Carla Bruni. Photo: Getty
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Antonia Quirke on radio: Carla Bruni's last tango in Paris

Oh, Paris. So nostalgic, so mythical. “Do they say that in English – mythical? Ah, yes! So mythical!”

Carla Bruni's Postcards from Paris
BBC Radio 2

“’Allo, this is Carla Bruni, with my third and final postcard from Paris to you!” Another fascinating hour listening to music by Claude Nougaro and Charles Aznavour while wandering the City of Light in the company of the former first lady of France (4 June, 10pm).

Bruni – model, actress and nouvelle chanson performer – is a woman entirely swept away by the big picture. Oh, Paris. So nostalgic, so mythical. “Do they say that in English – mythical? Ah, yes! So mythical!” If you were ever to throw caution to the wind and visit Paris yourself, then Carla strongly suggests forgetting the guidebook and just strolling through the parks.

All of them are nostalgic and romantic. There’s the Jardin des Tuileries, for example, “which is square and green”. And all the museums, too, which are “so beaudiful. But best to walk with a boyfriend because this is definitely romantic.” When Carla walks these streets herself, she can’t help but think about Hemingway and Joyce and the great Irish poet Yeets. Quel homme. “The memories, the history . . .”

Mysteriously, the theatres in Paris can be big but they can also be small. “For lots of people,” marvels Carla, “and for a little amount of people, too. We have all the opportunities for theatre in Paris!” Bruni sighs.

Her voice is gorgeously musical – frequently low and woozy, always full of a velvety fire. Occasionally she slows, allowing the listener to drink it all in, or even scribble things down, as though this were an informal kind of salon for some of the most interesting people in Parisian public life – artists, scientists, and so on. Simple rustic food, rough bread and cheese and sophisticated musings about British punk (“The Clash could never have been Swiss”). Anything to get people away from the chambre de TV and wandering the green and square parks of Paris!

Most of all, Carla thinks she would like to visit Scotland. Who knows? Maybe one day, thinks the listener, after she is released from the isolation unit. “It must be so nice. The castles. I don’t know how much time you need to go from south to north or east to west but I’m sure it’s possible, non? I’d love to do it with the kids, or with my man. So nice. So romantic!”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit