Monday, January 24, 2011

Self Absorption

Teach us to Sit Still, Tim Parks's most recent book is not a self-help book but it is a book about self-help that says some very helpful things — about mindfulness and connections between the body and one's background and cultural references, and about standing up straight. It is also a strikingly honest book. It is honest about pissing, the perineum, and weary-looking tackle — but women who have gone through the business of having babies are usually inured to that sort of honest detail. It is also, and more impressively, honest about the discreditable thoughts that go on in Tim Parks's head: that never-ending inner monologue that we (all?) indulge in, made up of the obsessive composition of self-aggrandizing declarations; mental manoeuvering and negotiation; infuriated silent shouting. None of it very worthy and the very opposite of the helpful and healing Noble Silence.

It is then a book about the author's self-help but the self that imposes itself on the experience is my own self; the book engages my own inner hubris. I read the memoir in a night and a morning. When I take a break during the morning for a shower, I find myself putting words together that I might work up into a review of the book: a review that will show me in the best possible light; an unusually insightful review that might even attract the attention of the author who will, of course, be impressed by the connections I have made; my comprehension of his work; my underexercised talent. He will think well of me. I know that this is woefully like Parks's own mental composition of his modest — and in the end unnecessary — Booker acceptance speech: subtly calculated to impress without seeming to do so. It is an unworthy mental exercise but it chimes with me, because this is all still all about me and my incessant, rarely aired, calculated inner monologue. I recognise too his need to be of interest: the most knowledgeable and articulate patient a doctor has ever had; the most composed family member an undertaker has ever met; the most accommodating caller a customer helpline has ever had to deal with.

There are some real, if tenuous, connections. Parks's life is lived out in two languages - like mine. The words that come to me in the shower are sometimes French words that just seem more apt. I remember snippets from the other books by Parks that I have read and the word that comes to me is bribes (snatches). I knew before reading this book that Parks was supersensitive to noise, he told us so in an essay I read a couple of years ago. Goodness know which essay, goodness know in what context he offered this information, goodness know why my memory has chosen to give it space. This in turn calls up a bribe of information from a biography of Carlyle (or was it Jane Carlyle?) that I must have read more than twenty years ago: his sensitivity to and fury at the noise made by the hens in somebody else's back garden behind their house in Chelsea. Poor Jane had to deal with it.

Families. I become distracted by the life rather than the work which is perhaps not so surprising given the autobiographical nature of much of Parks's writing. Thinking about my own relationship with French, I call to mind a factoid from one of the earliest books, An Italian Education I think, which I must have read a good fifteen years ago. Parks laments that although he speaks English to his little son, however fluent his son is, he still has that giveaway Italian pronounciation at the end of words. I identify with and retrospectively share his disappointment. I'm intrigued too by his wife, a graceful but waning presence in all of his books, until this one in which she seems to regain some importance. "How we have hurt each other", he says in this towards the end of Teach Us to Sit Still. Perhaps the decline set in with the novel Destiny which with hindsight I think was probably about the impossibility of an entirely happy marriage when two people are thinking in different languages.

Connections continue to tumble around as I shower and I think of a film I have just seen, Copie Conforme. It is the story of a French woman (Juliette Binoche) and an Englishman in Tuscany and their impossible relationship. "Multilayered" is a word that is used often in internet reviews of the film (that and "pretentious"). Multilayered like the layers of glistening tissue the surgeon would like to cut through to get to the possible nexus of Parks's pain. Perhaps the Italian ex-mistress in Europa could be played by Binoche. Europa tells the story of a group of university teachers who travel to Brussels to deliver a petition — the background story was told to me by one of the real-life protagonists long before the book appeared: a Scot who wore a linen jacket rather like that worn by the erudite Englishman in Copie Conforme, and by Tim Parks on the inside cover of this book. See, more connections .... to me.

And even when there is no real connection between my own experience and that of Parks, I like to think that there might be one.His problem is pelvic pain, probably the result of long periods of sitting. I sit for long periods in front of a computer too, so surely I too will develop pelvic pain. For the moment, however, it seems that the site of my own incipient dis-ease is my neck where I am sure can feel the tension dissolve as I shadow the relaxation exercises described in the book. Similarly, I can only relate to Parks's discovery of meditaton through my own experience of Xi Gong classes. Every Friday evening I sit in a dojo with around thirty other people and feel superior to them even as we execute the same movements. I am better than them because only I am canny enough to take the benefit of the soothing physical experience while filtering out the ridiculous pseudo-Oriental mumbo jumbo. The difference is that Parks learned to stop the derisive internal monologue and gained relief from shutting it up.

The key is clearly to be absorbed in something that is not oneself, something that is not words, in nothingness even. Be still my self-centred attention-seeking mind!


nmj said...

Lesley, I love this post, you have gorgeous insights! I just got Tim from the library.

Lesley said...

Thank you Nasim. It's very self-centred and self-indulgent!

deborah said...

How inspiring to read your article, I love being reminded of our inner monologue (yes, everyone indulges but
why don't we ever discuss it)? it is endlessly amusing and a huge part of our lives (or often, as you say, 'infuriated silent shouting).

It makes me think of Walter Mitty (and James Thurber). Where I am concerned the pleasure of my inner rambling is so vast that it never crosses my mind to remember I might be being self-centred and attention seeking. And even if you are Lesley, only good can come of it!

Lesley said...

@deborah Yes, Walter Mitty exactly. But who wants to be Walter Mitty?