Reading list: The Go-Between

How to start: I confess I really enjoyed this book. I brought it along during a three-week vacation and loved slipping away from the rudimentary demands of camping to a world of high-class English society and the author’s sophisticated use of words. L.P. Hartley has an interesting biography.

Quotes: “From being my enemy the summer had become my friend: this was another consequence of our Norwich shopping. I felt I had been given the freedom of the heat, and I roamed about in it as if I was exploring a new element. I liked to watch it rise shimmering from the ground and hang heavy on the tops of the darkening July trees. I liked the sense of suspended movement that it gave or seemed to give, reducing everything in Nature to the stillness of contemplation. I liked to touch it with my hand, and feel it on my throat and round my knees, which now were bare to its embrace. I learned to travel far, ever father into it, and achieve a close approximation with it; for I felt that my experience of it would somehow be cumulative and that if it would only get hotter and hotter there was a heart of heat I should attain to.”

“One remembers things at different levels. I still have an impression, distinct but hard to analyse, of the change that came over the household with Lord Trimingham’s arrival. Before, it had an air of self-sufficiency, and, in spite of Mrs. Maudsley’s hand on the reins, a go-as-you-please gait: now everyone seemed to be strung up, on tip-toe to face some test, as we were in the last weeks at school, with the examinations coming on. What one said and did seemed to matter more, as if something hung on it, as if it was contributing to a coming event.”

“Now the thought of the farmyard had lost its magic for me: it was as dead as a hobby that one has grown out of.”

“Also I knew we should not have the Litany, as we had had it last Sunday: this also was a great gain. Less than ever was I in a mood to repent of my sins or to feel that other people should repent of theirs: I could not find a flaw in the universe and was impatient with Christianity for bringing imperfection to my notice, so I closed my ears to its message and chose as a subject of meditation the annals of the Trimingham family emblazoned on the transept wall.”

“He indicated a row of small dark canvasses, set deep in heavy frames. (…) I didn’t like the look of the picture or its feeling; pictures, I thought, should be of something pretty, should record a moment chosen for its beauty. These people hadn’t even troubled to look their best; they were ugly and quite content to be so. They got something out of being their naked selves, their faces told me that: but this self-glory, depending on nobody’s approval but their own, struck me as rather shocking - more shocking than their occupations, unseemly as those were. They had forgotten themselves, that was it; and you should never forget yourself.”

“How everything else had been diminished by [the Ted and Marian relationship] and drained of quality! - for it was a standard of comparison but dwarfed other things. Its colours were brighter, its voice was louder, its power of attraction infinitely greater. It was a parasite of the emotions. Nothing else could live with it or have an independent existence while it was there. It created a desert, it wouldn’t share with anyone or anything, it wanted all the attention for itself. And being secret it contributed nothing to our daily life; it could no more be discussed than could some shameful illness.”

“We talked a little of my journey and of what I had done in life: both subjects that were easily disposed of. For conversational purpose, an ounce of incident is worth a pound of routine progress, and my life had little incident to record.”

Reading list: I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek

How to start: This is a fun collection of stories!

Favourite quotes: “He sang with facial expressions that caused him to cut himself shaving. He shaved with a straight razor rather than wasting money on blades, and he bled as he sang, the foam on the razor stained pink and his face stuck up with bloody clots of toilet paper. I was afraid that, reaching for a note, he’d cut his throat.” (p 15)

“I’d done it out of the same wildness that made for an alliance between us - a bond that turned life comic at the expense of anything gentle. An impulsiveness that permitted a stupid, callous curiosity, the same dangerous lack of sense that had made me ride one day down Luther, a sunless side street that ran only a block, and, peddling at full speed, attempt to jump off my J. C. Higgins bike and back on in a single bounce.” (p127)

“A curfew of cold had emptied the streets.” (p 164)

“Picnics on a windowsill: braunschweiger, Jewish rye, mayonnaise, raw onion, potato salad blushing with paprika, a cold beer, an enormous garlicky sea green pickle tonged just minutes before at the corner deli by a young woman with high cheekbones and a slavic accent, her golden hair standing from turquoise combs that could hardly contain the weight of curls, ample breasts so loose they had to be bare in the sleeveless blue sundress she wore, and the blond hair growing profusely under her arms flashing as she dipped into a huge glass crock where a school of kosher pickles darted away and tried to hide amidst the dill weed, roiled seeds, and wheeling peppercorns.” (p 217)

“Children herded by billowing nuns, jostled into lines.
”The pigeon-launching church bells tolled one o’clock, if a single ring can be considered a toll. Its reverberation filled my apartment.
”That was lunch at the Loyola Arms Hotel - on one or another of those days when nothing happened really but lunch - and yet I don’t remember ever feeling more free, or more alone, than when I’d watch the children marching into school, surrendering the street back to the pigeons and shadow until it was empty and quiet again, and I sat propped in the window, draining the foam, with the length of an entire afternoon still before me.” (p 232)

“At eight a.m., he was waiting in the doorway when the Chinese herbalist came to open his pharmacy. Mick stepped into the shop’s alien atmosphere of dried herbs and powdered animals and inhaled a smell that seemed in itself curative.” (p 264)

“The boy and his gran seem more real to him than his room in the present. Suddenly, it’s clear to him that memory is the channel by which the past conducts its powerful energy; it’s how the past continues to love.” (p 283)

Tangential: This interview he gave makes me want to sit down and write!

Reading list: Collected Stories of Raymond Carver

How to start: The New York Times calls Raymond Carver "the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century". When the author himself writes about why he chose to write short stories and poems, he explains in an essay titled Fires: "During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. (...) The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else. They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems." Later, his children grown, he reflects: "The circumstances of my life are much different now, but now I choose to write short stories and poems. Or at least I think I do. Maybe it's all a result of the old writing habits from those days."

Favourite quote: It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history, And if that's so, the I understand that I'm outside history now - like horses and fog. Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I'm having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me - unless my wife writes more letters, or tells a friend who keeps a diary, say. Then, years later, someone can look back on this time, interpret it according to the record, its scraps and tirades, its silences and innuendos. That's when it dawns on me that Autobiography is the poor man's history. And that I am saying good-bye to history. Good-bye, my darling. (Blackbird Pie)

Tangential: There's a documentary on Youtube about his life.

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: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

How to start: In giving advice to an aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson, Earnest Hemingway wrote: “Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated.” Wuthering Heights was included, of course, on his list of 16, seen here. In a chapter about narration, Francine Prose explains what makes the book so compelling: “It’s hard to imagine a more ornate or artificial structure. So what’s surprising is how natural it seems, how quickly our awareness of artifice fades before the urgency of the story being narrated, and how fully the various characters emerge through the eyes and in the voice of a woman who is intuitive, wise, but not, strictly speaking, omniscient.” (Reading Like A Writer, p 88.)

Favourite passage: “I used to draw a comparison between him, and Hindley Earnshaw, and perplex myself to explain satisfactorily, why their conduct was so opposite in similar circumstances. They had both been fond husbands, and were both attached to their children; and I could not see how they shouldn’t both have taken the same road, for good or evil. But, I though in my mind, Hindley, with apparently the stronger head, has shown himself sadly the worse and the weaker man. When his ship struck, the captain abandoned his post; and the crew, instead of trying to save her, rushed into riot and confusion, leaving no hope for their luckless vessel. Linton, on the contrary, displayed the true courage of a loyal and faithful soul: he trusted God; and God comforted him. One hoped, and the other despaired; they chose their own lots, and were righteously doomed to endure them.” 

Tangential: The Guardian published a list of the “100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time” and it included Elizabeth Gaskill’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s sister. I read the book and it has a passage that alludes to Charlotte’s impression of her sister’s book, Wuthering Heights. The author writes:

“In December 1847, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appeared. The first-named of these stories has revolted many readers by the power with which wicked and exceptional characters are depicted. Others, again, have felt the attraction of remarkable genius, even when displayed on grim and terrible criminals. Miss [Charlotte] Brontë herself says, with regard to this tale,
‘Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people that pass her convent gates. My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious: circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced; and yet she knew them, knew their ways, their language, and their family histories; she could head or them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensured, that what her mind has gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits, of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny – more powerful than sportive – found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliffe, like Earnshaw, like Catharine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done. If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable – of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell [Emily Brontë’s pseudonym] would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree – loftier, straighter, wider-spreading – and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work; to the influence of other intellects she was not amenable.’”

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: Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

How to start: Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888 and is considered to be New Zealand's "most internationally famous author" according to the website in her name. She sounds like an endearing person if only for having said this: "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others... Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."

Favourite quotes: Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they'd been expressed. (Prelude)

But what I wanted to do was to behave in the most extraordinary fashion - like a clown. To start singing, with large extravagant gestures, to point out of the window and cry: "We are now passing, ladies and gentlemen, one of the sights for which notre Paris is justly famous," to jump out of the taxi while it was going, climb over the roof and drive in by another door; to hang out of the window and look for the hotel through the wrong end of a broken telescope, which was also a peculiarly ear-splitting trumpet. (Je ne parle pas français)

You know I had the mad idea that they were kissing in that quiet room - a long, comfortable kiss. One of those kisses that not only puts one's grief to bed, but nurses it and warms it and tucks it up and keeps it fast enfolded until it is sleeping sound. Ah! how good that is! (Je ne parle pas français)

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss - absolute bliss! - as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?...
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being "drunk and disorderly"? How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body is you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle? (Bliss)

He was passionately fond of music; every spare penny he had went on books. He was always full of new ideas, schemes, plans. But nothing came of it all. The new fire blazed in Jonathan; you almost heard it roaring softly as he explained, described, and dilated on the new thing; but a moment later it had fallen in and there was nothing but ashes, and Jonathan went about with a look like hunger in his black eyes. (At the Bay)

"Well, my opinion is that you two people ought to part. You'll do no earthly good together. Indeed, it seems to me, it's the duty of either of to set the other free." What happens then? He - and she - agree. It is their conviction too. You are only saying what they have been thinking all last night. And away they go to act on your advice, immediately... And the next time you hear of them they are still together. You see - you've reckoned without the unknown quantity - which is their secret relation to each other - and that they can't disclose even if they want to. Thus far you may tell and no further. Oh, don't misunderstand me! It need not necessarily have anything to do with their sleeping together... But this brings me to a thought I've often half entertained. Which is that human beings, as we know them, don't choose each other at all. It is the owner, the second self inhabiting them, who makes the choice for his own particular purposes, and - this may sound absurdly far-fetched - it's the second self in the other which responds. Dimly - dimly - or so it has seemed to me - we realize this, at any rate to the extent that we realize the hopelessness of trying to escape. (A Married Man's Story)

There is a very unctuous and irritating English proverb to the effect that "every cloud has a silver lining." What comfort can it be to one steeped to the eyebrows in clouds to ponder over their linings, and what an unpleasant picture postcard seal it sets upon one's tragedy - turning it into a little ha' penny monstrosity with a moon in the left-hand corner like a vainglorious threepenny bit! Nevertheless, like most unctuous and irritating things, it is true. The lining woke me after my first night at the Pension Séguin and showed me over the feather bolster a room bright with sunlight as if every golden-haired baby in heaven were pelting the earth with buttercup posies. (Violet)


Reading list: La Cousine Bette by Balzac

How to start: La cousine Bette is one book from among the 91 stories, novels and essays that comprise La Comédie humaine.  Balzac was a prolific French writer who died at the age of 51.

Favourite quote: (in the original French) "Puis, que les vrais amants de l'art aillent voir, à Florence, le Penseur, de Michel-Ange, et, dans la cathédrale de Mayence, la Vierge d'Albert Durer, qui a fait, en ébène, une femme vivante sous ses triples robes, et la chevelure la plus ondoyante, la plus maniable que jamais femme de chambre ait peignée; que les ignorants y courent, et tous reconnaitront que le génie peut imprégner l'habit, l'armure, la robe, d'une pensée et y mettre un corps, tout aussi bien que l'homme imprime son caractère et les habitudes de sa vie à son enveloppe.
"La sculpture est la réalisation continuelle du fait qui s'est appelé pour la seule et unique fois dans la peinture: Raphaël! La solution de ce terrible problème ne se trouve que dans un travail constant, soutenu, car les difficultés matérielles doivent être tellement vaincues, la main doit être si châtiée, si prête et obéissante, que le sculpteur puisse lutter âme à âme avec cette insaisissable nature morale, qu'il faut transfigurer en la matérialisant. Si Paganini, qui faisait raconter son âme par les cordes de son violon, avait passé trois jours sans étudier, il aurait perdu, avec son expression, le registre de son instrument: il désignait ainsi le mariage existant entre le bois, l'archet, les cordes et lui; cet accord dissous, il serait soudain devenu un violoniste ordinaire. 
"Le travail constant est la loi de l'art comme celle de la vie; car l'art, c'est la création idéalisée. Aussi, les grands artistes, les poètes complets n'attendent-ils ni les commandes ni les chalands; ils enfantent, aujourd'hui, demain, toujours. Il en résulte cette habitude du labeur, cette perpétuelle connaissance des difficultés qui les maintient en concubinage avec la muse, avec ses forces créatrices. Canova vivait dans son atelier, comme Voltaire a vécu dans son cabinet, Homère et Phidias ont dû vive ainsi."

Tangential: Balzac loved coffee! In fact his death has been attributed to its overconsumption. The Airship Blog has an entertaining read on the subject.

Reading list: Bright Lights Big City

How to start: This novel by Jay McInerney is short, fast-paced and has an ending as satisfying as a pickle with snap. 

Favourite quote: "But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name." (page 127)

Tangential: This was Jay McInerney's first novel and if you want to know more about him than the wikipedia entry, there's this article from The Guardian.

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: One Hundred Years of Solitude

How to start: One Hundred Years of Solitude won its author a Nobel Prize. In order to appreciate the book, halfway through the story, I googled a teenage-like complaint, “what is so great about one hundred years of solitude” and came across an excellent summary that pulled me through to the end.

Favourite quote: “Gaston was not only a fierce lover, with endless wisdom and imagination but he was also, perhaps, the first man in the history of the species who had made an emergency landing and had come close to killing himself and his sweetheart simply to make love in a field of violets.” (p 381)

Tangential: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, Vanity Fair featured an article on the subject.

5 books I read in my youth

Preface: I don’t like re-reading books. Some people do. As I get older, I feel like I read better, which lends weight to something I read by Peter Brown, who, writing about Augustine of Hippo included a quote by Proust: “No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart.’” The more I read, the more I notice which is a cause of delight and occasional discouragement. I’m aspiring. The aspiration is a gift and nourishing it is the responsibility. When I look back and worry that I didn’t properly absorb a book, I have to forgive myself, first because I find re-reading boring, and second because I have to trust that it was useful in getting me forward. There is no other way to appreciate literature than to keep reading.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I distinctly remember buying my own copy in elementary school. It fueled many romantic ideas. I didn’t take any notes although I did attempt to memorize a poem from the book for a school poetry event. One classmate recited “Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of the night…” and I recited what Jo had composed after her sister’s death, hiding a printed copy of it on my folded arm as if no one would guess it was there when I forgot lines.

Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice was by far my favourite book in highschool. I loved Jane Austen’s humour and when I finished reading the book I was so attached that I read a book of critical essays just to stay with the characters longer. I also watched the BBC eight-part series repeatedly. No other novel since has sparked such an obsession.

The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I remember liking these books, but since I read them when I was young, I didn’t take note of my favorite passages. Francine Prose appreciates Fitzgerald’s ability to “write both meticulously and carelessly, sometimes on the same page.” She describes a particular example: “At lazy moments, F. Scott Fitzgerald could resort to strings of clichés, but in the next paragraph he could give a familiar word the sort of new slant that totally reinvents the language. That reinvention occurs, beginning with his use of the word deferential, in the description of the rose-colored grand hotel that opens Tender Is the Night: ‘Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach… Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausses Hôtel des Étragers and Cannes, five miles away.’

“Each adjective (flushed, dazzling) strikes us as apt. And the simile ‘rotted like water lilies’ will come to seem increasingly applicable to much of what happens in a novel that is partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.”

Francine has more to say about both novels, but I’m too lazy to write it all out, so you might as well get her book.

Tangential: In April of 2017, Little Atoms producer Neil Denny interviewed Sarah Churchwell in and they discussed her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. It was a fascinating listen.

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: Isaac Babel

How to start: Isaac Babel was a multi-talented writer who was executed at 45 during one of Stalin’s great purges. John Updike wrote an excellent synopsis of his life in the New Yorker. In the Wikipedia entry on Babel, George Saunders is quoted as saying: “There’s a Russian writer named Isaac Babel that I love. I can drop in anywhere in his works, read a few pages and go, Oh yeah, language. It’s almost like if you were tuning a guitar and you heard a beautifully tuned one and you say, Yeah, that’s what we want. We want something that perfect. When I read him, it recalibrates my ear. It reminds me of the difference between an OK sentence and a really masterful sentence. Babel does it for me.”

Favourite passage:
“You’re shortsighted, eh?”
“Quite so.”
“Alexander Fyodorovich, you ought to wear glasses.”
Then, bubbling over like a mere boy, I said to him:
“Just think: you’re not merely blind, you’re practically dead! Line, that divine trait, mistress of the world, eternally escapes you. Here we are, you and I, walking about in this magic garden, this Finnish forest that almost baffles description. All our lives we shall never see anything more beautiful. And you can’t see the pink edges of the frozen waterfall, over there by the stream! You are blind to the Japanese chiseling of the weeping willow leaning over the waterfall. The red trunks of the pines are covered by snow in which a thousand sparks are gleaming. The snow, shapeless when it fell, has draped itself along the branches, lying on their surfaces that undulate like a line drawn by Leonardo. In the snow flaming clouds are reflected. And think what you’d have to say about Fröken Kirsti’s silk stockings; about the line of her leg, that lovely line! I beseech you Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!”
“My child,” he replied, “don’t waste your time. Forty copecks for spectacles are the only forty copecks I’ve no wish to squander. I don’t need your line, vulgar as truth is vulgar. You live your life as though you were a teacher of trigonometry, while I for my part live in a world of miracles, even when I’m only at Klyazma. What do I need to see Fröken Kirsti’s freckles for, if even when I can scarcely make her out I can see in her all I wish to see? What do I need Finnish clouds for, when above my head I see a moving ocean? What do I need line for, when I have color? To me the whole universe is a gigantic theater, and I am the only member of the audience who hasn’t glued opera glasses to his eyes. The orchestra is playing the overture to the third act; the stage is far away, just as in a dream; my heart swells with ecstasy. I see Juliet’s purple velvet, Romeo’s lilac silk, and not a single false beard. And you want me to blind myself with forty-copeck spectacles!”
- from "Line and Color"

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."

Reading List: War and Peace

How To Start: Begin, if you like, by reading about how much someone else enjoyed reading War & Peace. For me it was Lucy. She wrote a blog post entitled: "Why Read War & Peace? The Reasons Why I Love Tolstoy's Masterpiece."

Five Favourite Passages: "Rostov, standing in the foremost ranks of Kitizov's army, which the Tsar approached first of all, was possessed by the feeling, common to every man in the army - a feeling of self-oblivion, of proud consciousness of their might and passionate devotion to the man who was the centre of that solemn ceremony.
"He felt that at one word from that man all that vast mass (and he, an insignificant atom bound up with it) would rush through fire and water, to crime, to death, or to the gradest heroism, and so he could not but thrill and tremble at the sight of the man who was the embodiment of that word." (p 271)

"Life meanwhile, the actual life of men with their real interests of health and sickness, labour and rest, with their interests of thought, science, poetry, music, love, affection, hatred, passion, went its way, as always, independently, apart from the political amity or enmity of Napoleon Bonaparte, and apart from all possible reforms." (p 470)

"He prayed with that feeling of passion and compunction with which men pray in moments of intense emotion die to trivial causes." (p 567)

"When a man sees an animal dying, horror comes over him. What he is himself - his essence, visibly before his eyes, perishes - ceases to exist. But when the dying creature is a man and a man dearly loved, then, besides the horror at the extinction of life, what is felt is a rending of the soul, a spiritual wound, which, like a physical wound, is sometimes mortal, sometimes healed, but always aches and shrinks from contact with the outer world, that sets it smarting.
"(...) Crushed in spirit, they closed their eyes under the menacing cloud of death that hovered about them, and dared not look life in the face. Carefully they guarded their open wounds from every rough and painful touch. Everything - the carriage driving along the street, the summons to dinner, the maid asking which dress to get out; worse still - words of faint, feigned sympathy - set the wound smarting, seemed an insult to it, and jarred on that needful silence in which both were trying to listen to the stern, terrible litany that had not yet died away in their ears, and to gaze into the mysterious, endless vistas that seemed for a moment to have been unveiled before them." (p 1224)

"The countess was by now over sixty. Her hair was completely grey, and she wore a cap that surrounded her whole face with a frill. Her face was wrinkled, her upper lip had sunk, and her eyes were dim.
"After the deaths of her son and her husband that had followed so quickly on one another, she had felt herself a creature accidentally forgotten in this world, with no object and no interest in life. She ate and drank, slept and lay awake, but she did not live. Life gave her no impressions. She wanted nothing from life but peace, and that peace she could find only in death. But until death came to her she had to go on living - that is, using her vital forces. There was in the highest degree noticeable in her what may be observed in very small children and in very old people. No external aim could be seen in her existence; all that could be seen was the need to exercise her various capacities and propensities. She had to eat, to sleep, to think, to talk, to weep, to work, to get angry, and so on, simply because she had a stomach, a brain, muscles, nerves, and spleen. (...)
"(...) Only rarely a mournful half-smile passed between Nikolay, Pierre, Natasha, and Countess Marya that betrayed their comprehension of her condition.
"But these glances said something else besides. They said that she had done her work in life already, that she was not all here in what was seen in her now, that they would all be the same, and that they were glad to give way to her, to restrain themselves for the sake of this poor creature, once so dear, once so full of life as they. Memento mori, said those glances.
"Only quite heartless and stupid people and little children failed to understand this, and held themselves aloof from her." (p 1325-7)

Tangential: The translation matters! David Remnik wrote a fascinating article for the New Yorker entitled, "The Translation Wars."


Francine Prose's List of Books to Be Read Immediately

I thought it might be helpful to create an index with Francine Prose's list. The numbers in green refer to the page numbers in her book Reading Like a Writer where she talks either about the author or about the book she recommends. Two titles in grey are books she refers to but are not part of her list. Feel free to suggest corrections to this first draft.

Link to Evernote - a checklist and partial index

After reading The Corrections...

... these are my favourite quotes. When I look at them I wonder how much they are about the author, Jonathan Franzen, and then how much they are about the reader for having selected them.

11. He turned to the doorway where she’d appeared. He began a sentence: « I am - » but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as seen as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he’d entered, he would realize that the crumbs he’d dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn’t quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness were’t uniform, weren’t an absence of light but a teeming and corpuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he’d encountered the word « crepuscular » in McKay’s Treasury of English Verse, the corpuscles of biology had bled into his understanding of the word, so that for his entire adult life he’d seen in twilight a corpuscularity, as of the graininess of the high-speed film necessary for photography under conditions of low ambient light, as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn’t just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he’d sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost; but in the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvellously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he’d entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing where Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods - « packing my suitcase, » he heard himself say. This sounded right. Verb, possessive, noun. Here was a suitcase in front of him, an important confirmation. He’d betrayed nothing.

16. …and assumed the burden of seeing La Guardia Airport and New York City and his life and clothes and body through the disappointed eyes of his parents.

18. …she was so much a personality and so little anything else that even staring straight at her he had no idea what she really looked like.

99. Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of each of Enid’s.

100. …with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.

251. Never mind that his work so satisfied him that he didn’t need her love, while her chores so bored her that she needed his love doubly.

263. …what you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn’t always agreeable or attractive.

271. And if you sat at the dinner table long enough, whether in punishment or in refusal or simply in boredom, you never stopped sitting there. Some part of you sat there all your life.
As if sustained and too-direct contact with time’s raw passage could scar the nerves permanently, like staring at the sun.