November 11, 2007

Recent Reading

I've fallen behind in writing up my recent reading, but I have in fact read a few things besides the books for my classes this term. Here are at least some brief comments on them--so that I can tidy them back onto my bookshelves.

1. K. M. Peyton, the Pennington series. These are old, old favourites of mine; the copies I have are battered old Vancouver Public Library discards, and as the series does not appear to be in print any longer, I'll continue to cherish these. I picked them off my shelf again when I was thinking about the issues touched on in my post about 'just right' books for children. Although these books are written for young readers, they seem to me to assume fairly adult interests; Pennington's Heir, for instance, turns to a large extent on the drama and demands of Penn's learning to play Liszt's B-minor sonata. The vocabulary also aims high: one short paragraph, for instance, includes both 'assuage' and 'punctilious,' words I'm sure I didn't know when I first read the books. Now, as then, it's the characters--driven, complicated, impulsive, trying to find their way--that draw me into the story.

2. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I hadn't read this in years but, perhaps for the same reasons that I was drawn back to the Pennington books, I couldn't resist it when I came across it in a second-hand bookstore recently. The style seemed remarkably blunt to me when I began reading; with the exception of the central motif of the tree, it's almost wholly non-'literary,' just moving along from one person and even to the next. Yet the cumulative effect is powerfully evocative of a time and place. I didn't find Francie altogether believable or compelling, especially towards the end. Perhaps it's a sign of how my own position in life has changed that it was her parents whose story moved me the most!

3. Anne Tyler, Digging to America. Anne Tyler has written some of my favourite novels, including Ladder of Years, Back When We Were Grown-Ups, The Patchwork Planet, and The Accidental Tourist. I have always agreed with Wayne Booth's remark (about Back When We Were Grown-Ups) that with her, you always feel she is giving you the best she has got. (I believe the comparison he is drawing is to Peter Benchley's Jaws, which Booth does not consider very flattering to its implied audience.) Tyler's prose is spare but deft; her lightness of touch often conceals, or eases us into, more difficult feelings of regret, poignancy, and loss. But typically her protagonists, who often begin their novels as wistful or wry misfits in the lives they are living, come through their process of exploration only to find themselves happy, after all, with what they have made or found. Somewhere recently I came across a comment about her realism being of a "conservative" type. I'm not sure if it is because of the form and style she uses (there's nothing metafictional or postmodern about it) or because of this tendency to teach her characters to appreciate what they already have. (I've written a bit about this before when comparing the fate or attitude of Tyler's heroines to those of Joanna Trollope's and George Eliot's.) Tyler's novels also typically operate on quite a small scale: marriages, families, with only implicit engagement with the larger social systems that shape them. The Amateur Marriage moved that domesticity into a larger historical frame; to me, the novel seemed (perhaps as a result?) to be moving too fast for itself, so the kinds of intensely evocative tiny moments, and the nuances, of the novels I like best were diffused. Digging to America also takes on more, and in this case I found that the lightness of handling I usually appreciate seemed inappropriate to the topics it touches on, including the tensions of post-9/11 America. But at the same time, I appreciate what I take to be Tyler's ideas, that big political conflicts are experienced very personally, and that national, ethnic, or religious stereotypes lose their potency when we focus on the individual--on what, in her other books, we also see as the "quirkiness" of people seen up close. This may be a novel that grows on me.

4. Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach. This is a book that has been written on plenty recently by all kinds of terribly serious book types; I find I don't have much to say about it myself. I admired Saturday enormously. This novel seemed to think too much of itself and its subject. I was struck, page after page, by the technical control McEwan shows: every word seemed solid, judicious, effective. But I just didn't care for the purpose he was using them for. On Friday I showed my class the excellent documentary included with the DVD of Middlemarch. It includes interviews with David Lodge, Terry Eagleton, A. S. Byatt, Kate Flint, and Claire Tomalin, all, of course, supremely articulate. At one point Tomalin remarks (I forget a propos of just what question) that "George Eliot writes about sex perfectly: she never mentions it, and of course that's the best way to write about it. Who needs the penis and the pubic hair? That's not sex. Sex is the feeling" (that might not be the exact quotation--but close enough to get the point). Perhaps the distinction might be that you don't need the explicit elements of sex to achieve eroticism; is there a more erotically charged scene in 'proper' Victorian literature than the moment in which Stephen Guest kisses the inside of Maggie Tulliver's arm in The Mill on the Floss? McEwan writes like a clinician; even the feelings his couple have are dissected, presented for our analysis and judgment. It seemed a tired cliche to me (despite his careful historicization of their attitudes) that he is keen and she is uninterested, even frigid. It also struck me as unfair that at the end, it becomes his novel. For most of the book, their perspectives are balanced, one against the other. Somewhere there's a paper to be written (no doubt, being written) on McEwan's late fiction and "Dover Beach"...

5. Jane Smiley, Moo. I picked this up soon after reading Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, which I wrote about, mostly admiringly, before. This one, I'm sorry to say, I haven't finished yet, though I began it months ago. It turns out it is arch. I don't enjoy arch, at least not in long stretches.

6. Elizabeth von Armin, The Enchanted April. This was delightful. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected, light but touching, warm but poignant. Without extended explicit social commentary, it shows its women realizing, emotionally more than intellectually, how the constraints of their usual world confine them, but also how they contribute to their own diminishment. More than the movie version, the novel maintains some skepticism about the rapprochement of the women and their husbands (for instance, we always know, though Lotty doesn't, that Mellersh is well-behaved mostly because he hopes to gain clients, and we also know the comedy of errors that nearly erupted because Frederick comes to see the wrong woman). But what I wasn't expecting was the marvellously tactile quality of von Armin's prose:
The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom--lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavendar, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers...
The obvious comparison is with A Room with a View (and I learned from the afterword in my edition that Forster tutored von Arnim's children for a time). But this novel is about adults coming to terms with their lives and loves, and so it has more wistfulness, and more lurking pathos, than Forster's. I loved Mrs Fisher's gradual emergence from what Lotty calls her "cocoon" (even if it is, like Lucy's awakening in A Room with a View, basically at the expense of the Victorians): "Her great dead friends [Ruskin, Arnold, Tennyson...] did not seem worth reading that night. . . . No doubt they were greater than any one was now, but they had this immense disadvantage, that they were dead. Nothing further was to be expected of them; while of the living, what might one not still expect?" The afterword remarks, rather unexpectedly, "The novel is the lightest of omelettes, in the making of which the least possible number of eggs gets broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level." Well, call me incorrigible, and a pedant (I've been called worse, goodness knows), but I enjoyed the novel so much it lit a little spark of scholar's curiosity in me and made me curious to look up a former M.A. student of mine I haven't heard from in a while whom I recall had proposed a Ph.D. project on von Arnim. It also (especially in combination with our first snow of the season) made me dream of going back to Italy!

Next up? I picked up A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on my last expedition to Doull's (Haligonians know all about Doull's and its temptations). But I've also got Suite Francaise and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in my 'to read next' pile--and first priority is Margaret Oliphant's Hester to begin again for my graduate seminar.

2 comments:

steeleworthy said...

Does your edition of the Eggers book have "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making" attached to it? The first edition of _Heartbreaking Work_ had this "confessional" attached, as a post-script of sorts. I felt that the actual text fall apart about half-way through, but found "Mistakes" made up for all of it.

All in all though, a good text..

Rohan Maitzen said...

I don't see that in my edition, though there do seem to be various prefaces and things.