Reading Note:
Piles
10 June 2019

¶ My pile of books-to-be-reading got so high that I focused for a week on finishing the ones that I was halfway through or more. Unfortunately, this left a residue of books that I didn’t much want to read at all.

Kathleen says, “If you’re not liking it, then just put it down.” Partly because I see myself as a Serious Reader — somebody who can be counted upon to have read certain kinds of books all the way through — and partly because of that fundamentally adolescent dread that the book, like a party that you’ve decided not to go to or haven’t even been invited to, will turn out to have been wildly exciting, abandoning books midstream is not an option for me except in emergency cases. 

So I have had to strategise. You may recall that I didn’t finish Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us. I stopped, about fifty pages from the end, and peeked through the remaining text to confirm my hunches about how the story was going to work out. Then I set the book aside. But at some point, I had to read those pages. This was, after all, Ian McEwan, no matter how disappointing the book. So I knocked it off yesterday afternoon, sitting out on the balcony. Now I am free to think about the book’s many interesting themes (no longer lumbered with the book’s unattractive protagonist) without being pestered by the reminder that you didn’t really read it

When that was done, I read a chapter, and just one chapter, of a novel that I have not been enjoying. I don’t care for the prose, which strikes me as self-conscious to the point of dutiful translation, and I don’t like the tone of the story. The only word that I can think of to describe the latter is the utterly forbidden “primitive.” I was deceived by the praise of a very favorable reference (not a review) made in passing by a writer whom I admire, and by a title that I rather lazily misunderstood. On the jacket, there is a raving blurb by a British master that I can only regard as political. If and when I get through the novel, I will tell you the name; otherwise, I’ll have no right to cloud it with my unhappiness. 

For this book, I decided to limit myself to a chapter a day, which I would read during daylight hours. (Nighttime is for adventure.)

Over the weekend, I picked up a book with the firm intention of browsing, and not re-reading it through. The book is Them: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray. I was reminded of this book last year — by what, I can’t remember. Immediately, I wondered where I had shelved it and if I had even held onto it. Before I ransacked the library, it turned up in one of the boxes of books that came down when we closed the second storage place, a few months ago. Phew. 

Them is a nonpareil book that manages to suggest an entire genre. (One is very sorry that Dawn Powell didn’t live to read it.) How should we describe this genre? How about “Cinderella at Spence, as Illustrated by Cecil Beaton Irving Penn”? In a world of white enamel walls and white vinyl upholstery, circa 1942, we find lonely Francine, a poor half-Russian, half-French immigrant who seems nonetheless to lead the life of Eloïse, bearing up under her parents’ stylish neglect and struggling, through the Café Society hours that they keep, to do well enough on her college-entrance exams to get into Bryn Mawr.  (Since Francine will grow up to be a famous writer, we don’t doubt that she’ll succeed.) Anyone who has read the book can tell from this facetiousness that I opened the book, by design, in the middle; I didn’t want to read about the milliner mother’s youthful service as muse to the poet Mayakovsky. I don’t really know what I did want, but I did relish the espresso-cup doses of Tatiana Liberman’s coronal narcissism. Mama may have been a monster (albeit the kind that isn’t cruel), and stepfather may have been a scheming careerist who never made any true friends, but daughter is not ashamed of that Penn portrait of the three of them, dressed to go out on the town, but leaning their chins on their elbows with amusing ennui.  

I could take only so much of this, and as it happens there was only so much of it to be taken. What I needed was something exciting. Happily, I remembered Henry James’s The Awkward Age

Mr Mitchett had so little instrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted, as an aid to memory, to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from detection. (II, vii)

Now, that’s thrilling. 

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