Monday, 28 February 2011

February: what I read in it

A combination of short books and sleepless nights means I've read rather a lot this month.  Here are some of the things:

1. Penguin Mini Modern Classics.  I do like the idea of these little books which allow you to sample the works of authors you might not otherwise read.  Sometimes trying something new or something you'd normally avoid pays off and you make a wonderful discovery.  (E.g. Javier Marías.)  Unfortunately for Penguin's marketing people I always associate those silver-grey covers with work that's well written but mildly revolting.  That's how I feel about most of the stuff written in the first half of the twentieth century: it's theoretically quite good, yet somehow mildly revolting.  I suppose the period is just too unsympathetic, close enough to be shameful but far enough away to be incomprehensible, full of rich flappers and Bright Young Things, Bloomsburyites wearing nothing but embroidered sweaters indulging in orgies of self-regarding intellectualism, fascists who wanted someone to put the boot in, naive hubristic communists who thought communism was going to work, the masters upstairs and the servants downstairs, women smothered in domesticity, and endless young men shipped off to the slaughter.
Anyway, here are the ones I read:
F. Scott Fitzgerald (free with my dad's Telegraph): rich Americans drink a lot and feel sorry for themselves, often in Paris
Henry James (free with my dad's Sunday Telegraph): same sort of thing but with less drinking and more snobbery.  These James and Fitzgerald stories hold no surprises for anyone who has read any of the authors' other work, and I wouldn't have bought them.
Robert Musil: revoltingly vivid
Shirley Jackson: a bit predictable and insufficiently interesting though, again, well-written
Donald Barthelme: a bit revolting but I admit it's amusing and unusual.  So Barthelme wins.  Maybe one day I'll see a collection of his stories in an otherwise unappealing selection of second-hand books and buy it.

2. George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (1. A Game of Thrones; 2. A Clash of Kings; 3. A Storm of Swords (1. Steel and Snow, 2. Blood and Gold); 4. A Feast for Crows)
If you've never read any big fantasy and are wondering whether reading something in this genre would make you a more rounded individual, then I think these are the books I would recommend.  (Or maybe Robin Hobb's Assassin trilogy.)  They are very easy to read.  The quotation from the Graun on my copies says "Its ambition: to construct the Twelve Caesars of fantasy fiction, with characters so venomous they could eat the Borgias".  And there are also recognisable episodes from English medieval history mixed in.  Good reading. If you want something just a step more intelligent then go for K. J. Parker's Engineer trilogy.  The plus side with Hobb and Parker is that they have actually finished things off, while Martin, who found his fourth volume getting so large that he split it into two volumes based in the south and the north of his world and then only published the south one before getting massive writers' block, hasn't published any of this series since 2005.  He has three more volumes to write to finish off the story -- he does actually apparently have a whole story arc in his head, which is encouraging, it won't just go on for ever.

3. Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow Trilogy (1. Fever and Spear; 2. Dance and Dream; 3. Poison, Shadow and Farewell).
These are very good books, really very good books indeed.  They are about a Spanish man who moves to London after he splits up with his wife.  He goes to a party in Oxford hosted by a retired professor whom he had got to know when teaching at the University some years earlier.  This professor persuades him to work for another of his guests, a man called Bertram Tupra, who heads a small and very secret government agency which advises on people's characters and likely behaviour.  The books are very intelligently done, with an elegant but complex structure.  I can see myself returning to them in a few years.  A quotation on the back of my copies likens them to the work of Proust -- saying they are "as addictive as Proust" which is an interesting way to put it, though I suppose Proust is pretty compelling.  It's a good comparison, although Marías doesn't have Proust's toxic qualities, not so much the unpleasant unceasing snobbery as the foul treatment of Albertine, which made me spitting mad when I last read it.  (Not that I read Proust frequently, I've read the whole thing twice, in translation of course, and I don't think I ever will again.)  But Marías has the same aphoristic tendencies, the same long trains of thought, and the same ability to involve you in relatively small things.  And the same revisiting of something already covered in a way which makes you rethink it, like the bit (I think in the volume called Sodom and Gomorrah) where Proust suddenly retells the events he's just recounted but with lots of added lesbianism.  Or that sort of retelling is a bit like Lawrence Durrell too.  Anyway, in short, Your Face Tomorrow is very very good.  But I would not advise trying to read the volumes separately, they are three books in the same way that the three volumes of Pride and Prejudice are separate books, e.g. not at all, in fact I think it's really seven short volumes.


  1. On this recommendation I've just ordered the Javier Marias trilogy. I've decided to read more novels this year: if I make it to one a month (which is my target) it will be an improvement on the number I usually manage! --Anyway, I'm looking forward to Marias for March. He sounds very much like Perez-Reverte: have you read those?

  2. I do hope you like them! I think they're great. They have a very distinctive style. I do like Perez-Reverte, and I noticed that he figures in Marias's "Acknowledegments" at the end of volume 3, as one of those who helped Marias by looking after one of the only two copies of his manuscript-in-progress. Apparently Marias works by typewriter, presumably with one carbon paper. I have to say that however fond I might be of typewriting I would still feed the sheets through a sheet-feed scanner at the end of the day...