Monthly Archives: August 2007

Library sale!

If you’ve read Hobgoblin’s post today, you’ll have an idea what mine is going to be about. Yes, we went to another library sale. How could we not when it’s huge and just a few miles up the road? I swear this is the last library sale I’m going to until … next year. Here’s what I found:

  • Rosamund Lehmann, A Note in Music. Litlove recommended the author to me, although not this particular title. It’s a Virago edition.
  • Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. I loved Of Human Bondage, I’m ready to try another Maugham novel, and how could I resist after reading Becky’s post?
  • Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey. I already have one unread Anne Bronte novel (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), but I love having unread Victorian novels lying around, so I snatched it up.
  • Frances Burney, Camilla. She has two very long novels I haven’t yet read, this one and Cecilia. Someday I’ll get to both of them.
  • Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. I discovered Taylor last summer when I read two of her novels and loved them, so I’m happy to find another.
  • Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond. Surely this will make Emily happy! I found a pretty NYRB classics edition, and it was only $1.50.
  • Penelope Fitzgerald, The Book Shop. This is a slim volume, and how could I resist the title? I’ve never read Fitzgerald, but I keep hearing she’s good.
  • Nicholson Baker, Room Temperature. Yes, I am a Nicholson Baker fan.
  • Edith Wharton, The Buccaneers. I love the Wharton novels I’ve read, and Hepzibah writes about Wharton so well, I had to get this one.
  • William Styron, Sophie’s Choice. This kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? A great book, so I hear.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. To further my interest in the romantics. Copies on Amazon seem like of pricey, so I’m glad I got it.

Who knows when I’ll actually read these, but I’m happy to have them now.

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Mind as palimpsest

I’m on to De Quincey’s third essay in my collection, “Suspiria de Profundis,” or “Sighs From the Depths.” This is such a rich essay that I find myself wanting to write a blog post about many sections from it — isn’t it a delight to find a good book that inspires many blog posts? I think of these books as “bloggable” ones, ones that will keep a regular poster going for quite a while.

Anyway, there’s a short section about halfway through called “The Palimpsest” that I found particularly fascinating; it spends five pages or so explaining what a palimpsest is — a manuscript written on multiple times and nearly erased after each use but leaving a trace of the previous text that is still readable. In his example, a Greek tragedy is written and then scraped away, a legend about a Christian monk replaces it, and a romance about knights replaces that. De Quincey gives no indication where he is going with the topic until he has explained it thoroughly, at which point he makes it all clear:

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.

What a wonderful metaphor, is it not? The idea is that nothing we have experienced is lost; it’s simply been covered over by something else and by something else again. But traces remain:

Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or a light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness.

The more I read the more I realized how Proustian this whole metaphor is, but instead of involuntary memory — when a sensory experience triggers a memory of a long-forgotten moment — as the mechanism that reveals the forgotten layers in our minds, for De Quincey, it’s approaching death, severe illness, or opium that brings the memory back:

[Memories] are not dead but sleeping. In the illustration imagined by myself, from the case of some individual palimpsest, the Grecian tragedy had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the monkish legend; and the monkish legend had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the knightly romance. In some potent convulsion of the system, all wheels back into its earliest elementary stage.

Perhaps De Quincey’s conception of memory allows for a more active role than Proust’s does — one can take opium to induce these memories, if one wishes. For Proust, involuntary memory simply happens, outside our control.

De Quincey also begins to found Freudian:

But the deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child’s hands were unlinked for ever from his mother’s neck, or his lips for ever from his sister’s kisses, these remain lurking below all, and these lurk to the last. Alchemy there is none of passion or disease that can scorch away these immortal impresses.

So the partially erased layers of the palimpsest are the unconscious, waiting for its chance to emerge — to be read. But this implies there is little more we can do but “read” the layers; they cannot be fully wiped away.

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A little too much patriarchy

I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk right now and enjoying it greatly; it’s a long, rich, satisfying read, about a family in Cairo after World War I (although I had to look up the date, which I couldn’t figure out from the novel itself — this is probably my fault for not getting historical references). It’s the kind of book you can live with for a long time; it moves slowly but in a good way, giving you lots of detail about setting and character. It feels like a Victorian novel in a lot of ways, as one of its main preoccupations is getting the young people properly married.

Its resemblance to Victorian novels is making me realize that I’ve been reading an awful lot about how much life used to suck for women — which is not to say that it doesn’t suck today, at least for some, especially outside of the Western world. But still — Palace Walk right after The Crimson Petal and the White reminds me of just how grim life could be. Yesterday I wrote about how Faber’s novel describes the impossibilities women faced in Victorian society, so I won’t repeat that. In Palace Walk, the situation seems even worse, although the women in the novel haven’t yet expressed any dissatisfaction. Here, the two young daughters, as respectable women eligible for marriage, are not allowed to be seen by any man, not even through through a window. They spend their days in the house, mostly doing housework, as far as I can tell. They have little education. The mother — the whole family actually — defers to every whim and desire of the father. The mother is little more than a glorified servant.

I’m not surprised by this at all, but it does make me long to read something with a more feminist bent to it, and soon. I remember people mentioning that Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness has an interesting take on gender; perhaps this is a good possibility?

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The Crimson Petal and the White

6938770.gif Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White was such an enjoyable book; it’s about 900 pages long, but it felt much shorter. The pages flew by. The excitement and speed doesn’t come from an incredibly complex plot; rather, it comes from the fun of being caught up in a vividly-realized world so very different from our own.

The book is set in London in 1875, and the author takes special delight in describing all that was horrid about the place — the filth, the smells, the poverty, the inequality, the prostitutes, the thieves, the beggars and pickpockets. Maybe there’s something a little wrong about enjoying these things in one’s reading, but still, it is delightful to read about a time not so far back in history that makes a person glad she’s alive today and not then. It makes one think, though — maybe people will one day read historical fiction about our time and wonder how we ever managed to survive when things were obviously so very terrible.

The story revolves around three main characters, William Rackham, head of a perfume industry; Agnes Rackham, his wife; and Sugar, the prostitute William falls in love with. Each character is vividly portrayed. Sugar is very smart and knows how to manipulate weak men such as William; she uses William’s infatuation with her to the fullest extent possible. She’s writing a novel describing her fantasies of revenge against all the men who have abused her in her life. William is insecure and foolish; he wanted a literary life but gave that dream up so he could make money, but he never quite trusts himself or his decisions. He wants to have the perfect home with wife and child and luxury and refinement, but he also wants Sugar for the pleasure and flattery she brings. He wants it all, and he lives in a society that gives him no reason to think he can’t have it.

Agnes, the wife, is one of the most fascinating characters; she’s startlingly ignorant about sex and reproduction, ashamed of her body, and unwilling to acknowledge that she’s given birth to a daughter. She’s the perfect Victorian woman — proper, modest, polite, and ignorant. But she’s also teetering on the brink of insanity. The point is obvious — conventional Victorian womanhood drives women mad — but it’s still a pleasure to see how Faber makes it all work out. Agnes and Sugar fall into the virgin/whore dichotomy, but these roles slip and slide and undermine each other and by the end, both women refuse to be what William — and society — want them to be.

Faber takes pleasure in spelling out just how restrictive the rules of proper society were; I knew something about what it meant to be a high-class Victorian woman, but I was still shocked at the many, many rules. It wasn’t proper for a woman to laugh with her mouth open. She couldn’t acknowledge any bodily function whatsoever. She was supposed to walk in such a way as to deny she has legs; she’s supposed to glide across the floor as though she is an angel. She couldn’t do any physical labor whatsoever, not so much as closing the curtains or putting a log on the fire. She couldn’t acknowledge there was such a thing as prostitution. It’s all this detail that makes historical fiction so much fun, isn’t it?

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Kind of a miserable day

Today was one of those days when nothing goes right. First of all, this morning as I made some tiny-but-apparently-very-significant movement with my shoulders, my upper back muscles seized up, and now I can’t move my head very well. I’ve had a history of upper-back problems, so this is nothing new, but still, it’s painful. And the worst thing about it is that I can’t read all that comfortably. I feel best when I’m moving about; when I sit still to read, I can feel my shoulders tensing up. I’d be happy right now only if I could spend the next day or two completely unconscious so that when I wake up, the pain will be gone.

Then I had a work welcome back barbeque to go to, which is a sad thing in and of itself, as it signals the end of my summer, which hasn’t been all that wonderful, truth be told, but still was better than the school year will be. But the barbeque would have been fine, if I hadn’t gone into my office beforehand and found myself utterly bewildered because I didn’t recognize anything in there. My things were gone and somebody else’s things had replaced them. Maybe I was fired and didn’t know it! Actually, I had requested an office change earlier in the summer, but I hadn’t heard anything, and so had assumed I’d been ignored. But no — whoever is in charge of such things wasn’t ignoring me; these people had fulfilled my request but had failed to tell me they were going to do it.

So I found out from my department chair where my new office is, and I ran around to at least three different offices to get my new key. This involved walking to various far-flung corners of campus and left me sweating — a symptom of my thyroid disease is intolerance of heat, and times like this are when I feel it most. Everyone around me will be fine, and I’ll be standing there hoping the sweat isn’t soaking through my shirt. I went back to my new office and looked inside, only to find that my things weren’t there; somebody else’s things were there instead.

So, back to my department chair, who helped me hunt down the dean in charge of such things; the dean had a long conversation with this other guy about how he was certain they hadn’t moved my things and he had no idea where they were. I had to keep insisting my things weren’t there — nobody knew where my books and papers were! I did not like having to listen to a dean and other Important People blunder about wondering where my books and papers were.

Finally, they discovered they’d taken them to the wrong office, and they fixed it and got me moved in to my new place. Things calmed down from there; I hung out at the barbeque and complained about my office, and people just laughed and said “welcome to our school!” Great.

To top off this day, I had to cancel my walk with Emily because of my back — and she’s moving soon, too, so it’s not like we can take a walk any old day.

But I do have one piece of good news: Muttboy’s tumor is benign, so he is now completely healthy. This makes up for a lot.

Now I have to figure out how I can spend my evening comfortably reading. Maybe I should walk around the house with a book in my hands, so I can read and move around at the same time??

Next post: The Crimson Petal and the White.

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On the Knocking At the Gate in Macbeth

I have now read the second De Quincey essay in my collection; it’s called “On the Knocking At the Gate in Macbeth,” and it tries to explain why De Quincey finds the knocking that takes place after Duncan’s murder so eerie.  The essay is about five pages long, and it makes a fairly simple point about Macbeth (the knocking brings us back from the horror of murder to the everyday world — and returning to the everyday world deepens the horror of murder), but along the way it is full of digressions, taking in a philosophical point about the mind, the story of a real-life murder, what it’s like to witness someone fainting, and what it’s like to watch a state funeral procession.

Here is part of the philosophical digression:

Here I pause for one moment to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind.  The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind and the most to be distrusted: and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes.

I love this philosophical digression that warns us against paying too much attention to our understanding!  He goes on to illustrate this point with an example: if you were to ask someone to draw a picture of a street, they probably wouldn’t do a very good job, unless they happened to know the rules of perspective.  Here is why:

The reason is — that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes.  His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line …

Even though we can see with our eyes the way a street actually looks, our understanding takes over when we try to draw it and it messes us up.  We’d be better off trusting our eyes and getting our mind out of the way.

The purpose of this digression?

But, to return from this digression, — my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect direct or reflected: in fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect.  But I knew better: I felt that it did: and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it.

That’s a long way around to make the point that reason only gets us so far and that the senses, emotion, and intuition can carry us farther, but I do like taking the long way around to get to one’s point, at least when it’s done as De Quincey does it, with something interesting along the way.

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Book sale!

Awhile back I made the mistake of signing up to work during the first shift of my library’s book sale. I discovered today why it was a mistake — I had to keep busy straightening books and answering questions (or trying to) while other people snatched up the good stuff. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the woman organizing things hadn’t assigned me to the travel, science, computers, reference, and children’s book sections; if I’d been over in fiction, I probably could have set books aside to buy later. Next time I’ll remember — sign up to work at the library sale by all means, but not during the first shift!

But I did come home with some good things (as did Hobgoblin):

  • John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. I found an old hardcover edition, which will make pleasant reading when I get there, I think. I’ve been hearing about Galsworthy a lot lately because of the Outmoded Authors challenge. I suspect I won’t be reading this as part of the challenge, however.
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John. As much as I felt ambivalently about Jane Smiley’s book about the novel (13 Ways), she does have a good reading list. I learned about this one there.
  • Arthur Phillips, Prague. I should get in the habit of noting why I put things on my list of books I’d like to read; some things are on there and I have no idea why. I’m not sure why this book has stuck in my mind, but it has, and now I own it. Has anybody else read it?
  • Pat Conroy’s Beach Music. Courtney has written so eloquently about this book, how could I resist?
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett, Manservant and Maidservant. Oh, shoot, I just learned that NYRB Classics has published this book — if I’d known that I might have waited to get that edition. Perhaps it’s silly to care about editions like that, but I do like to hold a nicely-made book in my hands … this is another Outmoded Authors author.
  • Andrew O’Hagan, Personality. I read a good review of O’Hagan’s latest novel and so thought I might like an earlier one.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton. I’ve decided it’s impossible to own too much Gaskell!

The worrying thing is that there’s another local library sale next weekend, and I really don’t need more books, but I’m sure I’ll go …

And, finally, thanks to Jenny D. for the link to this fabulous article on walking by Nicole Krauss. A small taste:

My idea of a walk, influenced by Kazin and honed over these last nine years that I’ve lived in New York, involves a freewheeling thoughtfulness powered by the legs but fed by observation, a physical and mental stream of consciousness nudged this way and that by an infinite number of human variables: an old man doing his esoteric exercises, a lone glove dropped in the middle of a snowy sidewalk, an Orthodox Jew in a shtreimel.

A detail — Chinese lantern flowers in the window of a brownstone — leads to an association, and then another; a thought forms, expands, breaks apart into subsidiary thoughts, which in turn briskly scatter with the sudden appearance of a balloon floating down Seventh Avenue. All the while, on another level of the mind, decisions are being made about direction: a right here, now a left, straight until the river.

There is no destination. Ideally, the afternoon is wide open. Time is limitless. The streets taken on the way out are never the ones taken on the way back. The walk unfurls according to mood, physical endurance and visual appetite.

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