That Friedrich Nietzsche. You might roll your eyes and wonder if he could still be saying things folk in 2023 might find interesting. Well, get past that moustache and listen. Here is what he said about desire: “Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.”
He wrote this acute line nearly 150 years ago. And here, in The Anniversary, Stephanie Bishop is doing the forensics on Nietzsche’s astute line in a stout new novel. Because women had yet to be invented, his truth was purely male. Stephanie Bishop’s truth is purely female. She has this enigmatic epigraph (never neglect the epigraphs) from Simone de Beauvoir: “To be sure, the future of the woman I have been may turn me into someone other than myself.”
Stephanie Bishop’s The Anniversary is bejewelled with lovely moments and exquisite writing.Credit:
J. B. Blackwood is a novelist in early middle age. She has just heard that she has won one of the glittering literary prizes and is expected in New York to accept it. Her partner, Patrick, is a famous film director and public intellectual and considerably older. J. B. had met him when she was taking his course at university, she so in awe that she could scarcely speak, and “he one of the most beautiful and elegantly dressed men I had known: crisp shirts and shiny Italian shoes.”
But things happen – desire happens – and they become lovers. They marry. The anniversary of the title is the celebration of the 14th wedding anniversary, the year of ivory, symbolising patience and stability.
J. B. books a luxury cruise of 18 days, starting from Alaska, travelling through Japan and ending in America. The cruise is booked before she knows about the prize because she is determined to do something pleasurable and romantic with an altered Patrick, a man always frantic with work, who falls asleep in front of television and, most appallingly, is no longer elegant. He is even disinclined to showering. The prize ceremony can be tacked on to the end of the cruise, so everything should work out.
All this information is crammed into the first chapters and there are variations, expansions on each incident, or episode throughout the book. Kurosawa-like, the truth will unfold.
So this bleak tale rolls out. In a wild storm in waters close to Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido, there’s an accident. Patrick falls overboard and his body is not found until days later. The novel, at this point, turns into a thriller. Or perhaps a mystery? The courteous Japanese investigators seem to believe that someone pushed him into the sea, and J. B. is escorted from the ship to face endless questioning by people who are from a very different culture. The Japanese assume her guilt.
But we are allowed to enter into another tale, told by her, the almost-famous author who, it seems, is no longer the passive, admiring young woman who was only too happy to sleep with the famous professor when he invited her into his taxi one wet night. To her credit, she did not know immediately that he had a partner with a very new baby.
The baby, Joshua, is now an implacable, hurt 17-year-old and it is his behaviour that causes J. B. to insist on the cruise. One established fact about desire is that it has consequences in the real world.
The Anniversary has a wide list of characters, all necessary to the plot, but it is narrated by J. B., so we are constantly in her head. It takes energy to remain there because, like hearing other people’s dreams, it just is not that interesting much of the time. Deep into the book she writes about her own way of writing and compares it to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the famous 1975 film by Chantal Akerman in which Akerman let the camera stay for a very long time on the face of the female actor.
“We watch her watching her thoughts, watch her having them, sitting so still at the glass-topped dining table.” J. B. continues to explain that when she is writing a novel “there is always something I am waiting to find out”.
The Anniversary is bejewelled with lovely moments and undeniably exquisite writing, a fine education about desire, but perhaps we have to wait too long before we know what we need to find out. It is, though, never less than an admirable and ambitious investigation into some troublesome contemporary things about men and women and the forces of desire, not just sexual but creative desire.
Marcel Proust, always helpful, should have the last word: “Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade.” Proust? Nietzsche? De Beauvoir? Still here, still relevant, still necessary.
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