It has been a tempestuous few months. Heck, it has been a tempestuous year. For only the second time ever, emotional turbulence has utterly ruined my work life—and it is the first time it has done so in a manner I am wholly aware of. I watched my whole life whirl into chaos, and it was, in a perverse way, quite interesting. I saw it happen, and yet I couldn’t stop it, not for love nor sanity. The only explanation I have is congruence. It happened because it had to happen. It happened not to teach me something (for life is not an illustration of principle) but to demonstrate something.
I am a solitary person, and it takes many leaps, short and long, for me to contemplate the considerable implications of being lonely. And I have been lonely. Is it my fault? Likely. Will I do anything about it, besides learn to live with it? Unlikely. For I am a profoundly lazy person, especially about exploring the deeper trenches of my humanity. I prefer to pretend they don’t exist, and for the most part that works well. I have what my mother once called emotional inertia. It takes ages for me to make decisions, and even longer to realise I have a decision to make, but once I do it is resolved speedily. I drift, I strike, I retreat, I close. Din the oyster monster. Sometimes, however, events outpace my ability to process them, and that happened a lot this year. It wrecked me.
But I finally find myself in the eye of the storm (quite literally, it is splash and flash and booming thunder outside as I write this). I will pay a price for it, of course, one always does, but it’s not a price I can foresee, and that’s not nothing.
And so I reread Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater, as I often do when I find myself at the crossroads of destiny. The first time I read it I was fourteen, and a far mathsier person than I am now. The revelation that fiction is truth, magnified and magnificent, gobsmacked me as it does her. The vagaries and cruelties of fate were, for me as they are for Bilgewater, an equation. That faith—that one’s emotions can be logically assembled (or dissembled)—has never left me, despite life’s many attempts to convince me otherwise. I am blinder than she is, but then I try harder.
Some of this has to do with intuition; when you perceive others’ emotions almost as strongly as your own, it is easier to abstract them than to endure them. Or, if you have that bent, to manipulate them. Envy, for instance—I notice it, but I don’t have the gene—which makes it laughably easy to engineer, given enough time and patience. Time and patience that I mercifully lack. Or rage, an emotion with which I am so intimate that we have domesticated each other. Oh, it would amazingly helpful to use people, but I’d need to be a great deal less interested in them to do so. And thus they become points on a graph. With my own emotions this is sometimes not the most efficient approach, and that’s when I turn to books like Bilgewater, which is funny and wise and barmy and has paragraphs like this one:
The next day was the general paper and I chose an essay called Coincidence. I wrote steadily, easily, fluently, unhesitatingly. I wrote of chess, relating it to mathematics, of the final appropriateness of events, of Shakespeare with reference to Hamlet, of the The Tempest with reference to Sycorax, of the Eumenides, the “Kindly Ones” with reference (veiled) to father, Mrs. Deering, and the Reverend Boakes. I wrote of truth, and the necessity of it not to be manipulated and veiled in white samite, veiled in black sables, of Terrapin, of Terrapin’s versatile father—in philosophical terms of course. I ended with a dissertation on the mathematical peace experienced in the realms of chess, in the pathways beyond accident, coincidence, or desire.
There is lot a person can do with Bilgewater, critically speaking. It is beautifully structured, so that the ending feels ordained without being in the least inevitable. The plot accelerates into such velocity towards the close that each sentence feels momentous. And the people, so subtly evoked. But analysing a book eventually ruins it, and I will need Bilgewater for many years to come. So, well, read it yourself.