September 1, 2013

Endings – and empathy

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:00 am by Susan

When John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out in 1969 with its alternative endings, his publishers received angry letters from readers assuming there had been a printing error. In my new novel Given the Choice, I started with a female character who is complicated. She’s intelligent, creative and capable of generosity, but she also resorts to lying when the going gets tough.

My original ending for my character Marion involved her in only minimal development. She gains a modicum of self-knowledge, but significant blind spots remain and we are left to ponder the problems these may cause her and those she is close to in the future. I liked the idea of a messy, inconclusive, ‘real-life’ ending where people don’t necessarily learn the lessons they should – but the readers I showed my first draft to wanted more of an ‘outcome’ at the close of the book.

I thought about Charles Dickens and how he reworked the ending to Great Expectations when fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton complained it was too sad. Dickens liked his original ending precisely because it went against the usual novelistic convention of the couple marrying and living happily ever after. In it, Pip briefly encounters the newly remarried Estella and, while it is clear she has changed, there is no hint that the pair will meet again. Dickens’s second ending is more romantically satisfying. It takes place in the grounds of Miss Havisham’s house (where as a young boy Pip was encouraged to fall in love with Estella who was trained to resist him) and the final words – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – offer the hope that the pair will be united.

Literary critic Frank Kermode has a theory about why readers crave certain types of ending. In his book, The Sense of an Ending, he argues that we are born and die ‘in the middle of things’, and that stories with their start and stop points give us fictive ‘concords’ we can adopt when thinking about ourselves. What is important about the end of a story, Kermode suggests, is that we see the whole trajectory – a thing we cannot do with our own lives.

Given the Choice is set in the contemporary art and classical music worlds and one of my characters is a French painter, Jean-Claude. He is working on a sequence of paintings in which the subject stays the same, but where the effect changes because a new element is introduced, or because one of the components is moved to a slightly different place.

I realised that if I used this as pretext I could show how what happens is often the result of contingency – an unexpected additional factor, a difference of timing, an alteration in mood. So Given the Choice now has three ‘outcomes’: my original muted ‘real-life’ version, an ending in which Marion gets her come-uppance, and one where things work out well (if unexpectedly!). It’s the reader who’s given the choice of which ending seems right.

Marion is a sassy businesswoman and runs an agency for artists. Damien Hirst makes a cameo appearance and I had fun inventing a whacky art installation. One of the things that intrigues me about contemporary art is the way the nature of fame has changed. An artist’s reputation used to depend on talent, training and building up a body of work that was sold through galleries to private collectors. Today, the art world is closer to fashion and advertising with the artist as a marketable brand. The most successful artists shock and their work is instantly recognisable. The debate about whether art should receive sponsorship or rely solely on sales has spread into music, literature, film, drama, dance.

The timeline for Given the Choice is the period leading up to the catastrophic crashes that occurred on the world financial markets in 2007-2008. This illusory wealth offered an interesting commentary on the art world’s commercialism. Bankers and city brokers are after all major consumers. Another important character in the novel is a young classical pianist from Estonia who brings with him very different ideas about how art should be funded and indeed what art is for. A further reason for giving Marion money is that it makes the choice she faces a straight one. Unlike most women in her position, she does not (at least initially) have to worry about its financial implications.

There’s a great deal of stress placed – by reviewers, by prize-giving juries – on how empathetic characters in books are. I have to admit, I’m suspicious of this. The notion of empathy in reading grew out of the German term Einfühlung (which literally means ‘feeling into’), and gave rise to a definition of empathy as a form of projection. Theodor Lipps, for instance (and his approach is typical), describes the process as follows: ‘we experience the other’s feelings as our own, because we project our own feelings onto the other.’ It’s always seemed to me a dangerous exchange.

Hélène Cixous warns us as readers to guard against our desire to turn others into comforting reflections of ourselves. Instead, she urges us to venture towards the other in literature in order to expand imaginatively what we know. She quotes Franz Kafka angrily retorting in a letter to a friend that he doesn’t want books that will make him happy. In a memorable phrase, he says he wants books to be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’. I agree with Franz Kafka. If we allow ourselves to become too wrapped up in the characters we read, we risk wanting things to turn out a certain way instead of letting the book jolt us into a different way of thinking.

Given the Choice is published this month by Cillian Press

February 1, 2013

Hélène Cixous and the art of dreaming

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , at 11:40 am by Susan

My blog guest this month is Cecily Davey who discusses Hélène Cixous’s intriguing book of dream-writing Dream I Tell You.


Hélène Cixous and the Secrets of the Unconscious

‘They tell me their stories in their language, in the twilight, all alike or almost, half gentle half cruel, before any day, any hour. I don’t wake, the dream wakes me…’

 Have  you ever been woken by a dream so strange, disturbing or beautiful that you feel an urge to write it down immediately? Have you ever wondered where your dreams come from or what they mean? I know I have many times, and this is why the opening lines of Dream I Tell You by Hélène Cixous spoke to me so profoundly when I first read them. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the book’s original publication in French, yet the experience of entering into its nocturnal world is one that I can still remember vividly. Never before had I come across a writer who was able to portray the infinitely mysterious twists and turns of the unconscious in such a believable way. My first encounter with Cixous’s writing was one of wonder and bewilderment; Dream I Tell You was simply unlike any other book that I had read before.

The fifty short narratives collected in this slim volume span ten years in Cixous’s life. They resemble a series of dreams transcribed onto paper whilst the dreamer still lingers in the transitional state of mind between sleeping and waking. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which it eludes traditional categories of genre. As Susan comments in her ‘Tribute’ to Cixous, the reader of Dream I Tell You is immediately drawn into a series of questions about the boundaries between different forms of literature. Does this book present us with a study of the science of psychoanalysis or an experiment in the art of creative writing? Should we read it as a dream diary or an assortment of random drafts? Do the stories we find within it count as fact or fiction? It is precisely the originality of Dream I Tell You that makes it so hard to define. I am fascinated by this book because it seems to display a unique style of writing, what I would call ‘dreamoir’. Cixous’s hybrid blend of dream and memoir reinvents the French literary tradition of le journal intime, resulting in a text which suggests new ways of understanding the very limits of literature itself. It is a work written in a language which originates in the realm of the unconscious, a place where the limits which define all categories – be they literary, sexual, temporal, or existential – can become radically reconfigured.

In her introduction to Dream I Tell You, Cixous describes the process by which the narratives of this book were compiled. It is a process which involves a particular kind of concentration: the writer of the dream must allow herself to linger in the borderland which lies in between night and day, not yet fully conscious but not entirely unconscious either. It is in this liminal state that the dream should be recorded, before the mind of the writer begins to censor, correct, or interpret it. This desire to record the dream in its most unadulterated form leads to another important observation about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing. She is not interested in translating the language of the unconscious into a logical series of symbols that can be interpreted by the conscious mind. It seems to me that what Cixous is far more interested in is how this language resists interpretation, suggesting different ways of how writing can be used to explore what lies beyond the borders of consciousness.

What appeals to me most about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing is how much more imaginative it seems when compared to that of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis and author of The Interpretation of Dreams. Though she remarks on the ingenuity of Freud’s methods of analysis, Cixous resists applying them in her own writing. She makes her intentions clear – in a tone which both parodies and pays homage to Freud by stating that hers is a ‘book of dreams without interpretation’. Cixous’s deliberate choice not to play the analyst does, I think, give all the more freedom to her readers. The fact that the narratives of Dream I Tell You are presented in no apparent order invites us to weave our own interpretive path through them.

One possible way of looking at the book would be to consider how Cixous uses her practice of dream-writing to reconceptualise the set of oppositions on which language – as a system of symbols – is based: day/night, man/woman, sun/moon, mind/body etc. This set of oppositions, as Cixous argues in her celebrated early essay ‘Sorties’, represses alternative ways of thinking that do not conform to the logic of this system. Dream I Tell You may be seen as an example of her continued effort to move towards a kind of writing which can explore these alternatives by liberating the creative force of the unconscious. The result is like opening a buried treasure trove full of jewels. Cixous’s uniqueness as a writer lies in her ability to capture the sparkling phantasmagoria of the dreaming mind before its brilliant colours begin to fade in the light of day.

Despite my attempts to understand the origins of Cixous’s work, I would not wish to lose that sense of mystery which first drew me to her writing. The feeling of being captivated by the elusiveness of language is perhaps so integral to my experience of reading Cixous because it is also central to her experience of writing. In an interview with Martin McQuillan, Cixous describes the motivation for her work in the following terms: ‘It’s as if we’re starting on a race, towards something that is far away, which is a secret.’ Her writing is what happens ‘in the chase’, and when we read it, we too are drawn into this ‘race towards the secret’. We should not be deterred if the ‘secret’ continues to elude us; it is the pleasure of the ‘chase’ that counts.


Hélène Cixous’ Dream I Tell You is translated from the French by Beverley Bie Brahic and published by Edinburgh University Press.

Cecily Davey is a PhD scholar and tutor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews. She specialises in contemporary women’s writing and particularly the work of Hélène Cixous.

August 1, 2012

Tribute to Hélène Cixous

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:30 am by Susan

Hélène Cixous celebrated her 75th birthday in Paris recently. Here is my personal tribute to her extraordinary literary oeuvre.


Before reading, came looking. Before understanding, already such surprise. For instance: Partie. Where does the book begin? Does it have two beginnings? If it does, what happens to ending? And which of the two beginnings is the ‘real’ beginning? Or can the reader choose?

Then, as the French words became more familiar, and I began to read with the aid of the very few English translations then available, more questions arose. Aha, so voler means ‘to steal’. But it also means ‘to fly’. Which is right? What happens if we allow it to mean both?

It feels impossible even to list all the gifts Hélène’s work has brought me over the years, to sum up in a few hundred words the experience of reading her. For a start, that English singular ‘work’ is all wrong, threatening as it does to conceal the extraordinary range and variety of her oeuvre.

The first text I read was a brief extract from ‘Sorties’ (Ways Out), which had been translated in a then pioneering new collection entitled New French Feminisms. I was just about to come to France for the first time and was in that awkward linguistic crossover when I still didn’t quite trust myself to read accurately in French. The effect of that first piece was extraordinary. Never before had I come across such writing. I felt the words grip hold of me viscerally: I knew that if I carried on reading the world would never be the same again. I was being shown injustice with such bravery and compassion, such understanding and force, that what had, before, been dimly perceived, suddenly became transparent.

After this, I became a regular reader of Hélène’s work, a body of which already preceded me and which grew, with new texts appearing at dazzlingly short intervals. This prolificacy is yet another of her gifts, as is the breathtaking diversity of her writing, much of which is impossible to categorise (is Le Livre de Promethea [Book of Promethea] a novel or a love poem? is Le Jour où je n’étais pas là [The Day I Was Not There] biography, autobiography or something totally new? is Rêve je te dis [Dream I Tell You] a dream diary or an imaginative exploration of the powerhouse of the unconscious?).

Actually, that word, ‘work’, is growing on me. I think one of the greatest lessons Hélène’s writing teaches is that reading is work. She asks her readers to participate in a relationship of encounter, courage, opening, discovery, change and exchange. The lirécrire (writereading), as she so brilliantly calls it, involves writer and reader working in tandem.

Reading Hélène is the hardest possible work. It was Hélène, more than anyone else, who showed me that texts are in constant dialogue with one another, and that in order to read faithfully (something else I learned to do), it is important to try to follow all the many threads writing contains. Hélène’s work is richly allusive, interwoven (one might almost say written in tandem) with the widest possible temporal, geographic and linguistic literary understanding, and reading her demonstrated the value of identifying and tracing all the multifarious references – deliberate or accidental, accurate or not – of which a text is comprised.

More than anything else, I learnt from Hélène that nothing means only one thing and that words bring gifts that can change our view. When I wrote ‘tandem’ a moment ago it gave me a new image for that experience of lirécrire. ‘Tandem’ means working alongside each other, but it also means a bicycle for two people. So I suddenly had a startling and apposite picture of reader and writing pedaling the text together in tandem, the writer at the front steering, but the reader working (that word again) just as hard behind her. In fact, the second person on a tandem is called ‘the stoker’ – literally the one who assists the driver by adding fuel to the fire. It’s Hélène’s metaphor of the reader setting light to her words all over again.

Cycling and stoking are both hard, physical labour, but the spark needed to ignite a text also requires a whole host of activities which, at the time when I first encountered Hélène’s work, fresh from an undergraduate degree in English literature, I had learned to marginalize as not properly belonging to academic criticism. Listening, for instance, to a text’s music, to the play and echo of signifiers, to the polyphony of words, and the possibilities for alternative meanings these engender. Reading with all of one’s senses (it is the case that because of Hélène’s writing about the apple I can never now read the word without salivating, without an immediate and urgent desire to bite into flesh which is suddenly so appleyapparent I can smell it). Letting oneself be touched by the text, allowing emotions as well as the intellect to guide comprehension, reading with the body.

Hélène has changed not only the way I read but the way I write, and I would like to think the way I live. Hers is a work of extraordinary generosity. She offers us the means to be transported, inviting us to ride tandem with her on a voyage of discovery, where we can, if we keep pedaling hard enough, leave ourselves behind, and encounter at last all those feared, desired, necessary and above all altering others.