I’ll be back in ten days or so. I’m having a holiday and will let you know what I’ve been reading when I get back.
I’ve written before about disposing of my mother’s books and how hard I’ve found it to part with them. Even now over three years after she died I have a couple of boxes of her books that I haven’t known whether to keep or not. However a few weeks ago I decided that I wasn’t going to reread Elizabeth Ferrars. I used to enjoy her books and no doubt some of the ones my mother had came from me. She had a long and successful career, dying in 1995 at the age of 88, writing until the end. Her books are good puzzles, very well written, and have their exciting moments, but when I tried one of them again I found the pace too slow. And I have got so many new books that I haven’t read. It was time to let them go.
There is an Oxfam bookshop near to where I have my Alexander technique lesson every three or four weeks, so I’ve been taking a bag of books with me and dropping them off. This week I spotted a couple of the Elizabeth Ferrars that I’d taken on previous occasions and one by Elizabeth Lemarchand, whom I’d also decided to dispose of. It was rather strange, seeing them there especially when I consider that they would have been bought by me and my mother in charity shops in the first place. But I was glad they were there and hope someone else will pounce on them and buy them and take them home.
It also set me thinking about fashions in books and what makes some books re-readable and others not. Last week-end I read with pleasure Jill Paton Welsh’s THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS, which as the title-page says is based on the characters of Dorothy L. Sayers. It is in effect a Dorothy L Sayers novel written by somone else and a very good job she makes of it, too, though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the more egalitarian relationship between Lord Peter and Bunter. Class divisions were still very much in place in the fifties, when this is set, and that didn’t quite ring true. Still, I enjoyed it and it has sent me back again to the original novels and I have started MURDER MUST ADVERTISE. I can’t remember who dun it, which it is nice. Sayers didn’t really write that many and I sometimes feel that writers today are under too much pressure to go on churning books out. I have just read two crime novels by writers I have enjoyed enormously in the past and neither of them were very good. The ending of one of them came out of the blue and amounted to a deus ex machina. I felt cheated and I could guess how this had happened. The writer was working to a deadline and just had to get the bloody thing done somehow. I suspect that once writers become popular publishers are just anxious to go milking the cash-cow and are less inclined to ask for rewrites that would slow down the rate of production.
Having said that Elizabeth Ferrars wrote about fifty and kept to a pretty high standard as I recall, but not everyone can do that.
I’m very busy trying to finish a story to a deadline, so I am skipping this week’s blog.
I’d intended to spread reading this over several months, but in the event it took a lot less. I was just enjoying it so much that I wanted to keep on reading, though maybe at some points enjoyment isn’t the word, cathartic may be better.
One of the fascinating things about rereading a great work of literature is that it is in a sense revisiting one’s own past. At this point, look away now if you don’t want to know exactly what happens!
Some of the passages I was struck by then still seem to be as wonderful as I thought them, though of course I didn’t read them with the sense of surprise that I did first time round. Among these are Levin’s second proposal to Kitty and the early days of their marriage, particularly their first quarrel and Levin’s realisation that ‘he no longer knew where she ended and he began . . . in the first moment he felt like a man who, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns with vexation and a desire for revenge to find out who did it, and realises that he had accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with . . .’
Another part of the novel that amazed me and that I still think wonderful is the reaction of Karenin, Anna’s cuckolded husband, when his wife nearly dies giving birth to Vronsky’s baby, and he experiences an outpouring of tenderness for her and the baby.
And what still remains for me as a stroke of breath-taking brilliance is our last glimpse of Vronsky after the death of Anna, as he paces a railway platform, on his way to fight in Serbia, not caring whether he lives or dies. It’s not just that their first meeting and Anna’s death are recalled by the setting, but Vronsky also has toothache. ‘The nagging pain in the strong tooth, filling his mouth with saliva, prevented him from speaking . . . And suddenly a quite different feeling, not pain, but a general tormenting, inner discomfort, made him forget his toohache for a moment.’ He recalls running to the station after Anna’s suicide and the sight of her head body. ‘He tried to remember his best moments with her, but those moments were forever poisioned . . . he ceased to feel the toothache, sobs distorted his face.’ This seems to me to encapsulate what separates Tolstoy from other writers. The interplay between the physical and the emotional brings home the depth of Vronsky’s grief in a way that nothing else could and I can’t imagine any other writer doing it in quite this way.
This seems a good point at which to end today, but I’ll be blogging more about ANNA KARENINA.