Wide Sargasso Sea

Three years ago, I wrote about favorite books I haven’t read. Sometimes it happens that, based on the presentation of a certain book (through a movie, TV series, through another book or an essay) or, more directly, on reading its first page or chapter I get a strong feeling that the book is important, that it’s going to be one of the treasured. As soon as I acknowledge this feeling, I leave the book aside. Out of fear maybe; maybe just because I want to save it for a better time, less stressful, when I would be able to invest more energy and presence of mind into reading it.

I always take in consideration the fact that the hunch could prove wrong – it being right so far does not mean it is unmistakable. So, there’s a regular dose of fear that the book in question will not be good, or that it will not mean anything to me, which, in a way, is what’s more important in these cases.

I approached Wide Sargasso Sea with reserve. Nevertheless, I was crushed. Such a small volume, so densely packed. Gloriously complex, mighty, disturbing. Devastating. Even though I knew the story, it’s end in particular, I found myself hoping – for a little bit of sympathy and understanding, for just a little bit less stubbornness… It was a painful experience, I must admit. Something heavy lay on my chest, especially during the reading of the second part. In Antoinette’s words:

Such terrible things happen [..] Why? Why?

The opening lines, in which every word has its purpose, has a meaning, set expectations very high. The book is full of symbolism, there’s a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of parallels (a lot of foreshadowing through parallels too). It isn’t a book one reads once. It calls for multiple readings.

Instead of writing about what I perceived and understood, I want to note the scenes and sentences that left me in confusion, things that left me wonder.

  • Mount Calvary convent. The girls are stitching and listening to stories from the lives of the saints. All of the sudden, this:

Quickly, while I can, I must remember the hot classroom. The hot classroom, the pitchpine desks, the heat of the bench striking up through my body, along my arms and hands. But outside I could see cool, blue shadow on a white wall. My needle is sticky, and creaks as it goes in and out of the canvas. ‘My needle is swearing,’ I whispered to Louise, who sits next to me.

Why does she need to remember it quickly, while she can? At what moment in her life is she remembering this? The use of present and past tense in the last sentence is stunning.

  • The same conundrum here, when she’s talking about England with Christophine:

I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, I must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

  • What is the meaning of the story about rats and moonlight?
  • Antoinette’s husband is unnamed. Her father as well. Why?

 

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P.S. Tremendously glad that I joined Rhys Reading Week, I send many thanks to Jacqui and Eric Karl for organizing it. Congratulations are in order too!

Jean Rhys Reading Week

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerHere it is at last! A week of reading and discussing the writing and life of Jean Rhys. I am curiously happy that I decided to join and very eager to read the thoughts of other participants.

I am still on holiday, but since this (apparently) does not mean that I don’t have to work I will have less time to dedicate to the event than I thought/planned.

That was one of the reasons why I started reading Wide Sargasso Sea ahead of the Rhys Reading Week. The other one was the fear that something (else) will come up which would not leave me time enough to write, which would consequently lead to not contributing my part.

I have read Voyage in the Dark, but I can’t recall when. Seems so long ago. What I can recall is darkness and dependency. I didn’t liked that, I remember. I felt no urge to read anything else by Rhys. Than, at the university, when we discussed postcolonial literature and feminism her name was mentioned. Through The Madwoman in the Attic I became aware of Wide Sargasso Sea, of the significance of the story it tells. It was the text that spoke to my interests – the rewriting of canon, giving the perspective of the Other..

Strange thing life is – all these years passed, other books were read.. Why not Wide Sargasso Sea? It is difficult to tell. The experience with Voyage in the Dark (which just came at wrong time, I am inclined to think) had nothing to do with it, I knew Wide Sargasso Sea was different. Was it because I already knew it, because I was so, indirectly familiar with it? Could be, in part.. Also, there’s that tendency to leave great things for later. While this is reasonable in many circumstances, I cannot find any good argument in favor of this practice when it comes to books. Yet, I sometimes do practice it.

I finished Wide Sargasso Sea last night.

Today, I wish to get back on the first page again. And there’s no reason not to grant myself this wish.

A slight growth of my library

Finally I have time enough to properly note down the books I acquired the previous month. On two occasions, while working on a particularly long and exhausting project, I took a refuge in a quiet walk and a book-browse. Twenty one new friend is the outcome.

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  • Spotted Dog Running On Seashore/Cranes Fly Early. Chinghiz Aitmatov
  • The House of Insects. Ottó Tolnai
  • Season of Migration to the North. Tayeb Salih
  • Reeds and Mud. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
  • The Ant Heap. Margit Kaffka
  • War with the Newts. Karel Čapek

 

 

Aitmatov is a recently discovered treasure trove. After it has been sitting on a shelf for who knows how long, I read Jamilia and was awe-stricken. Mesmerized by his writing, by Kyrgyzstan he describes, I proceeded to read the other two novellas in the collection I own (The First Teacher and The Red Scarf). Then I found an English translation of Spotted Dog Running On Seashore which just cemented my decision to seek out every book he ever wrote. My happiness was even greater when I learned that almost all of them were translated to Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian. Stumbling on Spotted Dog Running On Seashore and Cranes Fly Early was a bliss!

Tolnai I knew as a poet. Leafing through The House of Insects one could not fail to notice that it is an experimental novel, which got me interested. Seeing it contains an afterword titled A Novel as a Spiderweb I had no choice but to take it home.

Salih and Ibáñez I have never read. The afterwords (these books were published back in the days when there were no blurbs on the back covers) sounded interesting, so I put them in a bag. Back home I discovered I actually had Season of Migration to the North on my reading list. Great!

The Ant Heap was a pleasant surprise. I have read somewhere (on a blog, probably) about Margit Kaffka, but never read anything she wrote. Now that I have it near, I will not wait long to pick it up.

Čapek. I have been eyeing War with the Newts for nearly six months, and this time I decided to take it. Knowing his wit and humor, it can hardly be anything but wonderful.

 

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  • The Elements of Style. William Strunk Jr. and E.B White
  • Bambi. Felix Salten
  • The Voices of Marrakesh. Elias Canetti
  • Barabbas/The Sibyl/The Death of Ahasuerus. Pär Lagerkvist
  • The Loss of El Dorado. V.S. Naipaul

 

 

The Elements of Style and Bambi were found on a yard sale, hilariously cheap. Again, I haven’t read anything by E.B. White, but I knew something about his books which is why I was interested in finding out what he had to say about style. Bambi I bought mainly because it’s a classic. Maybe I shouldn’t have – I don’t know if I will ever read it again.

A trip to Marrakesh sounded particularly inviting, even more so when the one in charge was Elias Canetti. Looking forward to this one!

Pär Lagerkvist.. I cannot remember how long it has been since I read his novels, but I remember I read them eagerly – each and every single one that city library had.. Good to have my own copies – I will definitely be getting back to them at a certain point.

Spotted and immediately grabbed Naipaul. Another interesting trip to take!

 

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  • Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen
  • The Lost Shore. Anna Langfus
  • Tears of the Giraffe. Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers

 

 

I do own it in translation, but since I can understand the original perfectly well and since it’s one of my favorite novels I had to have Sense and Sensibility in English!

Again, one of the books I found intriguing upon reading the blurb – The Lost Shore by Anna Langfus. Never heard of her before. Very interested to see what’s between the covers.

I am not sure why I bought Tears of the Giraffe. I suppose I intended it for those stressful, working days that call for an urgent escape in the form of ”light reading”. Another one from a yard sale, very cheap. As well as The Wind in the Willows – beloved children’s classic that I haven’t read yet. Time to do so.

Ever since I read it couple of years ago, I’ve been looking for a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – amazing piece of literature that I have been telling about to anyone who was willing to listen. It’s translation, and the decision was to stop buying books translated from English, but…

 

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  • Collected Short Stories. E.M. Forster
  • The Grandmother. Božena Němcová
  • Villette. Charlotte Brontë
  • Patterns of Childhood. Christa Wolf

 

 

 

The blurb seemed interesting, so I took Forster’s Collected Short Stories home. I am not sure why I’ve never read anything by Forster. I suspect something that Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her essays kept me away.

Božena Němcová I know only by name. Time to find out more, I think.

It’s funny with Villette – every time I am on a fair or at the book market or in a bookshop I can never remember whether I have it or not, so I never buy it. Couple of weeks ago I stood in front of my British literature shelf, internalizing the fact that there was no Villette on it. It worked. I knew I would find it at the market and here it is now, all mine.

Funny thing with Wolf as well – even though I read only Medea (of which I don’t remember a thing) I have a strange compulsion to accumulate her books. Patterns of Childhood now gets to join its sisters Medea, Cassandra, No Place on Earth and Divided Heaven on a German shelf.

The Mussel Feast

What fascinated me the most was the absolute brilliance of gradation with which the story was narrated. From understatements to hints, to cautious and finally uninhibited confessions, it primarily reveals a man that is everything but a man of reason he regards himself to be, but also the family, his family he tyrannized into being “proper”.

Our family used different expressions now; for example, when we burned our mouths on potatoes that were too hot we no longer shouted, Christ that’s hot; sometimes we still said it by accident, because we hadn’t switched modes, but my father would say, potatoes have a high heat capacity, that’s the more accurate way of putting it.

Terrific details, the minutiae of their everyday life that Vanderbeke chose to communicate give an extremely vivid and horrifying picture. I was in a constant state of awe and eventually got the feeling one seems to get with similarly accomplished stories – that it is real.

Beside the Sea

I am not sure where to begin or what to actually say. I’m afraid this will be a short entry despite all the thoughts the book provoked and inspired. Or maybe precisely because of that.

Days after, the mud and the gray skies are with me, and I am still thinking about the three of them, about her in particular – how difficult the life must be when you constantly have to fight your own destructive, straying thoughts, how endlessly exhausting..

Susan Sontag’s words come to mind and I had to search for the quote:

A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.

The thought does not belong only to her, of course. Many said and thought the same, and I myself am of a strong opinion that literature is a first-hand experience. Beside the Sea is a perfect example.

Yes, Olmi’s writing is extraordinary – the mother is real, the boys are real, it is all happening, it’s devastating and hopeless. The mother’s voice is masterfully brought, and Stan, though presented through the first person narrator, through his mother’s point of view, feels independent of it. So much is managed in hints only. The weather and colors unmistakably testify of a kind of life this woman has been living, and there’s that petrifying strength of the last paragraph..

Still, all the mastery aside (a part of me opposes this), it is a book that stands out most for it’s subject, for the insight it gives into a state of mind that is hard to apprehend.

The more I think about this little jewel the more I appreciate it.

George Sand’s pastoral trilogy

I stayed up late reading La Petite Fadette, which is something that lately does not happen very often. The story is simple and straightforward, one might even say naive, showing somewhat idealized characters, still it held my interest. Having finished it I eagerly continued to other two novels that count into Sand’s pastoral trilogy, namely The Country Waif (François Le Crampi) and The Devil’s Pool.

La Petite Fadette and François Le Crampi are fairly similar. Both Fadette and François are young people whose hard life was made more difficult by the prejudiced and unsympathetic people in their villages. Both are orphans, grown into highly moral and intelligent persons. Both go through a sort of metamorphosis and both find themselves in possession of a fortune.

The Devil’s Pool is different, although not in its tone and atmosphere. It does share a doze of folklore and superstition with La Petite Fadette (maybe I’ve lost it in François Le Crampi?).

All three are very comforting type of narratives – Sand was of an opinion that these kind of stories were just what was needed in those times of war and shattered values. All three are love stories, each with a different matching in relation to the lovers’ age, which is interesting.

Before reading these novels I knew nothing about George Sand except that she was a French writer. Searching the internet I learned (among other things, of course) that Dostoevsky held her in high regard, that Turgenev was an admirer, as were Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, Malraux, Willa Cather… On the other hand, Baudelaire for instance was not the least impressed.

One would have to read more than three pastoral novels to form one’s own opinion of Sand considering she was such a prolific writer. I do not feel compelled to read other Sand’s work, but I can see myself rereading these three novels in time to come.

Chasing the King of Hearts

She offers an author in Poland a nice honorarium. The woman writes a book but it does not meet Izolda’s expectations. Not enough feeling. Not enough love, loneliness and tears. Not enough heart. Not enough words. Not enough of everything, simply not enough.

Auto-reference. Chasing the King of Hearts is very much the book these lines describe – no excessive feelings, no unnecessary words. 101 short chapters written in dry sentences tell a story of a woman committed to saving her husband’s life – getting him out of Warsaw ghetto, then from Auschwitz and finally from Mauthausen. She’s changing her identity as she finds suitable, she sells tobacco and bacon (also cyanide) so she can send food packages to her beloved, she goes through tortures and work camps to get to him. There’s nothing she won’t do because he is all that matters. (Him… For him… He…) It’s Second World War but it’s just something that is happening, a thing that’s standing between her and her husband. She is not the one to live the life that’s constantly being imposed upon her. She acts.

Her husband, on the other hand, is passive. Their first meeting actually foreshadows it:

A young man is standing by the stove, warming his hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight, golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – non-chalantly, almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang there, helpless, and even more beautiful.

I found the “Armchair” chapters particularly strong. Ten of them in total, they are older Izolda’s commentaries, remembrances and thoughts. The war is long over, she’s recollecting, questioning, wondering what if.. What’s in these chapters is heavier than anything she’s been through during the war, and these chapters communicate directly with the last chapter in the book, The Party, that is so masterfully realized.

In one of her interviews, Hanna Krall said she is not a writer. Writers are those who create worlds and populate them. She is a reporter. Chasing the King of Hearts is not fiction, it’s the world created by someone else. She listened and wrote it down…

Well, I do beg to differ with Hanna – a writer is also someone who knows how to write a story somebody else told and she definitely is one such writer.