Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What I've Been Reading: Month One

Books Bought:
The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch

Books Borrowed:
The End of the Affair – Graham Greene, The Glass Room – Simon Mawer, The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

Books Read:
The End of the Affair – Graham Greene, The Glass Room – Simon Mawer (unfinished), The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood, What Good Are The Arts? – John Carey (unfinished)

Some years ago I read Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree and loved, loved it. Not only because Hornby wrote articulately and with humour about all the wonderful (and occasionally not so wonderful) books which he read but because it soothed my conscience as a fellow obsessive-compulsive book buyer who couldn’t possibly ever manage to get through her ‘to-read’ pile either. I remember thinking at the time that I should start writing something similar and then promptly forgot to do so.

But now I’ve returned to the idea, not just to shame myself into reading some of that pile, but also as a record of all of the books I do read (and then forget) and to give me the push I need to get on with i)reading every book which has won the Booker prize and ii)reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m taking the Booker thing at a leisurely pace but in some overly-optimistic foolish pronouncement at 19 when I had my first encounter with Joyce I made a promise that I’d have read Ulysses by the time I was thirty. Now that I am considerably closer to being thirty than to being nineteen and still haven’t read any more of Ulysses than I had when I made that promise let the record show: this is going to become an issue.

But for now, rather than fill this post with my issues with Ulysses, I’m going to write about happier matters. Each month I’m going to catalogue the books I’ve bought, the books I’ve borrowed and the books I’ve read. Anything book-shaped is fair game (so that includes plays and poetry) and I’m not (yet) setting out any rules for how (or what) I write about them.

Some times you get a feeling about a book you must read (and when I say ‘you’ I mean ‘I’) and that was exactly what happened to me with The Glass Room. Booker shortlisted in 2009 and if I am to discount all of the hype surrounding Wolf Hall, it was the book from that list which most appealed to me. Evocative title, evocative cover – who says that I am shallow? So when I saw The Glass Room proudly displayed at Streatham Library I picked it up without second glance. When I did begin to read it struck me, gosh how well written this book is. And then there was a description of the wheel in Vienna which I’ve been on (always nice to relieve holiday moments) and foreboding and the drums of war in the background (generally a winner for me) and then there was one really, really stonking bit of writing that had the kind of beauty and subtext that makes me want to weep with joy and...Well, then I got a bit fed up with carrying a big hardback book around London and thought I’d start The End of the Affair because it was paperback and commuter sized and then the next thing I knew it was time to return The Glass Room and I was only 150 pages in and did I want to renew it? No. Which doesn’t mean that I won’t return to the novel (I suspect I will) but it does mean I felt there was something missing from it. Heart. Like the glass room of its title, architecturally the novel is stunning - it just isn’t somewhere you can imagine living.

If The End of the Affair triumphed initially because my paperback copy wasn’t going to break my back then I quickly realised I’d stumbled into something I absolutely loved. In one of those gaping holes in my reading knowledge I’d never previously read any Graham Greene and never really been too concerned about this. How little I knew. A masterclass in how to write a first person narrator The End of the Affair has so much going on under its surface that it was almost physically painful to read; jealously, grief, blotches of love that stain the page. For a novel that has a buttoned-up novelist as its narrator how visceral I found the experience of reading it to be took me entirely by surprise. I’m a subscriber to the theory that some books only work if you read them at the right age and in this respect I’m glad I came to The End of the Affair now and not ten (or maybe even five) years earlier. Old enough to have lived through enough endings and beginnings and muddles somewhere in the middle to know of what it spoke, young enough to not retreat into my room and stay there for a very long time at its conclusion. I vaguely recall an offhand comment on the Guardian book blog recently which suggested that The End of the Affair might be the greatest British novel of the twentieth century. I’m not going quite that far – [how on earth would you possibly fight that one out? Though if someone wants to put me in a room with similarly bookish people, some wine and let us fight it out feel free, just know you’re going to have to do a lot to make me look beyond To the Lighthouse or The Remains of the Day. Aherm. ] – but The End of the Affair can’t have enough superlatives thrust at it in my opinion.

The first novel that I read after I finished my English Literature degree (and thus the first novel that I’d read that hadn’t been on a reading list for a very long time) was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I know I devoured it in a couple of days and that I most definitely enjoyed it. However, with the exception of two moments which I can visualise even now (a man walking down a deserted street in a gated community, the final moments of the novel when Jimmy peers through the trees and sees something which changes the basis on which he’s been living) I can’t remember much more about the novel. Which is what I’m going to attribute to my not realising that The Year of the Flood is Oryx and Crake’s sister book until I was about 100 pages in. That rather than the fact that I’m slow on the uptake. But – yes. Apparently they’re parts one and two in a trilogy of speculative fiction that Atwood has planned. Right. But back to The Year of the Flood rather than my stupidity which is, I suspect, one of the most accessible novels that Atwood has written. Her prose is effortless, her linguistic inventiveness delightful and whilst this is all firmly in the world of speculation there’s enough to recognise to suggest that Atwood might have a point or two to her visions of what the world might become. The structure of the book, however, quickly came to feel indulgent and I soon began to skip the hymns which scatter her prose, unable to shirk the feeling that Atwood should have been a bit more ruthless with the editing process. There’s also the fact that there is something deeply unsatisfying about the ending of The Year of the Flood. It might just as well have ended with the sentence “ BUY THE SEQUEL” so obtuse was its final pages. And that disappointed me because I’d been enjoying Flood as a stand alone book (little else I could do given the memory blank). Is there enough to be said – from a different point of view – to justify a third book on grounds of artistic merit as well as political merit? Hmm. I do hope Atwood proves so and I have to eat my words. Or, maybe I won’t remember anything that happens in Flood either, and I’ll be surprised all over again.

Which just leave What Good Are the Arts? which I first read in 2007 and I’m reading again because, with the inevitable cuts that are coming for arts funding, I think it’s exactly the question we should be asking ourselves.

In brilliant economy The Sea, The Sea stands as my only purchase this month. We’ve got a bit of history, me and this book. I started reading it last spring and didn’t get particularly far in before I gave up and returned it to the library. But I refuse to be defeated because i)I feel I *should* get on with Iris Murdoch for reasons big and small and ii)I’ve already given up on Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils which means I shouldn’t be giving up willy-nilly on Booker Prize winners or I’m only going to have to force-feed them to myself come 2020. Doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten past the introduction yet though.


Shona said...

I haven't read Graham Greene books for ages and I might be having another look ... I did 'The Power and the Glory' for A'level and read several others then as I thoroughly enjoying his writing style.
Will also look out for 'The Year of the Flood' as I found 'Oryx and Crake' a very intriguing book.
If you look on Librarything I have my reads in 2010 tagged originally as Read 2010!!

Corinne said...

I was wondering where to take my Graham Greene reading next so shall give 'The Power and the Glory' a go.

And - phew, that's a lot of reading in a year ;-)

Fran said...

I didn't know The Year of the Flood was the sequel to Oryx and Crake either. I need to read it, then. Love Atwood.

Like your blog. Have enjoyed reading round your posts. I followed you here via Billygean.