ordinary lives

Jules had her two-week growth spurt last night, right on schedule. The good news is that Jeremy is sleeping through the night. Julia can be yelling at the top of her (admittedly not especially penetrating) voice and respected patriarch can snore right through it all. Last night I had to kick him seven or eight times to wake him up enough to share the fun. Actually I think he was awake by kicks three or four, but I kept going just to be sure.

As you may have gathered, my husband is an extremely good sport. Jules was belching groggily this morning and he said to her: “That’s what you get for a hard night’s drinking, miss.”

This will sound odd but I had an absolutely wonderful time in the hospital. With Claire I was off like a rabbit as soon as they’d let me go, but this time I stayed my mandated 48 hours and relished every one. Nurses brought me apple juice and painkillers on demand – two of my favourite things. Meals were hot and nourishing and furnished at stated intervals. I spent most of my time reading and eating chocolate biscuits while Julia dozed. The chocolate helped to replenish my depleted theobromine reserves. Medicinal. Ahem.

I took the brand-new Vikram Seth book, Two Lives (I picked up a review copy at the Book Bay), and a Nancy Mitford novel called The Blessing. Two Lives is brilliant. It’s the joint biography of Seth’s great-uncle and aunt, Shanti and Henny, an amputee dentist and German woman who lost her mother and sister in the Holocaust. As in his A Suitable Boy, one of my favourite books (and one I reread when Claire was tiny), Seth is interested in the ordinariness of people as well as their greatness, and vice versa. His is a generous, democratic aesthetic that rivals Shakespeare for magnanimity and grace.

“Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found. The strange journeys we undertake on our earthly pilgrimage, the joy and suffering we taste or confer, the chance events that cleave us together or apart, what a complex trace they leave; so personal as to be almost incommunicable, so fugitive as to be almost irrecoverable.”

My passionate admiration for Seth’s prose is a matter of public record, so shall I confine myself here to pointing out the mastery with which he plays on the two meanings of the word “cleave”? The Blessing is out of print, so go frequent your local public library. A love story set in post-WW2 France, it’s essentially Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country retold as comedy. Like all Mitford’s novels it’s hilarious, melancholy and wildly politically incorrect. I love it.

Got home with Jules in tow and dived into Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which bookended the other two perfectly. Kay Graham inherited The Washington Post Company after her husband’s suicide. Her prose is modest and hesitant and tells a completely absorbing story: a privileged childhood and adolescence in the 1920s and 30s sheltered even from anti-Semitism and awareness of the Holocaust; a corporate wife raising four children in the 1940s and 50s; a stunned and grieving widow taking over a Fortune 1000 company in the 1960s; a woman steering a remarkable newspaper through the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the pressman’s strike in the 1970s.

Taken together the three books made me think a lot about the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of the 20th century. I tried to imagine secret police going through my friends and colleagues and making an almost random selection for industrial murder on the basis of Jewishness: Steve, Sally, Jonathan, Recheng and the kids. I thought a lot about the limited options available for women until almost the end of the century. Kay Graham wrote movingly on the way the low expectations for even highly educated, privileged women became a self-fulfilling prophecy: not being required to think, women like her began to think that they could not.

It’s very easy to sit back and judge people when you don’t know their stories or the choices they had in front of them; when you do know a little more about the precise nature of their predicament, it becomes very difficult to reduce them to a guilty verdict or a score out of ten. Life is extremely complicated and I don’t see there’s much we can do about it, except to work hard to be kind to each other and (where possible) to forgive those who persecute us. But I’m still working on that.

Two Lives has inspired an excellently fun project for my mother and me. Today we sat in Cafe Commons while she answered my questions about her childhood and adolescence, and I made copious notes. We’ve already got over 5000 words and we’re only up to her wedding…

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