The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: past and present reads

Posted on: January 6, 2008

My first two completed reads were translations and, coincidentally, quite similar in some respects. Both were about a young woman who wrestled with her desires and their consequences, both conflicted about who they truly were and what they wanted. The Pierre Jean Jouve was leagues above Ana Clavel’s Desire and Its Shadow based on the translation alone. The Jouve was published by a university press so it’s not surprising that its edition was beautifully and carefully made. In contrast Jay Miskowiec’s translation was awkward and incomprehensible in many places. This hurt the book more than usual since the story was of the magic realist variety, quite surreal in spots, and the protagonist, Soledad, had a double, like Paulina in Jouve’s novel. Combine that with the dense structure of images, symbols and historical and literary references and you simply can’t afford to to let the language get away from you. Worse, the copy editor/s gave up about half way through the pick and I had to be pencilling in missing commas, missing words and correcting misspelled words (like “hte”). Near the end I just sighed and passed them over. It is too, too bad because it’s an intriguing little literary bundle that I don’t think Clavel quite succeeded at executing well in parts but it was a pleasure to sift through what she was trying to do.

So I’ve left France (though the novel was set in Italy) and Mexico and have made my way to an imaginary African country by way of England. Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case is not turning out to be what I expected. I had the impression that Greene wrote…substantial psychological thrillers, I guess, with a lot of political intrigue and what not. The book starts out on an old boat going up to a leproserie at which an enigmatic 50 year old man disembarks seeking solitude, paranoid about deflecting attention. Aha, an assassin, I thought, some ex-MI5 agent or whatever they’re called. I could not have been more wrong. I’m saddled with some retired ol’ architect who used to build churches, for heaven’s sakes, and likes to go on and on in a very serious, amusing, melodramatic fashion about being emotionally stunted, having lost all desire, indifferent to humanity and what not. It’s amusing not only because he’s so…earnest about it but because pretty much every one around him replies in the most pragmatic, deflating fashion imaginable.

In fact there are not a few moments of dry, stinging humour that shocked laughs out of me. Shocked because I don’t often come across observations of humour in writings about Greene, but then I’ve never read much about him, just picked up things here and there. This is my second attempt to read the book after a false start….of more than a year ago, probably.

Another book I’m looking forward to and which may end up a Sunday Salon (re)read is Gabriel Josipovici’s Selected Fiction and Drama. It has The Inventory here, as well as The Air We Breathe, two books I’ve seen praised highly, and I’m rather anxious to see what his plays look like since I’ve never come across any commentary of them.

I note this as the Times put up a laughable list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1954. Let’s get one thing straight: Derek Walcott is not British. He doesn’t even live anywhere near there. It’s fair to say that you have taken enough from the Caribbean; the least you could do is allow us to have our own writers, thank you. Secondly, you honestly, honestly, couldn’t find a better writer to put on the list in J.K. Rowling’s spot? Honest to God? You ranked her above PULLMAN and Julian Barnes? I love (some of) the Harry Potter books but if you can’t find, in over 50 years, 50 authors better than her to add to the list — like, for instance, GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI — your literature is in a sorry state and I feel for you. (How the hell is C.S. Lewis above A.S. Byatt? It must be based on his non-fiction.)

I still feel the need to add one more book to my plate — specifically one written by a pre-20th century female novelist who isn’t Radcliffe, Eliot, Austen or any of the Brontës. They don’t have to be British or write in English. If you have any suggestions please leave a comment or drop an e-mail.

7 Responses to "Sunday Salon: past and present reads"

I wondered about that list, Imani! I haven’t read a ton of British writers…but I wondered why we didn’t see Julian Barnes or David Mitchell on the list…both who I consider to be amazing writers.

Oh, Barnes is there but a few rungs lower than good ol’ Rowling. Pullman is placed just beneath her which I can only assume was done to rankle all the sensible world. :p

Ah, you’re not loving A Burnt-Out Case? Can’t blame you. It was a little dry to get through, but it has it moments — Greene does examine rather critically at the darker motivations of people who lay claims to charity and goodness (or godliness). In his universe, we are all morally different shades of grey.

You’re not wrong that Graham Greene wrote spy thrillers — he wrote a lot of them, for the money of course. But if you’re looking for his more “spiritual” works, you might like to check out Power & the Glory or The End of the Affair.

Or if you can, check out The Quiet American — the one with Zadie Smith’s essay as the introduction.

Pre-20th century female writer? Must they be Brit? Or must they write in English?

Off the top of my head: Elizabeth Gaskell, George Sand, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Sarah Ornet Jewett (spelling?), Mary Shelley.

I actually am liking Burnt-Out and am already half way through. It’s funny what you say about the spy thrillers because in his list of works at the front of the book the “spiritual” stuff are listed as “novels” while the spy thrillers are under “entertainment”. Cracked me up. I have two of his “entertainment” novellas.

Thanks for the recs! I’ve been looking at the Gaskell and forgot that Sands was around too. Did not know about Braddon.

If you want to venture into 17C France, you could try Madame de Lafayette’s Princess of Cleves (it’s download-able at Gutenberg).
If you want to venture into Middle age Japan, you could try Lady Sei Shonagon’s diary (oh, but it’s not a novel… Does it have to be?)
Otherwise, I would have said the same ones than Dark Orpheus + Frances Burney.

I am specifically looking for novels but I’ll consider the stray diary or two. Thanks for the recs, especially reminding me about Burney, about whom I had forgotten.

I enjoyed A Burnt Out Case for many of the same reasons that you mention. Your post made me curious to know more about Greene.

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