Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Gustav Sonta

The pleasure of the Readathon is taking in a book all in one go, and it was particularly lovely with 'The Gustav Sonata' by Rose Tremain, that I picked up from the library the other day. It tells the story of Gustav and Anton and a friendship that endures the years and the separations, but also touches on the wartime position of neutral Switzerland and what happened to Gustav's father, a local police chief who finds himself breaking an official edict about the entry of Jews from Austria. 

Gustav's stoicism helps Anton when they meet in kindergarten and they form a close bond, with Anton's affluent family providing Gustav with the small joys that soften the edges of his harsh and neglected home life. Here they discuss Anton's prospective concert pianist future:

"'How does she know?'
'Because I'm a "prodigy". That means I'm more brilliant at playing than almost everyone else my age. By the time I get to eighteen, I could be performing in huge concerts in Paris and Geneva and New York. You see?'
'Huge concerts?'
'Sure, Even at our age, my mother says, we have to think about what we're going to do later in our lives. What are you going to do Gustav?'
Gustav turned his face away. Into his mind came the image of himself, on his hands and knees, in the Church of Sankt Johann, searching for pitiful 'treasure' under the metal grating. And it was easy to project this forward into the future - as though there were no future for him, but only this: a man crawling along, growing older year by year, searching for things which other people had cast aside.
'I don't know what I'm going to do,' he said." (p.56)

But Gustav's quiet acceptance of life stands him in good stead and he forges a life for himself that is steady and contented. He struggles to gain the love of his mother but finds solace in friendships that he finds along the way. I liked the philosophical approach of this hotel guest:

"Gustav asked, 'What is gin rummy, Colonel?'
'Oh, yes,' said the colonel, 'I stupidly forgot that it isn't universal, because it's always seemed so universal to me. It's a card game. Fairly simple, yet with a little skill attached to it, but without the need for perpetual vigilance, as in bridge. Bee and I used to play three or four times a week for years and years. It's a game that calms your nerves. I would even go so far as to suggest that it may help regulate a human life, and make what is unbearable easier to be borne. And now I have no one to play with.'
'We play an obscure card game in Switzerland called Jass,' said Gustav. 'The cards are decorated and complex. The scoring is difficult. Perhaps, while you're here, you could teach me gin rummy, Colonel? Once the dinner is complete, I have very little to do, except make the rounds of the hotel before I go to bed. I would be delighted to learn.'
'Would you really?' said Ashley-Norton. 'That's very decent of you. None of my friends in England wanted to stand in. they thought gin rummy was an infernal waste of time. I said to them, "That's the whole point of it. Wasting time changes the nature of time. And the heart is stilled." But nobody paid me any bloody attention.'" (p.166-7)

It is the colonel's story of his war experience that leads Gustav to seek out answers about his father's apparent fall from grace and sudden death. If Gustav is somehow representative of the self-contained and inward looking nature of Switzerland the analogy diverges as his investigation leads him to learn new things about himself too.  Anton's more turbulent life causes him more troubles, but it is his bond with Gustav that brings him back from the edge. The person I most found myself sympathising with however was Gustav's mother Emilie Perle, who's disappointed desires taint her whole life. I very much enjoyed entering into the small lives of the characters in this story; it is often small lives that feel more real and relatable.

The morning after the night before

It's 7.37am. 
Cups of tea count : 7ish
Pages read : lots
Books finished : 3
Walks round the block : 3
Hours slept : none 
Neverwhere is growing on me, I am now at page 211. Dunk came down about 6.30 and made me a hot cuppa; I have mostly made and then forgotten to pour them all night. Monkey has made slow progress with Foundation having dozed on and off for a couple of hours, but has reached page 133. 
We are in the home stretch now.
11.23am. We finished our books simultaneously a few minutes ago, both satisfied with the outcome. Neverwhere 372 pages
Foundation 234 pages
Pizza all gone, fruit all gone but there is cake left.
I think I've had enough tea now ... to last me until next week (or till tea time, whichever is sooner)

We fizzled to a stop in the last half and hour and chatted, but we made it to the end, and this has been my first Readathon where I stayed awake for 24 hours. Time for sleep now I think.
Final totals 
Me: 853 pages
Monkey : 702 pages
Tish : 144 pages

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Readathon April 2017

Happy Readathon Day
We started the day a little early so are already making good progress. Monkey is enjoying the delights of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and has read 177 pages.
I have started with The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain and am at page 138.
Cups of tea count: 3
We have a healthy selection of roasted nuts and dried fruit to help us through the early stages. 
Over at Outlandish Lit Julieanne is currently running a challenge to draw a book cover from memory.
See you later for updates.
7.15pm. After a little coaxing we have been joined by Tish, who is reading The 100 Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Ran Away by Jonas Jonasson and has reached page 82. Monkey has read 282 pages of Good Omens and I have just finished The Gustav Sonata, at 240 pages, giving us a grand total so far of 604 pages read. I have ordered the pizza so we are all set for a few more hours.
11.30pm We had cake and then Monkey and I went for a little walk around the block to refresh ourselves.Tish went off to bed after 144 pages. Monkey has finished Good Omens at 404 pages and is now starting Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I read a bit of Eileen Myles 'I must be living twice' but found her poems a bit aimlessly meandering. I read 47 pages of George Monbiot's 'How Did We Get Into This Mess?', articles from the Guardian, published by Verso Books. I am currently giving 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman an hour but am not sure about it yet (72 pages).
2.50am Monkey is snoozing. I have been reading '38 Bahadurabad' by Zeeba Sadiq (132 pages). Having spent that last couple of hours reading through her eccentric childhood and becoming enamoured of this wild and passionate child I find myself saddened to discover that she died in August 2010.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Biannual snooze on the sofa day

Life potters on, we read, and make stuff, and occasionally go to work. I took a brief break from the crochet granny squares (which are coming along pretty well),
to make a pair of socks,
and then another Shalom cardigan
I made one for mum quite a few years ago, and decided that an upcoming family wedding was an excellent excuse to make on for myself to go with my yellow Gudrun dress. Unfortunately I didn't order enough yarn ... oh what a pity, another visit to Black Sheep will be necessary.

Tomorrow sees Monkey and I settling down on the sofa for the Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon. We have been partaking in this for several years, and although we invariably do have a nap at some point we have cake and snacks to sustain us through the wee small hours. It feels wrong that we need an excuse to just read all day. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Birdcage Walk

'Birdcage Walk' by Helen Dunmore. I like Helen Dunmore, and I enjoyed this book, but do not find anything much to say about it. It is basically the story of an abusive relationship, but set at the time of the French Revolution. The heroine Lizzie has been bought up by her ferociously political mother with whom she has a close bond, but against whom she has rebelled by marrying Diner Tredevant, a local property developer. Against the background of european political upheaval her mother has a second child, and the relationship with her husband becomes steadily more disturbing as the truth about the fate of his first wife gradually emerges. It has an excellent build up of tension and menace, but the ending was too neat to be truly satisfying. 

Here Lizzie watches her husband from inside the darkness of their house:

"But he did not see me. He turned towards me, but i am sure he did not see me. The moonlight lay faint and blue and init I saw his face. It was not distinct: I could not see any feature. He looked up, and seemed to be scanning along the terrace, searching for something in the jagged half-built outline. It seemed as if his eyes passed over me and my heart thudded again.
His hands were clasped behind his back and he stood for a long time, unmoving. It gained on me that he was not looking at the terrace. There was something else, something I could not see.
At last he moved. He stepped away to the edge of the pavement, and disappeared. He was climbing down the steps that led to the track which was not yet a road. He would be hidden from me by the height of the pavement, and then he would reappear.
Sure enough, he did. He was on the turf now, and walking towards the edge of the Gorge. Moonlight showed the clear outline of his body as he moved. He looked smaller that I had ever imagined him. I must not blink in case the Gorge swallowed him as I might swallow the night air in my breath. But even though I watched and kept in watching, he vanished." (p.118)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The world is teeming, anything can happen

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 has been a mammoth read, at 866 pages, but very much worth the effort. The story follows Ferguson (referred to by his surname throughout for some reason) through four different versions of his life, its changes shifted by small incidents that affect the course of events, finding some things wildly different and others immutable, like his relationship with Amy Schneiderman. He becomes a writer in each of the stories, but writes different things; in one poetry, in another fiction and another journalism. It seems quite common for authors to write stories about people who are writers, not just because it is familiar to them but I suppose because most jobs are mundane, routine and separate from your everyday life and therefore to include them in a novel would be tedious. Our hero Ferguson is born in 1947, the same year as Paul Auster himself, so I assumed there is some element of nostalgia, if not autobiography going on. I felt that the book was also an excuse to write about that turbulent period in America's history, the prosperity of the 50s and the political strife of the 60s. In one story he is in the thick of the political protest and in another a more dispassionate observer. Like John in 'Prayer for Owen Meaney' Ferguson is saved from the Vietnam draft in one story by the loss of a finger in an accident. It is another book that is very much about relationships; some are solid throughout the book, like his friendship with Noah, others are more and less involved, like with his aunt Mildred. The bond with Amy takes many forms, in one they have a long intense relationship, in another they become step-siblings, but she is there throughout his life as the person he loves. 

His childhood summers are spent away at camp, where he forms a bond with a boy called Artie, who's sudden death has a huge impact in one story.

"Noah suddenly butted in. Boys, boys, he said, speaking in a deep, early funny Father-knows-best voice, stop this senseless quarrelling at once. We all know who the best centre fielder is, don't we? Ferguson and Dubinsky both turned and looked at Noah, who was lying on his bed with his elbow on the pillow and his head propped up on his hand. Dubinsky said: All right Harpo, let's hear it - but it better be the right answer. Now that he had their attention, Noah paused for a moment and smiled, a goofy yet inordinately beatific smile that lodged itself in Ferguson's memory and was never lost, recalled again and again as he passed from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, a lightening bolt of pure, wild-eyed whimsy that revealed the true heart of the nine-year-old Noah Marx for the second or two it lasted, and then Noah ended the confrontation be saying: I am." (Part 1.4 p.102)

Here he loses an early girlfriend, taken back to Europe by her parents. This quote is included for Monkey, because of the mention of the Belgian girl, because this was the unofficial name of the character she portrayed in the production of Hansel and Gretel at the Edinburgh Fringe

"He saw her only once after that, a farewell date on Wednesday, an exceptional school-night outing that his mother allowed because she knew how important it was to him, even giving him extra money for cab fare (the first and only time it ever happened), so that he and his Belgian girl would not have to endure the humiliation of being chauffeured around by one of his parents, which would only have underscored how young he was, and since when had anyone that young ever been seriously in love?" (Part 2.1 p.132)

Ferguson and Amy:

"Nevertheless, for all the things they did and all the things they saw, the best part of those Saturdays was sitting in coffee shops and talking, the first round of the ongoing dialogue that would continue for years, conversations that sometimes turned into fierce spats when their opinions differed, the good or bad film they had just seen, the good or bad political idea one of them had just expressed, but Ferguson didn't mind with her, he had no interest in pushovers, the pouting, nincompoop girls who wanted only what they imagined to be the formalities of love, this was real love, complex and deep and pliable enough to allow for passionate discord, and how could he not lover this girl, with her relentless, probing gaze and immense, booming laugh, the high-strung and fearless Amy Schneiderman, who one day was going to be a war correspondent or a revolutionary or a doctor who worked among the poor. She was sixteen years old, pushing towards seventeen. The blank slate was no longer entirely blank, but she was still young enough to know she could rub out the words she had already written, rub them out and start again whenever the spirit moved her." (Part 2.1 p.142-3)

On being Jewish, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it affects him. Here his friend has asked him if he celebrates Thanksgiving:

"Ferguson was so bewildered by Dougie's comment that he didn't know what to say. Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he might not be an American, or, more precisely, that his way of being an American was any less authentic than the way Dougie and the other boys were American, but that was what his friend seemed to be asserting: that there was a different between them, an elusive, indefinable quality that had to do with black-hatted English ancestors and the length of time spent on this side of the ocean and the money to live in four-story townhouses on the Upper East Side that made some families more American than others, and in the end the difference was so great that the less American families could barely be considered American at all." (Part 2.3 p.188)

I love the way books so often recommend other books. The post title comes from John Cage's book 'Silence', given to Ferguson by a fellow Princeton student, I cannot imagine a higher recommendation for a book:

"when Ron learned that their new friend from the Jersey swamps had never read a word of Cage's writing, he jumped to his feet, walked over to the bookcase, and pulled out a hardcover copy of Silence. You have to read this Archie, he said, or else you'll never learn how to think about anything except what other people want you to think." (p.594) 

The good thing about a long book is the chance to become thoroughly engaged with the character's lives and this book taxes the reader just a little by shifting their lives and relationships, showing how people's strengths and weaknesses change with their experiences. Having said that, although I enjoyed 4 3 2 1, I preferred Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' which does the same thing to completely different effect. I was also left with one question, why do male writers find it necessary to mention to size of a woman's breasts? He did it enough times for me to remark on and be irritated by it.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

acquiescence and compromise

I am not sure if the emotional intensity of Elizabeth Smart's 'By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept' was spoiled by reading it three pages at a time with my breakfast. This is definitely poetry, for all that it appears to have chapters and some minor narrative progress. The book is an internal monologue charting the highs and lows of the early years of her love affair with poet George Barker. It seems the most surreal of ideas to fall in love with someone's writing and for that to become a real tangible attachment to the person. We don't learn anything about George from the book, but his Wikipedia page says he had fifteen children with an unmentioned number of women, including Elizabeth and his two wives, and the two descriptive words 'catholic' and 'bohemian' seems somewhat contradictory. But the book is not about him, it is about love itself, and the power it has over those possessed by it. Prepare for a small cascade of quotations.

Her thoughts on their first few days together:

"So we drive along the Californian coast singing together, and I entirely renounce him for only her peace of mind. The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives.
Who do I not jump off this cliff where I lie sickened by the moon? I know these days are offering me only murder for my future. It is not just the creeping fingers of the cold that dissuade me from action, and allow me to accept the hypocritical hope that there may be some solution. Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host. So it is tomorrow's breakfast rather than the future's blood that dictates fatal forbearance. Nature, perpetual whore, distracts with the immediate. Shifty-eyed with this fallacy, I plough back to my bed, up through the tickling grass." (p.18)

After the first time they make love:

"Gently the wood sorrel and the dove explained the confirmation and guided my return. When I came out of the woods onto the hill, I had pine needles in my hair for a bridalwreath, and the sea and the sky and the gold hills smiled benignly. Jupiter has been with Leda, I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars." (p.25)

Contemplating the feelings of Barker's wife Jessica:

"But the gentle flowers, able to die unceremoniously, remind me of her grief whose tears drown all ghosts, and though I swing in torture from the windiest hill, more angels weep for her whose devastated love runs into all the oceans of the world.
What did she cherish as her symbol, and how did she protect herself from panic when her ship pursued the month's-old storm, and she fought the cancer which was her knowing grief for her lost child? I have broken her heart like a robin's egg. Its wreck reaches her finite horizon." (p.35)

When they are arrested (for crossing the state line for immoral purposes):

"But you care about justice, inspector, or you wouldn't be where you are?
I don't make the laws, he said, it isn't up to me, I have no authority. He smiled, but he was afraid of his smile and went away with a thin-lipped man and read the letters we had written.
They're only literary letters, I said, about things we both liked.
But you're a Communist? he said.
But you've taken part in Communist activities?
You have friends who are Communists?
Not more than other sorts.
He repented his smile and was severe in result. The thin-lipped man was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire. He sneaked through the streets at dusk to warn the hotel.
The two policemen who had arrested us and brought us over the deserts together on a bench, like minor schoolboys, washed and brushed and well-behaved, to return to their wives and calm households and their suppers, while we hurtled through confusion into tragedy because of their caprice on the Arizona border." (p.50-1)

On the disapproval of her mother:

"Then my mother's clutch held me every way, with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism, and made me long for my annihilation. Can even Freud explain the terror of that clutch, the inescapability of its greed for authority, and why it was stronger than the North East wind, memory, reason, or Pre-Cambrian rock?" (p.66)

On being apart:

"Philosophy, like lichens, takes centuries to grow and is always ignored in the Book of Instructions. If you can't Take It, Get Out.
I can't take it, so I lie on the hotel bed dissolving into chemicals whose adventure will pursue time to her extinguishment, without the slightest influence from these few years when I held them together in human passion." (p.84)

Weeping at Grand Central Station:

"But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to shreds, seeking escape on every impossible side? The senses deliver the unbearable into sleep, and it ceases, except that it appears gruesomely at the edges of my dreams, making ghastly signals which wear away peace, but which I cannot understand.
The pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end: it had operate grandeur. It lit up Grand Central Station like a Judgement Day. It was more iron-muscled than Samson in his moment of revelation. It might have shown me all Dante's dream. But there was no way to endure." (p.103-4)

It is like a greek tragedy, such melodrama, I found myself lurching between sympathising and wanting to tell her to pull herself together. If she was your best friend you would warn her that she was wasting her life on him. I loved the fact that she relishes every moment of what she is experiencing, the good and the bad, almost basking in the heat of the emotions; as she says in the quote above, she does not want it to end, like exquisite misery. I think I was more taken with the miserable passages than the besotted ones, maybe I'm just old and cynical now. As I said you get nothing about George, so I was left to wonder what it was that she loved about him, the book does not even tell you that, it is as if the love is all inside her head and has little to do with the human being he is. I think it would be better read in one sitting, and at just over 100 pages it would only be an afternoon. This book was written during the war and was relative unknown for many years. She went back to creative writing much later in her life after rising her children alone, she sounds like a fascinating woman and certainly someone to read more of.


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