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Margeret Forster's My Life in Houses is an inspirational reflection on eight decades of home

Margeret Forster's sensitive new study of a life in real estate is more than simple autobiography.

My Life in Houses
Margaret Forster
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99
 

Inevitably Margaret Forster’s account of the houses where she has lived serves as an alternative memoir. The 76-year-old novelist and biographer is suffering from metastatic cancer, so there is a valedictory quality to aspects of her book. She quotes Leonard Woolf: “Looking back on my life, I tend to see it divided into sections which are determined by the houses in which I have lived.” In Forster’s case, these sections resonate with happenings, feelings and people, but the houses remain central.

At one point she appears impatient of her deep-seated habit of regarding her home as an active player in her life: she describes this impulse as “pushing emotion on to what was just a pile of bricks and mortar”. Were she proof against such a tendency, with its suggestions of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy, she would not be the writer she is and this book could not exist. Her admission, partway through her account, that “surroundings had always mattered to me”, is entirely superfluous.

Such close engagement with a house is, she acknowledges, a particularly writerly preoccupation. To illustrate, she cites authors whom she herself has examined as biographical subjects, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. For all three women, a house is a universe in miniature, ideally ordered to suit its occupant – like an item of bespoke clothing, as Forster describes it. It reflects and reassures the writer at her (housebound) desk. Its qualities are affirmative; it offers solace, inspiration.

Forster’s focus on the spaces she has inhabited over eight decades, and the extent to which they in turn inhabit her, is consistent. She resists any conventional autobiographical impulse. Her husband (Hunter Davies) and her children are sketchily drawn; she does not reflect at length on her highly successful career as a writer, her books or what her writing means to her, nor are we often reminded that Forster’s homes have been cradles not only to her own writing but that of her husband, too. Instead, she explores a very personal emotional and imaginative bond with her living spaces, some of them permanent, others – including holiday homes in Britain and abroad – temporary or little used. My Life in Houses is exactly that; and as a result, perhaps, it is simultaneously less moving but more universal than it might have been. Forster’s spaces are specific to her and in this very specificity lies their value to her. Few of us have not felt at some time the womb-like tug of a favourite room.

Margaret Forster was born in 1938 in a newly built council house on a model estate put up by Carlisle County Borough Council on an expanse of poor-quality grassland to the west of the town, 12 houses to the acre, green spaces remaining. There were two bedrooms to the Forster home in Orton Road but no indoor loo or basin, and rudimentary heating in the form of a black iron range that required assiduous attention. Looking back, Forster describes herself as “a lucky girl”, an assessment intended as much for her younger self as the reader.

She lived there with her parents and siblings until she was 14. By the age of seven she had already begun to dream of a different home, a different aspect; she wanted distance from the rowdy corner pub, flowers in place of potatoes in the garden, and a view of garish colours rather than the predominant grey of outhouses, coal sheds, dank privies. Her childish cravings were for space, quiet, prettiness and, like writers before and since, a room of her own. She explains this reaction as not “any rejection of my own family, just a natural desire to have the chance not to be forced to be with others all the time”: that is to say, not snobbery, but the bookish child’s longing for a desk and the possibility of reading undisturbed. As Forster recounts it, that desire, natural or otherwise, became a significant dynamic of her life. Until her purchase in 1963, with Davies, of the house in Boscastle Road, London NW5, which remains her home today, Forster was a woman constantly – perhaps unusually – focused on settling satisfactorily the question of her living arrangements.

Since 1987 Forster and Davies have divided their year between Boscastle Road and a house in the Lake District. Now, given her illness, she anticipates a final move, to a hospice. That threatened severance spices her love for her home of 50 years. In truth, this sensitive and inspiring writer has always been passionately attached to the homes where she has lived. 

Matthew Dennison’s latest book is “Behind the Mask: the Life of Vita Sackville-West” (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism