Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I am hell-bent

on reading an acceptable number of these library books before they have to go back, and so I've set myself a one-a-day rule; I'm not allowed to skip one just because I read a non-library pleasure book, but I am allowed an exemption if I need to be reading for work instead (especially because a lot of the work books are library books also). At last count, I had 164 checked out, of course at least fifty or so of those I've read already--a huge heap of off-putting Fielding criticism for instance, which I had to read this fall, and a lot of volumes of Johnson and Boswell and their critics--but there is no way I will get to read them all before I move.

Just now I've read a really excellent one, sly and uncanny and altogether having my strongest recommendation, James Lasdun's Seven Lies. The level of moral-psychological insight combined with linguistic firepower is here basically unimaginably high; and yet it is a deceptively simple-seeming little novel that would make a great film.

On every page there's something quotable, but here are a couple paragraphs I especially liked early on, a description of the narrator's mother (the setting is communist East Germany in the 1970s):

My mother in particular was an expert in that particular form of psychological control which consists on the one hand in withholding, or at least delaying, a smile or word of kindness when the situation seems to call for one, and on the other in bestowing her approval of something--when she chose to do so--with a magisterial impersonality, as if she were merely the channel for an objective fact that had been handed down to her by some celestial source of judgment. The effect of the latter was to make one feel elevated, officially congratulated, as it were; as if a medal with the head of Lenin on it had been pinned to one's chest.

You might imagine that in a socialist society a personality such as hers, with the distinctly unegalitarian idea of life that it projected, couldn't possibly thrive. But somehow she managed to short-circuit the mental processes by which people might form a criticism of her in political terms, and confront them instead on a more intimate and primitive level of the psyche, where authority, if it succeeds in imposing itself as such, is unquestioningly believed in and--how shall I put it?--quaked before.

It's a sad, strange, funny little novel about fate and (self-)betrayal, with lots of insights like this along the way; highly recommended.

(Here are my thoughts a week or so ago about his first novel, The Horned Man, which I loved. And I've pulled out of the comments on that post several additional book recommendations--for my own later library-going purposes as well as for readers here, all of these sound excellent though I haven't read them myself: in response to my observation about the appeal of poets' novels, Ed Park urges us all to read John Ashbery and James Schuyler's A Nest of Ninnies, Robert Kelly's Scorpions and Albert Goldbarth's Pieces of Payne; and Maud Newton recommends The Insult by Rupert Thomson.)

1 comment:

  1. Rupert Thomson is a favourite, and I particularly like Soft and The Book of Revelation. He can write metaphors that raise gooseflesh.