Friday, August 29, 2008

Midnight's Children

Blogging once a week is enough for me, I've decided. I've been incredibly listless lately and have deleted one entry after another (this one should be deleted, but I'll leave it here). Before I talk about Rushdie, I want to speak about how much I envy those who can blog every day, amusingly and well. Some bloggers are so witty and perspicacious that I've bought as many books from them (essentially) as I have from bookstores. After reading blogs like, say, dovegreyreaderscribbles, I often thrill to the siren of a good book. I love having a journal of my reading, but it IS easier to list books in a journal (any notebook will do, though I have a Moleskine, as do many of us online ). Scribbling: that’s the underground, pre-blog way to list books

I'm more than halfway through Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children,, as two of his books were given to me for my birthday and I've chosen to start with this one (winner, 1981, Booker Prize). I only wonder why it’s taken me so long to discover Rushdie This particular incident will perhaps sound silly, but a pompous bookstore owner DID try to prevent me from buying it in the '80s. Sitting behind the counter giving hostile looks to the customers, he said, “Midnight’s Children will mean nothing to you; it means something to me.”

Well, okay. He allowed me to buy Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. But I should have bought Midnight’s Children from a more stable bookseller: independent bookstores in those days had no competition and were occasionally owned by demented entrepreneurs. I miss the best one, but it's impossible to pretend they were all "cozy" or inspiring or whatever the myth is. I'm sure there are cantankerous booksellers everywhere: in B&N and Borders, too.

Midnight’s Children is part fairy tale, part David Copperfield ("I was born in the city Bombay...once upon a time...”), the story of midnight-born children on August 15, 1947, the moment of India’s independence. Narrated by Saleem Sinai, a midnight child, the novel brilliantly interweaves the present with the past, depicting the partly-mythological adventures of a family, and on another level, an allegory of the post-Indian political happenings.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Caravaners

Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners, a gentle, charming satire, is, indeed, the kind of novel I would have read in 1909, when doubtless I would have been a housemaid pretending to dust the drawing room. The Caravaners is vaguely based on von Arnim’s own experiences as a caravaner, which she embarked on after seeing an advertisement for vans and horses (very like another adverisement, the impulse behind the trip to Italy in Enchanted April). “Pray for fine weather, my child,” she wrote to her daughter. “For if it wet heaven knows what will become of us.” According to Kate Saunders, who wrote the introduction of the 1988 Virago edition, “it was the wettest August on record, and the caravaners spent most of their time shivering over the cauldron of rain-splashed porridge.”

There is nothing worse than camping in the rain. Those of us who have done it know the misery. But Baron Otto von Ottringe, the narrow-minded narrator, does not put a good face on anything (and after all he has a caravan, not a tent). We see everything through the eyes of this smug, narrow-minded, anti-English Prussian, who has been persuaded to take a caravan trip in England with his young wife, Edelgarde (partially because it is cheap ). On the trip he hates every minute of it (just as he hates England): tramping beside the horse while it pulls the caravan (he had pictured sitting cosily inside), guiding it through narrrow gates (symbolic of his narrowness), rain all the time, begging food from farmers who won’t always sell to them, holding umbrellas over brew pots, sausages that never brown, washing up (which he shirks as women’s work).

His wife, Edelgarde, on the other hand, blooms. She shortens her dresses and refuses to wait on him. She points out that he can do everything he asks her to do. He cannot understand this rebellion. She relaxes as a result of her liberal companionship: the politically liberal German woman who suggested the trip, her Anglicized German sister, Mrs. Menzies-Legh, who has lived in England for many years, Jellaby, a socialist, and a lord, with whom Otto won’t even talk until he finds out he is “Lord Sigismund’” Otto alienates everyone. He only sees the caravaners as a microcism of his own society, in terms of rank, which he cannot spot in this classless society among the caravaners.

What a good book! Really a classic of its kinds. And it is set during August...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Mansfield Park

I’m hanging out, sipping lemonade, reading Mansfield Park, a brilliant novel but somehow dull to me, especially after Persuasion. Fanny, the (anti-)heroine, is not unlike Anne in some respects, good, kind, competent, but timid, immature. prim, and without humor. A ward of the Bertram family, Fanny has never felt herself the equal of her female cousins, who intimidate her by referring to her as "stupid," etc.. She is generally overlooked except by Edmund, the second son, meant to be a clergyman.

Fanny improves as time goes on, but her saintly temperament changes only as a result of jealousy. Mary Crawford, a lively young woman (with bad morals, of course), visits her sister at the parsonage, and Edmund delights in her vivacity. Mary and Henry Crawford, her brother, love to flirt, and within a few weeks Henry has broken the hearts of both Maria and Julia Bertram, and Mary has won Edmund’s heart (with more ambivalence about breaking it). The central scheme of the novel is a “racy” plan for amateur theatrics devised by Mr. Bertram, the hapless, licentious oldest brother (perhaps very like Henry). The play will bring the "lovers" together. Fanny from the start is scandalized, and Edmund, too, tries to discourage his swept-away siblings. But eventually Edmund’s admiration of Mary Crawford clouds his judgment: he cannot allow a stranger from the neighborhood to act as a lover with Mary. Fanny, who is in love with Edmund (who regards her as a younger sister), is very distressed not only by his acting, but by his acting with Mary.

The return of Sir Thomas stops the play. Henry’s seduction of Maria and Julia also stops: he hastily leaves Mansfield.

Is theater an evil? Because it allows amateurs to transcend emotional boundaries? Or is it ultimately hurtful because amateurs can't tell the difference between real and acted love?

Mary Crawford stays behind and Fanny is constantly overwhelmed by her kindness (jealously),

Not to give away more of the plot, I will instead quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (given at Cornell):

“Mansfield Park is a fairy tale, but then all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales. At first sight Jane Austen’s manner and matter may seem to be old-fashioned, stilted, unreal. But this is a delusion to which the bad reader succumbs. The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books. In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book. ...The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe. Mansfield Park never existed, and its people never lived.”

But in his next essay, on Bleak House, he begins.

“Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts, but I have often forced myself to see some bit of precious translucent china through the eyes of an expert and have discovered a vicarious bliss in the process. Let us not forget that there are people who have devoted to Jane all their lives, their ivy-clad lives....”

I hate it when they go on and on about Jane's miniatures, etc. Comparisons are odious: Austens' books cannot be compared with Dickens's; and I very much dislike this reference to "ivy-clad lives." Nabokov's chapter on Mansfield Park seems dispassionate, but that whole "women's angle" thing is out of place.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Sorrows of an American

I've found a really good novel by Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American, about which I knew nothing. The narrator, Erik, is a psychiatrist and his sister, Inga, is a philosopher. After their father's death, they go back to Minnesota to clear out their father's papers. The papers trigger and change the narrator's memories, dreams, and responses. "I am lonely," he keeps muttering. He realizes he has been saying it for a long time.

Everyone in his world is lonely, or alone. He is divorced, his sister is widowed with an only child, his tenant is an artist mother with an only child. Mr. T, a former psychiatric patient, shows up on his street, babbling poetry, in intense pain

"Chip planters from the other side, channeling me, man, the great dead heads (not grateful, ungrateful), Goethe, Goering, God, Buddha, Bach, Bruno, Houdini, Himmler, Spinoza, St. Theresa. Rasputin. Elvis. Talkin' graves. Chosen from the other side. Nondimensional spaces, texts coming through, beating me hard up there. Mingus. Fear and trembling, trembling, and fear...."

The patient needs his notebook. He has stopped taking his medicine, because it has made him obese. At the emergency room, the narrator explains that Mr. T needs his notebook. Mr. T is allowed to keep that, but in the psychiatric hospital they don't see him as special and the narrator is grieves over Mr. T's grief.

Unlike Mr. T, the dangerous former boyfriend of Miranda, the artist-tenant, photographs her all over the city and breaks into Erik's house.

Miranda does not find this odd. She, an artist, continually makes excuses for the behavior of another artist, a photographer.

Hustvedt has this exactly right.

Lots about dreams. A discussion at the dinner table about dreams, interpretation, remembering them, how writers use dreams. The novel sometimes reads like a series of eerie dream sequences.