Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Retreat into fiction

There's a lot on my mind these days, but generally it is too political and too angry to want to post on it.  On top of everything else, I might change my mind (which does happen on rare occasions) and I'd regret having it out there.

There have definitely been times when I have been so frustrated by work or a general overall unhappiness about life that I go on long reading jags, pretty much shutting out the rest of the world.  This was particularly the case when I was teaching in Newark.  So much of what I read back then all blurred together, and I don't even remember much of it, which is a shame.  (And apparently 2008-2010, I was in the dumps a lot as well.)  Even posting a line or two about a book helps me set my thoughts in some kind of order.  I'd say that right now, my happiness at work is increasing to some degree but the awfulness of watching what is going on south of here is a real grind.  Still, I'm so glad to be out of it.  I can watch from a distance, but, more importantly, I can tune it all out, since I am only indirectly impacted at the moment by the Cheeto-in-Chief (until he starts a war with North Korea of course).

There are a few more detailed posts I still expect to make (on Isherwood's A Single Man and on Narayan's work), but why don't I go ahead and put down some mini-reports on my reading.  I'll go back a few months a least.

Charlotte Bronte -- Jane Eyre: This was one of the real gaps in my reading.  (When in university I was assigned Wuthering Heights instead.  I'm glad for my 19-year-old self as Jane Eyre is about twice as long.)  The first part of the novel was fairly interesting, but I definitely lost interest when Jane fell so deeply in love with Rochester, who certainly didn't seem such a catch, even before the fire.  I'm glad to finally have read it, but it was a bit of a let-down for me.

I then read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  This was just a bit too experimental for me.  I am not entirely sure I would have even understood it was about Rochester and his first wife if this hadn't been pointed out by others.  I didn't feel it added to my understanding of the situation nor did it work (for me) as a feminist reworking of the Jane Eyre story.  I prefer Rhys's more straight-forward semi-autobiographical accounts of her days in relative poverty in Europe (Voyage in the Dark, Quartet, etc.).

Right after I got through those novels, I reread Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.  Someone on Goodreads wrote it was about two terrible (or at least deeply selfish) people doing terrible things to each other and then to their offspring.  That sounds about right.  It basically is a Gothic romance, full of deep (and terrible?) emotions.  The novel affected me more as a young adult.  As a more jaded adult, I mostly was thinking how this corner of England seemed like the Ozarks where people didn't seem to realize that there was society down the road and that one didn't have to marry one's neighbors, i.e. there were more options in this wider world.  Even Jane Eyre includes much more travel -- and visitors from elsewhere coming through.  I hadn't remembered that the narrator was quite such a bumbling twit nor that he seemed to want to make a play for the young widow, though fortunately he stepped aside to allow for the nascent romance to blossom and for the presumably happy ending to arrive.

I reread Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and then finally read Pride and Prejudice.  While it may be somewhat heretical, I definitely preferred Sense and Sensibility, in large part because I preferred the secondary characters.*  Emily Bennet's younger sisters are a bunch of annoying simpletons.  Also, for a man who didn't care much for his wife, Mr. Bennet sure had a lot of children, though I suppose they were desperately trying for a male heir.  I generally found the difficulties that the Bennet sisters faced in getting married were more contrived (and thus more easily overcome) than the situation in Sense and Sensibility.

William Trevor -- Nights at the Alexandra.  This is a novella rather than a true novel.  I found it quite unsatisfying, as it basically seemed to be an older man reflecting back on his teen-aged crush on a young married woman, who moved to his village with her German husband.  The strong implication is that his impossible love for her stunted his emotional growth and he never managed to find anyone else in his life who measured up, and thus remained a bachelor all his days.  I'm not saying this never happens, but I found it a fairly shallow story and of no particular interest.

I may end up writing more on Isherwood later, but A Single Man offers up an interesting comparison.  Here the focus is on a "single" man, George (and the novel could be summarized as A Single Day in the Life of a Single Man).  However, the man is involuntarily single.  He was in a long-term homosexual relationship, long before this was accepted by broader society and indeed at a time (1964) when gay sex was illegal in Canada and virtually all U.S. states, including California, where the novel was set.  But he isn't single because his partner left him but rather he died suddenly.  While the narrator seems somewhat emotionally stunted, it could largely be because he is still in emotional shock.  We don't really get a sense of how much he was at his ease while in the relationship, but it seems to have been a happy one.  On the other hand, much is made of the fact that George is an outsider, a British immigrant to California (with all the reserve that implies).  It is interesting to compare the fairly buttoned-down George to the let-it-all-hang-out  Tommy/Wilhelm from Bellow's Seize the Day. To be fair, there was a point (in the past) when George broke down in the company of his friend Charlotte, over the death of his lover, but now George keeps these emotions in check. However, given the rivers of booze that flow through this novel (indicating perhaps Mad Men wasn't so far off the mark) and poor George's liver, there is a bit of suspense over what exactly will come out of his mouth while he is drunk. The novel is actually quite radical in how it describes an older male lusting (privately) after a fair number of younger men he runs across.

Chigozie Obioma -- The Fishermen.  This had a lot of the trappings of a Greek myth, specifically Oedipus Rex, but set in Nigeria, where a prophecy spoken by a madman sets off a series of tragic events for the four elder boys.  I was also reminded a fair bit of The Brothers Karamazov, though in this case, the brothers do not turn on their father, who is only a middling tyrant.

Emmanuel Bove -- A Singular Man. Too long for what it is, sort of a nothing burger. It's about a man, dependent on others for charity most of his life, who marries far above his station, but the happy couple never gets their share of the family fortune. While he is "singular" in that he doesn't really rail against fate or go around begging for help (like the self-indulgent Tommy from Seize the Day), he also does little in the way of work. For instance, he seems to give up a job in advertising without any kind of a back-up plan. I'm kind of allergic to Bove's characters and their way of thinking. (I really detested the main character of A Man Who Knows; here I am more indifferent.) I probably ought to just stop reading Bove.

Another odd novel about a dissolute character who doesn't really want to work is English, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee. The main character is a young man who has won a position with IAS, but seems to want to do nothing but laze around all day smoking weed and occasionally reading Marcus Aurelius. There is a lot here about the absurdities of trying to govern India through a civil service that is thoroughly corrupt, but it is still a novel centered on a callow young man, and the narrative/plot doesn't do much to challenge his self-centered view.

I was going to write on a few other novels I have read lately, but I think this is enough for now.  It is late, and I have other things to do.

* That said, Pride and Prejudice has one of the best opening lines I've come across: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

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