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Negative Capabilities: ISABEL FONSECA (Unabridged)

Highlights from Issue 36: Expatriate

Photography by MARION ETTLINGER

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

By Mark Mordue


It’s 10 a.m. in Primrose Hill, London. Author Isabel Fonseca sits in her kitchen, “tanking up on coffee.” An American by birth and a New Yorker at heart, she remains in disbelief that she’s lived in England for over 25 years. “It’s payment for my sins,” she says. “Or maybe I just forgot to leave.”

Her tone has a throwaway flash to it. She’s just joking, right? Fonseca corrects me immediately. “I’m not, you know.”

Why such resentment toward her adopted home? After all, England made her, so to speak, from a PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) degree at Oxford to her role as an assistant editor at the Times Literary Supplement to the celebrated publication of Bury Me Standing in 1995, a nonfiction study of the gypsies of Eastern Europe.

But of course it’s not so simple — and with her first book in 13 years, the novel Attachment, Fonseca is once again in the British spotlight. As a portrait of a failing marriage, online sex and adulterous misadventures, Attachment has already attracted controversy. Many regard it as less of a work of fiction and more like a confession from Fonseca that her relationship with the author Martin Amis is in complete decay.

“Adultery is not the subject of Attachment, but aging is,” Fonseca says. “Things like the way your parents suddenly demand your attention with their mental or physical fragility or both; or something as simple as the way your children won’t do what they’re told anymore. … There’s this disappointment about your decrepitude, this realization you are going to die, which you have never quite accepted. Adolescence and middle age actually share a lot of parallels. The unease about the body and the sexual awareness that’s associated with it — only you have this death awareness that gives it a particular pungency in middle age.”

It’s worth knowing something about Fonseca’s own life to appreciate that pungency around her now. And emphasizing that Attachment is both Fonseca’s debut novel and her first major work since Bury Me Standing and the beginnings of her relationship with Amis.

In Attachment she quotes these crucial, if highly ambiguous words from Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.” That’s quite an epitaph for a modern romance novel, let alone a marriage.


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