Waking Up in Toytown

John Burnside’s second volume of memoirs is published this week. Of A Lie About My Father, Hilary Mantel, writing in the LRB, said:

To move from the interiority of this memoir back to what passes for ordinary life is like surfacing from under the sea, reshaped by its strong and unforgiving currents.

From yesterday’s Guardian review of Waking Up in Toytown (‘the important narrative is interior and episodic, a curation of carefully examined moments … the supple product of a sustained and quiet looking’):

… he fetched up near Guildford, to begin a “long and solitary ceremony of self-erasure” in garden centres and train timetables and dead-end jobs and cups of tea, a fantasy of latter-day monasticism whose sole point was to deny his awareness of liminal worlds, to shut out the voices with reruns of old movies, to replace the call of drink with fetishised routine. To discover in practice what he already knew theoretically, and most people glimpse sooner or later: that they are building ramparts against the dark and trying to believe in them, however flimsy they may be. And though it works, for a little while, it’s never going to be that easy. Darkness creeps in around the edges: sleep is elusive, and no amount of willed shut-down can rid his empty flat of the presences that animate it. Death stalks him …

… the answer turns out to be not a cycle of denial and fall, but a daily negotiation; what he calls, in A Lie About My Father, “the long discipline of happiness”. And it involves a turn to solitude and nature rather than drugs and alcohol; a sober, thrilled meditation on "the roads, and the places just off the roads, all that God-in-the-details of the land: the sway of cottonwood in the wind, the black of a secluded lake, the monumental quiet of a Monterey cypress near a roadside motel on the way from nothing to nowhere", or the "gloaming just beyond the hedge, where the night begins".

One day, late in the book, he finds himself travelling in Norway, far inside the Arctic circle. Arriving early at the small local airport, he sits and gazes out at the whiteness of the airfield. “I sat a long time, that day, waiting for my flight – and some of me is sitting there still, enjoying the stillness, becoming the silence, learning how to vanish. Every day, in every way, I am disappearing, just a little – and it feels like flying, it feels like the kind of flight I was trying for, that first time, when I was nine years old – but it has nothing to do with the will, and it has nothing to do with trying. If it happens at all it happens as a gift: and this is the one definition of grace I can trust.”

‘My misery is infinite with respect to my will, but it is finite with respect to grace.’ — Simone Weil (Notebooks).

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