Photo © Conor Horgan
Strange things happen when you live alone. When you’re no longer required to eat dinner at a particular time, or to close the bathroom door to shower, your relationship to the space around you changes. All of a sudden it is things, rather than other people, that seem to direct your thoughts.
In the most literal sense, the twenty stories that make up Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut, Pond, record a series of moments in the life of an English woman living alone on the west coast of Ireland. The woman eats fruit, tries to replace a broken dial on her Salton mini oven, and wonders if the cows in a nearby field believe she is Jesus. What makes the book unique is the voice in which those moments are described—unfolding in a bird-like language that feels closer to thought than public address.
These are not stories in the traditional sense—neither are they essays, monologues, prose poems, letters or diary entries—but a series of improvisations on each. “Pond is the way it is,” Claire-Louise told me recently when we chatted over email, “because of the way I am, more or less.” Most essentially, Pond is an account of the mind as it exists in solitude. It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human. I began our conversation by asking Claire-Louise where she was writing to me from.
I’m in an apartment. And since I pay the rent on it each month and have a key to its door and the codes for the two entrance gates it’s reasonable to say it’s my apartment. I don’t feel much for it though. It seems thin, insubstantial, and often when I sit at the table, to eat, and at the desk, to write, I have the sensation the furniture and me are going to fall right through the floor into the thin, insubstantial, flat beneath. It’s raining, of course it is, it’s always raining. My dapper striped deckchair is swollen stiff with rainwater and will probably never close now. I can’t think why I ever opened it here, on a balcony on the west coast of Ireland.
The apartment sounds much less inspiring than the cottage in Pond, which is a lens through which all sorts of things can be approached. Did you intend to write so much about home?
I came across a book some years ago called Great Reckonings in Little Rooms and it was a godsend in many ways because I’d become by that time very fed up with semiotics and this notion that everything is a symbol or a sign. Great Reckonings introduced me to phenomenology, in the context of theatre performance, and it very much helped to reassert the value of sensory engagement, of personal, embodied, experience, and in doing so it helped me exit the theoretical realm, it revitalized me and it revitalized my surroundings. The physical world bloomed back into focus.
When I was at college I used to often write down a list of the things that were at that moment across my bedroom floor; a diary, some cheese, a knife, a one pound coin, two twenty pence pieces, a sponge, a pair of tights, a train ticket, and so on. For some reason I find mundane objects rather poignant—I love still-life paintings, they are suggestive of life in a way I find very moving. Then the Bachelard book, The Poetics of Space, pushed all this even further—he put forward a wholly distinct way of looking at the home, the dwelling place, so that it wasn’t simply a domestic space but a stone plant with cosmic roots, a kind of intimate conduit between the subterranean and the aerial—it’s all pretty far out, but not long after reading it I moved into a 400-year-old thatched cottage, the exemplary stone plant, and Bachelard’s vision no longer seemed so eccentric or utopian. I could actually connect with where I was. (And actually I remember writing a list there too, but this time it was an inventory of things that were missing—“There are no skirting boards. There is no letterbox. There is no back door. There are no curtains. There is no foundation.”)
Do you look back fondly on the time you spent writing the book?
I’m not sure I look back fondly on anything—but I do recognize that it was a time when I was very switched on. There was an aliveness in me of a kind I’d only ever experienced intermittently. I was physically very fit, and perhaps for the first time I felt my external environment was an expression or a continuation of my inner world, there was no dissonance, no fantasy, no depression, and this congruence enabled a sort of expansion, and a sort of courage—the two things were intertwined.
For the first time in my life I slept like a log, just in the way I’d seen other people do it—though one night I woke up around three a.m. I didn’t wonder why I’d woken up and I didn’t stay where I was. I got out of bed, went down the stairs, opened the front door and stepped out onto the driveway, nothing was moving. For a few moments I looked at the shed, absolutely nothing was moving, and then I turned around and looked right up above the roof of my cottage and watched a comet or meteor pass over it. Whenever I mention that to anyone they say I must have been dreaming.
When did you start writing? My understanding is that Pond was carved out of a much larger body of work. How did you go about turning that into a book?
Those are big questions, and the answers are always changing—depending on what I can remember, and my mood—what I remember is contingent upon my mood I would think. I never can remember what age I was when I began to write. A sensation I had very strongly growing up was that I was between worlds, on a kind of threshold—perhaps many children feel that way and that’s why they like to stand behind closed curtains. Hermann Hesse reckoned that “naming and writing were originally magical operations, magical conquests of nature through the spirit …” and certainly the act of writing felt intensely magical, sometimes frighteningly so: it was a way of transcending the everyday situation in order to commune with or at least remain open to the deeper energies of the universe. That all sounds a little weird unfortunately—writing, currently, tends to have a more intellectualized orientation.
How did it come to be turned into a book? Well, not by magic, that’s for sure! It took time to make the transition from private to public because I didn’t want to negate or impoverish the primary motivations and cosmic dimension in the service of legibility and story. And of course I don’t know if I managed to do it, so I’m going to try again, but differently.
It seems essential to the atmosphere developed in the book that your protagonist spends so much of her time alone. What does solitude bring to a work of fiction?
Possibly what you’ve already identified—atmosphere. I respond to atmosphere much more than plot, say, and it seems it gathers much more effectively around a lone voice, just like it does around a single candle flame perhaps. I’ve always been drawn to the misfit, the outcast, the exile, the hopeless case with the wicked sense of humor—I’m thinking of narrators in work by Samuel Beckett, Jean Rhys, Marlen Haushofer, Thomas Bernhard, Clarice Lispector, Renata Adler, Paul Bowles, Anais Nin, Fernando Pessoa. Basic life situations, such as marriage, work, procreation, don’t occur automatically for some people and it’s desirable that fiction reports upon the lives of so-called outsiders because actually when you spend so much time alone you are kind of starting from scratch, on your own terms more or less, every single day, and it’s nullifying and terrifying and occasionally glorious.
You have said that Pond was written in flight from what Calvino called “anthropocentric parochialism.” Why is this to be avoided?
I worked in theatre, went to the theatre, wrote about theatre, thought about theatre, all kinds of theatre, for a long time, and theatre is all about people—the people who are making it, the people they are striving to represent, and sometimes, if they remember, the people watching it. And to be honest with you, this fixation on human activity and human dilemmas and human relationships, on and off the stage, got on my nerves eventually, it just seemed like an awful lot of bickering. I was in total agreement with Beckett’s opinion that “the best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text.” And for a while I fantasized about creating just such a play, perhaps I will one day, but for now I have no interest in theatre at all. So is it “anthropocentric parochialism” or “psychological realism” I was trying to eschew!? I prefer Calvino’s phase—it’s very Calvino, isn’t it? Calvino reminds us that there are many other things in the world. That there are stones and cows and gates and comets and bananas and dog turds and blankets left out in the rain.
The development of Pond appears haphazard and diaristic—is there a broader logic to the episodes you decided to include?
I don’t know if there’s a logic as such—I’m sure there are lots of contradictions throughout it, actually. I didn’t intend for it to be in any way persuasive, not as a literary work, not in terms of story, or in terms of ideas, or outlook—I can’t stand the notion that my business is to convince or prescribe, for one thing I don’t like to get too attached to my thoughts. I don’t want to over-identify with my mental activity, it just seems silly to do that, because habit creeps into thought and cuts off other more generative possibilities. Patterns, connections, associations, they occur quite naturally, don’t they? It’s not something you have to worry about or force or contrive.
I believe in the soul. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can feel it, it’s a sort of a presence and sometimes it vibrates very strongly. Years ago someone told me that Flaubert said the objects we are drawn to are not haphazard, they are material expressions of something intangible but vital that our soul wishes to bring to our attention, they are clues, in other words, and we should decipher them as such. I found that very interesting, and entirely feasible. I think what’s important to me, overall, is awareness, because I think when you are alert and receptive very interesting things begin to show up in your work, and you don’t have to rely on craft so much, you don’t have to engineer themes and so on.
At a reading in London last year you said that Pond was “a love story,” and it’s true there’s more sex, sensuousness, and longing in it than critics seem to have noted.
There is this phrase that something or other “has captured my imagination,” and I think that love captured mine at a young age. The madness and the mystery of it overwhelms me, the beauty and the tenderness of it reassures me. Love channels throughout my imagination in the same way that a fragile yet tenacious vine weaves in and out of an old wall. When I read Pond calmly for the first time I was shocked by how emotional it is. I didn’t write it in a frenzy—but then of course Wordsworth believed that a peaceful mind is the key to recollecting and recreating powerful feelings and sensations, so maybe the tranquility I experienced during most of its composition in fact enabled deep feelings to come to the surface quite painlessly. It’s all a kind of searching really, if I knew all along what was there I don’t think I’d bother. I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m just trying to find out what’s out there and what’s in here and if there’s much difference between the two. And in order to do that I need to spend a lot of time on my own, because it’s only when I’m alone that I can really get out of the way of myself.
Philip Maughan is a writer in Berlin.
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