Nina Bawden: The Birds on the Trees (1970)

The expulsion from school of their eldest son shatters the middle-class security of Maggie, a writer, and Charlie, a journalist. Since childhood, Toby has been diffident and self-absorbed, but the threat of drug taking and his refusal (or inability) to discuss his evident unhappiness, disturbs them sufficiently to seek professional help. Veering between private agony and public cheerfulness, Maggie and Charlie struggle to support their son and cope with the reactions- and advice- of friends and relatives. Noted for the acuity with which she reaches into the heart of relationships, Nina Bawden here excels in revealing the painful, intimate truths of a family in crisis. Toby’s situation is explored with great tenderness, while Maggie’s grief and self-recrimination are rigorously, if compassionately, observed. It is a novel that raises fundamental questions about parents and their children, and offers tentative hope but no tidy solutions.

Nina Bawden’s novel The Birds on the Trees was one of the so-called Lost Man Booker titles in 2010. These were books that would have been on the Man Booker short list in 1971 if the dates for the Prize hadn’t been moved. While reading about this, I encountered the expression Hampstead novel, a label I had never heard of before. It seems this label was used to describe a specific type of novel, not only set in Hampstead but focussing on leftist-liberal intellectuals of the middle-class. Margaret Dabble and Iris Murdoch were named as well. When I hear a description like that I have to fight the urge to yawn.  That does sound boring, doesn’t it? In any case, the fact that Bawden was nominated for the Lost Man Booker in 2010, with a novel that was, as critics wrote, so clearly a Hampstead novel, triggered a lot of more or less interesting response in the media and some referred to older articles. One article I read was particularly interesting because it looked at settings in British literature. If you are interested here is the link. The writer argues that to a certain extent you can deduce the themes and topics from the location of a book. It’s highly unlikely that you will find the same topics in a novel located in Peterborough as in a novel set in Wales. This may be very obvious for a British reader but for me it was highly enlightening.

Hampstead novel or not, The Birds on the Trees is the story of a family crisis. The family is an intellectual middle-class family. The mother is a writer, the father a journalist. The book opens in the past, when Toby, the oldest son, is barely five years old and runs away at Christmas. He is an odd little boy. Strangely quiet and polite for his age. The book then fast-forwards 13 years. Toby is 18 and has been expelled from school because of marijuana abuse. He has two younger siblings, 11-year-old Lucy and the 5-year-old Greg. The parents are shocked and horrified and have no clue what to do with their son. For Maggie, the mother, it’s clear, he has to go to Oxford, one way or another. Charlie, the father, would rather give him a break and let him figure out what he would like to do. But these are not the only two people with a strong opinion and some saying in the matter. Aunt Phoebe, the  domineering widowed sister of Charlie, meddles as well. And Maggie’s mother plays an important role too.

The structure and character portraits of this novel is what I liked best. It moves from one person to another, changing from first to third person narrative and gives the point of view and impressions of each character. The voices are very authentic, the dialogue rings true. Through all those inputs we see how much is really going on under the surface and how dysfunctional the family is.

Toby cannot stand it anymore at home after his expulsion and after having stayed at his grandparent’s home for a while, finally moves to London to live with an older friend. It seems he starts to use other drugs and when the parents go and get him, he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and diagnosed with schizophrenic disorder. Electro shock is the chosen cure. I didn’t like this part of the story at all and had a problem to fully understand why Toby was called mentally ill. He seemed more aloof and detached than genuinely depressed or psychotic.

If Toby’s illness and the horrifying “cure” had been all this novel had to offer, I would have hated it, I’m sure, but there is so much more going on. It isn’t only well written but the different story lines and aspects are thought-provoking and captivating. Maggie, the mother, is by far the least appealing character. After a while she started to really get on my nerves. There is an instance in which she discusses with her husband whether it is OK to take the things that happen and turn them into a novel. This is a very important moment that could easily be missed. If I hadn’t done some research I wouldn’t have known that Nina Bawden told the story of her own family. Her son suffered from mental illness, abused drugs and finally killed himself in 1982. This may explain to some degree why the book is so flawed and at the same time so interesting. It seems as if she was in writing it, trying to answer the question of responsibility and at the same time imagining a positive outcome.

One of the core themes that I found to be extremely well executed is favouritism. Toby was the first child and remained, even after the others were born, very obviously the favourite. Although his little sister loves him, she and her younger brother start to believe that they might have been adopted. It seems the only explanation why Toby is always the center of attention.

While the end of the book and the description of the mental illness aren’t convincing, I still enjoyed this novel because it manages to capture insecurity and conflicting emotions at the heart of families so well. Some of the character portraits are great. With a few exceptions, there is hardly a conflict-free relationship in this family and the book illustrates them all. Depending on who talks to whom, the interaction triggers different aspects in the personality of the characters. One person who is quite insufferable in contact with someone may be quite charming the moment he or she speaks to someone else. Often people show only one part of their personality to someone and keep another part for someone else. Through the interior monologues and dialogues all the facets of the characters are wonderfully well shown. Maybe, as some journalists argued, the book didn’t deserve the Man Booker, being too flawed and too Hampsteadish, true enough, still I thought it was a great read.

Does anyone know Nina Bawden? Has she written other books that are worth reading?

Tommy Wieringa: Caesarion (2009)

During powerful winter storms the North Sea tosses its full weight against the coast of East Anglia, and little by little the land disappears into the waves. High atop the cliff, Ludwig Unger lives with his mother; with every winter that passes the sea comes a little closer.
Ludwig is the child of two celebrities, predestined to be the continuation – raised to the umpteenth power – of both their talents. In his mother’s ambitious dreams, he is already a concert pianist. At the moment, however, he plays for a living in cocktail bars, and in the course of three nights he tells his life’s story to a woman.

I wanted to read at least two novels for Iris’ Dutch Literature Month but so far I only managed Tommy Wieringa’s novel Caesarion that I discovered on Lizzy’s Literary Life.

I’m in two minds about Caesarion. I did like reading it but at the same time I didn’t know what it was all about. That’s a peculiar feeling. Usually I either like a book or don’t like it, I know whether it is good or not, but in this case, I only know it was entertaining but…

Something is missing and I cannot put my finger on it. It was original and trite at the same time. An odd combination. I think the worst was, that I had no feeling for Ludwig. He wanted to make us believe that his life was tragic but I simply didn’t feel it, on the contrary, I found him annoying. The voice and the character didn’t seem to go together well and I’m not sure at all whether Wieringa did like Ludwig or not…  If he wanted to portray a sexist jerk, he did well, but if he felt sympathetic towards Ludwig, he failed.  At the same time one could ask whether Wieringa did intentionally choose to portray gender bias or whether it was rather accidental.

At the beginning of the novel Ludwig is on his way to England to a funeral. In the evenings he plays the piano in a bar, meets a woman and tells her the story of his life. Ludwig was born in Egypt, his mother, a former porn star, has been left by his father, an eccentric egotistic artist. They live in Alexandria until his mother decides she wants to go back to Europe and packs all their belongings. They first go to the Netherlands, his mother’s home country, where she isn’t welcome. She goes to England, leaving Ludwig behind but eventually has him follow her to East Anglia where they will live in a cottage precariously close to the eroding cliff.

The relationship between mother and son is quite strange, incestuous one could say, as Ludwig desires his mother. She loves to dress and make him up like a girl and her touch and warmth arouse him. It seems that she isn’t even aware of this but he is and struggles to get free. One attempt to free himself is to engage in ways that are meant to assure he becomes more traditionally masculine and that is why he joins a rugby team.

When Ludwig turns twenty the thing that everyone expected happens, their house is swiped off the cliff in a storm. At the same time Ludwig finds out about his mothers past as a porn star and even sees the movies. Shortly after this his mother leaves for L.A.. Ludwig manages to track her down and follows her everywhere, pretending he wants to take care of her. His mother is working in the porn industry again and Ludwig disapproves a lot. He meets a nice girl but she breaks up with him when he follows his mother to Vienna and then Prague. Ludwig’s constant nagging depresses his mother and one day she tells him that he has to leave, she cannot stand his accusing presence anymore.

Ludwig starts drifting through life, working as a bar pianist, engaging in love affairs with elderly and old women until he reunites with his mother again after a few years. She is living in Tunisia and has left the porn industry or rather, she has been fired. The reason for this is a oozing spot on her breast which is obviously malignant. Ludwig’s mother must know that it is cancer but she is in denial and even though she finally gives in and has it diagnosed she doesn’t have it treated traditionally but starts travelling through Europe looking for a magical cure. The moaning Ludwig follows her everywhere. When it becomes obvious that his mother will die, the two finally settle down in the Netherlands.

The last chapters lead Ludwig to Panama where he tries to find his father.

It is a very readable book and I would like to read Wieringa’s highly acclaimed Joe Speedboat but I didn’t really get the point of Caesarion. There were so many parts that felt familiar, where I was thinking, that I had read this before. The last part in Panama, for example, reminded me of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber.

The part I liked the most and the one that touched me was the beginning in England. It was done very well but from then on the novel started to turn into hotchpotch. I was wondering whether he wrote this novel over a long period, stopping in between, which could explain why it didn’t feel seamless.

Overall it seemed to have been a re-imagining of the tales of Oedipus and Odysseus. I didn’t like Ludwig at all but then again, is it necessary to like the main character? I don’t think so, but I hated the way he desired his mother and at the same hated her and sabotaged everything she wanted for him (becoming a concert pianist, for example)  or whatever she did for herself. It is as if he blamed her for having been left by his father and for being too attractive. And at the end, when she falls ill, he behaves as if it was justified and she deserved it. All her life she has been exploited because of her body and now this body turns itself against her, and all Ludwig does is hate her for not letting anyone cut her open.

If you are interested in another view, here’s the review from A Common Reader.

Peter Handke: Wunschloses Unglück aka A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972)

Peter Handke’s mother was an invisible woman. Throughout her life—which spanned the Nazi era, the war, and the postwar consumer economy—she struggled to maintain appearances, only to arrive at a terrible recognition: “I’m not human any more.” Not long after, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück or A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is the bleak account of a German woman’s life. It is the story of Handke’s mother, her struggle, her despair, her suicide.

The author starts with his own motivation to write this book, the attempt to make sense to put into words what is hardly comprehensible and to escape a feeling of being utterly numb. What did surprise me at first is his choice to call the account novella. Not memoir. After a few pages I realized that he wanted to make this an exemplary account. His mother’s life stands for numerous invisible women’s lives. When I finally got that, I felt like standing in a corner of a room and just scream. It’s such an outrageous account. It’s outrageous and infuriating and sad because it’s such a common story. Numerous women born in small towns (or even cities) between the wars lead lives like this. No one took them seriously, no one thought they should have a proper education. They were oppressed, and crushed, ridiculed and held small. All they were offered was the proverbial Kinder, Küche, Kirche (Children. Kitchen, Church).

Handke has by now become one of the most controversial German authors, but at the time of the publication of Wunschloses Unglück he was still the German literary Wunderkind, so too speak.

Handke’s mother is born in Kärnten, a region in Austria, in the early 1920s. She belongs to the Slovenian speaking minority. Despite a joyless childhood and hardly any education – she is only a girl – , her curiosity and interest in many things make her leave home and enjoy life for a while. She is only a young woman, almost a girl still, when she gets pregnant from a married man. He is the love of her life and she will never love anyone else after this. Afraid of the shame and what would become of her and the child she gets married as fast as she can to someone else. They live in Berlin and stay there until after the war when poverty and the difficult situation in the bombed city drive them back to the village in Austria from which she came.

What follows is indeed exemplary and that is why it’s so sad. Her husband starts drinking and hits her. She gets pregnant at least another five or six times, three of the children she aborts herself. The society in which she lives consists of uncultured peasants. She looses all interest in life and starts to develop all sorts of ailments. In the end she has a chronic headache that is so severe that she can hardly think, barely see and speak. She goes to a doctor who diagnoses a nervous breakdown, gives her pills. She does get a little bit better. She starts to visit girlfriends, reads extensively. She reads the books Handke gives her and with the help of those books, she speaks about herself for the first time.  She tries to have some fun but her marriage is so love- and joyless, she can hardly stand it. Her husband has tuberculosis and is gone often, when he is back, they sit and stare silently at opposite walls. She says she wants to die by she is afraid of death. She starts speaking about how to kill herself and finally writes long letters of goodbye to everybody. She buys a red umbrella, goes to the hairdresser, has her nails done, lies on her bed and swallows all the tablets she has.

When Handke hears of her suicide his first reaction is one of pride. He is proud of her. After a while he starts to feel horrible. He starts to write about her but that doesn’t help. He wakes regularly in terror and dread.

Handke could have chosen numerous ways to tell this story, more personal ones. Throughout the narration he hardly ever uses perosnal pronouns like “I” or “she” but always “one did this, one did that”. The alienation is as complete as possible.

Handke is famous for his style, unwieldy at times but sparkling here and there with metaphors and sentences that you don’t find often. If you want to get to know him, it isn’t a bad thing to start with a short text like this one.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams has been published by Pushkin Press and by the The New York Review Book Classics. It’s extremely depressing but a very important text. It describes in details the life of many a woman in Catholic petite bourgeoisie in dreary post- war Germany and Austria. It speaks of the misogyny and sexism that pervaded the society. The poverty, the struggles, the joylessness. Manic saving, mistrust of anything that looked like frivolity and be it only reading a book. It’s an oppressing account but worth reading.

Handke didn’t only write depressing books. He has, amongst a lot of other books, written the script of one of the most beuatiful movies, Wim Wender’s Himmel über Berlin aka Wings of Desire.