A long time ago, when I started working for the local youth centre, my boss, who was a very wise woman, said, “Everybody has prejudices.”
Because in those days I wasn’t used to admitting that I could be in the wrong, that I couldn’t turn my mind round to be “good” or “right”, I outwardly agreed and inwardly thought – “surely it’s possible to clear your mind of any prejudices you might have??”
Since then, years of living in the real world and a slightly less off-with-the-fairies approach to life have shown me the truth of her words and I’m happy to admit that I can be as prejudiced and closed minded as the next person.
For example, one of my prejudices is towards people who have to like a main character to be able to enjoy a book. Frankly, I find myself wondering why they can’t let go of feeling that they need to get some sort of vicarious friendship from this character and see their liking or disliking of the character as just another intellectual theme that makes up their reading of the book. “I see myself,” I find myself thinking righteously, “as someone who is always able to engage in a book if I can see that the author has clearly thought out intentions.” The only time when I give up on a book is if I feel that the author doesn’t have clear intentions, or if I feel that they lack the technical skill to pull off their intentions properly.
Our book for this month’s book group was The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, and there is a main character that half the group really hated, yet again. One of our group, Philippe, said, “We need to read a book that isn’t essentially the same as all the books we’ve read so far!” (which are all about repressed, slightly inferior characters feeling, well, inferior in the shadow of one far more shiningly pure.) So we all agreed that our next book would be One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
It was only a few days afterwards that someone mentioned “Magic Realism” that I did a double take and thought, “What?? No-one told me it was Magic Realism!?”
I’m not a big fan of magic realism. I’ve read Paulo Coelho with the thought bubble “I suppose he thinks this is deep??” almost visibly hovering above my head. I’m struggling with this Garcia Marquez and I’m only on page 18. However, he got a Nobel Prize for this book, so clearly it’s just me and my Magic Realism prejudices, and I’m also clearly not the intellectual reader I thought I was.
Anyway, The Woman Upstairs is the story of Nora, an elementary school teacher and part time artist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is nearing forty, never married (although got close to it once) and frankly, is feeling a bit empty. A charming new boy, Reza Shahid, joins her class, and Nora finds herself becoming close to the family, mother Sirena and father Skander. Sirena is a famous artist and Skander a well known academic. This is the story of how Nora falls for this family, and the relative mutual needs or otherwise of these four individuals towards each other.
I liked the book because I think that Nora’s type of character, one who puts aside their needs and holds back from going for their ambitions and relationships, really exists, but tends to be marginalised in fiction, because these characteristics don’t easily make for sympathetic characters. It’s not a pretty story, and I didn’t like Nora, but it was interesting to see the process of that kind withdrawing from the world, and the emotion that our narrator shows as she tells the story in retrospect.
This cut no ice with a lot of the group. They are pretty harsh when they don’t like a book! But, as with all our other hate-the-character fests over the previous months, we got some good discussions out of it.
We spent most of the evening engaged in major discussion over the contrasts in Sirena, as a successful artist, and Nora, an unsuccessful one. Firstly, what made an artist, which we at least agreed was a combination of attitude (creative way of thinking) and commitment (ability to avoid distraction). Opinion varied wildly as to how much was weighted each way, with some thinking that artistry resides in an attitude that you can sense when you are with that person, regardless of how uncluttered their life is and how free to be an artist. Others thought that you had to be totally ruthless and focussed to be an artist, although some of us argued that was only necessary if you wanted to become “successful”, whatever that meant.
I got a lot out of this discussion, as I would never have seen the book’s Artistic arguments as so significant if I hadn’t realised how different other people’s views of art were. It definitely made me think much more about what I really am and yet again about how cluttered or otherwise I should allow my life to be.
The Artistic argument led onto another very interesting discussion about whether Sirena’s betrayal of Nora, which Nora harps on about from the very start, really is a betrayal, or just a consequence of artistic dedication? It just goes to show that famous people aren’t necessarily all that nice, which reminds me of something a television producer ex-boyfriend of mine used to tell me: “All those television presenters – they’re all egomaniacs.” And I used to say, “What, even so and so, who looks so lovely and friendly??” And he’d say “Yep. Otherwise they wouldn’t be on television.” I couldn’t quite comprehend it at the time, but ultimately, I realised that that ruthlessness in getting to the top of a very competitive profession made sense.
This was backed up by the things one of our group, who’d done a lot of technically creative work on children’s television, said – it seems, some of those children’s television presenters are really horrible!