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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Commons Confidential: Money for old Gove

Backstabbing Boris, a doctored doctorate, and when private schools come to Parliament.

Treachery is proving profitable for Michael Gove since his backstabbing of Boris Johnson led to the victim being named Foreign Sec and the knifeman carved out of Theresa May’s cabinet. The former injustice secretary was overheard giving it the big “I am” in the Lords café bar by my snout and boasting that he’ll trouser £300,000 on the political sidelines. I note a £150,000 Times column and £17,500 HarperCollins book deal have been duly registered. Speaking engagements, he confided to the Tory peer Simone Finn, will be equally lucrative.

Gove is polite (always says hello and smiles at me despite what I write) but it was insensitive to talk money when his companion was moaning. Finn, a Cameron crony, whined that she had been sacked as a spad and so is out of pocket. Perhaps he could lend her a tenner. And I do hope Mickey isn’t passing himself off as an “expert” to coin it.

While Nigel Farage’s successor-but-one Paul “Dr Nutty” Nuttall protests that he never doctored a CV with an invented university PhD, Ukip’s ritzy nonpareil continues to enjoy the high life. My informant spied Farage, the self-appointed people’s chief revolter, relaxing in first class on a British Airways flight from New York to Blighty. Drinking three types of champagne doesn’t come cheap at £8,000 one-way, so either the Brexit elitist is earning big bucks or he has found a sugar daddy. Nowt’s too good for the Quitters, eh?

Labour’s youngest MP, Lou Haigh, was popular in a Justice for Colombia delegation to monitor the Northern Ireland-inspired peace process there. At Normandia prison in Chiquinquira, after a five-hour drive to see Farc guerrillas cleared for release, inmates pushed past the British male trade unionists to greet the 29-year-old Sheffield Heeley tribune. What a change from parliament, where it is women who are treated as if they’re wearing Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks.

The kowtowing is catching up with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP party animal and onetime-Tory-turned-Labour. Better late than never, I hear, she delivered a masterclass in toadying to the Chinese at a Ditchley Park conflab. Ahmed-Grovel MP avoided discussion of human rights abuses and made much instead of the joys of Scotch whisky to Beijing, and Scotland as a gateway to the UK. I trust she kept her sycophancy secret from SNP colleagues jostling in parliament a short while back for photographs with Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

John Bercow is concerned that private schools dominate visits to parliament. So a bit like the Commons chamber, where 32 per cent of MPs (48 per cent of Tories) come from establishments that teach 7 per cent of pupils in the UK. 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump