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I’ve been reading War & Peace since March with the Tolstoy Together plan the folks at A Public Space, in particular Yiyun Li, assembled so that people around the world could read their way through this lengthy classic in manageable chunks (about 12-15 pages a day). I’d read some shorter Tolstoy (although I don’t seem to have written about it here; I’ve read Anna Karenina, What Men Live By, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich). I always admire these kinds of efforts at collective reading and #TolstoyTogether attracted worldwide attention. It seemed at the time so nice to imagine that we’d get through coronavirus by reading together.

That was before we all realized the full extent of how ill prepared the U.S was for a pandemic, how crazy our leadership is, and how disproportionately the poor and people of color have been impacted by the disease. Now we’re in the midst of reopening even though we are still a long way from being done with COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests make something as silly as taking time to read a long Russian classic about how powerful egomaniacs can bring their countries’ people to their knees while celebrating how great they themselves think they are seem pointless.

I wrapped up a few days early this afternoon. The main characters in the book are almost all Russian, French, or other European aristocrats. While they grapple with matters of faith, financial “ruin” and war, their problems are not too bad compared with the problems of the few peasants and serfs who appear in the story. Such as being owned by the rich characters. Or being mistreated or harmed. For example, Platon Karataev, who is a peasant and all around good person, has one of the more horrific things in the book happen to him.

Tolstoy interjects several times throughout the novel with nonfiction sections where he holds forth on various topics, mainly the meaning of history and man’s role in it. He points out that if a great man says he’s great but doesn’t actually pay attention to good and evil, he’s not so great, for example. And he notes at the end of the book that trying to make sense of history through these “great” men’s lives (because when he was writing no one would have bothered making sense of history through women’s lives, even noble women) you miss the fact that the story of humans is really stitched together from little stories of individuals, and that because of free will, many of those stories are not great. And therefore, making a grand study of themes of history without considering the illogical acts of willful people, whether historical figures or ordinary people, is fruitless.

At least I think that’s what he was saying. By the time I got to the end I was a little irritable from following actual 2020 egomaniacs with no consideration for good and evil and contemporary illogical acts of willful people in the news. I got a little tangled up in the idea that because of free will, mankind is not free — I get it, I think? The free will of the powerful keeps us all under their thumbs, so the rest of us have free will but only to a point because of the systems that keep us all in place, but is that really what Tolstoy, himself one of the rich and influential who historians credit with the course of history, meant? I am sure if I thought harder about it I’d make more sense of it, but again, since that truth (whether it’s what Tolstoy meant or not) is making itself all too known at the moment in the real world, that’s enough to process right now.

The novel itself was enjoyable enough. Pierre is an interesting character, and Princess Maria. I found it annoying that the kind and good hearted Sonja, an orphan whose true love ends up marrying someone else for money (although he comes to love a rich woman who is also good hearted), is left without a family of her own, more or less waiting on the young and old in the family who raised her.

But that’s probably realistic, and Tolstoy seems to have enjoyed demystifying people and showing them as they are. Even the good hearted have their moments of scheming and/or feeling selfish. And he doesn’t generalize — not all aristocrats are self-absorbed jerks and not all peasants and serfs are good like Karataev. People in War & Peace are mostly excitable and foolish when they are young. Things don’t always go to plan. It’s not a fairy tale, by any means, and Tolstoy is certainly not a fan of neat and happy endings.

I am glad I read it, and I appreciate the efforts of those spearheading #TolstoyTogether. Especially the reminder that everyone can find 30 minutes to read, and if you do so, you can read even a doorstopper of a classic like War & Peace. It’s just not necessarily as fun to read Tolstoy during a global existential crisis as I thought it might be.

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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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My bookclub read Mrs. Dalloway this month. I read it, and other work by Virginia Woolf, in college, but re-reading it was enjoyable. I remembered the book generally, but re-reading it I was struck once again by Woolf’s creativity and daring. She addressed things that we are still struggling to talk about today — gender roles in society, mental illness, post traumatic stress, income inequality and its impact on opportunity. And she did it in a beautiful, poetic book with some very memorable characters who are also reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives, and how they’ve fared in terms of love and family.

To me, the way that Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life with the other characters’, is brilliant. She compares the constricted life of Clarissa as a society hostess with the limits that restrict Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose promising future is strangled by mental illness; Miss Kilman, whose class, intellectual ability and fervor, and appearance place her firmly outside Clarissa’s and her daughter Elizabeth’s social orbit; and Peter Walsh, whose passions and probably bad luck seem to have limited his ability to achieve his full potential in life.

The minor characters are also wonderful — Septimus’s Italian wife Rezia, Clarissa’s husband Richard, Hugh Whitbread, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton. While the style of the book doesn’t call for full character development, I feel Woolf paints exquisite miniatures of each, and we get glimpses of their humanity, their longings, their minds, their limitations in the details she portrays — Peter with his pocket knife, Clarissa mending her dress, Richard bringing Clarissa flowers, Rezia making a hat, Lady Bruton holding court at lunch before consulting Richard and Hugh about her letter and then, snoring on her couch. Woolf creates these portraits with prose that is somewhat strange and quite lovely, a little like poetry, a little like a dream sequence in a film, such as this passage where Septimus is in a park waiting until it’s time to go on to Harley Street to see a new doctor:

“He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks — all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Mrs. Dalloway is a sad book, but that was the point — to help readers feel. As writer and scholar Maureen Howard wrote in her forward to the 1981 Harcourt paperback edition, “As readers of Mrs. Dalloway fifty years after its publication, we see that the novel endures. We admire the originality of concept, the brilliance of style, but it is the feelings in the book that remain so very fresh and we wonder that Virginia Woolf had to ask herself ‘How can one weigh and shape dialogue till each sentence tears the shingles in the bottom of the reader’s soul?'”

 

 

 

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I came across two references to Giovanni’s Room recently, one in an article about reading fiction to deal with current reality, and the other, a re-post of the New York Times review from 1956 when the book came out, at Literary Hub. At some point in college I’d read some of James Baldwin‘s essays I think, but not his fiction. It seemed like time.

My library has a good bit of older fiction, so we had it on the shelf in an original $0.60 Dell paperback. I could have read it in a couple of sittings, given the time, but I’ve had a lot of reading and writing for grad school, so it took several evenings. If you’ve never read it, I recommend reading it through rather than splitting it into several shorter readings — the impact, I think would be greater.

The book is the story of David, a man old enough that his father thinks he should have settled down already, an American abroad in Paris. The whole book takes place on the evening before his former lover, Giovanni, an Italian who was tending bar when David met him, is going to be executed for murder. David is spending a sleepless night drinking and recalling his time with Giovanni, his early recognition that he was attracted to men, and his attempts to live as a heterosexual man, including only recently leaving Giovanni for Hella,  a woman he planned to marry.

David and Giovanni have a brief affair but one that profoundly impacts David. At first he is amazed by the way Giovanni so freely and openly loves him. But eventually he reverts to his old emotional pattern of shame and dread. Having grown up in America where being gay is not only scorned, but illegal, he has never felt anything else about his own sexuality.  Ultimately though, David’s shame isn’t simple self-loathing, it’s also tied up with confusion he feels in not really being able to reconcile who he is with who he feels he should be.  When he tries to live into this perception he holds, he ends up being more like what he dreads — heartless, thoughtless.

His recollections show how shame can infect every aspect of someone’s life, their aspirations, their relationships with family and friends as well as lovers. And Baldwin is an incredible writer, whose descriptive passages amaze even as they repel, as in this section describing a woman David has just taken to bed to forget his conflicted feelings about Giovanni and Hella: “She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety — as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.” Is that not the most gorgeous writing about something terrible?

Some of the conversations about what men and women are like are hard to read; perceptions of gender in society haven’t really progressed much, I fear. And the story is obviously emotionally difficult. But although it can be wrenching it isn’t bleak, even at the end when David is alone. He will go one, it seems, even if he isn’t any surer how than he was before: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope . . . .”  It’s dreadful for now, but there’s a sense David will survive.

I think I’ll be mulling this book over for some time.

 

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The former “Teen the Younger” gave me a couple of books for Christmas last year, found in their thrift shop outings (my favorite kind of gift). One was Queen of the Underworld which I very much enjoyed. The other is a Modern Library edition of The Trial billed as “the definitive edition.” I decided a couple of weeks ago, when I’d finished a book I read for Kirkus, that I had time for a “tough” book like this before my new year in grad school began. Classes started yesterday and I just finished The Trial at lunch today. It was definitely not a fast read.

What I didn’t realize, but the rest of the world is hearing about (or remembering again) because of a new book out last week (Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint) is that Kafka might never have meant for The Trial, one of his most famous works, to be published. He left directions for his executor, Max Brod, to burn his papers, manuscripts, letters, etc. The Trial was unfinished; one thing that makes my copy “definitive” is that it was published with unfinished chapters, passages that Kafka deleted, and three postscripts that Max Brod wrote for various editions.

I admit that by the time I reached the end I didn’t feel motivated to read these “extras.” To say The Trial is a downer is putting it mildly. Especially in today’s world, to read about a man caught up in a legal system that is labyrinthine, sprawling, overreaching, all powerful, impersonal, and corrupt is somewhat distressing. If there’s hope anywhere in this story I didn’t find it — even the few people who show Joseph K., the self-proclaimed innocent (but not very likable) accused man some kindness are not really very kind, nor very helpful. My edition opens, “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

It doesn’t get any better. K. begins by trying to fight the system, but is soon undermined at work, mocked at home, and thoroughly ensnared in “the Court.” A lawyer friend of his family seems ineffectual and encourages his maid to have affairs with his clients. A priest who seems to show an interest in K. is an employee of the Court and only tells K. a convoluted parable which he then makes more complicated by offering multiple interpretations. K. — and the reader — are left wondering whether the priest means any comfort or solace or is just playing a part in the same system that is grinding K.’s life down. Other people cause most of K.’s suffering, and he brings on some himself.

Still, I knew it wouldn’t be uplifting. But I’m not sure I even enjoyed it, and I almost feel better knowing it wasn’t really finished when Kafka died. It felt disjointed to me, and I don’t know whether that was intentional or inadvertent. And I don’t know I would like to read something else he did finish, to see whether I like Kafka or not. The Computer Scientist points out that conveniently, he picked up a collection of Kafka’s shorter work in a used bookstore this summer, so I’m in luck.

And now, back to reading about policy for my class.

 

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For those of you who followed along during my vacation week of reading and are wondering why I haven’t posted for a couple of weeks, don’t worry, I am still reading. I had a Kirkus review due, so I read that book (nope, can’t tell you which one) the week we got home, and this past week have been immersed in a “slow” read for a new book club devoted to 19th century British authors: Adam Bede by George Eliot. I am really enjoying it, but I started reading it as a free eBook and that drove me crazy — I prefer being able to flip back to check things in such a meaty read, and also to see my progress as I move the physical bookmark. Plus, I can’t get comfortable reading an eBook as I fall asleep. So we went to Gibson’s Bookstore, our local indie, yesterday and I bought a copy. And that’s why indie bookstores are great, because you can’t just walk into a chain and get a lesser known classic like this!

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My other book club chose Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which may also take me a while, and as I type this post I am entering my final week of the term, one year down, two to go (as soon as I write the paper I am procrastinating on right now) in the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement.

I did stock up on a few more reads yesterday. My younger son wanted to go to Goodwill, and it was $1 summer reading weekend. Here’s what I found:

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So, I have some good reads ahead. What are you reading this summer?

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I picked up Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather because as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been listening to The Readers, and earlier this summer Thomas recommended it. Believe it or not I’ve never read Willa Cather before, and my library had this book, so I thought I’d give it a try. It took me a couple of weeks because of everything else going on in our lives right now, and because it’s a slower read as any classics are. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Shadows on the Rock is set in colonial Quebec city (or town as it was then), for one thing; the events in the book take place between 1697-1713, with some backstory referring to even earlier times in France. I can definitely say this isn’t a time or place I’ve read about before. Some of Cather’s characters are real historical figures, including Bishop Laval and the Count who served as governor of New France, Comte de Frontenac. As far as I could tell the main characters, the count’s apothecary Euclide Auclair and his daughter Cecile, who is twelve when the book opens, are fictional.

Cecile is a devout and compassionate girl who looks out for Jacques, the neglected little boy whose mother is poor and disreputable. Cecile also cares for Blinker, a cross-eyed man who helps with chores at the Auclair’s home and works for the baker next door, providing him food and drink as her late mother did. In fact she has taken on her mother’s role as homemaker, cleaning and cooking for her father, and helping him in his shop. Euclide studies Canadian plants’ medicinal use and considers himself a progressive man of science; his refusal to bleed patients doesn’t sit well with the town barber/surgeon or some of the colonists.

Cather paints a picture of the hardship people faced living in New France, especially outside of Montreal and Quebec in the wilderness, where priests were dispatched to convert the native people. She portrays the natural beauty of the place as well, and the colonists’ dependence on the successful arrival of ships from France to bring staples and luxuries alike. I’m very intrigued and would like to read more about colonial life and also would like to visit Quebec City.

I definitely would recommend this and I do also want to read more Willa Cather!

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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

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