Monday, 27 February 2012

When a book hits the spot

There are times when a book comes along and it slides into your life without a hiccup, without causing abrasions, without any jarring whatsoever; it just sits down beside you, takes your hand, slips between the sheets. I've just had that pleasurable experience. Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant hit the spot. At a time when I have been writing about Italy and the art found within it I bought Rendezvous at a charity book stall; the timing was just perfect.

It is written perfectly, each sentence is thought out, there is not a word out of place. Sometimes perfectly constructed prose can be boring, tedious, send you crawling for the nearest piece of trash 'lit' or even the television. It is possible that if I had read this book at any other time I would have found myself slumped in front of an episode of Eastenders, or god forbid one of the Spanish soaps (you cannot get deeper in the barrel of poor TV than Spanish soaps). As it was I was swept along on the rush of words, through the swirling rapids and into the dead calm of the lagoon where language and I both drew breath.

Rendezvous struck a chord. As I read I highlighted four passages that hit home for purely personal reasons. The first because I am an author:
I pray you, Miss. See for yourself. I only have three pages left. I don't like to go to sleep without finishing my chapter. It is discourteous to the author who took pains to conclude it.
The second because I have been writing about Venice, about how it is not one thing nor the other, and had at times found it difficult to frame the words succinctly. Here they were, those words I had wanted to write.
The curve of the bridge and the inverted curve of its reflection, one real the other virtual, formed a perfect circle which was an illusion, but all the more pleasing for that knowledge.
The romantic me was stimulated by the third of the episodes. It captures the essence of the looks of love that one has either been lucky enough to be a part of or has spent many an idle hour dreaming of.
I thought it was only in the paintings of the great masters that lovers could look at each other for eternity, without the night ever falling, without old age creeping in, without tiredness, fatigue or boredom ever appearing. I had just discovered that the stillness of eternal lovers[...] could give way to looks, fleeting smiles and momentary glances.
And the final sentence was totally personal. It was as if the author had overheard my boyfriend and I discussing the merits, or not as far as he was concerned, of card and board games. It made me smile, it had meaning to me that was probably far beyond the author's expectations.
What annoyed him about card games was their uselessness.
In all this small novel (and I like small we don't need 100,000 words to get a story across) came to me at exactly the right moment with just the right amount of each of the ingredients. It suits my current tastes and whilst I very much doubt I will re-read it, I will remember it with fondness.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012 him or hate him?

I admitted recently in a world-wide forum, as opposed to dinner party truth or dare moments, that I don't like Charles Dickens, or more precisely his work. And if we are talking about his novels I still don't, with the notable exception of A Tale of Two Cities. I particularly dislike the way in which characters almost miraculously transform themselves from the worst possible creature into a paragon of Christian virtue. It is irritating and very against human nature - people can change but not to that extreme. It also goes against the 'rules of good writing.' You should not con your reader this way. Dickens does and he gets away with it. How can readers put up with such cheating in a book? It's like a murder mystery where half the clues are kept from you. Of course you're not going to know that it was old Mother Hubbard if you did not know that she had a cupboard, let alone a dog. Anyway, I have discovered another side to Dickens and I quite like it.

As part of my research for City Chronicles: A Little Bit of Italy, I came across Dickens' Pictures of Italy, one of his travel writing pieces and I liked it. I liked the description of the places and people he came across. I have even quoted from it. That led me, through the wonderful Project Gutenberg, to American Notes and...I laughed. Out loud. American Notes was met with some rather barbed remarks from the American press when it was published. They took umbrage over Dickens' portrayal of American society, and if you read the book you could understand why. He was speaking as he found; he quite obviously did not have a very enjoyable trip. He summed up his desire to get home brilliantly in the first paragraph of the last chapter 'The Passage Home,'

I never had so much interest before, and very likely I shall never have so much interest again, in the state of the wind, as on the long-looked for morning of Tuesday, the Seventh of June. Some nautical authority had told me a day or two previous, 'anything with west in it will do;' so when I darted out of bed at daylight, and throwing up the window, was saluted by a lively breeze from the north-west which had sprung up in the night, it came upon me so freshly, rustling with so many happy associations, that I conceived upon the spot a special regard for all airs blowing from that quarter of the compass [...]'
Okay, he does go on a bit, but the sentiment cannot be missed. I've felt that way. Not to do with westerly winds necessarily, but for leaving certain shores, yes. Sometimes the urge to get home can be quite overwhelming. And because I've finally found something of the man that I like, can relate to, I don't mind him quite as much anymore. I just wish he hadn't written Dombey and Son, Great Expectations, David Copperfield...
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