A Meditation on Pain
Tim Parks is an innovative British novelist whose memoir, Teach Us To Sit Still, describes a very different kind of innovation. From 2005 to 2006 the pain in his pelvis had become so excruciating that sitting for more than a minute was a torture: "I had quite a repertoire of pains: a general smoldering tension throughout the abdomen, a sharp jab in the perineum, an electric shock darting down the inside of the thigh, an ache in the small of the back, a twinge in the penis itself." He is obliged to get up to urinate five or six times a night; a symptom whose impact is only topped by the humiliating onset of sexual impotence.
As Dan Gunn writes in this week's TLS, Parks goes on to describe, “in often moving and occasionally hilarious detail,” not just his return to health, but his discovery of a new notion of health, consisting not only in release from discomfort or incapacitation, but in an openness to the world, an attentiveness to the present, a delight—“bliss” is the word he circumspectly uses—in the everyday, freed as he finds himself, intermittently at least, from the freight of ambition and achieving. “In choosing to write this book,” he explains, breaking a silence which has itself been one of his condition’s chief curses, “I have decided to set down, often in disagreeable detail, all the things I scrupulously avoided mentioning for years.”
After unsatisfactory encounters with those who would cut open his prostate and bladder, Park's next resource is one “upsettingly familiar to most modern sufferers from chronic illness or pain: the infinite promise and corresponding disappointment of the Internet, described here with merciless lucidity as Parks discovers he is far from alone in his misery.” Yet the gregariousness of the web only intensifies his solitude. He becomes instinctively aware that his problem is psychosomatic, while equally aware of the inability of the term “psychosomatic” to cover everything from family history to cultural—specifically Protestant—proprieties, to habit, to hours of sitting at the desk every day inventing dramas, to old-fashioned pride.
He has a huge will to succeed, to win prizes, to excel even at sports at which he is not gifted, to dichotomize, to dramatize, to pit himself against the world even in the simplest of daily actions. For these, he learns, there is a price to be paid, in an obsession as brilliantly described here as in any of his novels, and which brings him to the brink of a schizoid state: "Then, one morning, I woke very abruptly, sat up in bed, and pronounced the words, You are two different people. It was disconcerting. There was no dream to blame. No narrative. Just this sudden waking in the small hours, these words given as though in revelation. Two different people, Tim."
Relief, when it comes, is so very welcome it may explain what appears to be a confusion in its arrival: the self-help book that inaugurates recovery is ordered over the Internet not once but twice (on pages 113 and 132)—a slip so uncharacteristic of Parks’s scrupulousness as a writer, says Gunn, that it is hard not to see it as an overflow of gratitude to the authors of A Headache in the Pelvis.
Tom McCarthy’s Confused New Novel
One of the surprise choices for the Booker Prize “long list” this year is C by Tom McCarthy. Ben Jeffery in the TLS this week is somewhat doubtful if it should have made this grade. "C" stands for Serge Carrefax, the story’s hero, an Englishman with a French mother although, “We are never told precisely what he looks like, or how to pronounce his name.” “Where his father gives it an electrical ‘Surge’ rounded by an abrupt J, [his mother’s] version takes the form of a light and lofty ‘Sairge’ that trails off in a whispered shh.” That is only one unsettling uncertainty in a life that begins in 1898, underneath the first wireless transmissions, and continues symbolically fastened to the spread of electric technology, from his time as a spotter in the Royal Air Force during the First World War through the decadent life he leads in London afterward and a visit to Egypt working for the Ministry of Communications.
Early on, during a boyhood painting lesson, we are given the hint that Serge is not inclined to psychological analysis: “he just can’t do perspective . . . his perceptual apparatus refuses point blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat.” “Flat” is the right word. Carrefax acquires a morphine habit during the war, which is an excuse for some vivid, slow-motion imagery, both in the air (“tracers rise towards him languidly, like bubbles in a glass”) and on the ground, at a London party: "all the dancers are moving . . . slowly, their frenetic twists and shudders broken down to gestures that ooze into one another at a pace so languorous it’s almost static. Skirts draw together and apart like clouds merging and separating over the course of a whole afternoon; eye-contact between partners takes as long to establish as trunk-call connections, and is taken leave of lingeringly, sadly; wisps of smoke turn solid as they extend from cigarettes to coil like lace around limbs and clothing."
McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, proved an equally unlikely success, Jeffery recalls, although it drew widespread attention to the International Necronautical Society (INS), the “semi-fictitious avant-garde network” of which the author is the general secretary.
In Praise of Parody
The high age of poetic parody begins with Romanticism. William Wordsworth, was a particularly frequent target and “probably no poet has prompted more parodists to greater success” writes Seamus Perry in the TLS this week, reviewing the new Oxford Book of Parodies, edited by John Gross. One of the finest examples came from Wordsworth’s own friend and Romantic collaborator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth's poem The Ruined Cottage tells the sad story of Margaret: her husband lost to war and her children to disease, her “poor hut” and garden slowly falling to pieces with an unostentatious symbolism. This is the earliest of Wordsworth’s indisputable masterpieces and the first thing that he ever recited to Coleridge, who took it at once as a sure confirmation of genius and continued to admire it for the rest of his life. Yet, just a few months after hearing it read, Coleridge published—under the unpromising name of Nehemiah Higginbottom—a larky poem, one of three gathered under the heading “Sonnets Attempted in the Manner of Contemporary Writers", titled On a Ruined House in a Romantic Country, which began “And this reft house is that the which he built, / Lamented Jack!”. Catherine Maria Fanshawe's poem, the Fragment in Imitation of Wordsworth, is “one of the keenest things ever written about the consequences of his ambition," Perry adds:
It were a blessed sight to see That child become a willow-tree, His brother trees among. He’d be four times as tall as me, And live three times as long.
The whole poem (of which this is the closing verse) is “masterly, and like many of the greatest examples of the vile art, its complex mockery unlocks a more covert sort of comedy or playfulness that was there already in the original.” John Gross, Perry concludes, is an excellent and unobtrusive host to the parodist’s notoriously “vile art,” “offering his words of explanation or discussion here and there with wit and understated erudition.”
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.