- Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving, by Michèle Roberts. Sandstone Press. $27.25.
Anglo - French author Michèle Roberts has previously published a memoir, short stories, poetry and 16 novels, including Daughters of the House (1992), which won the W. H. Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The idea for writing Negative Capability came after the rejection of Roberts' latest novel by an unnamed "Publisher" and "Lily-the-Agent". Roberts reflects, "My past successes counted for nothing". Am I "too literary, too difficult, too experimental, too serious, too poetic, too unironic, too female, too ex-Catholic, too uncool, too everything?"
Roberts feeling, "like a failure on all fronts", decides to write a "diary of survival" over a year. This is not, however, a diary in conventional form, but rather 12 chapters, focusing on one day in each month, of Roberts' life in Walworth, South London and her dilapidated small house in Mayenne in north-west France, which she bought with her 1992 literary prize money.
She takes the concept of negative capability from an 1817 Keats letter, "dwelling peacefully within contradictions without striving for rapidly arriving rational solutions". She hopes the diary "will compose a self for me, a future self, a possible self, a strong self I've lost touch with".
Roberts wants to see herself as a "flâneuse", a stroller commenting on life's detail, but worries that instead she may be seen by others as "a boring ole feminista", "a damp squib sputtering out".
The seemingly mundane detail of her daily existence extrapolates into poignant and cogent observations, reflecting the spectrum of Roberts' emotions, on the value of friendships, particularly female, societal inequality and the joys of gardening, food and literature.
Thus, Roberts expands her visit to a Morrison's supermarket to buy cheap and overripe vegetables into a colourful description of the supermarket's diverse clientele and observing, "just being in a queue was a comfort: I had a place, braced by other people".
She especially loves the French market stalls in Mayenne, selling a plethora of breads, cheeses, vegetables, wine and seafood. There are long descriptions of her favourite stallholders, especially the "majestic, overalled, La Patronne", whose husband, Roberts suspects, has "run off with some fetching divorcée sporting the lingerie featured in the windows of Gougeon Modes".
Buying "vierge folle" (mad virgin) cheese, with the inscription in French, "don't leave me too long, take me now, don't let me turn sour and curdled with waiting", leads into a commentary on Doris Lessing and female orgasm.
Roberts recalls how she has pursued many of her lovers with poems and invitations to lunch and to bed. "Whether or not rejection ensued, or disaster, or pleasure, I was clear that female desire might pre-date that of the male or at least meet it halfway. Heavens above, French literature indicated this, being full of female would be seducers, whether or not they come to sticky ends, as unfortunately they often do in opera".
Roberts, as a single overweight woman in her late 60s, feels overwhelmed in a visit to Paris by "les belles parisiennes (who) are in a class of their own when it comes to haughty glamour". She determines not to be the "ageing, needy, self-deluded woman who mourns that she is not properly loved", depicted in M.F.K Fisher's novel, The Theoretical Foot.
Roberts' relationships range from recently departed ex-lover Jack, with whom she had "enjoyed a heady mixture of poetry and sex", her mother with whom she had many early conflicts, feminist friends, literary acquaintances to local shopkeepers, especially the lonely young Indian who sells her the Guardian each day.
Roberts gradually acknowledges that her publisher had valid objections to her original manuscript. The various rewritings and rejections of her novel provide a backdrop throughout the book, before its ultimate acceptance for publication as The Walworth Beauty, which Roberts celebrates with a glass of Muscadet and a tomato and anchovy salad.
Roberts provides insights into the book trade, such as a critique of a London Review of Books Bloomsbury book launch and a Dublin creative writers course where an American psychologist, who wants to become a bibliotherapist, refuses to submit any written pieces because she is only there to observe what people read.
With dry humour and candid self -awareness, Roberts follows "Keats' friendly ghost", acknowledging the ups and downs of daily life, a fact even more relevant in the Covid-19 era.
Negative Capability is ultimately an acknowledgement of hope in adversity, the joys of writing and reading and a celebration of friendships.