20 January 2014


My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The season of literary festivals is once more upon us, we gather to watch as writers tell us what they write and why and when and how. It is our way of feeling closer to the authors whose works we have loved, of perhaps being closer to their art and, if they will allow us, their lives. It is time to peek, sometimes lovingly and at other times curiously, into the minds that craft our greatest escapes.

Fiction troubles us in ways that little else can – our paths mapped neatly, our histories quietly excavated, our private lives laid bare. Reading is like tossing the Excalibur into the enchanted lake – if you do it just right, you become lost in what was simply a reflection of yourself. It is like entering a looking-glass, only to find out it that it is a window. And so it is that we seek the creators of these worlds, to let them know how they have touched us, how they have killed us softly with their songs.

Not for everyone, though, is breaking the fourth wall a cathartic experience. Writers come from an ancestry of anonymity, their faces and personalities veiled from the people who read them. Shakespeare barely took the trouble to put his name to his works; women writers – George Eliot, the Brontes, J. K. Rowling – across centuries posed as men, never revealing their true identities; Emily Dickinson did not step outside her house for two decades; Marcel Proust confined himself to a darkened, soundproof room to compose his masterpiece; Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, recluses all, resented any invasion of their personal space. As readers, we so often forget that we, outside the lake, are as mysterious to the writers in the lake. The books they write connect us for those steely Excalibur moments, forging a quiet unspoken bond that feels too real to be imagined, but we for them are mythical beasts, their distant lovers and sometime friends.

“Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time... it's because he wants to stay inside,” says Jem to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Boo Radley, the reclusive and isolated neighbour of the book’s protagonists, withdraws from a society whose expectations he does not live up to, not unlike Harper Lee herself, who regularly refuses to make public appearances or give interviews, famously responding to an invitation to address a gathering in Alabama by saying, “Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool.”

It is a difficult line to tread, knowing how to separate a work of art from its creator. A teacher tells Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” These mockingbirds, these Boo Radleys and Harper Lees, they confound us, though, with the sheer magnificence of their song so that we cannot leave them alone to their art. How are we, as readers, to ignore the real and immediate accessibility that we suddenly have to our greatest writers?

As authors’ faces are routinely slapped on to book jackets, their wardrobes dissected and their faces scrutinised for hints about their lives, their art, their personalities, we find ways to love the artists as much as their art. Perhaps then the line we need to draw is not between the book and its writer, but between the writer and our expectations of her. The finely connected interstices between reader and writer can be enriching and self-actualizing so long as we do not impose upon them the sometimes demanding notions of writerliness that we have come to hold.

We love extroverts and charmers, the joker-faced behind the poker-faced. We love our brooders, but only when they routinely drag themselves, and their brooding personas, into the public eye. We want Fitzwilliam Darcys and Edward Rochesters cloaked in Colin Firths and Michael Fassbenders. We make columnists and speakers out of writers, engage with them as much as we engage with their craft, mine their words for hidden meaning. But for every Atticus Finch, who charms and amuses and wows us by turn, there will be a Boo Radley, who has no intention of doing so. As readers, we need to be able to toss the Excalibur with a deftness that does not ripple the surface of either. 

05 January 2014

Doll House

This is my next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I can hardly pass the new year without thinking of Ibsen’s Nora and the changes she dreamed the new year would bring. A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s best-known play, was controversial when it was first published in 1879. In it, Nora, the seemingly unworldly wife of the rich, clever banker, Torvald Helmer, watches herself turn into a doll as she performs the roles she is cast into. The play opens at Christmas time, and Torvald has just been promoted to bank manager, and there is an atmosphere of hope that their money troubles will end and that the new year will hold greater success and contentment for the family. But Nora has a secret debt that threatens to come out into the open, and she is slowly and surely tiring of being adorable and dependent and needy. It was the original marriage drama, a play that powerfully effected change and tended to either weaken or strengthen the relationships of the couples who watched it. In the final scene of the play, Nora walks out on a marriage that would have offered her safety and financial security. The final stage direction is this: “From below comes the noise of a door slamming.”

Over the years, Scandinavian literature has continuously and radically questioned evolving patterns of domestic partnership. Ibsen asked, before Sheryl Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter did, whether daughterhood and wifehood and motherhood were fulfilling enough to define the years of a woman’s life. He questioned the idea of male privilege within heterosexual relationships, suggesting that mutual respect required equal autonomy. For the time in which it was written and performed, these were revolutionary ideas, but one hopes that the novelty has worn off and that the play feels more and more dated each year, for feminism has had disastrous results if women’s roles are defined in the same way they were in the eighteenth-century.

In many ways, though, the real change is less about the themes of A Doll’s House and more about who the people are who identify with those themes. In a world of shifting social dynamics, Nora becomes the wayfarer that we all see something of ourselves in. Where once this was solely a feminist worldview, as Nora slammed the door on patriarchy, today, it is a more human issue of finding oneself, of balancing domesticity and aspiration, of the honesty that a marriage of true minds necessitates. Men and women are equally vulnerable to the doll’s world, to play-acting through life, work, and relationships, because that is simply an easier way to get by. “You have never loved me,” Nora tells Torvald, “You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.” Ibsen, ever the egalitarian, suggests that men, too, are victims of societal expectation, playthings of the masters of privilege, equally susceptible to the mind-numbing boredom of living life by other people’s standards.

Beyond the tedium of pretentious living, other aspects of the play – jobs, money, debt, blackmail – continue to resonate with modern audiences in very real ways, while its feminist connotations slide into more symbolic positions, standing for newer and very different troubles for women in partnerships of romantic, sexual, and monetary significance. Perhaps the thing about works of art that endure, that really endure, is that they come to mean different things to different generations.

Nora does not get the new year she had originally hoped for, but she does step out into a new year that never knew she wanted. For me, Nora has always been the original feminine mystique, remarkable for her sheer willingness to change and to make her life her own. The new year is just as much a time to slam the door on the poisons that infiltrate our lives as it is a time to open the door to fresh opportunities and beginnings. There is nothing terribly special about this time of the calendar year that makes it better for introspection than any other. But like every occasion, unless it is marked and remembered, we may forget to think these thoughts and make these decisions. It is a daunting time, like one’s birthday, for one looks back on the year that was and wonders if it was all that it could have been. But the wonderful thing about time is that it is generous. A new year is just what it sounds like – a new and finite period of time to do things better and to be kinder and wiser and truer. Really, as Nora reminds us, it’s another chance to get it right.