The Tragic Muse (and How I came to love Henry James)

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Rachel Félix as The Tragic Muse (Jean-Leon Jerome, 1859)
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Mrs. Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784)

Which do you prefer as James’ model for Miriam?

I’ve recently finished reading Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, my first book of the new year and the 19th century novel I selected for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I feel quite a sense of accomplishment;  if I haven’t summited Everest, I feel like I’ve at least reached base camp!  My choice of a mountain climbing metaphor is quite deliberate.  I’ve at least gotten started on the Challenge (we all know what tends to happen to those good intentions, don’t we?).  Even more importantly, however, I’ve reacquainted myself with one of those “classic” writers whom I suspect is more admired than actually read.  Although I tremendously enjoyed The Tragic Muse, it was a lengthy novel that demanded time and a fair amount of attention.  No skimming or multitasking while I parsed those subtle Jamesian sentences!

In the brief life of this blog, I’ve referred to Henry James at least twice, both times in terms of adoration.  Despite my current high regard for James, however, I did not begin my reading life as an HJ fan.  After an unpleasant teenage encounter with his Portrait of a Lady  (my “mature” judgment at the time was that Portrait was tied with Eliot’s Silas Marner for the title of the most boring book ever written!), I consigned HJ to the category of writers who had little to offer me personally.  My opinion changed drastically about fifteen years later.  The catalyst for this transformation came when I casually purchased a paperback sales copy of  Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of James.  Unbeknownst to me, Edel was the 20th century specialist in James studies.  Although later scholars (perhaps most notably Sheldon Novick) have attacked certain aspects of Edel’s work, his James biography continues be an indispensable source of knowledge about the author’s life.  Edel was a tremendous scholar and a marvelous writer who used great sensitivity in evaluating many areas of James’ life about which little is known (James, who was no admirer of the biographer’s art, deliberately destroyed certain personal writings before his death to preserve his privacy).  Because his work was a literary biography, Edel combined a factual account of James’ life with very perceptive discussions of James’ novels and major fictional works.  At that particular time in my life I had the great gift of an undemanding job that allowed me the spare time and mental energy to plough through Edel’s biography.  As I learned the details of James’ life, which included financial problems, a tortured sexuality and some very difficult family relationships, I began to see him as a far more sympathetic figure than I had previously considered him to be; increased knowledge about his life also made his work more interesting and accessible.  Perhaps more importantly, however, Edel’s biography was a wonderful introduction to James’ literary output.  As I read about James’ novels, I became interested in James’ novels, particularly as I saw how his literary work related to his own life and reflected the culture of which he was a part.  Although I read a lot of other things during this time in my life, I primarily focused on James’ novels and, to a much lesser extent, his shorter fiction (James was also a gifted travel writer and perceptive literary critic; alas I’ve read next to nothing of his output in either field).  Nineteenth and early 20th century literature, however, requires time and attention, and as both became increasingly scarce over the years (eventually I had to get a real job) I’m afraid I gave James’ novels more shelf space than attention.  I was in fact quite startled when I realized some time ago that for all my prattle regarding my love for James’ fiction it had literally been years since I had actually read any of it.  I decided to participate in the Classics Challenge this year in large part because it increased the likelihood that I’d actually re-read at least one novel by a writer whom I hold in such high regard.

Because James was a prolific author (he turned out a lot of writing as he was heavily dependent on the income it produced), I had a wide array of novels to choose from in making my selection for the Classics Challenge.  I settled on The Tragic Muse (Muse) largely because this was one of the novels I had never re-read (unlike, say, Portrait of a Lady) and so remembered few details about the plot.  Another important factor in my selection was style.  Although James’ writing is synonymous in the minds of many with subtle complexity, this idea is rather inaccurate when applied to his output as a whole.  While it is certainly true that the sentence structure and syntax of  his “late” novels (The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) can be quite bewilderingly complex, his earlier novels (and even Muse, which dates from the  mid-period of his productivity) are often quite straightforward stylistically.  It’s also worth mentioning that Muse doesn’t fit a couple of other familiar tropes regarding James’ novels.  Rather than offering an intense psychological study of a few individuals (as in, for example, The Golden Bowl) it has a large, sprawling cast of characters.  Muse also doesn’t concern the theme, so prevalent in James’ early fiction (Portrait of a Lady; Daisy Miller) of naive American innocents forced to grapple with the sophisticated wiles of an older European culture.

Muse contains two separate but symmetrical narrative arcs, one centering on Nick Dormer, an upper class Englishman who rejects family and heritage to become a painter, and the other on Miriam Rooth, a penniless girl of partially Jewish ancestry (a point that matters to several of the other characters) who is determined to become a great actress.  James sets his novel in the Paris and London of his own day, i.e., the late 19th century, and depicts how the acts and attitudes of an interrelated group of English aristocrats affect the decisions, and fates, of Nick and Miriam.  His story begins in Paris, where we first meet the Dormer family.  The widowed Lady Agnes, attended by her daughters Grace and Biddy, has reluctantly accompanied her son Nick, who has insisted on attending the latest Paris exhibition of avant-garde art.  It’s easy to miss a certain dry humor that often turns up in James’ work; here, for example his description of the Dormer ladies’ reaction to the French avant-garde is quite funny (Lady Agnes observes that in London art is “much less unpleasant” than the Parisian “horrors” admired by her son).  Nick himself is a charming and devoted son, a quintessential golden boy, destined by birth and training to emulate his late father’s political career.  Although outwardly amenable to this plan for his future, Nick secretly cherishes an ambition to be a painter.

Also in Paris is Julia Dallow, a widowed cousin and friend of the Dormer family.  Rich, beautiful and talented,  Julia is indifferent to art and contemptuous of painting.  From the outset it is clear that Julia is not only in love with Nick but is also extremely eager to put her money and formidable talents behind his political career.  Her reasons for doing so are far from disinterested; unlike Nick, Julia is fascinated by politics and sees their marriage as a way for her to become a great political hostess.  As the novel progresses Nick becomes increasingly unable to hide his boredom and distaste for the political life in which he is engaged, while Julia increasingly reveals the full extent of  her antipathy and contempt for the life of an artist.  When Nick ultimately resigns from Parliament, he does so knowing that it will cost him his marriage to Julia as well as a large bequest from a family friend who is willing to back a political career but refuses to leave his money to a painter.  One constant in James’ novels is that choices have consequences and he never spares his characters the full weight of their decisions.

One of the most interesting and ambiguous characters in Muse is Gabriel Nash, whom James purportedly modeled on Oscar Wilde, an acquaintance and fellow writer.  Although Nash and Nick Dormer were friends at Oxford, they subsequently drifted apart and, when they meet by chance at that fateful art exhibition in Paris, have not seen each other for many years.  Nash, like his real-life counterpart Wilde, is a kind of 19th century performance artist.  After dabbling with literature in his Oxford days, Nash forswears any active engagement with the arts (or with anything else for that matter) in favor or simply enjoying beautiful sensations in whatever form they assume.  In Nash’s view, creating or producing a tangible work of art is a crude and imperfect expression of the ultimate art of simply living a “beautiful” life.  He and Nick quickly reestablish their old friendship, much to the dismay of Nick’s family.  In his subsequent struggle to balance the demands of his family and heritage against his urge to lead the life of an artist, Nick regards Gabriel Nash as a kind of “artistic conscience” or lodestone who constantly reminds him of the primacy of art over all other endeavors (while painting may be crude, it beats canvassing for votes!).  The other characters, however, view Nash as an irresponsible tempter or frivolous wastrel; essentially they see him as a Mephistopheles who leads Nick away from his duty to family and country.  Every reader of Muse will, of course, have his/her own interpretation of this equivocal character and the role he plays in Nick’s choice.  In addition to functioning as a symbol (good or bad) of the supreme value of a certain type of art, James uses Nash to advance the novel’s action and to link the symmetrical plots; it is Nash, for example, who effectively launches Miriam’s career by introducing her to Nick’s circle.

Miriam’s parallel narrative recounts her rise from an untrained “wannabe” to one of the great actresses on the English stage.  When the novel opens she is a penniless and awkward girl, who wanders Europe with her rather feckless mother, living hand to mouth in a series of cheap hotels and pensions.  Outwardly at least Miriam is distinguished by nothing except good looks and a fierce conviction that she is destined for theatrical greatness, an opinion unshared by those who view her informal “audition” before a retired great of the French stage.  Although she acknowledges her performance was bad, Miriam’s belief in herself as an artist remains unshaken.  She realizes, however, that she needs training and opportunities but lacks the financial means and social connections to secure them.  Her material situation changes when Gabriel Nash introduces her to Peter Sherringham, a relation of the Dormer family and a rising star in the British diplomatic service.  Extremely ambitious (he sees himself as a future ambassador), Sherringham’s one unprofessional passion is for the dramatic art of the classical theater.  He provides Miriam with the financial backing and emotional support she needs and becomes intensely involved with her expanding prospects.  Although Sherringham steers clear of a sexual entanglement, and prides himself on keeping his emotional distance, it is clear to his friends, to Miriam and to the reader that he is soon totally, hopelessly in love with her.  It is a measure of his passion that this cool, self-controlled man proposes marriage; because a diplomat of his stature can’t be married to an actress he conditions his proposal on Miriam’s leaving the stage.  The scene in which she refuses Sherringham’s proposal, and exposes his hypocrisy to himself and to the reader, is perhaps the most powerful in the novel.

As this brief (and, I hope, not too tedious) summary makes clear, there’s a lot going on, plot-wise, in this novel.  As was common in the 19th century, Muse was first published as an ongoing serial in The Atlantic Monthly, one of the fashionable magazines of his day; James was writing for a popular, albeit prosperous and literate, audience and knew what his readers expected for the $15 per printed page that he was ultimately paid.  In addition to the developments alluded to above, James also included at least two love triangles (one involving Nick’s young sister Biddy, who has nursed a passion for Peter Sherringham since she was a child; the other concerning Miriam’s incipient passion for Nick, which comes into play when he paints her portrait); an engaging and ironically humorous subplot involving the family friend who disinherited Nick and several very interesting supporting characters (for example, Basil Dashwood, the actor whom Miriam ultimately marries.  She does not leave the stage!).  The novel also includes some powerful and very emotionally gripping scenes and, as an extra bonus, has an ambiguous ending that leaves hope for Nick and Julia.  While I can’t speak for the reaction of James’ contemporaries, there was more than enough action and suspense to keep me turning the pages.

As with most great novels, moreover, Muse suggests a dimension extending beyond the quotidian actions of its characters.  Most obviously, James is offering his meditation on the demands that art places on its practitioners and the barriers, both tangible and psychological, that an artist must surmount to achieve his or her goal.  He also contrasts the visual and dramatic arts and the different demands, training and pitfalls that each places on the artist and actor.  Remember how, at the beginning of this far-too-long posting, I noted how the facts of James’ life often play into his fiction?  Muse was the last full length novel he wrote before turning to the stage; one could make a strong argument that the entire novel is James’ attempt to define the very nature of dramatic art, in all its tawdry glory (although Miriam is one of James’ great creations, HJ is tough on her at times).  As a sidenote for the historically inclined, James’ career as a playwright ended in public humiliation in 1895.  It’s a testament to his enormous talent and strength of will that he survived this ordeal and, in his 60s, went on to write what many regard as his greatest novels.

Finally — which of the two actresses whose likenesses are at the beginning of this post best fits your idea of Miriam?  French Rachel in red, so very classical, or English Sarah Siddons, so romantic and tasteful in Reynolds’ subdued palette?  Both women were the leading actresses of their day and both, I believe, have been suggested as models for Miriam.  My answer, a very Jamesian one, is both!  Miriam receives her earliest training in Paris, from a legendary French actress of the classical school; visits the Théâtre Français, where James places her in front of “Gêrome’s fine portrait of the pale Rachel, invested with the antique attributes of tragedy;” has her breakout performance in London as a romantic lead in a traditional English comedy and, as the novel closes, reaches the pinnacle of her art in the tragic role of Juliet.

 

Another List?

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Considered, but not included, on my Challenge lists for 2019; better luck next year guys …..

Isn’t it incredible to think that it’s mid-January, with all the shiny newness already being worn off the year?  I usually give myself the entire month of January to make resolutions, do lists and so forth (hey!  Only organized people get that stuff done by January 1st!).  This year I’m in pretty good shape with my lists.  After spending a very enjoyable day reviewing the titles of the books I read last year (when I finally get organized I’ll probably post the list) I spent an even more enjoyable few days looking at other people’s lists of past and future reads.  After a lot of hesitation, I decided to start my own blog, mainly because I wanted to participate in a few challenges this year; ultimately I settled on the Back to the Classics Challenge and the TBR Pile Challenge.  This was a wonderful decision, as it gave me an excuse to spend lots and lots of time pulling books from my shelves, internally debating what books to include on various reading lists and actually reading little bits and pieces of my “rejects” (actually, these books are “postponements” — I will read them next year!).  In the course of all this, I found myself pondering the question of why deciding what to read is just so much fun, at least for me. Is it the lure of the unknown, the excitment of possibility, the hope that this particular book will be something really, really special, that if I complete a list of, say, 19th century classics, I’ll be a better rounded person?  Reading itself, of course, is intensely pleasurable but I find that there’s a special and separate thrill that comes from pawing through my piles and piles and piles of books and making plans for everything I intend to read in the upcoming year.  If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on the subject and whether you have the same experience.

Well, enough of the philosophical questions and back to lists!  Before settling down to actually reading and writing about my various Challenge books (I finished my first one, Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, a couple of days ago and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it in a review), I decided to have the fun of doing one last list of prospective reads.  I skim a lot of book reviews and I’m always finding things that look at least mildly interesting; I usually forget to jot down the titles and then, when I’m looking for something newly published to read, a book that’s a change of pace or something quick to read in-between class work or such, I’m at a loss.  I’ve decided this year to be a bit more organized and do a list, which in the “might-as-well spirit” that is my blog’s guiding philosophy,  I decided I “might as well” post.  My criterion for inclusion is pretty simple — these are books that, at the present moment, I want to read!  They don’t fit any of the various challenges’ criteria, at least none that I know of; most, if not all, are recently published, or about to be published, and they’re almost all fiction.  Because my list is very idiosyncratic, it excludes some very good writers and certain books that either have, or can be expected to get, a lot of buzz.  For example, I don’t include Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is scheduled for publication in September 2019.  Although I love Atwood’s novels and short stories (and those poems of hers that I’ve read) and regard The Handmaid’s Tale as a moving and powerful work, I have mixed feelings about a sequel; while I may read it this year, I’m not planning to and, in fact, may never read it at all.  How many of the books on my list I’ll actually read, or when I might read them, is totally open; both factors will depend on time, circumstances and inclination.  With this in mind, and in no particular order of preference, here goes my list of interesting, relatively recent books.

14king2-sub-articlelargeThe Witch Elm by Tana French.  I’m proud to say that I’ve been a follower of Tana French since she published In the Woods, her stunning debut and the first of her Dublin Murder Squad novels.  As good as they were, life intervened and I never read the entire series.  Not to worry, however, for this is a standalone novel, described by the Guardian as “a brilliant examination of male privilege and family secrets.”  Sounds fun!

 

 

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James.  Drawing on African history and myth, James has written a fantasy novel centering on the search for a mysterious child by a mercenary and his misfit companions.  James became one of my literary deities after I read his A Brief History of Seven Killings when it won the 2015 Booker Prize.  I was so impressed with James’ talent I resolved to read his previous novels, but I may go for this new one instead.  It should be very, very different from Seven Killings, which was set in contemporary Jamaica; because it’s by James, however, I’ll risk it, although I probably won’t get around to reading it until next summer.

 

51gkwpvcrcl._sx329_bo1,204,203,200_Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley.  Hadley’s novels, including this one, get glowing reviews.  I’ve never quite taken to her work, however, probably because I disliked some short stories of hers I read a few years ago in The New Yorker.  Still, I like to keep up with contemporary authors.  This tale of the “lives of two closely intertwined couples” (Washington Post) looks pretty interesting and I may read it as a break between between various Challenge books.

 

 

51s7yxtz0-l._sx329_bo1,204,203,200_Sadie Jones, The Snakes (UK publication in March 2019; available on Amazon U.S. in June).  The Guardian describes this as “a suspenseful, beautifully written thriller about the corruption of money and abuse within a dysfunctional family.”  What could be better?

 

 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (available September 2019).  This is a follow-up to Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Olive Kitteridge.  I was slow to jump onto the Elizabeth Strout bandwagon, which I mentally dismissed as overly hyped; how could anyone be that good?  Well, she’s that good.  Although I preferred her Lucy Barton (its subsequent, connected story cycle Anything Is Possible was equally good) to Olive Kitteridge, Olive was nevertheless a wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to a continuation of Olive’s life.

51f8+ycxvql._ac_us218_Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.  I’ve always been interested in how modern writers treat classical myths, either as fairly straight re-tellings albeit with unusual angles (think Madeline Miller’s Circe or Song of Achilles) to outright reinterpretations (a good example here is Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, a type of Oedipus re-telling set on the canals of Oxford).  Needless to say, I was keenly interested when the great Pat Barker (have you read her Regeneration Trilogy yet?  If not, stop now and do so immediately) published her version of the Iliad, told from the point of view of one of the captured female war prizes (Briseis, for the classicists among you).  I wasn’t surprised that Silence made several of the “best of 2018” lists; I am surprised that I haven’t read it yet.

 

51gnhfbaxjl._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead.  A generally well-received debut novel, centered on the relationship between an eccentric single mother, scion of Manhattan’s uber wealthy Upper East Side, and her only daughter.

 

 

 

 

41qpb6elo-l._sx309_bo1,204,203,200_Sally Rooney, Normal People.  Another hold-over read from last year.  This Irish author has gotten so much favorable attention I feel almost morally obligated to check her out.  I thought I “might as well” start with this, her second novel, which recounts the relationship of Marianne & Connell, beginning in a small town in western Ireland and continuing through their university years in Dublin.

 

 

 

41eox0cbt8l._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Anna Burns, Milkman: A Novel.  I usually keep up at least a little with the various novels annually nominated for the Booker Prize (it’s one of my hobbies); in years when I have a lot of time I generally read at least the short list.  This year, alas, I let things slide; although I read four or five of the nominees, I lost interest in the process and didn’t even read Milkman, the 2018 winner.  The novel is set in an unnamed Irish city during the Troubles and concerns “middle sister,” who reads old books and keeps to herself.  Her life changes dramatically when a local guy with a dangerous reputation as a paramilitary begins to take an interest in her and she’s unable to break free of the gossip.  At least in some quarters the book has a reputation as a somewhat “difficult” read, which may be what has kept me away.  2019, however, is shaping up as an ambitious year for me . . . . .

 

4181gpd-hul._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop: A Novel (Claire DeWitt).  Have you ever really, really liked a particular author or book while knowing that it isn’t to everyone’s taste, or perhaps that it’s not “great” in a cosmic sense?  It’s a “some people like pistachio ice cream and some don’t” kind of thing.  Well, I like Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt mysteries, which have been described as a combination of classic noir, hipster funk and eastern mysticism.  I’ve been saving this, the latest in the series, for a weekend when I really need a relaxing treat.

 

 

51373pbsb2l._sx322_bo1,204,203,200_The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.  This mystery is a holdover read from 2018, when I very badly wanted to read it but just didn’t have the time.  Inspired by Agatha Christie and quantum time travel, with a touch of groundhog day thrown in, the narrator has eight days to solve a murder.  Each day he’s reborn in the body of a different witness and hence with that person’s memories of the crime; some of these are helpful, some not.  Most reviewers considered the novel fiendishly clever and a lot of fun to read (in addition to the pro reviews, I’ve also seen several book blog postings extolling it).

 

 

415monyefsl._sx329_bo1,204,203,200_Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand.  I’m a little surprised this caught my interest, as I’m not normally fond of books described as “thrillers,” even for relaxation reads.  Here, however, the former friends whose intense competition drives the novel are two female scientists, which is unusual enough to catch my attention.  NPR’s description of it as “a nuanced and atmospheric study” of the lure of big dreams, especially women’s, ensured it a place on my list.

 

 

 

51zlisjjx-l._sx322_bo1,204,203,200_The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt.  After ending up as a single mom in London, American Sibylla turns to unconventional child rearing methods, which include replaying Kurosawa’s films for her fatherless son.  As is evident from my list, I’m drawn to quirky, off beat tales of unconventional families.  I believe this book has actually been around for a few years, but only recently came to my attention.

 

 

 

 

61xya-pkcfl._sx311_bo1,204,203,200_Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing.  This is a gorgeous NYRB Classic reprint of a 2006 work originally published in German (translator is Anthea Bell).  It’s 1945 in East Prussia, with the German army in retreat and the Red Army approaching; although life in all its banality continues in the von Globig estate, the family’s manor house is becoming filled with refugees and change is coming.  Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?  Although I have a big historical read on my Back to the Classics Challenge list, I may end up reading this as well.

 

 

51cmihoku8l._sx398_bo1,204,203,200_Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.  I’ve been interested in this one since reading a Guardian review last year.  Because it was only published in the U.S. in early 2019, however, I almost forgot about it until seeing in on Danielle’s list at her Work in Progress blog.  Silvie’s dad is an enthusiast of early human history; for vacation the entire family takes an anthropology course in which the students reenact the lives of Iron Age Britons.  The “ghost wall” of the title refers to barricades build to ward off enemies; when Silvie’s group builds one they rediscover a connection with their early ancestors.  Judging from the reviews, Moss’ novel asks whether connections like this can go too far.  This one is pretty high on my list for a 2019 read.

 

51vew3wvcgl._sx367_bo1,204,203,200_Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman.  This English language debut of a contemporary Japanese writer centers on oddball Tokyo resident Keiko, who eschews a “normal” life to work in a convenience store.  Keiko is perfectly happy with her choice; her family and friends are not and apply increasing pressure on her to start a career and find a husband.  This book received a lot of favorable attention; it’s another one that turned up on Danielle’s Work in Progress blog, although I can’t now find precisely where (hence, no link).

 

 

 

41qzuq2h2wl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir.  I’m so resistant to the memoir genre that reading two of them last year was a real milestone.  This year I might actually read another, as I’ve long been very interested in Educated.  In this memoir, Westover recounts her journey from a survivalist upbringing by fundamentalist religious parents to successful academic stints at Harvard and Cambridge.

 

 

 

51kvj27kvel._ac_us218_French Exit by Patrick DeWitt.  Since reading The Sisters Brothers, his (very) unconventional take on the classic American western, I’ve been a mild Patrick DeWitt fan.  While not being quite my cup of tea, DeWitt is a very skilled, interesting writer who’s worth checking out.  This, his latest, is DeWitt’s take on what one reviewer described as a “tragedy of manners;” a once wealthy mother & son, fleeing penury and scandal, desert New York for Paris, meeting a number of unusual characters along the way.  I can’t imagine anything more different from the setting of The Sisters Brothers and I can’t imagine anyone other than DeWitt carrying it off.

 

41gxxlrawul._sx318_bo1,204,203,200_What Red Was by Rosie Price (available in U.S. August 2019; UK May 2019).  A young university student gets drawn into her boyfriend’s rich & privileged world; all goes well until her life is shattered by a sexual assault during a party at his family’s London home.  The Guardian marked this debut novel as one gathering lots of “buzz.”

 

 

 

If you happen by, and you’ve actually read or have any insights into the books on my list, I’d appreciate your thoughts!

 

 

Despite some feline roadblocks …. progress continues through The Tragic Muse

 

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Percy thinks I won’t notice that these are the wrong books ……..

So here we are, almost two weeks into our shiny new year!  Is everyone busy reading their challenges?  I’m in a lackadaisical kind of mood these days myself — not a bad mood but certainly not a high energy one.  I always think of mid-January as a time to re-group, to conserve resources after the excitement of the holidays; those extra minutes of daylight aren’t registering yet and spring seems far, far away.  Aside from an unwelcome bit of exercise this morning with a snow shovel, I’ve had a lovely day, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping the results of a new recipe for hot chocolate (it uses two different kinds of chocolate and real cream) and reading Henry James.  Oh, I did have a bit of a reading mishap — Percy has hidden my print volume of The Tragic Muse and substituted other James novels, thinking I’d never notice!  (Percy’s main interests are ornithological; as a literary philistine he thinks James’ novels are interchangeable.  They aren’t).  As a result, I’ve been following the adventures of Nick and Miriam by kindle clicking, rather than page turning.  Even so, it’s a wonderful read, with those long 19th century sentences and subtle, Jamesian delineations of thought and emotion.  It’s a slow read, very much suited to a slow time of year; it’s made even more leisurely by being punctuated every thirty minutes or so by dreamy interludes of staring into space (maybe I’ve been hanging with Percy too long).  Somehow, the day has just vanished.

Fortunately in light of my mental lassitude, following the novel’s action is not too difficult.  James’ plot is relatively straightforward (I defer to the experts on this point, but I wouldn’t read this novel for his plot, myself).  He follows two protagonists, Nick Dormer, an aristocratic young Englishman with a bright political future, and Miriam Rooth, a beautiful penniless young woman from a dubious background.  Nick is torn between painting and politics; although he’s elected as a member of the House of Commons in the early portions of the novel, he’s bored by the political life and only comes alive when he escapes to  his “horrid” (his fiancée’s  words, not mine) little studio to engage in his painting.  Everything in Nick’s life compels him to choose conventional, worldly success: his heritage and training; a promise to his dead father; an adored and adoring mother who has no doubts her boy belongs in Parliament; a beautiful, wealthy lover who will only marry a successful political guy; and a wealthy benefactor who won’t leave his money to an artistic loser.  James is interested in Nick’s choice between his passion for art and his world’s ideal of a successful life and of the personal sacrifices often required from those who persist in following a higher consciousness.  Spoiler alert here for those who demand suspense in reading an 1889 novel:  Nick rejects his political career to follow his art.  The decision costs him him his fiancée, a magnificent bequest from his benefactor and the regard of his family and friends.  Although James intimates that Nick has real talent, Nick also has little formal training and is beginning a career as a serious artist at a relatively late point in life.  Despite every inducement to turn his back on art, Nick becomes totally committed to being a painter, although his worldly success as an artist is (at least at this point in the novel) very much in doubt.

Miriam’s situation could not be more unlike Nick’s.  The daughter of a fantastical, ineffectual mother, Miriam’s businessman father is dead, and the modest income he provided his family is gone, leaving his daughter without worldly prospects or financial security.  Miriam and her mother eke out a paltry existence, moving from one European city to another, living in a succession of cheap boarding houses and pensiones, lingering in cafes to save money on fuel and frequently going without.  Miriam’s mother lives in the novels she reads (when she can get them.  Sound familiar, anyone?); Miriam lives in her imagination.  Surprisingly, she is neither dreamy nor indecisive.  James makes clear that Miriam is simply a born actress, so thoroughly consumed by her need to express herself through her art that nothing, but nothing, will deter her.  When we first meet Miriam in Paris in the opening pages of the novel she is an awkward, badly dressed (and remember, in James’ world manners and appearance matter) young girl.  Gabriel Nash, a English aesthete who will play a pivotal role in the novel, takes her up as an amusing divertissement.  Nash and Peter Sherringham, a young English diplomat who will also play an important part in James’ tale, enable Miriam to gain an audition with Madame Carre, a legendary French actress who serves as a type of acting coach/guide to a younger generation of thespians.  Madame Carre’s verdict, shared by Nash?  Miriam has no talent.  Miriam’s reaction?  She will be a great actress, opinions otherwise are irrelevant; she simply needs to learn her craft.  Despite generally agreeing with Madame Carre’s assessment, Sherringham thinks that, possibly, there may just be something to Miriam and almost on a whim provides her with the financial backing that allows her to perfect her dramatic skills.  As the novel progresses, so does Miriam’s talent and growing stature as an artist.  By the time Nick decides to chuck it all away for art, Miriam is experiencing her first success on the London stage.  Gabriel Nash is now a firm believer in her greatness (and, as an connoisseur and aesthete he’s well placed to spread the word) and Peter Sherringham?  Well, the discrete wisdom of the diplomat is on holiday!  Despite being the well-trained and rising young star of the Foreign Office, and knowing full well the career folly of his choice, Sherringham is hopelessly in love with Miriam; he’s even offered her marriage, providing she gives up the stage.

Well, that’s all for tonight folks.  Despite certain soap opera aspects of the plot, James presents us with a serious meditation on what it is to be an artist, of the demands and sacrifices of practicing the arts and of the elements comprising the dramatic art (James was very interested in the theater and thought about this subject a great deal).  In this novel he has given us two contrasting protagonists — golden boy and poor, beautiful and underrated girl — who must choose whether, and how, each will practice his/her art.  Although there’s a certain commonality in the barriers each faces, there are also significant differences; while Nick is more constrained by expectations of family and society, Miriam’s primary obstacles are money and opportunity (I find it interesting, but unsurprising in view of the time in which he wrote that James doesn’t explicitly discuss the constraints of gender to any notable degree).  Choices have been made and, because this is James, consequences must be faced …..

Viewing not Verbalizing

For those who chance by, I know you’re all agog, positively breathless, with hearts pounding with suspense, to learn the latest developments in Henry James’ The Tragic Muse.  And, not to be a tease, a lot has happened since that opening luncheon in Paris and our first glimpse of the Dormer family.  Since we’ve met indecisive, artistic Nick and his ambitious mom (aka “Lady Agnes”) several key players have moved into position and the scene has shifted from Paris to England.  Miriam Rooth, the tragic muse of the title, has appeared center stage, in all her glorious egotism, indecisive Nick has made a (tentative) career decision, a bad influence has reared his tempting head, and so on.  And — guess what?  You’re going to have to wait to hear about it because my primarily activity this week is viewing not verbalizing!

Since I’m a lady of semi-leisure for the next week or so, I decided on a pilgrimage to visit the temple:

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Opps!  Wrong temple!  I mean this one …….

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Like all great temples, it has a fabulous interior …..

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….and lots of devotional objects of various types

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brueghel Harvesters

And when you tire of one pilgrimage site, there’s always another:

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with different objects of contemplation …..

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It’s all a question of whether you prefer this …

met hallway

 

or this…

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And now — for something completely different — even in winter there are reminders of spring:

faberge basket

 

Hurray!

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Will my “vaulting ambition” overreach itself (like poor Macbeth’s) or will I prevail?

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These are Challenge “also rans” …

Buoyed by heady success — I’ve set up my first blog and made THREE posts; decided to participate in the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge; and read 150 pages in a Henry James novel (one of my challenge books) that I haven’t thought about for at least thirty years  — my ambition now knows no limits!  After so many, many accomplishments I gave myself a well-earned little break, which I’ve spent busily (and happily) clicking around on various websites, reading postings and book reviews and perusing end of year lists (don’t you love end of year lists?  For me, they’re one of the nicest things about early January.  If you like a somewhat British flavor to your reading, the Guardian’s book section has some pretty good ones for 2018, as well as a preview of  2019 releases).  In the course of my cyber wanderings I’ve discovered the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Adam at roofbeamreader) which I can’t resist.  The idea underlying the challenge is elegant in its simplicity:  in the upcoming year read twelve books from your TBR pile.  The only requirement, as I understand it, is that each book must have been on your shelf or on your TBR list for at least one year (hence the book’s publication must predate January 1, 2018).  The challenge has a certain amount of, ahem, “slack” built into it, as you may also include two alternates to read if you just can’t make it through one or two of your twelve initial selections.  Although twelve (or even fourteen) books wouldn’t be missed from my mountain of neglected reads (see photo at beginning of post; this isn’t even a fraction of my unread books), even the longest journey must begin somewhere, right?  Since I generally read around 50-60 books even in a slow reading year, I decided I wouldn’t be totally foolhardy to take on two challenges provided I was careful to select TBR books that complemented my Back to the Classics reads, i.e., post-1900 novels that were relatively uncomplicated stylistically (I’m enjoying my Henry James but I certainly couldn’t finish twenty-four books written in his style in one year).  So–imagine a big blast of trumpets here, a Jeremiah Clark kind of thing (this music’s so great it’s worth enduring a few seconds of ads to hear it) and a couple of banners furling in the breeze (if you’re reading this, you do realize I’m joking, right?) to accompany the announcement of my favored fourteen:

0-1Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale.  Maugham is one of those writers, very popular back in the day, who’ve fallen out of favor in more recent times.  Contemporary readers in a certain mood may be missing something here, as Maugham tells great stories albeit in a pretty traditional way.  I became hooked on Maugham back in high school, when I read Of Human Bondage, his most famous novel.  A few years ago I noticed his work, or some of it, was being reissued and in some very attractive paperbacks, so I couldn’t be expected to resist, could I?  Of the four novels (all unread) on my shelf, I’ve selected this one, which I always meant to read.  The story is about a biographer who’s being pressured by a very proper widow (his subject’s second wife) to downplay the influence of wife number one from his account of a distinguished deceased.  Aside from curiosity about whether Maugham’s magic still works for me, I’ve always been interested in the nature of biography (a genre I tend to distrust) and the pressures experienced by a biographer, who frequently needs to combine accuracy with tact (for another fictional treatment on this theme, see Penelope Lively’s great novel, According to Mark.  I’ve actually read that one).

0-5Alice Greenway, White Ghost Girls.  The story of two young American sisters living in Hong Kong while their war correspondent father is in Vietnam, this debut novel won the Los Angeles Times award for First Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.  I bought it shortly after it was published in 2000 and in the years since then have admired its artistic cover and those neat foldover interior flap things several times, without reading a word of the novel.  Could 2019 actually be the year I venture into the book’s interior? [ Yes! My review may be found at https://youmightaswellread.com/2019/01/28/my-tbr-pile-just-became-a-little-lighter/  ]

 

 

0-4Kate O’Brien, The Last of Summer.  Set in Ireland in 1939, this Virago Modern Classic centers on a type of homecoming for French actress Angèle Maury, who returns to her dead father’s Irish birthplace in search of her roots.  I love Virago books (their little half-eaten apple logo is just so cool) but unfortunately I tend to buy more of them than I read.  Virago first published this one in 1990; I’ve had my copy for at least a decade.  (Sidenote: if you look at this book on Amazon, ignore its three star rating.  The one negative review comes from a moron who got his titles confused and didn’t realize he had posted his review in the wrong place.  His two-star rating unfairly lowers the book’s average).  [ For my review, see https://youmightaswellread.com/2019/02/13/kate-obriens-the-last-of-summer/. ]

 

0-2Fernanda Eberstadt, Low Tide.  A debut novel, first published in 1985; I’ve had my second-hand copy for at least five years.  A tale of two decadent, privileged and perverse young people (their names,  Jem and Jezebel, sort of clue you in on this), set in New York, Oxford, London and Mexico — well, you know by now how susceptible I am, so how could I resist a contemporary novel with a character named Jezebel?  My plan was to start with Eberstadt’s first novel before moving on to her next book, which is the one I really wanted to read!  I’m sticking to my plan; novel number two, called Rat (its eponymous protagonist is described a “bold rousing heroine for our times”) will just have to wait.

 

 

 

0-1Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow.  After reading Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky, I went on a real Esther Freud kick; this ended when I became absorbed with reading about her famous artist father Lucien and his various dysfunctional families and looking at his very compelling work.  As a result, I never got around to reading Summer, a multi-generational tale that weaves through time to tell the story of a present-day Jewish family living in London and their ancestral estate in East Prussia, which was lost after WWII.  This was first published in 1999 (I’ve had my copy since 2011) and has as many frequent flyer miles as I do; as it’s accompanied me on many, many trips over the years as a backup read.  Despite good intentions, however, I’ve just never gotten around to it.

 

0L.J. Davis, A Meaningful Life.  A would-be novelist ditches his deadly dull job as editor of a plumbing magazine to seek redemption in real estate; the result is described as a black comedy with touches of Patricia Highsmith.   This was first published in the 1970s and reissued as a NYRB classic in 2009, with a beautiful cover and heavy, acid free paper.  Obviously, I’ve been more into the book’s aesthetics than in actually reading it, but I vow that 2019 is the year this will change!

 

 

0-1Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph.  This is another Virago modern classic (told you I was better at buying than reading them) and Kennedy’s best known work; wildly popular in the 1920s, it fell out of print until rescued by Virago in the 1980s (I’ve had my copy for a number of years).  The story centers on a love triangle involving the young daughter of a disreputable expatriate English composer (she’s the “nymph” of the title), her beautiful older cousin and a talented young composer who’s involved with both women.

 

 

0Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming Pool Library.  I’ve read Hollinghurst’s two most recent novels (The Sparsholt Affair & The Stranger’s Child) and liked both well enough to acquire most of his backlist.  Guess how many of these I’ve read?  If you answer “zero,” you’d be correct.  The Swimming Pool Library’s tale of gay life before AIDs may or may not be dated (I’m optimistic I’ll find out in 2019) but regardless of topicality Hollinghurst is a beautiful and sensitive stylist who should be worth any effort involved in reading the novel.  This is Hollinghurst’s debut novel (published in 1989); I can’t believe I’ve had my (unread) copy since 2011!

 

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Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding.  For years, I’ve been dying to read this tale of a neurotic graduate student who goes off the rails when her identical twin gets married, but I somehow never got around to it (I use this phrase so much I should probably have an acronym.  SNGATI, maybe?)  My copy is one of those gorgeous NYRB classic reissues, which I’ve had for several years.

 

 

 

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Tom Drury, The Driftless Area.  The “driftless area” of the title is the American midwest, the scene of what the reviews describe as a “neonoir heist drama.”  I’m not quite sure how I ended up with this book, which I’ve had since 2013; I probably saw it was a New York Times’ Editors’ Choice and thought it might be an interesting change of pace.  I SNGATI (“somehow never got around to it”), which explains its presence on this list.

 

 

 

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Anne Peile, Repeat It Today with Tears.  Peile is a British writer whose first (and, to my knowledge, only) novel appeared in 2011, which is when I bought my copy.  This tale of a forbidden sexual relationship received a very favorable review in The Guardian, which described it as a “beautiful book,” filled with “evocative” writing and “strong and beguiling” characters.  I have my fingers crossed that I wasn’t led astray.

 

 

 

Jane Gardam, Old Filth.  Despite its acclaim as a masterpiece, I’ve never been able to get on with this book, nor (with apologies to all those Gardam fans out there) with this author in general.  Still, the overwhelming consensus of this book’s high quality has 0-11made me pretty stubborn about giving it another try.  Old Filth (“Filth” is an acronym for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”) is the tale of the emotionally repressed barrister Sir Edward Feathers, a “raj” orphan born in Malaya and sent back to Britain by his parents to be given a proper English upbringing.  Feathers is an eighty-year old widower when the novel opens, living alone in England; his story is told in a series of reminiscences and flashbacks and encompasses much of the Empire’s 20th century history in the Far East.  Old Filth is the first volume of a trilogy; the second (The Man in the Wooden Hat) is told from the point of view of Betty, Old Filth’s wife and the concluding volume (Last Friends) centers their mutual story on Terence Veneering, Old Filth’s professional rival and Betty’s lover.  The entire trilogy sounds very intriguing and I’m hoping that my 2019 attempt to read at least the first volume will “take!”

 

ALTERNATES:  Although I’m rationally (I hope) optimistic about reading my list (many of the entries were chosen with “readability” in mind) I’m not totally blind to experience.  Since my path is strewn with unfinished projects I’m quite relieved at being able to add the two alternates the TBR Pile Challenge allows.  These are:

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Pagan Kennedy, Spinsters.  I don’t know much about this author except that she has a great name and, according to Wiki, was “a pioneer of the 1990s zine movement.”  This book appealed to me because it has a great visually appealing cover (see how totally honest I’m being) and its tale of two middle-aged and sheltered sisters taking a road trip in the America of the 1960s sounded intriguing, to say the least.

 

 

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Linda Grant, We Had It So Good.  I’ve read one previous novel by Linda Grant (Upstairs at the Party) and while not overwhelmed, I liked it well enough  to try another.  I’ve had this novel since it was published in 2011 without once reading more than the opening paragraph.  The opening sounded just fine (and was interesting even), but this novel has always lost out to other, more compelling (at the time) books.  Grant is a skilled writer, however, and the story sounds interesting, recounting as it does the life and times of an American-English couple and their extended circle of friends, who come of age in the 1970s.  Although I had a few doubts about its selection, the book’s inclusion as an alternate was settled when Pooh-Bear approved my choice (Pooh-Bear is only her ordinary name; she has a fancier one that I’m withholding for security’s sake; only Pooh-Bear herself, of course, knows her secret name.  I apologize to any T.S. Eliot fans.)

Well, this is my list — which I’m finalizing much later than most participants but still in time to meet the TBR Pile Challenge’s January 15 deadline.  If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on any of my picks.  Now it’s time for me to get back to reading!

 

January beginnings: Henry James & The Tragic Muse

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Do you have any superstitions about the first book you begin in the new year?  I freely admit that I do, but then I’ve been known to go around the block to avoid a black cat.  I don’t usually make a big thing about selecting my first January book unless I finish one book on New Year’s Eve and I’m beginning a second book precisely on New Year’s Day.  This is a sort of “when Saturn returns to New York” kind of thing that doesn’t happen very often (every twenty-nine years, to be precise.  Sara Gran’s novel of that name, by the way, is a fun light read that’s perfect for an afternoon’s diversion). When it does I take it seriously!  By this point, I’m sure you can imagine what happened this year — at ten minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I finished my first glass of champagne along with Elizabeth Savage’s Last Night at the Ritz (see my previous post, if you want a little info about the novel).  As a result, my first decision of the new year was “what do I read next?”  Since my choice could affect for good or ill my reading decisions for the next twelve months (I’m only half kidding), I really gave it some thought.

Fortunately, I had the Classics Challenge to help me out.  Realistically, I need to get started early on my challenge books to have any hope of success; once I resume classes near the end of the month (I’m doing a post-baccalaureate degree in art history, known less formally as “an old person’s program”) I’ll have much less time and energy for the more difficult reads on my list.  I’ve been a worshipper at the shrine of Henry James since my early 30s, when an undemanding job and a steady if small income gave me the leisure to explore his work.  Although I skipped all the essays and most of his short stories, I did manage several of the novellas and all of the novels, including this one. Over the many years since then, I’ve believed that period of immersion in James’ work automatically gave me the right to claim devoted fan status.  It was a bit of a shock when compiling my books for the Classics Challenge to realize that it has been a very, very long time since I’ve actually read any of James’ novels, which I have nicely arranged and prominently displayed on several bookshelves (you have to look pretty close to see the dust!)

Although most of my reading at one point was heavily tilted towards the 19th century, for several years now I’ve concentrated mostly on contemporary fiction.  Picking up James and settling in for an extended read has required an adjustment.  Am I the only one who feels a certain dislocation in turning from works of the present to those of the past?  I tend to read quickly and, quite honestly, I skim on a pretty frequent basis (especially if bloodshed is involved).  I wouldn’t dream of doing either, with a novel from James’ late period (say, Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl) but I had selected his Tragic Muse because I remembered it as being a fairly straightforward narrative from James’ mid-period, before his style developed into the baroque complexity of compound clause upon compound clause which makes his late novels such a challenge.  Well, my memory was correct but — while this may be relatively unadorned James it is nevertheless a serious 19th century novel, published in serial form over a period of months for an audience that expected to savor every word (and that wasn’t distracted by checking email every thirty seconds and who probably had “staff” to do the grocery shopping and feed the cats).  Several times I almost had to stop, slow down and take a deep breath; I did have to re-read the first few pages before my mind started the process of becoming accustomed to the pace of James’ writing and the ornate vocabulary and expressions he employs.  Although I haven’t seen any discussion of this phenomenon, I find that for me the mental agility required to switch gears, slow down and savor the reading process itself is a very valuable side benefit of reading 19th century works.

Although it’s early days yet, with The Tragic Muse, I’m already in Paris, where I’ve met Nick Dormer and his ambitious and conventional mother.  Nick is there to look at the art, Nick’s mother is there to pressure him into following the paternal footsteps by entering Parliament and forgetting his foolish desire to be a painter.  Julia Dallow, who’s going to immensely complicate Nick’s career choice, will shortly enter the scene and Miriam Rooth, whose aspirations to be a great actress equal Nick’s desire to paint, has just walked on and off the stage, so to speak.  In short, this novel is James’ meditation on the demands of art and how these do, or do not, accommodate themselves to the practicalities of “ordinary” life; Nick and Miriam are his case studies for the effect of family and society on the aspirations and accomplishments of the would-be artist.

In doing a little research for this post, I discovered the painting I inserted at the beginning.  It’s a portrait of the great Rachel, the French actress who was said to be the model for James’ Miriam.  The artist is Jean-Léon Gérôme, who has chosen to depict her as the Muse of Tragedy.  Although Gérôme exemplifies the type of painter the Impressionists loathed (the loathing was mutual.  Gerome was a vociferous critic of their work) he was extremely popular in his day if much less so in ours.  I personally find his paintings, in small doses, to be a lot of fun and I love, love, love this one.

If you happen to chance by, expect periodic reports about Nick, Julia and Miriam.  I suspect I’ll be following their progress for much of the coming year!

 

 

 

 

Beginnings require endings ….

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Do you get all introspective on New Year’s Eve or are you a “go out with the crowds and party” type?  Or, like most of us, a little of both?  Since I’m home working on this post, I guess my choice for this year at least is obvious!  Even in my more extroverted periods, however, I’ve always tried to make the end of the year a time for an informal taking stock, for reflecting and for remembering, even if it’s only for a few minutes here and there.  Since I’m incapable of sustained thought for more than a few minutes at a time, I stretch this out over a fairly long period, mentally marking out a few weeks, usually mid-December through early January, depending on how busy I am, to make an effort to remember and reflect here and there.  You can do this any time of year, of course, but it works best for me at the calendar’s end, the time of darkness and hope, of ends and beginnings.  As you can see from the photo of my New Year’s Eve outing, I love including nature in this process.  When one’s in a certain mood, there’s nothing to match the brooding and poetic melancholy of a winter’s day.

Since this is a book blog, I’ll confine my end of the year reflections to books.  I just finished looking at my “books read” list for 2018; when I become a bit more technologically adept (and have more time) I’ll add it to the blog.  I know we all say numbers don’t matter, but then — don’t we all count how many books we’ve read in a particular year?  In 2018 I completed about 51 books (I say “about” because I skimmed two very long books and compromised by counting them as one; similarly I squashed two lengthy, related novellas together for a single “count” and I’m about five pages from finishing my last book for 2018).  This is fewer than I usually read; also my list this year is much lighter in content and less challenging than in certain years past.  I’m a pretty ecletic reader, although these days I read far fewer non-fiction books and 19th century novels; my list includes literary fiction, a classic or two, historical fiction, mystery/thrillers and lots of fantasy & sci-fi (I grew up reading sci-fi & fantasy paperbacks poached from my dad’s collection and loved Asimov and Heinlein as much as I did classical mythology).

I took a bit of a trip down memory lane in 2018, re-reading several books that I first encountered in my teens and twenties, primarily to see how I’d react to them now.  These included Richard Powell’s Whom the Gods Would Destroy (a re-telling of the Tojan War; the book is now out of print but available in electronic format) and Judith Rossner’s His Little Women (Anyone remember Judith Rossner?  In this particular novel she “updated” Alcott’s Little Women to modern day Hollywood; Rossner’s little women are the daughters of an overbearing Hollywood producer); many years ago I thoroughly enjoyed both works.  A third re-read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived at the Castle, which I hadn’t much liked when I encountered it in my twenties, immediately after devouring Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  My 2018 verdict on these reads of yesteryear?  If you’re a Trojan War buff with a thing for Cassandra, you might check out Powell.  Make time for Jackson; if Castle isn’t her masterpiece it’s close and skip Rossner unless you’re a serious masochist (at the risk of losing your good opinion, on my re-read I actually did enjoy the first 40 percent of the novel but found everything after Jo –oops! I meant “Nell” — grows up to be a pretty tough slog).

My 2018 list also included two memoirs,  and one autobiography, genres that I have successfully avoided until now.  My reaction to these works was mixed.  Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air was everything it was cracked up to be — a moving, unsentimental look at how a brilliant, driven personality dealt with something that couldn’t be dealt with (Kalanithi died from cancer at age 37, just as he was completing his residency in neurosurgery).  J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was — well — I’d have to write a separate post to explain my complicated reaction to J.D.’s hillbilly to tech mogul odyssey.  I’ll let it go for now by saying there was much in it I admired and identified with and much that I found intensely troubling.  My autobiographical read was Benvenuto Cellini’s My Life, which honesty compels me to disclose was required reading for a course in Renaissance art.  Although I found it tough going at times, I’m very glad I persevered and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the Renaissance, the artistic process or colorful personalities (Cellini was a great artist who was also a self-confessed murderer of at least three people).

Although I felt my 2018 reading list was a bit blah, the year did contain some surprises and unexpected pleasures.  These did not always coincide with critical acclaim.  Two new authors who I thought did live up to their hype were Tommy Orange and Lisa Halliday.  I wouldn’t normally have read Orange’s There, There (it struck me as a bit too grim) but at some point I just surrendered to the buzz and pieced it in between classes; his tale of urban Indians, set in Oakland, and written with great skill, blew me away.  It also gave me a renewed sense of a certain side of American history which I’m all too prone to forget.  Orange is now on my radar, which means I’ll definitely read his second book whenever that should appear.  My reaction to Halliday’s Asymmetry was a bit more measured.  She’s an impressive talent and Asymmetry’s cleverly done; the “Madness” section centering on a young Iraqi-American detained by immigration officials at Heathrow was chilling, but my enjoyment of the whole was less than my admiration of its parts.  Daisy Johnson was another emerging light this year, with her debut novel Everything Under.  I found it an odd and interesting book, beautifully written; the complex time shifts were skillfully handled and the characters’ complicated relationships rendered quite believable, no mean feat for such a fantastical story.  Although I was less wowed by her novel than were the critics it’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in stories with an underpinning in Greek mythology.   My 2018 reaction to Michael Ondaatje, a long acknowledged literary lion, was unreservedly positive.  To date I haven’t read much of his work (I missed The English Patient) but that may change after Warlight, which I absolutely adored.  As far as I’m concerned Warlight had it all: wonderful writing, strong atmosphere (I’m a sucker for atmosphere & setting), a good plot and interesting characters.  Another veteran writer, Alan Hollinghurst, turned out a good if not great read in The Sparsholt Affair — I was definitely surprised when it didn’t make the Booker long list and thought that perhaps it should have.

On a less lofty plane, perhaps, I found several books in 2018 (not all of them published that year) that were very well written and fun to read but didn’t seem to make any “best of their year” lists.  Did anyone read Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble?  Since I like novels about tight little groups and how they do, or don’t cope with each other (Donna Tart’s Secret History is a fav of mine) and I also like string quartets, I was destined to love Gabel’s novel about four young classical musicians and how they develop as people and artists over a period of years.  Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere, one of my favorite reads of 2018, was a well written and absorbing story that wove back and forwards in time to tell the stories of a number of characters loosely associated with Newport, Rhode Island over a period of two centuries.  Think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in an American setting (well — sort of).  Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders was a light, enjoyable tale of a family of psychics; the plot was tightly woven, if a bit over the top, and the book as a whole funny and absorbing, with a slight underpining of melancholy.  For those of a slightly more Gothic turn of mind, I’d highly recommend Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, with its wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of snowy evenings in Prague or the stifling heat of a tropical Manila and its tale of the doomed Melmoth, destined to walk the earth until the day of Judgment.

It wouldn’t be a time of bookish reflection, would it, without noting the books that were abandoned, as well as completed?  I’m a firm believer that abandoning a book reflects less on a book’s quality than it does on one’s own readiness to read it.  With that standard in mind, 2018 was a year in which I wasn’t ready to read  several critically acclaimed novels.  Most notable, perhaps, was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, which I stopped reading about three-quarters of the way through (I must admit — I did skip to read the end!)  It was my first novel by Wolitzer and in many of the ways lived up to its hype, but for some reason it just didn’t hold my interest.  Perhaps it was just too topical, in these days of the me too movement.  Why read a novel when you can read the news?  Another discarded read was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room.  About two hours after reading a chunk and thinking “this is really quite good,” I put the novel aside and haven’t returned yet.  A third discard was Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, much hyped across the pond (a debut novel, long listed for the Booker), less glowingly received by our very own New York Times.  Halfway through and in the middle of the action, I just thought “I’ve had enough” and that was that for City.  Three good (City) to very good (Mars Room) novels, freely acknowledged as such by me and others, that I will probably never finish.  What can I say, except that the Book Gods are fickle?

In closing (and if anyone has lasted this long, I just bet you’re breathing a sigh of relief!), I really must comment on Elizabeth Savage’s Last Night at the Ritz.  Aside from its title, which ties in well with my mood of endings and reflection, Last Night also happens to be my last read of 2018 (I’ll finish it after I sign off, along with my very much anticipated glass of champagne!).   Long out of print, it was resuscitated as part of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries series for Amazon, where it has generally received a series of three star reviews (for those residents of the outer planets who have never purchased from Amazon, a five star review is the highest).  Last Night is a wonderful book, for the right reader and the right frame of mind; which is to say it should be avoided by teetotalers (Savage’s characters drink more than Mad Men), those who can’t stomach privileged, upper class protagonists and readers who want no part of a by-gone era whose social mores don’t correspond to our own.  The story is told in the first person, by a nameless female narrator who’s back in Boston and having a celebratory night with her college roommate from thirty years before; the two women are joined by the roommate’s husband and the (married) narrator’s ex-lover.  Although the time frame is confined to a single evening, Savage uses flashbacks, interior monologues and reminiscenses to very convincingly depict a lifetime of complicated relationships.  At the end of the evening, you really understand the title and appreciate that there’s more to the brash, breezy narrator than you first suppose.  As an added bonus, both women are fairly erudite readers and the novel is replete with references to books.  It’s also a treasure trove of quotable lines.  My own favorite?  “It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.”

And on that note — good-night and happy New Year!  May you never be caught, in 2019 or ever, without something to read!