July 2016 Books


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Yep, solid. There’s a reason this often appears on those Top 100 English-Language Novels lists. Well, apart from the “Oh shit, our list is already 90% male plus a few Austens and Brontes. Quick, find some books by, like, any other woman so that we don’t get accused of sexism!” that I imagine goes on every time these lists are compiled. It appeals for similar reasons as The Group and The History Boys, I guess. Probably it would be more meaningful if I had any idea what the deal is with Calvinism, but as is it’s still a fun read with cutting, specific descriptions of people and a setting (a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh) that I haven’t really encountered in any other media. I was, frankly, shocked at the fact that there wasn’t a big lesbian reveal the way there was in The Group, given the amount of subtext and weird vicarious sexuality (e.g. Miss Brodie grooming Rose to take her place in sleeping with the lover she’s renounced).

Selected quote:

The shuttle of the sewing machines went up and down, which usually caused Sandy and Jenny to giggle, since at that time everything that could conceivably bear a sexual interpretation immediately did so to them.

The Confidential Agent, Graham Greene

I think I put this on my “To Read” list after falling down the Esperanto wiki wormhole—the protagonist of The Confidential Agent uses classes for an invented language similar to Esperanto as a cover for meeting with a contact and there’s some discussion about the lofty goals of such languages and how they contrast with the dirty reality of a country in civil war or whatever— because there doesn’t seem to be anything else noteworthy about it. Well, apparently Greene wrote it in six weeks under the influence of Benzedrine, but I don’t think that actually comes across, not that I’ve read any of Greene’s other works for comparison. But I’m not sure what differentiates this from any generic airport spy thriller, and maybe the answer is nothing, other than the prestige associated with the author’s name. In any case, not quite my genre, and a lot of the characterization feels super clichéd, although perhaps it wouldn’t have in 1939.

Selected quote:

He hated personal violence: to kill a man with a bullet, or to be killed, was a mechanical process which conflicted only with the will to live or the fear of pain. But the fist was different; the fist humiliated; to be beaten up put you into an ignoble relationship with the assailant: he hated the ideas as he hated the idea of promiscuous intercourse.

Evelyn Waugh and His World, compiled by David Pryce-Jones

So this just happened to catch my eye while I was looking for Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind in the library; it’s a collection of essays written by former acquaintances—of varying levels of intimacy—of Evelyn Waugh. Pretty much none of the essays are academic; most of the authors are just telling anecdotes from their time with Waugh and maybe giving some insight into his character; a few of the essays may go deeper into some of Waugh’s novels and how they were informed by real life. It’s probably one of those forms of writing where more is revealed about the authors of the essays than the subject, but still, sort of interesting from a historical perspective. What I really need, though, is to learn more about Waugh’s hilarious aborted suicide attempt (at some point in his early 20s, he left a suicide note and started walking into the ocean, only to get attacked by jellyfish and nope the fuck out of there, it sounds like. Maybe that really is all one needs to know?) and how exactly his conversion to Catholicism happened—basically, what needs to happen to enable such a massive personal paradigm shift after a certain point in one’s life? Was it secretly just not that massive for him? Was it the result of a traumatic experience or a particularly influential book (for Marshall McLuhan, it was apparently G.K. Chesterton) or what? How did he reconcile that with the old beliefs that he had (presumably) spouted to everyone all through undergrad and whatever?

Still undecided how I actually feel about Waugh as an author; I liked Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One enough to be compelled to keep trying, and one does sort of appreciate being seen reading Evelyn Waugh on public transportation (if one is vain as hell in a super specific way, anyway).

Selected quote:

It always seemed to me that Evelyn, like Max Beerbohm, but probably for different reasons, had decided to drop an iron visor over all his intimate feelings and serious beliefs and by doing so excluded one from any understanding of his true character. As a result of this frustrating device it was impossible for him ever to discuss such matters, or if occasionally he approached them, he could do so only with a frivolity which masked his inmost thoughts. This deep reticence detracted in a sense from his conversation, which was of the highest order, because however brilliant and witty, one always felt that he was playing some elaborate charade which demanded from him constant wariness and vigilance. Perhaps he discarded this alien persona in his family circle, and as a devout Roman Catholic bared his soul to his priests. One had the impression that there was also a handful of friends of long standing with whom he might allow the mask to slip, but never far enough to give a full revelation. For the rest of us, it was as if he was embarrassed by his own emotions and felt that it would not only be grossly improper but also commonplace to give any hint of their nature, and would indeed be a form of indecent exposure.

—from “Fiery Particles” by The Earl of Birkenhead

 The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I don’t know that I really “got” this on the macro level—we lived in Italy for a few years when I was a tiny child (ages 3-7), but I don’t really know shit about Italian history, because what history would they teach tiny children? It looks like I did at one point in high school make a powerpoint on the Risorgimento, but I have completely forgotten about what actually happened beyond a vague sense of “Italy was made up of a bunch of smaller kingdoms and then they united, except for the Vatican, I guess.” Plus, The Leopard has the additional aspect of being a post-World War II look at that period, so who knows what subtext there is wrt that. (I mean, presumably people with non-zero knowledge of Italian history know.) Because we do have passages like this:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.

but I assume there’s more subtle shit elsewhere that I did not pick up on.

Wikipedia tells me that E.M. Forster was a fan, which I don’t think I actually knew going? But I am no longer surprised at seeing Forster pop up anywhere, I guess, because he has consumed my life. It was also on David Bowie’s top 100 books list. I think I first heard of it in high school, from a Southern Italian cookbook, as I was a super mature teenager who saw a recipe called Breasts of the Virgin (minni di virgini) and of course had to investigate further. So, you know, one wants to like The Leopard. And looking back through the pages that I bookmarked to pull quotes from, I did appreciate it on the micro level; there were just a lot of super solid passages, in terms of the actual phrasing/word choices (unclear how much this is the translation and how much it’s Lampedusa himself), some of the specific comic situations described, and just the overall sense of luxury and sensuality conveyed.

Selected quote:

The Prince was too experienced to offer Sicilian guests, in a town of the interior, a dinner beginning with soup, and he infringed the rules of haute cuisine all the more readily as he disliked it himself. But rumors of the barbaric foreign usage of serving insipid liquid as first course had reached the major citizens of Donnafugata too insistently for them not to quiver with a slight residue of alarm at the start of a solemn dinner like this. So when three lackeys in green, gold, and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering mound of macaroni, only four of the twenty at the table avoided showing their pleased surprise: the Prince and Princess from foreknowledge, Angelica from affectation, and Concetta from lack of appetite. All the others, including Tancredi, showed their relief in varying ways, from the fluty and ecstatic grunts of the notary to the sharp squeak of Francesco Paolo. But a threatening circular stare from the host soon stifled these improper demonstrations.

Good manners apart, though, the appearance of those monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a mist laden with aromas, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken, and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suède.

Delightful, right?

Semi-related but also just because I am a petty asshole: One of my ex-friends from college did study abroad in Italy and wrote the most obnoxious blog post (we were already ex-friends at this point, and I’ll admit I was spite-reading this) about how she had never even noticed how stereotypical representations of Italians in American media were and how Offensive and Exploitative and Problematic it is to reduce them to pasta and hand gestures when they’re Real People with a Real Culture etc etc. It was suuuuuper dumb, because

1) it’s not even the correct “I’m an obnoxious small liberal arts college student” argument to make given the power dynamic between the US and Italy, or, more specifically, white Americans (of non-Italian descent?)—i.e. the apparent Oppressors—and white Italians (note: we’re not bring Italian-Americans into this, because the whole Jersey Shore controversy is also a dumb controversy, probably, but a different one)

but mostly

2) Italians are made of pasta and hand gestures. Fuck, I wonder how they’re even dealing with the whole gluten-free movement.


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