I don’t know what possessed me to take up this book. I was in between reads. The books I wanted to read were not yet available from the library. I scanned what was new on kindle and downloaded this one. A strange and disjointed book, which did not seem to know what it wanted to say, or why the book was even being written.
Margaret Drabble’s husband had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy, and to take her mind off the everyday struggles, to avoid her “melancholy” she began doing picture puzzles, as a way of gaining at least the “illusion of control.” This got her to thinking about the puzzles she used to do as a kid with her beloved Auntie Phyl. This got her to thinking about writing some sort of book on puzzles, jigsaw or otherwise, and the history of games. Ultimately, this is what it all yielded: memories of her childhood, her mother and her aunt, depression, reveries on the prospect of aging and dying.
Drabble still remembers her aunt driving all the way across England in her Morris Minor to visit of a summer. Oddly, my father owned a Morris Minor back in the 50’s. Who the hell owned Morris Minor’s then – or now – in America? We did. A wee bit of a thing, I used to be able to pick up the floorboard in the back seat and see the road rushing underneath the car. This could not have been a safety feature.
Drabble includes her thoughts on “collecting” and “collectibles” in her auto-biography (with puzzles). Here she notes that Jean Baudrillard suggested that “the taste for collecting is at its height between the ages of seven and twelve; it tends to disappear with puberty and reappears most frequently in men over forty.” I’ll go with the first part. I was a stamp collector (geek confessional) around the ages noted. Thankfully I have never returned to the habit – even after I turned forty.
As she talks about children’s games and childhood activities, she mentions marbles. There’s this odd stretched statement: “Teachers and policemen disapprove of marbles, because they constitute an alternative economy, a different set of values. Teachers prefer games that teach.” Eh. Purees and Cat’s Eyes. Oh my! A big playground activity when I was a kid. How quaint it all seems today.
Some of her musings do seem truer (or more interesting, or more plausible) than other. There’s this about the very concept of childhood itself: “childhood was not invented until long after the Renaissance. Infant mortality rates were so high in earlier centuries that less attention and affection were invested in young children than in our child-centred and medically reliable era.”
Interesting observations on Brueghel’s “Kindersspiele” and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (“uses the jigsaw as a central metaphor for the tragic futility of human endeavour and the tedium of existence, a vanitas motif constructed in the French metaphysical mode'”)
Tedium. The play’s the thing. A vanitas motif indeed.