February Please

The month that was: lockdown limbo (how low can you go); questioning lyricism; Teju Cole, Leah Jing McIntosh, Annie Ernaux, Maria Stepanova

Photograph: a little boat named scruffy sits in Edinburgh’s frozen Union Canal while all about the canal bank, abutting wall, rooftops, and spidery tree branches lies a modest coat of unblemished snow.

February 2021 - the perfect little rectangle of a calendar month that could - is over. The snow is over. Winter is, effectively, over, but I’m not over it. I have not yet opened my senses to spring, not yet found the usual ample hope in all the buds and bulbs, and not yet tilted my ear to the birdsong and its growing daylight confidence. It’s all there, but I’m not there yet - not ready to address the second consecutive spring in isolation. February was the month that I did the least leaving of the house of the whole pandemic, though I don’t have the confidence to claim any rock bottom to this lockdown limbo (how low can you go?). When I did leave the flat (the short-term rental with the owner’s family photos hung on every wall, all blonde hair, white jeans, and husky dogs) it was often to wind up sitting on a park bench experiencing a cold and gleeful nothing.

All of the ecstatic end-of-winter fecundities all around and - ha! - nothing to report from my sorry little sternum! No tingles in my temples! No reverb in my ribcage! My whole person seemed more like a glob of filthy snow leftover from the snowman in the park that refused to melt. Fine by me! Less feelings? Less chance I will fall in to shilling a personal narrative in what should be a deeply collective time. I am wary of all the schmaltz, my own at the top of the list to take issue with. Years ago my partner bought me a keychain with the word “lyrical” written on it and I was so tickled, of course I was, and I do come with at least one of my default settings dialled to a sincere kind of tumbling wonder, but lyricism is as often used to sell as it is to observe. All that feeling - all that sentiment - makes for very good sales. And it is my sincere (!) dream that we might live in a world without the need for sales tactics.

I know that when I reach for lyricism it is born of a search for precision, a seemingly generous or vulnerable decision to share the thoughts-in-progress rather than only the stark or elegant final product, but, more often than not, this lyricism is a foil for the absence of any standalone elegance. Such writing is not necessarily dishonest or lazy. Lacking precision, reaching for a truth or an interpretation with clumsily beautiful, hungrily iterative phrases does faithfully perform the foggy, trance-like experience of searching. For me, though, I am frustrated with myself when this style is my go-to. Lyricism reveals the way that my mind is operating more like the claw in the claw crane arcade game, descending, grasping, rising with something only barely in my grip, clapping as the cheap shiny toy that I never even wanted is delivered down the chute.

The drive to individualise via personal narratives and pseudo-vulnerable lyricism (less rough 'n' ready and more please see the labour apparent in my prose) is not an individual pathology but a wider phenomenon. Of course we find ways to insist on the existence and worth of our labour, of course we have a sales orientation when outside the core socio-econonmic unit of the family (which not many people can and no one should have to solely rely upon) is raw competition with very little support. We bend and contort in all sorts of asset-encouraging ways - not only on the level of writing as product but on the level of writer as producer; lyricism can sometimes act as an implied declaration of writerliness. Lyricism can be beautiful, but I want to know if it’s still how we want to write when market compulsions are removed. Maybe we do - I know I probably still would, at least some of the time. What can I say, the old tumbling awe might just persist.

Glad February things, please:

Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale in conversation with Elif Batuman, launching In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Long live online book launches. I never want to miss them because of distance ever again. This event felt like a proper partnership between writer Stepanova and translator Dugdale. Dugdale, herself a poet, commented that the work of translation makes the English language more capacious, while Stepanova reflected on the ethics of writing the family archive. Where are the rights of the dead? It is currently okay to libel the dead: “they are the only humans on earth to have no rights.” In response, Stepanova’s own writing method is an act of “trying to please my shadows.” For Stepanova the past, too, is a character in its own right: “if you are pursuing it too closely it strikes back.”

Leah Jing McIntosh, Each Simple Longing (Kill Your Darlings)

In the journal Kill Your Darlings, in an essay subtitled “My body as a House of UnAustralian Activities. Australia as a body, with a soul to search,” Leah Jing McIntosh goes about killing (or at least questioning) one of Australia’s literary darlings Helen Garner and her casual assumption of ‘Asian subservience.’ The lit queen critique is my lede, but it’s maybe not the point (though the essay does revisit a welcome poke at white women writers). Jing McIntosh tracks the surprising effects of a concussion alongside a reckoning with policed and racialised life in Australia. Living in a suspended state stretches on and on and, “I am, for a few weeks, simply a body […] in my haze, I am raceless and ungendered.”

Teju Cole, Teju Cole: Fernweh (Between the Covers Podcast, with David Naimon)

In a long conversation (spoken at such a pause-laden pace as to be almost homily-like), Teju Cole speaks about his book Fernweh, set in Switzerland, but not exactly about Switzerland. Like Jing McIntosh, Cole also explores the rare bodily experience of feeling unintelligible against the usual dominating norms of subjectivity:

“When I’m in London, at least every time I visit, for my first few days there, all I can see really is this colonial power that is mired in nostalgia, and the ways in which it continues to treat people as if they are colonised even in England itself. When I go for a hike in the Alps in Switzerland, I’m just a guy going for a hike in the Alps. It’s a monumental relief.”

Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

A precise book whose ethic of suspended judgement is made possible through the elapsing of time. With no intention (or perhaps no marketised compulsion) to instantly share the narrative with an audience, it is possible to “feel no shame in writing these things.” The narrator tells the true, if not slightly redacted, story of her affair with a married man. The truthiness does not depend upon particular events but on the phenomenon of the absurd extents that her obsession can reach. The absurdity is not communicated by breathlessness but by deliciously curt phrases, “constraints bred waiting and desire,” and “I experienced pleasure like a future pain.” A tone of detachment pervades, with our narrator casually diagnosing her lover as a career man subject to “bouts of eroticism, possibly love for a new woman every two or three years.” The throbbing indignity in her situation is an object of her own fascination, through which she learns what people are capable of.

Until next month may you be capable of tumbling into some old wonder, just for the sake of it,

H x

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