Blurbs! What do they do? Do they do things? Let’s find out!*

Finished “Look at Me” by Anita Brookner yesterday, and rolling it over in my mind.  If I had to describe this book to someone, how would I do it?  If I just said a few sentences about the story — it’s about a young woman living a prematurely staid solo life, who seizes an opportunity to join the entourage of a glamorous couple, even as she’s wary of giving up the freedom of the solitude in order to have a brimming social life. That really doesn’t convey much, because,  a novel isn’t so much about what as about how.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but “Look at Me” struck me as an especially good example because my experience of the main character kept shifting as I read.  It’s the story, told in first-person, of a young Londoner named Frances; she works at a medical picture library, seems to be socially isolated, and lives in her childhood apartment where her mother has recently died and their old housekeeper still resides. The flat is in a building full of elderly people. Frances describes herself as an observer; she sees herself as polite and correct and other people as more or less out of control; most of them are unattractive, and those who are, like Nick and Alix, are almost supernaturally superior.  Drawn into their orbit, Frances undergoes popularity and its sudden withdrawal.  The wound she suffers swings her back to her earlier impulse to live in a solitary way.

I kept asking myself how I felt about Frances; was I taking her at her word, was I willing to be in general sympathy with her, was she deluded, or trying to delude the reader, and was I over-or-under estimating how much?  In a way, was I reading this book as Brookner intended it to be read?  Frances went in and out of focus as I went along.  She also reminded me keenly of myself. The theme of loneliness and solitude, and how they push-pull against each other, two sides of the same state, something to suffer and then quickly to covet, depending on how one feels on any given day, is something I’ve endured (and welcomed, and hated, and loved and felt powerless against) all my life.

Some years back I stopped reading blurbs on fiction almost entirely.  The standard question when someone recommends a book is often “What’s is about?”  I’ve been guilty of this non-question all my life; when I was younger I often used the answer to make a snap judgment about whether I was interested in the book.  On my frequent visits to the public library, it was almost entirely the blurb (after the image on the cover, and the title) that made me decide to borrow the book; I seldom opened it at random to sample the actual writing.  Then, after reading some books that, based on their jacket copy, I would have rejected, I found my feelings about this changing.  I finally started to see that the ‘aboutness’ of a novel is often irrelevant.  It’s the ‘whoness’ and the ‘howness’, it’s the flow of the prose, it’s the ineffable, individual attraction or not to how a writer lays out her stall.  More and more I wanted to go into a novel with no preconceptions, other than having heard that it was worthwhile.  I wanted to meet the opening paragraphs, the writing and characterization, in an open state.  I’m really glad I’ve made this swerve.  Now I’ll read the blurb when I’m finished, to see how this marketing squib compares with my own reading experience.

Good blurb writing is an art — one or two paragraphs to hint at characters and their dilemmas, pique curiosity so a look turns into a purchase.  I imagine the kind of mind — which seems not to be my kind of mind — that can digest a novel, pick out its key theme and intrigue, and set it out with the tight impact of an unrhymed sonnet.

*Rewatched all of BoJack Horseman on Netflix ahead of watching the new season, and was delighted again by the subplot in which, called out of his self-imposed exile to produce a TV show about anything he wants, JD Salinger pitches “Hollywoo Celebs and Stars! What Do They Know?! Do The Know Things?! Lets Find Out!”

Why am I doing this?

I’m one of those compulsive, serious readers-for-pleasure, and always have been.  So it surprises me how much I struggle when I’m confronted by the opportunity to write something about a book.  At the sight even of something as casual as a Goodreads comment window, something in me squeezes up and says HELL TO THE NO, it’s too hard, and whatever I write will fail in any way to resemble what I actually think.  Probably this traces back to one of the many banes of my childhood, the Book Report.

These probably started in 3rd grade or so–you’d be assigned to read a particular book, or else allowed to choose one for yourself–and then you had to write a Book Report when you’d finished, and hand it in for a grade.  Now, this always seemed to me like a huge punishment for reading.  A minority, a very small one, sometimes it seemed, just me, in my school liked to read.  Not just to read in school, for school, but to read all the time, to constantly bring books back from the library, to attempt books that were too hard for me, and so on. In this was joy and wonder, excitement and curiosity.  In a required Book Report, there was Topic Sentences, Plot Synopses, and Themes (pause to shudder).  Having to come up with these, in paragraphs, seemed to snatch away all the richness and pride and secret accomplishment inherent in having read a book, in owning its story and characters inside my own mind, and replace it with a heap of dry Wheatena.  It took the book away from me and made me belong to someone else–the teacher, and his expectations.  It confiscated the marvelous story and gave me back a list of ways in which I was doing it wrong.  All I wanted to do in this scenario was squirm; get it done as quickly as possible so I could back to what was really interesting: my pile of library books.

Hence, though I went on to become a college English major, a writer of fiction, and a professional copywriter, I’ve always baulked at how to “write up” my reading experiences.  I’ll long to reach out to the world — even if only in the form of one or two randos on the internet — and share the real depths of my unique enthusiasm and appreciation for a novel, only to find myself throwing out a few dry sticks of stilted colorless description. (This doesn’t happen when I can talk about a book–a conversation with someone who has recently read the same book, or loves the same Henry Jameswriters that I do, which doesn’t happen to me as often as I’d wish, is usually lively and wide-ranging and bubbling over with information, opinions, delight.)

It was with the idea of somehow overcoming this that I began this blog.

It’s giving me a lot of unease, this blog, because it’s just bringing up all these blockages and bad Book Report memories.  There’s a tone and energy I’d like this blog to have that so far it completely lacks.  My energies feel too po-faced, and vague.  I keep changing the title of the blog, all of which strike as pretentious, and that’s a good sign that I’m still not sure what I want it to be, or how I can get it to be that way.

Maybe the title ought to just be Bad Book Report.  Hmmm.

But I intend to persist.

When I was a kid

… I didn’t finish reading my favorite chapter books.   Not because I wasn’t a good reader, or lacked stick-to-it-iveness.  (I did lack that, according to certain adults in my life, who didn’t seem to notice it wasn’t the case when it came to things I cared about.) They were my favorites because I liked their set-ups, settings, characters, illustrations, dialogues and set-pieces, but I did not like when their plots kicked in and their climaxes loomed.  I wanted to be it with the characters, not find out how it would end.  Why must it end at all?  I borrowed them from the library over and over: “Harriet the Spy” and “The Long Secret”, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler”, “The Egypt Game”, “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Most of them — including others not listed here, I never read all the way through.  The exception is the Harriet books — as an adult I wanted to know what those were about and to understand the things in them that, as a kid, had gone right over my head, especially what all those adults out in Water Mill were really up to.

A couple of good things

Henry James’ reaction to a first novel sent him by a friend:

“I am such a fanatic myself on the subject of form, style, the evidence of intention and meditation, of chiseling and hammering out in literary things that I am afraid I am rather a cold-blooded judge, rather likely to be offensive to a young story-teller on the question of quality.  I am not sure that yours strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.”

God, I love Henry James.

(Not frequently depicted as the bicycling type.)

***

“I suppose that is why I write, in order to recompose events, to make them sharper, funnier, than they really were.  Above all, funnier.  I write to be hard.  I do not intend to spare any feelings, except, of course, my own.”

The narrator of Anita Brookner’s 1983 novel, “Look At Me”,  who I suspect is riding for a major fall.

Trying to spare my own feelings has taken me up many writing no-thoroughfares, so I recognized  myself in this.

***

 

Denton Welch was on my radar for some years; I owned a copy of “In Youth Is Pleasure”  because I’d heard John Waters praise it on a Fresh Air interview, but hadn’t read it. The episode of the Backlisted Podcast that discussed Welch and his first book “Maiden Voyage” piqued my interest. It tells, in memoir form — though some of it seems heavily fictionalized to me — about how Denton ran away from his English boarding school at 16, spending some days living rough until his resources run out, and was eventually sent off to join his father, a businessman in China, at the time (1930s) when the British empire was still rampant. The Pekin and Shanghai that Denton experiences are colonized places where the English live as arrogant sitters-upon, the Chinese servants are all called Boy, and Westerners who like “pretty things” are buying up antiques and objets d’art at a furious pace to ship them back to England.

The charm of the book is in its teenage narrator’s presentation of his emotions and judgments of other people as he moves through a series of small or momentous human situations — dinner parties, a boating accident, a collecting trip in the provinces, a boxing lesson, evening encounters with English soldiers based nearby, the misunderstandings ensuing between Chinese servants and the expats they serve. He’s frequently funny in the subtle, dry English way, not afraid to make the reader aware of his own ridiculousness, and the word portraits of the people he encounters are succinct, deft, and often amusingly nasty.  (I wouldn’t want to know he’d describe me; I can surmise.)  The narrator is a young gay man, but his gayness isn’t explicit, it’s there in his impressions, interests and judgments, as something latent; either not yet grasped or suppressed in the writing.

Just now finished reading “Hotel du Lac” by Anita Brookner.  Read it years ago when it was new, and I was very young, and had forgotten everything about it.  Now I find it’s a beautiful tight little novel of the kind I especially like–a small-scale cast of characters, a deep dive into an inner life.  I squirmed a lot, reading it, as the dilemma the novel turns on is the problem of being a middle-aged unattached woman, a position Brookner presents as essentially impossible — whether this was her own true opinion or not, it’s the worldview of the book, at least most of the way through.  It could almost be titled “How Should A Woman Be?”, and most of the possibilities illustrated by the characters are in way or another, ghastly.  As the noose of the plot tightens, one’s throat tightens too; is there no way out of this pitiless paradigm of needing a man in order to fit in, to be treated fully as a person?

*

As I write this, it’s early autumn in New York City, where unlike vast swathes are the country experienced quasi-apocalyptic weather, we’ve been having a long run of perfect late-summer days.  I’m sitting on my balcony looking out across the tops of a lot maple trees whose green leaves are losing their vibrancy, some already browning at the edges, beneath a sketchy sky of cloud wisps that don’t seem to want to come together into anything properly fluffy.   From here I can see four rooftop wooden water barrels, three American flags flying fairly briskly, the top of the Freedom Tower, and the facade of London Terrace which always makes me feel as if two elegant ocean liners are pulled up at a pier.

Changes of season always make me pensive.  This year has been unusual.  I’m an only child, and relations with my parents have, over the course of the years, weighed a lot heavier in the unpleasant/fraught side of the scales.  In spring they reached the point of no return; mom had a hospitalization, after which we recognized that dad’s dementia was such that they couldn’t go on living independently in their apartment on Long Island.  My main occupation from April through the summer was helping them hire the right consultants in order to make all the things happen — and work on getting dad into assisted living, moving mom from the suburbs into their city pied-a-terre, now her permanent home, selling the suburban apartment, and more more more.  All emotional, detail-exacting, slow and frustrating and then fast and stressful.  Now mid-way through September, dad’s gone from assisted living to a nursing home; his decline over the summer astonished everyone who saw him.  It’s been my focus to support my mother through all this traumatic change; we’ve always been prickly with each other, and haven’t had so much proximity since I was in elementary school; even with the best will I find myself getting into tangles with her that I completely didn’t intend.  In the midst of all this upheaval I’ve been reading very intensely.  That’s to say, I’m always reading, but these last few months the role of books in my life became a kind of project of applying balm, of having a place to retreat to, that feels different than ever before.  Reading has helped situate me in taking this level of involvement with my difficult parents; and made me feel less alone, through being able to see the multifariousness of human experience in every novel or nonfiction book I visit.

A couple days off books

Between the 3-day weekend and the weather in New York City, the sense that Summer Is Over and All Change is fully upon me.  I was looking at a heap of New York, The New Yorkers, The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books going back to late May, which I hadn’t looked at all.  I decided to polish them all off — once a magazine is a couple month old, it’s much easier for me to go through it in a piratical attitude–I’ll seize the gold and abandon everything else.  Articles that are obviously the work of months of investigation, reporting, writing, in The New Yorker are dismissed with a slap of the turning page.  Everything in the front of the book, and The Talk of the Town, might as well skip because it’s old news by now, and anyway I dislike the way the magazine does Talk pieces thee days. The fiction by writers I’ve never heard of or don’t especially like: skipped!  (It annoys me that the magazine publishes novel excerpts, leaving me feeling, when I get to the end, that I’ve been cheated of the resolution of a proper short story.)  Reviews of films that have already come and gone from theaters, and anyway I’m so uninterested in movies anymore, I’m all about TV–page turned unfazed.  As of now I’m caught up on the glossies., having read a few articles, a couple of fiction pieces (Garth Greenwell IS terrific, and even though his piece reads like a chapter excised from his recent novel, it does stand as a proper short story), the TV and book reviews.

The two literary tabloids, except for their political pieces, aren’t as urgent; a book review is still interesting or not no matter how freshly published.   I’ll probably be done with those by Sunday evening.

The type in these mags, now that I’m of une certaine age, is a strain.  Over the last couple years I’ve developed a retinal problem in my left eye — benign and anyway inoperable, I’ve been told — but meanwhile, causing a blurry spot in the vision that means I’m essentially reading with one eye, and often find it easier to take off my multifocal specs and just hold the magazine or book up close to my face, like some inquisitive lady mole.

 

 

Facts of life

“The facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction.”  –Edith Hope, the popular-romance-novel-writing protagonist–in “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

This bit of a dialogue caught my eye.  It touches on a frequent preoccupation of mine.  Is humanity essentially terrible or does love and kindness at every level even things out?  How to look at life–at one’s own, at those of others, or the human condition?  What constitutes telling the truth in literature?  What constitutes telling the truth and approaching the genuine in my own writing, and why does that always feel like such a futile struggle, the There I cannot get to from Here?

The quote also approximates my own suspicions and worries about the kind of things I want to read–and the kinds I don’t.  If a book gives me the feeling that the writer, like Edith Hope, thinks I don’t want to be shown the facts of life, I’m not likely to finish it–or even to pick it up in the first place.  When it comes to choosing books, or the books that choose me, I tend not to walk on the sunny side of the street.  This doesn’t mean I reject anything funny, or about people whose material lives are essentially comfortable, but I want the exigencies of the human world to at least be present in the background, in the margins, and to be unsolved and unsolvable regardless of whether it’s a novel where all the right people get married to each other at the end.  (I think of Jane Austen, whose novels are often summarized in the popular imagination as being about dresses and tea-cups and little romantic problems solved against a background of rolled lawns and country-house libraries.  But Austen gives us, so long as we’re paying attention, the piles of manure, the poverty of country life, the desperation of women in the 18th century version of the patriarchy, but she does it in such a way that these things aren’t what you mostly remember when you like about “Emma” or “Persuasion”.  But you’ve caught them often in the corner of your eye, on the edge of the frame, or underlying, like a penetrating mist, the whole structure and motivation of the story.)

Currently reading or listening:

“The Spire” by William Golding (audiobook read by Benedict Cumberbatch, and well too, though I’m not particularly a fan)

“Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch

“Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero” by Charles Sprawson

“Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner

All of these as a result of listening to the Backlisted Podcast, by the way, whose tagline is “Giving life to old books”.

More about some of these in further posts.