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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Reading group : five winners in a row

I didn't mean to make this a reading diary, but I just have to record the four excellent books I have just read.

It is unusual to have such a lucky run - I so often start books and run out of  energy to carry on after about 60 pages. This time, though, the run seems to have been sparked by visiting the classics section of the new Clapham Library.

A Penguin Modern Classic that real is a modern classic - In praise of Older Women by Stephen VizinczeyBack in July I picked out a copy of Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women - a book which I remember being in my father's small bedroom bookshelf, alongside the Karma Sutra, Breakfast At Tiffany's, a book about the liberation of the concentration camps, and a Pears Medical dictionary. Two of these were of irresistible interest to my 11-year-old self.

There was something mysterious and slightly dangerous about this bookshelf, but Vizinczey's novel did not have quite the appeal of the others, at the time. Reading it now I was amazed at how good it was - how beautifully written, how devastatingly sad in so many unexpected ways, some good, some less so.

I made a mental note to read more of his work - The Rules of Chaos or An Innocent Millionaire, perhaps - but have not yet come across copies of any.

So I picked out another Penguin Modern Classic, one I had not heard of before  - Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati.

This was also about a young man trying to grow up - but in this case , the beautiful Antonio of the title , while he is even more popular with women than Vizinczey's Tomas, the poor fellow has severe psychosexual problems that render him more or less impotent, except with very patient prostitutes.

Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati
It's another great read though - the background of upper-midle class Sicilian society of the 1930s, where Mussolini's fascists are viewed with a mix of contempt, ridicule and very real fear - is fascinating in itself. The translator makes great use of that strange young English slang of the flapper era, and it seems exactly right.

I move onto another unknown, again a Penguin Modern Classic: Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. You can see the links, right? Here the beauty is mainly female, and the sadness so poignant and piercing and yet so taken as normal by the characters - so Japanese in fact.  Ageing successful novelist, Oki, is driven to revisit the lover of his youth, Otoko, one he abandoned after an abortion and a failed suicide attempt, one who is now a successful artist living in Kyoto with a mysterious and equally beautiful 18-year-old apprentice.

This young acolyte decides to take revenge on her teacher's behalf, and does so by bedding both Oti and his son. As in the previous two novels, the atmosphere is both highly erotic and the sex, when it occurs, quite explicit,  yet completely and utterly non-prurient, neither sensational nor self-consciously liberated, nor smutty, in a way that no novel written by and Anglo-Saxon author ever could be , or so it seems.

So to the final, very different novel - a book which reads much more like a piece of high quality journalism. Tahar Ben Jelloun's This Blinding Absence of Light (as Maureen Freely's review in the Guardian from 2004 explains) recounts the experience of a young Moroccan army conscript who was thrown into military prison after being forced to take part in a failed coup against  King Hassan II back in 1971.

It's a tough read. Thirteen years in a hole in the ground, no light, constant terror, starvation, torture, mental and physical: the descriptions of what became of all civilised notions of life in these almost unthinkable circumstances become all too thinkable in this excellent translation.

I almost had to stop reading when it got to the scorpions. A must-read, though, for obvious reasons in 2014, when more and more people are suffering similar loss of everything and anything anyone has ever considered a human right.

This Blinding Absence of Light 
by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated by Linda Coverdale 
195pp, New Press, £14.99

And as a coda - the fifth book, picked up again on the basis of its title and cover photo (OK, it is another Penguin modern Classic) is also a winner - Daniele Varé's The Maker of Heavenly Trousers.

It's another oddball, I guess; a quiet enough book, with delightful accounts of life in early 20th century Peking, described through the wide-open, unprejudiced eyes of a an anglo-Italian diplomat, presumably Varé himself. The Russian elements of the plot might drag the whole book perilously close to historical fantasy and magical unrealism, and yet - there's a childlike wonder in this book that is simply adorable.

So what is it about these five? Why did I find them so refreshing, so thrillingly enjoyable, and so different from all the heavy stuff I'd got into the habit of reading - you know, the Cloud Atlas, Life-of-Pi, Capital, Booker-prize nominated stuff.

The obvious - none of these was written by a native English speaker, and most are translations. If they share anything it's that "continental" sensibility - a rather old-fashioned idea, I know, as we like to feel we are all very European these days. But we're not. For a start, Anglo-Saxon writers just can't do sex, or eroticicism. Three of these five books are deeply erotic - not in the steamy sex scene way (that, in fact, is anti-erotic to my   mind) but in their unspoken understanding that there is an almost unbearable pleasure awaiting us all if only we know where to find it and how to approach it.

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