I’ve been collecting authors for so many years. Authors whose oeuvres I am determined to read. It’s a never-ending reading list .

At the end of last year, I noticed that I was adding to the list at a phenomenal rate and not moving as quickly with my reading. So I added the following to 2011’s reading.

Barbara Comyns’ Sisters by a River (1942)
Virago Press, 1985.

Ironically, this is the book that landed its author on my MRE list, but it remained unfinished (it had been a library loan then).

It’s remarkable for a number of reasons. First, its format; it looks like a series of essays and the language is peculiar, definitely not the King’s English. These were unusual qualities in the 1940s, and they remain uncommon.

Next, its events are purportedly rooted in truth, even down to the language, for the author and her sisters were also poor spellers because of their mother’s  deafness, and they learned sign language at an early age.

But, the author openly veers from the “truth” when it suits; for instance, there actually are six children who could have appeared in the story, but BC leaves out the child next to Mary, “a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it”.

Also, the children are damaged in many ways, can be extremely cruel to those weaker than themselves — their pets and other animals, and, consequently, the story is characterized by a dark humour.

Finally, it wasn’t even intended for publication originally. The author had put it away in a suitcase after writing it, but a friend found it a couple of years later and persuaded her to submit it for consideration.

It was rejected many times and eventually portions were published in serial form under the title “The Novel Nobody Will Publish” in the magazine Lilliput, whereupon Eyre & Spottiswoode’s literary advisor made a bid.

Here is a glimpse:

“Some of the local people learnt deaf and dumb language too, but usually they used little pads that were put in every room, it was quite amusing to read the one sided, jerky conversations after they had left.
Would you be kind enough to lend me your steriliser
Yes, Monday would do, so many plumbs this year
The locum seems so nice, pity its only a month, unmarred too
Yes she is very thin, delicate mothers have them at such a rate
You should get your mother to wear pyjamas, so warm
I never allowed my girls to do it, send it on Monday
I found a piece of paper in an old book with all that on, and it was typical of the drawing-room pad any afternoon.
Later on we had waxed tablets people had to write on, you wrote on them with an orange stick, when you pulled it all the writing disappeared, Mammy perfered [sic] these, she said people said more interesting things on them.”

Anita Brookner’s A Start in Life
Penguin, 1981.

I’ve read a couple more Anita Brookner’s that I have never recorded but at this point even the book that sparked my interest, Hotel du Lac, could stand a re-read, because so many years have passed.

And, so, I started at the beginning; A Start in Life was her debut novel.

And, right from the start, I knew I would enjoy this.

“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”

Well, don’t we all. Ruth’s bookishness is an easy point-of-contact.

Take her love of reading.

“She was never happier than when taking notes, rather elaborate notes in different coloured ball-point pens, for the need to be doing something while reading, or with reading, was beginning to assert itself.”

Or, take her love of the library.

“The greed for books was still with her, although sharing them with others was not as pleasant as taking them to the table and reading through her meals. But in the library she came as close to a sense of belonging as she was ever likely to encounter.”

But there is also a startling sense that reality just cannot measure up.

“Ruth woke at her habitual early hour of six and wondered how she was going to fill the day. With anticipation, naturally. That is how most women in love fill their day. Frequently the event anticipated turns out to be quite dull compared with the mood that preceded it.”

Her heroines are most often alone (and sometimes too lonely) and there is often a broken heart amidst the paragraphs, but if you do take to Brookner, you will agree that, despite this, there is something addictive to her prose.

Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake (2005)
Trans. Michael Emmerich. Melville House, 2011.

The last of Banana Yoshimoto’s works that I read was Hardboiled and Hard Luck; I did not think it offered enough to a new reader to draw them back to this writer’s work. The Lake offers that Something More.

“It’s hard to imagine, I know, but Nakajima had this particular aura about him that made it easy to accept anything, and when I luxuriated in that aura, even the most bizarre things came to seem perfectly ordinary.”

It’s not just like this with Nakajima, but with Banana Yoshimoto’s prose. The bizarre seems ordinary.

“He makes me feel like I’ve suddenly awakened, and I want to go on watching him forever. That, I think, is what it is. I’m awed by his terrible depths.”

This, too, is typical of her work: a twinned sense of wonder and fear, the word ‘awe’ used as intended.

Unfortunately, the jacket of the book gives away the element of the bizarre that haunts Nakajima, that which leads to those awe-some depths.

But, then again, it wasn’t so bizarre, right? It was perfectly ordinary.

“The truth is that in this world, things like that happen all the time. I heard all sorts of wild tales…”

The opening third of this novel recaptured the excitement I felt in reading the novellas in Kitchen; had I not been anticipating the later events of the novel — thanks to the unhelpful spoiler on the cover — I think I would have appreciated The Lake even more.

Have you added any new authors to your MRE list this year? Or made headway with long-standing favourites?