Source : The New York Times
This has been a year rich in books about the struggles and joys, the frustrations and rewards, of being a mother — a raft of storiescomprising what Parul Sehgal, one of The Times’s book critics, called “radiantly specific dispatches from almost every corner of motherhood.” The British writer Jessie Greengrass’s first novel, “Sight,” can be fit into that group but offers its own distinct philosophical and lyrical pleasures. It is told by an unnamed narrator who recounts struggling with the decision of whether to have children with her partner, Johannes. (In real life, Ms. Greengrass has two young children.) Told in patient, psychologically complex prose, “Sight” combines the narrator’s thoughts about her own mother, who died several years earlier, and her remembrances of her grandmother, a psychoanalyst, with her relevant digressions about scientific history. (Real-life figures contemplated in the book include Sigmund Freud; Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered X-rays; and John Hunter, an 18th-century surgeon and anatomist.) The narrator’s thoughts about having children undergirds the story, but the novel is also concerned with the nature of grief, selfhood and memory. Below, Ms. Greengrass talks about the early history of psychoanalysis, writing a novel while starting her own family and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
The first part of it I had was the historical sections, in about 2013. I had all these bits of medical history that I found interesting and worth writing about, but I didn’t know how to string them together. The idea of having a pregnant writer was the very last bit, in maybe 2014. I started writing it after my daughter was born.
I wanted to write about identity and subjectivity. The idea of having someone where the central relationship was with an unborn child — something simultaneously about as intimate as it can be but also with a person you haven’t met — felt evocative, and like it would potentially allow me to talk about a lot of the things I wanted to talk about. The idea came before I had a child. I didn’t have a baby to write the novel. It wasn’t research.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
How bonkers the early history of psychoanalysis is. I’d initially intended to write about Melanie Klein, who psychoanalyzed her own children. But as I read more about her, it felt too sad and fraught. She had a son and a daughter, and she used them as research subjects — not cruelly, but the net result was that her daughter founded a rival school of psychoanalysis and her son died in an accident that might have been suicide.
I hadn’t realized that Freud analyzed his daughter Anna when she was a young adult. He had treated her from early adolescence as a vulnerable person, but out of it came her incredibly satisfying professional life. What kind of life would she have had if she hadn’t had that opportunity? The life of a youngest daughter in the society at the time was very much staying at home and looking after your parents, and that being it.
I also learned how much it’s possible to write while really, really tired. Before I started writing the novel, I had the idea that you had to have lots of time and lots of room for thinking. The idea that you could write a book in 90 minutes a day when you hadn’t slept more than two hours in a go for 18 months would have seemed horrifying. When I was doing it, it just felt like: “Oh, yeah. It’s another day.” And it’s been comforting since, to think I could do it again if I had to.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I’ve only written this one novel, but short stories, too. And before I start writing something, it really is perfect; the Platonic ideal of the thing I’m going to write. The ideas are there, the imagery is wonderful. As I write it, it inevitably collapses into something that is less perfect but is real (so, ontologically preferable). All the ideas I wanted to put in this book ended up there. It didn’t become fundamentally different, but it went from being abstract notions to being particular, and therefore sort of flawed. I feel like it’s a less good book than the book I intended to write. But that’s a part of the process of making something real.
The grandmother became quite a different character from how I intended her to be. She turned out harder and more ideologically rigid. She ended up being a much more interesting person — obviously difficult and flawed, but more sympathetic.
There were things about Hunter that I couldn’t write about. He had this menagerie of animals that he acquired and looked after, but when they died he pickled them. So he had this growing zoo of both the living and the dead. But I couldn’t find a way to fit it in.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
When I was at university, I sang in the chapel choir, and we did a lot of English choral music. I’m inspired by the mood of it, the way that kind of music can form a space for reflection and encourage a kind of thought.
I always very much liked Bach. Who doesn’t? I find him heartening; he was this extraordinary genius of Western music and he had, like, 20 children and he wrote a cantata a week. I’ve always had this tremendously reassuring image of him sitting down on a Wednesday to write that Sunday’s cantata and saying, “The children are driving me nuts. What’s for lunch?” — and then writing these profoundly moving, extraordinary works between the beginning of the week and rehearsals. I find that mismatch — the idea that your life doesn’t have to be a parallel entity to your work — reassuring. You don’t have to be an interesting person, necessarily, to make interesting things.
Persuade someone to read “Sight” in 50 words or less.
It’s a short book; I think that’s very much in its favor. I hope that it’s an open-ended piece of work — it provides questions and avenues of thought and not answers. I think offering a way of thinking is something to strive for. It’s what I was trying to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.