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Friday, December 8, 2023

“Little Scratches” by Jane Campbell: While she brushes the graying cat

At the age of 80, the British writer Jane Campbell made her debut with impressive short stories. “Little Scratches” is sometimes filled with melancholy, sometimes with quiet sarcasm.

The gray paws of a sitting cat

In Jane Campbell’s stories, it’s not just the cats that are gray, but also their owners Photo: Nailia Schwarz/pitopia/mauritius

According to Jane Campbell in one of the interviews on the occasion of her debut, she hopes that her characters cannot be overlooked. From her mouth, this sentence has a special meaning, as her protagonists have so far remained virtually invisible in literature: the women in her stories are between their seventies and mid-eighties. But old women do not appear in literature beyond clichés such as the “funny old woman” or the “wise old woman”. It’s fair to say that Jane Campbell changed that.

When her book was published in England last year, the British psychoanalyst herself was already eighty years old. In 2017 she wrote a short story London Review of Books sent. She published the story and the editor motivated the author to write more. Luckily, Campbell complied and ultimately resulted in 13 stories in which readers meet 13 very different women.

This is the case with the first-person narrator in the story “Katzenbuckel”, who lives with her son and daughter-in-law. As she brushes the gray cat, she thinks about her age. Very clear.

Process of expropriation

Campbell lets her formulate what, despite the differences in her characters, affects them all: “The cat and I are learning more and more about the process of dispossession. Aging is often presented as a phase of accumulation, the accumulation of diseases, ailments, wrinkles, but in reality it is a process of dispossession. Freedom, respect, desire, everything that you once had and enjoyed so naturally, is gradually being taken away from you.”

The lack of respect often manifests itself in underestimation. While she vividly remembers previous lovers and her authority in her job, in the eyes of her son and “everyone” there remains nothing but the “enchanting image of innocence” embodied by an old woman with a cat. A melancholic tone pervades the story, underlined by a quiet sarcasm. Finally, however, the narrator acquiesces. Not all characters do that.

In “Schopenhauer and I,” the first-person narrator uses a care robot to carry out an absurd revenge plan against the operators of the “dumping place(s) for old people.” She’s angry and she’s smart. The tone here is less melancholic and more delicately oscillates between bitter-comic irony and genuine hurt.

The diversity of voices that Campbell creates for her characters is impressive. In Bettina Abarbanell’s subtle translation into German A separate tone is actually “audible” for each one.

A gift of individuality

The author takes up themes such as loneliness, loss, self-determination, memory and, last but not least, body and desire several times, varies them and sets different focuses and references. Each story has a different basic mood. In this way, Campbell gives each of her female characters the literary individuality that she often sees older and older women denied in reality.

And tells the unheard of. “The lust of an old man is repulsive, but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that. Susan always knew it.” This is how the story “Susan and Miffy” begins, in which the over 80-year-old Susan falls in love with her almost 30-year-old carer. Here the omniscient narrator’s voice knows all of Susan’s emotions, but only hesitantly and with shame recognizes what she feels.

Here Campbell uses her clear, calm language for a sensitive approach to a late overwhelm. Recordes small gestures, lowered and thrown glances, sensual details, usually weaves in short, lively dialogues so that both characters appear before the reader’s eyes in a vivid and believable way. And be remembered.

While in Susan’s story Campbell tells of a late tipping point in life, in other stories it is earlier encounters that develop their impact over many years, even decades.

The absolute disenchantment

In “Lamia” Linda returns after more than thirty years to a place where she encountered the love that shaped her. She meets Malik again at Victoria Falls. But no matter how close they sit together, the lack of understanding between them is so deep that the author allows the narrative to open up. The disenchantment is absolute. And yet: “It was not what she had possessed, but what she had let go of that brought her peace.”

Campbell’s women are as diverse as younger people are. Longing, hoping, desperate, angry, concerned about their autonomy, wishing for encounters. Her inner life is rich and full of vivid memories. Some are defensive, others are victims of abusive relationships. One preserves her self-determination by ending her life herself.

Jane Campbell’s unsparing gaze is combined with sensitivity; the deep emotionality with grim humor and subtle irony. Her great debut gives literature female characters that were previously missing.

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