Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"What will survive of us is love": Isabel Fonseca's Attachment

It's 10am in Primrose Hill, London. The author Isabel Fonseca sits in her kitchen, "tanking up on coffee". An American by birth and a New Yorker at heart, she says, "I can't believe I've lived in England for over 25 years or whatever it is. It's payment for my sins. Or maybe I just forgot to leave."
Her tone has a throwaway flash to it; just joking, right? Fonseca corrects me immediately. "I'm not, you know."
Why such resentment towards her adopted home? After all, England made her, so to speak. From a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Oxford to her role as an assistant editor at The Times Literary Supplement and the publication of Bury Me Standing in 1995, a non-fiction study of the gypsies of Eastern Europe.
That book involved five years of participatory journalism, living and breathing her subjects' lives from Albania to Estonia. Upon publication Salman Rushdie called it "a revelation: a hidden world"; Edward W. Said praised its "profound sympathy and brilliant insight".
In the meantime, Fonseca was making other news over her affair with Martin Amis. She had already picked up the nickname "Funseeker" on the London social circuit, as well as a slew of admirers that purportedly included John Malkovich, Clive James, Bill Buford and, yes, Salman Rushdie.
Men fairly wilted before Fonseca and to this day, at age 46, there is not an article on the internet from The Sunday Times to W Magazine that does not still remark upon her beauty. A formidably intelligent brunette, her dark looks reflected the heritage of her Uruguayan father, a highly regarded sculptor, and her Jewish American mother, a painter and heiress to the Welch grape juice family-company fortune.
Amis would eventually leave his first wife, Antonia Phillips, and their two sons; get a hotshot American agent, a seriously big American publishing deal and even get his teeth fixed. Fonseca was the scarlet woman behind this scandalous Americanisation of a British icon, a cliche that ignored Amis's long-running transatlantic obsessions, not to mention the fact Phillips was an American academic. Fonseca and Amis would go on to marry in 1998 and now have two daughters, Fernanda, 11, and Clio, 9.
When I ask Fonseca about her antipathy to England, she's quick to refine it into something more good-natured: "Oh it's all right. London's just too expensive to be loveable … Actually we just spent a few years living in South America. And it was wonderful, charming, heaven. But I don't mind being in the wrong place. I think for a writer being in the wrong place is often a very good thing."
Back in 2004 Fonseca and family decamped to Uruguay for 2½years in the wake of her father's death. There Fonseca attempted to write and then abandoned a major non-fiction work on her extended family. During that time she turned to "what was, I thought, a short story at first" before it evolved into the highly intimate book she now calls Attachment.
Attachment is not only Fonseca's debut novel it is her first major work since Bury Me Standing. In it she quotes these crucial, if ambiguous words from Philip Larkin's An Arundel Tomb: "What will survive of us is love."
Like the Larkin poem, Attachment takes a somewhat anti-romantic view of romance, before leaving us with a bittersweet and defiantly fragile ending. The book's central character is Jean Hubbard, a syndicated American health columnist married to a high-achieving British advertising executive called Mark. Mark is described as "six feet four in bare feet and striking with his grayed hair swept back, wind-eroded dune grass above the expanding beach of his face". This alone sounds like an awfully good depiction of Amis with a height boost, not to mention a more commercialised slant on his and Fonseca's literary preoccupations.
Like Fonseca, Hubbard has a background that includes having once worked as a paralegal for the summer in New York; she similarly buys pot as a teenager in Washington Square; studies at Oxford; is shadowed by a brother who has died tragically young; deals with a father who is critically ill; and copes with the unexpected appearance of a young woman who might be her husband's daughter (Amis discovered he had an unknown daughter called Delilah Seale in 1997). That the opening of Attachment is set on the imaginary island of St Jacques - supposedly located somewhere near Mauritius, but also a hot, exotic place not unlike Uruguay - brings it even closer to home.
When Attachment begins, Hubbard discovers a sexually provocative letter that leads her to a secret email link and an affair her husband has been having. To find out more about it Hubbard begins writing to "Giovanna" as if she were her husband. This incites Hubbard to abandon herself to a night of infidelity back in London, and to later flirt with an old lover in New York while her father hovers on the critical list in hospital. "Everything was sullied and she was rotting from within," Hubbard reflects as she delves into a world of internet affairs and online pornography. Later, as she embraces a path of disillusionment to license her own betrayals, she admits "this was the consequence she most feared: her own revulsion for her world, for all that she had. Auto-eviction."
Britain is already abuzz with Attachment as an adulterous and confessional insight into a less-than-happy marriage - as well as the critical complications of dealing with a work that may or may not be a roman-a-clef. Attachment is a novel of great promise but it ebbs and flows in its intensity according to the proximity one feels between the author and her "truths". In short, the things Fonseca seems to have experienced are powerfully evoked; the things she appears to have imagined feel forced or contrived.
Fonseca runs a nice line in self-deprecating humour and frankness. But in the course of an hour's conversation she puts herself to the test of her own thinking repeatedly and seems to find herself wanting. Talking on the phone there's that strange, floating sense you have not so much entered her home as her headspace: an inner world so thoughtful and honest it can leave you feeling cowardly by comparison.
"There's a long period of merger in the beginning of any relationship," Fonseca says. "Then with children you sense you have to keep a united front. My daughters are nine and 11 now. Old enough to get your space back a little. You see that you still have a long way to go - I hope! That I'm only halfway … But you also ask, 'Is that it?' Not as a matter of complaint, more as a matter of stupefaction." Fonseca almost laughs. "Here I am, I've made babies, but who am I now that I am on my own again?"
She's adamant "adultery is not the subject of Attachment, but ageing is. There's this disappointment about your decrepitude, this realisation you are going to die which you have never quite accepted. Adolescence and middle-age actually share a lot of parallels. The unease about the body and the sexual awareness that's associated with it, only you have this death awareness that gives it a particular pungency in middle age. Things like the way your parents suddenly demand your attention with their mental or physical fragility or both; or something as simple as the way your children won't do what they're told any more."
Coincidentally Bury Me Standing and Attachment both resound with a quest for home. "Whenever you write it is to investigate some anxiety. Writing about the gypsies there was some public anxiety with identity. Fiction is more about scratching about in a silent anxiety. And your sense of identity often relates to what home means, I guess. I didn't set out to do that. But I see now there's a lot of homesickness in the story [of Attachment] … Maybe it's a cliche of fiction that the past is another country. But this nostalgia for the time before is so often identified with place as much as time."
"You know I still go to New York about four times a year for various reasons. One of the real, but less legitimate reasons I do it is you can imagine life before it happened to you, when things could have gone 19 different ways. I think that's why I'm lucky to be a writer. Because you can think about and write about such things, just to see how you feel."

-                  -  Mark Mordue

·                  *  First published as ‘Well written in the Wrong Place’,
    Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, June 14, 2008

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Lost Worlds: Anna Funder's Stasiland

"I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station. Several times I miscalculate my width, scraping into a bin, and an advertising billboard. Tomorrow bruises will develop on my skin, like a picture from a negative."

And so we begin. Caught inside a "headspace." Having trouble with our borders, as if the damaged compass of our narrator will map its own unpleasant realities across us the further as we move into her story. Bruises of another kind.
In the company of the Australian writer Anna Funder words have a cool poeticism and metaphoric sharpness that prick deep, reflective emotions inside the reader. It is the language of ice, winter, enclosure, and, of course, death.
So it is that you don't just browse through the Stasiland's pages on some idiosyncratic tour of present-day, techno-grooving Berlin (as the sexy cover art for the Australian edition might suggest); instead you pass through a netherworld of bad historical memories and the damaged lives that still inhabit it.
With a fearlessness that seems guileless for someone so perceptive, as if Funder has never been truly hurt or endangered before, the author dives into the history of the laughably named "German Democratic Republic" and its former security force, "the Stasi", whose surveillance culture dominated East Germany during Communist rule and continues to haunt many of its populace today. She does this simply by posting an advertisement in the local paper "seeking former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators for interview." It is the opening act on the proverbial can of worms.
"People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head," Funder writes. "I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in Stasi men's minds as something they hope one day might come again, and in their victims' minds too, as a terrifying possibility."
Stasi headquarters was known as "the House of One Thousand Eyes." Funder explains, "At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees--more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people. But it also had 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler's Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin's USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have put the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens."
In this kind of world, secrecy and surveillance were not without their bureaucratic absurdity. At one point Funder cites a Stasi file note from 1989, the year the Wall finally fell, in which "a young lieutenant alerted his superiors to the fact there were so many informers in church opposition groups at demonstrations they were making these groups appear stronger than they really were. In one of the most beautiful ironies I have ever seen, he dutifully noted that it appeared that, by having swelled the ranks of the opposition, the Stasi was giving the people heart to keep demonstrating against them."
The preying density, the absolute complicity of it all, leads Funder through a world of broken and repressed lives that no shorthand summary can do justice to: a mother separated from a critically ill son by the building of the Wall in 1961; a budding young linguist denied a career, then a love life, and finally the ability to love, by the encroaching thuggery of the State; a maverick rock star refused his public existence by the annulling force of the security apparatus. You meet them all in Funder's strangely permeable company; feel something of their lost quality as one might feel the hurt of familiars. At one point Funder admits, "No one can ever tote up life's events and calculate the damages; a table of maims for the soul." But in Stasiland she most certainly tries.
Beyond the victims she speaks to collaborators, propagandists, apologists and people who felt they were just doing their job, as well as Stasi men still living a secret life, still absorbed in the possibility of another turning point back into history: a nostalgia for the ice age of totalitarianism that is surprisingly prevalent beneath the surface of east German life today. I'd argue the successes of Le Pen in France, let alone the mood beneath the regimes of China and Russia, suggest this mood is not so delusional--or exclusively Teutonic in flavour.
Funder certainly gives it chilly credence here. She visits office spaces and torture rooms, has murky assignations with Stasi men at bars and churches and curtain-drawn homes, places that emanate a banal evil all their own. Human coldness is manifest in the architecture around her, in bereft public spaces, even an empty chair. Everything feels soiled.
Finally she meets "the puzzle women in Nuremburg" who seek to piece back together the shredded documents of the most bureaucratized police state the world has ever known, the stories of lives that were destroyed--often covertly--by the Stasi: thickly plotted "mysteries" of lost jobs, suicide, murder and divorce, all puppet-pulled from invisible strings above people's heads. Indeed many of the victims Funder meets exist themselves in fragments and gaps, as unrestored to meaning as the shredded dossiers and files on their lives. Never to be put back together again.
One of the most interesting themes to Stasiland is the way "many people withdrew into what they called "internal emigration." They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities."
For Funder's young and beautiful landlady Julia this defensive response has become a prison of its own. "It's the total surveillance that damaged me the worst," Julia confesses to her in one of the many startling set-pieces of the book, a kitchen scene choking with regret and claustrophobia. "I know how far people will transgress over your boundaries--until you have no private sphere left at all. And I think that is a terrible knowledge to have... That's probably why I react so extremely so approaches from men and so on. I experience them as another invasion of my intimate sphere."
On that masculine point it's interesting to reflect that the GDR had the world's oldest leaders at the time the Wall was brought down and the Communist regime finally collapsed. Julia speaks of her earlier dreams that they would all eventually die off, though later she discovered they were injecting themselves with sheep cells, taking oxygen, doing anything to prolong their creepy grip on power. A female cleaner attending to the old Stasi headquarters--now a museum--speaks of how when she first arrived all the rooms emanated "the smell of old men."
One feels in these irksome descriptions--along with the spidery quality beneath Funder's own encounters with aging Stasi men--the incontinency and anxiety of this culture at its very end, its repulsive dankness and needy aggression. If there is meta-psychology to the book, it's a view of the state as a people held tight in daddy's oppressive fist. It's this perspective that leads me to wonder if only a woman could fully negotiate and sensitize the political mystery of totalitarianism in the manner Funder has achieved. But perhaps that's being way too Freudian and deterministic for such brilliant inquiry into the soul of a nation at its lowest depths.
By the end of Stasiland Funder is weighted by the sorrows she has heard and the death of her own mother back in Australia. Grief comes down upon her "like a cage." She leaves Germany with no great wisdoms to offer, but when she returns almost three years later it is spring, not the winter she lived through. Berlin is now "green, a perfumed city," a place she knows yet does not know at all from the winter-world she previously passed through. Though there is the vague feeling of Funder self-consciously looking for meaning in these final chapters, a flicker of her narrative control losing confidence, she still delivers a heart-rending denoument: a recognition of other, humbler human secrets, infinitely lighter than the world she submerged herself into.
The queen of Australian literary journalism, Helen Garner, has rightly acclaimed this book with a cover note that states it "makes us love non-fiction." With her debut Stasiland Anna Funder has certainly announced herself as one of the leading non-fiction writers of the present day, Sydney's very own answer to Joan Dideon. Like Dideon at her early best in books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Funder's writing persona is taut and pale, interior and existential, yes, but absolutely enmeshed in history. We are fortunate to witness her arrival.

- Mark Mordue

Review first published online at Freezerbox (USA) on 16.06.2003.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sunrise: The Dream Is Not Over!

Ladies and Gentleman, I have read with increasing alarm of the demise of Melissa Doyle at Channel 7’s morning breakfast show, Sunrise. And of concerns how the “Sunrise family” will take to such Game of Thrones type savagery.

It is my belief the savagery should increase - and that those involved should resolve the controversy one morning as soon as possible with an all-in knife fight.

This should take place in a pit where both on-air staff and back-room executives spill blood beneath a large photo of Marlon Brando as The Godfather, with a Channel 7 badge pinned to his lapel in the subtle name of corporate branding.

With everyone either dead or dying after the knife fight in said pit, I’d like to then see Kochie seated on a platform above the action. He would need to be wearing a gold turban with his yearly wage of some $700,000 or more inscribed upon it. The wage might be best presented in a digital format with equivalents in Yen, Deutschemark, the English Pound and the Estonian Kroon.

There on the platform, lounging among brocaded pillows, with his wage flashing in a variety of currencies across his scone, Kochie could then be left to pontificate in an increasingly hallucinogenic and endlessly philosophical way on various incoming news events as he smokes a hookah.

Images of Melissa Doyle and Samantha Armytage could flash by in a reasonless manner, ghosts in the machine of his consciousness. At times he could perhaps confuse them, all the while he quotes the greats: Rumi, Nietzsche, Bolt.

It be would be especially good if Kochie's ravings became more lunatic as the week progressed - before he finally levitates at the end of Friday morning's show and self combusts into an explosion of gold coins and cheap paperback joke books.

Kochie would of course return each Monday and the cycle would begin anew.

I regard this as the best and most competitive way of re-branding Sunrise as a kind of infotainment cross between It Aint Half Hot Mum and The Monkee's movie Head. Which is what breakfast TV news has been crying out for, for like ages man!

In this way, and only this way, can a weary Sunrise compete with former producer Adam Boland’s new morning program being mooted on Channel Ten.

I'm here and ready to take Sunrise to the next stage of its evolution and compete like never before – and of course available to work as the show’s Producer and indeed a Svengali. In doing so I am confident I will be acclaimed as both a 'new boy wonder' and 'the Adam Boland of Acid News Now'. Channel 7, I await your call. 

- Mark Mordue