Mother's Books

The psychic excavation of my mother’s bookshelf continues…

I have always criminally underrated my Mum’s cultural tastes. She was a social worker and, although she was often very vocal about her unfulfilled dreams of being an English teacher, for a long time, and to my shame, I didn’t think of her as being very cultured at all. She liked poetry and crime novels and occasionally we bonded over the latter, but she didn’t like music. I didn’t get that. I found her coldness towards sounds unnerving. There was a fissure between us that grew out from that disconnection. By the time I was a teenager, and music was my life, we didn’t really get on very much at all, to the point that it nearly became “An Issue”.

She got my school involved at one point. I was the miserable and ungrateful teenager but she was the controlling and manipulative authority figure. Our visions of each other were extreme. The truth was probably more temperate but it wasn’t far from reality. There were moments where we’d joke about it, through glimpses of tragic self-awareness. It was a cruel fate, we’d laugh, to have teenage puberty and middle-age menopause overlap under the same rood. I’m surprised my Dad didn’t escape to a fallout shelter more regularly. We wasted too many years being mutually shit to each other.

She had a breakdown a few years ago, sometime after I’d left home, and now I don’t often go back to see her. The saddest and most noticeable change in her since this time is that she no longer reads or writes — two things she used to do daily. We went to Hull over Christmas and I noticed a change in her. The fact I’m publishing a book soon has led to something of a renewed connection between us, I think — at least on my side — and I’ve been doing the little that I can do affirm it to her.

I’ve been realising, slowly, over the last two or three years, how little credit I’ve given to her and her subtle influence on me growing up. It was influence by osmosis, more than anything, but I’ve come to appreciate that that is the best kind. It has manifest itself in the realisation that all of the writers I am currently obsessed with carry with them a deep association in my mind with her bookshelf.

There were two bookshelves in the house growing up. One in my parent’s bedroom and another in the living room. The latter was small and tucked to one side, directly next to the armchair in which she would always sit. One Christmas, around ’98 or so, her small annex in this room was gifted a small hi-fi with in-built radio, speakers and CD player. It was silver, with all the buttons and flaps a translucent blue. It was very “The Millennium”. She’d listen to BBC Radio 2 through it or sometimes Coldplay or Dido’s Life for Rent or those free compilation CDs that came with the Mail on Sunday.

I made use of this hi-fi on occasion as well. I used to sneak downstairs to it, very early on a Saturday morning, playing the few CD singles that I had and which I couldn’t safely listen to at any other time of day. Eminem’s “My Name Is”. Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’”. Slipknot’s “Left Behind”. With the volume down low and my ear so close to the speaker, my eyes could see very little else from this vantage point except the spines of the books on her little shelf.

I can picture that bookshelf in my mind with an almost perfect clarity. It was where she kept her “classics” alongside the occasional Wainwright Walker’s guidebook or crossword puzzles. As a result, the three authors that appeared there the most, and with whom I associate with my Mum most clearly, are: Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. (She also loved the Brontës but, having studied Wuthering Heights at high school, I felt I had ownership of my own appreciation of Emily at least.)

Daphne Du Maurier was already quite prominent in my mind during childhood. We’d go and see adaptations of Rebecca whenever the opportunity arose — I remember at least two stage adaptations — and I remember on one family holiday to Cornwall she insisted we go and see her house at Cowey and the famous Jamaica Inn.

I never investigated Du Maurier for myself until about eighteen months ago. On my first trip to Cornwall to stay at Urbanomic HQ with Robin, the memories came rushing back to me and I read her short stories. Robin read them too and I’ll never forget that joint revelation. “She’s like H.P. Lovecraft if he wasn’t so afraid of sex”, was Robin’s review, and this new appreciation of a writer who had, for me, been so fatally associated with the parental led to me putting a few other literary preconceptions to one side.

Since then, I’ve made my way through the works of Virginia Woolf and found within her writing a similar resonance with my adult interests. H.P. Lovecraft she is not but I have found her fast-and-loose approach to subjectivity almost accelerationist in its wilful dissolution of time into space.

There is a post about Woolf’s proto-accelerationism in me somewhere but, before I was able to turn my notes into something bloggable, I have now found myself wrapped up in the works of D.H. Lawrence.

Lawrence was already a subtle influence on my patchwork writings and his “Studies in American Literature” is cited in Egress. Deleuze’s subtle obsession with him caught me by surprise and now, writing his works with Deleuze in mind, it is hard to ignore him. It is also surprising, to some extent, that Deleuze has had no effect on rescuing his maligned reputation as an unsubtle soft pornographer.

I began my adventure with Son & Lovers and found its Oedipal associations very intriguing. Then, reading his book on psychoanalysis was enough to wash away my preconceptions entirely. I do not know this man, I thought — and, in an odd way, it feels like very few do.

John Worthen’s biography is a fascinating account of his life but searching for less weighty material to listen to online, on YouTube for instance, I found nothing much worth my time at all. This might be unsurprising to some, perhaps, but considering how much I’ve consumed about Virginia Woolf on YouTube in recent months, it was a shock to find nothing but an unlistenable episode of the BBC’s Culture Show, a few dry lectures, a few crappy book blog reviews and a few Conservative pundits who seem to routinely miss the point completely.

What has shocked me in Lawrence’s writing so far is not the sexy bits of prose or his overuse of a flowery metaphor but just how thickly he lays on the politics. In fact, having watched both the 2015 BBC adaptation and 1981 film of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on Netflix recently, it’s shocking to me just how empty they are compared to his prose.

Lawrence isn’t the spinner of period yarns that he’s made out to be but a (sorry, but it feels appropriate) xenogothic explorer of fin-de-siècle body horror. This is most explicit in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I feel, where the war-broken body of Sir Clifford the Cripple is contrasted so acutely against the powerful and seductive body of Mellors the working man. Rather than bodies being broken in the mines, it is the broken spirit of the landed gentry that haunts the book. Not with any melancholy, though. They no longer “fit into” the modern world. They might control the means of production but they are impotent bourgeoisie who are no match for the virulent working man. (Nowhere is this made more clear than in the central scene — notably preserved in most adaptations that otherwise leave so much out — where Clifford’s motorised wheelchair breaks down in the woods: Mellors’ domain.)

Lady Chatterley herself becomes a cog in a class machine but in a surprisingly empowered sense. As proud as she may be of her individual achievement — marrying rich and establishing herself within his class — she is all too ready to throw it all away so that she might enter into social and sexual relations with her fellow human beings. Here, Lawrence’s late-life communism shines through and it is notably not the communism of the Soviet state but rather a wholly libidinal immersion in the machinations of the social. It is powerful and, yes, it’s also pretty hot. Deleuze knew this well, it seems to me, but few who take on his material seem to see the same libidinal horrors that Deleuze and Guattari wove into Capitalism & Schizophrenia.

Tonight, as I lie in bed thinking about why this has so far been the case, I have been left with an acute desire to see an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover made by David Cronenberg. As absurd as it may sound at first, try reading the book with that in mind. I imagine it would be the best adaptation of Lawrence yet.

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