Happy New Year! Hobgoblin and I will spend the evening as we usually spend New Year’s Eve, drinking hard cider, eating chips and other food that’s bad for us, watching movies, and trying desperately to stay up till midnight (and perhaps failing). Have a great evening whatever you are doing and have a wonderful 2008!
Monthly Archives: December 2007
Many thanks to Imani for writing so well about Gabriel Josipovici’s novel Goldberg: Variations and inspiring me to read it. I mentioned in an earlier post that I finished this book and then immediately read it again; this re-reading worked better than the time I re-read Nightwood immediately after finishing it: this time I was able to understand more of the book the second time around and I enjoyed staying in the world of the novel for a little while longer. I wouldn’t, in fact, mind reading it again; I won’t do it, but if someone asked me to for some reason, I wouldn’t object. There’s something soothing about reading the novel, which doesn’t sound like an appropriate way to describe a serious work of fiction, but that’s how I felt. In spite of the fact that the identity of the narrator/authorial presence is uncertain throughout much of the book, I felt like I was in the hands of someone I could trust.
The novel’s initial premise is that Samuel Goldberg, a writer, has been hired by Tobias Westfield, a wealthy English gentleman, to read to him until he falls asleep. Westfield suffers from terrible insomnia and is desperately searching for a cure. Goldberg begins to read to him, but Westfield engages him in conversation, and eventually asks him if he would write an original piece to read the next night. Goldberg agrees, but the next day he finds himself suffering from writer’s block. The only solution he can find is to write the story of coming to Westfield’s house, being asked to write an original composition, and failing. In other words, he will try to turn the failure itself into a success. And thus ends the first chapter.
What follows are 29 more chapters, each one a “variation,” each one telling some story about Goldberg and his family or Westfield and his family, or describing some local historical event, or narrating the conversations Goldberg and his friend Hammond have as Hammond drives him to the Westfield manor, or telling some other story that relates in some way to the others. Part of the fun of the book is figuring out how all these pieces fit together. In one chapter, Goldberg’s wife writes him a letter (this was one of my favorite chapters — her voice is beautiful); in another, we learn what happened to Westfield’s first wife; in another, we learn how he came to marry his second; in another, the narrator tells the story of Goldberg’s friend Isaac Sinclair, the poet who went mad.
Many of the chapters record conversations characters have about literature or philosophy, for example, the conversation Hammond and Goldberg have about the differences between Achilles and Odysseus as heroes, or the chapter where Goldberg gets summoned by the King (did I mention this takes place in the 18C?) and is asked to improvise a speech on this topic: “A man who had enough wanted everything … as a result he was left with nothing. Treat this not as a morality but as a tragedy.” Whereupon Goldberg pauses for a moment and then launches into a detailed explication of a John Donne poem illustrating the topic. When he arrives home afterwards, he decides he is unhappy with his response and sends the King something more pleasing — a series of stories illustrating the idea.
All these disquisitions are included in the novel, so that it has a patchwork feel — we are given narratives, descriptions, literary criticism, philosophical explorations, conversations, letters, fantastical stories, historical events, all of them ultimately fitting together in one way or another. In later chapters, new characters and new narrators are introduced, which puts the earlier material in a new light and broadens the scope of the novel. As you work your way through it, the novel comes to seem like a puzzle, the reader left wondering how each new piece, each new chapter, fits with the rest.
Many of the stories are about failure and loss, particularly the failure of artistic inspiration. Goldberg, upon his failure to compose a story that might put Westfield to sleep, contemplates the changes that have occurred in the circumstances of artistic production over the centuries; in an imaginary conversation with Westfield he says:
It may be the case, sir, that in the time of Greece and Rome, and even in the time of our glorious Shakespeare, a man of letters might have fulfilled your commission. The writers of those times might in a day have produced for you a dazzling series of variations on any theme of your choice. You would have had but to speak, but to outline, however briefly, the subject about which you wished them to discourse, and in an hour or two, or perhaps even less, they would have regaled you with the most delightful fancies and stirring sequences based upon your subject. But, alas, our own age is grown altogether less inventive and more melancholic, and few can now find it in their hearts ‘to take a point at pleasure and wrest and turn it as he list, making either much or little of it, according as shall seem best in his own conceit’, as an ancient writer on these matters puts it. For what we list has grown obscure and difficult to define.
Situated in the 18C, Goldberg is living in the transition time between the artist as craftsperson and the artist as Romantic genius, and his ability to improvise before the King and also his inability to write at Westfield’s command illustrates this tension. He is torn between these two definitions of the artist, longing to be a craftsman but recognizing that the artist-as-craftsman figure is disappearing:
The truth of the matter is that something deep within me yearns to be the kind of craftsman he believes me to be, but something else, equally deep, rejects the formulation. But if that is so, why do I still yearn for that other version of myself, why do I still hold up to myself as an ideal the image of the maker, skilled and inventive, capable of coping with every challenge?
He met the challenge of the King, yes, but he couldn’t resist writing another response later, one he could compose at leisure, when inspiration struck. He is subject to doubts, no longer able simply to create and enjoy what he created.
The novel is about artistic failure, but also about success: in her letter to Goldberg, Mrs. Goldberg writes beautifully about what writing can accomplish:
I had never thought of any of this till I sat down half an hour ago filled with the need to write about you. That is what writing is like. The sheet of paper before one and the pen in one’s hand seem to allow those things to emerge which one knew but didn’t know one knew. It may not be very interesting or very profound, but it brings relief. Like hugging you. But why is it not sufficient to sit in my chair and imagine myself hugging you? After all, when I write here in my notebook you are no more present than if I closed my eyes and thought of you. Indeed, less so perhaps, since if I close my eyes then I can see you, whereas when I write I certainly do not. But then when I hug you I do not see you, I feel you. And that is what seems to happen with writing. But why should that be so? To feel you, you have to be present and close to me, and now you are neither. Yet I am sure this is the truth, that when I close my eyes I see you but when I write I feel you.
Beautiful, yes? Do you see why I loved this book? Really, if this book sounds at all appealing to you, read it.
So now I’ll post some of my favorite books of the year. First, considering the stats I posted yesterday, I was surprised that I’d read books by men and women in almost equal numbers, 33 and 34 respectively. I didn’t plan it that way! This ratio is much more even than the previous year’s, which was 24 and 32 in favor of women. I couldn’t tell you why this changed because I rarely think about gender when I pick up a book. Then, to get completely dorky for a moment, 83% of the books I read were from the 20th or 21st century in 2007, a number I wish were a little lower. The number is similar to that of 2006, which is 80%. I wish I had numbers from previous years because doing this kind of analysis is fun! It satisfies the math geek in me.
Oooh, and another interesting fact: the amount of fiction I read stayed the same from 2006 to 2007, at about 66% of the whole. Most of the rest was nonfiction with a small percentage of poetry thrown in there. Also, Stefanie correctly noted that the number of books I read went up from last year to this one — I went from 56 books to 70. There’s a good reason for that: I didn’t start blogging until March of 2006, at which point my reading rate started to increase. It took me a while to get the momentum going, though, hence the lower number for 2006. You see how blogging has changed my life?
Okay, now to my book list. I’m a little uncertain how to handle the big books I read: In Search of Lost Time, Don Quixote, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Obviously, those are wonderful books, they were very important ones for me to read, and they deserve a spot on my list of top books of the year. How could they not belong there? But they are also fairly boring, obvious choices. So I think I’ll just acknowledge that they are wonderful, and then choose my best books from among the other ones I read. Maybe I can limit my list of favorites to seven, which would be the top 10%.
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is wonderful, and I should read everything he’s written. It’s hard to believe that someone could write so movingly about clones. This book was powerful, at least as much for its psychological insights as for its exploration of a scientific dystopia. I made several people read this book, I liked it so much (they liked it too).
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Apparently everyone else loves this book too — my posts on it get more hits than anything else, by a long shot. Gilbert’s courage comes through clearly — her courage to take risks, travel, and explore new ways of living and being, and also her courage to write about what she experienced. I started off slightly irritated by her writing voice, but quickly gave in and fell in love with the book.
- W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I’m never sure whether to call this fiction or nonfiction; I counted it as fiction for my year-end stats, but it could as easily have gone the other way. This was beautiful and moving, an example of a new favorite genre of mine: the walking book. Sebald covers so much ground, so to speak, telling stories about the places his narrator walks through, connecting geography and history and evoking a somber, thoughtful mood as he contemplates the traces of past events on the landscape.
- Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk. This was a long and satisfying novel, one that slowly accumulates detail about its characters and its place so that you feel you are living in its world. It leaves you with a sense of loss when you are finished. It draws you into a familial story in the beginning, and then slowly turns its attention to politics, so that you begin to see how large and small events converge and how the domestic and the political affect one another.
- Frances Willard’s A Wheel Within a Wheel. I loved this book so much I gave a copy to a non-cycling friend of mine, who I hope will appreciate the author’s unique voice as much as I did. The book isn’t interesting solely for the cycling, anyway; it’s the author’s personality that holds your attention, her funny turns of phrase, her willingness to entertain ideas others might find shocking, and the odd combination of old-fashioned, moralistic radicalism.
- Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps I should read more science fiction. I loved the way the characters developed over the course of the novel. I found the ending tremendously exciting, and I thought the way LeGuin explored gender roles was fascinating. The book started off a bit slowly, but soon enough I was hooked and didn’t want to put it down.
- Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. I haven’t posted on this one yet, as I just finished it a couple days ago. But I should clarify that I finished a second reading a couple days ago; as soon as I finished, I started over again, to try to understand it better and to ensure that the rather odd experience of reading it didn’t end so soon. I’m still gathering my thoughts about it, but I can say that I loved the way Josipovici gathered together different stories and threads of thought and turned them into something lovely and wise.
A few others I loved: Richard Holmes’s Footsteps, Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I’m noticing how much nonfiction I liked; I’m not sure if this means I should read more of it, or if it’s something I need to read at a fairly slow pace. Nonfiction tends to stand out more than the novels I read, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I should read significantly more of them.
Last year I had fun putting together some statistics about my reading year, so I thought I’d do it again. I won’t be finishing any books in the next few days, so the numbers won’t change.
- Books read: 70
- Fiction (of any length): 46
- Short story collections: 3
- Poetry collections: 4
- Nonfiction: 20
- Nonfiction books about books or reading: 9
- Books written by men: 33
- Books written by women: 34
- Books with multiple authors, male and female: 3
- Books in translation: 15
- Books in translation from Europe: 11
- Books by British authors: 26
- Books by American authors: 23
- Books from the first century AD: 1 (Seneca’s Letters)
- From the 17th century: 1 (Don Quixote)
- From the 18th century: 3
- From the 19th century: 7
- From the 20th century: 34 (first half: 12; second half: 22)
- From the 21st century: 24
- From the 20th or 21st century but about an earlier century: 7
- Books re-read: arguably 1 (I’d already read many of the poems in my collection of Keats’s poetry)
- Different books from authors I’d already read: 14
Hobgoblin and I returned home a day early to avoid the snow that’s supposed to come tomorrow, and now we’re safe in our respective studies, back at our computers, and all is well. We had a good time at my parents’ place, although Muttboy suffered some because my oldest brother’s dog is more energetic than he is, and whenever she was around, he couldn’t get a moment’s peace. He would stare intently at us, as if to say “get me out of here, please! She won’t stop pacing back and forth and I can’t handle it anymore!” Hobgoblin had to take him outside practically every hour to give him a break.
But otherwise, all went well; the 13 of us hung out and talked, played board games and Texas 42 (a domino game my mother brought from her home state), watched some movies, and read books together. I managed to keep from reverting to my 13-year-old irritable self, the one who can’t handle anything my mother says or does and who glares at people for no reason and picks fights for fun. Having so many people around I didn’t grow up with helped me behave myself — in addition to my six siblings, we also had three spouses and one girlfriend staying in the house, plus two friends/significant others dropping by now and then, and one visit from the local youth pastor. I almost couldn’t help but behave myself.
And yes, the theme song of this Christmas was Dar Williams’s “The Christians and the Pagans”; in fact, my middle brother’s girlfriend had a copy of the song and played it for Hobgoblin and me on Christmas day. It was the four of us, the pagans of the family, plus one sister of whose religious status I’m uncertain, hanging out at home on Sunday morning while everyone else was at church, and again on Monday evening while everyone else was at the Christmas Eve service. We talked about atheism and pantheism and panentheism, our problems with the idea of a transcendent God, and about our experiences with church youth groups, and we looked forward with trepidation to the youth pastor’s visit; I have nothing against youth pastors generally (although I can’t say I’ve met many I’ve liked), but this particular one cornered me last summer at my brother’s graduation party and asked me where I’m going to church these days — an awkward conversation followed, and I haven’t yet gotten over it. But his visit was fine — no awkward questions this time — and just as in the song, “hands were held and prayers were said, sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.”
And now I’ll tell you about the stack of books I came home with. Hobgoblin gave me two, both of which promise to be very informative: first, Franco Moretti’s The Novel, Volume I: History, Geography, and Culture, a book I’ve been longing for for a while but wasn’t ready to spend the money on. It’s a big, fat book with tons of essays on the novel; the back cover says that it “looks at the novel mostly from the outside, treating the transition from oral to written storytelling and the rise of narrative and fictionality, and covering the ancient Greek novel, the novel in premodern China, the early Spanish novel, and much else, including readings of novels from around the world.” Sounds great, right? He also gave me The Woman Triathlete, which I spent much of Christmas day reading through. It’ll give me useful ideas for training.
From other family members I received Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley, which I’m excited about as I’m trying to read some of the Brontes’s lesser-known works; Alan Lightman’s book on science A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit; Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart; Louise Glück’s book of essays on poetry, Proofs and Theories; and Marjorie Agosín’s book of poems Secrets in the Sand. This last book came from my sister who heard the author read at her college and got her to sign my copy.
Needless to say, I’m excited about all these books and eager to have some more reading time over the next couple weeks.
Hobgoblin and I are driving out to Rochester, NY, tomorrow and are bound to get stuck in a snowstorm at one point or another, so wish us luck! We’ll be there for about five days. I’m looking forward to seeing my family, all the members of which will be there. This means we’ll have two parents, seven children, and four significant others (at least — others may unexpectedly show up). And I think we’re all staying at my parents’ house, which is not terribly large. I’ll enjoy myself, but I may also be ready to return home when the time comes …
I’m not entirely sure what books I’ll take with me, but I know I’ll include Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. I’m also considering Heather Lewis’s House Rules, Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I tend not to read all that much when at my parents’ place, however; there are too many people around to distract me, and the television is an almost irresistible lure — Hobgoblin and I don’t have a television and I’m quite happy not having one, but when I do get the chance to watch, I like to see a little of what I’ve been missing. Last year we watched many, many episodes of “The Office,” which I thought was great.
So — have a wonderful week everybody, and I’ll be back soon.