Remedies for a crushed soul: Chris Cleave’s novels and some uplifting non-fiction

June 21, 2022 at 8:25 am | Posted in Common Good | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

‘Reading too much non-fiction crushes the soul.’ I heard someone say that. But so much brilliant non-fiction keeps being published that there’s barely time to read anything else!

One fiction book I’m glad I did make time for is Chris Cleave’s latest novel: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Like his other novels, this one glows with wit and love; all three of his are gripping. (The other two are: Little Bee, 2010, and Gold, 2013.) I wrote about Little Bee in my June 2016 blog – https://bit.ly/3bbOcZQ

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is alive with stunningly original writing and much of the dialogue is laugh-aloud funny. The novel is set in the Second World War and we have a visceral sense of the London Blitz, enduring the deprivations and chaos, the insanities and losses with the characters we’ve come to care about.

First we meet Mary, an upper class young woman of whom nothing is expected but to look presentable and make a respectable marriage. When she volunteers for the war effort, imagining the clandestine glamour of being a spy, she’s assigned to teach children rejected for evacuation to the country because of being mentally disabled or for the colour of their skin.

The publisher has allowed the author to use terms that the people of that time and place used – terms shockingly racist to our ears, but authentic. The important thing is that even in this unenlightened milieu we see some people rising above their society’s bigotry to treat everyone with the same open-minded attitude, judging them on their mind and heart rather than on an arbitrary measure of skin colour or some other minor thing.

The most original, suspenseful way of saving someone’s life

Art restorer Alastair enlists for the war. His best friend Tom, in the course of his job as an education administrator, meets Mary. The foundations of a tragic love story are laid. I had to take it back to the library before taking notes but I won’t forget it and you won’t either. I could hardly put it down because of the gripping plot and the poetry in the telling of it. The author was inspired by notebooks left by his grandparents. Probably only his imagination is responsible for describing the most original (and certainly suspenseful) way I’ve heard for saving someone from drowning. There, you’ll just have to buy or borrow it now! Apart from sharing with readers a potentially life-saving manoeuvre, it’s a gripping immersion in a timelessly uplifting story about love, loyalty and courage and it will stay in your heart long after you absorb the last page.

The Trip to Echo Spring

Maybe Mary’s scandalising excessive-alcohol scenes in Everyone Brave stand out more in retrospect because after reading that I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On writers and drinking (Canongate, 2013). – Which brings me to the notion of drinking as self-medication for coping with harsh reality, an antidote to having our souls crushed by whatever ghastly things our society is putting us through at the time.

The Trip to Echo Spring gets its title from the drinks cabinet euphemism that the alcoholic character, Brick, uses in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Laing’s bookexplores the alcoholic lives of six American writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Laing begins with a discussion of John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer,’ published in The New Yorker on 18 July 1964. It’s a brilliant and haunting story. ‘It’s about alcohol and what it can do to a man; how conclusively it can wipe out a life.’ (p. 3)

I was talking about Laing’s melancholy book on Sunday night as we stared into the golden glow of the fire. ‘One can be an alcoholic without being a writer,’ said my scientist companion, refilling our glasses with the excellent Farmer’s Hand organic shiraz.

‘True,’ I said, ‘but writers are disproportionately represented in the alcoholic stakes.’

I’ll discuss Laing’s book, a cautionary tale if ever there was one, and then three other outstanding non-fiction books relevant to addiction: David Gillespie’s Brain Reset (Pan Macmillan, 2021); Steve Biddulph’s Fully Human: A new way of using your mind (Pan Macmillan, 2021); andHans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think.

Olivia Laing follows in her subjects’ footsteps – no, not alcohol-wise! –  but geographically, so we get the dreamily lyrical travel writing of an English woman in America and her reflections on her own past as well (a childhood shadowed by alcoholism). It’s a fascinating, sad journey that raises more questions than it answers but in doing so offers many illuminating insights into the writing life.

Laing writes that all six writers were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy. ‘These sound like tragic lives, the lives of wastrels or dissolutes, and yet these six men … produced between them some of the most beautiful writing this world has ever seen.’ (p. 9, 10) And she traces their alcohol-blighted lives in her mesmerising reflections so absorbing that I didn’t want her book to end.

I wonder what the six writers Laing focuses on would have written without alcohol? We can never know. What we can know is that they would have had longer and surely happier lives. And imagine what transformations would have happened in the lives of their wives and children!

That voice in our heads telling us we have no talent

I think that any alcoholic writer must do good writing in spite of drinking to excess, must write their best before getting drunk, that getting drunk must be a reward for doing what they suspect they don’t have the talent to do. It’s stressful – doing work that you’re not confident you can pull off. Most of us are familiar with that voice in our heads telling us we have no talent and who do we think we are, trying to do what only talented people are capable of doing?

Maybe the voice is right – and maybe any success we’ve had in the past was just a fluke. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.’ I can imagine alcohol might drive away those familiar, uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy. For a time.

I’m lucky enough not to have alcoholic tendencies. My tendency is towards greed for food, not alcohol, and my appearance the result of a continuing battle between greed and vanity. I love food and cooking, and baking is a great distraction. Also so much easier than swimming underwater and holding my breath!

Every book I write I put on about five kilos and then when I’ve finished have to endure the tedium of taking them off again. Michael Mosley’s ‘Five-Two’ diet works but you feel the cold much more on the low-calorie days so it’s not easy in winter. The more recently discovered ‘Glucose Goddess’ regime definitely works, with remarkable speed and without any days of feeling deprived or cold.

The Glucose Goddess

Jessie Inchauspé wrote Glucose Revolution: The life-changing power of balancing your blood sugar (Penguin, 2022) and her Instagram posts are on @glucosegoddess. She’s a French biochemist and writes clearly and simply. (When I was editing scientists at the top of their game back in the 1990s, that’s one thing I noticed – the really bright ones could explain complicated things to me in brief, simple terms.)

In her book and Instagram posts Inchauspé presents ten shortcuts to losing weight, flattening glucose spikes and having more energy, better sleep and a healthier life.

Alcohol and sugar are common addictions in our society. Australian authors, Gillespie and Biddulph, offer feasible solutions to beat addiction and enjoy an easier, calmer, happier life. The third book, from the late Swedish global health consultant, Hans Rosling and colleagues, presents statistical proof that things are not nearly as bad as we tend to think.

Brain Reset

In Brain Reset, David Gillespie explains how addictive activities play havoc with our dopamine levels, affecting our brain’s ability to regulate our mood and fuelling epidemics of anxiety and depression. Gillespie, writing with his characteristic clarity and humour, provides practical steps to breaking the cycle and resetting our brains.

Fully Human

Steve Biddulph in Fully Human outlines possible reasons why so many people are unhappy, stressed and addicted, speculating that we were evolved for ‘– the presence of nature, rhythms of light and dark, the company of animals, being around plants and working outdoors, using our bodies much more, in solitude and with time to dream …’ conditions largely gone from contemporary life.

Biddulph shares a simple technique for gaining access to the interior spaces – to our hearts and spirits – that we all need to survive the stress of modern life.

If you don’t practise going inside yourself, pretty soon you forget you even have an inside. And that is a problem. People who do bad things to others are invariably people who cannot manage their own insides, and so they try to feel better by hurting others. Think abusive partners. Think terrorists and mass shooters. Think tyrants and drug addicts. But also many, many people who just feel lost and confused. Lack of self-awareness is the most crippling disability a human being can have. (p. 54)

He recommends meditation, describing it as a ‘mental ju-jitsu to throw pain and difficulty over your shoulder and leave you happy and at peace.’ (p. 222)

Are you constantly stressed by the wrong things?

It’s disturbing how many of us are addicted to alcohol, drugs, screen time, shopping … But is the world really as dire as we have the impression it is? The late global health professor Hans Rosling has measured the evidence and declares that it is not, that contrary to what we see in the media, the majority of people’s lives are in fact continually improving.

Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, (Scepter, 2018) aims to calm irrational fears and redirect people’s energies into constructive activities.

We all have a strong dramatic instinct towards binary thinking, to divide everything in two with a big gap in between. Journalists present their stories as conflicts between two opposing views or groups, stories of extremes. Reality is different and when you actually examine the facts, ‘the vast majority of people [are] slowly dragging themselves toward better lives.’ (p. 39)

Rosling and his co-authors want factfulness, like exercise and a healthy diet, to become a part of your daily life. People will be able to replace an over-dramatic, negative worldview with one based on facts, and so make better decisions, stay alert to genuine dangers, and avoid being constantly stressed by the wrong things.

The opposite of soul-crushing

In spite of all the non-fiction I’m reading it’s not crushing my soul. I leaven it with fiction plus I choose the non-fiction wisely. As you probably know, there’s a category called creative non-fiction. Olivia Laing’s writing definitely fits there. Without compromising the facts, she expresses them and her journey towards the sometimes unpalatable information in succinct yet lyrical language, lifting it above a journalistic level to a more elevated poetic one. Her insights are deep and her voice unique.

David Gillespie, a long-term favourite non-fiction writer of mine, also has a unique style. His is based on the lucid expression of facts. What makes his writing stand out (whether on health or education or how to cope with psychopaths in the workplace – see https://davidgillespie.org ) is the intellectual dexterity with which he expresses those facts. His wit has made me burst out laughing while reading his books on public transport. It’s embarrassing – but not soul-crushing!

Reading Biddulph’s work we also relax, because we know we’re in the good hands of an experienced writer with humanity and compassion. Sitting in front of the fire, reading authors like the above wonderful, talented people and sipping red wine is not going to crush anyone’s soul.

Leave a Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: