April was slim, reading-wise—partly because (and I don't know why) I decided to read/re-read a bunch of Kazuo Ishiguro before tackling Klara and the Sun and it operated like a literary muscle relaxer, slowing me down and making me feel somehow both sloppy and lucid (or maybe just deluded). (I am currently wading through the Kafka-esque twinings of The Unconsoled; more on that another time, maybe). But the little stack of books I read packed potent joys.
A few weeks ago, I linked to an essay by Alice Jolly praising boring books:
It turned out that every word of the book was necessary, everything made sense and everything seemed both surprising and inevitable. I was left knowing that Madame Bovary is extraordinary, one of the best books I had ever read. But I had to face up to the fact that for long passages I had also been bored by it. Was it possible for a book to be boring and brilliant? Clearly it was.
Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes is not boring, though if you stopped reading it halfway through, you might think that it is.
Well-behaved, middle-aged Lucy Pym has become a minor celebrity after publishing a book of pop psychology:
She read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing; and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly. By the time she had read thirty-seven books on the subject, she had evolved ideas of her own on psychology; at variance, of course, with all thirty-seven volumes read to date. In fact, the thirty-seven volumes seemed to her so idiotic and made her so angry that she sat down there and then and wrote reams of refutal. Since one cannot talk about psychology in anything but jargon, there being no English for most of it, the reams of refusal read very learnedly indeed.An old school friend who once stuck up for a bullied Lucy ("Lucy had gone home and enjoyed jam roll-poly instead of throwing herself in the river") is now the head of a women's physical education college (shades of a down-market Gaudy Night). She asks Lucy to come and give a talk about her book, and Lucy prolongs her stay, wrapped up in the world of the school, its rigor and rituals, and the personalities of the teachers and students as they prepare for graduation. Then, as the pages dwindle and the reader, perhaps baffled by the fact that this book has been billed as a murder mystery, is lulled, something shocking happens. Lucy's psychological insight is put to the test, and here is where Tey becomes a slight-of-hand artist, pulling off a satisfying, gasp-eliciting finale in a scant few pages, deftly turning the story from one thing into another.
Some summer in my teenage years, I picked up an old, crumbly paperback by Mary Renault and for a sunbaked afternoon or two was swept off into the world of Alexander the Great. Madeleine Miller's Circe conjured that same sense of transport and strangeness, electrified by myths and stories half-remembered, so when I saw a new(ish) short story by Miller on my library app, I clicked "borrow." Galatea is told from the first-person perspective of the beautiful sculpture brought to life through Pygmalion's obsessive love. His obsession—and sense of possession—is the shape of Galatea's life, and the story finds her confined in a remote facility, under the care of people who monitor and drug her between his visits, until she finds a way to escape. A familiar myth recast as a troubling, twisted tale of toxic patriarchy.
I re-read Joan Druett's Island of the Lost because it is one of those true stories that I can't quite believe is true: in 1864, few months apart, two different groups are shipwrecked on the Aukland Islands, 285 miles south of New Zealand in the subantarctic. One group, blessed with cooperative, ingenious folks, leads an almost Robinson Crusoe-like existence for over a year. They figure out how to make soap, tan leather, construct a smithy, and ultimately make a boat (forging hundreds of hand-cast nails!) that they sail hundred of miles to find help. In the other group, anarchy and social division reign. Most of the survivors die, and the remaining three are ultimately rescued by a plague ship. All the castaways survived by eating a plant called stilbocarpa; it prevented scurvy and bleached their teeth, so that when they were rescued, they all had uncannily gleaming grins.
Kathryn Davis' Versailles is a history of a person (Marie Antoinette) but also a place, mostly told from Marie Antionette's first-person perspective:
After Léonard took off the curling papers, he frizzed my hair with a hot iron, combed it out with nettle juice, powdered it with bean flour, then mounted a ladder in order to affix the horsehair cushion that would form the armature for the final hairdo.
Cypresses and black marigolds and wheat sheaves and fruit-filled cornucopias—a hairdo reminding everyone that while they mourned the loss of one king, they also looked forward to the bounty the next would bring. Or how about the Inoculation hairdo, commemorating the Princes's victory over smallpox? One day Léonard made me Minerva. One day he made me an English garden with lawns, hills, and streams. One day he made me the world.
Really, you could put anything on your head .. so long as it didn't (excuse me) snap your neck.
Léonard used long steel pins to hold the cushion in place and combed my own hair up over it. Then he matted everything down with pomade, creating a kind of moist hive under which fleas and lice bred, and soon enough there wasn't a fashionable lady alive who wasn't using a long thin stick identical to the one Léonard made for me, complete with a little ivory claw, to scratch away at her scalp like mad.
There are also dramatic interludes structured like one acts with chatty lap dogs and ladies-in-waiting; appearances by Bread, personified; discussions of how the grounds are planted; and servants doomed to die from pox. It's like the marvelous eccentric aunt of Danielle Dutton's gemlike and glittery Margaret the First.
An anxious author can't stop going to parties with other artsy types and blabbing about his important new novel to skeptical, self-involved friends: is it Park Slope, ca. 2013? No—Paris, 1895. Over a hundred years ago, André Gide wrote Marshlands, a self-referential novel that lacerates literary pretension, pioneered autofictional forms, and foretold our post-truth reality:
"But it's not about truth, you can change the facts to make them be whatever you want."
"I arrange the facts to make them conform to the truth more closely than they do in real life. I can't explain it to you now, it's too complicated."
His friend is doubtful:
"I'm afraid this story of yours might be the least little bit boring."
A vastness of silence—subsequent to which I cried, my voice full of feeling: "Angela, Angela, please! When will you understand what books are about?"
*Gerard Dou, Old Woman Reading, c. 1631 - c. 1632