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Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo is artful and intelligent – but not wholly successful

Walsh's short stories are elegant, but the closed-off life they portray is an impoverished one for anybody.

“Elegance is a function of failure,” says the narrator of Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo, a collection of short stories all told from the point of view of one character. “There is no need for elegance in success: success itself is enough. But elegance in failure is essential.” Walsh is a sublimely elegant writer. Her interests revolve insistently around failure: failed marriage, unsatisfactory affairs, disappointing parties, travel that ends nowhere. It’s them­atically consistent at least that the collection itself is not wholly a success.

Much of the problem stems from that solitary narrator. It’s a choice that pays tribute to Katherine Mansfield’s first published story collection, In a German Pension (1911), which Walsh wrote about last year in her non-fiction book Hotel – an odd, intriguing work, part analysis of the cultural import and symbolism of the hotel, part memoir of Walsh’s dissolving marriage and fugue into hotel living. But where in Mansfield’s book a single, semi-autobiographical narrator observes multiple guests during her stay at a boarding house, Walsh’s narrator in Vertigo (who sounds strikingly similar to the autobiographical voice of Hotel) travels to multiple locations, yet only fully observes what happens inside her own skin.

Maybe there is something political in this solipsism. In Hotel, Walsh writes that: “Permeability is a feature of abjection. It is the human made serviceable.” It is a commentary on the way hotel staff discreetly tidy the unseemly mess of their guests’ lives into their pockets, but also on gender and women’s bodies: to be able to accommodate the other inside you, via womb and vagina, is to be marked as a member of the inferior sex class, one of the conscripts to the unrewarding seams of domestic work and emotional drudgery.

Walsh is acutely observant of the uneven burdens of household economy. In “Drowning”, the narrator calculates the tax that default caring responsibilities exert on her leisure, mentally addressing her husband: “For you to read your book is not to neglect the children because you know that if you do not pay attention to the children I will [. . .] My choice to read my book necessarily involves the worry of the possibility of neglecting the children.” (She escapes this problem by swimming away from her family, where she can no longer see whether her husband is neglecting or not neglecting their children.)

By refusing to care, Walsh’s narrator refuses the feminine obligation to sympathise. She will not give herself over to other people’s feelings, though she might be covetous of what they have experienced that makes them unlike her. Standing in a Paris department store in the first story, “Fin de Collection”, the narrator stares at her ­fellow shoppers and thinks: “I want to project these women’s looks on to mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.” But in the end she buys nothing and leaves, still implacably herself.

Other people are inaccessible regions that can be mapped out using careful reasoning, but never totally comprehended. In “Vagues”, the narrator sits at a beach oyster bar with an anxious man whose main attraction to her is that he could facilitate some retaliatory adultery. She tries to deduce her husband’s moves like a chess player:

As I know my husband is unlikely to tell the truth about whether he sleeps with the woman or not – though he may choose either to tell me that he has, when he has not, or that he has not, when he has – I have taken the precaution of being here in the oyster restaurant with this man who may wish to sleep with me.

The book maintains that flat, precise, repetitious tone throughout. The affectlessness is attractively disarming to start with, then predictable and, by the end, in danger of feeling as tired as the narrator seems to be. At 123 pages, Vertigo does not exceed its welcome, but it does run out of ways to surprise. Where Mansfield’s narrator can extract a library of registers – comic, ironic, tragic – from her fellow guests, Walsh’s has only herself as a resource.

The predominant experience of this collection is not vertigo, but claustrophobia (which is also the title of the most domestic of all the stories here). For a woman to turn away from sympathy is a bold way to refuse the inferiority imposed on her, but the closed-off life is an impoverished one for anybody. Vertigo is artful, intelligent – and elegant above all else.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh is published by And Other Stories (123pp, £8.99)

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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