November Reading

This month has delivered some outstanding reading – and that is saying a lot, given the amount I have discovered this year. I started the month with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, followed it up with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and finished Stefan Zweig’s Confusion this morning. Having gravitated towards German writing since my visit to Munich and Salzburg last month, I also have Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, and Arthur Schnitzler’s The Dead Are Silent lined up for the next couple of weeks (thanks to book bloggers from the Guardian for these recommendations).

I’ll begin with Confusion, the book that is freshest in my mind. I couldn’t sleep this morning and decided to use the quiet early hours to finish the 40 pages or so I had left. I have been quite slow with this novella, reading and re-reading, charmed by Zweig’s power to put into words the unsaid. He lays bare deep and dark thoughts, brings in an intensity that I last remember being really moved by in The Outsider by Albert Camus. In today’s times, the story of the relationship between a teacher and his student may not be pathbreaking; but it is in the execution that Zweig amazes with his skill. He speaks unabashedly of the follies of youth, the inconsistencies of the heart and the mind, and the layers of embarrassment that are unhappily folded away, even though the damming up of these feelings may cause untold anguish and pain. He doesn’t offer any easy solutions. But this is the world we live in, these are the strictures we place on ourselves in deference to propriety, and so we continue to fight our battles or capitulate. (Thanks, H., for the recommendation.)

An excerpt from Confusion:

Changeable as he was, he kept confusing my feelings, and I do not exaggerate when I say that in my overexcited state I often came close to committing some thoughtless act just because his indifferent hand pushed away a book to which I had drawn his attention, or because suddenly, when we were deep in conversation in the evening and I was absorbing his ideas, breathing them all in, he would suddenly rise – having only just laid an affectionate hand on my shoulder – and say brusquely: “Off you go, now! It’s late. Good night.” Such trivialities were enough to upset me for hours, indeed for days. Perhaps my exacerbated feelings, constantly overstretched, saw insults where none were intended – although what use are explanations thought up to soothe oneself when the mind is so disturbed?’

***

We now move on to Anderson’s masterpiece. Anderson was a key American writer of the 20s, an influential figure of the Lost Generation. Why he isn’t more widely known, I am at a loss to understand. His writing isn’t glamorous: it is straightforward and raw, and he doesn’t flinch from stating the truth. Winesburg, Ohio talks of the lives of ordinary men and women in a village whose life revolves around a Main Street and the farms yonder. I went in expecting something similar to Willa Cather or Sinclair Lewis, but if I remember them correctly, Anderson is less inclined towards building stories and more keen on portraying the struggles we go through in our efforts to please ourselves and others. Like Zweig, he is a realist and does not shun the ugly or the mundane. His characters from midwestern America grapple with the same fears and insecurities that people anywhere, at any point in time, do. Sample this:

‘There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.’

I stumbled upon Winesburg at a Virginia library, picked it up a few times, read the blurb, read the opening lines, and put it back because I felt that it might exacerbate the despair of the dark winter months. On the contrary, I now think it might have been bracing for its acknowledgement of the messiness of life and its inconstancy, making me come to terms with the long, endless nights.

***

Miss Lonelyhearts is my second West. I read The Day of the Locust last year with some admiration. Lonelyhearts took my appreciation of West a level higher. Both these books are solemn – his brilliance comes to the fore in his ability to see through life. He delivers his wisdom in frank, pithy sentences; no drama or exaggeration. In describing the life of a newspaper agony aunt, he mirrors our own concerns and confusion. He had so much to give to those of us incapable of setting our thoughts down coherently. Unfortunately, West was killed in a car crash the day after F Scott Fitzgerald died. Life can be really perverse at times.

An excerpt from Miss Lonelyhearts:

‘Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature…the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.’

I don’t write about my reading every month, but November has been exceptionally good to me. I have rediscovered the kind of writing I used to revel in, and hopefully moved away from the phase when most things had to be sunshine and dancing snowflakes. I maintain that you read a certain book only when the time for it is right, when you will be able to fully appreciate its ability to influence. I hope that I’ll make my peace with The Magic Mountain and Middlemarch soon.

 

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