Tuesday, July 19, 2016

But for

One of the hard cover books that my elder daughter  picked up from the  book sale held in June was There But For The, a novel by Ali Smith. One might say what is the point of writing a book if your book ends up at a books sale. I would say the whole point of writing a fiction or non-fiction  is that there is a book that has been the end product of it all and it will be made accessible to the readers at large.
Like most people, I have a penchant for fine foods and wine and if not for the excellent selection of wines and finely prepared food, I would not have been able to sit through some of the dinners I have attended. There were times when I  wished I had stayed home instead of out at some social dinners listening to chatters that I could not engage in. It would have been rude to hide in the bathroom till the dinner ended so I tried not to look bored or distracted. These days it might be acceptable to check the messages on your smart phone every now and then but the phone is not the rescue remedy even if you want to play candy crush when you normally do not play the game. The world is made up of all kinds of people, that is what makes it interesting so I give my full attention to the demeanour of the guests around me.

There But For The is about Eric and Genevieve Lee, who have invited some guests over to their beautiful home in Greenwich for dinner and Miles Garth, one of their dinner guests, a friend of a friend decides to lock himself up in one of their spare bedrooms. Bizarre  but this is what happens at the dinner party hosted by the Lees. Miles refuses to get out of the ensuite room, locks himself in and ends up  staying there for months. The story extends to four people who either have present or past interactions with Miles. Anna Hardie has forgotten all about Miles until the Lees  contact her via her email that is found amongst Mile’s contacts. Thirty years earlier, both Anna and Miles met on a grand tour to Europe after they both won in a teen writing competition. Anna remembers Miles from the trip and what he did for her during the trip.  She knocks on the door of the spare bedroom that Genevieve describes  as : “ There is lovely, lovely furniture in there. It is a really outstanding spare room in there. Everybody who has stayed there has told us so. This last thirteen days has been hell.”

Summer London 2015
Miles . Are you there?
Then –bang bang bang – the child, hammering on the door.
Tell him who you are, for God sake, Genevieve Lee hissed at Anna then.
Miles, it’s Anna Hardie, Anna said.

From Barclays Bank European Grand Tour 1980 , she said.
Tell him about when you fished for the goldfish with the
 bread and that, the child said.
Miles, I think the Lees would really like you to open the door and leave the room, Anna said.
Miles , I think the Lees would like their house back, she said.
Tell him it’s you. Tell him it’s Anna K. Genevieve whispered.

Miles is brought to the dinner party by Mark Palmer, a gay photo researcher who is a new acquaintance of Miles.  Mark is mourning about his partner’s death and haunted by his artist mother’s suicide 47 years  ago. Mark meets Miles at a matinee of The Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic. After the  play, Mark decides to ask Miles to the Lees’ annual alternative dinner party which includes people outside their usual ethnic and sexual circles.  Miles is not gay. Mark is gay and in his sixties. He brings Miles to the annual alternative dinner party hosted by the Lees.

Genevieve Lee poured the coffee and told Anna about the night of their annual alternative dinner party, which was something she and her husband, Eric, usually held at the beginning of the summer before everybody disappeared for the holidays. Once a year they liked to invite people who were a bit different from the people they usually saw, as well as the friends they saw all the time, Hugo and Caroline and Richard and Hannah. It was always interesting to branch out. Last year they had invited a Muslim couple; the year before they had had a Palestinian man and his wife and a Jewish doctor and his partner. That had resulted in a very entertaining evening. This year an acquaintance of Hugo and Caroline’s , a man whose name was Mark Palmer, had brought Miles Garth with him. ‘

 There is wine already poured in glasses at each of the set places. Mark panics. White wine gives hime terrible migraine and there’s nothing on the table but white. There are five bottles of red, opened, full, over there on the sideboard. But the bottles have an untouchable air. And he doesn’t’ want to ask ; already there’s been a fuss about drinks because Miles is driving and has refused to drink. We can organize  you a taxi, the woman whose house it is, Jan, keeps repeating. No , really, Miles keeps saying, I ‘d prefer not to.’

One of the other characters in the book  is Brooke, a ten year old, the neighbour’s child who is bright and  has a snappy way with words. Brooke’s parents are Terence and Bernice Bayoude and she came along to the dinner too.

'The people who are giving the dinner party are pretending that there’s no problem about her being here but being arch and polite about setting her a place and finding a seat the right height for her. '

Brooke asks questions about what the point of rhyme is. She asks her parents who give their replies.
  It’s also for helping memory, the father says to the child, since it’s much easier to memorize something that rhymes.
 Well I know that, I mean , duh, the child says. Obviously.
Don’t say duh, Bernice says. Do say obviously.
Mark laughs. Bernice shoots him a glad look, a little secret handshake in a room full of strangers – which is what this room is , for Mark too, a room full of strangers except for Hugo, who, though he isn’t one, is doing his best to act like one.
 And not just memory, Terence is saying, but it also makes people feel safe, comforted, because when things rhyme  it reminds them of their childhoods, and over and above that it’s also like rhyme is saying, hey , things are good , they’re all right , they ‘re in some kind of harmony, they may even be funny.'

Brooke is  interested in history and despite her age, she is very smart.
In the novel  There But For The , Ali Smith wrote,
It is important to know the stories and histories of things, even if all we know is that we don’t know. The fact is , history is actually all sorts of things nobody knows about.

History of Education Part I : Brooke runs past the Stephen Lawrence Building. It is a building named after a boy who was historically murdered. If something is in the past , can it still be in the present or not ? It is a philosophical question. If you travelled to the past to make the future better, would you actually be able to ?

Ali Smith likes to play with words and her prose and paragraphing are  quirky. You need to read actively. Smith’s contemporary writing is satirical  and clever as there are many subtexts and subtle messages about modern life but you can get distracted if you read it in different sessions. My reading has been fragmented but I do not think the novel can be read  in one sitting either. Smith has packed quite a number of ideas in the novel. She is satirical about the middle class as illustrated by the dinner guests and their hosts, Genevieve and Eric Lee.

Barcelona  July 2015

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