My version, your version

Other people’s words about … truth

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination … The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

From ‘The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’
by Janet Malcolm

I was disabused of the notion that memoirists and autobiographers write ‘the truth’ a long time ago, after I read, and wept over, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, only to discover subsequently that he had made up much of what he had written about within it. Since then, I’ve learned to take anything I read in a piece of nonfiction with a huge pinch of salt.

Like most people, though, I am still used to thinking of works of fiction as telling something that is the opposite of truth. I think of them as stories, things that exist only in our imagination. I love the way that Malcolm, in the passage above, subverts this concept of the truth. In doing so, she tells us something far more truthful, I think, about the nature of truth.

Interior versus exterior:
Grass trees from a distance

It was my mother who introduced me to Janet Malcolm, after a conversation we’d had about nonfiction writing. I found Malcolm’s thoughts on the problem of truth in biography and other nonfiction writing illuminating, even though the passage I’ve quoted from is now more than fifteen years old.

Truth versus fiction, internal truth versus external truth, interior versus exterior. How much of what we see and read and think is subjective and biased? How much can we ever say is true?

Interior versus exterior:
Inside a grass tree

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

Another world

Other people’s words about … Cairo

Sunlight was streaming through the shutters. I peered down into the street where a cat was sunbathing on a parked car. Friday morning was always the most peaceful time of the week in Istanbul Street. The doorman’s wife sat on the kerb watching her ragged child play in the clouds of pollen and dust. [My weekend away from Cairo] seemed a world away, a movie I watched last year. Cairo is so encompassing that when you are there all other realities seem to fade away. I thought of Hatton Garden and it seemed surreal that at that very moment crowds of London commuters were heading to work in the rain. It felt impossible that the two places could exist at the same time.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City
by Hugh Miles

Many years ago, in another life, I spent about six months living in Cairo. I had happened there by chance, at the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, who spoke a smattering of Arabic. We lived in the centre of the city, away from the ex-pat community, in a dusty fourth-floor apartment with faded red velvet sofas that gave off great puffs of dust whenever one of us sat down on them. At night, when we switched on the lights in the darkened bedroom, there was the sound of a thousand cockroaches scuttling out of view. The view from the rickety balcony was of life on the street below: the storekeeper of the small general store where we bought bottled water, washing down his front doorstep with water and a broom; the ta’ameya man at his food stand, stirring his big metal spoon through a great dented tin bowl of smoking hot oil.

I left Cairo as I came to it — by chance, at someone else’s bidding. I knew even then that I would never go back. For those few months in Cairo, I had not lived as a tourist, as most Westerner visitors do. Not exactly. Not quite. Cairo was in me, and on me, in a very physical, a very literal, sense: its grime lay in thick strips of black beneath my fingernails; its dust coated my skin. The city had, for those few months, as Hugh Miles so succinctly puts it, encompassed me.

And so I left, and I did not go back.

I found some old photos from that time recently, ones I took with an old camera, in those pre-digital years. I don’t have a scanner and so in order to reproduce them here, I actually used my camera to rephotograph those photographs. This accounts for their odd, slightly removed, unreal aspect — for, as well as Cairo in these pictures, you can see the glare from my window right here in Australia, the bend in the photographic paper.

I was going to apologise for this, originally. And then it occurred to me that in fact, this aspect of distance and remove is exactly right. In this context, it is right.

And so, no apologies today — just a glimpse into another world, a very long way away from here and from now.

From one year to the next

Other people’s words about … loneliness

She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same. Now and again she had distracted herself from it for a while. And it always came back and felt worse.

from ‘Lila
by Marilynne Robinson

A couple of years ago, I began to experience recurrent bouts of unexplained nausea. The waves of sickness came every three or four weeks, and left me feeling depleted and frustrated. My symptoms of illness were made more difficult by the fear that accompanied them: a fear that I’ve touched on here and here, and will no doubt touch on again.

In her memoir Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard mentions in passing a phase in her life, when she was a young woman, during which she experienced something like this.

In those days, I had bouts of being unable to eat that sometimes lasted for weeks. This seemed to be one of them. I was very tired from my illness, but encouragement to build up my strength by these kindly people was of no avail. I’d sit before an immense juicy steak and delicious salad, trying to swallow the first pieces of meat, my stomach heaving, and wanting to cry from embarrassment. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t eat much,’ I had to say.

It was my mother who, just recently, introduced me to Slipstream. When I read the passage above, I wished that Howard was still alive, so that I could write to her and thank her for these words. It helps, when you are going through difficult times, or when you are experiencing something troubling and bewildering for which you yourself have no words, to read someone else’s words on the same thing. Here is Howard again:

I had no energy for writing, I didn’t like living alone, and I could hardly drag myself to the office every other week to earn the six pounds that barely kept the wolf from the door … I remember the misery of sitting in restaurants faced with enormous menus and finally asking for something like a piece of cold chicken only some of which I managed to force down.

During the worst phase of my own bouts of nausea, I felt my life began to fold in on itself. Although I wasn’t ill all the time — although there were days and weeks when I felt well: days, even, when I felt as though I’d never feel sick again — those bouts took a toll on me. I called in sick at work frequently, and worried about the consequences. (Would I be put on a performance plan? Would I get sacked? What if I couldn’t hold my job down anymore? How would I live with myself if I couldn’t make a living?) I worried about my social life. (What if I lost all my friends because I kept cancelling on them at the last moment? What if they didn’t believe me when I told them I was sick? What if they thought I was just neurotic, or antisocial?) And I fretted about people in my family, whom I wanted to see more frequently than I did. (Did they know I still loved them? Did my absence hurt them? Were they, too, judging me?) I began to feel disabled on all fronts — by my symptoms of illness, by my fear of those symptoms, and by my shame about my fear.

The sickness happens less often now, I am glad to say, though it still comes, accompanied by symptoms that feel worse than they sound: fatigue, headaches, nausea, heavy eyes, weak limbs. I am as yet to find a cause. In the meantime, when I do experience bouts of illness like this, I try not to let myself feel the way I felt during that worst phase. Isolated is one word that comes to mind to describe the way I felt. Lonely is another.

And here is where reading helps. Reading Howard’s words I feel a sense of kinship. The kinship makes me reflect, as I so often do, that writing is an act of sharing, and that sometimes — sometimes — reading can feel like a defence against loneliness.

It wasn’t until I read Toni Bernhard’s How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness that it finally became clear to me that illness — whether it’s serious or mild, whether it’s intermittent or constant, whether it’s accompanied by fear or not — is, inherently, lonely. Experienced long-term, it is all the more so. Bernhard, who lives with a fatigue-related chronic illness that keeps her largely bedridden, is illuminating on the theme. She writes:

In these moments when I accept that some of the people I know may never understand what life with chronic illness is like for me, I’m able to let go of the painful longing and fruitless desire for them to behave as I want them to. It’s like putting down a heavy load because I’m finally giving up a fight I cannot win. This gives rise to equanimity –- that calm sense of peace and well-being with my life as it is, whether others understand it or not.

Read those sentences again: Some of the people I know may never understand. Those words go to the heart of loneliness. So do these: painful longing. Fruitless desire. Illness should not entail any of these kinds of feelings, but it does. It is a very lonely experience. (If you are experiencing illness-related loneliness, I highly recommend Bernhard’s book. Her words are both wise and comforting. They may even impart a sense of kinship.)

The main character in Marilynne Robinson’s book, from which I quoted at the top of this post, is lonely in another way. Lila’s loneliness is the result of poverty and an extreme lack of love in her upbringing, and her experience of it is utterly embodied. I’ve never heard loneliness described this way before, but I find the interpretation as enlightening as Bernhard’s. Loneliness, Robinson is saying, is a physical — a visceral — thing. It is as much a part of living as hunger and fatigue; it is with us from our first breath to our last. Like illness, it is a part of the cycle of being alive in this world.

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Perhaps the difficulty we have with loneliness, then, is not so much with its actual presence, nor with its cause — whatever that may be — as it is with the way we experience it and interpret it. I find this thought strangely consoling.

Is it possible to feel consolation and loneliness simultaneously? Probably — but it’s much harder.

Note:
There are a number of bloggers who write about their experience of living with serious or long-term illness. Here is where the blogging community comes into its own! Two bloggers whose frank, clear-sighted words on illness I particularly admire are Elana Amsterdam of Elana’s Pantry, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis and writes about managing her illness through a grain-free diet and a low-stress lifestyle, and Ali Feller from Ali on the Run, a passionate runner who blogs about living (and running) with Crohn’s Disease.