Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving, by Michele Roberts, Sandstone Press, 262 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1913207144
The deplorable event at the centre of this diary is a literary rebuff. When Michele Roberts submitted a novel to her agent and her publisher early in 2016 (she gives no dates: I’m working out the time sequence myself) both turned it down flat. They found it too intense and not engaging. This would be a blow for any literary practitioner, let alone the acclaimed author of twenty-five works of fiction and non-fiction. She was naturally cast down and filled with despondency. But writing is an irrepressible resource: as Roberts says, for her it’s the only way of coping with setbacks and self-doubt. So, as an exercise in recuperation, “I decided to write down everything that had happened.” Negative Capability, starting in April and continuing until the following March, is the sparkling result.
Roberts’s title comes from a letter written by John Keats in 1817 to his brothers George and Tom. In it, he defines “Negative Capability” as the state of mind in which a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. In other words, don’t fret and worry away at things, but let inspiration come in its own good time. It’s something Michele Roberts takes to heart, straight away setting out to record the particulars of her day-to-day existence in southeast London: her basement flat, upstairs neighbours plodding across their wooden floors, a cheerful demeanour put on for other neighbours encountered in the street, buying The Guardian from a corner shop, selecting vegetables in East Street market, queuing at Morrison’s for wine and milk. Gradually, the accumulation of minor activities soothes and reassures author and reader alike. Cooking and gardening keep Roberts in good heart. People bring her discarded pot-plants, which she revives; and in her small back garden, primroses, violets and wallflowers bloom in season, defying the depredations of local cats and foxes. Her gardener’s instincts keep her out of sympathy with invading wildlife. She envisages shooting or poisoning a fox – hasn’t she read Gone to Earth, I wonder, since she’s read everything else? (All right, I am not a fan of Mary Webb, but that novel has a powerful denouement.) Or Karl Miller: “I held in my arms a friendly young half-domesticated fox, his ears like two silk purses.” Partridges, wild boars, ducks and geese fare badly in these pages too. Never mind, the author has a good word – more than a good word – for the graceful and mysterious hare: “I can easily believe that the hare is a sacred animal … Seeing [one] made me feel very happy. Blessed, even.”
That “blessed” harks back to Roberts’s Catholic upbringing and all its paraphernalia of churchly ritual and vocabulary. Half English and half French, she experienced two indigenous forms of religious observance, and only washed her hands of both once the liberalising influence of Somerville College, Oxford, in the late 1960s, had kicked in. She eagerly embraced free-thinking, but kept a residual admiration for the teaching staff of her convent school, along with a scholarly interest in religious systems and a certain attachment to some of the trappings of Catholicism. When it comes to amassing nineteenth century statues of the Virgin Mary, however, it is hard to know whether this pursuit is undertaken in a spirit of irony or nostalgia. And what Roberts calls in an earlier memoir, “the Mother Superior in the head”, she who can’t be cast off, keeps up a stern inner commentary on all kinds of morally dubious or unsatisfactory behaviour.
That inner voice might have counselled her to get a grip, when, early in Negative Capability, she feels herself to be “bewildered. Adrift. Mad … [about] to explode like a rocket.” And indeed she pays heed to the nun in the head, if such an entity still exists, resuming her well-balanced, conversational tone. “Get up and write,” she admonishes herself. And she does – continuing the diary, and also laboriously rewriting the unfortunate book whose rejection had stung so bitterly. Alas, versions two and three meet with no approval either. Roberts’s agent at the time repudiates it, and her; and her publisher follows suit. It is good to record that the plaguey novel finally makes it into print. It isn’t named in the current book, but allusions to its theme and characters enable us to identify it as The Walworth Beauty (2017) – a perfectly engrossing and atmospheric work of fiction, with its past and present sections held in effective equilibrium. We might wonder what was so terribly wrong with it in the first place, or what revisions were necessary to knock it into a publishable shape.
This, then, is a diary not only of surviving, but of winning through. (What comes into my head here is one of those mid-twentieth-century schoolgirl stories with a title like Erica Wins Through or Sally Sticks it Out.) Whenever pain and misery threaten to overwhelm the author’s natural buoyancy, up comes a countervailing resilience to banish the mopes. Small affirmative moments near the start of Negative Capability – enjoying the eccentricities of shoppers in a supermarket, admiring the beautiful old stone walls of south London gardens – expand into a celebration of plenitude and variety, of food and sex, of the landscape and market towns of the Mayenne in northwest France (where the author has a house), and, above all, of friendship. Friendships of every degree of significance populate the book. Ex-husband, ex-lovers, male and female friends, feminist friends, work friends, cousins and siblings, neighbours in France and in England, postmen, market sellers, workmen, students, conference arrangers: all have a role in establishing the shape of a personal, ongoing life, and contributing to its eventfulness (and occasionally engendering exasperation).
Locations are important too. Michele Roberts has always described herself as a flâneur (or flâneuse); and, as she put it in her memoir Paper Houses (2007), “the flâneur enjoys being enticed down side streets”. Side streets, alleyways, back lanes, London nooks and crannies, French hilltop villages, hidden gardens, forest paths, all exert a tremendous fascination. It’s part of the urge to observe, explore and evoke. “We walked over rain-slick cobbles, through darkening, frosty streets”; “ … back streets, lined with early nineteenth-century houses behind railing … Trees burned russet, red, bright brown. Ash leaves painted the pavements yellow-grey. Bigger plane leaves, greenish-yellow, swept along in drifts. The air smelled of earth, rotting leaves, chrysanthemums.” The noise and colour of markets too are a particular delight, whether flea markets, vegetable markets, “car-boot” markets, antique markets, “artisan” food markets. On one occasion, in the middle of an assembly of French market stalls selling seafood, sheep’s milk yoghurt, sourdough bread, local vegetables, beeswax candles and so on, Roberts launches into a disquisition on the female orgasm and the right of women to initiate sexual encounters if the fancy takes them. The next minute, having got that off her chest, she’s back buying two heads of garlic and a single large tomato. You’d have to say the juxtaposition is intriguing.
When minor annoyances pile up, as they do in France during the month of August – problems with car insurance, bureaucratic requirements, no internet connection, landline defunct, having to stand outside in the rain to text from an ancient mobile while a thunderstorm rages, neighbours arriving with enormous marrows as unwanted gifts etc – Roberts presents these hitches ruefully, as a small-scale comedy. She can be funny, and witty, as when she describes American blockbusters of the 1980s “featuring agonised blondes with tempestuous hairstyles and well-groomed men in blue suits”. Then the unappreciative Publisher (sardonically capitalised) looms again, with – again – dispiriting effect. Books and reading, though, are as always a help (Elena Ferrante, Flaubert’s letters, Keats’s sonnets, Olivia Laing). While she walks about London, Roberts often finds herself following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf, whose work she reveres, even though she prefers the diaries, letters and memoir pieces to the novels.
I am not sure that I would go along with this assessment. I am enchanted by the lucidity and bravado of Woolf’s novels, including the underrated Night and Day of 1919 with its suffragette undercurrent (which I prefer to The Voyage Out). And Roberts, to my mind, is insufficiently critical of awful, self-absorbed, fulsome Anais Nin. But we all have our likes and dislikes. I applaud her championing of Dorothy Richardson, another flâneuse who strolled about London taking in its particulars, and an indefatigable recorder of life going on and on (the phrase is Virginia Woolf’s), in all its quotidian, pivotal and intrepid aspects. Her twelve-volume novel sequence, Pilgrimage (1915-38), features her alter ego Miriam Henderson, and breaks new ground with its refusal to abide by the rules of contemporary plot-driven fiction. Richardson is among the women writers awarded an unofficial blue plaque by Michele Roberts, in the absence of an official one. “I spent a day wandering around London, hanging [makeshift plaques] on certain front doors and railings.” Eventually, and not before time, most of these were replaced with actual commemorative plaques.
Literature and literary figures, from Keats on, are rife in Negative Capability. Roberts’s network of friends and acquaintances includes numerous fellow authors, some of whom make a cameo appearance here: I’m thinking of Julian Barnes, John Burnside and Marina Warner, to pick those examples at random. All add to the interest and impact of the narrative. It’s only when she comes to Dublin, oddly enough, that her spirits turn a bit sluggish. (Chapter Nine, “December”.) It’s not “the black pit” of literary failure mentioned earlier in the book, just a certain disgruntlement. Is it because she has come to teach creative writing to American students? It’s only a week, but it rains all the time and some of the students are inclined to be obstreperous. Roberts is rather fed up at this point, and so are we when faced with some horrid culinary details (foie gras etc) which she persists in enumerating. The flâneuse who rejoices in the quirks and unexpected riches of London side streets and in the charms of French village goings-on keeps a very low profile in Dublin.
But diligence and exuberance, not to mention the “gaiety and jollity” brought on by a literary party, are never too far away. Back in Orchard Street, London she notes the pale pink roses blooming unseasonably in her back garden (“such a mild winter”), and is soon enthusiastically and characteristically meandering (“ … up Marylebone Lane, relishing the way the lane bends and twists between close-packed buildings and imagining how formerly it wound through open fields …”). Negative Capability is altogether more joyous than jaundiced in its effects: as a diary of “surviving”, it adds up to something bright and exhilarating wrested from discomposure and dismay.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.