It’s felt like an odd summer as far as my reading goes, largely because while I like to take on a challenge or two in the summer, something long and difficult (Infinite Jest last year for example), it hasn’t happened this time around. I had hoped to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but the time never seemed right to pick it up. Instead I stuck to shorter books and then did some reading for a class in world literature I’m teaching this fall.
One book I read that could count as a challenging book, although it’s not terribly long, is Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, as part of my effort to read through her major works in order. I’ve been a little scared of Woolf’s more experimental fiction after trying to read The Waves quite a lot of years ago and not doing very well with it. I love To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, but my impression was that Jacob’s Room might defeat me just as The Waves did. Well, I ended up enjoying it greatly, and it makes me wonder how I will do with The Waves when I get there for a reread. It was definitely a challenge, with quick shifts in perspective and time and without a whole lot of explanation to help get the you get situated in each new scene. Woolf lets you make connections on your own without spelling them out. The book demands that you read slowly.
But the writing was so beautiful, and, most importantly to me, it had the insights about people and relationships and experience that I value so much in Woolf. She can capture a moment and a feeling so perfectly and describe it so accurately that I’m left thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s exactly right, there’s no need so say anything else.
The Common Reader is next, and while I’ve read it before, I loved it so much the first time around, I’m anticipating loving it again.
Another book from earlier this summer that stands out is Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz. This is my third Lehmann book; the first one I read I loved (A Note in Music), but the second one I didn’t (The Echoing Grove — it felt like a slog), so I was happy to find that I’m back to loving her writing again. Invitation to the Waltz is thoroughly charming, and it also does what I admire Woolf for doing, which is to say, it looks closely at a small group of people and digs in deep. The novel tells the story of two sisters as they prepare for and then attend a waltz. That seems really simple, and yet so much goes on — there is so much the sisters think about, experience, agonize over, and analyze, and the drama of it all, quiet as it is, is really moving. Lehmann is a writer I look forward to reading more of, perhaps someone whose work I will read in its entirety.