Neaera H. comes to life

In 1975, five years after ending the series featuring Frances the Badger, Russell Hoban wrote Turtle Diary. Turtle Diary is a book for adults—not “an adult book”—about William G and Neaera H., two losers who, in freeing some turtles from the London zoo, become winners. [1]

They are losers is quite different ways, so what they look like when they become winners is quite different. I like Neaera’s story better; I just respond to it more. Here is a reflection by Neaera as she is just beginning to adjust to being a winner.

It used to be that I stayed up till all hours and still felt time-starved, none of the day seemed to be metabolized into living. Now the minutes make me strong.

neaera 2There are some particular issues that have defined Neaera’s life [2] but the thing that intrigued me about this observation of hers is the transition from “time endured” to “life lived.” She calls this transformation “metabolism.” She goes through a whole day without this transformation of minutes into living; she experiences it as not having enough time, but when she becomes a winner and begins to reflect on her life, she knows that isn’t what it was. She felt time-starved, but she wasn’t, really. She was “life-starved.”  Here, as played by Glenda Jackson.

So how does one manage one’s life so that the minutes are metabolized into the experience of living? For Neaera, there are two things. There are the turtles, on the one hand and her feeling for them living trapped and pointless lives. And then there is the turtle keeper, George Fairbairn.

This is not a story, I am happy to say, where years of self-neglect are redeemed by a convenient romance. They were redeemed, in fact, by an act of liberation. She and William G. formulate a plan to steal the turtles—the keeper, George Fairbairn, is all for it—and take them to a small coastal city and turn them loose.

This is daring is a lot of different ways. For Nearea H., who is trapped in a sterile neaera 3passivity, it requires that she help plan the heist, that she cooperate with William G., whom she know only from the context of this proposal, that she sneak the turtles to the coast and set them free. And then, presumably, come back to her own life, which she characterized, early in the book (p. 43) as “I seem to go on doing what I do.”  Ben Kingsley here as William G. along with a woman who wants very much to be his girlfriend.

It turns out that she was not able to do that. Once she was out of the trap, she was able to look back at where she had been and see that it was a trap. On p. 184, for instance, after the success of the turtle liberation project, she observes: (p. 184)

I didn’t know how lonely I’d been until the loneliness stopped. Now…my flat…seemed to have been cleared of the invisible wires, criss-crossed in patterns of pain that had been there for years. [3]

The other thing that happens to Neaera H. is that she meets George Fairbairn, the turtle keeper. This relationship might become a romance or not (Hoban doesn’t commit himself in the book and director John Irvin doesn’t commit himself in the movie) but the effect on Neaera H. doesn’t depend on that. It depends on George’s modeling for her another way to be (p. 178)

George seemed to carry a clear space about with him that made all things plain and simple where he was.

Nothing in her life has been “plain and simple” for a long time. It might be that her early writing about the happy animals was like that when she first wrote them, but she has moved on and they have not.

Gillian Vole and Delia Swallow and all the other and all the other animals and birds I had written about and drawn They led such cosy cheerful lives, that lot.

She sees her life to have been “safe” in a stunted way, as if she has given away priceless things so that she can stay away from dangerous boundaries. You can see that in her reference to the creations of her mind as “that lot.” She made her living off of “that lot” but now she is done with them.

I was waiting for something now and the waiting was pleasant. I was waiting for the self inside me to come forward to the boundaries from which it had long ago withdrawn. Life would be less quiet and more dangerous, life is risky on the borders. Gillian Vole and Delia Swallow live in safe places.

In this passage, (p. 185) she contrasts the “safe places” where her animals live with “the boundaries” from which, for no reasons the book gives us, she has withdrawn.

Whatever it was that happened to her—it wasn’t just liberating the turtles—required her to move out of that safe space. The turtles were magnificent creatures suffering a great indignity, decade after decade. It just wasn’t right! But she was also hankering for a little danger in her life and seeing those feelings as “about the turtles” helps her. [4] William G. helped her, too, taking risks on his own. And George Fairbairn helped her by being who he was.

And having escaped from her trap, she was able to look back and see what a trap it had been and to choose never to go back there again. She is no longer the writer who cuddles up with the likes of Gillian Vole. She is, instead, the writer whose last poem in the book, goes like this.

Stiff but not formal
          A dead cat says hello
This winter morning

[1] The movie version stars Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson. It is a slow story, a low key delight. But the book is better.
[2] She is an author of very popular children’s stories, but the ore in that mine seems to have petered out and she begins to suspect that she has been publishing rather than living.
[3] There is nothing in her description of her life, as it is represented early in the book, that has any of the emotional power of “criss-crossed in patterns of pain.” There is no pain at all in her early descriptions. There is only despair. Looking back, she realizes that the despair was what she chose so she would not feel the pain.
[4] That doesn’t work for her partner in crime, William G. whose sad conclusion was “You can’t do it with turtles.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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