Thursday, February 16, 2012

Stories and Lies

I have been reading John Burnside, who recently won the T.S.Eliot for his extraordinary Black Cat Bone. This and Hunt in the Forest have taken up residence by my bedside and I have also been reading his memoirs. I am interested in the narrative he constructs from his life. In a sense, all narratives about ourselves are stories. John Burnside's father was, he discovered after the father's death, a foundling - left on someone's doorstep and passed from place to place, an unwanted burden in hard times. So his father told lies, told this story and that, about who he was, where he came from and the identity of his parents. Any story was better than the fact of having been abandoned on a doorstep without even a label around his neck.

The stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, where we come from, are perhaps a kind of lie, even for those of us who were not left cold on a doorstep. They have to be lies, partly because all stories are lies, and most of us need to place ourselves within the context of a narrative that makes sense. But there is something else: Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was, in a sense, a lie about her childhood and her mother. The story she wrote was not as bleak and dark as what really happened. She wrote a story she could live with. But even in her recent memoir, which tells her story as it really was, I find myself asking questions about her father and why he failed to protect her. He comes across as an essentially good person and probably was - but my guess is that the narrative JW has constructed requires this because at the very end of his life she was close to him and there was reparation - a kind of healing. She is still telling the only story she is prepared to live with.

The narrator of her novel The Passion says: "Trust me, I'm telling you stories."

I tell (myself) many stories about where I come from, pinpoint landmarks on the road that led me to where I am now. In terms of location, there were many as we were so often on the move, from England to Germany and back again, from one place to another, frequent change of schools. What strikes me now is that there is nowhere I look back on to say: this is where I come from; these are my people and this my language. There is no 'we' because I did not belong to a group, and family life was fragmented. In my working-class primary school my accent and manners were strange. I did not realise I had a German accent. In schools where middle-class children went, my accent and manners were strange. I had picked up a cockney accent and still carried a trace of the German. I met the boy who would be my first husband when I was sixteen. He came from somewhere - a tenement in Glasgow and a community. Where he came from was written into everything he did and said. I married him and picked up a trace of his accent.

This is the story I would have to lie about - what the narrative would need to cover: that I spent my childhood among strangers and came from no particular place. I lived in books and other people's stories. This is not so unusual, especially for an introverty child who is an early reader. I can draw a map of my childhood, say where I have been, in this book or that story, from Peter Rabbit through Narnia, Wind on the Moon and Mallory Towers to the diaries of Anne Frank. But this is the only map I can make and it is not enough for a satisfying narrative. I construct others, therefore - put together versions that feel coherent and reveal an aspect of what I feel to be true; of lived experience. If a story no longer serves its purpose, I make another one.

Trust me, I'm telling you stories.



Anna MR said...

I do, and you are. Trust you, and you are telling me stories.

Funny thing is I recognise this thing you speak of, liebe Schwes. Although I had exactly two childhood homes, for about ten years each, separated by about six blocks along the same street, and exactly one beloved childhood summer island heaven. Distinct roots of my very own, ja - it certainly could be said that I come from somewhere. But my father, a refugee child from Karelia (as you may recall me banging on about before), reckons that he has always felt he is from nowhere - and lo, I do believe some of that emotion is passed on (and epigenetics speaks of this possibility in a very concrete biological way - now fancy that). I mean, I always felt my life within the books I read defined life in a more real way, somehow, and that my life was less real and more pretense than the book life I crawled/tried to crawl into.

In a word: go figure. Okay, two words. What do you want? Blood? Hmmmmmm?

But listen, a shocking thing: this comment page is telling me "Please prove you're not a robot" and is asking for two word verification words (the other one is in a very messy font, but seems to say "owsnce", the other one is, I believe, in Times New Roman Bold, and says "Galeacius". Which is clearly some Roman hero or another). What is going on? Since when do I need to prove I'm not a robot (I wrote a story where I was one, as a child, when I was shamefully into sci-fi; although I couldn't quite decide which of the alternate endings would be more startling: to find the "I" of the story was indeed The Only Human left amongst a global population of robots, or that there only was one human but, alas and alack, it wasn't our heroine. Ja, ja, Herr Doktor Freud, ich weiss, es ist sehr interessant)? And two word vers? Does this prove doubly I'm not a robot? Are they about to take over Blogoslavia, the robots, but are as yet only able to decipher one word ver per comment box? Or what?

Shut my face. Hope you're doing most splendidly, Signs. This was a lovely, lovely post, by the way.


belinda whitworth said...

I can't think of anything intelligent to say but I wanted you to know that I'm still reading and loving your blog.
(I agree with Anna MR too, that stories are MORE real.)
(And I can't read these blinking new word verifications things either.)

Reading the Signs said...

Ja, Schwes, the epigenetics theory makes sense to me. Thing is, the mater (who came here as a refugee) did actually feel she came from somewhere, displaced though she was at the age of 11. She never felt English, that's for sure.

The word verification situation is indeed shocking. I have to key in the damn words on my own blog, I ask you! If you ask me, the Daleks have taken control - the lovely Leprechauny suggestive languagey words have been replaced by the mundane and the unreadable.

I refuse point bland to prove anything to these inquisitors. Think I'm a robot? Go on and prove it, I say. (exterminate, exterminate)

Belinda, making a lovely comment is plenty intelligent enough for the likes of me - thank you.

I am now going to try and key in the scrambled word ver.

Reading the Signs said...

point blank - not point bland. But ok, point taken.

Anonymous said...

I used to read Malory Towers and St Claires. I have the entire set of 6 books for each series and I love them. I used to believe that I could go to the school and sometimes I pick one up now and tell myself I am back at that age, in that place.
Really enjoying reading x

Reading the Signs said...

Amazed those books are still around, Amy. I used to read them by torchlight under bedclothes when I was at a boarding school that was nothing like those.