One thing my MA has taught me is to read bloody fast. I’ve been keeping track of the books I’ve read so far this year, and what I would like to do is post this monthly with some thoughts about the books I’ve read and perhaps encourage you to do the same. This being said, I started this blog too late to give you January and February. For this first post, then, I will present to you March, as it should be, and January and February, in retrospect and only as a list.
Anaïs Nin, Little Birds
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Anaïs Nin, A Spy in the House of Love
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Catel & Bocquet, Kiki de Montparnasse
Brecht Evens, Night Animals
Unintentionally, the month of March belonged to women. I have enjoyed every single book I’ve read this year, but March was especially pleasing to me.
This was the month that I discovered Virginia Woolf. It slightly shocks and horrifies me that I’ve never tried to read any of her work before – undoubtedly I was put off by the label of ‘modernist’ that is always applied to her, and so I associated her with James Joyce, whose only work I have thus far attempted to read is A Portrait of the Artist… and I must confess – I didn’t get far. At the same time as regretting my prejudice, I cannot help but feel that this was the right time to read Woolf. Any other time I very much doubt I would have appreciated her writing to nearly the extent that I did. It was a very large extent. Truth be told – Mrs Dalloway rocked me as a writer, a reader, and as a student of English.
As a writer, I was overwhelmed by the masterful architecture of the novel. Mrs Dalloway is a cathedral. Set in the space of just one day, it moves about in time and space so artfully, playing off cosmological time (or ‘objective’ time – the inevitable ticking of the clock and chimes of Big Ben as the hours pass) against psychological time (the way we move about in time via memories or projections into the future and so on) in a way that made the novel just feel – to put it crudely – very psychologically real.
As a reader, it was impossible not to love both the style of her writing which drew me inexorably in, and the sheer humanity, the way her characters were drawn and their stories were told moved me in the way that only a few very great novels can.
As a student, I recalled as I read it the words of Hélène Cixous entreating us to find the speed of reading (actually she was writing about finding the speed of writing, but it carries across)*. In a difficult essay it can be hard to find the speed of reading – read too slow, you miss something; read too fast, you miss something. Reading Mrs Dalloway, however, it came so easily – I couldn’t not find the speed. Not only was I deeply in the text, but the text was deeply in me. I want to use the phrase ‘double penetration’ but it might look wrong out of context, and I’m not even going to attempt, in this space, to explain myself (especially as I know that such an attempt would only lead me into saying even sillier things…).
Mrs Dalloway, then, the book of the year so far, and again, as a writer, I can’t help but tremble and timidly aspire.
I should like to say a lot more about Anaïs Nin than I have space to. I will keep it brief. No one (that I have come across so far – do send your suggestions, oui?!) writes about female sensuality as she does. Her approach to the subject she writes about is inseparable from the impression I took of her. Beautiful, free, glorious, open, fierce, passionate – but also fragile and vulnerable. Anaïs Nin is, for me, the woman of womankind, the ultimate female.
I vaguely remember reading sections of Little Birds aloud on a last train out of central London after a night at The Village in Soho watching male gogo dancers doing unnatural things on poles. Not sure all my fellow passengers quite ‘got’ it.
From Anaïs Nin to Kiki de Montparnasse – the muse of the photographer Man Ray immortalised in his Violin d’Ingres. I had read about this graphic novel by Catel & Bocquet in the Guardian Review, and bought it last week as I mention in my Brighton travelogue. I’ll let myself down by admitting I don’t have a lot to say about the book itself, other than the fact that I enjoyed it immensely and finished it with wolfish alacrity – but I was utterly taken with its subject, the eponymous Kiki. Actually, I will write of the book, to say that it captured her wonderfully. As with Nin, I had a strong sense of this beautiful, tragic dichotomy of free-spiritedness and vulnerability. I would not be so vulgar as to say that this is coupling reserved only for women; neither would I say that it sums up the female species as a whole. But I do think that it must be more than a coincidence that I see this dichotomy present in all three of the women I have written of here, and there is something that it is like to be a woman, something embodied in Woolf, in Nin and in Kiki.
And now I’m thinking that again – this is a subject for another day. Perhaps, then, on this other day, I will also discuss Night Animals, which is worth a discussion, worth a look and worth many more looks. It is also implausibly appropriate for the subject of the Female, so I promise that to it, I shall one day return.
*SEE: ‘Writing Blind’ in Stigmata by Hélène Cixous.
Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth
H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star
Bret Easton Ellis, Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We*
Nicholas Royle, Jacques Derrida
Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell
Nicholas Royle, Quilt
Hermann Hesse, Demian
Abi Smith, The Accidental
*This is the only book that I really regret not being able to write about it more detail. Next to Mrs Dalloway I would hazard that this is the book that has most affected me this year. However, I intend to read it again this month so will certainly write a little about it next time.