Enchantment and Acquaintance: Nature Writing and Knowledge

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

I have an odd relationship with nature and landscape writing. Naming, as any poet will tell you—I remember Carol Ann Duffy saying something to this effect—is a powerful thing. Through their parts or as wholes, names set off small semantic explosions in the mind of the reader as well as serving to anchor poetic abstraction in places, things, and people. Clive James’s Japanese Maple, Alice Oswald’s Severn, Heaney’s Mossbawn, miscellaneous Wordsworth: each by its naming puts out little tendrils which hold the world close. That, I think, is what I find attractive about writing on place, nature, landscape, and wildlife: its naming and exploration of things named.

Yet, this interest can feel like bad faith. It is because I am so poor at naming plants, birds, trees, and landscape—chalk hills? Clay? Limestone?—that I find this writing so fascinating, so enchanting. Of course, the history and human relationships bound up in landscape and wildlife are deeply interesting, and I love good writing about them; but, nonetheless, it is the power of naming, built on a way of perceiving I lack that lies at the heart of my worry.

Such writing has for me something of the allure of fantasy or science fiction: the exploration and evocation of another world, where most of the world-building has been taken care of by history and the environment, though interpretation and projection by the writer certainly has its part to play. Writers who can draw on language and knowledge I’ve never known or which seems to vanish as soon as I hear it. (Expressed in a rather flippant poem—but the anxiety is more substantial.) Roger Deakin wanders about discussing blackthorn, coppicing, insects, beetles, and really rather a large variety of birds; Robert Macfarlane springs up and down hills, across moors and tidal pathways, with a dictionary in tow: that’s how it feels anyway. Helen Macdonald and J. A. Baker name the birds and understand the goshawk and peregrine. I struggle to remember the difference between blue tits and great tits, ash and bay, which hills are where and what they are made of. (I’m beginning to grasp the South Downs.)

All of this bothers me because each of these writers hints at a way of perceiving that feels lost. If you can name things you can understand the relations between them—and vice versa—and that understanding can penetrate your perception of the environment and its history. This capacity enchants me as a mystery does: like a magic trick, I can’t see how it’s done, although I can think it impressive or beautiful: the bad faith worry stems from the sense that—as with the magic trick—learning how its done might lead to disenchantment. I don’t think that would happen; in fact, I expect it would be quite the reverse. Acquaintance would enrich rather than diminish, because naming and understanding aren’t sleights.

In order to deepen my acquaintance I’m going to be reading the Thwaites Wainwright Prize shortlist over the next few weeks. I’ve read the wonderful H is for Hawk already—and you really must—and the rest of the shortlist is a cross-section of the kind of writing I’ve been considering: place, people, wildlife, and their histories and crossings. I’m starting with Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel in my attempt to move beyond all that undifferentiated green.

  • Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature, Richard Askwith (Vintage/Yellow Jersey).
  • The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature, William Atkins (Faber & Faber).
  • Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, Mark Cocker (Vintage).
  • Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld).
  • H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Vintage).
  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Philip Marsden (Granta).
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Book Notes: Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula

Classics are a bugger to write about. One can either be refractorily contrarian or fawn and fall in line with the rest of the admiring hordes. That Dracula is accorded ‘classic’ status in the/a ‘canon’ is attested by its inclusion in Penguin’s project of 2012, the issuing of a hundred ‘of the best novels in the English language’. Late last year they were kind enough to send me a few of the Penguin English Library which I comprehensively failed to read. At all. (Actually, I did write about the PEL edition of Dubliners, but that wasn’t part of this batch, so I’m not letting myself off that easily). I’m now aiming to remedy that failure, beginning with Dracula. Now, there is a third way of approaching a classic, of course, which is to use one’s canonical text as the jumping off point for some ill-assorted and likely irrelevant reflections. You might wish I’d left it on the shelf.

Although by no means the first vampire novel, Dracula is the oft ill-attributed locus classicus of all that followed in 20th Century film and literature. The short essay that follows the main text (which is a nice feature of PEL editions) by John Sutherland does a good job of sorting the vampires of Stoker from later accretions. It was only with nosferatu, for example, that the sunlight-solubility of vampires was introduced. It might also come as a surprise to any unfortunate who has seen Van Helsing to learn that the eponymous professor is, in Stoker, a slightly-older-than-middle-aged Dutch professor of curious speech patterns. I’m not really going to talk about the plot, I’m afraid. If you want a summary, click here with all possible dispatch and enjoy Wikipedia.

Two elements struck me most about Dracula: its intense modernity and the possibility of writing an epistolary novel with some claim to realism in methodology if not in subject matter. These two go hand-in-hand to some extent. The propagation of information by the central characters is done not only by the time-honoured journal, diary, and letter, but by telegram, phonograph, type-writer, and camera. Novels which are necessarily written in recollection can suffer from an odd pacing, but Dracula, for all that it is often dense to modern eyes, does not suffer from this because it makes use of what were, in 1897, cutting edge developments. The arrival of a telegram bearing some key piece of information has something of the email or text about it, for all that they differ in so many other ways. What is so interesting about Stoker’s style is that he mixes the 18th and 19th Century staple of the epistolary novel with the turn of the century developments in communication as well as introducing modern weaponry (Winchester rifles), transport, and science which forms a marked contrast with the old world preferences of the Count. It’s a more refreshing mix than any found in Blade.

So what of the epistolary novel in the early 21st Century? It’s fair to say that few people write letters with any regularity. Yet it isn’t simply the medium of expression that has altered, we also write with greater brevity in most exchanges, be they by email, Facebook, instant messenger, Twitter, text message, or anything else. Technology has undoubtedly altered our language and the writer who wishes to write in this mode has to be aware of that. I know that there are books around which do make use of emails, tweets, messages, and so on; but I haven’t really read any, and I wonder if the necessary fragmentation which I feel would result from such approach would be the kind we occasionally laud for being so refreshing in the face of conservative narrative.

So, somewhat ironically, I asked Twitter. Suggestions included: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, several by Tao Lin, Eleven by David Llewellyn, The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, and Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave. I’ve read none of these, but several have made it on to my wish list. (Thanks to everyone who replied). There are, of course, several stories written either in a single tweet or composed of tweets strung together, but these are not, for the most part, messages as messages, but as shorter forms of composition. That is, people are writing stories with tweets, rather than stories of tweets. (See, for example, Jennifer Egan’s Black Box).

What is interesting is whether we adopt different voices for different platforms. Do I write differently on Twitter than I do on Facebook? I think I post pictures of cats equally. I certainly write differently when blogging about art or books than when I write philosophy, but it seems a different kind of difference from that which different platforms might engender: in one my subject matter drives my style, but in the other the constraint is of the nature of the platform and social convention surrounding its use. At the very least, I tend not to think in hashtags most of the time.

I think it could be interesting to try and write a novel that moves amongst all of these different media. That’s what Stoker did and he’s stood the test of time. One worry might be the transience of social media and the various forms of communication we use at the moment. I’m unlikely to try and write anything involving Myspace, for example; but should I involve Reddit? Does the furniture I post for sale on Gumtree drive my narrative forward? And so on. Of course, we don’t use telegrams and more and that hasn’t harmed Dracula at all. Which means, I suppose, that whatever style one adopts, one has to write a good novel at the same time. Which, by the way, Stoker seems to have done.

 

Words of Mouth Blog Interview

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I hope to get some reviews or reading summaries up in the next few days but in the meantime the lovely Claire King, author of The Night Rainbow, has asked me a few questions which I answered in typically rambling fashion. It’s been a few weeks of scary thesis work, so I apologise if it looks like my various trains of thought had a bit of a leaves on the line moment here and there. 

B.S. Johnson at 80

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© The B. S. Johnson Society

This behaving as though an audience were watching has become a part of me, is my character, is me

(Albert Angelo)

It is perhaps fitting in some vague and nameless way that I should finally have read B.S. Johnson (1933-1973) in what would have been his 80th year.  Like so many authors Johnson has been hovering in the periphery of my awareness as ‘A Writer I Ought To Read’. Fortunately for me Picador have reissued four novels and a selection of Johnson’s prose and drama to mark the counterfactual octogenarian’s anniversary. It has been something of a revelation.

  • Albert Angelo (1964)
  • Trawl (1966)
  • House Mother Normal (1971)
  • Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973)
  • Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson Edited by Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew, and Julia Jordan.

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To which…I want to reply: There is no experiment without uncertainty. (Toby Litt, in his excellent Introduction to Albert Angelo)

In a world where aspiring writers are still warned against ‘author intrusion’ B.S. Johnson comes as something of a shock. I have read Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry so far – the beginning and the end, if you will. (Although the former was preceded by one novel Travelling People suppressed by Johnson and the latter followed by the posthumous publication of See the Old Lady Decently). What follow are thus my early thoughts on each novel. Both involve Johnson’s voice in a striking way. The vaunted page 163 of Albert Angelo is remarkable if not entirely unexpected if one read Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry first as I did, and so has some idea of where Johnson was heading.

But I really discovered what I should be doing with Alberto Angelo (1964) where I broke through the English disease of the objective correlative to speak truth directly if solipsistically in the novel form, and hear my own small voice. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

Is Albert Angelo a supply-teacher or an architect? He struggles between the two, refusing to commit to teaching, trying to work on plans of buildings that will never be constructed. Throughout – well, nearly throughout – Johnson plays the architectural relationship between façade and fabric off that of appearance and character in those Albert meets: ‘There is an art which can tell something of the mind’s construction in the face.’ Albert wants to believe this, for ‘form should be honestly expressed’ he thinks during one of the passages where Johnson seeks to represent both the outward appearance of a lesson as well as the teacher’s mental state by having two columns running alongside one another on the page. Johnson uses several different typographical and formal devices to explore the representation of thought, conversation, and narrative – none of which are easy to reproduce here. At one point square holes are cut through the pages to bring a later event into an odd dialogue with the pages into which it intrudes.

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Johnson’s passion and anger generates a restless, searching, comic, chaotic, and angry novel: Albert Angelo doesn’t know what it should be. That ‘should’ is a problem. Where does it come from, this ‘should’? A ‘should’ and its associated certainty require an ‘is’; but, Johnson insists, we do not even know what the novel is, what it is for, what it ought to do. The novel and fiction are different, he insists. Truth and honesty are aimed for, even if the novel cannot do them justice. Thus, for all its typographic, formal, and prose variety – or perhaps because of it – Albert Angelo feels like the ragged beginning of something; or perhaps the insistence that something else – the ante-Joycean novel – should have ended long before.

Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this means falsification. Telling stories is really telling lines. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

(This reminds me of one of my favourite novels of last year: Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, in which narrative and emotional resolution are fiercely resisted to great effect).

If Johnson began something with Alberto Angelo in 1964, then Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry was a major development. It is as passionate and tormented as ever, but Johnson had reached a level of control which makes for a novel whose discontinuous and challenging nature is somehow more cohesive. Christie Malry feels hard done by; he feels that his account with society, with Them is in Credit. He thus creates his own accounting system: Moral Double-Entry, wherein he seeks to balance perceived Aggravation with Recompense in several Reckonings which appear in the novel as tables. The increasing distance between Christie’s assessment of his aggravations and their recompense leads to an absurd escalation of his Debiting activity.

Headlam paused to provide a paragraph break for resting the reader’s eye in what might otherwise have been a daunting mass of type.

One of the striking elements of the novel is the careful way in which Johnson makes it clear how much greater is the knowledge of the author than his characters. This gentle destabilisation is at its clearest when a character uses a term so incongruous as to jolt the reader. In doing so, Johnson emphasises the artifice of the novel. Elsewhere his intervention is far more pronounced. For example, after Christie is stopped by a policeman with potentially awkward questions, Johnson remarks: ‘I am told one has to put incidents like that in; for the suspense, you know.’ His characters seem to know they are in a novel, his mother dying when she perceives her narrative function to be at an end, several others suggest their function is to provide some much-needed comic relief.

Aspects of both novels are undoubtedly somewhat dated, especially the social commentary; but that is often the case and is mitigated here by the urgency of the conscience behind it, as well as by the enduring concern for the relationship between authority and the individual. Both novels retain their urgency when the narrative conventions and concerns which Johnson so resisted are still widespread. One doesn’t have to agree with him to see the importance of his insistence of contingency and the tendency to disorder. Neither novel ends with anything like a traditional resolution; such an ending would have defeated Johnson’s aims.

‘In any case,’ he said, almost to himself, not looking at me, ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’

So, I’ve seen where Johnson started and where he (almost) ended up. Now I need to see how he got from one to the other. I’m going to read Trawl and House Mother Normal whilst dipping in and out of the Selected Prose and Drama, before moving on to Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which has been strongly recommended to me by a few people. And speaking of recommendations, the novelist and critic Lee Rourke and Ian Curtin have both recommended that I follow Johnson with Anna Kavan and Ann Quin. Lee advised me to start with Berg by Quin and Ice or Mercury for Kavan. I’m looking forward to both.

My thanks to Picador for these review copies.

Is there wine? Reader Appreciation Awards

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Well, my goodness, would you look at that? The estimable Eve Proofreads has been kind enough to send me a Reader Appreciation Award.

I don’t expect the people I nominate to do the following, but I should be working, so I’m going to do this instead.

The Rules:

1. Provide a link and thank the blogger who nominated you for this award.

2. Answer 10 questions.

3. Choose 10-12 blogs that you find a joy to read.

4. Provide links to these blogs and kindly let the recipients know that they have been chosen.

5. Include the award logo within your blog post.

The Questions

 Your favourite colour? International Klein Blue.

IKB

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Your favourite animal? I’m afraid that I’m a cat person. I suspect that, much like myself, they are really quite fond of you, but simply refuse to be quite so gauche as to show it unless there is food involved.

Your favourite non-alcoholic drink? Coffee. Always coffee.

Facebook® or Twitter®? Twitter is what lured me into book reviewing and helped me ‘meet’ lots of other writers of various stripes; so despite its terrible effect on my productivity at times, I should say I owe Twitter rather a lot.

Your favourite pattern? I really like blind arcading. It’s odd, I know.

Getting or giving presents? I like giving a good book. I also like receiving one, so, you know…

Your favourite number? Really?

Your favourite day of the week? Saturday. I got married on a Saturday. I really have no other criteria.

Your favourite flower? Oh blimey, you had to highlight my lamentable ignorance of horticulture, didn’t you? What with that and trees I haven’t got a hope of being a nature writer. Those pinky-purples ones are nice. Yes, I’ll go with those.

What is your passion? For a philosopher this is a very loaded question. (See this, for example). I’m afraid it’s as dull as my really enjoying reading — and writing when I give myself the space to do it. I do really, really enjoy the tracing of ideas and images through artworks, architecture, language, and literature as I think my reviews probably make clear.

My Favourites

This list is in no particular order at all. (In fact, ignore the numbers completely). I’ve only been reading blogs for about six months, so  this is a shorter list than it might be in a year or so. In general, these are blogs I feel I always learn from. A lot of them have made me realise how much more translated literature I should read.

1. On the Literary Sofa ranges across book reviews, literary discussion, and writing tips from novelist Isabel Costello.

2. Tony’s Reading List covers a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, but is particularly and refreshingly strong on translated works. Join him for January in Japan.

3. The Mookse and Gripes is a great blog increasingly focusing on modernism and literature in translation.

4. Asylum never fails to capture something I’d missed — or would have missed — in a novel and makes me think again. I’ve learnt a lot about how to review from this blog. (John also pushed me — and many others — towards the excellent Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway).

5. Just William’s Luck and I have crossed over on a few books this year and, like Asylum, he always brings something new to my reading.

6. Reading Matters is the site of the only blogger whom I have actually met. The site contains reviews of literary fiction and bookish events, as well as previews and suggestions for bookish presents.

7. Pechorin’s Journal is a sophisticated literary review blog with a slipped disc. I enjoy these reviews immensely.

8. Winstonsdad’s Blog is another committed and voracious reviewer of translated fiction. The range is astonishing. Another blog where I feel I am always learning something new.

9. Follow the Thread covers a lot of speculative and science fiction as well as literary fare and short stories. Always an interesting read.

Do comment if you have any other suggestions or just to say hello.

One to Look Out For… The Explorer by James Smythe

OK, so this is a bit unfair because this isn’t out for a few months, but I’ve just read The Explorer and really enjoyed it. I’ll get a full review up nearer the publication dates (split across December and January). For now it will suffice to say that, as well as having a gorgeous cover, which is obviously what makes a book worth reading, The Explorer is SF for people who don’t like SF and probably should: so maybe they will stop being silly. It’s a taut, claustrophobic, frankly unnerving exploration of grief, memory, self-knowledge, and what it really means to go where no one has gone before both physically and psychologically. Oh, and it’s set on a space ship heading for deep space. I should mention that.

Booker Longlist thoughts

EDIT: So, my maths is pretty awful as well. I got three right.

Well, I got that pretty wrong then. Of the thirteen novels I predicted, I managed to score hits on only two; and those were, I thought, pretty solid bets, so I can’t take much credit for that. Small/independent publishers are well represented, although three novels for Fourth Estate is pretty big for them. There is some SF (The Teleportation Accident) and a lot of humour. Overall, pretty interesting and pretty unexpected: no Banville, Zadie Smith, Hensher, Carey, P. Barker, or McEwan. There is also no Hawthorn and Child which I think is pretty disappointing and the main let-down of the list. I’m thinking about trying to read them before the shortlisting, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve got a lot on!

The longlist

The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre)

Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)

Man Booker longlist Prediction

OK, I’ve given in and made the following rather unsurprising predictions for tomorrow.

  • Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  • Ancient Light – John Banville
  • Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway
  • Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
  • The Yips – Nicola Barker
  • NW – Zadie Smith
  • Merivel – Rose Tremain
  • The Painter of Silence  – Georgina Harding
  • Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
  • John Saturnall’s Feast – Lawrence Norfolk
  • Umbrella – Will Self
  • The Land of Decoration – Grace McLeen
  • The Big Music – Kirsty Gunn

Books I’m Looking Forward To

UPDATE: I forgot one!

A Box of Birds – Charles Fernyhough

A thriller set in the world of brain research investigating the clash between materialism and Freudian therapy, Fernyhough looks to investigate the kinds of explanation that can work in fiction, and in considerations of what it means to be human. On the basis of this pitch I supported the book on Unbound. I want to see how it works,

***

I’ll be posting a review of John Banville’s Ancient Light in the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I would post a selection of new books I’m looking forward to in the coming months, some of which have landed on my doormat recently. This is a very short non-exhaustive list which rather favours big names. Feel free to suggest others!

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

The new novel by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy returns to World War One and roughly meshes with the events of Life Class which I was a little disappointed by. Word is that this one is very dark and very good indeed.

 

 

NW – Zadie Smith

After Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Hawthorn and Child another novel of London and its inhabitants which will be very different but, I hope, equally brilliant.

 

 

 

 

The City’s Son – Tom Pollock

Many years ago I went to the pub with Tom Pollock. I’m pretty sure he bought a round, so that’s in his favour. He also mentioned wanting to write. This very well previewed fantasy/YA novel set in a world of ‘monsters and miralces’ is one of the books I really wish I’d got hold of before release.

 

Rook – Jane Rusbridge

‘Look at the stars, Rook. Tell me what you know.’
Set in the village of Bosham on the Sussex coast, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel tackles buried secrets, history, memory, and the meaning of home.

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure – Artemis Cooper

I simply adore Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great individuals of the Twentieth Century. Soldier, traveller, linguist, and writer, this man was incredible. Amongst his wonderful books are the chronicles of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as was) in the Thirties, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The third and final installment of that trilogy is being put together by Cooper after this book. I am very excited. See also his books about Greece, where he lived for much of his life: Mani, Roumeli, and a collection titled Words of Mercury. I’m saying nothing…

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

If you haven’t read any Denis Johnson then you simply must. Go and get Tree of Smoke. You’ll thank me. This  short novel of the American West is one of the books that was in the running for the unawarded Pulitzer Prize.

 

 

Merivel – Rose Tremain

Following on from Tremain’s 1989 Restoration, Merivel returns to the eponymous courtier and physician in middle age and finds him in a more reflective, but ever mirthful mood. As he journeys across Europe everything seems to go wrong except, I hope, Tremain’s writing.

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Dante’s Dark Wood

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the descent into despair in William Styron’s Darkness Visible is the inexpressibility of suffering involved in depression.  He writes, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ This ‘veritable howling tempest in the brain’ resists all the art so powerful a writer can throw at it. This might be why so many approach mental illness through art and poetry. Indeed, Styron’s very title is from Milton,

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d

Paradise Lost Bk I

So distant from the literal, allusion is all that is left, and the more severe his ‘melancholia’ the more poetic Styron’s prose becomes. The first quotation is one I used in my review of Jonathan Lee’s JOY and it was a strange experience reading Styron and then Lee. Both examine from quite different perspectives what Styron calls ‘the stigma of self-inflicted death’ and the resistance to reduction of suicide to any one explanation. It would be hard to argue that any character in JOY suffers from the kind of illness Styron was struck by, but suffering and self-destruction and unfathomable loss are shared concerns.

My wife researches the philosophy of psychiatry and she tells me that one thing that comes up again and again in accounts of depression is the sufferer’s loss of a sense of the world as constituting an arena for them to act in. Objects lose the penumbra of possibilities which normally surround them in our perception. So a cup, for example, is no longer perceived as an object we might manipulate, drink from, throw against a wall, and so on. Styron writes of this loss of the sense of oneself and one’s relation to the world,

I had now reached that phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity; my brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.

Styron’s writing is direct and intimate whilst being flowing and capacious. Such clarity of expression serves to emphasise the resistance of the condition to articulation. However, whilst the essence of the experience eludes him, Styron captures the rhythms of his experiences, the descent, the paralysis, and the utter loss of faith in deliverance which can result in the altered consciousness which admits suicide as a real possibility. However, such experiences can be endured, and Styron does endure them, finding time on the way to be rather scathing about both therapy and pharmacology: a debate that continues up to the present moment. Of his own Freudian approach to his illness we might be sceptical, but, as Wittgenstein noted, perhaps what is more important from a therapeutic point of view is not some strict and accurate causal account of mental illness, but a narrative that the sufferer can identify with, own, and integrate into their understanding of their situation, thus reintegrating the fragmented and distraught collection of mental shards they have become.

That depression is misunderstood, indeed cannot be understood; and that it is conquerable – or at least controllable – is the core of Styron’s message in Darkness Visible. This book should be read by everybody.

Buy Darkness Visible

Amazon: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage classics)

Or at your local bookshop!