Three Months’ Reading

December 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning, and The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman.

Reading now: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

It’s been a strange few months, reading-wise: for the first time in a while, I felt a little worn out with my reading.  Basically, I overloaded my plate with long, long books.  I averaged about a book a month for most of the year.  That’s pathetic, really, but these were all doorstops.  Since March, I read seven very ambitious, self-consciously epic books, all of which I enjoyed to varying degrees.  But by the time I got around to Browning, after reading Possession, I was burnt out.

Now, exhaustion with the long form and the grand scope is no time to read a 12-book, 600-page Victorian historical poem, replete with Browning’s characteristic erudite allusions, multiple languages, and exotic vocabulary.  I should’ve just waited on it, but it seemed such a perfect follow-up to Byatt’s book that I soldiered on.  I love Browning, but I was unable to muster any sort of enthusiasm for The Ring and the Book.

And then there was The Divine Husband, a really pretty great novel about Central America.  I felt like it would be a nice palate cleanser, but it turned out to be rather grand and sweeping itself.  This is normally a good thing; however, in my state, I found myself taking breaks to read from an anthology of new fabulists stories called ParaSpheres, with no better reason that that they were short.  (Though it’s a good anthology, don’t get me wrong.)

All of this by way of some sort of explanation for the silence here.  I have not died and this is not the typing of a ghost.  Nor has The Ambiguities died.  It’s been on hiatus, placed there by the TV executives in my brain who were too dumb to muster up any energy to write.

So, by way of restart, a new look for the blog.  It’s called “Oulipo,” so I was going to pick it no matter what it looked like.  Luckily it’s pretty nice, too, I think.  Coming very soon: top fives of the year, and then a flurry of David Copperfield posts.  (Yeah, I know: “You’re reading Dickens when you’re tired of long books, idiot?”  You’re right, but it’s Dickens.  In December.  And it’s snowing.  How can I not read Dickens?)

 

Choice, Control, and Constraint

March 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature.

In chapter 11 Des Esseintes is inspired by his sick-room reading of Dickens to undertake a journey to London.  He hates how isolated he’s become and desires a trip into the world, and he wants to compare his imaginative creation of London as it is presented in Dickens with the real thing.  This chapter’s great: Des  Esseintes makes the trip into Paris, which turns out to be rainy and subdued, and has a gigantic English/French meal at a tavern.  There are these passages of Des Esseintes imagining himself to be in London already — Paris as London, the nerve! — and at last, he decides the real thing could never match his image of it, and goes back home.  In chapter 12, as happy to be home as if he actually had been gone for months, he lovingly handles and reviews his book collection.  This chapter’s also interesting from a bibliophilic perspective, as Des Esseintes reveals that he actually has his favorite books specially typeset, printed, and bound for him in one-copy editions to his specifications.

This revelation — Des Esseintes’s mania for controlling all aspects of his beloved books’ appearance, at exorbitant expense — got me thinking about the relationship among the three C’s in this post’s title.  As I said in the last post, Huysmans spends much of this book talking about taste, which is a function of choice: Des Esseintes is obsessed with maintaining and explaining (to himself, if to no one else) his choices in literature, art, decoration, companionship.  But so much of this taste — all taste, really, but especially in the case of this decadent eccentric — is really about control: about exerting the control he lacks over his poor health and personal relationships (or lack thereof).  And the desire for control leads to constraint — to a wildly proscribed life, a decision to shut out the world and create an artificially superior one, an individual-sized universe.

These C’s have been the focus of most of the books I’ve been reading lately: Villette, with its constrained governess exerting the control over her narrative which she so often lacks over her life and loves; Schreber’s Memoirs, with its pathological display of choosing to believe in the universe which places Schreber at its center, in control of the fate of the world; VALIS, with its overarching intelligence invading an individual’s consciousness, questioning the very concepts of free will, control, reality.

Huysmans also puts me very much in mind of Georges Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual (especially the Bartlebooth plot), and other works of the OuLiPo group.  Constraint is the raison d’etre of this group, and I’ve always thought of the group as freeing the artist by limiting the impossible, limitless choices of language — and as a rather existential expression of the human condition, a duplication in artworks of the non-negotiable constraints we all face in life.

I recognize a lot of myself in Des Esseintes, even with his massive wealth, outdated ennui, and colossal perversity.  I have his tendency toward hermeticism, toward cloistering in the home and mind.  I’ve never thought of this as a desire to exert control over a scary world, but perhaps it is.  What about Des Esseintes — is ennui camouflage for fear?  Does the world-weariness of the fin de siécle actually stem from fear that the world was simply getting too big, with too many options, too many freedoms, too many possibilities?

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