Sunday, 18 March 2012

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

Thank goodness for Andrea Levy!

I knew when I read The Help that there was something subtly wrong with it. Essentially its politics were good, its characters were interesting and readable, and the ending a happy one for most concerned. Big ticks all round.

So what was wrong with it? Nothing so simple as the fact that it was written by a white woman — after all, no one can help the colour of their skin, right?

No, it was that The Help is enslaved to the narrative of slavery, while The Long Song is emancipated from it. This seems to me the task of fiction — to free itself from the facts, in order to imagine the lives that might have fleshed out those facts. Not properly, but improperly.

It will be argued that The Help does this fleshing out in spades, and so it does. And it's not about your actual slavery on Jamaica, but about racial integration in the deep South of the United States.

Yet it misses out one key ingredient. Uneasiness.

The Help
makes us feel safe and cosy. It is impossible to disagree with the picture of racism it paints, and possible at all times to know right from wrong, to know where you should stand. Our duty as right-thinking readers is clear, and we are exonerated from complicity in the events the writer portrays because of this moral certitude. All the thinking is done for us, served up with the help of the author.

Andrea Levy remembers in The Long Song, however, that no one knows how things will turn out, until they have. All lives are uneasy, whether they are eased by money and power or not, poised as they are between good fortune and a disastrous turn of the wheel.

Levy also reminds us that real lives go on after apparent 'happy ever after' endings. After slavery was abolished, this left a power vacuum into which came Christian do-gooders, still corrupted by racist attitudes, who could not understand why freed slaves did not want to cut sugar cane, even for pay.

The breaking of slavery also broke many freed slaves, by removing the land that they had farmed, first for sustenance, later for market. This land was initially lent to them by plantation owners, but, when freed slaves would not cut sugar cane, the owners put up rents extortionately. The rented land was not safe: plantation owners would allow raids if the black inhabitants still refused to work on the plantations. Former slaves were driven to the edges of plantations, on hazy borderlands where ownership was not quite established, to eke out a living. The Long Song is, as Levy says, a song cycle, with temporary endings but no closure.

How does any of this mean that The Long Song is better than The Help?

The difference is that the story told by The Help faithfully mimics the background tapestry known as 'the misery of racism', while The Long Song is picked out in relief against it.

Levy allows July to edit out the parts of her story she does not wish to tell. It is this freedom to choose what she wants to tell which emancipates July.

The life she has lived is clearly appallingly hard, and she has survived terror, abuse and starvation. But in the telling of her story, she has chosen freely how and how much she gives away.

She decides whether she will shield us, or herself, from truly obscene events in her life through different devices available to her: re-writing an ending, for example, or telling a scene through contradictory hearsay. She might slip in a vital detail, like a birth, retrospectively, rather than as part of a red-raw breathless telling of the present. When she feels like it, she leaves out thirty years or so. We are only aware that July has made something up when her son Thomas reads the manuscript and criticizes it.

Andrea Levy enables July, a kind of Jamaican Becky Sharpe, to play with her past, and thus shows that the events of the past belong in the past. July now is not July then: she has come a long way.

Some of her acts of defiance have been successful, others have nearly felled her. Defiance has not freed her; accident has. Change has not come through the heroic actions of a single person — she has not brought about modern times. Change has come creeping through the cumulative actions of many people, and through lucky encounters, not through policy changes and grand speeches. But it has come.

The Long Song gives me fresh hope that I might one day be a good enough writer to tackle the subjects that I sometimes feel so saturated and weighed down by: I don't want to write a misery memoir; I don't want to write a rant; I don't want to write a self-help manual. I want to write a story — this is what Andrea's brilliant writing helps me remember: that what a writer has to focus on is telling the story of her characters, that everything should be in the service of that telling.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The history of marriage and divorce

I found this absolutely brilliant potted history of marriage today, instead of writing my book on parenting...

Ten key moments in the history of marriage

What I love about this piece is that it is so specific about each era of marriage. In 10 simple steps, it shows the exact evolution from chattel to love match across nearly 2000 years of the institution, via the different edicts and statutes that first accommodated, then enshrined, social change.

My sense of history is not nearly specific enough, because I stopped studying history at FOURTEEN. This is because, in my lovely, proper girls' school, we had to choose between history and geography at O level. Woe betide anyone who thought it might possibly be useful to go on studying both — gosh, it might take you over the decreed number of subjects!

Meanwhile the parallel boys' school merrily put its gilded youth in for French and maths early, got them on to O/A level, and let them do as many O levels as they enjoyed. Ah! The difference between education for the female and the male...

So, through studying literature, I have a very vague, mainly psychological, understanding of the history of marriage, but don't know any dates.

Yet the history of divorce, for example, is absolutely fascinating, and impacts profoundly on the lot of woman, almost as much as the hoover, the vote and the pill.

Turns out 1969 is the key year in the UK, because of the Divorce Reform Act. This is what allowed couples to cite 'marital breakdown' as grounds for ending a marriage, as opposed to an amazingly difficult process of proving adultery (or, for women, trying to prove 'aggravated' adultery in their spouses: cheating + bestiality, for example... ).

It's instructive to compare the history of divorce in the UK with its counterpart in France.

In France, le divorce first became legal just after the French Revolution, in 1792, and enabled all kinds of people, rich and poor, to divorce quickly and easily.

Divorce rates duly soared.

Under Napoleon and his Code Civil, by 1803, divorce was back under state control. Women could be divorced for simple adultery, while a man could be convicted of adultery only if he brought his mistress into his home. No double standard there, then.

Divorce was subsequently abolished all over again, in 1816, under Louis XVII, and was only re-established in 1884, under the Third Republic.

There were attempts to bring it back in 1830 and 1848, the nineteenth-century revolutionary years, but these attempts foundered.

Ultimately, it was thanks to the tireless campaigning of one Alfred Naquet that divorce re-entered the French statute in 1884. La loi Naquet is how many French people know this progressive 'socialist' triumph.

Fascinating: such are the historical facts that underpin what was dramatized and reflected in the French novel across the 19th century. Because divorce had been abolished, women could not escape failed marriages.

Realism, particularly the realist novel, epitomized by Flaubert's Madame Bovary, is often seen as cashing in on the dysfunctional institution of marriage. I knew Emma Bovary was unhappy, but I didn't know why she couldn't just walk out.

The loosening of the stays of marriage, I think, travelled into the study of literature, which is also in many ways an affair of the home and the heart. By the time I was studying French literature in the 1980s and 1990s, we were all in love with critical theory, and it's perhaps important to note that Barthes's Death of the Author essay appeared in 1967, around the time that divorce was finally being unshackled in the UK.

Questions of authority and institutional supremacy were being asked forcefully everywhere, and one of the consequences for students like me was (oddly, given the heady freedoms), a hermetic structuralist focus on the text itself, at the expense of context and history.

Universities produced excellent close readers without an ounce of common sense or broader perspective. Or at least I managed to do well in my French degree despite knowing next to nothing about French history.

Unfortunately what I have since discovered is that in a world inhabited by more than just me, you happen to need an understanding of things like the law in order to survive and prosper. Employment or property law, for example. And British history (sorry, which class do I belong to again? and am I indeed British if I have a funny foreign name? and can my children be British?).

So, all these years later, here I am struggling with facts and figures, statutes and policy, having spent my education sloughing them off as so many impediments.

Is this empowering, or does it crush creative thought? Or is it just an inevitable part of getting older?

Monday, 12 March 2012

Colm Toibin: killing parents

Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning made me seethe.

Colm Toibín and Will Eaves were both talking about the family. Colm, a wonderful essayist, has already produced a great set of mother-killing scripts in an earlier book, Mothers and Sons. Now he seems to be plundering both that and his other fabulous work on Henry James, to go over and over the same idea: to liberate yourself you must effectively kill your parents.

Will Eaves at least managed to come up with a rather brilliant rebuttal of why biographical readings of novels are always wrong: you start with a seed based in the reality of a family, and it combines with a fantasy. And it is the job of the novelist to craft a freestanding structure out of those two interdependent things.

I love his emphasis on the craft of writing, remembering that it is a labour, that writers are journeymen, travelling between market towns to sell their hard work.

Why, then, was I so affronted by two gentlemen talking about the craft of writing, and the psychological necessity of killing one's authority figures in order to create?

Well, I had started the morning clearing up a box of cereal, because my daughter felt like balancing it on her head.

Then I was nearly run over on the way back from dropping the kids at school. A truck stopped to let me cross over, but the mercedes driver behind him just couldn't wait, and screamed out around him, ramming his way through between the lorry and a crossing point in the road.

In retrospect, I don't know whether I'm more angry with the idiot driver for being a dangerous pig, or the fact that I didn't stand my ground and let him drive right into me, just to prove a point.

Instead I ended up reeling backwards out of the way, gripping onto a road sign to get my breath back, and bursting into tears. What a pathetic woman.

So, in that context, even on comforting-eternal-truisms Radio 4, even though it was Colm Toibín, and he was saying other less matricidal things about mothers, the mere mention of the phrase 'killing the mother' was enough to reduce me to tears.

Mothers are presented with a set of impossibilities, that they are asked to hold for others for the rest of their lives.

I knew this to be true before I became a mother. I made feminist readings of the novels that Colm Toibín would now like to argue are exercises in parent-killing. In fact I deferred becoming a mother precisely out of ambivalence at the lot of mothers (and because of a dearth of men who might make good fathers, to be fair). And because of the books I wanted to write.

Now I live that mothered life: answerable to all for faults I have never committed, and with my books unwritten.

Have a care, Colm Toibín, for those of us who try to be parents.