Memoir, polemic, essay, prose experiment and furious tally of hideous men: Lavinia Greenlaw’s third book of nonfiction – she’s also the author of three novels and six poetry collections – is a pointed, svelte but diverse work.
To put it too simply, Some Answers Without Questions is a reflection on voice, on the ways, especially for a woman writing, a voice may be acquired or lost, fought for and fretted over, refused by others or by oneself. In 30 short chapters that grow formally stranger and more fragmented as she proceeds, Greenlaw describes a life and career spent feeling ambivalent about her own words and how (or whether) they make it into the world.
She’s found herself by turns garrulous, reticent, silenced or misheard, saying “too much” or speaking only in styles that are expected of her. Towards the end of the book she arrives at a formulation that seems to say it all: “Fuck quiet.”
In 2007 Greenlaw published The Importance of Music to Girls, an account of her teenage transformation, in rural Essex, from aspirant disco girl to blue-haired punk, avidly attuned to music of the late 1970s and early 1980s that promised a lot in terms of remaking class, gender, sexuality and art itself. She neglected to mention, and now reveals in Some Answers Without Questions, that for a couple of years she was lyricist and singer in a jazzy post-punk group that in 1983 released one single and an album, before dissolving.
Greenlaw still doesn’t want to name the band – they were not well known, but will take you seconds to discover online – and is interested instead in her earlier failure of nerve as a writer, a diffidence persisting from adolescence to middle age: “I could not bring myself to break a habit I didn’t know I had: that I would withhold myself rather than risk presence.”
It’s an odd admission for a prolific writer – or not. Evoking the female figure of Lalage from Horace’s ode Integer Vitae – her voice is babbling and excessive, embodying the pure pleasure of speech and song – Greenlaw recalls “the noise I learnt to make as a young animal”. Her voice, she writes, was “a way for thoughts and feelings to leave my body, and a way to manage atmosphere”.
Later, despite herself, she learned to keep quiet, to subordinate this voice to the boys in her band (whose manager insisted that she could not sing) or to the thoughts and styles of the male poets she had begun to read, revere and emulate.
Her meditations on becoming a writer and sustaining or reinventing a voice – these also entail, as they probably would not for a male writer, certainly a male writer without children – sharp recollections about space and time: “At certain times I’ve had a room of my own and at others I haven’t. Once, there was a room but I wasn’t allowed to use it.”
Some Answers Without Questions is full of such moments of denial, judgment, resentment and worse. When Greenlaw published her first book, her father said to her: “Your little brother used to write poetry, what a pity he stopped.” Never mind her own records, her expertise, her earlier book about music: “Even now when I say I like a particular band, a man will ask only if I saw them, when and where.” Once, when she was about to leave a job, a junior male colleague, “to clear the air”, began sending her hate mail, “the waste products of a man relieving some internal pressure”.
How, in life or in writing, to talk back to or to shout down these voices? Against such men, Greenlaw pitches her anxious, conflicted admiration for a woman she encountered at a conference or panel discussion who, given 10 minutes to speak, took up a full 40.
"A poet's prose is the autobiography of ardour," Susan Sontag wrote – in the year, as it happens, that Greenlaw's two records were released. Some Answers Without Questions is not "poetic", if we take that word to mean merely lyrical, which is
still the expectation of much writing by women. Nor is it "cool" in the slightly disparaged sense that Greenlaw's work often attracts; precision, learning, distance: these are frequently unforgiven by some male critics.
“Anger is a form of energy,” says Greenlaw, paraphrasing John Lydon, and this is above all an angry work. But part of its fury has to do with a demand for certain rights to silence, not always having to assuage, explain, correct.
As it nears its end, the book splinters into aphorisms, shards of prose poetry and pages of actual interview answers without their original questions. Fuck quiet – but also: “It doesn’t always help to tell.”
Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence and Essayism are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He is working on Affinities, a book about images