The Chymical Wedding

March 31, 2014

chymical weddingAlex Darken is a poet, father of two, lecturer at the Poly, and he’s in crisis. His marriage has fallen apart and he’s retreated to a cottage in Norfolk to lick his wounds and gain perspective. There he falls under the influence of an alcoholic, elderly poet (Edward) and a beautiful, troubled psychic, Laura. Together they “pursue the alchemical and personal secrets of the spirited Louisa Agnew”, a woman who is the centre of a parallel story from 140 years before. In this second narrative, Louisa follows her father’s obsession by devoting herself to the Hermetic arts, which in turn forces her to “confront her own dark side and her feelings for a tormented minister”.

I really enjoyed this novel. The modern-day story of Alex, Edward and Laura on the one hand and the intricate Victorian-era tale of Louisa, her father and the tormented reverend Edwin on the other. What made it particularly interesting from a psychology point of view was the way Lindsay Clarke draws on Carl Jung’s work on psychology and alchemy, which made me want to explore this area again.

I’ve always admired Jung’s emphasis on integration and his instruction that in order to be psychologically whole, we need to come to terms with our shadows or darker sides. In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung makes an analogy between the great task of the alchemists and the process of reintegration and individuation of the psyche in the modern psychotherapy patient.

On one level, alchemy is about turning base metals into noble ones (silver and gold) while at a psychological level it describes a more symbolic process of transformation. When we engage in psychotherapy, Jung says, we are engaged in a process of transforming ourselves. The difficult experiences of our daily lives are changed through the act of working on them and more significantly, like the alchemists, we ourselves are transformed.

If you’re interested in reading more about Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, a good place to start would be the Wikipedia entry. In the novel there is also a lovely description of the process of firing up a kiln, which draws on the language of alchemy to describe the transformation through fire of moulded clay into a beautifully glazed work of art.

But to return to the novel, at one level it is a coming-of-age story and both Alex Darken and Louisa Agnew need to grow up and take responsibility for the different aspects of who they are. But while Alex emerges from the novel seemingly refreshed and ready to take up the challenges once again, Louisa is much more restricted by her circumstances. There’s an interesting aside here in that Clarke based his story on the real-life story of Mary-Ann Atwood. Like Louisa Agnew, Atwood published an alchemical book which she then withdrew at the request of her father. But unlike Louisa, Mary-Ann Atwood was able to marry and live a more fulfilled life.

A couple of gripes here. Firstly, some of the descriptions of alchemy and the hermetic arts were too wordy and detailed for my liking. Secondly, it struck me how much the novel both draws on psychology while also ignoring it. There’s the issue of psychotherapy for a start – none of the characters even contemplate it in the face of pretty serious ‘life events’. And while therapy would (hopefully) offer a calm, containing environment to sort through any number of disturbing thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t of course make for a thrilling novel. Much more exciting to have wild unconscious forces at work than to talk them through on the couch.

There is one passage though, which I thought beautifully captured for me what therapy can be about. Edwin Frere, the troubled Victorian priest, seeks out Louisa Agnew’s advice late at night:

And someone was there who listened. She listened without judgement, with concern and a tender regard for every difficulty in which he struggled. There were moments when he dared to look up into the searching blue of her eyes and he might have believed it possible to say anything — anything and everything of his shame and rage, his fears and his fathomless dread. Never had he felt himself in the presence of so receptive a spirit. She was more truly priest than he was himself. She would silence nothing, forbid nothing. She would exhort nothing but such measure of honesty as he felt able to share.

I’d love to hear your opinions if you’ve read this novel. I was thinking that it qualifies as a psychological thriller (although not in the conventional sense) and it may well turn out to be one of the more interesting novels I read this year.

At the library

March 28, 2014

I’m on holiday for two weeks and what better way to spend some of this time (when I’m not looking after a demanding 3-year old) than at my local library? What inspired this, in part, has been listening to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

Rubin spends much of her writing life at the New York Society Library (see and it’s certainly helped her to be productive. She says that she’s “always loved working in libraries, with their air of quiet purposefulness and possibility”.

My library is not as quiet or as purposeful but the light here is clean and clear, there’s a pleasant coffee shop next door and if I wasn’t due to pick up the little madam in 50 minutes then I would be all set.

Right now there are two little boys playing hide-and-seek in the shelves near me. The one in the little monster t-shirt crawls onto an empty shelf while his brother Batman wraps a thin piece of plastic around his eyes and counts to 20. “Found you!” he shouts and they run off happily. Not far behind is their mom, looking slightly stressed as she hisses “Josh! No running on the ramp!”

Quick update from our side. We’re living in L’s flat while the renovations continue. And we’re still hoping for a mid-May occupation date, piles of rubble notwithstanding.

leah with train crop
Here’s a pic of Leah on the balcony of the flat. I’m enjoying the sound of the trains and every second Saturday there’s a steam train chuffing past which adds to the charm.

At the moment it’s a close thing to see which gets here first – Baby # 2 or the house. Our builder assures us that the house will be ready my mid-May and Baby 2 is only due for the end of May so we’ll probably be fine. I hope. :-)

Go tell Aunt Rosie (and other updates)

February 23, 2014

Some of the things that have been happening around here lately:

1. Waking up to an ear-worm of “Go tell Aunt Rosie” is a rather odd experience. Quick check of what it could mean. The old grey goose is dead. The only association I can make here is that Australia’s goose is cooked in the cricket. I’ve been exchanging a few brief emails with an Aussie cricket-writer and I’m feeling a little smug that the South Africans look set to win this test after a crushing defeat in the first one. I’m also pretty sure that this writer would not appreciate being referred to as Aunt Rosie :-)

2. We’re under the 100 days to go mark with our new house! Here’s a picture of what it looked like a few days ago. As you can see, it’s rubble, rubble, rubble.

house before pic

3. Leah turned 3 and we had a Tinkerbell party for her. A colleague’s wife made this gorgeous cake …

tinkerbell cake smaller

4. Reading-wise, I’m struggling to keep a good momentum going. Partly this is because I’m not reading any fiction this month. I’m limiting my reading to books that I’ve already started and they don’t flow as easily as novels do. With our renovations taking up every available cent, I’ve resisted any new purchases but next month I’ll allow myself one new novel.

The Happiness Project

5. One book I am enjoying is the audio version of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I’ll review here in due course but a quick point which I’ve enjoyed: Rubin says there are four stages of happiness: anticipation of the event, savouring the experience, the expression of the feelings and then remembering the event afterwards.

Applying this to Leah’s birthday for example, much of the happiness was spent in anticipating Leah’s enjoyment of the party and her presents and then remembering the event afterwards. The party itself was pretty tiring.

The White Tiger

February 6, 2014

white tigerWhen I first encountered The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker-prize winning novel about class, the caste system, corruption, violence, poverty and India’s emerging super-rich, I wasn’t that interested. Another novel about violence, I thought. Balram Halwai, the chauffeur and main character, was bound to be a bit like the tigerish bully in The Life of Pi. I didn’t want to read about bullies. I wanted the gentle and rare over the brutish and personality-disordered.

Well yes, Balram (the White Tiger of the title) is a bully, but he is also sensitive in his own way. His mother dies when he’s still young, his father works himself to death as a rickshaw-puller and Balram’s extended family live in grinding poverty in an oppressive feudal-like class system in the poor state of Bihar in North-Eastern India. Balram, like the once-in-a-generation White Tiger of the title, is different, however. He might be a man who is still afraid of lizards and who bows and scrapes before his bosses, but he is special. He is intelligent, cunning, ambitious and lucky and is able to rise above his very limited circumstances.

This year I picked it up again and I was pleasantly surprised at how readable (and also interesting and disturbing) it is. The starting point is a rather awkward framing-device. Balram writes a letter in seven parts over seven nights to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Halwai, who is in hiding in Bangalore after killing his boss and stealing a large amount of money, hears that the Chinese premier is coming to Bangalore to learn about Indian entrepreneurs, and decides to tell his story.

And it is an interesting story, which opened my eyes to some of the vast complexity of India’s class system. Balram is a poor, uneducated (but quite intelligent) young man when he gets his lucky break as a chauffeur to one of India’s emerging rich families. His immediate boss Ashok is the son of a powerful landlord from Balram’s childhood village.

Through cunning, bullying and luck, Balram gets to drive the American-educated son Ashok and his American-Indian wife ‘Pinky Madam’ to New Delhi where they live in an expensive apartment, Buckingham Towers B, while the servants live in a maze of poorer rooms below ground. Balram and Ashok start out good and relatively innocent and quite quickly become corrupted. Pinky Madam runs over a child in freak drunk driving accident, Balram takes the rap, and this spirals into a situation in which Balram murders his boss and steals a massive bribe which was intended for one of the country’s ministers. In making a new life for himself in Bangalore as the owner of a taxi business, he becomes a symbol of the new Indian entrepreneur.

As implausible as I found the ending, what I did find interesting was the master-servant relationship between Ashok and Balram. I was also interested to see how the novel had been received. Reviewers praised the searing intensity with which Adiga dissects India’s economic and social problems but also panned the crude simplicity of this portrayal. Characters here are rich or poor, black or white. There’s no middle class moderation and gentle upward advancement. (Adiga compares himself with Dickens and there are also comparisons with Zola). Some reviewers praised the novel’s gritty realism and then either commended or criticised Adiga’s attempt to capture the sense (if not the essence or the vocabulary) of a desperate North Indian working class man’s subjectivity. The task is a massive one and I’m not in a position to judge how well Adiga has fared there. One thing that does strike me is that this is a well educated man’s attempt to imagine himself into a working class character’s life. It’s not bad (jarring in some places perhaps) but also not entirely convincing.

Three other comments to make. Firstly, Adiga does a good job of describing the narcissism which pervades oppressive class arrangements. The exploitation, lack of empathy and general lack of sensitivity are shocking. It is not hard to imagine that corruption and ultimately murder are the logical outcomes of such an oppressive system.

Secondly, women get a very bad rap in The White Tiger and that is another major weakness for me. Of course, Balram is a narcissistic murderer and thief and so we shouldn’t expect him to be very rational and objective in his views on fellow Indians. But the stereotypes here are too extreme. All politicians appear to be corrupt. All women (admittedly viewed through Balram’s distorted view) are prostitutes, simple, narrow-minded wives, or cruel matriarchs.

Thirdly, I was interested (and also disappointed) to hear that The White Tiger beat Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to the 2008 Booker prize – apparently because Anne Enright had won the year before and it was not considered advisable to award the prize to an Irish novelist two years in a row. I’ve been wondering whether more violent novels (and I would include The Slap here) garner critical acclaim because of their shock value. Do they reflect society more accurately than the gentler novels?

But as a starting point in reflecting the new India with its globalised multinational companies, its vast disparities of rich and poor and some of the multitude of stories that lie underneath the glossy surface of the “world’s largest democracy”, The White Tiger is worth a read.

Girls, goals, gratitude

January 6, 2014

01012014246This year we had a quiet New Year’s celebration in Hermanus. We spent time with family and did typical summer holiday things. Sun, sea, sand, books, ice-cream. My New Year’s resolution (I can’t remember more than one resolution) is to be more grateful this year.

It’s all about coping with stress and trying to be happier. Apparently one way to achieve a happier year is to keep a gratitude journal. I kept that up for one day and then slipped back to feeling a bit sorry for myself. We have a few stressful life-events in a row this year. We’re moving, renovating and … [drum roll please] … having another baby! All in the first six months of the year.

Should be pretty crazy, right? I’m trying to take each of these things one step at a time but, to be honest, the stress is eating me up. I keep regaining my equilibrium and resolving to slow down and live more in the present. But I keep losing that same equilibrium and worrying myself silly (and a bit sick).

This Friday is moving day and it’s pretty scary. What makes this more tricky is that we’re down-scaling to a flat for four months while the renovation is happening and so we have to store half of our possessions in different places.

Ah well, it will be exciting and stressful and exhausting. At least I have another week off work and so can pack boxes.

Oh, and the exciting news part. L and I are expecting a baby girl in late May, early June! We’re excited but we also wonder if perhaps we aren’t a little mad. I worry about the sleepless nights. Two kids to keep safe and sane and fed and clothed and schooled. Just when we’re getting the first one potty trained (mostly), do we really want to go through this all again?

Leah is taking the news pretty well. Today she spoke to the baby in mama’s tummy and told her that she’s looking after a Hello Kitty stuffed toy for her and that she’ll lend the baby her old clothes. (Just as long as the baby doesn’t try and mess with her favourite toys – and that’s just a matter of time, right?)

We have a name (which I won’t reveal here for reasons of not-jinxing-the baby). We just want her to be happy and healthy. And we want to survive the year as well as we can. Wish us luck. :-)

My week so far (with owls)

November 13, 2013

L’s birthday brunch with family. Enjoyable but completely overshadowed by a visit to the emergency room later in the day. Leah fell off a slide at a birthday party and landed awkwardly on her shoulder. No fracture thankfully but lots of tears.

Leah is sick in the car on the way to my staff drinks function at work. Call L. Drop off child and car-seat at home, change clothes and head to the function. Get home an hour late to a not-very-impressed wife.

Wake up to a slight hangover. In the evening, Leah refuses to go to bed. Much cajoling and then eventually a bit of light discipline.

L feels guilty about aforesaid discipline but Leah is fine. Chatting away. “Hic burp” (laugh). Leah happy to wear her new summer dressing gown. I have to give a short tribute speech to a colleague who is being retrenched.

And that’s just half the week gone. Add in various stressors related to the sale of our house and the proposed renovation of our new house and I feel like things are a little overwhelming at the moment. The trouble is that I don’t have the will or the energy to really process all the things that are happening at the moment. I’m trying to take things one day at a time but, as the saying does, several days seem to gang up on me at once.

At least there is online Scrabble to bring a bit of light relief. And a walk in Kirstenbosch. Last time we went we saw the owls. There are two Eagle owl chicks who are a gorgeous mottled colour and who look like they could be almost adolescents by now. I’m not sure if their mom still feeds them but it’s a little disconcerting to think that one day these little ones will leave the nest.

Just writing about owls now reminds me of a recent read, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” by David Sedaris. This was my first Sedaris and I really enjoyed it. I won’t review it here (perhaps I already did?) since I posted a short review on Goodreads. But I liked the combination of humour and sincerity that Sedaris brings. Sedaris’s partner (whose name escapes me for the moment) likes Owls and so people give him lots of owl-related gifts. When David gets a chance to buy him a stuffed owl for Valentine’s Day, he jumps at this opportunity. It was a good story, which I’m totally not doing justice to here. But I did want to break my blogging drought and give you have a rather random snapshot of our lives at the moment.

Reading-wise, I’ve picked up a copy of Jumpha Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, which is quite slow and thoughtful and a lovely contrast to my slightly out-of-control life at the moment.


October 6, 2013

leah driveway smaller

Hello from a summery Cape Town. The fourth term has started and I can’t believe it’s less than 10 weeks to the end of term. We’re counting down to January 15th when the big move happens and I’m trying not to worry too much about all the things that we need to do before then.

Today I want to share some Leah-isms. Yesterday was a classic example. We were at The Book Lounge (my favourite bookstore in Cape Town) for storytime. The theme was friendship and after the reading, the staff got the 10 children there to make friendship bracelets. When it was all finished, a mother and daughter came up to us and asked if the girl could give Leah her bracelet. I said “thank you very much, that’s very kind” and they turned to leave. At that moment, Leah pipes up.

Leah: I don’t want the bracelet!
Pete: Yes, you do. It’s a lovely bracelet which this little girl has kindly given you.
Leah: I don’t want it. I throw it on the floor!

At which point of course I wanted to disappear through the floor.

    Some other sayings which I’ve jotted down at the back of my journal:

Dada’s driving the steering wheel.

Go away, Dada, into the sea!

It’s mama’s turn to read the story. Dada must go and shave his stubble.

The potty’s NOT the place!

Mama’s got a kind face. She’s got no stubble.

I don’t have a winky. I have a flower.

I’m not going to vomit today.

Dada, come and see! It’s the bin-bus [the dustbin truck].

Stay me here!

Me: Leah, would you like a baby brother or sister to play with?
Leah: No! That would be NOT a good idea!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers