Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Susan Sontag’s Journal Entries

Susan Sontag2.pngsusan-sontagIn a way I’m sort of happy that my hair’s starting to go a little grey. At the moment it’s only happening at the front, so if all goes well maybe I’ll get to have a suave streak just like Susan Sontag had. And on that note, things are about to get fan-girly here.

Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) was a renowned intellectual whose work as a writer, essayist and director offer seminal commentaries on society, culture, metaphors and the human experience.

But what I want to talk about here is her journal entries, which were published posthumously and give such a touching impression of her vulnerabilities and of a life truly lived.

In the preface of the first collection of entries; Sontag’s only child, David Rieff writes about the surreal experience of reading these deeply personal journals his mother had kept from her adolescence up until her death, and wishing he could warn her about all the pain and heartbreak which awaited her,

‘but of course I’m too late: the play has already been performed and its protagonist is gone’

Rieff continuously wondered whether his mother would have approved of his decision to make her journal entries public. For me personally though, I’m so grateful he did, these snippets are why I love books – a person who I will never know has been able to give me solace at so many different points in life, years after her death.

It’s touching to get a deeper glimpse of the fragile human behind her work, as well as an impression of her personality during different points in her life.

Plus, her lifelong thirst for further knowledge would inspire anyone to strive towards greater understanding and intelligence. Here are a few entries that particularly struck a chord with me:

‘…I just felt enormous anger at her, exactly as you would feel toward someone who has just announced that she is about to cause you terrible pain’

‘ “X” is when you feel yourself an object not a subject. When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting and name dropping, or by being very cool.’

‘Two fundamental needs are at war within me: need for the approval of others, fear of others’

Consequences of Being Too Pretty in Fiction

Last week I went and saw the live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Now it’s a musical so there was only so much I was ever going to be able to enjoy it, BUT I did get one very important bit of life advice out of it.

I couldn’t believe that I’d never noticed it before but the story is essentially a Beast utilising his library to give himself a bit of sex appeal. Books are pretty brilliant like that, its just an easy kind of collection to sex up – I would love to see the Beast try the same tactic using a less enticing collection like stamps, or train sets.

In fact I have a confession, studying publishing and owning a shit ton of books has all been one big ruse to appear hotter – I actually hate books and can’t read you fools muh-hahahaha!!!!!

Anyway, on that note, I want to talk about the consequences of vanity, or even just being too pretty, that have come up in classic literature.

Remedios the Beauty (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)

Up until this point I’ve really wanted to write something on One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I just love that book so much that every idea I’ve had for it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to do it justice.

As One Hundred Years of Solitude belongs to the magic realism genre, a lot of odd shit happens in it and often its hard to keep track because things are constantly happening and majority of the male characters have similar or even the same names.

The narrative is all tied to the history of the Buendía family and the isolated village of Macondo. Remedios the beauty is a minor character who belongs to the second generation of Buendías.

Her beauty has such a strong power over men that it leads to accidental deaths of those who are trying to watch her. She is angelic and lucid to the extreme however; she has no self-awareness and cannot take basic care of herself. Her brief appearance ends when suddenly without warning, she literally transcends up to the sky.

Dorian Gray (A Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)

You all know this story. It’s just such an incredible metaphor – the idea of a physically seeing the moral character of your soul.

This was Oscar Wilde’s only novel, and it centres around pretty boy Dorian Gray. What happens is that when Dorian is an innocent, un-corrupted youth, he sits for portrait  painted by an artist, Basil Hallward, who is obsessed with his beauty.

After months of work Dorian finally sees the completed portrait – and its the first time it dawns on him that he’s really actually attractive. In that moment Dorian is bitter that he will have to grow old, and wishes that the portrait could take his place (the book’s very much like a late-Victorian era style Freaky Friday). 

Dorian then later begins to notice that the portrait changes and becomes uglier the crueller he acts. He is blessed with eternal beauty but this horrible painting sits hidden in the attic revealing his true nature.

Narcissus (Metamorphoses, 8 ADish)

In the story of Echo and Narcissus, the beautiful youth Narcissus sees his own reflection as he’s getting water by a stream, and not realising that its just a reflection he falls madly in love with it – we’ve all been there right guys?

The Oval Portrait (Tales of Mystery & Imagination, 1842)

This is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. What happen is, for weeks an artist is so enthralled with his painting and obsessed with capturing the “rare beauty” of his wife, who is sitting for him, that he doesn’t notice that she has died during the portraits creation.

The Life of ‘The Well of Loneliness’

radclyffeOne thing which is particularly fascinating and beautiful about books is their historical context, and the lives they take on following publication.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, is one of those books where in order to truly appreciate what it has meant to a lot of people, it cannot be studied from a literary perspective alone.

The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 by Jonathan Cape. It was Hall’s fifth novel, and the product of a long-held ambition to attempt to explain lesbianism to a heterosexual audience.

The sombre narrative which traces protagonists Stephen Gordon’s realisation that she is a lesbian – or ‘invert’, and her struggles living in-between social conventions, was banned in Britain under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and underwent a trial in America.

At Hall’s death in 1943, the book was selling a thousand copies per year, yet it still remained unpublished in Britain. In 1949, Una Troubridge – Hall’s long term partner, found a publisher prepared to print it, and although the law remained unchanged this time it did not lead to official obstruction.

There were prior novels which touched on lesbian themes, however The Well of Loneliness continues to be considered the first because of the wide-scale controversy it was met with.

Novels published in the same year such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Elizabeth Bowden’s comedy The Hotel, all had themes alluding to lesbianism – however these novels were never banned as they ensured that lesbianism was either condemned or satirised.

Michael Baker, Hall’s biographer, believes that it was by making Stephen virtuous that caused moral censure. Additionally, outside of the book’s content, Hall’s known identity as an open ‘invert’ and her masculine appearance, is another vital factor in fully comprehending why The Well was the target of legislative restraint whereas other novel with similar themes and emerging during the same period were not.

The public criticism The Well received was another central factor in its eventual suppression. On August 19th – two weeks after publication, an article written by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, appeared which classified the novel as a ‘gloating study in the mental and physical corruption of the flesh’ .

Titled ‘A Book that should be Suppressed’ it pleaded to the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, to ‘set the law in motion’ on the grounds that this kind of ‘moral poison kills the soul’. In response, Cape wrote to the Home Secretary, without Hall’s knowledge, and offered to withdraw the novel from sale if he judged it to be obscene. Joynson-Hicks responded with a letter to Cape demanding suppression and to cease sale of the book as it was ‘inherently obscene…supports a deprived practise’ and thus ‘gravely detrimental to public interest’.

Douglas’s condemnation not only sparked Cape’s actions, it led to the first printing rapidly selling out, and with one library in London receiving six hundred enquiries in a single day.  A correspondent to Time and Tide noted that the ‘nauseous details, discussions and suggestion’ which were filling the daily newspapers had a far more harmful affect than the written book itself because it gave ‘certain facts’ attention ‘which ordinarily would never have come to their notice’.

Allegations of obscenity towards The Well led a wider debate on literary censorship. Both America and Britain held a vague, almost absent, legal definition of what classified a text as obscene.

When The Well’s New York publisher Donald Friede was charged in February 1929 with violating Section 1141 of the Penal Code by selling an obscene book, his prime defence was who could determine the dangerous social consequences of one book rather than another?  Hall expressed a similar stance in an interview with the Daily Herald, asserting that it was an ‘insult to the public intelligence’ the belief that ‘literary food must be pre-digested by a government office before consumption’.

Its link to controversy turned it into a bestseller, and it was advertised in America once it had won its obscenity trial as ‘the most controversial book of the century. Suppressed in England and vindicated by an American court’.

The level of publicity it gained also sparked open communication within the public sphere to the existence of homosexuality – what was generally (as a Sunday Chronicle article classified it in an article on The Well) an unspoken ‘secret canker of modern life’. In 1921, for example, attempts to create legislation against lesbianism were denied by Lord Desart on the grounds that it would ‘tell the world there was such an offense’.

The hundreds of letters Hall received which expressed gratitude for ‘having broken the silence’ and personal stories, underscores that the novels existence (as a sympathetic account of lesbianism during this period) alone is symbolically significant. In these letters, Hall writes, individuals expressed a feeling of ‘added humiliation and burden’ which came with the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding lesbianism.

In later decades, the style of writing was considered by some readers to be quite antiquated. However The Well’s historical context and Hall’s bravery, means a respect exists for this book beyond a literary perspective.

(It is worth reading by the way, I really liked it. All books age a little)

My Massive Crush on Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Avid readers usually have that one book which got them hooked on reading in the first place. For a lot of people around about my age it tends to be Harry Potter, but for me it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

I was 17 at the time, and up until that point I wasn’t a big reader. The only books I read in High School were the assigned ones for English class.

I can’t remember what it was exactly that drew me to these books, and sometimes I wonder if I would still love them  just as much if I re-read them now. But at the time I adored them, and I would talk about how brilliant the main character Lisbeth was to anyone who would listen to me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first time I stayed up all night reading, the first time I’d carry a book around wherever I went, and I will always love it for sparking my relationship with reading for fun.

In hindsight though I think most of its charm was due to the crush I had on Lisbeth, given I’d lose interest really fast in every part she wasn’t in. Its funny thinking about it now – I would fantasise about her, yet it still hadn’t hit me that I might be a lesbian. I just loved reading about this strong female character, who had lived through some harsh shit but refused to be a victim and if necessary could kick some ass.

Thank you Stieg Larrson, you’re pretty much responsible for my ever-expanding bookshelf.

The Fouco-so Brother. Check it Out!

[I think my feature image may be the exact moment it dawned on Foucault that the baldness was not going to be a temporary thing. With his eyes he’s saying goodbye to his once luscious locks.]

This week in honour of the turtle-neck sweater aficionado himself, I’m going to have a little ponder over Foucault’s theory of micro-power: because it’s quite fascinating and I’m in the mood get all confused and have a small existential crisis here in the library.

If you’ve ever taken history or philosophy units at uni, odds are Foucault has been mentioned. His work was predominately concerned with questioning the popular interpretation of historical events as orderly, and a progressive development towards greater rationality.

For Foucault, history is not linear, its an ongoing struggle for power between dominant groups. The theory of micro-power refers to how the power struggle of our time is expressed on and through our bodies.

According to Foucault, our body is the ‘inscribed surface of events’ (which sounds a bit like he secretly had a dolphin tramp-stamp that he did not regret #yolo). Power is always tied to the body, and shows itself  through the way we intuitively act out our gender roles, class and culture: we are the embodiment of our historical period. In medieval times for example, power belonged to the King and if a subject broke the law, it was written on their body through torture.

Categories which we use to define ourselves are created by power structures in order to make distinctions between things. And even if you believe Foucault is being far too melodramatic here, and that we hold much more free-will over our bodies and personalities than his theory implied, it is still incredible/a bit of a mind fuck to think that this influence is so embedded that’s its immeasurable.

Thank you Foucault, my brain hurts a lot now!

Miss Marple Conspiracy Theory

Ok so this is a confession but I’m quite tragic and a hundred years old, and the only crime show I’ve ever taken a genuine interest in is the BBC adaptions of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (but only the ones where Geraldine Mcewan played Miss Marple, those other old ladies couldn’t hold a candle to Geraldine!!).

She’s just so adorable, look at her! She can handle this shit! Unlike Poirot who’s probably just slacking off in the corner combing his precious little moustache. Poirot smells! He’s probably just planning on blaming the butler for everything again because he looks a bit shifty.

Anyway, I’ve read a few of the Miss Marple books but I watched the show first. I remember watching it for the first time at my grandparents house: I would have been twelve and it was the adaption of Body In The Library. This was before I was aware that I was a lesbian, and I remember at the time being super excited that a lesbian couple had done it (which is a really strange/concerning thing to be excited about).

The things I loved about Miss Marple were that the plot-twist was never obvious, the murderer would always go to these great lengths to create a seemingly perfect alibi, and the brain of Jane Marple in general.

But there’s one thing which raises doubts for me.

The bulk of the time in the stories Miss Marple just happens to be visiting the village. And so often she’s attending a party then suddenly a murder happens.

I’m starting to think that maybe she has done some of these murders because she gets a high from using her brilliant mind to pin it on somebody else? And maybe nobody ever suspects her even though she’s been present at so many murders, because she’s just so cute?

Jane! How could you? I trusted you!