My Year in Books: 41-45

When I picked up Astragal (1965) by Albertine Sarrazin the cover told me that it is Patti Smith’s favourite novel. For future reference – never to ask Patti Smith for book recommendations. The author’s biography is far more interesting than the book she wrote. Sarrazin had a rough childhood which led to her to a life of crime and punishment. She wrote this novel whilst in jail and died aged 29. Astragal is a semi-autobiographical work which follows Anne, a 19 y/o girl who escapes from jail. During her jailbreak she physically breaks her ankle bone (or her l’astragale in French, hence the title) so she spends the whole book on the run (or hobbling along anyway).

My problem with this novel is that it is so influenced by the nouvelle vague that it almost reads like a parody in some chapters. As I read on I decided to turn the novel into a type of challenge to see if I could find the most ridiculous line. My two winners are, ‘Before the ambulance came, we had time to make love’ and ‘Julien pulls the bidet, by its iron legs, out from under the sink. We flick our cigarettes into it’. This novel is INSUFFERABLE. It is the scraps that graced the floor of Godard’s cutting room – the leering shot of Anna Karina and the philosophical ramblings of Jean Seberg. And worst of all it’s boring. Oh so boring. By the time I finished this novel I was à bout de souffle from all the huffing and puffing and sighing and tutting.

Everyone has that one author they can always fall back on. After reading two one-star novels and DNFing another I felt akin to Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir just waiting for nothing in a barren wasteland. These situations call for a literary kick and the author with the yams to set me free from this runt is Vladimir Nabokov. I never casually read Nabokov, I savour him for these situations. I fear the eventual day when I’ve read all of his work and I hit a bump, I guess that’s when I die. My panacea this time is Nabokov’s third novel, The Luzhin Defence (1930, trans. 1964). Originally written in Russian, the novel follows the life of a Russian chess grandmaster, Luzhin, his brilliant career, and his eventual descent into madness.

What I found so wonderful about this novel is that it is a simple story. It is a narrative of man’s life, nothing else. The novel is also an insight into the mind of young Nabokov at a time before he became one of the greatest literary minds of the 20th century. It shows a writer who is concerned with telling a good story. Nabokov’s trademark prose isn’t as apparent here (probably down to the fact that his is a translation) but one still reads the novel with ease. The Luzhin Defence hauled me out of the literary chasm, it was moment of peace that lasted about… two hours.

Isherwood has been a hit and miss author for me. All the Conspirators (1928) was his first novel and a big miss. The novel follows these siblings who basically just do everything in their power to reject their mother. This novel was written in the 1920s for a 1920s audience. It is just so utterly boring. Nothing happens. It is plotless. It’s your typical inter-generational class war novel. All the Conspirators reads like all the worst chapters of Forster filled with characters that Wodehouse would have a field day with.

There aren’t many novels that can define a decade but Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977) is truly a defining book of the 1970s. Recent editions of this famed feminist novel claim that is has sold over twenty-one million copies so chances are you have this book somewhere in your house. The Women’s Room tells the story of Mira, a housewife of the 50s and 60s, who rages against societal norms by leaving the life of married ‘bliss’ and going to university midlife. The novel also follows the lives of Mira’s friends who she meets throughout her life. All of the women in this novel have utterly terrible lives all because of one thing – men.

When this novel was first published it received universal praise from leaders of the feminist movement whilst a lot of literary critics accused the novel of being too anti-men. I devoured this 600-page monolith. The novel is very tough at times but it is never boring. It’s so refreshing to read a novel in which nearly every character is female. One of the most memorable characters is that of Val, the outspoken feminist who Mira befriends at Harvard, who famously states that ‘all men are rapists’. The Women’s Room is one of the most memorable novels that I’ve read in a couple of months. It’s going to be on my ‘you MUST read this’ list for at least a decade.

Whereas most art history books tend to cover a movement or an era in art, Carola Hicks’ Girl in a Green Gown (2011) is about a single painting. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck is one of the most recognisable paintings in the world. I’ve visited it a couple of times in the National Gallery in London. It’s truly a masterpiece. Carola Hicks’ book deconstructs Van Eyck’s painting by alternating between the history of the Dutch empire and the symbolism that drenches the work.

I did enjoy this book overall.  However there are some points where it just becomes as dry as talcum powder. The painting has an interesting history in that we know exactly who has owned it since its creation and Hicks follows the painting, person by person, to give its personal history. This way by far the most interesting aspect to me. The chapters which focus on the painting are kind like of Symbolism 101 with even the most beginner art historian being insulted with the utter spoon-feeding. I would recommended this book for beginners, it goes in-depth without becoming meticulous and leads you through an important era in European history.


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