A Year in Books ~ Some you win and some you lose

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500I have been an avid theatregoer for well over fifty years and if there is one thing I have learnt in that time it is that where theatre productions are concerned some you win and some you lose.  It’s very often the case that if you want tickets for a show that is going to be particularly popular you have to book weeks, if not months, before the show even opens. At the beginning of next week I shall be reserving tickets for productions at Stratford for this time next year, while on Saturday I’ll be using a ticket bought twelve months ago.

Given that this is the case you are in for a lifetime of disappointments if you don’t accept right from the start that where some of the productions are concerned they are simply not going to cut the mustard.  On the other hand, there will be shows that you booked just on the off chance that turn out to be simply brilliant.  I was very dubious about the RSC’s decision to stage Wolf Hall, which is what I am going to see on Saturday, but it’s taken five star reviews across the board and I certainly wouldn’t have got tickets for it now had I decided to wait until after it had opened.

Well, the same is true of books and especially of books that you let other people choose for you.  I was really pleased when I received the January parcel from Heywood Hill because so many people whose opinions I value had enjoyed Javier Marías’s novel All Souls.  Well, maybe I would enjoy All Souls too, but I’m sorry to say that I got absolutely nowhere with A Heart So White.

In fact, I suspect that I wouldn’t appreciate any of Marías’ novels because the real stumbling block was his prose style.  I think the politest thing I can say about it is that it rambles.  And when, round about page 55, it rambled on and on over paragraph after paragraph, page after page, about the difference between translators and interpreters I quite simply lost the will to live and bailed out.  I like a book with plot and by that stage I pretty much convinced that Marías had lost his.

The advantage of a book over the theatre, of course, is that it is so much easier to bail out if you decide your time could be better spent.  You don’t have to navigate your way through a forest of legs before stumbling up badly lit stairs in a desperate search for an exit sign.  Nevertheless, I still felt a certain amount of embarrassment as I admitted to Lisa that I was never going to be a Marías fan and could we try something with a bit more story to it next time, please.

4324105So, February’s parcel arrived and in it was a novel by an author of whom I have never heard and a note from Lisa saying that she thought this was one of the most underrated books she had ever read.  The Dawning by Milka Bajić Poderegin was first published in 1987 and the translated version appeared in the UK the following year.  According to the publisher’s information it is

a family saga evolving against the turbulent background of the problems in Southern Yugoslavia as it emerges from five centuries of slavement in the wake of the collapse of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires. The dramatic outline of the novel, in which romance and tragedy, intrigue, melancholy and iridescent vitality create a penetrating portrait of a family, reflects subtly the old customs and way of life, the fight for national identity and the historical events resulting in the First World War.

Well, this sounds much more my sort of thing.  Definitely some plot in there I would have thought.  I’m hoping to be able to start it this coming weekend so look out for a progress report next week.  In the meantime, can any of you who enjoyed All Souls enlighten me as to what it is I am missing in Marías writing and perhaps persuade me that it would be worth giving his work a second chance through another novel?


25 thoughts on “A Year in Books ~ Some you win and some you lose

  1. It’s so much easier to give up a book than leave a duff theatrical performance. I always feel I have to wait until the interval which can sometimes feel like a very long time. I hope you have more luck with Poderegen than Marias, Alex – it sounds fascinating – and that Wolf Hall lives up to expectations.

    1. I have only ever left in the interval, Susan, if only because having been theatre trained I know how much work has gone into a production and how awful it can feel to have to go on, night after night, knowing that you’re in a flop. The only time I came close to breaking with this was in during a production of ‘Richard II’ when the director had instructed the cast to force the audience to their feet at gun point. It was ludicrous. So I sat there and sat there and sat there. One poor little ‘foot soldier’ began to approach me but then took one look at my face and clearly decided that cowardice was his only option. If he had waved his gun at me I would have stood up – and walked out very noisily. I’m not expecting to have that problem on Saturday.

        1. Oh yes! Every one else did as they were told. It was, after all, the RSC and you were not supposed to think that the director was an idiot – even when he palpably was!

  2. Too bad about not getting on with Marías. I’ve not read him so I can;t help you out but I do hope to read him sometime, just not sure when. I hope you and the new one get along better! And you have to let us know how the Wolf Hall production goes. So curious about how it would work as a play.

    1. My daughter loved Wolf Hall and tried to get tickets to see it over her spring break, when she’s returning to London to stay with a friend, but they finally, reluctantly decided that the slim chance of same-day tickets was not worth spending the whole day traveling to and from Stratford.
      My father, who taught theater for many years, would not stand up for many of the standing ovations he was amid. He would sit there with his arms crossed saying that the performance was not extraordinary enough to merit the standing ovation. Now I’m picturing you in sort of the same pose.

      1. Oh, I am with your father, Jeanne. I have seen perhaps three performances in fifty or so years that I really felt merited a standing ovation. And your daughter definitely made the right decision. The only tickets available are returns and there have been precious few of those. I know the company is desperate to bring the productions into the West End but I think the earliest that a theatre is available is October and it’s hard to keep a group of actors waiting that long given that it closes in Stratford next month.

    2. Yes, I am, Stafanie. I felt that I was so close to Cromwell throughout that first book and I’m wondering how they will be able to replicate that on stage when the element of narrative voice is removed. We shall see.

    1. I haven’t checked, Ali, but I suspect it might be a one and only novel. The author was born in 1904 so she was into her eighties when this was published.

  3. That’s one book off my wish list then. I too hate it when the author indulges in long internal meditations which make me feel that they are more intent on having fun themselves than entertaining or engaging me.

  4. Sorry you didn’t enjoy the Marias, but on the upside it gives e a good reason not to add him to the TBR – I’ve seen lots of positive reviews of him and he’s been one of those on the periphery for a while. Better luck next time.

    I once was part of a standing ovation mid-performance. It was a production of My Fair Lady with (if I remember correctly) all the performers drawn from Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet. The ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’ dance routine brought the house down – they didn’t do it as ballet, but their dance skills were so great. At the end people leapt to their feet all over the place and the show had to stop for about five minutes while the performers came back on and took a bow and then had to encore it (with completely befuddled looks on their faces – it was opening night and I don’t think they had any idea how good it was.) It was an amazing experience all round – surprisingly emotional.

    1. Oh there is nothing like a performance that really does take off, is there? I’m so glad that you have that memory because those are the things that keep you ‘warm’ when you’ve had a series of really bad experiences.

  5. The Dawning sounds really interesting. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it. My favorite theater experience was a six hour version of Nicholas Nickleby. Unfortunately I don’t get to go much.

  6. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy A Heart So White, Alex, although I am still intrigued to read it and I often enjoy rambly books. The Dawning sounds fab. I love the word ‘iridiscent’. I’m looking forward to your review.

  7. Well you gave it a good go, and that’s all a reader can ever do! I’ve read and enjoyed Marias, but he’s one of those authors I have to be in the right mood for and I can see that he most certainly would not be to everyone’s taste. Of the books I’ve read, he’s pretty much distinguished by his meandering style, so I’d put him aside altogether and give your precious time to authors you love. Sometimes it’s a relief to be able to tick one off the tbr list!

    1. Ah well, if that was typical of his style then he’s definitely not for me. I wanted to pick him up and shake him. But, as you say, reading time is far too precious to give ti to those we don’t mesh with so I will stop beating myself up and look elsewhere.

    1. Yes, I am, but unfortunately Lisa left early in the year and so the books haven’t been as well chosen because the people who took over weren’t the one’s with whom I spoke. On the whole I would say the selection has been about 60:40 successful but I’m not certain if I would continue another year.

      1. I’m sorry to hear that! The subscription service seems like such a neat idea, I’m tempted to try it at some point, but I do worry about the disappointment of getting books I didn’t like. Thanks for the update.

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