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15th of November 2018

Books



Tessa Hadley on Teen-Age Losses of Innocence

In “Cecilia Awakened,” your story in this week’s issue, a teen-age girl suddenly finds herself seeing her parents—and herself—through harsh and unforgiving eyes. What do you think causes this sudden break with her former vision of her family?

I suppose it’s a change that just has to happen in every individual who awakens out of innocence. Cecilia’s parents have, until the moment of the story, been the whole horizon of her world and her perceptions. She has never queried their way of seeing, or understood that what they see—and how they see it—doesn’t amount to objective reality but is colored by their characters and their histories. She’s never seen them as if from outside the family. I suppose she could go on living inside their perceptions for the rest of her life, which would be so much more comfortable—but a bit like living half asleep. Although Cecilia’s awakening is painful, we like her the better for it; she’s going to take on the raw reality of her contemporary moment, not because she’s eager to but because her personality doesn’t give her any choice. She can’t keep herself from perceiving—perceiving her parents, and how they blunder, their ineptness and unworldliness. And of course, at the same time, she’s painfully perceiving the ways in which she, too, blunders and is inept. This is the first stage in developing an intelligence that’s capable of transcending its own prejudices, I suppose. No doubt the development of this doubt in any adolescent is usually a gradual and cumulative one—and yet there will be certain flashpoints, particular shifts of awareness brought about by cruel little moments of self-consciousness, such as the one Cecilia experiences in the church, that dramatize this necessary separation from the family. I find it a very poignant subject, full of suffering and comedy.

Why did you choose Florence as the site of this separation?

That’s where the germ of the story came from. A couple of years ago I was in San Miniato, in Florence, and a monk spoke to me just as he does to Cecilia in the story. I felt pretty much what she feels. I often wish I were a more oblivious tourist: I’m not really very good at travel. I wanted almost at once to do something in a story with my own shyness, and the feeling of guilty intrusion I tend to suffer from when I’m abroad. In an adult, the angst and shame are slightly ridiculous: I knew right away that for the unease to be more than just ridiculous it had to happen to an adolescent, where it could stand as a beginning to self-discovery. And, of course, the family’s displacement into this alien Italian culture is the background for Cecilia’s more particular displacement. Holidays abroad are funny things. I think quite often while we’re planning them we feel that our destination belongs to us and is under our control, in a way that our actual surroundings are not. Then when we arrive we discover that where we are is another real present, in which we’re at sea. Once we get home, the story closes over again, and we can do what we like with it. We can turn it into an account of the wonderful time we had.

You describe the whole family as being most comfortable in the past, connecting with history. In Italy, Cecilia is surrounded by relics of the past—the architecture, the art works. Why does that environment cause her to become so aware of the present?

I hope we can feel two things about that love of the past, two contradictory things at once. It’s a real passion, in Ken and Angela—and it’s one I share and hugely respect. I’m so moved by the once-reality of past eras, and by the presence of layers of history and culture stretching behind our contemporary lives. The few universals that all cultures and periods of history share have never seemed quite as interesting to me as the differences. Or perhaps I’m interested in the place where universal experiences intersect with the particulars of a given cultural moment. That’s the place where the realist novel or short story tends to happen. Adolescents in every era have, no doubt, to some extent broken with their parents’ perspective, or at least have ceased to see their parents as all powerful. But in each era this break will take a particular form, will fill the cultural space that’s possible and available. It really was texturally, experientially different to live, say, as an adolescent girl in Renaissance Florence. Or, for that matter, in Britain in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, as Cecilia’s grandmother would have done.

So I’m enormously sympathetic to Ken and Angela’s interest in the past, especially their interest in historical art works. But, at the same time, I know how tempting it is to escape into the past in one’s imagination, to use it to console oneself for all the pains and strains of the present. Experience in the past seems somehow smooth and safe, just because it’s finished with. The past doesn’t bite back; we can dream it whichever way we like. Whereas, of course, in the moment it was lived it was just another incoherent, agonizing present. So there’s a comedy for me in a certain kind of educated person who takes refuge in the safety of history, and imagines he really belongs there. When I was a child I felt passionately that I had been born in the wrong time. When Cecilia awakens, she’s feeling the bruising violence of unmediated contact with her reality now, which is all she’s truly got, and although this hurts, it’s a sign that she’s going to be really alive. She has been comfortable with a false, reassuring past, but in the art gallery now she sees, really sees, for the first time, how other that past is. She doesn’t belong there.

Cecilia is newly womanly and resentful of it, and her mother, Angela, has always resented the social pressure to play up her beauty or her sexuality. What do you think is driving that resistance in both characters?

In both characters, I suppose, we feel the perennial pressure point, where the individual is forced into a shape outside herself. The story isn’t necessarily a protest against this forcing. The forcing is what it means to participate in the human community. There isn’t any serious option to live entirely outside the community, in a shape we invent for ourselves. So many novels and stories are situated at that precise point where the individual feels the weight of the world pressing down on her, giving her shape. These stories are interesting when the individual sensibility presses back: there in the spot between those two pressures the story unfolds. At the story’s opening, both Angela and Cecilia are most comfortable in their minds; they aren’t quite happy in their bodies or their clothes. Probably Angela refused to wear lipstick or dresses partly because she’d broken with her mother’s way of seeing the world; she’d refused her mother’s desires for her. And who knows? Perhaps Cecilia will break with her mother’s refusal and work determinedly to be more worldly, like those girls in their crop tops. Perhaps as a result she’ll be able to meet her own eyes in the mirror, not feel that rather English physical shame—but no doubt there’ll be costs, too. Nothing’s perfect. And then Cecilia’s daughter, if she has one, will define herself differently again.

Toward the end of the story, you switch from Cecilia’s perspective to her mother’s. Why did you make that shift?

For a long time I didn’t know I was going to do this. I could so vividly picture Cecilia’s flight through the city, her relief when she was alone in the hotel room at last. I thought I was going to do it straightforwardly, from her perspective. And yet something nagged at me, a feeling that this wasn’t good, or full, enough to end the story. It was too inevitable a growth out of what preceded it, didn’t take the story anywhere new. So it was very satisfying when I suddenly thought—who knows where the idea popped in from, these solutions feel God-given when they come—that I could imagine her flight through her mother’s imagining of it. It made everything so much more complex somehow. The flight, and the desperation—and the clear-seeing and the doubt—all these became Angela’s, as well as her daughter’s. It became a bigger story, and not merely a satire of some characteristically clumsy British tourists. (Though it is that—who could resist?) It also seemed very loving: to write onto the page this intensity of sympathy and shared feeling between the mother and the daughter. Angela is ruthless, in the way she sees the truth of her daughter’s awkwardness—but the ruthlessness is part of her maternal love. And it’s also a glimpse into all the angst that may still be unresolved in Angela’s middle age: remember her embarrassment over the tickets at the Uffizi. She is imagining the bliss of escape for herself, too, no doubt.

In a sense, what Angela does at the end is write her own portrait of Cecilia. You’re writing Angela as she writes Cecilia—there’s a strange doubling effect, which also ties into the sense that Angela has of becoming her own mother looking at her as a girl. Or am I reading too much into it?

No, that’s exactly what I wanted, a crooked, halting, imperfect line connecting the three generations, each woman in turn having to make her own peace with her biology and her temperament, each one doing it in relation to her predecessors, often in opposition to them. Of course, we can’t finally know whether Angela is imagining Cecilia correctly. We pretty much trust her—who else knows Cecilia, if not this gentle, adoring novelist-mother? But there’s always the empathetic imaginative effort we make, and then there’s the gap by which it falls short of the truth of other people. Except in art, perhaps.

You recently finished writing a new novel—“Late in the Day”—which will be published next January. Does “Cecilia Awakened” relate in any way to that book?

No, not at all. It was wonderful, after I’d been so immersed for so long in the world of the novel, to write something as absolutely different as this. Although, now that I think about it, one section of the novel is set in Venice. So something Italian has come over me.

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