Friday 16 September 2011

Why I must never, ever, ever read (auto)biography again

Just a (hopefully) quick post on what I've been reading, and what I ought not to be reading so that I can read other things I want to read. Anthony Trollope and I are going to have to have a duel, that's all.

I had been enjoying my Victorian Literature project so much that I decided to read Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography in between fat Victorian novels, instead of something more contemporary.

I enjoyed the Autobiography very much, at first, for Trollope seemed to be rather endearing in his stiff-necked hilarity; e.g., finding himself wedged between two men at a gentlemen's club, who didn't know who he was but who were loudly complaining that Anthony Trollope over-used the same old characters in different novels, Trollope announced himself and then promised to kill one of his most famous characters dead the next weekand did! This made me really very happy.

But his hilarity died somewhere along the way, and he spent a lot of space coarsely (and dully, so dully) discussing in great detail the precise amounts of money he earned for each novel he published. I don't object to authors making a living via writing; it sounds rather delightful, in fact; it's that he was so specific about it. People who talk a lot about all the money they've made regardless of profession are tiresome.

What really appalled me, though, was that his commitment to never missing a deadline was so ruthless that he sent things off which he himself believed to be not very good. He was a great reader himself so I find it doubly shocking that he didn't appear to have an inkling of how rude that is to the readers that kept him in business! Trollope, damn your eyes, I thought we were going to be excellent friends. As it is, I'm now rather relieved that it'll be some time before I encounter one of your novels on my Vic Lit list.

This book hasDear gawd, please, make it briefly!put me off the Victorians altogether. (My reading comfort is rather like a delicate flower, or small and easily frightened woodland animal; any little upset can cause catastrophe.) Worse yet, my next Victorian novel is supposed to be Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond; that this was one of Trollope's favourite books of all time is making the problem harder to overcome.

It's not that I disliked Trollope entirely; but that doesn't seem to matter; much about the book was enjoyable, particularly his thoughts on his contemporary authors (although I completely disagree re: George Eliot). It seems that knowing almost anything about authors I like is potentially fatal. I thought it was just that Mishima was a whole packet of crazy unpleasantness; but no, the sad fact is that while I think the New Critics were unmitigated idiots, I actually don't want to really believe that authors actually exist(ed). Except for David Mitchell, of course.

In my non-Victorian lit-reading meantime, I have, of course, turned to my beloved and entirely reliable Ellis Peters for solace and healing. The Confession of Brother Haluin is the 15th chronicle of Brother Cadfael, and it's one of my favourites so far in the series, right up there with The Virgin in the Ice (book 4). Cadfael et al got to be very tolerant but Peters didn't, for a change, overuse her favourite adjective. There was snow and pain and death and remorse and more pain and lust and murder and redemption. A comforting, satisfying read, in part because it wasn't particularly surprising or suspenseful.

Reading Ellis Peters is like getting wrapped up in your favourite blanket and being given a bowl of your favourite comfort food. I'll be quite sad when I'm done the series (just four or five more little books to go).

Much more challenging was Junichiro Tanizaki's uber-famous novel of Japan near the end of the Second World War, The Makioka Sisters. A compatriot of mine in my MA year told me that this novel was like a George Eliot novel. Now, with that I can't agreebut that's because no one, as far as I know, has ever come close to replicating Eliot's profound ability to unpack her characters' characters.

But this by no means should imply that The Makioka Sisters is not an excellent book; it is an excellent book, truly. This story of four sisters trying to maintain old traditions of behaviour and sentiment in a world that's leaving them behind is by turns amusing, appalling, terrifying, and frustrating. And Tanizaki's skill at subtly cranking up the underlying anxiety as the events that lead to Japan's surrender is "set your teeth on edge" effective. Painful, yes; but Tanizaki also somehow maintains the compelling story-telling throughout. Just wonderful.

Finally, I just re-read a Renaissance slice and dice of the first order, a play I hadn't read in probably twelve years and which I did not remember at all: Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women.

My gawd, it is just so damned good. It is stunningly foul in its portrayal of human desire; people are truly a disgusting lot in Middleton's world view. I've never met such a compelling she-villain (Livia) in my explorations of the Renaissance drama (that I can remember; you can be damned sure I will be seeking out all the Middleton going in case I've missed and/or forgotten more amazingness of this lurid order). I am desperate to see this play performed; a double-header of it and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore might well constitute my idea of heaven on earth.

Just read it, trust me; and while you're doing so, try to think of who could do justice to a character like Livia. I can only imagine Angelina Jolie in five years or so, in one of those rare instances in which she doesn't simply phone in her performance.

Also, William C. Carroll's introduction was very compelling; it almost made me miss academia (in part because I met this prof at a conference once and he didn't know me at all but made a point of being really nice to me).

Right then, I'm all caught up. I'm back to The Gone Away World which I put down for awhile but am now rushing madly through again.