Books Read – February 2020

I reread the third last section of Joyce’s Ulysses. – My previous reading of Ulysses was a largely negative experience, since long sections of the book are extremely tedious. This left me thinking, maybe it might be a novel better appreciated by reading only the less boring sections completely at random. (I still feel though, that novelist should at least try not putting boring sections in their novels in the first place. Which reminds of another book I read whilst not blogging: Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual). Anyhow, I rather enjoyed this section of Ulysses. This is the part after the Nighttown episode, where Bloom and Stephen Dedalus wander through the empty Dublin streets and end up at a café, where they listen to the various tales of the patrons. It’s mostly told from Bloom’s point of view, and for once the stream of consciousness is relatively integrated into the “action”, so we can understand what Bloom is on about. Stephen Dedalus’ tiresome thoughts and opinions are kept to a minimum. – Joyce then follows this up with the second last section, whose main intent as far as I can see, is to prevent any but the most dedicated reader ever reaching the end.

Privy Seal, by Ford Madox Ford

The middle book in Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy. For the most part, I forgot the action of the first part (which I read probably a few years ago now); all that remained was the impression conveyed by Ford of how dangerous life was back in the days of Henry VIII, particularly to anyone who aspired to a position of status. The whole book is pervaded by an atmosphere of fear. – I actually enjoyed this second instalment more. Ford adopts an odd style, in order to capture the time, especially in character’s speech (e.g. using an for if) – which is actually quite effective, though I imagine not entirely historically accurate. In fact, I’m not sure much about the book is historically inaccurate – Katherine Howard was certainly not the paragon of virtue she’s portrayed (or so they say) – but none of this is of any consequence.

(The theme for this month was novellas / short novels).

Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann

I read this a long long time ago, and enjoyed it at the time, though I remember nothing about it. This time around, I wonder what I saw in it (perhaps I saw myself). It’s a story about a writer (always a bad start), and its purpose is to demonstrate that writers are fundamentally deformed members of society – to be contrasted with that happy, heedless multitude, who go through life without having recourse to writing. Anyway, the woman Tonio Kröger loves marries someone else, so he amuses himself (but not us) with long discussions about art. There’s a quotation in this novel about bohemian/bourgeois which I’ve been using myself for many years, but which I’d always attributed to von Ashenbach from Death in Venice. – Mann (perhaps like Tonio Kröger) has always struck me as being far too bourgeois ever to be a truly interesting writer.

The Scorpion God, by William Golding

Once upon a time I read almost all of William Golding, but I’ve not picked up one of his books in the last ten years. The Scorpion God was one of two I hadn’t read before. It’s actually three wholly unconnected novellas – save, I suppose, that they’re all historical (Roman Egypt, Egyptian Egypt and pre-Historic Africa respectively). I’m reminded how much Golding is interested in portraying cultures (states of mind) far removed from our own culture, even though they do at times – in their dialogue – seem to slip into mid-20th century English middle-classness. I think it’s time I revisited Golding’s work more generally. He’s become a bit forgotten since his death (aside from Lord of the Flies obviously), which seems undeserved.

Children of the Albatross, by Anais Nin

Struggling with Ladders of Fire – the first volume of this 5-volume Cities of the Interior series – I skipped over it, and read this instead. The trouble with Ladders of Fire is that it reads more like a proposition for a novel than a novel itself. Anais Nin has certainly absorbed the old adage: – tell, don’t show. – And it’s not that Children of the Albatross is any different in this respect; maybe it’s just more concerned with a single clear story: girl loves boy. In this instance, girl is a young but experienced denizen of the artistic demi-monde, and boy is a naïve would-be artist, escaping from strict parental control. Interesting enough but, due to the writing style, lacking in any drama.

Contes à Ninon, by Emile Zola

Typical work by the unrealistic fantasist Emile Zola. Zola recalls childhood tales he used to relate to his friend Ninon (supposedly). I only remember now the last one (which I seem to have been reading for most of the month) about Sidonie and Médéric (a giant and a dwarf) who have various crazy adventures. (I may steal some of this for a story of my own; – I’m sure no one in the English-speaking world will notice anyway). I found it all very amusing.

3 thoughts on “Books Read – February 2020

  1. Same with me on Tonio Kröger. I’ve read it (maybe even twice) in a story collection, but now have a vague memory of what it is about.

    I always wanted to read more of Golding.

  2. I’ve read quite a bit of Mann, but now I think about it, the only book of his I have any clear recollection of is Mario and the Magician. Otherwise I only recall my failure to complete either Buddenbrooks or Lotte in Weimar, and how much I hated The Holy Sinner. I don’t imagine I’ll be reading any more of his novels.

  3. The ones that I can somehow recall are “Disorder and Early Sorrow” (because it’s for school) and the novellas, “Death in Venice” & “The Black Swan”. The long novels are still a possibility, but I’m not yet motivated to invest the time.

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