The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit: There are other ways of telling

One summer, Rebecca Solnit received an enigmatic gift: a hundred pounds of apricots, harvested from the garden of her mother’s former house. That summer, Solnit discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells in her breast – a prelude to major surgery. In le

The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 272pp, £16.99

One summer, Rebecca Solnit received an enigmatic gift: a hundred pounds of apricots, harvested from the garden of her mother’s former house. Her mother, with whom she’d had a difficult relationship since childhood, was slipping irrevocably into Alzheimer’s disease. For the past two years, she had been increasingly forgetful; at last, her children decided that the time had come to put her in a home. That summer, Solnit discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells in her breast – a prelude to major surgery.

In less original hands, this would be the beginning of a misery memoir or a memoir of illness and recovery, one of those straight - forward narratives that convert disorder into a gratifying tidiness. Not here. Solnit, an activist and writer whose best-known work is Wanderlust: a History of Walking and who has written 13 well-regarded and intricately constructed works of cultural criticism, is profoundly antagonistic to that kind of formulaic production.

Instead, she takes the apricot summer as a way of reflecting on stories: their eerie facility for both liberating and imprisoning the storyteller.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own,” she writes, “tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.” Some of the stories through which she voyages are personal: her surgery, the long, antagonistic relationship with her mother, the death of one friend and the birth of another’s premature baby (which occasions a walk down a row of incubators, each containing “little flayed rabbits”).

Some concern the lives of strangers, from Che Guevara to Ashley Smith, a meth addict taken hostage by a mass murderer. Others deal with a wide variety of charismatic cultural objects, among them Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the lovely Dutch tradition of vanitas paintings and the journals of Arctic explorers.

This roving voice is further complicated by rapidly shifting physical locations: San Francisco, Iceland, the Grand Canyon. The resulting fragmentation is undoubtedly deliberate. Solnit is determined to replicate the porousness, instability and incoherence of everyday existence, “the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings . . . the pantheon of dei ex machinaand the companionability of ghosts”, adding emphatically of the realist tradition: “There are other ways of telling.”

There are but even bricolage is an art requiring strict aesthetic controls. Occasionally, Solnit’s awesome, exacting attentiveness seems to wander. Stories jerk into other stories; threads are severed and never resumed.

A powerful section on the protest of Burmese monks opens moments after Solnit’s physical arrival in Iceland, returning us to San Francisco, the city she just left. Perhaps this is supposed to replicate an experience described later, of blundering through a labyrinth in the dark. However, it also suggests insufficient editing and comes at a risk of permanently unsettling the reader.

The phrase “the faraway nearby” (a coinage by Georgia O’Keeffe) is a kind of code for Solnit’s main objective, which is to illuminate the ways in which stories can nourish empathy, drawing us closer, by way of the imagination, to the distant, disfavoured and impoverished. This desire to inculcate empathy has always been present in Solnit’s work as an ethical concern but here it feels acutely, even painfully, personal.

Unsatisfactory mothers have cast a long shadow over literature and it becomes increasingly evident that Solnit, a writer whose work manifests generosity, grew from poor soil. As she scrapes away decades of accu - mulated bitterness, she recalls in both tone and content two of America’s more interesting poets, Anne Carson and Sharon Olds (the line referring to “the pale pansy of her face under a jaunty little veil; if I could have warned her, I might have cancelled my own existence” is particularly Oldsian, right down to the species of flower). Both have wrestled with another faraway-nearby question, concerning how specific one should be when making art out of the travails of the self.

Olds prefers the microscope, Carson a gaze that spans millennia and continents. Solnit, always a voyager of large terrains, here seems sometimes hobbled by her own story and sometimes to o keen to shuck it off and escape into what she has called elsewhere the blue of distance.

This is understandable and though it sometimes makes her labyrinth of stories a hard journey, it imbues it with a sense of urgency. As the seasoned activist knows to her cost, it’s easy to develop empathy for the distant other; far harder to apply it to the people with whom one is intimately entangled. Perhaps the best way of approach - ing The Faraway Nearby is as a work in progress – signs and way posts from a road still being travelled.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £7.99)

Boxes of apricots waiting to be transported in the Atlas mountains. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide