Books Read – July 2018

After a long break from blogging, I thought I’d try another style in the hope of keeping it going: somewhere between longer individual reviews and my long-lost mini-reviews. (I’ll fill in some of the books I’ve read in the interim at some point).

The Girls, by Henri de Montherlant

(That is, volume 1, called The Girls, of the tetrology called The Girls). I’d read this before, but thought I’d better refresh my memory of it in preparation for the other three books. My edition claims it is notorious for its misogyny: – perhaps, in parts; I can certainly see how women might find sections of it annoying, at the very least; – I myself didn’t particularly enjoy the more theoretical parts (essentially, if I recall, that men aren’t interested in long-term relationships, whereas that’s all women ever think about); – but the basic core of the story is one that always fascinates me – something strangely rare in novels, though common enough in life: – unrequited love – at least, unrequited love from the point of view of the one doing the unrequiting. In this case, a famous author (no doubt, entirely different from Montherlant himself), is plagued by women who have read his books and believe that he is just the man they are looking for. The author, however, feels nothing for these women – except a terrible pity, which prevents him from properly confronting them about their delusions; – and even when he does attempt to confront them, finding they are endlessly capable of maintaining that delusion whatever he says to them. The second volume is called Pity for Women, so I’m imagining it’s much of the same.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert

A readable account of how the Medici took control of Florence, dominated it for a time, and went on to patronise almost every artist you’ve heard of from the Renaissance. It re-inspired me at least to read more of the books I have about that period.

Knulp, by Hermann Hesse

In the first two parts of this book, I was struck by a similarity with Samuel Beckett: a man lives life as an eternal wanderer, refusing to get on or conform as others would have him; – but the last part Beckett would never have written, where he confronts the reasons behind his attitude to life, all caught up in a moment from his adolescence when he was betrayed in his naïve vision of the world and learnt never to put his trust in others.

Barabbas, by Par Lagerkvist

I read The Dwarf recently too, and there are a lot of similarities between that and this book. Again Lagerkvist chooses as his hero a despised outsider, though Barabbas isn’t quite as extreme as The Dwarf in his attitude towards the rest of humanity. Having witnessed Christ die in his place, he becomes fascinated by the early Christians, but while perhaps wanting to believe and join them, cannot ultimately overcome his sceptism and his ingrained belief that he is an outcast whom no one will accept. I find Lagerkvist’s obsessions interesting – but I don’t think there’s much more of his in English (one more book maybe).

Bid Me To Live, by H.D.

The only other book I’ve read by H.D., Her, I remember as one of the hardest reading experiences of my life, written in a painfully difficult and obscure manner but, unlike most such works, actually worthwhile persevering with. Bid Me To Live is much easier-going (I read it in about a day): a fictionalised autobiography (of the sort that was seemingly invented in the 2010s, according to current literary criticism) recounting her life, largely in London, during the First World War, centred around a kind of alternative Bloomsbury set – the disintegration of her marriage to Richard Adlington (whose hatchet job on Lawrence of Arabia I have somewhere) and her friendship (but not sexual relationship) with D.H. Lawrence (who is the one who bids her to live, and then comes over all prudish when she decides to run off and live in sin with one of his friends).

Cosima, by Grazia Deledda

Another fictionalised autobiography, this time perhaps a little disappointing in comparison to the other fiction of hers I’ve read. I preferred those aspects which depicted her growing up in Sardinia and the lives of the people there; what rang kind of hollow were the sections about her escaping all this by becoming a writer, which all seemed far too easy and unlikely.

The Modern Husband, by Henry Fielding

I never managed to get far through Tom Jones, finding it incredibly tedious, but luckily Fielding wrote lots of plays which by their nature are much shorter. These plays split into two categories: satires and comedies. This is a comedy – and in dramatic terms, not a particularly good one – of the typical Restoration variety: – some men love some women and at the same time require some money. What marks it out is its portrait of a society where men essentially prostitute their wives for the sake of wealth and preferment, while those who have wealth and position ruthlessly exploit both the men and their wives for their own gratification (as usual with Fielding, the villain is apparently based on Walpole). One is naturally disappointed by an ending where virtue yet again succeeds improbably against the entire essence of the play and its social setting.

The Gentleman Dancing-Master, by William Wycherley

A much better Restoration comedy than the above – better written, better structured – though far less interesting in terms of social comment. It has a lot of foreign stereotypes in it. If you’re French, for instance, you probably wouldn’t appreciate it much, but the character of Monsieur, an Englishman who is pretending to be a Frenchman, because French things are fashionable, by misprouncing English words and misconstructing English sentences, is an extraordinary comic idea, and provides much of the best humour. (There is also a Spaniard who is purely obsessed about his honour).

The Eumenides, by Aeschylos

I read this again (purely because I picked up a Loeb edition: – I read it in English, with the occasional glance at some of the Greek terms), my main interest being: what the hell is this play about (given that it’s not about the shift from a barbaric system of bloodfeud to a civilised idea of murder trials, as textbooks would have you believe)? – I’m not sure I reached any great conclusions this time either. – Orestes claims he does not come to Delphi as a suppliant; that he has already been cleansed of his crime in that respect; but he is still pursued by Furies. I find myself reading this as that rationally he has convinced himself he is not guilty of the murder of his mother, but that he is still nonetheless possessed by guilt for what he has done. The Furies, as they say, pursue people for crimes which are inexpiable; essentially they will hound him to death (from which point Hades will take over). The younger gods (Apollo, Athena) seek to expiate him of his inexpiable crime, and succeed in doing so (though on a 50/50 ballot, with Athena having the casting vote) by means of a trial of sorts, whose conclusion is that women don’t really count anyway. The rest of the play attempts to provide an identification of the Furies with the Sacred Goddesses who lived near the Areopagos in Athens and shared a few of the same characteristics. (People in the Ancient World seemed to like that kind of aetiology quite a lot). – The two other plays I connect this with in particular are Sophocles’ Ajax and Oedipos in Colonos, which again are both about guilt born out of terrible crime, for which Ajax is cleared by the society around him (and religiously cleansed) but still cannot live with himself, while Oedipos – well, whatever happens in that play. But these three plays share in the essential core of Greek tragedy: that someone is destroyed by guilt over something for which they are not truly responsible. – Also, having watched a film called Absolution the other day (based on a Peter Schaffer play), in which a Catholic psychopath confesses a murder to a priest, who is driven mad because he is bound by the oath of confession and cannot tell anyone (the plot is in fact far sillier than that), I wonder about the parallel between the concept of cleansing in Greek religion (catharsis), and the concept of confession and the absolution of sins in Catholicism – and, not being religious and finding it easy to connect the concept of God with conscience, whether all these matters are about an attempt to square the inexpiable with oneself. (All this shall be worked into the novella I’m writing about Orestes). – Other people will tell you that the Greeks had no real concept of guilt, that seeing the Furies in psychological terms is an error of modernity, and that Greek and Christian religions in fact have very little in common; – and they are entitled to the wrong opinions. I’m of the belief that the experience of being human is much the same in all societies – only the superficialities change.

(If I continue to struggle as much as I did today even to get this posted I might have to give up blogging again. I may have to write all future reviews on my phone, because it’s the only device I have left that seems capable of connecting to the internet).

4 thoughts on “Books Read – July 2018

  1. Volume 2 of The Girls is a massive exercise in self-pity. It constantly pricks the vanity of the main character but even considering that it does get a bit wearing.

    I do love the first section of volume 1 where the author adds caustic footnotes to the exchange of letters, pointing out the lies that the main character has written.

    It’s been a long time since I last posted here ( or visited the site ). Good to see you’re still keeping it going .

  2. Your assessment of Volume 2 seems fair. I’ve read more than half of it now. The hero is certainly a hard character to sympathise with. It was better when it was about unrequited love; now it’s about requited love, it seems a lot more dull.

    I’m only vaguely keep the site going – failing to post for many months and failing to respond to comments in a timely manner, I think I have successfully managed to alienate most of my readership.

  3. The mini reviews aren’t lost, just no longer on the internet. I have them all backed up on a hard drive.

    We’ll see if I can keep going and write August’s reviews.

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