Book Diary: Fitzgerald, Kundera, Offill, Yates, Lessing and Emin

A strange thing has been happening to me lately: I’ve been reading more greedily than ever before, but not writing a word about it. When I first started this blog I wrote about nearly every book I read, diligently reading, digesting, then writing pert little diary entries (I really should delete some of those one day) and nothing much else. Anything creative was hard work and I’ve never had much of a work ethic.

Recently, however, I’ve been keeping a stealthy silence about my reading experiences. That in itself isn’t so odd really, sometimes you just can’t think of anything to say. What is unusual though (for me), is that I can’t stop writing other stuff. Stuff is pouring out into ‘Creative Writing. It is like now, I’m readily crazily, and then writing stories instead of book diary entries. This is a first for me. I’m enjoying it a lot, but I feel a kind of guilt that the brilliance I’m reading is going unacknowledged, unobserved – it feels ungrateful and egotistical. Clearly it is feeding something and I don’t want to be the spoilt child.

So, to rectify this, to pay my dues, here are my retablos to some (although still not all) of the books I have read recently (in chronological order):

Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This is second Fitzgerald I’ve read in the last year, and ever, but the first I’ve read in the original English. It made me wish I was very beautiful, not only beautiful, but very beautiful. I suppose because of the power. However, it could have equally, but didn’t, make me want to be rich. Money of course is also power, but in this novel at least beauty trumps money in the power stakes.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)

This was actually a re-read, something I rarely do. I don’t even know why I suddenly had the desire to search it out from my bookshelves and read it with such urgency. The first time I read it I was 16 years old (otherwise known as 20 years ago). I know that I loved it because I have always retained the memory of it, and the feeling of having loved it. It is amazing to me now (after having read it again) that I did love it at such a young age. What could I have known about love, sex, life? But then, what do I know about it now?

I like to think that the reason I went to it, suddenly, urgently, seemingly without reason, was this (my new favourite quote):

“On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.”

Not long after finishing the book, that quote got me into all kind of trouble, allowing me as it allowed me to allow myself, to rationalise some questionable behaviours.

The Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill)

I was drawn to this book by a review in the newsletter of my local bookshop. I thought with a name like Jenny Offill there is no way she can be Spanish, so I hunted it down in the original English.

In truth it took me a while to get used to the style of the writing, but not long, and it didn’t take much, but it was there. However, once this was gotten over, I raced ahead with avarice, and did something that you read a lot on the blurb for books, but is something I have never, ever done: I finished it and then turned it over and reread it all over again, immediately.

I found myself thinking that it was like a novel-version of The Course of Love, until I had to keep reminding myself that The Course of Love IS a novel. The two books seemed to lap at one another in my mind, becoming one and the same, taking turns at being non-fiction and narrative, because in the end with a subject like this, there never is going to be much separation between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. I loved them both equally and differently, and I will try, as I move forward with my life, to keep them mentally at my side.

Disturbing the Peace (Richard Yates)

Mercifully – as I didn’t want to ruin another holiday (the seven hour train journey in the company of The Easter Parade will haunt me forever) – this Yates didn’t unhinge me quite as much as the other works of his I have read did. I think this is because I didn’t care so much what happened to the doomed protagonist. Schizophrenic and alcoholic, the character of John Wilder did make me want to drink a lot of rum and lemon, but I have long been accused of being highly suggestible. It also made me think of this from Lorrie Moore’s short story, Debarking:

“Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually better-looking than other people. Dating proved it!”

La Costumbre de Amar (Doris Lessing)

This was the first ever Doris Lessing I have read. I had wanted to read something of hers for a long while and I found this old edition in Spanish on a book stall (more a book-blanket-on-the-ground actually) for 1 euro. I liked it a lot, especially the one about the old lady and her cat, and the one about the married women who commits suicide.

Tons of old Granta

I swiped these from my sister’s collection and what can I say except I am now a subscriber. These have elevated and transported me during lunch breaks from my shitty job. Really, they have been soul savers, in the truest sense that I know.

Strangeland (Tracey Emin)

What I know about art, I learnt from my wonderful ex-boyfriend, who is an artist and also a Fine Art graduate. He told me about the YBAs and why they were so important. He taught me how to read their work, and that of other artists and schools also.

Like most people who were teenaged in the 90s, of course I knew who Tracey Emin was, but it wasn’t until I met the above mentioned person that I came to understand her work better. That said, I wasn’t exactly a fan, in the sense that I didn’t follow her, or her career. Therefore, I somewhat surprised myself when I went a bit crazy trying to get hold of her diaries which have just been translated into Spanish. I think it is was this quote from the review that did it:

“Sólo he sobrevivido gracias al arte, que me ha dado fe en mi propia existencia”

(I have survived only thanks to art, which has given me faith in my own existence)

And this one, near to the end of the book, I found (after having read 232 pages about the many difficulties and sadnesses in her life) to be overwhelming, moving and beautifully put:

“En los últimos años lo he exteriorizado todo, en cierto sentido me he puesto del revés.  Sé que las cosas no son blancas o negras, pero yo veo dos formas de actuar: con discreción, elegancia y respeto por mí misma, o lanzándome a una ebria y decadente orgía de pasión creadora, llevándome a los extremos más salvajes, tan lejos como pueda llegar una persona sin miedo.  Y no sé qué camino eligeré.”

(In the last few years I have exteriorised everything, in a way I have turned myself inside out.  I know that things aren’t black and white, but from what I can see there are two ways of acting: with discretion, elegance and respect for myself, or throwing myself into a drunken, decadent orgy of creative passion, taking myself to the most wild extremes, as far as someone without fear can go.  And I don’t know which road I will chose. *My translations)

I’ve only just finished reading this, so I am struggling still to quantify my feelings and responses, to assimilate her to me, but I do know that this book has changed me.

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