Tuesday, July 17, 2018
a cold day in july
Hey, friends. Long time no post. It's high summer around here and life has been overly full of wonderfulness. That is, whenever I am able to calm the nearly constant low-level (or high-level...) nausea induced by the news. Which news? All of the news. Pick a topic. Utterly revolting. As usual I feel like a dormouse, a tiny anonymous creature unwillingly caught up in some huge dire storm, and all I want to do is sleep and sleep until better days return. Unpossible, however. There is always good work to be done, so I do some of that whenever I can. Like write to our (Republican) senator again, urging her to do whatever she can to withstand and overturn All Things Tr*mp. (Can't bear to write his name, frankly.) It's hard not to feel insignificant, in the face of world events. Byron's famous words come to mind, as they often do this time of year:
"When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning - how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse."
Why do people in power not see this and act accordingly, I wonder. The only possible answers feel so tawdry and small - money, power, and the perceived importance thereof. Sigh. Yes, as I said, life is full of wonderful things and I do my best to live in that place, but it's chilly and foggy here on the coast of Maine this morning and I have been watching the news and I am not in the best mood. Maybe I shouldn't be writing. But when the sun returns I'll be back outside, far away from my computer, so here we are, right now. Let's make the best of it.
Shall we speak of books, while the Titanic steams cheerfully toward the iceberg? I read a novel recently, a huge contemporary novel by an award-winning author of many such. It looked promising. As its hundreds of pages turned slowly over I found myself caring about some of the characters, who were lovingly described by the writer throughout decades of their lives. There was so much good in this book. First and foremost a real sense of place and time. There was also so much I was not willing to suspend my disbelief for. I kept thinking, He would never say that, and She would never do that. Then, the ending of the novel contained a veritable cascade of deaths, of most of the problematic characters. Also not believable, and it felt like an easy short cut on the author's part, to finish a major literary work in that way. I don't know, though, who am I to say. Since I can't fathom what it would take to create an entire fictional world in such great detail, and people it, and see it through to some kind of denouement. Out of respect for the writer and some dormousy single-mindedness of my own I stuck it out to the end, reading it all, instead of setting the book aside. I also wanted to find out what happened to the one character I cared most about (she didn't die, but things she did still felt inexplicable to me - most unsatisfying).
I turned to nonfiction soon after that, with a distinct feeling of relief. I had to clear off the bedside table recently since the books there were merely languishing and had been for weeks and weeks. I tried Longfellow's diaries, from the Barbara Falk set. I tried a few other items of note but nothing was really clicking. I tore through Bill Browder's harrowing memoir Red Notice (Simon & Schuster 2015); gripping, but over too quickly and still very much an ongoing tale. Then during my quest to bookplate much of the contents of the book room I came across Alec Guinness's diaries again, and couldn't remember if I'd read the first one, last year after reading all that John le Carré (editorial comment: Spies, Russia, omg, it all happens irl not only in books...). Anyway, if I did read it, I just read it again with great pleasure: My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor (Viking 1996; with a preface by John le Carré, which I do remember reading last year). I immediately read his next and last volume, A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-98 (Viking 1999) and loved that too. A dry and honest look at life and aging. He often mentions the books he loves - "Montaigne is always a wonderful bed companion, particularly when you are feeling peevish and a bit low. The Essays would be my Desert Island book above all others." (My Name Escapes Me p.102). He speaks of friends and memories from his acting career. He admires Frances Partridge when he meets her, reads Patrick O'Brian novels and the diaries of James Lees-Milne, and one of his good friends is Alan Bennett.
Which led me to pick up a book I ordered in late 2016 and was so looking forward to reading, I mean I couldn't wait for it to be published, then the election happened and my heart for doing much of anything drained away. I set a lot of things aside and Alan Bennett was on the shelf, until now. I just took him back down and started Keeping on Keeping On (Faber & Faber 2016), and this really fits the bill - a big collection of his writings, the first 400+ pages of which are his recent diaries, catching me up since the last ones I read, in his Untold Stories (Picador 2005). I'm only a few pages in, but am feeling right at home already.
Anyway, the point to today's long ramble is this: yet again I find myself preferring The Book of Things That Actually Happened over The Novel in Which They Didn't. A wild generalization but I am sure that readers and friends have come to expect these from time to time, here.
Well, I have written myself out of the doldrums. When the fog lifts, as it soon must, I will be here, with echoes of Alec Guinness:
"Sat in the sun for half an hour, drinking in the light greenness of everything, ruminating and wandering idly in my thoughts." (ibid p. 171)
July. Oh glorious summer. Let's keep a weather eye out for those icebergs and enjoy it while we may.