#307 Malone Dies

When I picked this up I think I was somehow confusing Samuel Beckett with Saul Bellow – I know the latter is on the list for a couple of titles (one of which I’ve read – Henderson the Rain King – and did not especially enjoy) and have previously read/studied (and did like) Waiting for Godot by the former – so I wasn’t especially looking forward to reading this when I started.

Initially Malone Dies reminded me of the Tin Drum, in that its narrator is writing from his hospital (asylum ?) bed, currently incapacitated and with an apparently lose grip on reality (which could support either hypothesis for bed type). Malone switches between description of his current predicament and the story of a boy called Sapo – who is eventually institutionalised himself (which did blur the lines between him and the narrator). Halfway through Sapo’s story Malone decides that Sapo is a ridiculous name, and the character will henceforth be known as Macmann (again blurring the line between Malone/Macmann by betraying himself as an unreliable narrator).

Although Malone Dies is more abstract than the Tin Drum (but less “magic fiction”-y) I did prefer it – the ambiguity of Malone’s voice and milieu intrigued me rather than annoying me (as it often does). I think this may be the only Samuel Beckett novel on the list and I know that it was initially written in French – which would have been interesting to read alongside the English translation.


#306 Youth

I’m currently struggling to remember how many J M Coetzee novels I’ve read – I know I’ve read Disgrace and think I’ve read Elizabeth Costello and Foe – but a quick Wikipedia of a few of his other titles on the list makes me question if it isn’t more (Waiting for the Barbarians too, maybe…). I remember noticing that there are a large number of J M Coetzee novels on the list a couple of years ago – 10 in total – but, unlike Charles Dickens, who I think also has 10 novels on there, I hadn’t (at that time) previously heard of this author.

When I started reading Youth I thought it was in line with what I then subsequently found out about J M Coetzee – as the narrator and main character is born in South Africa and is a student of Mathematics and Literature – and googling after revealed that it is autobiographical (“fictionalised autobiography”, as Wikipedia puts it). Fiercely autonomous, the narrator leaves Cape Town for London to avoid conscription and gets a job at (then new, I think) IBM. Despite excelling at Math, the narrator struggles with programming, compared to his peers, and turns his studies towards literature (completing a remote postgrad diploma on the words of Ford Maddox Ford with the University of Cape Town – which I think is another thing the author actually did). Despite a string of romantic entanglements with various women and an impersonal friendship with his IBM co-worker, the narrator seems predominantly lonely – occupied by his job in the day and spending weekend days in the reading room, the evenings are his own to while away. Although I couldn’t really identify personally with him, I do feel like this is an extremely accurate portrayal of a lot of people’s experience of living in London – feeling alone despite the surrounding masses.

This is definitely my favourite of the J M Coetzee novels I’ve read so far – I think there’s something about the narrator – constantly dreaming of a literary-like romance while leading an incredibly banal existence – potentially interesting on paper but in the reality of the novel actually pretty boring – that is incredibly real. I’m not sure how much of it actually is autobiography and how much is fiction but a big part of me hopes it’s more the latter because the narrator really doesn’t seem to be having a good time.

#305 A Heart so White

This was another airport purchase for my holiday although I didn’t get around to reading it while I was away. I hadn’t heard of A Heart so White or its author, Javier Marías, previously – I seem to have managed to read a lot of (translations of) Spanish books recently – this is his only book on the list and I really enjoyed it.

The blurb recounts the opening scene of the novel where, during a family meal, the narrator’s recently wed aunt (then a young woman – it’s years before the narrator – Juan’s – own birth) calmly goes in to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. It’s not until the very end of the book that we discover why she is compelled to do so. Juan’s father remarries, this time to his dead wife’s sister, and the present of the novel begins on Juan’s own honeymoon. Juan and his new wife are both translators, and I think the title is a reference to Macbeth, a quote from which Juan finds himself translating on their first meeting – where Juan is translating between the British and Spanish prime ministers with Luisa acting as a back up – to check that his translations are accurate. Faced with a fairly banal and strained conversation between the two leaders, Juan fabricates parts of their speech – putting words in to their mouths – with the result actually turning out to be quite meaningful. I suppose it’s ironic that throughout the novel Juan, who unconsciously strides to understand as much as he can of other people’s conversations (across all the various languages that he speaks) does not seek to delve deeper into his own father’s past, and the shadowy circumstances around his aunt’s death.

I’m not completely sure what I was expecting when I picked this up and read the blurb, but I did really enjoy it and would recommend it. The opening suicide, avoided for so long by the narrator himself, plays around the events of the novel – as he ponders his own newly married status, as alluded to (and directly discussed) by friends of his father, and eventually as uncovered by Luisa – but to be honest I think the book has a lot more going for it than just the driving force of this mystery.

#304 Dispatches

I’ve been reading this book for years – I think I bought it from a charity shop in my last year of Uni and on paper it should be ranked up there with my favourites, seeing as it is a 20th Century American war novel, but somehow it’s not.

Dispatches is a series of vignettes of the Vietnam war, as recounted by an American correspondent – that’s essentially it ! I think when I started it the first time I expected more of a story – I did actually have to start the book over again because I couldn’t remember where I’d got up to – which I don’t normally have to (there are some books that I’ve been reading for years – like Gravity’s Rainbow). It’s not an especially long book either – which I think is also testament to what an effort it eventually was to read – although by the end I did start to get in to it – I think maybe because there were finally some reoccurring characters and a bit more character progression. I feel a bit bad that I’m struggling to find much more to say on it – because although it took a (very) long while to get in to, I did ultimately quite enjoy it, but I don’t have any particularly strong views on it – completely in contrast to the John le Carre quote on the front of my edition which hails it as “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time”.

#303 Love in the Time of Cholera

Not only have I been really bad at reading lately, I’ve also been neglecting this ! I bought Love in the Time of Cholera at an airport after I couldn’t find the book I’d intended to take on holiday with me (which to be honest was probably for the best because it was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy and I’ve been putting off reading it for years). I did think that it would be a good holiday book because I was expecting it to be fairly dry and thought extended time on planes/trains would force me to get through it, but as is often (happily) the case, I was pleasantly surprised.

The novel starts with the death of Fermina Daza’s husband, falling off a ladder as he tries to recapture his pet parrot. This gives Florentino Ariza the opportunity to restate his love for her, a love he has harboured for (I can’t remember completely but something like) 50 years – since their brief, secret, mostly letter-driven affair when Fermina Daza was a young girl; the details of which are then recounted as we learn of both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza’s lives, up to their present. To be honest there were several points in the story when I thought it was going to finish because I couldn’t see what would happen next – despite being able to physically see that the book was not nearly over – so there were quite a few twists and I really enjoyed reading it – all the more so, I suppose, because I’d had such low expectations.

I think these poor preconceptions may derive primarily from Ted in How I Met your Mother referencing it repeatedly as the book his dream girl would be reading – and I think he’s a very dull character – and maybe because it’s a title which I know is esteemed but maybe more as a “you should have read this but you won’t actually enjoy reading it”. Either way it puts me in quite good stead to hunt down One Hundred Years of Solitude also by Gabriel García Marquez – which I think is another title I was previously similarly dreading.

#302 On Beauty

I’ve been seriously amiss with reading recently – as illustrated by the lack of posts. Initially I thought I just needed a mental break after my last lot of exams, but that was almost three months ago now and I’m still not really inspired to pick up a book. On Beauty I actually read at the beginning of January – and when I say “read” I mean raced through – so maybe it’s just that I’ve not really been surrounding myself with terribly inspiring books. I am 2/5 of the way through Infinite Jest, which I am really enjoying, but because of the size of it it is physically hard to read most of the time, which also isn’t helping !

I’ve been wanting to read On Beauty for ages – I read White Teeth years ago and really enjoyed it, so for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to spot it in libraries whenever I have a chance (literally all over the country) without any luck – so was extremely pleased to be bought it for Christmas. I love the way that Zadie Smith writes – she writes in a way that makes me want to read as quickly as possible so I can find out what’s going to happen next, but with such a level of detail that I have to force myself to slow down so I don’t miss anything. On Beauty centres around the Belsey family: the father, Howard, a (white) English college professor teaching in Boston (America), his African-American wife Kiki and their three children – Jerome (who starts out quite hapless but I did grow to like more at the end), annoyingly self righteous Zora and youngest son Levi. Howard’s professional (and personal) nemesis is rival professor Monty Kipps, with whom he has various entanglements throughout the novel.

I really enjoyed the way that the characters were written and that none of them were as straightforward as they seemed (it took me a while at the start to figure out who and where everyone was); and the way that the plot twists actually did surprise me. I would definitely recommend this – despite it having the most cringeworthy sex scene I have ever read (completely trumping Lady Chatterley’s Lover).

#301 the Last September

I’m embarrassed at how long it’s been since I finished a book – I’m not entirely sure why it’s been so long because I haven’t had a shortage of good books to read (although a couple of them I’m less than thrilled about but I may just return those instead of starting them…) I think I wanted a complete mental break after exams and somehow that’s stretched on for months. I’ve read bits of the Last September off and on during this time but it wasn’t until last night that I sat down and finished it.

The Last September is set in Ireland during the war of Independence about which I’m also embarrassed to say I know almost nothing; in Cork, at the country estate of Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, with their nephew Lawrence and niece Lois, around whom the novel primarily focuses. Despite the Troubles, the Naylors and their assorted guests continue life as normally as they can – with dances and tennis parties. Inevitably the frequency of their mingling with the patrolling British soldiers leads to engagements with the local girls. After Lois’s insufferable friend Livvy becomes not so secretly engaged (which makes her even more annoying), Lois’s aunt is keen to quash any opportunities of Lois following suit. This is observed by two of the Naylor’s visitors: Francie Montgomery, the invalid wife of Lois’s mother’s former flame Hugo Montgomery, and Marda Norton, who seems to enchant all the men at Danielstown but ends her stay to return to her English fiancé.

The Last September is wittier than the other Elizabeth Bowen novel that I’ve read (the House in Paris) and reminded me more of Love in a Cold Climate. I enjoyed it – so have no idea why it’s taken me so long to finish ! Part of the issue may be that I’m still ploughing through Infinite Jest, which is really good but difficult to read anywhere but in my flat because of its sheer size.