Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Blog, Old Books

... which was always the intention of this blog, but being Delirium sometimes the excitement of the new and curious overtakes the best of intentions. Here at DL I've begun the new year by admitting to myself that my knowledge of books written before I was born is, erm, slightly selective despite having studied English Literature at university for about a thousand years. I largely skipped eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction, and admit to some bourgeois/humanist anxiety about the fewness of the European classics in translation on my shelf. Unlike my friend Steve, I don't have the iron will to conceive a program of reading including a moratorium on the new, but I am trying, piecemeal, to spend some time with the Classics shelf in the bookstore.

And it's very seductive, not least because it's one of the few places that classic paperback design persists, with the elegant black Penguin Classics spines dominating at my local independent bookstore (I never liked the garish yellow and red of the 1990s Oxford World Classics redesign). Penguin is rightly celebrated for its excellence in book design, which makes its venture into ridiculous celebrity cover art (Manolo Blahnik for Madame Bovary) seem slightly childish, totally a product of Blair's obsessive "Brand Britain" type of design fetishism. Meanwhile, in the background, they continue to provide an astonishing kaleidoscope of foundational texts from many cultures, including a new translation of the Shahnama (Persian Book of Kings).

That's one for another day. At the moment, my lacuna-filling has brought me to George Eliot. I tried to read Mill on the Floss when I was eighteen, and threw it out of a coach window after about seventy pages. Boooooooooring. Bonnets and Pilgrim's Progress and moors. Where was the wuthering? In the spirit of Alice, I found it hard to see the point of a book with no shagging and no pop culture references. I was obsessed with Kathy Acker, the Sandman, and Michael Ondaatje. I wanted wild poetry, rebellion, experimentation, and general naughtiness.

George Eliot, though, she knew all about naughtiness: how it lives in the smallest acts of rebellion. How it has to stay small in a society as constrictive as hers. And how, in a society where women could only be bodies, perhaps the greatest act of transgression was to stay true to a life of the mind. That's what I learnt from Middlemarch, which I read on something of a dare by my friend Kate. It took me nearly two weeks of reading several hours a day, but I got obsessed with it: not so much with Dorothea but with the catty, arch voice of the omniscient narrator which seemed to speak for/from Dorothea's secret heart. I did in fact once play Dorothea in a play set after the end of Middlemarch, but never read the book. What I mainly remember from that play is the sense of constriction, and the childlikeness attributed to her, which I can now see as misogynistic bobbins. Although everyone considers her unworldly, I find Dorothea - certainly by the end of the novel - one of the most grown-up characters I've ever encountered. Her seriousness of purpose is breathtaking.

Romola, which I'm reading now, seems like a sketch for a novel focused on a serious woman. It's not considered one of the Eliot canon (except by Henry James, who loved the Florentine setting - and probably the tortuous sentence structures) but there's a perverse pleasure in its oddness, the way in which Medicean Florence is turned into Middlemarch, with its churchy faction and its bold young men, its dry scholars and beautiful country women. Romola is a Dorothea who married Lydgate, a serious young woman discovering that a bold, popular young man in probably extremely shallow. It's fascinating to see the pieces played differently.

But it's more of an academic exercise than a pleasurable fiction. My current pleasure read is Alberta and Freedom by Cora Sandel, perhaps Norway's most celebrated woman novelist. I had never even HEARD of her until I encountered a new edition of Alberta in the Galignani bookstore in Paris, which is a treasure trove and possibly heaven. I'd never been there before and it was good enough to distract me from the promise of "Paris' best hot chocolate" at Angelique's next door, which looked like something out of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoninette.

Alors, Alberta. Cora. According to the introduction to Virago's English translation, they are one and the same: a Norwegian woman who has fled a marriage to learn French in Paris, writing occasionally and modelling for artists. It's Paris between the wars, the literary era that most makes me wish for a time machine, and Alberta is part Jean Rhys and part Jean Seberg. There's something in both the mordant observation and cultivation of solitude that reminds me of Tove Jansson.

Is it a Scandinavian thing? I haven't read enough Scandi literature to know. Will I ever? Delirium's Library stretches to the vanishing point...

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