My Summer Reads guest season continues today with a repeat visit from Catherine McNamara who is the real deal: a writer whose work has wowed me since I first discovered it, a kindred spirit and a great friend. As writers Cat and I have many interests in common and several of our stimulating conversations have taken the form of popular posts right here on the Sofa: on Writing about Sex and Desire when her award-winning story collection The Cartography of Others came out and our recent interview on publication of my second novel Scent. They’re two of my favourite posts in the almost 10 years I’ve been running the blog.
Today the focus is rightly on Cat’s startling new flash collection Love Stories for Hectic People. I don’t want to say too much about it (though I am rather pleased with my previous description as ‘a feast that goes on all night’.); I want you to read it and see for yourself how much can be conveyed in so few words. I left the choice of theme to Cat and was delighted when she picked that of older love. We live in a society obsessed with youth and sex but secretly full of people over 40 living all kinds of rich and passionate lives – it matters that we get to see them reflected on the page.
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex
When I was a young vehement woman, everything was about becoming. Becoming more educated and experienced – intellectually, culturally, sexually. It was about liberty and travel. Dressing cool, eating differently, deciding what this creature would be, this chrysalis from the Sydney burbs. I devoured words and ideas. Head of the pile was Mme de Beauvoir, who informed me of my oppressed upbringing and history, the otherness of being female, the further oppression that lay ahead through marriage and children – which I firmly believed I would dodge. The love of Beauvoir and Sartre was open and endured decades, never fractured by institutions or the raising of a child. I could do this, right?
When we are young we love so hard it can destroy us. We haven’t learned to protect our unformed selves: we project, we grasp, we give, we topple. Love is the path we follow into ourselves. We begin to understand resilience, the terrain of skin and sensations, the reservoirs of desire within; the physical bodies bearing the mechanics of reproduction, bodies that will house our minds until we die.
All of this makes for compelling writing material – the lure and crush of heartfelt, boundless emotion, the high-octane sex. There is no shortage of debut novels speaking of the crisp agonies of young love: 20-30-year-olds ensnaring each other, trying to align lives. All viable content and sometimes beautifully expressed. Given that a large proportion of readers are middle-aged women like myself, I often wonder what this reflects. A wish to return to youth, to that era of becoming before the panning out of our lives? Why are publishers and reviewers shy of older loves?
I think of some of my young romances (which I have never felt any compulsion to write about) – the Swiss guy in Les Halles whose neighbour was a whip-happy prostitute, the US boyfriend I escorted to an outback underground opal-mining town; those silly stories. Simone’s words and a childhood loss made me determined to seize life, seize love and sex, so I travelled and loved hard. Decades later, those experiences seem obtuse and doomed, as young love often is. Now a 50-plus 2-time divorcée who has set down roots in numerous countries, there’s been an accumulation of knowledge, pain, experience, and the different forms of loving required to grow beyond the self. On this stage, erotic love can play a sublime part, charged and conscious. We have inhabited our bodies for years so our sensory powers are intense. Plus, after 50, there is no need to care what society thinks. For me the most exciting figures in literature are women who have loved many times over – older and sultrily detached. I often think of Ingrid Bergman’s wise words: I regret the things that I didn’t do, not what I did.
In my collection Love Stories for Hectic People, I attempted to follow this path. What happens when long-time lovers meet in Tokyo; when a couple fall into a rough sex in Venice; or when a jazz singer is rejected by her famous writer lover. Mid-life stories. Choices that are less reactive, more emboldened. But not only betrayals and failure and the easy 30-40 age bracket. Serenity. Serendipity. An older couple unable to master affection in public, who plan to retire and fish; an artistic couple nearing retirement, entranced by a house in southern France where the greatest art works of western civilisation have been restored. And one of my favourites, ‘Love Is an Infinite Victory’, when sexual love resurges for a long-married couple, with an undercurrent of tragedy. In these stories love is accompanied by real-life factors – health, offspring, violence, loss – and there are few soothing outcomes.
Hopefully these stories will resonate. For this is an age of being rather than becoming, laden with material. Some of us have carried children, a state that is rarely conveyed for its lyrical sensuality; as the body of a woman approaches menopause, and indeed beyond, she is a watershed of experience and truths. Why is there is a reluctance to push these stories, and brand mid-life a series of clichés that go from harried mothers to solo travel involving young studs?
When I am most deeply rooted, I feel the wildest desire to uproot myself.
Of course there are brilliant established authors who have chronicled versions of older love – On Beauty (Zadie Smith), Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout), The Sea The Sea (Iris Murdoch), Things I Don’t Want to Know (Deborah Levy), and so many others who have captured the informed turbulence of these years with insight and without cliché. But these are the big-hitters. Here’s hoping that more doors will open for a broader appreciation of these time-old themes.
Thank you so much to Cat for this personal and insightful piece which I know will resonate with so many readers.
While I was on holiday, the Saboteur Awards published my spotlight on winning Best Reviewer of Literature AND the contributors for the Queer Life, Queer Love anthology (November 2021, Muswell Press) were announced. Next week I’ll be hosting comedian, author and self-styled ‘lesbian Louis Theroux’ Rosie Wilby, whose new book The Break-up Monologues is another of my recommended Summer Reads.