You can’t choose your relatives. But you can love them, loathe them, rage against them or take after them. Right from the earliest issues of Granta, writing about the family, whether as fiction or personal memoir, has been one of the magazine’s strongest elements. Some of the finest pieces from the first fifteen years, 1979 to 1994, were collected in the first Granta Book of the Family, published in 1995. Now, The New Granta Book of the Family brings together a fresh collection of pieces from 1995 to the present, all of which explore the complicated, often fraught relationships that families involve. Here, Liz Jobey explains how the friction, fragility and intimacy of family life informs some of our greatest contemporary literature.

 

Most family relationships are difficult, and sometimes they can become the most difficult human relationships of all. They tend to combine, as George Eliot wrote, ‘yearning and revulsion’, as we are bound by biology to people with whom we might have very little in common. I owe the prompt for the quote to Jeremy Seabrook, whose memoir, Twins, in this anthology, describes the almost complete alienation from his twin brother that lasted from birth until his brother’s death. It was a separation orchestrated by his mother, who, Seabrook writes, ‘whispered to each of us her dissatisfaction with the other, with the consequence that we viewed one another with distrust and a fierce defensiveness of our wronged parent.’ The long-term consequence of this maternal divisiveness was that ‘Separation has been, perhaps, the single biggest determining influence in my life.’

This may be an unhappy place to start, and yet for a writer, the difficulties of family relationships are fertile territory; not only does the family unit offer multiple opportunities to examine human conflict, whether parental strife, or sibling rivalry or filial angst or any of the painful variants in between, but it offers many examples of extreme behaviour, whether bitterness and cruelty, or – sometimes as alarming – doting parental care. Few of us, I hope, have ever had to suffer the remedies to which Edmund White’s mother, a state psychologist, leapt at the suggestion that one of her children was physically or emotionally under par. ‘If my sister or I ever spoke of general apathy, a broken heart, listlessness, anxiety, Mother would say, “I think we should run an electroencephalogram on you,” or, “Maybe you need a good neurological work-up.”’ It’s fair to say that in most aspects Lila Mae White was an unconventional parent, and she too, like Jeremy Seabrook’s mother, exercised an uncomfortably intimate dominance over her son’s every move. When, as a teenager, he started to go out, Lila Mae would tell her son, ‘Remember, I won’t be able to sleep a wink until you’re safely back here . . . Please don’t keep me up all night, honey.’ And, when he did return: ‘I’d stand in her doorway at midnight . . . she’d want me to rub her back; sometimes she’d turn on a light and ask me to press out the blackheads. Her skin felt clammy. I could smell the whisky seeping from her pores; in a kittenish way she’d call it “wicky”.’ With a mother like that, one might be tempted to say, what better son to have, than one who became a writer?

In selecting this anthology from more than fifty issues of Granta, from 1995 to 2009, I could hardly fail to be aware that the memoir, the first-person autobiographical form that generations of writers were taught to avoid, is the literary genre that marks this period more than any other. And what made memoir during this period more notable was that it was men, as well as women, who were writing about their personal experiences and their emotions. In America, an early example was Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, published in 1989, which proved that this autobiographical form could have a novelistic resonance. In Britain, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992) used football, and specifically a love affair with the north London club, Arsenal, as a means by which to chart a young man’s emotional progress. It was followed, a year later, by Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which explored the relationship, rarely exposed so candidly in print, between an adult son and his dying father. It caught the frustrating, humiliating tension of a son trying to reconcile his love for a man who appears to him, in so many ways, an absurd figure: a self-assured cheat who has exploited his wife’s loyalty and failed to recognize his own faults. The memory of his father’s life allowed Morrison to examine his own and the book perfectly caught the moment when all children have to acknowledge that, however much we might hate to admit it, we have been formed, to a lesser or greater degree, by the character of our parents and by our experiences within family life.

The memoir soon became the fastest-growing genre in non-fiction. Granta had been in the vanguard of its literary form, publishing not only Morrison’s book, but an early passage from what became Mikal Gilmore’s 1995 memoir, Shot in the Heart, about his family, including his brother, Gary, who was executed for murder in 1977, and William Wharton’s terrifying account of the losing his daughter, son-in-law and two small grandchildren in a multiple car accident caused by the smoke from field burning in Oregon. But beyond the magazine it was the worldwide popularity of Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir of his grim, poverty-stricken Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes, that developed the public appetite for ever more awful tales of family suffering, and by the turn of the century memoir appeared most frequently with the word ‘misery’ attached. As publishers vied with one another to produce an author whose traumatic experiences exceeded anything that had gone before, whole new sections in bookshops were devoted to the memoir, and creative writing courses, reacting to its popularity among would-be authors as well as readers, set up classes in life writing, as a new subdivision of literary non-fiction.

It was in the contemporary memoir, more than in any other form of autobiography, that the lines between accuracy of fact and accuracy of emotional description began to be blurred. All sorts of labels were used to describe this sleight of hand: ‘creative non-fiction’ (despite the pejorative echo of ‘creative accounting’) being one of the most popular. Against that background, Granta continued to publish memoir selectively. In Ian Jack, the editor of the magazine from 1995 to 2007, factual accuracy had its greatest defender, and any false flowering of adjectives or ‘atmospheric’ additions of, say, factory chimneys in northern towns long after they would have been demolished, would be quietly excised.

Whether or not it was related to the rise of the memoir, writing about the family, in the period covered by this anthology, was a particularly strong element in Granta. One only needs to glance at the list of writers collected here (and it would have been quite possible to assemble an alternative list, without loss of quality, from the wealth of available material) to recognize it. Omissions had to be made reluctantly. One positive decision, however, was to include fiction as well as non-fiction, on the basis that to exclude short stories about family relationships (which often have personal experience as their guide) would be to impoverish the reader to no good purpose. The longest story in the collection, John McGahern’s ‘Love of the World’, seems to me a small miracle of storytelling, a novel in miniature, which follows the passage of two people through marriage to parenthood, from love to hatred, and leads us, thanks to a judicious narrator, to see how the factors that affect some people’s lives move gradually to destroy them.

Many writers turn to fiction, even when using their own direct experience, because it gives them a greater freedom to discuss the characters of people they would otherwise have to identify, and, perhaps more importantly, to reveal the truth about their own emotions. Diana Athill, in a note at the end of her story, ‘Alive, Alive-Oh!’, which describes how a single professional woman’s life is overturned by a late and unexpected pregnancy, explained her reasons for choosing the third person when she wrote about the events forty years later:

My sense of recall . . . was sharp, yet the woman to whom this happened, though not exactly a stranger – I knew her well – was no longer me. Retelling this experience in the third person is my way of acknowledging the difference between ‘her’ and me.

Emotional truth is something Granta has always valued; the old diktat, that writing should ‘show not tell’, still pertains, as does the need for an author to establish the underlying sense of human morality in a story, which characters abuse at their own risk. So in this anthology, fact and fiction are distributed almost equally, in the belief that it provides a more rewarding reading experience. And while on the subject of statistics, for once – and this, too, came without any massaging – the gender split has come out fairly evenly. As it should, the subject of the family appeals as much to men as to women.

For anybody discussing writing about the family, it’s hard to avoid at least a mention of Philip Larkin. ‘They fuck you up’ provided a usefully provocative title for the first issue of Granta to concentrate on the family (Granta 37, Autumn 1991). But it is the final verse of that famous poem, less often quoted, that reveals Larkin’s disgust at the entire family project. Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.

The instinct to procreate, though, is strong in most of us, writers included. One of the earliest pieces collected here is by the American writer Jayne Anne Phillips. When it was first published in Granta in 1996 it was a work-in-progress, part of what would become her novel, published in 2000, MotherKind. It describes a new mother’s struggle to orient herself in the first week after childbirth. Her own mother, who comes to stay, decides, partly as a treat, partly because she is recovering from chemotherapy and too weak to provide that kind of help herself, to buy her daughter the services of a Mother Care agency nurse to look after the baby. Thus Phillips introduces the idea of balance, between the new life of the baby and the decline of the older woman, and between them, the new mother who gradually, reluctantly, moves from a state of dreamy post-natal semi-consciousness to the realization of her new responsibilities. ‘She would not be alone again for many years, even if she wanted to be, even if she tried.’

The miraculous transfer of life, from mother to child, is consolidated at the breast, and in this, as in all her writing, Phillips is both accurate and poetic:

Absently she traced the baby’s lips, and he yawned and began to whimper. You’re hungry? Kate thought, and he moved his arms as though to gather her closer. Her milk let down with a flush and a surge, and she held a clean diaper to one breast as she put him to the other. Now she breathed, exhaling slowly. The intense pain began to ebb; he drank the cells of her blood, Kate knew, and the crust that formed on her nipples where the cuts were deepest. He was her blood. When she held him, he was inside her; always he was near her, like an atmosphere, in his sleep, in his being.

The newborn baby in ‘Mother Care’ is the passive receptacle of his mother’s emotions. The baby in Jackie Kay’s story, ‘Big Milk’, is a more robust character altogether. As the narrator tells us at the outset, the baby isn’t ‘really a baby any more except in the mind of the mother, my lover,’ and at the age of nearly two, the little girl is quite capable of the naming of parts, in particular, her mother’s breasts, which come in two sizes: Big Milk and Tiny Milk. Big Milk, the left one, is ‘enormous. The right one small and slightly cowed in the presence of a great twin.’ This relationship, between mother and child and the breast, forms a unit that leaves the mother’s partner out in the cold. She lies awake while they sleep soundly together; she is isolated, guiltily resentful of the baby that has taken her place in her lover’s arms.

The baby has the power. It is the plain stark truth of the matter. I can see it as I watch the two of them. Tiny puffs of power blow out of the baby’s mouth. She transforms the adults around her to suit herself. Many of the adults I know are now becoming babyfied. They like the same food. They watch the same programmes. They even go to bed at the same time as the baby; and if they have a good relationship they might manage whispering in the dark. Very little fucking. Very little. I’m trying to console myself here. It’s another day.

This grim, painful humour is part of Jackie Kay’s strong literary voice: she is able to make us feel both the seriousness and the absurdity of a situation; the ways in which we are fools to our own desires, ambushed by emotion in the face of reason. In response to the baby’s dominion, the jilted lover acts, in order not to be passive. Only when she is far away does she realize, ‘that the baby has engineered this whole trip. The baby wanted me to go away. She wanted her mother all to herself in our big bed.’

 

One of the biggest changes in family life since the 1960s has been the gradual break-up of the nuclear family. These days, children grow used to having four parents – two biological ones and two stepparents – along with step-brothers and sisters. In 2007 the marriage rate in England and Wales dropped to its lowest since records began in 1862; in America, there has been a thirty per cent decline in marriage over the past twenty-five years – and separations, between couples whether married or not, have become accepted as part of life. When John Updike’s novel, Couples, was published in 1968, the dizzying choreography of partner-swapping in a small New England town made marriage seem irrelevant, if not redundant. Updike said he was writing about sex as the ‘emergent religion . . . the only thing left’, but it was the arrival of the contraceptive pill that reduced the practical risks of adultery and allowed women to enjoy sex as carelessly as men. Towards the end of the novel, Piet Hanema hands over his wife, Angela, to his neighbour, Freddy Thorne:

Freddy asked, ‘She’s on the pill, isn’t she?’
‘Of course. Welcome to paradise.’

But if separation and divorce have become a social norm, that still doesn’t limit the damage involved in trying to escape from a marriage, or trying to hang on to one. The way separating couples behave (and the way it affects their children) is drawn with horrible accuracy in Hanif Kureishi’s story, ‘The Umbrella’, when the narrator and his wife resort to a level of pettiness and cruelty that only two people who once loved each other can muster:

‘Give me one.’
‘No’
‘Sorry?’
‘I’m not giving you one,’ she said. ‘If there were a thousand umbrellas there I would not give you one.’

The memory of the night his father left home for good, over forty years before, is the central image in Graham Smith’s short memoir of his father, Albert Smith. Though he came to know his father eventually, Albert Smith was never reconciled with his wife, and lived alone, a few miles away from his family, for the rest of his life. What comes through in the writing is not a child’s bitterness, but the mature recognition of his father’s self-destructiveness and what that cost him. It isn’t the only example in this anthology of the complicated emotional negotiation that has to be made when writing about a parent – between finding fault and paying tribute.

When Granta first published Raymond Carver in 1981, with his story ‘Vitamins’, it introduced a writer whose voice would become part of the magazine’s character. To enter a Carver story was like slipping into a pool of water at body temperature; you were in it before you realized, and even if the people and places described were far from your own experience, you recognized that what you were reading was real. There was a momentum in Carver’s plain, short sentences that meant the reader covered a lot of ground in a single paragraph. Near the beginning of one of his most famous stories, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, the sense of instability, of something temporary about the characters’ lives, is built in from the start.

The four of us were sitting around [the] kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa – Terri we called her – and my wife Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.

In 1998, ten years after Carver’s death, Richard Ford wrote about the things he most admired in Carver’s writing.

. . . to me the most arresting quality of Ray’s stories was not how much they drew on life, or how dire or spare they were (they often weren’t spare), but, rather, how confirmed he was, how unswerving was his election of art – stories – to be life’s consoling, beautifying agent. In the very imagining of fictive events, in their committal to shapely, objectifying language, in their formal depiction of emotions we readers will perhaps never have to face in life, there is pleasure and relief and also beauty.

Carver was one of my favourite writers a long time before I joined the staff of Granta in 1998, so when we had the opportunity to publish ‘Call if You Need Me’, a story that Carver had not published in his lifetime, and which therefore risked the condemnation not so much of literary critics but of those who thought that what remained was best left undisturbed, it was – despite the sceptics – a thrill to have him in the magazine again. The story is about a couple who leave their respective lovers and their teenage son to attempt a marital reconciliation.The first two sentences give readers all the background they need:

We had both been involved with other people that spring, but when June came and school was out we decided to let our house for the summer and move from Palo Alto to the north coast of California. Our son, Richard, went to Nancy’s mother’s place in Pasco, Washington, to live for the summer and work toward saving money for college in the fall.

If you are a fan of Carver, when you come to this story there will a shock of recognition at the familiar voice, and pleasure in the way it can put you into a room with a couple of bickering people and make the struggle that re-routes their lives feel like something universal.

There has always been a tension – sometimes creative, sometimes antagonistic – between Granta’s ‘English’ writing, by which I mean writers from Britain, and American writing, as exemplified by Carver, Ford, Tobias Wolff, Jayne Anne Phillips, all of whom appeared in what is probably Granta’s most famous issue: ‘Dirty Realism’ (Granta 8, Summer 1983). But though it was fashionable, then, to prophesy the demise of the English novel, the work of writers on this side of the Atlantic has somehow managed to survive. In 1993, Helen Simpson was one of Granta’s twenty Best of Young British Novelists, and few writers can match the naturalism of her stories of middle-class motherhood. Her female narrators, in recounting the small anxieties and compensatory pleasures of family life, nevertheless convey that underlying tension between fear and contentment so familiar to women with children. (I don’t have children, but when I once bemoaned this to a friend, she said, ‘Once you do, you never stop being afraid.’)

The story published here, ‘Early One Morning,’ is bounded by the duration of the school run. It is told from the point of view of Zoe, who, as she drives, is half-listening to the banter of her son and his friends in the back, but because she has sworn not to interrupt or join in, is left to ponder her life as an increasingly middle-aged, dispensable parent (her son, George, is nine; her other children are older). She replays the compromises she has made in leaving behind her professional life to take care of her children full-time.

She’d done the sums, gone through the interviews in imagination, considered the no-claims bonus; she’d counted the years for which her work time would be cut in half, she’d set off the loss of potential income against the cost of childcare, and she’d bitten the bullet. ‘It’s your choice,’ said Patrick. And it was.

Now, so many years later, she is one of a dwindling number among her group of friends who is still married. She appears to herself as a tired, careless, absent-minded woman who even forgets to wear make- up, but as she thinks herself into old age she wonders whether she might bloom again.

. . . perhaps the shape of life would be like an hourglass, clear and wide to begin with, narrowing down to the tunnel of the middle years, then flaring wide before the sands ran out.

Death is part of family life and we all have to deal with it. We expect to lose our grandparents, and then our parents, in that order, and for their deaths somehow to prepare us for our own. But when death comes unexpectedly it subverts the natural order of things, forcing on to mothers and fathers and siblings a level of grief and suffering they could never be prepared for. In Graham Swift’s story, ‘Our Nicky’s Heart’, a mother is faced with a decision that few women will have to make, or few families have to live with. But this doesn’t release the reader in any way from the agony of the struggle between the selfishness of maternal instinct and the pull of moral duty.

Nothing could have prepared David Goldblatt for the day his father, Ivor, was robbed and murdered at home in his flat by a couple of carpet fitters, and nothing could have prepared him for the aftermath. But in writing about it he found an episodic form that as it shifts between memories of his father, visits to the police station and trips to clear out his father’s flat, communicates a real sense of his bouts of fury and grief. The matter-of-fact sentences only make his underlying hysteria more apparent.

When anyone is murdered the police want to take a look at their home. When they’re murdered in that home, the police want to take a good long look. In Ivor’s case they examined his flat for almost a month. They looked at him for just as long – time enough for three autopsies, one for the prosecution and one for each of the two defence cases. We got to see him for ten minutes in the Uxbridge morgue, a low brick building of studied anonymity. Unadorned it is surrounded by stark beds of cracked earth and leggy municipal roses strewn with a thousand cigarette butts. Inside it’s suffused with seedy, thin, yellow light, furnished like a cheapskate undertakers.

It would be a mistake, however, to think this is a collection without happiness. There are many more pieces than the few I have mentioned here, and among them are those in which family relationships are fond, respectful, equable, even funny. The exasperation with which Tim Parks describes the bond between Paolo, his brother-in-law, and Paolo’s mother, who both sides of the family call ‘Mamma’, has a wonderful tolerance to it, though they drive him to the edge of his patience. Robin Davidson’s journey across the Central Australian desert with four camels makes a great adventure story, even before her unexpected liaison with Eddie, an Aborigine. Some writers have found it sufficient to celebrate the people who nurtured and formed them. A.L. Kennedy writes about her grandfather, Battling Joe Price, an amateur boxer who would have defended her with his life. John Lanchester, in remembering his modest, hard-working father, writes this: ‘He was a good man, in his unostentatious and shy way one of the best men I have known.’ Ali Smith sums up her feelings for her father – and his for her – in a final brief, perfectly executed snapshot. This is the kind of familial closeness that many readers will recognize and others will wish they knew.

 

Photograph © Dan Mogford / The Figurski Family

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