Nada

April 30, 2007

Nada is the first novel of Carmen Laforet, 23 at the time of publication. It was published in Spain in 1944, a few years after the Spanish civil war that left the city of Barcelona in shambles. It is not a political novel however, but a novel of humanity- humanity living on the margins.
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Nada is the story of an adolescent, Andrea, who arrives in Barcelona to live with family that she doesn’t know, hoping to continue her studies in the city. Carmen’s prose is incredible, and as always, Edith Grossman’s translation is impeccable. Andrea arrives in Barcelona-

“I began to follow – a drop in the current – the human mass that, loaded down with suitcases, was hurrying toward the exit. My luggage consisted of a large bag, extremely heavy because it was packed full of books, which I carried myself with all the strength of my youth and eager anticipation.”

The novel is written in the first person, although not what I would consider diary form. The book evokes truth to the point that it seems autobiographical, although it is strictly a novel. Andrea’s family is quite, well, crazy. They live in idleness and squalor. They endure hunger and violence. The atmosphere in their home is clouded with distrust, and there appears to be no escape for anyone. Andrea succinctly describes her loneliness-

“Life became solitary for me again. Since it seemed to be something that couldn’t be helped, I accepted it with resignation. That was when I began to realize that it is much easier to endure great setbacks than everyday petty annoyances.”

One finds oneself cheering for Andrea’s survival, for her escape. The family seems hopeless, but Andrea is hope for the future. From the mind of a twenty-three year old author through the thoughts of an 18 year Andrea, come these words-

“I thought, It’s useless to race if we always have to travel the same incomprehensible road of our personality. Some creatures were both to live, others to work, others to watch life. I had a small, miserable role as spectator. Impossible to get out of it. Impossible to free myself. A dreadful grief was the only reality for me then.”

Nada is quite worthy of your attention.

Guilty Pleasures

April 28, 2007

Last night I read Dorothy’s comments about the first section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s text and Dorothy’s comments about Puritan guilt and our inability to easily accept the gift of leisure paralleled my experience yesterday. (I won’t quote the post here, but suggest that you read it).

I had a vacation day yesterday, and regrettably it was one of those afternoon-long outlet shopping days for my wife. Typically I slog along with her for hours, bored, feeling like the day is wasted, hoping and praying for a book outlet around the next corner. Although I dread the experience I always feel guilty if I don’t follow along like a loyal puppy, nodding and smiling at the selections, carrying the bags, and providing stimulating conversation between stores.

Yesterday was different. I brought a book along and read in the car- it was a rather cold, drizzly day in the midwest. I felt guilty the whole time. She said it was fine. She said she preferred it because she always feels rushed knowing that I am just standing there waiting. I still spent much of the time distracted, not only by all the people walking past the car, but by the guilt that I didn’t deserve this time alone- that I should be doing something else.

(Digression alert) I should have parked in a corner of the lot- it is too enjoyable watching the diverse shoppers coping with their colorful bags and bored children. The fragile, elderly couple, bundled up in their sweaters and covered with rainwear heading out with a tentative, measured gait- returning after the trek with a little more pain in their eyes. They are quickly passed by two young men, acting oblivious to the cold and rain in their khaki shorts and now damp tshirts. New white sneakers, strollers, umbrellas, hats, husbands angry about something but eating cheesecake, too-young couples holding hands, piercings and tatoos, screaming kids, and smiles. I love people.

Back to my point – I’m distracted and guilty about being there reading- then I run across a passage in Nada that is different, but parallels what I am feeling.

“All the happiness I enjoyed during this time seemed somehow diminished by my obsession with reciprocating her consideration. Until then no one I loved had shown me so much affection, and I felt gnawed by the need to give her something more than my company, the need felt by all people who are not very attractive to make material payment for what is, to them, extraordinary: someone’s interest and affection.”

I marked the passage and then late in the evening I read Dorothy’s post. Why is it so difficult at times to accept gifts, complements, and even leisure time? Why can’t we accept that we are deserving beings? I wonder if this adds to our stress levels and all those illnesses associated with stress. Personally, I’m going to try to rid myself of those guilty feelings and just be grateful… and spend more time reading in parking lots.

Flaubert’s Masterpiece

April 26, 2007

Madame Bovary is likely the best known of Flaubert’s works, but Bouvard and Pecuchet is considered by many who have read both, to be the better novel. Although I always approach unfinished novels with a little trepidation, the book’s description was intriguing so I took the chance. No regrets- it is the better novel.
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Bouvard and Pecuchet are middle aged copy clerks who are thrown together by circumstances, and after discovering a common habit they quickly become friends and coconspirators in a life of leisure, learning, and what appears to be consistent failure. An inheritance funds their lifestyle, but it is their curiosity that drives their pursuit of knowledge.

The friends first embrace farming, and fail. They stumble through fields including philosophy, medicine, politics, education, and literature. They read continuously. They experiment. They discuss and debate. They stumble through one misadventure after another. They do have successes, but that only pushes them further until they fail, even in love.

At first, the novel appears to progress as a comedy of errors. But although Bouvard and Pecuchet appear to be fools, they are not, and there is much that we can learn from them, as Flaubert intended.

The new translation from Mark Polizzotti includes chapter outlines and fragments for additional chapters that were never completed. The novel is followed by Flaubert’s charming Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. A poorer translation of the Dictionary is available here.

Dorothy’s recent post led me to an article by Hermione Lee reviewing recent books written about novels. I was a bit surprised by the review of John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, because I read the book a couple of months ago. It wasn’t a heavyweight, enchanting page-turner, like Hermione’s recent 900 page biography of Edith Wharton. It was rather fun, and had many interesting digressions into the whole world of the novel and the reader.

Ms. Lee’s point about the book’s title is valid- it is, admittedly misleading. Sutherland’s first sentence states “An alternative title for this book might be ‘Reading in an Age of Plenty’ or, more eye-catchingly, ‘Reading through the Avalanche’.” Her comment that the novel should have been called “How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It,” simply has nothing to do with the content of the book. Methinks she must have some ax to grind. Sutherland’s premise that there are a deluge of novels in today’s world and that the reader should spend some time choosing what to read next is valid. I think that is clearly in evidence based on the number of bloggers consistently discussing their growing TBR piles.

Lee states-

The book is full of tips, thought necessary in today’s “mind-boggling” age of fiction overload, for finding out quickly whether a novel might be to your taste: “Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.” “If a book has chapter titles, then they are worth scanning before purchase.” On no account read every word, there simply isn’t time: “surf and zap…concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.” If a book is difficult, go for the movie: “It helps get into the book version of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl…to have seen the films first.”

The page 69 trick, attributed in the book to Marshall McLuhan, was stated by Sutherland in this way-

“For the unprofessional searcher for the best novel to read, word-of-mouth, intuition, powerful browsing and McLuhan’s page 69 test remain the soundest first moves. At the very least, you will make your own mistakes.”

“On no account, read every word. There simply isn’t time.” – note the lack of quotes- in the article. These are Lee’s words, not Sutherland’s. The surf and zap statement was written in this context-

“‘I’ve read the newspaper’, we say, meaning ‘I’ve glanced at the headlines, scanned the letter page. decided not to bother with the editorials, looked up the soccer results and taken in my favorite columnist.’ You can gut novels the same way- but it is hardly ‘reading’…. Nowadays, it seems to me, something like the ‘surf and zap’ approach is required. As with satellite tv and its hundred of channels, one has to skim through, stop where it seems interesting, zap the commercials and other impertinent material, concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.”

Here is Mr. Sutherland’s words regarding reading a novel-

“Two more humble assumptions are constant: 1)Novels are things to be enjoyed; 2)the better we read them, the more enjoyment we will derive from them. A clever engagement with a novel is, in my opinion, one of the more noble functions of human intelligence. Reading is not a spectator sport, but a participatory activity. Done well, a good reading is as creditable as a 10-scoring high dive. It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well.”

The movie statement is out of context as well. Please allow me to add some context:

“films…can serve as useful gateways to fiction- especially demanding fiction. It helps get into the book version of Henry Jame’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl -two of the more demanding novels in the canon – to have seen the 1997 and 2000 films first.
But here too, you should be careful. One of the disadvantages of viewing, or previewing, a screen version of a novel, is that you can ‘fix’ your mental imagery too rigidly – infringe your privilege as a reader of casting the parts, setting the scene and playing out the narrative yourself.
Who, for example, when embarking on their annual reading of Pride and Prejudice wants, every year, to have the nipples and wet shirt of Colin Firth intruding between them and the picture of Darcy evoked by the text?”

There is more to be said, but I won’t belabor the point. I’m disappointed in Hermione Lee. I actually had the Edith Wharton biography in my hand last weekend, but opted for something else because it seemed a little intimidating at the time. I have read good things about her Virginia Woolf biography as well. But having read this crappy spin she put on another’s efforts, I’m doubt I will give her a chance.

Sutherland’s book wasn’t great, but it delivered what it was intended to, and it didn’t deserve this attack. I found it interesting, and rather enjoyed it.

I completed The Curtain this weekend, as well as Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert, which I will write about later. The Curtain was not only entertaining, but thought-provoking, and has sent me in search of his earlier book, The Art of the Novel.

Kundera writes about the novelist, and primarily the novel and its history, expanding at times to include the arts in general. His framework for the discussions include aspects of the context of the novel- within the history of a small nation as opposed to its place in world literature- (would the world even know of Kafka if he had written in the Czech language?).

When discussing the novelist, Kundera points to Cervantes as the example of the true novelist. In the paragraph which led to the title of the book, he writes-

“A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes send Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.”

Kundera uses much of the world’s best literature to make his points. He does not see the novel as entertainment, but as a vehicle for the author to reveal not only an aspect of the world to the reader, but to reveal the reader to himself. He makes me want to read some of those books that I’ve avoided because they appear daunting. (Musil’s The Man Without Qualities for example. Kundera makes me want to reread those masterpieces that I have already read.

I love the way the book ends (I don’t think this will ruin it for anyone- it’s not that type of book)

“In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal.”

Reading technique

April 18, 2007

I am curious about the way others read. Tonight I was spending time with a couple of new friends, Bouvard and Pecuchet. I had set aside The Curtain one evening and got immersed into Flaubert’s masterpiece. Meanwhile I have been slogging through The Tale of Genji which is going to take a couple of months at my current rate of speed. I consider myself a slow reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing- I think it was Francine Prose’s latest that suggested slowing down and working harder at reading. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like it takes me too long to get through a book.

Back to my question- as I was reading tonight, I noticed that I am actually kind of “pronouncing” each word in my head as I read. I am not moving my lips, but I can “hear” each word mentally as I read it. Do you do that? I seem to remember years ago that from a speed reading perspective, that is not a good thing. I don’t think I would enjoy speed reading, and I don’t think I can change the way I read at this point in my life. I guess I just wonder if I am doing it wrong.

The Weekend Today show just had a segment on the upcoming auction of the controversial Rice portrait of Jane Austen.
austen.jpg The controversy centers around whether or not the portrait is actually a portrait of Jane. There is some question regarding some features of dress as well as the hairstyle, although the auction house, Christie’s, is convinced of the authenticity. Either way, the portrait would make a nice edition to your library. The controversy appears to have impacted the cost, and it is expected to sell on Thursday the 19th for as little as $400,000 to $800,000.

The Today story featured the Jane Austen society and the interviews included a replica of Stefanie’s Jane Austen action figure.