The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: January 8, 2008

Last year, I dared only to briefly acknowledge the existence of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne whenever it was mentioned before scuttling to another mental destination. I’d like to say that I did so for a number of years but the pathetic truth is that I saw A Cock and Bull Story with no clear idea that it had anything to do with a book until the reel started. From then on I gathered enough to understand that it was one of those difficult, intimidating texts that I’d probably never get around to until retirement age when I’d have nothing better to do than read. (I’m saving Ulysses for that time, too.)

But the last few months have been a rather dismal time for me and novels. Between October and December I read over ten and only found 3 or 4 (if I stretch it) that were outstanding, wholly satisfying experiences. I’ve become more cautious in the new year, more anxious for important, challenging fare that will get my head and stomach all jumpy with excitement. Hence, it’s a retreat to canon; one item from the canon, anyway. I have a chronic curiousity that refuses to ignore the more lightly trod literary byways. I browsed through Broadview Press‘ catalogue because I knew it published a lot of the lesser known pre-20th century female novelists; and I settled on two after I went through the library stacks and read the first page of the books that were on my short list: The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy and The Pool in the Desert by Sara Jeanette Duncan. (There was something in the latter’s description on the web page that made me include it even though it was published in 1903.)

The canon pick was the Laurence Sterne. I bore myself when my “classic” picks are inevitably 19th century. And…well, I don’t know, but I suddenly found myself in the mood to try it. There was some thought involved in choosing which edition to get. I was averse to getting a cumbersome hardback so I browsed the shelves of a neighbouring university to take a look at their paperbacks. I put aside the Penguin because it was too battered and was left with a definitive scholarly edition by Odyssey Press and the more accessible “aimed at the general reader” Riverside.

I lifted the first, deemed it a good size, not shabbily put together with its neat grey cover and thick pages, but perhaps a bit more thoroughly edited than I would like? I recently came off Broadview’s edition of the James Hogg which was saddled with a very, very dull introduction, quite informative, but a trial to get through if you’re not expecting to be examined on it in three months time. The one for the Levy novel was equally innervating — lots of gendered gazing, the importance of woman in connection with public transportation, female education etc. At times I really wanted to be interested, especially with the passages on photography, but dear Susan Bernstein’s prose resisted all my good intentions. Did I want to set myself up for another humdinger (one that looked a little longer than average, I anxiously noted) by the no doubt learned and respected James A. Work? He promised detailed footnotes — did I really want them?

The Riverside edition smiled at me with its happy brown cover and light illustration on the cover. It was a friendlier trade paperback size, thinner than the Odyssey Press’ shorter, very thick paperback. The words on the back assured me that Riverside editions series was “distinguished by its textual purity and authoritative editorial material”. I skimmed the introduction’s first page and it seemed to be more my weight. I flipped through to see what the editor, Ian Watt, did with the annotation and was there stopped short. Work’s was the “indispensable” edition, he said, the one scholars should turn to as his was only for the general reader. Well, I consider myself a general reader, I thought, but do I often like or identify with what literary academics tend to associate with general readers or find much satisfaction with the efforts they make for them? No. Shit, maybe I should read the Work one, his is “indispensable” and there’s something to be said for being thorough…I can skip over what I don’t require whereas with the Watt I will be wading in ignorance….But look at the brown cover…it’s so nice! And it’s much handier to carry around…I am a general reader and should not think differently. Look at what happened with that other Broadview, all you grumbled about was how Bernstein seemed more concerned about how history was reflected in the book rather than its intrinsic literary worth ie why the hell I’d want to read it in the first place if I’m not writing a thesis on Victorian middle-class women and their experiences with the damn bus….

I left with the Riverside and the ISBN of the Odyssey in case of emergency.

Another part of my “Caution 2008” plan is that I am seriously considering take a break from F/SF books unless they’re written by Diana Wynne Jones or Tolkien. (I’d like to reread Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay but I’m afraid it won’t be as good as I thought it was.) I’ve noticed some bloggers mentioning the trend towards “movie novels” ie books that often read like scripts, expanded film treatment, or that borrow many film conventions to the book’s detriment. I never really knew that they were talking about having not come across it myself until My Swordhand is Swinging by Marcus Sedgwick.

I’d never heard of the author or the book before but this is his seventh novel and, bewilderingly, it’s managed to get on a children’s award shortlist. It’s bewildering because I find it to be a pedestrian, mundane effort that reads like any mediocre vampire movie. There is the requisite opening scene of some dude being chased down by a figure he cannot see but sense until the last moment when he’s taken down by bloody fangs. Then we have the kid with the dead mother (who died giving birth to him, of course) and a drunken father with a past shrouded in mystery. Blah blah isolated Eastern European village, blah blah, noble and not so noble gypsies, blah blah magic sword. Love interests are barely developed before the “couple” part in anguish and new ones glow promisingly…there just seems to be a lot of things missing, as though this were some kind of story plan with a few fleshed out scenes that surely Sedgwick intended to work on later…?

And there’s a stupid recurring song about a shepherd marrying a beaaaautiful princess in the sky. (OK, it’s not stupid so much as pretty uninspiring piece of work that is supposed to be shrouded with mystery. Our humble but intrepid hero is absolutely albeit unwillingly fascinated by this straaaaaange ditty and here I am, not giving a fuck.)

The most interesting things in the novel are the small illustrations of small slices of winter forest. That person has some talent, at least, and his/her work soothe my brain as the pictures are always better at evoking the lonely, menacing, night-time forest than any lines Sedgwick could come up with. (Not that being better would be a hard thing to accomplish.)

If I do read any it will be the classics. I may try T.H. White or go all the way back to frickin’ William Morris.

Caribbean fiction is the only area of interest that remains unscathed. Escape to an Autumn Pavement by Andrew Salkey is winging its way to me as I type. Then it will be time to pay attention to female writers. Erna Brodber should be my pick if I stick to Jamaica but this may mark the point where I climb over my national ego and look to other islands — Jean Rhys and Maryse Condé would then comprise the next reading selections.


13 Responses to "Onwards"

Yay! I’m SO glad you’re reading Tristram Shandy, and I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

I wanted to watch “A Cock and Bull Story” when I read the reviews on it. Steve Coogan amuses me.

I actually bought “My Swordhand is Swinging” last year because of the vampire element. Not good, you say? Oh dear. 😦

Dorothy, ha, your appearance reminded me that I meant to work you into my post somehow but forgot. I’ll probably edit it later but just for the record, Dorothy’s enthusiasm for Sterne was definitely contagious. (And the fact that I enjoyed the Diderot so much, and that it reminded you of the Sterne, probably helped me get past my fears.)

Dark O weeelll, you may like it. I don’t truly believe that but all things are possible. I find myself out of sync with what many on-line consider to be awesome F/SF books these days. However, like you, I was initially excited because it promised vampires! and gypsies! It sounded so cool.

The movie was great even if I didn’t get all the literary references at the time.

I love Maryse Conde’s work. Can’t think of anything I’ve read by her that I haven’t enjoyed. That’s definitely one to look forward to, imani!

I picked up Tristram Shandy a few years ago out of a sense of duty to the classics, and I found it surprisingly charming. However, I support your SF/Fantasy except for DWJ and Tolkien ban, though you might expand it to include Neil Gaiman…

Editions do matter, don’t they? I’ve been looking at which I might use for some teaching I’m going to do later in the year and because it isn’t an exam course it isn’t as obvious as it would otherwise be.

I felt pretty much as you did about the Sedgwick. I think it probably only reached the short-list because there was a real dearth of top-class children’s literature available that year.


Speaking of SF/F, have you read anything by John Crowley, or do you have a feeling for it? I just read a piece in the American Scholar about his just completed four-volume “masterwork” and was very intrigued. He’s also written Little, Big, which is apparently popular. I’ve very interested in where SF/F and “literary fiction” cross paths, or at least when readers of “literary fiction” pay attention, so Michael Dirda’s review intrigued me.


litlove, yes I’ve heard nothing but good about her, first from verbivore and now from you, so I’m really looking forward to her books.

jennysbooks everyone keeps recommending Gaiman to me. I will really have to try him some time….later. For now, I’m on break.

Ann Darnton I do give some thought to them, especially if it’s a book I think I’ll need some help with (but not too much).

*whew* Happy to see that someone else agrees with me on it. I couldn’t believe it was actually his seventh novel. I wanted to take a red pen to some of those lines: he was exceptionally good at losing whatever tension he’d manage to generate by overstating the obvious. I’m only a few pages from the end but I haven’t finished it because I don’t relish the thought of having finished by first clunker for 2008 in early January. :/

Ted!! It’s so good to see you back. I’d occasionally check your blog in despair wondering if you’d ever return. Sadly, I can’t help you as I’m not familiar with the Crowley books at all. Yet another F/SF reading rec I’ll have to try my best to revist considering my freshly made resolutions. :p

And don’t worry about the typo, I’ve got it.

Thanks, imani. I may indeed post something one of these days. I at least want to write up Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience for the Outmoded Authors group.

I’ll look forward to your thoughts on ‘Tristram Shandy.’ I only just read ‘A Sentimental Journey’ and it’s a complete delight, a parfait of a book. I imagine ‘Tristram Shandy’ is only going to be challenging to read in the sense that’s it’s discursive and in nowise a linear story–but the writing is likely pretty transparent and engaging.

You’re trying to figure out which edition of Tristram Shandy to read was well done and amusing. You reminded of of all the comparing I did to figure out which edition of Plato’s Republic I should buy only I didn’t write half as well about it! I will be curious to find out if you ditch the riversid and go for the Odyssey instead.

Ted, goody! Even a small contribution would do.

Sam, yes, I cannot help but be intimidated by some classics although I know better. This one even has pictures. I’m flattered to know someone besides Dorothy is actually looking forward to what I have to say about it.

Stefanie thanks. 😀 Yes, I’d get very particular about the Plato too. In retrospect it’s funny how I just dove into Cicero’s writings a few years ago without a care.

I’m half-convinced I will return for the Odyssey with fingers crossed that someone else didn’t take it out for a term loan.

Hey! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?

There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

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