Sunday, 24 March 2013

Silence in Literature, Catharsis, and Internal Retreats

Are you a quiet person? Do you read a lot as a way to retreat from the world? Great image on imagination found here.

No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease. ~Marcus Aurelius 

Last week in The Guardian, Tracy Chevalier wrote about the power of silence and its influence on her latest novel, The Last Runaway. As a quiet person myself (I have written before on my introversion), I quickly found myself flicking to this page of the newspaper. Not only do I prefer to listen rather than speak, but people also used to ask me whether I actually could speak (clearly I took silence to the extreme).

Although my quiet nature has been the result of social anxiety (in the past) and an introverted nature, I believe that silence has many benefits.  I think that some authors would agree with me on this.

In her article, Chevalier writes, 

When I sit in [Quaker] Meeting, I am constantly chasing away thoughts, which are made up of words. Ideally, when I manage to hold thoughts at bay, I enter into a state that I cannot describe. This is true as well when writing about silence. It is so difficult to express that I grab at metaphors, or phrases Quakers have developed over the centuries to explain what they are seeking: the silence "gathering and thickening", members of the Meeting "sinking down", "waiting in expectation" for the "Inner Light" or the "Inner Spirit". I have Honor Bright say all of these things, but I'm not sure I have really got it.
The best I can hope is that my imprecise attempt to describe silence will pique readers' curiosity into seeking it out for themselves. It is worth quieting the mind for.

Meditation with a lovely view, what better way to
have your own internal retreat?
Reading The Last Runaway did pique my curiosity of silence. Honor Bright becomes strong by being quiet, and I found myself admiring her for it.

Similarly, in one of my favourite novels, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, female characters turn to writing notebooks and creating stories in their heads in times of hardship. Whilst the male characters of the novel are powerful enough to lead revolutions that topple governments, these revolutions are short-lived.

The female characters in The House of the Spirits, never bowing to mistreatment despite their endless suffering, choose more subtle and silent responses, led by gentleness and passivity. The women of Allende's novel effect the most long-lasting and drastic changes, largely through teaching literacy and refusing to speak.

One character, Clara, stops speaking for nine years for fear of causing an event by verbally predicting it (yes, it's complicated). Clara's granddaughter, Alba, becomes an extension of her character, and similarly retreats into her own mind. In the “doghouse” where Alba is imprisoned and treated with great brutality, she brings "the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live."

Silence appears to bring Alba strength, and a cathartic retreat into her mind becomes Alba's ultimate method of survival. Elsewhere in the novel, silence becomes a way to wilfully erase events from memory. Clearly it is a powerful tool for Isabel Allende, as it is Tracy Chevalier.

Another such author is Margaret Atwood, who, in The Handmaid’s Tale, depicts her protagonist, Offred, as "existing apart from the body," of "pretend[ing] not to be present, not in the flesh". I included this quote in one of my A Level essays four years ago, and it brought a smile to my face when I re-read it for this post. I had no idea that I was suffering from PTSD back then, nor that I had been dissociating myself for so many years. Despite my ignorance of clinical terminology and my absence of diagnosis, that quote was so familiar to me. I could tell that I was doing exactly the same thing as Offred in order to deal with my problems, and it was so reassuring.

Silence has become a way to stop my thought processes from being interrupted; it allows me to think clearly, listen, and maybe even relax (an impossible feat for me). For this reason, I appreciate the skill required for an author to create a quiet character successfully. There are so many levels of the character to describe, yet it is incredibly difficult to find a manner to do so. I therefore congratulate Chevalier, Allende and Atwood.

Other references to silence in film and literature, and the more extreme elective mutism, include:
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, in which a character describes escaping into their imagination in order to dissociate from hardship
  • The film Little Miss Sunshine, in which the character Dwayne has not spoken in nine months due to a vow of silence he has taken until he can get into the US Air Force Academy.

Can you think of another examples? Has silence been beneficial for you? Or has it been more of a hindrance?

Monday, 18 March 2013

Toby's Room by Pat Barker: Great Art, PTSD and War

An image of a solider with facial wounds by surgeon and painter Henry Tonks.  Image source.

This is a novel about beautiful art, the people who create it, the subjects within it, and the context behind it. I would class Toby's Room as a war novel, although the description is rarely centred on conflict. Rather, Barker explores the implications of World War I on life in England, families, relationships, the returned wounded, and art. I found it to be noticeably different to what I'd normally read, although I can't easily explain why. I usually enjoy war literature and reading about art and relationships, but this novel had elements that were quite unique. Perhaps I'll understand this better by writing this post.

Paul Nash, an artist characterised in Toby's Room.
 Totes Meer. Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis.
But to begin with, it must be noted that Toby's Room is the sequel to Life Class, a novel I have not read (or anything else by Pat Barker, for that matter). I do not feel that I lost anything in my reading because of this, although I imagine that a reading of Life Class would add to the excitement of beginning Toby's Room and resolving any loose ends. 

The novel's protagonist is Elinor Brooke, an art student whose family is torn apart by war. Toby Brooke is also central to the plot: a medical student and Elinor's older brother. The novel's title, "Toby's Room", can be viewed as a nod to Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room (written in memory of her brother Thoby), although it can perhaps be seen to encapsulate the excessively close relations between brother and sister in this novel. I was certainly unprepared for this aspect of the plot. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the subtle warning on the blurb of a "bond closer than they can acknowledge". We see Toby and Elinor growing up together - and becoming ever closer - in a divided household, until war is declared and they are consequently separated. Whilst Toby is posted to the front as a medical officer, Elinor stays in London to continue her fine art studies at the Slade, under the tutelage of Professor Henry Tonks.

Tonks, an influential surgeon and artist throughout the war years, is one of non-fictional artists utilised by Barker in her creation of this novel. Here in Toby's Room, Tonks is Elinor's formidable, yet often ambiguously encouraging, art teacher. Significantly, Tonks is the only famous figure to retain his true name and full character under Barker's fictionalising influence. Other well-known artists who provide the basis for Barker's characters include Mark Gertler, Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash, Dora Carrington, Barbara Hiles and Stanley Spencer. All of the above studied at the Slade under Henry Tonks in the pre-war years.

Hermione Lee, in her review of the novel in The Guardian, matches the characters formed by Barker with the aforementioned artists:

Henry Tonks, photographed by George
Charles Beresford, 1902.
The aggressive, sardonic, womanising Kit Neville, a Marinetti-like futurist, has a touch of Nevinson and a touch of Gertler. The less confident, northern working-class landscape painter Paul Tarrant is Paul Nash mixed with Spencer. The independent, androgynous, crop-haired Elinor Brooke is like Carrington without the eccentricity. Tonks, though, remains Tonks, an acerbic and critical mentor, and there are walk-on parts for Augustus John and Ottoline Morrell.

In the novel, Elinor is encouraged by Tonks to draw medical illustrations for Queen's Hospital in Sidcup, which I found to be one of the most enriching parts of the plot. Because of this turn in the novel, Barker enables the reader to witness the devastating reality of male facial wounds and their treatment from the perspective of a female outsider. As a result of Elinor's role in the hospital, she not only develops her character and her perspective of war, but she is also enabled to develop her relationship with certain patients. Moreover, we see her fleeing the role of student to Henry Tonks, becoming a colleague, an equal to him, and even an occasional evaluator of his work. One of the novel's primary strengths is that it argues what art can, or should, do with the horrors of war. Should paintings include scenes of death? If not, how can the artist subtly convey the fatalities and brutalities that are inherent in war? Also, can a medical portrait, particularly that of a face, become lasting art?

Another, perhaps more personal, aspect of the novel was its treatment of memory, and particularly that of traumatic incidents. As you may know, over the last year I have received various types of therapy for PTSD. I've got to the point where I am happy to accept it as part of who I am, and to not feel entirely paralysed by its effects. However, Barker's evocation of the brain's capacity to replay traumatic information relentlessly, night and day, cannot fail to be familiar. On English soil, Kit Neville struggles constantly with the details of Toby Brooke's predicament (I won't give spoilers). Dream and reality merge, yet we're not privy to Kit's revelation, or Elinor's access to the truth of her brother's death, until the novel's closing pages. Wanting to know what happened to Toby encouraged me to read on and ignore the occasionally lacking character development (I found this applied to Elinor) and out-of-context narrative techniques.
Christopher Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse (1915). Image 

Nonetheless, I found Toby's Room to be ultimately well-researched, personal and enjoyable. The novel is an eloquent narrative of hardship and resilience, love and betrayal, and suffering and redemption.

The impact of war is treated by Barker in a unique, unflinching way that captures the enormity of its influence across time and nation and sets the book apart from others. If you enjoy subtle and casual mentions of literary greats, look out for a certain VB and Mrs Woolf. As Barker must have written with a sly smile, "Oh, they're well known, the Charlestone crew".

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Monday, 11 March 2013

March Update: Weather, Kindles and Reading Plans

After some promising signs of sun, and the premature appearance of T-shirts and vest tops, the weather is dreary again. It was only to be expected, really. However, dreary weather is good reading weather, and I've been making the most of it. Over the last week I've been reading Toby's Room by Pat Baker, which I'm liking so far. To summarise very simply: it's ultimately about life before and during WWI, art, and family. There are some parts of the novel I haven't been too keen on, but I'll elaborate my thoughts on the book in a full post next week.

As evident by the ever-growing proportion of library books on my bookshelves, most of my reading has been directed at university essays. I'm writing an English essay on the theme of uncertainty that prevails in the poetry of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, and a Spanish essay on the theme of civilisation versus barbarism in Gabriel García Márquez's Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). Fortunately I'm enjoying the process of writing each essay, and I'm learning a lot too. That always makes the work a lot less arduous.

But anyway, in this post I'd like to outline my reading plans for the next week or so.

I'd like to finish...
  • Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee

I've been reading Leaves of Grass on and off for ages. I think I started it at the end of last year. I've annotated many poems and passages that I love, but the collection is just so long. It probably doesn't help that I'm reading it on my Kindle; if I had a paperback copy it would be easier to flick through the book when I feel like it. My Kindle often becomes neglected when my university workload is overwhelming and I don't have long train journeys to take. I'll have to bear this in mind next time I start a poetry collection (I'm sure Kindle-haters are reading this with glee!)

For my Classics Challenge, I'd like to get started on...

  • The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Metamorphoses - Ovid
  • The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

I'd like to spend more time on my Classics Challenge: perhaps the Easter holidays will be an ideal opportunity for this, when I don't have pressing reading lists to consider. I've been meaning to read the three books mentioned above for a while now, and in particular Metamorphoses. It always seems to be mentioned in lectures. 

I'd also like to read...
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William B. Irvine
  • Master and Men and Other Stories - Leo Tolstoy
  • Take Me to the Castle - F.C. Malby 
  • On Beauty - Zadie Smith

Have you read any of the books I've mentioned?
Is there anything else that you'd recommend?

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth by Leo Tolstoy: Themes of Shyness and Self-Improvement

My edition of Childhood, Boyhood, YouthLeo Tolstoy began Childhood, Boyhood, Youth - a trilogy - in his early twenties. It is a vibrant account of a young person's emerging awareness of the world, himself, and the people around him, as described through the eyes of Nikolenka. Themes of shyness, self-image and self-improvement permeate the book, yet we are also exposed to a young Tolstoy's wider descriptions of nature, art and the workings of the world.

Tolstoy later dismissed the trilogy as an "awkward mixture of fact and fiction", which is perhaps somewhat accurate. I wouldn't say it was awkwardly written, but rather that it encapsulates the awkward transition between childhood, boyhood and youth through a first person perspective. Also, I found the "mixture of fact and fiction" to be intriguing. The text could easily be read as biographical, if you were not aware of the finer details of Tolstoy's early years. For instance, whilst Tolstoy had no direct memory of his mother who died when he was two, the protagonist Nikolenka's intense mourning of his mother at eleven years old drives the structure of the text forwards. Moreover, Tolstoy's father was killed when he was nine, leaving him and his siblings in the care of their grandmother and later of their aunts. Alternatively, Nikolenka's father holds an important role throughout Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.

As mentioned in the introduction of my edition by Judson Rosengrant, the trilogy could be classed as a bildungsroman. However, it doesn't depict a growth of the protagonist as such. Instead, a lurching process of formation is illustrated by Tolstoy, alongside the striving self-awareness that informs and impels it. There is remarkable depth and subtlety to the trilogy, particularly in the psychological and moral insight of Nikolenka's constantly evolving inner life. By reading the intimate descriptions of Nikolenka's journey to maturity, we are privy to some of Tolstoy's own preoccupations as a young artist and thinker. I will not be bold and state that the protagonist is an exact mirror of Tolstoy - I do not agree with this either. However, there are certain parallels that appealed to me, having previously read around Tolstoy's early life and youth.

For one, there's the perfectionism and striving for improvement that applies to both Tolstoy and Nikolenka. When Tolstoy was eighteen, he began a "Journal of Daily Activities, in which he would set out his day and create rules that would supposedly develop his willpower. I find Tolstoy's perfectionist tendencies fascinating (largely because they remind me of myself), and they impelled me to write about his journal in my post "Tolstoy's 'Rules' and Perfectionism". Equally interesting is Nikolenka's perfectionism here in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. Nikolenka becomes friends with Dmitry Nekhlyudov, an introverted yet ambitious young man, who inspires him to strive for improvement and create his own "Rules of Life". The narrator reflects,

[Under] Nekhlyudov's influence I involuntarily adopted his outlook, the essence of which was a rapturous adoration of the idea of virtue, and the conviction that man's purpose lies in continual self-improvement. To reform all humanity and eradicate all human vice and unhappiness seemed plausible enough to us at the time, just as it seemed an easy and uncomplicated matter to reform ourselves, to master all virtues and be happy... God alone knows, however, just how absurd those noble dreams of youth were, or who was to blame that they were never realised...

There's so much to think about from this passage. Firstly, out of Nikolenka and Nekhlyudov, which character is most similar to Tolstoy himself? Was Tolstoy a young man who inspired others, or one who was inspired? I'm inclined to think that he was primarily the latter but became the former, although I'd like to research this more. My favourite part of the above quote, however, must be the final sentence, in which the narrator - seeming incredibly close to the author himself at this point - reflects on the frequent futility of youthful self-improvement. Tolstoy's efforts were often as fruitless as Nikolenka's (and Nekhlyudov's), and the following phrase can easily apply to both author and character:

Although the idea of compiling rules for all the circumstances of life and always following them was one that attracted me as both extraordinarily simple and great, and one, moreover, that I intended to put into practice, I once again seemed to forget that it needed to be done at once, and kept postponing it for another time.

Another part of the trilogy that struck me was the gambling addiction of Nikolenka's father. This vice similarly applied to Tolstoy's father, grandfather and later Tolstoy himself, and so it's interesting to consider how this afflicted the author when growing up, and to question whether he applied these feelings to Nikolenka.

Reading this trilogy demonstrates how Tolstoy's ideas about human nature were first very much engaged with the world, and were later changed and modified by his growing experience of it. On a wider contextual level, many of the stances, techniques and themes utilised in the trilogy come to full flower in Tolstoy's later works. Some of the most moving parts of War & Peace depict the death of loved ones, for instance, a theme that was very much set in play by Tolstoy in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.

I'd certainly recommend this trilogy, particularly if you've read other novels by Tolstoy. I found it quite easy to read, although I have to say that I found Youth to be the most exciting section.

4.5 Stars