Saturday, 13 June 2015

LEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller

I've read all Fuller's books of memoir about her life in southern Africa. This sounds like an endorsement. It is, and it isn't. They're reasonably good books, but I think I've read them not so much for their quality as for their rarity. If you are American, or British, or Indian, or from any other large group, there are many novels about your experience. If you are Zimbabwean, not so much. The only white Zimbabwean I've ever seen portrayed on screen for example is Leonardo DiCaprio, doing a horrible South African accent.

There's much in Fuller's life that I can identify with, from the dirty to the malaria:
the Fullers . . drank whatever they could find, lukewarm if need be, and had no compunction about using ice made from unboiled water. 'A few germs never hurt anyone,' Dad always said. And if a bout of diarrhea ensued, it simply proved his point. 'See? Keeps you from getting all blocked up.
and
Like most drinking families, we usually aired our feelings late at night.
But I struggle with some of it; the Fullers are clearly somewhat new arrivals in Africa, so there is a sense of foreignness that I struggle to understand: (We) were alone in the house. Although truthfully we were alone only in the ways Westerners speak of being alone in Africa, as if the few hundred locals by whom they are almost always surrounded are part of the landscape, instead of part of humanity"

This novel is the story of the author's divorce. She married young, to an American named Charlie. As with many Africans, she imagined an American could give her stability.
Charlie was a gallant one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness, quietly stepping in whenever he thought we were drinking excessively, ruining our health with cigarettes, or courting intestinal disaster with undercooked chicken. This made the Fullers howl with laughter and did nothing to make them behave differently.

They began their lives in rural Zambia, and unsurprisingly being twenty two and living in a remote location with a small screaming baby did make make for immediate bliss. They therefore moved to America, where they had two more children in short order. They have financial troubles, and their marriage starts to unravel. It's very sad. It's also somewhat annoying. She claims repeatedly that she 'can't understand the accounts' which is an frustratingly female way of dodging responsibility. The financial trouble seems all very American - the poverty of having too much. As she puts it:
True, we had a house, a cabin, some investments, but it turned out we didn't own any of the roofs over our heads, the bank did. We had three horses on some pasture in Idaho, those were ours . . .
Two residences and three horses and you wonder why you're in debt?

Anyway, this is a sweet and touching novel. I recommend it.



FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Irene Nemirovsky is famous for SUITE FRANCAISE, a novel about the German invasion of France, which she wrote during the German invasion of France. It's a fantastic novel, and was almost lost to the world, as Nemirovsky died in a concentration camp while the book was still in draft. Her daughter took a suitcase of her mother's papers around with her for fifty years, and never opened it, fearing it would be too upsetting; and only at the end of her life finally unpacked it and found the novel. FIRE IN THE BLOOD was similarly found in some old papers of Nemirovsky's and while not for me as great as SUITE FRANCAISE, is still a very fine novel. The theme is covered in the opening quotation, from one of the favourite novelists of this blog: Marcel Proust.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitude that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed around them. The represent a struggle and a victory.

The story is told from the perspective of an older man, who watches with fascination his young niece cheating on her husband.
It wasn't just about the pleasures of the flesh. No, it wasn't that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . that was what we wanted.

He feels that his old age has come on him unexpectedly, and references a charming old French proverb - "The days drag on while they years fly by". He has much to say on the relative serenity of middle age:
"They are happy with themselves. They have renounced the vain attempts of youth to adapt the world to their desires. They have failed, and, now, they can relax. In a few years they will once again be troubled by great anxiety, but this time it will be a fear of death; it will have a strange effect on their tastes, it will make them indifferent, or eccentric, or moody, incomprehensible to their families, strangers to their children. But between the ages of forty and sixty they enjoy a precarious sense of tranquility."

The niece's mother is presented throughout as a sweet older lady, but we slowly learn that the narrator was in his time her lover. She was then married to a dying old man, and so wouldn't sleep with him. He left her to travel to Africa to recover. He suffered much over this at the time, but really at heart this is a dark little novel, about how all our sufferings will eventually be eroded by time, till nothing much is left. Here he is, last line of the novel, the last time he saw her before he left for Africa:
"Helene," the dying man called out, "Helene." We didn't move. She seemed to be drinking me in, breathing in my heart. As for me, by the time I finally let her go I knew I had already begun to love her less.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen

This books lies somewhere between the juvenalia and the great works, and I hadn't read it since I was a teenager. These are the joys of having the Complete Works on your Kindle! It's an enjoyable, straightforward read, and it's fun to trace the early outlines of the Austen mind. Here's a charming little bit, right near the end, after hte central couple have got together:
The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the telltale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.
God she's a great writer.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...