In her prize-winning A Case of Knives (1987) Candia McWilliam, a British novelist of my generation, created a word-circus. Her sentences were high-wire acts, her dialogues acrobatic and clowning. She was the Mistress of Ceremonies, cracking the whip to make old descriptions leap anew. The leather lash rippled with talent. She had sharp vision, knew exactly where to flick it, and a grand capacity to entertain. To entertain us. She was with us, in a shared world. Twelve years later however, when she wrote What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir of Blindness with the same verbal dexterity, she exposed the reality behind the tricks. She was, like many writers, alone at the centre of the ring, and all the more because she was ill.
The loneliness of the compulsive socialite is one of her themes. The deeper one is the absence of parents. The loss of her mother, who committed suicide when she was six, could, we now know from reading the memoir, never be made good. Her father, a distant perfectionist, remarried and McWilliam felt shut out. She became the creation of boarding school friendships and rivalries, on course to become beautiful woman without an emotional anchor.
A pathological compensation was native attachment to the rich and well-connected. She would never be an arriviste who had to try. British snobbery is alive and well at the top of the pecking order, we know from McWilliam writing twenty-five years ago, and just four. In her memoir she name-drops like a drunk needing something to hold on to. Cruel, I know, but in What to Look For (2010) she expressly wanted to tell us about her alcoholism, and the ensuing catastrophes, more than just a stumble down the stairs. As the admiring reader of A Case of Knives (1998), more circumspect peruser of the autobiography, I wanted recently, belatedly, to put the whole picture together. McWilliam is a fire-eater and a sword-swallower. She cuts herself from inside, the way she has one of her protagonists cut another without. She inwardly inflicts on herself the same fate as a trashed Bond Steet furrier’s that has window smashed and its wallpaper slashed. Beware the sharp tongue that sparks the verbal fireworks. There’s also an evil woman in A Case of Knives who is not main character Cora, aka the author wearing her heart on her page, nor Anne either, who is an invented, inwardly raw, second mother. No, the evil girl is a beautiful boarding-school manipulator who might otherwise have been an angel but can now do little else but wield a knife; or have others hack at minds and bodies for her.
If you want to remember or discover Britain in the 1980s, try thinking of A Case of Knives’s Cora as Princess Di, having an affair with a heart-throb heart surgeon. Give her McWilliam’s own excessive height and a weakness for comfort food. Imbrocate the whole plot in the AIDS tragedy of those years, when gay friends died. In this respect, but also with regard to the snobbishness, above all read A Case of Knives alongside Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004), where the middle-class protagonist remains an outsider and is treated as a servant by the druggy, corrupt aristos whose social poise and status can’t free himself from admiring. , Written rather more in retrospect, Hollinghurst’s Booker winner obsessed about the same arrogant and glamorous decade, when old and new rich unconsciously dined out on the morality-free prescriptions of continental philosophers they had never read, but whose incitement to be superficial suited them well.
In A Case of Knives McWilliam doesn’t seek our pity and amen to that. Give three characters the chance to speak for themselves, each over a hundred pages or so, and you know no one has a monopoly on loneliness and heartbreak, whatever the barely conscious machinations and compensations to conceal their needs. The snobs and the nobs are unhappy too but it’s their job to be entertaining about it, unlike, one might think, the whiningly sincere emotional plebs. What is hugely diverting in the writing is the high-definition presence McWilliam gives to sensual things, from biscuits to wallhangings. Her feeling for the fabric of women’s clothes flings a fearless fetishism in the reader’s face which is at once Freudian and childlike. A conversation in her capacious garde-robe between surgeon Lukas Salik and titled widow Anne Cowdenbeath made me think of C.S. Lewis; or perhaps I just needed to get out of the mothballed airlessness and feel a moral wind on my face instead of the brush of cretonne frills.
The near self-destruction of Cora, in her quest to anchor herself in a conventional upper-class family, supplies the novel with two messages. One is that there is no such thing as a model happy clan, of two, or three, or four, or twenty-four; and, two, that it is still possible to be happy. In A Case of Knives three emotionally broken people find something to hold them together and you believe it for a few seconds. What saddened me, by contrast, in the memoir, was that the same past, so finely conquered by fiction, was re-rendered bleak by being re-visited for the facts. Should one do this as a writer, when the effort to invent plural alter egos has been as great as the praise it has won? The temptation is strong, I can see. Jeanette Winterson also gave into it a few years ago, revisiting in autobiography the life that became transformed into Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985). Her memoir too, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? (2011) was well received. Yet I can’t help feeling what we learn from this mixed output from two of the best British women novelists of my time is that the early life just won’t go away, even if we acquire the writerly skill to transform it.
Most shocking in McWilliam’s novel are all those features of Cora’s life at nineteen that perfectly anticipate what will befall her creator in autobiographical mode at fifty. There’s no mention in What to Look for in Winter of a connection between the alcoholic squalor the author lived in through much of the preceding fifteeen years and the terrible, yet not quite pitiable affliction McWilliam suffers when her eyelids will no longer open and she becomes functionally blind. McWilliam in the memoir is not the manipulative tragedian and there’s no sense in which we feel she feels she’s being punished. Hers is a skillful chronicle, and it’s what makes Winter bearable to read, for all its excessive length and those whole chapters that read like a poetized guide to the landed lords and ladies of the realm, complete with kinky food, servants and far too many taxi rides. There’s lots of high-class gossip in English literature, in proportion to the lack of philosophical ideas. And in that light I found I really wanted to know who McWilliam was married to, twice, and I did wonder about the children, as I still do. I kept thinking, as I read McWilliam in both modes of her writing, oh, dear, another Oxbridge Eng Lit chick so over-excited, in the end, by her native language, that she can hardly entertain a simple thought. And yet, between literary performances she so evidently does feel straighforwardly nostalgic. In Knives the young adult Cora remembers a favourite Ladybird book of her childhood. It is called, was called, innocently then, What to Look for in Winter.
In the memoir McWilliam sensed her alcoholism in her first week at university. In the novel Cora at the same age binge-eats. Cora’s not wanting the child she is carrying to be fatherless seems to embody metaphorically the plight of a woman who by becoming a literary author at least tried to plug the gaps. In the merging of McWilliam’s narrated life and the high-quality gift to fiction by which she was once meant to escape it, has there been such a Freudian case-study since Frau Emmy von N?
I’m sorry, Candia, if you read this; if you can read it, or someone reads it out to you. The undoing of your own fiction by such an expansive and merciless memoir makes me think I have a reader’s right to point out the connections, and flag up the story that you are, in yourself, according to the paper trail so far.