Intimacy is not a quality in itself

I have just read a poorly written book about abuse and strained family relations. A novel which, to my surprise, is winning a lot of praise and awards here in Norway these days. A kind of book that I suspect get most of its attention for what it possibly reveals about public figures (even if the book is labelled fiction, readers suspect it to be a kind of self-biography in disguise, and consequently readers feel very sorry for the author), not for how it is written.

And of course incest – as is the theme in the poorly written book – is a shameful assault, a family tragedy, but even the most grotesque experiences need careful aesthetic adaptations to become good literature. It is not enough to have a shocking story to tell – because the fact is: literature is all about the way or mode of telling. Or that is; good literature is.

medusa 2

Unfortunately disclosure of personal suffering is celebrated as if it was an aesthetic quality in itself in our culture. It results in much too much attention given to speculative books — displacing good literature from public debate.

But now: Enough about bad!

Here is some good stuff for you; also this from a book about family oppression and highly strained relationships:

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.

So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.

My screen saver is an image of a purple night sky crowded with stars, and constellations and the Milky Way, which takes its name from the classical Latin lactea. My mother told me years ago that I must write Milky Way like this – gΓαλαξίας Galaxias – and that Aristotle gazed up at the milky circle in Chalcidice, thirty-four miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki, where my father was born. The oldest star is about 13 billion years old but the stars on my screen saver are two years old and were made in China. All this universe is now shattered.

The dream is over for me. It began when I left my lame mother alone to pick the pears from the tree in our East London garden that autumn I packed my bags for university. I won a first-class degree. It continued while I studied for my master’s. It ended when she became ill and I abandoned my Ph.D. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind my shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.

In the new quiet I heard the sea as if my ears were laid against the ocean floor. I could hear everything. The rumbling earthquake of a ship and spider crabs moving between weeds.

Deborah Levy Hot Milk (2016)


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Alas for poorly-written books about anything at all, but particularly those that rely on the shock and empathy one might feel for the characters through telling events (poorly) instead of upon good writing that reveals in other, deeper ways. And I do not mean that the terrible events need to be in any way glossed; indeed, quite the opposite–but achieving that end takes hard work and good writing. And perhaps an editor who says, “Good plot, but you need to revise some more. You’re not done yet.”

    1. Sigrun says:

      YES – exactly!

  2. P.S.– I love this jellyfish picture!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Oh, thank you!
      Medusa – as mythological reference, but also as the Spanish name for jellyfish – plays a very important role in Levy’s book.

  3. bluebrightly says:

    Beautiful writing, thank you. I appreciate your opening line, too.

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