Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

Hype is a strange beast.

In August, I feverishly raced through Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which were some of the best books I read this year. Mind you, I had been very, very late to the Ferrante party or in experiencing the Ferrante Fever. The quartet was published between 2012 and 2015 and was widely acclaimed. I was put off by the hype then and didn’t bother to delve into them until a couple of months ago. Boy, am I glad I did!

Something similar happened with Sally Rooney. Over the last couple of years, she has published two books. So many praises were showered upon her, that I dismissed her books with no intention of reading them. Once again, sheer curiosity took over and I decided to try out Conversations with Friends with low expectations.

And I must say I was really impressed. I guess all that hype was well justified after all.

Conversations with Friends

In Conversation with Friends, we meet Frances and Bobbi, who are in their early twenties. Frances is a student and an aspiring writer and at night she performs the spoken word with her friend Bobbi.

Of the two, Frances is the intellectual one, the one with brains and wit to match. In their poetry performances, she is the one who writes the scripts. Bobbi is the extrovert – brash and more outspoken of the two.

At one of their gigs, they run into Melissa, who is a rich and successful writer. The three immediately strike up a conversation.

Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together. Melissa took our photograph outside, with Bobbi smoking and me self-consciously holding my left wrist in my right hand, as if I was afraid the wrist was going to get away from me.

In Conversations with Friends, Frances is the narrator and we learn a bit more about her past as well as Bobbi’s. It turns out that Frances and Bobbi were more than just friends, they were in a relationship. But it didn’t last.

I wasn’t betraying anyone’s loyalties by being Bobbi’s girlfriend. I didn’t have close friends and at luncheon I read textbooks alone in the school library. I liked the other girls, I let them copy my homework, but I was lonely and felt unworthy of real friendship. I made lists of things I had to improve about myself. After Bobbi and I started seeing each other, everything changed. At lunchtime we walked along the car park holding hands and people looked away from us maliciously. It was fun, the first real fun I’d had.

After school we used to lie in her room listening to music and talking about why we liked each other. These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings.

Meanwhile, Melissa invites the two of them to dinner at her place in Monkstown. They are introduced to Melissa’s husband Nick, who is an actor. In her texts to Bobbi, Frances labels him as the ‘trophy husband.’ At dinner, Bobbi and Melissa immediately hit it off, while Nick is mostly quiet and Frances feels out of place.

Mostly Nick stayed quiet while Melissa asked us questions. Ashe made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make someone eat something when they don’t want to eat it. I didn’t kniow if I liked this sort of cheery forcefulness, but it was obvious how much Bobbi was enjoying it. She was laughing even more than she really had to, I could tell.

Frances and Nick end up conversing though…and it’s in these conversations between the two, where Rooney’s flair for wit sparkles.

Do you think Melissa’s playing favourites? Nick said. I’ll have a word with her if you want.

It’s okay. Bobbi is everyone’s favourite.

Really? I warmed to you more, I have to say.

We looked at each other. I could see he was playing along with me so I smiled.

Yes, I felt we had a natural rapport, I said.

I’m drawn to the poetic types.

Oh, well. I have a rich inner life, believe me.

Soon, Frances attends one of Nick’s theatre performances, and Nick watches Frances perform at one of her spoken word events. These conversations at public events steadily evolve into private exchanges with each other, either through phone calls or texts. It is apparent that Frances and Nick have embarked on an affair.

He (Nick) was the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music. He made me laugh.

Not surprisingly, this relationship has consequences for not only the two of them, but later for Bobbi and Melissa too.

As far as the writing goes, to be honest, there is nothing extraordinary about Rooney’s prose at the sentence level. And yet the novel has a very stylish feel to it, which I liked.

Also, this could have been any run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. Except that it isn’t. Far from it.

What stood out for me was Rooney’s keen insight into the complexities of modern relationships, how fluid they can be with no well-drawn boundaries. The dialogue and the interaction between the four characters felt fresh and lively, and Rooney does have a penchant for humour.

Rooney refuses to neatly cast her characters into well-defined slots. They are flawed and vulnerable with complex feelings, but it also makes them believable in a way people in real life tend to be.

Sure, Frances is intelligent, sharp spoken, and averse to stereotypes. Yet, ultimately she does end up having an affair with a married man, an act which by itself is so ordinary. And the relationship also highlights her insecurities. Thus, while she may have a ready answer for everything else, in this relationship she is caught quite off-guard. It makes her vulnerable and arouses sympathy in the reader.

It would be easy to judge Nick as yet another philandering husband among multitudes, and yet it is not so simple. Rooney’s portrayal of Nick is quite sensitive. He is a man who is self-aware and open to discussions as he sincerely tries to get a grip on his feelings for Frances and his commitment to his wife Melissa.

Despite the hype, publicity, and the recognition heaped by prize listings, Rooney’s books have divided opinion. On the strength of Conversations with Friends alone, I place myself firmly in the ‘like’ camp. I will be reading Normal People soon!

The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

I have to read everything that Deborah Levy writes. I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that one and have gobbled up every work of hers since then. Last year, the second installment of her ‘living autobiography’ called The Cost of Living made it to my Best of 2018 list.

Man Who Saw Everything

The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything.

Abbey Road is the last major album that The Beatles recorded together before the band officially split in 1970.

But a few months earlier, on 8 August 1969, the band did a photo shoot for that album cover on Abbey Road outside EMI Studios. The photo shows the Fab Four crossing the zebra in a single file. John Lennon was first, followed by Ringo Starr, then Paul McCartney who was walking barefoot, and George Harrison at the end. It is now considered the most iconic photo of The Beatles.

This photo was clicked by the late Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan who stood on a ladder in the middle of the street while a policeman blocked the traffic. The whole shoot took roughly ten minutes. The photo also fuelled a weird conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was actually dead and the man walking barefoot was a lookalike signifying a corpse, while Lennon was the priest and Harrison, the undertaker.

8 August 2019, incidentally, was the 50th anniversary of that iconic photo being taken.

abbey road pic
Image Source: Reuters & BBC

Coming to The Man Who Saw Everything, this is how the novel opens…

It’s like this, Saul Adler: when I was twenty-three I loved the way you touched me, but when the afternoon slipped in and you slipped out of me, you were already looking for someone else. No, it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau: I loved you every night and every day, but you were scared of my love and I was scared of my love, too. No, she said, I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love. Attention, Saul Adler. Attention! Look to the left and to the right, cross the road and get to the other side.

We move on to Part One, which is set in September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. The car’s mirror procured in Milan is in smithereens. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau.

It is Jennifer’s idea to replicate the iconic Abbey Road photo of The Beatles. But here, it would be only Saul crossing the zebra.

I asked her why she (Jennifer) was carrying a stepladder. She told me that was how the original photo of the Beatles on the Abbey Road zebra crossing was taken in August 1969 at 11:30 am. The photographer, Iain MacMillan, had placed the ladder at the side of the zebra while a policeman was paid to direct the traffic. MacMillan was given ten minutes to take the photo. But as I was not actually famous in any way, we couldn’t ask the police for five minutes so we had to work quickly.

Then Saul and Jennifer spend some time together before she abruptly breaks off with him. Jennifer has ambitions to pursue photography in America. While Saul, who is a historian, is set to travel to East Berlin shortly to research an article he is planning to write on the GDR (Germany is not reunited yet, and Berlin is divided by The Wall).

For this purpose, Saul has been assigned a translator in East Berlin, a man called Walter Muller. And Saul will be lodging with Muller’s mom Ursula and his sister, Luna.

Meanwhile, Saul falls in love with Walter Muller. And Luna, a big Beatles fan to whom Saul gifts the photos he clicked, is a nurse desperate to escape from the GDR. Then there is a friend, who the Mullers know, called Rainer, who may or may not be a Stasi spy.

This may all seem straightforward. But then some off-kilter moments begin to show up in the narrative.

Here’s one, in a conversation between Saul and Luna…

‘Listen, Luna.’ I felt as if I were floating out of my body as I spoke. ‘In September 1989, the Hungarian government will open the border for East German refugees wanting to flee to the West. Then the tide of people will be unstoppable. By November 1989, the borders will be open and within a year your two Germanys will become one.’

When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

As he lies in the hospital, various people close to him sit by his bedside and try to bring some coherence to his thoughts.

The Man Who Say Everything then is a wonderfully disorienting novel. If you are looking for a solid anchor, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. Reading this novel is akin to accepting that the ground you are standing on is not steady but is constantly shifting. Nothing is certain.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel of ideas, themes and recurring motifs.

Here are some motifs, which brilliantly display Levy’s play with language. Luna Muller is scared of jaguars prowling outside their family dacha in East Berlin. The car which hits Saul while crossing the zebra is a Jaguar.

Crossing the zebra on Abbey Road is another recurring concept. There is the actual Beatles photo. Then we have Jennifer recreating the photo shoot with Saul crossing the zebra on the same Abbey Road. Thrown into the mix is Luna’s love for the Beatles memorabilia. Luna is a nurse, and wants to go to Liverpool because she wants to see Penny Lane for herself.

Then there is the theme of a shattered man. In one of Jennifer’s photo exhibitions in New York, a triptych depicting Saul is mounted on the wall and is titled ‘A Man in Pieces’. Later in the novel, Luna sends across an envelope in which Saul’s photo crossing the zebra is torn in pieces. And then Saul, in a way, is in pieces mentally when his accident occurs.

There are some dominant themes in the novel too.

One is the presence of authoritarianism. Saul Adler is harassed by a domineering father, while Walter Muller and Luna have to grapple with a restrictive fatherland, the GDR. Saul is also writing an article on Stalin and his father and male tyrants in general.

The other theme explored is time blurring and merging into one another. When the past is entwined with the present and the boundaries are hazy, do we perceive the past with the lens of the present? Or the does the past always stain and weigh heavy on the way we live in the present?  The novel also examines the role of history on a broader scale and the events in personal life, how both can collude to impact the life of an individual.

But The Man Who Saw Everything is ultimately a story of the protagonist Saul Adler. He is portrayed as a very attractive, self-centred man, something that is pointed out to him by not only Jennifer and Walter, but as events play out is also apparent to the reader. Levy also highlights the fluidity of sexuality as Saul Adler is as capable of falling in love with Walter Muller as he is with Jennifer Moreau. He is a good looking man with intense blue eyes and always wears his deceased mother’s pearls around his neck.

In his relationships, Saul Adler is selfish. An affair leads to a final breach with Jennifer. And he only thinks of himself when he tries to get Walter Muller out of East Berlin.

‘He doesn’t care about his own life so he doesn’t care about the lives of others.’

More importantly is Saul Adler’s mind. Does Saul perceive himself in the same way that others see him? Is he trying to selectively recall events in his past, while suppressing others?

The Man Who Saw Everything has all the hallmarks of Deborah Levy’s craft – finely chiseled prose, play with language, oddball moments and a wonderful feeling of strangeness. The narrative is fractured as memories, morphine and a muddled mind morph into one another. The view appears skewed just like the shattered fragments of the Jaguar’s mirror. Indeed, it’s a haunting, stunning novel suffused with sadness, loss, betrayal and missed chances.

Even as I write this, I realize that there are many facets of the novel I have not touched upon or even uncovered for that matter. And that many more layers will be revealed if I choose to re-read.

Here’s a final quote…

‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’

‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’

Childhood, Youth, Dependency – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally & Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen was reputed to be a renowned literary figure in Denmark with many poetry collections and novels to her credit.

But before I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, I had no clue about her existence let alone her impressive body of work.

Thanks to the internet and Twitter, I became aware of these incredible set of memoirs when Penguin Modern Classics reissued them last month. It is safe to say that they will easily find a place in my Best of the Year list.

Copenhagen Trilogy 1

The Copenhagen Trilogy is a collection of Ditlevsen’s memoirs; the first, second and third books are titled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency respectively.

In Childhood, Tove is living with her parents and her elder brother Edvin in Vesterbro, a working class neighbourhood in Copenhagen.

The family exists on the fringes of poverty, a fact further exacerbated by the father being in and out of jobs and her mother not holding on to one either.

Tove attends school but in essence is a lonely child believing herself to be a misfit in the environment in which she belongs.

The one thing that motivates her is her passion for writing poetry.

Tove, meanwhile, has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother. She thinks it is exhausting to not only gauge but also pander to her mother’s moods.

When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all.

What’s more, her father does not really understand Tove’s love for poetry either because this is how he responds when she takes the courage to voice her dream:

‘Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.’

Tove’s father is a socialist who is often unemployed, something that the mother always resents. The parents, however, have greater expectations from Edvin.

Besides finding solace in poetry, Tove increasingly longs to escape her confined childhood. She is waiting to turn eighteen and move away from her parents’ home.

Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.

In such an environment, Tove manages to befriend Ruth, a red haired girl, who is extroverted and daring, a sharp contrast to Tove’s personality. In the dynamics of that relationship, Tove is clearly in Ruth’s shadow.

Meanwhile, hope begins to glimmer when one day Edvin demands to read Tove’s poetry. Suitably impressed (even though he derided it previously in the same manner as the mother), he offers to pass it on to his friend Thorvald who can give her pointers on how to get those poems published.

It’s a big chance for Tove, a big opportunity for her dreams – of getting published – to come true.

That in a nutshell is the essence of Childhood, the first installment in The Copenhagen Trilogy.

Two immediate striking features are apparent – the voice of the narrator (Tove herself), and the language.

Tove’s voice is frank, fresh and distinct, and way she chooses to express herself comes across in the writing which is lyrical and sublime.

Although the overall tone of Childhood is gloomy, the gorgeous quality of the prose takes it up a notch making the reading experience utterly compelling – it was like being immersed in a gothic fairy tale.

If there is a sense of melancholy pervading Childhood, there is a shift of tone in the next book in the trilogy. Youth is more lighthearted peppered with moments of comedy.

In Youth, Tove has discarded the skin of her childhood behind. She must now venture into the big world and find a job to support herself and contribute to her family. It’s a prospect that terrifies her and paradoxically makes her yearn for her childhood.

The opening lines set the tone for what is to follow…

I was at my first job for only one day. I left home at seven-thirty in order to be there in plenty of time, ‘because you should try especially hard in the beginning’, said my mother, who had never made it past the beginning at the places where she’d worked in her youth.

In Youth, then Tove finds herself wading through a series of dull, meaningless jobs, which heighten her sense of boredom, and yet provide the means to maintain an independent existence. Eventually, once she turns eighteen, she immediately takes the step to leave her parents’ house, and find lodgings for herself.

One of her ladies is a Nazi sympathizer who tries to enlist Tove in various activities, which she manages to dodge. There is also the fear of the Second World War looming large. Indeed, Tove casually juxtaposes the broader canvas of these unsettling developments with what is happening in her own life…

The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.

Tove is also now dating and there is one comic set piece where she attempts to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Her friends think it’s shocking that she hasn’t already taken that step.

There are other spells of playfulness too when she enrolls for a few sessions in drama school, or when she is composing love songs for one of her employers.

In the final section, after a couple of disappointing attempts, Tove finally manages to get a poem published in a literary journal called ‘Wild Wheat’, edited by Viggo Moller, who goes on to become the first of her four husbands.

This finally paves the way for her dreams to materialize, as her first poetry collection manages to find a publisher.

We then move on to the final book in the trilogy, Dependency. There is once again a shift in tone as the writing gets more intense, feverish and terrifying. This book addresses some difficult times in Tove’s life making you wonder whether her youth – working in those dull jobs as an independent woman – wasn’t actually her best.

It addresses dependency in its many forms – marriage and drug addiction.  Interestingly, the Danish novel was called Gift, which in the original language means both married and poison.

In Dependency, Tove is now an established author but her marriage to Moller is beset with problems. There are compatibility issues thanks largely to the big age gap between the two (Moller is old enough to be her father).

Tove finds some stability in her second marriage and goes on to have a daughter with her husband. However, the marriage is not without its share of problems, and there is one unsettling but riveting set piece where Tove is hell bent on terminating her second pregnancy and is on the hunt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion.

Somewhere along the way, Tove falls prey to the dangerous allure of drugs notably Demerol and Methadone. These developments are entwined with a disastrous marriage to her third husband – a weird quack responsible for her addiction – and her debilitating struggle to break free from this ordeal.

These sections are quite harrowing and there is a creeping feeling of dread and foreboding as the book progresses. Indeed, for Tove, the drugs are an escape from a reality she can’t cope with, or a balm for the gnawing feeling of emptiness inside.

It is only when she is writing her novels, poems or short stories that she feels truly alive. When she is not writing, this is how she feels…

I have a huge void inside me that nothing can fill. It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.

The title Dependency is an apt one for this volume. The reference to addiction is the obvious one. But the book also explores how Tove increasingly depends upon marriage to support her and many of her decisions. This despite the fact she was an independent woman in her youth. For instance, her marriage to Moller is influenced more by her mother’s insistence that she be supported by her husband rather than work herself. Even when married to her second husband Ebbe, the decision to abort the second child is more out of a fear of their marriage ending. And yet, in all of her three marriages, which are detailed here, it is Tove who took the decision to end the union.

There is a glint of hope when the novel ends and the overall trilogy concludes – a sense that she is on the path to recovery even if that path is anything but smooth.

I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since, the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window. It will never disappear completely as long as I live.

The Copenhagen Trilogy then is a wonderful piece of literature, one of those works where the sheer force and beauty of Ditlevsen’s writing makes various elements and emotions in the books – bleakness, comedy, terror, dread – ultimately riveting, immersive and thoroughly absorbing.

Copenhagen Trilogy 2