“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (Mark Twain)

Hey freshers! If you’re reading this, it means only one thing: you survived Fresher’s Week! Congratulations! Now get yourself dosed up on alka seltzer and down to the GUM clinic, pronto.

If there’s one thing I’m expert on, other than TV detectives and cheese, its being a student. I’m ridiculously overqualified and not studying anything for the past 2 years is the longest I’ve ever gone without sitting a course of some kind, probably ever. I’m feeling decidedly twitchy and trying to decide what I want to educate myself in next (current contenders: whisky tasting/dry stone walling (not a huge demand in London, admittedly)/ French language) but until that time I’ve gone back to college via 2 wonderful novels. And for all those students out there, pay attention to your older, wiser Madame B, and remember:

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Firstly, Stoner by John Williams (1963), which is something of a rediscovered classic in recent years, with effusive praise heaped on it from all quarters. In this instance I thought the hype was absolutely deserved. Stoner is a beautifully written, acutely observed portrait of an ordinary life which is deeply moving.

William Stoner grows up on a farm without books, until his father takes the remarkable decision that Stoner should study agriculture at the University of Missouri, which he joins in 1910. What no-one foresees, least of all Stoner himself, is that he will fall in love, with literature:

“As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself”

And so we follow Stoner as he becomes a student of literature, then a teacher, and never leaves the university.

“Sometimes he stood in the centre of the quad, looking at the five huge columns in front of Jesse Hall that thrust upward into the night out of the cool grass… Grayish in the moonlight, bare and pure, they seemed to him to represent the way of life he had embraced, as a temple represents a god.”

The life Stoner leads is very ordinary: he makes a disastrous marriage but they stick it out, he becomes an OK teacher, he makes friends and enemies, he has a loving but complex relationship with his daughter… nothing happens and everything happens. The writing is so good that you are pulled along through this everyday story just as much as you would be through a heavily plot-driven thriller.

Stoner is undeniably a sad novel. Stoner has a lot of loneliness in his life and he is victim to circumstances which he cannot control and which are grossly unfair, engineered by people who vent their pain on him. Yet it is not depressing, because he endures and he finds joy. For the bibliophile, there are some beautifully realised passages describing why we love literature:

“the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words”

More generally, there is peace to be found in accepting the things we cannot change, and there is plenty Stoner cannot change:

“As he walked slowly through the evening, breathing the fragrance and tasting upon his tongue the sharp night-time air, it seemed to him that the moment he walked in was enough and he might not need a great deal more.”

I highly recommend this quietly heart-breaking novel.

 

Secondly, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2012), which I never would have picked up, thinking it was a sports novel, if it wasn’t for Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best reassuring me that it definitely was about more than baseball (she’s right); you can read her review here.

The Art of Fielding follows Henry Skrimshader’s career at Westish College, where he is accepted due to his prowess on the baseball field. He is recruited there by Mike Schwartz, an ambitious jock whose knees are giving out; he rooms with Owen Dunne, a beautiful clean-freak who is also a highly talented player and who begins a problematic affair; and President Affenlight discovers a new love of baseball alongside other more surprising things, just as his troubled daughter Pella returns home.

“If Affenlight were to list the things he loved, he wouldn’t include Westish – that would seem silly, like saying you loved yourself. He spent half his time frustrated with, ambivalent about, annoyed at the place. But anything that happened to alter the fortunes of Westish College, Affenlight took more seriously than if it were happening to himself.”

Henry’s career at Westish does not go smoothly and his crisis affects all those around him. There is quite a lot about baseball in the novel and it all went over my head seeing as how I’ve never watched a game in my life and don’t really plan to change this, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest. Harbach’s writing reminded me a bit of Richard Russo, in that it captures a slightly old-fashioned, all-American life, but is involving and affecting because of this, rather than nostalgic and distancing. The focus is very much on well-drawn, idiosyncratic characters and their relationships, so that you feel absolutely drawn into their lives.

I may not know much about baseball, but what Harbach taught me is what I’ve always suspected, that for people who get it, sports and life are one and the same:

“What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn’t know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened.  You had to throw out words without knowing anyone would catch them – you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore.”

Really, The Art of Fielding is about love. Love between friends, parents and children, siblings, lovers, team mates, teacher and student, platonic, romantic, familial… in all its guises. And in that it is deeply moving. The ending isn’t sad but it still made me cry on the bus, dammit.

To end, a song I heard last week for the first time in years, and which took me straight back to my first foray into further education:

“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.” (Winston Churchill)

A friend of mine got married last weekend, and most lovely it was too. But enough about them; it gives me an excuse for indulgence of an enduring crush (who I planned to marry when I was six –  with hindsight I suspect the age gap was insurmountable):

To celebrate I’ve picked two novels which explore the theme of marriage. Firstly, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011). Set at Brown University in the early 1980s, it tells the story of three undergraduates, Leonard, Madeleine and Mitchell, as they try and find their way through life, while realising that their academic and intellectual achievements have not prepared them in any way. As an English graduate, I particularly enjoyed Eugenides’ evocation and gentle ribbing of this area of study:

“That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical- because they weren’t musical, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

Of course I disagree 🙂 Eugenides is very good a skewering the intellectual trends in academia, which at this time was semiotics, while not undermining idealistic Madeleine’s belief in ideas and search for meaning. Unfortunately “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” and she finds the theories don’t really account for the messiness of real world relationships. In one pivotal scene, the writing of Roland Barthes is used to break her heart:

I Love You je-t’aime/I-love-you. As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger he motioned for her to keep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Suddenly Madeleine’s happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren’t naked.”

The Marriage Plot is comic but remains grounded in the three vulnerable characters trying to become the best versions of themselves. Once they leave university, the novel shifts from satirising academia to focus on the characters’ relationships with one another. Eugenides uses a typical romantic plot (no-one is in love with anyone who can love them back) to create a metafictional commentary on how romance and marriage have been presented throughout the ages, particularly in novels. If this sounds truly dreadful, rest assured the novel stops short of being too smug about its own cleverness, and what emerges in the second half is a truly sensitive portrait of mental illness.

 “That was when Leonard realised something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.”

Whether or not this is true, Leonard is both brilliant and extremely unwell, and the exploration of his bipolar disorder is non-sensationalist and balanced, showing the effect on Leonard and those around him; the price paid for something devastating which is no-one’s fault.

“it was as if her own heart had been surgically removed from her body and was being kept at a remote location, still connected to her and pumping blood through her veins, but exposed to dangers she couldn’t see: her heart was in a box somewhere, in the open air, unprotected.”

I didn’t find The Marriage Plot quite as effective as Eugenides’ debut The Virgin Suicides, and although I haven’t read Middlesex, his lauded second novel (it’s buried in a TBR stack somewhere…), I doubt this novel concerned the Pulitzer judges to the same extent. However, it is a novel with much to offer, and I recognised and cared about all the characters in it. The Marriage Plot plays with ideas and even destabilises itself with metafictional nods towards novels and novel writing, but never at the expense of a recognisable humanity.

“the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance, In the days when success in life had depended marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sung of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”

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Pasta eating dogs melt even this non-romantic’s heart

Secondly, The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (2004), which portrays the marriage between Michael and Pauline, from their courtship under the shadow of World War II through to old age. Their fledgling relationship is shown through the eyes of the small town where Michael has grown up:

“She had her read coat on, which is how they could all spot her from such a distance. They said ‘Michael! Look!’ and Michael turned at once in the right direction, although Pauline herself had not called out. When she came nearer they could see why. She had no breath left, poor thing. She was gasping and tousle-haired and flushed – really not her prettiest, but who in the world cared? She was holding out her arms, and Michael dropped his belongings and started running too, and when they collided he swooped her up so her feet completely left the ground, Everybody said ‘Ah’ in one long satisfied sigh – everyone except his mother, but even she watched with something close to sympathy.”

Once the war – and its accompanying heightened experience, drama and uncertainty is over, the marriage is shown through the eyes of the couple, who realise they are entirely mismatched:

“by nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter, while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. She was brimming with energy – a floor pacer, a foot jiggler, a finger drummer – while he was slow and plodding and secretly somewhat lazy. Everything to her was all or nothing…while to him the world was calibrated more incrementally and more fuzzily.”

This being Anne Tyler, it is not a huge tragedy, but rather a psychologically astute portrait of two people and their family with the attendant hurt, frustration, disappointment, love and affection:

“Another time, Michael might have felt annoyed by this rouged and lipsticked version of the truth. Such concern for the looks of things even within the family! But today he was touched. It occurred to him that his wife had amazing reserves of strength, that women like Pauline were the ones who kept the planet spinning. Or at least, they made it appear to keep spinning, however it might in fact be wobbling on its axis.”

If you’ve read any of Anne Tyler’s 20 novels before, you’ll know what to expect in The Amateur Marriage: set in Baltimore, concerned with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, with no huge dramas. This is not a criticism, however. She is brilliant at well-observed detail, of the meaning found in small moments, of what we learn to live with and the solace imperfect human beings can give one another.

“He believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal ignorance…Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever – the last couple left in the amateurs’ parade.”

To end, a little something for another friend who was also at the wedding, and who I think will be the next bride I see. She has an agreement with her partner for a certain man to be her celebrity allowance:

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #96)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

Now that I have some of my life back after a period where I was deranged enough to both work and study full-time (what was I thinking???? etc etc ad infinitum) I’ve decided I need to get back on track with my reading challenge, and I’m easing myself in with the slim novel The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is the first of Chandler’s novels, and the first I’ve read. It’s a mark of how far his style and the hardboiled detectives he created have become assimilated into modern culture that I could hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head reading every word:

Having finished the novel it’s a source of constant disappointment to me that I don’t have Bogie’s voice in my head narrating my daily life, although admittedly if he did turn up he’d probably leave out of utter boredom:

“I walked to the kitchen. A cat appeared from nowhere, making his disgust at the lack of crunchies in his bowl known.  I poured a cup of tea. The kettle needed descaling but I couldn’t be bothered. I was out of milk. I debated whether to drink it black or go to the shop. The tea in the cup was as dark as the night outside. As dark as my soul. I put on my coat, knowing the wind outside would be colder than the welcome awaiting my return if the cat bowl remained empty.”

Hmm, it’s not really working, is it? Let’s see it done properly, with tales of blackmail, murder, riches and glamour in Los Angeles, rather than domestic banalities in south London. Private eye Philip Marlowe is summoned by the affluent and moribund General Sternwood:

“His long narrow body was wrapped – in that heat – in a travelling rug and a faded red bathrobe. His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock […] The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.”

This is the real joy of Chandler, his much-parodied use of simile, inventive and atmospheric. The images he uses accentuate the world-weary knowingness of Marlowe: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” but I must confess that my sheltered existence meant I didn’t always understand all of them: “Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust”. Whaaat? Anyone?

As Marlowe investigates the blackmail case the General has employed him to uncover, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly (I think the phrase ‘seedy underbelly’ was probably coined to describe Chandler’s oeuvre) of Los Angeles – “It seemed like a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in”– pornography, drugs, murder, and of course, sexy ladies at every turn:

“She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn’t reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores.”

The plot is convoluted, with everyone double-crossing everyone else and Marlowe at the centre of it all, trying to hang on to some sort moral compass:

 “I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.”

He is compelling narrator, wise, brave and so much cooler than probably any of his readers (definitely me, as much as I wish I looked like this):

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This is a novel to accept on its own terms – one where atmosphere and style top anything else.  Famously, director Howard Hawks queried a plot-hole with Chandler when he was filming The Big Sleep. Chandler confirmed he had no idea as to the answer.  But for escapist entertainment, a quick read with a confident narrative voice (Humphrey Bogart’s to be precise), The Big Sleep is a great example of the hard-boiled genre.

“The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race.”

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