I have always been slightly worried by Frida Kahlo, perhaps it taps into some source of generalised male guilt, not for things that I have done myself – at least not intentionally, but that might be the very point – but for all the wrongs perpetrated by the men of the world against the women of the world since time began. And yet for all that, Frida does not come across as a victim: she made decisions, and tried to stick with them in spite of the disasters that overtook her (she said once that her life had been defined for her by two disasters: the first was being involved in an horrendous traffic accident when she was 18, the second was meeting Diego Rivera). She was also – and the two things, suffering and greatness, do not always go together – a great artist, independently of Diego, and the passage of time has probably elevated her to a higher position than him in the hierarchy, if not of ‘greatness’, at least of fame, since being adopted as a feminist icon (what a horrible term, I apologise for using it, but this collocation is always employed in reference to Frida, and a blog, for me, is a place of first drafts, which may or may not be developed and refined for publication elsewhere and at a later date).
So yesterday I tried to immerse myself in Frida’s life; took a trip to the twin houses/studios where she lived in San Angél – in separate buildings, connected by a footbridge – with and without Diego, and where I watched a film about her life; and then down to Coyoacán and the blue house that was her parental home, and where she eventually settled (Leon Trotsky was famously one of the houseguests).
I am not going to write in any depth about Frida’s work here: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable, and besides, there is plenty of stuff out there, but I was profoundly moved – almost to tears – by visiting her house, by seeing her instantly recognisable paintings, the extraordinary collection of Mexican votive miniatures she collected, and the clothes she designed (including the painful-looking contraptions she was forced to wear as a result of her deforming accident). There was a queue outside and it had clouded over when I arrived, a straggle of beggars and street people selling wooden toys added to a growing sense of misery. Inside I didn’t feel like taking photos, certainly not of paintings that can be seen in any catalogue of her work, although this didn’t seem to bother the large man with the ipad who barged his way to prime spot in each room, holding his device before him like a weapon, an irony if there there was one. I did however take a picture of a poster designed by Frida of the inter-uterine development of a human child, as this seemed highly appropriate to her personal story (she suffered numerous miscarriages). As I left the house I walked into a brief downpour. It seemed to fit. I was impressed by Frida’s resilience but ultimately saddened by the story of her life, and while I am not all encouraged by much that Mexico is doing for its women (the Ciudad Juarez femicides still stand out as one of the greatest unresolved crimes of recent history), it is good that there are places like this to reflect on the way that one individual can translate her own suffering into such a universal and powerful creative statement.
On a lighter note, I was struck in passing, while visiting the studios of Diego and Frida (his is still intact, hers is used a gallery for the work of contemporary artists) by the resemblance between Diego Rivera and Dylan Thomas. There is that whole 1940s things about their style and appearance, and something about the lips. That and the fact that both artists are widely known by their first names only. The similarity can only be glanced from certain perspectives, but for me at least, it is noteworthy.
And with their respective long-suffering spouses:
I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.
Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.
Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.
Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.
The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”
“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”
But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.
No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:
“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”
Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.
If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.
Blanco is somewhat anaemic these days, as a consequence of drug therapy whose other side effects are listed as lethargy, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and . . . rage. That’s right, Le rage. So, to save the venting of my swollen spleen, allow me to regale you instead with a quite uncharacteristically mellow poem from the collection I am currently translating by Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, an Argentinian poet of wonderfully dark and understated talents, which will be published in the autumn by CB Editions.
Horses put up with
the weight of history
until the invention of
the internal combustion engine.
Now, whenever they are born
they stumble and tarry before the light
believing they have burst in
on the wrong world.
Thanks to Scott Pack for his mention of The Vagabond’s Breakfast and selecting it as runner-up in his top ten ‘Books of the Year.’
The fact that it (The Vagabond’s Breakfast) has been totally ignored by the mainstream literary press – it managed one review in the Morning Star – is bloody annoying but not all that surprising. I don’t think literary editors go looking for great books any more, they are content to wait for them to fall into their laps. Although they still miss them when that happens.
The VB also made it into the hallowed pages of Times Literary Supplement, featuring in its ‘Books of the Year’, as one of the choices of Patrick McGuinness, so perhaps I’d better quote that too:
Richard Gwyn began The Vagabond’s Breakfast while recovering from a liver transplant. A memoir of the nine years of drink, drugs and vagrancy that did for his first liver, it’s a jagged tale gracefully told. Full of humane surreality, there’s something whole, even holistic, about the brokenness of the life it pieces (back) together. Like many books about illness, it’s also about health: Gwyn is a citizen of both realms, describing life with “two passports.”
It is still not too late for you to buy a copy of The Vagabond’s Breakfast as a yuletide gift for your beloved or for a friend or deserving relative, through The Book Depository (£7.23 plus free worldwide delivery), Abebooks (various prices) or even Amazon (£6.99 plus free UK delivery).
Such shameless self-promotion would be scandalous were this not being written at arm’s length for me by my amigo, accomplice, intermediary and sometime translator, Señor Ricardo Blanco.
A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).
Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.
Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:
The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.
The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.
But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:
When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.
This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.
– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.
The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.
Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.
I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.
The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”
I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.
Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?
It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.
But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”
Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.
Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).
For Some Reason
I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.
I smoked, I drank
and faithful to my personal rhetoric
put my feet on the table.
Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.
Like almost everyone I messed up
without making too much noise;
yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,
and spat on my shadow before going to bed.
This was all the response that I could offer to a world
that claimed from me a character that possibly
didn’t suit me.
Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps
there was a different plan for me
in some potential lottery
and my number was lost.
Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.
Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.
This much remains to me:
a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,
a poem paralyzed halfway towards
an unknown resolution;
dregs of coffee in the cup
that for some reason
I never dared drain to the last drop.
On the Other Side
Someone has died on the other side of the wall.
At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.
I am the nearest neighbour and I feel
slightly responsible: blame
always finds an outlet.
In the rest of the building
no one seems to have noticed. They talk,
they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour
every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew
what had happened so close by, the thought
of death wouldn’t be sufficient
to alter the cardiac rhythm of the
They would push the deceased into the future
and their indifference would have its logic:
after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.
In the bed opposite
the man woke up snoring
his open mouth set
in desperate conviction.
The serum was dripping
into his veins. From my belly
sprouted two plastic tubes
in which a pink foam bubbled
as if it were the definitive language
of my entrails. To one side
someone coughed up
the last of his viscera.
A springtime branch swayed
behind the window’s glass
flaunting the life owed us
in exchange for the disorders
that laid waste to our pale bones.
Everything seemed suspended
between universal infirmity
and the opportunities offered to death.
In the corridor a nurse fluttered by
and we followed her with eyes intent on
laying bare the fermented secret
of our clinical notes:
but we didn’t manage to reach
her distant and weary heart.