These are some summer reads which left an impression; now my stack and library card are humming and wriggling, with all the CanLit prizelist reading – including my new Shadow Jury reading responsibilities towards the 2018 Giller Prize – but these books insist on a sliver of the spotlight.
Anosh Irani’s The Cripple and His Talismans (2004)
When I hear somebody describe a book as a love letter to a place, most of the time I feel as though it’s simply a shorthand for indicating how important the setting is to the author. Perhaps this is less common than it once was, for the setting to be a standout feature of a story, now that many marketing departments in larger media establishments are more interested in appealing to as many people as possible rather than specifically rooting a story in one place. As though, this story could take place anywhere, so please imagine it taking place where you are, if that pleases you.
But Anosh Irani’s debut feels exactly like what I have imagined a novel that is a love letter to a place would be like. His depiction of life in Bombay is strange and outlandish, and in some ways ordinary and visceral (really, how different IS love from one instance to the next, isn’t it only the personalities that are different?). There are, for instance, body parts in excess of bodies (but, also, bodies missing some parts), which contributes to a pervasive sense of longing throughout the story. The act of severance and reconnection: doesn’t that seem more like love than you thought at first?
“When I open the album I see pictures of coffins: finger coffins, arm coffins, toe coffins. It surprises me how much I do not know about this city. Tomorrow I might meet a midget who is ten feet tall, a butcher who sells newborn babies, a boxer who works as an anesthetist in a hospital by knocking patients senseless. In this city, birds are forced to crawl and rats can fly if they use their tails correctly. When I think about this city, it is almost as if it does not exist. It is a body floating on air, and landing whenever it gets tired. That is why it is so noisy. The din is the sound of it panting.”
Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966)
Pattie O’Driscoll is a delightfully fierce gatekeeper in the early pages of this novel, deterring multiple callers who are eager to speak to the man of the house. Not even a foot in the door gains the seekers an entrance. But, ironically, Pattie is gatekeeper and prisoner. “Love and passion and guilt had wrapped her round and round, and she lay inert like a chrysalis, moving a little but incapable of changing her place.”
Like Hannah, in The Unicorn, Pattie has a home which is as more menacing than comforting. The other women in the story, Muriel and Elizabeth in particular, also struggle to find and create meaningful relationships, to locate a place in which they feel more themselves or, indeed, feel anything at all.
“The enclosed solitariness of the place made the spot significant in an almost religious way. The intense cold did not numb but heightened consciousness. Muriel turned back to the silent hurrying river. It smelt of rotten vegetables and somehow too, and very purely, of water.”
At times, when I am reading Iris Murdoch, I am chuckling to myself, enjoying a vivid scene with an awkward but relatable pair of characters; other times, I am literally shaking my head, aiming to dislodge the fog that has settled in with all the philosophizing.
When Pattie catches a glimpse of Carel’s writing, she wonders: “Was this what the world was like when people were intellectual and clever enough to see it in its reality? Was this, underneath everything that appeared, what it was really like?”
Sometimes I wonder this too, but for the most part I simply enjoy the stories and I imagine that it’s not Marcus at all who is dismayed by his incapacity to write philosophy, but rather the author herself: “It might be that what [s]he wanted to say about love and about humanity was true but simply could not be expressed as a theory.” And, so, I continue to read Iris Murdoch, rotten vegetables and all. (Inspired also by Liz’s Readalong!)
Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness (1964)
Jane, at Beyond Eden Rock, is celebrating a year’s worth of Virago Authors’ birthdays, so I pulled this one off the shelf in July (her birthday was July 3rd so this is like a belated card!). It was a perfect excuse to delve into one of my last Taylor novels.
At least one character in the novel would have loved Jane’s event, would have marked August down as the month to participate for sure, given her affection for Elizabeth von Arnim’s books.
“Mrs Secretan was reading Elizabeth and Her German Garden – ‘for the umpteenth time’, she said. ‘Such a beautiful book. How much one would have liked to have known her.’”
But one other would have been bored, at best, perhaps even disturbed.
“Richard thought that for his part he would have tried to run a mile in the other direction, if such a risk had risen. He had ‘picked’ at the book once, as he put it; and had been vaguely repelled: but, because he could never justify his reactions to art and literature, he kept quiet.”
This snippet has very little to do with the story overall (like the bit about a character furnishing a doll’s house for her daughter’s wedding) and, yet, it has everything to do with the kind of observations which fill these novels.
Mrs. Secretan’s reading material and Richard’s lack of it say a great deal about these characters, both now unattached in a story which revolves around the ways in which people aim build and break key relationships in their lives. Like Taylor’s other novels, this is a quiet narrative, but one which rewards close reading.
Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
The first novel of Cather’s I read, The Song of the Lark, a couple of decades ago, took me to the library straightaway – to her collected stories and to Hermione Lee’s biography.
With women at the heart of her stories and as much respect for the wild places in the world as for the artistry on a stage, I felt an instant connection to her work and went on to read other books which I also enjoyed.
So it’s fortunate then, that my affection for her work was well-established when I came to this volume.
There is much to love here, including her love of landscapes and her sense of the sacred located there, observing, for instance, that:
“…every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.”
The religious imagery is deliberate, for this novel fictionalizes the historic movement of settlers into the New Mexican territory (subject of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853) and the efforts of the Catholic missionaries to establish outposts and assimilate the indigenous inhabitants of those lands.
Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are portrayed as honourable and dedicated men and, indeed, they come to accept and respect many individual members of the indigenous groups who reside in this area, but their efforts revolve around the idea of creating a civilizing influence in these outlying areas of America. The stories recounted here are often sympathetic but also paternalistic, never affording the indigenous characters a degree of agency or self-determination, only occasionally recognizing their capacity to adapt and survive as remarkable and laudable.
“When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; an Indian hunt was never a slaughter. They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.”
Most troubling, however, is the tendency to portray these peoples as resigned to another time. “It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. The Hopi villages that were set upon rock mesas, were made to look like the rock on which they sat, were imperceptible at a distance.”
Contemporary readers now recognize the more subtle but equally devastating methods of genocide perpetrated by settlers who sought to exploit the resources in a “new”, “discovered” territory and consigning indigenous peoples to a state of ghostliness can no longer be viewed as poetic but must be recognized as a means of circumventing the present-day work of reconciliation necessary to compensate for centuries of exploitation and cruelty.
In Cather’s time, drawing attention to the suffering and indignities imposed upon the native peoples of southern North America, would have been viewed as an act of kindness, but while the kindly church men are lamenting the fact that the natives have been forced to live on reservations which do not sustain their traditional ways of life, they are also buying up that land for the glorification of the Church. The indigenous characters do exist in Cather’s works, which is something to be sure, but they are not fleshed out and not granted their own interests, not even on the page.