Reading Notes

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.

16 thoughts on “Reading Notes

  1. Glad to see you posting today. What I want to know is what’s the answer to Bersani’s question and where is it buried? The back of beyond no doubt. Somehow it made me think of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’.I love that slice of Neruda’s poem and it’s the sort of poem I never want to take apart, unweaving the rainbow as it were. Enjoy being off duty with literature for a while longer if you can. It is a fine translation, though I can’t judge if it’s accurate of course. Merwin was a friend of Hughes and Merwin’s wife detested Plath.

  2. love this excerpt–it’s always great to revisit neruda. plus it’s the time of year to read love poems after all! i’ve been mainly reading jaunty ones by the likes of cummings and frank o’hara but neruda is the ultimate.

  3. “I didn’t come across this (“Matriarchy” short story) in time for the latest edition of the Best of New Writing, but may I have an option on crossposting it for the next edition, please?”

    My dear Litlove, of course you can. Keep up the fine work–it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

  4. Such interesting things in your Bookstack! I read Searching for Mercy Street many years ago, and just recently re-read Diane Middlebrook’s (c. 1992) biography of Anne Sexton. I am amazed that Linda Grey managed to survive life with this “totally bonkers” mother. Quite a saga, and I can only imagine the fun our American media hounds would have with it today. Although perhaps “poets behaving badly” would not have the same media cachet as other misbehaved celebrities.

    I enjoyed the poetry you shared…I sometimes prefer allowing poetry to “just happen to me” as well.

  5. Very glad to hear your praise for the Rebecca West. I have loved everything of hers up to now but was given this recently, tried to start it and couldn’t get into it at all. Now I will have another go.

  6. I’m glad to hear This Real Night turned out so well — I’ll have to hunt down a copy then. I also have Cousin Rosamund, the third book in the series, so I definitely need the middle one!

  7. You must be reeling with all that wonderful literature! My sister recently recommended the Fadiman book to me so I see now I should hurry up and get my hands on a copy.

    I am glad you are feeling better. I think you are one of the last people in the world who should be allowed to feel ineffective – all your wonderful writing and various projects. At least from the other side of the screen here, I think you are doing a tremendously complete and impressive job.

  8. Dear Bookboxed – I should have gone to the lecture, shouldn’t I? But I like your suggestion better; that really made me laugh! I can’t judge if the translation is accurate either, but I am enjoying it a lot. You remind me I must read that book on the Plath/Hughes marriage! snackywombat – I only discovered him recently but I am a complete convert. Now, ee cummings is someone I have not read in a long time. That’s a very good idea, too… Cliff – that’s wonderful! Thank you! So I think it’s the 11th that the next edition will be out. Watch out for yourself! Ravenous Reader – you are so well read! I would like to read that biography too, as well as more poetry by Anne Sexton. Poetry is better if you just let it happen, isn’t it? Harriet – well I’m thankful to you for having encouraged me to persevere with it, as I could have given it up. Do have another go. I really think it starts to blossom by the midway point. Archie – so happy to think you have found a poet you like here! Do let me know if you manage to track any of his work down. Dorothy – I have Cousin Rosamund too, although other bloggers have suggested it’s not quite so good as her other work. But do read This Real Night. I was very glad in the end that I kept going with it. Verbivore – oh thank you! What a lovely kind comment! And yes, I would think you would enjoy the Fadiman. I’m looking forward to it very much myself. David, hello! Thank you for your lovely comment. Both Neruda and Merwin are becoming very special poets for me and you sum them up beautifully.

  9. Oh you are reading some good books! That Sexton memoir sounds fascinating. And I love the Neruda book you are reading. I’ve read it too. Marvelous. I like that line “rustic baskets of kisses.”

  10. Dear Stefanie – it is a good haul at the moment. The only problem is I finally sit down in my chair and start dithering over what exactly I should read rather than actually getting the pages turned! I’m impressed you’ve already read Neruda as he’s so new to me. And I do think you’d like the memoir.

  11. Ah, realize I am posting to an old post so no need to reply, but I wanted to say (1.) If you read Not without my daughter, the beginning takes place in my Hometown (Alpena, MI) and Mahmoody lives a block from my parents, just an interesting tidbit, no more, no less, and (2.) S. did part of his dissertation on The Spirit Catches you and YOu fall Down, on the ethics of death and dying in american. I read the Spirit Catches you and now I am dying for your post on it!

  12. I’m sorry to hear that things were not going well earlier this week, but it sounds like things are looking up? Everything you’re reading at the moment sounds so good. I really do need to read Rebecca West–she’s on my list. The Dimbleby book is definitely coming out, too. I read the Mahmoody book when it first came out–it was compelling and frightening reading. I’ve always been curious about Anne Sexton, too. I’m looking forward to your post on her.

  13. I was searching for something I wrote years ago and landed up here so was glad to see you read my book A Profound Secret. I wonder if you did write the blog about it? Best wishes.

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