Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The feeling of having time stretch before you... (Books - The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble)

Margaret Drabble writes in the introduction to The Pattern in the Carpet about the discomfort she experienced in writing about members of her family in her novel The Peppered Moth.
I wrote brutally about my mother's depression, and I never wish to enter that terrain again. It is too near, too ready to engulf me as it engulfed her...I had hoped that writing about her would make me feel better about her. But it didn't. It made me feel worse.
Uncomfortable or not, Drabble is at it again, writing in this book about her Autie Phyl and in the even less-disguised form of a memoir, although the book is doing double-duty as a history of puzzles and other pastimes. Whether her reticence is cultural or personal, healthy or not I am glad she's gotten over it.
As she went to bed that night, she said that she wished we had been able to finish the jigsaw. 'It's a pity,' she said, as she gave up. 'It's a pity.' It was the last evening of the last summer. We had tried to finish it. We sat up late, past midnight, struggling with patches of tree and fern and grass and sky. In the morning, we would have to drive away and leave it incomplete on its table, for others to finish another day. It was unsatisfactory. She knew she would never come back. She knew it was her last summer with us It was Thursday, 7 August 1997, and she was eighty-eight. She was getting older, and I was getting older, and the journey back to her home was across country and very long. Next year, even if she were still alive, it would be too much for both of us. Neither of us mentioned this. There were many things we never mentioned. But she knew, and she knew I knew.
In a way this is a book of unmentionables, since Drabble was never going to write about family again. The tone she sets with that opening paragraph is calm and measured. It feels, indeed, like one of those late summer evenings that feel they could go on for ever. I found myself reading the narrative bibliography of this book before starting the story-proper. Drabble seems to have had a grand time researching childhood pastimes, card games, collections, and puzzles. Her description of how one title led to another made me envious of her research in the subject, before remembering that I have nothing to envy. I have a least two papers to write this semester and if I find that pastime so romantic, why haven't I made more progress?

Drabble's description of how and why she did, and still does, puzzles:
We always started with the frame. Auntie Phyl taught my sisters and me how to pick out all the straight-edged pieces of jigsaw first, to find the corners, and to build up the four sides. then we would begin to sort the colours, and to construct areas of the picture. Unlike some people, we did not have a set procedure for this stage of the puzzle, and we were never of the willfully austere school that does not look at the picutre on the box. Looking at the picture for us was part of the pleasure. Doing a jigsaw was not an intelligence test, or a personality assessment programme; it was a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie. And it was not, fur us, a form of competition.
That is just how my grandmother and mother taught us to do puzzles. I loved the feeling of having time stretch in that seemingly endless way before me! The last two sentences in the above paragraph interested me particularly. Drabble defines puzzles very much in the negative, and since her rivalrous relationship with her sister A. S. Byatt is somewhat renowned, it is interesting that one of the attractions she feels towards puzzles is that they provided a refuge from competition. In any event, more on this book as I continue my reading of it.


Eva said...

I didn't realise A.S. Byatt's sister wrote books! Since Byatt's one of my very favourite authors, I think I'll stay away from this one. ;) But I was taught to do puzzles the same way! And now we're teaching my niece that method too. :D

Stefanie said...

I saw a blurb about this book the other day and thought it sounded very interesting. From what you say, so far it is. Looking forward to your final review!