Books Culture

Peonies: consuming otherness

I’m lying down in a nearly empty plane. It is a weird time to be in the world. Still, some things persist. The person in the row across from me spends half of the twelve-hour flight playing candy crush. Aeroplanes are an exercise in the tolerance of other lives. Hell is other people, and proximity to the strange is uncomfortable at best. And yet, in our reading lives we find the genres of biography and autobiography endlessly absorbing. Why? I am reading Zadie Smith’s newest collection of essays: Intimations, a set of writing framed in and by the pandemic. Her style is typical of her essayistic work – eclectic, open, sharp, and autobiographical. She opens the collection with ‘Peonies’, slipping between the subjects of writing, quarantine, and aging through a memory: three women looking at a bouquet of flowers. Smith ‘reads’ her own life, interpreting the symbols that swim through the innocuous and the mundane:

“I didn’t need a Freudian to tell me that three middle-aged women, teetering at the brink of peri-menopause, had been drawn to the gaudy symbol of fertility and renewal in the middle of a barren concrete metropolis”

Smith pins down her experience, subjecting life to writing in a way that renders it intelligible to us, and perhaps more importantly, to herself. To her, writing is an act of force, an imposition of artifice on the complexity of the experiential world – a fact which Smith addresses directly in the same essay:

“Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department. Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance.”

If writing is ‘control’ and ‘resistance’ in the face of ‘Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious’, life-writing is perhaps so attractive because of its uncomplex form and purpose, the straightforwardness of its pre-set ‘mould’. Biography is full perspective, a zoomed-out map of a life with its forks and follies streamlined into narrative prose. To pour a full life, all choices made and reasoned, and place it into a space of certainty, converting complexity into history is perhaps the draw of biography. In A Life of My Own, Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, she too references the pull of smoothness. Writing on the reception of her biography of Katherine Mansfield, Tomalin holds up her highest praise as one of seamlessness:

“The response that most pleased me came from my friend Victoria Glendinning, who knew how I had struggled to get the book done. She wrote to me, ‘No one if you didn’t tell them would ever dream that it was begun, put down, taken up again, rejigged, finished, etc. It reads all in one breath, all in one piece, and as if written in high spirits. Which it can’t have been, always.”

Tomalin’s pride is curiously not only of the seamlessness of her writing but also predicated on the invisibleness of the difficulty of the work and even her existence as a human with her own complexity and fallibility: “as if written in high spirits. Which it can’t have been, always.” It is as if in disappearing she is free – free to create out of the wilderness of another’s life a construction of control and intelligibility: “It reads all in one breath, all in one piece.” A Life of My Own is in itself a beautifully metatextual piece. An autobiography by an extremely accomplished biographer, Tomalin takes the book as an opportunity for a curious form of self-love. Speaking on the act of biography itself, Tomalin characterises it as a form of passion:

“Working on a biography means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. Another life is bound up with yours and will remain so for the rest of your own life – that at least is my experience. You have gone in too deep to cast them aside.”

Biography is then a way of neutralising otherness – in the deep ‘obsession’ with another one integrates them to the self. A method of absorption, biography orders experience so that we may consume whom we consider to be worthy. If biography is a way of consumption, it becomes difficult to view it as an entirely ethical way of getting to know a stranger. After all, Dickens, Mansfield or Churchill never asked to be close to you. In reading biography, we imagine that the lives of those pictured are so great and large that they must belong to us in some way, because living in their wakes we already belong to them, and so our relationship must flow both ways. It is only fair, only just, that we know a little about those whom we feel we give so much of our interiors, through their words or their actions. Smith avoids this proximity. She lies:

“They were tulips. I wanted them to be peonies. In my story, they are, they will be, they were and will ever be peonies – “

In lying Smith gives herself choice – a choice of personal space which increasingly evades us all in our pandemic shrunken, recession squeezed existences. Reading her essays by the light of someone else’s phone screen, I forgave her.

Wei Kai Ng

Wei Kai (he/him) lives in a former British colony at the end of the Malay peninsula which in a surprising turn of events has turned into a morally questionable financial centre. He also likes naps. And decaf coffee.