Geoff Dyer · reading · reading projects

Setting on a long journey…

It seems that my aversion to reading literature is slowly fading away.

I’ve been thinking about this issue, about all the general dissatisfactions regarding my reading. To use Geoff Dyer’s words:

If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionatelly smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. [..] Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

 ”Reader’s Block‘, from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition


For the best part of my reading life, the main reason why I read literature was knowledge. I wanted to get to know the world, to learn as much as possible about a human being, to embrace a variety of perspectives and gain experience. I hunted for profound thoughts, searched for truth and principles, worked on developing my self-awareness, and hoped to gain some wisdom…

I realized that for the past few years I have been desperately trying to preserve the original strength of this twenty-years-standing reason for reading, that I have been refusing to acknowledge its recent irrelevance.

If I remember correctly, it was the summer of 2015 when I started complaining about how I had nothing left to learn. Of course, I didn’t mean literally nothing, but nothing that wouldn’t be ”a [relatively] small increment to the sum of knowledge” that I had… The aversion towards literature that I’ve been experiencing for the last three months had two main roots: a brain strain and the strongest feeling of the pointlessness of reading that I’ve ever felt.

Dissatisfaction with reading was very much connected to my striving to hold on to knowledge as the number one reason for reading. I am now fully aware that this needs to be changed if I’m to enjoy literature again. The best course of action would be to concentrate more on a different kind of knowledge. Not profound thoughts but style and descriptions, not a human being but the human being, not the truth but the landscape and the atmosphere, et cetera…

Also, I want to give my reading a little bit of direction. I miss that. (Sometimes I think about going back to university.) Acting upon a wish to get (better) acquainted with the literature of the countries outside of the Western Europe and the United States, I am setting on a journey around the world. As I wrote in my rough reading plan for this year, the countries of the former Soviet Union are as good a place to start as any.

From the Baltic countries, I will continue southwards to Ukraine, then southeast across the Caucasus, and then head straight east to the ”STANs”, with Russia as the final destination of this part of the journey.

I am not setting any deadlines.

John Steinbeck · reading

The Log from the Sea of Cortez. #1951 club

Still I struggle both with reading and writing.

During the previous month I read Barbery and Shakespeare, but without much success or satisfaction. Or joy, for that matter… It’s an expected effect of a lack of interest.

My feelings towards this state of affairs oscillate between acceptance and concern. On one hand, I embrace it as something normal, natural. Why should it not be? There are periods when one’s interest in reading (literature) drops, when the appeal of other interests is decidedly stronger. The brain needs variety, seeks and prefers a different kind of engagement every once in a while. It’s as simple as that… On the other hand, there is a tendency to think about this as of a problem, to sit and ponder the gravity of the reasons for the detachment, to try to come up with a solution/a plan to get back to the ”desired” state of mind as soon as possible…

I am more inclined towards the first line of reasoning. It’s more sensible as well as healthier.

Also, the reasons for the ”repairment” are all completely wrong and ridiculous: a) a faint wish to feel a strong desire to read, b) a thought that I should be reading because there are so many books and so little time, c) a sense of fear that, if I don’t push myself into reading, if I fail to keep the continuity (no matter the quality), I might never want to get back to reading literature again.

What rubbish! That I even have to reason against these ”reasons” is annoying enough. There are better things to occupy my mind with, better things to spend my time and energy on.

Working in the garden, for example.. observing the growth of its flora and the busyness of its fauna, getting better acquainted with the species living in my immediate surroundings (just the other day, for the first time in my life, I saw a snail chewing), learning and reading about nature in general…

Which brings me to the reason I started writing this post – The 1951 club, hosted by Karen and Simon.

My intention was to read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us for the occasion, but in the end, I opted not to. After a quick comparative check of the structure and style of both of these books, Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez seemed to be a better option. I thought it could be more accessible as it’s offering more variety in themes without being too demanding in terms of presence of mind and concentration it requires.

The Log combines marine biology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy, and the best way to read it is one entry at a time (one per an afternoon would perhaps be ideal) since they give plenty food for thought.

It’s all seamlessly woven in together: collecting reports, observations about animals, accounts of the lives of the small coastal towns in the Gulf, adventures with the Mexicans, anecdotes from the life on the boat, musings on different topics (scientists, technology, sea monsters, teleological vs. non-teleological way of thinking, mutation, cannibalism, to name some).

The portraits and sketches of crew members were amongst the most enjoyable parts of the book. The good humor with which Steinbeck brought their personalities to light is infectious. Actually, good humor and wit are dominant characteristics of the narrative as a whole. Steinbeck is very observant, a master painter.

I was surprised to learn that Steinbeck’s wife Carol was a part of the crew. Not a single trace of her can be found on the pages. Similarly, Steinbeck’s or Ricketts’ names are nowhere mentioned. The book is written in first person plural so, most of the time a person is referred to as ”one of us” I guess it wouldn’t be wrong to suppose that the person in question is either Ricketts or Steinbeck… A strikingly beautiful eulogy at the end of the book compensates for Ricketts’ absence from the narrative.

There is a delightful and hilariously funny episode featuring the Sally Lightfoots which tells of a battle of wits:

These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time. In spite of the fact that they swarm on the rocks at the Cape, and to a less degree inside the Gulf, they are exceedingly hard to catch. They seem to be able to run in any one of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in little puffs of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colors, reds and blues and warm browns. We tried for a long time to catch them. Finally, seeing fifty or sixty in a big canyon of rock, we thought to outwit them. Surely we were more intelligent, if slower, than they. Accordingly, we pitted our obviously superior intelligence against the equally obvious physical superiority of Sally Lightfoot. Near the top of the crevice a boulder protruded. One of our party, taking a secret and circuitous route, hid himself behind this boulder, net in hand. He was completely concealed even from the stalk eyes of the crabs. Certainly they had not seen him go there. The herd of Sallys drowsed on the rocks in the lower end of the crevice. Two more of us strolled in from the seaward side, nonchalance in our postures and ingenuousness on our faces. One might have thought that we merely strolled along in a contemplation which severely excluded Sally Lightfoots. In time the herd moved ahead of us, matching our nonchalance. We did not hurry, they did not hurry. When they passed the boulder, helpless and unsuspecting, a large net was to fall over them and imprison them. But they did not know that. They moved along until they were four feet from the boulder, and then as one crab they turned to the right, climbed up over the edge of the crevice and down to the sea again.

But, crabs were not the only ones that successfully resisted human advances. The crew struggled with equipment as well (an outboard motor and a camera), and these struggles were a constant source of humor throughout the book.

It is impossible to say how bad our moving pictures were—one film laboratory has been eager to have a copy of the film, for it embodies in a few thousand feet, so they say, every single thing one should not do with a camera. As an object lesson to beginners they think it would be valuable. If we took close-ups of animals, someone was in the light; the aperture was always too wide or too narrow; we made little jerky pan shots back and forth; we have one of the finest sequences of unadorned sky pictures in existence—but when there was something to take about which we didn’t care, we got it perfectly. We dare say there is not in the world a more spirited and beautiful picture of a pair of blue and white shorts than that which we took passing Sail Rock.

For all the troubles they had with it, the camera was just a machine they failed to learn to operate properly. The motor, on the other hand, was a ”hateful living thing” that had a personality and quirks of its own:

We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.

2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.

3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.

4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.

5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.

6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by—in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.

7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

The more I think about it, the more I like The Log. I might be going back to some of the episodes for a dose of light and laughter. The only Steinbeck’s work I read before this was Of Mice and Men. I don’t remember much about it. I mean, I don’t remember if there was humor. It wouldn’t hurt to revisit it.

Jean Rhys · Margery Sharp

The Innocents

I may have seen the name around, but I certainly don’t remember seeing it. I am talking about Margery Sharp.

margery-2017Browsing Jane’s blog, her post on celebrating Sharp’s birthday caught my attention. The comment section was particularly persuasive, so I decided to give Sharp a go, and join in. After all, one of the aims of this year’s reading is to get better acquainted with British women writers of the 20th century. After some research and consideration, I chose The Innocents.

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001It tells a story about an ”elderly single woman of no position and small means” who finds herself in charge of an intellectually disabled girl. Cecilia, the girl’s mother, comes back to collect her, full of grand but unrealistic plans for little Antoinette’s future.

One could draw a comparison with another character named Antoinette – that of Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, (though her story and her character are of greater complexity, of course). Both are unusual, so to say… different. Sharp’s Antoinette is ”an innocent”, a child with a disability, with special needs. Rhys’ Antoinette is neither black nor white enough, and therefore a stranger in her own country as well as in the adopted one. Both are taken or threatened to be taken away from the place they feel most at home, by the people who are failing to understand their needs and personalities. And both are facing a dreadful future.

The novel is engaging but not sentimental and I appreciated it all the more for it. The narrator, the elderly lady which is never named, is acutely perceptive and witty. Funny, as well. Here’s the first sentence:

My father was a connoisseur of wine; but times and incomes change and we with them, and now I am a connoisseur of weather.

I, obviously, do not know what kind of a person Margery Sharp was, and this is the first of her books that I have read, but I think I would not be wrong in saying that the mentioned qualities were hers as well, that she bestowed them to her character as she did her age.

I loved the descriptions of the village, its physical appearance as well as its spirit, its people. The first part of the novel, which deals with getting to know the child and getting to learn how to meet its needs, is wonderful. (And can be used as a textbook.) Sharp writes well and has a great command over her story.

I could make one remark, though – she leaves no food for thought to the reader. Everything is explained. Take this passage, for example:

Antoinette appeared neither glad nor sorry to see me back; certainly perfectly incurious as to where I had been. It was as though she had made a final retreat into passivity. Mrs. Brewer reported her good as gold all day, just curled up on her cot so quiet as a carrot. I had often thought that Mrs. Brewer’s similes seemed to spring from quite deep, if unconscious perception. With too much to bear, her last desperate and final escape frustrated, Antoinette was retreating from being a little animal into becoming a vegetable.

Wouldn’t it come out stronger if she had stopped at the carrot? If she had let the reader do the math?… The fact that the story is told in the first person narrative makes the elaboration, to some extent, excusable.

She does leave one thing to ponder on, though. The plural in the novel’s title.

All things considered, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and will heartily come back for more. She seems perfect for reading in between more demanding works. Also, it would be a good idea to save her stories for the uncommonly stressful days that tend to present themselves every now and then…

Margaret Drabble

The Seven Sisters

The year started off well I should say. I have had peace, and during the first week, I was free to use my time as I wished. Of course, I wallowed in reading.

The Rector’s Wife provided a slow motion start since it did not require much of my brain. It was the first and (most probably) the last Johanna Trollope I will ever read. Then, I was eager to unpack a gift, Letters to a Young Contrarian, a delightful little book that introduced me to Hitchens’ writing and made me want to read almost everything he ever produced. I first learned about him reading Steve’s blog post on Arguably. I noted it down but didn’t think I would be picking it up anytime soon (mainly because of its size). Now, I’m not so sure that I won’t. Aurelius’ Meditations was a book that came next. I have read some of it before (its first three books, I believe) and wanted to come back to it for many years since. Now that I had, I found myself slightly annoyed by the repetition, and disappointed by the fatalism and speciesism (though I understand the reasons they’re there).

16112076_1867741176818889_1927951685_nThe book I wish to write more extensively about is Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters.

It’s not unusual that a person of a certain age starts to see life as nothing but a waiting room. Especially if life as one has known it is there no more. ”I neither live nor die”, says Candida. “My life is so useless. I am redundant.”

She was married with children, but the reader is meeting her as a divorcée, a mother estranged from her daughters, ”in the third year of her sojourn” in London as she’s fighting the temptation to play solitaire and starting to write a diary instead.

Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again. But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it. I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness. It should represent a lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me. [..] It is not for myself alone that I do this. I hope I may discover some more general purpose as I write.

Her diary indeed becomes a mean of reflection and recollection and a way of coming to terms with herself and her life. Pretty early on, it is clear that she’s unreliable narrator – through the writing she is shielding herself, molding the past to soothe her, while reading what she wrote makes her face the truth. She’s experimenting with the narrative, switching from first to third person narrator and taking another person’s point of view, all of which brings her to a better understanding of herself.

Change is one of the major themes. After she receives a nice sum of money, Candida decides to set on a journey to Italy with friends and acquaintances from a Virgil class. It reminded me of The Enchanted April. But, while the women in von Arnim’s book find themselves renewed, Candida returns to ”the same old story”:

Here I still am, still sitting up here on the third floor back, locked in the same body, the same words, the same syntax, the same habits, the same mannerisms, the same old self. [..] I had thought the soft sun of the south could melt the frozen patterning, but it couldn’t.

Drabble shows how change is a very slow, gradual and laborious process. Almost imperceptible in Candida’s case.

It is something different that draws me onwards. I must learn to grow old before I die.

It’s a puzzling book. It calls for (and deserves) a second reading… There are a few things to pay more attention to the next time:

  • recurring images of water and plants (ghost orchid, mistletoe, golden bough especially)
  • The Seven Sisters and Sibyll
  • the use of first and third person narration in the fourth chapter
  • the title of the fourth chapter

sistersI had the impression that the book was constructed with the golden ratio in mind, but, after some calculations, I had to tone down my excitement and cast the thought away.

There’s a strong resemblance, but it is not the golden ratio.

It was tempting to continue on to re-reading Aeneid (which would have been fun), and then on to The Death of Virgil (which has been on my reading list for more than a decade poor thing), or set on an Italian Journey with Goethe (which, actually, was what I wished to do back in November when Tom suggested a read-along, but had no luck in finding the book) – The Seven Sisters refers to all of them. Instead, I chose to stick with Drabble. The Waterfall is next.

reading · Virginia Woolf

How to read a book?

The Second Common Reader. Virginia Woolf

Reading has been a subject of interest for a long time now. From the process itself to habits one develops around it, from the choices of literature to the history of reading, its every aspect has a way of arousing my curiosity. If I feel overwhelmed by literature there’s almost one hundred percent certainty that I will reach for a book about reading.

I’ve been keen on rereading Woolf’s The Common Reader series and #Woolfalong, hosted by Ali, was the push I needed. As usual, though, I am late with the blog post.

I read both volumes almost ten years ago, but could not remember much. A wish to reacquaint with her way of reading was the reason I wanted to reread these books, especially The Second Common Reader, so I paid attention and kept extensive notes only to come to the final essay (How to read a book?) in which she actually sums it all up. That I could not remember much of these books was an understatement, it seems. I completely forgot about the existence of the aforementioned essay.

Well, at least I can find some solace and satisfaction in seeing that my notes caught the essence of her reading process with precision.

So, here it is:

  • take from each what it is right that each should give us” – fiction, biography, and poetry should be read differently
  • open your mind as widely as possible” so that it can pick up signs and hints, finesses of the book. ”Do not dictate to you author; try to become him.”
  • write, ”make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words” so you will better understand what the writer is doing
  • read biographies, letters, diaries to
    • see if a novel or a poem will read ”differently in the presence of the author
    • exercise our own creative powers
  • wait for the dust of reading to settle” – engage in some physical or social activity so the book will have time to take shape in your mind
  • compare, judge – the most difficult part of the reading process, a continually developing skill. ”To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating – that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails, here it succeeds; this is bad, this is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed;
  • turn to critics, ”to the very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature as an art”. Keep in mind though that ”they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading.”
Cesare Pavese

#1947 Club

I’ve been a silent observer of Club’s activities during the previous two readings. The main reason was my inability to commit to writing.

It had always been the most difficult thing to do – no matter the language or the subject, the form or the purpose. My brain distils information and observations into short notes, and notes (as far as I know) don’t make a text.

One might argue that a blog post can contain notes only, that it doesn’t have to be a text. Well, I want it to be a text – so I struggle. It takes me hours, sometimes even days, to stretch and to mold notes into full, connected sentences, to form a short text with which I am generally nowhere near satisfied.

But, enough about the problem. On to the book – for I decided to join in and to struggle on. Thanks to Karen and Simon for coming up with the idea and for hosting the 1947 Club.


The Comrade. Cesare Pavese

It’s a bildungsroman of sorts, focusing on a formative year in a life of Pablo.

The first half of the book feels rather stale and static despite the events that take place. Pablo is helping in a family tobacco shop during the day, at night he’s out with friends and his guitar. He doesn’t know much about anything, he has no ambitions nor interests (besides the guitar), but he wants some kind of change because he’s tired of the routine he’s been living in.

Amelio, one of the friends to whom he could always talk to, has had a motorcycle accident and is now paralyzed, tied to bed. Pablo is paying him visits and thus meets Linda. He falls in love (never had a girlfriend), forgets about Amelio (and the shop) and spends his days wandering around town with her.

Like cold, rainy and foggy Turin, Pablo’s relationships are shapeless and shallow. He never knows where’s he at with Linda nor with any of the people he meets thanks to her. Conversations are often broken, unfinished, cut short with shrugs, jokes, dances, drinks or plain silence. He feels lonely as a dog. The one time he sets out to express his thoughts and feelings it happens off page. Pablo only tells us this much (he’s the narrator): ‘I told her everything.’

It’s not a surprise that he ends up heartbroken.

Acting upon a suggestion of an acquaintance, he sets out to Rome. The city is bright, the air is lighter, the sea is close and its influence on the city people benevolent. It’s a strong contrast to Turin. Pablo finds a job as a bicycle mechanic, he starts reading newspapers seeking a deeper understanding of the country’s politics. He gets involved with anti-fascist movement and, in the process of learning and questioning, recognizes himself as a communist.

There’s much more to the book, of course. This is just an outline of Pablo’s maturation. Linda is a very interesting character. Amelio returns into the story near its end. It becomes clear that he and Pablo mirror each other in a way.

The first sentence is effective and puzzling:

Mi dicevano Pablo perché suonavo la chitarra.

(They called me Pablo because I played guitar.)

I am clearly missing a reference…

This is the first Pavese I’ve read, but I am getting the feeling that he’s one of the writers with a particular field of interest, a particular subject; that his books speak of each other and therefore need to be read and understood in a tight relation to each other if one wants to get the most of them. I also have a feeling that he often writes about essentially the same character. We shall see if this is true since I intend to read more of his work.

Jean Rhys

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 into 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, its 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?



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!