Claire-Louise Bennett's Bookshelf
5th April 2016
A lot of the time I feel like I’m just hanging around. Seldom is it obvious to me what I should do with myself. Some philosophers and psychologists believe that human beings are born with a number of innate predispositions and it is the fulfilment of these biological and social leanings that give direction and meaning to one’s life. Along with many other instructive and possibly life-saving documents I seem to have mislaid that particular blueprint and am therefore forever grappling with the double-edged sword of freedom; sometimes I feel like a swashbuckling occupant of the whole wide world, other times I cannot muster the wherewithal to tread beyond the apartment door. When I think about the writers I most often orientate towards I am not surprised to realise that the basic situations of life do not occur to them automatically either. They presuppose very little, if anything, and so the use of themselves in the world is persistently unclear to them. They never quite adapt to and integrate with their surroundings, instead they prod about in an obsessive hermetic zone, or else freefall fast and loose through a dissolving universe. Paul Bowles was 17 when he decided to quit America – ‘I think I had a fairly good idea of what life would be like for me in the States, and I didn’t want it.’ When the interviewer asks him what it would have been like, Bowles replies; ‘boring’. Pessoa dodged the obligations of a fixed personality by devising around 70 heteronyms for himself, Sara Maitland left behind the yakkety-yak of city life in order to experience deep silence in the Hebrides, and Beckett went so far as to abandon his mother tongue – ‘Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved?’ he asked.
The dissolution of that which appears to be an essential of life – home, identity, integration, language – can be liberating and may lead to something ground-breaking, personally and artistically, yet it can also be alienating and traumatic: ‘It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known’, goes the opening line of Voyage in the Dark; the eighteen year old narrator, having spent her childhood in the West Indies, has just arrived in England. The author Ella Williams came to London from the island of Dominica in 1908, and was renamed Jean Rhys by Ford Maddox Ford some years later, but she never did quite settle into either of these adopted appellations. ‘I would never be part of anything’, she wrote in her unfinished autobiography, ‘I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.’ Whether through wilful sabotage, laziness, inattention, or some inherent glitch, I frequently feel slightly at odds with wherever I am and the things that go on there. And so I am grateful for the existence of the books listed here because I have felt very much at home in each one of them. As I am sure you will too, regardless of how well attuned you may or may not be; after all, as Shirley Jackson wisely pointed out – ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.’.