Lessons from The Lessons

I’m in the middle of reading Naomi Alderman’s new book The Lessons, essentially a Secret History set in Oxford.

Reading it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic, not so much for Oxford (‘Ah, Oxford’) but for that naïve feeling of indestructibility that one can have in a close-knit group of friends.

In The Lessons, the main character James finds his group after just a term. For me, that came much later on in Oxford. It was partly there in the second year, when we were all living in houses out of college. But really it hit at the very end of university, after exams, when we had three weeks of doing absolutely nothing other than lazing around together and partying.

It felt like we were a proper gang. There must have been around twenty-five of us, and we were always together in the most clichéd of ways. Afternoons would be spent playing croquet in the college quad (yes, really), sometimes there’d be punting, or picnics and then there’d be evening drinks, followed by dinners – in formal hall, or barbeques – and then out to the various clubs, back to someone’s house, chatting, dancing, watching the sun come up, asleep around breakfast time. Looking back, I almost can’t believe it was real.

It was sad, after university, to see our numbers dwindle. There were some inevitable casualties of the general move to London. Some people stayed on for an extra year, or moved to different parts of the world. And then there were the ones who were in London but gradually distanced themselves from the group. The ones who I realised I didn’t really know well enough to arrange to see one-on-one, who slowly faded into the horizon.

But as the group got smaller, so it felt more special. It was around three years after university that it felt like there was something truly amazing about our group.

We went down to stay at a friend’s house in the countryside for my birthday weekend. There were eight of us. It felt incredibly special, even at the time. I remember being anxious that someone should take lots of photos, to try to capture the weekend, preserve it against time’s distorting dust. Every moment of that weekend felt as though it could never happen again. So much so that I almost felt nostalgic for it, even while it was taking place.

And it never did quite happen again. We had other weekends away, other trips, other times together. But it was always slightly different. It was never quite as good as that first time, never quite the same. At times it could risk feeling like a rehashing, repeating a performance, knowing that the more it was acted, the emptier it became. All the best hiding places had already been found, the best charades already acted, the best meals already cooked …

I almost think that something awful should have happened that weekend. We should have discovered a dead body, or made some dreadful pact. Or else something really nuts, like an orgy. But we just stayed up all night drinking and playing games and chatting. And during the days we went for beautiful long cold green country walks.

It makes me feel sad reading The Lessons. It makes me think of those days, of feeling so firmly part of something, so inseparable from the others, so bound together.

But I suppose those slightly incestuous hermetic groups can’t last forever. Perhaps they really are best in a novel, where such intense friendships are bread and wine for the writer.

And I shouldn’t really want them to last forever. Surely it’s a good thing that friendships drift apart and then together again, new connections are formed, old ones dissolve? Everything is always changing, and that’s what keeps life interesting.

But during that weekend, it felt like the eight of us were the centre of the world, the still point in the middle of life’s and time’s various whirlpools. It was the most wonderful, decadent, indulgent, naïve feeling. And I think Naomi Alderman captures it perfectly in her novel.

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One Response to “Lessons from The Lessons”

  1. Terry Joseph Says:

    Thank you for your review of SNOW. I finished it last week and it was intriguing. A poet myself, I had a discussion w/several poet-friends about whether their poetry comes to them as it did to Ka–in bursts, out of nowhere, and then forgotten if not written down. One friend agreed that it was possible and probable, and the others were more like myself; we could reconstruct many of our works, although they may not be identical.
    I was intrigued by the politics and did not know how Pamuk was received by his fellow Turks, but found an online chat group who practice their English, and had a chat about SNOW. Many of them hated Pamuk. I mean, hated him. Two decided read SNOW just to find out what everyone else was arguing about. Their discussion about the genocide and wars between the Armenians and Turkish people reminded me a tiny bit of Americans in the South who are still “fighting” the Civil War. I cannot imagine hating an pro-antebellum Southern author with the same vehemence that these people show for Pamuk.
    Now, at least, Pamuk has gotten me interested in the history of Turkey.
    It was also interesting reading about the poverty and hopelessness, because I’ve only known Turkey from a tourist POV. Everyone who has been there absolutely loves it and says it’s the best place they’ve traveled, between Greece, Spain and other areas.
    I began the book really liking Ka, and learned to feel disgust toward him by the middle of the book. He was such a wuss, playing both sides to the middle, afraid to take a stand, only performing when forced to. I can only assume that he represents a segment of the population between the Islamists and the Socialists, and for that reason, his character was especially well-drawn.
    The literay aspects of the novel were wonderful and the translator deserves an award, as well.

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