I’m in the midst of marking exams, so there’s not a lot of mental energy left for serious reading–or writing. But I have read a few things in the not-s0-recent past that haven’t been properly written up, so here are some brief notes, at least:
Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Gazzah Street. This is another good one, quite different from Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety but also showcasing Mantel’s ability to shape terse but evocative scenes. The NYRB ‘blurb’ on the cover describes her as “the blackest of black comedians” but I didn’t find this work funny at all, probably because the lurking horrors in it are all too real (as shown in Mantel’s recent autobiographical essay about her experiences living in Saudi Arabia–experiences on which Eight Months on Gazzah Street is based). The story reminded me not so much of The Turn of the Screw as of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” paranoia and incipient madness brought on by the claustrophobia of living as a woman under particular historical and social circumstances.
Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Like DorothyW at Of Books and Bicycles, I didn’t finish this one–at least, I haven’t yet. I was really looking forward to it, having liked what I heard about Goldstein’s biography of Spinoza (which I am still interested in reading) and having heard good reports of it from my husband–who is an analytic philosopher specializing in the epistemology of religious belief, so perhaps I should have taken into account that he would have a higher tolerance than I did for a book that seemed all too analytic, including about its own humour. An atheist myself, I had (have) plenty of genuine interest in the conception of the book, but when by two thirds of the way through I still found myself totally unengaged with the characters and put off by the academic satire, which is a risky genre for any novelist (warning: making fun of boring pedants by too close imitation risks making a boring pedant of you!) I just put it aside in favor of other things, and so far I haven’t gone back. When David Masson proposed that it would be best for the novel if our novelists were also philosophers, I don’t think this is the result he had in mind…but of course it’s perfectly possible that the failing is my own, that like Peter Wimsey, I haven’t the “philosophical mind.” (FWIW, my philosopher husband didn’t get very far in Wolf Hall, which I found thoroughly riveting…I do think that different habits of mind are cultivated by different disciplines, which is one reason “interdisciplinarity,” though an ever-popular buzz-word in the humanities, often seems so unsatisfactory in practice.)
Emma Darwin, A Secret Alchemy. I had to read this, to keep up an almost life-long interest in “Ricardiana.” It was OK. It’s one of those hybrid books splicing a contemporary plot (this time about an academic historian, Una, researching Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower, and her brother Anthony) with a historical one (about Elizabeth and Anthony, which turns out to be the historical fiction Una writes after deciding she can’t be satisfied with a ‘straight’ historical one). I think the ‘alchemy’ of the title is meant to refer to the creation of fiction (or life) from the imperfect historical record, though I’m not altogether sure. Darwin is a pretty good writer in the contemporary part, though I couldn’t figure out a thematic relationship between its story and characters and the historical one that obsesses Una. In the historical part, she falls victim to the tedious habit of trying to convince us we’re in the past by using stilted language, as if everybody in the Olden Days had a poker up, well, you know. Perhaps I’m idiosyncratic in this reaction, but prose with no contractions isn’t, to me, convincingly ‘historicized.’ I much prefer Mantel’s technique of letting her characters speak robustly, colloquially, even at the risk of anachronism in the specifics. Both stories managed to be poignant at times, about love and loss, but so far I’m not convinced (after reading two of her novels now) that Darwin has the rare combination of acquirement and genius necessary to write truly compelling historical fiction.