February 22, 2013 7:24 pm

Every breath you take

A literary obsession exacts a heavy toll

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$25, 224 pages

 

Towards the end of Give Me Everything You Have, we learn that the subject of James Lasdun’s narrative – a stalker who has harassed him via the internet for years – is still a potential threat. As the poet, novelist and critic explains, his former student Nasreen (not her real name) has been threatened with arrest by the police after she contacted his daughter over Facebook. He is wary: “I can’t say I’m hopeful of any long-term result,” he writes, “but it was reassuring just to be taken seriously.” The comment is a reminder that this is not an ordinary “memoir” but something more uneasy – a living document written both about, and in, a period of crisis.

The story begins in 2003, when Lasdun, heading a fiction workshop at a university in New York, encounters Nasreen, whom he quickly identifies as a talented writer and, perhaps, a kindred spirit. A quiet and serious young woman from Iran, she conveys an “undemonstrative confidence”. After finishing the course, she strikes up an email conversation with Lasdun, asking him for help with her manuscript, and he is happy to introduce her to his agent.

Soon, however, her emails turn amorous and Lasdun, a married man with children, must cool things down. She persists; on being asked how she felt as a Muslim in New York after the 9/11 attacks, she responds: “Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?” and sends Lasdun accounts of her lingerie shopping. Having finally been ignored by her former professor, the tone of her emails changes, and soon Lasdun becomes the receiver of a multitude of malicious, anti-Semitic verbal attacks, in which he is falsely accused, among other things, of having had an affair with another student and of having stolen Nasreen’s ideas for one of his stories.

Give Me Everything You Have is a powerful treatise on the power of the internet as a tool for harm. Nasreen not only contacts his employer, agent and editors, intending to defame him, but posts vicious comments on his articles and alters his Wikipedia page. Lasdun skilfully analyses the implications of such “asymmetric warfare”; the damage, he writes of the Wikipedia episode, was not so much in the content of the jibe, but in “the notice it gave that I was a person to whom such a thing could be done”.

Lasdun’s exquisite prose has a judicial precision and a chilly candour, as if to advertise its own reliability; his constant requests for the reader’s patience (“this is a complicated story and we are still only in the preamble”) and apologies about having “left things unsaid” suggest a writer determined to regain control of his own narrative.

He relaxes in the last third of the book, an account of a trip to Jerusalem to write a magazine story about Lasdun’s architect father, Denys Lasdun, which he uses as an excuse for an insightful meditation on religion and personal and national borders. The trip, which had seemed to offer some respite from Nasreen’s harassment, also offers a haunting depiction of the kind of bleary-eyed stress that makes one “attach great importance to any circumstance that resonates with your own”.

Throughout the book, such resonances provide a vivid portrait of a rather brilliant poet’s mind as it links all it encounters back to its tormentor; Lasdun insightfully compares his plight to the narratives of medieval literature, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the BP oil spill, Tintin, and Giovanni Canavesio’s fresco cycle of the life of Christ. Finally, after musing on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he concludes the best resistance is, perhaps, to accept defeat: “absorption of the blow rather than opposition to it”.

The trouble is that Lasdun doesn’t quite enact the conclusions he reaches; until the last, he continues to replay Nasreen’s insults and rebut them. His refusal to acknowledge that his tormentor might be “mentally ill” – rather than, say, the symbolic figure of the Angel in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, with whom she claims to identify – is particularly difficult to comprehend. His lack of empathy, he confesses, is in part because to view her behaviour as a mere pathology would be “for literary purposes, less interesting”. Less interesting, certainly – but perhaps a necessary step to losing one’s demons.

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