I picked up Michael Rosen's book 'Carrying the Elephant' on a recent charity shop trawl. If you don't follow his blog I would suggest you do, he writes thoughtfully about a wide range of subjects from literature and education to current affairs. This book is a kind of autobiography in poem form, little snippets that make up a picture of his life. Some of them are mundane, some very moving, they seem to be exploring, I felt, the way it truly is the apparently insignificant things that make us who we are.
"It was a Formica table that my mother leaned on
when she said she never did understand why
Stalin got rid of his generals. He won himself
the breathing space to get ready and wasted it,
because of course Hitler would eventually go
East, we all knew that, she said. The people in
Leningrad were living off rats. You've never
seen starvation like it. Millions, millions dead.
You don't hear about it, but we knew. And you
waited for news. You always waited for the
news. And they go on about Alamein and Monty
but it was Stalingrad that turned it round, you
know. When we heard about that, it was the
first real good thing we had heard in years. If
we had lost Stalingrad ... it doesn't bear
thinking about. We wouldn't be here now.
One hand makes an arc across the table wiping
breadcrumbs into the hand waiting at the
Mind you, there were people here who wanted
Hitler to win. They'd've done a deal. We all
knew that." (p.5)
Lucy Grealy's 'In the Mind's Eye: an autobiography of a face' has been on the shelf for ages. Another one that I spotted and bought because I had fallen for her while listening to Anne Patchett's 'Truth and Beauty', the story of their intense friendship. It is a very personal memoir of loss. Although the book focusses entirely on her cancer, its treatment and her subsequent struggle with reconstructive surgery the title seems wrong, it is not so much about her face but about the loss of her sense of herself. I found myself quite angry with her mother, who seemed to expect her to hide her suffering, to put on a brave face, telling her not to cry when she was hurting. I felt that this must have contributed to the way she withdraws inside her head, becoming very self contained, lacking anyone she can trust and talk to. She spends all those years of her treatment suffering in silence, without much outside contact, you can't imagine how hard this must have been on such a young child. While it come across as self-pitying sometimes you cannot judge her for that because spending so much time on negative introspection she develops a sharp self-awareness and insight into life. This is not a 'brave little girl battling cancer' story, it is about how we become the people we are, not the people we might have been.
I only noted this quote. It is after she spends time in the hospital with a young man who had been paralysed by a stupid diving accident:
"Two days later I was transferred onto the regular ward, and as I was wheeled away I promised Michael I would come back and visit hime, but I never did. As soon as I was back on the ward, filled with nose jobs and jowl tucks, i grew fearful of my distorted face again, and put Michael and his predicament out of my mind. I was walking to the bathroom by myself now, and each time I opened the door the first thing I saw was my own face reflected back at me. Was that really me? I knew it had to be, but how could it possibly relate to the person I thought I was, or wanted to be? I considered the whole operation a failure, and when the doctors came round and told me how well it was healing, how good it looked, my heart sank. We were speaking two different languages, and if this looked good, then what I thought looked good must be an impossible dream. I felt stupid for having had any expectations or hopes at all.
When I got home, I thought of Michael again and again. Did he ever re-imagine himself standing on top of that roof, trying to remember what it was like not to know his fate for just one split second longer? If he didn't, I did it for him. I'd close my eyes in order to feel the height, see the bright blue of the pool winking below me, bend my legs and feel the pull in my calves as I jumped up and then down, falling from one world of unknowing into the next one of perpetual regret." (p.126-7)