Prior to going away on holiday I ordered a copy of ‘Two Stories’, a celebration of the first publication by The Hogarth Press, set up by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917 to publish their work and others who caught their admiration. Spanning the centuries, ‘Two Stories’ contains ‘St Brides Bay’ by Mark Haddon (whose recent collection of short stories, ‘The Pier Falls’, I loved) alongside Virginia Woolf’s own ‘The Mark on the Wall.’ Woolf’s story is a perfect example of her ‘stream of consciousness’ style: a woman sits alone and in the twilight notices a mark on the wall, which sets her imagination and memory aflutter: it is a wonderful, exhilarating flight of the mind in which words and images and thought and memory skip and dance and pull together to form, in a few short pages, an impression of the scattershot complexity of the human mind.
Books are a strange kettle and no mistake: I have written about psychometry, and last year I put the coincidences around Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ down to some sort of strange literary invocation. So, when ‘Two Stories’ arrived shortly after my return from holiday it was clear that the book pixies had worked their unearthly powers again: Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection of stories is so clearly and startlingly a relative of Woolf that it would be unsurprising to find that Woolf’s spirit had returned, in the form of ‘The Mark on the Wall’, to give her envious blessing.
‘Pond’ is a collection of moments, I suppose you could call them, in a woman’s life: a life of solitude by the sea summed up by her thoughts and observations, feelings and reactions to the life around her. If you want plot then look elsewhere: if you want writing which is at once precise and poetic, sometimes raw, sometimes funny, sometimes downright strange then ‘Pond’ is for you.
Picking up ‘ Pond’ by a pool in the sun, I was a captured by the energy and brazen quality of Bennett’s writing: she seems determined to take no prisoners, presenting her unique visions of the world with style and verve. But there is no notion of style over content: Bennett writes with a scalpel, and so what she writes feels real and accurate and true. There is no dithering and art for arts’ sake – which is a saving grace for those who perhaps shy away from ‘experimental’ writing.
Bennett seems giddy with the possibilities of the written word and is able to harness her words into precise pictures, imbued with great leaps if imagination, here describing the simple task of taking down of Christmas decorations:
‘…and the holly itself almost sort of evil, poking at the room like that with its creepy way of making contact with the air, and no I didn’t like it one bit so a week went by and then it was all got rid of in a flash. The holly I flung directly into the fire beneath, and it was a young fire because this happened even before breakfast and as such the impatient stripling flames went crazy with the holly, consuming it so well, so pleasingly – I was enormously pleased in fact and shoved it branch after branch even though the flames were becoming really tall and very bright and the holly gasped and cackled so loudly. That’s right, suffer, I thought, damn you to hell – and the flames sprouted upwards even taller and brighter and made the most splendid gleeful racket. Burn to death and damn you to hell and let every twisted noxious thing you pervaded the room with go along with you, and in fact as it went on burning I could feel the atmosphere brightening.’
While Woolf may have approved of Bennett’s work, one emotion which that eminent Victorian knew well was envy, and I suspect that Woolf would envy Bennett’s modern freedom to express in areas which Woolf kept firmly for her private letters and diary. Bennett is able to stare intently at female sexuality, unafraid to shine a light on areas in which even her contemporaries may fear to tread: out on a walk, a young man comes into the protagonists’ orbit and she, almost automatically, finds herself striking a pose – provocative, maybe – which leaves her feeling ‘defenceless and available for the taking as an ostracised vole.’, but:
‘If it – that – were to happen right now would it be so awful, I thought. Would it really be such an upheaval – such a defiling affront? Perhaps on the contrary it might actually seem fairly recreational, like the way dogs are, and not in the least bit vile.’
While such thoughts may strike some as perverse or disturbing, Bennett makes clear that this individual, this woman, isn’t some ‘thing’ which can simply ‘receive’:
”I looked as far into the distance as I could and after a moment of blank thought it occurred the me that I would very likely wet myself. That was a certainty, more or less, and it troubled me actually. The likelihood that I’d wet myself – not after, but during – troubled me.’
This freedom also allows Bennett an informality, a playfulness, a lightness of touch which Woolf never quite mastered. As such Bennett’s work is much more accessible than Woolf. (That said, ‘The Waves’ aside, Woolf is FAR more accessible than many people suspect).
Bennett’s work also makes me laugh.
Bennett clearly recognises her forbears. In one moment she casts allusions back to Woolf (‘The Mark on the Wall’) and Charlotte Gilman Perkins (‘The Yellow Wallpaper’): the combination of the ponderous inner voice and the wrecked woman whose sanity is in doubt as she views the sinister goings on within her wallpaper merge and mutate to produce something else – a response? – for a stronger woman whose solitude is neither damnation nor disaster:
‘…I’d begun painting over my bathroom walls which were dark green in the beginning, so dark and porous looking that sometimes at night their surfaces seemed to disappear completely and it was as if I might actually be able to glide my hands and arms and the rest of me far into the wall and enter some other place that probably requires small sharp weapons and a hunk of kick-ass cheese. However, after a shower, when there was condensation running all over them, it was quite a different story. It was a real little squelch hole then, and I often suspected newts and frogs and big-bellied spiders were peering at my dripping nakedness from behind the clammy glistening beams.’
Bennett is a writer giddy with the possibilities of the written word, a thrilling, soaring writer untethered by other’s standards. This small volume is a Pandora’s Box of riches, once opened, never forgotten.