Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Over the last two months I’ve read a series of really wonderful books – but seem unable to put my thoughts into any sort of order about any of them except to express a deep admiration. Perhaps I am feeling them all too personally, or maybe it’s just the arrival of good weather and more time to sit and read in the garden, to just sit and think about this reading instead of wanting to write deeply about any of them. All of them have prompted plenty of notetaking, and underlining—they are all books that deserve long and thoughtful discussions. I just don’t seem able to write about them individually.

But it seems a shame not to mention them here and see if any of you have anything to add.

The first book I read was Julio Cortazár’s Hopscotch. This is my first Cortazár and I can say that the first short chapter just swept me away. The writing is stunning (lively and difficult and imaginative) and the story so odd and delightful and sometimes disturbing that it is hard not to want to spend days reading and re-reading the book just to try to figure out what he’s doing. The book is actually two books, and you read one first and then go back and read the second (which includes the first) after that. It’s bizarre, but there are exquisite scenes and intense dialogue and plenty to think about. The book creates a certain atmosphere that is hard to step away from.

The next book I read was Russell Hoban’s Amaryllis Night and Day which is hilarious and dark and sexy all at the same time. I loved it. I loved the oddity of the conversations and I loved the way that Hoban doesn’t explain everything or ease his reader into the strangeness of the book’s premise—which is basically a love story but an outlandish one that is really about two very lonely people and how they manage to ease each other’s loneliness. But it’s also about art and literature and impossible connections. I read it in two sittings and wanted to go back and read it all again right away. This was also my first Hoban, so any suggestions on where to go next would be very welcome.

After this I read William Goyen’s The House of Breath. This book quite literally stopped me still. I am going to put here the entire first page in the hopes that anyone reading this will go right out to a local bookshop and ask for a copy:

 …and then I walked and walked in the rain that turned half into snow and I was   drenched and frozen; and walked upon a park that seemed like the very pasture of Hell where there were couples whispering in the shadows, all in some plot to warm the   world tonight, and I went into a public place and saw annunciations drawn and written on the walls. I came out and felt alone and lost in the world with no home to go home to and felt robbed of everything I never had but dreamt of and hoped to have; and mocked by others’ midnight victory and my own eternal failure, un-named by nameless agony and stripped of all my history, I was betrayed again.

Yet on the walls of my brain, frescoes: the kneeling balletic Angel holding a wand of vineleaves, announcing; the agony in the garden; two naked lovers turned out; and over the dome of my brain Creations and Damnations, Judgments, Hells and Paradises (we are carriers of lives and legends—who knows the unseen frescoes on the private walls of the skull?)

So, yes, that first paragraph is a bit too intense, and there are some heavy biblical references (which usually annoy me, but for some reason here were okay) but isn’t that “all in some plot to warm the world tonight” just lovely? And then that very last sentence about “unseen frescoes on the private walls of the skull”? Stunning. And the book is extremely unique. It begins by addressing a place, using the 2nd person to create a picture of an old town, and create what is essentially an ode to this lost place—the narrator’s early home, a place that no longer exists. And then each chapter tells of a different member of the family, telling their lonely stories with a breathless kind of devotion, and how they affected and were affected by their lives in this small Texas town.

Goyen’s writing is thick and heavily descriptive, and his narrator embodies other characters and drifts—precisely, if that is possible, there is an incredible precision in how the narrator moves from person to person. What struck me the most about this book was how sad and yet how bravely ecstatic it was at the same time. It is a book I will probably read several times, and then often again in years to come. It’s all about nostalgia and love and displacement and place. Obviously things I am interested in.

I discovered this book by stumbling across Goyen’s interview in The Paris Review.

I’ve forgotten to mention Denton Welch – because I started reading him as well, finishing Maiden Voyage and starting A Voice Through a Cloud along with his journals. Welch is a fantastic discovery and I cannot wait to read him from start to finish. I’ll save any discussion of his work until then, except to say now that he is one of those writers who approach the world with a vulnerability and a rawness that makes his work really interesting. There is a preciousness about him, but he’s so aware of this, and so painfully honest about how exposed he lets himself be that it becomes endearing. His writing is simply lovely.

Finally, I finally read John Williams’ Stoner yesterday and today. It was not quite what I was expecting but I really enjoyed it. After this series of more experimental books, it took me a moment to get comfortable with the straightforward realism of Stoner, but the subject won me over easily. And Stoner is obviously a character that most devoted readers will feel an affinity for, if not a profound sympathy. As I finished the book up this morning, I realized that I found it quite depressing, actually, and wondered if most people felt this way. There are moments—especially at the end—when the book reaches for and achieves a kind of transcendence (of Stoner’s disappointments and difficulties) and this helped. I’m glad I’ve finally read it.

I also couldn’t help thinking that Stoner would be an interesting book to see written from Edith’s or Grace’s perspective. Edith is such a difficult character to have any sympathy for whatsoever – but I’m thinking of Wide Sargasso Sea and how Rhys achieves something so unusual by upending such a familiar tale. I suspect Grace would be the better choice for this kind of re-telling, but it would be very curious to see Edith’s perspective explored. I admit to being a little fascinated with Edith, whom William’s treats with great respect despite how awful she is.

Reading Stoner also made me think of Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries, even if it’s been ages since I read this, so maybe they are not as similar as I remember. The Stone Diaries is also a fictional autobiography kind of novel, but of a woman, and it is marked by the same types of loss and longing over a lifetime of fairly unextraordinary events.

I’m now reading Rikki Ducornet’s The Fountains of Venus and finishing Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat as well as continuing on with Welch. What are you reading?

p.s. title of this post from The House of Breath

4 Responses to ““…are many things of silence and dignity…””

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    For Hoban, Riddley Walker and The Mouse and His Child. I wrote ab it about hte latter when Hoban died. Oh, and The Turtle Diary, but I have not read that myself.

    • Michelle

      Thank you – this is perfect. I’ve heard good things about The Turtle Diary from someone else as well. It’s quite fun to discover Hoban – and will look for what you wrote about him as well.

  2. helen

    Hello Michelle! I enjoyed reading this; I always come away from your blog with a list of books I’ve never heard of before and am now desperate to read!

    Oh bother, I hadn’t realised Russell Hoban had died. That’s a great pity.

    I’m currently in the middle of Little, Big, which I am rereading and enjoying but am a bit stuck with because I began by writing about each book on my blog and now I’m not sure what to discuss for Book 3 and so progress no further while I wait for inspiration to strike. Meanwhile, I’ve just reread The Tortoise and the Hare and am now rereading A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford. It’s been so hot here that rereading is more attractive than grappling with anything new.

  3. Michelle

    Hi Helen! I’ve got A Favourite of the Gods on my nightstand at the moment, but am finishing up The Meursault Investigation before I start it. I’ll have a look for Little, Big!

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