The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.
Beyond the patricide and even the incest, the horror of the Oedipus myth lies in its insistence that our fates are not ours to change. And yet the story itself is far from unalterable, having been handed down in multiple variants — something that Natalie Haynes knows very well as a classics scholar. Now Haynes has written her own version of the tragedy, finding new space in the narrative by looking at it through the eyes of two characters neglected by antiquity: Oedipus’s mother/bride Jocasta and their youngest daughter Ismene.
This is a review essay of four new books about trans issues: Trans Like Me by C. N. Lester, Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, The Secrets of My Life by Caitlyn Jenner, and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee.
The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.
These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.
The relationship between Sylvia Plath and suicide – the extent to which she glorified death in her work, and has been glorified for her death posthumously – has niggled at me since I was a teenager reading her for the first time. In an essay at university, I compared her to Medea based on a fairly overwrought reading of one line of Ariel: not strictly supported by the text, but the closest I could get to explaining the witchy and destructive power invested in her most famous work.
Yet the death she is famous for is a poor representative of her as a writer. It gives no account of her vivacious wonder at the miracle of her own children, for example, in a poem like You’re: “Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on.” Nor does it recognise her tremendous funniness: The Bell Jar is savagely witty, something that comes as a delightful surprise every time I go back to it.
When The Lancet Psychiatry commissioned me to write an essay about art, influence and the phenomenon of suicide contagion, it became an opportunity to reckon with all the parts of Plath I struggled to reconcile. The end result is something that made me understand her, and the cult around her, more than I ever have before.
Sylvia Plath was 30 years of age when she died by suicide in 1963, and in her lifetime published only one volume of poetry and one pseudonymous novel. But in the subsequent decades, this material has been joined by a large body of posthumous work and has become the basis of a furiously contested mythology, profoundly shaping the understanding of the relationship between art and suicide. Indeed, her death inspired the landmark work of literary criticism on the subject: her friend Al Alvarez’s The Savage God.
The narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s short novel is feeling his age. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again,” says Waldo, in an arresting first sentence. Our man is a film-maker, though these days feature-length pictures are beyond him and he sticks to making shorts. In fact, a lot of things are beyond him: “almost paralysed and dead”, he can no longer get about on his own, and he hasn’t had sex with his ravishing and 22-years-younger wife Zenab (or indeed with anyone else) for some years.
But his creativity has not wholly deserted him, and nor has his libido. From his bedroom, he eavesdrops on Zenab (Zee for short) and their dubious friend Eddie, a film industry hanger-on supposedly working on a retrospective of Waldo’s work. And from what he hears, Waldo crafts a narrative of adultery. “Working with sound and my imagination, I envisage the angles and cuts, making the only substantial movies I can manage these days, mind movies.” Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, his fixed perspective and total boredom allow paranoia and fantasy to thrive; but is it possible that, like Stewart in Hitchcock’s movie, his invention has cracked the case open?
It is is the fate of great poets to be unappreciated in their lifetime. If Adrian Mole is not exactly dead, nor is he exactly a great poet. In any case, there are no more volumes of his life to be written. Sue Townsend, the author of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and its sequels, sadly died in 2014. The last Mole missive appeared in 2011 in the Observer – a short piece to commemorate the royal wedding. Typically for Adrian, whose biography has always closely paralleled the fate of the Labour Party, the diary records him having an anxiety dream about Ed Miliband.
Now, to mark the character’s 50th birthday, the new Penguin imprint Mole Press has published a slim volume of his collected poems. The point of Adrian’s poems, of course, is that they are very bad. The more seriously he takes them, the funnier they are – and, as an adolescent left-wing polemicist, he takes them very seriously indeed.
This slight book comes with heavy baggage. In 2009, Rampling handed back a hefty advance for her contribution to a conventional authorised biography, and then used the Human Rights Act to prevent Barbara Victor from publishing anything based on their collaboration, on the grounds that it would violate her right to privacy. The Mail typically demanded to know ‘what can possibly remain untold in her audaciously open life’. What it meant was that, having been so extensively naked on-screen,
Rampling had no business pulling down the shutters on her private life.