The basic idea of the challenge is simply to read books by European writers or set in European countries. Although I was a bit doubtful about participating, which is only sensible given my dismal completion record for challenges, I nevertheless started sorting through the shelves to see if I had any books that would qualify. As it turns out, I had quite a few. I also had so much fun doing the sort I decided that, what the heck, I might as well go ahead and officially participate. After all, unless our reach exceeds our grasp, what’s a heaven for, right? (sorry about that paraphrase, Mr. Browning). Besides, this challenge allows me to decide my own level of participation. I can be anything from a Pensione Weekender (i.e., I read one qualifying book this year) to a Deluxe Entourage (I read five). Surely I can read at least one book set in Europe or written by a European, can’t I? At last, could I have found a Challenge I can meet?
In addition to the Challenge’s official criteria (time frame; definition of European country, etc.) I decided to observe a couple of rather idiosyncratic rules in choosing my own selections. Because I’m beginning to really enjoy translated literature, I decided to limit my selections to works by non-Anglophone writers and, if possible, to pick novels set in their native country. For similar reasons, I decided to avoid fiction by writers from the U.K. or Ireland; at least half of my reading comes from British and Irish writers, and for this Challenge I’d like to expand my horizons a bit.
With very little effort I compiled the most marvelous pile, so to speak:
Regarding my level of participation — why not aim for the stars? In other words, the Deluxe Entourage or bust! (everyone should be optimistic at the start of a trip, don’t you think? I can always adjust my route later to fit my budge, so to speak)! Although I’m presently unsure precisely where my journey will start, my very tentative itinerary is as follows:
2. Sweden (my Scandinavian journey continues)
3. Iceland (my journey zigzags to a more remote corner of Scandinavia):
4. France (time to head south)
5. Greece (my trip takes a Mediterranean twist)
6. Spain (I aim for the sixth star — perhaps out of reach, but then what are lists for?)
Well dear readers, that’s the itinerary so far. Please keep in mind, however, that I tend to be a spontaneous traveler and have frequently altered my destination depending on time, mood and opportunity.
Ah, dear readers, it’s January time, if only barely. Snowdrops! New beginnings! New Year’s resolutions by one and all (statistically, BTW, these are generally abandoned by January 17th or so). As I’ve observed from happily reading many very interesting January posts, most of you have already lined up your reading schedules and challenges for 2021, which we all devotedly hope will be much, much better than the annus horribilis we’ve just survived. Being as usual several weeks behind the curve, I’m finally deciding on my own goals for 2021. Primary among them is, once again, Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge. This is one of my very favorite bookish challenges; it was even the subject of my very first post when I started blogging a couple of years ago. The fact that I’ve not managed to complete the Classics Challenge in either of the two years in which I’ve participated is, admittedly, just a teeny bit discouraging. On the bright side, however (and if you’ve read my blog, you know that I’m determined these days to be an optimistic little ray of sunshine) I’ve had a great deal of fun with the Classics Challenges, which have prodded me into reading some wonderful books that I would have otherwise missed (thanks to the Challenge, for example, I finally completed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That HeldThem, one of my favorite books from last year). So, dear readers, this January I was torn — should I attempt once more to rise to the Classics Challenge? Or should I bow to realism and just let it go? My first impulse, I must admit, was the latter, as I felt spiritually a bit like this poor fellow:
It was not for nothing, however, that I’m the product of a red-blooded, all-American childhood (southern U.S. variety), stuffed from infancy with tales of “Little Engines That Could” and nursery jingles singing the praises of itsy-bitsy spiders who defied monsoons in order to climb those old water spouts time and again. Good old U.S.A. cultural norms, not to mention Janakay’s Mom, did not, in other words, produce a quitter! Moral fiber will out, dear friends, as once again I respond to the siren call of the Classics, a living example of hope triumphing over experience.
In contrast to 2020, when I had a fair amount of difficulty in choosing my selections, this year my list has practically made itself (having so many unread books from previous challenges has certainly been helpful in this regard). In relatively quick order I decided on various novels taken (mostly) from this wonderful pile:
If you’re interested, I’ve broken down my selections into the Challenge’s separate categories below, indicating at times my most likely alternate if my primary choice doesn’t work out.
19th century classic (published 1800-1899): Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton
After a rather unpromising introduction to his work, I eventually became a real devotee of Henry James’ fiction. Sadly I’ve neglected James for several years now, with the exception The Tragic Muse, which I reread in my first year of blogging as a result of that year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. What better time to amend this neglect of an old favorite than 2021? Since I’m not quite up to James’ late, very great masterpieces (it takes a lot of energy to tack The Golden Bowl or Wings of the Dove), I decided on The Spoils of Poynton. Published as a magazine serial in 1896 and republished in book form the following year, Poynton just makes it under the Challenge’s 1899 cutoff date for a 19th century classic. Although it’s generally considered a lesser work in the James canon, there’s plenty of content in this tale of the ruthless struggle between a possessive dowager and her hated daughter-in-law over the family’s art collection.
20th Century Classic (published 1900-1971): Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day
Although I’m entirely sure it’s my own fault, Virginia Woolf and I have never quite gotten on with each other. I’ve read a few of her essays and a novel or two (I actually liked Mrs. Dalloway) but . . . don’t we all have our little list of writers whom we admire without quite being enamored of them? Still, I’ve never felt that I gave dear Virginia a fighting chance to win my regard and I’ve always felt the poorer for it. In an effort to make amends, I thought I’d read one of her earlier novels, written when her modernist tendencies were just beginning to surface, as a way to ease myself into her work. If my Woolf jinx continues unabated, however, I’ll probably read something by Pamela Hansford Johnson, since Ali’s delightful review of Johnson’s The Last Resort (published in 1956) reminded me I had never read anything by this oh-so-interesting writer.
Classic by a Woman Author: Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel
Any Jean Stafford readers out there? I must admit Ms. Stafford was one of those writers who was little more than a vaguely familiar name to me; I was aware that she was once married to someone famous (poet Robert Lowell as it turns out); that she was primarily a short story writer; and that her best known novel was The Mountain Lion, a coming of age tale that I have previously had no desire to read. My rather dismissive attitude changed last month when I discovered a collection of Stafford’s novels while browsing in one of my area’s few open and accessible bookstores (everyone masked and socially distancing, of course, but there’s a reason why my area has a very high infection rate). I decided on The Catherine Wheel (it was a close call between that and Stafford’s Boston Adventure), largely because I loved the name (never say, dear readers, that I choose my books for less than profound reasons). I began reading it a few days ago and I’m already hooked — Stafford is a marvelous writer! I plan on dipping into her short stories at some point (she won a Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970). Can The Mountain Lion be next?
Classic in Translation: Magda Szabo’s Katalin Street(originally published in 1969), appearing on my list for the second year in a row
Classic by BIPOC Author: Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City
In selecting something for this category, it was difficult to ignore the richness of African-American fiction, not to mention my several unread novels by the great Toni Morrison, but . . . . Thanks to the NYRB Classics Club I’ve had a couple of novels by Eileen Chang gathering dust on my shelf. Both look extremely interesting and I’ve been dying to give at least one of them a try; perhaps this year’s Challenge will provide the impetus to get me going. How could I resist a title as romantic as Love in a Fallen City? This collection of stories was translated into English and published by NYRB Classics only in 2006; because the stories were originally published in Hong Kong & China in the 1940s, however, they fall within the Challenge’s time parameters.
If I don’t get on with Chang, my alternate choice for this category is
Classic by a New-To-You Author: Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (pub. 1908)
Although I’m hardly versed in Virginia Woolf’s critical writings, I do recall that she had a rather low opinion of her very prolific contemporary Arnold Bennett, whose works of realistic fiction were wildly popular among the reading public of the time (if you’re interested, Woolf’s very critical essay discussing Bennett’s work, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” is available online). Since I’m quite fond of big, sprawling realistic novels, chock full of details about their protagonists’ daily lives, I’ve always thought I’d give Bennett a try. The Old Wives Tale, considered one of Bennett’s best novels, is a natural choice, particularly since it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for a good many years. I was also attracted by Bennett’s concept of showing the contrasting lives of two very different sisters, who began life in the same small provincial town in the English Midlands. Besides, if I read Bennett’s chief critic this year, it’s only fair that I also give the target of her criticism a whirl, n’est-ce pas?
New-To-You Classic by a Favorite Author: Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout
I’ve been a little hesitant in the past to claim Elizabeth Bowen as one of my very favorite authors; as I’ve pointed out before, she can be a little rarefied at times for my tastes. Since I’ve read eight of Bowen’s ten novels, however, I suppose it’s time for a little self-honesty, which requires me to admit that, yes, she is definitely one of my “go to” writers!
Classic about an Animal or with an Animal in the Title: Theodore Storm’s The Rider On A White Horse
One of the bright spots in my rather lackluster 2020 reading was discovering the works of Theodor Fontane, the late 19th century novelist who doesn’t seem to be as widely read outside his native Germany as he perhaps should be. Although I failed to review either Effie Briest or On Tangled Paths, I very much enjoyed them both and was left with a desire to explore more 19th century German writing. This collection of short works by a major 19th century German writer seems an ideal way to do so.
Children’s Classic: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass
Through some quirk of individual taste, the fantastical, upside down world of Through the Looking Glass appealed to me more as a child than the equally fantastical world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps I liked the poetry better (it’s hard to beat “The Jabberwocky,” especially with Tenniel’s illustrations); perhaps it was the motif of the chess game or the powerful suggestion at the end that reality may not be what one thinks, that Alice herself may be nothing but a figment in someone else’s dream. Isn’t it amazing how we let kids read such subversive stuff? This won’t be my first re-read of this childhood classic, but it will be the first in many, many years. If the mood takes me, I may get all intellectual about it and check out some scholarly exegesis or other (I’m sure the chess game has been the subject of far too many dissertations) but I primarily intend to see if the magic still holds.
Humorous or Satirical Classic: Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington (pub. 1912)
I was all set to go with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (pub. 1938) as my entry in this category; for several years now I’ve felt it was a book that I really ought to have read by now (that “ought,” dear readers, is precisely why Scoop remains unread on my shelves. Such is perversity). Fortunately, I remembered — Saki! Although I’ve read and (immensely) enjoyed his short stories (have you read “The Open Window”? If not, go and do so immediately!) I’ve never attempted The Unbearable Bassington, his only novel. In the unlikely event that Bassington doesn’t work for me this year, well, it will be on to
Travel or Adventure Classic (fiction or non-fiction): something by Patrick Leigh Fermor
For one reason or another I’ve generally avoided reading travel literature, although when I’ve done so I’ve generally enjoyed it. Even I, however, am aware that Fermor is one of the genre’s greats. In settling on my choice for this category I was delighted to discover Fermor’s 1957 work, A Time To Keep Silent, recounting his journeys to some of Europe’s most ancient monasteries, as I’ve been interested in monasticism and the contemplative life since I first read Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk many years ago. A close runner-up for this category is Fermor’s The Traveler’s Tree, an account of his travels through the Caribbean Islands in the late 1940s (one of my dream trips is to Trinidad although, alas, I may have missed my chance of ever visiting its famed Asa Wright Nature center).
Classic Play: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
My first impulse for this category was to choose Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, which has seemingly become a permanent resident on my TBR list (I failed to read it for at least one prior challenge). I soon realized, however, that I really wanted to re-read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. I’ve always been fascinated by this story and the questions it raises; do we choose our own lives or do we each, like poor Oedipus, have our own place “where three roads meet” in which we unknowingly walk the path that fate has decreed? As with any of the Greek and Roman classics, the choice of translation is key. I’ve chosen a modern version by the highly regarded Robert Fagles; Penguin has conveniently published all three plays of the cycle (i.e., Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus) in one volume, accompanied by excellent notes and introductions by the English classicist Bernard Knox. If I get really energetic, I may read the whole cycle in order (I’ve never read Oedipus at Colonus) or, since I’m fond of modern interpretations of classical works, take a peak at
Well, dear readers, that’s that (and don’t you agree with Maxi that “that” is quite enough?) for my 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge. If you’ve read any of this stuff (or if you haven’t), please don’t hesitate to share your reactions!
Isn’t it a relief, dear readers, to have 2020 behind us? Unlike so many in this year of the plague, my personal situation was relatively benign (I had tons of great books, good internet access & my near and dear remained healthy) but even we lucky ones can agree that it’s quite the relief to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. One of the more pleasant annual rituals for a book blogger is the annual summary of books read and enjoyed (or not); it’s especially pleasant this year, where there’s sometimes been little else to enjoy other than books. Being, as usual, just a tiny bit behind the curve in looking over the past year (if you’ve read my blog in the past you may recall that I was several weeks late for Margaret Atwood month), my tally is accordingly
coming somewhat after most of the others. This is partly because I didn’t post very much this year and didn’t formally review many books. The pandemic and a long-distance move took their toll; for much of the year my brain was in a state analogous to the slumber mode of a bad computer, making it almost impossible to read anything very long or demanding. I’m not a big numbers cruncher, especially when it comes to books, but I do keep an informal tally and I was shocked to discover that I had read large portions of, and subsequently abandoned, over eleven books. I’ve never been adverse to abandoning or postponing books that didn’t work for me at a particular moment but I’m certainly not quick to do so, especially when, as here, I was actually reading some pretty good things. It was a very odd experience — about halfway through one of the Abandoned Eleven, it was “Bing! I’m done” and off I’d go to another book, which usually met the same fate (if my binger went off in a particularly intriguing work, such as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, I’d skim the end. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother.) What can I say, dear readers? This was the year I just couldn’t focus.
This was also the year when I received several visits from the Ghost of Books Past (envision, dear readers, a bookish version of Dickens’ famous spectre, only in my case toting bags of gaudy mass market paperbacks and brandishing bookish gift cards — I believe these are called “book tokens” in the U.K.), who insisted that I re-visit various reading adventures of yesteryear. This apparition first appeared in September (here in the U.S., we start commercializing Christmas pretty early). Immediately after I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara (BTW many thanks, Dolce Bellezza, for that read-along, otherwise Samara would still be adorning Mount TBR) I became absolutely fixated on locating and re-reading books that I hadn’t thought about for literally decades. Seemingly out of the blue (but we know whose doing it was, right?) I suddenly remembered enough information to locate and obtain a yellowing, mass market paperback of Gwendoline Butler’s Sarsen Place, a novel I had read decades ago, as well as a copy of The Vesey Inheritance, another read by Butler from days gone by. Sarsen Place, now sadly out of print, was worth the effort. The Vesey Inheritance was slightly less so but still a fun read.
Through sheer force of will I resisted the compulsion to spend October re-reading my ten favorite Georgette Heyer novels (it helped that I already knew several of them by heart), but ah, the Ghost of Books Past was far from done with me. The high school I attended several lifetimes ago had a sort of hit or miss library, mostly dull old classics (Tolstoy isn’t terribly interesting to most fifteen year olds) and the librarian had the maddening habit of only ordering one or two books from a series. At that time in my life I had particularly enjoyed one such incomplete series; I won’t identify it except to say it didn’t concern the adventures of either Trixie Belden or Bomba the Jungle Boy. But my school library had only two books from the series, and odd numbered ones at that, so I never learned either the beginning or end of the saga! Imagine the frustration and grief of my little teenybopper self! It was high time, the Ghost whispered, to atone for The Wrong of Reading Only A Few Books From A Series! Heeding my supernatural warning, I started obsessively locating and reading the entire series, seven books total, following the adventures of the main guy, his brother (who pops up around the third book) and then, for gosh sakes, the main guy’s nephew, who’s born somewhere around book five and who carries the saga forward to a new century and a new place (this author clearly knew how to hook a kid in). Ah, dear readers, the joys of completion, all the sweeter for being so long delayed!
After reading/skimming seven books from a Young Adult series (comparatively well written but, let’s face it, with rather immature characters), I could feel the Ghost beginning to fade. In late November and December I really intended to make a final push to read a few more books from my “Back to the Classics Challenge;” I really did, but the past wasn’t yet past, so to speak. Are any of you, dear readers, fans of grimdark, described by N.K. Jemison as fantasy’s equivalent to sci-fi’s dystopia sub-genre? If so, you’ll understand why, when Logen Ninefingers (aka “the Bloody Nine”) summoned me for a re-read, I hastened to obey. In a bit of severe counter-programing to the holiday season, I spent half of December re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s magnificent First Law Trilogy (the Guardian has referred to Abercrombie’s work as “delightfully twisted and evil” and it’s been proclaimed by no less than Forbes as “fantasy at its finest”). Less pompous and far funnier than Martin’s Game of Thrones, and much more attuned to human frailty than Tolkien, Abercrombie’s realpolitik, double dealing and dark humor seemed perfectly attuned to this horrible year. If you liked GOT you’d probably like the First Law Trilogy, provided you aren’t adverse to (very) naughty language and more graphic depictions of the old ultraviolence than you’d find even in Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Don’t judge me too harshly, dear readers, we all have our moods; sometimes one longs to attend a jumble sale with Pym’s excellent women and at others simply to wander the Circle of the World with the Bloody Nine. Say one thing for Abercrombie’s morally ambiguous characters, say they’re most compelling.
Although I spent the last half of 2020 more or less successfully escaping the present, my reading year did in fact include some forward momentum. Two very bright spots indeed were my increased respect for shorter fiction and a growing interest in translated literature. Prior to this year, I had only occasionally read short fiction and then largely on the theory that it was “good for me,” a type of literary equivalent of “eat your broccoli.” I’ve noticed, however, that my fragmented attention span seems fairly widespread this year and that many of my fellow bloggers as well as myself have taken to reading short stories and novellas. Among several outstanding novellas that came my way, the following three, very different works particularly stand out:
Ah, I hear the murmur through cyber space, did she read no novels during 2020? I did, actually, and although there were far fewer in number than in prior years, they included some wonderful works. In ascending order, the three that have stayed with me the longest are:
Well, dear readers, that’s pretty much it for my 2020 reading year. How did yours go? Anyone else out there, haunted by comfort reads and cursed with fragmented attention spans?
If you spend any time at all in the bookish area of the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your attention that November was Margaret Atwood reading month (#MARM). Although sheer disorganization prevented me from participating (I’m afraid I’m still much like my nine-year old self, who once showed up two days late to her little friend’s birthday party), Atwood is one of my very, very favorite writers and I did in some way want to demonstrate how much her work has meant to me. I can’t claim that I was a fan from the beginning of her career (I can be a bit slow about these things), as I only began reading her work with Life Before Man, which came after Atwood had published several other novels and a great deal of very highly regarded poetry. I also can’t say I was a die-hard Atwood fan from my first read. I liked the novel but . . . wasn’t it a bit too realistic in spots? Did I really like these characters? Wasn’t the tone just a bit too ironic at times? Reader, what can I say? I was very, very young at the time, salad days so to speak, blood like ice water and judgment as green as a head of lettuce. Even laboring under the weight of these disadvantages, however, I was drawn from the beginning to Atwood’s writing without quite having the savvy to understand why; although I had some reservations about my first Atwood novel, its characters lingered in my mind and I remembered certain scenes and phrases long after I finished reading. Without being fanatical about it, I began catching up on Atwood’s backlist and reading her new work pretty quickly after it came out. An added bonus in this respect was discovering a writer who actually published with such pleasing regularity, so there were many wonderful new things to read. (I adore Donna Tartt but . . . only one novel every decade or so? So very frustrating at times.)
And then, after several years of an every increasing appreciation of Atwood’s work, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I previously wrote about the experience and won’t repeat myself (click here if you’re interested); suffice it to say that I became the equivalent of a sports fan who dresses in her team’s jersey and shows up at games wearing a silly hat and chanting the star player’s name (imagine, if you can, my standing outside a small independent bookstore, chanting “Atwood! Atwood! rah, rah, rah!”) I had grown up on the fringes of an intensely fundamentalist and traditional culture; did time (and that’s exactly how it felt) in an almost exclusively male environment and was making my living working in another when Handmaid was published. I found Atwood’s ability to recognize certain trends that I had experienced at first hand, and to extrapolate those trends to their logical conclusion intensely real and very, very frightening. I went from a warm appreciation of Atwood’s work to rabid fandom, so to speak. On a chilly October evening a few years after my conversion, I took a great deal of trouble to be one of the lucky attendees who heard Atwood read from Cat’s Eye, her then-most-recent novel. Afterwards I and a couple of hundred other enthusiasts stood more or less patiently in line to have Atwood sign a copy of her work (since most of us were reading an Atwood novel while we waited, the patience part wasn’t too difficult). To grasp the personal significance of my attendance and participation at this event, dear reader, please understand that my actions on that oh-so-long ago October directly contravened principles that have guided my life, i.e., always avoid crowds, never stand in line and never, ever attend literary events on cold nights.
So — it’s fair to say that I love Atwood’s fiction and was delighted to learn of November’s Atwood event. I intended to honor the occasion by re-reading one of the early novels but became sidetracked when I started leafing through Dearly, published in the U.S. on November 10 and Atwood’s first book of poetry in almost a decade.
My taste in poetry was formed by the anthologies and collections that are the staple of the undergraduate English courses taught in U.S. universities, which is to say I prefer poems written before 1920, in rhyme and with meanings that are easy to grasp (one notable exception to my criteria is the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins, although I do love his “Spring and Fall”). I have also read very little of Atwood’s poetry, particularly her early work (whose originality and emotional impact are considered superior by at least one critic) nor did I read Dearly with any great intensity, always so necessary with me to fully grasp this very difficult art. So please keep my limitations in mind and don’t hesitate to add your own opinions, comments and corrections to my own remarks.
Although I like most of the Dearly poems very much, do I sink myself beyond redemption, dear reader when I say that I think Atwood’s primarily talent is for her wonderful novels? What I love about Atwood is her wit, her intellect, her sharp observation of the world and its inhabitants, and her uncanny ability to make connections between people and ideas. This makes for interesting, and at times very pleasurable, poetry but it doesn’t quite deliver the emotional impact I look for in the very greatest of poems. In its review of Dearly, the Guardian called Atwood “an undeceived” poet and delicately suggests that a poet, at times, must indulge in a little merciful illusion. I’ve thought about this statement a great deal and while I don’t pretend to fully understand the Guardian’s oracular pronouncement, I sort of get what I think the reviewer meant. Dearly’s poems didn’t give me a transcendent or profound emotional experience (as I had, for example, the first time I read Philip Larkin’s “The Mower”) or cause me to lose myself in their sheer overwhelming gorgeousness of language and imagery (I’m thinking here of a seventeen year old me, reading Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”). Rather, they were perfect examples of that “undeceived” quality mentioned in the Guardian’s review. I’m going to digress a bit here by quoting some favorite lines from “February,” a poem in a previous Atwood collection (Morning In The Burned House), which I think perfectly conveys this aspect of her poetry:
Winter. Time to eat fat and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat, a black-fur sausage with yellow Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries to get onto my head. It’s his way of telling whether or not I’m dead. If I’m not, he wants to be scratched: if I am he’ll think of something else. He settles on my chest, breathing his breath of burped-up meat and musty sofas purring like a washboard.
Speaking from my own experience, these lines were written by a woman who understands with perfect and unsentimental clarity both the demands of the season and the nature of her feline companion.
Dearly itself, as I said in my caption, is literally a beautiful book, with wonderfully heavy, cream-colored pages that have a marvelous tactile quality. Beware, however, if you have any choice in your editions, which I discovered have different cover art and may differ in some other respects as well. My HarperCollins edition published in the U.S. features a spray of flowers that look like poppies done in muted blues and grey-greens, while the U.K.’s Chatto and Windus edition uses the work of noted British artist Kate MccGwire as the basis of its design, in which the author’s name and the work’s title are nestled among a great, swirling mass of blue and grey bird feathers. Although the cover art of the U.S. edition does give a nod to Atwood’s intense interest in the natural world, I’d go for the Chatto and Windus edition if you have any choice; the feather theme ties in far more directly to the poems (many mention or deal with birds), subtly suggests the uplifting nature of the poems and IMO at least is more visually appealing. Additionally, although Amazon’s U.K. website makes this difficult for me to determine with certainty, the fore pages of the U.K. edition appear to contain facsimiles of Atwood’s handwritten notes.
This stuff about cover art and feathers (not to mention your cats) is all very well, you might say, but what about the contents? Atwood is eighty-one years old and many of the poems, unsurprisingly, reflect the experience of a long life and the passing of time. Atwood dedicates the work to “Graeme, in absentia,” her companion of over forty years who died shortly before the collection was published. Although the work as a whole doesn’t appear to have a common theme, it does contain certain broad subjects that are grouped into five untitled sections. The first begins with the very beautiful “Late Poems,” which introduces the general idea of loss and absence. Like “a letter sent by a sailor, that arrives after he’s drowned,” late poems “wash ashore like flotsam” after “the battle, the sunny day, the moonlit slipping into lust, the farewell kiss” have happened. In Atwood’s view, all poems are “late poems.” The second section deals mainly with various aspects of gender (my current favorite here is “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift,” in which the doomed prophetess says “no” to “Mr. Musician God”). I particularly enjoyed the third section, which deals with what I can only call “strange creatures;” Atwood’s wit and irony are on full display in poems dealing with, among other things, zombies, aliens, sirens and werewolves. After this come poems about nature (including birds, whales, the arctic and wolves) and the frequently nasty things that happen there. The last section contains the poems about Graeme’s fading away (in his last years he was battling dementia) and death.
My current favorite poem from the entire collection (“Blackberries” is a close second) is “Feather:”
One by handfuls the feathers fell. Windsheer, sun bleach, owlwar, some killer with a shotgun,
who can tell? But I found them here on the quasi-lawn– I don’t know whose torn skin–
calligraphy of wrecked wings, remains of a god that melted too near the moon.
A high flyer once, as we all were. Every life is a failure
at the last hour, the hour of dried blood. But nothing, we like to think,
is wasted, so I picked up one plume from the slaughter sharpened and split the quill, hunted for ink,
and drew this poem with you, dead bird. With your spent flight,
with your fading panic, with your eye spiraling down, with your night.
I’ve gone on many nature walks and have seen these little piles of feathers and bones fairly often; I can’t say that my reactions went much deeper than a passing regret or sadness that soon disappeared. It takes a poet to imagine, and then transform, the panic and exhaustion of that slaughtered creature into the life and beauty of a poem.
Before I end this rather rambling post, a few additional things are worth noting. First is the presence of Atwood’s characteristic wit and sense of humor. While many of the poems are somber, many of the others are very, very funny (I defy anyone to read “Aliens” without a smile). On a more logistical level, the collection contains two poem cycles, “Plasticene Suite,” which deals with the environment and what we’ve done to it, and “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” written for the baritone Joshua Hopkins, whose own sister was murdered (music for this was composed by Jake Heggie). Lastly, and in contrast with my own choices, the collection’s most popular piece appears to be the title poem “Dearly.” The Guardian published a wonderful interview with Atwood, which contains a link to Atwood herself reading the poem; if you’re interested, it’s available here.
Because this posting is a “Miscellany,” I had initially thought I’d include some other, unrelated topics. I became so interested in Dearly, however, things got out a little out of hand and I’m afraid I’ve exceeded my own attention span, not to mention yours as well! So, perhaps a “Monday Miscellany”? Hmmmmmm . . . .
As Mr. Janakay has occasionaly observed (admittedly somewhat to his peril), I do not possess a naturally sunny disposition. Unlike my more fortunate friends, I do not, alas, look for the silver lining purportedly possessed by even the stormiest cloud; think that it’s darkest just before the dawn; or consider a half-empty glass to be half-full. These days we live in are so very dark and dreadful, however, that I have decided to turn over a new leaf. Away with the doom and gloom! Up with the smiles and sunshine! For strictly pragmatic reasons, I have resolved to go from frowny to smiley face. Without some (perhaps irrational) optimism I see no way to survive the upcoming weeks, when I and my fellow Americans (of the U.S. variety) are clearly in for a very rough ride indeed. As part of my new program of sunshine & smiles, I’ve decided to compile a “Happiness List” of all the positive things that will keep me going in these stressful times. So — here goes!
The certain knowledge that 2020 will be over in fifty-six days and approximately four hours (depending on when I manage to finish this post). To borrow words once uttered by her British majesty during her own dark year, 2020 has been one annus horribilis and can’t end soon enough!
Will it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that I also “officially” voted earlier this week for one other thing to end as well? (Janakay doesn’t mean to be a tease, but no more details — some forums (fora?) need to stay neutral.) With respect to the current political situation, what can one say, except:
Having many, many wonderful new books, many more than I could read in a lifetime, but, hey — since when has practicality been a factor in my book acquisition? I began this awful year traumatized with the need to do a massive cull of my bookshelves, which I managed after some hysterics and the moderate assistance of medically prescribed tranquilizers. After dismembering my little library, I dumped the surviving volumes onto a moving truck that carried them away to their temporary new home, an unused bedroom where they’re currently sharing space with some lamp shades and a table or two. I retained, unpacked, only the very minimum number of books necessary for survival — perhaps 200 volumes or so — and resolutely refused to unpack the others, as they’d be moving again in a few months. My heroic restraint created empty space in the bookcases for the first time in my adult life! Well, we know that old saw about nature abhorring a vacuum, don’t we? I’m actually too embarrassed to disclose all of my new acquisitions, which are, frankly, quite enormous (I handle my stress by acquiring books). In mitigation, I plead extenuating circumstances: I began collecting my new stash months ago (last April to be exact); the NYRB Classics had several great book sales this year and many of you write really great blogs with excellent reading recommendations that I couldn’t resist (I’m like Oscar Wilde in one way at least, being able to resist anything but temptation). Below is an incomplete but fairly representative sample of my new books:
My third happiness is — gasp! new book shelves! Lots and lots of lovely, empty new shelves, just waiting to be filled when I finally complete my move.
Haven’t we all known the agony of triple stacking our beloved treasures, or even (horrors) boxing them away in one of those plastic slidey things that fit under the bed? Could it be that finally I will have enough space to alphabetize my fiction by authors’ last name and group my art books by artists? Reader, is it possible to have a greater happiness than this?
FOURTH (AND FINAL) HAPPINESS
Although I am definitely not an athletic type (turning the pages in my book, or clicking my kindle is quite enough exercise, thank you very much) I do find it absolutely necessary to touch nature at some level for at least some portion of time. In this respect, I’ve been lucky indeed; both my old home and my new have lots of green space.
Well, that’s it for my Happiness List. What’s on yours, dear reader? What’s keeping you afloat, so to speak, during these dark times?
Are you, dear reader, a fan of Halloween? It’s a holiday I remember very fondly from my childhood. Decked out in a cardboard witch’s hat (costumes were much less elaborate back in the day), I’d join one of the packs of neighborhood kids and spend a few glorious hours going door to door, free of adult supervision, with a candy bag getting heavier at each stop. The nighttime wandering was followed by the wonderful, if competitive, ritual of examining and comparing our somewhat grubby spoils and making trades. Did the kid next door get more chocolate than I did? Could I persuade one of my little buddies to swap his M&Ms for my green jelly beans (generally the answer was “no”)? Ah, the memories! A lifetime away from the candy haul, I retain a vestigial fondness for this holiday. So, on Halloween night my lights are always on, the candy bowl by the door filled with primo goodies (no green jelly beans at my house) and the bell is always answered, even when the little goblins and space invaders interrupt a chapter in whatever exciting new book I happen to be reading. In short, Janakay has always honored the season!
This year, however, I am totally not into it. Partly it’s my personal circumstances, which have included a long distance move from this:
Primarily, however, the sparkle and playfulness I’ve always associated with Halloween are totally overshadowed this year by the horrors of an ugly and divisive election, civil unrest created by social injustice and a pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands. Who can attend to imaginary terrors, when the real things are so frighteningly close at hand?
But in the midst of chaos and civic unrest, we readers always have our books, don’t we? As I noted last year, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we humans love to scare ourselves, as well as by our individual differences in what we each find personally terrifying. I’ve always tended, for example, to favor tales of the occult and supernatural rather than the thriller/slasher brand of horror; more Shirley Jackson and less Freddy Krueger, if that makes sense. And, while I don’t read huge quantities of horror fiction, I have accumulated over the years a clutch of “weird tales,” to use a 1930s term. Although most of my books are still packed and awaiting a home on their new shelves, a quick rummage through what’s available disclosed:
Since I’ve been too enervated and apathetic this year to observe my little ritual of including something creepy and dark in my October reading, I thought I’d share some “horrible” reading from earlier in the year. These are three very different works, read at widely spaced intervals; while I enjoyed all three, I did so in varying degrees. In ascending order of appreciation, I’ll begin with:
Have you ever, dear reader, moved approximately four thousand books, seven rooms of furniture, a significant other and three very unhappy cats in the middle of a pandemic? Having (barely) survived the experience, being “swallow[ed] . . . whole” by a horror novel was a piece of cake. I spent a week in May soothing myself in Thomas’ debut novel, which follows the adventures of alienated teen Ines Murillo as she navigates her way through the elite corridors of Catherine House, not a college, exactly, although accredited as such; more (2-3)
a community of minds. A crucible of experimental, reformist liberal arts study. Research-and-development institute for the most radical new materials sciences. A postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League, and so terrifically endowed that tuition was free to any student lucky enough to be accepted. A tiny, pioneering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds; prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States. A school and an estate: a complex confection of architecture and design, a house — a magnificent house — miles off the highway, in black woods, behind a long iron gate.
In exchange for all this beneficence, students surrender their cell phones, forgo contact with the outside world (including their families) and spend three years secluded on Catherine’s grounds. Does it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that dark deeds are afoot and that Ines, who spends most of her days drinking and — well, engaged in intimate encounters — may be destined for a dark fate? Unfortunately these things were pretty obvious less than halfway through the novel, but Thomas can write and has a real gift for creating an imaginative and disturbing world that’s inhabited by fairly interesting characters (although Ines was admittedly a little tedious at times). If you forget the over the top comparisons to Donna Tart’s Secret History or Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (some reviewers never know when to stop, do they?), love novels heavy on atmosphere and don’t mind if you can guess the plot twists, Catherine House is a very enjoyable way to spend a day or two (it clocks in at around 300 pages) and would make a great Halloween read.
A step up from Catherine House, in terms of originality and impact, is
I became interested in Schweblin after reading several very enthusiastic reviews of Little Eyes, her latest novel translated from Spanish into English; I wanted to try Schweblin’s work but didn’t feel up to tackling a full-length novel (her short story collection Mouthful of Birds was off limits because I can’t handle anything involving graphic violence to animals). More a novella than a novel proper (it has 150 pages of very, very large type), Fever Dreams seemed the most accessible introduction to Schweblin’s work. (I actually read this in August, for Spanish Literature month, but never got around to writing a review).
It’s fortunate that Fever Dreams is so brief, because it’s almost impossible to put down once you begin reading it, with its combination of doom, horror and mystery. It’s a tightly structured work, told mostly in conversational questions and answers between Amanda, a young woman who lies dying in a remote, rural hospital, and David, the mysterious child who is not Amanda’s son and whose questions, editings and probings create an almost unbearable level of suspense for both Amanda and the reader. David, you see, is interested in nothing beyond the “worms” or “something very much like worms, and the exact moment” when they first “touch your body.” When Amanda’s account deviates into non-essentials, David reminds her that “there is very little time;” when Amanda doubts the accuracy and reality of her memories, David assures her that her nightmare is indeed real. For all its brevity, Fever Dreams is technically quite complex, as it explains the Amanda and David story arc, set in the present, by means of a dialogue between Amanda and Carla, David’s mother, set in the past. Part environmental disaster, part folk horror and all nightmare, Fever Dreams is an incredible accomplishment. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Granta had recently named Schweblin as one of its top young Spanish language writers or that her subsequent novel was long-listed for the 2020 Man Booker International Prize.
The third (and scariest) of my three scary reads is “The Fly Paper,” a short story by Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, that Elizabeth Taylor, the nice British lady whose reputation has undergone something of a Renaissance in recent times. In the years since I’ve first encountered Taylor (I’ve read almost all of her novels and have begun working on her short stories) my own opinion of her work has shifted significantly, from condescension to true admiration. The surface of Taylor’s deceptively cozy, middle class world can conceal some pretty dark stuff, which is nowhere more evident than in “Fly Paper.” The story concerns Sylvia, a plain and sullen child of eleven with “greasy hair fastened back by a pink plastic slide.” The unmusical Sylvia lives with her grandmother, who won’t let her eat sweets and insists on a weekly music lesson, a torment for the child who’s bullied by her exasperated teacher. Sylvia has received all the usual warnings against speaking to strangers, so she’s duly alarmed when, on her weekly bus ride to her music lesson, a strange man strikes up a conversation and tries to buy her an ice. Her fears are assuaged, however, by a motherly woman who intervenes and invites her to tea. About midway through the story, my flash of where Taylor might be taking me almost literally made me ill and I had to stop reading for a bit. Perhaps I was over reacting, perhaps I was having a bad day, perhaps Taylor was simply a brilliant writer who knew, instinctively or otherwise, that horror is heightened when it’s combined, oh so simply, with the perfectly observed quotidian details of an ordinary day.
Well, folks, that’s it for this Halloween! It’s time to take a page from Maxi’s book and call it a night.
One of my consolations in this strange and troubling year is discovering the pleasures of translated fiction. My pre-blog reading life (as I’ve noted before) was largely confined to the anglophone world, with a mild tilt towards British authors thanks to my devotion to The Guardian’s book section. Oh, I did read a translated novel here and there over the years, but when I did so it was almost always something from a European country; my two categories were either works that made a huge splash on my side of the Atlantic (Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Herman Koch’s The Dinner spring to mind) or one of those big, sprawling 19th century chunksters that so impress one’s colleagues during those stimulating Monday morning conversations around the water cooler. (“Did I happen to mention that I read War and Peace last weekend? Tolstoy has such a penetrating view of history, don’t you think?”) I very rarely read any contemporary fiction in translation and I almost never read anything, contemporary or classical, from a non-European country.
My, how things did change, once I started traveling through the blogosphere! It didn’t take long for me to see the riches I had been missing and to add a great many new titles to my ever expanding TBR mountain (thank you very much, dear Kaggsy, for your excellent recommendations!) And then, there was the fun of discovering new publishers, such as the Pushkin Press, the Fitzcarraldo and the Europa Editions (if any of you dear readers have other publisher recommendations, do please share). After dipping my toe into non-western waters last winter thanks to Dolce Bellezza Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided the time was ripe for a mild exploration of a few more translated works.
And what better time to start my adventure than in August, which is both Spanish literature and Women in Translation (WIT) month? In honor of both occasions, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading several works that fit into either category, with at least two novels (Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dreams and Maria Graina’s The Optic Nerve) that fit both. In addition to the thrill of discovering these new (to me) writers, I’m very much looking forward to reading all the great reviews that are currently popping up on some of my favorite blogs. Hopefully I’ll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on my discoveries in the upcoming weeks as well.
Because I’ve traveled fairly extensively in certain parts of Latin America (but have never, alas, visited Spain), I rather arbitrarily decided to focus on the former area in selecting my translated-from-Spanish novel. I also wanted to read a very contemporary writer who’s currently publishing rather than an established giant of the canon such as Borges, Llosa or Marquez. Earlier this summer I became interested in Andrés Neuman, an Argentinian novelist with strong ties to Spain, when I read a recent Guardian review of Fractures, his latest novel translated into English. In keeping with my general ignorance of international literature, I was amazed to discover just how much Neuman has written (he has over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt), the wide range of his talent (Neuman is a poet and essayist as well as a novelist) and just how highly he’s regarded by those who should know (Roberto Bolaño, no less, proclaimed that 21st century literature would belong to this guy and as if that wasn’t enough, Granta included him in Volume 113, its selection of the best young Spanish language writers). Despite this renown, however, only three of Neuman’s novels have currently been translated into English. A copy of the earliest of these, The Traveler of the Century, wasn’t readily available to me; between the two that were, I decided to begin with Talking To Ourselves based largely on whim (also, I must confess, I loved the cover photo, despite the insertion of those stupid conversation “balloons”).
Talking to Ourselves is one of those novels whose brevity is disproportionate to its impact. Clocking in at a mere 160 pages or so, it can be finished in an afternoon, but its reverberations continue long after you’ve read the last word. I found myself puzzling for days over various aspects of the story and finding new layers of (possible) meaning in various incidents or characters. I don’t want to suggest that Talking is a difficult read — it isn’t; there isn’t much external action and the number of characters is primarily limited to the eternal triangle of man, woman and child. Rather, like the great artist he is, Neuman works on many levels and leaves it up to to the reader to decide how deeply he or she wants to delve.
The novel opens with a quarrel between Mario and his wife Elena; Mario, it seems, wants to borrow his brother’s truck and take Lito, the couple’s ten year old son, on a road trip to deliver an unspecified cargo to a small, remote town far from the family home in Buenos Aires. Lito is very excited at the propect of this long-promised treat while Elena is very much opposed. We shortly learn that Mario is dying (almost certainly from cancer, although the cause is never specified); when the novel opens his disease is in (temporary) remission and he desperately wants to create a lasting memory for Lito to cherish after his father’s death. Mario and Lito embark on their journey while Elena, who remains behind, commences her own very different odyssey.
Lito, Mario and Elena each tell the unfolding story through his or her point of view (POV). This limited view point not only keeps the reader guessing but also deepens our understanding of certain incidents. Lito, for example, thinks his father reacts rudely to a “magician” they encounter on their road trip; Mario’s puzzling actions become clear later on when he narrates his own section and indicates his opinion that the “magician” is most probably a pedophile who’s hitting on his son. The shifting POV also imparts suspense into what might otherwise be a rather claustrophobic domestic drama by allowing the reader access to information Elena and Mario withhold from each other and from Lito (both parents, for example, lie to their son about the extent and nature of Mario’s illness and death).
Although Mario does the dying (he is, so to speak, the novel’s guest of honor), the novel really belongs to Elena, an academic manqué whose lack of conviction and desire to get married led her to abandon graduate study. Far more intellectual than Mario, Elena attempts to understand her grief by reading and reflecting on great works of literature. We know her thoughts through her journal entries, as we know Mario’s from the recordings he makes (after his death, these will ultimately be given to Lito) and Lito’s through his texts and stream of consciousness narration (it’s a mark of Neuman’s skill that he makes each character communicate in a way that reflects his or her personality). As Elena looks to literature to make sense of herself and her disintegrating world, the novel interweaves her thoughts about what she is reading with actual quotes from the works themselves. As Elena explains:
When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I was taking them back.
“She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow,” I was startled to read in a short story by Lorrie Moore, sometimes I do the same, using my photophobia as an excuse, so that Lito won’t see my eyes. “From where will her own strength come? From some philosophy? From some frigid little philosophy?” Actually, I don’t get my strength from reading, but I do understand my weakness.
Although Neuman overdoes this device a bit, it’s a very interesting stream of consciousness technique that gives a real sense of immediacy to Elena’s reading (the novel contains a bibliography listing the works that Elena cites, which range from César Aira and Margaret Atwood to Hebe Uhart and Justo Navarro).
A major portion of Elena’s journal entries deal with a clandestine affair that begins shortly after Mario and Lito depart on their road trip. Despite feeling increasingly guilty about her actions, Elena responds to her husband’s approaching death by engaging in an intense, very physical affair that has heavy sadomasochistic overtones. As Elena explains (Talking at 44-45) in her journal, the physical and psychological pain she gives, and receives, from this affair resurrects and awakens her; she and her lover (who is experiencing a loss of his own) “cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here.” I’m less morally repulsed than somewhat unconvinced by Elena’s actions, which strike me as a bit contrived (I found myself thinking that this novel was written by a man, after all, but then perhaps I’m being naive). It’s perhaps significant, perhaps not, that Elena’s lover is the one important character we see only from the outside; he alone has no voice. Although this may simply emphasize his relative unimportance vis-à-vis the bond between Elena and the dying Mario, for me at least his silence and the opacity of his emotions and motives increased my inclination to regard him as a rather artificial plot device.
Unsurprisingly for such a short novel, there’s a dearth of secondary characters. Elena’s parents and older sister, and Mario’s brothers, make brief, fleeting appearances or are referred to in passing. When they do appear, however, Neuman can bring them alive with a line or two. My favorite of these is Elena’s older sister. Never given a proper name, she quarrels with Elena and leaves her house in a huff after she learns of Elena’s affair; polite, dignified and insufferable, she informs Elena of her departure by text message. A subsequent exchange between the sisters conveys the essence of many sibling relationships:
Do you need money? my sister asked in that responsible tone my dad admires so much. No, I pretended, why do you ask? No reason, she replied, how much do you need? When I said the amount I felt odd, grateful, younger.
I’m afraid that my bare summary may leave you with the impression that the novel is melodramatic and emotionally bleak. If so, I’ve done a severe disservice to Neuman’s skill and subtlety. Talking is surprisingly funny in spots, an effect Neuman achieves in part by making Lito the narrator for part of the road trip with his father. I usually become pretty wary when a child protagonist appears, as all too often s/he is either too cute, unrealistically precocious or both. In Lito, however, Neuman finds the realistic (and very funny) balance between the awareness and the innocence of a ten year old, as this exchange between Lito and his father (Talking at 32) makes clear:
I send a text from Dad’s phone:
hi ma hw r u? we r awsm! saw ++s of grt plcs 2day dt worry dad nt drvg fst 🙂 xxxs luv u
Thank you my darling for your delicious message. Your mom is fine but she misses you loads. Be careful climbing in and out of Pedro [the truck]. I went swimming today. You are my angel, kiss Daddy for me.
Mom doesn’t know how to use the phone, I laugh. What do you mean? Dad says, she uses it every day. And she had one before you were born * * * Sure I say, but she doesn’t know. Her messages always have twenty or thirty letters too many. It’s more expensive. And she wastes about a hundred letters. * * * And you, I go on, don’t know how to use it either. Oh, heck, pardon me, he says, why? Let’s see, I say, where in the menu do you find the games? That’s unfair, he complains. Ask me about something I might have a use for. Okay, okay, I say. How do you copy your contacts list? He doesn’t say anything. You see? I say. Then I raise my arms and whoop like I’ve just scored a goal.
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Sylvia Townsend Warner? If so, you must hasten immediately over to A Gallimaufry, where Helen is hosting (for at least the second year) a reading week in Warner’s honor. In addition to some wonderful reviews of STW’s works, Helen has provided links to a great deal of Warner-related material (including a website maintained by the STW Society) as well as to prior posts and participants’ reviews. Among this year’s offerings are reviews of STW’s letters and poetry as well as her biography of T.H. White. Whether you’re a die-hard STW fan or a novice who’s simply interested in becoming a little more familiar with Warner’s work, it doesn’t get any better than this!
Altough I’ve yet to read much of her output (particularly the short stories), I’ve numbered Warner as one of my favorites since my long-ago days as an undergraduate student. Browsing aimlessly in one of my home town’s few bookshops (I was most probably skipping class at the time), I happened by sheer chance to pick up a beautiful used copy of Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman. Although I had heard of neither author nor book, I decided to risk the purchase price because it looked interesting and hardback books were scarce in my life at the time. It didn’t take long for me to become fascinated by Warner’s tale of an aging spinster who leaves behind her conventional London family to find friends in odd places and to carve out a life for herself in the process. I was totally entranced; I had simply never encountered anything quite like Warner’s combination of sharp social observation, realistic depictions of nature and delicate fantasy, all heightened by the mythic overtones of Lolly’s nocturnal ramblings through the dark woods adjacent to the village of Great Mop. Lolly Willowes remains one of my favorite books and I return to it every few years, when a certain mood strikes me; unlike Lolly, I don’t ditch home and hearth but I do spend a day or two immersing myself in that singular world that Warner creates in this wonderful novel.
After Lolly Willowes, I went on to Mr. Fortune’s Maggot; my edition was published with Warner’s The Salutation (a sort of related sequel) in one of those nice NYRB Classics editions. I’m afraid poor Timothy Fortune never had much of a chance with me; I was seeking a second Lolly Willowes, which these short novels most definitely were not. More satirical and far more overtly realistic than Lolly Willowes, but marked by the same sharp wit and beautiful writing, I found them enjoyable but vaguely unsatisfying. After so many years, these works are perhaps ripe for a revisit; and what better time than Warner Week? (As soon as I finish this post, I’m clicking over to see what Harriet Devine has to say about them in her newly posted review!)
Persisting in my search for a second Lolly, I next attempted The Corner That Held Them (considered by many to be Warner’s masterpiece), with disastrous results. Total shame prevents me from repeating my initial reaction (recounting it once was embarrassing enough), but I will say that at the time the novel left me totally baffled. Was it a historical romance of the frivolous (that opening scene was pretty sexy) or the serious type, á la Hilary Mantel (all those detailed descriptions of medieval convent life)? Was it even a novel? Was it some sort of weird, fictionalized history? I simply couldn’t fathom how (or why) the author of my beloved Lolly Willowes could also have penned this strange, oversized work. After far less than a hundred pages I was out of there and on to something else, something easier to categorize and quicker to read. And that, dear reader, with the exception of an elfin tale here and there, ended my flirtation with STW for several years.
Ah, but the Loving Huntsman (to use Warnerian terminology) wasn’t done with me yet! Several years ago, moved by an impulse that I couldn’t quite understand (o.k., o.k.; I had probably received the book as a monthly selection from the NYRB Classics Club!), I was compelled to try Warner’s Summer Will Show. Primed for disappointment after my spectacular failure with The Corner That Held Them, I was spectacularly surprised. For all the reasons that Helen so eloquently discusses, Summer Will Show is a wonderful tale of personal liberation and growth, of love and of intellectual engagement. Displaying STW’s beautiful style, wit and observational skill, it is nevertheless quite different from the other STW novels that I had read to that point.
And that, dear reader, is one of the keys to understanding my STW addiction. In some form or fashion, STW never fails to surprise, to thwart conventional expections. Just when I feel I have a handle on her work she throws me a curve ball (Mr. Janakay has his own addiction to baseball and some of the terminology has rubbed off). After finishing or attempting four of her novels, I had finally grasped a fundamental characteristic of Warner’s oeuvre, i.e., although consistently sharing her wonderful style and wit, Warner’s novels can be totally dissimilar in terms of tone or content. Armed with this insight, dear reader, I was finally ready to appreciate . . .
Not being one of your self-starter types, I needed a goad to begin my second (or was it third?) attempt. This came last January, when I decided to participate in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate), as Corner was a natural fit for my “abandoned classic” category.
There’s an amusing anecdote, one of Mark Twain’s I do believe, to the effect that when he was nineteen he considered his father a fool but when he became twenty-one he was amazed at how much the old man had learned. The anecdote springs to mind in connection with Corner because it rather accurately reflects my own changed opinion of Warner’s marvelous novel. Even in my very callow youth (and I really must admit that I wasn’t that young when I attempted my first read) how could I have so misjudged this masterpiece? The second time around I was hooked and mainlining right from page one and spent a wonderful week or so in late January, totally lost in the universe Warner created. Have any of you watched Bladerunner, with its AI replicants who were “more real than real”? Although the comparison jars a bit, it pretty accurately describes how I experienced the small corner of the medieval universe Warner creates. In this I found her skill to be comparable to the great 19th century realists, whose fictional universes are so skillfully constructed that we readers are deceived into thinking them snapshots of reality when of course they are no such thing. As Claire Harmon observes in her introduction, Warner’s novel is one of “contrived realism,” so skillfully done that it seems more historical that fictional.
But enough of my enthusing — it’s time for my formal review! And here, I must admit that I may check up short. Corner is long (almost four hundred pages); extends over fifty or so years; has numerous characters; employs multiple view points; and doesn’t center around any one, prominent event. Because I read it six months ago, moreover, I’ve forgotten some of the details. Aside from the fact that I’d welcome your opinion of the novel, please correct any factoids I happen to misstate.
At its simplest level Corner recounts the lives of the nuns in the small convent of Oby, built in the mid-14th century on a rise of land located in the marsh country of eastern England. If, like me, you’re familiar with religious life primarily from reading Hulme’s The Nun’s Story (great movie BTW) or Godden’s In This House of Brede, well, you need to forget both. Warner’s nuns are very worldly nuns (with respect to at least one of them, I found myself thinking of the very worldly prioress of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) or at least concerned with mundane matters; they do their religious duties, of course, but are more prone to discuss the design of the new altar hangings they’re embroidering or the details of the bishop’s next visit than more overtly spiritual matters. This preoccupation reflects the reality of a tough medieval world, politically and spiritually dominated by men, that Oby’s nun’s must navigate in order to survive. Warner is intrigued with the bread and butter issues of convent life, with how the nuns sustain themselves, how they keep their accounts and what those accounts record. Oby is a small convent and its economic base is precarious; STW never lets you forget how thin is the line separating its survival from its ruin. That altar cloth, for example, is a major financial investment that the convent intends to gift to the hostile bishop who’s causing it problems. Warner uses these quotidian realities of convent life to establish an absolutely convincing reality.
Because Corner spans four odd decades or so, it necessarily teems with characters. Novices enter Oby, take their vows or not, live their lives there as nuns and die and are buried. One prioress succeeds another, ditto for the bishops controlling the convent’s fate. The village that supports Oby’s economic existence sees a similar turnover of personnel; an honest and efficient bailiff dies and is replaced by a nephew; the bailiff’s widow moves on to another man. As in life, so as in literature — some of these characters are sympathetic, some aren’t. If you’re the type of reader who demands a central character, particularly one with whom you can identify, then this book isn’t for you. The closest thing to a dominant POV here is probably that of Ralph Kello, the vagrant clerk who comes to Oby by chance and remains there for the rest of his life, masquerading as a priest. Events in the great world outside Oby include the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but the reader experiences them only tangentially, in the same way that they are experienced by Oby’s inhabitants. More important than either for the convent is the great task of erecting a steeple for its chapel, a project that consumes its resources and dominates the tenure of at least one of its prioresses. The action never strays very far from Oby and, as Harman points out in her introduction, the narrative is as meandering as the marshy stream that Oby abuts.
Warner’s slyly irreverent and subversive wit is everywhere present in the novel. She begins, for example, by describing the adulterous act that will ultimately lead to the foundation of Oby, a nunnery commemorating the soul of the adulterous wife who narrowly escapes being murdered by her husband (her lover wasn’t so lucky). Ralph Kello, Oby’s “priest,” arrives at the convent after a night of carousing that leaves him too drunk to understand that it has been stricken by the plague; he remains there for the rest of his life, ministering quite adequately to the nuns’ spiritual needs. And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the life of the spirit, the raison d’être of the nuns’ existence, and the necessity of feeding and clothing the body, which preoccupies much of their daily existence. What could be more ironic than the necessity of the banal to support the life of the spirit?
And then, of course, there’s Warner’s spare, elegant, breathtakingly beautiful language (pages 15-17):
In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby. * * * Though there had been pestilences often enough before, there had never been, they said, such a pestilence as this. It traveled faster than a horse, it swooped like a falcon * * * All across Europe it had come, and now it would traverse England, and nothing could stop it, wherever there were men living it would seek them out, and turn back, as a wolf does, to snap at the man it had passed by.
I’m afraid I’ve made this great novel sound very dull (the fear of doing so has largely held me back from discussing it) when nothing could be further from its reality. The best way I can think of to say it is that Corner is a singular masterpiece that places singular demands on the reader. We all, of course, have to find our own way to appreciate works such as this. The approach that worked for me was to simply let the novel wash over me, without attempting to remember, with any great exactness, the individual characters; to regard the “Corner” itself as the protagonist, to see the novel as the story, almost, of a hive or a collective, with individuals having only very transient and minor roles. I’d be most interested to hear how others have navigated this very great and very eccentric work.
As for my STW addiction — well, after Summer Will Show, I’m afraid I’m hopelessly hooked. Luckily I have at least two novels and a wealth of short stories in store . . . .
It’s very heartening to Janakay that 2020’s Juneteenth is being given such wide notice, much more, it appears to her, than in previous years. In part, of course, this is due to its coinciding with one of those pivotal moments of social protest and, hopefully, social change. In part — and this is perhaps saying the same thing in a different way — it’s due to the growing awareness among white Americans of a holiday that has been given little attention or prominence by white institutions or a white-dominated media. Janakay is not proud of the fact, but she was largely unaware of Juneteenth until a few years ago. But then, Janakay has spent most of her adult life unlearning the version of the American Civil War that she was taught as a child. The mythology of the “lost cause” and its fantasy of a civil war fought over tariffs and states’ rights rather than freedom and human dignity had no room for a day commemorating the end of a horror that had tainted the country from its beginning. Could it be that after a century and a half we in these (theoretically) United States are finally willing to lay aside our comforting blanket of false history and recognize the pain and injustice inflicted so long on so many of our fellow citizens? To acknowledge that all of us are entitled to justice and to ensure that all of us actually receive it?
Well, enough of the soap box! Let’s observe Juneteenth 2020 with one of Janakay’s favorite formats, the miscellany!
MISCELLANY FIRST: A New Type of Equestrian Statue
Any fans of Kehinde Wiley out there? Without being particularly knowledgeable about it, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in one of my basic art history courses. Wiley, of course, is best known for his official state portrait of a certain American political leader . . . .
Wiley is particularly known for his portraits of young urban Black men, clad in contemporary dress but posed in the manner of the elite of western culture while holding centuries-old symbols of status and power. It’s a powerful way to bestow dignity and respect on a frequently marginalized group, as well as a slyly subversive comment on how western art has traditionally excluded or marginalized Blacks.
Have any of you, dear readers, traveled through the eastern and/or southern United States? If so, you will no doubt have noticed the multiplicity of monuments to various leaders and notables of the lost cause, not to mention the omnipresence of their names on streets, parks, buildings and military bases. For those of you who have successfully avoided current news (congratulations on that, by the way), many of today’s protesters have demanded the removal of these glorifications of the U.S.’ slave-holding past. Wiley’s elegant and powerful solution (a commission from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art) was the creation of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue that acknowledged the past while creating an image for the present:
By sheer chance my visit last November to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (located in Richmond) coincided with the permanent installation of Wiley’s great statute in the plaza in front of the museum. Although they’re not as detailed as I would wish, my photos do give some idea of the scope and scale of Wiley’s wonderful statue:
“Rumors of War” stands only a few blocks away from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which contains five giant statues of Confederate leaders and is located almost directly across from the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy. Well done, Kehinde!
MISCELLANY SECOND: Remembrance
Have any of you, dear readers, seen “The New Yorker’s” June 22 cover? The magazine has had some fabulous covers over the years, but this one by artist Kadir Nelson is something exceptional. Titled “Say Their Names,” it’s a closeup examination of the violence inflicted upon black people in America. The magazine’s website has an interactive feature that gives you factual information about each of the figures contained within George Floyd’s body, from Floyd himself to Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan) to Emmett Till (a fourteen year-old lynched in 1955) to “the Unnamed,” the enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves.
For a more all encompassing examination of slavery’s legacy in the U.S., the New York Times 1619 Project is an incredible source of information; it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.
MISCELLANY THIRD: Hope
The poets always say it best. What better way to end Juneteenth 2020 than with the hope that Hughes’ plea will, someday, be answered:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Although I’ve been blogging very little in this our year of the plague, I have (as I noted in my last post) been reading fairly steadily since 2020 rolled around. Because there wasn’t a dud book in the bunch (isn’t it gratifying, dear reader, when one is on a streak of reading good books?) I thought I’d share a quick recap of some of the excellent works of fiction that have come my way in this year. What I’m offering are quick impressionistic snapshots rather than in-depth reviews (Janakay is not by nature profound, and constant handwashing and unpacking make it so very difficult to concentrate right now). In making my list I noticed the emergence of a monthly sort-of pattern to my reading. One month was heavy on thrillers & science fiction while another tended towards “serious” novels; one month tilted to the classics and another to the contemporary, and every month included a comfort read, which generally coincided with a stressful key moment in my long-distance move! Have you, dear reader, in your great journey through the universe of literature, noted any similar tendencies or patterns in your own seasonal reading? Do you read classics when it’s cold and drippy outside or eagerly head towards light bubbly froth for those delightful days of lying on the beach? Or do you, like Janakay, indulge in counter-programing, saving all those serious literary chunksters for your lazy summer afternoons? Well, enough with the philosophical musings and on to my list!
As befitting a month associated with endings and beginnings, my January reading contained both old and new, as well as one of Janakay’s own very special little rituals. Are any of you, dear readers of mine, superstitious about books? (If so, don’t be embarrassed — do share your little kink. Janakay won’t tell!) I’m quite superstititious myself, especially about the first book I start in any new year (books I’m finishing don’t count). I regard my first new book in January as an omen for the upcoming year; if it’s a really good book, well, the gods have spoken, haven’t they? They have promised I’ll have a great year of reading ahead of me!
To increase my chances that my January ritual will have a favorable outcome I tend to go with a classic when a new year rolls around or, gasp, even reread something I’ve loved in the past (Janakay regards this as a prudent precaution rather than a cheat. Honestly, don’t we all load the dice, when we can?) This year, however, I decided to gamble a bit on Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern fairy tale of two siblings, a wicked stepmother and the enchanted house they all longed to possess. I really like Ann Patchett’s work (I think I’ve read almost all of her novels) and I’d had my eye on this one since I read the advance notices. I’m happy to report that my gamble paid off; the novel was every bit as good as it was reported to be.
From contemporary I went to classic, spending the latter half of January with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. I had tried many years ago to read Corner, but had given it up after less than fifty of its three hundred plus pages; to put it mildly I had been totally unimpressed. How that Warner woman could dribble on! Had she no editor? Why was this book so different from her delightful Lolly Willowes? Whatever was Warner up to in this yawn-inducing tome? Was Corner a history or was it a novel? Either way, it was BORING and Janakay loathes being bored. Back on the shelf it went, to gather many layers of dust. Given my strong negative reaction, I naturally selected Corner for the “Abandoned Classic” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. And — please note, dear readers, Janakay conceals nothing from you, no matter how embarrassing — her initial reaction to Warner’s novel was quite mistaken! In fact, you might say that Janakay missed the boat on this one or, if you were being particularly unkind, conclude that she even fell off the pier! Oh, my good gracious me, how the years can alter one’s judgment! Even in my callow youth, however could I have abandoned this wonderful novel? The Corner that Held Them really is a masterpiece and absolutely one of the best things Janakay has read in years — she was absolutely glued to the pages and bereft when the story ended. Hopefully, I’ll be posting a review later on, before all the details have totally faded but . . . the weather is so very nice right now, Janakay’s new house has its very own hammock and there are a great many interesting new books to read (Janakay adores novelty) ….
and, for particularly low energy days, an overwhelming temptation to browse in that most addictive of sources . . .
But, despite these considerable temptations, Janakay will heroically summon her energy and get busy writing a serious review! (at some point)
Before leaving January entirely, the month’s comfort read deserves a mention, being an early novel by Rumer Godden, The Lady and the Unicorn. Any Rumer Godden readers out there? Godden is one of Janakay’s favorites for those times when she’s in the mood for a well-written novel, an exotic setting and at least one psychologically interesting character. Godden’s technique is traditional (which is fine with Janakay) and she can be surprisingly perceptive on issues of class and race, an important trait when writing about the British Raj, which Godden so very frequently does. The Lady and the Unicorn centers on the three daughters of an Anglo-Indian family and their struggle to establish themselves in a world that regarded them as neither British nor Indian. Although the novel’s strong supernatural element distracted a bit from Godden’s sharp social observations, the ghost story was fun and was skillfully incorporated into the main story line. All in all, The Lady and the Unicorn was a great way to pass an afternoon and a welcome distraction from packing boxes.
February was a discovery month, bringing several new and wonderful novels in translation, thanks largely to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 13. This was especially gratifying as Janakay is just the teeniest bit parochial in her reading, mostly sticking as she does to anglophone writers. Participating in Doce Bellezza’s challenge, however, demonstrated just how much Janakay has been missing in her rather narrow approach. What treasures are contained in even the sketchiest sample of Japanese writing! Looking for a terse and elegant story of doomed love, set in one of the most poetic and deeply atmospheric novels I’ve ever read? Try Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. More into a contemporary tale of the ultimate non-conformist? You couldn’t do better than Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a chronicle of the deeply weird life and times of a very contented employee in one of Tokyo’s many “Smile Marts.” (I’d been intending to read this one for over a year. I’m happy to report it was definitely worth the wait). I also spent a few pleasant hours in which I finally got around to reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I had come to regard as a permanent resident on my TBR list; while a little sentimental for my taste it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it.
And then, of course, there was Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, another book I had tried but abandoned several years ago. What a loss that would have been, never to have read it, especially since I had the added benefit of DB’s wonderful commentary. All of these great novels deserve far more than my brief nods, and Janakay was fully intending to share her thoughts and opinions with you, but, well, life intervened. Movers were a’ comin’ and she simply had to clean out her basement (a word of unsolicited advice, dear readers! Never, ever go twenty-eight years without cleaning out your basement!)
To a lesser extent, February was also short story month. Although I do respect the genre I ordinarily tend to avoid actually reading short stories, as I regard them as a bit of a tease — just when I’m getting interested, poof! They’re over! This year, however, I began seeking them out, as they seemed to lend themselves to my currently fractured attention span (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?). One of my rewards was re-discovering Daphne DuMaurier’s fantastic novella Don’t Look Now. Have any of you read it? If not, why are you wasting time on my blog? Click off instantly and read it now. Afterwards, settle in for a wonderfully creepy afternoon of watching Nicholas Roeg’s 1974 film version, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making their doomed way through a darkly beautiful and sinister Venice.
If February was short stories & Japanese novels, March was packing boxes and saying good-byes; physically it was a long distance move and literature-wise a much quicker journey to some fun and distracting reads. I was particularly happy to (finally) sample the work of the very talented sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin. Behind the curve as usual I had totally missed her acclaimed Broken Earth series, so I was particularly happy to read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy. Aside from being an unusual and gripping story, City’s view that cultural and ethnic diversity are necessary for our very survival made Janakay positively weep with gratitude, being such a refreshing respite from the jingoistic blather that seems so omnipresent these days. If you’d prefer an interior journey through a dark and twisted psyche to humanity’s struggle against an alien threat, I can happily recommend Flynn Berry’s A Double Life, loosely based on Britain’s Lord Lucan murder scandal. For a noir thriller with an interesting take on class, race and gender, check out Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime, an elegant tale of intrigue set mostly in Venice, (Janakay adores Venice, even though it’s been years and years since she visited). I also dipped a toe into some grimly funny Scandinavian fare, with Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good (Janakay was looking for inspiration and did find it there, although — reluctantly — she draws the line at offing those annoying neighbors of hers). As a bonus, it has an absolutely wonderful cover:
In April, it was back to more serious, albeit still contemporary, fare. As you may surmise from my most recent post, I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel. Do any of you share my enthusiasm? After it became sadly evident that our current pandemic was not, suddenly, just going to “disappear” (and Janakay absolutely draws the line at injecting herself with bleach or swallowing light beams or whatever), I seriously considered re-reading Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of my highlight books from a few years ago. I decided, however, that until we see how Covid-19 plays out, I couldn’t emotionally handle Mandel’s story of a vicious, highly contagious disease that ended current civilization (isn’t it spooky, how great writers have their fingers on the zeitgeist?). I settled instead on Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel, published at the end of March. Somewhat to my surprise (Mandel’s incredibly talented, but how many great books can anyone, even Hilary Mantel, produce in one lifetime?) Glass Hotel was very nearly as good as its immediate predecessor. Admittedly, the novel has no feel-good characters (it’s based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme), so if you want warm and fuzzy, you’ll need to look elsewhere. What it does have is beautiful writing, a wonderfully complex structure that uses shifts in time and point of view to reinforce and enrich the story, and an utterly believable, complicated and heartbreaking cast of characters, all of whom are, morally, some shade of grey. I was hooked in from the beginning and absolutely couldn’t put it down for the two days or so it took me to read. The only downside was that I had to wait for its impact to fade a bit before I could start another novel, because I knew that nothing I could read would be anywhere nearly as good. Have any of you read Glass Hotel? Or any other Mandel novel, for that matter? If so, I’d love to hear your opinions. I’d also be interested in hearing how you handle that period of time after you’ve read a novel that just blows you away. Do you read non-fiction? Play solitaire? Immediately go on to the next novel on your list? Do share your secret of survival!
After a few days of absorbing Glass Hotel and letting its impact fade, I settled in to enjoy another contemporary novel, this time by Lily King. Although I’d avoided reading Euphoria, King’s highly touted previous novel (I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), I was curious about her work and decided to give her latest novel, Writers and Lovers, a try. Writers’ ostensible subject is the story of Casey, a thirty-something wannabe writer and part-time waitress; dealing with grief over her mother’s death, Casey struggles with her novel, works in a restaurant and becomes entangled with two very different men. Writers‘ real subject (IMO at least, don’t know if the critics would agree) is the creative process and the demands that it places on its devotees. I enjoyed the novel, without being overwhelmed by it; I was particularly taken with Casey’s criteria for determining a real bookstore and picked up several useful titles to add to my TBR list! (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters and, what I’m far more likely to actually read, Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday.) Prompted by an excellent review, I then sneaked in a quickie read of Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, a debut novel accurately described by The Guardian as a “smart, creepy fairy story” with a twist. If you, like Janakay, love Gothic horror and ambivalent endings, not to mention nasty malevolent fairies with a taste for human blood (not to mention hearts), then waste no time, dear reader! This is your book! Janakay’s one regret is that she didn’t save it for Halloween.
Well, that’s it for my round-up! What about yours? I’d love to compare lists!