Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

Reading Lolita in Tehran

February 22, 2016

Whats the story morning gloryWhen I was about twelve, I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I was a massive Oasis fan, and did all those classic pre-teen things like headbanging while jumping on my bed, sticking posters up all over my walls, and writing out lyrics in swirly patterns on pads of paper. As all true fans know, Definitely Maybe was a much better album, but I have a particular memory of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is the point of this (otherwise, you might think, rather peculiar) preamble.

I always used to beg to play my music in the car (sorry Mum) and I remember listening to this CD on one particular journey – we were just approaching the Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout – when my brother told me that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had sold so many copies that something like one in thirteen people in the UK owned it.

This fact blew my twelve-year-old mind as we drove past the wasteland where Westfield would one day be built. I thought of all the cars I could see, all the cars we’d passed during our journey, and considered the likelihood that the same album was playing in many of them. I thought of all the people in England who’d bought it, and wondered how many were listening to Wonderwall right then at the very same moment as I was. After that conversation, whenever I pressed play to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, I would imagine other fingers pressing play for the same CD all over the world.

This feeling of being overwhelmed by everyone everywhere doing the same thing as you, which happens to be something that you love, is how I feel now about book clubs. It works on two levels. Firstly, there is the joy of thinking of your own book club, and the various members reading the same book in time for the next meeting. As I read a wonderful sentence, I wonder what another reader will make of it, a reader who is possibly encountering it at the same time. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, there is the feeling of people all over the world being part of book clubs: the feeling that while Emily’s Walking Book Club strides across Hampstead Heath, a bunch of people are, say, sitting around a crackling fire in Derbyshire, or at a dinner table in Calgary … or around a coffee table in Tehran.

Reading Lolita in TehranThis is why I picked Reading Lolita in Tehran for the most recent meeting of the walking book club. I was intrigued to read about a book club meeting in very different circumstances.

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran as a memoir of her time teaching American and English Literature during the Revolution in Iran. It begins by focussing on the ‘book club’ of sorts she set up. Having resigned from the University, Nafisi invited her seven favourite female students to discuss literature every Thursday in her home. We are introduced to her students and the book begins with their discussion about Lolita. As Nafisi guides us through other works of literature – by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen – she steps away from the book club setting, and reflects on her time spent teaching, and reading more generally. An especially dramatic moment is when she puts The Great Gatsby on trial in her university class, and she writes movingly about holding vigil reading Henry James outside her children’s bedroom while bombs from Iraq drop nearby.

It’s an extraordinary period of history and fascinating to read Nafisi’s account of Iran at this time, to discover how exactly it came to be that the women found themselves having to wear headscarves, to read of the terrible ‘morality squads’, as well as details like the homemade vodka in which her husband indulges. Then there is the horror of reading about the suffering endured by many of her students and friends: various combinations of arrest, imprisonment, abuse, torture, rape, and execution.

Woven together with this portrait of Iran, are Nafisi’s readings of the various texts. A theme that runs throughout is the play between reality and fiction – Nafisi’s ‘active withdrawal’ from reality and escape into fiction, and literature’s power to help one cope with difficult circumstances by offering its different worlds.

She emphasises the importance of empathy, how a novel is ‘a sensual experience of another world’, in which you ‘hold your breath with the characters’, and that evil in literature is blindness: ‘the inability to “see” others, hence to empathise with them.’ Nafisi makes the point that:

What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).

Elsewhere, she uses Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to great effect. A student kept on following her to her office and telling her that Jane Austen was anti-Islamic and a colonial writer. Then:

One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure – you are different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute – decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!

There is an added irony here, because once Reading Lolita in Tehran was published and became such a success, it received some flak for exactly this – focussing so much on Western literature rather than Persian. (You can read more about this in this Slate article here.)

There is a third strand of the book, alongside the readings of literature and portrait of Iran – Nafisi’s own life, and the people in it: her family, friends and students. And I’m afraid I thought (and so did the rest of the walking book club) this was the book’s failing. We all confessed to finding it very hard to differentiate between Nafisi’s students, or indeed to ‘see’ any of the characters in the book. When there is a memorable instance of a student’s response to a novel – like Mr. Nahvi’s above – it is usually a student who is otherwise incidental. (I don’t remember Mr. Nahvi featuring elsewhere.)

The real flaw here lies with Nafisi’s seven students who come to the Thursday literature discussions. We are introduced to them in the opening pages of the book, but they don’t really develop. Various things happen to them: one gets married in Turkey, another has her engagement called off, one has a brother who is horrid to her, another a husband who abuses her, one of them has painted fingernails … but none of us could remember what happened to which woman, or any of their names. Nafisi makes a big point of her girls being able to take off their loose black robes and head scarves when they enter her home to reveal the individuals beneath, in jeans and t-shirts, with their own hair styles and colourful nails. Somehow the book doesn’t quite achieve this derobing, and the women remain swathed in vague blackness.

This is especially problematic as Nafisi makes such a good point about the importance of being an individual:

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes … My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.

She draws a comparison with the scene in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, when Cincinnatus is made to dance with his jailer, and waltzes with him in a circle around a prison guard. This complicity is the ultimate cruelty:

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other … There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

Finding the strength, courage and determination to remain an individual is vital for survival. This is exactly what Nafisi encourages her students to discover in literature: a private world where you can be free to think what you like. Only, Reading Lolita in Tehran is full of Nafisi’s own thoughts on literature, rarely are her students given a voice. And if their thoughts occasionally spill onto the page, then so little else is told about them, that it’s hard to see individual characters emerge from such few words.

Nafisi writes well about the terrifying feeling of ‘irrelevance’ which took hold of her under the new regime. Perhaps this book is too much a statement of her own relevance, rather a record of the voices of the many other women who were forced into silence.

Having said all that, I still think it’s a very thought-provoking and important book. I especially liked Nafisi’s comparison of Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance. As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on it. (Or indeed, on a teenage love for Oasis.)

Azar Nafisi


Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

Pride and Prejudice

May 12, 2014

Emilybooks’ Italian adventures continue apace. This has been a week of travelling and seeing things, thanks to the husband doing a great deal of driving (we have even purchased him a peaked cap), while I somewhat uselessly map-read and look out for road signs. Driving in Italy is both puzzling and terrifying. There appears to be a completely different attitude to things like roundabouts, sliproads and pedestrian crossings. Indeed crossing the road, at a crossing, is so alarming that I can only manage it by closing my eyes before stepping out into the traffic, which does grind to a halt but with extreme reluctance and only just in time.

The Etruscan tortoiseWe went to Volterra, where we met a dozy hot tortoise in the garden of a charmingly old-fashioned Etruscan museum, filled with urns on which were carved scenes from the Odyssey and the Underworld. Then we hopped on to San Gimignano, where we found a pretty square with herringbone paving remarkably free of the tourist hordes. Another trip took us to Orvieto, where I loved the alabaster windows in the Duomo. There, we went underground to see two of the city’s hundreds of man-made caves. There are paths from each cave up to a house, and the city’s inhabitants still use them as cool places to keep things like food and wine, as has been the case since the Etruscans! We stayed with Emilybooks in-laws not far from Orvieto, and they took us on a breathtaking long hot walk up a mountain, where there were an astonishing number of tiny wild flowers, including beautiful orchids. As we sat and ate sandwiches on a grassy bank, two cows and their calf padded past us rather nervously, their bell ringing with each faltering step, and it seemed serene and quite poetic, before I discovered the ants that were scurrying their way into my pants.

Beautifully displayed classicsOn the way back to Lucca, we stopped at Pienza, a beautiful Renaissance town, with an especially lovely Duomo. There was some absolutely terrifying subsidence, however, and I was almost too scared to stand in the cathedral’s sloping half, as the cracks on the floor and walls were so extreme that you felt that it might slip off the cliff at any given moment. Then on to Sienna, where we sat on the Campo with a slice of pizza and watched Italian schoolboys dressed up in the green, white and red costume of their Goose Contrada as they paraded around with drums, flags and a brass band. We also stumbled upon a sweet little bookshop, where all their classics were displayed as so.

Heart-shaped grassIt has not all been travel, however, and there have been some lovely afternoons picnicking and reading on the walls of Lucca, where I discovered this peculiar, pretty grass with heart-shaped leaves. It seems particularly apt company while reading Pride and Prejudice.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice is such an enjoyable experience, that I am caught in that push-pull of wanting to consume it very rapidly indeed and feeling the panic of the end getting closer and so only allowing myself a few short chapters per sitting.

Pride and PrejudiceLast year was the 200 year anniversary of its publication and I’d thought it would be the perfect excuse to finally get around to re-reading it. I’d last read it as a cynical, precocious and, no doubt, proud and prejudiced fourteen-year-old, who couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. I was aware that my silly teenage self was far more likely to be wrong about it than the millions of people who declare it one of the best books ever written. Added to which, Penguin have published this completely beautiful, and gloriously yellow, hardback edition. But the year slipped past without it ever being quite the right time to read it. Perhaps one’s brain has to be in a more languid place to read classics, rather than full of London’s hectic hurrying about.

Pride and Prejudice, read out here during long lazy afternoons and evenings is, of course, wonderful. I am particularly enjoying Austen’s rather personal and eccentric approach to spelling, with her cavalier attitude to rules like i before e except after c, and feeling free to just miss off a letter or two, should she feel like it. While I am usually a stickler for correct spelling, hers is so dotty and unexpected that it makes me sit up and look at each misspelt word afresh. I find myself surprisingly happy that Penguin, for whatever reason – the note on the text doesn’t make it clear – has decided to keep her spelling as is, as so many words that would normally drift past jolt me to attention. I wish I knew more about spelling in the early nineteenth century. Could everyone afford to be quite so lackadaisical with it? Was it a time when any spelling would do so long as the reader understood the meaning rather than everyone getting so het up about it? If someone would care to enlighten me, I’d be fascinated and very grateful.

I am struck by how well Austen moves between the heads of her various characters. I’ve grown so used to the various screen adaptations that I’ve come to think of Pride and Prejudice as entirely Lizzy Bennet’s story: she is our heroine and so everything must be focalised through her. While she is undoubtedly the main character, and the one to whom we – and Austen – pay the most attention, Austen also flits between the minds of her other characters in a manner that seems to me not dissimilar to Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for instance, which comes at the end of volume ii, chapter ix. Elizabeth is staying with her friend Charlotte, who has married Mr Collins, and the two friends are puzzled as to why Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam visit them quite so often:

It was plain to them all that Colonel Fitzwilliam came because he had pleasure in their society; a persuasion which of course recommended him still more; and Elizabeth was reminded by her own satisfaction in being with him, as well as by his evident admiration of her, of her former favourite George Wickham; and though, in comparing them, she saw there was less captivating softness in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners, she believed he might have the best informed mind.

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice – a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself. He seldom appeared really animated. Mrs. Collins knew not what to make of him. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s occasionally laughing at his stupidity, proved that he was generally different, which her own knowledge of him could not have told her; and as she would have liked to believe this change the effect of love, and the object of that love, her friend Eliza, she sat herself seriously to work to find it out.

Austen nimbly switches from Elizabeth’s opinion of Fitzwilliam and recollection of Wickham to Charlotte’s musings on Darcy. In between the two of them are a few sentences (‘But why Mr. Darcy … He seldom appeared really animated.’) which could belong to either of them, or indeed both. This ambiguity conjures a conversation between the two friends, as though they’ve spent hours puzzling over the mystery together and this is the resulting opinion shared by the pair of them.

Austen’s is a very clever and very satisfying manner of storytelling, which enables the reader to dive into various consciousnesses and come away with nuggets of information of which other characters remain ignorant. The most obvious example is of course Darcy’s attraction towards Elizabeth Bennet, to which we are privy, while she remains ignorant. It has also made me look at the infamous first line in a new light:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I had always thought this was one of those arch statements after which everyone laughs or tuts knowingly at Austen’s wit and knowledge. But perhaps it isn’t the authorial narrator speaking here. Indeed, it seems more likely that it is actually in Mrs Bennet’s consciousness that we begin the book. She is the first person to speak, just a paragraph later, and as her husband teases her (Austen would have spelled it teazes) into conversation, she soon says that Bingley is:

“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

It is such a close echo of the opening line, that it does suggest that the truth universally acknowledged is silly Mrs Bennet’s opinion, rather than Austen’s.

Austen’s moving between her characters’ consciousnesses, thereby revealing aspects of them to the reader, is particularly apt given that Lizzy, our heroine, as Bingley says of her, ‘is a studier of character.’ She is a studier of character who, in spite of assiduous observation, completely miscomprehends both Darcy and Wickham. If only she were to have the benefit of dropping into other characters’ minds enjoyed by us readers. So then, Austen’s storytelling technique encourages us all to become studiers of character. She has certainly given us some wonderful ones with whom we can begin.

By the way, I realise that my photos tend to be of tortoises or books, rather than beautiful cathedrals and piazzas. Sorry. I shall attempt to mend my ways.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.

On not liking

June 14, 2010

I don’t like football. Not even the World Cup. I don’t like Jane Austen either.

It’s hard to admit to not liking something. Especially if that something is liked by almost everybody else. One doesn’t want to be a spoilsport.

The World Cup is the more timely example. On Saturday, everybody I knew was watching the game. Usually, when it’s World Cup time, I make an effort. I tell myself – go on, it’s not just football, it’s an England match, you’ve got to watch it. I sit down with some friends and a luke-warm beer, often in a hideously over-crowded pub, and try to groan in the right places.

This year, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up those hours to pretend to follow and enjoy something that I have absolutely no interest in. While Saturday’s match was going on I was reading in the bath. (It wasn’t Jane Austen)

But, frankly, who cares if I like football or not? Conversations about likes and dislikes are almost always unbearably dull. Take, for instance, the following conversation about seeing a film with a friend. You are both leaving the cinema:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Yeah I really enjoyed it; I thought it was great.’

‘Oh yeah, me too. Although I found X a bit annoying.’

‘Really? I quite liked him.’

‘Why? How could you like him?’

‘Don’t know, just did. I thought it was all really good.’

People’s opinions, obviously, vary; people, of course, like and dislike different things. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere interesting with a conversation when it’s reduced to this. Saying that you like something is so pointless, you might as well say nothing at all. Why not have a conversation more like this:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘God, I couldn’t believe the bit when X happened. It was so crazy. It was really scary.’

‘Yeah, I know – it was such a weird thing to happen. I totally thought Y was going to happen instead, I was really taken by surprise.’

‘Yes, I think it’s because after B you just sort of assume Y will happen next. I wonder why they made X happen instead?’

You have a discussion and instantly it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if you like it or not.

So I try to avoid admitting that I don’t like Jane Austen, or football. It’s so boring. I’d only do it if I could launch a discussion from it and talk about it in a looping, digressing, anecdote-filled way. For football, for instance, I could say:

I don’t like watching lots of people chase a ball around in a confined space. I don’t like admitting to the knowledge that England are never very good. I don’t like that collective feeling of failure and gloom that settles over the country after the inevitably second-rate performance. I don’t like the beeriness – the chanting and the fights. Once I was on the tube after a football match and there was a crowd of men all draped in England flags, singing and jumping around and being generally antisocial. And then one of them vomited on the floor about six inches from my feet.

That at least is the bones of an argument and a funny(ish) story to boot. I can hear ten of my male friends wanting to jump in … ‘But…’ ‘But how can you say…?’ ‘But what about …?’ I can even a hear a few girl friends wanting to get in there too.

And I suppose the argument wouldn’t be completely absolutely dull. I might learn a little bit more about the off-side rule, I might be persuaded into having a little more faith in our country, I might admit that it’s quite special for everyone to be bound together in collective hope for ninety minutes. But I don’t think it would be a particularly nice conversation. Either I’d annoy people who really like football. Or someone would agree and we’d spend half an hour mouthing it off, being extraordinary negative and snipey and nasty.

But it’s better than saying, ‘I don’t like football.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’

I really believe that this theory of the irrelevance of likes and dislikes holds for most things. But what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to say whether you like something or not?

When I worked in publishing, one of the jobs given to us underlings was the awful business of writing rejection letters. We’d have to deal with the pile of unsolicited, unagented submissions that ranged from miscellanies of unusual medical words to sixth unpublished novels about Vikings. We were instructed not to say anything remotely encouraging or even to really engage with what had been written. The last thing you want, I was warned, is for them to write back offering to change it, adapt it, improve it for your reconsideration.

I was faced with a blank piece of paper, which had to be filled by saying, essentially, ‘I don’t like this.’

We were given examples and templates to follow. They went along the lines of:

Dear X,

Thank you for sending me Y to read. It was an interesting submission but I’m afraid it just wasn’t one for us, so I’m going to have to say no.

I wish you the best of luck finding a home for it elsewhere.

Yours sincerely

To begin with I tried to change this. I tried to write letters enthusing about aspects of the work, saying that I liked it (I often did) but the higher powers didn’t (they never did). Unsurprisingly, these were never allowed to be sent out. I can see that encouraging someone who is probably never going to be published is not particularly helpful. Cruel to be kind, I was told. Small consolation for the guilt as I sealed the envelope on a letter of approximately two sentences saying, bluntly, ‘I don’t like your work,’ knowing that it would be opened by someone who would feel upset and useless and that their work is completely unvalued.

But then, is it really useful to reject something, or someone, and justify it with spurious reasons? The worst break-ups are the ones which go into painful lists of what you don’t like about each other, pulling up examples of past arguments, dissecting disagreements. It’s open-heart surgery without an anaesthetic. Why bother to slice through things, to cut it all open, to rehash all those old fights all over again? You, or the other person, have decided that you don’t like each other enough. Leave it at that. Walk away. Use a euphemism, an excuse … lie. It is far better to say some rubbish like you’re not feeling able to commit to someone at the moment than to say I think you’re a real drip and you never make me laugh and all your friends are losers. Any discussion is instantly too personal, too painful, far too upsetting.

Opinions are the murderers of conversation. Most of the time they should be avoided. But occasionally, when it gets personal, when conversation should be avoided, then it’s absolutely best to rely on their power. If the answer’s no, the answer’s no. No need to make it any more horrible, upsetting or nasty than that.