Monday, October 25, 2010

10 Great Reading Experiences

The books that I have enjoyed the most are generally books that I read quickly. There is the ‘don’t want to put it down factor’. But equally relevant is the fact that I enjoy books so much more if I read them quickly, remembering plot links, subtle character development, listening to the author’s voice in one or two sittings. These books will stay with me forever because they are beautifully written, and because I will never forget the experience of having read them.

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)    


Initially apprehensive because life was chaotic at the time, I approached Anna Karenina a little dubiously. I have read long books before- I remember the first one was ROOTS by Alex Haley- but not many of them. Anna Karenina had me involved from the start. I enjoyed following the dangers of a secret life between Anna and her Count, but as some others have said, it was Levin and Kitty that had me enthralled. I still remember the scene in which he proposed as being magical- and apparently from Tolstoy’s experience. Another incident in the story that I thought was beautifully written and absolutely wonderful was the section on Levin’s mowing of fields and his interest in agriculture. Different incidents involving trains were also captivating. This book put me in a good mood for many months.

Women In Love (D H Lawrence) 


I have always loved Lawrence and have collected many books by and about him. Lawrence’s love of nature comes to the fore in this novel, as it does in most of his works. Women In Love is a kind of sequel to The Rainbow, and was written at a creative although turbulent period of his life. I read this novel in the car and will always remember the reading experience. I purchased a paperback copy whilst holiday in Adelaide, and began and finished it during the long eight drive from Adelaide to Melbourne. What a fantastic use of time! By the time I finished I was enthralled and besotted with certain scenes. I noticed, too, that my mind was incredibly lucid and that I suddenly had an enormous vocabulary, which sadly dissipated a few days later. In real life a woman drowned in Moorgreen Reservoir, near Eastwood, Nottingham where Lawrence grew up. I thought about this as I walked along the reservoir in 2001. The scene early on when the boating party, led by lanterns, looks for Diana in the darkened water, is memorable. Lawrence was fascinated with homoeroticism, as witnessed in The Rainbow with Miss Inger and Ursula, and that theme is prevalent here too in the case of Rupert and Gerald. The famous nude wrestling scene contains extremely powerful writing, as both strong men wrestle ferociously in the firelight, their loins glistening with sweat. Lawrence entered the psyche of his characters with more accuracy and intelligence that any other writer I know.

Tender is the Night (F Scott Fitzgerald) 

This beautiful story from one of the best American writers the world has seen borrows its title from John Keats. Dick Diver, psychiatrist, marries one of his mental patients, and is doomed to a life fraught with uncomfortable public scenarios. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, spent time in an asylum, and clearly real life provided rich fodder for his fiction, as it did for D H Lawrence and many others. Dick has a weakness for young girls, a la Humbert Humbert, and he has an uncomfortable experience passing a courthouse in which an older man is inside being tried for rape of a pubescent girl. Dick’s fancy is the enormously wealthy Rosemary Hoyt, many years his junior. In one memorable moment they kiss, and Dick gasps ‘You’re fun to kiss’, and we can well and truly believe that he means it. It is not surprising that this book means so much to me- even more so than the beautiful and brilliant Gatsby- because as a student at La Trobe University I prepared for Tender Is The Night for my second year exams. Due to a clerical error, the question for this novel was accidentally missing from the paper and I had to write on something else I barely knew. The Head of English later apologised and I was allocated a generous grade in compensation. The setting is the French Riviera, close by to where I almost had a car stolen many years later.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabakov) 


Lolita was published in the 50’s and it is daring. Humbert Humbert makes no secret of his predatory nature as he reveals in first person his lust for a twelve year old girl. He manipulates Lolita’s mother in order to get close to her in the first place; he drugs Lolita so he can have total control of her whilst she is sleeping; he lies to her by telling her that her mother is in hospital when in fact she is really dead; he writes indescribable things about Lolita in his diary and jealously guards her against having any similar aged friends when she is at school. There are many other shameful things that Humbert involves himself in, including murder, and yet he is thoroughly likeable, which suggests the genius of Nabakov. He is very clever and very witty and one could say he develops a genuine affection for Lolita. When she refuses to run off with him, pregnant and hungry at the end, he cries inconsolably, and this is the stuff of tragedy. Quilty almost steals the show (he does in the Kubrick film, played by Peter Sellers). Quilty becomes three characters, the most deceitful of these being the man who steals Lolita from Humbert when she is in her hospital bed after making grand promises. But for me the most memorable episode in the whole novel takes place at the hotel in which Humbert is developing his plan for a vulnerable Lolita, fast asleep in his bed after a powerful sleeping draught. Quilty is an interested onlooker on the hotel’s balcony making quips about Humbert and his dirty, devious plans. Each time Quilty makes his dry, witty comment, when Humbert only half hears, he says something innocent to replace it, confusing Humbert by making it rhyme. Great detail and dialogue in English- not bad for a Russian émigré writing in a second language.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers)


 This was a long time ago, probably when I was 18, when I came across McCuller’s name via a short story collection of Southern writers. The Southern experience is very powerful in the novel, and bits of it remind me of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It is a book that has largely left my memory, except for the fact that it was profound and gave voice to the under privileged and had incredible characters. The bits that I do remember include the deaf mute, John Singer, who dines in a café run by Biff. There is also a family called the Kelly’s in the neighbourhood. They have a daughter called Mick and a son called Bubber. In a chilling scene Bubber accidentally shoots another character in the head. I wish I remember more of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. I will have to read it again. There you are- I forget most of the narrative, but the memory of ‘feeling it’ has never left me.

The Heather Blazing (Colm Toibin)


I went aimlessly into Brunswick Street Bookstore one day in 1994, looking for a new book to read. There was a gap. The surname- Toibin- attracted me, with its Irish sound- having read a number of books by Irish writers in the past, and being interested in the politics of Northern Ireland. What a lovely title!- ‘The Heather Blazing.’ The cover was simple- some abstract brushstrokes- but pretty. The blurb told the story of a judge (Eamon Redmond) and his wife in the county of Wexford. I took it on a hunch as I began reading in the armchair in the lounge at home. Like the best experiences, it was a one sitting job. The prose was beautiful-‘aching restraint’ as one critic put it. Lots of references to the Irish countryside, so simple, so haunting, making the everyday seem dramatic. Later in the story the judge’s wife takes a walk and has a stroke and soils herself. They have never been close in their early old age, and now suddenly they will be reliant on each other, especially her on him. For someone who is so restrained, and awkward with emotions, and removed, the daily tasks of bathing his wife and feeding her and changing her will prove traumatic. But the judge does so. And bravely and lovingly.

 Conditions of Faith (Alex Miller)


Emily Elder meets Georges in Melbourne, via Emily’s father. They dance lovingly in her parents’ Richmond home, he proposes, and suddenly they are off to Paris to begin a life together. Emily has devastated her father. She is young and precociously bright. To go to Paris to become a young mother and a housewife seems unbelievably wasteful. Once there Emily decides motherhood is not for her. Visiting Tunisia awakens the desire for academia and historical research. Alas, Emily is pregnant, due to a chance encounter in the beautiful cathedral at Chartres. Georges assumes he is the father, but Emily knows better. Worse still, the real father is a priest, and he is George’s family priest. The description is making the scenario sound sensational and melodramatic. But this is misleading because it’s not. It’s achingly sad and real. Emily spends long days and nights refusing to give up her research. She studies profusely at the Paris Biblioteque in freezing weather, heavily pregnant, and putting this unwanted baby at risk. We feel for Emily because it is a path unwanted. At the same time, Georges has dreams of his own, just as real. As an engineer, he wants to be a part of the tender to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge and he is working insane hours. He also loves Emily and loves the idea of fatherhood and dreams of settling as a father with Emily in Sydney. When the crunch comes, and it is time to go, Emily devastatingly tells Georges that she is not prepared to leave Europe- there is too much work to be done. This is AFTER the baby is born- she is abandoning her child because her work means so much to her. There are other layers in Conditions of Faith. Antoine and Sophie are beautiful characters, each filled with their own dreams. And Emily’s path cleverly echoes the path of a famous historical figure whose subject fascinates Emily.

Ragtime (E L Doctorow) 


Doctorow is a New Yorker, and New York is for Doctorow what the Mississippi is for Samuel Clemens. All his books are set there, and Ragtime, set at the turn of the last century, is his best. I was enchanted by certain characters like Tateh and his little girl, poor emigrants who make their fortune with their ingenuity. Ragtime intriguingly centres around real life figures like Harry Houdini and Sigmund Freud. A memorable scene involves the defecation in the Rolls Royce of Coalhouse Walker’s car, by members of the NYC Fire Department. From memory, they are enraged by the fact that a black man can be so stylish and so wealthy. I read Ragtime in 1984 when I was supposed to be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and Pale Fire. I also read Death in Venice at this time. I recall it as a time when I was open to so many things and just wanted to devour all the book references I came across. Funnily enough, I saw the film first- desperate for something different in 1982 when I was in Year 12- at the Greater Union Cinemas in Bourke Street. I was very impressed, and later bought the score on LP (by Randy Newman). Then of course I bought the novel which was even more moving.

Death in Venice (Thomas Mann)       


This is a sad and solemn little story (a novella) about intense longing and a tragic lack of fulfilment. The narrator, Gustav von Aschenbach, is an accomplished middle-aged writer who becomes bewitched by a beautiful fourteen year old Polish boy called Tadzio, who has porcelain skin and soft blonde hair. He follows him around Venice and as cruelly tortured by the sight of him each morning at the breakfast table of the hotel they are staying at. It is in some ways like an all male version of Lolita, except von Aschenbach is a very different and less decadent and opportunistic character than Humbert Humbert. He is said to be modelled on Mann himself. Like many great books, a great film followed, and I will always remember the accompanying soundtrack, Mahler’s 5th symphony. So the book led me onto the film, and therefore Bertolluci and Mahler, and so on and so forth, so all the connections are a great thing. Death In Venice is a brief novel, yet it gave me the feeling of having read something full and rich and significant.

The Catcher In The Rye (J D Salinger)  


I read this at the perfect age- that is, seventeen, which is the age Holden Caulfield is when he tells the famous story of his breakdown whilst in New York. It captures the time perfectly- what it is like to be seventeen- what it is like (from what I have read) to be a young, white affluent male in the USA in 1950- and the cadences and idiom of the language of that time- all those goddamn adventures and frustrations. Post-war, the world is not an easy place to live in, and Holden can’t think of anyone or anything that he likes. His sister, Phoebe, is absolutely beautiful in her pubescent innocence, yet the world Holden encounters is sharp and cynical, with pimps and prostitutes wanting you to trip up, adults squirting highballs at each other in bathtubs, showy phonies like Ernie and Stradlater, and opportunistic flits like Carl Luce, and ‘f- you’ written on footpaths and walls (something that one of Holden’s heroes, Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, sees outside Gatsby’s house, incidentally). I read this in one sitting in the lounge because I had to as it was part of the Year 11 Literature course. It has stayed with me forever, but is sadly hit or miss with students nowadays. When my family went to Sorrento (Vic) for a day trip once, my father devised a way of entering the premises, for free, through the back door of the cafeteria, and gleefully told the rest of us about it. I was full of Holden’s passion and scorn, having just read the novel, and full of indignation for days as to the blatant cheating involved in such an activity. It was an example for me of a cynical world and even worse, a cynical parent. I love the idea, which I read somewhere, of Sylvia Plath reading this novel to her new husband, Ted Hughes, in the mid 50’s.

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