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April 25, 2017

The Dark Flood Rises, by Margaret Drabble

I’ve spent the last week reading Margaret Drabble’s new novel The Dark Flood Rises, an experience that is the closest I’ve ever come to reading Drabble for the very first time, The Radiant Way in 2004. Which has been weird, because reading that book was the most visceral experience, a book that read like butterflies in my stomach. I still remember. Although it was possibly because my life was on the edge of everything in 2004: about to get married, return to Canada, enrol in graduate school. I was 25, and everything amazing lay just before me. There I was looking out at the world, and The Radiant Way was exactly like that: I want to be there, I remember thinking, intellectuals and Oxford grads, cultural critics and North London. The way she wrote the world: I want to do that too, her work affirmed for me. Her amazing omniscience, and the remarkable body of her knowledge—inspiring but overwhelming, because I could never do that. But she made me want to reach. For me, discovering The Radiant Way in a  second-hand bookshop in Kobe was the discovery of literature proper.

It was also exciting because even in 2004, Margaret Drabble had a huge body of work behind her, and she was sufficiently unfashionable that her books was always readily available in used bookshops, even the Japanese ones. I spent our year in Japan buying up orange-spined Penguin paperbacks and reading wildly. We coined the verb “Drabbling,” which meant to be reading and utterly enraptured. I enjoyed her early works, though I found her books before The Needle’s Eye interested me less—these books were about individuals, but it was her engagement with society that so fascinated me. I insisted on sending all of the books home by sea, which was stupid because battered secondhand Margaret Drabble novels are hardly rare, but I am glad I did so. And I began to discover her newer work when we got back to England—I bought The Peppered Moth from an Oxfam bookshop in Notting Hill.

For awhile, it seemed like Margaret Drabble novels were an infinite resource. She had new books out in 2005 and 2006, and I still wasn’t through with her backlist. I began to see that with her works in the 1990s and 2000s, she was less interested in society than the novel itself, at pushing the limits at what a book could contain. With The Witch of Exmoor and onward, her books began to get rather curious. I didn’t love them as much (by which I mean to the point of intoxication) but Drabblers takes whatever Drabble they can get. They were never ordinary or boring. With the publication of her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet in 2009 (which I read two weeks before Harriet was born—there’s always a Margaret Drabble book when I’m on the edge of something) she declared herself retired from writing fiction, but thankfully she was lying. The Pure Gold Baby appeared in 2013, which was a Drabble throwback, a reimagining of her preoccupations from her early works.

And now The Dark Flood Rises, which is also nostalgic in approach, another book about people and connections, her fabulous omniscience. Esther Breuer from The Radiant Way trilogy appears in this book, there are towers and ariel views as with The Middle Ground, the same fatalism that permeates so much of Drabble’s work. (I started reading Margaret Drabble at the same time I started reading Joan Didion. They are not similar stylists, except for that fatalism, which so links them in my mind.) It’s a book about old age and death, but the ways in which it probes the interestingness of these scenarios makes it a very compelling novel. At it’s centre is Francesca Stubbs, who works for  a trust charged with innovating care homes for the elderly, and she tours around England in her car and appreciating the comforts and familiarity of basic hotels. We meet her children, her son Christopher, an unemployed TV interviewer whose partner has just died after an illness in the Canary Islands, and her daughter Poppet, an environmentalist who lives in a cottage on a flood plain. Her friends too who are marking old age in their own distinctive ways. She brings dinner to her bedridden ex-husband, who is engaged in relations with his private nurse, a Zimbabwean called Persephone. The narrative ruminates on islands, and migrants, environmental catastrophe. On books and art and cellars and histories. Archives. This is a novel that, like another referred to in the narrative, is written “in a state of uncertainty… a modernist open-ended novel… on the edge of history.”

The Dark Flood Rises is vastly different from Ali Smith’s Autumn in every way, but similar in its edge of history-ness, uncertainty, and that both books refer to artist Pauline Boty. And it was interesting to be reading it last week when I learned that Drabble’s adult daughter had died last week after a short illness, underlining the entire project with a layer of sadness. Parts of it seem ominous now, and it made me feel Drabble’s grief in a way that could have been more theoretical otherwise. But this has always been the case with my feelings for her work, how its ideas refuse to stay confined to the text, how it seems impossible that the worlds she creates aren’t actually real, how the story seems to creep its way into the world, the culture, like vines so, until the lines between them become difficult to decipher, and it’s impossible to tell where one stops and another begins.

November 5, 2013

Margaret Drabble at IFOA

drabbleThe seed of Margaret Drabble’s 18th novel The Pure Gold Baby was planted years ago during a trip to Zambia, Drabble explained to interviewer Eleanor Wachtel during her appearance at the International Festival of Authors on Saturday afternoon. Zambia, she described as “a beautiful golden country”, and countered that Africa was in fact “the heart of sunlight”. It was impression that stayed with her through decades, though was so apart from the rest of her life that she wasn’t sure how she’d ever use it in her fiction. Even still, the Zambian landscape “became part of the hinterland of my thinking.”

Drabble would return to Zambia years later, “in search of an ending,” she says, for The Pure Gold Baby. Or not an ending exactly, she clarified, but a sense of resolution. The novel isn’t spoiled for knowledge of this Zambian return, which mirrors its introduction, in which anthropologist Jessica Speight observes a group of children playing by the side of a lake, the fingers on their hands fused together in a deformity that resembles lobster claws. The Pure Gold Baby, Drabble says, is not a novel of revelations.

She had seen these same children herself, and was struck by them, by their indifference to their disability, “imperfect children having a perfect time.” Eventually, as her narrator does, and not until years later, she was able to trace her fascination with these children to a childhood friend whose hands had been disfigured after an accident. This connection said something to her about “the mysterious workings of the memory.”

This is vintage Drabble, the broad treatment of history, fascinating with anthropology, autobiographical elements, this story of a young single mother in 1960s’ London. Though underlying the story is that of David Livingston, the famous British missionary to Africa who only ever managed one convert. He was just as successful in his quest to find the true source of the Nile, dying nowhere near where he wanted to be because he was going the wrong way. Drabble was intrigued by his misplaced journeys, this story of life’s alternate directions, of where you end up when you’re going the wrong way, and she wanted his journeys to underlie Jess’s story, though motherhood had put an end to her own actual travels.

This missionary’s story connects too to what Jess refers to as the unfashionability of Christianity during the 1970s. Jess in the novel and Drabble herself considers what system has replaced it. What system makes us behave better toward one another? A question to which neither Jess nor her author have an answer, except that we must strive for a culture that is less cruel.

“I don’t have opinions,” says Drabble. “I have reflections.”

The map has shifted, Drabble says, from the 1960s, from Jess’s time, in that we realize now how much is inherited. There was a focus on nurture instead of nature in that time, she says, which meant more responsibility and more blame (upon mothers in particular). Even in the most benign circumstances, she notes, we try to explain away our inheritances, the family members who note that such-and-such a trait certainly doesn’t come from our side.

There has been a shift too in how we treat those with disabilities, from institutionalized care to community-based solutions. Both options come with their drawbacks, and Drabble acknowledges that there is no perfect solution. There are advantages though, she explains, for having the disabled living among us, and she fears what would happen if a disability like Down Syndrome managed to be eradicated. Those with Down Syndrome show us, she says, a different way of being in the world, a sense of human nature that is without guile.

Pure-Gold-Baby-200x300Wachtel suggested that Drabble was perhaps romanticizing the reality of disability, but Drabble is adamant that she knows such people, she has seen their example, and wouldn’t write about it if it were otherwise. These stories are common really; both in her book and in the interview, she cites examples of writers whose disabled family members were hidden away from the world–Jane Austen, Arthur Miller. And it was the uniqueness of her narrative structure allowed Drabble this bit of latitude in her book, enough distance for some literary gossip.

“And what about Doris Lessing?” Wachtel asks her, who also comes into the story. And at this, Drabble stops talking.

“Doris is still alive,” she says quietly. And so the conversation moves on.

The Pure Gold Baby was originally going to be told in the 3rd person, but instead a common group voice began to emerge. Drabble’s narrator is a chorus figure, but a participatory one rather than the Greek variety. Is her narrator reliable? Wachtel inquires, and Drabble replies that she is (they are) about Jess’s story, though she is curiously evasive about her own life. And any reader has the right to see it differently.

The narrator is Jess’s friend, part of a group of young mothers supporting one another in 1960s’ London. It was the kind of community that Drabble herself was part of at the time, and she remembers organizing a cooperative nursery school when her own kids were small. The attitude of the young moms, she says, was “Let’s help ourselves, because no one else is going to.” It was the era of Dr. Spock, and they all felt children knew best. “We were very permissive,” she says, “but we did like a bit of the evening for ourselves.”

These days, childcare is so much more expensive, motherhood itself has become professionalized. (“In the UK, we have something called Mumsnet,” she says. “I looked at it once and my computer broke down. Everybody was talking about penises.”)

Drabble has written about the 1970s before, but it is different to write about it now than when she was actually living it. Her approach to the time and its characters has become anthropological, she says. “I’m looking at small people in a faraway landscape. Now, it all seems long ago.”

Wachtel noted the Rodin sculpture that makes an appearance in The Pure Gold Baby, and Drabble admits her fascination with aging flesh. “And now we live forever and ever,” she says. “It’s almost unfortunate.” A discussion about death and downsizing leads to a mention of Drabble’s pronouncement in 2006 that she was retiring from fiction. She was wrong it seems, and it was during her previous visit to the IFOA in Toronto that she got the urge to return to fiction.

She says she is grateful for Toronto and the festival for providing space in her life in which her laptop started looking friendly again.

October 29, 2013

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Pure-Gold-Baby-200x300The Pure Gold Baby is Margaret Drabble’s first novel since 2006’s The Sea Lady, and her first book since the memoir The Pattern in the Carpet in 2009. Her first novel since she claimed to have quit writing fiction, with a new publisher after she claimed that Penguin was “dumbing her down”. It’s a novel that it’s impossible to regard outside of the wider context of Drabble’s oeuvre, which even the book itself makes implicit. Page 19 makes reference to “the radiant way” and “a millstone”, which suggest the titles of two earlier Drabble novels. Late in the book, a passage: “A wider view, an aerial view, an uplifting view, a view of the river, a view of time, a view of the shores of the infinite.” Which reminded me of a passage I underlined in The Middle Ground a long time ago: “…London, how could one ever be tired of it?… When there it lay, its old intensity restored, shining with invitation, all its shabby grime lost in perspective, imperceptible from this dizzy height, its connections clear, its pathways revealed. The city, the kingdom. The aerial view.”

One has to take an aerial view of Drabble’s career in order to make sense of The Pure Gold Baby. Because it’s a curious book, and all her books have been curious lately. But let’s start at the beginning, with her first books during the 1960s, usually about young educated women living and working in London. She was a very fashionable writer, the kind Barbara Pym judged herself against unfavourably during her own wilderness years. The fashionableness means these books are dated now, but they have literary merit. Drabble has always been prescient too about social trends–she wrote about single motherhood early in The Millstone, she anticipates the modern media-scape in A Natural Curiosity.

Her perspective broadened during the 1970s and 1980s, much concerned with both the domestic and with wider social trends. Her Radiant Way trilogy is the story of England, the story of everything, a time of great social turmoil and changes, documented in the lives of the characters she made so real.

Since the late 1990s, her books have become very unconventional, stretching the shape of the novel with remarkable elasticity to encompass such largeness: questions of time, genetics, globalization, history. With every book, one gets the sense that she is asking herself again just what the novel is capable of doing. I don’t think Drabble has the credit she deserves as an experimental novelist. She is far from content to write the same book over and over, and seems rather determined to reinvent the book every time, though her preoccupations remain constant.

The Pure Gold Baby reads like a culmination of sorts, the Drabble universe encapsulated. We have a single mother in 1960s’s London, but she takes these characters right up to present day, employing that aerial view, that stunning omniscience she started playing with in the middle of her career. And then the narrative strangeness t00–it’s puzzling. This is the story from the perspective of a woman who pieces together her friend’s history over decades, through stories she has heard, rumours, long and drawn out conversations. Why is she telling this story? We never really know–even she doesn’t know. What do we learn about her, this character who is only named once or twice. Why does she matter?

The centre of this story is Jessica Speight, an anthropologist who a gives birth to a daughter she raises on her own, the pure gold baby of the title. It eventually becomes clear that all is not as it should be with Anna, that she has some kind of unnamable developmental problem–she’s a bit clumsy, a bit simple. Her existence and her affliction come to shape the trajectory of her mother’s life, and here Drabble is pondering motherhood, its questions and problems. Though as ever, her interest is genetic. From where did Anna come from? Jess is not forthcoming with this information, and it causes our narrator to wonder, questions about errant genes.

Or is the origin something else, and here is where the story begins–with a group of children with malformed hands by the side of a lake in Africa where Jess had encountered them years before Anna was born. We’re returned to this point again and again, and Jess makes the voyage back to Africa near the end of the book. It’s kind of an inverse Heart of Darkness, as though Africa were the heart of light, the light that emanates from people like Anna, humanity at its most basic, simple. Which is a bit racist and also reductive in terms of regarding disability, but then whether this is a hypothesis or conclusion is never clear. This is the kind of novel in which characters are allowed to be wrong.

It’s such a strange novel: we are taken through the decades of a group of mothers in London and learn which marriages ended, which children succeeded, which others went wayward (and how there was no telling of who would be who). This is a novel about friendship, and how we tell each other stories, about how we become characters in the stories of one another’s lives. It’s about mental health, public health, institutions. It’s a novel full of facts, pages of passages that read like non-fiction. It’s about progress, and the illusion of progress.

Pure Gold Drabble, is what it is. And so naturally, I loved it.

 

October 22, 2013

Gift from the Sky

DonnaIMG_20131022_134836 Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch came out today, and I’ve been looking forward to it. I remember when The Little Friend came out in 2002 and it was such an event. I was very broke, living on cans of tuna and long-life milk, sleeping on the bottom bunk of a bed in backpackers’s hostel in the Midlands. It seems momentous to be buying her new book all these years later, to measure out my own life by Donna Tartt releases: I own a couch now. The intervening decade has been good. So I trekked to the bookstore just now to pick it up, and also to get Kelli Deeth’s new collection The Other Side of Youth. (Read Deeth’s wonderful piece from yesterday about her devotion to the short story form).

So there I was at Book City, and in a hurry too because I had sweet potatoes in the oven, and what do I discover: Margaret Drabble has a new novel!! The Pure Gold Baby, just out at the beginning of this month. I had no idea! Can you believe it? The universe offering up one of my chiefest delights (to be reading a Margaret Drabble for the very first time) like it was nothing. And it’s even meant to be good, this book, and Meg Wolitzer says so. I am so excited. As if yesterday’s bookish gifts weren’t enough…

June 12, 2013

The benefits of being bedridden

“Charles can no longer pay attention to one source of information at a time. He is Modern Man, programmed to take in several story lines, several plots at once. He cannot quite unravel them, but he cannot do without the conflicting impulses, the desperate stimuli. Perhaps he hopes the alcohol will simplify them, will stick them together and fuse them all into one consecutive narrative. The narrative of his own life, of his place in the history and geography of the world.” –Margaret Drabble, A Natural Curiosity

“‘No,’ I answered. “I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.” –e.l. konigsburg, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Isn’t Margaret Drabble’s 1989 novel eerily prescient of the internet? I enjoyed the konigsburg book as well, though it was a curious one. I’m now finishing reading Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, and will be rereading Slouching Towards Bethlehem afterwards. And I think I’m going to miss being bedridden… Other books in the horizon are The Eliot Girls and The Flamethrowers. And truly, this is the reason that breast is best.

May 27, 2013

Reading in the here and now.

I just finished rereading A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I remember reading for the first time about 3.5 years ago in my room with the lighting so dim I could hardly see the words, and there was a little baby napping on my chest. Oh, is there anything worse than a little baby napping on your chest and then feeling a coughing spasm coming on? I remember that too. Of the many ways in which I’m in limbo at the moment, reading-wise is one. I have the new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel waiting on my shelf, but it’s huge and I can’t make such a commitment to anything at the moment while I’m waiting for baby to begin to arrive. After baby comes, I will crack open Where’d You Go Bernadette, but I’m saving it ’till then. I reread Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin last weekend when I was sick. “What to read next?” is not usually a question I spend much time grappling with, as the books usually seem to be lined up for me, but not here and not now. Which is kind of lovely, a luxury–the only bit of this waiting in which I’m really revelling. And all I really want to do is reread. I think I’m going to pick up a Margaret Drabble next–the follow-up to The Radiant Way (my first and best Drabble…) which is A Natural Curiosity–I read it once the summer I got married. (I keep plucking these books off the shelf and they’re covered with dust.)

You might recall that my computer died in June 2009, with nothing on it backed up, including my list of Books Read Since 2006. Which means that I soon after started a new list, which is basically “Books I’ve Read Since Harriet’s Birth”. I updated it this evening–503 books read in my child’s lifetime. Not counting the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read to her.

Pym Logo  Multi

And speaking of Barbara Pym, whom I am really anxious to reread all summer long, a fun online reading project will be taking place in celebration of her centenary on Sunday. Barbara Pym Reading Week runs from June 1-8, with giveaways and a virtual tea party even. Ideally, I’ll be lost in newbornhood by that point, or even pulling off my ultimate celebratory stunt (giving birth on the big day), but I think I may be rereading Excellent Women at some point in solidarity.

I do so love Pym, whose essence was Englishness, who knew much about nuance, psychology, tea, womanhood, longing and romance. But who perhaps knew less about motherhood, if this passage from A Glass of Blessings is anything to go by…

“We were in her bed-sitting-room after supper, and I had been telling her about Sybil’s forthcoming marriage and what an upheaval it was going to make in our lives.

‘Yes,’ said Mary, ‘marriage does do that, doens’t it?–and death too, of course.’

‘But not birth.”

‘No–people seem to come more quietly into the world…'”

Which is not exactly how I remember it. But maybe I remember it wrong?

July 2, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble

All right, please forgive me, but I’d like to take the short story off its pedestal for just a moment or two. Not to demean it in any way, but rather to point out the utter banality of proclaiming a writer “a master of the short-story form”. If only because I don’t think there is any such thing as “the short story form”, which is of all forms is probably the most elastic. Think about what Ann Beattie has in common with Alice Munro, I guess. Or closer to home, even Sarah Selecky and Jessica Westhead’s stories are altogether different creatures. There is such diversity in short stories, which is the underlying flaw in any argument against them as a form, but it also means that many of us are sputtering critical banality when we try to talk about them in general.

But then, here is another thing…

Margaret Drabble’s complete short stories A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman were written by a writer who has never been called a master of the short story form, mostly because most people don’t know she ever wrote short stories, because she only wrote a handful of them, and because she had been altogether occupied attempting to become master of the novel instead. (And can I just say that more than most contemporary novelists, she has probably come very close?)

But yet there are stories here which are masterful, because this is Margaret Drabble after all and she is so, so good. So the conclusion I take from this is that the short story form isn’t necessarily one requiring fervent devotion, the way some would like us to think it is– I’m referring to the pedastal. The conclusion is that anyone is capable of writing an excellent short story… as long as anyone happens to be Margaret Drabble.

The stories here, which are organized in chronological order, represent the same kind of trajectory evident in the progression of Drabble’s novels. Early stories are very focussed on the individual, interior and immediate, and were very fashionable in a way that hasn’t aged terribly well (but their quality remains evident). Her middle stories become more political with a strong feminist bent, and then the later ones are concerned with the limits of fiction, with stretching these limits, and also with history, and science and questioning. A reader seeking something conventional from later-Drabble will come away disappointed, but with an understanding of what she is trying (though not always managing) to achieve), the reader can appreciate these works’ greatness.

It is difficult to talk about a collection like this, which represents the work of five decades and was never intended to be discussed as a whole. Except to say that it’s a wonderful overview of (and perhaps introduction to?) Margaret Drabble’s work, and a must-read for any of her devotees. That a few of the early stories have a certain unsteadiness, but then the other assume the assurance of writers who, if she has not necessarily mastered the short-story form, has certainly managed to master the story in general.

June 29, 2011

Drabbling 2011

I fell in love with Margaret Drabble in 2004, when I was living in Japan and first read The Radiant Way. After that, every trip to Kobe necessitated a trip to Wantage Books so I could pick up a few more battered Penguins with bright orange spines (or, more often, with orange spines now so faded that they’d become yellow). When we left Japan, I insisted on sending all of my battered Drabbles home by surface mail. Before we came to Canada, we spent six weeks in England, and I bought a whole pile of mid-period Margaret Drabble books at various charity shops. I read her latest The Red Queen. And then I’d read all the Drabbles in the entire world, and suddenly new Drabbles were a rare and precious thing.

This doesn’t happen to me so often. Most of the writers I like have huge backlists and are usually dead, and so I have many resources at my disposal when I want to feast upon their oeuvre– new books, used books, libraries, random boxes on curbs. When I want anything, I rarely have to wait for it. I don’t know the anticipation of lining up for things at midnight, whether it be for Harry Potter or an iPad, but sometimes I wish I did.

Because I kind of do know it, actually, and it’s wonderful. I’ve known it since Drabble’s The Sea Lady came out in 2007, then The Pattern in the Carpet in 2009, and now as I’m reading Drabble’s collected stories A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. New Drabble prose: precious and rare . I savour every bit of it, and even when there’s no new Drabble in my immediate future, I am comforted by knowing that in this very room, Margaret Drabble is busy cooking up more.

May 15, 2011

Drabble news

Today’s gloom dissipated somewhat as I was writing the post below, was inspired to do a google search for Margaret Drabble (as I do from time-to-time, being a Drabble devotee), and discovered that she has a new book out, a short story collection called A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. (I found it via this NPR story/profile). Delightful! The first new Drabble fiction since 2007’s The Sea Lady! Her most recent book is non-fiction The Pattern in the Carpet, which I read almost exactly two years ago (and discovered the same way I just found this book). How wonderful to have a gift just fall out of the sky. In even better news, I am quite happy to read that she has reconsidered her decision to stop writing fiction.

October 25, 2010

El Anatsui and Margaret Drabble, via Heather Mallick

Photo courtesy blog.rom.on.ca

When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, the retrospective of Ghanian sculptor El Anatsui now on at the Royal Ontario Museum, was one of the most exciting, beautiful and powerful exhibitions I’ve ever seen. So you can imagine my delight upon reading Heather Mallick’s column last weekend, as she draws a parallel between the show and Margaret Drabble’s ideas as expressed in her latest book The Pattern in the Carpet. Marvelous worlds colliding!

Mallick writes of the exhibit:

I visited this weekend for the second time, for the pleasure of being shocked by beautiful acreage. The possible meanings leap out at me, what El Anatsui is saying about the way we live now.

I like to tell fellow ROM visitors (strange how they back away from me) about my theory, borrowed from the novelist Margaret Drabble, about why people are so angry and unhappy now. Suffering from the illness known as “affluenza”, they are told to view life as an economic ladder, a vertical clamber to success. But people are falling off the ladder now, or are stalled mid-rung, and it hurts.

Drabble says life is not a ladder but a jigsaw. It moves sideways and around, no one event knocking you into the abyss. Suddenly a job loss or a sick child or a bad divorce is just another piece in the broad jigsaw, part of a pattern in the carpet. No section of the jigsaw is more important than any other. This is a comfort when the wheels come off.

That’s what El Anatsui’s metal curtains say. The bigger ones do look like Canada, well-assembled and prosperous, with random wrinkles representing our national miseries.

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