Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading these five novels:

  • Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Soderberg, 1905, tr. Paul Britten Austen (1963)
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, 1934
  • That Night, Alice McDermott, 1987
  • The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper, 1973
  • Doppelganger, Daša Drndić, 2002, tr. S.D. Curtis & Celia Hawkesworth (2018)

I’m not sure a person could pick five books at random and make a more eclectic list. Sometimes odd combinations of books speak to each other in subtle, intricate ways – that wasn’t the case with these five books, but reading such different novels at the same time didn’t diminish the reading experience for me either.

I read Murder on the Orient Express because of a conversation I’d had with my mother recently, enjoyed it in the way that I was remembering what it was like to read Christie in my household as a teenager—I rediscovered my mother’s Christie paperbacks when I helped my parents move last year, more importantly, I was reminded of the the way she wrote the month and year in pencil each time on the back page and some of them have been read five or six times. The books are yellowed and falling apart, and she goes back to them again and again. And then I happened upon “The Case of Agatha Christie” (which is really interesting, especially if you are interested in modernism and discussions of formalism) in the most recent London Review of Books and now I am writing, or trying to write, an essay about the memories and questions that have come alive to me by the simple juxtaposition of this article, my mother, her Agatha Christie paperbacks. As essays about mothers often go, I may not be able to finish this one.

Lanchester writes (of Christie): “Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.”

We are reading That Night for the novel class I’m teaching this year. It’s a favorite of mine, and was one of the first novels I wrote about for this blog, as well as part of my list of “perfect novels”. Rereading it again for the third or fourth time, I was struck (again) by its accomplishment. The novel does not feel dated, neither does the style, even if its subject matter has somewhat. McDermott’s narrative control—the telescoping outward to transform a very specific domestic story into something unequivocally universal, the poetic repetition, the effaced 1st person narrator—is both subtle and flawless. It was a pure delight to reread.

I wonder now what heartache it caused them, the mother especially, fleeing her home like that, the home she had made with her husband. I wonder now how bitterly she had looked back across the year and a half that saw her lose her husband, her daughter, her home. With what envy she had looked at the other houses along our block as she drove past them for the last time that morning. How peaceful, how untouched they must have seemed to her, those houses where the brave men slept, their wives tucked under their arms, their children nearby.

Or perhaps as she drove past the shuttered houses, with their damp lawns and purring window fans, she saw instead how precarious their peace was, how momentary. Maybe she saw instead the coming troubles: the scattering of sons, the restlessness of wives, the madness of daughters. Maybe she was aware, in her flight that early morning, that all futures were as uncertain as her own, that even as she drove away, her mother crying quietly beside her, the very blood that pulsed through their veins and set the rhythm that kept their wives asleep was moving pain and age and sorrow to the hearts of the good men.

I will save my thoughts of Doctor Glas and Doppelganger for posts of their own. What strange, marvelous books. One daring for its time period, the other formally playful but shadowed and dark.

What are you reading?

2 Responses to ““…the scattering of sons, the restlessness of wives, the madness of daughters.””

  1. Kaggsysbookishramblings

    Indeed an eclectic list! I read Dr Glas some years back and would like to revisit. As for current reading? Embarking on Kate O’Brien writing about Spain, which is bracing so far…

    • Michelle

      I have been meaning to read Kate O’Brien for sometime as she fits the list I’m building of women modernists born at the very end of the 19th century, and writing about women in the 30s – 60s. I will look forward to your thoughts!

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