For the Sunday Salon
I’m so sorry not to have been around this week, blogging friends – it’s been a most unusual few days with computer problems, a pressing deadline for an academic article (couple more days and I’ll be done with that) and some rather exciting news that I’ll return to at the end. First and most importantly, I need to catch up with you on what I’ve been reading.
I’ve mentioned before my love affair with the magnificent Joan Acocella whose collection of New Yorker essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints has been thrilling and entertaining me all week. Acocella writes fairly lengthy appreciations of mostly writers and dancers/choreographers, but she also includes essays on a sculptor, on James Joyce’s troubled daughter, Lucia, on two saints (Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene, the latter a brilliant exploration of how the biblically humble Magdalene became a cult celebrity across the centuries, inspired by, but as antidote to, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown) and on writer’s block. The writer’s block essay was the first I read and it is a beautiful example of Acocella’s style, weaving together lots of stories about suffering writers that she compares and contrasts with wit, elegance and intelligence. She’s also fundamentally sensible, pointing out that writer’s block is as much about the absence of a good editor (Henry Roth), alcoholism (Fitzgerald, Hammett), too much praise for the first novel (Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison), or anxiety over self-revelation (J. D. Salinger) as it is about bad authorial karma. In other words, there often seems to be a jolly good reason why authors stop writing for a while, and the mythological ‘block’ often has quite mundane roots. But the reason that I found this essay so emblematic of Acocella’s approach is that it blends biographical detail with analysis of the literature in question in order to assuage her fascination with the genesis of a writer – how a certain man or woman came to the act of writing, and why they ended up writing this and not that. It’s rather like being taken on the best guided tour ever of an artist’s life, a leisurely journey through the most intriguing landmarks with historical and architectural information provided at just the moment you want it. Sheer armchair pleasure.
She is never less than interesting and the writers she picks to discuss are an eclectic and yet well-chosen bunch – Penelope Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, Marguerite Yourcenar, Simone de Beauvoir, Stefan Zweig, to name just a few. The dance chapters are equally fascinating, although I thought my interest might diminish. But Acocella is a gorgeous stylist; clear, insightful, concise and with a truly delightful turn of phrase. How could anyone resist a description of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dancing as: ‘He rose like a piston; he landed like a lark. He took off like Jerry Lee Lewis; he finished like Jane Austin.’ Or on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, ‘Reading them is like hearing someone play Mozart two rooms away: light, sweet – jolly even – and utterly piercing. You don’t know what hit you.’ Or on Dorothy Parker’s short stories: ‘The telephone turns up again and again. To Parker it seems to have been the quintessential image of male elusiveness. The men in the stories are barely described. They are not really human; they are merely a scarce resource, like money or food – something needed.’ Not an essay goes by without a handful of memorable sentences in it, a score of places where you stop and pause and consider what she has said and how right and clever and lucidly she has said it. I was intrigued by a post from Jacob Russell a little while back that considered how we write about books, what we want to say about them that’s worthwhile. That thought has been on my mind for a long, long time now, and I’m still working on it. But if I don’t know what the right answer is, I certainly know what I like, and the ease and intelligence of Joan Acocella’s gently, relentlessly probing writing is very close to perfection for me.
And now for something completely different: Charles Dickens. You may recall my marked aversion to Dickens, having been slowly tortured with him over several years in English classes at school. Well, a blog friend has been encouraging me for some time now to try again and so I read Great Expectations. I wanted to do a full post on this, but I can see that’s not going to be likely, and so I offer up a few words here. I am delighted to report that Dickens is nowhere near as bad as I remembered him to be. In fact I found his writing witty and compassionate without the sheer, sickening drop into sentimentality that I feared, and his characters were much, much better than the cardboard cut-outs I recalled. Given that Great Expectations seems to be what is called a Bildungsroman – a novel about an adolescent’s development to maturity – the question of character was developed in most intriguing ways.
The main character, Pip, is first seen as a young boy roaming the graveyard nearby his house where the vast majority of his family is now residing. Pip is being brought up by his deeply unsympathetic sister and her husband, the golden-hearted noble savage, Joe (who is a blacksmith by trade). A series of chance events transform Pip’s rather bleak existence in profound ways. In the graveyard, Pip is near scared to death by the sudden arrival of an escaped convict who makes him promise to bring food to his hideout, which Pip does, though not without much fear and guilt. Then he is invited to play at Miss Haversham’s house (even I had heard of Miss Haversham – the elderly bride in aspic and cobwebs) where he meets the disdainful but beautiful Estella, with whom he falls in love and is obliged to confront the painful realization of his lack of class and status. But then he is taken to London by one of Dickens’s classic crew of lawyers, the fearsome Mr Jaggers, after a secret bestowal of fortune by a mysterious benefactor presents Pip with great expectations. In London he will be educated and transformed into a gentleman. But Pip finds out that this process takes more than a bit of reading and a bit of hard cash. All the characters we have met so far perform a kind of plot-driven quadrille in which they all exchange places and end up looking quite different to the way they started, and it is in his judgment of people that Pip most needs a thorough education.
What struck me at first about the novel was its repeated insistence on humiliation – the strong characters, those who were brutal, or violent, or utterly self-centered, made regular sport of all those with vulnerabilities of any kind. But the thrust of the novel is to show Pip how all the criteria by which he judged himself vulnerable, and thus open to humiliation, are in fact wrong-headed in the true scheme of humanity. Pip learns to judge people by their hearts, not by their wallets, and to view himself through his capacity to give love, not his ability to present a hardened carapace of achievement to the world. I was surprised, though I don’t know why, by how moral a book this was. I was less surprised that the morality was played out through a series of shocking external events – a happy nineteenth century literary belief that you could trust in experience to make things right that was ruthlessly screwed up and tossed into the wastebasket of the twentieth century.
This was made abundantly clear by the other novel I read this week, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I’d read many a mixed review of this novel and was keen to try it out for myself. It’s effectively a short story that has been padded out into a novella, and I wondered whether this was at the root of the problem. I actually enjoyed it very much indeed, mainly because it is beautifully written. It concerns the disastrous wedding night of a young couple, Edward and Florence, who have come to a hotel on Chesil Beach as full of anxieties and Great Expectations as Pip himself. Set at the beginnings of the sixties the narrative is lush with historical detail of the times and the social mores, and the sections that detail the early lives of the two main protagonists are exquisitely wrought. Against them are set the scenes in the hotel bedroom where innocence, uncertainty and fear are ganging up on our couple, for Edward is quite desperate for the physical encounter that Florence is equally desperate to avoid. This was back in the days when people didn’t talk about issues of pressing urgency when they concerned bodies, emotions or desires. How did people survive without imploding? Whatever else you might hold against the contemporary world, at least it’s okay nowadays to talk about what’s bothering you and duty is not the be all and end all of decision-making. I won’t say any more about what happens, but I felt that McEwan had written a stark, neat little domestic tragedy that was emotionally punchy for all its apparent slightness. But I could not for the life of me decide whether it was too short or too long.
You may well be surprised to find me rattling through the book reviews like this rather than indulging in my usual verbose accounts of 1,000 + words. Well, blogging friends this may well be the format for the next few months with a post a week, or maybe two. You know I never neglect my blog unless I have a good reason, and last week I found out that I’ve been taken on by a literary agent in London who is willing to have a go at selling the motherhood book for me that you know I’ve been working on. I couldn’t be more thrilled – it’s a wonderful agency with authors like Bill Bryson, P.D. James, Sarah Waters and C. J. Sansom on their books, and whilst it’s a fickle and unpredictable book world out there, and anything could happen (and probably will), it’s a great encouragement for me at this stage. I need to get some sample chapters together and, if possible, to work on placing some journalistic articles. So I do have rather a lot of writing and research on for a while now, although all in excellent causes. I find I am strung out between excitement and sheer terror at the moment – the day I found out I was so pleased, and then by bedtime I felt sick and shaky. It was like being five years old on Christmas Eve again and my husband thought I was hilarious. I like to call it the artistic temperament, but you can imagine that gets pretty short shrift around here! I would never have branched out down this route if it hadn’t been for this blog and the tremendous support of my blogging friends. I thank you with all my heart. And I’ll let you know how it goes.