I have forgotten how to go to sleep. It started the Sunday before last, and every night since then I’ve been kept awake by conversations with myself, new threads for my thesis, tirades against our flatmate’s boyfriend who, at 25, still can’t even aim into the toilet bowl correctly, and ideas for the endings of stories. I do exercises to banish any thoughts from my head (muscular relaxation, pushing thoughts out with a broom) but they spring back like bouncy young vines and keep growing and curling in my mind. I need weedkiller.
So, with not enough sleep, I have naturally become ill, and a few days this week were decadently (any time I have when I’m not writing or studying feels decadent) passed wrapped in my pink mohair rug on my bed, reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Sometimes I felt as aimless as Frederic himself, wandering the streets of revolutionary Paris and thinking about his amour and generally not doing anything with himself, and other times I wanted to give him a good kick up the arse and tell him to get a job.
One of the things that makes Flaubert such an excellent writer is his attention to detail. Here is a paragraph describing Frederic in love:
‘They nearly always stayed out of doors at the top of the stairs, with the tops of trees yellowed by the autumn rising in uneven curves up to the pale horizon in front of them; or else they went to the far end of the avenue, to a summer-house whose only furniture was a sofa covered in grey linen. The mirror was stained with black spots; the walls gave off a musty smell; and they stayed there talking about themselves, about others, about anything and everything, in an ecstasy of delight. Sometimes the sunbeams, coming through the Venetian blind, would stretch what looked like the strings of a lyre from ceiling to floor, and specks of dust would whirl about in these luminous bars. She amused herself by breaking them with her hand; Frederic would gently seize it and gaze at the tracery of her veins, the grain of her skin, the shape of her fingers. For him, each of her fingers was something more than a thing, almost a person.’ (Penguin, 1964, p. 271).
It’s the grounding of love through the details of the particular – the spots on the mirror, the mustiness of the walls, the yellowing trees, the strips of sunlight – that makes this such an evocative piece. Also, I have a fondness for the way light falls through shutters and windows. I like Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a certain slant of light’ – her entire poem on a shape of sunlight in a room - and (for I am sometimes a popular culture whore), the line from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love: ‘Shuttered rooms/with sunlight breaking through.’ It reminds me of summer afternoons in the long holidays on the farm, bored out of my mind, lying under the fan on the prickly carpet and contemplating the light.
On Saturday H and I went to the National Gallery to look at Alison Watt’s exhibition Phantom which was, essentially, huge paintings of swathes of white fabric. The paintings were very poorly displayed and we didn’t think much of it at all until we watched the accompanying video. Despite an incredibly odd start, in which it looked like the painter was being stalked by her interviewer, it developed into an interesting depiction of her work and the ideas behind it. One concept was that the hole made by a fold in the fabric is about the possibility of all that is unseen. I like this idea – which is called ‘negativity’ – and I use it in my thesis, in the sense that those things which we can’t see or hear are not necessarily a loss, but rather something that is productive. The shapes in Watt’s folds were also undeniably feminine, reminding me of vulvas, and I was surprised that no mention was made of this. Perhaps she hadn’t intended it that way and it was, as usual, just my indecent mind. In the video the painting were arranged in her studio so as to take up all available space and it appeared as though she was working among a sea of sheets, but in the gallery they were hung solitarily upon the walls, and it felt very empty.