Kindness and consolations

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot is a story about self-actualization. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are on the cusp of adulthood and embroiled in a love triangle; self-actualization is definitely a long way off for our three protagonists. The novel documents the proverbial ‘journey’ of the individual and acknowledges the cultural shift that has happened in the Western world since the last century: marriage no longer signifies the expression of a person’s full capacity. Thank goodness.

I’m not going to write a proper review today, but I will say this: don’t be put off by the prose in the first chapter; some of it is a bit over the top with superfluous adjectives and adverbs aplenty. It’s a good book; as awkward and pretentious as many of us were in our late teens, but ever-evolving and increasingly complicated in the latter parts. I liked it; I was familiar with its ‘people’, and I always enjoy books that hit close to home.

I’m not writing a lengthy post, because I’m feeling a bit depleted by my children. I am a creature of habit, and during the school holidays I tend to feel a bit ‘at sea’. I’ve been feeling this way for the last week; unsettled; a little bit out of sorts. I’ve been writing infrequently and indulging in way too many sugary treats. I’ve been torpid and irate with the kids. My darling poppets grew accustomed to the Lotto life whilst holidaying in Hong Kong and they’ve come home rather tetchy and spoilt. So I’ve had to practise a bit of ‘tough love’ to restore my usually (mostly!) delightful boys. It’s been exhausting.

A dear friend of mine, Jen, has provided some relief in the form of a tiny book; a book of consolation. It is about ‘surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world’. These are letters from German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, to his young acolyte and would-be writer, Franz Xaver Kappus. Ever humble and unwaveringly kind, Rilke writes of the experiences particular to artists; the inevitable disappointments and heady joys.

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This week, I do not have the wherewithal to write a decent review, but I’d like to share a passage from Letters to a Young Poet, where Rilke tries to respond critically to his young admirer’s poetry:

With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

Such is the nature of writing: we writers seek to express the inexpressible; we choose our words with the utmost care, and it can grow to be a tiresome thing, an extremely difficult thing, when the body and soul are weary. I have a feeling that this book will be a good tonic.

 

 

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Coming of age…

Part of being a writer is observing the connections, coincidences and ironies in everyday life; we rejoice in comparing, analysing and making meaning from otherwise unrelated events.

Perth author, Lynne Leonardt, recently wrote:

“Whether you enjoy a book often depends on where you were, what you were doing and what was going on around you; in general, what food for thought your impoverished soul was hungering for at the time.”

Now, herein lies the coincidence: I was only meditating on Lynne’s notion the other day. You see, many of my favourite novels are the ones I read during my formative years. I wonder if they would still hit the mark now; or, if I’d ‘kill’ them, like when I killed The Dark Crystal by watching it as an adult.

I was recently reading through Annabel Smith’s old blog posts and found a list of novels she thought over-hyped (see post here). One of them is a book I read at least five times between the age of seventeen and twenty. I still list it in my ‘Favourite Novel List’, even though I haven’t read it in ten years. It spoke to me at the time. Upon reflection, I’m wondering if it would still speak to this thirty year old mother of two; a thirty year old who has let go of a lot of the angst and insecurity. Before I reveal the title, I’ll tell you what Annabel said of the novel:

“Perhaps one of the most overrated books of all time, it seems to whip all those arty, pseudo-intellectual types into a frenzy. I found it flawed in many respects and a little pretentious.”

Oh, goodness. The title could be “KRISTEN LEVITZKE, AGED NINETEEN” because her summary,  is, unfortunately, probably a rather accurate description of me at nineteen. Undergraduate Arts degrees are much wasted on the young…

The novel is, of course, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I feel compelled to reread it and see if my feelings have changed. Somehow, I doubt they will, because I bloody loved that book. I’m reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides at the moment, and it actually reminds me of Tartt’s novel in some way. It begins as an American campus novel and weaves plenty of obscure, and possibly pretentious theory within. Maybe it appeals to my vanity; for once, I know something (even if it is just the name of a long forgotten theorist or feminist performance artist!). Maybe it’s because it validates my arts degree; makes me feel like studying English and Philosophy and Fine Arts and History has some kind of currency. Or maybe I’m still a bit of a wanker. Either way, I hope that one day, I can write my own semi-autobiographical bildungsroman set in Perth’s very own leafy green UWA campus. It will have a really great charcter arc…I hope.

It’s my birthday next week, so it’s nearly a year since I had a bit of a wanky  30th birthday fancy dress party. I went for a tongue-in-cheek and WARM costume, dressing as Donna Tartt: the quintessential, stereotypical writer; reclusive, pretentious, clad in black, and ‘Louise Brooks’ bobbed.

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Can you find Wally?

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This was the invitation, and everyone ‘came to the party’, so to speak, with their costumes. It was a bit like being in one of my favourite Woody Allen movies, Midnight in Paris. I hobnobbed with all sorts of literary and artistic figures: Frida Kahlo, Jay Gatsby, Woody Allen, Charlotte (of the web!), Alice, The Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Miss Marple, Waldo, Mary Poppins, Robin Hood, Banksy, Sherlock Holmes, Little Red Riding Hood, Friar Tuck, Batman, Lady Macbeth, Arthur Dent, Biggles, Jamie Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Rogue, The Chimney Sweeper, Batman, Elizabeth Bennett, Titania, Hermione… it was a night I’ll never forget.

‘Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic’

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I’m back from a truly magical holiday with my extended family. There were ten of us in total; six adults to four children- a perfect ratio. Upon reflection, I can see that the aforementioned ‘magic’ can be wholly attributed to storytelling. In life, we generally create our own fictions, or immerse ourselves in bookish or cinematic ones. At Disneyland and Universal Studios, we were thrust headfirst into new worlds where we barely needed to suspend disbelief. I have: dodged hostile indigenous peoples in the Amazon; survived supernatural forces at Mystic Manor; been attacked by mummies; fallen off the top level of a sky scraper; been commended for my bravery by Optimus Prime; and flown through space with Elmo. Not only did I get to experience the magic myself, but I observed true wonder and enchantment in the faces of my children. If I die tomorrow, I’ll die happy.

But…on to more traditional modes of storytelling…

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The first fictional world that had me wholly captivated  on this holiday was a book recommended to me as a ‘great holiday read’ by Perth author, Annabel Smith. I read this sharp, satirical novel, Where’d you go Bernadette?,  in one sitting (only interrupted by in-flight service and children spilling drinks) and it was such a pleasure. The narrative structure was very clever; the characters and stories are revealed through emails, documents and a little bit of first person narration by Bernadette’s daughter. The fully fledged, immediately endearing characters were a highlight for me; Microsoft ‘wunderkind’ Elgie; creatively stunted architect and resident misanthropic agoraphobic, Bernadette; long-suffering but high-achieving daughter, Bee; and the uppity school mums who never degenerated into stereotypes. After I read this novel, it came as no surprise that the author, Maria Semple, was a writer for Arrested Development, one of my favourite TV comedies.

 
This novel was about something very close to my heart; the inherent danger in ignoring or deliberately quelling your own creative compulsions. In my own novel (for which I am currently seeking publication) one of my characters warns, ‘You can’t be a mother AND an artist’. Of course the truth is, if you are, by nature, an artist (or a scientist or passionate about anything in particular!) then you have to nurture those impulses, or you just might go mad like our long-suffering protagonist, Bernadette. Parenthood or an inane ‘day job’ can often get in the way of exploring our passions, but Bernadette is a cautionary tale for us all; we all need to find fulfilment in our own way. I’m always particularly interested in motherhood in this context. In the early days with a newborn (and all the intense transitions entailed) it’s easy to convince oneself that milky snuggles and domestic management will be endlessly soul satisfying; indeed, it’s important work, the work of mothers (read: parents). But as children grow up, it becomes abundantly clear that most modern women need interests (be it craft or astrophysics!) outside of their offspring, lest they go bonkers. Poor Bernadette is an obstructed hot spring and she’s about to blow.

Where’d you go Bernadette? is a humourous and poignant take on mental illness and anxiety. I had an interesting conversation with some other writers in the comments section of Natasha Lester’s great blog. We were talking about how writers seem to have a tendency to catastrophise and we joked about establishing some hard data. If you’re a writer, and you’re reading this, please, give us some anecdotal data (hard data is probably a bit ambitious!). Catastrophiser? Yay or nay?

I teach children with SLI (Specific Language Impairment) and anxiety tends to be an issue for these kids. As a worrywart from way back, I’m finding the mandated program that I’m currently delivering at school very useful. It’s nice and simple: are you having a red thought or a green thought? A red thought goes like this: ‘nobody likes me, everybody hates me…I think I’ll go and eat worms.’ You get the picture.

I have a long history of catastrophising but, in recent years, I’ve learnt to curb the negative thinking. It helped when I had my second child- I was able to spread my intense anxiety (those first years with your first child are HARD) across the two children instead of fixating on one. I’ve realised, that for me, it is the same with having dual careers; when I’m teaching, I can’t fret about my writing; when I’m writing, I can’t freak out about tomorrow’s parent interview. It’s a great system.

 Good novels like  Where’d you go Bernadette?  make us reflect on these kinds of issues, so, even though I’m happy to return to Disneyland any old day, books will always be my favourite form of fiction. To quote one of my favourite literary characters, Albus Dumbledore:

‘ Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.’

In other news:

The flamingoes in Alice Nelson’s The Last Sky inspired me to have a look at beautiful Kowloon Park. I now have a thing for flamingoes. I love saying the word and I love their pale pink, plasticine-like feathers.

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I never thought I’d say this, but I loved the Transformers ride at Universal Studios the most. It was absolutely mind-blowing.

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