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What I've Finished Reading

The Heart of the Matter

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity. . . .She sat there, reading poetry, and she was a thousand miles away from the torment that shook his hand and dried his mouth. She would understand, he thought, if I were in a book, but would I understand her if she were just a character?-- I don't read that sort of book.

That word "pity" appears over and over. "Pity" is the reason Scobie lies to his wife and why he begins and can't bring himself to end the affair with Helen; it pervades and poisons every one of his relationships like the oppressive humidity of the air before the rains that makes even the smallest wounds fester.

So why won't Graham Greene get under my skin? It's not that there was nothing to like about The Heart of the Matter; there was so much, yet I spent huge portions of it just sort of coldly admiring the sentence structure from the other side of an empty ballroom. It's like the jokes in The War With Mr. Wizzle: I know it's good and can guess at why, but I don't feel a thing. And by this point I'm overstating the case a little; it did get under my skin, just not in the way I wanted it to. I was indifferent to Scobie for a long time and then I hated him, not all at once but in flashes like sudden downpours, and finally it didn't matter whether I felt anything about him because it isn't that sort of book.

This one, like The Power and the Glory, gives us religion as an impenetrable glass wall between men and their better selves. If Graham Greene were a character in a G. K. Chesterton story, he would probably be unmasked at the end as an atheist sleeper agent, but I don't think he is one. He takes his religion seriously enough to be unflinching about it; he won't cheat by fudging the results or smoothing over the details to make cruelty look kind, or Scobie's weakness a victory. I'd be interested to know what practicing Catholics think of it. I thought it was admirable and interesting but I also have even less desire now to read another Graham Greene book than before. Except maybe The Third Man? I liked that movie.

What I'm Reading Now

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken


John Keats! Because his poetry-writing life was so short, the editor of this book feels that he has to include a selection of his earliest work, even though he doesn't think it's very good. And it isn't! There's a lot of singsong and so much earnestly bathetic feminine rhyme, and he's obviously talented for how impossibly young he is, but you can see why the editor felt the need to apologize a little.

Even the clunkiest of these are still delightful, though. The teenage Keats is terribly sad about Chatterton's early death ("how nigh / Was night to thy fair morning!") and terribly excited about Byron. He loves his friends and his brothers and the whole earth and every single poet he reads. It's good to be alive in the midst of all these living things and stars, and to have friends, and to have a language. I didn't appreciate these things when I was twenty, but Keats appreciates them enough for everyone.

Also from the Neglected Bookshelf: Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I'm not sure if I'm going to try to plow through the whole thing. I bought it years ago out of curiosity because The Old Heloise was the greatest of the terrible role models of my adolescence, but these "two lovers who live in a small town at the foot of the Alps" and their friends are a dull bunch so far. I'll give it another week.

In 99 Novels: Ape and Essence, just started. Why do I find Huxley's damn dirty apes so boring? Tell me what I'm missing, Huxley fans! This one doesn't even have the hideous-golden-melancholy descriptions of Southern California that were the best part of After Many a Summer. Only I'm being unfair, so I'll have to start over in better faith. I haven't gotten very far -- I did like the opening conversation between the Hollywood hacks. Tell me some things you like about Huxley! If you don't mind, that is.

What I Plan to Read Next

Heartsongs: The Intimate Diaries of Young Girls by Laurel Holliday (ed.), and lots more from the Neglected Bookshelf.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
osprey_archer
Mar. 23rd, 2016 12:27 pm (UTC)
Oooh, Heartsongs sounds fascinating.
evelyn_b
Mar. 23rd, 2016 02:17 pm (UTC)
The diary selections themselves are great! The editor doesn't seem to have done a lot of work toward establishing/reassuring her readers that they're real, unfortunately, or providing any way for the reader to try to track them down -- most are previously published and now obscure, but the introductory sections are so sparse.

This is a minor complaint that could easily become a major one if I stuck with it long enough. But the diaries so far -- even if some of them are fictions -- are brilliant.
osprey_archer
Mar. 23rd, 2016 05:57 pm (UTC)
The editor doesn't even include basic bibliographic info so you could ILL the original sources if you wanted? WHAT. That would take, like, two lines, editor!
evelyn_b
Mar. 23rd, 2016 06:07 pm (UTC)
They're listed on the copyright page, so if you know to look for them there you can go and hunt them up if you want, but there's no bibliography and only the sketchiest introductions. It's a weird decision! This is a "popular" rather than an academic publication, but there's really no call to be that non-academic.
therck
Mar. 23rd, 2016 02:27 pm (UTC)
The only Graham Greene I've ever read was an excerpt from Our Man in Havana that turned up in an anthology (I think it was one of Robert Arthur's. Probably Spies and More Spies or the one after it the title of which I've forgotten). I thought the excerpt was funny, but it wasn't quite enough to make me want to seek out the book. As I recall, I did look for some of the books that had excerpts in those anthologies, but I was dealing with a very small library at the time and so couldn't find most of them. (This was pre-computers, so ILL wasn't nearly as easy. As I recall, it involved looking in books that listed other libraries' holdings and that might or might not still be accurate.)
evelyn_b
Mar. 23rd, 2016 03:30 pm (UTC)
That's fascinating about ILL. When was this? I would have expected the process to be more like, "phone the other library and ask," but with long-distance charges I guess that would get pretty expensive, so checking the big book first is better.

Someday (maybe) I am going to Get Into Spies the way I have gotten into detectives, but I don't think Graham Greene is going to be the one to flip the invisible switch in my brain that makes me care all of a sudden.

There are funny moments in The Heart of the Matter but then they all get drowned in misery. :(
therck
Mar. 23rd, 2016 03:41 pm (UTC)
This was the early 1980s. Long distance charges would have been prohibitive as even a place thirty miles away was likely to be long distance and thus a lot more expensive to call. Also, the library never had more than three people working at a time, and they had a lot of other things to do. Calling a couple of dozen different libraries to ask them to check their card catalogs for a particular title would take a lot of time.

I think there may have been a more up-to-date version of the ILL catalog available on microfiche, but my local library had no reader, so that wasn't an option.

I think I mainly read the Spies and More Spies books because Robert Arthur wrote most of the Three Investigators books that I loved. Well, that and I probably found the books in the Goodwill store. Books were hard enough to come by that I bought anything that looked even vaguely interesting. The town was small enough that the grocery store and the bus depot were the only sources of new books. The bus depot got four new fantasy/SF titles every week. The grocery store mostly didn't have anything that interested me, but for some reason, they had two Diana Wynne Jones books on the rack within a two week period one time. I'd probably never have found her work otherwise.
evelyn_b
Mar. 23rd, 2016 05:24 pm (UTC)
It's funny: I grew up with long-distance charges as a major element of family life, and I still forget to take them into account; it's just one of those little important details that have slipped my mind (unlike microfiche and the card catalog, which are still vividly present for some reason).

I do remember the grocery store being the primary source of new books, and how breathtaking it was to walk into a dedicated bookstore (a Waldenbooks!) for the first time. I always felt a little hurt by cultural commentary that hated on the big chain bookstores; it was all very well if you lived in a city where hip indie storefronts were the threatened norm, but in my neighborhood that was not the situation at all.
therck
Mar. 24th, 2016 06:10 pm (UTC)
I lived in Ann Arbor up until I was twelve, and that town has lots of book stores. Those were the days when Border's was just a single storefront, independent book store, and it was spectacular. The used book stores in that area were wonderful, too. I had just reached the age of occasionally having money to spend when we moved away, and it was the book stores I regretted most (not that there weren't other things, but...).

The town we moved to was half an hour away from the nearest book store. The library had a big book sale once a year. Beyond that it was yard sales and Goodwill and the bus depot and the grocery store. I was really thrilled when the bus depot started selling some used books. Once in a while, I would find something good there.

During those years, Waldenbooks was a truly wonderful thing. I miss the chain now, actually.
evelyn_b
Mar. 24th, 2016 07:53 pm (UTC)
Ann Arbor is a used-book mecca, and just down the road there's John K. King Books in Detroit, the Trantor of used bookstores. I grew up not far from these places, but they were so far off my radar that I barely knew they existed until I was a teenager and able to explore. Now when I visit my family, I wind up with crates of used books to take home.

(I am still a little awed when I meet people who grew up in Ann Arbor, because it was like Narnia to me -- magical city of bookstores and Indian restaurants!)

Here the chain bookstore is Books-a-Million, which is garbage compared to Borders/Barnes & Noble, but still a major improvement over the old "wire rack at the grocery store" model.
a_phoenixdragon
Mar. 23rd, 2016 03:51 pm (UTC)
Yeeaahhhhh Greene sounds less and less appealing just from the descriptions of his work!

Keats is always awesome..and his early work sounds adorable!

*HUGS*
evelyn_b
Mar. 23rd, 2016 05:31 pm (UTC)
Keats is a friend to man and I'm glad someone was around to teach him to read and write.

Greene is too, for some people. I don't bear him any ill will for not being my thing exactly, but it's probably best if I let him go for now.

Hope things are going better on your end!
a_phoenixdragon
Mar. 23rd, 2016 06:12 pm (UTC)
They are, honey - thank you! :D
liadtbunny
Mar. 23rd, 2016 04:18 pm (UTC)
I'm irritated with Scobie after one paragraph! I'm glad you had Keats after, much better! (except I have Genesis stuck in my brain)
evelyn_b
Mar. 23rd, 2016 06:11 pm (UTC)
Oh, and here I thought it was one of the less irritating Scobie paragraphs, hah. Well, there you go. I don't think Scobie being the worst is necessarily a point against the book -- I'm kind of impressed with how much I hated him, when I started to hate him, given how little he actually does. But yes, Keats is an improvement, for me at least. :)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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