Wednesday 4 December 2013

My fiction addiction

I’ve given up on Goodreads, the website (now owned by Amazon, I understand) that lets you tell people which books you’ve been reading, and what you think of them. Not only is the site counter-intuitive (or maybe it’s just me), but there’s a patronising whiff of the school report about its updates: ‘Martin made progress with Cousin Bette’, indeed. On the other hand, what’s the point of reading a book if you can’t share the experience with your friends?  So today I’m writing a post about my recent reading.

I'll begin with a confession. Until a few months ago, my reading of fiction had fallen away and in the past year or two there have been very few novels leavening my diet of historical works and biographies. This, despite having not one but two degrees in English Literature: but then, as a student, my primary passion was always for poetry rather than prose. There was a brief Mauriac obsession last summer, after our visit to Bordeaux, but my most memorable reading experiences of late have been John Guy’s book on Thomas Becket, Amanda Vickery on the lives of eighteenth-century women, and James McPherson on the American Civil War. If asked to justify my focus on non-fiction, I would have argued that the best historical writing encompasses many of the characteristics of good novels: engrossing narrative, compelling characters, stylish prose.

But I began to think I was missing something, and so this summer my novel reading revived. It’s one more thing that I can credit the late Norman Geras with. As I wrote in my appreciation of him the other week, I never ceased to be impressed by his appetite for fiction and his insightful writing on his favourite novelists, from Jane Austen to Anne Tyler. When we visited him earlier this year, Norm described his daily novel-reading habits and quizzed me about my own preference for non-fiction, so that I began to feel rather embarrassed by my abstention from fiction.

Spurred into action, I took from the shelf a novel that I’d been meaning to finish for ages: Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. If you look back at my Normblog profile, you’ll see that I claimed to be reading this as long ago as 2007, but in fact I never got beyond the first few pages. Returning to the book, I was immediately captivated by Nemirovsky’s account of refugees fleeing occupied Paris – made even more compelling by the author’s personal experience of her subject-matter, and by the knowledge that very soon after writing it, she would herself become a victim of Nazi terror.

Having realised what I was missing by excluding fiction from my imaginative diet, I went on to fulfill a long-overdue promise to myself, to re-read Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I’d seen that there was a new translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, that supposedly captured the dynamism of the original Russian better than the Penguin version by Constance Garnett that I’d read many years ago. (I should add that my return to Dostoievsky was partly prompted by my renewed interest in religion: Karamazov was the book that inspired the actor Martin Sheen to return to Catholicism, and it’s surely one of the great Christian novels.) The new translation turned out to be every bit as lively and engaging as its was reputed to be, capturing the humour as well as the pathos of this greatest of Russian writers.

This doorstop of a novel book-ended, so to speak, my summer: I read about half before we went away on holiday and the other half when we returned. In between, I spent two weeks lying beside a Portuguese pool, but whereas normally I would have packed mostly non-fiction, this time I threw in a scattering of novels. On the long train journey south through France and Spain, I’d been reading a book about the little-known wartime hero Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux who was responsible for helping hundreds of Jews and others escape from occupied France. Then, on arrival in Portugal, I followed this with something I’d really been looking forward to: Neill Lochery’s account of wartime Lisbon, which included a fascinating collection of photographs of the city and the celebrities and spies who took refuge there. Unfortunately, the photos turned out to be the best thing about this badly-written and poorly-edited volume. Nevertheless, there was a connection between these two non-fiction appetisers and the first novel I read on holiday - Joseph Roth’s Radetsky March, set in the closing years of the Austro-Hungarian empire – since Otto von Hapbsurg had been one of those helped by de Sousa Mendes to escape to Portugal. I shall certainly be reading more by Roth. Then it was on to a non-fiction book with an Austrian theme: Alexander Waugh’s House of Wittgenstein, which I bought because of my interest in Ludwig’s philosophy, though he turned out to be just one member of a fascinatingly eccentric family, none more so than his brother Paul, an accomplished one-armed concert pianist.

Norm Geras’ influence was apparent in my next novel choice (he’d recommended it on his blog): John Williams’ reissued Stoner. My absorption in this slim volume was reflected in the fact that I read it in virtually one poolside sitting. However, I should add that I found the story of this obscure, disappointed mid-western teacher unrelievedly depressing, lacking any hint of possible redemption.

My ‘big read’ of the holiday was Os Maias The Maias – by the nineteenth century Portuguese novelist Eca de Queiros. One of my New Year’s resolutions had been to improve my knowledge of Portuguese to the extent that I’d be able to be read something by this author, or perhaps by Pessoa or Saramago, in the original, by the time we went on holiday. However, this went the way of most of my resolutions, and I ended up, once again, opting for a new English translation. I’d bought the Carcanet edition following our first visit to Lisbon seven years ago, when we’d stayed in a small hotel that had been the model for the family home in de Queiros’ novel, but had never quite got around to reading it. Then I read that Margaret Jull Costa, whose renderings of Saramago and of Spanish authors such as Javier Marias I had long admired, had produced a new translation. I wasn’t disappointed: the novel is compendious, rollicking, moving, a great nineteenth-century realist novel, with some Dickensian touches but without any Dickensian caricatures or sentimentality. I thoroughly recommend it.

De Queiros was influenced by the great French realists, and especially by Balzac, another embarrassing gap in my reading, so on my return I plucked Cousin Bette from the shelf and jumped into the middle of the ‘Comedie Humaine’ cycle. The experience was rewarding, but it didn’t really whet my appetite for more by the same author, not just yet anyway. However, I was now feeling inspired to plug other shameful gaps in my literary knowledge, and at the same time wanting to stick with the nineteenth century for a little longer, so this autumn I turned back to the English classics. From Balzac I went on to Dickens, rapidly consuming The Old Curiosity Shop – sentimental and maudlin at times, but still compelling – and Oliver Twist – apprentice work for the far superior David Copperfield, but a lively youthful narrative all the same. Then from George Eliot's oeuvre I selected Adam Bede, which I’d never read, and found completely absorbing, not least because of my identification with its Methodist theme, and at the moment I’m rather plodding my way through The Mill on the Floss.

Another novel I’d never got round to reading was Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which starts very engagingly, but then kind of loses its way. What critics describe as a fascinating double narrative replete with fluid identities, I thought was a flawed and poorly structured piece of work, in which personal biography was never quite fully transformed into imaginative literature. But the highlight of my autumn reading so far has been Vanity Fair, another unforgivable omission from my literary knowledge. There were many similarities with The Maias - another thoroughly engaging, inventive and light-filled imaginative experience.

So, after a dry period with no novel-reading at all, I’ve now become reliant on my regular fiction fix and have to have a novel in progress all the time. (This doesn't mean I've stopped reading history books: I'm part-way through Hugh Thomas' classic account of the Spanish Civil War and am just finishing Mark Kishlansky's Penguin history of seventeenth-century Britain.) Now, I’m planning my December reading schedule. Nothing is set in stone yet, but I definitely want to be reading Dickens at Christmas. Christmas Carol would be too obvious but should I re-read Great Expectations or Bleak House, or seek out the unread Pickwick Papers or Our Mutual Friend?

Watch this space for updates. And please feel free share your own recommendations, or your opinions of any of the books mentioned here.


bob said...

Martin, this is a great reading list. Once again, I am struck by our overlapping reading, as well as our shared lusophilia.

I'm in a blokey, alcohol-fuelled book group that meets about every six weeks, so that dictates most of my reading, with just enough space in my life to read some extra things in the summer. I'm currently on an Indian rather than Portuguese role: Adiga's Last Man in Tower and Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, both brilliant.

I was going to buy my dad Stoner for Christmas, but my sister just told me she already did.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment, Bob. I hadn't heard of either of your recent reads, but will certainly look them up . It must be nice to be part of a book group - the only one I know of (at work) is a feminist, women-only one - I'm always envious when colleagues go, as they seem to have such a great time. Haven't found a 'blokey' equivalent yet - not sure I'd like that, but the alcohol bit sounds OK - sure it makes the conversation flow. Hope your dad likes Stoner - I keep meaning to look up the other novel of his that Norm recommended. Such a backlog of books waiting to be read, as ever!