After some brilliant, pleasurable books, Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, Kennedy’s The Feast, Baker’s Longbourn, and the surprising delight of a great romance in Devon’s Bend Toward the Sun, a dry spell. Of mediocrity, boredom, and failure; in other cases, respect and admiration, but short on the joy in enjoyment. Lately my reading has been like the image of my fallow orchid: potential for blossom, the promise of green, but of the flowers, nil.
The weather has been beautiful and I have found myself walking, baking, cooking, and not reading as much as I usually do. There is nothing more off-putting than reading a spate of books you don’t want to hug to yourself. For what it’s worth, a few comments on my recent reading, edited from my GR impressions…and left to settle, hoping time would change my mind and heart. It did, books I initially admired diminished in my estimation…and the ones I disliked I disliked even more.
I read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them
A strange, dense, impenetrable novel. You won’t struggle with events, or characters, not at all. The writing is complex and heavy, but characters and events are clearly delineated. What left me puzzled was the “why”, STW’s purpose. One idea I got out of it was the contrast between the cyclical ever-recurring descriptions of nature with the smallness of the nuns’ lives. They weren’t nasty (you want the nasty, erudition, and entertainment, read Eco’s The Name of the Rose, brilliant, sly, and FUN!). Nothing is dramatic and characters are neither good nor bad, but limited human beings. They’re concerned with finances over faith and their one attempt at eternity, the addition of a church spire, ends in an ironic twist. The other maybe-idea I got out of it was a sense of time passing and the nuns, priests, nobles, and serfs aging and passing on. It didn’t hold me in its grip, intellectually, aesthetically, or emotionally; au contraire, it helped with insomnia and saw me designate Lolly Willowes to the basement shelf of shame… (why oh why do I have two copies of Lolly Willowes??!!)
I also read William Golding’s The Inheritors
Maybe a remarkable book? I loved and hated it. The first half was dense and slow-moving, near-incomprehensible, at least for me, who has trouble visualizing description. But I “saw” what Golding tried to do: attempt to put into words a people without language, to articulate a pre-consciousness state. He succeeded, I think, but it wasn’t fun to read, there was no joy of the reader-flow and there were moments when I thought Golding lapsed into caricature.
I did make it to the end. My strategy was to get into the rhythm of the language as opposed to trying to rationally understand what was happening. However, when the Neanderthal finally encountered Homo sapiens, things fell into place and, by the end, Golding’s familiar “lord of the flies” themes emerged: our sinful nature, our fallen-ness, our need to propitiate an evil that actually lies within, our inability to achieve redemption. The novel’s second half was compelling because things as they are NAMED appeared, albeit, in “riddle form”, as the Neanderthal perceived them (example, the Neanderthal POV sees a “snake” disciplining a sailboat crew, which, one soon realizes, is a whip).
The novel is organized in twelve chapters; the first eleven of which we spend in the non-individuated, non-verbal mind of the Neanderthal. The final ironically-twisted chapter, with echoes of Flies, we spend in familiar territory: sticks are sharpened at both ends and our ancient re-enactment of the Cain-Abel curse of murder and hatred is, sadly, all too familiar. Things click for the reader in this final chapter, because, “it’s just us” (as Simon says to the boys in Flies): jealousies, resentments, the evils of property and power, there they are, laid out in this strange encounter with innocence. Oh, this is no Blakean “little lamb” business (which I love, btw, but it’s the bright tiger which makes for more exciting poetry). The Neanderthal are “innocent” because they are without norms because they are without the necessity of circumscribing behaviour, property-less, non-individuated, and non-verbal. It’ll be interesting to consider Golding’s novel when I read Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.
Also George Orwell’s Animal Farm
Shamefacedly admitting this English schoolmarm never read Orwell’s Animal Farm (1984 twice, a great novel btw, the prose alone is worth it). As a student of history, I can make the “equivalents” in my head with the Russian Revolution, its events and figures: the tsar, Marx, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. But I tried to read it as a text less allegorical and more fable (animal characters helped) and look forward to teaching it for the first time as a study of the relationship between utopia and power. It’ll fit in quite nicely with Golding’s Lord of the Flies: they share a similar narrative movement from innocence to experience, from naïve energy at inception to cynical, ironic, dare I say tragic, concluding disillusion.
And I read Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch
What was this? A tremendous slog, though a short book: what kind of book it is, however, remains to be identified by better literary critics than I. Um, I was going along, interested in any story with a spinster teacher at the centre. Since watching that awful Dead Poets Society, I am suspicious of the treatment of the charismatic teacher (and I suspect so is Barnes), but I stuck it out until…
Barnes’ Finch soon left the eponymous teacher and turned into a mediocre biography of Julian the Apostate!!!!!, for pages and pages and pages; thank you very much, I have enough church history to know who ole Julian was and what he did and who cares, really? Don’t bother, read Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a far better, more compelling, ever fascinating to reread account of the price of a charismatic spinster-teacher. (I do appreciate Knopf Doubleday providing an e-ARC of Elizabeth Finch via Netgalley. It will be released on Aug. 16.)
Another colossal failure, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book
As the last gasp of summer arrives for this poor old schoolmarm, I thought a book titled The Summer Book would give me the nostalgic warm and fuzzies and bolster my return to the endless pre-classes meetings.
Frankly, this maybe-novel lauded as a classic and much beloved meant I felt obligated to recognize its greatness. (All part of the good-girl syndrome of literary uncertainty.) I did not like it. Everyone is angry and mean: the six-year-old girl, the grandmother; the poor silent dad struck me as depressed. I found the events pointless and dialogue, strident and crude. I searched for what Esther Freud suggested in her introduction: this is a profound novel, about life and death and nature and time. I was flummoxed and bored. I’m too shallow for it, I guess.