The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial in my GoodReads recommendations, and thought it seemed almost like the perfect book for me – a memoir about family history, women, and crime. The crime element particularly appealed to me as the book details Maggie Nelson’s experience of the trial of the man of may have murdered her aunt, over thirty years before. She and her family had no idea that the murder was still being investigated, and then suddenly they are told that a possible suspect will be tried for it. It’s a whirlwind of old pain and new horror as Nelson’s mother, aunt, and grandfather have to dredge up their memories of what happened to their sister and daughter – Nelson’s aunt Jane.

It turns out Nelson had written a book of poetry and prose about her aunt, simply called Jane: A Murder, which came out in 2005, just two years before this book – so she was already somewhat familiar with her aunt’s life and the circumstances of her death, even though she never knew her. Jane was murdered in 1969, when she was 23 and studying at the University of Michigan. Unless it happens to you, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live with the knowledge that someone in your family, so closely related to you, was murdered. Throughout The Red Parts, Nelson muses on her connection to Jane and why her death seems to haunt her so much. Perhaps because she knows the pain caused to her mother and her other relatives, perhaps because Jane was killed so randomly by a stranger, and that this could, in theory, happen to any woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She also muses on our shared interest in these awful stories, especially when she and her mother are asked to participate in an episode of the show 48 Hours Mystery about Jane’s death. They agree to do it, but throughout The Red Parts Nelson discusses her conflicted feelings about this sort of thing – why do we want to know all the unpleasant details? Is it voyeuristic or sensationalist to learn about murders like Jane’s? She wonders why we obsess so much over young women who are murdered, why it can be so hard to prove what really happened, and why it is necessary to try a man for a crime that happened so long ago. She wonders about the nature of justice and the difference between its legal definition and the feeling of justice that she supposes her family are meant to feel if the suspect in Jane’s murder is found guilty. Does that make it all better? Does that close the book on the whole thing?

These are interesting and vital questions that I think we could all relate to or apply to something in our lives; but I wasn’t sure whether Nelson was trying to appeal to her readers in that way, or whether she just wanted to express her disgust at both the horrific nature of Jane’s murder, and her own confusion over it and its consequences. She seems to disapprove of 48 Hours Mystery and other media interest in the trial, and at times even her own interest in it beyond her familial connection. I thought perhaps she was going to explore the possibility that we are all fascinated by things like murder because we are afraid of them, and we want to understand them, and she brings this in to some extent, but the overwhelming impression is of her revulsion and misery in the face of the whole situation. Not to say she shouldn’t feel these things, but there was nothing to counter it, nothing to remind us that life can still be good and happy, and that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

I’d never read anything by Maggie Nelson before The Red Parts, and honestly I’m not sure I will read anything else of hers. While I found this book fascinating, I found it very hard to read (it’s only 195 pages and I was reading it from August to October) and I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. Nelson’s narrative is raw and tough, and I personally found her hard to relate to, despite the universality of much of what she discussed. The Red Parts is, to me, a cold and hard book with a cold and hard centre. Its darkness is rarely countered by glimmers of light or comfort and the unpleasantness and sadness is unrelenting. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it was so short. Not one for the fainthearted.

*

Originally published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2007. I read the 2017 Faber paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwells, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

2007 Faber cover. Image: goodreads.com

2007 Faber cover. Image: goodreads.com

I came to hear of Djuna Barnes when I started reading Anais Nin, who was influenced by her. I read a little about Barnes and liked what I read – she was an American in Paris in the 1920s, wrapped up in the Modernist scene. I read recommendations from TS Eliot. This was enough to sell her to me, and I purchased Nightwood. I knew nothing about it except that it was set in Europe in the 1920s. I went with Eliot’s recommendation and dived in.

From the start, it is odd. It is an odd book. That is the word I would choose to describe it if I was allowed only one. Do not misunderstand me, it is not a bad book – it is just odd. But then Modernism is odd. When first encountering it in AS English Literature, most people in my class just thought ‘What the heck is this?’ Barnes goes for the more surrealist approach (if there is such a thing) and quite literally seems to ‘paint’ her story across the pages with rambling speeches and memories from before the war, abstract descriptions of personalities and making everything more extravagant than is necessary.

First we hear about the birth of Felix. The opening paragraph is one long sentence describing this, detailing his mother’s heritage and strength, as well as the elaborate bed in which the child enters the world. She dies after she has named him and ‘thrust him from her’, and we are told his father died six months earlier. Felix grows up with an obsession with his dead father and shares his obsession with the past, with heritage and legend, with maintaining the family of Volkbein. Felix’s father more or less created his own ‘legend’ of aristocracy and nobility, and Felix does his best to keep this alive. He appears sporadically throughout the book, lamenting what has changed or ended, worrying about the future of his son, Guido (named for his grandfather – how fitting!), and his failing marriage. He is married to one of the two central figures in the book, a girl named Robin. They meet through the other central figure, the doctor, and seem to get married simply because they get on well and Felix wants an heir. Soon after little Guido grows into a child, Robin vanishes and is never reunited with her little family. Then begins the saga, the drama, the love triangle that provides the rambling prose for the rest of this odd book.

Robin forms a relationship with Nora, and they create a sort of married life, living together in Paris. Robin, however, starts to spend all night, every night, out of the house, driving Nora to distraction. Obviously she is having it off with other girls, but to Nora it is so much more complicated than that. There are two sections in the book, during which one yearns for the simplicity of Eliot, that Nora sits with the doctor and drives herself round the bend dissecting her and Robin’s relationship and trying to explain how she cannot live without her. Meanwhile the doctor philosophises on just about everything and more than once proclaims himself to be a woman. In this odd book, he is the oddest thing of all. Only about halfway through do we begin to learn bits of his actual name, and only at the end do we know that he is in fact called Dr Matthew O’Connor. He is a medical man but acts more as a sort of agony uncle-therapist-philosopher type figure, listening to Felix and Nora as they prattle on about Robin, and taking the opportunity to ramble to a rapt audience.

There are some moments in Nightwood when Barnes seems to be making an actual point, but they are few and far between. There are quotable lines – such as ‘The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy’ and ‘Don’t you know your holding on is her only happiness and so her sole misery’ – and there are interesting speeches about the blurring of the genders, but the rest of this novel seems to be Barnes taking the opportunity to, well, ramble to a rapt audience. Modernism was dominated by men and was sometimes quite clearly misogynistic, so it is a marvel that Barnes’ novel about a lesbian love triangle was praised so highly be male modernists (Eliot being the key one) and many others after. To me it seems that Nightwood is a novel of its time. She was adored by many female authors, including Nin, Carson McCullers and Bertha Harris, though she does not seem to have been very receptive to this praise. Though Nightwood was initially edited by Eliot to make it less controversial (in regards to sex and religion) Barnes takes advantage of being able to write anything she wants and does not adhere to any particular set of literary rules, not even really those of Modernism. However the book is certainly Modernist, as the prose is quite poetic and abstract, and of course it is set in the 1920s. It is a sort of rampant Modernism that employs every theme and device, spanning location and time, flitting between reality and memory; or imagination. Nightwood is more interesting than it is enjoyable. There are moments when Barnes has gone on too long on one topic and the reader wishes to skip ahead a few pages; but there is some really wonderful writing in those pages, and a real beauty and sadness and tragic understanding of the world. To one familiar with Modernism and intrigued by Barnes as a character, this is well worth the effort.

*

Originally published by Faber and Faber in 1936, and reprinted in 2007 with a new introduction by Jeanette Winterson.

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Fiction, Guest Posts, Reviews

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Guest Post)

This is a guest post written by Meg Hayes Fisher.

Faber edition. Image: goodreads.com

Faber edition. Image: goodreads.com

I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am.

Having been a thoroughly invested fan of Sylvia Plath’s poetry since I first came across my mum’s battered copy of Ariel, I was apprehensive about reading The Bell Jar, Plath’s first and only full-length novel. What I love about her poems is the unrestrained emotional abandon that courses through her verse: I was interested to see how this same raw, immediate voice would be translated into full-length prose – into an ordered, coherent story. I was  not disappointed. Plath is incapable of writing anything that is not deeply, and emotionally involved, and this is no exception, reading at times like the pages of a diary in fresh ink (it is, after all, semi-autobiographical).

Throughout The Bell Jar Plath plots a passage of time in the early 1960s in which the protagonist Esther Greenwood (an undeniable echo of Sylvia herself), a pretty and intelligent young woman, begins a terribly sad descent into a depression and madness that almost consumes her. Beginning a seemingly positive time in her life with a bright, prospective future in front of her, Esther, having won a competition to guest-edit a magazine, moves to New York with a group of other young girls of the same age. As she adjusts to this new phase of her life she is riddled with anxiety about her virginity and various unpleasant and distressing incidents with men she meets, which lead her to the beginnings of a slow downward spiral into her own compromising negativity. Becoming further and further alienated from herself, and estranged from everyone else around her she falls headlong into the throes of a mental breakdown punctuated by attempted suicide and numerous unpleasant medical treatments amongst her worried friends and family. It is at times extremely poignant and hard to read. Even as Plath negotiates the uneasy subject of depression, she manages without fail to communicate Esther’s dislocation from herself, oscillating between numb hollowness and uncompromising intimacy and sensitivity, trapped alone inside her airless bell jar. Esther is Plath un-seamed, often described as her alter-ego: we find as much honest expression as displayed in her poetry, but more frank and stark, following the full development of her despair to her lowest points, rather than the dark pools of depression that her poetry offers.

It is consistently tragic, yet never self-indulgent. The book is very relatable and moving, particularly when grafted directly onto Plath’s life. It ends with the sombre prospect of Esther facing a life-long struggle with her own demons (that Sylvia Plath famously fought with up until her death), and is haunted after by the knowledge of Plath’s own suicide the same year The Bell Jar was published. In light of this, the book for me reads like a suicide note, and every time I read it I feel the same well of pity for a young woman in the final days of her troubled life.

*

Originally published by Heinemann in 1963 and reprinted by Faber and Faber in 2001.

 

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Events

October’s Faber Social at The Social

Every month Faber holds its Social at The Social (ha ha). This month’s Social (held on Monday 3rd October) celebrated the art of the short story. The readers were Hanif Kureishi (charming, modest, witty), Sarah Hall (energetic, quiet but with a glint in her eye), Stuart Evers (lots of hair and jokes) and the amazing Edna O’Brien (ingratiating, engaging…lovely). They all read a story from their newest collections, all published by Faber – except Evers, who is published by Picador.

The Social is a mixture of things, one of which is a ‘venue’. How descriptive. It does feel quite a lot like a music venue though; the kind of place you go to see you friend’s boyfriend’s band because you’re being polite. Faber’s event was held in the basement, on the tiny stage with its white plastic lecturn. Benches and tables reach right up to the low stage so it’s rather cosy. And warm. Drinks flowed and the room had to be told to quiet down by Faber’s Lee Brackstone (MC for the night) every time he introduced the next reader. Though cramped and loud, it was a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged cheering and whooping from the adoring crowd.

Kureishi and O’Brien were undoubtedly the highlights of the night. They both read stories that were funny and yet tragic, beautifully embodying their troubled narrators and charming the audience along the way. They also both have lovely speaking voices and read clearly and slowly, engaging the audience and giving them no choice but to listen.

The evening ended on a rather odd but amusing note as Jarvis Cocker turned out to be the ‘special guest’. He read a short story from his new collection of lyrics, published by Faber, and sang a song to accompany it. Both were narrated by his alter ego Darren, an alcoholic with a grumpy ex-wife and strange dreams. Edna O’Brien and her ‘entourage’ (publishers etc) looked a little bemused but clapped politely with the rest of us.

The Faber Monthly Social is open to everyone to attend and details can be found at faber.co.uk/events. It comes highly recommended and it is not hard to see why.

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