What I Read in April

May 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Light reading this month, between baseball season starting and other things.

John Updike Review, Spring 2013. Even though this issue is a year old, and my membership to the John Updike Society has lapsed, it was good to catch up on the JUR in light of the release of Adam Begley’s biography of the writer this month. There are two articles here that I particularly enjoyed. Vidya Ravi, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, writes about the theme of houses, structure and shelter in Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples. It starts with the observation that its protagonist, Piet Hanema, is an architect, and is a refreshing and comprehensive take on a novel that is too casually dismissed, I feel, as one of Updike’s forays into eyebrow-waggling suburban titillation. I was also glad to see Donald J. Grenier write about the subject of Updike as a “reluctant critic,” one whose training in visual art and New Yorker pedigree molded him into a reader who could dutifully evaluate the work of others as fair efforts of art without the itch of projection that too often guided his peers.

Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis. Second read. The first read was back when the book came out, in 2009, but all I could remember was the sublime way it evoked the best work of W.G. Sebald (Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn). And yet, I couldn’t remember was what it was about. I worried that I might have been projecting too much on the book, so I read it again. The sense of euphoria I remember feeling came back quickly.

Aridjis is well-traveled: born in New York, raised in the Netherlands and Mexico City, schooled at Oxford and now living in London. It is obvious, from the descriptions in Book of Clouds, that she has spent a lot of time in Berlin as well.

The heroine of Book of Clouds is a young Mexican woman, Tatiana, who gets a job as a research assistant for an elderly historian named Weiss in his home. Mostly her work consists of transcribing the old man’s audio notes. Tatiana has no real connection to Berlin; she regards the voice announcing stops on the train as one of her few friends, but in wandering about the city, and listening to Weiss’s remembrances, she becomes haunted by its corners. At the beginning of the book she has convinced herself she has seen Adolf Hitler, still alive and disguised as a woman. She begins dating a young man she meets through her work and at one point, during a party, gets lost in the darkness of an underground bowling alley that had likely been used by the Gestapo.

Book of Clouds taps into the same ostalgie that gave us Good-Bye Lenin (a film I was inspired to re-watch after reading this book) and other works looking back at the years after the wall came down, a scramble to preserve in memory the many quotidian elements of East German life that disappeared in startlingly short time. Another book to which it might be compared is one that came later, Teju Cole’s Open City, another novel often felt to be influenced by Sebald. But the resemblances take different routes: Cole’s is about a perambulator, Aridjis’s about a man trying to tell his story through memory and history; and yet both books, almost coincidentally, feature random assaults committed on the protagonists near the end.

Quite Early One Morning, Dylan Thomas. This is a collection of miscellaneous writings, published by New Directions, that I bought along with a book of Thomas’ poetry. The writings include reviews, essays, some fiction, but I was most interested in what Thomas writes about Wales, which he describes in the title essay, as well as “Reminisces of Childhood,” “Holiday Memory,” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Describing a “sea-town” (likely Swansea, where he grew up) in “Quite Early One Morning”:

The sun lit the sea-town, not as a whole—from topmost down—reproving zinc-roofed chapel to empty but for rats and whispers grey warehouse on the harbour, but in separate bright pieces. There, the quay shouldering out, nobody on it now but the gulls and the capstans like small men in tubular trousers. Here, the roof of the police station, black as a helmet, dry as a summons, sober as Sunday. There, the splashed church, with a cloud in the shape of a bell poised above it, ready to drift and ring. Here the chimneys of the pink-washed pub, the pub that was waiting for Saturday night as an overjolly girl waits for sailors.

The town was not yet awake. The milkman lay still, lost in the clangour and music of his Welsh-spoken dreams, the wish-fulfilled tenor voices more powerful than Caruso’s, sweeter than Ben Davies’s, thrilling past Cloth Hall and Manchester House up to the frosty hills.

The town was not yet awake. Babies in upper bedrooms of salt-white houses dangling over water, or of bow-windowed villas squatting prim in neatly treed but unsteady hill-streets, worried the light with their half-in-sleep cries. Miscellaneous retired sea-captains emerged for a second from deeper waves than ever tossed their boats, then drowned again, going down, down into a perhaps Mediterranean-blue cabin of sleep, rocked to the sea-beat of their ears. Landladies, shawled and bloused and aproned with sleep in the curtained, bombazine-black of their once spare rooms, remembered their loves, their bills, their visitors, dead, decamped, or buried in English deserts until the trumpet of next expensive August roused them again to the world of holiday rain, dismal cliff and sand seen through the weeping windows of front parlours, tasselled table-cloths, stuffed pheasants, ferns in pots, fading photographs of the bearded and censorious dead, autograph albums with a lock of limp and colourless beribboned hair lolling out between the thick black boards.

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