Claire-Louise Bennett - Captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire, the woman’s relationship with her surroundings becomes boundless and increasingly bewildering
Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond, The Stinging Fly, 2015.
story 'The Lady of the House'
Claire-Louise Bennett on writing Pond
How much should you let in, and how much should you give away?
Feverish and forthright, Pond is an absorbing chronicle of the pitfalls and pleasures of a solitudinous life told by an unnamed woman living on the cusp of a coastal town. Broken bowls, belligerent cows, swanky aubergines, trembling moonrises and horrifying sunsets, the physical world depicted in these stories is unsettling yet intimately familiar and soon takes on a life of its own. Captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire, the woman’s relationship with her surroundings becomes boundless and increasingly bewildering. Claire-Louise Bennett’s startlingly original first collection slips effortlessly between worlds and is by turns darkly funny and deeply moving.
Claire-Louise Bennet is a major writer to be discovered and treasured. —Deborah Leavy
As brilliant a debut and as distinct a voice as we've heard in years—this is a real writer with the real goods. —Kevin Barry
The revaluation of all values, as Nietzsche called for. Michael Hofmann repurposed the phrase compellingly in an essay on Thomas Bernhard—“the revaluation of all values … took place very early in Bernhard’s life”—and I’d like to employ it here to explain a beguiling strain in Irish/English writer Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly original debut story collection, Pond. I’m interested in the quality of the revaluation, the extremity with which convention in her stories wobbles and slides. What are we to focus on? Karl Ove Knausgaard has been accused of thinking too fixedly about cornflakes, practicing a kind of perverse perceptual relativism in which nothing is drained of possible amazement. Bennett’s fiction shares something of this, but doesn’t really go into things with the same wide-eyed liberalism. It’s as much about exclusion as inclusion. It poses as aleatory, as a sort of red herring, its thoughts drifty and baggy and shapeless. Meanwhile, it orders itself into a free associative fugue—plot-less, but designed.
Her interlinked stories—which can be read as one-offs, like short fiction, or serially, like novel chapters—move in subject, for instance, from bananas and oatcakes and almonds to fingernails, gardens, a priest, a talk at a prestigious university, a lover—at this point the series ends and the ghost of a narrative intrudes—before cul-de-sac-ing into a description of the narrator’s rustic routine. All this happens in the second story, “Morning, Noon, & Night.” Or the stories frack deeply and multivalently into a single premise: imagining the planning of a soiree, say (“Finishing Touch”). The third channel—I simplify, but these are broad groupings—is the Lydia Davis route: punchy micro-stories and a streak (used sparingly, but still used) for playing with the theatricality of the customer service rep/customer dialectic.
The mistake, I think, would be to note Bennett’s chosen subjects and decide she is a writer for whom content limps behind form. Or—equally wrong—to assume she parades form as the real content. There’s enough form here to go around, and a persona-based content to that form, but there’s also a content to her content, a harder to claim feat than it may sound. Her stories bob through the object world with comedy and intellectual force—a dérive through a foreign country, with or without passport and an official sense of purpose, but mostly without. “Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I’m not sure what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either,” the narrator says. What is being talked about is always supposedly not the point. And yet this is as much a structuring maneuver as anything, a base to return to and shape the stories from. The point in these stories is an ambling, revaluative, eternally seeking one, in which the objects worthy of thought are plucked from forgotten corners of the house and then examined, from a variety of angles, until they conclude or ram into a new topic.
“I guess what has always frustrated me is the emphasis on the human,” Bennett said in an interview in The Honest Ulsterman. Her stories, it is clear, often proceed from this frustration. The narrator lives alone in the Irish countryside, but is not Irish. She has neighbours, she once lived in the city, but now she lives in a cottage that’s been “pulled from out the side of the hill.” Her neighbour informs her of her cottage’s origins and she reacts strongly:
I really didn’t want to hear all about how my cottage had been pulled out of the side of a hill. It seemed an incredibly indecorous way of putting it and regrettably whenever I recall the phrase all I ever see is a glazed and gangly calf wrenched sideways from out its mother’s dazed and quaking backside.
For much of it she’s in solitude, narrating in an abstracted, essayistic way. Imagine if Robinson Crusoe were in opinionated, semi-mystical accord with the objects around him. A porta-potty appears outside, in preparation for a festival, and she considers it “an ally, an ally in from-the-hip decision making, and I felt nothing but gratitude towards its moulded and unerring bulk.” She visits a friend, who for one reason or another exits the room, and she feels “the sensation that someone somewhere was doing something nice for me, such as placing a piece of breaded fish onto a pre-heated baking tray in a fan-assisted oven,” a feeling that “dissipated the instant the sun left the room.” The style pays deep attention to mood—its contours and stimuli and obscurity—and shades into comedy without really viewing it as a destination. Much of the comedy arises from concrete object-hood. It’s this mix of the dead obvious vegetable life of objects, the noises and textures of nature, and the irrational, appealing aesthetic judgments resulting from these things: a comic space somewhere between confusion and religion, with an ironic pipette of commodity fetishism dropped in. (One of her shorter shorts is a Warholian ode titled, “Oh, Tomato Puree!”) The effect is a perceptual regime change, a tiny holiday-sized revolution in noticing.
After Pond’s publication Bennett wrote an essay for The Irish Times about her development as a writer. In adolescence, she recalls,
human beings and the stunts they pull were a minor constituent of my worldview. There were hundreds of thousands of phenomena more fascinating than human beings, and most of what I wrote at that time was little more than an inventory of all those things I found stunning and peculiar. Moths, pylons, flat grass, porcelain, wind, lace, ear drums, hexagons, night, glass, wolves, violins, charcoal, reflections, creosote, dandelion clocks, thunder, stars, bar stools, Jesus Christ…
A comedian of inventory, as the critic Hugh Kenner named Joyce in his study The Stoic Comedians. Kenner argued that Joyce employed language mechanically, experimenting with a sort of grammatical geometry until it became comedy. Bennett’s style can be abstract and physical, chatty and performative (a recurring joke is the lonely narrator’s baseless addresses to an audience: “you see” and “if you must know”), and makes a point of focusing on language as technology, staging a small protest where Joyce held an exhibition. The style feels modernist-y, has points where it verges on sing-song, verse, or essay, and is very aware of the obfuscating tyranny of language: in other words, a properly modern work. The collection’s title, for instance, comes from a sign a neighbor places next to a pond. “If it were left up to me,” she thinks, “I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond.”
It’s not that I want children to fall into the pond per se, though I can’t really see what harm it would do them; it’s that I can’t help but assess the situation from the child’s perspective. And quite frankly I would be disgusted to the point of taking immediate vengeance if I was brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it.
Elsewhere she says English isn’t her first language. “I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. … I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.” A quaint, humorous, lyrical radicalism: intro to theory and intro to the thoughts that might burrow in on you, alone in the Irish countryside.
It just so happened that while reading Pond I was also reading Thomas Bernhard. I would read Bennett in the morning and Bernhard in the evening, or sometimes both in the afternoon. They began to steep: the Bernhard would get into the Bennett and vice-versa; their sounds clanged or synced; they became useful points of reference, ways of understanding. Both have force and opinion and form. Bernhard is a ranter who plays his anger redundantly, in one key. Bennett, too, can rant (“I hate coming across photographic records of putatively outlandish cat behaviour and I hate hearing about cats”), but it’s not her usual mode, and she almost always shows range and aeration, and a sort of oddly askance reasoning. Her stories parabola through subjects with loose embroidery; charting them, in tedious creative writing class-style, might actually be fun. The main structuring principle is a sloping, cross-country, incidental escalation. “By the way” as refined formal technique, writ large—or incredibly small: “The rough sort of oatcake goes especially well with a banana by the way—by the way, the banana might be chilled slightly.”
*Claire-Louise Bennett was born in the southwest of England, studied drama in London (some of the stories are written as stage directions; she’s cited German post-dramatic theater as an influence), and then moved to Galway. The view from Ireland is of a rising star, with enthusiastic reviews and shout-outs from the country’s most celebrated writers. The novelist Anne Enright, for instance, has mentioned Bennett as part of a new modernism, coming in the wake of the financial collapse. Eimear McBride praised Bennett’s collection in The Guardian, confirming the buzz that’s been whirring in Ireland: “I’d heard more good whispers about Pond … than almost any other debut this year.” Irish writing seems always to be enjoying a moment—“Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers,” gushed The Millions, rather ridiculously, in their 2015 book preview—and in America, where I live, it’s not as if contemporary Irish writing’s ignored: coverage of McBride’s novel, for instance, or Anne Enright’s latest, The Green Road, proves otherwise. Pond, however, has been received here with absolute silence, perhaps due to limited distribution and the collection’s small press, small magazine background (Bennett’s stories appeared first in places like 3:AM Magazine and The White Review), but perhaps also owing to other reasons: the book’s subjects (non-human) or its experimentation (non-programmatic).
The silence matters, for when one does view Pond from America it seems uncanny. There’s a foreignness to Bennett’s writing; her riffs can seem more art world than world of letters, in their eschewal of narrative form and content. But—and this has been pointed out before, by Valerie O’Riordan—the style is redolent of a few American writers: Lydia Davis, as I’ve mentioned, in the collection’s shortest pieces, and the essays of Renee Gladman and the fiction of Lynne Tillman, or more exactly Lynne Tillman’s brilliant novel American Genius: A Comedy, in the collection’s longest ones. The voice is as singular and solitary as Tillman’s narrator’s, but isn’t quite as otherworldly; as in American Genius, there’s a sense of a decentred persona, hovering among its parts, as well as a togetherness, the unmistakable presence of a consistent style or personality. (Bennett’s theater background again shows itself here: a dialogue between performance and its dissolution.)
The book’s first epigraph, from Nietzsche, is not about the revaluation of all values, but the “fragmentation” of the self, “her decomposition into separate individuals.” The book’s structure mirrors its narrator: a loose, fragmented airiness swirling around traces of a pattern, whether that elusive pattern is self or story form. Or, better, self as story form: no backstory, no plot, not much dialogue, but a personality—full of oddity and unevenness but very clearly there, with its own traits and put-ons. There’s the narrator’s distinctive noticing, for one: personality or self at play in the world. And there’s her way with words. No one uses “avuncular” or “vertical” as she does: “porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive.” Or the case of “exactly.” An absurd plea for specificity always follows outrage, and the deployment of “exactly” is reason to take cover. “Where is my fucking sense of eventuality exactly?”
And now, my turn: what type of fucking book is this exactly? Pond has the irony and paradox of a great opuscule: so slim, so marginal, so incidental, yet new, startling, and very—it feels naïve to say—alive. It’s the pleasure of the writer’s notebook—the foraging writer, always noticing, attuned to space, making do with banally absurd and trivial things—but this seems limiting or just wrong of me to say. For what Bennett’s collection really does is transform the modest, private concerns of the journal (small things, objects, the immediate present) into a total art form. Another value revalued.
- William Harris
The stories in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond feature a consistent narratorial voice: a female first-person narrator who recounts past events, hypothetical situations, and self-discoveries to an implied interlocutor. A young Englishwoman living in rural Ireland (or so we infer), the narrator is unreliable to the extent that she is often unsure as to what took place in the past, what her motivation was, or why she is even recounting this in the present. She is generally as much as of a mystery to herself as to the reader; indeed, the narrative motor of these stories is less plot than the narrator’s attempt to fathom why she did or did not do something, or what exactly the truth might be behind a particular trait she has remarked about herself. She is also fond of pursuing the multiple permutations of propositions or hypotheticals that she herself has spontaneously proposed—the disjunction between the needlessness of these proposals and the implacable rigor with which she pursues them being a constant source of humor. The climaxes of these stories, such as they are, are often moments of sudden self-discovery coupled with a notable increase in intensity of the prose.Take, for example, the opening paragraph of the story “Finishing Touch”:
I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soirée. I have so many glasses after all. And it is so nice in here, after all. And there’ll be plenty of places for people to sit now that I’ve brought down the ottoman – and in fact if I came here for a party on the ottoman is exactly where I’d want to sit – I’d want to sit there on the ottoman. But I suppose I’d arrive a little later on and somebody else would already be sitting upon the ottoman very comfortably, holding a full glass most likely and talking to someone standing up, someone also holding a full glass of wine, and so I would stand with my fingertips upright on a table perhaps, which wouldn’t be so bad, and, anyway, people move about, but, all the same, I would not wish to make it very plain just how much I’d like to sit there, on the ottoman – I certainly wouldn’t make a beeline for it! – no, I’d have to dawdle in and perch upon any number of places before I’d dare go near it, so that, when finally I did come to sit on the ottoman, it would appear perfectly natural, just as if I’d ended up there with no effort or design at all.
The affectlessness of the voice is produced partly by mechanical repetition (“after all,” “and,” “ottoman”) and partly by the mode in which the hypothetical scenario is broached: an event we associate with joyful human interaction—a party—is reduced to the objects which enable it—the glasses and the ottoman. Likewise, the pathos-laden comedy of the passage arises from the disjunction between the sheer contingency of the thought-experiment (“I think I’m going to throw a little party”) and the strategic detail with which the narrator pursues its possible implications. This is compounded by the comic irony of the fact that, of all the possible “perfectly arranged soirées” she could have imagined, she invents one in which the very thing she desires—to sit on the ottoman—is partially frustrated. A subtle shift occurs whereby the narrator begins as a host and ends a guest at her own party, thus dispossessing herself of control over the very world she herself has imagined. Moreover, the story is potentially endless, since there is no internal narrative necessity to lead it back to the temporal present of the initial “I think”: in principle, the narrator could continue to add details to this imaginary scenario ad infinitum. This is one of the reasons why the stories in Pond avoid a sense of arbitrariness in their endings only by increasing the affective intensity of the prose: intensity substitutes for narrative closure.
One of the obvious sources of Bennett’s strange, compelling style is the way it exploits the intersection of two mismatches: between plotlessness and vocal excess, and between self-ignorance and self-narration. The stories take place in precisely those locations and moments which traditional narrative would tend to elide or abbreviate. For example, “The Big Day” opens thus: “I sat late one afternoon for a reason that resolutely refuses to come to mind in my neighbours’ house with my coat on all alone in the room between the kitchen and the parlour.” We never meet the neighbors, and are instead launched into the narrator’s attempt to deduce the possible reasons, some of which she later logically eliminates, as to why she might have been there in the first place: to give them bunting for the forthcoming party, or straws, or something from the postbox, or perhaps to collect misplaced keys. The effect of affectlessness is partly created by the way in which the narrator must logically deduce the motivations of her own deeds—as if she herself had not undertaken them. Each deduction becomes an excuse for ever-proliferating lateral observations (e.g., a page-long rumination on how and why exactly she laid out a box of straws on a wall). Ultimately, Bennett’s stories are nothing less than little style machines: plotlessness induces self-reflection, self-reflection is impeded by self-ignorance, which can only be overcome by logical deduction and prolonged self-analysis, each stage of which entails the proliferation of further lateral aperçus and more trivia. Though, of course, nothing could be less trivial to Bennett’s literary phenomenology than triviality itself.
These structural ploys are nuanced and accentuated by the texture of the narratorial voice. Bennett’s prose ranges across three registers. The first is a chatty, upper-middle-class Englishness which exploits the residual eccentricity of such phrases as “terribly swish,” “skedaddled sharpish,” “snazzy appeal,” and “Oh I’d be hopping.” At its weakest, the writing over-relies on this verbal eccentricity, but at its best it bathes these words in an apathetic emptiness which renders them new and strange. It achieves this effect by an occasional, calculated repetition of certain filler phrases (“of course,” “actually,” “by the way”), that betrays a distinct unease beneath the cheerful “English rose” surface. The second register is a formality bordering on academic prose: “[it] was rather the sort of consolidated outcome which is typically produced when a protracted and half-hearted analytical process aggravates the superior auspices of an exasperated subconscious.” This distancing style is at odds with the narrator’s constant interpellations of her interlocutor: “if you must know,” “for your information,” “you see.” Here again, the affectlessness arises out of an unnatural to-ing and fro-ing between the alienation achieved by the abstract prose and the more mundane desire to be listened to (betrayed, ironically, by the narrator’s comical pretence of reluctance to narrate). A third register then emerges at climactic moments. Here, the eccentric Englishness is dropped, and the abstraction of the academic style becomes overlaid with a rhythmic and affective intensity. There is an astonishing heightening of mood in these passages, where Bennett fuses a moment of self-discovery with a freshness of image and steeliness of enunciation to produce quite remarkable writing:
I only wish you could spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel. But an invitation of this sort achieves nothing: it comes to them as a threat. A threat they scrapple to keep at bay by tethering worn out schemes of placid cosiness about the place. They move about your home depositing things here and there, making ordinary noises along the way, like it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s ridiculous and quite untenable to become enraged and put off by such gentle armaments as these, yet I cannot settle, and so I drink. I drink to you; I drink to me. I drink to plough and fortify a one-track mind and suddenly, briefly, the blood surrenders, shuffles through the old channels, and there is no such thing as a false move.
In all of these stories the narrator is alone. Philosophically, the book is an exploration of solitude, of what it means to be a person and the way in which this is complicated by language. The first epigraph, for example, is a quotation from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: “It is as though … a sentimental trait of nature were bemoaning the fact of her fragmentation, her decomposition into separate individuals.” Bennett shares this “sentimental trait” and sets out to trace those moments, locations, or processes by which individuality comes apart at the seams. Many of the stories are torn between a ferocious desire, not so much for independence, as for the mystery of a type of self-unknowing which is experienced as plenitude, and, on the other hand, a need to be with and amongst other people, which forces her to articulate herself and, in doing so, to lose her tentative, experimental self in the ordinariness of conventional formulation.
Bennett exhibits a truly modernist suspicion of language. “English, strictly speaking,” she writes, “is not my first language by the way […] regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.” There is a real sense in which Bennett endorses a form of dualism: language (along with convention, individuality and ordinariness—all viewed negatively) versus physical and affective reality (including the materiality of writing itself—ink, paper, etc.). The eponymous story of the collection, for example, explores the narrator’s irritation that one of her neighbors, in preparation for a forthcoming outdoor party, has placed “a cautionary notice next to the pond” so that children won’t fall in. The narrator sees such “moronic busy-bodying” as preventing the child’s development of
the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable.
Whilst this initially seems a suitably contrarian and avant-garde position, it is not in fact dissimilar to the average conservative tirade against health and safety regulations. In such passages, the ideological implications of the upper-middle-class English discourse which Bennett occasionally instrumentalizes begins unwittingly to interfere with the book’s seemingly more abstract philosophical speculations.
This “interference” is reproduced in the stories’ obsession with matter. The narrator’s implicit preference for the materiality of signs over that which they signify is reflected in a potential blind spot: an underestimation of the social connotations of everyday objects. Let me list at random some of the “things” these stories mention: bunting, an allotment, a rural cottage, Japanese tapestries, a wine cooler, pannier bags, “granola and salads and caper berries,” damson, and tarte normande. One has only to recall T. S. Eliot’s definition of English culture—“Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar” (as well as Raymond Williams’ devastating paraphrase: “sport, food, and a little art”)—to note that, no matter how much one desires to “move about in deep and direct accordance with things,” there ultimately is no direct accordance with things, since these objects are always already socially mediated. Thus, there is a sense in which the book’s very desire to go beyond signification, and hence beyond ideology tout court, is itself ideological.
This is ironic, since Bennett has recently stated in an interview with the Honest Ulsterman that the notion of individuality she is deconstructing in Pond is “emphasized for capitalist reasons rather than wholesome ones.” The ultimate paradox, then, is that in order to produce a critical, literary phenomenology of the (anti-capitalist) person, Pond covertly relies upon a social content which tends to obscure the mediations of capital. In order to grant her narrator the space and time in which to reflect upon herself—or, rather, upon those now traumatic, now joyful points of depersonalization—Bennett focuses almost solely on moments which she believes to be pre-ideological: in the domestic sphere away from the world of work (yet actually still within the realm of social reproduction), and located in rural Ireland far from the social complexity of the metropolis. The fundamental wager of the book seems to be that the force of the “immediacy” of her narrator’s free-flowing perceptions will be sufficient to challenge the limiting modes of individual personhood fostered by capitalism. But this underestimates the extent to which such solitary “immediacy” is itself socially mediated. The attempt strategically to bracket social mediations out of a desire to generate a literature of “deep and direct accordance with things” is thus the strictly ideological condition of possibility of Pond's “pure” and disturbing materialities: it is an ideological critique of the ideology of the individual. This is the scandal—the skandalon, the stumbling stone—around which, like the mysterious object that “wedges itself,” “horribly visible,” in the collection’s eponymous pond, the stories revolve. - Daniel Hartley
Claire-Louise Bennett grew up in Wiltshire in the southwest of England. After studying literature and drama at the University of Roehampton in London, she settled in Galway. Her short fiction and essays have been published in The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful, The Moth, Colony, The Irish Times, The White Review and gorse. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013 and has received bursaries from the Arts Council and Galway City Council. This is her first collection of stories.