This book is so unusual, and so good, that I want to spend as much time as possible just quoting from it. But first it needs a little explanation.
Olivia Fane is a novelist. Her work, which has an almost dreamlike clarity, is not as well known as it should be. Nevertheless, there are some problems with her novels, which are due, I think, to difficulties of construction. This book is something else. It is not fiction and its form is part of its success.
Subtitled 66 Reasons to Start Talking, the book follows the author’s own love of conversation and asking questions. For her, this is a semi-erotic quest. She points out that eros – the Greek word for “love” – “etymologically is closely connected to the Greek word for ‘to ask questions’: erotao”.
The range of subjects, each contained in a short chapter, is indicated by the chapter titles. They include “On fame”, “On being loved”, “On being locked in the lavatory”, “On Saxons and gypsies”, “On socialism”, “On jewellery”, “On snogging”, “On mirrors” and “On death”. The presentation is that of a self-help book. At the end of each chapter the author asks a series of questions that people might want to debate to improve their self-understanding.
But most self-help books try to codify the almost obvious, and tend to suggest that things are easier than they are. This book is quite magnificently unexpected. Though it is direct, usually cheerful and often extremely funny, it boggles the mind.
First of all, there are the author’s own autobiographical anecdotes. As a teenager, she loved the bit in Far From the Madding Crowd when Bathsheba sends a valentine to Farmer Boldwood that says “Marry me”. Fane conceived the longing to go up to people, say: “Kiss me” and “see what happened next”. Once, she did it to a bewildered skipper in a yacht in a force 9 gale. On another occasion, she did it to a man who was sitting opposite her in a library. He later married her.
What is she trying to teach? It is something to do with the liberating effect of finding a different way of looking at the world. When she was a child, her brother would lock her in the lavatory. It had no books or pictures to divert her. But then she noticed a dead fly. She found it fascinatingly ugly and wondered why: “What did ‘ugly’ mean, anyway? Was a human being any less ugly?” She considered this, studying her own body – the skin with “its little blonde hairs growing out of tiny holes”. Then she read the contents list on the bottle of Harpic and began to think about language. “One-and-a-half hours passed in a jiffy.”
She says that if you are bullied at school the way to overcome it is to imagine yourself as an alien from another planet who is conducting a study into the weird, cruel behaviour of human beings: each torment you suffer then becomes a fascinating addition to your research.
Behind it all, Olivia Fane’s subject is love. Though she is interested in love in all its forms, and though her first marriage failed, her greatest interest is in conjugal love, because “you love over time”. Whereas, in the ages of man, she says, the world descended from gold to silver to bronze, “in marriage we proceed from paper and cotton, to silver, gold, rubies and diamonds.”
- The Conversations by Olivia Fane
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