The web page of the ABPress based in Oxford and Sibiu, soon open for business: muses and misspells on its books. Randomly decrepit, stiff joints, possibly neo-bankrupt: so out of touch it needs help, but so analogue it cannot be helped. Nonetheless temperamentally enthusiastic, moderately irascible.
The book cover designs by Oxford based artist Stella Shakerchi for four of the titles from the forthcoming Oxfordshire Art Weeks exhibition (from 7th May), 50 Shades of Re(a)d, with their accompanying text. These four books are from the section headed Four Books to Visit a Shrink With.
An Angel at My Table, Janet Frame
Janet Frame’s personal history has been well documented. She was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic, scheduled for a lobotomy but the procedure was cancelled just days before it was due (her doctor had noted that she had just won a literary prize). Her autobiography traces her childhood in a poor yet intellectually vibrant family, life as a student, years of incarceration in mental hospitals, and salvation through the world of belles lettres (“my writing saved me”).
Frame’s novel, Faces in the Water, was a fictional account of her time spent in psychiatric hospitals, and is an example of why literature can be so overwhelming: the overlap between real life and the imagination. Janet Frame’s account of her life allows us to see how she accomplishes this “transformation of ordinary facts and ideas into a shining palace of mirrors.” But her writing (much like Sylvia Plath’s) is so often interpreted through her life and its fragility rather than for its own worth. Yet if we had known nothing of her life, would this have made her novels any the less well written and paced? The writer, it seems, is destined to lay bare their soul in every sentence, and perhaps it is this intensity that makes reading so compulsive.
The Complete Poems, Elizabeth Bishop
If poets can be confessional – that is give away details of their lives which others of us might keep under lock and key, Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton are prime examples – then Bishop was reticent and discrete, if not silent; she observed the physical world with a masterful technique. She chastised Lowell for using letters from his ex-wife as material for some of his poetry (“aren’t you violating a trust?”), and if ever Bishop used personal or family material (In the Village is about her own childhood and her own mentally unwell mother), it is cloaked behind a third person narrative. All this is the antidote to psychiatric analysis.
Moreover Bishop was confident in who she was and what, if anything, she should stand for: she was defiantly resistant to what has become a modern obsession – identity politics, and she refused ever to be included in all-female or lesbian anthologies. She saw herself in fact as “a strong feminist,” but wished her poetry to stand on its own merits.
Ice, Anna Kavan
Anna Kavan had a remarkable life that could have threatened to overwhelm her writing. She had wealthy parents who were cold and displayed scant affection: her father committed suicide when she was thirteen, she loathed her mother but was financially dependent upon her; two marriages were disastrous. She painted bizarre studies of demented women and was a talented interior decorator, for which she gained attention: in 1950 she formed the architectural and design firm Kavan Properties, and through the 1960s renovated old houses in London, and designed and constructed her own final home. She was hopelessly addicted to heroin and amphetamines, suffered severe depression and breakdowns, was blighted by three botched suicide attempts and mental illness (two long periods were spent hospitalized). When found dead at home in 1968 with a syringe beside her, it was reported that her flat contained enough heroin to kill the whole street. All in all, her life should not be considered a contented one, and perhaps her novels were, for her, displacement activity and are as foreboding and chilling as her life; indeed they can become addictive.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
To read a sentence of Wallace is to discover a man on the precipice for his writing ganders like a studded skein of geese, and clues to his suicide were writ large in the literary lilt and cadence of a style that incorporated jargon and a promiscuous vocabulary, that featured abbreviation and acronym, lengthy multi-clause sentences littered with parenthesis, and an original use of footnote and endnote and often these were as expansive as the text to which they referred, albeit Wallace claimed that they were to disrupt the linear flow of narrative and to denote his perception of reality, although he admitted that to jumble up sentences would have done that, but would then render the text illegible.1
The book is a long farrago of philosophical quest2 and comedy, that blends, guerrilla style, literary deceit and rule breaking, quizzing of the hierarchy, of the four-by-four novel by throwing out the baby with the bath water yet never throwing a spanner in the workings of its Grand Palladium style, grandstanding the humour of wordplay with compulsive filigree, is set in a tennis academy and an addict’s halfway house (these morph in his personal biography), exploring what the foibles and pleasures that we choose for ourselves choose to say about who we are.
1 to jumble up illegible would sentences have, render the would done text that but then
2 Wallace had majored in maths and philosophy with a focus on modal logic