monday reading notes
Nothing like a list of unconnected reading notes to start off the week…
My Central and South American reading project is in full swing. I moved from Mexico down to Guatemala and finished Francisco Goldman’s extraordinary novel The Divine Husband. I am uncharacteristically speechless about this book. I strongly suspect that a thorough working knowledge of Don Quixote would have helped render this novel less unwieldy for me. Well, unwieldy is maybe the wrong word. The experience of reading The Divine Husband was wonderful; the book is quirky and outlandish and has a sly narrator and eccentric, memorable characters, but it is an oversized book. And I mean oversized in many ways…it is very long, with numerous tangential stories and lots of seemingly irrelevant detail (all of which is either funny or mysterious or engaging). There is so much going on this novel, within the story itself, but it also includes heaps of intertextual references to other great works of literature. Definitely a book to read a few times in order to break it down and work out its many themes and allusions.
And then I went to Belize with a collection of short stories called Pataki Full by Colville Young. It may have been because I read these simple stories right after finishing The Divine Husband but I wasn’t able to drum up any real affection for the writing or the subject. They did give me a straightforward picture of some of the issues of life in Belize, but without drawing me in, without casting a spell.
Next up is a book from El Salvador called Luisa in Realityland by Claribel Alegria and I cannot wait.
For my French book club I am reading Romain Gary’s memoir La Promesse de l’Aube. For those of you who might not know Gary, he is the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice. He won it twice because after winning it the first time in 1956 he began publishing under an alias (while still publishing as Romain Gary) and was awarded the prize a second time in 1975. It was only discovered upon his death in 1980 that he was actually Emile Ajar as well.
La Promesse de l’Aube (published in English as Promise at Dawn) is a beautiful book about Gary’s childhood, and mostly about his relationship with his mother. Gary was raised by a formidable woman who loved him fiercely. He writes how incredibly suffocating her love was but also how inspiring. She would not have accepted anything but fame and glory from her son and it’s clear that Gary suffered, especially as a young child, from her excess of maternal affection. At the same time Gary openly admires her resourcefulness and her unwavering devotion in the face of his common failures. The book is written with more humor than frustration and ranks as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. (I feel so bold saying that about a second novel in less than a week!)
Also, I’m reading another Iris Murdoch novel – The Nice and the Good. I made some stylistic comparisons between Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer the other day, which I find hold up in this second Murdoch novel, but I did want to say that despite their similarities, there is always the political or social dimension in Gordimer’s work and of course Murdoch doesn’t have this. I don’t say this as a criticism of Murdoch but only as a statement about where their work has very little common ground. I get the sense that Murdoch was intensely preoccupied with relationships and ethical questions as they relate to love and sexuality.
Finally, and this is very silly, but I read Johanna Spyri’s Heidi for the first time last week and it made me wonder where on earth we get this image of a blonde Heidi? In the book, Heidi has short, dark, curly hair. I was so surprised by this I actually had to run downstairs to my refrigerator and take out the bottle of Heidi brand milk to look at the picture, which in my mind had a little blonde girl drinking from a bowl of milk. But no! She has short dark hair. Which is when I realized that it must be the Swiss Miss hot cocoa label from my childhood that did all the damage…