Tuesday 26 December 2023


We bought new down pillows about a month ago, after years in a pillow desert, and since then, uniquely I think, I have read all the novels of Elizabeth Strout that I have, which is all she has written bar about two, with my head resting on these soft, minimal yet full, pillows, either before I go to sleep or by way of interlude during the night. She has inhabited her people and I inhabit them in turn, buoyed by the new pillow and the sleep it will surely bring. It is only now I am on the most recent novel Lucy by the Sea, which is very much about the pandemic time, that I'm getting impatient, as I think I did when I first read it: this is too close to what I know, it doesn't matter that it's Maine or New York. In fact, knowing the characters from earlier books adds to the sense of familiarity: these are people I know, neighbours almost, and their story has become too familiar. Yes we were all united by the pandemic but I didn't want to be. I dislike the feeling of being united by anything. I prefer the condition of detachment. This is what I am saying, as Elizabeth Strout would say — she likes these little emphases, this disarming writerly presence which is both insistent and apologetic. Detachment is easier if the stories are of the past, like LP Hartley, whom I also re-read often in large doses, or Elizabeth Taylor, a more recent minor addiction, both of them early to mid-twentieth century. If I want to feel united, it is not with a society, it is with those strange and already themselves detached creatures like Virginia Woolf or Clarice Lispector. With them, not with the society they might depict along the way, I feel at one.

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