Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lows and highs

Have I mentioned my book group?

We meet once a month. Our last meeting focus on Illuminations, the story of  Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharrat. I had chosen that book myself, confident it was good because it had won a prize. Disappoinment: the known facts revealed about Hildegard were the only attraction. The writing was poor, the author failing to evoke what it means to be a genius in the body of a medieval woman.The prize - the name of which I cannot remember - is awarded to writing in the New Age genre, which describes this book well. It is facile, though many people raved about it.

Dutch author Cees Nooteboom has written a book I am re-reading called - in the English translation - The Following Story. Having finished it - it is nice and slim - I went back to the beginning, laughing to myself as I realised how much he'd revealed which I only understood at the end. I may have been particularly dense. I believe that he intends for his unwitting reader to embark on a voyage of discovery. I won't reveal more.

Now in his eighties, Nooteboom has won many respected prizes and continues to write. Some of his articles and books are in the travel genre which he derides in The Following Story. Another feature of his writing is that he kindly provides opportunities for digression - he refers to other authors and their works, to artworks, to places. I find myself following his hints with pleasure. In The Following Story his hero walks through Lisbon and I followed his footsteps (thank you Wikipedia and Google), amused and edified.

I have also read Niall Williams for the first time and wonder how come I've not heard of him before, nor had anyone else in the book group.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ecclesiastes was wrong

A man in his life

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.

Yehuda Amichai

Monday, 4 January 2016

Slow release of comic effect: Echenoz's list of Queens of France

Reading Jean Echenoz again. (I'd like to read everything he's written.) This time: Queen's Caprice, a  collection of seven short stories. (Caprice de la Reine, Editions de Minuit, 2014).

One of the stories had a delayed effect on me, like a time-bomb. I read it attentively and at first it made me smile. As time went by, it must have gone to my head, because the more I thought about it, the funnier I found the world. I laughed a lot about everything. People thought that maybe I 'd had too much to drink - but no, only orange juice.

It isn't a story. It's a list of twenty items:  the title says it all - Twenty women in the Jardin du Luxembourg, clockwise. It starts like this, without preamble:

"Saint Bathilde, Queen of France, holding a manuscript in her left hand, and the left side of her coat in her right hand. Hairstyle: two plaits, tied back. Jewels: necklace with cross. Expression: determined."

Next paragraph, next Queen: you read about her carefully, her posture, her arms and hands, what she's holding, hairstyle, jewels, expression. It rises in crescendo: you're waiting for that last word, you hope for a surprise - but no - this one is 'volontaire' (I was reading it in French - it means 'wilful'.) I reckon there's not much difference between wilful and determined; the third queen is described as 'decidee', which my Petit Larousse confirms also means determined. They're Queens of France, used to power.

Further down the list, some variation does occur:  Marie de Medicis is 'not very friendly'. (I'd say.) Someone else is 'patient', and the final one, Sainte Clotilde, is 'distant'. In two cases, a further qualifier is added at the very end of the paragraph: 'Presence of big breasts'. If you do need to know, they were Jeanne d'Albret ('inspired' - she was a poet) and Anne of Austria: ('pleasant, but dazed' - probably too many children.)

The breast thing tells you that the observer is a man. OK then, maybe not a man, maybe a 13 year-old boy.

It made me laugh.

The next day, I attended a party in a lovely modern house, art on the walls and canapes served. On one side, windows from floor to ceiling, overlooking the countryside, the lawn outside sloping to bushes, trees beyond and then hills and far away the sea and a glowing pale sky, long whisps of  cloud across it. In the middle of the lawn stood a stick with a narrow container attached, the contraption no higher than my knee. I asked the friend in whose house we were what it was: "B's rain gauge. I did ask him if it needed to be there today." she said. I laughed.

It doesn't matter where you put a rain gauge, as long as it is in the open. This one was in the middle of the view, bearing witness to my friend's ability to compromise and her husband's single-mindedness. I laughed so much I cried.After that, I carried on laughing about everything. I had a good time.