Posted by: Dan | November 3, 2009

October Books

Well, I’ve had a couple weightier tomes on the go for awhile now, but I wasn’t able to finish them last month… so just fiction and lit. on the list.

1. The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Stegner and I think he is growing on me.  His writing reminds me of Steinbeck and Hardy… but not quite as good.  Of course, Steinbeck and Hardy set the bar impossibly high, so don’t be put off — this is still a very enjoyable book.

In it, Stegner tells us the story of Elsa and Bo Mason — from their youth on through to their old age, which also takes us through from the childhood to mid-life of their sons, Chester and Bruce.  The story is set in North America in the early twentieth-century and it speaks of the struggle to survive, the challenge of conflicting desires, accepting the consequences of one’s choices, and living in light of that which is beyond one’s control.  Recommended reading.

2. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

Well, I continue to chip away at McCarthy but I think that this is my least favourite of the books I have read by him.  Perhaps it was because I had already seen the movie and so the plot did not pull me in as much, as I knew what to expect (speaking of the movie, after reading the novel, I think they did an excellent job casting the central characters).  Of course, all this is not to suggest that this was a crummy novel.  It’s a good book.  The characters are very well crafted, the various narrative voices are well employed, and the ongoing action or tension causes the reader to press on.

(I’m not actually mentioning the plot because I’m assuming most people are familiar with it from the movie.)

3. Blindness by José Saramago.

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this book about an epidemic of (white) blindness that suddenly descends upon an unnamed town (and presumably spreads to the rest of the world).  What then results — first the quarantine imposed upon the blind (as they are isolated within an old insane asylum) and what happens there, and then the general collapse of society as everyone is stricken blind — is probably a fairly honest portrayal of how humans tend to react to crises.  Some band together to try and care for each other, some band together to exploit others, everyone’s hands get dirty and, at the end of the day, most everybody is just trying to stay alive (no matter what that might end up costing others… including loved ones).

Saramago also has an interesting writing style.  He never uses proper names for characters (but calls them “The Doctor’s Wife”, “The Girl with Dark Glasses” and so on), he writes massive run-on sentences (using commas as periods) and often doesn’t distinguish in-text dialog from commentary (ensuring that the reader must pay attention to who might be talking and when).  Generally I’m not a fan of this style of writing but I found that it worked for me in Blindness and drew me into the story.

4. Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke.

As I’ve been more and more impressed with Rilke (see item #5), I was happy to find a great German/English copy of the Duino Elegies (which some people have called the greatest piece of poetry written in the twentieth-century) and The Sonnets to Orpheus.  The Sonnets didn’t do much for me, but certain passages from the Elegies rate amongst the best writing I’ve read.  Ever.  This is what poetry should be like — it should knock the wind out of you and leave you full of wonder and longing, sorrow and gratitude.  For example, read the opening lines of the first elegy:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence.  For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us.  Every angel is terrifying.

Or look at this from the conclusion of the fourth elegy:

But this: that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it to one’s heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living,
is inexpressible.

There is so much more I could quote, but I’ll just go with one more, from the ninth elegy:

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us.  Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing.  Just once; no more.  And we too,
just once. and never again.  But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

My God.  My God.

5. The Disasters of War by Francisco Goya.

Well, I’m not sure if this really counts as “reading” but, um, I did read the two page intro (and all the picture captions!) so, what the hell, I’ll add it to my list.  Basically, this book presents the reader with a series of prints Goya made based upon the Spanish insurrection (against the French) that occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth-century.  The pictures are stark, brutal and devastating — portraying everything from the mutilation of corpses to (what is about to become) gang rape — and act as a condemnation of war and the violence that people practice against other people.

I originally picked up this book, because I was doing some research for a piece of art I’m getting done.  The Disasters of War is certainly a powerful series but, in terms of my own interests, I find myself even more strongly attracted to the work of Käthe Kollwitz.  Sometimes I wonder why I’m so strongly drawn to such stark portrayals of death in art…

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Responses

  1. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m so strongly drawn to such stark portrayals of death in art…”

    Me too.

    Been nurturing a growing interest in Goya for the last couple of years. Was lucky enough to catch a selection of the Caprichos by chance at our national gallery here in Melbourne, earlier this year.

    • Yeah, Goya was the first artist who really connected with me a lot of years ago. It’s been slim pickings since then but I’m excited that I’m finding more artists whom I really appreciate (just as I’m excited to discover a poet whom I enjoy).

  2. That poem by Rilke has been my favourite poem in the world for ten years solid:

    God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
    Then walks with us silently out of the night.
    These are the words we dimly hear:

    You, sent out beyond your recall,
    Go to the limits of your longing.
    Embody me.

    Flare up like flame
    And make big shadows I can move in.

    Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
    Just keep going. No feeling is final.
    Don’t let yourself lose me.

    Nearby is the country they call life.
    You will know it by its seriousness.

    Give me your hand.

    That translation is actually quite shaky, because Rilke is in the habit of using words which have several different meanings in German. The translator just solidified their own meaning. If you’ve got two words of German it’s worth reading the original:

    Gott spricht zu jedem nur, eh er ihn macht,
    dann geht er schweigend mit ihm aus der Nacht.
    Aber die Worte, eh jeder beginnt,
    diese wolkigen Worte, sind:

    Von deinen Sinnen hinausgesandt,
    geh bis an deiner Sehnsucht Rand;
    gieb mir Gewand.
    Hinter den Dingen wachse als Brand,
    dass ihre Schatten, ausgespannt,
    immer mich ganz bedecken.

    Lass dir Alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken.
    Man muss nur gehn: Kein Gefühl ist das fernste.
    Lass dich von mir nicht trennen.
    Nah ist das Land,
    das sie das Leben nennen.

    Du wirst es erkennen
    an seinem Ernste.

    Gieb mir die Hand.

    • Thanks for that, Dany.

      And that’s why I’ve been making sure to buy German/English editions for all the Rilke I’ve been reading.

      • Speaking of which, this edition of Book of Hours ( http://tinyurl.com/bookoh )
        is both bilingual and has okay translations. To see the difference on the poem I quoted, you can scroll to page 81.

  3. I read the Duino Elegies once a month more or less, and I think to myself often that if I could just write one stanza as good as any of those in that book that my writing life would be complete.

    I find it is best read outloud, to a willing listener, and in a single go.

    • Hi Peter,

      Actually, some time ago, when I was talking about texts that traumatized me, I remember that you mentioned the Duino Elegies. However, it wasn’t until a friend started sending me quotes from Rilke that I ended up following through on your recommendation. Man, I am so glad that I did.

      • If you like Rilke you may also like Holderlin – harder to get into and not so consistently but still really in the same vein when he is gets it right.

  4. Dan-O. LOOONG time no speak. Seems like your still up to your old tricks.

    Drop me a line…tell me what’s up!!


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