Posts Tagged Hilary Mantel
An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.
A number of things I’ve read or watched just recently have made me ponder the importance of choice in relation to equality. How women across the centuries have been deprived of real choices – and still are.
Re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, in prep for the third volume of her Cromwell trilogy, I thought about the two queens, Katherine and Anne. Powerful women, women with influence, women with resources. And yet – their power, their influence, their resources were entirely dependent upon men: fathers, husbands and, in a different sense, sons. Their fortunes changed on the whim of a man, and there was nothing they could do about it: rejected, humiliated, and in Anne’s case, killed.
Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and the women portrayed in Celine Sciamma’s wonderful new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Héloise is wealthy and privileged. But she has only two choices – the convent or a socially and economically useful marriage. Her elder sister had taken her own life rather than face the latter, and so Héloise must leave the convent and be marketed to potential suitors. There’s a lot to say about this film, about how it doesn’t just subvert the male gaze, it totally obliterates it. We see the women (and there are only a few men on screen, all briefly, all unnamed) through women’s eyes. Heloise seeing herself in the portraits that Marianne paints of her. Marianne’s self-portrait. Marianne surreptitiously glancing at Héloise as she must try to fix her features in mind, in order to paint her without asking her to pose. The two gazing at each other as they realise their mutual desire. Marianne turning, at Heloise’s request, for one last look as she must say goodbye. This is a film I will want to watch and re-watch. (And I was kind of chuffed to read that Sciamma is a huge fan of Wonder Woman – an actual auteur who doesn’t despise it as a superhero blockbuster but recognises its real power and importance.)
Arnold Bennett’s Hilda Lessways is the subject of volume 2 of his Clayhanger trilogy, written in the early years of the twentieth century but set in the 1880s. What’s remarkable is the way in which we are, throughout the novel, in Hilda’s thoughts, seeing everything through her eyes, knowing only what she knows, as she rages against the restrictions of her life, struggles to understand her own emotions, to understand what choices she has, and to face the implications of the choices she has made. She is independent in spirit, she makes her own living for a while (the only female shorthand writer in the Five Towns), but she’s trapped nonetheless. It’s a vivid and moving portrait.
The young woman at the heart of Celine Sciamma’s 2015 film, Girlhood (Bande de filles) rages too. Marieme hasn’t got good enough grades to get to high school so the only option is college for vocational studies. That would mean leaving home though, which her controlling older brother would be unlikely to permit, and which would leave her younger sisters vulnerable. Her attempt to escape her brother’s control simply put her in the power of another man, and her boyfriend offers only a different kind of trap – marriage and babies.
The power in this film lies in its contrasts. We first meet Marieme as she plays American football, an Amazon, powerful in her armour. The girls head for home, all talking at once, laughing and loud and proud. But as they approach home, we see the young men waiting for them, sentinels, and the girls fall silent. We see Marieme taking on the maternal role with her younger sisters, we see her cowed by her brother’s bullying, we see her talking to a young man, all lowered eyes and fleeting glances. Girls together can be joyous (dancing to Rihanna, in shoplifted dresses, looking glamorous just for themselves rather than for a man, high on cheap booze and weed) or threatening (showdowns, mainly verbal but spilling into violence) with other groups of girls, extorting money with threats. These shifts are jarring, troubling. They show us what these young women could be (for good or ill), and what stops them from being what they could be.
So my 2020 heroes are Celine Scammia and Adele Haenel (for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and for protest at the Césars), Greta Gerwig for making a book that I’ve read dozens of times fresh and powerful.
Elizabeth Warren for persisting. The Doctor, Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
And those we’ve lost: Rosalind Walter (Rosie the Riveter), Heather Couper (probably the first female scientist of whom I was aware), Kathryn Cartwright (blogger, ambassador for the Anthony Nolan Trust), Katherine Johnson (NASA mathematician).
And two young women who could change the world, and who clearly terrify those who really don’t want it to change…
Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. This is the third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 September. I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.
Rules? To summarise:
- No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
- Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
- Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
- I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author. That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge. So, sixty books, by sixty writers.
28 August. Day 29 – just started these two:
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). I’m not far into The Gustav Sonata but it is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written.
I haven’t previously read anything by Tom Rob Smith, though we did watch and enjoy London Spy. So far, so intriguing.
29 August. Day 30 – I’m halfway through! And more or less on target.
Finished The Gustav Sonata, which is wonderful. I can’t say too much – except to urge everyone to read it – but this quote, which comes towards the end, gives nothing away of the plot:
We have to become the people we always should have been.
The novel shows us, subtly and movingly, all the ways in which we fail to be the people we should be, fail or are prevented, by our own flaws or by circumstances or by other people. And gives us along the way some hope.
The Farm is compelling stuff. The question the reader is asked from the first page onwards, is who to believe. Now, for me, this is complicated because we are hearing the voice of a woman whose husband has tried to have her committed, a woman with a disturbing story to tell and who people seem to be trying to silence. I’m programmed to believe her, given the tragic history of women who have been silenced, or who people have attempted to silence, using claims that they are ‘mad’, gaslighting techniques. But maybe it’s not that straightforward – if one transposed elements of that narrative to a male voice I would be much more likely to read it as evidence of paranoid delusion.
Started Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, in which he ‘discusses ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things and two people together, and about tearing them apart.’
30 August. Day 31 – I must admit that I went for the Barnes because it was the shortest book within arms’ reach. I’d read his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which I enjoyed rather than loved, and so I wasn’t eager for this one in the way that I have been to read something new by an author that I’d really fallen for already. But I’m so glad I read this, and I will read it again, and again, I think. It’s about the death of Barnes’ wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and it’s beautiful and quietly devastating.
The Farm was excellent. A story about stories, and about secrets. Read it and be repeatedly wrongfooted, as one narrative is undermined and another established, until in turn that too is shown to be unreliable…
Just started David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a historical investigation into the systematic murder of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma. Kate Atkinson called it ‘a fiercely entertaining mystery story and a wrenching exploration of evil’.
31 August. Day 32 – just started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto – ideal to read at night when I’m getting tired and concentration dips. V v v funny as always, whilst being clear-sighted and righteous.
More laughs are promised in The Rosie Project. Now, the words ‘romantic’ and ‘heartwarming’ are usually guaranteed turn-offs for me but the reviews make this one sound worth pursuing, and so many of my other reads have been dark and/or sad.
1 September. Day 33 – Enjoying The Rosie Project. The protagonist has a touch of the Sheldon Coopers, it must be said. It’s odd that, having spent so many years working with physicists and mathematicians, I have met so few full-on Sheldons in real life. Most of those I have worked with have had bags of humour, self awareness and social skills, not to mention creativity (a remarkable number of musicians, artists, writers). Nonetheless, Don (the protagonist and narrator) is engaging and the interactions with the decidedly unsuitable Rosie are delightfully funny.
Meantime, Killers of the Flower Moon is as compelling as the best detective novel, and indeed one might be inclined to think the plot a bit overwrought were it not a true story. And a shocking one, even when one is fairly knowledgeable about US history.
2 September. Day 34 – Caitlin Moran in full-on righteous indignation mode is magnificent. And still extremely funny. Just been reading her pieces on media treatment of benefits claimants, in the context of Benefits Street, and of the Mick Philpott case. It might seem incongruous that these pieces originally appeared in The Times, but actually that is absolutely right since her point is that she – as someone who grew up in a family that relied on benefits to get by – is an anomaly in the circles in which she now moves, and in the media to which she now has access, and that most media coverage treats benefits claimants as ‘other’ , whether it is vilifying or pitying them.
3 September. Day 35 – Finished The Rosie Project. It was delightful – very funny, and touching. Most of its reviewers were entirely won over but the Daily Telegraph demurred:
For those unaware of Asperger’s syndrome and its foibles, The Rosie Project could serve as a gentle and funny introduction. Those who already understand the condition may object to the moral that mental difference can and must be erased.
Thing is, I don’t think that was the moral. The moral, surely, was that both parties in a relationship need to accept the other for who they are, quirks and all. And this was supported by a couple of reviews from knowledgeable sources. Cees Kan, a Dutch psychiatrist specialising in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders in adulthood, said that:
The great value of this book is its positive message about the possibility of experiencing romantic love despite of autism. Of course it is a challenge to overcome the autistic difficulties, which requires a willingness to think out of the box about how it is still possible to intimately relate to one another. However, I am convinced that it can be done, as I have met many couples that have shown me that they had managed to do so. Patients and their partners often tell me that in treatments too much emphasis is being put on the negative aspects of autism spectrum disorders, while they actually feel more supported and helped by messages which provide them with a positive perspective on their potential possibilities.
And Benison O’Reilly, the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, concurred. She acknowledges several points in the narrative where she was concerned that the reality of Aspergers would be sanitised or erased, but believes that Simsion avoids these pitfalls.
I loved it. And for my money, Rosie was at least as annoying as Don.
Have found a Hilary Mantel that I never got round to reading. No idea why, since I’ve never read a Mantel that I haven’t enjoyed. Anyway, The Giant, O’Brien is up next.
4 September. Day 36 – Can’t think why I left an unread Mantel to gather dust on my shelf. Only just started it but am already captured.
As I was, entirely, by David Grann’s extraordinary account of the Reign of Terror visited upon the Osage people in the 1920s by those who wanted access to their oil wealth. Shocking, and moving.
Just started an Australian crime thriller, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry.
5 September. Day 37 – The Dry was a terrific read. The parched landscape, the oppressive heat, the constant awareness of danger from the natural world, and from the inhabitants of the small town, tested almost to destruction by the drought, all are vividly evoked. The initial explanation of the crime recalls Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ but that’s only the first attempt to unravel what happened, and Harper gives her readers lots of twists and turns, memories recovered, clues uncovered, and a heart-in-mouth finale.
A change of location now, from the Australian outback to Sierra Leone for Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. It’s a memoir of her West African childhood, and of the murder of her dissident father.
6 September. Day 38 – Finished The Giant, O’Brien. It’s a fictionalised account of historical characters from the late 18th century: the eponymous giant (a poet, a teller of tales, who towers over his contemporaries but spends his life crammed into spaces too small to hold him) and surgeon John Hunter (an experimental scientist who finds his profession and its legal and ethical constraints too small to hold him too), and how their paths converge. John Mullan described this as ‘something more like a fable than a conventional historical novel. The Age of Reason is a time of monsters.’ Mantel’s use of language is extraordinary – from lyrical to brutal in a sentence’s length.
About to start on a permitted re-read (see The Rules, above). Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I think I read in sixth-form.
7 September. Day 39 – I was sure I’d read A Farewell to Arms, albeit several decades ago. Yet it rings no bells (oblique reference to another Hemingway, which I’m even more sure I’ve read). Anyway, I am reading it as if for the first time, coming to it afresh. It’s a powerful depiction of the futility and brutality of war, told in a spare prose and with an immediacy and directness that does not manipulatively demand an emotional response from the reader but is all the more devastating for that. I admit to a degree of prejudice about Hemingway because I’ve read so much about him being a bit of a dick, but that obviously doesn’t preclude him being a splendid writer!
Meantime am captivated by Aminatta Forna’s memoir. It triggers so many of my own memories of a West African childhood whilst telling a compelling story of corruption and state oppression.
8 September. Day 40 – I’ve always felt slightly awkward about ‘claiming’ Ghana as part of my heritage. But it feels as if it is part of me, that childhood spent in Kumasi, and I hope that in using my Ashanti day name, Abena, as part of my Facebook name, I am honouring rather than appropriating that early encounter with a rich culture and history, and a beautiful land and people. It’s the little details that are the most powerful in my memory. Aromas, colours, sounds. The rain hammering on the corrugated iron roof, the red dust of the laterite roads, the ant lions creating their whirlwinds in the sand, the sound of highlife music wafting over from the student residences near our home.
Forna’s memoir keeps bringing these details back to me. It’s a lot more than that, of course, but I get emotionally derailed by these madeleine moments. None more so than Aminatta’s encounter with a fawn, rescued when its mother was killed, which her father brings home. It was beautiful, and it died. As was ours, and as did ours, a Duiker.
9 September. Day 41 – The personal connections with The Devil that Danced on the Water extend to the political context too. We arrived in Ghana early on in Nkrumah’s presidency, and left around the time that his growing paranoia and authoritarianism led to opposition and his overthrow. Our new home was in Northern Nigeria, where coups and counter-coups led to pogroms and ultimately civil war. Like Forna, we were too young to understand what it all meant, and have pieced together the history of those turbulent times, seeing our childhood fragments of memory differently in that wider context, understanding things that were baffling at the time. Of course, I’m not suggesting a true equivalence of experience. We, as expats in that time and place, were not ourselves at risk. Forna’s father and his political allies were targets, and he and thus the children too were in real danger.
10 September. Day 42 – Having a(nother) rubbish night’s sleep had the benefit of giving me a bit more reading time this morning, so I finished the Hemingway. The ending broke me a bit, even though I knew what was coming. And this bit:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.
Weeks 5-6 I’ve only completed 8 books this fortnight. I’m still partway through The Battle for Spain, Contraflow, Moranifesto, and The Devil that Dances on the Water. I am thus falling behind on the project – largely due to the necessity of spending significant portions of each day travelling and/or hospital visiting, time when I cannot read. Things may get easier from now on, and if all else fails I will forego sleep altogether for the last few days and just read, read, read. I’ve accepted this challenge and I will succeed.
My next bulletin will be on 24 September, covering days 43-56.
2012, for me, has been the year of the blog. The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced. I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude. And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views. On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and Diane Magras. To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!
The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out. But my own experience has been entirely positive. Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff. I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew. This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.
So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:
- John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
- Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
- TV : Homeland – plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen. Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics. Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising. The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!). Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
- I’ve been reading Proust. A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond. I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described. There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough. I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
- New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
- First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of – Hans Fallada, Alexander Baron, Haruki Murakami and Wilkie Collins.
- Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak House, but I need not have worried. Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
- Theatre – Geoffrey Streatfeild in both Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
- Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green. Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
- Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.
2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally. The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk. And that justice seems finally to be within reach now. Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.
And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life. The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning. We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.
So – onward to 2013.
No resolutions as such. But anticipations and aspirations –
- Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
- Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
- Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff. Lots and lots.
- Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
- Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
- Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
- Continuing to be an utter geek
- Listening to as much music as possible, with as eclectic a range as possible
- Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
- Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing. Going on and on.
- Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend
Phew! No pressure then.
Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits. Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.