Reading list: Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

How to start: Mavis Gallant was a Canadian writer who lived in France. About reading short stories she writes the following in a Preface to The Selected Stories: "There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I’m doing it now because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

Favourite quotes: “In loving and unloving families alike, the same problem arises after a death: What to do about the widow?” (p 32)

“Barbara often said she had no use for money, no head for it. ‘Thank God I’m Irish,’ she said. ‘I haven’t got rates of interest on the brain.’ She read Irishness into her nature as an explanation for it, the way some people attributed their gifts and failings to a sign of the zodiac. Anything natively Irish had dissolved long before, leaving only a family custom of Catholicism and another habit, fervent in Barbara’s case, of anti-clerical passion.” (p 195)

“Barbara was aware of Diana, the mouse, praying like a sewing machine somewhere behind her.” (p 229)

“The only woman his imagination offered, [Grippes] with some insistence was no use to him. She moved quietly on a winter evening to Saint-Nicholas-du-Chadonnet, the rebel church at the lower end of Boulevard Saint-Germain, where services were still conducted in Latin. […] She entered the church and knelt down and brought out her rosary, oval pearls strung on thin gold. Nobody saw rosaries anymore. They were not even in the windows of their traditional venues, across the square from the tax bureau. Believers went in for different articles now: cherub candles, quick prayers on plastic cards. Her iron meekness resisted change. She prayed constantly into the past. Grippes knew that one’s view of the past is just as misleading as speculation about the future. It was one of the few beliefs he would have gone to the stake for. She as praying to a mist, a mist-shrouded figures she persisted in seeing clear.” (p 251)

“She had destroyed this beauty, joyfully, willfully, as if to force him to value her on other terms.” (p 283)

Tangential: A 47 minute documentary about Mavis Gallant and her writing is available on Vimeo. It’s called “Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant”.

Reading list: A Moveable Feast

How to start: A Moveable Feast is an fun, easy read. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard who wrote that when a journalist alluded to his collection of books he’d answered that he hadn’t read most of them “and the ones I have I don’t remember a thing about” I too remember very little of the books I’ve read. I think that’s why I take care to write out quotes I like. In the case of this book, I have only one. “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who made jokes in life the seeds were covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”

What I like better than that quote is one by Francine Prose. She writes:

Finally, before we leave the subject of sentences, let’s return once more to Hemingway, and to the passage from his memoir of his youth in Paris, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes his working method and which subsequent generations of writers have taken as a form of implicit literary advice:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going… I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

For years, I’ve heard this passage about the one true sentence cited as a sort of credo. And I’ve nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking about. What is a ‘true’ sentence in this context – that is, the context of fiction? What makes Hemingway’s advice so hard to follow is that he never quite explains what ‘true’ means.

Perhaps it’s wisest to assume that Hemingway, like countless others, was simply confusing truth with beauty. Possibly what he really meant was a beautiful sentence – a concept that, as we have seen, is almost as hard to define as the one true sentence.

In any case, it should encourage us. Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and beautiful and true sentence, but also using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way to keep himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true in Hemingway’s era may no longer be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers, and told the world. (Reading Like A Writer, pages 61-62) 

Ernest Hemingway also compiled and published writing advice. The Brain Pickings blog features a sample.

Reading list: Charles Dickens' Dombey & Son

How to start: Dombey and Son is a huge book. I thought I was done halfway through, only to discover I hadn’t noticed that the edition I’d picked up had a second part. But Dickens is always fun to read…

Three favourite quotes: “The barrier between Mr Dombey and his wife, was not weakened by time. Ill-assorted couple, unhappy in themselves and in each other, bound together by no tie by the manacle that joined their fettered hands, and straining that so harshly, in their shrinking asunder, that it wore and chafed to the bone, Time, consoler of affliction and softener of anger, could do nothing to help them. Their pride, however different in kind and object, was equal in degree; and in their flinty opposition struck out fire between them which might smoulder or might blaze, as circumstances were, but burned up everything within their mutual reach, and made their marriage way a road of ashes.”

“The cheerful vista of the long street, burnished by the morning light, the sight of the blue sky and airy clouds, the vigorous freshness of the day, so flushed and rosy in its conquest of the night awakened no responsive feelings in her so hurt bosom.”

“… and they got up together, and went on together; Di more off the ground than on it, endeavouring to kiss his mistress flying, tumbling over and getting up again without the least concern, dashing at big dogs in a jocose defiance of his species, terrifying with touches of his nose young housemaids who were cleaning doorsteps, and continually stopping, in the midst of a thousand extravagances, to look back at Florence, and bark until all the dogs within hearing answered, and all the dogs who could come out, came out to stare at him.”

Tangential: Orwell wrote an interesting essay on Charles Dickens. I really liked his appraisal of the 19th century author. And recently the Allusionist did a whole feature about Charles Dickens with a special Christmas-time tie-in.

Reading list: Two Serious Ladies

How to start: The novel is strange, but so was the life of its author, and understanding that might help to appreciate the work Jane Bowles did. Francine Prose especially admires the narrative voice: “a voice that suggests the vocabulary and cadence of a highly educated, slightly batty, and neurotic child (…)” and later, “Jane Bowles’s touch is so sure, her language so well chosen and controlled, her artifice so dazzling (and so insouciantly ready to acknowledge itself as artificial) that we not only admire but are wholly convinced, or at least beguiled, by a passage of dialogue that we cannot imagine any normal human being speaking.” (From Reading Like a Writer, page 107-8, and 186-7.)

Favourite passage:
“Having a nice time?” the girl asked Miss Goering in a husky voice.
“Well,” said Miss Goering, “it wasn’t exactly in order to have a good time that I came out. I have more or less forced myself to, simply because I despise going out in the night-time alone and prefer not to leave my own house. However, it has come to such a point that I am forcing myself to make these little excursions –”
Miss Goering stopped because she actually did not know how she could go on and explain to this girl what she meant without talking a very long time indeed, and she realized that this would be impossible right at that moment, since the waiter was constantly walking back and forth between the bar and the young people’s booth.
“Anyway,” said Miss Goering, “I certainly think it does no harm to relax a bit and have a lovely time.”

Reading list: 3 titles

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

How to start: Akutagawa died young, committing suicide at 35 and ending a brilliant writing career. Today, a literary prize in Japan bears his name. An article in Japan Times gives further detail about his life and legacy.

Favourite passage: "Goi was a very plain-looking man. His hollow cheeks made his chin seem unusually long. His lips... if we mentioned his every striking feature, there would be no end. He was extremely homely and sloppy in appearance."

Tangential: Rashomon was made into a film in 1950 to great critical acclaim. Roger Ebert had a lot to say about it.

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

How to start: Barthelme is a postmodern writer and my appreciation for the genre amounts to the appreciation I have of Jelly Bellys for their transitory shock of flavour. If I don't understand most of his stories, his obituary in the New York Times makes me wish I did.

Favourite passage: "They sit down together. The pork with red cabbage steams before them. They speak quietly about the McKinley Administration, which is being revised by revisionist historians. The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page."

Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

How to start: Mother's Milk is the fourth book in a series of five, that collectively form the Patrick Melrose Novels. In 2012 the series was published as a single volume.

Three favourite passages: "He was having (get it off your chest, dear, it'll do you good) a midlife crisis, and yet he wasn't, because a midlife crisis was a cliché, a verbal Tamazepam made to put an experience to sleep, and the experience he was having was still wide awake (...)."

"He struggled so hard to get away from his roles as a father and a husband, only to miss them the moment he succeeded. There was no better antidote to his enormous sense of futility than the enormous sense of purpose which his children brought to the most obviously futile tasks, such as pouring buckets of sea water into holes in the sand. Before he managed to break away from his family, he liked to imagine that once he was alone he would become an open field of attention, or a solitary observer training his binoculars on some rare species of insight usually obscured by the mass of obligations that swayed before him like a swarm of twittering starlings. In reality solitude generated its own roles, not based on duty but on hunger."

"Now she had an hour, perhaps two, in which to answer letters, pay her taxes, keep in touch with her friends, revive her intellect, take some exercise, read a good book, think of a brilliant money-making scheme, take up yoga, see an osteopath, go to the dentist and get some sleep. Sleep, remember sleep? The word had once referred to great haunches of unconsciousness, six, eight, nine-hour slabs; (...)."

Tangential: The New Yorker published an interview with the author in 2014, entitled "The Real Life of Edward St. Aubyn."