“I didn’t want the after, or even the during: I wanted the before.”
– Claire-Louise Bennett, “I Am Love,” Gorse 2 (2014)
“I didn’t want the after, or even the during: I wanted the before.”
– Claire-Louise Bennett, “I Am Love,” Gorse 2 (2014)
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Picador)
Guardian reviewer Andrew Gallix wrote of this collection of 20 stories:
“Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” … One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator — whose brain and body we inhabit — yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name …
What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world. Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous, quality through the examination of what Emerson called “the low, the common, the near” or the exploration of Georges Perec’s “infra-ordinary” — a quest for the quotidian.”
Andrew Gallix wrote in his review for the Guardian, of the stories in Pond — quote — “Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the ‘savage swarming magic’ the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her ‘mind in motion’“.
Here is a picture I took of Claire-Louise signing a copy of her book at Chez Panisse, following her reading.
This appeared in Guardian Review on 21 November 2015 (Page 10). It was posted on the Guardian‘s website on 18 November 2015:
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
A woman meditates on her rural seclusion in a stunning debut that ‘re-enchants the world’
Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly acclaimed debut, initially published in Ireland earlier this year, is a collection of 20 stories — the shortest of which runs to a couple of sentences. They are all told, it seems, by the same female character, whose semi-reclusive existence the tales revolve around. Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” (the only exception being the final story, told in the third person). For all this propinquity, we would be hard-pressed to recognise her, should she suddenly emerge from her rural retreat. One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator — whose brain and body we inhabit — yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name.
Her soliloquies are peppered with asides to an implied reader — “if you want to know” — cheekily drawing attention to the amount of information being withheld. The young woman discloses, in typically obfuscating fashion, that “it wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted to suggest that she might, overall, have the appearance and occasionally emanate the demeanour of someone who grows things”, despite having actually “propagated very little”. So much for what she looks like. We learn that she expended “many thousands of words” on an aborted doctoral thesis before relocating to the countryside, whence she chronicles the minutiae of her reduced circumstances with professorial pedantry and a mock-heroic style. Ireland, where the stories are set, is never even mentioned: “I live on the most westerly point of Europe, right next to the Atlantic ocean” is as close as we get and as much as we need.
The narrator’s largely solitary lifestyle enables her to eschew what Bennett (pictured) has called “anthropocentric parochialism”. “In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world,” the author explained to the Irish Times, “so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you.” When that impression fails to materialise, in “A Little Before Seven”, the protagonist presses down on the worktop to give herself “a little more density”. In “Morning, Noon & Night” she lies in bed next to her boyfriend, thinking of the vegetables “out there in the dark”: “I’d splay my fingers towards the ceiling and feel such yearning!”
A rich seam of nostalgie de la boue runs through the collection, from the primeval earth that smells “as if it had never before been opened up” in the aforementioned story, to the mud — “feudal and rich, almost igneous” — in “The Big Day”, and the Dostoevskian close of “Words Escape Me”: “I was beneath the ground.” In “Control Knobs”, the narrator seems to envy a character in a novel she is reading, who becomes “more like an element” than a human being, “in the same way that rocks and trees are physiological manifestations. Material. Matter. Stuff.” Having recently moved into her cottage, she reclines on the lawn, and lets nature take her over: “I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead. I would listen to a spider coming through the grass towards the blanket.”
In the opening story, the narrator is still a little girl, and she climbs over a wall into an ornamental garden and falls asleep on the “unfeasible lawn”, clutching a lilac seashell. This could imply that the rest of the book is an Alice-style dream, or series of daydreams. As she puts it in “The Deepest Sea”, “daydreams return me to my original sense of things” — one thinks here of Wallace Stevens’s “plain sense of things” — “and I luxuriate in these fervid primary visions until I am entirely my unalloyed self again”. The cottage, first glimpsed through a thick hedgerow, and the inaccessible secret garden that she stumbles upon in the process of chasing away a cat, are echoes of this paradise lost.
What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world. Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous, quality through the examination of what Emerson called “the low, the common, the near” or the exploration of Georges Perec’s “infra-ordinary” — a quest for the quotidian. Unlike Perec, however, the narrator does not set out to exhaust circumscribed fragments of reality; quite the contrary. “I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things”, which only ends up “making the world smaller”.
Besides being a nod to Walden Pond, where Thoreau went to “live deliberately”, Bennett’s title refers to a sign next to a pond “saying pond” — the kind of literal message that breaks the spell of place, preventing us from “moving about in deep and direct accordance with things”. On brief occasions, the narrator starts speaking in tongues, drawing on a private inner language that can never be “written down at all”. A language beyond meaning, conversant with “the earth’s embedded logos”, it remains “simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt our flickering organs”. This is a truly stunning debut, beautifully written and profoundly witty.
My review of Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond was posted today on the Guardian‘s website. It will feature in Saturday’s Guardian Review. You can read it here.
Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond (2015)
English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.
“It had something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventitious souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation. Yes, that’s right. It attempted to show that in the whole history of literature love is quite routinely depicted as an engulfing process of ecstatic suffering which finally, mercifully, obliterates us and delivers us to oblivion. Dismembered and packed off. Something like that. Something along those lines. I am mad about you. I am going out of my mind. My soul burns for you. I am inflamed. There is nothing now, nothing except you. Gone, quite gone. That kind of thing. … Actually, now that I come to think of it, I think the gist of my argument was simply that love is indeed a vicious and divine disintegration of selfhood and that artistic representations of it as such aren’t at all uncommon or outlandish and have nothing whatsoever to do with endeavouring to shock an audience.”
– Claire-Louise Bennett, “Morning, Noon & Night,” Pond (2015)
“In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world, so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you.”
– Claire-Louise Bennett, “Claire-Louise Bennett on Writing Pond,” The Irish Times 26 May 2015
Claire-Louise Bennett, “Claire-Louise Bennett on Writing Pond,” The Irish Times 26 May 2014
… I remember that transition, if you can call it that. How all that felt boundless and primal, profound and bizarre, became dreary and doctrinaire. It was at precisely this juncture that I began to write. The function of this impulsive activity was not to make sense of things, the opposite in fact — I wrote in order to keep rationality and purpose at bay, to prolong and bask in the rhythmic chaos of existence, to remain adrift from the social contract and luxuriate in the magnificent mystery of everything. I was writing, not to connect with other people, but to experience and augment my affinity with the universe. It was, after all, the whole cosmos I felt a part of and wished to respond to — not just my small portion of it, the here and now of my specific, increasingly circuitous, circumstances — but everything, everywhere, always.
Out of all the artistic mediums literature is perhaps the most anthropocentric, and so, once I decided I wanted to make a book, I immediately encountered many difficulties as I tried to get to grips with the sorts of things that normally go into one. Narrative, for example, stonewalled me right from the off – I couldn’t take to it at all. Hardly surprising: narrative, after all, is not simply a literary device — according to narrative theory the capacity to tell stories is a basic human strategy which enables us to develop and reinforce a cogent and enduring sense of self. Identities are forged in this way, rendering us visible, surveyable; other people can say they know who we are. But who I am is not what I am or how I am; my identity is not all of me, it doesn’t even come close — it is simply a function of me, an aspect that has significance and viability within the social framework, but nowhere else.
Yet, despite its partiality, it is this portion we are duty-bound to cultivate and uphold throughout the course of our entire lifetime. This boundaried and stable self — the social being — doesn’t concern me very much. What I want to delve into and express in my work is the peregrine self — the being who is fluid, exotic, and nebulous — what a very distinguished individual might disdainfully refer to as a “wishy-washy sort”, who ought to “pull themselves together”.
How then to convey the permutations of a formless entity through a medium inherently geared towards the manifestation of a clean-edged and consistent character? Quite the conundrum. However, in contrast to literature’s integral social dimension, the act of writing itself is almost entirely antisocial — indeed, lots of writers will tell you just how lonely writing is. It’s true, writing is a gloriously solitudinous place. And it was there, in that zone, I wanted to sink, without succumbing to the pull of narrative drive, which is always more or less in reach, like a ghastly, bedevilling, rudder.
Solitude, by its nature, doesn’t have much of a plot and it doesn’t throw up too many events either. Life, from the outside, becomes rather small. Yet in that tight spot one’s awareness and sensitivity intensifies to such an extent that the daily round, no matter how unvarying it has become, is a conduit to a more transcendent contact with reality so that, for example, objects are not simply insensate functional things, but materials, substances, which have an aura, an energy — even, occasionally, a numinosity. Categories lose their hold and the surrounding environment is rewritten and revealed. What Italo Calvino calls “anthropocentric parochialism” has been given the slip, and the world again feels at once ancient and fresh, intimate and indifferent, porous and immaculate.
… In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world, so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you.