By a happy accident last week, I happened upon Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut Pond. After a meeting and a tour around Oslo’s Litteraturhuset, I spent some time browsing the Tanum bookshop on the ground floor of the building next to the cafe. I was browsing through the English language fiction section when the stark blue of the Fitzcarraldo Edition of the book jumped out at me. The book was actually first published by The Stinging Fly Press back in Ireland and is currently available in the US via Riverhead Books, and imprint of Penguin RandomHouse. I first encountered Bennett’s work in the pages of The Penny Dreadful, where the chapter of Pond known as “To A God Unknown” appeared in their fourth issue, so this discovery was exciting indeed.
The book has received stellar reviews. The book review of the New York Times said of it that it was “a sharp, funny, and eccentric debut … ” and that the book “makes the case for Bennett as an innovative writer of real talent. … [It]reminds us that small things have great depths.” Many have commented on the seclusion of the character who forms the centre of the book. On the pond and on Emerson’s Walden. The cover of the Fitzcarraldo Edition of the book with white lettering against a deep blue background adds heft to the pond in the book, which is a neighbour’s pond, pointlessly but also pointedly signed.
What I found interesting about reading Pond was that it draws you in and on – it is strictly speaking a collection of short stories, although the character through whom we experience each story is the same woman. There are longer stories often punctuated with smaller snippets that break you, momentarily, out of the spell woven by the longer sections. The collection of stories has a certain degree of forward propulsion to it but it is best when you ignore this and luxuriate entirely in the telling. There is no plot as such, which can make it a very visceral, very real experience when reading. One of my favourite passages concerns an ottoman the character has and her hopes about who will sit at it during a party:
I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soiree. 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…
The woman then contemplates a situation in which she imagines coming to the party and someone already sitting on it, and how she would slowly move closer to being able to sit on it. Among the guests to come to her party
I wonder who out of everyone will sit on the ottoman? Well, if you must know, that is not a spontaneous point of curiosity and I don’t wonder really because in fact I already possess a good idea – a clear picture actually – of who will sit upon the ottoman. Oh yes, a lovely picture as clear as can be.
This to me is a trademark passage of fixating on some thing, some object, and making it not from one thing into another thing but a conduit for thoughts and ideas and mental meanderings. In an interview with The Paris Review, conducted by Philip Maughan he notes at the end that
At a reading in London last year you said that Pond was “a love story,” and it’s true there’s more sex, sensuousness, and longing in it than critics seem to have noted.
There is this phrase that something or other “has captured my imagination,” and I think that love captured mine at a young age. The madness and the mystery of it overwhelms me, the beauty and the tenderness of it reassures me. Love channels throughout my imagination in the same way that a fragile yet tenacious vine weaves in and out of an old wall…
Maughan is certainly right that sex, sensuousness, and longing form part of the story too. But not all the sex or the potential encounters are tender or reassuring perhaps. There is also the dread of potential sexual assault present. Jia Tolentino in her New Yorker article about Pond notes of an encounter with a hooded man in the section titled “Morning, 1908” that:
The imagined danger is all the more frightening for the swiftness of her acceptance—the toll many women pay to make the experience of danger go away.
The narrator looks around at the pasture, at the cows, the incremental sunset. She thinks of the imagined rape, a vision that “had not been incited by fear of him but rather by the horror I had felt towards my own twisted longing.” She walks back home as the man’s figure recedes, dispassionately narrating the mundane psychosis familiar to anyone who has ever spent too much time alone.
Sexual violence, like so many other things in this set of stories, is represented as utterly quotidian. And it is Bennett’s ability to make so much of the quotidian that makes this such a powerful read. Another book which I recently read was Leaving Leaving Behind Behind by Inger Wold Lund. It was published by the Ugly Duckling Presse in 2015. This is another book I came upon fortuitously in another Oslo bookshop, Schou’s Books.
In some respects it shares a certain amount with Bennett’s Pond and it’s worth thinking for a moment about the similarities between both books. Bennett’s Pond is, from my reading of it, about extrapolation – about moving the focus out from the cottage and her character’s innerlife through a rich and profuse language. Inger Wold Lund’s Leaving Leaving Behind Behind which is somewhere between prose and poetry, and prose poetry proper, like Bennett’s book, loosely comes together in separate snatches of story and poem, and revolves in some way around the desire to find love. Unlike Bennett’s work, the wording is spare and minimal, skeletal almost. It might read indeed as a kind of yet to be fleshed out counterpart to Pond. But it stands alone, and I read the book of poems in a single sitting and was, like with Pond, wanting more but also exhausted by the pressure placed on the words and the sense of being overwhelmed in this case by the blank spaces. Here is an extract to give a flavour:
Some years ago. Outside a studio.
The asphalt was still warm from the sunshine earlier in
the day. Inside there was a party.
So you are together now?
But you know that he never stays.
What do you mean?
I mean that he always leaves.
Or this, later in the series of poems:
Many years ago. In an apartment.
He told me that he did not like it when men he met on the internet slept over. He preferred to clean his room, make his bed and put on newly washed clothes. Then he liked to sit without moving, while waiting for the doorbell to ring. That, he said, was his favorite moment.
What do you like?
He asked me.
I like it when my pillow smells of someone else.
Reading these passages again puts me in mind of the end of “Postcard”, a little after the halfway mark in Pond:
God in heaven it is raining so hard now – straps are beautiful, just hanging in fact, off a chair by a pale unclean bathtub. It passed – I came off the bed and I walked to the window and blew two or three toenails out upon the wet roof of the very room where recently a dinner party to celebrate a birthday had occurred. The zip on my dress was long and gold, you see.
Leaving Leaving Behind Behind could be written for a lover, or for a former self. In this way, Lund leaves space in her poems for the reader to enter, and the book grows in our mind, continuing to take its place in an ever-present “after.”
It would not be much of a stretch to say something similar about Bennett and Pond.