Book Club: Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

“I’ve read Proust all the way through because everyone said I’d like it, but Collette’s little sketch of Proust coming into a room after everyone had thought he’d gone and already begun gossiping about how he was a fag was only about three paragraphs and could imply the other 9 million pages. Nevertheless, I liked the other nine million pages and recommend them to anyone in solitary confinement or otherwise out of commission. You can’t read Proust at the Laundromat.” — The Hollywood Branch Library, Eve Babitz

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a madeleine. I wouldn’t even know if any bakery here stocks them. I’m doing the annoying thing where I let you know that I’ve read Proust. When Babitz does this, it’s cucumber cool, but when I do it’s obnoxious as hell. Like Babitz, I enjoyed what I read, and when reading Proust I felt an open invitation to join his reverie.

While reading Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett I felt like an intruder. Why was I being allowed to know such private thoughts? This from a narrator who admits to being a secretive person. At first I wasn’t fully sold on the novel. I had a problem with the voice in my head.

That is to say, I heard two competing internal narrators. The setting in the Irish countryside and descriptions of a lonely cottage brought to my mind “Jack’s Garden” by V. S. Naipaulon, which I heard Karl Ove Knausgaard read on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. After telling the story, Knausgaurd and Deborah Triesman discuss about how difficult (boring) of a story it is.

I can agree. It felt interminable. Endless descriptions of where Jack’s cottage sat and how it related to Stonehenge and the paths that could be taken to and fro. However, while reading Pond I could hear Knausgaard’s voice and my mind was playing a trick on me because it wasn’t the right voice at all.

Yes, the narrator had intentionally left the city for seclusion and yes, descriptions of the surroundings abound, but there was another voice. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s, in fact. Hers was much more appropriate. Her English accent was closer to Irish, her sardonic wit, and supernatural ability to deliver a perfect aside just fit. I don’t know where I would have landed without her.

Once this internal struggle was settled I felt much better. Anyway, I started this off with Proust because that’s required, right? When talking about any first person narrative dealing with memory one must make the obvious comparison. But this is not Proust. This book is too poetic. I couldn’t tell if I was reading prose or poetry and this blurring of lines made me think, more appropriately, of the novel as a daydream.

Bennett frequently invokes daydreams. She, to steal one of her words, luxuriates in them — and you join her. This is what felt intrusive. Daydreams are full of unspoken ambition. They provide a layer of possibility unfulfilled by cold reality and point to a life desired but unlived. These thoughts are too private and honest to share with others. Pond is pure escapism for both the author and reader. She doesn’t exist on this plane and you drift away with her.

Bennett does write in English; I know this. It is definitely English, but it’s not my English. At times I had the impression I was reading a translation of something else into English, but that does a disservice to the voice of the author. These exotic words (luxuriate, elision, serrulated, discomposed) people don’t generally use them and if they do, they’re showing off.

This old-fashioned language transported me both out of the present and reality, but this book is set in the present. It has texting and swearing. These linguistic anachronisms might be why my mind wanted Knasgaard’s Norwegian accent to reinforce how foreign the language was to me.

Very quickly, while we’re talking about experience and remembrance, you can’t do this without talking about Sartre. What Jean-Paul spends nearly all of Nausea doing Claire-Louise does in a single line: “that is to say I won’t be able to write emails like that for the first time again.” She was describing writing hundreds of “graphic and obscene” emails to a romantic partner. There in a single line all the melancholy of recognizing you only get to do something for the first time once with none of the tedium about what it means once you’ve acted that derails Jean-Paul.

So goes the novel. Filled with entrances into and exits out of this quiet world. Some pictures are clearer than others, but it’s a place that I’d like to revisit. A friend I didn’t know I had, and that I don’t know that I can even call a friend. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bennett contains my review within her novel: “in any case it’s the impression that certain things made on me that I wanted to get across, not the occurrences themselves.”