by Claire-Louise Bennett
Published December, 2016
The narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is a woman somewhere in early middle-age. Late forties, perhaps, or early fifties. She’s old enough to have built a career, had affairs; young enough to not yet be on the scrap-heap. She favours straight skirts, flat shoes. Her voice is low; her attitude, arch.
That, at least, is how I see her, the image her observations and pronouncements, her vocabulary, conjures. Other readers assure me she is a young woman, still in her twenties. Early thirties at most. In interviews, Bennett herself gives the impression that the woman is about her own age (thirty-ish).
It’s a misalignment common to the act of reading, one that the narrator of Pond herself concedes:
It is very difficult, I should think, to make up a person and have everyone reassemble him or her in just the way intended, without anything intervening.
What intervenes are the reader’s own sensibilities. So too the patterns laid down in the reader’s memory, the templates against which their understanding of the book will be measured. Where narrative breaks down and meaning is obscured, the reader inhabits the writing as surely as the author themselves.
Comprising twenty meticulously composed vignettes, Pond is a work that consciously invites the reader’s intervention. Bennett alludes to the narrator’s state of mind: an irregularity in the arrangement of stones on a corner wall of her cottage; a lover’s letter hidden in an old clutch bag; a brother’s childhood fall down a steep hill. She then dares us to gather up those allusions, make something indicative of them. The woman’s sudden desire to tear at the weeds in her garden is not her ‘pitting myself against nature or anything as hammy as that.’ An unidentified creature in the water is ‘not a metaphor, nothing like that – I’d never want the monster to stand for something’.
The narrator tells us everything about her life, and nothing. We know the shade of her nail-polish (highland mist), but not the colour of her hair. We know what lies on her bed – ‘Foxford blanket, textured cushions, suave bolster, a bit of broderie anglaise’ – but we never discover her name, nor the names of her neighbours (only one friend, ‘Mary’, is named). Our sense of who this woman is and why she has retreated to a remote village on the west coast of Ireland is gleaned through glancing asides.
Neither novel nor short story collection, and made up of writing that drifts between poetry and prose, fragments and longer pieces, Bennett’s multi-faceted rendering of her narrator’s life baffles and intrigues. At one point, the woman writes, ‘It’s the impression that certain things made on me that I wanted to get across, not the occurrences themselves’, and it’s this impressionistic tone that suffuses the work. While the overall picture we get of the woman is hazy and indistinct, the details she chooses to reveal of herself are bold and precise:
Bananas and oatcakes are by the way a very satisfactory substitute for those mornings when the time for porridge has quite suddenly passed. If a neighbour has been overheard or the towels folded the day’s too far in and porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive.
The woman keeps us focussed on the more concrete aspects of this life she’s living: the importance of the ottoman to the party she’s planning; the arrangement of pears in a bowl; the way she prefers to sweep leaves down steps. Yet, it’s her casual dismissal of any coincident emotion that ultimately holds our attention.
Everyone has seen a sunset – I will not attempt to describe the precise visual delineations of this one. Neither will I set down any of the things that scudded across my mind when the earth’s trajectory became so discernibly and disarmingly attested to … Memories that snuck in and tucked up and live on within and throughout me. None of this distracted or disposed me, not in the least.
The woman doesn’t explicitly tell us what brought her to this village but there’s perhaps a clue to be found in a poorly received paper she gave at an academic conference. In the paper, she spoke about ‘the essential brutality of love’ and argued that ‘the desire to come apart irrevocably will always be as strong, if not stronger, than the drive to establish oneself.’ It’s an incident after which (she tells us in another apparently casual aside),
the inviability of my academic career eventually acquired a palpability of such insidious force that one day I came out of a shop unwrapping a pack of cigarettes and went nowhere for approximately half an hour.
We become more alert to the woman’s digressions. We read between the lines of her words, finding there a darker undercurrent. There is, for example, her cheerful confession that she needs to drink in order to engage meaningfully with men:
… and so I drink … I drink to plough and fortify a one-track mind and suddenly, briefly, the blood surrenders, shuffles through the old channels, and there is no such thing as a false move.
There is the image she offers of her hands as she studies them:
They look like the hands of someone very charming and refined who has had to dig themselves up out of some dank and wretched spot they really shouldn’t have fallen into.
And then there is the storm that keeps returning:
There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain, visiting the mountains again perhaps after who knows how long trying to get somewhere, going nowhere.
As readers, we become attuned to what is not said; to what this woman, who has unpicked metaphors for a living, is stitching within the seams of her words.
Taking her stories at face value, we might interpret the narrator’s aversion to the prospect of a village fair as a desire for solitude. But her apparent disdain for ‘the big day’ (as she calls it), its noise and disruption, is undermined by the way in which she frames this particular piece. ‘A Big Day’ begins with the woman sheltering in a neighbour’s house; the reason for her being in the neighbour’s house she can’t, she contends, remember:
What difference does it make anyway why I happened to be in the neighbour’s house? I don’t know why I keep going on about it or indeed why not remembering is irking me so much. What possible meaning will be advanced if I do finally ascertain what had me go over there?
There is in her insistence that she has no recollection a note of denial. And this, taken with the two matters she keeps returning to throughout her account of ‘the big day’, allows us to infer something of her emotional state.
Her first concern is the pond situated near her cottage. A safety warning has been posted beside the pond – a body of water that, she regularly reminds us, is ‘harmless’. The decision flabbergasts her:
One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable.
Later in the story, we get an intimation of what it is about the pond and its lack of depth that irks her. She tried to lose ‘a broken, precious thing’ in the pond and found the pond not deep enough for the deed:
It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible. And within moments lots of very small things, some of them creatures I suppose, collected and oscillated, slowly, among the smooth crevices of its broken precious parts.
Time and again, her thoughts return to things that are buried or hidden, to the ways in which the layers of the past are embedded in the present moment. It’s a preoccupation that touches on her own history as well as that of the Irish people. She both yields to these histories and resists them.
Entreated by her landlady to look at some old photographs of her cottage, the woman becomes exasperated:
Why are they bringing all this up? I don’t understand the past – I don’t understand the way the past is thought about, I don’t know why but it makes me wild with anger, to hear the ways the past is thought about and made present. Enforced remembrance is, I think, a most stultifying thing.
There is something she longs to be rid of that persists; there is something she does not want to know, that she would prefer to ignore, but which she cannot seem to escape. This is the subtext of her rambling discourse on ponds and photographs and fairs, and it’s a subtext that pulses throughout Pond.
One piece of writing that Pond seems to be all the time pushing against is Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 account of time spent living in an isolated cabin on the edge of Walden Pond in the woods of New England, Massachusetts. Where, for Thoreau, an attitude of mindfulness served to amplify and refine his philosophy, essentially broadening his views on the purpose of life and the proper way to live, for the woman in Pond it acts to constrict her thinking. She grips too tightly to the moment, insists too vehemently on what it is she means, what it is she doesn’t mean. It’s almost as though, given the same lens of solitude, Thoreau experiences the light shining through it as something diffuse and illuminating, while for the woman, the same light presents as laser-like and exact, throwing the rest of the world, and all that she refuses to acknowledge, into deeper shadow.
Not till we are completely lost … do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature … not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realise where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
It’s the sort of transformation we might expect in a conventional narrative about a woman who has withdrawn to a remote village. Yet in Pond the narrator refuses any facile metamorphosis. If she does discover glimpses of a lost self, she is (like the reader) unable (or unwilling) to draw those glimpses together into any sort of unified whole.
Thoreau takes comfort in the way ‘the depths of his own nature’ are reflected back from the world around him. For the woman, reflecting surfaces are something to be avoided: ‘I go on … trying not to pay any heed to my reflection in the mirror as I do so.’ Even her refusal to look directly at her lovers – ‘I do not have the courage to take the risk. To risk turning entirely and coming to face something very ordinary’ – suggests she’s avoiding what she might see of herself in their faces, their mediocrity. But the reflections that come back at her from the landscape can’t be entirely ignored, even if the images that arise tend to be broken and incoherent:
… as I walked from my friend nearby’s house along that road towards home a week or so before Christmas I stood still at the usual place and experienced a sudden upsurge of many murky impressions and sensations that have lurched and congregated in the depths of me for quite some time.
Her exacting account of the world gives way, here and there, to something more fragile, discomposed:
Nothing to keep the bones raised, nothing to keep the skin bound … and the skin would slacken and mingle with rainwater and sediment and the eyes would soon well up and come loose and sprout lichen and the fingernails would untether and stray and the hair would ooze upwards in rippling gelatinous ribbons and the teeth, already blackened and porous, would suck up against the sumptuous moss and babble and seethe.
Truth irrupts: ‘Why [should it] be that my blood was rampant and my heart scouring for a way out.’ She is unnerved by the old letter from her lover; she is perturbed by a young man walking on a nearby roadway, the ‘twisted longing’ she experiences shattering something deep within her. As she hinted when recalling the lecture that quashed her academic career, the ‘desire to come apart’ overwhelms ‘the drive to establish oneself’.
One day while gardening, a male friend lingering on the threshold of her house, she finds herself ‘suddenly desperate to get rid of all this dishevelled foliage … the reason I soon realised was because I wanted to get to bare soil — I missed it — it was all covered over and I wanted so much to push everything aside and see the earth.’ The deeper she digs, the more intense her impulse becomes:
Oh, fuck the leaves and fuck the flowers! I want to see naked trees and hear the earth gasp and settle into a warm and tender mass of radiant darkness … It’s the first thing I can remember. Standing at the back window, looking at the lawn, and knowing exactly everything beneath it and wanting to get back there. You don’t know how passionate it is down there.
I believe that’s where I lost my heart.
All pretence of order breaks down. Language disintegrates, and words rush forth relentlessly:
… and the breath cranking and the heart-place levering and the kerosene pervading but failing to jerk a flame from out any one thing. No, none. None whoosh whoosh on that here burnished cunt. Oh, the earth, the earth and the women there, inside the simpering huts, stamped and spiritless, blowing on the coals. Not far away, but beyond the way of return.
She is, for the moment, fully immersed in the past, in the history of the place in which she finds herself ‘unpacking its clamouring store of images in the clear open spaces of [her] mind’, merging its history with her own.
The influence of Samuel Beckett’s early prose work on Pond is palpable. There’s the same tension between the explicit and the implicit, between what’s said and unsaid; and there’s the same sense of narrator’s and author’s voices intermittently converging. The voice and rhythm of Beckett’s writing in, for example, ‘First Love’, ‘The Expelled’, even the latter half of ‘The End’ are echoed here, as is the mannered narration of those stories. Bennett also emulates Beckett’s exploitation of paradox as a way of defying logic and undermining any straightforward interpretation. ‘I will never hear it and I will always hear it,’ the woman says of the word ‘cantilevered’, a word she learned from a lover.
In Texts for Nothing IV, Beckett writes,
No need of a story … a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.
What we get in Pond is a refusal of the neat, ordered story and an embrace of the random accumulation of impressions and sensations and memories that make up a life (‘… one’s life develops according to the uncanny distillation of subtle kairotic shifts.’). It’s in the oblique nature of Pond’s telling – the disjunctions between the surface of the stories and their depths; the way the whole is there to be gathered from the fitful disposition of its parts; the reflecting surfaces against which the woman’s words and thoughts and memories skim back-and-forth; and in the friction between the hard-edged prose pieces and the more free-flowing, lyrical interludes – that the book’s power lies. And while one or two of the fragments (‘Stir Fry’, ‘Wishful Thinking’, for example) sit a little lumpishly within the whole, and while there’s a sense of self-awareness and calculation that flows now and then more from the author’s hand than the narrator’s, Bennett nonetheless manages to wrangle the pieces into a work that transcends the sum of its parts.
Bennett revels in language that is dense, complex, sumptuous; in the paradox that language can be a means of both concealing and exposing the self. The indelible tension between self-actualisation and annihilation – a tension that pivots (as the woman’s conference paper anticipates) around the notion of love – is realised in language. It’s language that allows us to impose order on the world, but when it breaks down, when unconscious urges and memories can no longer be quelled, it is an inexorable flood, carrying away all pretension and revealing the deeper roots of the self. For the woman, that self is a place of fear and panic, of deeply felt loss.
Referring to the arrangement of stones on the outside walls of her cottage, the motifs she has imagined there, the woman writes: ‘Here and there there are gaps, of course … it is quite impossible not to let something in.’ And what Pond underscores is that the ‘something’ that’s let in is the reader. For as much as this is a book about the way we skirt around the truth, avoiding the secrets and failures, the ordinariness, with which we might be confronted should we approach truth directly, Pond is also about the way we read (and the way we might read this book, in particular). It is about the way we discover within the words on a page, the signage near a pond, even the way two tapestries sitting on a mantelpiece relate to each other, a reflection of our own selves. ‘I feel as though something is still haunting me,’ the narrator says about a book she has read, ‘or even that I am still haunting something, which means the book carries on beyond where it ends, and no doubt this was the author’s absolute wish.’
Critic John Pilling recently described Beckett’s early work as a ‘wilderness of distorting mirrors’, and there is a similar effect in Pond. References to reflecting surfaces accumulate — a broken mirror behind the cooker, a narrative the woman reads about another isolated woman — and like a series of endlessly retreating mirrors, they register not merely the woman’s experience, but our own. The result is a portrait that constantly disorients. Every view we are given of this woman is off-centre, close-focussed. We see her in fragments, and from those fragments we try to discern something of the whole. And in constructing that whole, we see our own faces staring back at us, our own histories and prejudices. As she reads the landscape, her environment, so we read her. As she lays bare her own nature and her own past, so we, in our scrutiny of her, in the likeness we construct of her, in the way we read her, reveal something of ourselves.