This is a book I have read at least a half dozen times, most recently a couple of weeks ago when I decided to read Achebe’s entire African Trilogy. When I first took up the novel, it taught me what simplicity of style could achieve. Achebe can write gracefully and sometimes lyrically but he is not very much interested in that side of language. I don’t mean that he has no interest in writing well. His purpose, I think, is to be clear, and to write plainly about a vanishing life, and through that, about all vanishing lives. His particular focus is to capture the way these people speak to one another, in parables and references to shared storie. The protagonist Okonkwo and his people have an intricate, ceremonial, specific life that they live. His world encompasses a few miles in every direction, a small cosmos of peoples, villages, kinship relations, gods, ghosts, families, obligations. Achebe employs a kind of omniscience in the telling of this story that remains tightly focused on the people of Okonkwo’s village. The characters are rich even though their part in the novel is often small. Achebe is not writing a psychological novel though he does illuminate the psychology of his protagonist. The book focuses on the story of Okonkwo’s obsessive sense of duty to himself, to his image in the community, and to the traditions of his ancestors; he is particularly interested in wiping away the memory of his slackard father from village memory. The appearance of Christian missionaries in the second part of the book add the layer of disintegration to the already complex story. You understand that you are watching a way of life that is facing a drastic transformation. For such a slim volume to contain such a vast world, a whole cosmos in fact, is a feat that is belied by the simplicity of the book. This novel is always in my top ten list.
Gordimer is well established and has no need of another fan, which is a good thing, because I am not quite one. This is the third of her novels that I have read, if memory serves, though the others were decades ago. She is an extraordinarily accomplished stylist though there are occasional passages that struck my ear as clumsy. She has a habit of remarking repeatedly on her protagonist’s breasts, which are apparently quite fine; were this the book of a male writer I would mock that a bit. In her case I figure that it means something but I’m not quite sure what. The figure of Hillel, the woman at the center of the book, is easily the most puzzling Gordimer character I have encountered, and I think this is deliberate since she draws Hillel so very enigmatically. Again, were this book by a male author, I would simply dismiss it as a statement that Hillel’s importance arises from the men she sleeps with, which is a true statement no matter how sympathetic you are to the book and the author. What makes her interesting is that in her course of partners she takes us on a tour of politics in Southern Africa at the time just prior to the end of South Africa’s apartheid. But the journey has a rather empty feeling and Gordimer is left to struggle for an ending. Hillel, who does very little other than float mysteriously through parties, political meetings, and along sunny beaches, has no real narrative that can resound as it ends. Even when one of her husbands is killed, even in her grief, she is pale and uninvolving. This is a deliberate choice by Gordimer and it is accomplished with such exactness that it can scarcely be an accident, but exactly what the book intends to convey is lost on me. My reaction to the earlier novels that I read was more or less in the same vein. It is the importance of her material that draws me to read her from time to time, and that importance is quite real. But her kind of fiction is not really what I look for.
When you read the work of a good writer, you feel its distinctiveness, and if the book is a surprise to you, it feels as if there is nothing else like it. I had read Sheridan stories years ago but had never cracked this book until recently. What a treat to read something so sure-handed! The world of Chapelizod unveils itself as if it were the center of everything, a village and countryside quite taken with itself. Sheridan colors every foible of each person we encounter: there are the mysterious figures in the background, of course, but it is the foreground where the book takes flight. There are so many people, such an ensemble, Puddock and Aunt Becky, Magnolia and her mother, the two doctors and their wives, the virtuous Lily, the tremulous Gertrude, the sleepwalker gentry, the wicked old witch. Lovely rich portraits. Having read only Le Fanu’s shorter works before, I found his sprawling Irish village to be a world unto itself, as rich as any such locale in any novel I remember. His focus is so drawn to the periphery, to the comic possibilities of nearly every character we meet, even the slightest, that the novel nearly forgets itself. The story of the villain and the hero, with all its tinge of the supernatural, is secondary to the landscape. Le Fanu was more fascinated by Chapelizod than by the mystery that dutifully appears and resolves; it’s not that this aspect of the book is bad, it’s just that the world overshadows the story so completely, through Le Fanu’s really wonderful eye and ear. The book does require patience, and you need a taste for the leisurely manner of the writing.
I entered this book with high hopes and exited with a sigh that it had taken it so long to do so little. The story telegraphs its next move so far ahead of time that it becomes a slog to read. The writing is clear and precise; would that it were more concise. From the moment the death of Sarah, the oldest and forgotten daughter, is mentioned, it’s clear that what’s coming is something like a poltergeist novel. It is not Waters’ fault that I am tired of reading about the upper class of England; that’s my problem. But it would be a blessing if she added something new to the mix. The novel feels as if it will never end, especially once you realize that the cause of the disturbances at the Hundreds is never going to be clear. Ambiguity is a fine thing but better when paired with brevity. In a book like Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard the story also takes forever but the writing is lively, the portraits of the Irish villagers rich, and the comic turns make the waiting for the mystery to reveal itself worth all the time. In this novel, the characters are uniformly bitter, dark, depressed, unhappy, living in the wrong era, decaying like the house. The house itself is a bright spot, depicted in such delapidated detail, you feel as though you are sitting under a ceiling that is about to collapse. The high point of the haunting is told by the “as I heard this story later” device made necessary by the fact that the novel is in first person and the person in question was not in the house during those events. This is the most perplexing choice. It renders the crux of the book as a ghost story told to us rather than one that we experience in the direct way that is possible with fiction. This was flat disappointment, I am sorry to say, since I know how good Sarah Waters can be.
This is one of those books that makes its own ground; told through a child’s consciousness, the novel explores the life of a city prior to and during World War II. But describing it in that way tells you nothing about the book, which is about the life of the city as much as it is the life of the child, and about many of the specific people in the city, and the pattern of life in the city, and the legends of the city, and the history… One of those books that does something not quite like anything else I’ve read. It reminded me of magical realism, though I think that’s a tired term; the book echoed fairy-tale atmosphere, but the magic in it intersects with the real history of the Italian, Greek, and German invasions of Albania, grounding the fantasy-feeling into the harsh reality of warfare. The writing is full of concise, aphoristic sentences that I read two or three times before moving on, savoring them, letting the thoughts sit in my head, enlarging. It’s that kind of prose, the words linger. But there is nothing heavy-handed or strained; the whole book feels effortless. A bit of magic. The edition of the book I read had a couple of cover-quotes that talked about the primitivity of Albania, which was curious since the word would never had occurred to me in relation to the book. The novel simply chronicled the life of the stone city that still feels, as I think about it, as if it has stood on its mountainside forever, and still stands there, in spite of everything.
Reading this novel was a marvelous experience. The writing is to be admired in all ways; the language is rhythmic, the images verdant, and the world of the book settles around you so that you can let go of your own world and live in Divakaruni’s space for a while. As is mentioned on the cover, the story has the feeling of a fairytale, though this is subdued and carefully executed, never standing in the way of the realism of the work. I thought the story of the rubies and the one ruby that the family holds onto for decades was a perfect microcosmic pattern, both literal and symbolic. The study of the women of the household felt so detailed. Without much effort, the author makes them real and yet through them we see the situation of women in their world, their strength and their limitations, their need for protection from men who take advantage of them. As with most of the South Asian fiction I have read, the marriage of the women is a consuming theme. There is a perfect moment in the work when Sudha’s mother-in-law proves what a monster she is, trying to force Sudha to abort her unborn daughter. I was enthralled until this was resolved. The book became a bit disjointed in its last fifty pages or so; this is one of those novels that feels as though it ends several times before it finally stops. But that is a small worry in a wonderful read.
The pile of books I have been meaning to read has begun to shrink. It is a virtual pile, not an actual one. I gave up on the physical pile and shelved all the books stacked there. Well, truth be told, there were several stacks. There were the books I bought in batches, there were the books I was given by friends on holidays and birthdays. Free books that arrived in the mail from publishers as part of their marketing. Occasional boxes of books from my publishers, or gifts gathered during visits to my editor. Not all the books are what I would have selected for myself but they are mine and it is a sin not to read a book I think or at least try to read it, and so here I am, now that I have time. Sampling and choosing. It is a very welcome era, reading steadily again, but as I write about each of the books it looks to be drawn from an odd old-fashioned eclecticism. That’s part of what makes it fun. I am reading in a way that feels partly chosen and partly random, discovering authors, pleased by most of them. Since I am a nitpicker when it comes to books, the result is always mixed. Something to quibble with. But it is lovely to discover that reading is the same thing for me now as it was when I first started. Not quite as magical, surely. Rarely do I get lost in a book so utterly. Remembering my early days of reading Robert Heinlein, especially. But I fall into the rhythm of reading anyway. I have more patience with difficult books, quirky books, than in the past. Retirement brings that ease of days so I am no longer, at least not so often, chased by the worry that I need to be doing something else. The stack of books to be read is not infinite. I will reach the end. Then I will be free to choose new books, make a new pile. Oh, let it be so.
I have loved Edmund White’s books since I first discovered them. I like this one mildly. I read it with some absorption, but more as a memoir than a novel; the chatty, I’m-talking-to-you-directly quality rarely attracts me in any book. but since I’m interested in White, the quality of talky-talk worked better than usual for me. But I was still weary of the voice by the end. This is not a novel in which the book becomes transparent and one feels the action as though it is happening around one. It is a long monologue. There are some wonderful passages of prose. White is as honest as any writer can be, and just lays it all out. He is like Genet in his unapologetic approach to writing about sex, but not as determined to be seen as a shadowy figure; in fact, he is almost desperately amiable, an aspect of his personality that he refers to directly in the book, his need to be liked, to be loved, by as many people as possible. There are absolutely hilarious passages – Tina chasing him through Rome in her car when he refuses to have sex with her is the best of them, but there are many more. But the sex is wearing. It is one thing to have 3,000 lovers; that would be, perhaps, a pleasant prospect. It is another thing to read about someone having 3,000 lovers, especially when he makes such a gargantuan effort to detail many of them. But White’s purpose is to write this life as it was lived. It is a perfect snapshot of being gay in the seventies. As for the passages about his writing, I never care for reading a book about a writer; there are too many mirrors involved. Nevertheless I admire the book and am grateful to have read it. The lesson I take, for myself: in having sex, only more is more. In writing about sex, only less is more.
I’m mindful here that the rating is about how much I liked the book, not necessarily how good it is. That it is a good book, a great book, is already established. That it was a groundbreaking book is clear from reading anything about it by its many critics, Sartre among them. I don’t dispute any of that. The insistence that the pursuit of evil, of criminality, is a proper literary topic did not begin with Genet but he certainly displays a passion for it. I admired the prose once I gave over to the flow of the book, the fluidity of its shifts in time. Its lyricism is phenomenal. At one point Genet points a finger and says you, the reader, are probably outraged by this book, but I did not intend it as an outrage. I had to stop and wonder what he meant by that, and did not believe his assertion; I think he puffed himself up about the outrage, I think that was the point. The author is a strange beast, intensely self-absorbed. Knowing that this book is autobiographical made me read it differently. In Querelle, for instance, I was not disturbed by the feeling of an underworld. I read the book as a dream, a reverie, a kind of fantasy, and thought it grand. But this book touches onto reality and so I struggled with what Genet claimed for himself, his insistence on telling me his world was different from my world, his morality different from mine. I wasn’t exactly sure why he had to say so over and over again, and I wondered whether it was true, since the kind of predation and thievery he extols is pervasive, and is certainly not limited to the people he knew as petty thieves and shake-down artists. The commonplace morality of virtue that he disdains is neither as easy nor as mundane as this book asserts. I had a queasy reaction to the passages about the luring of homosexuals into hotel rooms and surprising them by taking their money, beating them, and worse. It was all too conventional to take advantage of the weakness and vulnerability of these people, and not particularly heroic. So I wondered where was the dazzlement, exactly. There is the one passage late in the book when he discusses, after his writing has been published and his fame has begun, planning to rob one of the writers he has met. If this were simply a novel I could judge the character more distantly, and might find this moment to be effective. But this was actually Genet speaking of himself in a work that is supposed to describe his life. This is a man I am glad I never met in a dark alley.
What struck me about this book was its depiction of what women went through in Iran over the course of the years described in the book. Nafisi focuses her writing on the relationship between the teaching of literature and her survival in Iran from the end of the era of the shahs to the turn of the millennium. The beauty of this book for an English major and novel-reader like me is that I am familiar with the texts she is discussing; while I know the general outlines of the history she depicts – the Iranian revolution, the rise of the Islamic republic, and the war with Iraq – I had never read a book in which the feeling of those changes was so evident. This is a book I’ve owned for a long time, begun some years ago, but never read all the way through until now. I am sorry for waiting so long. The book is as important now as it was when it was published in its portrait of the lives of women. It is one thing to know that Muslim women are supposed to wear the veil; it is another to read the detail of what that means in a day to day life. Big Brother becomes your neighbor, your police, your family. The mixture of religion into the police state is disconcerting, and gives the book its poignancy in 2021 when my country is feeling the pressure from so many of its citizens to shape itself in line with religious beliefs. The counterpoint to this narrative of surveillance and interference is the passion of these women for literature. It is in discussions of novels that they find scope to explore themselves as people and not simply as objects owned by the state, the mosque, and their families. There are many ways to quibble with the book; there is, for one, the irony that three of the four novels on which she focuses are written by men. It is true that the book will have less impact on readers who are not familiar with the texts Nafisi discusses. But they are certainly books that should be familiar at least by name to most people, and the written discussion of the works offers enough of the plot of the novels to sustain the reader who is not an English major or even one who has not read the books. Lolita, Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride & Prejudice are all movies as well as novels, and all of them have had significant cultural impact even beyond their readership. So I believe Nafisi’s approach is valid. It is a very beautiful book, and it echoes in importance even years after its publication.