Bits and Bobs and Reading to Order

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fYou might have noticed that it’s been rather quite over here at Thinking in Fragments this past few days.  It isn’t that there hasn’t been any reading going on but an awful lot of it has been re-reading for one purpose or another and that doesn’t always lend itself to blogging.  For the second time I am in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and also Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man.  Both are excellent novels but I have written about them before and while they neither suffer from a second read I don’t feel inclined to pick over their bones in writing yet again.

I am re-reading both because of reading group demands.  Bring Up the Bodies is coming up in one group in July and I don’t feel I can do that justice without having re-read its predecessor first, while I need  A Perfectly Good Man for the other group next Monday.  Because I read so much I frequently find myself being appealed to for suggestions for these groups and that means that almost inevitably I end up re-reading at least two books a month.  I think I am going to have to be more ruthless and insist that other members make their own suggestions otherwise I will eventually spiral in on myself in an orgy of re-reading.

What coming back to these books together has emphasised for me, however, is just how much I enjoy books that don’t work in a straightforward manner but in some way subvert the narrative norm.  The Mantel does that with its remarkable narrative voice which is third person and yet somehow manages to appear to be a sort of internal first person on Cromwell’s part.  The Gale does it with a sweeping indifference towards chronological order and an utter disregard for the reader’s need to understand how the characters relate one to another until the action reveals those links.  Coming to it for a second time, I am picking up hints that I certainly missed the first time round but he is still asking his readers to do a lot of the work.  And why not, I say.  I have another novel at the top of the tbr pile that is going to take this even further, so the sooner I can get to it the better.

The other book I have just started is Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost which is the first novel set for a Coursera module beginning next week, entitled The Fiction of Relationship.  There is a lot of reading coming up for this twelve week course and I hope I’m going to be able to keep up with it without it getting too much in the way of other books I want to read.  I also hope the remaining texts aren’t going to get me quite as riled up as this one has so far done.  I know it’s early eighteenth century but the stunning condescension towards women in the first chapter had me foaming at the mouth.  So, twelve prostitutes (it took me some time to translate ‘a dozen of the frail sisterhood’ but that is what it apparently means) are being transported from France to America and the narrator enters the inn to view them.

Among the twelve girls, who were chained together by the waist in two rows, there was one, whose whole air and figure seem so ill-suited to her present condition, that under other circumstances I should not have hesitated to pronounce her a person of high birth.  Her excessive grief, and even the wretchedness of her attire, detracted so little from her passing beauty, that at first sight of her I was inspired with a mingled feeling of respect and pity.

She tried, as well as the chain would permit her, to turn herself away, and hide her face from the rude gaze of the spectators.  There was something so unaffected in the effort she made to escape observation, that it could but have sprung from natural and innate modesty alone.

What he means is he fancies her but can only justify that by seeing her as definitely being upper class and ‘better’ than the others with whom she is keeping company.

I’m sure that there are all sorts of eighteenth century tropes going on here and I should be more forgiving, but somehow it just got to me -the upper class male finding a way to justify his lust.  Maybe it’s just the rain that has fallen incessantly here for the past forty-eight hours that is making me grouchy.  Maybe I shall feel better about the book the further into it I get.  Has anyone read it?  Can you reassure me?

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17 thoughts on “Bits and Bobs and Reading to Order

  1. I have read Manon Lescaut (and even saw the Puccini opera), but it’s a very long time ago and I can’t be sure I would still enjoy it, but enjoy it I did. At the time I read a lot of eightteenth century literature and had become used (or inured?) to the kind of attitudes we now find so offensive. But isn’t the point of reading literature from eras and areas that are different from our own to try and see the world through different eyes, difficult though that may be?

  2. I also felt that I needed to re-read Wolf Hall before the embarking on the sequel, but with hindsight I think it was a mistake. I ended up setting Bring Up the Bodies aside for a few months until I could return to it fresh.

    1. Now why didn’t you tell me that before I started it, Mary?:) I’m over halfway through now, so this is definitely one case where having started I will finish.

  3. I think the “trope” you are having difficulty is the one which equates “noble” in the sense of “gently born” with “noble” in the sense of “well-behaved.” And yes, it doesn’t have the assumption in it that peasants have no finer feelings: you may have to set the book aside if you find you can’t put this equation on the back burner of your consciousness while reading, just to get whatever good there is in the book out of it.

    1. I will duly put it on the back burner, SO, if only because I’m reading it on my I-pad and I really can’t afford to throw that at the ceiling, which is what I’m frequently known to do with real books.

      1. Hi, Alex. I’ve just come back from travelling (on a night train), and I was seriously sleep-deprived when I answered your post. My comment above should have had the word “does” in it instead of “doesn’t,” so that I was essentially agreeing with your comment, not dissing it. Sorry! It should have read “does have the assumption in it that peasants have no finer feelings.” This morning, I’m a little more alert. Your instincts are guiding you correctly, I would say.

        1. I don’t need to be sleep deprived to make mistakes like that, SO. In fact I sometimes wince when I look back on comments I’ve left without checking them first. Nothing scuppers me faster than lack of sleep, so I hope you soon manage to catch up.

    1. Thanks for the link, Litlove. I think I am going to need all the help I can get. As for Gale, yes do read him soon. Start with ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ which you don’t need to read in order to appreciate ‘A perfectly Good Man’ but if you have read it the end of the second book will give you an even warmer glow than would otherwise be the case.

    1. Now in my case, Stefanie, I have an excuse because this is my research area. What’s your reason for torturing the brain cells?

  4. I haven’t read Manon Lescaut either but from your quote, I quite like the guy. Yes, as you’ve pointed out, he may be condescending, but I have a feeling he could be quite altruistic, or even quixotic, for this girl… just a hunch. Anyway, “The Fiction of Relationship” definitely sounds like an appealing course that I’d like to take.

    1. In the end, Valorie, I decided not to do it. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the class itself, but the amount of work it was going to demand was more than I felt I could commit to given that I have my own Summer School to run during August.

      1. I haven’t signed up for a MOOC (such as what Coursera offers) but I do know that many people drop out right away because of the time commitment (or because the class isn’t what they hoped for ). Still, it’s a great to have these options.

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