First of all thank you to everyone who sent me such cheering and consoling messages yesterday; you are just the loveliest and most compassionate of friends. The blogosphere is one world where the sun always shines, I find. I won’t mention work any more, except to say that my email inbox contained an invitation this morning to a ‘massacre workshop’. Ah, that put a smile on my face, I can tell you. It was almost as good (although not quite) as when Leo Bersani came here to give a lecture entitled ‘Is the rectum a grave?’ Who says academics is a silly, pointless way to earn a living?
Anyway, I thought I would give a brief overview of my current reading, which is going through one of those moments of excess. What I mostly wanted to write this post for, however, was to say that I had finished Rebecca West’s This Real Night, and after a shaky start it had won me over completely. My early concerns with its slightly fragmentary construction faded away as the narrative drive took over and steered us towards the horror of the First World War. West is such a magnificent stylist and the beauty of her prose is occasionally breathtaking. This was a much darker book than The Fountain Overflows and the ending was desperately sad but extraordinarily well done. It has given me some wonderful material for my project on mothers, as has another of the books I read subsequently, A Profound Secret by Josceline Dimbleby. This is the story of the author’s inquiries into a series of secret love affairs several generations back in her family’s past. It all began when Josceline Dimbleby decided to find out the story behind a very beautiful portrait by Edward Burne-Jones of Amy Gaskell (her great-aunt) who died young and in mysterious circumstances. Left alone in the library at one of the large houses in her family, she suddenly comes across a cache of carefully preserved letters and discovers that they are passionate but platonic love letters from the painter Burne Jones to her great-grandmother, May Gaskill, the mother of the aunt who died. I want to blog about this book properly, so I won’t say much more about it here, except that the epistolary relationship between May Gaskill and Burne-Jones that lasted for the last six years of the painter’s life is an incredibly touching story.
I’ve currently got two books on the go, the Orhan Pamuk novel, The Black Book, which I think is extraordinary, but which I can only read in installments because the depth of its postmodern play is just too rich to be consumed any faster. And the other book, Searching for Mercy Street is another family memoir, this one about the poet Anne Sexton by her daughter Linda Grey Sexton. Anne Sexton was bonkers in that no-holds-barred, emergency midnight admittance to the psychiatric hospital, self-destructively hysterical way that they did with such gusto and verve in the 1950s. Linda Grey has the ability to write about trauma without ever sounding like she’s whining, and I have to admit to finding it completely compulsive reading. I sit here thinking, my God, whatever is that mother going to do next? Surely it can’t get any worse? The answer is of course, oh yes it can. I can see I shall have to blog about this book too, when I’ve finished it.
I will have to hold my hands up and confess that I have already broken my ‘no more books’ rule, having found two more on mother-related topics that I couldn’t resist. One is Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter, which talks about a family’s emigration to Iran that went horribly wrong when Betty, appalled at living conditions there, decided she wanted to return to the USA. The book charts her desperate attempts to escape the clutches of her Iranian family and escape with her daughter to safety. The other book, also non-fiction, is by Anne Fadiman, better known for her literary essays. It’s entitled The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. The child in question is Lia Lee, a refugee from Laos diagnosed with severe epilepsy but caught between her adopted country’s medical procedures and the traditional cures her parents want her to undergo. Anne Fadiman’s account of the cultural impasse and the tragedy that resulted from it won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. I’m thinking it’s going to be a powerful tale.
I’m also having a poetry moment. I heard about The Enchanted House by Canadian poet Beth Janzen through the blog world, and then when I read an excerpt of her work I really wanted to get hold of a copy. One is on its way from America, so it will be a little while until I can tell you more. In the meantime, I’m reading Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair in a bilingual edition with the translation by that wonderful poet W. S. Merwin. Oh, Neruda’s poems are exquisite; aching with desire, heart-breaking and beautiful. I’m not having much of a critical response to them at the moment – rather, I’m just letting them happen to me. I’ll sign out here with a little snippet from one entitled ‘Every Day You Play’.
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the grey light unwind in turning fans.
My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.