Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pre-Honeymoon Fiction Round-Up

We're leaving for France tomorrow evening for our delayed and much-anticipated honeymoon, and it is highly unlikely that I will post anything here for the two weeks we are away. In the meantime, here is a brief round-up of some of the books I've read recently that I haven't commented on.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett. This was the first Beckett for me. Cursory glances at Molloy and Malone Dies had been daunting. Then, with all of the really smart things I was reading about Beckett marking his centenary this year, and the release of Grove's attractive new boxed set, I felt the time had come to take the plunge, and I decided to start at the beginning. Murphy proved to be both more and less difficult that I'd expected. There were several passages that made me laugh out loud and several others I needed to re-read a few times to comprehend and a few others that I never did. After completing the novel, I returned to the beginning and re-read the first 50 pages or so, clarifying some issues. I look forward to continuing with Beckett.

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. After Murphy, it was an interesting coincidence to immediately be reading another novel about characters retreating from the world. I liked this book. See here for a couple of passages that struck me.

Things in the Night by Mati Unt. I had been looking forward to this Estonian (Dalkey-published) novel, and it got off, I thought, to a good start. It plays with narrative form, and seemed to be the kind of thing I would like, but by the end I was just reading to finish it. I find I don't have much else to say about it.

Phosphor in Dreamland by Rikki Ducornet. This is the third Ducornet novel I've read (Stain and The Jade Cabinet are the others). I quite liked it. As with the others, there is an element of the fantastic in this novel. It is a story that passes itself off as a scholarly account of a supposedly historical figure. As ever, Ducornet's prose is a delight to read, and some of her common concerns (questions of beauty and desire) are present. Worth a read. Incidentally, this book has some of the most overheated blurbs I've ever read. Her novel The Jade Cabinet is described as "Jane Austen meets Angela Carter via Lewis Carroll", Phosphor in Dreamland itself as "Jonathan Swift meets Angela Carter via Jorge Luis Borges" and, perhaps most unfortunately, Ducornet herself as "A drastically beautiful comic writer who stitches sentences together as if Proust had gone into partnership with Lenny Bruce." Seriously, settle down.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. My first Sebald. While there were passages of great power in this book, in the end I had to work to finish it. Nevertheless, I remain interested in Sebald's other books, Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, in particular.

The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction by Michael Wood. Earlier I mentioned revisiting Nabokov when I was re-reading Despair. (I still have a long-gestating post about Despair that I need to finish--as is no doubt clear, I like getting stuff out there as close to the reading as possible). I probably first heard about The Magician's Doubts via one of these posts at Tingle Alley. Before reading it, I'd already decided to embark on a major project to re-read Nabokov (I read a lot of Nabokov several years ago, and it's largely a blur in my mind). It's just as well, since Wood makes me feel as if I haven't read any at all. Not only that, it reminds me that somehow I have still not read Speak, Memory, which just seems wrong. So, now I look forward to re-reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Pnin and Pale Fire and Ada, not to mention Lolita for a third time (though now I want the annotated edition). And I now find myself interested in Nabokov's translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin. I am doomed. Anyway, Wood's book is marvelous.

The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson. I just finished this novel today. I had previously read,and liked, his novel from a couple years ago, The Blond Box. This one is a strange sort of adventure story involving miniature horses and incest and weird pornography and diamonds and stories within stories and meditations on narration. An enjoyable read, if occasionally clunky. Olson is best known, I think, as a poet, and usually his prose is quite good, but there were times when it was merely functional and dragged. Speaking of over-heated blurbs, this one featured enthusiastic, seemingly over-the-top blurbs from the likes of Paul Auster ("One of the shining outposts of recent American fiction... Rarely has a writer been willing to face the question of sexuality with such candor..."), Harry Mathews (" once harsh and tender, unrelentingly wicked and sovereignly just...tersely, perversely, painfully realistic...."), and Robert Coover ("Invites accolades that border on hyperbole...")... Indeed.

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