Learning from Garlic:
My Name is Lucy Barton
When I was twenty-one, that giant of literary criticism, Roland Barthes, helped me divide the books on my shelf in a new way: into those that are writerly, and those that are readerly. He did so via an undergraduate literary theory course, which opened my eyes to how language works and allowed me to grasp some of the meanings of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, for which I will forever be grateful. I say ‘grasp some’, because Nelson’s text contains the potential for a multitude of readings and I am only equipped to embark on some of them. For this reason, Barthes would classify The Argonauts as a writerly text. I would too, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. What I’m writing about here is Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and what I learnt from it.
In a nutshell, Barthes’ distinction between writerly and readerly texts is that a writerly text provides space for the reader to actively produce meaning whilst reading (in effect rendering reading a kind of writing), whilst a readerly text is a text in which meaning is pre-determined, and the reader is rendered a kind of receptacle for that meaning. As I’ve graduated, from undergraduate student to postgraduate student/writer, Barthes’ distinction has morphed to mean something slightly different for me. For me, a readerly text has become a text that distracts me from my work of writing; it’s one that I roar through without thinking about anything but what will happen next, plot-wise. A writerly text, on the other hand, has become a text that makes me want to write. It’s a text that I cherish reading but continually put down, so that I might dash back to my computer and try out this sentence structure or that plot device. It’s a text that teaches me to write better—a text I learn from. Once I’ve learnt, I often come back to the text with a thread of envy unfurling in my chest, and a sense of missed opportunity. I read it, and I think: I wish I’d written that. But of course, I couldn’t have written it without first reading it and learning from it. I am comprised of the books I have read, you see.
I wish I’d written Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Not necessarily all of it, but most of it and certainly the scene where the titular character cooks garlic.
My Name is Lucy Barton is about a mother’s visit to her estranged daughter’s hospital bed and the things they say and don’t say to each other. This daughter, Lucy Barton, is a college-educated writer whose childhood was characterised by poverty, domestic anxiety and abuse, and the gnawing cold. One of the text’s overarching themes is class; and this theme is elaborated on throughout the story of Barton negotiating her newfound position in the middle class. It is dealt with by Strout with a deft precision that struck me again, and again for being so unlaborious, and so poignantly depicted in the smallest of moments and the smallest of things. The most striking example of this is when Barton describes her younger self cooking a meal for her husband. ‘What’s this?’ he asks, peering into the pan. She tells him it’s garlic, that ‘the recipe called for a clove of garlic to be sautéed in olive oil.’ He then ‘with gentleness’ explains to her that in her pan is ‘a bulb of garlic, and that it needed to be peeled and opened into the cloves.’ The narrator-Barton, temporally located decades later, writes: ‘I can picture the bulb of garlic now—so clearly—sitting in the middle of the olive oil in the frying pan.’ When I read this, I put the book down, struck by the image cast by these words, which went uneditorialised.
It was my mum who recommended the book to me. When I finished reading it, she asked me what I thought. I said I couldn’t stop thinking about the garlic, and that it reminded me of Jessica Ison’s essay in The Lifted Brow, in which she recounts the time when she first went to university and she encountered a fresh beetroot, and she didn’t know what it was. ‘Everyone scoffed and said “a beetroot,”’ Ison writes; she ‘laughed too [and] pretended to brush some dirt off.’ She didn’t know what the dark, dirt-dusted root was, because she thought beetroot only came tinned. This moment, for Ison, was one of many that opened her to a stratified world; it ‘was just one of the many examples of how [she] learnt to navigate class in the university setting.’ Previously, she ‘didn’t know what class was.’
Mum said to me: ‘That was me. That was my life when I went to uni. I didn’t know anything. I just had to pretend, and make it up as I went.’
I asked her if she could think of a specific food example of this and she told me about how, the first time she went to my dad’s family home for dinner they served spaghetti bolognaise and she had no idea how to eat it because she had never even heard of something as exotic as spaghetti before.
For some reason, this straight away made me think of the time, when I was in a university tutorial on Jane Eyre, and was rhapsodising about the symbolism of Bertha Rochester trying on, and then ripping in half, Jane Eyre’s wedding veil.
‘Veil,’ I kept saying. ‘Veil,’ and this girl, who wore the most stylish red coat ever (it was the sort of coat that made me want to be her friend and also made me nervous of her), snorted a laugh. My cheeks burned and burned because I suspected right away the sound I was making to signify the gauzy thing one might drape over one’s face at one’s wedding was the wrong sound, but I was mid riff and couldn’t seem to stop making it, over and over.
‘Veil,’ I said (or thought I said). ‘Veil. Veil.’
That evening I asked my then boyfriend what a veil was.
‘A veal?’ he asked, bemusedly, pronouncing the word just as I had. ‘Veal is a deer foetus, on a dinner plate.’ And I felt less embarrassed that the girl laughed, than I did humiliated that everyone else was so polite in their silence. (I once told this story to someone who pointed out veal is milk-fed baby cow, on a dinner plate, and that deer is called venison. So, my boyfriend was wrong too, which I find hilarious in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. He is me, you see; and I am the girl in the red coat.)
I am very much middle class: a status determined by such things as the fact both my parents are university educated, even if my mother is first generation so. So, this faux pas wasn’t so much about class for me as it was about the fact my family never ate veal (although we did eat spag bol) when I was growing up, and about the fact my reading and writing vocabulary are much better than my speaking vocabulary, because I learnt to write from chain-reading novels, but books don’t teach you pronunciation. I read and read as a teenager, because for many years I was too sick to do anything different, such as attend school, and so I didn’t learn lots of things you’re meant to learn—like, say, trigonometry or how to pronounce veil—but I did learn all sorts of other things. For example, I learnt who the Chancellor of the Exchequer is, although from which book I don’t recall.
The question of who this figure is came up in a quiz earlier this year, and I laughed gleefully when I heard it read out, because it was such an easy point to score; but no one else knew the answer. Then one of my friends told me that I made her feel dumb by laughing like that—that not everyone has had the education I have had and I should be more considerate. The irony being, of course, that I only knew this fact because I didn’t go to school; but then, I assume by education she was referring to my BA. It seemed, for her, I was some version of the girl in the red coat, except I was also me—humiliated again, for making a blunder that was bundled up in the trauma of my adolescent illness. But, I was also the girl in the red coat, and I was the other people in my tute who were polite in their silence, and I was my dad’s family eating spaghetti and I was the people who knew what a raw beetroot was, and I was Lucy Barton’s husband explaining how to cook garlic.
My point is that cultural capital is in the smallest things, and the smallest things gesture to the biggest things. Particularly when they are experienced by individuals who are contextualised by structures, like class, or like access derived from being able-bodied. Which is to say all of us—and all of our characters—because we—and they, if they are well written—are all contextualised by these things, whether these structures privilege us or not. This is so much of what makes My Name is Lucy Barton such a smart book, and a book that made me want to write. It made me want to create a space for readers to make deftly written details speak structural and political volumes. Except I’ve gone and editorialised my details in a way Elizabeth Strout didn’t, which just goes to show I’ve only half learnt from reading her, and which is, no doubt, why she has a Pulitzer Prize and I don’t.
My other point is that you can learn things from books.
Erin Hortle is a Tasmanian-based writer of essays and fiction. Recently, her writing has been featured in The Lifted Brow, Island and Overland, and in 2017 she won the Tasmanian Young Writer’s Fellowship as a part of the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.