Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, 1937
See how different would be the attitude of a man who, instead of saturating himself with the phraseology of a million conceptualist metaphysician-aestheticians, looked at the world with new eyes and allowed himself to feel the enormous influence which form has on human life. If he still wanted to use his fountain-pen, he would do so, not in order to become a great writer and create art, but, let us say, the better to express his own personality and draw a clear picture of himself in the eyes of others; or to organize himself, bring order within himself, and by confession to cure any complexes or immaturities; and also, perhaps, to make his contact with others deeper, more intimate, more creative, more sharply outlined, which could be of great benefit to his mind and his development; or, for instance, he might try to combat customs, prejudices, principles which he found contrary to his nature; or again, he might write simply to earn a living. He certainly would not spare effort to ensure that his work possessed an artistically attractive form, but his principal goal would be, not art, but himself. He would no longer write pretentiously, to educate, to elevate, to guide, to moralize, and to edify his fellow-men; his aim would be his own elevation and his own progress; and he would write, not because he was mature and had found his form, but because he was still immature and in his efforts to attain form was humiliating himself, making a fool of himself, and sweating like a climber still struggling towards the mountain-top, being a man still on the way to self-fulfilment.
I don’t usually count page numbers in a book when I choose it. But yesterday, after toting Middlemarch to work and back for a few days, I started wondering just how big a bite I’d taken. Peeking to the back confirmed things. At 800 pages, it’s the heifer of the year, but instantly rewarding. Only 200 pages in, I’m hooked, and hopeful of finishing it before Thanksgiving.
Numberswise, this has been the best year for reading that I’ve had. Yet, with each volume that I pull from the shelf or bring from the library, I’m conscious of how many more I’ll never find the time to read. It’s enough to wake a person in the middle of the night. Snippets of reviews, titles, impressions, words, all combine to produce daily in my head something like a whirlwind symphony that’s only loosely orchestrated and conducted solely on the fly. It’s a bit of a conundrum. Opportunities for literary choice have never been so abundant, but the more I read about books, the less precious time there is to sit quietly in a sunny spot with the 800 page gorilla.
These thoughts don’t even begin to explore the need to discuss and to write about books with other readers. It’s something I can’t do without now, having become proudly addicted to Palimpsest and World Literature Forum. What is a reader to do? I get nervous when there aren’t enough long hours to read, so I fill the short stretches by dipping into discussion. Which leads to extended stretches of clicking and to more tangents than there are universes. Then, occasionally trying to write about some bit or another of it all here. It’s the delicious and unsolvable problem. And everyone knows that it’s rude to raise a problem without offering a solution. So, I’ll make a small resolution to write here once a week for discipline and to stop worrying about the books I can’t have, focusing on the enjoyment of the one at hand. There, that feels better.
There are those people for each of us, acknowledged or not, whose influence runs so deeply and purely that we strive to become a bit of whom they are. That’s a bad sentence, but it’s late and I’m having trouble hammering out thoughts on this novel without getting too close to an emotional precipice that I don’t want to fall over. Mister Pip, a Booker shortlisted novel from 2007, reads easily and, at a cursory glance, simplistically. It is the story, told in hindsight, of thirteen year old Matilda and her magical teacher, Mr. Watts, who lights a fire of sympatico appreciation within her. The conduit for their connection is of course, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
And thus a literature lover is born. At its very heart, perhaps this is what I should take from Mister Pip. Stories- those lovers and tellers and enrapturers in all their shapes and sizes, tricks and guises- are the tie which binds Matilda and Mr. Watts, but for me, the real story is the unleashing of Matilda’s powers at the beckoning of Pip. Powers of empathy, thought, recall, identification, and assertion are new for Matilda, as they are for anyone who suddenly discovers that their ordinary world is replete with characters made known through fiction. For those who have their inner fires stirred and who are, each day, newly awash in means with which to navigate human interaction, the bringer of those passions is a genie who has allowed his lamp to be rubbed for an infinite number of wishes. I’ve been fortunate to have an experience of this sort, a connection with someone which found my plumb line, lit me, and sent me on a journey that won’t end until I do.
Matilda tells her tale in a voice that is removed and clear, in order to convey an experience that has formed her private core and has given her life its very definition. The essence of that experience lies within a time of chaos for Matilda, a resident of Bougainville Island during an armed conflict that surrounds her with tension and uncertainty. Into this setting rides Mr. Dickens’ masterpiece, and Pip’s clear cadence is honored by Lloyd Jones in the voice of Matilda. The setting and peripheral characters could be anyplace, but the story would be the same. Call it redemption through literature. Call it transformation. Call it anything but anodyne or simple for there are as many layers to be found in Mister Pip as there are in Great Expectations. And just as many within each of us who look. It all begins with a book.
Well, well, well, there’s life in the old volume yet. The Trick is to Keep Breathing became somewhat interesting today on lunch hour. And just in time, as I was giving it a few more pages, then the old heave ho. As always happens when I’m into a book that is not really holding court, my mind begins to do its own bit of title shopping for the next read. Some possibilities flitting through for the moment the Galloway slows down again and I’m forced to chuck it: Angle of Repose, London Fields, anything by Philip Roth. I need an energizing read, after gobbling the O’Brien and not saving any for this week. Work is so busy right now, and the drive home finds me thinking of a glass of red rather than anything literary. Or rather than anything at all.
All week I’ve struggled to get past the first few pages of Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. As someone who is ordinarily attuned to the emotional states of women, and frankly drawn towards individuals who play to the dark side, I’m still at a loss here. Almost sixty pages in and the emotional fragility of the narrator is well established. She is compulsively cleaning and scrubbing her kitchen. She lingers in the bed. There are fragments of what may be thoughts on a lost lover. So where is the pull? Am I just unable at this point in life to devote time to a novel that seems devoted to singular navel gazing? Now, I like introspection, characters who are deeply conflicted and spend pages and pages inside themselves figuring out who and why they are. What is it about this nameless woman that I’m finding dull as tombs? It just may be the various devices Galloway uses to create that post-modern feel. Snippets of newspaper articles with optimistic sales phrases to counter the narrator’s dark mood. That sort of thing, and it’s tiring. Argh, the obvious — trick is to keep reading.
Goodness. I began the year with renewed enthusiasm for the TBR stack and energy to burn. Then the midwinter blahs struck and it feels as though I’m treading water in a large tub with no ladder. With the exception of No Country for Old Men, the past few weeks have been slow going. Tree of Smoke couldn’t hold me, The Maytrees was bright in spots but lacked cohesion and purpose for this reader. And now, Blood Meridian. I’ve wanted to read this for several years. The first 70 pages or so were riveting and I lapped them up one evening with ease. But the last hundred pages have slowed to such an extent that I’m feeling sapped and roughshod. The basic story is this- a young boy leaves home and travels west in pre-Civil War America. He joins a band of scalp hunters, led by an enigmatic figure known as the Judge. The group is beset by long, black nights, wolves, and Apache attacks. The boy converses, very briefly, with a former priest who plants some seeds of thought that are yet to be seen in fruition. I’m hanging in for now, but it’s such a long ride.
I’m enjoying Tree of Smoke, but finding it less than an easy read. Maybe this is a good thing as many times a challenging read will deliver days or weeks later in an unlikely return. Sometimes situations at work or amongst friends evolve to mirror one that I’ve found in a long, depthy novel. And then, my appreciation for the time it takes to develop characters and plot is renewed tenfold and I pick up another immersive tome. The lure of shorter novels is almost overwhelming this weekend, though, as there are multitudes of them calling, brief yet savory stories. I’m taking a bit of a break from Tree of Smoke to read No Country for Old Men, before it’s due to be returned to the library.