The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

It was difficult to choose an excerpt to properly display Woolf’s humour although they all carry an irreverence I found particularly appealing. She deals with poets very badly in this novel; I’d love to know which ones in particular ticked her off. Anyway, it’s the sort of humour that, with another writer, could have palled very quickly and earned nothing more than an eye roll. Or maybe that will be your reaction and I’m easy, but I always go for a good clichés jab. Here is our 16 year old Orlando putting his genius to paper.

He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre. Moreover, nature has tricks of her own. Once look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, once think ‘how many more suns shall I see set’, etc. etc. (the thought is too well known to be worth writing out) and one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.

He was careful to avoid meeting anyone….There is perhaps a kinship among qualities; one draws another along with it; and the biographer should here call attention to the fact that this clumsiness is often mated with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone’, he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds. For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. That was his father’s house; that his uncle’s. His aunt owned those three great turrets among the trees there. The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.

He sighed profoundly, and flung himself—there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

INTERVIEWER
Most people know you’re a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

ROBINSON
To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out – I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea – or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?

ROBINSON
I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country – heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonioum-239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.

When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags. I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.
[…]

[I]f I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.

INTERVIEWER
Which is what?

ROBINSON
Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity?

I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhuman we must go to a darker continent.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?

ROBINSON
It was largely a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naïve as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 198 interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review No. 186, Fall 2008.

Here is Rachel Cohen’s review of Robinson’s latest, Home, in the most recent Bookforum.

I took some time to catch up with my favourite literary magazine ventures online. Open Letters Monthly turned out to be the most rewarding site as I accompanied the reading with a lot of mental exclamations like, What a fun idea that was! or What the hell? I totally wanted to review that book and Oh, I now find this interesting thanks to the Evil Telly (granted I saw the shows on the internet because who has time for tv these days?).

The Vampire Fan(g) Guide by Sharon Fulton immediately caught my eye in the October issue because I am one of those who find such creatures very compelling, sometimes to my deep, soul numbing distress, sexy, evil, what have you; and am always on the lookout for authors who can mine something fresh from the cliches. Fulton doesn’t cover much in the last category but her piece is useful because she gives specifics on books about which I’ve heard a lot of empty praise (eg. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore) and about which I can never see mocked too much (the Twilight series by everyone’s favourite Mormon writer). For more nutritious brain food try Lianne Habineck’s meditation on Hamlet from a neuroscience perspective suitable for Shakespeare’s time period. (One of the few essays that applies neuroscience without making me yearn to poke out my eyeballs.) I can’t remember if I read Donoghue’s examination of the only play in which Shakespeare decided to bother with the Tudors — I don’t think I did (yet)– but you should because Donoghue is consistently funny and smart with a touch of acid.

Also, Tudors! Usually, I yawn at anything having to do with the lot. For mediocre film directors and writers Henry VIII and his beheading hobbyhorse is third only to Shakespeare and Austen in source material. (Oh, that I could unsee that movie with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. When is Johansson going to act in anything as good as Lost in Translation and that Vermeer flick again? Yeesh.) I can’t explain how The Tudors cheap soap opera antics and gratuitous heterosexual sex scenes — homosexuals don’t have sex in Tudor England, they only touch each other’s cheeks tenderly and lie in bed shirtless — managed to get past my guard. Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn may have something to do with it but the biggest draw is the writers’ cavalier handling of historical fact. (It’s very heady if you aren’t a history professor — if you are I suggest keeping a cell phone with 911 on speed dial nearby.)

Anyway, such productions tend to heighten my curiousity about the pertinent historical figures or time periods so Steve Donoghue’s ongoing essay series “Year with the Tudors” could not come at a better time. In each new instalment he covers fiction or non-fiction books that cover seminal figures and for September he chose Bloody Mary. She gets a sympethetic biography in Linda Porter’s The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary”, further inspection with Donoghue’s Q&A with the author, and inclusion in a fun quiz question: Why are cover art designers so fond of her’s and other Tudor women’s bosom? The world may never know.

The other coolest of cool September offerings is OLM’s survey of “the bestseller’s list” (I don’t know which one) as contributor’s tackle everything from Nora Roberts to James Patterson. Not that that’s much of a range. As a tepid Nora Roberts fan I found John Cotter’s review amusing — I could not have thought of an odder book-reviewer pairing — although I am disappointed he didn’t mention Roberts’ fondness for incomplete sentences. (She does them for emotional impact, gravitas or because she feels like it and it never, ever works.) Donoghue asseses Evanovich’s never ending Stephanie Plum series and comes out with an opinion many of the series’ fans would not disagree with at this stage. Fulton is more receptive to what fans may find appealing in Catherine Coulter’s ongoing action/romance books about FBI agents. It’s quite novel to find such books reviewed in literary venues and while I may have wished the books had a more receptive audience, seeing a title like “The Last Patriot” on OLM made my month. Seriously. I’d like the non-fiction list done next, please! I’d like to experience gimmicky Gladwell tomes, self-help bibles and bogus financial advice books second hand.

I’ve barely skimmed August but Dan Green writes a fan letter to James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Donoghue tells us all about Henry VII — the feller who came off as an honourable goody two shoes in Shakespeare’s Richard III —  and Laura Tanenbaum carefully dissects two books of the “Young People Today!” variety in Scolds in the Agora.

Was there room in my heart for other outfits? Certainly. Estella’s Revenge can be depended on for articles by book lovers about their obsessions and idiosyncrasies. In the October issue Jodie writes about her yen for big books, Chris Bucner introduces us to some comic book lines beyond the hot properties making their way to film, and the reviews section covers a gratifying mix of books for those who read high and low.

I’ll get to my print subscriptions at some point. The LRB pile looks less daunting, my grudge against Bookforum lessens and my fall Paris Review is finally here. Plus, the founding editor of a new-to-me offering sent me a PDF copy of the latest issue which promises to be a mix of the literary and fantastical. Sounds like it should fit me perfectly, doesn’t it?

Edit: Oh poop. I forgot about Strange Horizons. I forbid anyone to tell me about any new literary sites/magazines for the next decade.

What have I been reading lately? As the end of my MA studies drew near and my thesis showed no signs of shrinking (or finishing itself) one could observe (lamentable) trends. I withdrew from almost all literary conversation — I did not blog or read any that weren’t in my RSS reader and lost desire for all lit mags, except one. The Paris Review managed to retain my affections partly because it’s a quarterly (so I felt I could read it at leisure), partly because I regard it as a curio among my lit mag/journal interests, and partly because it’s not very demanding in comparison to them (sorry PR staff). I always have reasonable excuses when the poetry befuddles me. (Btw, where the heck is my Fall issue? I miss being befuddled.)

As for books that jumped around a bit. My fantasy interested regressed. I reread The Hobbit and the entire Harry Potter series (like Jennysbooks is doing now). That was my third time with Tolkien’s first tale. The first time I was a tween and I left it with confused memories of the novel and the Rankin & Bass animated adaptation. The second time I closed it quite disgusted with Tolkien’s “children’s author” tone — a stylistic choice he later regretted. IIt’s an overly cute, somewhat artificial, self-conscious tone used by the world’s Enid Blytons. It works well enough for the right age group and then immediately loses favour. Even before I was ten I remember being exasperated with her style. For gratification I counted how many stories in a particular collection she ended with a question mark, mocking her silently.

This third time I made peace with that peeve and was able to appreciate Tolkien’s humour and the story’s rolicking air. I am now now even more worried about its fate as a film: it is fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings but I fear that the trilogy’s success will convince those in charge that The Hobbit film must be made in its image. The “two movie” plan is very much the doubtful “epic” approach I feared they’d take. We shall see.

J.K. Rowling isn’t that skilfull of a writer, is she? I’ve mentioned many times that when I read the first two Harry Potter books I could not fathom what made it so popular with adults. (I came to the series through the fourth.) Now I think that their length and complexity are better suited to her strengths than a sprawling 700+ pages excursion. (Her best is the third in which she combines meatier content without needing endless words.) As the books got longer she had to do more dialogue…and she’s not very good at it. She overuses adverbs and seems limited to describing her characters as saying something “slowly” whenever they’re not running away from anyone. The plot heaves and gets kind of soap opera-y ie complications happen for the sake of it. She often fails at making her characters convincingly complex. Harry Potter’s teen angst phase came off as PSA-caricature to me but England does purportedly have a youth problem these days.

All the same…I did re-read the entire series, a compliment I have not bestowed on technically better writers whose books I’ve long since bartered. (Granted, I only own three of the HP series.) Rowlings quirky world creations and sympathetic characters combined with the pleasure of communal reading — it is wonderful to know one is enjoying a book with so many others and have endless opportunities to discuss it with them — are very potent. She could be an excellent author with a good editor. It is a bit grievous, though, to know that there are authors whose stories are both captivating and accomplished and yet are not half so spectacularly successful.

I like my mini-quests. My current one is to read all of Diana Wynne Jone’s backlist. Before this year I had read Howl’s Moving Castle, Conrad’s Fate, Power of Three and The Merlin Conspiracy. Since August I completed Chrestomanci Volumes I & II, The Dalemark Quartet and The Pinhoe Egg. I owned Charmed Life, the first in the Chrestomanci Vol. I, for a long time but was repeatedly put off by the first paragraph. I believe it’s one of her earlier novels, published in the 70s, and it stumbled with very abrupt, ugly sentences that did not promise the wry, elegant, tongue-in-cheek Diana I knew well.

Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Mayhaps I’m overreacting but they read so serviceable, plain, without art or promise. The kind of book you get in grade on when you’re learning to read. Compare it to say, the opening in The Merlin Conspiracy, a favourite.

I have been with the Court all my life, travelling with the King’s Progress.

It’s even shorter than the first example but it scans well. It gives a tantalising bit of information while making you want to know more. That the narrator is writing this down also hints his/her situation is changing which also snags my curiousity. It works, you know? Jones also write it nearly 30 years later so of course she has a better handle of how to get things going. In any case, I did manage to get over Charmed Life’s awkward start, thanks to the quest and the knowledge that the Chrestomanci series is Jones’ most popular, and became one of her many readers to fall head over heels for Christopher Chant and his flamboyant dress robes.

One of the real charms Jones’ books holds for me is how her various urban and rural settings are not modeled too far from real life. In other stories you may have the familiar setting with the fantastical world intruding or its an extreme version of reality (like in Harry Potter with the Firebolts and wizard cards and such — which I adore btw). She explores and pokes at the strange British class system and, to a lesser extent, civil service. Her Conrad’s Fate struck me as being awfully similar to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (don’t guffaw!) in it humorous, sharp study of an upper class home’s ecosystem, from the master and mistress down to the shoe shine boy. It’s not done to make any point in particular. And…although the magic *is* necessary to the plot , there is so little effort to jazz it up that I’d recommend it to non-fantasy fans who are Anglophiles and like mysteries.

I do not love all of her books equally. The reasons escape me but I found The Magicians of Caprona less than satisfactory. I’ve noticed DWJ’s preference for male over female heroines, the latter oft regulated to the prominent sidekick role. (Unfortunately, when she does have a book with a prominent female heroine, like the third book in The Dalemark Quartet, I pretty much can’t stand it and long for all my favourite boys from the previous two.) She does have an excellent grasp of what sets a young female reading going and that made up some of my favourite moments. In The Lives of Christopher Chant there’s a young goddess named Millie who is starved for reading material. Christopher, on the advice of a male friend with experience in the ladies’ reading tastes, buys her a series that I’m sure is modelled on Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl books. Mille immediately becomes quite desperate to have girl crushes, tea time, Midnight Feasts, become a prefect and so on which mirrored my reaction exactly, except that I also wanted to wake up at ungodly hours to swim in a lake. (I still remember the illustration of the girls running towards it.) In Pinhoe’s Egg there’s a similar moment when two girls despair for a horse, plan to buy riding gear and speak knowingly of gymkhanas after taking in one of those girl + pony books. But this one felt contrived, as if DWJ was trying to recapture a moment better done before.

I’m now in the middle of Hexwood which happily has a prominent heroine (who I like) and seems to be a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, which is always nice, as long as Jones is the author. I shan’t make any promises but I also read, among others, John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus and, in order to remain a critblog in Dan Green’s standings, I shall offer you more critical fare on both that and Mill on the Floss, of course. I read a strange mid-20th century Japanese novel entitled The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Mishima Yukio. It was such a hothouse novel and stamped with Freud’s seal of approval…lots of phallic poles, edifices, ship masts, womanly flowers opening up and what have you…and so riddled with imagery…I still don’t know what to make of it. (Japanese writers rule.)

I am ready to return into literature’s welcoming bosom. As a sign that I made the right decision, the gods saw fit to give The Mill on The Floss the kind of soul wrenching end that left me sobbing. I haven’t done that since Andre Dubus’ “Rose” (a short story) which was years ago. Every one fusses about Middlemarch but perhaps one ought to take a closer look at my new favourite? I am now convinced that Eliot deserves to be immortalised in marble — I hope there’s a statue I can visit somewhere.


Middlemarch is her best so I’ll get to it some time but…is it another Fallen Woman story? My heart can’t take any more of those at present. I may swerve into Silas Marner instead. That’s another one of her books that I started to read in my younger days but never finished.

Click on images

Is it bright where you are?

The Death of Elizabeth (1828)

The Death of Elizabeth (1828)

Portrait (1909) by Henri Le Fauconnier

Portrait (1909) by Henri Le Fauconnie

(Google translate for link)

Music: “Absence” from Les Nuits d’Été Op. 7 by Hector Belioz, lyrics by Théophile Gautier
Mezzo-soprano: Dame Janet Baker
Conductor: Herbert Blomstedt.
Orchestra: Danish radio symphonic orchestra

(Info about the cycle) (Lyrics)

“Tell me , do you have any coloured blood?”

Mark recognized, with anger and embarrassment, the small halt in his breathing but he answered easily enough, “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Shouldn’t I? It seems an interesting point about a man like you.”

“I suppose so,” said Mark. “But it’s not usual to hear a European ask it.”

[…]

“It worries you quite a bit, eh?”

Mark grinned…”Does it show so much?” he asked.

“You ought to have seen your face, ” Hancko said, “when I asked you.”

“It’s a queer business,” said Mark. “Being my colour and and my class in my sort of country. All your training…all your influences and most of the education you get encourages you to value one side of what you were born and to despise the other. It becomes a reflex by the time you’re about five years old.”

“What are you going to do?” Hancko asked him then.

[…]

“What [are] you getting at?”

“Everything,” he replied, looking steadily at Mark, and with the accent of his English only discernible by the faint hardness of the vowels. “Everything you want to do, no matter how complex and untidy it looks, has something specific in it that moves the whole thing. An essence that you can get at.” He closed his hand slowly, like a man grasping a sinking stone in the water before it reached the bottom. ” Every question, comes down finally to ‘What’, not ‘Why’. In our case it’s a matter of giving an allegiance to the destiny of the poor. A real allegiance, I mean, that’s almost like religious faith, but not quite. Don’t mind that, though. It’s an allegiance to them as a class, to what they have to offer, to the work you must do with them. In your country one lot of people who are white rule and prosper by using the people like you. They’re able to use you because they allow you a good share in their world, and because they’ve given you a set of values to live by that depend on the approval of that world. And the poor of your world, the blacks, they’re kept poor because you, people like you I mean, get an idea clearly in life that there will always be something irreconcilable between the white world and the black. And only the white world has any value, call it beauty if you like, for you. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Mark said slowly. “I suppose that is the way it works.”

“It’s not a question,” Hancko continued, “of starting a race war: that’s almost more stupid than the other thing. It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.”

From Voices Under The Window by John Hearne, published by Peepal Tree Press


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