Thursday, 17 December 2009

Some books I didn't read in 2009 and some sunshine reading for 2010

Am up to my eyes in work hence the small number of posts recently. And just don't mention Christmas.

Anyway, just a reminder about the joint read of The Greengage Summer with Mrs B at The Literary Stew. We hope to post about it in the first week of January. Some of you might be thinking about summer holidays then and this book is suffused with heat and sunshine, so is a real anti-SAD remedy for dark mid-winter days.

Looking back at my reading during 2009, I am ashamed once again at how few books I have actually read. Probably fewer than the books I've actually acquired, though some have been weeded out and sent to other readers (or to moulder overwinter in PTA store cupboards where they will probably die an ignominious death).
Even worse is the number of books I have abandoned (What I loved by Siri Hustvedt [disappointed she didn't write like her husband Paul Auster though why I thought she should I don't know], Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler [too depressing], The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker [too verbose], At-Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien [too rich] and The Diary of Anne Frank [well, this was a reread and I did read most of it, I just couldn't face rereading the last 50 or so pages for obvious reasons])

Oh dear, this is turning into a blog about books I haven't read (now there's a promising title). So I will quickly turn to my favourite read of this year (excepting The Greengage Summer) which is also France-related: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. Forget the uninspiring title and the odd-looking cover, this is packed with fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, I can't quote directly from it because I have lent my copy to Clare (who was on holiday with me in France when I started it and got bored with me constantly reading out fascinating bits so probably doesn't need to actually read it herself).

It's a wonderful unofficial history of mainly rural France. Its main premise is the vastness of France and how little contact with the main centres most people had. How until relatively recently most people in France didn't actually speak French and didn't think of themselves as French. It is full of anecdotes about warring villages, odd customs and habits, superstitions and beliefs. One area used to make so much money from one annual two-week fair, that they would take the rest of the year off. Villagers at one hamlet high in the Pyrenees just used to sleep all winter, hardly eating at all, like hibernating bears. One village took up their pitchforks against another village because they'd put up a statue of the Virgin with her back(side) facing in their direction. But my favourites have to be the smuggler dogs who used to carry packages of salt between different administrative areas (only one of which had a salt tax). They were trained to hide in ditches whenever they saw a stranger.
So if you're not afraid of getting on your family and friends' nerves , I really recommend this.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

On Saturday it was the school Christmas Fair. Had done my bit making lop-sided biscuits and cakes with wonky chocolate icing slapped on at top speed when my son mentioned (rather belatedly) that he had to be at school at 12 o'clock in order to perform carols with the rest of the choir. Chocolate cake looked seriously deformed but may just have tasted okay.

Anyway, there was a very large bookstall where I spent a happy 45 minutes before my own volunteering stint clearing tables and washing up. First find was a Virago edition of Angel by Elizabeth Taylor which I clutched (appropriately enough) while listening to the choirboys singing The First Nowell. Also found: Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler (which I think I have read before), Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thurbron and a lovely emerald-green hardback of After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a much under-rated writer. Also, SS-GB by Len Deighton, simply because I love his spy fiction. Well, I love any spy fiction really .

The Good Companion picked up a Charles Handy book, The Empty Raincoat, and said, 'Oh, I remember this, it's good, I wouldn't mind reading this again. Haven't we got a copy?'

'That is our copy,' I muttered, out of the side of my mouth, and smiled ingratiatingly.


'Shall I buy it back for you? It's only 20p, I think I can manage it.'

'No, no, it's okay.'

After that, the afternoon became a case of spot the give-away.

'And is this ours? And was this ours? ... And this?'

Well, I have to clear the shelves and donate in order to make room for new stuff, don't I?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the book group...

My mother has just told me a funny incident about her book group. For some reason the library facilitator (or whatever she's called) hadn't managed to get enough books for the whole group and instead had 10 copies of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller and only two of Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene. Because there were more than 10 groups members, last month she gave out both titles. On the day of the discussion, two group members shared a lift to the venue and discussed the 'book' at length on the way. They didn't actually realise they'd been reading completely different books until they got to the village hall.

It reminds me of that scene in The Third Man when Rollo Martins has been invited by a cultural attache to give a talk about his books in Berlin just after the war. Unfortunately Martins is the author of popular westerns with the pen name Buck Dexter (an author in the style of Zane Grey) but the audience of 'his' admirers is under the impression that he's actually Benjamin Dexter the author of highbrow literary fiction, entitled, for example, The Curved Prow. Martins and the readers talk at cross purposes for quite some time.

'Don't you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf? In prose, I mean.'

Crabbin (the cultural attache) whispered, ' You might say something about the stream of consciousness.'

'Stream of what?'

This incident is quoted in How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard which is very funny in a rather dry, intellectual French way about ... well, just what it says in the title. (And which is also much better than the pale imitation Who's Afraid of Jane Austen or How to Really Talk about Books you haven't read by Henry Hitchings.)

Has anyone had a similar book group mix-up?

In a head-to-head contest of the two book group titles, I think Travels with My Aunt would be my winner. I think I'd give quite a lot not to have to read Notes on a Scandal again. (Like Nick Hornby, I found I the constant wrongfooting about contemporary Britain jarring.)

Monday, 23 November 2009

Hospice Haul

An unexpected visit to the hospice bookshop this weekend and a modest but decent haul to reinforce my green credentials, i.e. recycling old books. I won't say which hospice bookshop as one of the assistants (and no it wasn't a woman) wouldn't stop talking all the time we were there in a very carrying voice about utter trivia, until I was reduced to muttering Oh, do be quiet, under my breath and contemplating ssshhing loudly like an officious librarian. Even The Good Companion, normally the most patient of people, was annoyed by it.
Anyway, back to the books: two poetry books, The Nation's Favourite Poems of Childhood and A Book of Modern Verse (1942) with a lovely butter-yellow cover with a sun(?) motif on it (for a mere 50p), which, among the usual suspects, includes some more unusual poets in it (Rosenberg, Sorley, Monro?), though only two women, Laura Riding and the amazing H.D. Looking at the list of other titles in the series, I realise I may have another and trawling the shelves find The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, though the cover is not as cheery as the Modern Verse one.

And (yet more verse) an old green-and-white Penguin of The Song of Roland (£1) with, oddly, the former owner's name, E Davies, written at the top of the front cover (maybe he/she had had trouble with losing books). I probably won't be rushing to read this any time soon, but it looks so nice and has a copy of a roundel from Chartres cathedral showing Roland blowing the Olifant (?) and trampling 'dismembered Saracens' on the cover. God's hand is sticking down from heaven to accept Roland's 'token'.

Finally, a selection of Kilvert's Diary (£1.50) for which I have Susan Hill's warm recommendation in the celebrated Howard's End is on the Landing to thank. (I also considered an old hardback Enid Blyton, rather tatty and jacketless - one of the more expensive items at an outrageous £5 - presumably because these are now once again Fashionable, but decided against.)

I also borrowed more from my mother's shelves; The Hill of Devi, E.M. Forster's letters home from India (which links in to my reading of Virginia Woolf's diaries who mentions 'Morgan's' trip to/return from India') and to satisfy my diary longings: Nella Last's War diaries (as brought to the TV by Victoria Wood) and her post-war diaries.
And, absolutely finally, as I keep recommending it, I reborrowed The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield to dip into. Having recently been to a similar parents' social evening/PTA recruitment event, I find a chord being struck with this:

I sit with several other mothers and we talk about our boys in tones of disparagement, and about one another's boys with great enthusiasm.
Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.

And so back to Virginia ...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Virginia's diaries

Here's a woman after my own heart:

15th Jan 1915

We are dining early, and going to a Hall - an unheard of dissipation - though there was a time when I went out to operas, evenings, concerts &c, at least three times a week. And I know we shall both feel, when it's over, 'really a good read would have been better.'

I love reading diaries though these are sometimes quite allusive and enigmatic and it would probably help to know more about the various members of The Bloomsbury Group.

It goes without saying that VW can really write like an angel, with clear and beautiful descriptions of complex mixed emotions as well as everyday life and scenery. I'm only halfway through (1924) but am already struck by how extremely busy and hardworking VW and her husband Leonard are: writing novels (of course), journalism, politics, reading and reviewing, printing and binding books for their own Hogarth Press, and, despite the comment above, pursuing a hectic social round of concerts, parties, visits to family and friends as well. And VW is frequently too unwell to get out of bed. Maybe she was just driving herself too hard (though of course she did have servants).

Some critics have interpreted Leonard's possibly overzealous care for his wife's health as a way of controlling her:

I could not stay at 46 Gordon Square (her sister Nessa's home) last night, because L. on the telephone expressed displeasure. Late again. Very foolish. Your heart bad - and so my self reliance being sapped, I had no courage to venture against his will.

Elsewhere, however, she says how much she loves and relies on Leonard. It's tempting to try to read between the lines and second-guess people's motivations, but how can we ever really know another person's life, even by reading their personal diaries? The thoughts and feelings expressed in diaries are inconstant, endlessly changing things, which though written, can never really be nailed down exactly. Then another day comes along, the kaleidoscope is shaken up again, the light falls from a new angle and everything seems different.
Reading a diary is almost like living a second life, sometimes feeling envious and sometimes feeling grateful for not having to live the diarist's.

Any recommendations for other good diaries when I've finished these?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Sun, summer, sex and greengages?!

After learning that Mrs B was planning to read a Rumer Godden title for the Women Unbound reading challenge, we discovered a joint love for The Greengage Summer also by RG. So we are inviting anyone who wants to to join in on a group read (or reread) of the book. Do get in touch if you would like to join in with this; we hope to post about it in January.

Rumer Godden wrote a lot of fiction, for both adults and children, and her own life reads a bit like a novel. She spent most of her childhood and a large part of her adult life in India which gave her an observer's eye for people and incident. As a young woman, she ran a dance school in India, but then had to get married when she found herself pregnant. Her first marriage failed and later she lived in Kashmir where her cook tried to poison her and her daughters by mixing ground glass, opium and marijuana with their food.

Unlike many of Godden's books, The Greengage Summer isn't set in India but in France where a family of children (unencumbered by parents) are spending the holidays in a hotel. They are merely tolerated by the staff and the hotel owner, Mademoiselle Zizi, but are then taken under the wing of Mademoiselle Zizi's charming but enigmatic English lover, Eliot, who makes the 'greengage' summer memorable in more ways than one. Simmering away against the atmospheric background of a French heatwave is the sexual tension between several of the older characters, with the narrator, Cecil (a girl) just beginning to understand about adult emotions and desires, particularly those of her older sister, Joss:

Joss and I had always been the Big Ones, as Willmouse and Vicky were the Littles, with Hester in a no-man's-land between. Joss and Cecil, it had been one word though it had meant I had sometimes to be older than I conveniently could; now I was relegated to no-man's land myself. I could see it was inevitable - thirteen is not child, not woman, not .... declared, I thought, as Joss was now - but it hurt.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Great Western Beach

I read The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith because it has been heavily promoted and heartily recommended, especially in bookshops in Cornwall which I visit regularly, though, despite its current fame (or notoriety), I've never visited Newquay, the specific area featured in the book. This is the story of a childhood in the 1920s and 30s which though there is plenty of justification for it being a misery-memoir, is resolutely not one.
Emma Smith is a warm, engaging narrator, who brilliantly manages to convey the inner voice of a child and a child's-eye view of the adult world, trying to understand and guess at what is going on around her. Her parents are not happy and, unfortunately, her father comes across as an embittered, self-pitying bully who spouts the prejudiced received ideas about class, race and religion common to his time and who is always ready to mete out violent punishment to his children. Emma Smith traces his behaviour both to disappointment at his failure to be a successful artist and, having been 'reduced' to working as a bank clerk, an unsatisfied sense of entitlement to the life and income of a gentleman.
Against this lurking fear of her father's anger, Elspeth (her real name) relies heavily on the companionship of her elder sister Pam and her nanny/housekeeper Lucy. And as a counterweight to her oppressive home-life, always in the background are the beaches of Cornwall, especially the Great Western Beach, an ever-present playground and source of pleasure. Unlike the Cornwall I know, it hardly ever seems to rain, except, with excellent literary timing, at the end of the book, when the family are preparing to leave the town forever.

Smith has amazing recall and there are many amusing anecdotes recounting both the pleasures and the perplexing events of childhood. An aborted one-off visit by Lawrence of Arabia (an old friend of Elspeth's mother) is described from a filmic distance by a confused Elspeth. Having wandered off to play in the sea, the children watch uncomprehendingly as their father (who had been earnestly hoping to make arrangements to paint Lawrence's portrait and at last make his name as an artist) strides off in a huff from the planned beach picnic, followed shortly afterwards by Lawrence roaring off up the cliff on his motorbike (the selfsame bike on which he later suffered a fatal crash).

This is a very good read, though it could have been cut in a few places as there is a fair bit of repetition, but this can sometimes reinforce the authentic feel of a child telling the story. (Also no proofreader? Or proofreader not paid enough [more likely]? Lots of howlers, e.g. sailing in a 'dingy', learning how to 'crotchet' a woollen hat, and 'Anglesea'!)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Deaf sentence

I love David Lodge. No, seriously, I think I love him, not just his books. I want to knit him a jumper or make him a desk tidy out of recycled mouse-mats or something. He just writes so clearly and so brilliantly, whether in a novel or in his literary criticism. And he was so blisteringly honest about his own vulnerabilities and professional vanity in The Year of Henry James (when his novel about HJ was beaten to the bookshops by another much praised novel about the famous author) that I nearly wrote him a fan letter to say that his was the better novel, at least as far as I was concerned.

So, anything by DL usually wins with me. I've just finished reading Deaf Sentence, a novel about a retiried linguistics professor, Desmond Bates, struggling with deafness, which reads very much like DL's own diary, as he was also an academic and is now also pretty deaf. It is written mostly in the form of a journal and, as well as lots of amusing incidents which arise because of Desmond's deafness, there is a lot of general musing on the condition of deafness (compared with, for example, blindness), on famous writers, musicians and artists who were deaf, accompanied by plenty of 'deaf/death' puns. Like many people, I'd assumed that once a hearing aid was acquired, a deaf person's problems were over, but I now realise it is much more complicated than that and as a result the limitations of aids are many and various.

DL does not shy away from using the pantomime staple of the deaf character who comically mishears everything or from taking it to hilarious lengths when Desmond attends a noisy reception party:

'The pastime of the dance went to pot,' Sylvia Cooper seemed to say, 'so we spent most of the time in our shit, the cows' in-laws finding they stuttered.'

'What?' I said.

'I said, the last time we went to France it was so hot we spent most of the time in our gite, cowering indoors behind the shutters.'

In the novel, Desmond finds himself becoming entangled with a mysterious female postgraduate writing a PhD on the language of suicide notes and this plot drives the narrative along, with DL's acute observations on ageing, marriage, sex, death (and deafness) always ringing true. His acerbic account of a visit to a thinly-disguised Center Parcs is deadly accurate.

The novel ends on a sober note with a visit during a Polish lecture tour to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and then, on Desmond's return to the UK, the final illness and death of his elderly father. At the beginning of the novel, Desmond states that deafness is comic, blindness tragic, but in the end he changes this to 'death is tragic' because it is 'final, inevitable and inscrutable'. He concludes: 'Better to dwell on life and try to value the passing time.'

What else indeed can we do?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Travels with a Donkey to Longitude

I've just been thinking back to the holidays and some summer reading done in anticipation of a trip to France. We were heading for a gite near the Cevennes, so Brigit said you MUST read Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson, and of course I said 'it's on my TBR list'.

So off the TBR list it had to come, and (to cheapskate reader's satisfaction) I realised that I had two copies, one inherited from the Scottish grandfather-in-law and one bought second-hand (from the excellent Helston Bookworm, I think), both of them with blue covers and gold lettering.

RLS made a walking tour of the Cevennes in the 1870s accompanied by a very reluctant donkey called Modestine to carry his pack and his home-made 'sleeping sack'. His account of trying to get the ambling and recalcitrant Modestine to move at all, let alone at any speed, nor to veer off the path to eat wayside grass and heather are very funny. Pitying locals provide him with various implements to 'encourage' her along, culminating in the most successful, a goad (basically a stick with a pin in the end of it) with which a by now heart-hardened RLS forces Modestine to shift: 'Thenceforward Modestine was my slave,' he finally declares triumphantly.

Stevenson's walk was extremely short compared with modern travel writers' long-haul treks across continents - less than two weeks. But he is a born writer who makes the mountain scenery and the humour of his experiences walking through it zing off the page:

'Why anyone should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints ... To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?'

Before reading this book, I was completely ignorant of the importance of the Cevennes hills as a refuge for the Protestant minority in eighteenth-century France, and so was surprised at how prominent a role religion plays in Stevenson's account. (His interest in the conflict may even have acted as a motivation for visiting the area in the first place.) RLS imaginatively recounts the persecutions and bloody skirmishes between the Protestant 'Camisards' and the Catholics. Wherever he goes, people ask about his religion and he asks them theirs, and there are frequent heated discussions. Unsurprisingly, when we walked in the Cevennes hills this summer, unaccompanied by either a willing or an unwilling donkey, no one at all asked about our religion. And disappointingly, I didn't see a single donkey, just one roadside sign offering donkey-rides (presumably without the benefit of goads).

As so often happens, reading one book leads me on to another because I come across a reference to my Favouritely Named Character from History, Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was sent to the Mediterranean to bring aid to the besieged Camisards of the Cevennes. (Anything to spite the dastardly French.) Two years later, Shovel was the admiral whose ship was wrecked on the rocks of the foggy Isles of Scilly when he and his fellow navigators incorrectly calculated their longitude as being west of the Isle d'Ouessant off Brittany. According to Longitude by Dava Sobel, Shovel had discounted the opinion of one of his ordinary crew members who had correctly reckoned the ships' position as being near the Scillies and instead had him hanged for insubordination. Just two men from the four ships that went down survived. Sir Cloudesley himself was washed up alive on a beach but then was murdered for the emerald ring on his finger by a local woman. This famous disaster for the British fleet spurred on attempts to find a way to measure longitude accurately, which leads on to the story of John Harrison told in Longitude. But, typically, I still haven't read the whole book (the rest remains TBR).

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Howards End is on the Landing

This latest book by Susan Hill is provoking a lot of comment in the reading blogosphere. The gorgeousness of the cover certainly presses all the book addict's buttons, conjuring up images of cosy fireside reading immersed in long Victorian novels bound in gold-tooled leather. (Just one question though, who is BRRON on the back cover? Byron's long-lost Welsh love-child?)

I love books about books. I have shelves of them - well I would have a shelf of them if I had the space to devote one shelf to one category of books, instead of narrow gaps on top of books in already crammed bookcases. I won't go into my property-envy regarding rambling farmhouses with Agas and views and nooks and crannies (suffice to say SH owns FOUR complete sets of Dickens' novels).

I found much to enjoy here and SH goes into lots of bibliophile topics: titles, bindings, typefaces, whether to write in books (pro), organising/ categorising books (anti), real books v. electronic readers, etc. as well as discussing her own favourite authors and books. The thorny topic of book-lending is not mentioned, interestingly, and as SH says she never writes her name in her books and scorns bookplates, does that mean she never lends any either?

There are many reminiscences about authors (and others such as Benjamin Britten) she has met or corresponded with over the years, so, as she admits, a fair amount of name-dropping crops up. I appreciated in particular her memories of Charles Causley, a poet I admire and one who has never had a very high profile. She also stands up for Enid Blyton whose books I too loved as a child and whose influence on me did not mean I grew up to be an undiscerning reader (IMHO). She is also very honest about books she hasn't read - The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady among others, which is always encouraging to the rest of us.

Tastes and opinions on books are inevitably individual and sometimes idiosyncratic and SH is no exception, though some of her pronouncements are a bit baffling. At one point she says 'With (Alice) Munro, the problem is Canada. I have a problem with Canadian as I do with Australian writers.' Exactly what this problem is is not explained or expanded upon. And I am pained by her description of the Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane love story as embarrassing. Unrealistic, maybe, but embarrassing?

A book like this is most successful when it strikes a chord with a reader and sends them off to seek out/reread books the author recommends. And after HEIOTL, I am actively looking out for Kilvert's diary and longing to reread The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Rector's Daughter by F.M.Mayor. To my amazement, I searched the 'inherited' shelves of my Walter Scott-loving grandfather-in-law and found Sir Walter Scott's Journal - one of SH's strongest recommendations. (The full set of novels are in a box under a bed somewhere waiting for Doomsday, I think, as a Scott-loving reader may take longer to find.) 'Never mind the novels,' says SH, 'read the man himself, who speaks plainly yet whose powers of description are mighty, whose great spirit, courage, uprightness, generosity and warm humour leap out of these pages.' Eagerly I set to and start reading and certainly find humour and generosity in Scott's descriptions of the cheerfulness and hospitality of the Irish. But, faced with a national financial crisis that autumn (plus ca change!), he is not so kindly when discussing other races: 'It is hard that vagabond stock-jobbing Jews should, for their own purposes, make such a shake of credit as now exists in London and menace the credit of men trading on sure funds such as H and R.' (November 1825)

Hmmm ... perhaps SH's version of the Journal has had slurs such as this edited out of it.

HEIOTL is not going to displace Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris or Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary, my own favourite books about books and reading. While I enjoyed parts of it, some of the chapters seem a little dashed off and makeweight and I'd have preferred more about the books themselves and less about unremarkable past encounters with writers (or umming and ahing about which would make the final top forty/thirty-nine. (A contents page and an index wouldn't have gone amiss either.) In brief, this book occasionally lives up to its sumptuous cover, but only occasionally.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Etruscan Places

A long bus ride to the hospital for a blood test this morning. Fifteen or so despondent-looking people ahead of me in the deli-counter-tickets queue, so I spend twenty minutes browsing the charity second-hand bookshelves (I do already have something else to read with me - of course). The shelves appear much sparser than earlier years - is everyone selling their old books for quick cash on e-Bay in these straitened times? Lots of Edna O'Briens for some reason, but several of the more enticing titles do not pass my 'unacceptable brown stains' test and, at 50p per paperback I want something moderately decent for my money. (The school Christmas bazaar only charges 20p for paperbacks after all.) Mills & Boon romances are apparently allowed to go for just 20p each but this bargain price must have started a rush and now there are no Mills & Boons to be had. Displaying my 'Discriminating Reader Who Does Not Live in a Rambling Farmhouse Lined With Bookshelves' persona (for a change), I settle on one very slim (less than 1 cm thick) volume: a 1950 Penguin copy of Etruscan Places by D.H. Lawrence. It bears the beautiful dark red colouring of the Travel and Adventure Penguin strand - strikingly unusual after the more familiar dark green and cream (or is it discoloured white?) and orange and cream of other old Penguins. All I know about the Etruscans is that they were obsessed with death and no one knows exactly what they thought about it because their language remains undeciphered. As a result, probably not much in the way of Adventure in this volume.)

I leaf through the book and on page 29 read about B (B?) who expresses surprise at seeing the phallic stones by the doors of many tombs. 'Why, it's like the Shiva lingam at Benares!' he/she declares.

DHL notes, 'One can live one's life, and read all the books about India or Etruria, and never read a single word about the thing that impresses one in the very first five minutes, in Benares or in an Etruscan necropolis: that is, the phallic symbol. Here it is, in stone, unmistakable, and everywhere, around these tombs. Here it is, big and little, standing by the doors, or inserted, quite small, into the rock: the phallic stone!'

It's good to see Lawrence clearly resisting the self-censoring tendencies of other writers of his time in his travel writing as well as his novels, but the book opening naturally at this particular page is disconcertingly apt. Is some ghostly DHL turning the pages for me?

Lawrence goes on to say that the phallic stones look as though they are part of the rock:
'But no, B. lifts one out. It is cut, and is fitted into a socket, previously cemented in. B puts the phallic stone back into its socket, where it was placed, probably five or six hundred years before Christ was born.'
I wonder if the cement was originally used to foil phallus-stone-collecting souvenir hunters (probably a largish group).

I queue up to pay for Etruscan Places at the WRVS stall where it stands out like an unsore thumb among the coffee-drinking outpatients. On the way home, a fallen leaf on the path exactly matches the autumnal red of the cover and I pick it up and bring it home as a beautiful but rather impractical bookmark.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Abandoning Austerlitz

I have just had to abandon Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald two thirds of the way through. I feel rather pained about this, as it undermines my self-image as a serious reader of literary fiction (especially when I read the list of worthy reviewers who have rated it so highly). But I was so bored, not only was I skimming it, I was falling asleep over it (even more quickly than I already fall asleep while reading in bed anyway). I could cope with the lack of paragraphs and the stream of consciousness style, but the constant description, like an endless loop from a beautiful but uneventful film, combined with the relative lack of strong characters failed to grab me. The flattish prose (which may have lost something in the translation) did not wake me out of my torpor either and its dream-like qualities just ended with me actually dreaming.

I did get more out of Rings of Saturn, if that redeems me in any way. Part travelogue, part reminiscence, part biography/history, this book defies neat categorisation but was fascinating. It is based round a walking tour of East Anglia and includes descriptions of several places I know well combined with riveting stories of people and buildings. Austerlitz too is filled with plenty of important and sombre details about the deportation of the Jews and the Nazi concentration camps but these facts seemed undermined by the vague and dreamy narration of the shadowy not-quite-real Austerlitz himself.

(Anyway, at least Rings of Saturn's spine shows that I read it to the very end, unlike the tell-tale spine of Austerlitz.)

PS Thanks to Susan for recommending Rings of Saturn.