Friday, October 25, 2013

Clever Girls

"I had no money on me, so I threw a satisfactory small stone- black, shaped like a fat nub of charcoal. When the pool dimpled glassily and swallowed it, I made a wish: the choice presented itself as if it had been lying in wait all along. Men, or books?
With relief, I chose books.
I let something go and I felt very empty without it, and very clear."

This passage, from Tessa Hadley's new book "Clever Girl", struck me right away. Immediately I wished I knew someone else who read this book, or knew of Hadley. I came to know her writing by way of the New Yorker. She is the only fiction contributor who, after reading her, I took note of, chasing down her name and work as if struck by a bout of puppy love. I suppose in a way, it was.

"Clever Girl"follows Stella, from her early childhood in Bristol, the daughter of a single mother occupying a small bedsit in the 1960's, up until her middle age. Sounds dull, no? It's not. There is drama but none of the cheap kind, and while deeply psychological, the novel doesn't retain the suffocation of singleminded-ness. The tone instead can be summed by a passage from a late chapter
"And I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you." See? She's very good.

I knew a couple of people who read the fiction in the New Yorker regularly (they might remember one of her stories) but I couldn't think of anyone who would have read this particular paragraph, this particular book. Then I paused to daydream. Wouldn't it be wonderful to find someone who'd read the same books as me? Even if they liked and noticed different things we could talk and talk and talk.

This wasn't the first time I felt this way. I had it with the Mary McCarthy too, and Adler and Tolstoy. Obviously I am not the only person who reads these books, and obviously there are many more I haven't read that someone else has. All of this is beside the point. What I'm expressing is a strange loneliness that I've noticed lately, an unexpected and rather unfortunate surprise- reading grows less and less shareable the more I invest in it. Oh, I can champion her, create a legion of fans that might eventually share my pleasure. To be sure, I will preach the talents of Tessa Hadley as I preach the talents of Nicole Holofcener. They both have a way of observing the everyday that feels spot-on; very telling, but not unkind, gently poetic, humourous, close. But that misses the immediacy of my longing. I can recommend books, sure but I cannot twin my reading experience in the moment of having it. Not then, perhaps not ever.

My pleasure of the text exists then in and of itself. No matter how many times I press others to read the same book, find the same words meaningful, the location of resonance and joy is particularly mine. I remember a similar feeling approaching academics- that as I grew more specific in my discipline, the chance of commonality decreased and decreased. Sometimes it bothered me, and sometimes it felt good to be alone in the world, as if on the edge of a cliff looking out on the vast expanse of ocean, the spray of waves cold and refreshing. Reading then reminds me I am alone: and the more I retreat into it, the more pleasure I take from the pages, the more reading exists for me- the less I exist for others.

I felt the strange doubling then (how the protagonist's own reading isolates her at times, connects her at others) as my experience and the protagonist's experience synced up. How wickedly delicious books can be in those moments, feeling so very alone, and yet randomly, wildly together. Feeling this, I pulled the duvet closer to my chin and read long into the night, finally finishing "Clever Girl" in that time that some consider night, and some consider morning.

Chinese Skirt, 1933~ Agnes Goodsir


Sara in America said...

Have you read "The Debut" by Anita Brookner? That paragraph you quoted reminded me of it.

erinn said...

I haven't! But I will be asap, now that you mention it. I love recommendations. Thank you, and thank you for reading the blog.