An extract from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: Like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.
Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.
In this passage from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the beautiful shepherdess, Marcela, gives a captivating speech defending a woman’s right to choose her own lifestyle after she is blamed for the suffering and death of Grisóstomo, who killed himself when she rejected him:
You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her. What’s more, it could happen that the lover of beauty is ugly, and since that which is ugly is loathsome, it isn’t very fitting for him to say: “I love you because you’re beautiful; you must love me even though I’m ugly.” And even if they are well-matched as far as beauty goes, that doesn’t mean that the attraction’s going to be mutual, because not all beauty inspires love. Some beauties delight the eye but don’t captivate the heart; just as well, because if all beauty did inspire love and conquer hearts, people’s affections would be forever wandering this way and that without knowing where to come to rest – there’s an infinite number of beautiful people, so the affections would be infinite, too. And, according to what I’ve heard, true love can’t be divided, and must be voluntary, not forced on you. If this is so, as I believe it is, why do you think I should be obliged to give in to you, just because you say you love me dearly? Or else tell me this: if heaven had made me ugly instead of beautiful, would I have been right to complain about you for not loving me?
What’s more, you must remember that I didn’t choose this beauty of mine – heaven gave it to me, exactly as you see it, quite freely, without my asking for it or picking it. And just as the viper doesn’t deserve to be blamed for her poison, even though she kills with it, because nature gave it to her, so I don’t deserve to be blamed for being beautiful; because beauty in a virtuous woman is like a distant fire or sharp sword, which doesn’t burn or cut anyone who doesn’t come too close. Honor and virtue are ornaments of the soul, and without them the body, even if it is beautiful, shouldn’t seem beautiful. Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside….I am the distant fire and the far-off sword….If I’d encouraged him, I should have been false; if I’d gratified him, I should have been acting against my own intentions, better than his…Because a woman who doesn’t love any man can’t make any man jealous, and disabuse must not be confused with disdain. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.
Images below are from the Women are Beautiful series by Garry Winogrand, taken in the 1960s and 70s.
Sharon Millar is a Trinidadian writer who published her first book The Whale House and Other Stories (Peepal Tree Press) last year. She is one of my favourite local writers, I am sure you will understand after reading the following passage, three extracts from her short story Earl Grey:
Sally is coming to tea, she is not arriving until four but Leah is nervous that she won’t have everything prepared. She has already cut the butter into the flour and is trying to think cool, calm, thoughts to keep her fingertips cold. But in the small kitchen, humidity coats everything with a damp film and causes her hair to stick to the back of her neck. She dips her fingers into the water bowl. The water is icy, the little silver chips melting around her hot fingers. She begins to handle the pastry mixture gently, touching it with the tips of her fingers. She keeps her movements light and soft, imagining a tender, flaky crust as she rubs the butter into a grainy mix. So much trouble for a pie.
[…] She’d never heard of quiche before she met Henri. Her mother baked sturdy pies with tough crusts, the kind that could hold a whole pot of guava stew and not buckle under the weight of the fruit. Pies that did not melt in your mouth but rather had to be cut firmly and chewed with a concentration that brought its own pleasure. She is kneading the pastry gently now but it falls apart, refusing to come together even though she adds little drops of the freezing water.
[…] Suddenly it is 3.30 and the quiche has become a monstrous thing. She ignored the instructions to blind bake the pastry and it bubbled and rose in the oven with a determination that surprised her. She has had to prick holes in the bottom to get it to lie flat in the pie dish. When she pours the egg mixture onto the crust, it seeps through the holes and pools around the edges. At 3.45 she is in tears, the quiche strangely misshaped and uniformly brown.
Extract from The Invitation by Barry Lopez as published in the last issue of Granta (n. 133), a thoughtful meditation on language and seeing:
“When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.”
The Passion According to G.H. (1964) is a disturbing and shocking novel by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Set in Rio de Janeiro, it tells the story of a wealthy woman, G.H, who encounters a cockroach in the service quarters of her apartment. The occurrence leads to a nervous breakdown and an existential crisis and ends in our heroine eating a part of the roach…
“The roach is an ugly and sparkling being. The roach is the other way around. No, no, it doesn’t have a way around: it is that. Whatever is exposed in it is what I hide in me: from my outside being exposed I made my unheeded inside. It was looking at me. And it wasn’t a face. It was a mask. A diver’s mask. That precious gem of rusted iron. Its two eyes were alive like two ovaries. It was looking at me with the blind fertility of its gaze. It was fertilizing my dead fertility. Would its eyes be salty? If I touched them — since I was gradually getting more and more unclean — if I touched them with my mouth, would they taste salty?
I’d already tasted in my mouth a man’s eyes and, from the salt in my mouth, realized he was crying.
But, thinking about the salt in the roach’s black eyes, suddenly I recoiled again, and my dry lips pulled back to my teeth: the reptiles that move across the earth! In the halted reverberation of the light of the room, the roach was a small slow crocodile. The dry and vibrating room. The roach and I posed in that dryness as on the dry crust of an extinct volcano. That desert I had entered, and also inside it I was discovering life and its salt.”
More from How to Be Both by Ali Smith, because it’s full of wonderful things:
“I feel the loss, dull the ache of it cause I had it, the place where his legs met his body, the muscular dark where his tunic flared up in the breeze as he went, I had it like telling the oldest story in the world cause there’s a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock : the only other thing as good to draw is the curve of a horse and like a horse a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated.”
How to Be Both by Ali Smith is a marvelous book –gorgeous language, innovative form, a moving story, and, best of all – it’s packed with art references! One of the main characters is Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance fresco painter of whom very little is known, but nevermind, Ali has created a story for him (her), and woven it together with the story of George, a teenage girl in modern day. There are discussions about art, love, gender and sexuality, death, and more, as well as a great cover (a photograph of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, an image which is referenced in the book) and inner cover images from Francesco del Cossa’s greatest masterpiece – an elaborate allegorical fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia (meaning palace of escaping from boredom) in Ferrara, which also plays an important role in the novel.
Smith’s prose is dazzling and clever. In the extract below Francesco talks about the gift of being a painter, and in the passage below that, he describes what he sees when he finds himself in modern day (the “votives” he speaks of are in fact our smart-phones and tablets):
“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.” (p. 42)
“I am wondering where it is, grave of my father, wondering too where my own grave, when the boy sits up, faces the woman’s house, holds his holy votive tablet up in both hands as if to heaven, up at the level of his head like a priest raising the bread, cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons.” (p. 43)
The book is split in two parts (both titled part one), one which is centred on Francesco and the other on George. One of Smith’s experiments with structure was to vary the order of these two parts randomly from book to book. My book started with Francesco’s story, and I must admit that, knowing nothing about the book beforehand, I found it hard to make head or tail of it to begin with. So after some research I decided to skip forward and start over with George’s story. This made all the difference, by the time I got to Francesco’s section I had no problem understanding it. So if you’re having trouble getting through, don’t give up – just try switching it around!
Here are some images of Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, executed c. 1469–70: