Monday, 25 April 2011

Shattered, The Hare with Amber Eyes, One Day

What an eclectic group of books to comment on, you may well say — and it is true that Shattered (Rebecca Asher), an indictment of how women have colluded in their own undoing, largely by obeying their biological drive to have something to cuddle, does not sit easily alongside One Day (David Nicholls), a thinly-veiled first draft of a Richard Curtis movie, and The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal), the story of 264 small carvings, travelling around anti-Semitic Europe from the 1870s to the present day.

The only thing that brings them together is that I have been compelled by all three of them in very different ways, and read them with equal absorption for very different reasons.

One Day is captivating because it tells the story of my generation: people who went to university in the dog days of the 1980s, after an upbringing under Thatcher, graduating into a recession. It is a great chronicle, in the tradition that only the English seem to do well, of wistful regret for fulfilment left unpursued. We are really good at this: Dickens was its master. The English are brilliant on the what might have been.

We have Emma, the highly intelligent English graduate who struggles to find her feet post-university, because she does not know anyone, and is too proud to sell her soul, and Dexter, the stupidly good-looking and easily-led university good-time boy, who walks straight into fame and success.

They nearly get together on graduation night, and improbably remain friends over the years although their lives are travelling in opposite directions. Both yearn for each other, but cannot traverse the flotsam of their materialistic, status-consumed era to make a life together. Life, or rather the tail end of Thatcherism and the barely-different rise of New Labour, conspires to keep them apart until it is too late.

What I loved and winced at is that both characters are forever trying to tell their own story, both trying to express who they are and judging themselves from the outside, in a peculiarly British form of self-deprecation, the one that ensures class stasis and merely gestures in the direction of social change.

Emma cannot become the writer she wants to be, because she comes from the wrong class, and so has to earn a living. Dexter cannot grow will and integrity because he is the playboy scion of a mismatched Shires couple, the mother all faded 60s beauty and the father gruff bluffer with money. The characters are trapped in their situations, and they know it. There is only indirection and the occasional drunken outburst to signify their truth, the life path they should have been on had society not been the way it was.

Ah England! where caste conformity stills predicts life chances more than intellect, aptitude and energy.

The Hare with Amber Eyes tells a very, very different story of loss and regret. Edmund de Waal was born to tell this story, in the same way that Emma in One Day was born to struggle and doubt herself.

De Waal's heritage is the doomed Ephrussi family; their movements from Odessa to Kent, through breath-taking fortune and miserable annihilation, the story of the West's own self-immolation in the twentieth century. He has the perfect totem for this tale in a collection of Japanese netsuke, which move with the fortunes of the family, and bear witness to its rise and fall, becoming now objects of admiration, now playthings, now vehicles of memory and testament.

Like the assimilated Jewish family whose story they track, the netsuke are strange to their environment, always foreign to whatever context they are in, begging questions, on the move. They both fit into the contexts they turn up in: display cabinets, ladies' dressing rooms, Japanese apartments, middle class London living rooms, but they are also always impervious to these temporary homes. They are themselves: mysterious, ever-interpretable objects that expose how we try to construct our lives, and mediate our longings, through things. They remain, their owners have gone.

The netsuke are a memento mori of a lost generation, too small to have been catalogued by the Nazis as they took apart the Ephrussis' house in Vienna, but equally small enough to have been saved; the one remnant of a lost fortune that turned out to be irretrievable even after the war had ended.

De Waal is now their custodian, finally aware that he is only their temporary keeper, and he takes his duty rigorously and seriously, in poised and polished sentences that sit together with silent spaces between them, on show, formally perfect, allowing the pain and anger of the story he must tell to seep between them. He sticks to the facts, the little steps that echo the much larger convulsions in Europe and are finally swept up in them. He sticks to what he knows, and does not project his own feelings: the netsuke speak for themselves, but they do not speak in words, and the meaning of what they say, and what they seem to be, shifts perpetually.

Finally, Shattered. I must confess an interest here. Not only a mother myself, but also a person who (like Emma in One Day) wants to write but cannot because she has to earn a living, and a person, moreover, who wants to write a book about motherhood, very precisely, I cannot fail to be envious of Rebecca Asher, who has beaten me to it.

Asher has in some ways written the book I thought I wanted to write. Apart from sheer lack of time, however, there are other reasons why I haven't produced it. Her book is a savage indictment of all in its path — men, women, and society — everything that goes into making motherhood remotely difficult for women. She would like to clear the way to uninterrupted unity between mother and child, supported by perfect hands-on cooking and cleaning by partners, and financial support from society. Oh, and a fulfilling career at the same time, even though the mother wants to be with the baby. Oh, and women are complicit in their own undoing — of course they are. This is how Frantz Fanon talked about black identity, as so colonized by whites that it cannot impose itself except in fragments, perversions and emulation. Brilliant.

The trouble is that Asher does not deign to complicate her book with actual children. They would perhaps leave muddy prints on the pristine text of her rage. This is a book written from the head and not the heart. After one year of childcare, of one child, I feel that Asher just ain't seen nothing yet. Perhaps she should wait until her children have grown up and left home before evaluating the experience.

I don't disagree with her description of the extraordinary levels of judgement thrust upon women, and the ridiculous collusion many women seem to go in for — calling themselves lucky for picking up the crumbs left to them in the wake of childbirth. I agree that care is resolutely gendered, from pregnancy, and that this is gleefully, conveniently, and ruthlessly reinforced by all and sundry. I too have been told off in the street by complete strangers for some perceived mismanagement of my children. It is utterly bewildering to go from being in control of one's life and emotions, to a situation in which one serves the needs of another — and to find oneself judged and found wanting at every turn simply for doing one's best. I too have had my career amputated (by a woman), and have had to endure vicissitudes in finding my feet since.

But I still don't want to write that book. I KNOW all of that, I've been living it and analysing it since the surprise of giving birth and finding myself on the other side of the female mirror. Asher isn't saying anything new, but she has built a cage so tiny and airless that all I can feel is her depression. Does she really think that she has a vantage point high on the hillside looking down on 52% of the population blind and grubbing in the soil of their own misery? Should we all move to Iceland to understand the delights of shared parenting? Oddly enough, I feel more alive and motivated by my struggle to re-establish myself than I ever did as an academic pinioned and doomed behind the glass walls of my tower. All I could do there was repeat the truisms of literature and critical thought I wasn't allowed to deviate from. At least now I am free to be genuinely critical. Best get on with my own motherhood book, then. Asher has done me a favour: in writing the book of the Furies, I am free to write the book of Athena.