Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker is extraordinary! More when I’ve finished it.
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker is extraordinary! More when I’ve finished it.
Here I’ll put what I forgot to put in the original post.
After the intense detailsdetailsdetails of helping my parents get rid of stuff and then overseeing their professional packers and movers and unpackers, I found that instead of wanting to subside afterwards, I was fired up in a pointed way and needed to start fooling with my own possessions. The next thing I knew, I was doing a book purge of own, even though just recently I’d felt, after the prior purge, that my library was really fine as it was. A friend who lives in my building, on hearing that it was my deluded wish to alphabetize all my books (~1950), volunteered to help me, despite herself being weighed down with familial and professional obligations. Together we pulled down all my books, she egged me on to get rid of things I’d never considered giving up before (“Do you need the complete works of Trollope anymore, or can you get by with the half dozen ones you tend to reread?”), and she, younger and spryer than I, did most of the actual sorting by letter and schlepping of books between the living room and the bedroom. (Why is living room two words and bedroom one word?)
So not only did I attain separation of fiction and nonfiction, and alphabetization, but I actually had some room left over. It won’t last, because even when I think I’m being prudent about buying books, somehow at least 5 new books find their way in here every 3 or 4 weeks, between liking a long walk to end up at a bookshop, and the ease of, after hearing about some interesting book, 1-clicking it on Amazon. (And yet I also use the public library A LOT, and some time should post about what makes me need to buy a book as opposed to being content to borrow it, read it, and return it.)
Getting to handle all my books, to look at the covers of volumes that had long been visible only by their spines, made me feel wonderful, like Donald Duck’s rich uncle jumping around in his gold heaps.
The picture above shows the ‘recent acquisitions but not actually all of them’ assembly which sits next to my favorite spot on the sofa. Many of these were bought at the suggestion of the Backlisted podcast, and some just because they looked interesting at the moment. Conrad is on top because I’m going to read those next-ish. The function of this not-a-pile-but-a-row is not so much that I’ll actually read these any time soon, but that they were of recent pique to my interest and came into the apartment in the last few months. I like to feast my eyes on them.
The fervor that led to the book organization orgy then led me on, in the weeks after my father’s death, to do the same to my entire apartment. I’m fortunate to have a decent sized 1-bedroom, and while I have a lot of stuff, it was all stored more or less adequately, but the urge was on me like gangbusters to address every single little focal point of clutter, then every overstuffed drawer, closet rod, linen closet shelf, and with the help of a lovely professional organizer, my tip of a kitchen, which took two full days to sort out and which now looks like the kitchen of my actual self, ie, someone who mostly eats take-out and doesn’t need all that kitchen stuff piled up on all those visual surfaces.
Then I decided that my vague dreamy dreams about wanting to freshen the paint went from vague to Must Get Rooms Painted This Moment. Now my kitchen is Stop Light Green, and my bedroom, which used to be Eggshell with a very dirty brown wall to wall carpet, is now Ryan Red, with a bare wooden floor.
And of course, in the midst of all of this, I was listening obsessively to things like Slate’s Trumpcast and Political Gabfest and Pod Save America and the BBC News and seemingly every other second-by-second dire reportage about the Decline And Fall Of Everything, which I just COULD. NOT. LEAVE. ALONE.
All this bustle took up several weeks in October, November, December, and soothed me, because being a Domestic Goddess seemed to counteract the fact that I didn’t seem to be mourning in quite the right way, ie, I wasn’t sorry, and I was frequently irritable with my mother, and I was eating compulsively at a rate that I haven’t done in years. I kept thinking, ‘what will I do with myself when I run out of things to tidy*? Because I’m certainly not going to suddenly finish my novel or anything like that.’
In fact, I was fortunate, at that moment, after silence on that front since the end of March, to get called for a gig. The gig ended up being put off for a few days, in which I scrambled the last of my home tasks and nagged the painter to finish the last of the last of the kitchen, and suddenly I was a Freelance American again. At least for the moment.
Now if I could just somehow be overtaken in 2018 by a similar fervour and clearness around creative writing, THAT would be something. Is it too much to think I’ll never see the inside of The Zone again? Well, probably yes, because I’m Eeyore.
*Tidy is one of my favorite words, because it feels so old fashioned and kind of dumb. Like dainty, another favorite, and frock for dress. A perfect sentence, when I’m some moods, would be, “I could tidy up that dainty frock.”
This year I read 80 books, which is up from 60 in 2016, and down from 92 the year before that. I recall 2015 as a year when I had a lot of time on my hands.
Of these, 13 were rereads. Twenty-two of the 80 were nonfiction — essays or history. Twenty-seven were audiobooks.
I’m having a hell of a time writing this post. I’ve produced a number of turgid, rather pompous paragraphs, as if I for an annual report, but I guess I’ll spare you those — you, my random reader, if you exist.
This was the year my parents lost their ability to live independently, and my father died in the fall. For months before that, I spent a good deal of my time and most of my emotional energy on difficult tasks in their service. I wasn’t working a good deal of the time — it a slow year for freelancing — and reading, as well as watching TV and listening to too many political podcasts — was chief escape, distraction, occupation, excuse for not doing something else. Creative writing, always a struggle and source of constant conflict, just went completely by the bye.
The list of books I devoured is here presented in 3 screenshots.
It conceals the stretches over the summer when I couldn’t settle down to any particular book, and sometimes felt like I’d never read again. I ambled dutifully through the magazines that come in — The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, New York. I also subscribed to Granta and, just now, Brick, as well as, just because I’ve always wanted to even though it costs a fortune, The Times Literary Supplement. I suppose if I’m not constantly surrounded by clamoring unread publications, life just isn’t life.
Some of the reading choices this year were for a class at The Center For Fiction with Anne Fernald, a terrific teacher, on the novels of the Harlem Renaissance — Plum Bun by Jessie Fausset, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, the novels of Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Loved reading them, though felt always a little weird discussing them with a group composed only of other bespectacled white constant reader types.
A bunch of other titles were suggested by the podcasted Backlisted, where witty London book people talk about books from years gone by — this led me to some novels of Anita Brookner, a couple of existential WWII-era thrillers, a re-awareness of Jane Gardam, and also notably the charming bookish memoir of one of the podcast’s hosts, Andy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How 50 Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved my Life. But maybe the greatest find Backlisted pointed me to is All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook, a sui-generis memoir-essay collection, centering on the seaside towns in the English country of Kent and the very weird and disquieting if not actually occult things that have happened there in the 19th and 20th century — violent things, queer things, political things, literary things. Reading it was like — in the best possible way — listening obsessively to The Smiths, very English, wry, dark, hilarious in a morbid way, and full of details about people and places that I’d never have known I’d be interested in without having come across the book.
This was also the year that, after various dud tries in decades past, I read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which came along just when I needed most to be utterly taken up, and swept me duly away.
Besides Seabrook and Durrell, the other highlights were The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which led to some absorbing discussion with a bookish friend and even the purchase of a biography of Percy, which of course I got distracted from 20 pages in, and books touching on Russia, one of my on-and-off fascinations which is currently ON. Those are #31, 73, and 80, along with revisitings of Dostoyevsky, the audiobooks of whom I’ve been using as going-to-sleep companions throughout the year. #80 in particular, a long intense, as it says on the tin saga, centered on the Bolsheviks who lived in a specially-constructed apartment building in Moscow called The House of Government, was perfectly embodied as an audiobook that kept me riveted for the last couple of weeks, and which, having finished, I went back to listening to again from the beginning. Among much other information, this book has cleared up for me a long-held question I had about why the Soviets didn’t ban Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which to my mind, has always seemed perverse. Turns out, according to Slezkine’s thesis, it was perverse of the Bolsheviks to encourage their children to read those and other “treasures of world literature” and helps explain, in a small part, anyway, why Bolshevism didn’t survive into a 2nd generation.
Projections for what I want to read this year: there will probably be more Joseph Conrad this winter. I also want to stick to my idea of rediscovering my own shelves by choosing unread books, 2 a month (roughly), in alphabetical order. I began in December with Pitch Dark by Renata Adler and now am reading Cassandra At the Wedding by Dorothy Baker. On my new(ish) acquisition pile I see titles by Brigid Brophy, Daphne Du Maurier, Patrick Hamilton, but that doesn’t mean other titles won’t oversweep them and come in first.
Finally, though I’d sort of promised myself a year ago that I wasn’t going to bother anymore with current books — that there were no current books that would give me more pleasure than old ones — I did turn out to read quite a few books. Some, like the latest Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Egan, I’d have read anyway. The Francis Spufford was by way of Backlisted, and Brit Bennett’s Mothers just seemed to be in the air somehow. (I liked these while I was reading them, but they were ephemeral.) In general though, my willingness to take a flyer on unknown new novel(ist)s is at a lifetime low.
At this point I kind of have to admire the tenacity of the single fly which has clung to life in my apartment for the last 2-3 weeks. I can’t catch it, I don’t know what it could be sustaining itself on, and yet it continues. Maybe I should consider it a second pet and name it.
Chuffey and I are both feeling cooped up; this run of freezing weather, which has at least another week to go, means that all feeling of inspiration to take a walk deserts one after half a block, even though I’ve got one of those Lands End coats that’s like a space suit and certified to 20 below.
Our solitude was pleasantly broken up by a bit yesterday afternoon when Cara and her son and Miss Lotte came down from the 7th floor to drop of some home-made lemon curd and get Chuffey so riled up that I was afraid he’d do something like rash, like bite the nose off a 6 year old over a toy. But crisis was averted.
Finished The Secret Agent, which was a page turner, albeit grim, and redolent with the sense that nothing much has changed in this line in the 100+ years since it came out. Also finished with an audio of Lord Jim. I’m definitely into Conrad now and will be reading more of his work this winter.
I’ve been listening with uptmost fascinating to a new book about Russia, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, and as a result of mentions in that, my next book is going to be The Adolescent by Dostoevsky, which I own but have never read. The Slezkine book, if you’re at all interested in the whole Soviet thing, is chockfull of great characters and stories, with lots of excerpts from letters and diaries, which makes it more novelistic than most history tomes. I need to get hold of a hard copy so I can see the pictures. This one definitely gets filed under Morbid Fascinations; perhaps Conrad belongs there too.
I finished The Crown last night, and am not that keen on starting Black Mirror; I never watched most the previous season because it was too scary. Maybe now is the time to take up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
My books read-or-heard total this year was 79. I’ll do a post later about the highlights.
Now I’ve finished Pitch Dark by Renata Adler, which turned out, of course, not to be what I’d taken it for, 40 pages in, when I wrote the previous post. It’s narrator, Kate is going through a crisis in her life, a love affair that’s doing her no good, and misapprehensions cluster around this central crisis, which is itself a misapprehension — that she is loved by the man she loves, that that love is and ought to be the natural center and purpose of her life.
The misapprehensions take fascinating forms. Conversations that shy off into two directions at once, each speaker completely missing the other’s point. There are the visits to her rural house of a raccoon she takes to attempting, all against the usual, to trying to befriend — until she finds out it’s slowly succumbing to distemper. And then there’s a sojourn in Ireland, a place to escape the broken love affair, to rest, maybe to write. Kate is lent a big country house by an ambassador she’s met socially, told the Irish staff will be friendly and look after her. But the staff are withholding and surly, and the house itself almost preternaturally unwelcoming, and Kate’s anxiety is spiraling; she grows paranoid, and decides to leave Ireland early. Her night-time flight in a rental car through the Hibernian dark — dark in every sense to a young woman who is afraid she’s breaking the law, under surveillance, soon to be caught and punished — is a tour-de-force of nightmare in which she understands nothing of what’s happening, and ascribes purposes and motivations to everything that are all derived solely from her misapprehensions.
I got used to the indirect style of the narrative; it’s imitative of Kate’s darting thought, the kaleidoscope of her intellect, and its perceptions, memories. Sometimes she’s addressing her absent lover, challenging him, challenging their relationship; at others she’s just telling, moment by moment, what’s happening to her, and what memories and associations her (mis)apprehensions evoke.
Adler has a lot to say about isolation, loneliness, alienation, which are, alas, pet topics of mine. This passage, pp124-5 of the NYRB edition, are well felt:
… it would be part of what I know, part of what I have to tell, that I understand something, not everything, but something, of what it is to be alone. In this way. And that there must be others who are and have always been alone. In this way.
Those for whom there was, first dimly, then more bright, then dimly again, a possibility. Which, though dimly, perhaps still exists, but which they know, have somehow always known, would never come to anything. They were never, how can I put this, going to be a part of life. It is as though, going through a landscape, through the seasons, in the same general direction as everybody else, they never quite made it to the road. Through the years, humanity, like a tide of refugees or pilgrims, shoeless and in rags, or in Mercedes, station wagons, running shoes, were traveling on, joined by others, falling by the way. And we, joined though we may be, briefly, by other strays, or by road travelers on their little detours, nonetheless never quite joined the continuing procession, of life and birth, never quite found or made it to the road.
So, I’ve embarked on my whimsical project of reading through the letters of the alphabet, two a month, of unread books from my own shelves. Next up, B is for Isabel Bolton and New York Mosaic, a Virago Modern Classic that’s I must’ve had for at least the last 15 years. (I had to use a stepladder, because the Viragos, in alphabetical order, start up by the ceiling.)
Other titles on deck that I expect to at least start in the next week:
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.”
I tend to organize my sense of self into patterns–I guess we all do. One period of my life will end, another commences. The thing I worried about for decades actually happens and I realize I was worrying about it wrong–what takes place does not completely overlap what I feared would take place. I’ll look back and realized I coasted along on magical thinking for those eight years, or I’ll that my forties were in fact, as I was always being told, the best years, and that the happy activity and social life of that period has now slipped away, and I’m somewhere else. Maybe even someone else. The patterns, or eras, wrap around jobs, or places I’ve lived.
For example, I’ve been in my current apartment for 9 years in December; I left a sweet little place on an old West Village block which I loved and had assumed to live in forever, because after decades on a wait-list, I was being offered a unit in a limited equity co-op, an offer too good to turn down for sentimental reasons. And as it turned out, as the simile always is in my mind when I look back, this was a great good fortune, like being scooped by God’s Big Dipper out of the warming pot of water. Because it was the beginning of the financial crisis, and unbeknownst to me, my freelance work was going to abruptly dry up. Had I not gotten the offer letter from the co-op just then, I’d never have been able to stay in New York. It was a real rescue, but it also marked an alteration in my sense of self. A lot of things tumbled, Friendships ended, the scene was changed.
The pattern of this year seems to be another indelible scene shift. In late March it became clear that my parents could no longer live independently. With no freelance offers, nor energy to look for gigs, I began a few months of devoting most of my energy to the complexities of their problems. There was a big move to organize, there was an assisted living situation to find for my father, and then there was assisting and emotionally supporting both parents as dad progressed from the AL to a nursing home and dwindled away to his death a month ago. My life’s felt to be on hold all that time, and it still does; I’m not in tune with what I can or want to do next, but very much in touch with what I’d like not to have to do any more.
In the midst of all this I’ve read a great deal this year. I always do–last year I read 60 books, and 92 in 2015, when work was very scarce. So far this year, I’m at 73. I want to come up here with some original and lovely phrases to describe what reading does for me and has done for especially the last 8 months of upheaval. Everything feels like a trope–escape, yes, a reassuring sense of being part of humanity, yes, entertainment, a transport in the imagination of a master of characters and atmosphere, yes. These describe it as if it was the thumbnail of an entire body, and I can’t think how to talk about the rest of that body. Every book I read seems to be for me only, and I experience an uncanny flutter of disbelief whenever I encounter, either in person or the media, someone who’s praising or discussing the same thing. I’ve always felt alone with books, not in a sense of loneliness, but in having them, deliciously, all to myself. The one area of my life where I’m not compelled by any outside force or responsibility.
Some of this year’s fiction choices were inspired by my discovery of the Backlisted Podcast which brought me to Anita Brookner, the WWII novels of Nigel Balchin, as well as Barbara Comyns, Nella Larsen, Jane Gardem. Others were nonfiction books about race and other topics in American history, and about Russia. I reread quite a bit, often via audiobook listening to books I’d read before; and read new fiction by authors I already love: Elizabeth Strout, Alice McDermott; and was swept up all summer in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
Another catharsis of the last weeks has been a nearly compulsive process of cleaning out–with the help of various friends, and on my own, I alphabetized my books, discarding many (I’m down to ~1850 volumes), purging and organizing my kitchen, my closets, desk, jewelry box, wardrobe. Everything I get rid of makes me feel lighter, and gives me more pleasure in the things I surround myself with, my household gods as I think of them. Handling all my books, seeing how many I own that I bought because I wanted to read them, but haven’t touched them yet, has inspired me to a reading project for 2018: I’m going to start at A, and read at least one completely new-to-me book from my own shelves for each letter, two letters a month. Of course some letters are very overrepresented in author’s last names, and one or two letters don’t appear at all. I’m going to begin in December with, I think, Renata Adler and Isabel Bolton.