mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Other people's worlds

My parents' library had a number of hardback novels by American writers- Thomas Wolfe, Steinback, Carson McCullers- and sometimes in adolescence I'd dip into them and be utterly baffled. These people didn't inhabit the kind of social and human universe I, and the characters in more popular literature, did. There was no kindness or civility or generosity to be seen, and people's motives were utterly opaque. Real people aren't like that!, I thought; why write such a revolting and demeaning view?

(My peculiar mother gave me Truman Capote and Ronald Firbank to read at a young age, and they didn't bother me at all. They were fantasies, quite as much as Ray Bradbury, though I recall one or two opaque characters in the Capote short stories.) (She also gave me Swinburne and Sappho, and I remember she wanted to get me to read Ulysses in my early teens. Occurs to me belatedly that maybe I was quite as peculiar a child as she was a parent.)

In any case, Sleepless Nights half-recalls my reaction to Hardwick's contemporaries, but in the opposite direction. Everyone looks strange and marvellous in the luminous light of Hardwick's narrator. Real people aren't like that, I think, but I'm sure she's actually writing about real people. And then I see the trick. It lies in exclusion. Pick out salient details of people- their tiny black shoes, their red lipstick, their sudden trips to Paris to indulge in theatre- and leave out the domestic, the normal, the everyday, the *everything* of them.

And I have done that: I viewed all the friends of my teens and twenties in that sort of light. For me they were their distinctive handwriting, the incense they burned in their rented rooms, the patchwork jackets and Indian skirts they wore (this was the late 60s and early 70s, when dress became costume), their photographs and published poems and film school films. All rare and strange and quite different from my own bourgeois life. It was much much later- decades, in fact- when I could see the whole person, and the middle class attitudes that had always been there, and the sameness of their affairs and marriages- the everything.

(What *is* rare and strange to me, in both Hardwick's book and my friends' lives, is the heterosexual married thing. It's treated as normal and inevitable, like physiology- something that happens to a woman almost unthinkingly. I can't get my head around it at all. I know it's normal if not inevitable, and I'm odd woman out; but it seems to me that anything which gets you married to Robert Lowell is something a woman is better off without.)
Tags: reading_17, rl
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