Rebecca Solnit brings a philosopher's heart and an artist's eye to "The Faraway Nearby," a strange book that mixes memoir, art history, literary criticism, geography and personal reflections on the power of stories to shape human lives.
"THE FARAWAY NEARBY"
By Rebecca Solnit
Ms. Solnit never met an etymology she didn't like, and sometimes the poetic but overwrought analysis of a word or phrase -- to sew, to cut, to spin, to weave (with threads, or flesh, or words on leaves?) -- made me wish for a pair of metaphorical scissors. But my annoyance never lasted, and the insightful nature of Ms. Solnit's meditations drew me to her in the way fairy tales and sublime landscapes draw her to them. Her writing courses down the page like melted snow on a mountainside:
"Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others' stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling."
What triggers this cascade is her mother's steady descent into Alzheimer's. Had Ms. Solnit liked her mother, this might have been a different set of reflections or not written at all. Instead, the author spent her childhood hiding out in the forest of books, one day stepping out of the trees into the company of writers. Raised on literature, she took her pain and shaped it into words.
Many daughters have a story like this one, but few can tell it as well: "My mother, who would light up at the thought that my brothers were handsome, rankled at the idea that I might be nice-looking. ... She took pleasure in not giving me things that she gave to others, often in front of me, in finding ways to push me out of the group. ... She thought of me as a mirror but she didn't like what she saw and blamed the mirror."
This poor daughter knows the queen is jealous of her, and, like Snow White, she freezes. Ms. Solnit began to tune out the mother who told her she didn't deserve to be blond, who reveled in calling her "Shortie," who cut her off financially as soon as she could, and that was early -- Ms. Solnit left home and began living on her own in Europe at the age of 17.
Emotionally frozen by her mother's cruelty, the writer felt the tug of arctic landscapes. She writes well about a sojourn in Iceland, about the frozen wasteland scenes of Frankenstein, about Inuits and polar bears, day long nights and night long days, the way ice preserves anything it holds within its crystals. Alzheimer's turns Ms. Solnit's mother into a child again, and the daughter begins to thaw.
Then her stories are about the young Che Guevara treating lepers and the implications of leprosy -- not just the isolation, but the loss of feeling its sufferers endure. They lose limbs and eyes because they can no longer feel them; their nerves die and their extremities become lost to them. This is the moment at which Ms. Solnit realizes pain is not a curse but a gift:
"If the boundaries of the self are defined by what we feel, then those who cannot feel even for themselves shrink within their own boundaries, while those who feel for others are enlarged."
No surprise that Ms. Solnit is a political activist, extending her empathy over many groups, from Native Americans to Tibetan monks.
This book began with a fairy tale task: transforming bushels of apricots from her mother's tree into jarred fruits, liqueur and preserves. The first and last chapters are titled "Apricots," and the last shows what time has done to the once-decaying fruit, how glass and sugar have preserved it.
In their wide-mouthed jars, the fruit is "a solid deep orange color, halves heaped up on top of each other to the rim of the lid, the syrup still clear, though the length of vanilla bean has disintegrated into black crumbs at the bottom of the jar. ... I no longer know what occasion would be momentous enough to open the jars or who I would feed them to, this fruit from a garden of a long-gone house, this windfall that arrived one faraway August day."
Dare to eat an apricot. Savor this book.
Susan Balee, a writer living in the East End, explains in the new issue of The Hudson Review why she jilted Alice Munro for Junot Diaz.