Kristjana Gunnars’ The Rose Garden (1996)

When I bought my copy of The Rose Garden, it was shelved in Fiction at The Bookshelf in Guelph,  which is such a good bookstore that eventually I had to move to the town so that I could visit there more often than once a year.

But it might just as easily have been shelved in memoir or essay or literary studies (its subtitle is Reading Marcel Proust).

Yes, it’s one of those experimental books, cross-generic, but whereas normally that would put me off a little, in the case of Kristjana Gunnars, I warmed to the idea quickly enough to buy the book without having heard a single thing about it or about its author.

Must you have read Proust to appreciate this slim volume? No, I’ve only dabbled myself, and I still found much to enjoy about The Rose Garden, but I think it would be especially enjoyable if I had read more, or if I, like the author, was devoting a summer to reading his works, either in or out of a small rose garden in Germany.

Had I read more Proust, I think I would have taken very different notes but, as it is, my notes are mostly about the more general acts of reading and writing, about sentences and stories.

And, because I was reading with Women Unbound in mind, I also took notes about women in particular, about the ways in which they might experience the roles of reader and writer differently than men.

For instance, while reading Proust in the afternoons, Kristjana Gunnars considers the work of Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément in The Newly Born Woman and writes: “I began to see women readers gnawing away at the foundations of an old order. But they looked so serene. They really did. Deceptively serene.”

And she also considers the work of Anaïs Nin who pondered the relationship between the conflicts in her life and the conflicts in her novels. Gunnars writes that a woman “reads not because she wishes to, but because she has to. It is necessary. She either reads or dies.”

I think this is the sort of book that could occupy you for an entire summer, with or without Proust for company, even though it’s barely over 100 pages long. But it’s packed with thoughtful and provocative statements and I could imagine, in another reading, setting the book down after every section (there is a lot of space on every page, in the margins and between paragraphs, and the text is also broken by a dainty-little-whatnot-shape that seems to signify a shift in form, so that even the longest section is only a couple of pages) to think, think, think and think some more.

Still, the prose style is straightforward, while leaving room for poetic images and word choice, and the fictional and memoir aspects compelled me to read the book more quickly than I might have had I been reading Proust alongside, or had I taken in those sections more deliberately. Nonetheless, even without that, I revel in the bizarre combination of simplicity and complexity and feel as though there’s a quote on every page about telling stories that I should write in a notebook.

More about Gunnars on Thursday for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.