On Reading, Part Four

Since finishing uni, my book consumption has dropped dramatically. Reading has always been a bit of an escape for me, something I do instead of doing what I’m meant to be doing, something that lets me escape the word around me and lose myself for a couple of thousand words, spend time with people I’d otherwise never have the opportunity to meet. Very rarely do I go anywhere without a book, even if it is just to feel the weight of words in my bag.
Berlin Syndrome by Melanie Joosten was one of this year’s Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awardees, and is essentially, the story of two people – Clare and Andi – and their struggle of co-dependency, seen through the Stockholm Syndrome. Cleverly appropriating the Stockholm syndrome (from which the book is titled), we slowly see Clare and Andi’s world collapse in upon itself, their needs and want destroying the beautiful obsession which brought them together in the first place.
Although the story is set in an apartment in Berlin in 2006, the time and place are irrelevant, although the apartment’s isolation and unobtrusiveness perhaps work in its favour. Day after day, Andi leaves Clare in the apartment while he goes to work, locking the door behind him. Initially frustrated by this, Clare questions Andi about her restricted movement in the city, and he does his best to humour her. As time progresses, and the cracks start to appear in their relationship, the locking of the front door is quietly left out of the narrative until the novel’s end, when its simplicity and ingenious obviousness give Joosten’s story an ending which at first seems like an easy way out, but is in fact the only ending the story could have, an ending which cleverly foregrounds her clever appropriation of the Stockholm Syndrome and the power relationships between her two characters.
For years I’ve been meaning to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but I’ve never got around to it. Elyse is forever extolling its marvellousness, and rates it as one of her favourite books of all time. For many people I suppose it’s ‘that pedophile book’, but it’s actually nothing like that at all. Yes, it’s about a man who falls for and in love with a nymphet who he calls Lolita, but – like A Clockwork Orange – the full extent of its sexual and moral perversions or delights is left predominantly up to the reader to imagine. Written in English, Nabokov’s second language, the book is full of a rare kind of wordplay that doesn’t appear too often. While not as deliciously intelligent and super-clever as that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s other ‘Wonderland’ works, Nabokov’s rhythms and words and style conjure the impression of a man delighting in the sounds and feel and textures of a language that isn’t his own, of a language he comes to as an outsider. Very much a road-novel (as opposed to a road-movie), Lolita is forever crossing the great black dance-floor of America, in search of something – anything – better than what they have, running away from godknowswhat; ultimately, I don’t really think it matters that we never really find out why Humbert Humbert takes Lolita and drives away across America. The book’s ending, whilst seemingly falling short of the heady and possibly hedonistic exhilarating rush of its beginning and middle, confirms in us that nothing really lasts, that sometimes we don’t know the people who we are close to, that sometimes we cannot control the events that we find ourselves caught up in; that we can never predict the future, no matter how careful or how clever we are. 
The Shakespeare Secret, by J.L. Carrell, is something like an appropriation of Dan Brown’s execrable The Da Vinci Code. The premise is simple: a modern-day serial killer uses the deaths of Shakespeare’s characters as his own, and spurs a race to find Shakespeare’s missing play, Cardenio. Purportedly based on the strands of the Cardenio story contained within Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Cardenio as a play is something akin to the Holy Grail of literature: no one has any idea what the play contained, and no copy of Shakespeare’s original (co-written with John Fletcher) survives, save for a ‘bowdlerised’ eighteenth century adaptation of it by Lewis Theobald entitled ‘Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers.’ Carrell’s book – whilst being a wonderfully ludicrous example of airport-fiction – is in fact an entertaining and clever read. Despite her leanings towards the Oxfordian authorship theory (see my earlier article Occam’s Opposite), Carrell’s narrative isn’t as ridiculous as it could’ve been, and I found that despite appearances it covered a lot of academic ground in an effortless and simple way that did not hinder its narrative at all. If anything, it sowed the seed of a new idea which I followed up with research of my own, three days spent in the bowels of the uni library, photocopying pages from every book I could find a decent mention of ‘Cardenio’ and Shakespeare’s lost play. And as much as I wanted to dislike The Shakespeare Secret, it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, if only for its delight in the Shakespearean world and all its multifarious contradictions and unsolved mysteries, its allure.
The final book this time around is Cervantes’ picaresque masterpiece Don Quixote. Long regarded as the first modern novel, the story is split into two volumes published a decade apart, in 1605 and 1615 respectively. Quixote’s story is familiar even if we’ve never read it: we’re all familiar with the expression ‘tilting at windmills’ to describe someone attacking imagined foes; we describe people as ‘Quixotic’ if they are unable to distinguish between reality and imagination, a type of over-idealism, or naïve romanticism. Cervantes first volume was translated into English in 1612, and it is this translation – by Thomas Shelton – that would’ve informed Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s writing of Cardenio, itself based on an episode amongst the Sierra Morena in Don Quixote. The Quixote story is like a long and winding road, full of false ideas and delusions, dreams of chivalry and damsels in distress waiting around every corner. The Cardenio story – the reason I read Don Quixote in the first place – is a bit like a magician’s dove, in that it appears and disappears with the merest flick of the wrist, a few words by Cervantes is all that it takes to end a portion of the tale and bring Quixote back into the narrative. Indeed, whenever Quixote appears, he steals the scene and plot from everyone and everything else, no matter what is happening around him in the narrative. At times, I imagined the story a bit like a Monty Python film, Quixote and his portly squire Sancho Panzo like King Arthur and his servant Patsy who, using coconuts instead of horses to herald their arrival, appear and disappear from the narrative as they want. In fact, the comparison is very much an apt one, I think, both in terms of style and humour as well as its aesthetic – chivalrous adventures and romances, picaresque novels, &c – not to mention the fact that Terry Giliam’s film – The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – has been delayed, washed-out, beset by innumerable problems, and shut down on numerous occasions, as well as being the subject of the deliciously Schadenfreudeish documentary Lost In La Mancha. Much of Cervantes’ in-jokes and cultural references are lost in translation from the original Spanish, but apart from some cases, I don’t think it matters all that much. (If it helps to understand what Cervantes is tilting at himself, Wikipedia’s entry on Cervantes’ language, and his puns in particular, is especially entertaining.) In many ways, it seems as though Quixote is writing the book over the author’s shoulder; as the author tries to progress the story, tries to diversify and deepen the characters, tris to shift the focus (however slightly) away from the deluded knight, it’s almost as if Quixote rails against the treatment and decides to try to remedy it, his attempts at invading the plot just another adventure for him (a move that seems to be rather like something Jasper Fforde might write in his Thursday Next books).
Gonna make me some armour out of cardboard and wood
Gonna learn how to ride a broken white horse
Gonna set off on a narrative that writes itself
Gonna be that wandering white knight.

What I’ve read this year, part four
Berlin Syndrome, Melanie Joosten
The Roving Party, Rohan Wilson
Having Cried Wolf, Gretchen Shirm
The Danger Game, Kalinda Ashton
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Lost In A Good Book, Jasper Fforde
The Shakespeare Secret, J.L. Carrell
Don Quixote (Part One), Miguel de Cervantes

No comments:

Post a Comment