Posts Tagged ‘Edmund de Waal’

Tense tenses

July 30, 2010

Yesterday I decided to move some of my novel out of the past tense and into the present. Everything felt a bit stale, somewhat dead, lacking in vitality, so I brought this particular section into the present and now it feels more immediate and much more engaging. Phew.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d asked Edmund de Waal, my hero, why he wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes in the present tense. It absolutely works, but it seems like an unusual choice. The book is a kind of history, a kind of memoir – so it is resolutely set in the past. But by using the present de Waal takes the reader straight there, making you feel as though you are standing, for instance, in Charles Ephrussi’s salon looking at his Renoirs and Manets and yellow armchair.

Edmund de Waal said that he didn’t want to appear too authoritative, that the present tense made it more humble. I agree – using the present tense makes everything feel like it’s happening right this second. It removes the filter of memory, the strong viewpoint that makes the past resolutely feel like the author is telling his version of events – his-story – and asserting that story as the one in which the reader has to believe.

There’s something so definitive about the past, even in the most straightforward of sentences. Take, for instance:

Emily went to the shop and bought a loaf of bread.

Frankly, who cares? So what if she went to the shop? It doesn’t really encourage any suspense in the narrative, any wondering what might happen next. In the present tense it’s much more enthralling:

Emily goes to the shop and buys a loaf of bread.

And then what? What happens in the shop? What will she do with the bread? The present seems to encourage one to jump ahead to the future. Perhaps the past is just too far behind. And so the present tense is more, well, tense than the past.

In fact this other kind of tense was on my mind yesterday too. The day before, the fiancé and I are stuck in traffic on Holloway Road and getting incredibly irritable with each other. Just as the stress and tension is reaching its peak, he spots an Indian massage parlour, and we instantly park the car and go in, deciding that it will be the most effective way to get rid of all the tension and make us feel human again. I have a foot massage, he has a head massage and we both re-emerge feeling quite peculiar and almost like we can fly. We certainly feel too spaced out to be able to argue with each other anymore. (See, isn’t it better in the present tense?)

This ‘tense’, as in tension, is from a different root than the other ‘tense’, as in past/present/future etc. The tension ‘tense’ is derived from the Latin tensus, the past participle of tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’. It was used in 1670, meaning ‘stretched tight’, and the sense of ‘nervous tension’ was first recorded in 1821. The other ‘tense’, unsurprisingly, is much older – dating from the early fourteenth century – and derives from the Latin tens, meaning ‘time’.

I like the way these two tenses have joined up into one word with completely different meanings. And I think it helps to think of both of those meanings when choosing in which tense to write. Which tense creates the most tension?

Well, the present creates more than the past – it’s more intriguing. But also, when used in histories or memoirs, or telling stories that really are in the past, it takes on that resonance of ‘stretching tight’. Edmund de Waal, for instance, really stretches the present tense. We know that what he is telling us isn’t really happening now but a hundred years ago. He is stretching the our belief in the present tense, our understanding of it, and in so doing manages to bring the past into the now, back to life.

I suppose the tense which makes me feel most tense is the future. And this is one that is rarely ever written in. Sure, there’s the odd paragraph here and there, but a novel written entirely in the future tense would be a bit odd. The future is usually incredibly stressful. What am I going to do? What will happen? What will they think? What will I say? Where will I be in ten years’ time? It’s enough to bring on a cold sweat.

Yes, there are moments when thinking about the future is incredibly exciting. When you’re literally ‘looking forward’ to something – a holiday perhaps, meeting up with a friend, getting married … But the uncertainty of the future (‘It might never happen’) means there is always some doubt, some degree of nervousness.

Often, it is making these exciting things happen that causes the most tension. So many people complain about the stress of going on holiday! Getting packed, getting to the airport, queuing to check-in/baggage drop, fear of flying … I am trying my utmost not to indulge in any stresses about weddings, but tension-causing questions and moments do always rear their ugly heads. Things like trying to book a date that works with the registry office, the reception venue, a rabbi and priest – and wondering how on earth we’re going to convince them both to give us a blessing …

But then I suppose no tense is truly free from tension. Even the past can have a habit of making one cringe with horror. There are few things worse than remembering, or being reminded of, a situation in which you acted like a complete berk. When you said something unbelievably awful which at the time made you almost want to cry with embarrassment. I’ve been through many of those horrendous moments. The tension is there when you remember them because you know what’s about to happen, and you’ve got to walk that tight-rope of horror in order to get there. Hideous.

So tension is everywhere, in every tense … pretty much inescapable. I think the only possible strategy it to go to the Indian Massage place on Holloway Road as often as possible. Then, for a precious half-hour and a few moments afterwards, life is free of all tension whatsoever.



July 27, 2010

There’s nothing more juvenile than having a hero.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself as consolation for never being able to think of one when reading those silly celebrity questionnaires. ‘Who do you most respect and why?’ ‘If you could have dinner with anyone at all, alive or dead, who would it be?’ ‘Who’s your greatest inspiration?’

My mind has a habit of emptying itself pretty quickly when put on the spot in such a – well, shall we say juvenile? please? – way. Before job interviews I always try to think of an appropriate answer. One that would make me look both supremely knowledgeable yet also humble and somewhat irreverently witty. But I’ve never ever managed to come up with a good one … and that inevitably makes me spiral into paranoid collapse (Oh my god, they’re going to ask me it and I’ll say someone like Virginia Woolf and they’ll think that’s really naf and then they won’t want me. Argh…).

On reading Kelis’s answer to the question: ‘What living person do you most admire and why?’ in the Guardian (here), what little respect I had for her completely vanished. ‘My mom. She has been a fashion designer and run a catering business.’ I mean, come on …

So, now I find myself in something of a quandary. Because now I realise I have a hero. It’s so juvenile. It’s so silly and daft, and it’s so pathetic that I feel the only way to make it at least half-way bearable is to write about it, because that might be a way of making it into something slightly more useful.

I only realised I had a hero, when he walked past me at Port Eliot festival on Saturday afternoon just after he’d given a phenomenal talk. I told him that I thought it was fantastic and he said some suitably humble, charming replies before running off to the bookshop to sign more copies of his book, which was – of course – in high demand. I was standing with my cousin, who hadn’t seen the talk. Who didn’t suspect me at all of my hero-worship.

‘Who’s that?’ she asked. So innocent.

And then I knew that he could only be described in one way. ‘That’s my hero.’

I sighed. She laughed. Then I explained.

So, for those of you who haven’t guessed, he is Edmund de Waal, a potter and the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I’ve banged on about here and here already.

I met him when I was about a third of the way through reading his book. He was giving a talk at the bookshop, and I asked him a few questions before everyone turned up. Why had he written it in the present tense? Had he found it hard to drag himself out of this incredible world of his ancestors? Was it difficult to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap?

He was utterly charming, humble and articulate – both when talking to me and when addressing a crowded room. He seemed nervous about giving a talk, grateful that people liked his book. He said he couldn’t believe its success, and wanted to go around writing ‘thank you’ in everyone’s copy. (He actually wrote it in mine!)

I too was nervous before the talk. Although I wasn’t even half-way through The Hare with Amber Eyes, I knew it was going to be one of the best books I had ever read. And I was going to meet its author. What if he were ghastly? What if he were really stuck-up and seemed like a real plonker? It would be so upsetting. It would detract from this magnificent book, and make me feel like a bit of an idiot for believing in it so strongly.

But he was wonderful. And the rest of the book was all the more wonderful for having met him.

So it was a very happy surprise when, having just arrived at Port Eliot, standing gormlessly near some tipis in a field with my fiancé, I saw Edmund de Waal. I said hello and immediately thought maybe I shouldn’t have. Oh god, I thought, how dreadful, I bet he doesn’t remember me at all. He thinks I’m someone who looks slightly familiar, who might be a friend of a friend of a friend or something. I introduced him to my fiancé, and then, to try and smooth over any awkwardness, reminded him that I’m Emily.

‘I know, I know.’ He said he remembered me from the bookshop. We chatted amiably about Port Eliot, how excited we were about going for a Wild Swim with Kate Rew, how pretty it all looked and how many interesting talks there would be. I asked him if there was a particular talk he was really excited about, and he said Diana Athill.

Anyway, off I trotted, pleased as punch that he – my HERO (although I had not yet reached this epiphany) – knew who I was.

His talk, the following day, was brilliant. In fact it was almost better than the one at the bookshop. Edmund de Waal (I don’t think I can call him just Edmund) had told me, in our little chat outside the tipi, that he was going to be given various objects from the big stately home an hour before the talk, which he would then have to talk about. And he managed it with great aplomb. He talked about books and the touch of different grades of paper, and ceramics, and – of course – netsuke spontaneously and effervescently and the whole room was set alight.

Ah. Well. I have my hero. I shall just have to get over it. I suppose the only consolation is that he has his heroes too. And, indeed, heroines. Like, perhaps, Diana Athill.

He had said how much he was looking forward to Diana Athill’s talk, so you can imagine my glee when I made a discovery that evening … I was chatting to a friend who, by some strange twist of fate, had given Diana Athill a lift down to the festival. En route they were nattering away and Diana Athill had said that she’d just read the most marvellous book – The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Yes, really!

How I longed to bump into Edmund de Waal again and tell him that Diana Athill loved his book, that his heroine thinks of him with just as much respect. But I didn’t have to, because at his talk she was sitting right at the front. How incredible that must have been for him. And how terrifying!

It must be extraordinary when someone who you think of as completely amazing, someone who is balanced on a pedestal way up there, swaps places with you. Just imagine them sitting down at your feet to hear what you have to say. And then imagine what might happen next? I spotted Grayson Perry and Jarvis Cocker hobnobbing over a cone of chips. Perhaps Diana Athill and Edmund de Waal were going to head off for a cuppa. Imagine chatting to your hero so easily on such level, if muddy, ground. Perhaps then they might fall from hero status a little bit and be more of a friend. Or perhaps you would be more of a hero yourself.

Well, perhaps if and when I have a book launch/give erudite yet entertaining talks/am on the radio, he might be there listening. Then I might say to him afterwards, over a whisky, ‘Oh yes, I remember reading your book. It was quite marvellous.’ But I’d say it in rather a nonchalant fashion, not in a juvenile way at all. I certainly wouldn’t let on to anything about heroes. And then, for sure, I’d feel that I’d made it.


July 8, 2010

It was an uncanny coincidence that just as I was reading about nostalgia, I found myself going home.

I mentioned The Hare with Amber Eyes in my previous post, but shall reiterate here quite how brilliant it is. Really, buy a copy and read it.

At this particular point in the book, Edmund de Waal is describing his beloved netsuke when they are owned by Viktor and Emmy Ephrusi in Vienna in the early 1920s. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, inflation is escalating and Viktor – an incredibly wealthy Jew, head of the family bank – is at the beginning of losing everything. They live in a vast house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, filled with Old Master paintings, Gobelin tapestries, antique furniture, gold dinner-services … and of course the netsuke in their lacquer cabinet. And it is at this point that de Waal mentions nostalgia:

But the life of objects within the Palais was less mobile. The world had undergone an Umsturz, an overturning, and this led to a kind of heaviness in the things that made up their lives. Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background, a gilt-and-varnish blur to a busy social life. The uncounted and the unmeasured started at last to be counted very accurately.

There was a huge falling away; things were so much better and fuller before. Perhaps this was when there were the very first intimations of nostalgia … Viktor and Emmy kept everything – all these possessions, all these drawers full of things, these walls full of pictures – but they lost their sense of a future of manifold possibilities. This was how they were diminished.

Vienna is sticky with nostalgia. It has breached the heavy oak door of their house.

Nostalgia etymologically means the pain of homecoming, from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), coined in 1688 as a translation of the German heimweh. Its meaning only shifted to take on its more current sense of wistfulness for the past in 1920 – just as the Ephrussis were entering their predicament. How particularly apt that de Waal invokes this sense of nostalgia so poetically, when it has just come into being.

My own nostalgia over the past couple of days should be more linked to its etymological sense – I went home and it was painful! But no, the pain was more to do with being lurgied and coughing and spluttering and sneezing everywhere, rather than a trauma of coming home.

In fact it was heaven to go home, to a big clean house, to a fridge full of M&S treats and a mother who was convinced that I was really terribly ill and must go and get some antibiotics. Masses of sympathy and masses of sleep – a winning combination.

But I did find the objects at home had taken on a wistfulness. Of course, my old bedroom has changed since I was its full-time occupant. Shelves have been cleared, cupboards emptied; a new bed has been put in, with new linen; a whole stack of bookshelves turned into a flat-screen TV.

But there are a few survivors. Old cuddly toys in a row up at the top of the shelves, all my children’s books, lined up series by series – Swallows and Amazons, Duncton Wood, the Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Tintin, Asterix, Barbar, Beatrix Potter … as well as the occasional piece of detritus that has accumulated from visits over the years. A post-it note about keys, an old receipt, a half-consumed packet of chewing gum. Useless bits and pieces that the cleaner is too nervous to throw away, just in case they might hold some hidden resonance.

And, over time, they have become ‘sticky with nostalgia’. These objects aren’t in my future – otherwise I would have carried them with me to my new home. I’m afraid that Charlie the Caterpillar and Dogga and Jeremy Fisher and all the other cuddly toys won’t be particularly welcome in the flat that I share with the fiancé. I suppose they were pre-boyfriend cuddling companions and have now been made redundant. (Although I do have one teddy bear who remains with me, for when the fiancé goes away.) But I would be heartbroken if they were thrown away. As de Waal says,

Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background

Yes I really should throw away that old post-it note and definitely the chewing gum – it’s probably not even all that chewy anymore – but there’s something about the way everything is preserved, as though in amber. On a minute scale, it’s a bit like Rodinsky’s Room, in which Rachael Lichenstein and Iain Sinclair describe a fetishised lost room off Brick Lane, untouched for eighty years, discovered as though its occupant had just left – a bowl of porridge still sitting on the desk, now with a thick layer of dust on top.

It is an effort to bring these objects up-to-date, into the present, to push them towards a future. It is too tempting to leave them be, redolent of that moment in the past, sticky with nostalgia.

And now I’m off to Florence, where I haven’t been since living there, eight whole years ago. Back then it felt steeped in the past, impossibly saturated with Renaissance art and history. But it was also filled with the excitement of the future, stretching and widening in front of my eyes. It was my first time living on my own, in a new place; school was behind me and freedom ahead …

I wonder if I’ll feel nostalgic.

Having people

July 2, 2010

‘He has no people. You can’t trust a person like that,’ says Betty Draper’s father to her husband Don in the hit TV series Mad Men.

And Betty Draper’s father has got a point. Don Draper is the archetypal self-made man. He has come from nothing and shedding his family along the way – he has turned his back on his people. And no you can’t trust him; Don has a series of affairs while telling his wife that he is completely faithful to her, and never mind about his kids.

People without people have usually run away from something, some secret. And, because of this secret, we can’t really trust them.

People trust people who come from ‘normal’, stable families, who live in suburbia, who can come round for dinner parties, who go and stay with their parents over Spring Break. It’s the 1950s suburban American dream.

People who have people deserve trust.

But this is only true for the dominant society. For immigrants, the opposite is the case.

I’m reading the most astonishingly brilliant book at the moment. It really is one of the best books I’ve ever ever read. The Hare with Amber Eyes, by potter Edmund de Waal, tells his family’s story through his inheritance of a set of netsuke – small decorative Japanese objects. (The Guardian gave it a particularly good review which is here, if you’re interested.)

The netsuke first came into de Waal’s family when his ancestor Charles Ephrussi bought them at the end of the nineteenth century. Charles Ephrussi was an extraordinarily wealthy Jew, who lived in Paris. The son of a grain merchant from Odessa, he was an art historian, a great patron of the arts, and a collector. He was friends with Renoir, Manet and Proust to name just a few … There’s a famous story (nicked by Proust) about when Charles gave Manet too much money for a painting of a bunch of asparagus. Manet then sent Charles a painting of a single asparagus stem, with a note to say that one was missing from his bunch.

In this magnificent yet humble book, it is clear that Charles is trying his utmost to integrate himself into Parisian society. He has a salon, attends salons, is friends with all the aristocracy as well as all the artists. All his money is being used to try to fit in. But he is never fully trusted by society – because of his people.

When Ephrussi buys some Moreau, Renoir is disgusted with this ‘Jew Art’. He wrote, of Moreau, ‘It was clever of him to take in the Jews, to have thought of painting with gold colours … Even Ephrussi fell for it’.

De Waal sifts through the anti-Semitic writing of the time, alighting in particular on Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic owed nothing to the State. In de Waal’s paraphrase:

Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money … The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not.

So here, for the Jews, it isn’t that you can’t trust a person with no people; it is that you can’t trust a person with people. They are loyal to their people rather than to the State.

The dilemma resonates. How would I describe myself, English or Jewish? I’d say Jewish first. And I’m only ‘Jew-ish’ in the Woody Allen sense – I never had a Batmitzvah, I was asked to leave Jewish Sunday school at a very early age (eating bacon-flavoured crisps in Synagogue didn’t go down too well), and I have far more friends who aren’t Jewish than who are. I only go to Synagogue once a year or so, and can only speak about ten words of Hebrew or Yiddish. (And most of them are words like ‘schmuck’ and ‘schlep’ that everyone knows anyway.)

Perhaps I’m more aware of being Jewish than being British, or English, because of the vague anti-Semitism that lurks close to the surface even in London’s multi-cultural world. Certainly, if I’m with foreign people and they say something disparaging about the English, I start getting quite defensively English about it. I suppose if people are going to say nasty things about Jews, it’s going to make me feel quite defensively Jewish.

But where do I stand as a reader?

When I studied English Literature at university, there was something distancing me from a large part of the course. It is a remarkably rich tradition, and a privilege to live in its country, to speak its language, but it was hard to feel excited about Anglo Saxon and Chaucer, and even the Brontes and Austen (you know how I hate Austen), when it felt like a heritage to which I was only really pretending. While all these women were trussed up and prancing around drawing rooms, or taking turns in their grounds, my ancestors were digging up turnips in Lithuania.

And then there is the discomfort of the anti-Semitism which infiltrates a great deal of the canon. Shakespeare is an astonishingly good playwright. Phenomenal. His language still can’t be matched. But what about Shylock? What about the fact that one of his major plays is hideously anti-Semitic?

Yes, it was different then is the old excuse, but still … it hurts to think that all this marvellous English playwright thought of us Jews was that we were determined to get our ‘pound of flesh’.

And then you meet Dickens’ Fagin, called ‘the Jew’ over 250 times in Oliver Twist, who is ‘disgusting’ to look at, a horrid criminal, who brings children into lives of crime in exchange for a roof over their heads. Incidentally, Dickens subsequently made friends with some Jews and proceeded to de-Jew Fagin in later editions of Oliver Twist, and tried to make up for his anti-Semitic stereotyping by placing a few good Jews in Our Mutual Friend. But, frankly, the damage was done. In fact, my cousin wasn’t allowed to be Fagin in his school play because they were nervous of being accused of type-casting.

Well, you can imagine what a special moment it was when I came across Eliot’s Daniel Deronda early on at university. Yes, I’d read Middlemarch – hasn’t everyone? – and yes, I thought it was good – doesn’t everyone? – but I felt that Dorothea Brooke and her life in the Midlands was part of this English tradition to which I felt like a bit of a pretender.

But Daniel Deronda is my perfect book. It is where the English tradition meets the Jews. And, even better, the English are satirised and the Jews come out on top! No Fagins, no Shylocks, but the wise and spiritual Mordecai, Mirah and … well if you read it you’ll find out that someone else pretty central to the book is Jewish too. Of course Daniel Deronda is more drawn towards the mysterious, exotic singer Mirah, than the fickle gentility of Gwendolen Harleth.

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, Daniel Deronda – Eliot’s last novel – has always met with a mixed critical reception. Everyone prefers Middlemarch. When it was published, there was great consternation at her turning her attention to ‘the Jewish problem’. And perhaps some of the criticism is justified. The Jewish characters aren’t so sharply drawn – they are symbolic, standing for Jewish ideas of inheritance, Zionism and community, rather than existing as strong individual characters.

But for me, this will always be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It made me see that there was a way of being both English and Jewish, of bringing together the two sides of my life without having to be polarised between them. I could read about Jews without having to read a horrific Holocaust survival memoir or an almost-as-horrific Philip Roth. A phenomenal mistress of the English language managed to write about the Jews, in a positive light, while also writing about contemporary society. It can be done. If only it were done as well, more often.

And if only there weren’t still mistrust of a person who has her own people.