Posted January 8, 2008on:
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.