Thursday, December 22, 2011

Travelling Lit

Today, two more gifts: Jean Genet's Thief's Journal and Evelyn Waugh's When the Going was Good, which is subtitled 'Everything the author wishes to preserve from his pre-war travel books'. This seems revisionary.

It has a fabulous beginning, from 'A Pleasure Cruise in 1929':

In February 1929 London was lifeless and numb, seeming to take its temper from Westminster, where the Government was dragging out the weeks of its last session. Talking films were justbeing introduced, and had set back by twenty years the one vital art of the century. There was not even a good murder case. And besides this it was intolerably cold...People shrank, in those days, from the icy contat of a cocktail glass, like the Duchess of Malfi from the dead hand, and crept stiff as automata from the draughty taxis into the nearest tube-railway station, where they stood, pressed together for warmth, coughing and sneezing among the evening papers.'

In his introduction of 1945 Waugh says pessimistically that 'There is no room for tourists in a world of 'displaced persons'. Never again, I suppose, shall we land on foreign soil with letter of credit and passport...and feel the world wide open before us.'

Simultaneously, I am reading Gulliver's Travels, in which each of his trips (at least so far) are about estrangement, isolation, oddity, partial communication, and exploitation. So is Robinson Crusoe. Travelling is adventure, aventure, chance. It is about the perenially displaced.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'll be Home for Christmas


My parents still live in George, a small city on the south western South African coast, flat and spreading, named for George III and celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary this year. Provincial and predominantly Afrikaans, George was a pleasant place to grow up, but young adults move to larger cities like Cape Town, Durban, or Johannesburg if they can.

Like many provincial cities, I suppose, it is an intellectual dry-spot. We weren’t taught to relish reading or studies at school; we didn’t have a library of our own, and the school system encouraged parroting, not critical thinking. People here live outdoor lives. The beach is so nearby; the mountain so close. You can drive your bakkie across the pass to the Karoo and to the hot springs.

When I went regularly to the George library as a girl – a flat-roofed, squat building which was trying very hard to be Cape Dutch, but obviously built in the 60s - I’d pick crime novels, science fiction, fantasy, regency romances. I now consider time wasted. Perhaps I shouldn’t. But I wish there had been someone to suggest I try something that hadn’t occurred to me: Hemingway or Tolstoy or graphic novels or non-Romantic poetry. The librarians are slow-moving, shallow-eyed, and bored. Maybe there’s something about the yellowing light indoors and the half-closed curtains which provokes something like Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I now realize that this is not the library’s fault. Its collection is surprisingly generous. One afternoon visit in search of South African fiction yielded two novels by Damon Galgut (the new J.M. Coetzee, a crass but useful tag), short-stories by Nadine Gordimer and Ivan Vladislavic, poetry by Roy Campbell (South Africa’s greatest contribution to modernism, and bĂȘte-noire of the Bloomsbury group), and a selection of Olive Schreiner’s letters edited by Richard Rive.

And the R2 library book sale brought forth a bounty: a penguin copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lawrence’s Trespassers, Lucia in London, and a tattered first edition of Nancy Mitford’s Don’t tell Alfred! Whether these will make it back to Oxford in my already corpulent luggage is another matter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Finally, Fiction

At last! The term is done and I have read a novel. Published in the last thirty years. Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot.

Avoid if you dislike narrative pretension or digressions or books which are not quite clear about their genres. Stay away if you dislike novels which point to themselves and their sisters, and which are called by their admirers post-modern.



[David Hockney's Felicite Sleeping, With Parrot: Illustration of 'A Simple Heart', for Gustave Flaubert, print, 1974]

Based on your qualifications, Flaubert’s Parrot may be only slightly a novel.. It is a pseudo-biography of the author of Madame Bovary, assembled by the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, as he explores and problematizes literary biography, characterized by his search for the ‘real’ parrot which inspired Un Coeur Simple. It is a primer of how to experimentally collect and whimsically group the data of a literary life: by chronology (Braithwaite/Barnes includes an optimist’s and a pessimist’s chronology), Flaubert and animals, Flaubert and trains, people arranged by alphabet, facts grouped by academic subject. It is a book about France and a love of French things: the light from the view north, cheese, channel crossings, pharmacies, French literary circles, the dance of the language itself.

There are other real people in the book besides Flaubert and his menage: Christopher Ricks, Ted Hughes, and the Oxford academic Enid Starkie. There are also Barnes’ fictional characters which are submerged in Flaubertiana: Geoffrey and his wife Ellen, whose biography he does and does not want to relate (by is told in Chapter 13, ‘Pure Story’).

It is well written if only that it has the good sense to quote from a master stylist. It prompts, above all, the reader to find a copy of Flaubert’s letters, which are prominent in the novel.

The only other book I’ve read by Barnes is his meditation on mortality, Nothing to be Frightened Of, which, like Flaubert’s Parrot, I read nearly in one sitting. I can only conclude (with this evidence at hand) that Barnes is at home musing on the French. And his first-person tone matched Braithwaite’s: it is the measured but self-conscious and authoritative voice of the autumnal narrator, the amateur academic, the relentless reader, men who are interested in the bizarrities of lives and of Life.