Tag Archives: Simone de Beauvoir

A desk of one’s own

Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.

Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.

hotel desk

Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.

The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:

first writing desk in Japan

Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.

For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:

Tokyo desk

It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.

But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:

The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.

Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town,  my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:

Simone de Beauvoir writing cafe

It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.

As Hemingway knew,

the great thing is to last and get your work done

because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

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Top 5 doomed literary loves

Perhaps it isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the season, as everyone loves a happy ever after, but sometimes it has to be acknowledged that the really great literature lives elsewhere.  With that in mind, and with Valentine’s wishes to all readers, here are ten minutes hate’s favourite star-cross’d lovers…

1. Anna and Vronsky – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The fairytale prince (though really a Count) escapes his destiny to marry the sweet-as-sugar Princess Kitty and skips off with the more captivating Anna instead.  Russian society at the time taking its cues from Paris, they might have been forgiven for carrying on behind her husband’s back.  Yet it is when the pair decide they can’t breathe without the other in the room and decide to throw career (him), family (her) and sanity (both) on the bonfires of love and lust that all hell really breaks loose.

Anna watching her lover fall from his horse mid-race and having to contend with his possible death under the suspicious eye of her husband is one of the finest scenes in the book, or possibly ever written.  And while the parallel story of Kitty and new love Konstantin provides a more realistic portrait of the early years of a marriage as well as acting as counterpoint, it is the raging, ultimately destructive, passions between Anna and Vronsky that linger long after reading.

2. Helene and Jean – The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir

Few things are more tragic than the discovery of crucial knowledge too late to do anything useful with it.  Witness reluctant hero Jean Blomart’s night of remorse and reflection as he only realises how deeply he cares for on-off girlfriend Helene after she has taken a bullet helping her ex escape from the Nazis.

The long vigil allows him the chance to reflect on the choices he has made in his life, politics and behaviour towards Helene – while wrestling with the decision over whether to send others out on a similarly dangerous mission – all in a suitably existential manner, of course.  But the philosophy never detracts from what is a cracking tale of betrayal, deceit, love, and ultimately, death.

3. Jake and Anna and Hugo and Sadie – Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Perhaps not since A Midsummer Night’s Dream have the forces of love got it so spectacularly wrong, with emotions in Murdoch’s first novel entangling to such a degree that no-one seems likely to get what (or who) they actually want.  Perfectly capturing the often comic choices of still-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better hero Jake Donaghue as he attempts to sort his chaotic life out enough to get the money, the acclaim and – of course – the girl he deserves.

His continuing mis-steps on that path to contentment, made due to his unvarying misconceptions of his world, are handled with such a light touch that it is impossible not to sympathise, even while desiring to give him a good shake!  A scene where he trails Anna through Paris, seeing her without her ever realising he is there, is beautiful in its longing and sense of loss.  This is another philosophical novel which never betrays the humanity of its central characters.  The inadequacies of language in conveying our perspectives – the ‘net’ of words we are all caught in – will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to tell someone they love exactly how it is and how it’s going to be.

4. Robert and Maria – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The whispered conversations, while curled in his sleeping bag, their hopes for their life together, the brutal intrusion of their final goodbye.  It is a short yet grand passion, full of idealism and beauty, despite – or perhaps due to – the death and horror that surrounds them.  The earth even moves.

Yet, like the Republic they are fighting for, it is not destined to last.  As with The Blood of Others, Fascist bullets ultimately prove too strong for even this perfect love to overcome.

5. Winston and Julia – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

What else could it be?

Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy realises that is because he wants girl really.  Boy gets girl.  Boy convinces girl to join him in overthrowing a ruthless dictatorship.

Fails.

Looking back over my choices I realise that perhaps there is a common theme, that love can’t survive in a world bedevilled with totalitarian regimes, Fascist atrocities and the stern disapproval of a rigid society.  Those structures will always be incompatible with such deep feelings because, as noted by Jonathan Carroll, in his excellent tale of un-doomed love, White Apples:

…real love is always chaotic. You lose control; you lose perspective. You lose the ability to protect yourself. The greater the love, the greater the chaos. It’s a given and that’s the secret.

The idea of love as anarchy works better for me than all the diamonds and flowers and chocolates paraded at this time of year.  Perhaps Saint Valentine, killed for his opposition to the Roman Emperor, would approve.

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