Sunday, 4 August 2013

Book of the Month: Paper Houses (Michele Roberts)

The prolific British novelist Michele Roberts (once nominated for the Booker Prize for her novel, Daughters of the House), also the receiver of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts des et Lettres awarded by the French government, declares that she is a woman damaged by Catholicism. For most of her life, judging by her warts and all memoirs, Paper Houses, Roberts has tried to reject her Catholic upbringing, and, with it, the middle class Tory values of her parents. Roberts’s father had a working class background; however, the family had become middle class when Roberts and her siblings grew up.

When Roberts returned to London after finishing her degree course in Oxford, at the start of the 1970s, her aim, to begin with, was to train as a librarian. However, much to her parents’ dismay, she gave up on the idea and announced that she was going to earn her living by writing (the young Roberts believed that she had a flair for poetry). She also hurled herself into the Bohemian lifestyle embraced by many young men and women from middleclass backgrounds. This involved, based on the evidence supplied by Roberts, living in squats, holding ultra-leftist feminist views, joining marches and demonstrations against the Capitalists, contributing to radical magazines, participating in Street theatres, smoking dope and (occasionally) snorting cocaine, letting one’s hair down in wild parties, and sexual promiscuity aplenty.  There is rather a lot of sex in the book, as Roberts informs the readers about her various sexual exploits. By her own admission, Roberts did not learn to come for a long time and worried that she might be frigid. However, once she learned how to, she laid down her carpet, so to speak, for the inspection of a cavalcade of men and women. It was all, one supposes, part of experimenting with freedom and a desire to push the envelope, engendered by the liberal values prevailing at the time. Roberts, to her credit, has avoided falling into the trap of overdoing it. Thus, when she narrates an incident, where a fellow commune member and husband of one of her friends, in a sexual experiment, makes Roberts and another woman lie on his either side and fingers their clitorises,  if the intention was to titillate, it is expertly camouflaged by the matter of fact tone. Curiously, for a writer avowedly big on workings of the mind—there are countless references to Roberts ‘diving’ into her unconscious to procure material for her fiction—her responses to the sexual encounters are banal and clichéd.  This is not to suggest that Roberts is dissimulating when she says she enjoyed sex, nor that she should have invested the encounters with feelings she did not experience; it is just that Roberts, who analyses everything—to death, you might be excused for thinking at times—is content to luxuriate in superficialities (‘I thoroughly enjoyed it’) while describing her responses to sexual acts which pop up on every other page in the first half of her book. In the memoir Roberts recounts her own struggles with breaking the taboos and talks, deftly blending Freudian psychology with her Catholic upbringing (which she found repressive) about the disapproving ‘Mother Superior of her mind’, repeatedly chastising her and stifling her creativity for a long time by telling her that she was wicked and no good. Perhaps the punitive superego is still at work. Towards the end Roberts turns overtly analytical and—probably from the knowledge indirectly gleaned through her own therapy—analyses her relationship with her father, and arrives at the (not altogether surprising) conclusion that what she must have really wanted to do was to have a physical relationship with him.

In a literary event, promoting the memoir, Roberts described herself as a flaneur. There is certainly a lot of flaneuring in the memoir. The bits where Roberts describes her explorations of the city are the most enjoyable, not least because Roberts’s love for London, her home for well over three decades, which shines through these reminiscences. The quaint pubs and cafes, her stays in cheap rooms in parts of London which were far-flung in those days (and where local men had a strong tendency to regard young women walking alone as either lesbians or on the game; Roberts, it would appear, could not walk more than a few steps without being subjected to lecherous comments, just because she neglected to wear a brassiere) are brought to life brightly and distinctly. The reader marvels at the intensity and acuity of these recollections as Roberts describes with great vividness minutiae. (While describing an impromptu beach picnic she once had with one of her innumerable friends Roberts remembers that her breasts popped out of her skimpy top every time she rowed).

Paper Houses is a candid memoir of an intelligent, idealistic, creative, emotional person who lived through the heady days of left-wing politics in the seventies. The young Roberts, working for outré magazines of the counterculture like Spare Rib and Oz, was convinced that she was part of a revolution that would change the world. Written in the first person singular and in past tense, the emotions and thinking process are those of a young Roberts, raw and unanalyzed. It is to the credit of the older, mature, Roberts that she has not allowed hindsight to cast its retrospective influence and distort the naive idealism of her younger self which attempted to be a revolutionary feminist, novelist, poet, street theatre actor, and a bibliophile, all at the same time. Roberts was trying her best to break out of the comfortable, middle-class background, yet all her endeavours, as she is frank and honest enough to admit, were cas typique bourgeois.  When she worked in Clerkenwell, her  fellow workers, all working class women from Essex, viewed Roberts’s endeavours with a mixture of amusement and contempt: they thought  feminism was “something for middle-class chicks wanting to get into the middle-class men's world”.  For her fellow members in the various radical households she lived in, Roberts was not radical enough: they considered her “too wide-eyed and emotional” and pooh-poohed her writing aspirations as bourgeois individualism.

Roberts strives hard—too hard, you suspect—to give the impression of a person full of joi de verve. The sheer number of friends and acquaintances who appear in the memoirs is bewildering—there are so many of them, and they pop up every so often, that it is a bit difficult to keep a track. Thus, when on page 250, say, a character, say, Joe, appears, you suspect, given the familiarity with which Roberts speaks of him, that he has appeared somewhere earlier in the memoirs; but when and where? In a way it does not matter. Such is the pace and momentum of Roberts’s narrative that the reader is tempted to just go with the flow. The writing is highly impressionistic and the reader does not get insights into the workings of the minds of the procession of characters that appear; they remain, all the time, supporting characters in the big, exciting drama of Roberts’s life. You wonder whether the people were more complex and multilayered than Roberts’s breezy, passing impressions suggest. Even, the two ex-husbands—who feature prominently in Roberts’s account of her two failed marriages—remain sfumato.

Paper Houses is a quaint, nostalgic reflection on the milieu which contributed to the development of one of the important novelists of our generation. Roberts emerges from this narration as a thoughtful, perceptive and generous human being, although you wonder whether underneath all the chutzpah, (deceptively) breezy prose and wassailary tone lurk stygian emotions.