Unless you are a church-goer, you may not be aware that we are now well into the austere liturgical season of Lent. This may mean nothing to you; perhaps you have long since consigned the whole paraphernalia of religious observance to the recycling bin of social history. Like it or not though, the next few weeks promise to be pretty austerely Lenten for all of us: the Dreaded Lurgy of childhood tag games has become grim reality- noli me tangere!- and friends on social media are beginning to ask the question, “If I have to self-isolate for a fortnight, whatever shall I do with myself?” Jean-Paul Sartre may have written that “hell is other people,” but I suspect that for many the prospect of being alone with themselves is pretty hellish too. Being a grumpy misanthrope as well as a writer of obscure and difficult fiction, I am of course immune to isolation- if not to corona virus…
It is possible that, no matter how much time you spend scrolling through Facebook or gawping at Netflix, without the constant distraction of real-life social situations, your thoughts will tend to turn inwards. Self-reflection is a traditional Lenten discipline. Like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, you look into the mirror of your senses and weave the colourful tapestry of your self-image. Do you like what you see? Probably not. You begin to wonder, how did you ever get to be like this? One damn thing after another, this leading to that: that time she said… and then he said… Oh yes, and than I said… So it goes on, one scene after another playing endlessly in the remorseless Cartesian Theatre of your imagination. At least you can switch Netflix off.
Do you think about your past very much? And do you find yourself thinking about it more as you get older? Reminiscence is the scratching of an itch; we can find a kind of pleasure in it, but it’s one that can turn painful if we over-indulge. We may look back on the person that we once were, the things we did in our green innocence, with a horrified fascination. However, if it is true that memories are not stored in the brain like books in a library but are created afresh in the present by systems still unknown to neuroscience, then how reliable is our reconstruction of the past? Should we allow feelings of guilt and regret to arise and trouble us, or should we take comfort in the reliable old cliché tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner?
It is too easy to let self-reflection turn into an indulgent wallowing in self-pity. There is a fine line between a mature coming to terms with the past and a sentimental tear-jerking. But can a spell of navel-gazing have a creative outcome? Self-analysis is, or should be, anathema to a producer of fiction: no-one wants to read neurotic autobiography with all the names changed. On the other hand, memories- whatever that means- of the past can provide a context for fictional invention. In my own case, memories of South Wales in Tristan and the Dragon Girl and Peter and Paul, of Lindisfarne in Anthropocene Park, and of the place where I went to school, the Wirral Peninsula, in A Knave’s Pretence and Þe Wyldrenesse of Wyrale. If you do find yourself having to ‘self isolate’, why not spend the time reading some of these? In any case, isolated or not, I can assure you of a more than Lenten entertainment. I’d love to know what you make of them. Click on the titles to view the books: the links open in another tab. Enjoy!
May you have a fruitful Lent!