For Thy Great Pain… and Ti Amo for #NovNov22

On Friday evening we went to see Aqualung give his first London show in 12 years. (Here’s his lovely new song “November.”) I like travel days because I tend to get loads of reading done on my Kindle, and this was no exception: I read both of the below novellas, plus two-thirds of a poetry collection. Novellas aren’t always quick reads, but these were.

 

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie (2023)

Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on when she posits that Margery visited Julian in her cell and took into safekeeping the manuscript of her “shewings.” I finished reading Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love earlier this year and, apart from a couple of biographical details (she lost her husband and baby daughter to an outbreak of plague, and didn’t leave her cell in Norwich for 23 years), this added little to my experience of her work.

I didn’t know Margery’s story, so found her sections a little more interesting. A married mother of 14, she earned scorn for preaching, prophesying and weeping in public. Again and again, she was told to know her place and not dare to speak on behalf of God or question the clergy. She was a bold and passionate woman, and the accusations of heresy were no doubt motivated by a wish to see her humiliated for claiming spiritual authority. But nowadays, we would doubtless question her mental health – likewise for Julian when you learn that her shewings arose from a time of fevered hallucination. If you’re new to these figures, you might be captivated by their bizarre life stories and religious obsession, but I thought the bare telling was somewhat lacking in literary interest. (Read via NetGalley) [176 pages]

Coming out on January 19th from Bloomsbury.

 

Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik (2020; 2022)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken; Archipelago Books]

Ørstavik wrote this in the early months of 2020 while she was living in Milan with her husband, Luigi Spagnol, who was her Italian publisher as well as a painter. They had only been together for four years and he’d been ill for half of that. The average life expectancy for someone who had undergone his particular type of pancreatic cancer surgery was 15–20 months; “We’re at fifteen months now.” Indeed, Spagnol would die in June 2020. But Ørstavik writes from that delicate in-between time when the outcome is clear but hasn’t yet arrived:

What’s real is that you’re still here, and at the same time, as if embedded in that, the fact that soon you’re going to die. Often I don’t feel a thing.

She knows, having heard it straight from his doctor’s lips, that her husband is going to die in a matter of months, but he doesn’t know. And now he wants to host a New Year’s Eve party, as is their annual tradition. Ørstavik skips between the present, the couple’s shared past, and an incident from her recent past that she hasn’t yet told anyone else: not long ago, while in Mexico for a literary festival, she fell in love with A., her handler. And while she hasn’t acted on that, beyond a kiss on the cheek, it’s smouldering inside her, a secret from the husband she still loves and can’t bear to hurt. Novels are where she can be most truthful, and she knows the one she needs to write will be healing.

There are many wrenching scenes and moments here, but it’s all delivered in a fairly flat style that left little impression on me. I wonder if I’d appreciate her fiction more. (Read via Edelweiss) [124 pages]

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11 responses

  1. Skipped your Mackenzie review as I have my own to write. I’ve not yet read Ti Amo which I’ve bracketed in my head with Amy Bloom’s In Love, although they’re quite different by the sound of it. Very much enjoyed her novella, Love.

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    1. Love is the book of hers that I’ve read the most about and would be most interested to try. In Love was the more memorable bereavement memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How interesting that you found Ti Amo “flat”. I had a very different response

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    1. For all the talk of love, I didn’t really feel it…

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  3. You know, I’m reading the Mackenzie right now, and although I felt the same way about the style for the first thirty pages or so, I’ve changed my mind. I think the bare telling is meant to reflect the style of the original texts, and for me, it really did! (Also, I’m really enjoying the way Margery and Julian’s experiences are distinguished, how their personalities are shown to be very different—they’re not just two mad women or two religious women; Margery’s emotions in reactions to her visions are frenzied in comparison to Julian’s responses.)

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    1. Glad it’s working for you 🙂 There’s clearly renewed interest in women’s religious experiences and the effects of solitude on mental health, what with Matrix and the like.

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      1. Yes, definitely. I’m sure most of these were written before the pandemic (the vagaries of publishing schedules being what they are), but I have no doubt that the experience of isolation and the awareness of mortality that the pandemic has foisted on so many must be having an effect in making these kinds of stories feel newly revelant.

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  4. I have a arc of the Mackenzie from netgalley. I know more about Margery than Julian so I’ll see if I end up with the opposite impression from you! I didn’t realise how short it is

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    1. I was sure that with your interest in nuns you’d want to read this. I didn’t know the remarkable publication history of Margery Kempe’s book, or the fact that it’s basically the first autobiography in English.

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  5. […] Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aiken – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  6. […] For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie [Jan. 19, Bloomsbury]: Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on. […]

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