Carol, a good film, a great read

Incredible. Don’t you feel a bit silly when you sort of half see a film between shifts in the kitchen and think I must read that book? I know I do, because it seems as if you are being led by advertisers to the slaughter but because of Christmas preparations I missed half of Carol on the TV and I couldn’t work out whether or not it had a happy ending as it was all a bit vague. I saw enough to be interested, so I ordered the book. Was I in for a treat! I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like the Georgian style of writing, that is very quaint and too long-winded for me, but my taste usually lands somewhere between Steinbeck and Hemingway. What makes Patricia Highsmith’s writing so special is that amongst her overt simplicity a beautifully descriptive phrase will come out of nowhere. I am thinking of phrases like “her short fair hair that made Therese think of perfume held to a light”. The writing style is so simple that this book can speak to anyone; it is beautiful at times, stark and brutal at others, but always evocative.

I wish I had found this book when I was nineteen. That was an age at which the world had not changed so much as to make it seem an old fashioned story. Today everything goes and yet people are still unhappy. There are those who will never understand this level of repression and for them I am glad; there are others who still suffer under it and I never want them to be forgotten. The past interests me because our lives are not long enough to learn from experience and still know everything good that love has to offer. Two quotes hit my Twitter feed this morning:

“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” – Hellen Keller and “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.” – Marcus Aurelius

Both of those sum it up beautifully. Today young people are often (but not always) out and proud and it is probably hard to empathise with the level of restrained passion and yearning in this novel but Patricia Highsmith’s characterisation is so good you can’t but feel every nuance along with them, every last bit of yearning, every pang of disappointment. It is a beautiful story and a terrifying one therefore when their happiness so quickly turns into an ordeal of persecution. In the book, you see Therese is less of an innocent, Carol is less of a seducer and both are tormented by circumstances they cannot hope to control. Carol’s sacrifice and bravery is so much clearer than in the film too, Therese’s pain and coming to terms with the loss of her first true love is still there but she hurts others as much as she is hurt by them. Richard is a brute. We don’t see much of this in the film and the ending is far less optimistic. I often prefer the book to the film, but I was grateful for the film because it led me to an unforgettable read that had me up all night.

This is not just a book for those interested in LGBT rights or lesbian romance because it has a very clear truth at its heart. One that all adults know. There is nothing quite like falling in love. It overwhelms you totally and the rush of endorphins is unbelievable. That is probably why so many people are addicted to love of course and continually searching for “The One”. They never find “The One” because harsh reality and even sexual satisfaction itself can take the shine right off that first rush of overwhelming tenderness and desire and yet sometimes, just sometimes, if you can live through the pain and the sheer ordinariness of life, a deeper and stronger affection is born. That is the happiest ending of all and in Carol you live through these characters and feel every emotion they do which makes the ending just perfect in its optimism.

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I wrote last week about the pigeon holes we assign to ourselves as readers and as writers and how these make it difficult to assign genre at times. Since then, I put out a new LGBT story I had been working on for some time. Coming Home for Christmas is a sweet lesbian romance on the surface but it is also story about wasted years, old attitudes and a time that is probably better consigned to history. Its heroine, Rebel, is ironically far from being a rebel in real life. I can see young women getting quite angry about her behaviour towards Laura and I am not sure how sympathetic she will be to anyone under a certain age. I thought the best thing to do is let Rebel speak for herself:

“Hi Rebel, or shall I call you Jill?”
“Jill is a pseudonym, only Laura calls me Rebel. Perhaps it might be better to call me Eleanor. It feels more relaxing.”
“Well, I am not sure I want you to relax too much, Eleanor. I have a few difficult questions to ask you.”
“I’ll survive!” She laughs. “Fire away!”
“OK! I’ll start with a tough one then. Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”
“What? I can’t believe you’d ask me that right off the bat.” She looks shocked.
“Well? Why didn’t you? You were obviously suicidal.”
“Because the gun only fired blanks of course. What would be the point, Lisa?”
“Sorry, Rebel, but I have to ask. I was told only yesterday by somebody in the know that Bruce Lee’s son was killed with a gun that fired blanks.”
“Really? Wow! You really do believe in putting a girl at ease, don’t you?”
“I’m a writer, it’s my job to get to the point quickly.”
“That’s not just quick. That’s brutal.” She is visibly shaking. “I always knew I was lucky to get through my teenage years but I didn’t know just how close I actually came…”
“Well, I am sure your readers will be glad you didn’t shoot yourself. What they would probably like to know is why you very nearly did.”
“That’s not hard. It was tough in the 1970s. Tougher than you might think. People always go on about the 1960s and the permissive society and all the new freedoms young people had but for people like me it wasn’t so rosy. Folks always talk about rock stars – glam rock, Queen and Bowie – being gay, lesbian or bisexual was a fashion with celebrities. There was a lot of parody on TV too, some of it quite cruel, but in ordinary life there was gay bashing, name calling, inequality under the law, you name it and then there was this whole thing of coming from a religious background.”
“Did you have many gay and lesbian friends back then?”
“Not that I knew of. It wasn’t something you shouted about. When I went to College I met a few students who were “out”. I thought they were incredibly brave at the time.There was discrimination going on in so many fields; the armed forces, teaching, anything with responsibility it seemed. It was tough to get a job. Despite the outrageous show biz stuff we were just ordinary kids.”
“Any element of being provincial in that?”
“Oh, I am sure you’re right. The more insignificant your hometown, the more likely these things are to be driven underground. It’s different if you live in a big city; sheer volume of numbers I suppose and with that comes bravery. I was never brave.”
“But you got through what was in effect a nervous breakdown…”
“Yes, and without treatment. I was in denial of course and I went through a phase where I would go with men just to convince myself I was straight.”
“I got that. You were married twice I see. But no kids?”
“It never happened although we did try. It’s just one of those things I suppose. I’m not too worried about being child-free though. I don’t think children should be compulsory you know.” She laughs again.
“So what brought you to tell your story now?”
“Meeting Laura again. The way I behaved towards her was cowardly and unforgivable. I am not proud of myself. I don’t know how she forgave me to be honest and all that is largely personal but I look around and see Christians, many of whom are otherwise lovely people, calling us every name under the sun and trying to take away our freedom. I wasn’t brave enough to fight for it but so many were. If I was sixteen now I don’t think anyone other than my parents would bat an eyelid. They loved me and I am sure they would have accepted me in time but the fact is that so many kids still need to be brave. They shouldn’t have to be. There are too many to this day who are thrown out or forced to conform and there are countries where love still carries the death penalty. To me, that is the real abomination in the sight of God.”
“Thank you for your time, Rebel, and thank you for your honesty.”
“No, thank you for giving me the chance to explain how it was for me back then and how it still is for some young people today.”
“So we might say you are now a Rebel with a cause?”
“Yes, I think I probably am,” she laughs.

One of the things that always impressed me about the greatest novels of the past is how they crossed genres. They are not based on set characters or stereotypical behaviour but avoid genre tropes in favour of writing that is true to life. This is done whatever the nature of the story. They may be difficult books for the reader. Books like this are sometimes hard to get into but well worth the effort. They do not focus on one aspect which is easy to market to a particular type of reader. They are hard to classify.

When my English teacher assigned me to a group read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover back in the 1970s, I can remember my mother being quite horrified that he asked us to read what she considered to be porn. This was because the book had once been labelled obscene and was banned until the 1960s. I asked my mother if she would please read the book and then, if she felt I shouldn’t, tell my teacher why. My mother’s curiosity was aroused and she went on an enthusiastic search for “the rude bits”. Soon she was engrossed in the novel itself and found it gripping because of the social commentary, the history, the moving story line and D.H.Lawrence’s great writing. Yes, Mum found that the sex scenes were explicit and used what she considered crude words, but she loved the story, descriptions and settings and told me to go ahead and read the book with her blessing. This ignited my love for books that do not conform; a love for historical novels that contain explicit love scenes, for science fiction or horror with elements of philosophy or poetry, for adventure books with lyrical descriptions and for literary fiction with a humorous slant.

Whatever we read affects our writing. There is no way around this as writers. We are all affected in unconscious as well as conscious ways by the authors we read and they affect our own writing in direct proportion to the emotional impact they have on us. We are not just affected by books, but also by plays and films we have seen as well as our own life experiences. This is something I find in my own work. I am influenced by all this including the cross-genre writing of the past that I have enjoyed but I am also influenced as a musician and poet. To throw all of this off in an attempt to write commercially is something I find difficult. I plead guilty as charged, Your Honour, I write the sort of stories I would like to read.

One opinion I hear all the time is that writers should self-censor and conform to genre and tropes in order to succeed. From a sales point of view this might make sense. Authors should not cross genres, they should use different pen names if they do and they should definitely not upset people who buy their books. In life though, just as in the best fiction, good people have bad things happen to them and they cope with those bad things in many ways. As a writer I am guilty of being more interested in how my character is moulded and changed by experience than how I can water things down. For example, I may have a lesbian character who enjoys her first experience of sex with a boy but then goes on to realise it was purely physical and that her true romantic feelings are for a woman. There will be those straight readers who are upset by having a lesbian leading lady and there will be those lesbian readers who wish the straight sex just hadn’t happened. This sort of thing is a very real dilemma for a writer.

Another character might experience rough sex and be turned on by the experience whereas for the sensitive reader, or a victim of rape, this can be a horrible trigger. I know there is no way these things are going to pass a “sensitivity reader” without a deep edit and, quite possibly, a brutal emasculation. To be truthful, I don’t feel this is the main criteria for good writing though. Brutal honesty might upset some readers but it is more realistic and respectful of individual differences in the long term. In my opinion, and I admit it is only my opinion, characters should not always be cardboard cut-outs who experience love and emotions in safe ways or speak in acceptable language at times of crisis. This is why I would not attempt the traditional publishing route and why I will never be mainstream in my reading choice either.

Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims has been viewed by many as an insane proposition. By some it will be seen as an answer. As I write this post in the run up to Christmas I need to express an opinion that we no longer live in such a simplistic world – if we ever did. To me, it seems that we use religion as a reason to beat people up, verbally, even if not physically.

I come from a culture in Britain that has grown more and more inclusive over my lifetime and yet I am not sure if it has ever become more tolerant. We are fast become polarized over many issues and many of these are about “belonging”. We “belong” to an ethnic group, a gender, a set of sexual preferences, a religion, a sports club, a group of music fans and many more. These groups have the potential to support and lift each other, even to greatness, but they also have the ability to exclude others, to be judgemental about them and to compete for attention, territory or material wealth against different groups.

I was brought up as a Christian and my own personal struggle to maintain that faith against the intolerance of others is something I don’t want to deal with here today; however I coped with intolerance on a personal level and I retained my own belief. What my struggle is actually about is those people who use “belonging” as an excuse to do evil. This might, for example, be an attack on others, using them as political pawns, and this is not the sole prerogative of terrorists, is it? Now, be honest…

As I sit here I am aware of a constant stream of intolerance of non-believers towards believers. Those rants might be banter in the pub, 140 dismissive characters on Twitter, or even furious condemnation of one politician or another in homes across every country in the world. Atheists will be mocking all those who believe in God, different religious groups will be calling other believers apostates and enemies, reactionaries will be cheering arson against mosques, temples, synagogues, churches; wherever difference is found you will find conflict.

There is ONE group to which we all belong, though sadly not many adhere to it. That group is humanity and beyond that we all belong to an even larger group of terrestrial organisms. The one undoubted fact is that every human being on this planet is ruled by hormones including testosterone – yes, even girls have testosterone – and testosterone not being put to sensible use is, in my humble opinion, the main reason that shit happens. It is the hormone responsible for dominance, anger, sexual potency, aggression and energy and it is this hormone raging uncontrolled that causes basic territorial aggression; not God, not people of different colour, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, not even different types of “belonging”.

So this Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali, Yule, Kwanzaa, Samhain, Winterval – whatever you wish to call it – why not put your testosterone to better use boys and girls? Why not do something energetic; play sport rather than watch it, shop for an elderly neighbour, take the dog for a long walk, run along a beach out of season, make passionate love to your partner, fix up the house, build a garden shed or a cat tower, become an outreach worker for the homeless, go out singing Christmas carols and collect for charity… Do something energetic and constructive rather than pontificate about something “other” that you personally disagree with. Do something that benefits the community. Accept that your neighbour is Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Pagan, Agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist – whatever – and smile at him.

Lend a hand to those around you and stop carping about God and religion. We are all human in humanity’s rich diversity. That is both our supreme strength and our cardinal weakness. Accepting responsibility for our own actions instead of trying to shift the blame on to other social or religious groups is the only way forward. God is not to blame, religion is not to blame, humanity is to blame and humankind needs to grow up, face up and shape up if we are all to survive and be happy.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – and may your God go with you.