Recent Reading: Five Fine Finds!

I can’t seem to muster the mental or physical energy to keep up with regular blogging right now (blame an excess of computer time for other purposes plus a spell of back pain – happily now subsided – making it particularly unappealing to spend yet more time at my desk!). But I also can’t stand to watch the pile of read books growing without saying something about them, and I don’t feel like waiting to do a monthly survey, which seems to be a bit of a trend. So let’s see what I can manage to say about these five rather miscellaneous but all, in their own ways, very good books. They all deserve more than passing attention, but it’s 2020 and that means sometimes less has to be enough!

Steven Price, Lampedusa. This was my local book club’s most recent choice, and it proved an excellent one. Everybody loved it, which is actually pretty rare for us. I think the last book we were all this excited about was Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead. One thing we wondered about going into this was whether it would be important to have read The Leopard beforehand–some of us had, some of us hadn’t. I read it, but years ago (with the Slaves of Golconda group, which sadly faded away) so my recollection was pretty vague. Some who hadn’t read it before opted to read it in preparation for Lampedusa, and some watched the Visconti adaptation. But some just went ahead with Price’s novel, on the theory that he can’t have expected readers to ‘prep’ for it. And we were all fine! Those who knew The Leopard were able to make or appreciate some connections, but Lampedusa is plenty good enough to stand alone as a beautifully written (it genuinely deserves that over-used word ‘lyrical’), evocative (another over-used but well-earned word) and very moving account of creativity, memory, middle age, loss, and death. Oh, and Sicily too: it is very much about a particular place at a particular time.

Lampedusa joins Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel. Here’s a sample:

After that first night, Mirella did not again react to the story. She responded neither with surprise nor disapproval nor delight. Rather she was quiet and precise and wholly present, like a shadow on a wall. He was grateful for this. Some part of him understood that these were the cleanest and purest working hours he would ever know; hearing the language aloud, steady, slow, permitted him to edit as he went; and later, after Mirella had left, he would lift the new typed papers to a random page and begin making alterations almost at once, unable to help himself. There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself. HIs prince, he saw, whom he had always thought of as hollowed out by an absent faith, in fact was the last of the devout. But his prince’s faith was a faith in tradition, in the fate of a bloodline, and at such moments Giuseppe saw that he had written his way through his own bitterness, towards the man he might have wished to be. His prince stood alone, impassive, needing no one; and because of this, and because there is no true survival in isolation, it would be his prince’s very strength that destroyed him.

There is more to the novel than writing and contemplation–there’s family drama, and war, and myth, and also failure, as he dies before knowing “his prince” and his novel would be published, acclaimed, and lasting, the masterpiece he felt but could not be certain it was.

I loved the idea of Lampedusa when I first heard about it but I admit I was prepared for disappointment. The genre is a risky one (I have yet to read a George Eliot novel that hasn’t bored, annoyed, or outraged me), and the only other novel by Price I’ve read is By Gaslight, which I liked just fine but which is a very different kind of thing altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t let those hesitations deter me: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and this is a year that included Hamnet and The Mirror and the Light.

Up next for the book club: We usually follow a theme of some kind from one book to the next, so this time we chose Italy and Elsa Morante’s Artur’s Island.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet. The subtitle of this book is ‘A Personal History with Jigsaws’ and I plucked it off the shelf (where it had malingered for a few years mostly unread) because I have been doing jigsaw puzzles as a form of meditative distraction since early in the lockdown. I thought–rightly–that this might mean Drabble’s book, which hadn’t interested me much when I began it before, might have found its moment, and it had. It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death. There are many parts I would love to quote but in the interests of actually finishing a blog post before age too much more, here’s just one:

One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me … is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience … In this aspect, the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk badly into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day’s work, but the work of the preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening.

She goes on to note that when she was working on The Oxford Companion to English Literature, it had more of the character of a puzzle: 

The pieces fitted together, they interlocked … Assembling and fitting the pieces together was a form of carpentry.

Writing novels is not like that.

Actually, here’s one more passage. Perhaps because I am currently working on a puzzle that is one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens at Giverny, I appreciated her discussion of the way jigsaw puzzles help us understand and appreciate works of fine art by forcing us to pay meticulously close attention:

From jigsaws, you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the stripes of Tissot and Rousseau, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian, the undulating fabrics and limbs of Botticelli, the business of Bosch and Brueghel. While struggling to recreate Titian’s Venus of Urbino, you discover that the little dog at her feet is painted in almost exactly the same shades of russet and apricot as the naked Venus herself. According to Julian Mitchell, himself a master puzzle solver, the dog represents her politely concealed public hair …

I learned more about the appreciation of clouds and of Constable from doing jigsaws of The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral than I learned from my first encounters with the original paintings. Now, when I see clouds, I see clouds and Constable, not clouds and the shapes of a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle was the medium that introduced me, that fixed my attention, that made me pause. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. I could have learned about clouds at the Courtauld, but I didn’t have the opportunity. I learned through Clementoni.

One thing the book made me realize is that my local jigsaw options are sadly limited! Her book inspired me to go looking for a Brueghel puzzle and I found this line of what look like beautiful art puzzles—how I would love to work on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus!-but they are not to be had in Canada, as far as I can tell.

OK, just one more bit, to give you a sense of how much more this book is about than idle pastimes–or, more accurately, of how it makes you think differently about your pastimes, which may not be as idle as they seem:

The concept of life as a journey, a pilgrimage, a quest, a ladder, or a spiral track may be attractive to some, but to me the notion of a goal is not. The very word ‘goal’ has unpleasing associations. Board games, unlike jigsaw puzzles, necessarily admit elements of competition and victory … Whereas the Greek telos can mean an end, an aim, an ultimate purpose, a final cause, and need not embrace the concept of competition. In the larger pattern, all the solitary journeys combine, and we arrive together.

The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … if you try hard enough, you can complete it. That galactic scatter of inert and inept fragments of wood or cardboard will come together and make a picture.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It combines a brisk personal history of Goodings’ years with Virago Press with comments on the books and writers the Press published–some of whom I knew of but without having connected them explicitly to Virago, like Sarah Waters or Sarah Dunant. Goodings is clear that in its origins Virago was a product of second-wave feminism and so had some of the shortcomings you’d expect; she’s also explicit and occasionally defensive about Virago’s determination to be a feminist press that reached mainstream audiences. The tension between ideology and marketing was real sometimes but she makes a good case for the value of having a range of approaches to feminist publishing, including theirs. It was slightly disorienting reading enthusiastic sections about Virago’s close relationship with Margaret Atwood, who of course has long been an ‘iconic’ feminist writer but who has become a controversial figure, in her home country anyway, because of her entanglement in the Steven Galloway case. I suppose this particular mess is not really relevant to Goodings’s story, but it’s a long time since I read anything admiring about Atwood that didn’t have at least an implicit asterisk by her name–a sign, as I expect Goodings herself would readily acknowledge, that feminist critique is always evolving.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. This is another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while (one thing lockdown has done is encourage me to look more closely at the books I already have, since things like leisurely trips to the library or bookstore are not currently options). I loved Lolly Willowes and liked Summer Will Show, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one yet! Maybe it too was waiting for its moment, and like The Pattern in the Carpet, it found it, since I read it in one delicious sitting and absolutely loved it. It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. Mr. Fortune is kind of a stupid man in many ways, but he finds a lot of wisdom by the end. A snippet:

‘Because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping off a bit of the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us, and while we live we cannot escape from it, so however we love and whatever we love, it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love.’

My nice NYRB Classics edition comes packaged with the short sequel Townsend Warner wrote for it, The Salutation. I didn’t read it (yet): I was so satisfied by Mr. Fortune’s Maggot that I didn’t want anything to distract or detract from it! I won’t forget that it’s still there, though, waiting for me. Perhaps it perfectly completes or complements the original: some day I’ll find out.

Kerry Clare, Waiting for a Star to FallI was so looking forward to Kerry’s new novel: I really enjoyed and admired Mitzi Bytes and of course I know Kerry well from her wonderful blog and from Twitter (though sadly for me, she is rarely there now!) and for all her work reading, writing, talking about, and cheering on Canadian literature. Waiting for a Star to Fall did not disappoint, though it is a different kind of novel than Mitzi Bytes–at its heart is a painful personal struggle that is really well summed up in Stacey May Fowles’s review in Quill & Quire:

In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.” 

Waiting for a Star to Fall is a highly topical novel, what I suppose we will come to call (maybe we already do?) a #MeToo novel. It doesn’t feel forced or formulaic, though, mostly because it walks us through the problem of recognizing the harm, rather than insisting on it or hectoring us about it from the very beginning. Brooke’s struggle to make the right kind of sense of her own experience is hard to watch and harder to participate in vicariously, which the close third-person narration requires of us. I appreciated that while by the end it is clear even to Brooke that she needs to understand the story differently, even it it means letting go of ideas about herself that she wants and needs to hold on to, the pieces do not fall so neatly into place that labels like ‘victim’ really fit. Real life is full of ambiguity, after all, and she did make choices; her relationship with Derek is not something that just happened to her, without her participation. At the same time, there’s some wishful thinking in Brooke’s own insistence that right and wrong are not so easy to determine:

‘But it’s not nothing,’ said Brooke, trying to explain. ‘It can’t just be either/or–there is something in the middle.’

‘There are many degrees, aren’t there,’ Derek’s mother eventually says to Brooke, ‘between perfection and being a sinner And who among us hasn’t sinned? … It’s not all or nothing.’ This is true, but it’s also not really good enough, especially for Derek as Brooke finally comes to see him.

So there we have it: five good books I’ve read recently!

The 19th-Century British Novel from Austen to Drabble

the-radiant-wayJane Austen recommended three or four families in the Country Village as the thing to work on when planning a novel. . . . A few families in a Country Village. A few families in a small, densely populated, parochial, insecure country. Mothers, fathers, aunts, stepchildren, cousins. Where does the story begin and where does it end?

Margaret Drabble makes it pretty obvious that she intends The Radiant Way as a continuation of the 19th-century novel tradition. Like Jane Austen, she focuses on a few interconnected families whose personal lives are fodder for her wry wit and social satire, but The Radiant Way is also very much a social problem or ‘condition of England’ novel, full of details about the political and economic circumstances that shape and often distort its characters choices. Austen’s fiction is of course highly political, but most often in implicit or subtle ways. You never get passages like this one in an Austen novel:

On a more public level 1980 continues. The steel strike continues, a bitter prelude to the miners’ strike that will follow. Class rhetoric flourishes. Long-cherished notions of progress are inspected, exposed, left out to die in the cold. Survival of the fittest seems to be the new-old doctrine. Unemployment rises steadily, but the Tory Party is not yet often reminded of its election poster which portrayed a long dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working.’ People have short memories, many of them are carried along with the new tide. They are fit. The less fit get less and less fit, and are washed up on the shore.

marybartonAs this passage illustrates, The Radiant Way is about the condition of England in the 1980s, and its treatment of that era matches, rather than counters, what it suggests is the spirit of the age: it is (mostly) satirical, snide, cynical, bitter. I wonder if that is why it seemed to me so much more dated than, say, Mary Barton, with its heartfelt appeals to our common experiences and better natures. There is something naive, of course, about Gaskell’s novel, and many of her attitudes are outdated. Maybe I just prefer her kindness and optimism to Drabble’s somewhat ruthless explication of people’s weaknesses and compromises. The extent to which her analysis is still painfully current, too, shows that if anything she was prescient about the corrosion of the welfare state, the devaluation of art and education, and the instability of love as a foundation for happiness. Maybe I just wish it were dated.

radiantway1I read The Radiant Way for my book club (it’s our follow-up to The Group). I’ve read it once before, years ago, but I barely remembered it, and most of it felt quite unfamiliar to me this time. The one aspect that came rushing back to me as soon as it was mentioned was the bizarre subplot about the “Hampstead Horror.” Why should this novel feature a serial killer? The murder in Mary Barton is integral to its story about class conflict; its consequences and its resolution are both devices for addressing the underlying social and moral problems Gaskell suggests need fixing. I find it harder to reconcile the melodrama of the Hampstead Horror with the rest of Drabble’s novel, even though eventually it does become part of the main plot. What kind of device is it for her–what thematic purpose does it serve? I expect this is something we’ll discuss.

Overall I didn’t much enjoy The Radiant Way, but I did appreciate how wordy it is, and how crafty Drabble is with words. Her prose is dense but still very rhythmic; it is self-conscious and sometimes arch, but also kind of stabby, in a pleasurable way. She’s very good at families and their discontents; there’s a dinner scene in which the conversation is brilliantly awkward. What was missing, for me, are the qualities I like best in the tradition she is at once invoking and updating: warmth, kindness, pathos, good humor. In this respect it reminds me of David Lodge’s Nice Work, an even more explicit homage to the 19th-century condition of England novel that I also, on rereading, found clever but dated. For better and for worse, I find more of what I want in the earlier books…which I suppose explains why Victorian, not modern British, fiction is my area of specialization!

(The title of this post is a play on the title of the course I teach frequently on “The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens.”)