Life, at the moment, is a game of two halves. One happy, one not. And the unhappy one is what I, and certainly this post’s featured author, Candia McWilliams, inevitably dwell on.
Unlike Candia, but no doubt like half the people of my generation, the unhappy half lies with my work. Who’s to say whether it’s the workload, the pressure, the people, the sheer incompatibility of my role with my personality and temperament – I am crushingly unhappy at work. I feel I’m the battered wife to my work’s domineering, bullying husband, who’s sometimes charming but never far away from swinging in the boot. And it leaves me flinching away from anything at all, in a rather ugly and pathetic way. It leaves me exhausted, discouraged, and unable to do anything active or creative at all. I’m mentally vegetating in some vague attempt to cushion myself – this writing, and even such pedestrian creativity as knitting, requires more than I feel able to give. Only by a Sunday evening do I recover enough to cautiously begin to tap this out.
But this is countered by an other half that’s bringing me real happiness. And without that social and personal life, this would be an even more miserable post than the one you’ve already dredged yourself through. Because even a “pragmatist” (fine, pessimist) as myself recognises the need for positivity, looking forward, and planning to change things for the better. And fundamentally, while I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m on pretty good terms with myself.
But – second wowsers. I can tell you one girl who ISN’T. Candia McWilliams. Admittedly, with my current situation I should probably only be reading cheery children’s stories set in hedgerows. But this novel was a vast, vast downer. A strikingly frank autobiography, concentrating on the author’s experience of blepharospasm (an illness by which your eyelids no longer opening, rendering you functionally blind), it has touches of genius. But for these, you have to get through nothing less than self-hatred.
It is pat and restrictive of me, and indicative of the expectations of an inveterate novel reader, to hope for progress and resolution in a memoir. Life is not so open and shut. But – surely – a note of improvement? A sense that the writing, if not the life, has got one to a better place? There’s no denying that Candia has had a tough, tough life with much to explain why she’s ended up a complicated adult. This novel is littered with searing self-analysis that seems bang on, where she punctures exactly what foibles and weaknesses you’re starting to see as a reader. But the author is unable to do anything with these beautifully articulated realisations. She starts and ends the book a self-hater, addicted to putting herself down in a way that the reader, and she assures us other characters in her life, grow to despise. There is the sense throughout that she wants to prove the very worst of herself so her family, friends and readers all know the dark worst which is what she thinks of herself. This sense that you’re being manipulated makes for an uneasy read. By getting annoyed with her for her continual, deep self-deprecation, you feel you’re successfully falling into her own trap of thinking less of her.
Where, however, you can’t help but think more of her is in some of her use of language. Candia wrote the (for me) horrifying following lines in the opening pages of the memoir, which made me view the remaining 470 pages with some trepidation: “I have always deprecated the habit of reading simply for the plot, for the unfolding of the puzzle. It is the texture of the text, the touch of the writer’s thinking on my own thought … that I loved.”
I’m all for texture, but not in the absence of plot. As I feared, the beginning and end of her book are vexingly formless, refusing to give the reader something as old fashioned as a thread to grab onto, but flapping around in self-indulgence. The flipside of this is the beautiful language she in some places achieves, although for me these were at their strongest in the more conventional narrative sections. Her evocation of her late childhood spent on the island of Colonsay in Scotland is mineral-bright, redolent, lasting.
But the self-reflexive, storyless beginning and end – and ultimately the book as a whole – leave one with the uncomfortable feeling the writing is just being endlessly, if beautifully, produced, as a mere addiction – without real purpose or direction. The author is an established addict, and with writing as a key addiction it makes for an unnerving read where you’re increasingly aware of colluding with her – not only by thinking badly of her, as mentioned above, but merely by consuming this addictive outpouring. Like drink and drugs, the high and security produced by it is only temporary, in the moments she is writing – and you sense that as soon as she stops, the hollowness returns and prompts her to pick up her pen once more.
However, it is with a description of this very relationship with writing with which the book closes – and it’s truly beautiful for anyone, like me, who feels the joy of writing, despite this haunting feeling she’s grasping to rationalise one more addiction in her life.
“I write because the work is real. It involves concentration and a study of life, which is all we have. I write because I want to help my parents out of their graves… I write because I cannot often express things face to face, being at once (or I was; we’ll see about that) performative and shy. I write because I don’t think most of my children are interested at the moment in what may interest them after I am dead, the half of themselves that will have been buried with their mother, but that lives in them. I write because I want to write more well. And better. And better. I write because I read, and they are my patriotisms and loyalties, reading and writing. I write because it is the acts of glorification and gratitude to which I am most suited to take up my apprenticeship. I write in order to keep abreast of the swim of words and to hold the world – whose glory is, with its sadness, that it will not be held.
I write because I wake up, I fall short, I sleep, I wake.
I write because the world and all I love in it is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.
I write because words change one another when they lie together. Because words change things. they make people see.
Words can mend what is broken, or render it more interesting than mended. They can make people attend to one another.
They are what we have that cannot be taken from us and what we have that we can give to other people without feeling stolen from.
Also plain words are always under threat. The languages of severely systematised untruth and imprecision, that exactly mean what they don’t say, don’t say what they mean, rejig it how you will, are used to sell everything from systems of government to hair gloss. Readers are mistrusted by those in power and not encouraged to keep their side of the bargain, which is to partake in the work themselves. If you wait for everything to be signalled, in a work of fiction, you lose connection with man and stars because you are listening to the satnav. A good writer has put in the invisible turnings, the neglected hedgerows, the boarded-up shops and dead men within the shadows or environs of his story, so that the reader may feel the wind in his mind, smell the wild rose, hear the rats, smell the deep pond, as he passes them. Do not underestimate the silences or breaks in a line.
I write because I’m not dead yet. And I seem to want not to be.”