Checkout 19 – Claire-Louise Bennett

In 2016, I was highly impressed by Pond, a book that featured on my Best of 2016 list that year. Not surprisingly, I was really looking forward to Checkout 19, and was lucky to procure a signed copy from the Blackwell’s UK website.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The book comprises a total of seven pieces. I began the book thinking that these are seven different chapters, but on progressing further, I noticed many themes and motifs that are intertwined, denying it the neat classification of a short story collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on some of the pieces separately, because I don’t know how else to approach it.

In the first piece called ‘A Silly Business”, the narrative voice is first person plural (as if they are complicit with the reader) and we are immediately plunged into Bennett’s highly original writing, as our narrator begins talking about books and our attitude towards them. She highlights how we go to a library, pull out six to eight books, and once we have them, we can’t really get engrossed in them. Once we begin reading a book, we immediately begin to wonder what lurks in the pages of the other tomes.

It really was just the same no matter which book we picked up. As long as there were other books we thought about the sorts of words they might contain non-stop and were thus precluded from becoming engrossed with the very book we had in our hands. The very book. A silly business. Yes, it was a silly business.

Bennett, then, dives into our narrator’s childhood love for reading, how the books she read had an aura of exclusivity about them, a hobby greatly encouraged by her mother, and yet there was a hidden corner in the house which displayed a row of books that were out of bounds for young readers. It didn’t stop our narrator from secretly opening this cupboard with mixed feelings of curiosity and anxiety, and pulling out a book – “We were looking at things that were no business of ours. Illicit things.”

In the second piece called ‘Bright Spark’, our narrator elaborates on her deep craving for solitude, and the crush she has on her English teacher, Mr Burton, highlighting how he is a critical force in her school years, encouraging her talent as a writer and in a way laying a foundation for her career. She adores him, his classes are lively and exciting, but she hates how he is seemingly quite pally with the boys, a sort of male bonding that excludes her. She wonders about his life outside the classroom. Then, one day, he fails to appear for a class and his place is taken by a substitute teacher who is no patch on Mr Burton. In a fit of boredom, our narrator begins doodling on the back of her exercise book, and failing to capture Mr Burton’s facial features in an attempted drawing, she begins to feverishly pen a story. Mr Burton later chances upon it and a bond is formed.

He was with me very strongly when I lay in the dark, it was almost as if I was made of him. Writing could do that. Here was a way of reaching someone, of being with them, when you were not and never could be. Here was where we met. Here was where the distinction between us blurred. When he returned my story to me the following Tuesday the paper was covered with him – touching it was like touching his skin.

The third piece, ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, the longest and my favourite of the lot, is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and reality dotted with a dazzling array of authors and books which played an important role in shaping our narrator’s world. Our narrator tells us how when she was in her twenties, she penned the story of Tarquin Superbus – “a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” The era is never defined, but when he is having conversations with the Doctor, our narrator imagines “gentlemen in the mid-1800s so to speak – byzantine, comical and portending.” Where is his apartment situated? Vienna possibly, but Venice seems apt – “if his grasp on reality is a little shaky to say the least, Tarquin Superbus is in Venice, because, after all, what reality is there to be found in Venice?”

Our narrator subsequently chronicles a chain of events in Superbus’ life – his close relationship with the Doctor who looked like Death (“there was nothing inside of him, he was vaporous, empty as a hologram, he achieved movement, not via the mechanism of his body, but by the fact that he consisted of a substance lighter than air – Death.”), but more importantly the central feature in his life which is the acquisition of a large library of books. The possession of such a gargantuan library, at first, makes Superbus a figure of awe and reverence, and he revels in his sense of importance. But this respect quickly gives way to contempt and derision, which begins to trouble Superbus deeply.

When he confides to his close friend the Doctor, the latter enters Superbus’ visually stunning library, begins pulling out various books off the shelves and feverishly turning their pages. He delivers his shocking verdict – all the pages in the books are literally blank, there is not a single printed word.

That is the original outline of the story penned by our narrator in her twenties, an enterprise that is thwarted by an incident revealed in the final pages of this piece.  In later years, however, she adds to it the dramatic revelation by the Doctor…

The pages Tarquin, are all blank, except for one page. Within the collection there is one page that is not blank – at least not entirely. It has upon it one sentence; that’s all, that’s it – one sentence. And this one sentence contains everything. Everything.

In subsequent years, our narrator often goes back to this story, rewriting it and embellishing it with books and authors that have influenced her way of thinking with the result that as a reader what we are reading is a retelling of the Superbus story.

The Doctor provided no explanation of this sort in the story I wrote all those years ago. The pages of Superbus’ library were blank, and that was all there was to it. It seems in the retelling I have got carried away. But then I have read so much and written so much since then it is hardly to be wondered at that in the meantime some ideas pertaining to the potency of the written word, based upon direct and seismic experiences, have been developing inside of me and should find their way out…

It’s a story that acts as a framing device as our narrator then deviates from that path and ventures into a range of topics and life experiences that occupy her thoughts – how women in the earlier century, restricted to the household, were belittled driving them to point of madness; how she is drawn to shadows rather than light citing Tanizaki’s concept of ‘visible darkness’; a boyfriend who mocks her reading choices; a trip to Florence influenced by Foster’s A Room with a View; a journey to Tangier and Fez prompted by Paul Bowles’ life (“what kind of person, who had the kinds of connections and opportunities that Paul Bowles must certainly have had, feels that life in New York would be boring nevertheless?”), how she is of the view that Anais Nin should be read later on in life, “when one has solidified and feels so very sure of themselves and would perhaps benefit from coming undone, from perhaps going out of their minds”, how her boyfriend Dale keeps poetry by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath out of her reach because they committed suicide, and whether she has what it takes to be a writer.

I had read a few books by Francoise Sagan, including “Bonjour Tristesse”, which I discovered she’d written when she was just eighteen, and that threw me into a tizz for a little while because I would have been that exact age when I read “Bonjour Tristesse”, but the things I was writing at that time when I was that age had none of the clarity and assuredness of Sagan’s work, they were autotelic and inscrutable and quite often when I read back over them I didn’t understand them at all, they perplexed and disturbed me, they didn’t tell a story, they expressed confusion and despair and desire and anger, irrepressible forces which issued out of dissonance that existed between my interior life and the world around me, and nobody would want to read that…

In the fifth piece ‘We Were the Drama’, among many things, our narrator recalls her impromptu trip to the seaside city of Brighton, a spur of the moment excursion that considerably distresses her boyfriend Dale. She talks about how she had no idea about Brighton’s best kept secret at the time – Ann Quin, but subsequently comes to love her imaginative work, particularly Berg. She also dwells on how Quin’s working-class circumstances stifle and terrorize her, how her job in a Cornwall hotel is a symbol of mind-numbing tedium. Her travels to the US are a bright spot, but the return to menial work again fills her with dread and consequently compels her to committ suicide. But Ann Quin’s suicide is the not the only one that haunts the pages of this piece, our narrator witnesses another disturbing death of an unknown person in an unfamiliar place that leaves an indelible impression on her mind.

As I said before, the boundaries of genre in Checkout 19 are pretty blurred, but interestingly, the second and third parts (‘Bright Spark’ and ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’) form the essential core of the book and the subsequent pieces build on the ideas showcased in those two sections cementing the idea that this is possibly a novel with its seemingly disparate pieces bound together by the recurrence of certain themes, motifs, incidents and images. For instance, the man who pushes a book into our narrator’s hand when she is a supermarket cashier assigned to checkout 19, reappears later as a Russian guy who glides through the aisles at the speed of light always pushing the basket in front of him. The increasingly possessive boyfriend Dale who makes his first appearance in ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, becomes a kind of a central figure in “We Were the Drama.” Glimpses of our narrator’s story that captures the imagination of her English professor in ‘Bright Spark’ are revealed to us in some of the final pieces.

What about our narrator herself, what do we know about her? She is certainly vulnerable, yearns for solitude, is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, finds herself in relationships with the wrong men who thwart her creative ambition, who are a disturbing presence in her life. But there are people who also value her love for books and writing, particularly Mr Burton, her mother, her friend Natasha.  

Checkout 19, then crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality.

I’m not sure whether I have done a good job of conveying the mood and essence of this book, but my assertion – that it is poised to be one of my favourites this year – will hopefully compel you to crack open its pages and delve into Bennett’s vibrant world.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

But gradually a persona of the woman’s friend emerges. He was a professor teaching creative writing, and at one point she was his student. They have a brief affair, but their romantic relationship quickly peters out. And yet, they remain the best of friends, very close in fact, much to the envy and chagrin of his wives. We learn that the man was married thrice, but divorced twice. The wives are not named either but are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, Wife Three. While his marriages, while they lasted, were unions based on love and passion, Wife One and Wife Two were always disturbed by the fact that they were never his confidantes in the way the narrator was.

Meanwhile, when Wife Three requests to meet our narrator, the latter is perturbed but she agrees. It seems that Wife Three has an unusual request. Now that her husband is no more, she does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. With a few failed relationships behind her and now quite alone, our narrator seeks solace in Apollo’s presence. She reads Rilke’s poems to him, takes him for walks to the park, and allows him to sleep on her bed, his huge bulk is a constant source of comfort to her.

It occurs to me that someone used to read to Apollo. Not that I think he was a trained certified therapy dog. But I believe that someone must have read aloud to him – or if not to him at least while he was present – and that his memory of that experience is a happy one.

Or maybe Apollo is a canine genius who has figured something out about me and books. Maybe he understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.

Our narrator also ponders on the intelligence of dogs, whether they are capable of feelings, and the endless trouble they endure of making themselves understood to a human.

She questions – Does a dog understand betrayal? For instance, she talks about mastiffs and their great size and how they are known for being fiercely protective and loyal to their masters. But let us suppose, the master decides to abandon it one day. Will that mastiff feel betrayed? After some contemplation, Nunez decides probably not. It is more likely that the main thing on the mastiff’s mind will be – Who will protect my master now?

Another point to think about – What do we really know about animal suffering? She cites that there is evidence of dogs and animals having a higher tolerance for pain than humans do. But their true capacity for suffering, like the true measure of their intelligence, must remain a mystery.

The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. Apollo grieves in his own way for his dead master and our narrator tries various tricks to draw him out like music and massage therapies. But it is apparent to us that the narrator is also profoundly affected by the loss of her dear friend.

The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation calls to ask how I am. I tell him about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m skeptical about pet shrinks, and he says, That’s not what I meant.

Maybe, what she felt for him was something deeper, it could be that she was in love with him. She doesn’t readily acknowledge this, but we know that the two of them shared a special bond, which was not sexual, but one of lasting friendship, the kind where they could easily confide and talk to each other. When our narrator wonders why she is looking after his dog, she admits that perhaps on some subconscious level, she is hoping that the love she displays towards Apollo will bring her dead friend back too.

As Apollo gradually becomes an intrinsic part of our narrator’s life, she realizes that she has been shunning her friends and acquaintances and veering more and more towards solitude. She becomes increasingly obsessed with his care to the point that she prefers his company rather than to reach out for any sort of human connection.

He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.

In a way, the novel is akin to a letter that the narrator is writing to her late friend, she addresses him as ‘you’ throughout the book. Nunez’s writing is simple, lucid…and to emphasize her ideas, she relies on anecdotes and interesting references, be it books, films or newspaper articles. She particularly focuses on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip, and the intense love Ackerley felt for his pet, almost as if they were in a serious relationship. That book is new to me but I did read his We Think the World of You many years ago, which I thought was brilliant. The other book frequently mentioned is Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Filled with wry observations and keen insights into friendship, the nature of love, suicide and its implications, the art of writing and whether it is the right medium to process grief and so on, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

Look At Me – Anita Brookner

Until now I had never read any Anita Brookner but she has been getting a lot of love on Book Twitter. So I decided to jump on the Brookner bandwagon with the novel that had been garnering rave reviews – Look At Me. I can safely say that the book is every bit as good as everyone says it is.

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

The novel opens with a bang.

Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, so long as it is remembered, it will indicate the future. It is wiser, in every circumstance, to forget, to cultivate the art of forgetting. To remember is to face the enemy. The truth lies in remembering.

Our narrator is a young woman Frances Hinton who works at the library of a medical research institute studying mental illnesses. Frances has a set and very predictable life. The only people she meets at work are her colleague and friend Olivia and the regular visitors Mrs Halloran and Dr Simek. When not at work, Frances spends time in her large flat left to her by her parents who are no more. Their long-time housekeeper Nancy is the only one who resides with her.

So deeply set in her current way of life is she that Frances shows no inclination to make drastic changes. The antique and heavy pieces of furniture present since her parents’ time are left as they are. Even Nancy prepares the same boring meal everyday.

Frances, however, has a flair for writing and spends her evenings in solitude in her flat as she composes what she hopes to be her first novel. For this she takes inspiration from real life for creating her characters. For Frances, writing is her way of wanting the world to notice her.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more and I even think I deserve it…

…I feel quite deeply, I think. If I am not very careful, I shall grow into the most awful old battle-axe. That is why I write, and why I have to, when I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up. Of reminding people that I am here.

Not much action takes place at the library on most days, but occasionally the charismatic and charming doctor Nick Fraser drops in and creates quite a stir. When Frances is introduced to his equally dynamic wife Alix, Frances finds herself enthralled by the couple.

And just like that Frances becomes part of the Fraser circle and is delighted although both Nick and Alix are critical and prone to bouts of cruelty when it comes to her routines and way of living. Alix is clearly dominant of the two, expects to be entertained all the time, and gets what she wants. Frances often ponders why they put up with her given her dull existence. But she is fascinated by their vibrant personalities and lifestyles. And yet, Frances can’t help but notice that many a time Nick and Alix flaunt their relationship as a spectacle for the public infusing it with an element of cheapness.  

Things coast along until Frances begins interacting with James Antsey, Nick’s colleague, who has also become part of the Frasers’ social life. Frances and James become close although the relationship remains ‘innocent.’

It’s a golden period in Frances’ life as she enjoys the company of the Frasers as well as her budding relationship with James all of which inspires her to look forward to new beginnings. Until it all goes wrong.

Since Frances is the narrator, the book in a way is primarily a character study of her. And she comes across as a complex woman full of contradictions. Her highly analytical and forensic way of explaining things gives the impression that she is self-aware and yet she fails to really understand the Frasers and the vindictive rules by which they operate.

Frances also keeps oscillating between her craving for a dynamic social life as well her need for solitude. For instance when Alix offers Frances a spare room in their flat, Frances is almost tempted to take up the offer. After all, it’s the perfect opportunity to shed her old lifestyle which she is beginning to abhor and embrace the new. And yet she hesitates because she knows that she will lose forever her moments of solitude which are crucial for her writing.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. The penultimate chapter is frightening as Frances in a fit of despair walks the cold, dark streets of London alone, her shock leaving her oblivious to possible dangers lurking around.

I will be reading more Brookner.

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

 

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was relatively unknown when her first compiled collection of short stories called ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ was released three years ago, 11 years after her death. But this collection became a huge hit with readers and critics alike, and she gained recognition in a way that she never did during her lifetime.

I absolutely loved it too, and it found a place in my Best Books of 2016 list.

Hence, when it was revealed that Picador in the UK (and Farrar, Straus, Giroux in the US) were going to release two (and not one!) new books this year by Berlin, I was thrilled.

The two books are – Evening in Paradise, a short story collection (Yay! More stories from Berlin), and her memoir Welcome Home.

I rarely read memoirs, but given that Berlin’s real life was as endlessly fascinating, adventurous and rich as the stories that drew from these experiences, I was very keen to make an exception this time.

Welcome Home
Picador Hardback Edition

Welcome Home consists of Lucia Berlin’s memoir peppered with wonderful photographs (of her, her sons and family), and a selection of her letters (a majority of them to friends Edward and Helene Dorn).

The memoir comes first, and rather than a linear retelling, Berlin has focused on places she has lived in and the memories associated with them. It has a spare, impressionistic feel to it; the hallmark of Berlin’s writing.

It begins in Juneau, Alaska where Lucia was born, and the description is enchanting enough…

They said it was a sweet small house with many windows and sturdy woodstoves, screens taut against mosquitoes. It looked out on the bay, onto sunsets and stars and dazzling Northern Lights. My mother would rock me as she gazed down at the harbor, which was always crowded with fishing boats and tugs, American and Russian ore ships.

From thereon, Berlin writes about her childhood in places such as Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, El Paso in Texas and then onto Santiago in Chile.

The rate at which Lucia Berlin moved places both during childhood and adulthood is simply astonishing. Her father was a mining engineer and thus the family kept shifting often.

In Montana for instance, Berlin talks about how her father took her into the mountains every Saturday for weeks before the first snow. An old prospector lived alone in a cabin up there, and they carried winter supplies to him. This snippet of her life offers us a glimpse into Lucia’s early fascination with stories.

I carefully tore out pages from magazines and glued them onto the walls with flour and water paste, careful so as not to wet any of the text. The idea was to have a tight patchwork of pages all over the cabin, from floor to celing. All through the dark days of winter Johnson (the prospector) would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall.

I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity. What I knew for sure was his walls were a great idea. This way, since they were not in any order, whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it…

When her father gets called abroad for the Second World War, Lucia and her family move to El Paso in Texas to stay with Lucia’s grandparents, where relations between them and her mother are fraught.

Most evenings he (Lucia’s grandfather) was at the Elks club and my mother was at the Pomeroys’ playing bridge or in Juarez. The two of them ate in their own bedrooms and never spoke a word to each other.

Once the war is over, Lucia’s father comes back and they move to Patagonia in Arizona, and it’s a phase in her life where she wonders, “Is it possible that we were all happy every day that we lived there?”

It is during her teenage years that the family moves to Santiago in Chile, and here Berlin lives a rich life brimming with a buzzing social circle – friends, parties, balls, dresses and so on. Her mother cannot adapt to this high society life, always retiring to bed early with a bottle, and it falls upon Lucia to host these gatherings.

After moving back to the US during her late teens, Berlin goes on to marry a sculptor with whom she has two sons – Mark and Jeff. He ditches her and just before her second son  Jeff is born Lucia meets and marries the jazz musician Race Newton. This period of her life is also marked with moves and chaos as the family first settle in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then move on to the East, to New York City, where the jazz scene is flourishing.

Berlin finally marries Buddy Berlin, another jazz musician, who is brilliant, charismatic and dynamic but consistently struggling with a drug addiction problem. She eventually went on to divorce him too and never re-married.

However, Berlin’s memoir was unfinished at the time of her death, and she had left off at the time when the family was once again on the move in both New Mexico and Mexico (she had not yet divorced Buddy Berlin, which she would eventually do).

One of things that is so fascinating about Berlin’s stories and her memoir is the constant moving, travelling, never settling down anywhere for long periods. It only gave way to chaos and upheavals. One wonders why that is so….

Of course, she didn’t have much choice in her younger years given the demands of her father’s profession, but even in her adult years, she was never rooted to one place. It could be that on some subconscious level, she welcomed upheavals and the chances it offered to re-invent herself, as opposed to staying in stasis for too long at any one place and suffering boredom.

It is a mesmerising, fascinating life nevertheless, and gave Berlin a lot of rich material to work with when writing her stories.

At the end of the memoir, Berlin provides a list of the places she has lived in titled, “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived in”

Here’s a snippet:

Corrales Road, Alameda, New Mexico – No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. Two kids in diapers.

Thirteenth Street, New York City – Five flights up. Two kids, none walking. Blizzard, all streets closed, miracle. Rothko.

Acapulco, Mexico – Honeymoon. Three weeks of rain. Flood, dysentery, Mark electrocuted, more flood.

An article in the Los Angeles Times sums it up wonderfully…

As the list of her homes suggests, her 68 years were almost impossibly full of travel, adventure, loves found and lost, alcoholism and its defeat, and the struggle to get by as a single mother of four boys.

The second section of Welcome Home comprises her letters.

The first letter is a poignant one from her father when he is away at war and Lucia is 8 years old.

The reason I’m writing you this, Lucia, is that I’m so far away I can’t talk to you like I used to, and I just suddenly remembered, in the middle of this war, that you’re growing up without a daddy almost. I want you to know, now that you are the young lady of the house, that you are a partner in this family and we want it to be the most wonderful and happiest family in the whole world…

The second one is to a friend Lorna, where she confesses that she loves Lou (Berlin’s first love before she married) but is not sure she wants to marry yet given her desire to make something of her life. Berlin was 17 then.

I love Lou and we’re still going together, but all of a sudden I have become ambitious, and I want to finish school and there are so many bloody things I want to do…I never thought school would ever come between me and a guy…I’m real proud of myself…got two A’s in summer school…I like this idea of doing something and working for something that I can be proud of doing…

The later letters are mostly to her friends – poets Edward and Helene Dorn, and many are written in 1959, the period when she was in New York with her second husband Race Newton. And then on, she wrote from Mexico and New Mexico when she was married and living with Buddy Berlin. Essentially these letters correspond to the same time period as her unfinished memoir. They give a great feel of what was going on in her mind during those times, her struggles, and her attempts to churn out quality writing material often asking Edward Dorn to give the necessary feedback.

Welcome Home is a wonderful companion piece to Lucia Berlin’s short story collections. And it was just as much of a pleasure to get a glimpse into her real life, as it was to read her stories.