Monthly Archives: November 2007

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service

First of all, thanks to Ann for choosing Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Owl Service for the Slaves of Golconda selection; I always want to read new types of books, and this qualifies, as I generally don’t read much young adult fiction. Perhaps I should read more. So thank you Ann!

I feel ambivalently about this book, though. What it comes down to is that while there was much in the novel that made me think, I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it as much as I thought I would. I’m happy to have plenty to analyze as I read along, but I really wanted to get lost in the story, especially as it’s a young adult novel, and I never found myself fully absorbed in it. I felt distanced the whole time.

The novel tells the story of three young people who are vacationing in Wales; Alison and Roger are half-siblings and Gwyn is the son of the housekeeper. They discover a set of plates in their attic with a mysterious pattern on them, a pattern that when Alison traces it, creates owls. The pattern afterwards disappears, though, and so do the owls Alison has made. Soon the threesome notices a whole series of odd events, including strange scratching noises, objects unexpectedly moving, and walls crumbling apart. Gradually, with the help of Gwyn’s knowledge of Welsh folklore and information from the odd figure Huw Halfbacon, they figure out they are witnessing the resurgence of an old legend about a woman created from flowers who betrays her husband for the sake of a lover.

I began reading the book with no knowledge of this legend, and had to piece it together as I read; I think I might have felt less confused and have enjoyed the reading more if I’d been familiar with it to begin with. It took a long time for the pieces to come together. Rather than enjoying this process of figuring everything out — which is partly what reading is all about, of course — I felt there was information I should have had but didn’t.

The dialogue also felt odd to me, and perhaps this is simply a cultural matter, but the characters talked as though they were older; I had trouble believing they were teenagers. I had to re-read many passages of dialogue because the language and, even more so, the rhythms of their speech felt strange.

But I was fascinated by the class issues the novel portrays, and the way these issues touch on language. Gwyn’s mother chastises him for speaking Welsh because she wants him to leave his rural roots behind:

“You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.”

But Gwyn is drawn to the people and the culture of the Welsh countryside, intrigued by Huw Halfbacon and his mysterious pronouncements. He’s also self-conscious about his accent, however, and worried about whether his mother will allow him to continue his education, and whether that accent will hamper his progress. In one of the novel’s most painful scenes, he wants to borrow Alison’s gramophone to listen to records teaching elocution lessons. He is mortified when Roger finds out about this and mocks him for it.

As the son of the housekeeper, Gwyn is constantly reminded of his outsider status, and often cruelly so; Roger teases and belittles him, and when Gwyn begins spending more time with Alison than the others think proper, they make it clear they do not approve and that they will do whatever they need to to make sure he stays away. Gwyn is a hugely sympathetic character; it’s impossible not to feel for him as he struggles with his attraction to Alison, his worries about his mother, and his curiosity about all the mysteries that surround him, including that of the identity of his father.

So, again, I’m glad I read this, even though I had mixed feelings about it — I do enjoy reading books that make me think, even if a lot of what I’m thinking about is why I’m not loving them.

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Booking through Thursday

Booking through Thursday (A Thursday meme I’m actually doing on Thursday!):

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?
I don’t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that… Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors…

I don’t read this way at all, but perhaps I should give it a try. Instead of looking for books that are similar, I purposely go for ones that are different. My goal is to get variety, not similarity. So if I finish an 18C novel, for example, I might pick up something contemporary next, or if I finish a book of literary criticism, I might turn to science or history. I worry about getting bored or bogged down, I suppose, particularly since it takes me a while to finish a book. And there are so many different things I want to read, that I’m reluctant to read two books from the same general category in a row.

But I do like the idea of letting one book lead to another. It would be fun to see how long a chain of connections I could create. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if I could maintain it for a number of months or even a year? The only way to do it would be to try to make creative connections and bring as much variety into it as possible, to include fiction and nonfiction and books from all time periods. Otherwise, I’d get bored. But if I had a long chain of connections, then I’d have a kind of reading narrative, a story of how all my books fit together. That would be kind of fun, wouldn’t it?

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A Thursday Thirteen

Yeah, I know it’s Wednesday when I’m posting this, but Thursday’s not so far off, and many of you will be reading this on Thursday, so it’s good enough. (The truth is I’m beat by a long day at work, so it’s a perfect day for a list post.)

A while back Danielle posted a list of books she’d wanted to read this year but hadn’t gotten to, and that’s what I propose to do for myself, create a list of this year’s “failures,” or, to be more positive about it, books I’m “saving” for next year. The first six books on the list are classics I’d hoped read this year but didn’t, and the later ones are challenge books I didn’t get to or simply ones I keep longing to read but can’t quite manage.

  • Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I want to read more of the Brontes, Anne and the others. I’ve read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Villette, but there are more Bronte novels than these, and as I love the 19C novel so much, I need to get to them.
  • Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day. I read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, earlier this year, and Night and Day is her second one, and so a logical next step. Eventually I’d like to read everything she’s written.
  • Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. I’ve had this book on my shelves for ages. I’m fascinated and intrigued by Stein and want to read more of her work, and I think Three Lives is one of her more accessible books. Still, I keep putting it off.
  • Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Another 19C novel I’d like to get to. I’ve read no Balzac, and I don’t think that’s a good thing!
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I can’t decide if this is a book I’ll love or one I’ll be bored by, which perhaps explains my failure to read it thus far. I think I’ll like it, as everything I’ve heard about James intrigues me, and I like reading about religious subjects, but I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps next year …
  • James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Doesn’t the title sound so interesting? Or perhaps it’s just me that thinks so …
  • I committed to Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge and pledged to read five books for it, specifically, books in translation from countries outside Europe. I’ve managed to read four so far (So Long a Letter, Love in a Fallen City, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and Palace Walk), but I’m having trouble getting to the fifth. I do have a month left in this year, so there’s still a chance I can complete it. I’m thinking Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths might be a good choice.
  • I also hoped to read a science book this year, either Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos or Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. My desire to read science varies, though, and I never got the urge right around the time I felt I could begin a new book, so it didn’t happen. I’m interested in science, but these books are big ones and will be large time commitment.
  • I have a whole list of Janet Malcolm books I’d like to read. There’s her Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, or The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, or her latest one, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. I think Malcolm is an author I’d really like, if only I would actually pick up one of her books.
  • I have never read a Margaret Atwood novel. This is a crying shame, I’m sure. I keep saying I’m going to do it …
  • Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. I believe I listed this as a choice for the Reading from the Stacks challenge I participated in last winter, and it was the one book I didn’t get to. I still haven’t gotten to it, obviously.
  • Any novel by Colette, although most likely Cheri or The Ripening Seed. I read a biography of her not too long ago and thought she was a fascinating person, but I’ve read very little of her own writing, except for My Mother’s House and Sido, which I thought a wonderful book.
  • Boccaccio’s Decameron. Since I wrote yesterday about books with multiple stories and plots, I have this book on my mind, with its 100 stories. It’s another book I’m not sure if I’ll love or be bored by. No way to know but to give it a try, right?

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Novelistic Multiplicity

I have begun reading Patricia Meyer Spacks’s new book on the 18C novel, Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. The front flap declares that the book is intended for a general audience, and so far (I’ve read the introduction and part of the second chapter), this seems to be true. It’s got lots of good information that a specialist would be interested in, but it’s clearly written and engaging and gives all the background a general, non-academic reader would need.

She argues that while critics have focused on realism in the development of the 18C novel, what actually happens is much more complex, and she will look instead at deviations from realism, at the many experiments that authors undertook with narrative forms. She discusses what is for me one of the most exciting characteristics of the 18C novel: the fact that during the 18C there were no novelistic “rules.” 18C writers made up many of the rules we’re familiar with today, but at the time, they didn’t exist. So Spacks’s idea is to focus on the diversity of form, style, and content present in novels, rather than pointing out unities that existed then and that would later harden into rules.

One of the points she makes that particularly intrigues me is about narrative multiplicity versus unity. Many if not most or even almost all early 18C novels told multiple stories; they did not focus on a handful of main characters and develop them in detail, but instead had lots of sets of characters and lots of stories. These stories were often brief and told without much detail. The focus was not on character development, but instead on events, lots and lots of events:

Narrative multiplicity rather than detailed development marks many early-century fictions, apparently predicated on the assumption that readers will not long sustain interest in a single set of characters or predicaments.

Think, for example, of The Decameron where there is a frame narrative but within that frame narrative a hundred stories are embedded. Another example is Mary Delarivier Manley’s work The New Atalantis, which also has a frame narrative that never gets developed in depth, and then the characters tell each other stories, which make up the bulk of the book. Isn’t it interesting to think that readers might not have wanted to read about the same people at length?

What this focus on multiple plots does is to offer the reader a particular kind of pleasure:

… the reader is invited to take pleasure in a collection of happenings linked more by sequence than by logic and to register the excitement of sheer event.

Writing of the early 18C novelist Jane Barker, Spacks argues that

The vigorous, varied, lavishly multiplied narratives that compose her novels declare the power of fiction, not to make the reader suspend disbelief; rather, to make disbelief irrelevant. The pleasure these stories provide acknowledges invention, manipulation, ground-shifting, and the wide possibilities of the reader’s role. Above all, the stories acknowledge their own fictionality.

We are far from realism here. Instead, what we have is such a multiplicity of stories that the reader is not led to believe in any of them, but rather to enjoy the energy and power of them, to enjoy the author’s inventiveness.

Now I must say that none of this appeals to me particularly. I find it hard to understand how readers would find pleasure in all this diversity and multiplicity. I much prefer the unity of plot and the character development that begins to become the norm in the second part of the 18C. Reading story after story after story where the action zips by and the characters are never fleshed out strikes me as wearisome rather than exhilarating. But it’s interesting to think about how different readers’ tastes can be, and I wonder how much of this is a personal matter (perhaps some of you would disagree with me?) and how much of it is a cultural matter — i.e., perhaps we have been trained by the 19C and 20C novel to value depth of character development and unity of plot and that makes it harder to appreciate the fun of multiple narratives.

Spacks’s account does help explain my impatience with The Recess; although it was published in 1783 when the novel was moving away from the multiplicity characteristic of the earlier part of the century, it still is full of plot events and is rather short on character development. It has unity of plot in the sense that it focuses on two main characters, but it’s so full of events, unbelievably full of them that it’s clear it was influenced by earlier forms of the novel. Believability is not the point at all; rather, the point is to see just how much those two main characters can handle.

Now if you’re wondering where a novel like Clarissa fits into this scheme, a novel where practically nothing happens and we are with the same characters for 1,500 pages, it’s evidence, for Spacks, of the diversity of form in the 18C. You can find lots of extremes in the period — short novels and long novels, novels about few characters and novels about many, novels that have lots of detail and novels that don’t, novels with a fast pace and novels with a slow pace. Over the course of the century, many of these extremes began to disappear and novelists found a happy medium. This happy medium would turn into what we tend today to think of as “the novel.”

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Re-reading Nightwood

I finished re-reading Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood a week or so ago, and the experience was … not particularly remarkable. I’ve been hesitant to write about it because I wasn’t sure I had much to say, and I thought the experience should have been more significant than it was. It feels a bit like a reading failure, as though I should now have major new insights into the book, when I simply don’t. I understood more of it on the second go-round, but not a hugely significant amount more. I appreciated the language once again, and perhaps a bit more the second time around, but I didn’t have any new revelations about it. The experience of reading the novel the second time around wasn’t exactly the same as the first, as I felt much more confident in my reading the second time since I knew what to expect, but it was distressingly similar.

Now I wonder if this is the book’s fault or mine. Or perhaps I was expecting too much? I’m thinking it’s at least partly my fault, as others have loved this novel and praised it highly and taught it and published articles on it, and so there must be a lot going on that I’m not getting. But I’m also thinking that perhaps I’m simply reading it the wrong way (or the “wrong” way) — that I’m still struggling for logical meaning when that isn’t what the book is offering me. I’m not saying that the book doesn’t make any sense, because it does, at least in places, but there are many sentences that leave me puzzled. In my re-reading, I was hoping to make sense of more of those sentences, which would then, I hoped, lead me to more insights into the book’s ideas and themes. But perhaps I would have been better off re-reading for the poetry of it, or to get a deeper sense of character (which, I will say, I got). And I don’t mean to imply that reading mainly for logical meaning is superior to reading mainly for the beauty of the language (see this post for a discussion of that issue), simply that reading for language wasn’t my emphasis.

Maybe, though, I should have let more time elapse before a re-reading. Perhaps the first reading was still too fresh in my mind and I needed some time away from the book to let it simmer and stew in my brain for a while.

Is there an optimal amount of time that should elapse between readings of a novel? It seems that if you wait too long, you’ll forget the first reading, so that the second reading is really exactly the same as the first. And maybe if you re-read too soon, the book will be too familiar and the first reading too heavy in your mind to allow you to see new things. Hmmm … I’m not sure.

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Best American Essays, cont.

I’ve been thinking about why I like to read the Best American Essays series, besides the fact that I like essays, of course. I like to read these books because I’m interested in the sensibility that chooses the essays. I like to see how the essay selections differ from year to year, which really means I’m seeing how the definition of “best” can vary. But I also like it that these books get me to read essays I wouldn’t otherwise read. In his introduction to this year’s book, David Foster Wallace starts off writing about how he doubts anybody reads the editor’s introduction first, and that people usually skip around in the book, reading first what appeals to them most and eventually getting around to the other ones, including the introduction, or maybe not even bothering.

But I like to read the introductions first, and I almost always read all the essays, generally in the order they are printed, or something quite close. I like letting another person’s choices guide me, at least for a little while. There’s something appealing about submitting to another person’s judgment, briefly, to see where it takes you. I think this is why so many readers find suggested reading lists appealing: it’s fun to have a little bit of structure, instead of feeling so overwhelmed by all the choices that are out there.

So I tend to be a completist with these books. Disliking or being uninspired by a title doesn’t mean I won’t like the essay, after all, and the chances are decent that if I give a piece a chance, I’ll like it, or at least I’ll find something intriguing or worthwhile in it, or I’ll enjoy not liking it. The truth is, I’m afraid of getting confined by my likes and dislikes — if I choose to read only those things that immediately appeal to me, how will I discover new tastes or ever be surprised?

With this particular volume, the essays are often very political. I’ve come across one on the lead-up to the Iraq war, one on torture, another on freedom of speech, and I know from the introduction that there are more political essays to come. For some reason these political essays don’t strike me as terribly essayistic. It’s not that they are badly written, but I just don’t associate writing on contemporary political events with the genre of the essay. I’m not sure they will stay interesting beyond this time period, except for historians, perhaps. But then I wonder how many of the other, non-political essays will still be interesting in another 100 years or so, except for historians.

But I’m glad I’m reading them because I might shy away from them otherwise, if I’d come across them in their original magazine or journal, and some of them, at least, are worth reading. The one on free speech didn’t impress me very much, but the Iraq war and the torture essays were smart and informative (and scary).

And last night I read an amazingly well-written, gripping, and horrifying essay by Marione Ingram called “Operation Gomorrah” about her experience as a young girl in Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. She tells the story of how she and her mother barely survived a night of bombing. They have to deal with the bombing itself, but also with the cruelty of fellow Germans, because Ingram and her mother are Jewish and others either don’t want to help them or are afraid of risking severe punishment if they do. Ingram describes that night in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact way, not giving much commentary, but sticking to the facts. And those facts! I’ve read descriptions of what it’s like to experience bombings before, but I’ve never read anything like this.

In spite of how horrifying the essay was, I’m glad I read it, and I’m grateful to the series for introducing me to it.

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Auden on Criticism

I have a quotation for you tonight. This is by W.H. Auden (a favorite poet of mine) from “De Droite et de Gauche.” He published it in French in a French journal, and the translation here is done by Richard Howard. I found it in the latest Harper’s magazine. I think the entire quotation is great, but don’t miss the last paragraph in particular:

Criticism is tradition defending itself against the three armies of the Goddess Stupidity: the army of amateurs who are ignorant of tradition; the army of conceited eccentrics who believe tradition should be suppressed by a stroke of the pen in order that true art may begin with them; and the army of academicians who believe they maintain tradition by a servile imitation of the past.

The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness, almost infallibly leads criticism to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern and contents himself with being no more than an amateur or an historian of art avoids covering himself with ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.

Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.

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