E.M. Forster, A Room With A View
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of AnaïsNin Vol. III
Jerry Hopkins & Danny Sugerman, No One Here Gets Out Alive
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Peter O. Whitmer, Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created The Sixties Counter-Culture That Changed America
D.H. Lawrence, Women In Love
S.E. Hinton, Rumble Fish
Natasha Soobramanien, Genie and Paul
Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté
My sister and I often talk about the way our reading tastes and the way we read has changed as we’ve grown up. I used to read purely for pleasure. Now, reading gives me pleasure (most of the time), but I rarely read just for pleasure. There’s normally something to be got out of a book whether fiction or non-fiction – with non-fiction this is explicit, but a novel is also an effective way of presenting a worldview. The deep immersion you feel when reading a good novel allows you to experience another’s perspective in a way that non-fiction cannot. Furthermore, the concerns expressed in literature are not solipsistic; they teach us about the concerns of an age.
This belated reading list is dedicated to three ways or reasons by which I select a book from the great stacks of the unread that line my room. With so much pressing to be read, why read what I do?
Before this, however, I’ll begin with my ‘Book of the Quarter’, which this time round is Natasha Soobramanien’s debut novel, Genie and Paul.
I mentioned that literature expresses the concerns of an age. One of the things that struck me most about Genie and Paul was the novel’s concern with the connected themes of home and identity. The two characters, the sister and brother of the title, have moved to London from Mauritius. Genie was too young to feel connected to her former home and adjusts well to life in England. Paul, however, is haunted by a sense of loss, of not belonging. When he returns to Mauritius for his sixteenth birthday, however, he discovers that he no longer seems to belong to his former home either. Paul grows up rootless, his roots all broken. His search for himself is inseparable from his search for home.
The blurb of the book describes Genie and Paul as ‘the story of his love for an island that has never really existed’, and I was reminded of the epigraph in A Visit From the Goon Squad, from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (coincidentally, last time’s BOTQ):
“Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.”
Identity is a curious question, and the ‘self’ seems to be much larger than something to be contained by one frail body and its collection of memories. History is essential to self, but not only one’s individual history: the individual and collective histories of our forebears, the places our ancestors lived, how they lived all seem important in the quest for an identity one can make sense of. In a multicultural age, when more and more people are becoming separated, voluntarily or unwillingly, from the source of these collective memories, I think Soobramanien’s book makes very pertininent, very compelling points about the nature of home.
More than this – the reason it’s my Book of the Quarter is that the more I consider it the more something in it resonates in me, but it’s not a grandiose book. It’s simply beautifully, warmly written. You get an excellent sense of place, both in sections set in London and in Mauritius. The characters are well drawn, and the various narrative voices add intelligently to the story. I was reading Genie and Paul in Corfu. I’d intended, actually, to read Lawrence Durrell’s memoirs of the island, Prospero’s Cell, which my pal Rose was reading sections of and we were giggling over in a hammock overlooking the sea. But by the time she’d finished I couldn’t bear to put Genie and Paul down (you have to wait until next quarter for the funny bits of Prospero’s Cell now). It’s moving, but it’s also youthful, sexy, and of its time. And that’s basically what I look for in a contemporary novel.
At any time there’s a changeable revolution head of three or four books I intend to read in the near future. Ultimately when it comes to choose which book it’s to be, it’s easy, it depends on mood. Sometimes I’m feeling to read something classic, prepared for something tricky if I’m feeling patient; sometimes I know I need something quick and easy, like S. E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish (largish print, 135pp in my copy, simple prose). So far I’ve not felt ready to tackle Foucault’s The Order of Things since I read the first (intriguing!) chapter around the beginning of my MA.
Mood always comes into it. Like when you’re choosing a film to watch you think about whether you want to watch comedy, action, horror… so with books. This May, having finished the Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, clearly I was in the mood for something depressing and beautiful, because I picked the bleak Out Stealing Horses. To describe Per Petterson’s novel as ‘depressing’ and ‘bleak’ may seem unfair. It’s accurate though; Out Stealing Horses is the story a tragedy, a story of loneliness and apartness set in the great expanse of the Norwegian countryside. It’s also excellent – a brilliant example of the setting, the plot, and the narrative voice coming together in perfect harmony to tell a story. It reminds you that a story is never just one of these elements; a good story is a careful honing of several elements to create a complex structure of effects. Which is why if someone tells you that a good imagination is all a novelist needs, or that technical nous is unimportant, they are completely wrong (I think).
A note on Rumble Fish – because S. E. Hinton is a novelist I very much admire, particularly for her first novel, The Outsiders, which she wrote at just seventeen. It’s a curious thing to be reading a book when you’re already in love with the movie adaptation (by Francis Ford Coppola in 1983), and a little sad when you find you still like the film more. Not to say anything against the book, though – most of the dialogue in the film is word for word reproduced, and most of what happens. It’s simply, for me, that the film adds a lot, in the stark, dramatic black and white (mostly) photography, the music – and adding a couple of years to the characters’ ages made a great difference for me in terms of credibility.
The book has a different ending, though. If you love the film, you’ll be intrigued.
I’ve been trying to catch up on the classics since learning that Rory Gilmore of the (admittedly fictional) Gilmore Girls had read Anna Karenina at sixteen, and I’d still not read it (at, then, twenty-two). Unfortunately the list in my notebook of “authors I’ve not yet read, but ought” doesn’t get shorter – for every author I cross off I realise there’s another two who really ought to be on it. This quarter I only crossed one off the list. That was D.H. Lawrence. Anaïs Nin, primarily, was responsible for convincing me over the last year that I needed to; she marvelled at the way he wrote about women, understanding sex and women as men really oughtn’t be able to. So I was pretty excited to start Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was, in fact, more filthy and explicit than I’d dared to imagine. I knew that LCL had been censored. I’d no idea it made use of the word ‘cunt’; that ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ would be found in the same paragraph! Oh I know how terribly juvenile I sound – LCL is not a juvenile novel, however, and it is only as obscene as sex itself is, and should be. Anaïs is right – the sex is wonderful, both tender and brutal, like the word ‘cunt’ as Mellors defines and uses it. It’s not just about the sex, it’s about the relationship, which is both playful and passionate – ultimately the relationship and the sex are inextricable. Most of all it’s gloriously natural. Can we please have a D.H. Lawrence revival, right now – the literary world is clearly in need of an antidote to fifty shades of second rate erotica[*].*
I also read Women in Love. Interestingly, although I read that Lawrence regards it as his best novel, having read Women in Love so soon after Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in comparison I found it lacking the earlier novel’s freshness. Again Lawrence is brilliant on the subtleties of the relationship between men and women, yet I found the dialogue awkward. In LCL Lawrence pleads for a better, warmer kind of humanity in the voice of Mellors. In WIL I found the political expostulations coming from the mouths of his characters sometimes forced and nearly tiresome.
It’s essential for writers to read around their subjects if they want to attain authenticity, and also for the inspiration. During my MA my reading lists for term papers would get pretty out of control – for an essay on Utopia I once read four novels by Bukowski as well as a 500 or so biography, and then didn’t have room to include any of it. It was worth it, though. The extra reading will always at least inform your perspective, lead your thoughts in new directions. Writing a novel, for me, is basically the same as writing an essay, only mad, indirect, like the interpretive dance of an essay, kind of, with all the free rein of creativity and no supervisor to tell you to maybe narrow it down. The novel is the dissertation I’d have liked to have written, and the research is the same.
So this quarter I was reading about counter-culture, with Jerry Hopkins & Danny Sugerman’s thoroughly bloody excellent Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, and Peter O. Whitmer’s Aquarius Revisited. I was interested in what makes a character like Jim Morrison, and the crazy, drugged-up revolutionary times, the good and the bad, of the sixties. It was the second time I’d read NOHGOA, as good as the first because Morrison is such a diabolically fascinating individual; intellectual, a little psychotic, charismatic, and frightening. I’ve read no other Jim Morrison biographies so I’ve nothing to compare it to, but it is thorough, insightful, and balanced, and I fully recommend it as entertaining even if you’re not particularly a Doors or Morrison fan (though if not, why not, seriously). The book has an infectious effect, as I may have indicated in a previous post.
We should all want to be Jim Morrison, and all be really glad that we’re not.
Aquarius Revisited was an interesting and difficult book. It took a long time to get into it because Whitmer is so very much the classic American stereotype we classic English stereotypes are so averse to: loud and big, and he kept, kept, kept on talking about himself. I persevered, however, and was glad that I did so, because his loud bigness soon translated into enthusiasm for his subject matter, and loyalty, and a unique perspective from one who’d really been there (my respect for Whitmer increased also upon discovering he was formerly the drummer for the Turtles; he also studied at Berkeley at the time to be there, the ‘Six Years War’ during the Free Speech Movement). The Seven of the title, by the way, are Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, William Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a shame that no women are included in the list, but at least Whitmer acknowledges it. It’s also a bit misleading because some of the seven get far more attention than others, and this anecdotal, digressive book wanders off into other areas well outside the scope of the title for baffling but enjoyable chapters, such as a long section about the mad cult of the utterly delusional Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
What really fascinated me, however, was what (or rather who) was not named. He’s not named as one of the seven of the title, but it’s clear that Neal Cassady is the phantom hero of the 60s. As Dean Moriarty he’s the hero of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road; in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl he’s the ‘secret hero of these poems’ and the ‘Adonis of Denver’. Both prominent and ambiguous, Neal Cassady haunts the imagination, and haunts the pages of Aquarius Revisited. Somewhere in my notebook I wrote NEAL CASSADY – JIM MORRSION – ALASTOR?! Who knows. Perhaps this says more about me than about Aquarius Revisited.
Aquarius Revisited is sporadic and technically frustrating; in certain places it lacks objectivity and you really feel it. But it’s also full of life and energy. It offers insight into the relationships between the key figures of 60s America, as well as some really interesting details and anecdotes from these truly fascinating people. So if this is something you’re interested in, I’d recommend trying it (and persevering).
[*] Having said this, second-rate erotica has been around a long, long time. The third volume of The Diary of Anaïs Nin details her and her friends being forced to write such for money, for a ‘collector’ who wants only the clinical details, therefore, for Anaïs and co. removing anything actually erotic from sex.