As is the case with many folks who have acquired the reading habit, I end up reading a lot of books that don’t move me, but aren’t awful enough to put down. Very few are awful enough to put down, come to think of it. I almost put down the vampire book Guillermo Del Toro wrote with Chuck Hogan, as the writing was cliched and stale enough to depress whatever might have been scary about the story. Here, I’ll flip open the book at random and transcribe a bit:
Half-covered now by the new (and otherwise invisible) moon, the still bright sky began to take on a dusky cast: like a sunset, only without any warming of the light. At ground level, the sunlight appeared pale, as though filtered or diffused. Shadows lost their certainty. The world, it seemed, had been put on a dimmer.
But I finished it, because the vampires were actually scarily conceived, and my guess, being a Del Toro fan, is that he storyboarded and conceived the whole thing and then Hogan attempted to destroy the project by actually writing the book. I also finished it because that is the nature of my habit, and as I said, only a spectacularly awful book will make me put it down. Well, no, if it’s that spectacularly bad, I might take perverse joy in finishing it… in any case, the books that really do move me, the ones where, after the last page is turned, I encounter a suddenly strange world with a mixture of gratitude and regret, are few and far between as well, and I just finished two of them. The first, Janet Frame’s three volume Autobiography, was compressed into a fairly affecting film called Angel at My Table ,which I saw some years ago and liked well enough, but didn’t think much about afterward. I would rather not bleat on about the difference between films and the books they were made from, but I was permanently entranced by Frame’s prose, which struck me as rich and thick and sparkling virtuosic and at the same time humble and self-effacing, and I’m still not sure how she pulled it off:
The Town Hall dance had begun, the band was playing, there was the shuffling sound of the dancers on the powdered floor, but so far the dancers were few. A line of men stood against one wall; a line of women against the opposite wall self-consciously waited for the men to ask them to dance, while the men looked them over, making jumping and jerking movement, half pawing the floor with their feet, like prize bulls at the show […] It was an occasion — my first dance, the sweaty smell, the chatter, the music; the shiny noses being blotted with a powder puff. I had sewn rubber shields in the armpits of my dress, and I could feel the sticky rubber against my arms. I still sat, patiently waiting, watching the dancers and trying to appear as if this were the reason for my being in the town hall — to watch the dancers. Ah, there was the Maxina, the Military Two-step, and — oh –the Destiny. I knew those. Ask me, ask me. An older woman sat beside me and began to talk. “We could go upstairs and watch them. You get a good view from upstairs.” I moved away to another seat. Howe dare she, how dare she assume that I was just like her, frumpy and not dancing!
I have read a few of her novels since then, and still am in love with her style, but haven’t found in them the sense of wonder this book granted me. But, shortly after finishing Frame’s book, I also started The Long Ships, by Frans Bengtsson, which is about as different from Frame’s Autobiography as two books could be, except that I had the same sense of wonder upon finishing it (503 ages!)– and the same sense of regret, since it was over, and I could read no more. The Long Ships is, well, a lot of things, but the easiest thing would be to call it a Viking yarn. So, there are many wee scenes like this one, which describes Orm, the main character, on his honeymoon, which only occurs after he travels far and wide trying to reclaim the woman he loves, eventually sacking England and finding her there under protection of a Bishop. He and Ylva are quickly married, and they go out to a long ship tied to a pier in the Thames, empty but for two men left to guard it:
Rapp had left two men on board to guard against thieves. These men, left to their own devices, had drunk deeply, so that the sound of their sleeping was audible from a good distance. Orm shook them awake and bade them help him pull the ship into midstream, which, though they were befuddled, they succeeded at last in doing. Then they dropped anchor, and the ship stood swaying upon the tide.
“I have no further need of you now,” he said to the two men.
“How shall we get ashore?” they asked.
“It is not far for a bold man to swim,” he replied.
They complained that they were both drunk and that the water was cold.
“I am not in a waiting mood,” said Orm, and, with these words, he picked one of them up by the neck and the belt and tossed him headfirst into the river, whereupon the other promptly followed him, without further ado. From the darkness echoed back the sounds of their coughing and sneezing as they splashed their way toward the bank.
“I do not think anyone will disturb us now,” said Orm.
“This is a bridal bed that I shall not complain of,” said Ylva.
It was late that night before they closed their eyes, but when at last they did, they slept well.
Transcribing that makes me want to read it again, as did transcribing the part from Autobiography. And I think I will, though not so soon, and not with the intention of recapturing the wonder I experienced the first time, anymore than I could re-read A Wrinkle in Time or The Great Brain and feel the wonder I felt when I was ten, or eight, and found those books for the first time. It is the same feeling, however, the same essence, the same elation that I am always chasing as a reader, and to have 2 books grant me this so closely upon each other is rare indeed. Of course, even books that are simply great, or joyous, or strange, or wonderful in all the other ways books can be without changing me are worth reading–like sex, pizza, or whatever else can be plugged into the cliche even when they are bad, they’re pretty good.
Same goes for music, of course. CDs listened to in the last few weeks:
393) Laurie Anderson: Big Science (opened my eyes when I was 13 or so, still pretty great); 394) Screaming Lord Butch and his Howling Monkey-Men: Hail Cthulu; 395) Mark Freeland: Electrospective; 396) Bongwater: The Big Sell-Out; 397) Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos: (Self-titled)(dancing…)’ 398) Jimi Hendrix: Axis: Bold as Love; 399) Sun-Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra: Second Star on the Right (Sun Ra doing Disney songs :)); 400)Squeeze: Classics. —and now, as is my wont, I get to listen to a box set or 2!