Scenes From A Week

1. On Monday, walking back to my car from the bookshop, I fell over. I haven’t done this in years. It was my own fault, really, for being so curious about the couple on the other side of the road. The woman was hollering out for ‘Alvin!’ and I couldn’t see whom she was addressing. Was it the rather dour young man further down the road, loitering in someone’s gateway? Then I saw, emerging from behind a parked car, a little dot of a toddler, clearly in la-la land, as toddlers so often are, with no real clue that he was being summoned. It was at this point that I tripped over the upthrust root of a tree forcing its way through the pavement, one of the roots I described so enthusiastically in a post last week. If that’s not irony, then it jolly well ought to be. I thought I would save myself, but I ended up flat out in a pile of leftover autumn leaves. They, and the multiple layers I’d been wearing to withstand the chill of the bookstore meant that I was not hurt, although Mister Litlove is trying to persuade me I am such a featherweight that I reached terminal velocity and floated the last few feet.

In fact, as I was going down, I had enough of the stretched-out time that characterises accidents to hear the couple over the road going ‘Oh! Owwww!’ This ensured that the time I spent actually prone was about a nanosecond, as I shot bolt upright calling out ‘I’m fine! I’m fine!’ ‘Are you sure?’ the woman called over to me. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘Although I feel a bit stupid.’ ‘Aw, come on,’ the woman replied. ‘The number of times I’ve fell over!’ I was rather touched by her kindness. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to thank her properly for it. Anyway, I wasn’t hurt. I had sore arms this week but not a bruise or a scratch on me, luckily.

 

2. On Wednesday evening I went to my real-life book club. It was a bitterly cold night, and we met in the middle of nowhere, in a cute little rustic sort of house with a huge blazing fire and a resident ghost. This was most appropriate as we were discussing Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I love this book club. We had a solid hour and a half of excellent book chat, and it astounds me again and again how very differently a bunch of people will experience a novel. Some thought the book was dull and boring, others that it was set to be a modern classic. Opinions about the narrator, Dr Faraday, ranged from a loyal if slightly pathetic romantic to a cold fish who made one’s skin creep. Some really liked the supernatural element and found it frightening, others not so much. One person actually thought it was more of a love story than anything else. Those of us who plumped for the psychological explanation of unconscious forces at work completely bamboozled the rest who hadn’t seen anything like that in the narrative at all. And it would have been impossible for one reader to persuade another to change  his or her mind. What do we do when we read? What screen do we throw up between ourselves and the words on the page? To read is to track the unconscious paths of our desire, I recall from days gone by of reader response theory. Can that really be so – that we only register what we want to see? We rounded the evening off with people recounting some real life ghost stories, appropriately enough. I’ve never seen a ghost, not even a whisper of one. Plus, I think that real, living people are infinitely scarier; I’ll take my chances with the supernatural.

 

3. You should have seen my face yesterday, though, when I finished reading Cees Nooteboom’s novella, The Following Story. I hadn’t got a clue what had happened. Three-quarters of the way through the book, confused and bewildered, I’d gone online seeking reviews in the hope of enlightenment. Lots of readers love this book and rate it really highly. They assured me that the last few pages made the whole set-up finally come clear. It remained stubbornly shrouded in mists of opacity for me. Can anyone please tell me what is going on? Is the narrator dead? Is he dreaming? It concerns a former Latin teacher, now a writer of rather tepid travel guides. He became caught up in a love triangle between two married teachers and a beautiful star pupil who was having an affair with the husband. In an act of revenge the wife took our narrator as a lover, the only woman ever to have a relationship with him, but who belittled and scorned him all the time they were together. The novella opens with our narrator waking up in a hotel bed in Portugal, which surprises him as he could have sworn he went to sleep the previous evening in Amsterdam. The hotel bed is highly significant, though, as it’s where he came with the biology teacher at the height of their affair. Writing it like that makes it sound quite straightforward, and the first half of the book that details the romantic entanglements is relatively clear, although it’s one of those narratives full of classical allusions and digressive comments. But that’s okay. I quite like that. It was getting to the end, anticipating a full explanation and then being totally stymied that was annoying. Clearly I am being stupid. If anyone can explain, I would be SO grateful!

P.S. I am behind again with comments and visits! I’m so sorry – things are just so busy at the moment. I promise faithfully to catch up on the weekend.

25 thoughts on “Scenes From A Week

  1. I loved the description of your book group meeting…I find that sort of thing very freeing, myself, as I think it reassures the writer in us that some people will get it, and some won’t, and not getting it doesn’t mean it isn’t good. One of my own thoughts about “The Little Stranger” was that Caroline was a heavily closeted lesbian, who “married” the house and estate emotionally because it would have been so unthinkable, in that time, place, and circumstance, for her to be honest with herself, and that many of the house’s phenomena were her, trying to get her own attention.

    • David – you would have found support for your view at the meeting! There were a couple of people who wondered whether Caroline had lesbian tendencies. It’s an intriguing thought, and personally, I am all for the reading that the paranormal phenomena were manifestations of unconscious disorder. My own feeling is that it stems from class conflict, that the house enacts the decay of the upper classes under fire from the hostile envy of the lower. But where we ended up was agreeing that ambiguous books are fantastic because you can have so much interpretative fun. I hear what you say, too, about the freedom it gives the author to let go and give the book away to readers. That’s a lovely thought.

  2. Glad you are ok after your fall. I fell onto a bus about a year and a half ago. It was summer and kind of raining and I was running to catch the bus and I leapt up the stair and promptly caught my foot and found myself sprawled out on the floor of the bus. The driver was horrified and so very concerned. I jumped up right away, fine, fine, I’m fine. Several passengers asked if I was okay too. Oh I was so embarrassed! I did, however do a real number on my shin where just a little while later a bruise began to appear from ankle to kneecap. I couldn’t wear shorts or skirts for nearly a month because it looked to terrible.

    Your book group sounds like it was lots of fun. It is always fascinating that we all have such different reading experiences of a book. As for the Nooteboom, I’ve not read it. I have one of his books on my TBR shelves but I am pretty sure it isn’t this one.

    • Stefanie – I remember you doing that! And oh yes, your description is so exactly what I did!🙂 But I also recall your bruising, you poor thing! I’m sort of keen for you to read your Nooteboom at some point as I’d love to know what you make of him as a writer. I’d try him again if there were another book I felt I’d do better with.

  3. I’m glad you’re ok! I’m constantly amazed at the different ways people read and receive books, and I found your descriptions of it fascinating. I can’t help with the novella, never having read it (though even if I had, I might not be able to!)–let us know what you discover.

    • Lilian – ooh this must be exciting, thinking that all those different kinds of readings are heading your way soon! I still have not figured out the novella (and maybe never will, alas). But thank you for the kind wishes – I’m glad to have bounced, too!

  4. I’m really glad your fall was not serious as my wife fell last week, now with foot in plaster, nasty knee inflation and two loose caps in mouth! Take care! Love your book group as it’s such an antidote to the literary crit. scene, where everyone (well the pupils and students, plus others), is looking for THE answer as put down by eminent critic to regurgitate ad nauseum. Interesting that you mention Cees Nooteboom, as I think there’s a book of stories about death out recently, if I remember correctly a Guardian podcast which I think also featured A S Byatt. Otherwise I’ve never heard of the book, but if you are at sea with it, I’d no doubt be out in the oceans of interstellar space,

    • Bookboxed – oh your poor wife! How awful! Do send her my warmest wishes for a really speedy recovery. That sounds most debilitating, as falls go. I agree that one should be very wary indeed of anyone suggesting that there is one answer or one solution to any book. I used to tell my students not to think they had to solve literary puzzles – they’d be putting their teachers out of jobs if they did! A book of stories about death sounds exactly like Nooteboom territory (going on the one novella alone, ha!) and I shall look out for word about that with interest. Bless you for your kind words, but I think you do yourself a huge disservice – you are an excellent reader.

  5. Glad to hear that you were not seriously hurt in the fall. I fell recently outside my office. Ironically I was in low heels (sensible shoes) at the time! The only think I hurt was my pride as I was sure that some of the folks in the office might have seen me take my tumble! Your book club sounds lovely. What a perfect setting to discuss your book.

    • Kathleen – there is always something quite ludicrous about a fall, isn’t there? The times I’ve walked that street and come to no harm! And of course it only happens when there are witnesses!😀 I’m glad that for both of us, only our pride was bruised, but still!!!

  6. Glad to hear that you are okay after your fall. A few years ago, I fell at a place called “The Fashion Mall” — a very unfashionable thing to do. Hit my head hard enough that I passed out and broke my front teeth. I did not, however, injury the iPad that I had just purchased. A year later I went back to the Apple Store to buy a new laptop and the salesperson who waited on me asked: Didn’t you fall outside our story several months ago? He then asked if I needed him to carry my laptop to the car.

    I haven’t commented in ages, but have been reading your posts. Usually are reading them so long after posting that the comment conversations have usually moved on to other posts.

    • Anne – it’s really lovely to hear from you and I will come and visit very soon! Bless you for dropping by and reading – comments are always an extraspecial bonus. Your anecdote is so funny and endearing at the same time as being awful and wince-inducing! Oh teeth! How dreadful to have them involved in a fall (to have to add the dentist to one’s woes is insult to injury). It was nice of the guy to offer to help carry – shame he didn’t do that the first time around! But at least the ipad was okay.

  7. I am sorry you fell down, Litlove, but glad you are not too bruised! Falls can be scary. I totally got a kick out of how you described your response to The Following Story. It reminds me of myself when I watch confusing movies with my friends. I always make them pause the movie so that they can explain to me what is going on! I get confused! And then I wonder what is wrong with me because I believe I am an intelligent woman. Clearly, though, I lack certain elements of common sense (I will explain more to you in an email later this week) and need help in my daily living! I loved your email and will respond next week sometime. Work and life have both gotten rather crazy.

    • Ali – there is always the moment when you are going down and thinking, I really hope this isn’t going to be too painful… If only there were less time to think in accidents! As for movies, I am hopeless. They way they cut for almost every plot point these days means that it all goes by WAY too rapidly for me to have an idea what is happening! I get my son to explain the plot to me, until about halfway through when I often give up the unequal fight.🙂 As for mad work and busy life – you have my every sympathy! It’s like that at the moment, isn’t it? I will look forward to hearing from you, but just whenever you can.

  8. Not that I take delight in other’s misfortune, but your account here is so funny and endearing… I love your writing.🙂 I’ve just come back from a full week of hiatus. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed reading your chronicle here. Further, can you think of a non-fiction work on Ireland? Maybe something to do with Irish literary history, or whatever. (not too long hopefully) I need a variety of genres for my Ireland Reading Challenge. So after Molly Fox, I’m looking for a non-fiction work. Thanks!

    • Arti – bless you, you are so kind! Hmmm, as for the non-fiction book, leave it with me and I’ll get back to you asap. I’m sure I can make some suggestions. And I hope you’ve had a lovely week off.

  9. There must have been an urgency to that call for Alvin for you to get so very distracted. If I was the mother I’d feel like I was in a horror movie. A toddler wandering blithely between two park cars? That’s recurrent nightmare material. I hope she keeps better track of him in the future.

    • Squirrel – fortunately the road is quite quiet, but yes, it was really quite a ferocious call and one guaranteed to distract my easily-distracted attention. It reminded me, too, of that time in my family’s life when we all had small children. I can recall my young niece falling backwards off the back step of my parents’ house while about three of us adults stood helplessly nearby watching her do it. It was an al of arming time because you never knew where they’d go next and they were like tortoises – seemingly slow-moving until you turned away and then whipped out of sight before you turned back!

  10. I’m sorry you fell, Litlove. I fell going down my walkway to my car one morning. No obstructions, so I didn’t have that excuse. My ankle just decided it was going to go left while I was going straight. My briefcase went flying, my purse opened and spread its contents over the lawn. I don’t know if my neighbors were peering through their curtains muttering, “She’s certainly started drinking early.” But I was okay too. Just wounded pride. I have never heard of this novella, although I love the cover. I might shy away from this one. Oh, and the book club sounds like great fun. If you ever do want to talk to a ghost, I can introduce you to the one that “lives” in the attic at my office.

    • Grad – it was fortunate that my bag was shut tight, because spilling its contents is a favourite trick of mine. I so often manage to pick it up by the wrong end. In fact I have no idea how I pick it up by the wrong end SO regularly! I did laugh at your account, though, as you write is so entertainingly. I’m very glad we neither of us hurt more than our pride, but still. Our pride!! I would love to meet the ghost that lives in your attic – it sounds wonderfully friendly and settled!

  11. Oh, that primal “Where ARE you????” Of course you were distracted. Glad you were not injured (beyond pride, of course). Such an elegant way to describe tripping over a root ; ) Very much like your bit of “reader response theory” as it is something I’ve come across/felt myself. Which says that The Little Stranger is also to be read. Someday. Soon.

  12. Litlove: You write so well about your fall. I’m really glad you are okay. I took a tumble on the ice a week ago or so and I was very surprised by it. I seem to have come out okay but I was musing how, as adults, having a fall is an EVENT. I hadn’t fallen straight to the ground in 2 or 3 years. However, when I was a kid I fell all the time and it was no big deal. Even as a teenager, falling on the ice happened many times in a winter. I guess it’s just part of getting older or something that I heaved a sigh of relief that there was nothing broken or wrenched. Loved your account of the book group too. I was in a book group for 5 years (a friend and I put it together) and I found it an amazing education in reading–yes, the variety of opinions about one book was astounding. The books we disagreed about made the for the best discussion at meetings though. Also, I read books that I never would have otherwise read. After 5 years I needed my reading choices back to myself alone–the “freedom” still feels delicious!

  13. Everyone seems to have a falling story to tell. My most memorable one was falling up the stairs at my primary school prizegiving. I seemed to be getting the most prizes (for the one and only time ) and everyone laughed at this clever kid who tripped up the stairs! Sorry to hear about your fall but glad that you weren’t hurt.

    Your bookclub sounds delightful and it is reassuring to hear about so many different readings of the same book. But quite frustrating that authors leave so much open to interpretation.

  14. I’m the sort of person who falls even when there is no root sticking out of the ground, so I can totally sympathize! I did have a chuckle over the irony bit. Isn’t it funny how fast you find yourself moving when you know someone has just watched you do something like that? I can get upright amazingly quickly in those circumstances!🙂 Your book club sounds like fun–glad it wasn’t in the middle of construction–I still remember when you mentioned not having to detour excessively a previous time! And I have heard Cees Nooteboom is supposed to be very good, but if you found the ending to his story confusing, I will perhaps leave the book to some other reader. Alas I can’t shed any illumination on that one. Hope all is well. I’m playing catch up as well this weekend. I thought there was supposed to be so much more time in winter to accomplish things…

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