Sunday miscellany 13

We went to Yorkshire over the Jubilee weekend to visit my uncle and sort of also to avoid too much flag-waving (hooray for walks in the Dales!), but on the Friday we went to York, which contains at least three independent bookshops that always, always ensnare me. Fossgate Books happened to be open and had also apparently just bought a truly gigantic tranche of paperback classic fiction from one person; I’m guessing it was either an estate sale or a retirement downsizing. I scored four Turgenevs, Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtenay, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and the one remaining Palliser novel I didn’t have in OWC paperback (Phineas Finn). Then I went to Minster Gate and bought remainder copies of Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower (I’d read the sequel already, out of order). Somehow got them all back in the same suitcase!

I’ve made a start on this pile with Home of the Gentry, by Ivan Turgenev, which is a very short and heartbreaking novel about a man (Lavretsky) who returns to Russia from abroad, his marriage having imploded thanks to his wife’s infidelity, and tries to find happiness with Liza, the pious and beautiful daughter of an old cousin. You could see it as sentimental, but I think you’d have to be heartless; there’s just so much delicacy in the treatment of hope, budding love, and eventual, terrible disappointment. Liza is particularly interesting—she reminds me a little of Dinah Morris, George Eliot’s female Methodist preacher in Adam Bede, in the way she derives dignity and power from her religious convictions.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders: Recommended to me by someone (Laura?) who thought I might like it after my Russian Spring, and lo! I did. Saunders teaches a course on the nineteenth-century Russian short story to students on Syracuse University’s creative writing MFA. The book takes seven of his favourite stories to teach, and teaches them to us. In the process, Saunders made me (I think) a better reader; he is a good reminder, particularly to those of us who look at literature through academic eyes, that returning to texts with technical, writerly spectacles on (what are the effects it achieves and how does it achieve them?) is most rewarding and illuminating. (Also, I have to read more stories from Chekhov and Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” absolutely slew me, and Chekhov’s “In the Cart” is a perfect place to start the book.)

Easy Beauty, by Chloé Cooper Jones: Loved this, a memoir by a journalist and philosopher born with sacral agenesis (a medical condition where the pelvic bone hasn’t developed or hasn’t connected to the spine). She uses experiences of travel (to Italy, where she looks at art and goes to a Beyoncé gig; to report on Roger Federer and the Sundance Film Festival) to structure her examination of the ways in which her body challenges prevailing ideas about aesthetics and worth, and the trajectory of both her own feelings about herself and the differing ways she has presented herself to the world. I particularly liked her account of using her disability to get into more appropriate seating at the Beyoncé gig; it’s an extraordinary scene that bravely looks head on at questions of manipulation, communication, and social inaccessibility. Integration of her relationship with her husband and her desire to be there for her unexpected but much-loved son round the book off beautifully. Highly recommend.

Fantomina and Other Works, by Eliza Haywood: Read for the PhD (I’m hoping to write the next chapter on Haywood). Fantomina is the best-known of these texts (for a given value of “well known), in which a well-born but reckless and unsupervised young woman assumes a number of disguises, including that of a prostitute, in order to continue sleeping with a young man who seems to have tired of her. I am, obviously, looking at the prostitution part, the way that Haywood imbues her language with the vocabulary of commerce and the way in which Fantomina’s money is the only thing protecting her from genuine downfall into actual prostitution and social ostracism. Haywood flirts with prostitution and class in other parts of her oeuvre as well, including The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, a much longer and later novel which I’m trying to read at the British Library. Other texts reproduced in this volume include Reflections At the Tea-Table, which is fairly relevant, and Love Letters On All Occasions, which is less so, and less interesting (though having read it, I’d say it’s a great exemplar text to look at to see how the epistolary novel evolved—there are potential novel plots threaded throughout, they’re just not followed up on.)

Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga: My first book for the African Summer Reading Challenge! It follows thirteen-year-old Tambudzai through the early steps of her education, which is being financed by her English-educated uncle, Babamukuru (though only after her older brother Nhamo dies, freeing up the position of “investment child” for Tambu to step into). Written in 1988 but set in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) during the late ’60s and early ’70s, it places Tambu’s initial passive obedience to and acceptance of patriarchal, white supremacist, and Anglo-centric hierarchies in contrast to her cousin Nyasha. Nyasha has been raised in England, and her return to Rhodesia puts her in a position of cultural cognitive dissonance: the servile worship of her father by members of the family who are financially and socially reliant on his goodwill clashes with her awareness of Western/modern ideals of individual dignity. Eventually Nyasha becomes anorexic and the book closes with her admittance to the care of a white psychiatrist, while Tambu, increasingly resistant herself to a patriarchal system that considers her inferior and a racist neocolonial system that does the same, refuses to attend an event that her uncle has decreed will occur, and finds, a little to her surprise, that the world does not stop turning when she stops complying. Nervous Conditions (the title comes from a Frantz Fanon quote that also serves as epigraph: “the condition of the native is a nervous condition”) is the first book in a trilogy, and my only complaint about it might be that Tambu seems not to have made much headway in her personal development by the time the book ends; one suspects that volume two, The Book of Not, will contain much more in the way of overt rebellion and self-fashioning. That said, I’d very much like to read both that and the third volume, This Mournable Body, which came out only a few years ago.

9 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany 13

  1. Yes, I recommended the Saunders! I’m glad you enjoyed it. His deconstruction of ‘In the Cart’ is so useful. I was surprised to like the Tolstoy stories so much and it was great to return to ‘The Nose’, the only story in the collection I’d read before (and in a different translation, which added another layer!)

    The Dispossessed is amazing, I hope you like it. Easy Beauty sounds fantastic, so that’s going straight on my TBR.

    1. I absolutely loved the Saunders – thank you so much for suggesting it. It rejuvenated a lot of ideas for me: about how to read, and why we do it. The Nose is SO weird that I know I’d have bounced off it if Saunders hadn’t been there to guide me, but am so pleased to have encountered it here first!

      I can’t wait for The Dispossessed. Easy Beauty is wonderful – I think it should have had more attention.

  2. What a great haul! I always make out like a bandit at Minster Gate. We have friends in York so get up there at least every couple of years.

    I’d be keen to read Easy Beauty. Surely a contender for next year’s Barbellion Prize.

    1. Truly excellent. Minster Gate is my kryptonite. Also, last time I was there, Fossgate Books was shut, so I was particularly pleased to get in there this time!

      Easy Beauty–definitely. Would be shocked not to see it on a BP long-/shortlist.

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