16 March 2014

The Lady is a Woman

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

How do we rid Women’s Day of the inevitable platitudes that accompany it? Every year, we are showered with the commonplace banalities of well-meaning verbiage, usually glorifying womanhood and its many interpretations. This is not, by itself, a terrible thing, but let us think a little more carefully about these days and ways.

I read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French when I was in my early twenties, a period when I was negotiating heavily with my own feelings towards gender and feminism. I identified easily and joyously with the latter sections of the book when the protagonist finds comfort in the companionship of like-minded women. But the former sections, which describe the shattering ennui of some adult relationships, had me worried: was this the fatalistic gloom that would pervade the lives of all women of all time?

French chronicles the tragedy of the mundane with the same blistering fury that she lends to the many tragedies of violence and cruelty in the lives of women. The book’s observations feel cold sometimes, shoving men into the same sort of gendered otherness that feminism has always felt women have been forced to live in. Statements like, ‘There are so much easier ways to destroy a woman. You don’t have to rape or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her,’ or when one of the characters tells the protagonist, ‘Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relationships with men, in their relationships with women, all men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes,’ come across as radical and bigoted in the worst possible way, vilifying an entire gender for acts of a few.

In reading the whole novel, though, one realises that this isn’t the voice of small-mindedness, that the tone is not as jaundiced or sectarian as these individual sentences seem to be. One forgets, often, that fiction is not obliged to wear the objective lens that prose must, that it is welcome to reflect the prejudices of its characters in dialogue and flaunt their biases in free indirect speech. (This is the trouble with anything quoted out of context from anywhere, but that is a rant for another day.) Even when we are told that it is dialogue, sentences quoted out of context come free of the history of the inclination, of the anger that drives it.

French was, through fiction, saying what Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, had said through nonfiction fifteen years earlier: that these women who could not bear the dull, grueling monotony of suburban contentment were not alone and they were not crazy. Susan Faludi writes, in her afterword to a 1997 reissue of the book: ‘One woman might be mad, but how could all of them be? There must be another answer, French was telling us, and that answer must be political.’ French and Friedan evoke, in their respective books, the same terrifying feelings of habituated cheerlessness that haunted April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road and now, Betty Draper in the brilliant series ‘Mad Men’. No, they are not all mad; and thankfully, none of them is alone in these feelings.

Another criticism regularly leveled against The Women’s Room is that it lacks strong male characters. Frequently, we worry that fiction lacks strong female characters; and it isn’t simply to spite that notion that The Women’s Room has no dynamic male within its pages. As French writes in her introduction to the reissued book, male character is less important than male centrality. The book simply defies the convention that men are important – or even necessary – to the lives of women, and this is a defiance of this particular book and this particular character, rather than a notional structure of feminism itself. This is no callback to the old Irina Dunn trope (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”); rather, it chronicles an era of female awakening, the unraveling of femininity and the devastation of a marriage that is in crisis because it does not account for the needs of two partners.

Its most unnerving lines redefine the very clumsy language of gender-culture. In fact, its strongest section is formed in its very first sentences: ‘Mira was hiding in the ladies’ room. She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies’ in the sign on the door, and written women’s underneath.’ Every time someone wishes me a happy women’s day, I think of this, and I feel glad that it isn’t Ladies’ Day. 

04 March 2014

Bookish Friendship

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The World Book Fair that just passed was a place for friendship: heads bent together over books, favourite quotes shyly exchanged over coffee, text messages couched in allusion, flirtations with folios, tweets more lettered than usual (within the 140-character limit, of course). Somehow, books – actual books, the sort that can be held or leafed through, shoved into a backpack, hidden under your shirt, signed by an author, kissed by a lover, stacked up on a wall or a shelf or under a table and behind a cat – turn things into prettier versions of themselves. Far away from literary festivals, where books feel abstract, where the idea reigns (as it sometimes should), the more physical book trade shows itself at book fairs as an inclusive creature, a delicate thing of quiet grace.

I think, always, of 84 Charing Cross Road when I find myself slipping into a bookish friendship. An unlikely bestseller that chronicled the true correspondence between a bookstore manager in London and a bibliophile in New York, it was the first book that made me long earnestly for literary companionship, a few moments of shared joy. When the bookstore manager, Frank Doel, gifts the book-lover, Helene Hannf, a book, she writes to him: “I wish you hadn't been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.)” Through the course of a 20-year correspondence, they never meet. But it is a bit like they have written themselves into each other’s lives.

When Doel dies in 1969, Hannf finally visits the bookstore and strikes up a friendship with Doel’s widow; through it all, though, the epistolary ghost of her relationship with Frank looms elegantly – in the bookstores she visits, the books that she reads, in fact, in everything else that she writes.

Later, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hannf’s travelogue of that visit, she writes: “My problem is that while other people are reading fifty books I'm reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realise I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.” It’s the sort of thing, one can’t help thinking, that she would have said to Frank.

Helene Hannf and Frank Doel wrote to each other of the books they loved, only to find their lives written tenderly into those books, just as the books wrote themselves into their letters, and their letters relived their very lives; so furtively tied together were these three things that every string pulled out would rip another.

Back then, to friendship; it seemed to me that the book fair was the sort of place where we could have found Doels for our Hannfs, where we could link arms with one another, stare earnestly at the wares that surrounded us, and sigh, quietly, fervently, together, because, really, we were thinking the same thing: how will we find the time to read all of this, and will we ever love anything quite as much as this? We were comrades in arms in these moments, lovers across a dance floor in others. We weren’t Eliot and Pound or Wordsworth and Coleridge, locked in poetry, driven into prose, fated to live in each other’s masterpieces. No, we were like the margins, tucked quietly into shelf space for accidental discovery. We read so much about friendships between writers that we forget the smaller ones that lurk copiously under them: the friendships between readers. If it weren’t for the latter, who would read the former?

We are friends of another sort, friends who will peer cautiously from behind the edges, a tentative paw held out earnestly, a smile so frightened it is almost a prelude to the smile that might follow. And who wouldn’t take a chance on a prelude that might turn softly on its heel to show that underneath it all it’s an overture?