This is such a busy week all my serious reviews will have to wait. In the meantime this meme from The Broke and the Bookish looked fun.
Georges Bataille – The Story of the Eye
Quite the most disturbing book, ever. The narrator goes on a sexual odyssey involving eyeballs, eggs and bull’s testicles. People get locked in wardrobes, priests are killed; every other page produces something new to flinch at. The first time I read this, in all innocence of what awaited me, I was on a train. Of course I was; if I couldn’t have been meeting someone like a new mother-in-law, say, with the volume in my hand, then the next inevitable option would be public transport. But it is one of those cult novels that belong to a tradition of subversive, challenging literature, hence someone suggested I read it. Never again.
Jacques Derrida – Positions
When people say they dislike literary theory, it is usually Derrida they have in mind. He was king of the tortuous sentence, and the kind of madly sophisticated exposition that boiled down to something really quite simple (except you couldn’t say it that way). I nearly threw this book out of a train window (trains, again!) when I was a student, and I’d paid £16 for it, which was a lot of money back then. Thinking I’d discovered him on that difficult, second book, I went to the library and checked out Of Grammatology. The only difference was that it contained 400 pages of impenetrable prose rather than 120. I tried to read the introduction by Gayatri Spivak, thinking there, all would be clear, and, who’d a thunk it, she was even worse than Derrida! I made my peace eventually with Derrida by turning him into a dipping-in author. Honestly, it works. If you just read a paragraph here and there, he’s quite interesting. It’s the sustained argument that kills you.
Voltaire – Candide
Long-term visitors to this site will be aware of my, ahem, difficulties with Voltaire. Candide is all about people on a crazy journey in which everything apocalyptically dreadful that you could ever imagine happens to them. They get thrown from one traumatic situation to another, while this incredibly annoying philosopher among their party parrots that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, or some such nonsense. A very insightful friend said to me: ‘you can’t bear the thought that an idea should be more important than people’s humanity’, and the reasons why I cannot bear this book suddenly became clear.
Jorge Semprun – L’écriture ou la vie (Literature or Life)
Semprun was a Holocaust survivor, released from Buchenwald in 1944. He published this book in 1994, having taken 50 years to find a way to talk about his experiences in the camps. It is an amazing book, harrowing in places, yet far more gentle towards the reader than many similar memoirs. It has never left me, in fact, it often crops up unexpectedly in my thoughts. Everyone should have a Holocaust book, as a tribute to humanity, as a sense of perspective on one’s own life, and as a way of keeping one’s eyes open to the darker realities of the world. No kidding, though, it takes courage to pick them up.
Joseph McElroy – Night Soul and other stories
I have become very lazy of late. I used to read all sorts of books, which meant that when I first thought about this meme, I had to consider what my comfort zone might look like. In retrospect, I never used to have one. But now I do. These days I tend to read writers who are very clear. I love clarity. It makes me happy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t intriguing qualities to less clear books. Joseph McElroy is a highly literary stylist, which is another way of saying that language is paramount in his books as a remarkable substance; he plays with it and bends it to breaking point. This sort of writing asks for a different kind of reading, and it’s good to be stretched. Quite what I’ll say about it in a review, I haven’t figured out yet.
Albert Camus – The Plague
This was a book I put off reading for years. I don’t like narratives about illness, and I feared this would be the literary equivalent of a disaster movie in which everyone fell down writhing in torments of agony, their helpless loved ones running about like headless chickens, etc, etc. In fact it’s not like that at all. It’s a brilliant book that asks searching questions about how we behave when in extremis, how to respond as a community to crises, who we become when the ordinary conditions of life are removed. And most of all, how to tell the story of what happens in an extraordinary situation with accuracy and justice. Outstanding.
Robert Graves – Greek Myths
To be fair, the main problem I had was that I must have been no more than 12 or 13 when I tried to read them. I had no idea I would be plunged into a divine bloodbath, or that I would need to find out what words like ‘parthenogenesis’ meant. What a jump from Enid Blyton and the Chalet School girls! I was afraid of the Greek myths for years, considering them inherently traumatic reading, until we bought my young son a tape of the children’s version and I realised they were actually enthralling. You’ve got to come at these things from the right level.
When I was at school, I had a good friend called Caroline who used to read at every single opportunity during the day. Waiting in line outside the classroom, idle moments before the lesson began, idle moments in the lesson, when she could get away with it. I used to sit beside her in class, so I got a lot of over-the-shoulder reading done. She went through a Catherine Cookson phase, and so, by obligation, did I. If you’ve ever thought Cookson was a romance writer, think again. The things that happened in her stories! This would always be the lesson before lunch, and she would have reached the bit where some poor woman would be beaten by her husband, causing her to miscarry in full, queasy detail. Or some young girl would be forced to marry an uncongenial man and be raped by him, in full, queasy detail. Caroline was alternating around that time between Virginia Andrews and Catherine Cookson, and believe me, I thought they came from the same section of the bookstore.
Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingstone Seagull
I have a nasty feeling that Mister Litlove gave me this book when we were mere undergraduates together. Anyway, back then I wasn’t that great with allegories, and spent most of the time thinking, why am I reading about a seagull? I was especially not good with Christian allegories and I spent a lot of time thinking, why am I reading this patronizing drivel? I am not so stupid as to think that what happens to seagulls is the same as what happens to people. Please remove the syrupy tone or bring a real, live person into the story, or preferably both. It just rubbed me up the wrong way, although I do wonder how I’d feel reading it now, when I am much more accepting of all sorts of different perspectives.
Christine Angot – Incest
Angot writes memoirs, but not like any you’ll have come across before. This is, on the whole, a good thing, as the world is probably only big enough for one Angot at a time. In this book she describes the incestuous affair she had with her father (I think her mother divorced when she was young, so she didn’t know him well, growing up) that lasted, if we believe her, into her twenties. Angot is a fearless and brutal narrator, queen of oversharing, but what makes her books rather intriguing is that she is wholly unreliable, too. Just when you are thinking that it is amazing anyone would broadcast certain intimate events to an entire reading public, she’ll come out with a ‘You didn’t really think I meant that, did you? My goodness, you’ll believe anything!’. It is very disconcerting. Keeping the reader outside of any comfort zone is very much Angot’s business, and she does it effectively and well. Read her at your peril.