Books Read – March 2020

My government has dictated that I stay home for a time, to read all the books I haven’t read.

I started reading Boccaccio’s The Decameron, to imagine what it would be like if I had to distract myself from a plague ravaging the cities and the countryside. I’ll just say for now, it’s odd to begin a book with the least interesting of the stories – though, in keeping with a Chaucerian verisimilitude, I guess appropriate, since the narrators didn’t have much time to think them up, whereas by day 2 they’d had a whole extra day.

Blindness, by José Saramago

I was bought this for Christmas, presumably in foreknowledge of what was to come. The plague in Saramago’s book affects more or less everybody, and certainly brings about a quicker dissolution of society, plunging us straight into familiarly apocalyptic territory. Despite the subject matter, Saramago succeeds as usual in making this as boring as possible for the reader. I’ve tried 3 books by Saramago now, and not succeeded with any. Yes, it’s true: I haven’t finished this: – I’ve read about 230 pages out of 300, and cannot foresee a time when I’ll possess the moral fortitude to force myself to read the rest. I will assume they all die.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Heather

(My specialist area at university). Unlike say Adrian Goldsworthy (whose books on the ancient world seem to proliferate exponentially), Peter Heather is a serious scholar of the period – and well worth reading. This is a fairly straight-forward narrative history, without too many tedious longueurs. As always with the fall of the Roman Empire, the question is why. Heather’s answer is: it was the Germans, stupid! He constructs a highly plausible and well-argued narrative – and in many ways that’s my reservation: because though he does his best to conceal it, the evidence for saying anything about this period is scant, and one discovery will throw all into doubt. (e.g. AHM Jones’ view on the economic decline of later Roman agriculture is here dismissed by some later archaeological surveys – published soon after – that there was no such decline). Obviously it wouldn’t have happened without the peoples on the other side of the Rhine and Danube, but I feel Heather wants to emphasise this too much against, say, the internal divisions of the Roman Empire (instability of regime / incessant civil wars, which he’s always dismissing with little real argument). (Heather made his reputation studying the Goths, so he has an interest in granting them and their barbarians friends a great significance). – I picked up a lot of books in this area recently, so will be exploring a bit more.

Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur, by Maurice Leblanc

An interesting exercise in how the author can fool the reader (this reader) by using exactly the same trick over and over again. The master-thief Lupin steals stuff, generally after forewarning his victims that he’s going to do it – because otherwise it would be too easy, wouldn’t it.

Enderby, by Anthony Burgess

Like William Golding last month, I once read a lot of Anthony Burgess, but I haven’t read any for a long time. In my memory, Earthly Powers and The End of the News of the World, stand out, although I have the impression the quality of his works is mixed. Enderby is a short novel, the first in a trilogy (although I’m pretty sure there’s at least a fourth novel), about a little-recognised poet, who is rescued from poverty (unlikelyly) by a socialite, who tries to reform him, but he fears as a consequence that he’s losing his muse. It is very much then of the genre (like say Canetti’s Auto da Fé) of: the man who thinks getting married would be a good idea, but discovers that it is the destruction of the totality of his being. – Despite being set in mid-c20th England (anywhere between 40s – 70s is usually enough to put Obooki off), I greatly enjoyed this. The language is so rich, it is a physical pleasure to read: – it’s like a superior version of Nabokov, but a Nabokov with, you know, humanity and a congenial humour. I should find bits to quote; but you might as well just read it yourself. Just find a copy in a bookshop and read the opening scene. I’ll be reading more soon anyway (the next 2 books of this trilogy for a start; and my father has a lot of Burgess – though for some reason I’m not allowed to visit him at the moment).

René Leys, by Victor Segalen

I tried reading a book by Victor Segalen a while ago called Paintings, but it was one of those books which seemed deliberately written (like, say, Sartor Resartus) to appeal to as few readers as possible. My recollection is that it was just descriptions of paintings. René Leys, on the other hand, is reasonably a novel: our narrator is living in Beijing, and is fascinated by Chinese culture and the mysteries of the forbidden city; when he encounters a young Belgian by the name of René Leys, who seems to have obtained an unusual access to the higher echelons of Chinese society – and yet, with all his tales of spying and murderous plots, perhaps he isn’t all he seems. (A man fascinated and perplexed by the incomprehensible society in which he finds himself – I’m sure it should remind me of something else. But perhaps this was written before that). The end chronicles the fall of the Manchu dynasty, amid the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and the coming revolutions.

The Book of Nights, by Sylvie Germain

A magic realist family saga, about a water-dwelling people who gradually become land-dwellers. My main recollection is that there’s a lot of death throughout. I’ve got the second book too, but I’m not that enthused about reading it.

Anecdotes of Destiny, by Isak Dinesen

I’ve read all these before, and two have been made into films: the dullest story in the collection, Babette’s Feast, and the best, The Immortal Story (well, it was filmed for French TV by Orson Welles – well worth checking out! – Welles was a big Dinesen fan, and the plan was to make a whole series, but like many of Welles’ projects, it fell through). Dinesen is one of the breed of master story-tellers, in the 1,001 Nights / Decameron vein, though usually more subtle and complexly structured. Just a pleasure to read: The Immortal Story and Tempests are particularly good here.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

I enjoyed the scene-setting at Combray, and Swann’s obsessive jealousy (it makes me so angry he’s in love with Odette / why doesn’t he see sense?), less so all the stuff about the Verdurins’ and society in general. (Yeah, that’s my review. Can’t think of anything else).







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