Monday 14 August 2017

Black Dogs

I picked 'Black Dogs' by Ian McEwan off the shelf because I knew that judging from his other books I have read (that apparently all predate the blog) I would love it, and I have.

Black Dogs is narrated by Jeremy and tells the story of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June; their marriage, their political and philosophical beliefs and the gulf that separates them despite a passionate love. He explains in the preface his own situation and his unusual habit of adopting other people's parents, which explains the close relationship he has with his wife's. The story hops around a bit from the immediate post-war era when Bernard and June married and their enthusiastic adoption of communism, to June's later life, dying very slowly in a nursing home, and later still to the dying days of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The incident with the black dogs is referred to repeatedly, and you sense that the book is leading you to this significant moment in June's life, but he keeps backtracking and deviating, giving what feels like extraneous details about their lives. But maybe they are not. What I like about Ian McEwan is that his books are small, at least the ones I have read are; about very small incidents, and the impact that they have on people's lives. The stories about about the stones, but also the ripples. I keep coming back to the sense that you do not notice good writing; characters become real and individual by osmosis as you read, you cannot put your finger on what the writer is doing to achieve this. I liked and identified with Jeremy, and you feel you get to know him well, even though the story is not about him, he reveals himself as he describes his parents-in-law and their lives. 

This is June's life, reduced from the (to me) idyll that she inhabited in the bergerie to the drawn out end in a remote nursing home:

"When she was satisfied that I had brought exactly what she ordered, I stowed the goods, except for the ink which she kept on the locker. The heavy fountain pen, the greyish-white cartridge paper and the black ink were the only visible reminders of her former daily life. Everything else, her delicatessen luxuries, her clothes, had their special places, out of sight. Her study at the bergerie, with its views westward down the valley towards St Privat, was five times the size of this room and could barely accommodate her books and papers; beyond, the huge kitchen with its jambons de montagne hung from beams, demijohns of olive oil on the stone floor, and scorpions sometimes nesting in the cupboards; in the living room which took up all of the old barn where a hundred locals once gathered at the end of a boar hunt; her bedroom with the four-poster bed and french windows of stained glass, and the guest bedrooms through all of which, over the years, her possessions flowed and spread; the room where she pressed her flowers; the hut with gardening tools in the orchard of almonds and olives, and near that, the henhouse that looked like a miniature dovecote - all this boiled down, stripped away, to one free-standing bookcase, a tallboy of clothes she never wore, a steamer trunk no one was allowed to look inside, and a tiny fridge." (p.36)

During the same visit, revealing himself as he watches another resident. A beautiful subtle moment, he does not say what he is thinking, only leaves you with the impression of thought:

"I offer to make her tea and she assents by lifting a finger off the sheet. I crossed to the handbasin to fill the kettle. Outside, the rain had stopped but the wind still blew, and a tiny woman in a pale blue cardigan was making her way across the lawn with the aid of a walking frame. A strong gust could have carried her away. She arrived at a flower bed against the wall and knelt down before her frame, as though at a portable altar. When she was down on the grass on her knees, she manoeuvred the frame to one side, and took from one pocket of her cardigan a tea spoon, and from the other a handful of bulbs. She set about digging holes and pressing the bulbs into them. A few years ago I would have seen no point at all in planting at her age, I would have watched the scene and read it as an illustration of futility. Now, I could only watch." (p.44)

This book was published in 1992 but I came across this next quote, where Jeremy first meets his wife, and in it he manages to encapsulate the casual and everyday misogyny that is finally being acknowledged and (occasionally) challenged:

"In October 1981 I was in Poland as a member of an amorphous cultural delegation invited by the Polish government. I was then the administrator of a moderately successful provincial theatre company. Among the group were a novelist, an arts journalist, a translator and two or three cultural bureaucrats. The only woman was Jenny Tremaine, who represented an institution based in Paris and funded from Brussels. Because she was both beautiful and rather brisk in her manner, she drew hostility from some of the others. The novelist in particular, aroused by the paradox of an attractive woman unimpressed by his reputation, had a racing bet with the journalist and one of the bureaucrats to see who could 'all' her first. The general idea was that Miss Tremiane, with her white freckled skin and green eyes, her head of thick red hair, her efficient way with her appointment book and perfect French, had to be put in her place. In the inevitable boredom of an official visit there was a good deal of muttering over late-night drinks in the hotel bar. The effect was souring. It was impossible to exchange word or two with this woman, whose sharp style, I soon discovered, merely concealed her nervousness, without some of the others nudging and winking in the background, and asking me later if I was 'in the race'." (p.105-6)

The incident with the dogs happens when June and Bernard are on honeymoon. Already pregnant and already feeling ambivalent to her commitment to the communist party, June walks ahead of Bernard and finds herself confronted with two large feral dogs. For June it becomes a defining moment in her life, one that alters everything, and one that you feel Bernard never understands. The tension of the situation is drawn out and visceral, but without being overly dramatic, another example of engaging writing. But it is Bernard's moment that I want to quote last. There is an undercurrent in the book of references to the war, and its lasting impact on both individuals and the world itself. Here the political idealist Bernard is suddenly struck by an aspect he had not appreciated previously, after an encounter with a woman watching a stonemason working on a war memorial:

"This sombre incident remained with them as they struggled up the hill in the heat, heavy with lunch, towards the Bergerie de Tédenat. They stopped half way up in the shade of a stand of pines before a long stretch of open road. Bernard was to remember this moment for the rest of his life. As they drank from their water bottles he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise. It seemed as though he had never thought about the war before, not about its cost. He had been so busy with the details of his work, of doing it well, and his widest view had been of war aims, of winning, of statistical death, statistical destruction, and of post-war reconstruction. For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories. This came upon Bernard by a pine tree in the Languedoc in 1946 not as an observation he could share with June but as a deep apprehension, a recognition of a truth that dismayed him into silence and, later, a question: what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?" (p.165)

I will leave it there, because what more is there to add.

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