Stops and Starts

Finding time to read on my own is not easy especially when so much of my time is spent rereading books I’ve assigned or reading and grading student writing. So it’s especially frustrating to start books that I don’t like enough to finish. That’s been the case a lot in the weeks since I finished Blood Meridian.  In rapid sequence, I started Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad and finished neither. Siddhartha was just boring claptrap. I’d read it before years ago and had the same impression then. But I thought, “I was young and stupid and missed the point of the thing,” and so, decided to give it another go. I still don’t like it. Was this a problem with the translation or was the German also written in this bland, child’s language? Lord Jim I liked well enough I guess, but like every Conrad I have ever picked up, once I put it down, no matter how far in it I am by then, I’m never really interested in picking it up again. There’s nothing wrong with the book and in fact there are things I like about it, but overall I’m left untouched. In different circumstances I like to think that I would have come back to it, but in the current rush, it’s fallen to the wayside.

So what are the current circumstances? For a variety of reasons, I’m stretched across three widely different teaching areas this term: Ancient/Classical Literature, contemporary short fiction (international), and American Literature. The preps for each are, again for a variety of reasons related to this specific term, pretty intensive. So far I’ve read, Gilgamesh, Oedipus, The Jungle Books, selections from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, My Antonia and the bits of critical material I needed to review relating to some of these. I’ve also written completely new in-class material and graded at least one assignment for each class. For five weeks, that’s not nothing.

Circumstances aside, I think what’s bothering me is two-fold. First, there is fatigue. When I sit down to read I’m tired enough to not feel like dealing with a difficult book. (Another way of saying what I mean is that my tolerance for books that seem to be pushing the reader away, presumably as part of a larger effect, is at an ebb.) Books that pass that bar are not cluttering my shelves (that’s an interesting discovery), and so I’m a bit adrift. My own pickiness and my inability to specify what exactly I might be interested in from moment to moment certainly don’t help.

Second, there is malaise. On the one hand, the generality of the reading I’m doing for classes is exciting and has opened up all kinds of thought-spaces where odd connections and insights can gestate and grow. But on the other, all of this varied reading is deadly boring to the extent that it all always leads to the same prosaic, skill-driven work and discussion I have to initiate in each of my classes. I feel as if I were a passionate gourmand in a wonderful market, walking up and down the aisles as I please, looking at this and that and dreaming about what I could make, but then having to go home to cook for five-year olds that won’t eat anything but cheese and nuggets. Sitting at that table before those five-year olds, the passions excited in the aisles and even the idea of good food are going to feel like irratants. Worse, the one night a week the kids are eating with friends and I’m all alone, there’s a good chance the market is the last place I’m likely to go.

Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthyA difficult book that took me forever to read. Powerful scenes and moments, extraordinary language. This book exists. It doesn’t communicate. I have to enter it’s world, live there on it’s terms. (That sounds like it should be the case for all strong novels, but the strength of this book’s solitude makes other difficult books seem positively inviting.) I had trouble with it because there was nothing to pull me through, no private passion that drove me to watch or pursue any particular line of the narrative. Having finished, I think that on the rereading I’d pull myself through on the allegorical patterns that blur everything but become distinct in the naked judge dancing to a fiddle (a devil, a horseman, god and devil in one) in the final two pages.

Genre note: As in The Road, McCarthy is reworking the western as a southern novel. It’s as if the moral and mythical resonances of the two genres are being exchanged and the west is being made a historical guilt.

I need to read more of his books to makes sense of this one.

The Man-Eater of Malgudi

The Man-Eater of Malgudi by R. K. NarayanA better, more developed book that The Bachelor of Arts. Narayan is representing a different sense of self, and so when the protagonist does “what is right” and the villain did “what is wrong,” the qualities that normally slot into those categories in books I read were all jumbled up. I found the mix excruciating: I was genuinely uncomfortable reading this book. Which is a good thing.

July 2011