The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 10: Sixty Lights (Gail Jones, 2004)

Books remaining: 16. Weeks left to read them: 30 (it’s going to be fine)

A voice in the dark: “Lucy?” 

It was a humid-sounding whisper. She wanted this, this muffled gentleness, swathed in sheets measured and moistened by the heated conjoining of their bodies. This tropic of the bed. This condensation of herself into the folds of a marriage. The late night air was completely still. Insects struck at the mosquito net, which fell, silver and conical, like a bridal garment around them. Lucy watched a pale spotted moth sail slowly towards her face, land on the net, deposit its powder, and lift unevenly away, It was waving like a tiny baby hand in the darkness. 

sixty lights

Jones is a lecturer in literature, cinema and cultural studies at the University of WA and, for several such units, my lecturer. She was a brilliant one, whose disarming combination of fearsome intelligence and a musical, childlike speaking voice made you want to listen forever. Her knowledge was so complex, so clever, and so beautifully phrased that it excited but did not surprise me to discover she was a novelist.

There’s no way you’re going to read one of her books and not feel like you’re studying something, frankly, so if you’re catering for the average book club, turn back now.

I’ve been carrying around three of her novels – Black Mirror, Sorry and Sixty Lights – for the better part of 10 years now, so it was time to get real.

This is the story of Lucy and her brother, orphaned in Australia as children and taken to Victorian England to grow up under their uncle’s wing. Lucy becomes a photographer and though the novel is outwardly the story of a young woman and her family, it is most essentially a portrait of the world as seen through the eyes of someone like Lucy, who experiences life as a succession of images, frozen in time.

It is not a Difficult Book. It is not lofty or dense. It is peppered with plain phrases and glints of humour that rescue it from the sometimes otherworldly loveliness of its prose.

Lucy felt exulted to be once again on the water. The world before her was like blown glass; some fluid shape expanding, sphere-wise and breathful, into a glistening new form, some sense of the weird plausibility of transmogrification. The wind was high and the broad boat rocked and tossed. Lucy saw Isaac seize the railing and vomit into the heaving ocean. She turned her face into full sunshine and full wind, held on to her bonnet, and smiled.

Lucy turns out strange enough to want to be a photographer, at a time when the closest most women of her station get is working in a factory making photographic paper.

Lucy is naughty enough to get herself pregnant out of wedlock, and curious enough to seek out new experiences that others try to discourage her from having, just so she can observe the results.

Later, when in secret Lucy had persuaded Bashanti to bring her a sample of pan, she sat chewing the tough leaves and attending to the pan-effects. Her mouth burnt, tingled, was becoming numb, and began to fill up with curious liquids. She spat onto the floor and saw before her a small mound of gleaming brownish muck.

There emerges a welcome lovableness to Lucy. I do not believe all heroes or heroines should be lovable; but by golly, in this case it helps.

But the real story is not about what happens to Lucy so much as it is about her inner life – what she sees, and how she sees it. It is above all a loving, minute appreciation of the art and mechanics of photography, a meditation on the magic of the act of recording an image. It celebrates the value of pictures, even more powerfully when the reader inhabits a world in which photographs are so commonplace and overwhelmingly digitised they have all but lost their value and their meaning.

The tale is finely crafted, undoubtedly beautiful and very readable. It was on the 2005 Miles Franklin Award shortlist and the 2004 Man Booker longlist, and deservedly so. But somehow none of this is enough to make me want to press it upon others, declaring they will love it. I am conflicted about saying I didn’t enjoy it – to say so feels like sacrilege, when I have such admiration for the writer, the writing and the achievement – but I can’t see myself rushing to pick up the next one.

Canonise or cast out? Perhaps it is just that my tastes have changed. You can’t get hung up on this kind of thing. I will clear this little shrine to the incredibly impressive Jones off my shelf and move on with life, or at least, to the letter K.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 5: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Umberto Eco, 2004; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock)

Books remaining: 21. Weeks remaining: 43.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Umberto Eco

Memory can also be beautiful …

Someone said that it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original. 

 

I had a false start with E.

 

 

 

There were only three author choices, Anne Enright (The Gathering), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) or Umberto Eco (a choice of The Name of the Rose, Foucalt’s Pendulum or The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

 

The Gathering - Anne Enright

Nah

Enright’s The Gathering appealed so little I might just get rid of it now.

Can’t be bothered with another multigenerational family epic right now, even if it did win the 2007 Man Booker prize.

See? I am improving!

 

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

A sure bet?

So I chose Eggers. A colleague loved it. The title intrigued. The blurb was mysterious.

But I saw after the first chapter that it featured a dying parent. I have an unerring talent in picking picking books and movies unwitting that they are about about death, cancer and infirmity. These are very uncomfortable, making me weep immoderately.

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius back cover

Thanks for the warning, jerks!

 

This time, I got to the mother spitting green sputum into a towel and signed off, despite Eggers’ beguiling writing.

Sputum warnings should be included on the cover.

 

 

 

 

 

The Name of the Rose

Failed

Foucalt's Pendulum

Even more failed

That left Eco. Felt ashamed because owned three and had not read any. I tried the Rose and Pendulum years ago. Doubtless because they made me use my brain, I speedily gave up on each.

 

 

I thought third time had to be a charm – and, truly, I was charmed upon beginning The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Antiquarian book dealer Yambo wakes up in hospital rendered amnesiac by some kind of illness. He doesn’t remember his life or his wife, who eventually gets to take him back to their Milan home to recover.

He does remember, in detail, his lifetime collection of quotes about fog – yep, 150 pages of literary quotations on fog. He doesn’t know why any longer, obviously, but he has always been obsessed with fog.

Much like the one now enshrouding his memory, the uni student inside me murmurs.

Yambo tries to find reasons for his obsession, but his encounters with people and places he once knew provoke no recognition, save for the odd “mysterious flame” that flares at the sight of an object or the sound of some words.

It begins as a book with a mystery at its heart, drenched in literary allusion, but by no means inaccessible, lit on every page by an easy wit and simplicity.

Then Yambo travels to the country to stay in the old family home he grew up in during WWII, hoping that if he goes through every box, touches every toy, and reads every book he did as a boy, he will rediscover the secret of who he is.

As we travel with him through this illustrated novel, we see pages upon pages of pictures –book and comic covers, magazine and record covers, song lyrics, quotations, advertisements. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mind, in which Eco explores the visual nature of memory.

Illustrations in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana“I’ll remember the photo from now on, but not them.”

“Who knows how many times over the past thirty years you were reminded of them because you kept seeing this photo? You can’t think of memory as a warehouse where you deposit past events and retrieve them later just as they were when you put them there.”

 

Things slow right down when Yambo starts reliving Fascist Italy in painful detail, down to every nationalist song lyric and propagandised comic book. Rich illustrations evoke a vanished world in almost dismaying detail.

Illustrations in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen LoanaThe memory of one day blurs into the next. I know only that I was reading in a wild, disorderly fashion. I did not read everything word for word. Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I was flying over a landscape.

Meanwhile, I felt seriously bogged down, rather than anything remotely like flying.

 

If not for the Project I would have abandoned the thing altogether. The endless recitations of plots of long-dead adventure serials left me cold. Like Yambo, I got sick of skim-reading song lyrics, book plots and comic titles assembled in such volume. I would challenge anyone to actually read every one of those lyrics, and can only hope that I was only supposed, like Yambo, just to scan them in the vain hope they would end up meaning something.

In any case, it was undeniable that there in Solara every word gave rise to another. Would I be able to climb back up that chain to the final word? What would it be? “I”?

Looking back I wonder if this was Eco’s aim – to show Yambo’s sense of overwhelm and frustration at the pointless drudgery of such an exercise, and to make the reader wonder with him whether a human being can ever be entirely encapsulated in images and words.

I said to myself: Yambo, your memory is made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages. Maybe someday someone invent an electronic contraption allowing people to travel by computer along all the pages ever written, from the beginning of the world until today, and to pass from one to the other with the touch of a finger, without knowing any longer where or who they are, and then everyone will be like you.

Yambo finally makes a discovery, and his quest to rediscover the memory underlying it all inches forward. There is exquisite philosophy here, and suspense – but by now only my body was still curled up with the book. My mind was already straying back to the shelf. I forced myself to finish it but when I did, felt nothing but profound relief.

I did get a cool quote that made me think of my Curing project, though:

“I have so many books. Sorry, we do.” 

“Five thousand here. And there’s always some imbecile who comes over and says, how many books do you have, have you read them all?” 

“And what do I say?”

“Usually you say: not one, why else would I be keeping them here? Do you by chance keep tins of meat after you’ve emptied them? As for the five thousand I’ve already read, I gave them away to prisons and hospitals. And the imbecile reels.”

Keep or let go? Let go. Both pictures and ideas are beautiful, and a book can be great without ever making you warm and fuzzy, but I have no-one I would want to lend this to. Purely as a collector’s item, it will give someone browsing in an opportunity shop a thrill.

If only I knew someone who needed the ultimate collection of literary quotes about fog, or someone with a passion for fascist Italian history – everyone’s favourite dinner party guest.

Perhaps it is telling that if I actually met someone who told me they enjoyed brushing up on fascist history and collecting fog quotes, I might run away before even thinking to say “hey I have just the book for you”.

Life of Pi (Yann Martel, 2001)

The film version of Life of Pi has now been released.

I read this (Man Booker Prize-winning) novel when it was first published in 2001, but remembered loving it so much – and had my interest so piqued by the technicolour preview of the movie – that I felt it necessary to be have all my mental ducks in a row and refresh my memory.

Of course, now it turns out the novel is just as impressive as I remember, this may make the film proportionately more disappointing.

It promises to be visually spectacular; sweeping and majestic, as it should. But densely woven themes of religion, love, identity, and the nature of humanity, story and truth?

How can these be communicated in a movie that must devote equal attention to giving a sense of achingly long passages of time, minutely detailed accounts of survival at sea and journeys into fantastic worlds?

I am almost sure a film will not (cannot) do this story justice within a couple of hours. This is one of those stories that can be trimmed without suffering a fatal loss of lifeblood. And really, who wants to see a movie that’s much longer than a couple of hours?

(Side note: went to see Les Miserables on the weekend, and by golly Tom Hooper did a pretty good job of it. But the length, though necessary and justified, is punishing. Whose bladder is up to such a task?)

To return to the point, Life of Pi is another of those books that leaves you staring into space, blinking, your brain working furiously, for several minutes – if not several days – after you turn the final page.

Immediately my mind had returned to reality, I hungered to watch the movie, no matter how inadequate it may prove to be. I turned to imdb.com, which reports that 50,000 people or have combined to rate it, on average, 8.3 (spot price).

Thus encouraged, I looked up what Roger Ebert had to say and was amazed to see praise heaped upon the film. He calls it a “miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery … [a book] many readers must have assumed was unfilmable.”

He calls it one of the best of the year.

Now I’m REALLY EXCITED!