Leaf Arbuthnot is a freelance book critic and journalist. She has written for the likes of The Sunday Times, The Guardian, and Vogue, and she is a judge in this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry. She studied modern languages at Cambridge and lives in south London. Looking for Eliza is her first novel.
Looking For Eliza Interview
- In your novel, two women of different generations meet in different life situations – nevertheless, the two have a connection. What connects 75-year-old Eliza and 25-year-old Ada with each other, what do they have in common despite all differences?
They are both connected by the impression that they exist at the margins of society, not necessarily intentionally. They do not spend much time with their families and share a dispiriting awareness of the futility and smallness of their own lives. The reasons Ada and Eliza are lonely are very different – Eliza is in some senses a classic over-digitised, over-stimulated millennial who is suffering from the aftershocks of a manipulative relationship, while Ada is cut off largely because of the death of her husband and the petering out of her career. While the paths that lead them to emotional isolation are different, the brute experience of that isolation is similar. And on a less serious note, the two characters share a sense of humour and of the absurd, as well as an openness to ideas and people.
- What can Eliza and Ada learn from each other? And generally speaking, what can the different generations learn from each other?
I think the important thing is less for Eliza and Ada to learn from one another than for them to find companionship in each other. Of course, Eliza as a young woman at sea can get a sense of perspective from her conversations with Ada, who has lived for so much longer and has built up a wealth of experience to draw from. Meanwhile Ada can take on some of Eliza’s dynamism, her hunger for new things, the dread she feels of not making a mark in the world. But broadly I want them both to get something simpler from their relationship – the contentment that comes from sitting with a very good, if slightly improbable, friend, over a cup of tea.
Generally speaking I think that friendships between the generations, particularly when there is a generation skipped in between, are enriching for both parties. There can be less judgement involved. I’ve made some amazing friends who are 90 years old or more, and think we don’t spend enough time building up those relationships in day to day life, particularly in cities.
- Both women find themselves in the throes of an identity crisis. What are they struggling with?
After the death of her husband Michael, Ada loses a sense of who she is. For decades her personality and identity were entwined with her husband’s; once he is gone she feels a sudden vertigo. There’s a scene in which she looks at her naked body and feels alienated from it – she’s lost the ability to love it, because she outsourced that to Michael for a long time. Now that he is gone she has to learn to love herself and her body again. And she needs to find a new space for herself in society too, now that she’s no longer the wife of an academic or, in fact, an active poet because his death stops her from being able to write.
Eliza, meanwhile, is also struggling to know who she is. She has come out of a relationship with a dominant personality – Ruby – that was started when she was young, in her first year at university. She hasn’t really learned how to be an adult yet without Ruby. As a burgeoning academic, who is doing a doctorate at university, Eliza also struggles to be sure that she is taking the right route. Is academia the best path; can she justify such an indulgence to herself? Is there any point in writing a thesis on an author like Levi, when there is so much to be done in the world that helps people in a more direct, measurable way? These are questions I wrestled with when I was considering doing a PhD. I might still do one. I think a lot of young academics feel unsure about whether they’re using their 20s wisely by staying at university.
- Communication between people today is often very superficial, think of Eliza’s conversations with her friends via WhatsApp: We post insipid photos of our food, we comment them with empty phrases and emoticons. How can we get back to real communication?
Yes – poor Eliza does waste a lot of her time, as do I, in shallow interactions, mostly on her phone. I’m not a total dinosaur; I do think that staying in touch with friends and family on WhatsApp and Instagram can provide meaning, but often it doesn’t really quench that thirst we feel for proper connection.
I think being alert to it is very important – knowing that what you’re doing when you’re scrolling endlessly or flipping between apps is not going to bring lasting satisfaction. People need to reflect more deeply, I think, on what brings them solace and happiness. For me I tend to need face to face time with people. I use social media a lot but I try to remember that it’s not mentally very nutritious – I see it as the equivalent of eating lots of crisps: addictive but not really what you need in great quantities.
- In England there was established the Ministry of Loneliness, in Japan there is an agency that arranges rental families, and your character Ada founds her start-up “Rent a Granny”. Are we today dependent on such business models and initiatives that compensate for social and interpersonal deficits?
I don’t think we are at a point yet where we depend on renting strangers to compensate for social deficits in our lives. Japan’s agencies have yet to take off in Europe, though that might change (and obviously my book envisages how such an enterprise could work in Britain). But I think that we definitely try to make up for the shortfalls in our lives by taking refuge in things that don’t really help long-term. So Eliza goes on a bit of a rampage and has sex with lots of people; she tries religion, art, therapy, internet browsing, podcasts and so on in order to find meaning. Ada meanwhile tries to find a place in the community by making herself useful to strangers.
- Your novel shows that anyone can be affected by loneliness. Loneliness is not a question of age. Even people who see themselves as part of a group of fellow human beings can find themselves in a life situation in which they are suddenly lonely. Why don’t you describe a little of what it is like in the lives of Ada and Eliza?
Loneliness can slip into any life. It can be even more intense to go through when your life is full of the things that are supposed to bring meaning – friends, a partner, a satisfying job and so on. Eliza might not be thought of as particularly vulnerable to loneliness – she is young and attractive, she has friends, a doting dad, she is embarking on a career in a field in which she has shown herself to very skilled. Yet day by day, the solitude of her existence – going to the library alone, eating alone in her crappy room, reading alone – imposes itself on her. When she was in a relationship, there was less space in her life for that feeling; less breathing room. I think the loneliness she feels as a single woman is not entirely unhealthy – loneliness teaches empathy, and it’s better that Eliza is struggling alone than in a relationship with someone as damaging as Ruby is. But still, it’s hard for her to get through the day without feeling the pain of her own isolation, as well as a sense of the futility of her work as a PhD candidate.
Ada is also cut off, not least because of Michael’s death. Before he died she would not have dreamed that her life would be shorn to what it quickly becomes. She would have expected the friends they shared to be there for her; for her to show more resilience. But it’s such a blow – the loss of someone she has given the best decades of her life to – that she is thrown into a new way of being. She also feels the loneliness of crowds – particularly when, for instance at the start of the book, she throws herself into university life by attending seminars, drinks parties, dinners and so on. Night-time is hardest for Ada: she is still in the bed she and Michael shared, in the same house, only now she is having to eke out each hour without him and without any real sense of what she should do with her remaining years.
- Ada and Eliza are both passionate about literature. Ada writes poetry herself, Eliza is doing a doctorate in Italian Literature. But does poetry still play a role in our society?
I’d like poetry to play a larger role in our society but it certainly is important. In the UK we’re seeing something of a resurgence – poetry book sales are going up and young women are showing a lot of interest. I am judging this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry (a major British poetry competition) and am blown away by the quality of the poetry being written at the moment. A good poem can push the world away, make everything in the room quieten or recede; have a dramatic impact on your mood and even your body. I have enormous admiration for poets because it’s not a lucrative way of living your life and it requires a degree of attentiveness, of vigilance and responsiveness, that I admire.
- What does literature, reading and writing mean to you personally?
Big question, ha! I’ve always been a reader. As a kid I went to the local library every week and would normally read a book a day. It got quite bad – my mother was always trying to stop me from reading too late into the night; she’d feel the lightbulb in my room to see if it was warm. I ruined my eyes pretty young.
Now as an adult, literature is at the centre of my life. I’ve spent years writing book and poetry reviews, which has been rewarding, but my main pleasure is in reading books that I choose myself. Books, particularly novels, have enormously expanded my ability to empathise, to imagine other lives, to appreciate my own, to understand how many ways there are to live.
- Eliza graduated in Italian Literature. How do you know so much about this discipline, and do you have a special connection to Italy yourself?
I do! I studied French and Italian literature at university (Cambridge). I spent some of my year abroad in Rome and Venice, and am very much in love with Italy. I love the people, above all, but also the beauty of the country, its contributions to world culture, its food, its books. I did my dissertation on Primo Levi so Eliza, at least in that respect, is following in my footsteps.
- A cooper-wire owl plays an important role in your story. Without giving too much away, what does this figurine symbolize, what does it stand for?
It’s not often remembered that Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor and writer, was a devoted chemist for nearly all his life. For a time he worked in a copper wire factory and he used spare bits of wire to wind these beautiful figurines or sculptures. Levi was a man of great insight, who often saw the worth in people others would be appalled by; he was a real “noticer”. I think his re-use of these spare bits of wire – that anyone else would have just thrown away – speaks volumes about him as a person, as an intellect, as a creative. In my story, Ada owns one of Levi’s owl figurines. It was bought by her husband, who was a Levi scholar, and the owl comes to embody many of Ada’s feelings for Michael, who dies at the beginning of the book. Once a figure of love, the owl becomes a figure of loss, so much so that Ada has trouble even living with the owl in the house.