When there is time to do so, it is interesting to look at the cadence of life, particularly for those people whose lives are governed by regular and seemingly immutable deadlines that overlap with months of hectic regular activities, followed by periods of empty schedules. I had a dissertation chapter due the week before the semester began and then, nearly two weeks ago, class came back (punctuated by one of my least happily-timed holidays, Labor Day). I like what I do, but but the academic calendar is foolishly constructed for a society where children don’t need to go help on the farm anymore.
Anyway, I’ve been going through this week under the impression that it is somewhere between September 12 and October 15, depending on the day. So here is a somewhat belated account of last month’s reading.
The Towers of Trebizond, Rose MaCaulay
One of the books I picked up because I wanted to read more fiction written by women, the Towers of Trebizond is a novel written in the form of a travelogue. Laurie, the narrator, recounts an ill-fated expedition in the early 1950s led by Aunt Dot and an older Anglican minister, Father Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and Aunt Dot’s camel, who, most people are convinced, is probably deranged. As is the current fad, Aunt Dot is going to Turkey to write a book, but hers is going to focus on the plight of Turkish women (who she will liberate), Laurie is her artist, and Father Pigg has plans to convert the heathens. Along the way, they meet American evangelicals, a BBC television crew, and other authors. As one might expect, the expedition goes awry.
The story was funny and Macaulay erudite when it came to making references to religious and historical contexts and contemporary goings-on. For instance, two of the other adventurers who are supposed to have been in the area were Patrick and Freya, and it is an easy leap to identify those two given names with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Freya Stark. Laurie is a sympathetic character, although, like a lot of travel writing, seems to pass through the environments as a way of experiencing them without really seeming to develop. That you are inside her head for the duration of the story may also account for this impression.
The Towers of Trebizond is a funny and clever book and, as the Amazon blurb describes it, it does investigate “modern” spirituality, but when I read the introduction about MacCaulay, much of the sarcasm and wit became sardonic, overlaid with sadness from her own experiences.
A Sport and a Pastime– James Salter
The story of Phillip Dean, a Yale dropout, and Anne-Marie, his French lover in a town in the south of France, told through the lens of Phillip’s male American friend with whom he is staying. The affair burns while the narrator watches, the young couple seemingly untouched by the problems and responsibilities of adulthood, only preoccupied with themselves.
The book-blurb describes Salter as a master of writing and A Sport and a Pasttime is good (certainly in the Hemingway school of writing), but the most prescient thing mentioned in the introduction is that Salter tells a story that, within that self-contained universe, weaves between truth and fiction, with the line blurred. The narrator is self-described as unreliable, but whether that is because he wishes he were Phillip or with Phillip, or because he is writer spinning a yarn, or because Phillip is imaginary wish-fulfillment or he actually is Phillip, just telling the story in third person, is unclear. I favor wish-fulfillment or that he is Phillip Dean, but it is clear that the idyllic, almost prelapsarian, love-affair is impossible to maintain as the rest of the world tugs away at the couple. I was glad to have read the book, but, honestly, it did not stick with me in the same concrete way other tales of love and obsession have. It did not seem to be dated, which is a complaint I read before picking it up, but rather I didn’t particularly care for any of the main characters. Admittedly, I went in almost more interested in the “town in S. France” part than in the story itself.
The Naive and Sentimental Novelist -Orhan Pamuk
This book is the published version of Pamuk’s Norton Lecture series, where he takes the audience through his experience of reading and writing books (he really loves Anna Karenina). He argues that the thing that holds all novels together and sets them apart from other forms of literature is a “secret center,” that is, the core idea of a novel that makes it work as a complete story and the unspoken message (or moral without necessarily being “moralistic”) of the novel. In fact, one of his critiques of genre literature (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and you could even add YA literature here) is that the bulk of them are so relentlessly reliant on common tropes that they share a secret center with all the others. There is no need to bristle at Pamuk calling genre literature out as dreck; he acknowledges that the great examples of those genres transcend the tropes and thereby have a unique center and (to me) satisfactorily explains why genre literature may be boring.
Pamuk also goes to great lengths to explore how and why people have such a personal relationship with literature, particularly in that novels require an active give-and-take between what the author put down and the reader–and, if there is no ongoing series, the author is the passive participant once the book is published. The essays are theoretical without being filled with jargon and while much of it would be familiar to people familiar, particularly, with a bit of post-modernism, Pamuk is worth reading. I believe this also works toward explaining my aversion to movies and tv shows based on books I like.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane– Neil Gaimon
Talked about here. Gaimon’s short novel was my favorite book of the month. I don’t know how to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers, so go read it.
I picked up Don Quixote for the first time at the end of the month and then got busy, so I am slowly making my way through that behemoth (I have the complete an unabridged one). The story opens with the eponymous character drying up his brains and going crazy because he reads the “trash” novels of his day. Between video games and the proliferation of certain genres, cultural critics don’t change a whole lot. It would not surprise me if this is the only book I read this month, though I am looking forward to reading either Old Man and the Sea or The Lives of Tao after this doorstop.