It took me twenty whole days to find the Reader in my new office. Every team has one. I had begun thinking that I would never find what I sought—that I, poor I, would be the sole cross-bearer of my creed. Two weeks passed bitterly, and morale was running low—readers attract readers, don’t they? Perhaps I wasn’t releasing the right scent. I was on my last feather of hope when I spotted that Clive Cussler book on the otherwise miserable and drab L-shaped desk. This is my intelligence: he reads two to three books a week. He frequents the library. He has read Cussler, Raymond Feist, Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin. He’ll sometimes sit at his desk during lunch to read (and presumably to escape being around friends that aren’t of the many-paged sort). Then, Readers, I said:
‘I read fantasy and sci-fi, Sanderson and Orson Scott Card, but I like reading classics mostly, you know, like, the Brontes and Jane Austen—”
He smiled. I thought I could see laughter in his eyes. I hadn’t even got round to telling him about George Eliot yet.
‘I read the classics in school’ he says. ‘Romeo and Juliet, The Collector. I’m a lot slower at reading them. That’s how I get through so many of these [he signals to Cussler]. I fly through them. It’s hard to know what to read next because I can’t keep track of what I’ve read before.’
‘Have you heard of Goodreads?’ says the part in my brain that has a hard-wired set of templates much like the greeting cards in a mobile phone.
I give the elevator pitch. He grabs the paper next to him and writes down those glorious nine letters in conjunction. G o o d r e a d s. It’s a reminder. An old-fashioned one—born from pen and paper, thoughts on the air and Cussler.
Well? Is this not some elaborate way of telling you that I failed to post any reviews for the books I read last month…? In keeping with tradition, I have succumbed to a seasonal increase in work load which means my ability to review books has fallen into the dark chasm of obscurity. I’ve included one here out of sheer necessity. I read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari in February and it is a book worth writing about. I tried writing about the three Narnia novels I read in February as well, but all I could jot down was ‘If Aslan is not an allegory for Jesus, I will spill this wine’. Emma was read at the beginning of March, but I will save you any thoughts of my third re-read—they would be the same as before; it is still my favourite novel of all time. So, here is Sapiens and a few others from March.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
The only thing I really knew about human evolution was that the reason I sometimes wake up in a harsh spasm from sleep is because our species used to sleep in trees—my twitching is my archaic ancestry telling me that I am falling out of one. I am now convinced that this information is wrong, because it is completely absent from this largely comprehensive and wonderful analysis of the history of humankind.
Harari seems to be one of the more severe polymaths in academia. To write this thing must have been enormous therapy for what I can only describe as one of the busiest minds in writing today. In Sapiens, Harari tries to reason the existence of humans, of capitalism, theology, imagined-orders and our genetic make-up, by drawing on our 70,000-year history. One thing is very clear—we have changed beyond belief. Our distant family, the Adam and Eve in a very small corner of Africa, have been shaped and warped irrevocably by a profound agricultural breakthrough. The only thing that has remained constant (perhaps poetically), is our ability to conquer and destroy. Our cognitive naissance and our unbelievable progress in sociology, science and technology has become the harbinger of a lesser life for animals who try and share the world with us.
If you read one book this year, let it be this one. Sapiens is a natural successor to A Brief History of Time—it seems to be doing us a service. It is so relevant and important that I can picture it 50 years from now, wrapped up in Penguin Classic packaging and achieving ‘Liber Deus’ status.
Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
This is a mostly autobiographical diary of Elizabeth (a late 19th century Australian-born British aristocrat), and her German garden (responsible for the whole source of her pleasure). Though life in the garden is dazzling, lively and euphoric, she must share her company with friends that are not of the tree and rose variety. Elizabeth is at the whim of intermittent house guests (who she abhors), as well as her husband (another late 19th century aristocrat) who she refers to, and I am not joking, as ‘The Man of Wrath’.
Elizabeth is the greatest figurehead for Supreme Introversion—aside from the garden, the book is mostly her musings about our being strangers to one another; especially the people who come to visit—they just don’t understand Elizabeth or the desire for the garden. The result is that she is always wishing for them to go away. The two main house guests are Minora and Irais. I was unsure whether these women were real guests or whether they were vessels for parts of Elizabeth. Minora is an aspiring novelist who thinks very highly of her own lofty thoughts, and Irais, Elizabeth’s closest friend, is just as quick and intelligent as Elizabeth but far more cutting. She preys on Minora’s every word and says the things that Elizabeth very much wants to say but can’t. Elizabeth’s husband, The Man of Wrath, is brusque and never talks until he does—he over talks—and it is most unwelcome—he says that women are in line with ‘children and idiots’.
Elizabeth von Arnim is bitingly funny and hugely intellectual— she might have been Northern Prussia’s equivalent of Emma Thompson. I first heard about her in Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden which I read in December of last year. Elizabeth and her German Garden is a garden-lover’s book, and I would be careful in thinking to read it if you are not. There is a lot of ‘this tree is right for this climate’, ‘those clematis are going over there’, ‘these dahlias were planted in groups and not lines’, ‘this rose did this this winter, this rose did that that summer’ and so on. Because Elizabeth is truly very intelligent (and so, no stranger to perspective and modesty), I was late in discovering just how up-market Elizabeth’s position in society was—out of her own pocket, she starts ordering a hundred plants of this and that variety—imagine ordering a hundred of anything! I think I almost fell over!
The book is a hot house of plants and musings, but I am thankful it does not try to be anything it is not—it is short, 100 pages or so, and it does the job. The work would have no legs to stand on as a novel as it is devoid of plot. I have Lively to thank for introducing me to this absolute queen; Elizabeth von Arnim’s Wikipedia page is a splatter painting of famous names and intrigues— the tutors of her children were E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole, her cousin is Katherine Mansfield, her second husband was the 2nd Earl Russell (older brother to Bertrand Russell) and between her marriages she was a mistress of H.G. Wells! It has to be asked: how the pansies did I not know of her sooner?
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I have now read the book that every English major and his dog is made to read at some point. What do I think of it? Oh, well, it really is quite simple—the prose in this novel is so beautiful that I would gladly have passages embroidered onto my skin.
Heart of Darkness is oppressive, macabre, thick, hot, delicious… It holds onto its themes how Herman Melville holds onto ‘the whale’ in Moby Dick—strongly. I have absolutely no qualms in saying that it must have gone on to influence that other gripping epic, Lord of the Flies. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad tries to describe the reality of impenetrable darkness—the horror of it, the intangibility—he builds the force of it into the dense, impassable reeds of the Congo, and this darkness begins to mimic the darkness found in the deepest recesses of the human psyche.
The narration plays beautifully into this—Conrad uses a ‘Wuthering Heights’ technique to house one narration within another. The nameless listener is a place-holding for us, the reader, as we listen to Marlow, recounting his travel to a remote outpost in the Congo on a reconnaissance mission for a Mr Kurtz. Marlow’s strong voice is imbued into every character he comes across— allowing us to recognise the faults, impurity and unreliability in his narration. It is important—because Marlow himself seems at a loss in trying to convey what lies beyond the darkness. By breathing his own speech patterns into those he is giving a voice to, we are able to account for this untouchability of the truth and darkness in things. It is utterly brilliant!
Where this type of narration was executed imperfectly in Wuthering Heights, it pulls up trumps here. This is the way to use the framing technique to gravitating effect! Almost astoundingly, Marlow does not include anything consequential about Mr Kurtz; it falls into the anti-space of the text and becomes cloaked in darkness. We are told about Mr Kurtz’s genius, and must believe it to be there—that is all. We are left with a quaking sense of dread and horror as we reach out to this Thing that we cannot grasp entirely. The novel must be compared to Moby Dick—the profundity in each and every sentence, the beauty, the cruelty and the way it tries to grasp at the unknown—these novels are the feats of human endeavour. Mark my horrors!