While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing. As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.
First Miscellany: Travel and Books
I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring. Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area. Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.
Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well. When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self. Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate. The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on. Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president. Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog). On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones. An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19). It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic. “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!
In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!) Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea! Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip). From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start. I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip. Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction). It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.
In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:
SECOND MISCELLANY: Museums
To my great disappointment, most of Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three! One’s an “attributed to”). I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed). I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums. It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art. Sixty-nine Cezannes! Fifty-Nine Matisses! One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many). In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well. Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art. The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder. If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.
In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence. Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.
THIRD MISCELLANY: Nature
For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space. It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway. I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.
Enough for tonight! Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?
As many of you are aware, Cathy is currently hosting a twelve-month read-along of the works of Brian Moore, Belfast native, resident of both Canada and the U.S. and prolific author of over twenty-five novels in several genres. I really welcomed Cathy’s event, since Moore is one of those interesting writers who’s vaguely hovered in my literary consciousness for many years without ever quite taking shape. Wasn’t he Irish? No, he must be a Canadian historical writer because he wrote that Black Robe thing set in 17th century New France. At least he’s definitely Catholic! (Judging from my unread copy of his novella, Catholics. Dear Readers, I never miss a clue.) But wait — wasn’t Catholics actually a sci-fi novel, since it’s set in an alternate reality? Or are there really two Brian Moores, one a literary novelist and one a writer of Hollywood screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock and friends? As you can see, dear readers, Cathy’s read-along didn’t come a minute too soon for Janakay! And while I’m not excusing my ignorance about a very fine writer, my rather facetious questions demonstrate the chameleon nature of Moore’s talent as well as the impossibility of pigeonholing his work.
Each month the read-along features a single novel chosen as a good introduction to Moore’s fiction. Since I’ve never read anything by Moore, I wanted to read at least a couple of the featured books in order to form my own opinion about his output. Although I missed the first few months for various reasons, I was determined that at the very least I’d get to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, sitting unread on my shelves for almost a decade and widely considered one of Moore’s best works. My review, however, is running (very) late and comes at the very tail end of this month’s discussion; because it will be posted at the end of the month, numerous other fine reviews (including one by Cathy herself) precede it. Although the timing of my post made me hesitant to weigh in on a novel that’s been so thoroughly discussed, I finally decided to do so on a idiosyncratic “this is what interested me” basis and not to attempt a comprehensive overview or repeat too many details of the novel’s plot.
Being a believer that art frequently reflects in some manner the life of the artist who created it, one of the things I always find interesting is a writer’s biography. Rather than repeat the details of Cathy’s fine overview of Moore’s life and output, however, I begin this portion of my discussion by asking whether any of you have read Stet, Diana Athill’s wonderful memoir of her career as an editor at André Deutsche Ltd.? (Bear with me, dear readers, this will link up.)
Athill gives a very frank, very funny and very insightful account of working with some of the 20th century’s best known writers (Naipaul, Roth and Mailer for example) as well as with numerous other fine albeit less well known artists, including Moore himself. Athill’s account of her editorial and personal relationship with Moore (the friendship included Moore’s first wife, the Canadian journalist Jackie Sirois) was the first time I begin to be aware of Moore as something other than a name attached to several novels I had never bothered to read. Because I read Stet many years ago and had largely forgotten any of the specifics relating to Moore, I couldn’t resist revisiting Athill’s account after I (finally) finished Judith Hearne, the first Moore novel I’ve actually read.
I usually dislike (and normally avoid) long quotes, but Athill’s such a marvelous writer I’m making an exception in her case. As she recalls (pages 138-139 of my print copy, issued by NYRB Classics):
It was Mordecai [the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler] who first introduced me to Brian Moore in that he told me that this friend of his had written an exceptionally good book which we ought to go after; but I must not deprive André [André Deutsche] of his discovery of Judith Hearne. As André remembers it, he was given the book by Brian’s agent in New York on the last day of one of his — André’s — visits there; he read it on the plane on the way home and decided at once that he must publish it. I think it likely that he asked to see it, being alerted, as I had been, by Mordecai. But whether or not he asked for it, he certainly recognized its quality at once; and when he handed it over to me, it came to me as something I was already hoping to read, and its excellence was doubly pleasing to me because Brian was a friend of Mordecai’s. The two got to know each other in Paris and in Canada, where Mordecai was a native and Brian, an Ulsterman, had chosen to live in common — although the Moores moved to New York soon after we met.
Before Brian wrote Judith Hearne * * * when he was scrabbling about to keep a roof over his head, he had written several thrillers for publication as pocketbooks, under a pseudonym, which he said had been a useful apprenticeship in story-telling because it was a law of the genre that something must happen on every page. But however useful, it came nowhere near explaining Judith. With his first serious book Brian was already in full possession of his technical accomplishment, his astounding ability to put himself into other people’s shoes, and his particular view of life: a tragic view, but one that does not make a fuss about tragedy, accepting it as part of the fabric with which we all have to make do. He was to prove incapable of writing a bad book, and his considerable output was to include several more that were outstandingly good; but to my mind he never wrote anything more moving and more true than Judith Hearne.
When [Moore] came to London in 1955 * * * [h]e was a slightly surprising figure, but instantly likable: a small, fat, round-headed, sharp-nosed man resembling a robin, whose flat Ulster accent was the first of its kind I had heard. He was fat because he had an ulcer and the recommended treatment in those days was large quantities of milk, and also because Jackie was a wonderful cook. (Her ham, liberally injected with brandy before she baked it — she kept a medical syringe for the purpose — was to become one of my most poignant food memories.) When I asked him home to supper on that first visit he was careful to explain to me that he was devoted to his wife — a precaution which pleased me because it was sensible as well as slightly comic.
Once he [Moore] was sure I was harboring no romantic or predatory fancies, the way was open for a relaxed friendship, and for as long as I knew him and Jackie as a couple there seemed to be nothing we couldn’t talk about. They were both great gossips — and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest lit by humour but above malice, in human behavior. We used often, of course, to talk about writing — his and other people’s, and, eventually mine — but much more often we would talk with glee, with awe, with amazement, with horror, with delight, about what people had done and why they had done it. And we munched up our own lives as greedily as we did everyone else’s.
Although Athill’s house published five of Moore’s books (beginning with Judith Hearne in 1955 and ending with TheEmperor of Ice Cream in 1966), neither the professional nor personal relationship between Athill and Moore was destined to last. For the details of their breakup, you can’t do better than to read Athill’s honest and generous account (pages 142-150).
Biography is all very well, I can hear you say, but this is a book blog and — what about the book itself? Hearne is what I’d consider a small canvas, interior novel; i.e., it has few characters, is strongly focused on the eponymous heroine and has a very, very simple plot. Moore sets his novel in his native Belfast in the 1950s and superbly portrays that city’s strongly traditional culture and its deep Roman Catholicism. It opens when Judith, an aging spinster who has come down in the world, is moving into the latest of a successive of shabby boardinghouses, each less genteel than the one before. Judith’s world values women almost entirely for their beauty, their material possessions and their activities as traditional wives and mothers; it barely tolerates unmarried women like Judith who have neither money nor good looks. During the course of the novel Judith primarily interacts with her landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice; Mrs. Rice’s monstrous son Bernard; James Madden, a fellow boarder and Mrs. Rice’s brother; a couple of priests and/or nuns; and the O’Neill family, whom Judith mistakenly regards as long-time friends from her youth. Madden, a sexual predator and conman newly returned from America, convinces himself that Judith has money, and cultivates her as an “investor” in his harebrained business scheme; Judith, desperate to grasp a last chance at marriage and a place in her world, in turn convinces herself that Madden wants her as a wife. Both are wrong, with tragic consequences for Judith, whose discovery of the truth causes her to give in to her alcoholism and to lose ultimately the little she had. Although Moore adopts the very interesting stylistic device of using a few short segments of the novel to narrate the viewpoints of a few secondary characters, his unrelenting focus remains on Judith Hearne and her inexorable downward spiral.
The astonishing technical ability noted by Athill is on display from the opening sentences of the novel, in which the “very first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt” and “the colored oleograph of the Sacred Heart.” Her aunt’s photograph, which goes on the mantel, and the Sacred Heart, placed on the wall at the head of her bed, tell us instantly everything important we need to know about Judith: she has come down in the world since her aunt’s days and she is guided by the dictates of her religion. Her notions of class and religion are the lodestars of her life, their symbols the talismans that establish her home. Moore ends his novel with a tragic repetition of the same scene, where Judith, now an inmate in a charity hospital that was also the scene of an earlier humiliation, unpacks the same two objects, which, she thinks to herself, make this “new place” her home. I differ a bit from Cathy’s fine review, which sees “a little seed of hope” in the ending in that Judith continues to make the best of an impossible and tragic situation. I’m afraid I do not. If you’re in doubt, however, I’d go with Cathy’s reading. Not only has she read the book twice to my once, but I also prefer her interpretation over mine, as otherwise Judith’s story in almost unbearable.
Since I’ve deliberately avoided reading most reviews until after I post this (I plan to start clicking away immediately thereafter), I don’t know if other readers felt that Moore threw them a curve ball with this novel (for those disinclined to sports and/or from countries other than the U.S. , this is a tricky pitch in which the baseball fools the batter by not taking a straight path). For the first half or so the novel reads like a straightforward, realistic rendition of a tragic life that is lived in an historically accurate time and place. As Judith begins her downward spiral, however, the novel becomes an existential quest in which Judith learns that romantic love, friendship and religion fail to provide any meaning to human existence or any comfort for some of those forced to endure it. Ultimately, the Judith Hearnes are alone in a world bereft of human comfort or religious succor.
There’s so very much to say about this novel — the unexpected humor; the beautiful economy of the style; the very great scene in which Judith concludes that that she’s been praying to “bread” rather than the consecrated body of Christ; any scene involving the monstrous Bernard — well, I could go on and on but that’s what a multiplicity of reviews is for, isn’t it? The only way to appreciate the richness of this brief novel is to read it and experience it for yourself.
Did I like this novel? No, I did not. Judith’s story and the universe in which she lived are both far too bleak for me; it was so tough emotionally to watch this lost soul disintegrate that I had to stop every chapter or two to give myself a break. Do I think it’s a masterpiece and am I glad I read it? Yes to both questions.
Not terribly relevant to Moore’s novel, but in writing this post it finally occurred to me that certain aspects of Judith’s character reminded me at least superficially of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois (“Streetcar Named Desire,” 1947 or thereabouts), the story of another formerly affluent woman who, unable to cope with the reality of her reduced circumstances and romantic disappointment, also ends up institutionalized. Of course, there’s the difference in nationality (Irish vs U.S.), lack of a religious element (very important to Moore) and genre (novel vs. play). As I said, superficial. Probably because I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Taylor’s 1954 short story “Hester Lily,” I was also reminded of her very observant portrayal of Miss Despenser, an aging spinster driven half-mad by loneliness, living in drastically reduced circumstances and who, like Judith, turns to alcohol to ward off despair. Lastly, at least according to Colm Toíbín as quoted by the great Wiki, Moore’s novel takes from Joyce’s short story “Clay” (Dubliners) the idea of a lonely spinster of a certain age visiting a family, an event which both comforts and confounds her. If you have any thoughts on my rather superficial comparisons, or have some different ones to offer, please do share.
Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence! Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog. However did the blogosphere survive my absence? (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!) Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs. You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books. I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews. But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked. Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).
Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.
A. MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)
Have you ever moved, dear reader? I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go! I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay. If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode. After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”
B. Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read
Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events. Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it? My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”). As my opening photo demonstrates, my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here). During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world. What can I say? You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer. Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:
Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust? If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:
Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time. Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color. Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus . . . exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner? Quelle horreur! Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.” Guess what, dear readers? The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!
There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions. It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of InSearch of Lost Time. After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two. After all, there are several different editions!
On a last Proustian note: The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907. Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed. The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.
What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J? Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery. Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.
If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end. I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.
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!