Life is not Binary

I don’t do drumrolling announcements, but after a long hiatus, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is available for Kindle again. You will have sensed the soul-searching of the past few months. I am working my way through my books, editing and formatting, and I am very happy to be bringing them back into the world. And am comfortable with them being on Amazon. I may write about this at some stage. I may not. Pdf versions are free to download, but I very much hope that people who can afford to do so will buy them. I am finally in a place where I’m happy to say I am confident they’re worth it.

songswhitebackground-front(the UK link is here, and the US link is here. The book is available in all other places as well. It’s $2.99 or equivalent, and it’s worth every penny)

But this isn’t a sales pitch. I wanted to talk about why I wrote this book, in particular the question of identity, of whether life is constructed between binary choices, between either-ors, or is, instead, a messy, loosely structured woollen vest of a thing. Hint – it’s usually portrayed as the former, but it’s most definitely, for me, the latter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is a blog run by the book’s protagonist, Sandrine, a teenager growing up in Hungary in the years after the  fall of the Berlin Wall. She lives with her father and cat in a huge house on the vineyard that’s been in the family for hundreds of years, and dreams of one day escaping, first to the metropolis of Budapest to be an artist, and then to the west, to find the English mother who walked out on her shortly after she was born. In the meanwhile her blog is her window on the world. Through it she gets involved in the wider landscapes of music and politics, forming a friendship with a singer called Michael, who runs a charity website and a band. When Michael asks her to support the band at a concert to celebrate Romania’s accession to the EU, she is caught up in teh middle of a nationalist riot and a single act of violence begins to unravel her life.

As the book opens, Sandrine defines her life in terms of dichotomies. Past/future, East/West, the country and the city, her family and her lover (she has fallen in love, from afar, with Claire, who once visited the vineyard – it is Claire’s death that starts Sandrine’s disintegration, and the book’s central picaresque, as she searches for information about her), her reality and her dream. As the book takes its course, and with the twin guides of her endlessly patient new girlfriend Yang and Michael’s enigmatic and estranged father Peter, Sandrine’s attempts to define herself by a series of clear binary choices begin to break down.

I originally brought the book out in 2009, and had the privilege of speaking about it, and the questions of identity it raises, at events to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I hope to do so again next year, though the 25th anniversary of the wall’s collapse may be eclipsed by an even more numinous European anniversary. I ended up giving three papers, and you can find them in the appendices to the paperback edition (available for £7.98 here).

Since then, it’s something I’ve come to think about even more, and the question of how we define ourselves, where our identity “is” and in what it consists, has come to dominate my work. I have never liked the idea of hierarchies, and binaries lend themselves insidiously well to the creation of hierarchies – “I choose this over that” turns to “I prefer this over that” turns to “I dismiss that as being inferior.” And binaries can never do justice to the simple messiness of life. “I” am not a neatly lined-up set of tick box options and never can be. What I tick in one box radically alters all the other boxes. More than that, what you tick in one box might alter all of my boxes.

I wrote Songs before intersectionality had become such a widespread hot button topic, but ultimately this is a book about intersectionality. Sandrine is female. And she’s gay. But she’s also white and her lover is Chinese. Each of these matters but none of them is a fixed point. “Sandrine” is a fluid thing, a set of messy sensual experiences and perceptions of the world that vary in perspective from minute to minute, place to place, and company to company. Understanding these things is essential to understanding Sandrine, but for Sandrine herself the most important realisation of all is that “understanding” has to take a back seat to “living.”

Anyway, here’s a flavour:

After two large bowls of paprikás and several fistfuls of bread, I kissed Dad on the cheek, washed up our plates and went upstairs. There’s a gap between two of the balustrades on the landing from which you can see the top of the kitchen table. For a moment or two I watched Dad’s back leaning into the struts of his chair as he read the paper. His arms and shoulders were relaxed, all the tension in his posture gone.

Our house was in a natural hollow on a south-facing slope of one of the Tokaj Foothills. It rarely attracted sunlight at ground-level, and the long, low building cast little shadow on the vines that crawled up the hill behind it. Had a large family lived there, as had been the case for most of Szant Gabor Vineyard’s history, the house would have been spacious. For us it was almost unwieldy.

The layout was the traditional wide and shallow of farmhouses and chateaux throughout Europe. It would have made sense to close down the rooms at each extremity, but it suited us to use every last corridor and cupboard.

The western side of the house was effectively mine. I could pad down its stone hallways, over shabby cotton runners, through airy rooms and what was left of the peeling trompe l’oeuil patterns on the walls, and the only company I had was the occasional mouse that had escaped Camus’ clutches.

I didn’t keep anything in these rooms, not even books, which I crammed into my bedroom two or more deep. There was just a breeze that blew through layers of woollens in winter, and dried the sweat on my naked skin in summer.

The last signs of life on the vines had long gone into hiding, so there was little to see from my bedroom window by daylight. At night there was nothing except shifting blue shadows in the moonlight that marked the contours of the hill. But I could still see the exact spot where Claire had stood on the gravel path, on the eighth row of vines from the house.