Review of Funny Weather by Olivia Laing — On Portrait

Honestly, I’m not the type to read biographies. I never really cared about any famous people so much that I’m intrigued to learn about their whole life and the make-up of their being. I did read 4 biographies/memoirs and enjoyed 3 of them greatly. But in general, I imagined biography to be something so personal and intimate it’s burdensome just to think about it. That’s why I thought I need to care about the person first to give any value to such personal information. But from Funny Weather, I learned that that’s not the case. Famous people are people before they’re famous (But of course. Maybe it’s just me who puts a weird sentiment and antipathy to fame. Well bye to that Q. New minute new me). So, a biography book is just a book about people, how they respond to situations, what they have to say in hindsight. It’s a learning opportunity as although we’re all living for the first time, we’re not the first ones to live. It’s a charming genre, really, apparently, baru tau. Anyway, for ones with an attention span of a goldfish (me), short biographies with a curated time window like this really shine for that purpose. The lives Laing gathered here are of artists and writers and it’s very interesting to see how art and stories were born upon different stimuli and crises. We’d see different backgrounds and issues discussed here too; HIV/AIDS, sexuality, feminism, etc. Laing didn’t go so deep on them, but quite enough for the context.

The chapter on Chantal Joffe was extra special for me. It’s pretty short so I don’t know whether it can be called a biography at all. The chapter spanned over the course of interviewing Joffe on a day out. They talked as Joffe painted Laing’s portrait. How Laing observed and described Joffe throughout the interview like that was somehow so sweet and romantic for me. They’re not connected romantically in any way, but it’s such a loving gesture in my eyes, removing the self from the picture and pouring the words, adjusting the angle solely to see and show the other person clearly. It’s a love language discovery for me. I think I’d love to write someone a biography for how much I admire and cherish their person.

What’s memorable about this piece is the fact that Joffe was painting Laing’s portrait. A portrait is “a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.”, google said. Incidentally, I’m also currently reading a book about a portrait painter (Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore) and I got to learn that a portrait is not just that. You can have your energy captured even without a face or even a humane figure. If it is so, then it doesn’t even have to be a painting at all. A portrait attempts to snap the Self in the purest sense, whatever means used to catch it. I surmise it can be a biography too then! So that frame came up as a striking parallel. They were doing different activities, but they were painting each other’s portraits.

In Killing Commendatore, Mariye said that being painted was an exchange. Something was taken from her and she got something in return. Again, this was echoed in Laing and Joffe’s interaction. And it’s not simply that they got a record of their Selves handed by each other. To make a portrait or biography, other people capture who we are as projected on their spectacle. But we’re never our whole selves at any point in time. We wear different clothes in front of different people, including ourselves. And different people would have different things to say about that through the filter of their senses and expression capacities. Thus each portrait is something unique. In being painted, we get something in return for what’s taken. That is a piece of our soul, one of our thousand faces that is only visible through the mirror of other people's eyes, I think. It’s encapsulated with the painter’s specific understanding, can’t help that, it’s inaccessible otherwise.

I couldn’t have guessed what Mariye meant when she said something was taken out of her. It’s Murakami so I imagine that it’s something like a part of her split and lived on in that painting or something. But thinking about it, that’s not all nonsense? It’s a bit like the Schrödinger cat situation. Observation removes uncertainty. The present exists in immense complexity with countless variables, ever-molded in real-time by our fickle minds. Left alone, with the passage of time it becomes the past that will either disappear or remain as faded distorted memory. In inventory, the past is immortalized in one form, stripped away from the other possibility of interpretation. Is what captured the truth simply for its foremost capturability? No, no means of observation can capture the entirety of an experience or a being at one time. Not even our brain can do that, let alone another brain, camera, recorder, or whatnot. Instrument limitation is inevitable. In addition, the existence of one form of record would direct the future interpretation of the event. So being immortalized is indeed a give and take. We get a piece of our soul, but with only a limited possibility of interpretation in exchange.

So yeah, I’m a biiiit obsessed about portrait and biography now. It would be nice if someone would want to surrender their story for me to write a biography about. But how do I expect someone to get all vulnerable like that? How did Laing do that?? Someday. Someday.

Anyway, this is my first audiobook! This kind of genre is a good introduction to audiobooks, I think. There’s no flow to immerse into, unlike fiction, and there’s no difficult concept to spend brainpower and full concentration on, unlike heavier non-fiction; I didn’t have to worry much about having my focus interrupted. It’s a good book to narrate on too. Laing’s narrative tone is plenty conversational and Sophie Aldred did a very good job sounding the sentence dynamics soothingly. Even the mere auditory experience was pleasant. Suka!

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