I am alone as I write this. It’s June 12, 2011, the time is 6:17 a.m., in the room above me the children are asleep, at the other end of the house Linda is asleep; outside the window, a dozen feet into the garden, the early sun of dawn is slanting down on an apple tree. The leaves are mottled with light and shade. A short while ago a small bird sat in the fork of the tree, in its beak was something that looked like a worm or a grub, it paused there for a moment, throwing its head back as it tried to swallow. It’s gone now. Behind that same fork in the tree, the girls’ swimsuits have been hung out to dry; all day yesterday they were in the wading pool further down in the garden, behind a willow. The grass outside, mostly in shade, is still wet with dew. The air is filled with the twitter and song of birds. Six months ago I sat in exactly the same place, in the early mornings, the children sleeping above me, Linda at the other end of the house. There was a fire in the stove then, and outside it was pitch dark, the air filled with whirling snow. For more than three years I have spent my mornings in the same way, sitting here or at home in the apartment in Malmo, bent over the keyboard, writing this novel, which is now drawing to a close. I have done so alone, in empty rooms, and as I have worked, my publishers have published what I have written, five volumes so far, about which I know there has been a lot of talk, much written and said in newspapers and blogs, on the radio, in journals and magazines. I’ve had no interest in that discourse and have kept out of it as much as possible, there’s nothing there for me. Everything is here, in what I am doing now. But what is that, exactly?
What does it mean to write?
(Excerpt from My Struggle, translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken)
In the bleak, almost pristine land at the edge of the world, there are the frozen remains of human bodies – and each one tells a story of humanity’s relationship with this inhospitable continent.
Even with all our technology and knowledge of the dangers of Antarctica, it can remain deadly for anyone who goes there. Inland, temperatures can plummet to nearly -90C (-130F). In some places, winds can reach 200mph (322km/h). And the weather is not the only risk.
Many bodies of scientists and explorers who perished in this harsh place are beyond reach of retrieval. Some are discovered decades or more than a century later. But many that were lost will never be found, buried so deep in ice sheets or crevasses that they will never emerge – or they are headed out towards the sea within creeping glaciers and calving ice.
A platform with basically no regulation that allows people to shout at each other about anything—this could just as easily describe much of social media. But when I made this comparison to Khoo, he dismissed it. “Speakers’ Corner is a living entity of human beings meeting in real life,” he told me, saying that while the internet offers users an equal and often anonymous playing field, Speakers’ Corner guarantees neither. “You have what the orator is capable of holding, and what the audience is capable of undermining. On the internet, you can just publish. You might get trolled or shouted at, but you still publish. At Speakers’ Corner, if the audience is against you, you won’t finish your speech—not unless you are really competent in holding the art of oratory in a random crowd.”
If it’s the act of making the art that’s useful and good for children, then let this part of the art live, and then let its results die. Like its aesthetic quality, the output of children’s artistic efforts is incomplete. Throwing it away actually does everyone a favor. It completes the artistic life-cycle, allowing ephemera to be just that: actually ephemeral. Childhood is like that too—or that’s how parents ought to think about it. Kids thrash about until a more recognizable self takes hold. Then they turn their attention toward preserving that developing self. The paperwork they produce along the way is mostly a means to that end.
There’s a point, perhaps around the age of seven, where memory takes over and a self-history starts, where the child themselves decides what’s important to them and what isn’t. Of course, you shouldn’t throw something away that your kids say they want to keep. But absent that urge, and particularly in the early years before it develops, most children’s art exists to be destroyed. The point of life isn’t to prolong youth, but to have grown up. That requires discarding things along the way, and enjoying the appropriate relief. That’s the kind of activity a parent ought to put their moral and aesthetic weight behind.
Like most people, I’ve been walking since I was a year old. I started doing it seriously when I was 13 or so, and as a result my calf muscles are massive, like hams. My family’s house was at the furthest edge of Raleigh, North Carolina – in the last suburb there was – so in the beginning, I’d walk in the country. Then, like an overturned bucket of molasses, the town grew. One development followed another, and I found myself wandering through neighborhoods so new they smelled of plywood, which actually smells of formaldehyde. Driving didn’t appeal to me for some reason. Working didn’t either, but my parents forced me to earn my own money when I turned 16. I found a job in a cafeteria – washing dishes – and would most often walk there and back. “That far!” my friends would say. It surprised me to learn that none of them would think of covering that distance on foot.
I’ve always had an active fantasy life, so that’s what I devoted my walking hours to: daydreaming. The life I imagined for myself trudging through Raleigh, soaked through with filthy dishwater, was exactly the life I wound up with. “I’m going to write books and live overseas with a ridiculously good-looking, artistic boyfriend. Then I’ll buy a beach house everyone can use and …”
Any new British novel at this particular moment must emerge, it seems, in the shadow of Rachel Cusk, whose just completed trilogy of austerely philosophical autofiction reflects her repudiation of the novel’s traditional building blocks—character, plot, description, etc.—as “fake and embarrassing,” as she told an interviewer. “Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous. . . . I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts.”
One could do worse, then, than to think of Kate Atkinson as a sort of anti-Cusk. In the twenty-odd years since her prize-winning début, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” Atkinson has predicated her enormously successful career upon giving readers intelligent and artful iterations of what they already know they like: made-up Johns and Janes, in realistically described settings, enacting a plot that’s not only ingeniously constructed but, in the end, fully resolved. The very form of her work, while consistently inventive within its traditional frame, trades on a kind of nostalgia, and that nostalgia often correlates with the novels’ content; it seems no coincidence that Cusk’s recent “Kudos” is set explicitly in the Europe of the Brexit era—fearful, ugly, divided—while Atkinson’s books often hark back to the days of the Second World War and the Blitz, when plucky England came together as one, and triumphed in a European conflict that ended six years before Atkinson was born.
Atkinson loves her research, but she doesn’t need much help concocting original stories that resemble no one else’s and take the breath away. Even her literary allusions sparkle. Thinking back to Juliet’s toughest romance years later, she tweaks a classic aside: “Reader, I didn’t marry him.”
That striving—the delicate, indomitable, and often doomed power of human love—haunts “Washington Black.” It burns in the black sea of history like the jellyfish in the Nova Scotia bay, no more than a collection of wisps in the darkness, but a glory all the same, however much it stings.
What Edugyan has done in “Washington Black” is to complicate the historical narrative by focusing on one unique and self-led figure. Washington Black’s presence in these pages is fierce and unsettling. His urge to live all he can is matched by his eloquence, his restless mind striving beyond its own confines in tones that are sometimes overstretched, if brilliant, and then filled with calm subtlety and nuance.
In fact, by far the most impressive thing about this deeply disturbing fable is the vast and deadening landscape of language that seems to spring up around it. Jones has forged a piece of poetry of the most uncanny and macabre kind – a timely reminder to us all that humanity cannot ever be taken for granted, that it hangs, always, and all too terrifyingly, by the very skin of its teeth.
Kraepelin’s ideas permeate “The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves,” Eric Kandel’s engaging new overview of contemporary thinking about the intersection of mental health and neuroscience. Kandel’s chief aim is to explore “how the processes of the brain that give rise to our mind can become disordered, resulting in devastating diseases that haunt humankind,” and he declares at the outset his intention to weave Kraepelin’s story throughout. The book’s very structure emulates the organization of a neo-Kraepelinian diagnostic manual, with a succession of chapters devoted to conditions including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism . Kraepelin’s lasting influence can be felt in the way Kandel reduces these mental conditions chiefly to microscopic causative factors in the nervous system. According to Kandel, mental illnesses are simply brain disorders, and all variations in behavior “arise from individual variations in our brains.”