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.

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reading

Happy New Plans!

What a month December has been!

Just as I was starting to relax, to look forward to a period of resting and reading, a wave of work came and smashed all my intentions. I was left with no time to read Woolf, no time to write about Christa Wolf novels read during November… What’s even worst, upon finishing the work, I was left with no desire to get back to literature.

I’ve read less this year, compared to 2015th, but there’s been a great number of titles I found remarkable and important. Wide Sargasso Sea was the year’s highlight, all three of Peirenne’s titles that I’ve read during the Women In Translation Month (Beside the Sea, The Mussel Feast and Chasing the King of Hearts) were excellent, Wolf’s Cassandra and Patterns of Childhood as well.

I have to mention Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Correspondence: Ariadna Efron and Boris Pasternak. Sadly, I managed to write a thought or two about the last one only.

Three years ago I whined about how my reading is too anglophilic or, to be closer to truth, too eurocentric. Not much has changed since then. A couple of things led me closer towards a wish to tackle the problem in a systematic way. First, I discovered the wonderful work of Chingiz Aitmatov (which was the second highlight of the year!). Then, reading Karen’s post on Babel’s Odessa stories, reminded me of a reading plan I was failing to implement for years in a row now, a plan I named “Russian Winter”. Combining these two together led me to a decision to start my journey around the world by traveling through the former Soviet Union. I will not be far from Europe (again, to be precise, I will not be out of the Europe for the most part of this trip), but hey, it is the first step. Whether I’ll continue to West, East or South Asia remains to be seen. I have not made up my mind yet.

Here’s a rough reading plan for 2017:

  • a book (or two) from each of the former Soviet republics
  • some British women authors I haven’t read before (Brookner, Pym, Howard, Townsend Warner, Taylor, Drabble, Lively, Mortimer…)
  • some Shakespeare
  • some Ursula LeGuin
  • Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Life of Elves
  • a couple of books on Siberia
  • a couple of novels with “sea” in their title
  • several Plato’s dialogs

Happy New Year to all of us. May we be better and wiser!

bookshelves · bookshops

books.ba!

A new bookstore opened last year in April… I just found out about it two weeks ago! How I managed to stay ignorant for a year and a half is astonishing.

Needless to say, I had to pay a visit to the store as soon as was possible. (The minute I got back home I started writing to my sisters and friends, spreading the word of the thrilling discovery, singing praises at the top of my lungs. It turned out one of them knew about the shop all along. Somewhat disheartening.)

img_20161123_133550Anyway, as it happened, I did not go alone but with a friend (who knew nothing of the new bookstore). We stayed there for more than an hour and left excited and tremendously happy.

The bookstore is very pretty in its simplicity and the staff is particularly friendly and welcoming. Stepping in we found ourselves amongst the books written in/translated to Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian – fiction, poetry, essays, reference books… img_20161123_122735

I admit I moved on to the next room very quickly because I knew they had books in English. At the center of the room stood a large table with dozens of Wordsworths , then I caught the gaze of small black Penguins. Wonderful!

I was trying to decide whether to immediately purchase Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and some of Conrad’s sea stories or novels when I saw something I could not ignore (which left this second section quite underexplored).

Used books, in English! The most pleasant surprise. I don’t think any of the bookstores in Sarajevo has them. What a marvelous idea! img_20161123_122553

The area is pretty large, with taburets and tables in the middle, as well as a tiny cafe corner right beside the window. There’s a coffee machine, and one is welcome to have a cup, take a book and read for as long as one wishes to. One can even borrow a book! It’s here we stayed the longest.

img_20161123_122608One of the shelves contains a delightful variety of non-fiction. From Sheep for Beginners to The Poser’s Guide, Attracting and Feeding Garden Birds to Tea Rooms of Britain, The GI Plan: Lose Weight Forever to The Loo Companion – Are You Sitting Comfortably; we had such a fun browsing through these titles.

Other shelves hold mostly romance and detective novels, but one can find some great things there as well. I came across my first Virago – The Virago Book of Women Gardeners! Then two more appeared – Angela Thirkell and Michele Roberts. By this point, I was ecstatic – not just because I found Viragos in Sarajevo, but because this allows me to hope, on a solid enough ground, that there could be more of these in time to come…

I brought home six new books:

  • img_20161124_090610A Year in Provance. Peter Mayle – I’m not usually drawn to places that bask in the sun but Provance and Tuscany are enchanting.
  • Making The World Legible. Edited by Julian Evans, it contains extracts from 36 books that Writers in Translation Programme has supported since its inception.
  • High Rising. Angela Thirkell. Not my favorite of her works, still I couldn’t resist having it.
  • Fair Exchange. Michèle Roberts. Never heard of her, I’m afraid, but since the novel tells about Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth I decided to take it with me.
  • The Virago Book of Women Gardeners. edited by Deborah Kellaway. This one is self-explanatory.
book fairs · bookshelves

Shelf News. September and October Arrivals

img_20161122_124959aLate September saw the end of one of my favorite places in town when it comes to books – the second-hand market near Konzum Family Center.

It’s not completely gone but moved to a different location… It could be argued that the new location is just 600 meters away from the old one, but the damage is considerable nevertheless. Of the four book stalls that existed only one is left standing. Yes, it is the one I used to visit most frequently, but it is not even close to what it used to be.

The stall is now significantly smaller and, consequently, holds fewer books. Over a thousand of dusty old volumes (that were my main interest), as well as several dozen books in English, have been put away in a storehouse somewhere. There’s just no room for them…

img_20161122_130605It was pure luck that I paid a visit to the market just weeks before the said disaster happened, that I managed to finally get my hands on much praised Colette. There were only two Claudine novels,

  • Claudine at School and
  • Claudine is Leaving (Claudine and Annie)

which means I still have to hunt down the other two titles. Fingers crossed.

img_20161127_093751

  • I also bought her The Vagabond,
  • Francoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile,
  • Karel Čapek’s short story collection The Blue Chrysanthemum,
  • Practicalities by Marguerite Duras,
  • Shaw’s Man and Superman, and
  • Sharks and Little Fish by Wolfgang Ott.

img_20161122_155534

 

 

Finding Aeschylus’ tragedies – all of the surviving plays in one old volume – was a sheer delight. The book is almost a century old (published in Zagreb, in 1918) and still uncut. Nobody has ever read it! Unbelievable! Sad, too.

The backbone is nonexistent, the pages are starting to fall apart, which means I will have to rebind it.

 

Ever since I first heard about Belgrade’s book fair I’ve been wanting to visit it. Somehow the opportunity never arose; bad timing, poor funds, no one willing or able to accompany me were the reasons that kept me away all these years (more than a decade, come to think of it!). This October however, the stars lined up just right. All the pieces of the puzzle came perfectly together.

img_20161122_130225I traveled with Johanna and her colleagues from the library and we spent the whole day browsing. Oh, the scope of it! It’s ten times larger than Sarajevo’s fair, with a much better offer and much more variety. We didn’t even manage to see everything. Still, it was a wonderful day.

I stumbled upon two of the Proust’s books at a flea market sometime in mid-September. Buying parts of a series separately is a risky business, but I decided to purchase them, hoping to eventually get my hands on the rest of it. Luck served me, and I found other nine titles at the Belgrade’s fair! Now there’s only the first one missing.

img_20161127_093535One of the most thrilling moments was spotting a wide stall that held Wordsworth Classics. I have a soft spot for these editions. It took me a good half an hour to decide which of them to bring back to Sarajevo. In the end, I opted for a number of Woolf’s novels and Ulysses.

knj

I also found:

  • The Origin of Species, for a very nice price,
  • Queneau’s Exercises in Style, and
  • Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table.

Belgrade, I will be back.

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?

 

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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!