Friday 29 January 2010

Maybe February will be better

I'm sad, very sad, to say that my first foray into the literature of Emile Zola has been a serious disappointment. La Bete Humaine, a lurid tale of sex and murder, was for all its sensational content remarkably dull. People were stabbed and killed in horrific train accidents; there was fairly detailed infidelity not to mention vicious domestic abuse; secrets and lies; addiction and gambling. Yet, somehow, it all felt sort of flatly theoretical.

I'm not sure how to explain this. Let's try this: If this novel were a dissertation rather than fiction, its thesis would have been something like "Humans, for all their appearances of civility, are in fact brute animals waiting for their chance to express themselves as they really are. The primary form said expression takes is murder." I have no problem with this, in principle; the problem is, to extend the metaphor, that this novel reads as though Zola was trying to bend all his evidence to fit his thesis. La Bete Humaine displays all of the elements of both a good read and a disturbing look into what lies beneath society's veneer of self-control, yet somehow the story wasn't convincing and the psychology dreary and mundane.

Jacques, a young man who becomes involved with a murderess and who struggles constantly with his own urges to commit murder, is the main focus of Zola's psychological study. Initially, this study comes across as fairly promising; early on we're told that
He had wanted to kill her, kill her, oh God! He gasped in agony as he thought that he would go and kill her in her bed, now, if he went back there. Nor would it matter if he had no weapon, it would avail him nothing to hold his head in his arms and try to forget - he realized that the male in him, independent of his own will, would push open the door and strangle that girl, lashed on by the instinct for rape and the urge to avenge the age-old outrage. (p. 69)
Yet, Zola's analysis never goes any further than this, and the stuff about "the male in him" and "avenging the age-old outrage" (never explained) is simply repeated throughout the novel, almost exactly verbatim each time.

Structurally, the novel is also problematic as Zola himself likely knew. His original plan had been to write two novels - one about the lives of those devoted to working for the railways, and the other to a close study of a murderer doomed by heredity to madly carry out his base inclinations. This structural divisiveness while certainly problematic, mightn't have been fatal if Zola's psychological diversions had been compelling or if the lurid, dirty stuff had seemed at all convincing; as they weren't, the structural discord simply contributed to the novel's failure to engage me in any way.

2010 sure isn't beginning well re: my ability to choose good books for myself. But there's naught to do but forge on and keep reading I guess.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Nobody shouts "I'm Spartacus!" anymore

Andre Jordan is right - nobody shouts "I'm Spartacus!" anymore, there's no chutzpah left in the world; also, no one under 50 has ever watched Spartacus, except me, and so people may not know to shout it at the appropriate time.

This book is the opposite of Spartacus, in spite of its lament. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now is a book comprising a lot of Jordan's drawrings and some accompanying text. It's about being horribly depressed and shy and awkward and fed up and lonely; it is mostly very charming with some hilarious bits and and some very, very sad bits.

Mostly the sad bits manage to somehow be cute which is both kind of a relief and kind of doesn't sit right with me. In any case, I can't show any of his pics here but you can check out the kind of things Jordan does on his website.

Confession: I feel a little guilty about posting about this book, although not because there's anything wrong with it; there isn't. It's just that it's awfully short; I feel like I'm cheating a bit when I post about books that have taken me much less than an hour to read in their entirety.

And the reason I read this book at all is that hubby and I went wandering and book browsing last night and while he perused his book I did not peruse mine (Zola) but assiduously avoided it as much as possible by reading Jordan's yellow tome and browsing a stack of cookbooks. (Oh my god, Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen - WANT).

You see, my first date with Zola is turning into a dud, and a dud that seems like it's going to go on forever and I can't extricate myself from it because he just keeps talking at me and I can't find a graceful segue to use as my exit. Sigh. But more of that soon, if I can drag myself through to the end.

Sunday 24 January 2010

A broom of one's own

Equal Rites is the third book, chronologically anyway, in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series - I don't believe these books need to be read in order. I'm doing so because if I don't, I'll lose track of what I've already read. I've had to create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the Wodehouse, after all.

I am in the middle of three other books and should have spent my reading time this weekend on them, but yesterday I felt quite ill and wanted something very cozy and silly to get me through. Happily, Pratchett was exactly the right choice. An easier read ne'er there was nor could be than Equal Rites, and 'twas was most enjoyable.

This third installment tells the story of young Eskarina Smith who, as the result of an administration error of sorts, becomes destined to be the Discworld's first ever female wizard. Before she can even be accepted for training in the "boys only" Unseen University, however, she must somehow prove that she's worthy of the exception being made. Walking right in and declaring herself gets her laughed out onto the street, so she finds a way in through both literal and figurative back doors by disguising herself as a maid and her wizard's staff as a broom...and after a great deal of magical duelling and hi jinx and offended proprieties and "Oh I say, really"s, Esk (with the help of Granny Weatherwax, her witchy tutor) breaks the glass ceiling and Unseen University has to change its plumbing so girls may be admitted on a trial basis.

I have told you a great deal about the plot but don't worry; in my experience, Pratchett novels don't require at all the element of surprise to be enjoyable. Like Wodehouse novels, the joy of Pratchett's work is in how the tell is told, not of what the tale is told. Pratchett's a clever one, he is.

And now back to the solemnity and stress of Zola's La Bête Humaine...which to me is reading like a French version of a mash up of Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina. Weird? Kind of, yes.

Friday 22 January 2010

The Sarazens head without New-gate: other book-sellers scare me

Yes, I should be working. Want to know why I'm not? Well, there are several reasons but the primary one is that the furnace in the store is broken again and I'm freezing half to death. I am drinking hot tea and trying to keep my fingers from turning blue by typing...a shiny new blog post just for you!

Today I'm going to discuss my most central, deep in the belly, irrational fear associated with being a book-seller: talking to other book-sellers. As you know from previous posts of The Sarazens head, there is sometimes good cause to fear the customers. Also, today, there is good reason to fear the physical space the shop inhabits, *she typed with shivery hands and chattering teeth*.

But other book-sellers. Every time I talk to one, I become certain that it must surely be only a matter of weeks or months before not only has my bookstore gone bankrupt, but I am also reduced to begging for change on the windy and heartless corner of Yonge and Bloor.

When book-sellers get together they, of course, discuss the trade and I'm often confronted with how differently my compatriots and I do things in the losing but glorious battle. I've been questioned, with great concern, for my general refusal to stock up on piles of remaindered popular books; I've been looked at askance for taking in any books from the public; I've been laughed at for selling online the same books I house in the bricks and mortar storefront. Selling mass market fiction, especially romances, is particularly poo-pooed and apparently a sure sign that I am not even close to being a serious book-seller.

I don't think it's a bad thing that I can afford to sell stuff I like by also selling stuff I mock in my black, black heart; after all, a shop stocking only books I like would be very small, relatively speaking. It would be ridiculously narrowly focused, as there would be no sections at all for things like Science, Nature, Poetry, textbooks, or, say, the perpetually popular New Age section. Nonetheless, in the face of hearing about what other, apparently successful, shop owners do that I don't do, I feel like giving myself a good whipping and whimpering, "I'm not worthy! Mea culpa!"

In the day-to-day, I don't feel as plagued by doubts as a puberty-stricken 14-year old with braces, bad skin, and pants that sit much too high on the waist; I feel generally fine in the day-to-day.

Indeed, one thing I feel entirely confident about: selling online is a good and necessary thing. Several months ago, hubby and I took a road trip to Peterborough, where he did his undergraduate degree. Water Street boasts, I think, five bookstores in a row, which to me constitutes bookish heaven. In one, I asked the proprietor if he sold his books online and he vehemently, nay angrily, insisted he did not and never would because it was a sham and the people online clearly didn't know what books were worth, given how different his prices were from theirs. The fact is, the advent and great success of online book-selling has changed what books are worth. Now, book-sellers can get a much more fine-tuned sense of what's out there and thus price accordingly.

I personally am quite resistant to moving away from physical books but I don't think all technological advances are bad for the book trade. One of the things I love about how easy it is to search and buy books online is that you can get a book you might have spent your whole life looking for and never finding.

But wait, I'm supposed to be focusing on what a quivering mass of insecurities I am, not getting excited about how damned cool the online book-selling world is. Ahem.

Oh never, mind. I do cringe and pray for mercy when book-sellers come in and we chat but I'm loving life, even in the bowels of hungry, desperate January.

Nowhere near Las Vegas
And besides making available books one might never otherwise find, by selling online I'm exposed to all kinds of (to me) very cool minutiae re: place and street names. When I was a kid, I used to thumb my way through maps and atlases just looking for the coolest and weirdest names of places, an obsession that may have died but was revived when I was 14; forced onto a west-coast road trip, I woke up out of a bored backseat nap to find we were driving through a place in British Columbia called Spuzzum, I shit you not.

Since I've been in business, the coolest, beyond cool, thing I've seen is this: Someone, somewhere in the US (state forgotten), lives on ELECTRIC AVENUE. It must be so rockin' to live on Electric Avenue. Also, did you know, there's a town in Mississippi called, simply, University? How about Mechanicsville, VA? How about Hester's Crossing in Round Rock, TX? I REALLY want Hester's Crossing to be linked to The Scarlet Letter. Unlikely, but possible; in Kingston, there's a whole little subdivision with streets named only after kick-ass authors like Dickens.

Why I'm ultimately cool with how this shop does its own thing
I just had two exchanges with customers, while writing up this post, that reminded me of why I'm good with having a gigantic variety of books here - the variety of books out there really does reflect the variety of tastes readers have.

One guy came in and asked me about 19th century lit; he got terribly excited when I told him about my newborn love affair with Anthony Trollope because he proclaimed Trollope to be the best writer in English, ever! He talked about Trollope affecting Tolstoy (apparently, The Prime Minister clearly influenced Anna Karenina). He left, incredibly pleased to have found someone who really likes Trollope.

Not long after he left, another fella came in looking for some classics. He lamented having pretty much exhausted his favourite period, also 19th-century English; yet, when I asked him about Trollope he said, he'd tried but found him too inferior to Hardy and Eliot to bear!

I may have convinced them both to give Zola a try, based on the fact that I'm currently reading Zola and talk like I know something. This is ironic because I'm finding La Bête Humaine to be a strange one, by turns brilliant and scattered. But more of that anon. For now, back to the, I mean working.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

William Blake, mystic

For my birthday back in August, hubby bought me what I consider to be the coolest book I own: William Blake's The Complete Illuminated Books. This very large and beautiful volume has been put together by Thames & Hudson via The William Blake Trust. It reproduces in all their lurid details and colours, Blake's hand-printed books, and in their original sizes; thus, the 1794 version of There is No Natural Religion is exceedingly tiny (each plate is about 2.25 x 2.5 inches), whereas the later, more fully developed, prophecies like Europe and Jerusalem fill the pages at about 7 x 9 inches.

I am very, very slowly making my way through this tome. As of tonight, I have read (repeatedly) All Religions Are One, There is No Natural Religion, and the Songs of Innocence half of Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

"God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is"
There is No Natural Religion is one of Blake's first attempts at marrying textual and visual art. The artwork in his first two books is rather drab compared to what comes later, beginning with Songs of Innocence and of Experience; however, his mystical leanings were alive and well all along, it seems.

"God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is" is Blake's, to me, startling conclusion to the concise and extremely deceptively simple "Principles" which lead up to it in There is No Natural Religion. I could not wrap my head around how he got to this profound and world-exploding conclusion - I know how to deal with the principles of logic (or something like it), not the principles of mystical prophecy.

While reading these early books of Blake's I had a feeling I'd been there before, and indeed I had, in a way. Reading the Tao Te Ching years ago I would find myself approaching some kind of understanding of Lao Tzu's thoughts but the moment I realized I almost understood, that comprehension would slip away. The same has been happening with Blake and I fancy I can hear him and Lao Tzu laughing, not unkindly, at my mental stumbling.

"And I wrote my happy songs / Every child may joy to hear"
In his "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, Blake and/or his narrator describes how the pastoral poems in this book were demanded of him by a cherub listening to him sing. As the editor notes, these poems, while often understood to be for children, are really about (spiritual) childhood and its relationship to Christ.

I've taught a number of the poems in this collection, along with their counterparts from Experience, which I haven't read in its entirety yet; but plucking these poems from the illuminated context in which Blake imagined them, and divorced from the larger book is, I realize now, to do them the greatest of disservices. Reading Songs of Innocence as it was fully imagined by Blake has been a rather exhausting experience, and not just because I am not accustomed to considering visual artistic meaning, much less when it's fused with textual meaning.

Songs of Innocence is, in part, another explication of that shocking conclusion from There is No Natural Religion, that is, that God descends into the human rather than expecting the human to transcend itself and ascend to Him. In particular, Blake imagines the most lovely and uplifting incarnations of such divine condescension, especially in poems such as "The Divine Image":
To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our Father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
When Mercy, Love and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
A lovely sentiment. And yet, the dark side of God's descent into the human, which I believe will lie at the heart of Songs of Experience, seems already to be present here and in other poems which embody this idea(l).

The final stanza, as much as it seems to embrace a sort of divine acceptance, in fact reiterates difference and alienation by the enumeration of those not generally inclined towards Christ. The whole point of the divine image is that it contains everything, and there are no distinctions; and yet, Blake insists upon the distinctions at the end.

"But oh my soul is white!"
Blake's "The Little Black Boy" is one of his most famous poems and more completely displays this curious almost denial of his own mystical image of difference subsumed in the divine image. Here it is, in full:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but oh my soul is white!
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereaved of light.

My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And, sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And, pointed to the east, began to say:

"Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives His light, and gives His heat away,
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.

"And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

"For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice,
Saying, 'Come out from the grove, my love and care
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice',"

Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy

I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our Father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
Given England's involvement in the slave trade when this poem was penned, it would be all too easy to assume that Blake was just racist, his attitudes reflective of his time. But as I'm no fan of the biographical criticism, it makes more sense to me to consider how this poem and "The Divine Image" function in relation to the ideas of innocence on the one hand, and what it means for God to become more human so that humans might become more divine on the other.

Innocence is generally, in this book, shown to be just as benign and beautiful as you'd imagine it to be. Yet, it also allows for an unthinking acceptance of the status quo, whether that be in relation to racial difference or, in the case of "The Chimney Sweeper" (of which there's a different version in the Experience section), abusive child labour practices. Even as Blake sets up the terms of Innocence as the way in which the childlike may draw closer to the divine, he begins to hint at the ways in which God's descent towards us cannot help but sully the divine.

Where Blake's emphasis on racial difference falls - in the acknowledgment of humanity's fallen nature (in particular late 18th-century English humanity's fallen nature) or an unwitting example of it - I don't know. I do know that in spite of the critical response I can't help having to such moments, I am still and always entirely enraptured by his use of language; and the yearning for a divine presence I don't particularly feel a need for becomes personally and immediately recognizable to me when I read his work.

Blake's amazing conclusion to There is No Natural Religion, in other words, is not simply an unmitigated kindness on the part of God; it is also necessarily an acknowledgement of how humanity will drag its own ideal down into the muck. But I'm basing this in part on what I recall of the segments of Songs of Experience that I've read in the past, and so I remain open to revising this theory altogether.

Also, I acknowledge that I tend to present the obvious as though it's a gift of the Magi and for this, I beg and rely upon your compassion for my intellectual floundering.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

The siren song of history

The fourth installment in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories, Sword Song, is a lot like the previous three books; this is both good and bad. This is good because I decided to read this novel in part because I wanted to know pretty much exactly what I was getting and to take satisfaction in a yarn told if not fantastically, at least with enough workman-like skill to be inoffensive. I got this with Sword Song.

However, as the series wears on - the fifth, The Burning Land, was published in late 2009 - I'm beginning to become less satisfied with Cornwell's reliability. I think I would, in the end, like a little more spirit here. Cornwell has clearly hit upon a formula that works for him but I would prefer my books to be written with at least the appearance of a little more investment and energy than Sword Song displays. The problem is that while all of the Saxon books have great moments, the great moments are much more concentrated near the beginning of the series than near the end of it.

Sword Song was, in fact, an absolutely irresistible page-turner during its climax - I've spent the afternoon ignoring customers and desperately turning pages to reach its conclusion. But the majority of the book did not grab me this way; in fact, I've spent the past few days snarking to my husband (who's also reading this series) about how I know Cornwell can do better, because I saw him do so in the earlier installments (the first two in particular). Sadly, all hubby can do is agree; he will definitely read the fifth book and I likely will too. But it may be like watching the 53rd season of Friends - a bad idea with a depressing outcome.

What Cornwell's Saxon Stories have done for me beyond providing reading pleasure, is got me taking the leap into reading actual history, instead of just historical novels or verye olde literature. All the talk in Sword Song of the Roman ruins scattered throughout England has inspired me to order some books from the library on the Romans' invasion and settlement of the area. I'm really looking forward to these books but I'm also afraid for three reasons:

1) I'm worried that some punk will have made notes, etc in the books and I'll have to send them back and they'll be the only available copies. This has happened to me a number of times with library books. I cannot abide reading books that some little shit has used as a school book. Not only does the book crime drive me towards apoplexy and murder, but more importantly, I can't read books with writing in them because it reminds me of school and while I feel awesome, it's still too soon. The year 3451 may still be too soon for that one.

2) I'm afraid of the non-fiction and its bad writing. Yes, I know that non-fiction is by no means necessarily badly written. But I fear that the majority of people who read non-fiction don't care about the writing, only the information or ideas presented, and so non-fiction writers are allowed to get away with too much. But I will try to remain focused and calm and open-minded. And I'll have my blankie nearby in times of intense stress.

3) Having never studied history nor really read any, how will I know if the books I've chosen are accurate, well-researched books? How will I know that these authors didn't just make stuff up? You could say that if they reference a lot of other history books, then we know they've done their research - but how does anyone know if those books aren't made up? These are questions I only rarely came up against in my work in literature, in part because I worked on texts about which very little record, if any, existed. This was freeing. But if history is your business...?

This was a major issue once while I was in grad school. Back in the day, my cohorts and I had to write comprehensive exams. One was a specialist in each of the areas we would be focusing on for our research, and the other was a generalist exam we all had to write. The generalist exam consisted of being able to do some close readings and memorizing thousands of often interesting but rarely useful factoids about various aspects of the history of English literature.

I recall the students in the year ahead of us advising the use of The Oxford Companion to English Literature instead of some other book, which I've forgotten. Another student and I asked why they recommended the Oxford over the other and they said it was more factually accurate. We asked them in what ways, how they knew this, etc - and they didn't have answers. That scared the shit out of me just a little.

Anyway, we muddled through with our Oxfords but I've heard that the latest edition of the Oxford Companion is a bit of disaster - full of glaring omissions, such as David Mitchell. Um, hello? The man's fifth novel is out this summer, he's been nominated for the Booker every time he's published (or almost every time), and he's widely considered by many to be Britain's shiniest of shiny literary wunderkinds. See why I'm scared of history?

In spite of this alarmist rant, I will still attempt the history books because I want to know something about the earliest of English history; something that doesn't come from a Cornwell book. Except for referring to the part in the Bible about how to find out if a lady has whored herself out to someone not her husband (OT, Numbers, Ch. 5), Cornwell never reveals his sources.

Nonetheless, I will surrender myself to the call of history and follow, even if those are some sharp rocks over there near that waterfall and I can't think straight because of some lovely choir serenading me nearby...

Friday 15 January 2010


Oh, bother. I've somehow managed, again, to go and read a novel I didn't really like by an author I love. This hardly seems fair. Dostoevsky, Soseki - heroes of mine, both of them. What next, you malicious dog-turd of a universe, will David Mitchell's new book be a stinker? Will Stephanie Meyer win the Nobel for literature? Will Cormac McCarthy write 5 complete sentences in a row?

Me not liking a Dostoevsky novel and THEN also not liking a Soseki novel can herald no less than the end of days. Surely, it can be no coincidence that something that looks somewhat like a locust features on the cover of this Soseki debacle, Botchan: A Modern Classic.

I know. This is sacrilege. Soseki has been considered Japan's best author for the last 100 years; Botchan continues to be his most beloved work. But I didn't like it. I agree with the translator's admission that "its phrasing and structure are often loose and bumpy" (p. 6). I don't, however, feel charmed by it the way most people seem to be and J. Cohn tells me I should be as well. I found the narrator's moralizing to be infinitely yawn-worthy when not mildly annoying, and his characterizations of his fellow teachers just....pedestrian and predictable. There's almost nothing I can abuse in a heartless but hilarious way here. Double disappointment.

In case you're wondering what Botchan is about: a young man from Tokyo, full of energy and principles if not brains, finds himself exiled to the country as a school teacher. The book chronicles what little punk-ass bastards his students are and what slimy shitheads the majority of his coworkers are. Botchan should bode unending hilarity. Dammit! I smiled sardonically to myself once while reading this book! The rest of the time, I was feeling grateful that it was so short.

I feel terrible that this is how I'm completing my participation in Bellezza's lovely Japanese Literature Challenge the Third. I really thought that if I chose a Soseki novel, I couldn't fail to read something that would add to the love-fest that the JLC3 has been. I especially wanted this to be the case because not only did I not read 6 novels for this challenge as I'd planned, but I also didn't even pick up The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon as I was so looking forward to doing. Le sigh.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Looking like the innocent flower, but being the serpent under it

I am sure I've long known of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's famous sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret (1862); indeed, I'm sure I memorized some ridiculous and useless factoid about it for my general comprehensive exam back in my grad school days. Whatever said factoid was (perhaps that Braddon penned 85 books in her lifetime!!!! My gawd, Wodehouse was positively amateurish in comparison to her!), I've forgotten it and Braddon has not been on my radar for a good long time. I was reminded of her and this novel, however, by Rohan Maitzen discussing her inclusion of Lady Audley's Secret in a class devoted entirely to Victorian sensation literature, which sounds like perhaps the coolest class I've never taken. It seemed time to push Braddon to the front of the reading queue.

And I'm very happy I did. Lady Audley's Secret is sensational and lurid in the most enjoyable ways. The thoughtfulness and artistry of her more famous near contemporaries such as Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy are not in evidence here, but Braddon knew very well how to pen an irresistible page-turner. I was thoroughly swept away by this novel even as I recognized that her writing wasn't always as good as it could be.

Besides the bare bones of the plot being compelling, I appreciated Braddon's choice of Robert Audley as the most unlikely of amateur detectives. Forced into solving the mystery of his friend George Talboys' mysterious disappearance, Robert resists with all the force of his comfortably lazy personality; resistance is, of course, futile though for he is drawn relentlessly on until he eventually solves the mystery. The suffering he experiences at the loss of his friend is not outstripped by his suffering at having to act so concertedly and towards such unpleasant ends, but it comes close.

Warning! Gestures toward plot spoilers throughout!
On the back of my edition of this novel, the anonymous copy writer informs me that this tale "subtly undermined the Victorian Myth that female self-assertion was a form of insanity." I must confess that this occurred so subtly as to be undetectable by me.

I think that in a case wherein in a character changes her identity, abandons her child, attempts murder (repeatedly!), and pretends to love her husband is altogether too extreme a set of self-assertions to be subtly engaged with much of anything.

Further, the crimes and sins which the titular lady commits are performed rather too behind-hand to be properly called self-assertion; rather, what we see here is the Renaissance art of dissembling practiced to astonishingly sordid and cruel lengths. Assertion, properly speaking, almost never figures into my lady's strategies and devices. She is much too careful of her designs to make anyone suspicious by clearly stating her purpose in anything - except, in extreme circumstances, with Robert Audley, her nephew by marriage.

Yes, the very resistant Robert described above is the only one who turns out to be a match for the diabolically clever Lady Audley. They ultimately find themselves locked in a mortal battle of sorts, but female self-assertion still doesn't seem to me to be a dominant theme in this novel. Rather, what seems more central are two ultimately connected issues: 1) The attractions and limits of homo-social (if not homoerotic) friendship between men; and 2) The fear of women's sexual power in a society that has tried to contain women's sexuality by sublimating it into idealized domesticity.

For Robert, these two confusing aspects of social interaction become disturbingly focused in his search for his missing friend and the lady he blames for his disappearance. Robert's notions of domestic bliss tend to focus primarily on the company of other men; in particular, his uncle Sir Michael Audley is for Robert both a father figure and the ideal of domestic warmth and welcome. Being with him is for Robert being in the proverbial safe bosom of family. As well, upon his return from Australia, George becomes in Robert's mind the ideal of a domestic counterpart:
The snug rooms in Fig-tree Court seemed dreary in their orderly quiet to Robert Audley upon this particular evening. He had no inclination for his French novels, though there was a packet of uncut romances, comic and sentimental, ordered a month before, waiting his pleasure upon one of the tables. He took his favourite meerschaum and dropped into his favourite chair with a sigh.

"It's comfortable, but it seems so d-d lonely to-night. If poor George were sitting opposite to me, or — or even George's sister — she's very like him — existence might be a little more endurable. But when a fellow has lived by himself for eight or ten years he begins to be bad company."

He burst out laughing presently, as he finished his first pipe.

"The idea of my thinking of George's sister," he thought; "what a preposterous idiot I
am." (p. 208)
What I find fascinating about this passage is how unclear it is in Robert's mind where the line between George and his sister Clara is, in relation to Robert's domestic happiness. But his contentment with George's presence in this way was established long before Robert ever meets Clara, and so his minor and amused uneasiness cannot, it seems to me, reflect the idea of George there but rather with the idea of Clara as a replacement for George.

Robert, however, doesn't actually express any serious concern about his affection for George; on the other hand he certainly does express anxiety about women's power over men, both in relation to the novel's villainess Lady Audley and in relation to Clara, the latter of whom in no way behaves in dangerous or diabolical ways.

Caught up in his unwilling detective work, Robert has a telling dream about Lady Audley:
In those troublesome dreams he saw Audley Court, rooted up from amidst the green pastures and the shady hedgerows of Essex, standing bare and unprotected upon that desolate northern shore, threatened by the rapid rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to descend and crush the house he loved. As the hurrying waves rolled nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction. (p. 246)
The mermaid is a curious symbol here for it both reflects the threat of Lady Audley's sexual power and yet seeks to disperse the idea of the sexual into visions alien and mythical. In an attempt to explain Clara's increasing emotional hold on him, Robert engages in a similar sort of neutralizing of female sexuality and the power it contains:
"What am I in her hands?" he thought. "What am I in the hands of this woman, who has my lost friend's face and the manner of Pallas Athene? She reads my pitiful, vacillating soul, and plucks the thoughts out of my heart with the magic of her solemn brown eyes. How unequal the fight must be between us, and how can I ever hope to conquer against the strength of her beauty and her wisdom?" (p. 258)
The important difference in these two passages is that Lady Audley's sexual power is dehumanized, made monstrous; Clara's sexual power is erased through his Petrarchan-esque elevation of her to the status of a goddess. But in both cases, the fascination of these two women is not allowed to be represented for what it actually is - their power to control men mentally and emotionally via the physical, tellingly represented in both cases as forms of attack.

All this is a rather drawn-out way of saying I enjoyed Lady Audley's Secret both as simply a rollicking good read and a book that provides fodder for those inclined towards literary analysis. I recommend! And now I'm going to go read Rohan's posts on this book to remind myself of how far off the mark and pedestrian I've been in my musings. :) See her posts here and here.

Friday 8 January 2010

The more glaring the absurdity, the more strongly I believed in it

The title of this post is a quotation (p. 246) from Dostoevsky's 1875 novel The Adolescent (sometimes also known in English as The Raw Youth), and reflects the dangerous and wholehearted naivety of the book's narrator, Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky.

Dostoevsky never does anything by halves, so he mercilessly and minutely describes the painful and prolonged repercussions of Arkady's immaturity, selfishness, and stupidity; he does this specifically in relation to a compromising letter written by the beautiful Katerina Nikolaevna. How Arkady has come to possess this letter, why everyone is desperate to get their hands on it, and what it means for those who want it, are at the heart of Dostoevsky's penultimate novel.

A pretty basic concept, but Dostoevsky's novel was, to me, shockingly hard to follow and the revelation of Important Things generally much too portentously represented. A large part of why the convoluted plot was so difficult to keep track of is that, entirely unlike his other works (according to my previous experience with him), the characters in The Adolescent are so vaguely drawn as to be, at points, indistinguishable. And if you're having trouble differentiating between Anna Andreevna and Katerina Nikolaevna - arch enemies at war over a rich old prince! - then something's gone very wrong.

This novel, of course, is filled with those lengthy meditations on humanity's great failings and its great potential that characterize Dostoevsky's novels and, indeed, are integral to making The Brothers Karamazov (to me) probably the greatest novel ever written. For example, here's Versilov expounding on his great vision for the future of humankind as it transcends its belief in and reliance upon an externalized divinity:
I imagine to myself...that the battle is over and the fighting has subsided. After the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm has come, and people are left alone, as they wished: the great former idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like that majestic, inviting sun in Claude Lorrain's painting, but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. My dear boy, I've never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly; they would hold hands, understanding that they alone were now everything for each other. The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly... (pp. 470-71)
Gorgeous, hair-raising, painfully naive and beautifully inspiring precisely for being so. Yet, such compelling meditations seemed somehow unconnected from the nitty gritty of the actual plot in The Adolescent, whereas in the other Dostoevsky books I've read, they were absolutely and perfectly necessary to one another.

I think the problem, in the end, is that Dostoevsky's vision for this novel appears to have been, to my surprise, that it would function as a sort of exploration of what it means to write fiction. The majority of the book, which comprises Arkady's "Notes" on the social disasters surrounding his possession of Katerina's letter is, in the end, commented on by a character mentioned but never "used" in the novel - he reads the "Notes" and his response to Arkady is all about how they could function as the basis of a literary work and what it means to be create literary art. This epilogue was very awkwardly done, in my opinion, and seemed to further diffuse rather than unify the book's disparate elements discussed above.

Overall, The Adolescent wasn't satisfying but it had such profound and beautiful moments that I couldn't bring myself to stop reading it even as I found myself more irritated than impressed. But perhaps, had I read The Adolescent before I read The Brothers Karamazov, I would have adored the former; this is the risk for the literary genius - that his or her readers will read their best work first, condemning everything else to comparative mediocrity.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

It's like kicking a puppy in the face, and by "puppy" I mean "book"

I'm afraid this isn't a review, my friends. I am approaching the conclusion of Dostoevsky's The Adolescent, finally, but it may be a couple more days before I write about it. I feel like my reading lately resembles running through a gigantic vat of wet cement. My feet are very heavy, reading-wise. In part, the problem is that I don't LOVE this book. I know! Dostoevsky is supposed to be a god; he's generally been my personal god ever since I became so emotionally stressed by Crime and Punishment that I became ill; but I'm not really feeling it, more of which anon. I feel like a bad reader. What a lame moral judgment to visit on oneself, and what a lame(r) thing to admit. But there it is.

I barely read over the holidays. I slept like a 14-year old going through a major growth spurt. I cooked, and baked, and ate A LOT. I spent times with friends, during those short intervals when I was awake and coherent. I read, a little. I like to imagine that if I had been gushing over the Dostoevsky, I would have read a great deal more, but I'm really not sure as I haven't mastered the art of reading while being unconscious. In fact, this morning, before I began work at 11, was the first significant chunk of time I've found for hunkering down with my large and mysteriously water-stained tome. I sat in my favourite coffee shop and drank delicious, evil coffee and read and sometimes looked out at the snow and lo, was very happy indeed.

However, all is not roses and pink puppy dogs in bookland. For one thing, January is a terrible month in the book-selling world. Even with a sale on, I'm getting fewer than 10 people in the store each day and they're not all buying. I'm not panicking, as it was just like this last January. Yet, it is a little gruesome and hubby and I won't be going out for dinner again any time soon.

Also, and this bothers me more than my slow sales in the shop; in fact, it makes me want to punch someone in the neck: Apparently, if I want to fly on an aeroplane into the U.S. of A., I won't be able to take a book with me because of all the new security measures following that Christmas bomb + airplane + security fail in Amsterdam debacle.

I'm really hoping that this is just a blip that will be clarified and worked out. I don't know if I'll be willing to fly somewhere if I can't bring my owned damned book. I'm happy to forgo bringing food, drink, electronic devices, MY EPI PEN, pretty much anything; I'm almost reconciled to pervs taking x-rays of me under my clothes to see if I'm wearing plastic explosives. But no book? I don't know.

If I knew I could get a super awesome book that exactly suited my current reading desires on the other side of security, I might suck it up - but the bookstores in airports are soulless, dead places, places where one cannot be sure of finding even one passable read. I know this. I spent a lot of time in an airport bookstore on my way up north trying to find ANYTHING. I did find something - a book someone'd clearly left behind - but as I couldn't prove that definitively, store m.f.'s made me pay for it, even though it wasn't in their database. So I fear that not only will I not be going to NYC this spring as planned, but that I may never go to the U.S. again. Dammit, The Strand, The Strand!!

Also, a low point in bookstoreland: today, I sold a book called Judaism for Dummies. No wonder people worry about the state of publishing and the death of the book. Don't ask me why I had this book in stock in the first place; I may have to kill you if you do.