Since I Last Saw You

I have been reading. And the guilt of having temporarily abandoned this blog has waned enough to allow me to return to it. The above books were some of my attempts to get back on “track”—I’ve finished them all, am pleased with them, but then [to keep up with the tiresome navel-gazing I’ve been prone to lately], I have to wonder what exactly that “track” is. Still, I take comfort knowing that the question of What is this blog about? runs a far far far second to What have I been reading? and What do I want to read next? [I know that this past month has been the haziest and unfocused, re bibliophilic segues.]

* * *

For some reason, there’s an unfamiliar feel to the scene when I settle down to read a contemporary novel—contemporary enough to be relevant in many blogs and broadsheets and the shortlists of awards. I was moderately excited about Great House by Nicole Krauss, though—ever since I first heard about it, I wanted to read it: It’s about a desk that connects the lives of four [and more, arguably] people over the decades, spanning continents. Four seemingly disparate characters, one looming, loathsome desk.

Now. I don’t love Krauss as much as majority of the literate world seems to. That is, I liked The History of Love well enough—I found it affective, the structure and the prose just awe-inspiring. But I remember now that its resolution made me impatient. I know it doesn’t resonate. I know that even as I was reading the last pinch of the novel I was fairly certain that the book would simply be a good book.

Now. Great House is a good book [an unevenly good book], but a very flawed one. I liked it well enough. It wasn’t affective so much as arrogant of its technical achievements, however shaky they may be—however confusing for the reader, however much it seemed like what logic it had was limited to the writer’s mind.

As with novels structured this way, I will always pick favorite parts, and the risk of unevenness runs high. In this particular case, the last chapter was, well, luminous. After wading through murky waters [thank you, Miss Krauss and your penchant for paragraphs covering ages and pages, your language almost painfully purple], the arrival of that last chapter had me sitting up and paying attention and flipping the book over to reread the parts that had seemed so hopelessly confusing/uninteresting for me. I reacquainted myself with most of the book after reading that closing.

[Books that came to mind while reading this one: Echoes of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, which absolutely tops Krauss’ novel, that pale imitation; the failure in coherence and affect and oohlookatmylanguage can be found in Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man. Am I getting more bloodthirsty in my reading? Or should I find some inner peace, some old Sasha who used welcomed all this overwrought prose and meek obsessions—and read this again, time willing?]

[If a stranger had approached me on the train or the coffee shop, asking me how the reading was going, I would have probably shrugged and said, “It’s okay, I suppose.” I wish I can say more now, here. But, well, there you go.]

* * *

Years and years ago, I was endlessly fascinated by that kitschy-twee, proto-hipster movie, Dangerous Liaisons Cruel Intentions—which was, predictably, the barest-bones version of the classic it was based on. I’ve been wanting to discover the purer roots of that movie, this book with all its fans and crinolines and steeds and duels and diddling-on-ottomans. And so I read.

I can confidently say that my recent gorging on historical romance novels has prepared me well for reading Pierre Choderlos de LaclosLes Liaisons dangereuses. Now this, ladies and gentlemen, this is rakehelling at its most scandalous. If I had a quaint fan, I’d flutter it about.

This is debauchery, this is exquisite, titled manipulation. And its epistolary form only lends to the sneakiness—isn’t it in the nature of correspondence to give way to misunderstandings and deliberate treacheries?

I never knew I’d have so much fun with all this corruption of a parade of innocents. Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil are two of the slyest people I’ve ever come across—and how artful and cunning their villainy. How detailed, how textured, how lyrical. So salacious, so scintillating.

One of the favorite books I’ve ever read—isn’t it a wonder that I’m at a loss as to how to talk about it? How to dissect its structure, its clever tricks that hit just the right note? How to exhaust each of the characters? Oh, I love this, I love this a lot.

* * *

A book about books, a book about a life run over by books: Maureen Corrigan, a critic for NPR, in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, whose first line reads: “It’s not that I don’t like people.” It’s your usual accessibly eloquent bookworm talking about the books she loves, the books that have made an impact in her life—the books at hand in key moments in her life. It’s a book lover’s treatise on this solitary vice, it’s a series of lectures about specific books and genres, it’s also a memoir, yes, yes, all that.

My interest [and giddiness] began waning when Corrigan launched into impassioned discussions about female adventure stories, about detective novels, about the second coming of feminism, about adoption books, about [dammit] Catholic schoolgirl books. Not necessarily because boredom crept in, not necessarily because I could not relate.

More of the knowledge that I was not supposed to relate. Reading Corrigan—the latest in a littlemountainofBooks About Bookson my shelves—I realized, more and more, that this reading thing we’re all so crazy about—it’s intrinsically alienating.

Though we’re bound by this shared passion for the smell of new or old bindings, the soft rasp of pages as we turn them, the worlds we find constructed within words—this shared passion for solitude and silence—the books we hold close to our hearts and how we hold them can be quite distinct.

It’s pretty obvious, I know, almost a given. But it’s a comfort. We, each of us, will always be strange ducks, even to each other. It’s particular, specific to our moods and experiences and idle daydreams and little biases—even historical.

[Ever since I read Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, I have been trying to convince myself that I would like to write a personal history of reading. A history of Sasha’s reading. I’d love the idea, I’d love writing it. But again, laziness inspires a hard-sell.]

* * *

[I’ve been really tired lately, even tired of—, but but but I have to push on. I may grimace at this blogging thing occasionally, I may groan at the guilt—but, dammit, I am neurotic enough to adequately give the books I read a little plot of digital land here in my corner of the Internet. So. Until tomorrow, I promise. I hope you’re well.]

5 thoughts on “Since I Last Saw You

  1. I liked Great House a LOT more than you, it seems. :) I had never heard of Krauss before, which goes to show how out of the loop I am when it comes to contemporary fiction. I’m about to embark on History of Love, but am a little worried I won’t like it as much as Great House. We shall see.

    Isn’t Les Liaisons Dangereuses *bad* in the best possible way? I love that book! Such elegant scheming and manipulating. Debauchery at its very finest!

    I don’t really like reading books about other people’s favourite books, but I do have “Howard’s End is on the Landing” on a shelf somewhere. I should probably read it, now that the hoopla has died down.

    I hope you get back to regular blogging some time soon. It’s always a pleasure, and a surprise, to read your posts. :)

    1. Sasha, there must clearly be something in the proverbial digital air! I am flummoxed by the haze. Never have I half read so many books with such plain disregard, clearly not attracted by anything on the page. I have put it down to work and life commitments but even the thought of writing and reviewing these tomes is tiresome!
      And Kraus, I agree, I agree, I agree. I read History of Love with such intense anticipation, somehow expecting that Kraus’ marriage to Safran Foer of great fame would translate to brilliance and pity for Kraus but I had clearly over anticipated the novel and therefore was inevitably disappointed. So, I am too catious to read this new one, despite the praises lauded by the literary world.
      I hope that the funk passes – yours and mine!

    2. Oh my, Laclos made me wish my blogging powers were up to snuff — yes, Liaisons was so “bad in the best possible way”: so luscious and scandalous and manipulative and ohmygod, just so good, haha.

      And I think the fascination with books-about-books came together with my exposure to the book blogging world. I don’t know, but books like these seem like an extension of the whole Peek Into Your Bookshelves thing I do whenever I visit blogs, haha.

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