The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Granta - June, 2013)
Perhaps the most telling part of Rebecca Solnit’s generous and beautifully written new book comes in the acknowledgements where she writes: ‘The poet Antonio Machado writes of dreaming that he had a beehive inside his heart and of the bees making “from my old failures white honeycomb and sweet honey.” Failures are easy to come by, and making honey of them is harder, but I’ve tried with mine.’
Solnit is an extraordinary artist who has carved out a reputation as a writer-without-portfolio. Her work ranges from a biography of Eadweard Muybridge to a history of walking, to political essays for the website Tom’s Dispatch, and then perhaps to her best work in this, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, where she takes on the guise of the poet-seer who writes from her minutely observed life experience to make honey for the reader.
In this new book she takes on her Mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease and her own health problems and turns it into a series of meditations on the inevitability of loss and change, and on the renewing forces of the natural world and the interconnectedness of her observed life. Like W.G. Sebald, or some of the best of Virginia Woolf’s essays, her writing elegantly follows a train of thought provoked by an event or incident while unveiling both the surface and the subtext. A pile of rotting apricots taken from her Mother’s garden, serves as a powerful metaphor for the process of decline that she witnesses in her mother, as well as of transformation as she slowly sorts through them and turns them into other things—jam, canned fruit, cordial.
Since 9/11, and perhaps precipitated too by changes in the way we read, fiction, and literary fiction especially, has been in some kind of decline. David Shields, in his provocative manifesto, Reality Hunger, would argue that in an age where we have become both traumatised and atomized, the grand narratives no longer hold us together. What we have instead is the subjective self, everywhere a clamour for the primacy of the individual experience. I see this on my Creative Writing courses in the proliferation of students who want to find ways in which to narrate what has happened to them—they all in some way or another have a story in them, or in some cases on them. The problem with much of this is that without technique or artfulness, it very easily can turn into solipsism or misery memoir, where the writer becomes unaware of the reader or what the reader might want from reading such descriptions of experience.
Solnit writes for the attentive reader; the writing shines—pithy, beautifully observed, full of both truth and provocation—although as has been mentioned in other reviews there are a few lapses into repetition. A colleague recently dismissed A Field Guide to Getting Lost as ‘self-help’ to which I crossly reposted that if these books had been written by a man no such charge would have been levelled against them — the moral and spiritual element of her work owes more to Simone Weil than Deepak Chopra. These are not empty aphorisms or fridge magnet quotes, rather the chapters are driven by the unfolding of an idea, perhaps like a good sermon or lecture, full of revelation and epiphany, which in turn evolve into new ways to think about being alive.
Fiction often lacks the fleetness of foot to respond to the contemporary with such immediacy. The very fact of their made-up-ness can render stories pallid next to an account of the real world. Maybe there will come a time when we will need grand narratives again, our old mythologies, but in the meanwhile, in an increasingly atomised society, we need writers such as Solnit who look fiercely at their world in order to show us how to better think about our own.