May 172011

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” writes Juliet Ashton, the main narrator, in one of her early letters to Dawsey Adams, the man who arises her interest for the island and its history.

I’m close to believing in this homing instinct myself, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an “accidental read,” as I mentioned in my preceding post. Accidental not only in its circumstances but also in its language: I read it in the French edition I was given. Thought it is not uncommon for me to read some originally published in English works in French (most of the time for work purposes, i.e. a need for quoting in French), it’s not that often, and several times during the reading I could feel in transparency the rhythm of the English original and missed it. When done with it, realizing I wanted to quote from it (reverse proposition from what I explained earlier), I ended up getting a copy in English… (This is kind of typical of my mixed-up life in between two languages… More about this in another post). But to come back to the homing proposition, I was struck by the expression which not only reflected what I often found in my own reading wanderings but also fitted so well this very experience and how I came to read this very book. A gift rediscovered in dangerously high piles (see picture)… In any case it was difficult to put it down, and I was sad to let it go. One of the reasons again is its everyday nature, the fact that it is grounded in the daily rhythm of life. As such it could go on forever.. and in my mind will. Though it would be nice if somebody would pick up the pen where Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows put it down, and continue to write those letters in the voice of Juliet, Sophie, Sydney, Dawsey, and so many others. And one day, Kit would be old enough to have her own voice too…

May 072011

Except for two piles of papers to come, summer is here. In its first few days, it always seems like this vast land of freedom, where and when everything is possible… Until time goes by too fast to be really accounted for… But I am still in the first days… Days when I feel I can spend hours doing inessential readings, for example. (Definition of inessential: not required by any current project / for other people the definition could be simply «for pleasure»). So this afternoon, I went through my pile of unread books (well, one of the piles…), and selected a couple. In the end I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book I received as a Christmas(2010)  gift. The only thing I knew about it was that it had been a success when it first came out in 2008, and I remembered one of my friends mentioning it. From the first pages, I was hooked. Turning page after page, I was getting deeper in the story of Juliet Ashton and her correspondence, her accidental discovery of Guernsey and its fate  during world war II.  The island was occupied by the Germans, and cut out from the rest of the world, a prize possession of Hitler who took it as a first step towards victory on the British. That did not happen, and when the occupant finally relinquished the island, it left behind a decimated, starved population, as hungry for butter as for communication with the rest of the planet. Because of a volume found on the shelves of the second-hand bookshop, one of the islander gets in touch with Juliet, a writer who came to fame thanks to a column printed every week where she chronicled daily life in London under German bombing.

I’m only half way in the book, and I’m very attached to all the characters, curious to see the story unfold of course, but mostly interested in the account of the everyday. And I’m far enough in it that I start dreading the end, afraid to have to bid goodbye to all of them. I do not really care about the plot, I’m just enjoying the journey, the exchanges, the tiny stories, the mundane of the letters, the day to day chat. And one of the charm of book is that it is a book about books, a book about reading. The main character is a writer, who just had a book published – at first she is on the 1946 version of a book tour, having tea after tea in bookstores all over England -, a writer who does not know what to do of the sudden success of her first book, and whose main worry is what she’ll write next. Her friends in London are publishers – hers, a Londoner and childhood friend; an American competitor, a ferocious entrepreneur. In Guernsey her epistolary friends have in common the book club they created out of necessity, first a cover-up for a forbidden dinner, quickly transformed into  a community knitted together by books: while one is infatuated with Charles Lamb and his works, another one reads the same volume of Seneque over and over, and others share the joy they found in reading the Brontë’s novels at candle light, long after the curfew.
The book has a Helen Hanff taste to it, another book about books and bookshops, but it has more to it, in the sense that the sample of characters is wider and far more diverse, including some that would never have been in physical contact with a book if it had not been for the unfortunate circumstances of war.
To be continued…

Apr 152011

Re-reading Valery Larbaud’s essays, I was reminded of “Consolation”, a prose poem by the Londoner writer Logan Pearsall Smith:

The other day, depressed on the Underground, I tried to cheer myself by thinking over the joys of our human lot. But there wasn’t one of them for which I seemed to care a hang–not Wine, nor Friendship, nor Eating, nor Making Love, nor the Consciousness of Virtue. Was it worthwhile then going up in a lift into a world that had nothing less trite to offer?  Then I thought of reading–the nice and subtle happiness of reading. This was enough, this joy not dulled by Age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene, life-long intoxication.

Larbaud borrowed the expression “unpunished vice” to title his volume on Anglophone literature, a book he prefaced by an extraordinary essay on reading, on the joys and dangers of this vice / passion. I promise to attempt later some translations in upcoming posts … Since none of these essays have yet been translated in English.

Mar 242011

When Polly Andrews, one of the young women portrayed in The Group, is faced with a sudden and astonishing marriage proposal, she first thinks of all the reason to refuse, all the reason why this would not work. And one of her first thought is for the apparent lack of common book culture with her groom-to-be:

«What bothered her most was the thought that she and Jim had so little in common – a phrase she kept repeating anxiously to herself. Outside the hospital, they had not a single common acquaintance. And as for those old friends, the characters in books – King Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Mr Micawber and Mr Collins and Vronsky and Darling Prince Andrei, who were like members of the family – why, Jim seemed hardly to recall them. When she mentioned Dr. Lydgate tonight, he confessed he had never read Middlemarch – only Silas Marner in school, which he hated. He could not read novels, he said and he had no preference between Hector and Achilles.»

In the end, she accepts to marry Jim, and unfortunately Mary Mc Carthy ends the novel before the reader knows if Polly’s concerns were justified or not. Meanwhile, it is the first time I remember encountering the question: would my literary culture go with yours? Something to ponder, definitely…

Mar 062011

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. TO leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting, that is, to find you own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stop too often to reread. Allowing yourself, when you dare to it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.”

In the article, “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed”, Susan Sontag reflects on writing practices in general and on her own in particular. For her writing is pleasure, a pleasure mixed with effort and frustration, but pleasure nonetheless, and a pleasure that is inseparable of the one of reading. On the contrary to some writers who dissociate the two practices or even drop the reading part altogether (I’ve been appalled at how little some would-be writers read, and Sontag herself quotes her friend V.S. Naipaul – “Susan, I’m a writer, not a reader” – ), she can’t think of one without the other, and just as Martin Eden discovered, “reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer”…

Feb 122011

Reading a post on the Guardian’s Book Blog on the centenary of Elisabeth Bishop reminded me about my own discovery of her work, and the circuitous routes that drives us  to certain books, to some works. I was listening to the radio in my car, going somewhere or coming back from some place (remember, I live in Los Angeles). As often though, the radio was more of a background noise: my mind was wandering away from the streets, the car, the city… and suddenly my attention was called to the voice coming from the speakers :

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

Most readers have recognized here the first three stanza of “One Art”, perhaps the best known poem of Bishop. But I had never heard or read her poetry, she was just a name, and I had missed the introduction to the reading, which meant that I had no idea who wrote those verses. Home, I was saved by Google of course, and was quickly able to locate a copy of the Complete Poems: back in the car, for a short drive, eager, hungry to read more.

And it was to discover that just like “One Art” catered to some of my personal interests, many other poems evoked familiar feelings and impressions. Questions that will appear on this blog (I’m not sure about answers), readings that I’ll discuss, will have at heart Bishop’s interrogations such as the one she asks in “Question of travel” :

“Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?”

Buying the Complete Poems I could not resist its companion volume, The Collected Prose. And was deeply struck by Edwin Boomer’s house:

“As house, it was more like an idea of a house than a real one. It could have stood at either end of a scale of ideas of houses. It could have been a child’s perfect playhouse, or an adult’s ideal house – since everything that makes most houses nuisances had been done away with.”

Feb 062011

“I’m an addicted reader, a hedonist. I’m led by my passions. It’s a kind of greed, in a way. I like to be surrounded by things that speak to me and uplift me.”

The “things” that Susan Sontag liked to feel around her are books. Thousands of them… And after reveling to the journalist her feelings about books, the writer lead her in a dizzying tour of her lower Manhattan apartment. Five rooms filled with books. How are they arranged, asked the journalist? By subject, or for literature and philosophy, by language and according to the chronology. Sontag refused the alphabetical order: “I couldn’t put Pynchon next to Plato!” From floor to ceiling, the world of literature was unfolding, from Chaucer, to Marlowe, Middleton, Wordsworth, to Woolf and Naipaul… and next came French authors, followed by Italian ones, and so forth. The life of a mind was reflected in the meanders of the shelves, where history flowed alongside of art history, psychiatry, history of medicine, and where poetry and prose mixed together to form a unique product of languages and creativity. And finally half-hidden were Sontag’s own books, which in her preceding apartment she said she used to keep in a closet: “I don’t want to look at my own books. A library is something to dream over, a sort of dream machine.”
Dazed, the journalist asked the question people visiting a place with lots of books often ask: “have you read everything here?” Gracefully, Sontag showed her visitor the slips of paper stuck in between pages and covered with notes, or scribbles in the margins, all obvious signs of close and passionate reading. A resource, the library as a whole was also source of inspiration for the critic: “What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what’s in the books. Because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember.”
To conclude this part of the interview, the journalist had a wonderful expression to describe Sontag’s attitude toward the world of books : according to her she was “intemperately in love with reading”
This article reminded me of many, so many articles, stories written by authors themselves on their relationship to books, to their libraries. One of the most famous of the twentieth century is no doubt “Unpacking my Library” by Walter Benjamin, and I still long for the hours spent in Valery Larbaud’s library as it is reconstituted/ rebuilt in his hometown. But it also reminded me how much I loved writers who loved books, and how their love of reading fed and still feeds mine.

Jan 292011

I have always chosen carefully what I would eat or snack on while reading. Long, long ago, I started reading while taking baths (there a is a science to keep a book dry, and there are some accessories out there to help).  Within hands reach, I would carefully stack a piece of cheese,  a couple of crackers, not forgetting something to drink. Today, a tea and a few cookies do the trick. For the pleasure to be complete, all details need to be worked out thoughtfully. And then, immersed in water and words, the outside world disappears, it is only me and the story, and soon enough, it’s only the story.
An enclosed space, that’s what the bathroom is. As a child, I was always imagining such spaces, and built myself tents in my parents living room. Officially they were to be houses for my dolls and myself, a family within the family… but soon, the dolls were pushed in a corner, “sleeping”, and I spent hours absorbed in the Mallory Towers or with  the Famous Five. Another refuge was my bed: hidden under the covers most of the time, with a flash light, so nobody would know I was sneaking a few more minutes, a few more pages.
Years ago, my life changed in many a way. I moved across an ocean, on the other side of a continent, and the setting, the language, the food became suddenly different. But books were still there. Even more than before, since I had henceforth access to two literary traditions, two writing tongues, two worlds. So I have kept reading. And found new snacks to go with my pile of books…