Sometimes it’s easy for a reviewer to place a book for a reader –another triumphant run of the plough down a well-worn furrow –but hey, look at that earth move! But it shouldn’t be easy: a book –this is a passionate reader speaking– is the very reverse of a homogenised product. If the furrow runs east to west, take the plough to the north! A book can be a whole new world of language and story and connection…
“I maintain that what an artist has to believe is this: that there is a special world, to which he alone has the key. It’s not that he must contribute something new…but that everything in him must be or seem new, transmitted through a powerfully colouring idiosyncrasy. He must have a particular philosophy, aesthetic, morality; his whole work tends only to show it. And that is what makes his style. He must also have a particular wit –his own sense of fun.”
He didn’t, of course, read his younger fellow student’s book –and until recently, I confess, nor did I: maybe many of us have unexamined inherited prejudices thriving –often probably to their own surprise– in unvisited places in our busy mental gardens… And I wonder whether my father would have been too full of anxiety about the subject matter to respond with the curiosity and conversation and delight with which I’m now responding to passages like this:
“To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, it is a spring in one’s step or an exchange of glances, it is more truly life and love than any combination of genitals, ovaries and hormones. It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity.”
“In Kanpur, in India, I came across a man with whom I felt an instant affinity, so similar was his system of emancipation to my own. That he was deeply unhappy was obvious, but he numbed his misery by touching things. Day and night he wandered the streets of the city, earnestly and methodically touching windows, doorposts, lamp-standards, apparently to a set of unwritten rules. Sometimes he appeared to feel that he had neglected the task, and did a street all over again, paying a still more diligent attention to the doorknobs, and I was told that there was scarcely an alley of the inner city where his busy activity was not familiar. I spoke to him one morning, but he responded only with an engaging preoccupied smile, as if to say that, though some other time it would be delightful to have a chat, that day he simply hadn’t a moment to spare.”
Jan Morris’ powerfully colouring idiosyncrasy is the knowledge she begins her book with:
“I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.”
“…the layman’s belief [is] that the neuroses are something quite unnecessary which have no right whatever to exist. Whereas in fact they are severe, constitutionally fixed illnesses, which rarely restrict themselves to only a few attacks, but persist as a rule over long periods or throughout life.”
If you saw Stephen Fry’s recent programs on the bi-polar condition, there’s a moment you’ll have kept with you: it’s the moment when he asks –fully admitting all the distress and bewilderment and everything else that is inevitably companion to the bi-polar condition– if there was a pill that would take the condition away forever, would he take it? No, he says –no, he wouldn’t. No. It’s the immutable state of being Stephen Fry.
Joel Magarey’s powerfully colouring idiosyncrasy is obsessive/compulsive disorder –a condition he both exemplifies and explores in a way that’s unique to him. The divide between mental illness and mental health is a resolutely defended line, but we should always remember the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Bobok, who knows that “we shut people in asylums so that we can believe we are sane ourselves.” The reality is that there is no line, no divide…
Late that night I’d found myself running through the blue-black streets of the Colaba district. Something was happening to me –I’d been pounding through these streets for hours. A few blocks back I’d given a white-haired old woman nearly all our remaining rupees. When she’d taken them I’d been flooded with relief, but now as I raced towards the hotel the fear was again at my heels.Rounding a corner, unable to stop in time, I jumped over a body. Ahead hundreds more lay sprawled, Bombay’s homeless sleeping on the pavement. In panic I swerved away from the sleepers and ran down the middle of the empty road. I didn’t understand what was happening to me but I knew I had to avoid getting caught again. I tried to think only about getting back to Penny and the hotel room and this time staying there. All night as I’d headed back I’d kept seeing more crippled women, blind men or deformed children and kept getting urges; and though I’d resisted them, in the room they’d become so painful I’d had to run out to those people too. And each time that happened the most frightening urge intensified –the pressure in my chest that wanted me not to leave India in the morning, to let Penny fly home without me, and to make these streets my life.
I lit a fire, cooked and ate, lay my mattress on the stone floor, got out my book and jumped gleefully into my sleeping bag.
A few minutes later from outside the hut came a low, short, expressionless ‘euh’, just audible above the wind. It was the sound of some voice but wasn’t much like a human voice. A bird, no doubt. I kept reading.
A minute later I thought, a bird? In this weather? What if it had been a human? Someone lost…”
As for particular wit –his own sense of fun– Joel is delightfully uncomplaining and full of excellent comic observation about the dilemmas his particular idiosyncrasy regularly exposes him to. Told it’s best to yell mightily at a bear that might be pondering the possibility of a tearable human in a tent, Joel does his duty till his voice is hoarse:
“It goes on as the night wears on. Through the exhausting, tidal terror I wonder why this bear is tormenting me before tearing me into pieces. Why doesn’t he just do it?
Two or so hours later it hits me that I’m camped on ice. There’s probably water beneath the ice. And doesn’t water expand as it freezes, or something? Maybe the surface ice is cracking and grinding –and kind of roaring and shrieking– as a result? I’m probably yelling at the surface ice.”
“Two days later, climbing Mount Bierstadt in Colorado, as I stand on a steep rocky outcrop singing a hymn to the Rockies, Etienne laughs and calls up to me, ‘What a guy I have met! I love you, man.’ Touched, I’m also taken aback. I mean, ‘love’? Well, okay, I guess. I don’t want to be rude…
“I love you too.”
“Leaning down, she kissed me, then breathed gently into my mouth. I took her breath and returned it, and as we breathed like that I felt a caress of calmness for the first time since morning. She air-kissed me again; I felt calmer still. She did it a third time and finally, in that surging warmth, I felt the first gentle tugs of sleep, pulling me somewhere safe.”
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Exposure is a valuable book.