On reading Bakhtin

On reading Bakhtin

On a confined afternoon our writer sits at the kitchen table with a flower placed strategically in front of her. She has decided that today’s task is to describe the flower in a manner that will enable her readers to see the flower through her eyes. To visualise it. Maybe even catch a hint of its sweet but fading perfume. How very ambitious of her. She wonders briefly what exactly the point of trying to have other people look through her own very unexceptional eyes is, but she pushes this thought to the back of her mind for if she does not, no text will get written. It is not the first time she has carried out this sort of exercise. She remembers once trying to catch in words the caressing blue sway of irises on a stone terrace, the press of the spring sun’s warmth on her back. Like the heel of a lover’s hand. The sigh of her skin in response.

Today’s flower is in the small, square, white, plastic tub it was bought in. A large wrinkled bulb virtually fills the tub. The soil has dried out.

This was not how she had originally started. Her first attempt began with three green stems, or should it be stalks? And then concentrated on the tiny star-like, six-petalled flowers, adorning the two main stems. The third stem, in the centre of the plant, still smooth and unblemished.  Would it be helpful to count the flowers? Difficult to do without causing harm, breaking or snapping. Carefully does it: about sixteen on the fattest stem. She knows there must exist technical terms for all this. But if her reader is not familiar with them, those terms won’t be all that helpful. On the contrary. They might confuse or even alienate her reader. Since this happens to her quite often, she knows the risks. Nevertheless, the urge to stop writing, and to click and find the specific, technical terms is as strong as the urge for a cigarette when she has a glass of alcohol in her hand. In other words, a physical need. But she resists. She is still capable of resisting.

There are four long pointed leaves encircling the stems. The leaves are yellow-tipped from lack of watering. Green, white, stems, stalks, leaves, flowers, one single bulb. Readers might be able to deduce which flower but not from the writer’s powers of description she fears. The month of March and sweet perfume. The mention of perfume rules out the flowers pushed to the end of the table. These flowers, even alive had no smell, despite their (now faded) pink and scarlet and purplely lushness. Long pale stems droop and the flowers’ once velvety centres are denuded. Only ragged green petticoats remain, for the petals have fallen and lie curled and scattered, unswept on the table.

A paperback copy of La Peste, has also left on the table, its spine pointing towards the ceiling. She has never read La Peste. Maybe she should. Particularly now. Her sixteen-year-old son seems to have been reading it forever. Is it healthy for him? She could ask him what it’s about. Should maybe. But she would have to pick her moment carefully. And risk rebuff.

Her gaze falls on the blue cover of the Bakhtin reader.

A fly buzzing and thudding against the windowpane saves her. It alights and six jointed legs go tickety tickety ticketing over the glass. It tilts backwards on sticky pads and rasps together front legs. She’s too far away to see labella and proboscis but the fly’s compound eyes are juddery and manic. She idly wonders why she knows more fly words than flower words.

In the other room, her son starts playing scales on the piano. Her breath catches. He is playing in a bored sort of way. It takes her back to when she used to take him to lessons early on a Saturday morning. She would park up in front of the teacher’s house and go for a half hour walk whilst he played. Sometimes he would be sitting on the bonnet waiting for her when she got back to the car. He never seemed to resent waiting. Both had smiles at the ready. It was true that he didn’t practise regularly, contenting himself with tinkering with the keyboard now and again. When he thought no one was listening.  

At the last end-of-term concert they attended, a couple of years ago, his performance had been lack-lustre and his father furious, scornful over the waste of money. His mother had too quietly demurred. He refused to go back to lessons after that, despite her off-scene cajoling. And the piano remained silent and shut, for neither parent knew how to play. Some time later – how selective is memory – she optimistically wrote her son’s name and the year, on the dust jackets of books bought for study at his first year of lycée. Not French books but books written in English, her mother tongue. She read those she had not already read, so as to be able to discuss them with him. At the dinner table. But, as things turned out, he never read those books. And there was disappointment, mixed with bitterness and a sense of loss. All of which she tried putting into writing. But it was a futile attempt to take possession of words that were not hers to tell. To force them into saying what she wanted them to say, rendering them worthless in her attempt to have the last word.

His fingers gradually become more limber and the scales slide and merge into a playful melody which I do not recognise. A made-up tune, his way of marking time, dividing it up into before, after, now and after, before, now and after, hereafter, thereafter. Laughing in the face of ever after. For that’s what you do when you’re sixteen. Especially when you know someone is listening. An up-yours amicable fuck you. Mum.

She will write that down.  And not mind at all if it be misinterpreted.

He plays for a long time. And she sits at the table not wanting to disturb him. Sitting in the kitchen. Listening.  Breathing in the sweet scent of the March flower.

Thank you to fig_tart for her March flower.

6 Replies to “On reading Bakhtin”

  1. This is lovely Alison. So hard to negotiate those teenage heartaches and family tensions, let yourself feel enough but not cling too much. A delicate blooming, as you subtly suggest ??

  2. LIly, i shall never look at a flower in the same way again. And ‘delicate’ is fine praise indeed Shona. I read all your comments and sit and smile. And smile some more. Thank you :)))

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