August Reading: Catton, Wharton, Moore, Robinson

august 2013

August, August, August… disappearing into the rear-view mirror of the year, always the saddest sensation. Gone the sun, gone the skip and bounce in the day, gone the time for reading.

I am now firmly stuck in the middle part of life where August means school holidays, which means a couple of weeks away somewhere hot, which means camping and a pool or beach and the opportunity to read unencumbered by home life and academic/journalistic imperatives, while the kids divebomb around me. But I can read what I want.

What I took away with me this year was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (sadly leaving behind Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers because of space considerations), and three paperbacks from my Myopic/Misogynist reading list of women writers: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

The Luminaries, in a way, is the perfect intelligent person’s holiday read. It is a mystery story (keeps you reading), and a meticulously built historical fiction (allows you to drift away into a fully-imagined, fully-upholstered reverie), but it is also presented via a structure as intricate and labyrinthine as a spider’s web (you need to have the time to concentrate). Like the other ‘big book’ on the Man Booker longlist, Richard House’s The Kills, it wouldn’t necessarily be something you’d want to read in snippets, tired, at bedtime. Both are fractured narratives, with various versions of events orbiting a ‘truth’ that the reader is tasked with putting together themselves.

Of course, the risk with this – with all mystery stories, i.e. with all stories that include the past as a dimension to be explored – is that the myriad possible ‘truths’ thrown up in the earlier sections of the book may well be tastier meat than the ‘true’ truth exposed at the end. The difference between The Luminaries and The Kills is that the former does more or less have a single ‘true’ sequence of events that lies beneath the mystery (albeit with a few unanswered questions or conundrums) whereas The Kills is more ambiguous and allusive, more Lynchian (or, to be a snide about it, Donnie Darko-esque), harder to pin down. You get the sense it’s not built to boil down to one ‘true’ meaning.

Reviews of The Luminaries have pointed out its allegiance to the C19th genre of The Novel of Sensation, and though I haven’t read much in that line it did remind me a lot of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, which is an important book in my personal library; having picked it from a Christmas stocking at, I don’t know, 10 or 11 or something, it was probably the first ‘grown-up’ book I read.

Catton’s book gave me the same thrill I had then, but both Catton and I are more sophisticated in our literary habits than I was then, which means that i) the revelation of the ‘truth’ was always going to be something of a disappointment, compared to the shudder of delight and dread I felt in 1980-whatever when Wilkie Collins drew back the veil and showed me how people – grown-ups – can live in supreme ignorance of their own guilt, and ii) Catton had worked to complicate matters by shattering the picture of events she had drawn up and then giving it to the reader, shard by shard. It is The Moonstone squared, where every suspect is also a detective.

The mechanics of its plot do match and suit the mechanics of holiday reading, where every page is a turn of the wheel towards the final revelation, the turning of the pages somehow driving the engine of the book. However, holiday reading has its own pitfalls:

Without enforced breaks the like of which intrude into normal, home reading, you work through the book as you would a bag of sweets, each paragraph merely the pretext for the next, the pleasure of each one lost the moment it touches your tongue, pages devoured rather than savoured. You gorge yourself on words. The sense of pacing slips and is lost. What is gone, too, with holiday reading, is the pleasure of coming back to a book, when you’ve had to put it down to go to work, or parent the kids, or whatever.

Reading, in normal life, is a treat. Time devoted to reading is precious time. When treats shower down, however, when all time is jewelled, some of the savour is lost. It’s just possible that, on holiday, lying on a lounger by a pool reading a book can feel almost like… a chore. Or maybe not quite like a chore, but that you are now at the mercy of the book, of its mechanics. You need to get to the end (you’ve got another book to read after it, after all) so why not speed up, skim down the page, skip?

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy The Luminaries, but that I never lost my awareness that I was lying on a lounger by a pool, reading it. This might seem a strange complaint. In truth, perhaps I was just disappointed by it in comparison to The Rehearsal, Catton’s first book, which was breathstoppingly good. This was merely excellent. Did it matter that I have no knowledge or interest in astrology, and much of the modernist construction of the novel seems to be built upon those foundations? Though compare: I didn’t share Mary Butts’ beliefs re: the grail, and that didn’t stop me enjoying Armed With Madness.

Compare, too, to Robinson’s Gilead, which was the final book I read on holiday, and which is riven through and through with Christian theology, which I disbelieve as thoroughly as I disbelieve astrology, but which I found myself, as I sunk into the book, caring about most deeply. Perhaps the difference is that the astrology doesn’t touch the characters or plot in The Luminaries; it is either imposed on them or underpins them, whichever way you want to look at it, but you can entirely take it or leave it: I left it. In Gilead, which as a novel takes the form of a letter written by an elderly, dying pastor, to his young son, for him to read when he is grown, the Christianity is inseparable from the character, the plot, the situation. So why did I find it so deeply moving?

Perhaps it’s just the residue of my quasi-Protestant upbringing. Nobody talks about being a lapsed Protestant as they do a lapsed Catholic, but it’s there all the same – and it’s no longer about guilt, or mothers, but about words, about the idea that if God can become word, then perhaps there is something divine, or some trace of it, in all words.

Bt it might also be that Marilynn Robinson’s writing is simply superb. The pace is slow, uninterested in revelation, and the engine of the book seems built to kick into neutral every now and then, to allow time between paragraphs for the reader to look up from the page, stare out of the window or up at the sky, and rework the words of the book, apply its message to their own life. In this, the novel is a work of philosophy (insofar as theology is a form of philosophy); it looks outside of its own pages (where The Luminaries is a beautiful snow globe, complete unto itself); more than that, it holds the reader’s gaze; its teleology invokes not the final page of its own narrative, but the pages of the reader’s life.

Read this:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try

Is that not wondrous? Does that not make the heart swell? Does it not make you wish it were so?

I suppose what I found so good about this book is that its theology met my philosophy halfway. I’d almost be tempted to believe a god who built the world and heaven in the manner described above, although of course he’d no longer be a Christian god.

And here we come back to that old paradox of art: that the things in books, and films, and songs, and plays, that make me cry, that move me, are the things I don’t believe in. It is beautiful, because it is a lie.

However, on holiday, I didn’t follow The Luminaries with Gilead, but with Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore, whose stories I have long loved, though I’ve never successfully read one of her novels. Anagrams was confusing, then, for the simple fact that the first quarter of it is in her Collected Stories. How does that work?

Well, it works by virtue of the fact that Anagrams is four short stories followed by one long story (or short novel) all about the same three characters – Benna, Gerald and Eleanor – but the characters are different in each of them. Or rather, their characters are the same, but their situations and relations change. Benna and Gerald are a couple in one, in the others they’re not, though they might have tried to have a fling once. Eleanor is a pretty straightforward female best friend in all of them. They are all versions of each other. If you wanted to be programmatic about this you could bring in questions of the Multiverse here, but it’s the great joy of Moore’s book that the reader is never once nudged in that direction. If they are all variations of each other, there is no indication of what the original tune might be or have been.

Beyond that, the book is light and frothy and caustic and hilarious all at the same time in that way that Lorrie Moore does so well. (I could be horribly reductive here and say: imagine Helen Simpson crossed with Anne Enright, though Moore’s humour is specifically North American and therefore, somehow, for us poor Brits, aspirational.) In its lightness, its frothiness, its humour, and its splendid contemporaneity – these people are us! they are us squared!– it was the perfect palate cleanser after The Luminaries. Because Lorrie Moore’s writing never takes itself seriously, when it hits hard it hits really hard. See what’s left when the laughter dries up.

What to say, then, about Edith Wharton?

The House is Mirth is so good. The writing is stately. The structure is immensely strong. It is an example to every writer about how to use character, how to use scenes. It is a lesson in timelessness. Be specific about your time, and its generality will shine through. Having laid out the social world of Old New York for its first half, there’s a wonderful, eye-opening moment in Book Two (the book was published in 1905) when the tennis-playing, fun-chasing nouveau riches appear on the scene, and you realise: the cast of The Great Gatsby have suddenly tumbled on-stage. Take this description of ‘new money’ socialite Mrs Hatch and her entourage:

Through this jumble of futile activities came and went a strange throng of hangers-on – manicures, beauty-doctors, hair-dressers, teachers of bridge, of French, of “physical development”: figures sometimes indistinguishable, by their appearance, or by Mrs Hatch’s relation to them, from the visitors constituting her recognized society.

The ordering of the list, the quote marks around physical development, the barbed commentary – we know where we are in the world of the book, and we know how to apply the lessons laid out there to world around us. Nothing has changed. That is the only lesson of history.

I found much to learn from The House of Mirth in terms of reading as a writer. Firstly, the interest in writing about people that you have no interest in. I realised, as I read it, that I was absorbed in the stories of a range of characters that dwelt entirely beyond my cares or interests. They still exist today, but so far as I know they live only in the pages of Tatler – rich idiots who go to big charity parties, who are rich in an obsolete sense, their money left over from older, more interesting stories. People I wouldn’t know how to judge.

But Wharton shows how their world works – and specifically, in the central plot point of the money ‘invested’ for young Lily Bart by rich, old, bad Gus Trenor, it show works against young women – and in doing so it… what? Humanises these awful people? explains them? excuses them? forgives them? Well, perhaps that’s the problem…

The other lesson of the book is marvellous uplift it gets from its structure when the scene shifts to the Riveria at the beginning of Book Two (the second of the book’s two more or less equal parts). The first Book had shown the intricacies of New York society in what seemed all of its claustrophobic intensity. There was a sense in the book of a limited number of options, and of how the rest of the novel would be a playing out of these options. Then, suddenly – whoosh! – you’re in Monte Carlo, and the characters (some of them, transplanted) are given a second wind. Everything seems different – or at least they seem to think so, Europe being Europe and New York New York as it for these people – and the narrative tumbles on in the bright Mediterranean light.

It doesn’t last, and there is something speedy and reductive about the second half of the book, as Lily descends ever more rapidly down through the social orders – and this comes across in, for instance, the scene where she is working as a milliner, making hats. You get the sense that Wharton just isn’t that interested in that world, and perhaps wouldn’t know how to make a truly interesting character out of someone from it. But by this point the structure of the book has its own momentum, and we are not far from the final, terrible end.

But it did make me think about my own (next) novel, which is an old finished novel ready to be revived. Don’t have a man come through a door with a gun. Transplant the entire cast to the Mediterranean… or somewhere else.

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