On reading and not writing

August 30, 2016

I’d sort of given up on blogging, since life was just too hectic and I wasn’t finding time to do anything much at all. But then I found that life without blogging was not necessarily more productive than life with blogging. So I’ve decided to start again. Even if it’s just a way of checking in and saying “this is what I’m reading and not writing”. So to make it sort of easier to write, I’m doing a Q&A.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?

winnicott A: I’m reading Winnicott by Adam Phillips. I’m enjoying it but it’s definitely harder to read this on Kindle. I lose the thread and it takes days to pick it up again. I’m interested in Winnicott because he’s more hopeful than Freud or Klein. He was also one of the first clinicians to stress the primary importance of the mother-infant relationship. He says there’s no such thing as a baby, only a baby in relationship with its primary caregiver.

He stresses the importance of playing, of creativity, of holding (physical and emotional), and of transitional objects. He’s interested in aggression, in real and false selves, and in many other things as well. I just wish that I had more time to read and think.

I’m also reading “Towards an Emancipatory Psychoanalysis: Brandchaft’s Intersubjective Vision”. brandchaftIt’s long, it’s good, it’s dense. I’m reading this for our self-psychology reading group, and so it’s one chapter a month. I’m also reading this electronically since the physical copy was very expensive. Even with the pound taking a slight dip with Brexit fears, books are still outrageously expensive.

I need to find a good novel to read. Maybe a re-read. The last novel I read was “The Little Paris Bookshop” which was good but not great. I always feel a little guilty saying that. Is it me? Is it the book? A combination of the two? Seeing a Goodreads rating of below four stars also tends to make me think that it’s not just me.


Q: What are you writing at the moment, if anything?

A: I tend to write a lot of concussion reports since it’s rugby season. To be honest, I really dislike them. I write the minutes of meetings. I write off and on in my journals (both electronic and book-form).

Q: What would you like to write?

A: I would like to write some sort of memoir, but I know that that’s not possible at the moment for a number of reasons. Firstly, I could never bring myself to write about my family knowing that they might read it. And secondly, I need to work on my writing fitness.

Just today I thought that I would like to write about my mother. It’s a difficult topic but it just feels right. For a long while I thought I should write about my dad. Since he is the more well-known of the two (famous even, one might say). Sons writing about their fathers seems more logical, right? But actually the more difficult story would be the more interesting one. But I can’t write about it here. Part of me thinks that I would have nothing to say. But I know that’s not true. I also have a whole drawer full of journals which I could trawl through. *sigh* It’s complicated.

And you? What are you reading at the moment? And writing?

Easter reading

April 27, 2011

Freedom Day long weekend here and it’s freezing cold. I’m in the front bedroom at Betty’s Bay with L and the pie. Pie is going “a ooh goo” and L is going “blublublum”. Pie is wearing a white jersey knitted by granny and has just had some milk. L and I are drinking tea and eating hot cross buns.

I thought I’d tell you about some of the books I got for my birthday earlier this month. I can’t remember all the titles but here are the ones I remember:

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Little Liberia by Jonny Steinberg
Edge of the Table (14 stories of youths from the Cape Flats)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Girl meets Boy by Ali Smith
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith

A good haul, wouldn’t you say? I’m also reading a few psychology books, including Writing through the Darkness (on writing as therapy for depression) and The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert.

One novel which I really enjoyed recently is The hand that first held mine by Maggie O’Farrell which was really excellent. This novel is similar in structure to The vanishing act of Esme Lennox in that O’Farrell tells two stories (set in different times) which then connect in a powerful way. I see that the Guardian reviewer calls it a “compelling story about memory and motherhood”. Here we have the parallel stories of Lexie Sinclair (a journalist in 1950s London) and modern-day Ted and Elina (young parents struggling to keep things together following the birth of their first child). I won’t give any of the plot away but I’m interested in how O’ Farrell manages to keep the reader engaged and in suspense over such a long time.

She’s also excellent at set pieces and I was reading out bits to L such as the one which describes in graphic detail what is known in our household as the ‘squirty poo’. What amazed me as well was the way she turns it into a crucial plot-device.

I’ve also started Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which is a good choice for a seaside holiday since it’s a romance with a difference set near a small English seaside town. I’m enjoying the interaction between Major Pettigrew, a retired military man, and Mrs Ali who runs the local shop. Some of the characters are a bit two dimensional but both the Major and Mrs Ali are very well drawn.

One of my favourite things about the Easter holidays is that I get to catch up on other reading such as the London Review of Books. I read a brilliant piece by Eliot Weinberger on George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points. Weinberger uses the deconstructive language of Foucault to pick apart Dubya in a funny and very telling way.

Here’s an excerpt:

Foucault found his theories embodied, sometimes unconvincingly, in writers such as Proust or Flaubert. He died in 1984, while Junior was still an ageing frat boy, and didn’t live to see this far more applicable text. For the questions that he, even then, declared hopelessly obsolete are the very ones that should not be asked about Decision Points ‘by’ George W. Bush (or by ‘George W. Bush’): ‘Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?’

He goes on to deconstruct the ‘lone hero’ style of George W. Bush and the fiction that is his memoir. All memoirs are fiction to a large extent but to see the way that Foucaultian theory unpicks the simple (and yet complex) way that the whole George W. Bush presidency was constructed is really helpful. I find it easy to get despondent about governments and politics (especially US politics) which is why it’s refreshing to see the subjectivity of leaders such as Dubya taken apart (almost like a doll) to see how they work.

And then I read (or tried to read) Jenny Turner’s piece on David Foster Wallace. Suffice to say that I’m interested to read his much-acclaimed Infinite Jest but definitely won’t be reading The Pale King.

Coetzee’s Cruelty

May 25, 2008

I’ve just finished the South African-born writer JM Coetzee’s childhood memoir Boyhood and I was intrigued by the complex interplay of empathy, isolation, emotional cruelty, shame and ambition that I saw there.

When Coetzee was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2003, the Swedish academy noted his capacity for empathy which enabled him to “time and again creep beneath the skin of the alien and the abhorrent”. I haven’t read enough Coetzee to comment authoritatively on the relationship between cruelty and empathy in his other writing, but I was curious about these themes in Boyhood.

I read “The Life and Times of Michael K” many years ago and then most recently “Disgrace” which was celebrated but also widely criticised for its bleak outlook on South Africa under a Black government.

As an aside, Coetzee is probably as much disliked as he is admired, especially in South Africa. People in Cape Town take him and his writing personally because he was, before he left for Australia in 2003, the most celebrated writer at our local university. Some people who’ve come into contact with him say he is arrogant, detached, aloof, and pessimistic but also brilliant and a master storyteller. He has been described as a master of “ruthless honesty” which cuts to the bone and as a “misery guts with a mother complex” (at least in Boyhood).

I found Boyhood refreshing, thought-provoking and compelling. From an autobiographical point of view, the first odd thing about it is that he writes in the third person, almost as if John Coetzee is one of his characters. This allows him to be revealing of his thoughts while at the same time creating a sense of distance from them. Coetzee has consistently shied away from giving interviews about his books, preferring to let them speak for themselves.

Here he gives us a sharp and richly textured account of the boy that became the man (and the Great Writer who is apparently the major living author most closely associated with the tradition of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett). Perhaps what struck me most was his cruelty, his dogged ambition fuelled in part by a deep sense of shame, an extremely close relationship to his mother, and his barely veiled antagonism towards his father.

He writes about taking his intelligent, devoted but over-involved mother for granted, of feeling suffocated and guilty, and then of developing a gradual streak of emotional cruelty towards her.

He yearns to be free of her watchful attention. There may come a time when to achieve this he will have to assert himself, refuse her so brutally that with a shock she will have to step back and release him. Yet he has only to think of that moment, imagine her surprised look, feel her hurt, and he is overtaken with a rush of guilt. Then he will do anything to soften the blow: console her, promise her he is not going away. … Feeling her hurt, feeling it as intimately as if her were part of her, she part of him, he knows he is in a trap and can’t get out. Whose fault is it? He blames her, he is cross with her, but he is ashamed of his ingratitude too. Love: this is what love really is, this cage in which he rushes back and forth, back and forth, like a poor bewildered baboon. (p.122)

At other points he describes his disappointment with his father, his barely-concealed contempt mixed with sparing admiration for him, and of gloating over the fact that he, as the oldest son, was the most important person in the house and first in his mother’s affections, a step up from his shameful and mediocre father.

Since the day his father came back from the War they have fought, in a second war which his father has stood no chance of winning because he could never have foreseen how pitiless, how tenacious his enemy would be. For seven years that war has ground on; today he has triumphed. He feels like the Russian soldier on the Brandenburg Gate, raising the red banner over the ruins of Berlin.
Yet at the same time he wishes he were not here, witnessing the shame. Unfair! he wants to cry: I am just a child! He wishes that someone, a woman, would take him in her arms, make his wounds better, soothe him, tell him it was just a bad dream. He thinks of his grandmother’s cheek, soft and cool and dry as silk, offered to him to be kissed. He wishes his grandmother would come and put it all right.” (p.160)

He appears to delight in his father’s humiliation and defeat but at the same time feel guilty about what that might mean for him. Winning the oedipal conflict, in a sense, has devastating consequences. In self psychology terms, the grandiose self wins out over the internalised parent image. It’s also interesting that the woman he wants to take him in her arms is his grandmother rather than his mother. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. But I think there’s a sense of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Wanting to be the baby, soothed and comforted by the mother while his rival suffers, but also wanting to avoid the recriminations that this could bring.

Returning to cruelty and a detached awareness of empathy, he recalls crushing his younger brother’s finger in a machine (which then required half of the finger to be amputated) and not feeling any remorse. Even his first memory is one of cruelty:

He is leaning out of the window of their flat in Johannesburg. Dusk is falling. Out of the distance a car comes racing down the street. A dog, a small spotted dog, runs in front of it. The car hits the dog: its wheels go right over the dog’s middle. With its hind legs paralysed, the dog drags itself away, squealing with pain. No doubt it will die; but at this point he is snatched away from the window. …It is a magnificent memory, trumping anything that poor Goldstein can dredge up.

Critics have pointed to a thread of cruelty which runs through his fiction, particularly his early novels which provided a scathing (but oblique) criticism of apartheid. In this memoir, Coetzee seems to point out that at a broader level, cruelty was an inescapable fact of South African life at that time. Just going to school was a battle for survival against sadistic bullies. If he internalised this sadism, perhaps he’s saying, then it’s not his fault. And his relentless ambition (which included being cruel to and distant from his family) was necessary in order for him to achieve success. Isolating himself emotionally was a form of cruelty but also a form of survival and a means to produce something significant.

Random blogging thoughts

May 16, 2008

First up an introduction. This is Joschka (in typical sleeping mode), named by her previous owners after the German ex-politician. There’s so much to say about her but I think it’s a bit like blogging about your child. Where do I start? Do I tell you about the time she broke the same window three times in a row and I was so frustrated and despairing that I tried to give her away? Or about the fight that I had with my girlfriend at the time which boiled down to a variation of “It’s me or the dog”? Another time maybe.

I could also tell you about a blog challenge on another blog I visit here. It’s mostly a fun, social-type blog and from time to time we give each other topics to write about. My inspired title for this week was “Those three words”. I still have no idea what I’ll write about but I really liked Franky’s post about her dad.

And then there’s the newbie blogger thing. I’ve actually been blogging off and on for about 2 years but this is my first serious attempt at blogging. I know I’ll grow into it and that I should just be myself rather than trying to get all hyper and impress people. After all, the only person I need to impress is myself since this is primarily for my benefit. As Alan Bennett says, you don’t reveal yourself in writing, you find yourself. I suppose the same could be said for therapy.

Reading wise I’ve been making progress with Divisadero and the audio version of War and Peace and I’ve also started J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood. I have mixed feelings about Coetzee but I like this book enough to blog about it (at some point).

Job-wise, I’m starting to feel a little more settled. I’m relieved that this new psychology position is not overwhelming but a bit sad that it’s so dull. It’s only for a year and I’ve got lots to keep me busy in the meantime. But there’s still some regret that I opted for the easy option (in cape town with the military) rather than taking a more challenging position elsewhere.

Weather-wise it’s pretty cold and rainy. So it’s perfect weather for a hot mug of something comforting and the rest of that Ondaatje (if the blogs don’t get me first). Happy reading.

Tolstoy in Traffic

May 14, 2008

Nice view, hey? Windscreen’s a bit dirty but you still get a good idea of sunrise over the N2, which is what I saw this morning on my way to work at the military base. Now I know I shouldn’t try to multi-task in early morning traffic. Trying to listen to War and Peace on my car stereo, taking a picture of the sunrise with my phone and staying in the right lane at the same time is not recommended.

I blame Bloglily 😉 I was reading her Measure for Measure experience on the train and I thought that my 40-minute car journey (each way) every day would be a perfect opportunity to catch up on some classics. Unfortunately the choice in my dad’s CD collection was between the collected works of Marcel Proust (about 20 CDs) and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Now I’ve got nothing against Proust but being in the military for a year (community service) meant that I opted for Tolstoy. I would have preferred Anna Karenina just for its opening line: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Sadly all the Jane Austens were on tape.

About five minutes into my journey, happily going against the town traffic, I realised that my concentration was waning. Trying to get your mind around a whole cast of new characters while you are rushing to work in the dark is probably a recipe for disaster. Fortunately I could slow down to about 80 or 90 kms/hr on the freeway in order to actually hear some of the action.

So what can I tell you? As one wisecrack put it, it’s about Russia. Also don’t marry for money because you can borrow it much cheaper. Actually I haven’t got there yet. I guess one way of looking at the action so far is that it’s very bourgeois, and I wonder if Lenin or his contemporaries read Tolstoy (they must have done). One memorable but rather silly part is the account of how Pierre, the lovable but rogueish illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, strapped a policeman onto the back of a bear and dropped them both into a river. I guess it’s a kind of epic soap opera for its time. The Young and the Restless or Days of our Tragic Russian Lives. Love and death are just around the corner but for the moment we’re knee-deep in salon parties. Bring on the revolution?

From a gender perspective it’s also interesting. Prince Andrei on marriage:

“Never, never marry, my dear fellow! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake.”

Thankfully this is the abridged version.

Sunday reading

May 5, 2008

Books I’ve been reading recently or am intending to read:

Karma Suture, Rosie Kendal
Mothers and Sons, Colm Toibin
Essays on Love, Alain de Botton
Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje
Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks
With Chatwin, Susannah Clapp
Through the Darkness, Judith Garfield Todd

The Sacks one is great for dipping into and being inspired to listen to more music, to play more and just be aware of how extraordinary our brains are. The Rosie Kendal is easy reading (chick-lit) and is set in part in the same hospital where I did my internship. It was fascinating to read her descriptions of a place I know well and to get the personal perspective of an ordinary but dedicated doctor in the overstretched and underfunded South African public health system.

I read about “Mothers and Sons” on Litlove’s blog and thought that it was fitting for my present situation (since I’m temporarily back home with the parents). Patrick Ness writes that Toibin has “an eye for the chasms in one of life’s key relationships”. Jeff Turrentine says that in the wrong hands the relationship between Irish mothers and sons would be “a recipe for mawkishness that can end only with the pipes calling Danny boy from glen to glen while his beloved Ma waits patiently in sunshine or in shadow”. Far from it. These stories are about the silent, awkward distance between family members rather than any mystical connection.

The family dramas played out in the nine stories here are understated and as revealing for what they don’t say as what they do. There’s a lot of not knowing and not saying and much of the drama gets played out inside the minds of observers.

I was a bit reluctant to start “Essays on Love” even though I really like Alain de Botton’s writing (his book on Proust for beginner’s for a start). I wasn’t in the mood to think about love or read about love since I just didn’t feel like the pain that I knew was in store. Luckily De Botton book wasn’t gloating or preachy or smugly self-satisfied. And the inevitable break-up was painful but also done with just the right amount of humour. He also brings a lot of psychological insights to his practical philosophy.

Had to force myself to sit down with the Ondaatje but once I’d done so I started loving it. (Another recommended read so maybe that’s the reluctance). I love the sparse lyricism of his writing, as in the part where Anna is talking about her mother: “For Claire and me she was a rumour, a ghost barely mentioned by our father, someone interviewed for a few paragraphs in this book, and shown in a washed-out black-and-white photograph”. There’s a sense that life is elsewhere and the early pages are full of melancholy, longing, beauty and then terrible violence. I’ll have to read some reviews to clarify what it is I’m thinking about this.