September 21, 2010

What I've Been Reading - Going Through the Lists

There are a few reasons why I haven't written about my recent readings in a while. First, I've been reading a lot of different things at once (which I usually try to avoid since it tends to dilute the effect of each individual work) and have been sort of universally stuck on the less interesting parts of each book for a while. Second, most of the books I've managed to finish failed to leave much of an impression on me. Nonetheless, now that enough of them have accumulated I might be able to cobble together some sort of blog post.

French Poetry

After reading and enjoying Baudelaire's works (Paris Spleen, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Flowers of Evil) I decided to explore some more 19th century French poetry, particularly the works of Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé (both in the Oxford World's Classics editions of their complete works) but in both cases I found myself in the same position I often find myself when reading poetry - confused and slightly bored. It was quite disappointing to find that the works of Rimbaud, the great romantic figure, the restless enfant terrible, did not strike me as anything extraordinary, and that the works of Mallarmé, who is considered such a influential innovator, seemed so run-of-the-mill and uninspired to me. Both lacked the passion and wit I found in Baudelaire (it's possible the translations are partially to blame; Mallarmé is notoriously hard to translate, but however he's translated many of his poems are still just drawn-out descriptions, or semi-witty dedications inscribed on fans).

Sometimes I think I should just cut my losses and give up on poetry altogether - I never write it, I rarely enjoy reading it, and I suspect that I often simply don't get it. Plus, there are so many novels, stories, and plays that I want to read, it'll hardly register on my ever-expanding "to read" list. But then I think of the poetry I've read and enjoyed (e.g. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Prufrock, Carver's collection All of Us, Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish, some Coleridge and some Borges) and how meaningful those works have been for me, and inevitably pick up another collection (and of course, once I pick up a book I must finish it; it's a sickness, really). Next on my poetry list - Yeats, Mayakovsky, and Milosz. Wish me luck.

Lewis Carroll

I don't expect you to recall my longish post about the latest Alice adaptation, but one of the points I made there was that Lewis Carroll's two Alice books don't really work as novels, and are only interesting for their idiosyncratic components, not the overarching plot which tends to be rather pedestrian. Given this I was somewhat optimistic when approaching Carroll's short works, hoping to find the same wit and whimsy there, and while I certainly didn't suffer in their reading (a compliment I cannot give some of Mallarmé's longer prose-poems) I still came away mildly disappointed. excluding the poems which constitute parts of the Alice books (like "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter") , Lewis Carroll wrote two more longish nonsense poems - "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Phantasmagoria" - and 30 other short poems, half of them whimsical and half of them serious.

"The Hunting of the Snark," which occasionally borrows from "Jabberwocky," is a fun short read, though not as inventive as the Alice books, while "Phantasmagoria" is a bit meandering and pointless (but not in the fun way, a bit too thinly spread). The other humorous poems usually hold a single idea each (e.g. "A Sea Dirge" expresses dislike for the beach, "Hiawatha's Photographing" presents a family's disastrous photo session) which are basically hit or miss, and the "serious" poems are rather typical romantic Victorian love poems,and thus pretty uninteresting. This basically leaves the two volumes of Sylvie and Bruno on my Carroll to-read list, and though it's not a top priority I'm sure my completist tendencies (a sickness, as admitted above) will lead me to them sooner rather than later.

Hebrew Literature

And while we're on the subject of my obsessive reading lists, I can revisit and revise the list of Hebrew literature I came up with for Hebrew Book Week a few months ago. After reading two of Yoel Hoffmann's books (Curriculum Vitae and The Heart is Katmandu) I can safely say that he is not my cup of tea - and "cup of tea" is a pretty good metaphor for his writing, it's very much like a dainty little porcelain cup of tea whose meaning lies not in content but in form, meant to convey culture, refinement and, above all, preciousness. If  I wished to be a little less gentle in my review I could borrow the infamous title given to a 2005 Pitchfork review of indie pop - Twee as Fuck.

Encounter, Brief Encounter, a collection of short stories by Amalia Kahana-Carmon did not impress me much either, which is a disappointment because that leaves Orly Castel-Bloom as the only woman writer on my list. I have, however, been hearing good things about Ronit Matalon, so there's always hope.

Classics (?)

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, number 30 on the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the 20th century, is one of the dullest books I've ever read. It's kind of like a Henry James story - entirely concerned with the relationships between two wealthy and deceptive couples - as told by an unsympathetic and obtuse narrator. The characters are mostly annoying, the pacing lethargic, and the revelations unrevelatory. So once again I have to question my goal of reading the complete list of "best novels" as chosen by the Modern Library - of the 30 I've read so far 4 have been outright disappointments and 5 have been overrated, which I guess isn't that bad statistically, but the bad ones were really bad, and often placed in ridiculously high places (The Good Soldier appears in the list ahead of A Clockwork Orange, Portnoy's Complaint, Pale Fire, and anything by Hemingway)

Finally, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, number 8 on David Pringle's list of the 100 best Science Fiction novels (which I only mention since this whole post seems to gravitate towards lists) is a pretty good book which suffers a little from strict adherence to its genre. As with most dystopian novels, the ideas are more interesting than the execution - firemen employed at burning books, secret groups memorizing whole books to preserve them, pervasive interactive media used to sedate the masses (including an early version of reality TV) are all interesting ideas which are not explored fully.
I think the main problem is that we don't get a clear idea of why all of this is going on - what goal are all these disparate elements working towards? Unlike George Orwell's 1984, where all the horrific elements are logical expressions of the oppressive regime, here they all seem cobbled together somewhat haphazardly, which may be more realistic, but also dilutes the overall message of the text. There's a long chase scene towards the end of the novel which I found a little too pulpy, as if Bradbury had to inject some typical sci-fi action into the narrative - which made me think of the terrible slasher movie ending tacked on to Danny Boyle's otherwise interesting movie Sunshine - but thankfully the book goes on to explore more aspects of the world Bradbury created and has a far more satisfying ending.

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