Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I read several novels in September: Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Sapphire’s Push, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, and (am just finishing) Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It’s a strange group to read together, really, all of them so wildly different one from the other. But this reminds exactly why I love reading so much; the luck of being able to flit between such different worlds.

Sapphire’s Push is an incredible piece of literature. This was a re-read for me, as I’d first read the book over ten years ago. I found it as excellent as I did the first time. The novel is set in 1980s Harlem and is narrated by a 16-year-old illiterate young woman named Precious who is pregnant with her second child, and who’s been the victim of incest for years. It is a brutal read and there are very difficult scenes to get through. The heart of the book, however, is about Precious learning to read and write, and how this transformation changes everything for her. Over the course of the novel, Sapphire gives Precious the gift of poetry, a community that sees her for the first time in her life, and an increasing sense of agency, and she manages this while revealing the honest and harsh reality of Precious’s situation.

I’m alive inside. A bird is my heart. Mama and Daddy is not win. I’m winning. I’m drinking hot chocolate in the Village wif girls–all kind who love me. How that is so I don’t know. How Mama and Daddy know we sixteen years and hate me, how a stranger meet me and love me. Must be what they already had in they pocket.

Cut to the desert and post-World War II Italy with The English Patient. I think the entire world has already read this (or seen the film, which I haven’t) so it seems nearly superfluous for me to even write about it. It’s a lovely book, and I took my time reading it and admiring much about the writing. At the same time, I felt an incredible distance from this book, and from the characters – maybe because I tend to like my characters more palpably messy? Everyone is broken in the book, but their surfaces remain very smooth. My favorite part was when Kip hears the news of the nuclear bombs in Japan and leaves – his ride on that motorcycle through the night was an exciting bit of fiction.

Heavy tin flew off and shouldered past him. Then he and the bike veered to the left, there was no side to the bridge, and they hurtled out parallel to the water, he and the bike sideways, his arms flung back above his head. The cape released itself away from him, from whatever was machine and mortal, part of the element of air.

Keeping to war, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is a slim and viciously funny little book about the choices for poor young women, about WWII, and even about writing and publishing. I devoured it. Spark is just so marvelous. A book that opens with the line – “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” – is a book that cannot fail. Spark’s post-war boarding house microcosm is mostly hilarious and sometimes touching, but always incisive. This is for now my favorite Spark.

This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women of the same business. And it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.

It’s quite a leap now to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and I’m at a loss as to how to describe it. I loved the book, found it delicate and also rich with meaning and aesthetic questions. To discuss this book properly would take a long time and probably a re-read or two. The story is simple: a young filmmaker goes to the inner plains country of Australia to create a film about the landscape and the people. At least this is the thread that Murnane uses to meditate on a strange land. The plains of The Plains are a mythical, unknowable place inhabited by people in their large landowner homes filled with art, books, and naturalist collections. They are a contemplative but self-centered people, focused exclusively on their own lives and histories and traditions. The novel is written in the style of a poetic ethnography, and it’s such a curious narrative – confusing in a way that doesn’t necessarily disturb, and although the writing is careful and measured, there is a very surreal quality to the book. The Plains has often been described as dream-like, and I would agree but I would also call it film-like – I think of it as a novel that is striving to feel like a certain kind of art film, with the narrator providing the voice over.

I want to read those unpublished poems that surely have been written in rooms facing southwards. I want to read those poets who knew that their desires could lead them out of even the widest land. I’m not talking of those few fools who appear every decade or so urging us to set our passions free and to speak frankly before our women. There must have been many a man who knew, without leaving his own narrow district of the plains, that his heart enclosed every land he could have travelled to; that his fantasies of scorching sand and vacant blue water and bare brown skin belonged not to any coast but to some mere region of his own boundless plain.

My final September read is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, and I’m not finished yet, so I’ll wait to write something about it. But I’ve never read Bowen (1899 – 1973) and until someone described her work to me in early September I had mistakenly assumed she was a writer from a much earlier period. She’s an exact contemporary of three of my favorite writers (Elsa Triolet, Anna Kavan, Clarisse Francillon) and it’s exciting to read her now in that context.

4 Responses to “alive inside, element of air, literary women, boundless plain – September reading”

  1. E.B. Axelrod

    Love this summary of your recent reading! I now feel like I’m wasting my life reading new works when I should be delving into classics. But I’m about to start listening to Proust, so there’s that. Edna Sent from my iPad


    • Michelle

      It’s never a waste – and I am often worried I read too much of one and not the other. There’s always so much to read. A delight. Enjoy Proust!

  2. Michael

    Insightful reviews! I’m planning on reading lots of fiction during the fall months, and I’ve been debating on whether or not to read Ondaatje’s book, considering that it does indeed feel like the whole world already has read it. I’ll have to add it to my list now, though.

    • Michelle

      Thank you, and it definitely felt like something I “should” read, and it was enjoyable, beautiful in many places. If you enjoy WWII stories as well…

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