I Put a Spell on You by John Burnside – review
The Guardian, By Tessa Hadley
‘Women need to read this book’ – it’s a marvellous memoir and a revealing study of the nature of love.
John Burnside’s new memoir is a marvellously meandering, digressive study of the nature of love, built partly around the songs that formed him in his childhood and youth, and became "strands in the fabric" of himself. His mother sang along to yearning Andy Williams ballads on the radio, in the kitchen in Cowdenbeath and then in Corby; his grown-up cousin Madeleine played him Nina Simone singing "I Put a Spell on You", and he thought it "was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard". Madeleine enchants him, with her long fingers and painted nails – every time she visits she looks different, in a new outfit. And indeed it’s almost as if Madeleine recurs throughout the book, always different but the same; she is the first in a succession – a heavenly host – of mysterious, beautiful girls and women who touch his imagination, the women and the songs and the ideals of love all tangled helplessly together. The trouble was, the songs said that love was "a many-splendored thing", irresistible, mysterious, lasting a whole life through – but the marriages Burnside knew "were more like war zones".
When he is a teenager a girl sings "I Put a Spell on You" to him in a cafe in Corby; it’s only a momentary, random flare of contact, because they’re both involved with other people. A few weeks later the girl is dead, stabbed by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. The story haunts Burnside and confirms what he already half suspects, that the loveliest girls are the lost girls, the ones you can’t have: a scarred beauty, for instance, whom he glimpses once on his paper-round and never sees again; Iphigenia, or Ophelia; or the murdered wives in folk ballads. Or there’s Christina, the girl he meets later in Cambridge and loves so much that he can’t bear to kiss her, let alone fall into the banality of being her boyfriend. "Normal, more or less pretty girlfriends" can’t compete. Mrs Alighieri hasn’t got a chance against Dante’s dead Beatrice; a wife only has power in the real, prosaic world of disappointment. The dream of impossible love is driven by this fear of disappointment. "All any of us wanted was a chance at something new, something our parents hadn’t already failed at."
Women need to read this book. It lays out so nakedly, and with such persuasive power, certain mythic patterns in young male longing: that "strange twisted maze of desire and refusal" that can feel so baffling and bruising, on the receiving end. (Women’s longings are no doubt subject to their own twisted patterns.) When Christina tells him she loves him, "the remoteness kicked in again and I felt a kind of blissful indifference, even though she was so beautiful to me, so desirable, that I could scarcely bear it". He says he has to leave, he’s teaching a class; they arrange to meet later, but he doesn’t turn up. It’s not everybody’s story, nor the whole story, but it’s familiar and potent enough. (Think of Stephen Dedalus’s yearning at the end of Portrait of the Artist, most exquisite at the very point he’s about to leave the girl behind – has to leave, in order to preserve the yearning unspoiled. And Joyce knew all about the power of love songs.) The refusals derive partly from an ancient tension between the dream of free joy and the reality of the domestic contract, with its responsibilities: "the pleasure part, the sex part, the exquisite play that got you into all that hassle in the first place started to evaporate the moment you carried your bride over the threshold". The romance of the music pours into the gap between the two.
Burnside also speculates that male obsessions with dead girls may grow out of regret for the boys they’ve had to kill inside themselves, in order to become men: a "boy gets to play; a man doesn’t". He writes with brilliance about "the tedium of grown manhood", whether it’s the "dull, neuter, slightly stale" manhood of the professionals and middle managers his mother wanted him to join, carrying their burdens with "absurd solemnity"; or the violent, thwarted world of men like his father, coming home bloodied from the pub, devoured by the injustice of his subordination, crushed by the impasse of his work – first on building sites and then in the steelworks at Corby. He revisits, perhaps with a new kindness, the relationship that he anatomised with such cruel and tender complexity in A Lie About My Father, wondering now whether the man wasn’t "a painfully frustrated sensualist … his inner boy’s desire for joy and sex curdling into violent frustration".
Burnside has a lovely garrulousness that is distinctively his own. In between the stretches of narrative, he digresses into reflections, footnotes, etymologies, enthusiasms – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Elizabeth Bishop, "Hey Jude" and Diane Arbus. The book feels as labyrinthine as a mind. The pattern of his romantic love recurs in his distinctive apprehension of everything; the longing, or the song, or the love fleetingly glimpsed and not possessed, is a "grace event", offering an entrance into a world of real things that lies beneath what he calls the "Authorised Version" of the false social order. It’s no wonder that Wordsworth crops up again and again. What bubbles up into our lives from the world of real things isn’t safe or sound; it’s at "the dark end of the fair", crazy and suspect and darkly glamorous, charged with elemental delights but also violence and blood. The property-based code of the Authorised Version, on the other hand, is unjust and irredeemably corrupt, passed on through education, an illusion, inauthentic. Its "miserly logic" falsifies what’s true; the rich and powerful are "cheats", "the poorest are being cheated every day of their lives". In very fine passages about his mother, he is both grateful for her quiet acceptance of the world and impatient with it. In a way this book is his effort to balance the things his parents taught, his father’s destructive bitterness and his mother’s readiness "to make good … to ask for a moment’s grace".
This is a real contradiction, clenched like a knot at the heart of the book. If all social order is by its very nature unalterably corrupt and inauthentic, then the only meaningful response could be to turn one’s back on it. Outrage at injustice implies that a more just social order is possible, implies a social hope, and an engagement even – however wary – with the Authorised Version. The pain of this contradiction seems to be at the heart of Burnside’s experience of being in the world, wanting nothing to do with the "apparatus of property values and marital status and ballot papers" and yet helplessly part of it; torn between solitude and community. He finds his resolution in the present moment, in the "great romance" of the intersection between time and place. On a road in Indiana at nightfall, for instance, where it’s "mid-October, late afternoon in the woods and everything smells a little of sugar, one last wisp of summer’s lease before the return of the frost". His evocation is exact and enthralling. The lights in the farmhouses and restaurants are appealing, but he senses that "the inside isn’t quite as heimlich as it’s cracked up to be" and chooses to stay outside, "perpetually vanishing into a lost domain".