I’m coming out of a hectic and not entirely satisfying couple of weeks of reading. I finished the third volume of Proust on holiday, but didn’t have the fourth with me, which lost me impetus. Then the Booker longlist was announced and this sent me back to Ducks, Newburyport, which I had only dipped into but wanted very much to read. Then there was reading for work (variously, and for various reasons, Nick Harkaway, Don DeLillo) and then I read some short stories from the new editions of Granta and Lighthouse, and then one night I couldn’t work out what to read, so turned to Borges, which is my usual response to this problem, and that kept me going for a couple of nights. An unread secondhand copy of a Herman Hesse book, Klingsor’s Last Summer, beckoned when I wanted something to read in the bath, and I found a Hollinghurst in a charity shop I hadn’t read (The Sparsholt Affair) and read the opening pages of that on the train home. There’s a Penelope Fitzgerald re-read face-down and spine-open somewhere in the house. Then, yesterday, Toni Morrison died, so of course I picked up Beloved for the train home. Honestly, it’s a miracle I finish any books at all.
Here’s what I did read in July, however: three short novels by Mario Benedetti, a Uruguayan writer and poet who died in 2009 and is only now being translated into English. So far Penguin Modern Classics have given us Who Among Us?, The Truce and Springtime in a Broken Mirror. These were all wonderful, three broken-hearted love stories of one kind or another, two of them based around love triangles in which a woman leaves her husband for another man, the other featuring a middle-aged divorcee falling in love with a twenty-something woman working in his office.
So, yes, the vibe is melancholic-masculine, with not all but most of the telling coming from the men’s points of view, giving us the sort of pained, elegiac, romantic narrative that men might sneer at in a similar book written by a woman, and women might roll their eyes at when they read in a book written like this by a man. So there’s a risk that they are overly male-gazey, not a million miles from the kind of thing James Salter wrote at his best, though hopefully in a benign kind of way. (The casual homophobia in The Truce, in which the main character despairs when he learns one of his sons is gay, is harder to squint at.)
I certainly found all three books quite lovely and compelling and drank them down like long cold drinks on a hot day. (I reviewed one of them, Who Among Us?, for The Guardian.) In the review I point out that at least two of the books – Who Among Us? and Springtime in a Broken Mirror – make use of subtly destabilising narrative structures, giving the main characters opportunities to reframe and sometimes retell the events of the story in ways that are effective without being aggravatingly demonstrative. In terms of mood I’d perhaps also say that they have something of the at-a-distance melancholy of Yuko Tsushima’s slim books. I’d definitely recommend them – start with any of them, but why not Who Among Us? It’s the slimmest of the three, and the most seductive in its narrative play.
I absolutely loved Nan Shepherd’s influential nature-writing book The Living Mountain, about her lifelong love for – and built out of her lifelong knowledge of – the Cairngorms. The book was written during the second world war, but not published until 1973. Calling it ‘nature writing’ is somehow reductive, however, despite the beautiful descriptions of animals and especially birds: it seems clear that for her the Cairngorms transcend ‘nature’. Nor, really, is it ‘place writing’. The Cairngorms aren’t a “place”. When she is in them, the mountains become her whole world, so perhaps it should be called ‘world writing’. Continue reading
Two scenes from books I’ve read and now can’t place, and which niggle me for that reason. I write them down in the hope that someone can identify them for me – or that, if no one does, I can claim them for myself.
1. A scene in a stationery shop. We are in Europe, early or mid 20th Century, or perhaps that part of Midwest or northeastern America which once was Europe. The narrator, or protagonist, is on a return visit to the small town he has otherwise left behind. He is a young man now, or perhaps still just about a boy, in the last years of his teens. But probably a young man. The shop is old-fashioned, with a counter and shelves behind it. I don’t know what he is after: ink, or printer ribbons, but the girl, or young woman, behind the counter has to go up a ladder to reach it down for him. A step ladder. Shelves packed tight with the materials of writing – the protagonist must be a writer – that must be the point of the story. But, in truth, it is the girl or woman he has come to see. She was either his girlfriend, when he lived in the town, or his friend, or the object of his desire. She is what he might have aspired to, had he stayed – had he not left town to ‘become a writer’. Her father owns the shop. I don’t know if he is physically present in the scene, or only in spirit. I don’t know if the young woman, recognises the young man. I get the sense that he has come back half-hoping she will recognise him, that he can ‘take her away from here’, but also half-fearing the sight of what might have been, had he stayed – that his own doppelganger will be stood alongside her behind the counter. Will lay his hand on her arm, stare him out. I think I might be going beyond the bounds of the scene into my own concerns. In any case, it is an old story – the boy writing himself out of the ghetto, the woman as symbol of domestication. Here’s what you could have won. When what you have won is the endless loss of ‘being an artist’. I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.
2. This isn’t so much a scene as the whole premise or conceit of the story. A man is sent to prison. The prison is circular, like a wheel. It is built of stone, with stone walls radiating from the centre like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Each cell a segment, capped at its far end by the exterior wall. The spokes, however, turn, rotating clockwise above the stone floor. They turn slowly, moving millimetre by millimetre as they are pushed by the inmates. Soon after entering, they have moved enough that daylight is lost. This is their punishment, that their jail term is fixed by their communal efforts to push the walls until the wheel has come full circle and they can leave the way they came in. They never see another inmate, but can hear them. It sounds like bad Kafka, or Borges, but I can’t find it in them, and I don’t want to Google it, for fear of what I might find.