Thursday 31 October 2013

All the world's a stage

Creature and I started reading 'The Rehearsal' by Eleanor Catton when mum first sent it for her several years ago, but then it was abandoned on her bookshelf. I picked it out for the Read-a-thon partly because her most recent offering had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (which it has since won). This is such a clever book because it constantly subverts what the reader thinks they know about the story and the people in it. Scenes are played, but then the people in them appear to 'step out of character' and be someone else, who is merely playing the role. We are following one story, but then are following the people who are telling that story, but then even that telling becomes unreliable, and then, because some of the story takes place in a drama school there are all sorts of other performances being rehearsed and acted out. And then there is this enigmatic saxophone teacher (unnamed) who acts a little like god, watching over the whole performance, trying to extract the 'truth' from some of the main players, but also trying to interfere and influence events and characters. Life is all about playing roles, and we all play different parts depending on the situation and the people we are with. People talk about the idea that you can only be 'the real you' with close friends and we tell our children to 'be themselves' when trying to make friends. The language of pretence and acting is all around us in our daily lives. This book really makes you think about how much of human behaviour is just playing a role. I liked it because nothing was straightforward or quite the way it appeared, that it felt like the reader is being taken for a ride, but you don't really mind because the view is fascinating.

Lots of quotes coming up just to give examples of why it was such an interesting read. Here Isolde and Julia are at a concert with the saxophone teacher, and Isolde is getting a closer look at the girl that the others in her year talk about:

"Her cardigan is buttoned with gold dome buttons and is unravelling slightly at the hem, giving her a careless scholarly look that makes Isolde feel young and clumsy and naive. She is wearing a silver turquoise ring on her ink-stained nail-bitten fingers, and tight-knit fishnet stockings underneath her skirt. Isolde drinks it all in and then feels oddly disappointed, looking at this newer, more complete version of Julia who is a whole person and not just an idea of a person. She feels jealous and excluded and even betrayed, as if Julia has no right to exist beyond Isolde's experience of her." (p.142)

And this one that follows a few pages later, and both of which touch on the idea of self-knowledge, and the individual's perception of reality and how we never know if what we perceive is 'real':

"Isolde thinks how strange it is, that every person in the auditorium is locked in their own private experience of the music, alone with their thoughts, alone with their enjoyment or distaste, and shivering at the vast feeling of intimacy that this solitude affords, already impatient for the interval when they can compare their experience with their neighbour's and discover with relief that they are the same. Am I hearing the same thing they are hearing? Isolde wonders half-heartedly, but she is distracted from pursuing the thought any further, turning her attention instead to watch an elderly woman in the stalls flounder noisily in her handbag for a tissue or mint." (p.144)

The main thrust of the story is about an affair between a male teacher and an older pupil, Isolde's sister Victoria, but partly it uses the idea of sexual experience as some kind of symbolic crossing point from youth into adulthood:

"Isolde hasn't yet learned to drive and Julia's offer makes her feel young and inexperienced and graceless, as if she is being forced to reveal that she can't read or that she is still afraid of the dark. The older girl seems impossibly mature to Isolde, like Victoria's friends always seem impossibly mature, powdered and scented and full of secrets and private laughter, contemptuous of little Issie for all that she does not yet know." (p.150)

There are many conversations between the saxophone teacher and the mother's of her pupils (always the mothers), who want to know something about their daughters that they think she will know, so we have this lovely observation on the nature of how unfathomable teenager are to their parents:

"The saxophone teacher doesn't speak for a moment, just so Mrs De Gregorio feels uncomfortable and wishes she hadn't spoken so freely. Then she says, 'But how can you ever know?' She is more brooding now and less abrupt. 'How can you ever get to the kernel of truth behind it all? You could watch her. But you have to remember there are two kinds of watching: either she will know she is being watched, or she will not. If she knows she is being watched, her behaviour will change under observation until what you are seeing is so utterly transformed it becomes a thing intended only for observation, and all realities are lost. And if she doesn't know she is being watched, what you are seeing is something unprimed, something unfit for performance, something crude and unrefined that you will try and refine yourself: you will try and give it a meaning that it does not inherently possess, and in doing this you will press your daughter into some mould that misunderstands her. So, you see, neither picture is what you might call true. They are distortions.' " (p.153-4)

It is also about the closed world of adolescence, and the power relationships between groups, and the way they all pass judgement on each other's lives and recognise the inequalities between them. I liked this one:

"The repeated validations become their mantra, and soon the richer girls come to believe the things they are compelled by shame to say. They come to believe that their needs are simply keener, more specialised, more urgent than the needs of the girls who queue outside the chippy and tuck the greasy package down their shirt for the walk home. They do not regard themselves as privileged and fortunate. They regard themselves as people whose needs are aptly and deservedly met, and if you were to call them wealthy they would raise their eyebrows and blink, and say, 'Well, it's not like we're starving or anything, but we're definitely not rich.' " (p.233)

Then towards the end the saxophone teacher sums it all up quite neatly for us, after all the trauma and stress and anxiety that the girls and their parents and their teachers go through over the affair and the random death of another girl:

"The saxophone teacher suddenly feels weary. She sits down. 'Mrs Bly,' she says, 'remember that these years of your daughter's life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after. Remember that it's in her best interests for everything to go wrong. It's in her best interests to slip up now, while she's still safe in the Green Room with the shrouded furniture and the rows of faceless polystyrene heads and the cracked and dusty mirrors and the old newspapers scudding across the floor. Don't wait until she's out in the savage white light of the floods, where everyone can see. Let her practice everything in a safe environment, with a helmet and kneepads and packed lunches, and you at the end of the hall with the door cracked open a dark half-inch in case anyone cries out in the long hours of the night.' " (p.244)

But the last word falls to Julia, who, in an excellent performance, breaks down all the barriers and calls the adults on their small minded hypocrisy. This, I find, has something very theatrical about it, it has the ring of the final speech of Romeo and Juliet where we are warned to learn the lessons of the story; take heed:

" 'We learned that everything in the world divides in two: good and evil, male and female, truth and falsehood, child and adult, pleasure and pain. We learned that the counsellor possessed a map, a map that would make everything make sense. A key. Like in a theatre programme where you have the actors' names on one side and the list of characters on the other - some neat division that divides the illusive from the real. We learned that there is a distinction - between the performance and the performer, the reality and the lie. We learned there is no middle ground.'
Julia surveys her audience.
'Only those who watch,' she says, 'and those who suffer being watched.'
The others don't dare to rustle.
'But the counsellor lied,' Julia says. 'You lied. You lied about the pain of it, the unsimple mess of it, immeasurably more thorny and wrecked and raw than you could ever remember, with the gauze veil of every year that passes settling over your eyes, thicker and thicker until even your own childhood dissolves into the mist.' " (p.309-10)

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