November 2022: superlatives for the rest of it

Most of my reading this month did come from libraries, but some did not! I’m borrowing from myself here and resurrecting a Superlatives format (which lovely Laura Tisdall also uses for monthly round-ups) to discuss the rest.

best backlist gem: The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). Genuinely amazing. I read The Blue Flower a few years ago and was not at all impressed, but this is extraordinary. An English man who runs a printing business in pre-revolutionary Russia finds his wife has gone back to England with no warning. She takes the children with her for the first few train stops but eventually sends them back. He has to sort out what to do with them, and then she returns. That’s pretty much it. But the writing! And the grasp of human feelings that the characters don’t themselves understand! And oh, my God, the scene with the baby bear. It’s so rich in so few pages. It’ll be one of those books that keeps being rewarding, read after read.

best read inspired by a previous read: Smoke, by Ivan Turgenev, transl. Michael Pursglove (1867 [2013]). After The Beginning of Spring, I felt powerfully drawn back to Smoke, which I’d abandoned a few months previously after the first few chapters—set in the German spa town of Baden-Baden—didn’t fit my mood. They worked a treat this time around. There’s a bit of a pattern to Turgenev novels: a young, idealistic but ineffectual man is torn between a beautiful, virtuous, kind woman, and a woman who is unattainable and will wreck his peace of mind. I sort of don’t care about the repetitive plots, though. Smoke is probably not one of his best but there’s something hypnotic about it. And clearly his writing just works for me, almost regardless of translator.

most outside of my usual comfort zone: The Memory of the Air, by Caroline Lamarche, transl. Katherine Gregor (2014 [2022]): Rebecca of Bookish Beck sent this to me in a lovely bookish parcel! It’s a very short, poetic novella, with a strong flavour of the autofictional or even authotheoretical. It’s highly French, is one way of putting it. The narrator spends most of the book working through her understanding of her own rape, which is mentioned only at the very end of the book. It’s simultaneously cerebral and dreamlike. Your mileage may vary.

darkest comedy: Wayward Heroes, by Halldor Laxness, transl. Philip Roughton (1952 [2017]): I described this on Twitter as “a brutal satire on the cultural valorisation of unwashed manslaughter”, a description I back entirely. The second Laxness novel I’ve read in full, it’s much, much funnier than Salka Valka while somehow depicting more horrifically violent acts. In fact, you could say the violence is cartoonish; that would be pretty near the mark. Thorgeir and Thormod are “sworn brothers”, Thorgeir determined to embody the greatness of saga heroes, Thormod committed to memorializing Thorgeir’s deeds in poetry. The fact that Thorgeir is a feckless thug to whom Thormod (who, incidentally, can’t keep his dick in his pants) has blindly shackled himself appears to escape both of them, right up until the book’s extraordinary end. The historical detail is great here, too—the description of Vikings attacking London and being repelled not by an army, but by the townsfolk pouring boiling piss on them and stabbing them with whatever meat cleavers or threshing tools came to hand, are excellent, as is the extended section on the sack of Canterbury and the murder of Archbishop (now Saint) Alfege. And there’s a whole bit set among the Inuit in Greenland which is also fantastic. Strongly recommended.

best novella: For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, by Victoria Mackenzie (forthcoming, 2023). Well, okay, it was the only novella I read in November. Let us not quibble. It’s a very short novel that focuses on the meeting between two real-life medieval female mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Julian was an anchoress who spent decades in a single cell, and was the older of the two; Margery was a young housewife whose visions of Christ and performative piety irritated her neighbours, her husband, and pretty much everyone else she ever met, including some quite important officials. Mackenzie tells the tale of their lives in parallel; they only come together at the end. Structurally I thought this was an odd decision. The book is lopsided, with the first section (Julian’s and Margery’s individual lives and journeys towards God) much the longest, followed by a short second section presented in dialogue like a play, and a third section of only two or three pages. The prose, also, is fairly plain and clipped, although both women produce some beautiful metaphors (as they do in their writings). For a while this frustrated me, but the more I read, the more I thought I understood what Mackenzie was trying to achieve with this style: a similar flavour to the actual narrating style of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love and Margery’s The Book of Margery Kempe, which are both declarative and plain even when they are using extraordinary metaphors, like comparing the omnipresence of God to the ubiquity of herring scales after preparing a fish for dinner, or describing Christ as a sexually alluring lover. It really grew on me, this book.

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10 thoughts on “November 2022: superlatives for the rest of it

  1. Great to see you reviving the Superlatives format! I really enjoy it. So interesting about the Fitzgerald. The Blue Flower was for some reason revived and republished when I was an older teen (c.2004?), and I read it because everyone was going on and on about it. Like you, I wasn’t impressed at all, and so I’ve not read anything of hers since. It’s good to know it may not be typical.

    1. I don’t think it is, or rather, I think in The Blue Flower the subject matter is sufficiently creepy to our modern sensibilities to mar everything else (Novalis being in love with an actual child did not endear me to the book in any way). The Beginning of Spring is marvelous, though. I’m hoping to try Offshore next.

      1. I definitely didn’t notice that sort of thing as a teen. I think I read The Blue Flower in 2019 so was a bit more alive to the issue…

    1. Yes, he’s not very Dostoevskian–the drama and the stakes are always much lower and more bourgeois–but there’s something I find oddly compelling about him, still. (Apparently Dostoevsky fell out with him over, I want to say, Smoke! It was definitely one of T’s novels.)

  2. Hurrah, glad you enjoyed the Fitzgerald and Lamarche (did you see the typo on the spine? — hee hee!). Fitzgerald is a little too subtle for me, but I did enjoy this one more than the several others of hers I’ve tried. You must read Hermione Lee’s superb biography of her as well.

    1. I DID see the typo and had to double-take! Glad it wasn’t *my* mistake. I’d like to tackle Hermione Lee’s biog once I’ve read a few more Fitzgeralds.

  3. It’s so interesting to hear your thoughts on The Beginning of Spring vs The Blue Flower as they closely mirror my own. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I picked the latter up, but it made very little impression on me. The Beginning of Spring, one the other hand, was a completely different story altogether. What a wonderful evocation of 20th-century Russia, rich in period detail!

    1. I really think it’s largely the richness of detail that makes TBoS so much better (although I won’t ever forget the wash-day scene in The Blue Flower!)

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