Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 2, September 2012

Welcome to the second video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club.

Writers and Universal Heart Book Club hosts Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason this month discuss two quite different but utterly compelling memoirs: Susan Swingler's account of her conflicted history with legendary Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley, The House of Fiction, and Jeanette Winterson's bittersweet memories that begin with life with her mother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  You will also find our written reviews of these books below, as well as a range of other very fine articles.

As you read the books we feature, please share your views in our comments section. Those conversations are essential to this being the "book club" we envision. Many thanks to Peter Kirkwood for the marvellous job he has done filming this conversation and bringing it to you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Walter Mason reads Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson is one of those figures from my youth who I never really seemed to get around to reading. In the late 80s it was de rigueur to be seen in public places reading her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and by the time that book was made into a BBC television series in 1990 Winterson was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. She embodied an age with her politics, her sexual identity and her unstinting belief in the transformative power of books and literature.

She is, of course, a consummate performer as well as a popular writer, and I remember being struck by her speech at the Adelaide Writers' Week some years ago in which she said that universities should be concentrating on creative reading courses as well as creative writing courses. Her persona as literary performer and provocateur has melded with the idiosyncratic and gentle chronicler in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and I am glad that I have waited till now to read her. Because this is an extraordinary book in every way, and one that reaches beyond the conventions of memoir to chronicle something else entirely - the human capacity to cultivate hope in even the starkest of circumstance, along with the accompanying urge to self-destruct.

Winterson writes of her painful childhood, well-covered territory for her fans, but here presented for the first time as actual autobiography and not fictionalised remembering. I found it fascinating that, while many reviewers and commentators read into this book a hostility to religion, I saw nothing of the kind. Instead I discovered a balanced and very fair analysis of the harsh Pentecostalism of her childhood. Instead of condemning the perverted spiritual urges that so badly stained her own peculiar relationship with her adopted mother, she sees in her difficult religious upbringing something possibly admirable, writing: "I saw a lot of working-class men and women - myself included - living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church."

Her mother was little short of a religious maniac, a compulsive neurotic who starved her family of all affection and ruled over their poor house with a manic harshness marked by Biblical injunction and a sure knowledge of the fast approaching apocalypse. The other people who populated Winterson's Northern England childhood are also affectionately drawn, and she is brilliant at bringing to life their cold and cramped lives and their bare existences, describing simple furnishings and humble pastimes mostly revolving around the Church. Her mother's only friend lives in the same filthy coat for years and gives all of her money away to the neighbourhood children, the poverty of her house captured perfectly when Winterson describes "the peg-rug on the floorboards - you make those yourself out of scraps of cotton and they have a rough-coated feel and they lie there like downcast dogs."

This is a book about being born and re-born, again and again. Winterson is ultimately hopeful about life and its possibilities, and one of the great charms of Why Be Happy... is its constant reminder that life is filled with new chances and greater opportunities. I know you will be inspired and charmed by this beautiful and fascinating memoir.

Discovering Neville Symington with Jeanette Winterson

Stephanie Dowrick reminisces...and makes new connections and discoveries.

One of the greatest pleasures for me in reading comes from the connections it prompts and the intellectual and emotional landscapes, as well as the physical ones, that it allows you to explore. The Britain - and particularly the feminist/literary/"alternative" London - that Jeanette Winterson evokes in her exceptional memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, is poignantly familiar to me. London was my home and world for almost 16 key years of my life. It was the place where I came of age in terms of my continuing political, intellectual and social interests. It was where some of my most significant friendships grew and flourished.

It was with great interest, then, that I read a description, quite late in the book, of the psychoanalytic writing that supported Winterson during a bleak period of her adult life.  I have also read my way over many years into greater well being and insight, through bleak times and better ones. Not all of her reading, or mine, has been explicitly psychoanalytic, but her choice was strong and I found myself eager to comment on it.

Winterson describes how, not in London but in Oxford at the famous Blackwells Bookshop, she discovered books by a writer who became unusually helpful to her understanding of her emotions, choices and behaviours. "I found Neville Symington," she writes, "a priest turned shrink, who had a simple direct style and was not afraid of talking about the spirit and the soul - not as religious experiences but as human experiences - that we are more than body and mind - and I think we are."

She continues, in her lovely, plain and so-effective way: "Symington helped, because I was getting well enough to want a framework in which to think about what was happening to me."

Jeanette Winterson
To recover a sense of self when we feel that we have "fallen apart" is nothing short of life-saving.  It is the difference between returning to a life of meaning and pleasure, or not. And this never happens without some degree of "holding", most often by a skilled and infinitely patient therapist, but perhaps also through the a benign, scrupulously safe environment, an intensely generous relationship, or, occasionally and wonderfully,  a writer who offers a framework trustworthy enough to restore that crucial inner sense of safety which makes it possible to go on.

At the time I wrote my own first major non-fiction book, Intimacy and Solitude, I too was very interested in Neville Symington's writing. I haven't read his work for some years, but now will do so again, and am particularly keen to discover his more recent writing.

Neville Symington
Meanwhile, if your curiosity is piqued, and I hope it is, you can discover Symington for yourself.  This British-born analyst has lived in Australia since 1986 and has written an impressive number of books. You can find many of them through our on-line bookstore affiliates (above right). In choosing, I would suggest you experiment a little. The Psychology of the Person is his most recent book. The Analytic Experience is the one I remember best.  I am going first to read A Healing Conversation. (Isn't that the most promising of titles?) And should you follow this up then, please, do let us know something of what you discover. You can hear Neville Symington speak on this YouTube link - speaking to professionals and the interested general public on the potential gifts of psychotherapy, even with people whose mental well being has been severely disrupted.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Stephanie Dowrick reads Swingler's The House of Fiction

Elizabeth Jolley was - perhaps still is - a widely admired English-born Australian writer. Her books were praised, prized and read. Her arch, eccentric manner was also praised, as was her indisputably committed teaching and mentoring of many younger writers. I met her only once, in late 1980s Fremantle, Western Australia, when she told me in her charming, confiding way that she needed to tidy her house before she could begin her day's writing. Things needed to be in order on the outside, she emphasized. She also added that she assumed as a much younger woman, and a feminist, I would be far less affected by the "call" of domestic scrupulousness.

Elizabeth Jolley
I've been remembering that brief encounter with particular poignancy as I have been reading Susan Swingler's The House of Fiction. In this completely fascinating yet admirably calm book, Swingler makes it clear how little was in fact "tidy" in the house of Jolley. The book is, in many way, a shocking one, blasting a reader's assumptions about loyalty and honesty, about how superficially we tend to "read" a writer's public persona and life, and certainly about an esteemed fiction writer's conscious manipulation of the truth  and what the long-reaching consequences of that may be.

Susan Swingler is an acute, highly intelligent writer. It's remarkable that this is only her first book because she handles this complex material with a deceptive ease. This gift to her readers (you truly can't stop reading) can only have emerged from a deep, perhaps innate commitment to fairness, despite the unfairness with which she and her mother were treated.

Swingler's father was Leonard Jolley, Elizabeth Jolley's husband. Swingler's mother (Joyce) was the woman Leonard left for Elizabeth, but what makes this a far from usual story is that Leonard and Elizabeth had a daughter at almost exactly the same time as Joyce gave birth to Susan. Joyce was unaware that Elizabeth's child was fathered by Leonard, or so Swingler asserts. Because by then Elizabeth had already begun what would become an increasing elaborate fantasy about who belonged to whom, and where, why and how.

The story unfolds, as I describe in our video review, with all the surprises of the best kind of thriller writing. People appear - and are "disappeared" - in a narrative that Elizabeth and Leonard constructed from their home in Perth, Western Australia, and seem to have maintained with a most curious combination of self-deception and entitlement to do what suited them best, regardless of the consequences for Joyce, Susan, and Leonard's extended family who were also entirely ignorant of Leonard's new life, new family, and of the "real" Susan's fatherless existence.

"Why did you lie?" asks Swingler at one point in the book (aware, of course, that the entire book is an attempt to answer that question). "Don't you realise you were denying me my identity, denying me my family? And who began all this? was it you, Leonard?  Or you, Elizabeth?"

The part that Joyce played in this drama is also fascinating. It's understandable that Susan Swingler is particularly kind to her mother, as well as fair. Yet the extent to which Joyce colluded with, even allowed Leonard's self-serving behaviour, even at the cost to herself and her daughter, remains a mystery. It it also a mystery why Leonard was so attractive to these two women, at the very least. He emerges as self-centered, willfully passive and entirely unlikeable, at least for me.  His utter lack of effort on behalf of anyone but himself is painfully demonstrated in a single line, where Susan is reporting on meeting this long-gone father, after a lifetime of absence: "Leonard looked at me with those sad eyes but said very little."

People's true feelings are generally read through their actions, through the choices they make and sustain, and through what they are prepared to demand of others. This is made exceptionally clear in this book. It's far more engrossing than most novels will ever be. I admired it. And was captivated from start to finish.  

Susan Swingler, author of House of Fiction

Susan Swingler's The House of Fiction is published by Fremantle Press (2012). You can listen to Susan talking about her book with ABC's Richard Fidler via this link.  You can buy this book and support our Book Club through our affiliate bookstore links (above right!).  We welcome your comments, opinions, conversation, engagement!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Susan Murphy on Mending the Earth

 Writer and Zen teacher, Susan Murphy, bravely and beautifully addresses
how we might think about the earth - and our willingness to make right what is wrong.

I’m often asked how long it took to write Minding the Earth, Mending the World. As one who fell deeply in love with the earth as a barefoot child in North Queensland, I confess this passionate plea for remembering how to mind the living world is drawn from the whole of my life up to now.

‘As long as it took to overcome my own inertia,’ might be the more humble reply. Bach spoke of that daily fight saying, ‘God’s grace must be made anew every day’.  Who doesn’t privately recognize exactly what he is talking about?

It well may be that the willingness to fight with our own inertia is God’s grace.  However you contact that force of unconditioned love within yourself, it surely must be roused towards this crisis that now involves us all, whether we have fully admitted it to ourselves or not.

Getting past inertia, confusion, speechlessness, numbness, despair - terror that is often hushed up or dismissed the moment it spills into our consciousness – is the business of this book. To turn away and live numb would be suicide: literally the murder of who and what we really are, which embraces all the life of this marvelous planet.

When I talk about our terror I am not talking about the so-called ‘war on terror’, which has snatched so many of our rights and created a vast and costly diversion from the true terror of our time: the collapse of the biome that makes our lives possible.

It has long felt imperative to me to understand how the soul of a locust invaded the heart of our civilization. Sensing that the greatest terror well may be the unacknowledged shame that we are, as if helplessly, permitting and ever more deeply colluding with a mindset of living by profound damage, I set out to trace the lineaments of behaviour we know will destroy us.

I’ve been entranced by story since my sister taught me to read at the age of three.  The enduring stories tell us who we are and where we find ourselves. I combed them, looking for ones that might begin to fit the crisis and restore our confident belonging to the earth.

St Thomas Aquinas held that we are ‘capax universi’ – universe-capable. The fourteen billion year old Universe Story, which thrilled me as a child, grows ever more potent with the help of such as the Hadron Particle Collider and the Hubble Telescope.  Can this help us meet the threat of sudden, anthropogenic planetary warming, which obliges us to see at the most literal level how richly we are all in this together and reawaken the mind of interconnectedness?

To begin to live that thrilling reality as a species has become ‘the offer we can no longer refuse’. This is an intensely practical matter. It literally takes a conscious practice to break free from the kind of thinking that is part of the problem.

Which brings me to the tiny, profound stories called ‘koans’, each of which open a direct path into reality. These deceptively small deposits of mind-changing insight have informed my path in life for the past three decades of Zen practice, first as a Zen student, now as the kind of student called ‘Zen teacher’. Throughout the book, and especially in the final section, I explore a number of powerful ‘earth koans’ – not as a ‘take-home’ message for the book so much as a series of radical ‘transporters’ with the power to bring you all the way home to here, just as it really is, with a welcoming thud.

Here’s a taste of a koan. ‘The tiger fears the human heart’ is the first stage of a Korean Zen koan. The words may startle us a little, yet it is almost too easy to see why any creature under pressure of extinction, however fierce, may fear the blindness of a greedy, self-deceptive heart. But what has made the tiger and the human heart so painfully opposed?

‘Tiger’, of course, may stand in for everything we fear about the ruthlessness of nature, including discomfort, change, mortality itself. How did we come to fear our earthly self-nature so deeply?  What’s the way back to deeper agreement with reality, and to living within the terms of the earth?

But the second stage is more startling still, inviting us even further in.  It says: ‘The human fears the tiger’s kindness’. Well may we fear the onrushing crisis of our times but what if inside it, as with every major crisis that we ever face, is an uncompromising kindness: the offer to start to discover and inhabit our human selves at a level deeper than we ever dreamt?

Susan Murphy is a Sydney-based writer and Zen teacher. Her book is published by Pan Macmillan (2012). You can buy this book, and any other, from the affiliate bookshops on this blog (upper right!).  We welcome your comments and your engagement.
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Monday, September 3, 2012

Mark S. Burrows reads Christian Bobin

Poet and writer Mark S. Burrows takes two slim volumes on his move that are
"fountains of revelation".

Some books refuse to be abandoned. I discovered this in recent weeks as my wife and I moved from our home of twenty years in the northeastern state of Massachusetts across most of the country to the southwestern state of New Mexico.  We feel like migrants of sorts, as our plans are to be here for only twelve to eighteen months, but who knows? The only sure thing in life, as the ancient sage Heraclitus reminds us, is change. What is certain is that our plans, even those we consider permanent, will be interrupted by demands or desires we cannot anticipate or manage.

Faced with such a move, the most difficult question—or at least I thought it would be—was how to sift through the thousands of my accumulated books and determine which would make the trip with us. The hundred or so that I selected would tell a story all of its own, revealing the shape of my passions and signaling which of my library of books have a true hold on my mind. Among these, I took two from the contemporary French author Christian Bobin.

Bobin is an author hardly known in the US (or in most of the English-language worlds). Here, he is published by a small press in Iowa that lacks a large New York marketing department. To make matters worse, we are a remarkably language-lazy culture, and only a few of his more than forty volumes are translated from French into English. The two I included among my portable treasures are books I turn back to again and again.  Both are collections of “lyric essays,” as the volume’s title suggests, memoirs that draw from Bodin’s experience of life with all its ordinary pleasures and pains, delights and desires.  Both are fountains of revelation.

In the essay that gives one of the volumes its English title, “I Never Dared Hope for You,” Bobin describes leaving his village home—and the love of his life—on a trip to Brittany, “a land as beautiful as childhood, a place where fairies and devils get on well together.”  But what moved him on this journey was his discovery that “there are stones, water, the sky, the faces—and your name everywhere, singing beneath the name of stones, water, sky and faces.”  It is really a love poem, this lyric essay.  It tells what it means to carry those we love with us when we leave them, and how memory intensifies our sense of their “presence” across the distances of space and time that come to separate us in such circumstances.  Everyone who has ever been in love, or loved another, knows what this is like. And, once we know this, we never forget:  the body-memory of such love lodges itself deep within us, in what we refer to as “the heart.”  It moves beyond what we can expect or even hope of life. On this point, the French title has a lyric force much stronger than the English version, gathering this experience into a single word:“L’inespérée.”

What makes this love story different is the way it opens us into dimensions of experience shaped by love but not directly involved in it. That is, if love transfigures something essential within us, then we begin to dwell in the world differently because of it. Things, simple things, ordinary things all about us, become different—because we have become different. Expanded beyond our narrower self.  Enlarged by a generosity not of our own making.  Deepened beyond the surfaces of our desires.

Thus, when Bobin writes of “purity,” the kind “which has nothing to do with morality,” we begin to understand something more truthful than the narrowing strictures of duty, or a petty ethic of discipline.  “Purity,” he goes on to suggest, “is the most common matter on earth.  It is like a dog:  each time we rest upon nothing but our empty heart, purity comes to sit at our feet and keep us company.”  Now, such writing is beautiful, even in English translation. But its lyric elegance and power come from the truths it gestures toward.  What is so arresting here is Bobin’s notion that our “empty heart” is the source of true purity, our purity, in this life.  Not what we accomplish, but what we relinquish is what finally matters, that “letting-go” that the mystical sage Meister Eckhart calls “Gelassenheit.”  Perhaps we might render it as a “letting-be-ness,” the emptying that is so necessary—and counter-intuitive—in our becoming larger, richer, truer to our real self than we would otherwise be.

Could we imagine ourselves as lovers in quest of emptiness, so that we might have “room”—the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s notion of “Raum”—for a deepening “being-in-this-world,” or what the poet calls simply Dasein?  Is being-here enough, and the spaciousness that comes from such an emptying of the distracting clutter in our hearts the road to a purity we would probably otherwise miss?

Who could resist such deeply felt and truthful writing as this? When Bobin returns to the opening theme with which I began this review—his naming of the stones, water, sky, and faces of Brittany—the magic stirs us in the caverns of our hearts:  “In Brittany I looked at the faces, the waves, and the skies, and never have I been so aware of the sweetness of this life promised to death:  we should enlighten each presence with a love that, each time, is unique, destined to its inconsolable and pure solitude.  We should learn to count, one by one, each face, each wave, and each sky, in giving to each one the light it deserves in this darkened life.”  Who could set such a book aside without being somehow changed? 

This is a book worth reading over and over again. Once you taste of its liquor you’ll probably be like me—and never want to let it go.  Not even if you move across country. Or sell the rest of your possessions. And find yourself finally able to empty a space for the wise and fertile wisdom of your heart’s yearning.

Christian Bobin, I Never Dared Hope for You.  Lyric Essays, translated by Alison Anderson (Iowa City, Iowa:  Spring Hill Books, 2009).

We will review Mark S. Burrows' eagerly awaited Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet (Paraclete Press), soon after its October 2012 publication.  You can order any book mentioned on this site - or others - via our affiliate bookstores (above right). We eagerly welcome your comments. And we invite you to click on any of the social media links below to reach your own circles with articles from this page.