Always something to behave about, Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins pays tribute to Barbara Anderson (1926-2013).

 

With her cultured Anglo voice (boarding school in New Zealand and years as a naval wife in England), her title (she was Lady Anderson following Neil’s knighthood), her height, elegance, beads, and her terrific laugh which often ended in a snort, Barbara was an extraordinary figure in Wellington literary life. Even her deafness felt aristocratic. That she was also the informer on, if not quite the enemy of, the conventional refined values she appeared to embody, made her great company and a remarkable one-off writer.

Of course she was neither an aristocrat nor conventional. She’d worked for a living – she was proud of that; mainly in labs and then as a high school science teacher. When I knew her, from the late 1980s onwards, she smoked at parties, loved Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver, and had embroidered a cushion with the phrase “Life’s Rich Tapestry”. At cafés she would often stop in mid-sentence to point at a child in a pram – “Look at that one!” she’d say. “Did you see the hat! Delicious!”

People in Anderson’s work are always gasping. Again and again they’re suddenly short of breath, trying to say something or just making the unbidden noise of their insides. Molly, the minister’s wife in The Swing Around, leaves the car window open in the car wash, then gets out of the car while the wash is in progress (“The bruising waters lashed around her”). That’s physical: she gasps as a near-drowned person gasps. But of course fiction is a metaphor machine as inexorably rolling towards us on its “predestined tracks” as the car wash, and Molly’s drenching quickly figures as an image not of incompetence but vulnerability, change, mortality. A good dunking is what most of these characters get. The car wash attendant gapes at the sodden Molly: “What on earth did you do?” Molly’s answer is reasonable and also metaphysical: “Nothing. The water, everything, it all went mad, and then suddenly it stopped. Completely, or so I thought, and then lo and behold it all began again.” Pretty good account of existence. Of course the unmetaphysical attendant plays it straight. “It’s meant to stop. Then the cycle begins again. It’s programmed.”

Repeatedly in Anderson’s work we meet this lo and behold moment. Craziness is unleashed and someone is left gasping often while someone else, cruelly sober, is ready with the rule. The great subject of the fiction is propriety: the comedy of circumscribed lives suddenly interrupted, the complicated pleasures and trials of erupting selves. The extra layer in the car-wash scene is that Molly, as the discomfited Minister of Transport puts it, is “a maverick”: “You never knew what she was going to do next.” She’s worse than the car wash then, which can at least be predicted, and the minister is right to be anxious.

How do we deal with someone who goes beyond? Or if we are suddenly that person, how do we cope when our “bowels turn to ashes” (Sooze in Girls High) or deal with a heart that goes, as Una’s in Girls High, “pocketa pocketa pocketa”? Characters tend to live at a high pitch. (“Rage” is another key word in her books.) And personality in Anderson’s fiction is frequently expressed through the drama of obligation and freedom – the push of “should” and the pull of “could”. How often, too, the plots use the spring of sex to get things going. That’s another form of gasping that the novels love. (Pelvises in Anderson, their tilts, their aches, their throbs, are worth an independent critical study.)

But first this: sometimes the gasp is that of a special kind of fright as when Sophie in All the Nice Girls, having accidentally run over her lover, asks for blankets for the injured Edward and that someone ring her husband – the old woman, Mrs Featherston, agrees to the blankets but not to making the phone call. Sophie’s adultery is called out and judged even – especially – at this extreme moment. The Captain, Mrs Featherston’s husband, then touches Sophie’s shoulder and tells her he’ll do it. That’s when she experiences her “shuddering gasp”, which seems almost suggestive of comprehension – ah, this! Now I get it. Still, it’s impossible to conclude that Sophie’s gasp has a single cause. Is it the result of the old woman’s cruelty – the ugliness of the world – or the old man’s kindness – its beauty – or the whole awful strange mess of her life? A gasp, of course, is usually something involuntary, something knocked from us by a punch, real or psychic. It’s a sneeze with a moral component. A truth that will out.

Anderson’s gasping people, breathless with the truth, are usually no better off for having taken the knock that winds them. When Rita Vaughan in Girls High – the book I went to after Anderson died – listens as her two oldest friends embark on their relationship-ending conversation (“And you’re mean as cat shit!”), she doesn’t know what to do. She leaps to her feet and tells them to stop it. She is crying. (Tears are frequent and important in the fiction – a wet form of gasping.):

She heard her voice echoing inside her skull.

– We are friends, she gasped. She dragged a hand across her blind streaming face. – We have always been friends.

 

It does no good. Fleur leaves. Molly pours herself another gin. The chapter’s title (“Mrs Vaughan wonders why it all went wrong”) is fulfilled. It’s worth noting that Rita’s plea, on the evidence we’ve seen, looks weak. The shared history shows a shakiness, and Fleur’s shocking hostility (“I’ve never liked you. Either of you.”) seems right, almost cleansing. Were these three ever truly friends? It’s Rita, with her sentimentality, who might make us gasp. Yet her conventional reading – somehow I think of Kezia’s “put head back” in Mansfield’s “Prelude” – as well as pathetic, is also strikingly vivid, credible and poignant. And this is Anderson’s special ability: to capture the dignity of a losing position. Rita’s pain – imaged terrifyingly not as normal speech but as a voice echoing inside, not her head or mind but her skull – is inscribed so memorably that we want to believe in the ideal of friendship even as we see she’s crying over a phantom.

I think when I first read and worked on Girls High I was struck by the sexiness and confidence of the writing around the younger women and men. Now I register the older characters. When Una Benchley listens to her gay ex-husband, Brock, arrived on her doorstep after a break-up, talk about his unhappiness, she’s shocked at his selfishness: “Who in the name of all that’s merciful does he think he is. Or think she is, but this she knows. You wouldn’t read about it. The astonishment of life. There is always something to behave about.” To get the full range of Anderson’s fiction, you need the two notes contained in Una’s declaration: firstly the notion of life as spectacle and surprise. Here Una is wounded by the show but also in awe of it. Secondly, we should register the coolness of the judgement: “There is always something to behave about.”

To her friends the connection between the fiction’s tendency to say something like, “Life is life, now get on with it”, and Anderson’s own temperament, would be uncontroversial. One of her sayings – she was full of sayings – was “worse things have happened at sea”, which in the book she gives to Thea Sinclair. Actually worse things didn’t happen at sea. Her memoir movingly recounts her younger brother’s death in a relative’s house in Hastings when the children’s parents had both sailed to England. Unbearably, her elder son, Jeremy, died of colon cancer in 2005. Shortly after that, Anderson began to suffer early symptoms of dementia, the disease you can chart in the memoir’s wobbly course of composition and which can be heard in her struggling 2008 radio interview with Kim Hill, where Anderson, trying for the word “jandals”, comes up with “flapjacks”.

Stoicism’s overlap with heroism is another of her work’s – and indeed her life’s – most powerful themes. In a bolstering letter to a poet tempted to self-pity, Katherine Mansfield writes: “There is a law against letting ourselves go.” In writing and in life, Anderson didn’t like the confessional impulse. She loved to gossip but that’s different. She didn’t like poems that “went too far”. She told me I’d made a mistake in ending one of my stories with mention of a hospice. It turned out one could be a skite about one’s own suffering as easily as one’s successes. I think this sensitivity to the borders of acceptability, while damaging to her memoir, produced rich fictional scenarios. Fiction freed her, not simply to behave badly and tell all but to mine the territory of obligation for its moral complexity; you could only use a character such as Molly (who “could do anything next”) in The Swing Around if you were both intimate with etiquette and class and also saw the point in its founding values. Anderson’s family background, schooling and her marriage might have given her the tools to be a brilliant social satirist but her fiction also communicates what is lost when “the proper way” – no matter how artificial, unfair, or arbitrary that’s revealed to be – is abandoned.

Yet I feel I’ve missed something in this roll-call. “Gasp”, come to think of it, is a strange word for a serious writer to use so often. It’s a bit kitschy. I’m reminded that Sophie runs over her lover in All the Nice Girls because a pineapple rolls under the brake pedal – a move that wouldn’t be out of place in an Almodovar movie. (Someone in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife is writing a book called Emotion on the Page; Long Hot Summer includes the making of a film called Lust in the Dust.) Anderson was keyed into the wonders of melodrama. A lot of the sex in Girls High, or the sex talk, is similarly loose, frank, of the “I want to fuck you till you can’t stand” variety. (Carmen says that to Cliff.) I’m sure one of the reasons Anderson’s work is so invigorating to read is that she writes about invigorated people.

Plus she doesn’t really care about transitions. Someone talks about doing the Milford Track, next minute we’re on it. She’s allergic to narration and addicted to fun and speed. This spills over into, or is informed by, her relish of the human body and an idea, even an idealised notion, about beauty. “Nothing lasts,” thinks Miss Franklin, “but physical grace lasts longer than most things.” Almost everyone in Girls High is in love with the beautiful Carmen, who in another odd and Almodovarish touch, has, as it’s frequently stated, “almost been raped”. She bites Cliff’s hand so hard he needs a bandage. Later she pinches his “behind”. Meanwhile Bryce, who thinks beautiful women are a pain, goes from a job in the pre-Crash money markets to a morgue.

I’m trying to get at the sense of Anderson’s work being wild, goofy even. You can hear it in the off-kilter aliveness of the syntax: “He must make snap decisions through fog as he watches television most evenings alone with his beloved dachshund called Stanley, after Stan Laurel, and wasn’t there something funny about him or was that the other one.” That’s Una Benchley thinking about David Hockney in Anderson’s signature style. Gasping from characters doesn’t seem wrong here. Pushing it further, if the books are about the conventions of behaviour and the rearrangement of manners and customs, the prose itself wants to do its disruptive best. Sentences gasp too, cramming the world in, before everything falls mute. Which is the last word in Girls High.

The final gasp in Anderson’s uniquely wholehearted work shouldn’t be a distressed one. In life, whether it was small children or attractive men or a painting or a hill, she had a limitless capacity to be knocked sideways. Finally, this is what her fiction responds to: bounty and beauty and accident. “Glorious” was another of her favourite words.

In the wonderful last story she wrote (“The Man with the Plug in his Nose”), a woman catches a bus to Wellington. She’s left her husband. She connects with an American traveller who has cotton wool stuffed into a nostril from a fight he’s been in. He tells her to stop apologising and fussing. She’s aware that none of what’s happening to her – the bus trip, the odd guy, the lack of a plan – is normal for her life. She’s simply not this sort of person. What are the rules of behaviour? He’s attractive because he doesn’t care about what people think – the plug’s been in his nose for 12 hours. Then she finds herself in a backpacker’s bar with him, talking about travel and books (“And what about Proust. Unreadable. Shock. Horror.”) She snorts with pleasure, finds she doesn’t have a tissue and flicks the drip with the back of her hand. There’s the mini self-portrait! The body spilling out. The unlikely couple step out of the lift. Soon they’ll be in their respective dormitories: “She walked into his open arms as they kissed, exploring, seeking and greeting as they moved together. His arms tightened before he let her go and they stood gasping, watching each other, smiling.”

 

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