The first rule of successful blogging, as I understand it, is that you’re supposed to blog a LOT. But as I don’t really expect this blog to be successful — on what criteria? — I’m back, despite my complete lack of continuity and frequency.
My idea for a bit of a reading project for 2018 was to read books I’ve long had on the shelves but never touched, assigning two letters to each month, and going through the alphabet by author’s names. Some letters have a LOT of titles, and others only 1 or two, but there’s some appeal to me in it. Earlier in the year I’d carried out a major purge and rearrangement of my books; handling them always reminds me of the huge number that are here because I aspire to read them. I don’t know, out of the nearly 1900 titles I own, the proportion between read and unread.
Trying to get started a little early, I took down Pitch Dark, by Renata Adler, (1983). I remember when it came out, Adler was one of the writers, along with Jayne-Anne Phillips and Ann Beattie, who seemed to be ubiquitous the year I graduated from college; and whose work seemed difficult, chilly, and just unappealing to me as a reader at the time. It’s a first-person narrative, addressed to an unnamed you, an older powerful married man with whom the narrator is having an emotionally draining affair. I’m forty pages in, and admiring the writing, getting absorbed in the individual anecdotes, but put off by the purposeful abstraction — I’m impatient with the choice to use purposeful obscurity about chronology, about who these people are exactly, how they met, and so on. It’s easier to read it as a series of disjointed prose pieces, that will, I hope, come together more closely when I’ve read the whole thing. Adler is minute, well-informed, and attentive about the tight little box the narrator is in, involved with a man who has no real time or space for her:
I only don’t know if I will see you when you get back. That is all that is wrong, or some of what’s wrong. That I shouldn’t be here when you get back, that I ought not to have been here many times before, that I know and knew that with anything I have of instinct or of wisdom. The Germans say no one can jump over his own shadow, and I used to rationalize, no, not rationalize, think, I couldn’t ask you to jump out your way. But what I’m I’ve done is lost, lost you something, lost me something, lost us, by I did not insist, a possibility. Because there is no reason in the world why, in eight years, we have never had, we will never have, a week. And because I am not one of your daughters, nor one of your assistants, nor your wife, nor a dependent friend or colleague, nor a litigant clamoring for your attention, nor a politician who seeks your advice. Or even, as I once said, in the dark, with a smile, a secretary or a blonde in the chorus line with whom you are having an affair. You said you wouldn’t be having an affair with either of the last two, but the truth is, we would probably be better if you were. If were that secretary or that blonde, though as you say your life is built, you would have to find room, make some kind of room. The weeks on the north island in summer, the other island in winter, the hunting and walking weekends, even the occasional junket to the Riviera or to London. Somehow not with me, not with me. Not Christmas, of course, or birthdays, which I know don’t really matter. I just don’t know quite how I let it happen. Perhaps I had no choice, or perhaps you never loved me quite enough, and I didn’t want to know.
Coming on this book during the extended #MeToo moment, it’s not Adler’s fault that the prospect of reading about a woman who is angry at and in love with a remote and emotionally unconnected powerful middle-aged white guy is … tired, or at least, for me, tiresome. But I’m going to keep going, because I’ve noticed that in these first 40-odd pages, Adler’s narrator asks herself repeatedly, “Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?” I guess I want to know the answer to that.
When I started this blog it was with the idea of writing about old books, as much of my reading either involves filling in significant gaps on my ‘why I haven’t I read this writer yet?’ list, or returning to past favorites, or following up on recommendations for overlooked older titles. I mostly read books that have been around for a long time. Anyway, I’ve been bored by a lot of literary fiction in the last few years, experiencing a spontaneous repugnance for those new books that seem to be picked in advance by some literary monopoly, to be reviewed, featured, hyped. Of course in practice it doesn’t quite work that way; the freedom to read anything that catches my attention, without sticking to any plan or forecast, has been my most important lifetime freedom, always there for me even when I’ve had to devote big parts of my life to doing things I wasn’t actually interested in. So when I was able to snag Jennifer Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, from the NYPL, I, uh, dove in. In fact, I deliberately read nothing about the book, including the dust jacket copy, before starting it, so as to come to it with complete freshness — my only clue being the endpapers, which show a detailed map of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII. I’d loved her prior book, A Visit From The Goon Squad, and awarded her Trusted Writer Status. I was rewarded with a page-turner that rewarded my reading imagination out to the very margins, a character-driven thriller that’s fully alive even as it takes the reader into a past that most of us think of in somewhat stale black-and-white.
Also into some Russian things — somehow I always like reading about Russia, or having things about Russia read to me. On audiobook I’ve heard Victor Sebestyan’s recent biography of Lenin, and am working on Svetlana Alexeivich’s oral history, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which is so devasting and raw that I can only listen to it in relatively brief chunks; I’ve renewed it from the library three times already and am barely half way through. I’ve also been listening, for maybe the 4th or 5th time, to an excellent recording of Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which is, among so many other things, a novel malleable enough to fit itself poignantly into current events — when I got to the part where Stavrogin gives his confession to the monk Tikon, how could I not bounce it off the fraught candidacy of Roy Moore? And if Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky is not the model and image of Steve Bannon, who in literature is more so? “I’m not really a socialist,” he says, “I just want to burn everything down.”